And there you have it, folks! The best – and worst – books of 2017, neatly laid out and pontificated about as we’ve been doing for over a decade here at Stevereads! I read more books in 2017 than in any previous year of my life, and as always, it’s been tremendous fun to codify all that reading into these intergalactically-famous lists for your consideration. And although that process is by now old enough to be familiar, its 2017 iteration marks some big changes. As you can tell from the enormous banner slapped across the top of this site, Open Letters Monthly is shuttering operations as a review journal after ten years of publication. The site will continue as an archive for all the first-rate writing we’ve published here, and in the new year, the site will undergo a radical transformation into Open Letters Review. Many OLM editors will be helping out with the fun of that new journal, and they’ll be joined by some new editors and many of the regular contributors who’ve made Open Letters Monthly such good reading over the last decade.
As for Stevereads, the home of, among other things, these rabble-rousing, comprehensive year-end book-lists, it’ll be moving too: not back to its original Blogspot home but rather to a new website, SteveDonoghue.com, where I’ll be gathering not only Stevereads but, eventually, all of my online writing into one convenient (albeit longwinded!) location. These epic year-end lists will continue there, as will everything else as soon as the sawdust and moving crates are cleared away!
So: one old site – Open Letters Monthly, with its endless backlog of literary gems – and two new sites – Open Letters Review for all the book reviews and book news you need to get through your day, and SteveDonoghue.com, for the ongoing autobiography of my reading! I hope to see you all there!
This moment was bound to happen. It’s been approaching steadily for years, of course, and its tread has been especially audible in the last few months. But lots of other reading gets in the way, and the torrent of books never lessens, and it was easy to get distracted.
But then the moment comes: the first issue of the New York Review of Books with somebody other than Bob Silvers as Editor. The man in charge now is Ian Buruma, and his first full issue arrived in the mail as quietly and unassumingly as Buruma himself. I didn’t even think about it at first as I settled in with the issue; in the back of my mind, I was just reflexively thinking about “waiting periods” and “transition times,” and then as I was turning pages it hit me: no, the transition is over. This is an issue of the NYRB with neither Barbara Epstein nor Bob Silvers.
The first thing I noticed was the thing that felt most disloyal: had I not known, I would never have known. That same NYRB indispensable magic was right there on every page. The great Anne Applebaum writing about regressive European politics; Jenny Uglow writing about 18th century history (in this case a new book about the thoroughly odious Hans Sloane); James Fenton, here writing about an art exhibit; Luc Sante writing a fantastic piece on the late John Ashbery. There were other names – Francine Prose, Tim Parks, John Gray, Darryl Pinckney (at one remove: a reprint of the fine introductory essay he provided for the new NYRB volume reprinting the collected criticism of Elizabeth Hardwick), Diane Johnson – and there will be more names, in upcoming months. Each piece on the Table of Contents had that same marvelous NYRB quality of being a little world unto itself.
There’s a distinct element of magic to a quality like that, and magic is the most perishable of the arts. I’ve been an editor for a long time, and a part of me was just always assuming that, depute the enormous talent-pool of the NYRB, despite the store of literary good will it’s amassed over the decades, such magic was an editorial creation. I’d been assuming that Bob Silvers was creating and sustaining it, that it was a vision more than a Standard Operating Procedure … and that, inevitably, it would die with him.
And yet here it was, in this new issue. Classics professor Hayden Pelliccia does a fantastic job reviewing two new translations of the Iliad. China specialist Andrew
Nathan reviews three new books on China’s complicated and growing role on the 21st century’s international stage. Larry Wolff reviews a new production of Rossini’s The Siege of Corinth. New York Times columnist Linda Greenhouse writes a searing piece on women’s rights. And the generally reserved historian Max Hastings writes a review of Michael Korda’s new book Alone: Britain, Churchill, and Dunkirk: Defeat into Victory and Christopher Nolan’s new movie Dunkirk that bristles with sadness and anger over Brexit:
After Brexit takes place I fear that this time around we shall be unable to rely upon the Russians to stage a grand diversion in the East to spare us from the hideous economic, social, cultural, and political consequences of attempting to fight on alone, without the impeccable justification that Hitler has forced such a course upon us.
Even after I realized that I was reading the first Ian Buruma issue of the NYRB, I just kept reading, the slow, silent shock of it building but not intruding. I jumped around from article to article as my interest took me, and it wasn’t until I circled back to Benjamin Friedman’s review of a new book on the idea of universal basic income that I reached a little grace note I could no longer ignore. Friedman is a Harvard economics professor with a deep expertise on his subject, and I learned a lot from his review. Then I got to its final footnote:
This essay was suggested by my long-time friend Bob Silvers. I am sad that he is no longer here to give it the benefit of his wisdom and incisive editing. I miss him.
That’s when I stopped. That simple line, “I miss him,” stopped me completely. It made me identify the sadness that had been building as I read: it wasn’t that the NYRB had either radically improved or radically worsened with this issue, with “Bob Silvers,” a tireless caretaker who lived and breathed the magazine, now somehow reduced to a few words of fine print at the bottom of a couple of pages (seeing his name down there on the masthead next to Barbara Epstein’s, each one now with the two sets of dates, very nearly broke my heart). Instead, it was that the NYRB hasn’t changed much at all. It’s still varied, it’s still incredibly smart, it’s still a full meal of a reading experience.
It makes sense. After all, Ian Buruma treasured the old NYRB as much as anybody. No doubt his own imprint, his own kind of magic, will become evident as the issues go by, but for now, here’s the New York Review of Books, being its same old excellent and woolly and challenging and fascinating self. It turns out all that was possible without Bob Silvers ensconced behind a pile of galley copies in his office at one in the morning willing it all into existence. That should be a note of hope. In time it’ll certainly feel that way. But I finished this issue very nearly in tears.
Our book today is The House on Ipswich Marsh, a lovely 2005 meditation by William Sargent on the “Pink House” at Ipswich on Boston’s North Shore (the title an obvious nod to Wyman Richardson’s great 1947 book The House on Nauset Marsh). Sargent received a grant to study ground-nesting birds that lived near the house, and he brought a camera and a journal to the task, keeping notes through all the seasons, starting with his rapturous first impressions of the house itself:
A carpet of the most brilliant red poppies nodded their heads by the front door; foxglove and hollyhocks swayed in the English-style cottage garden out back. Wisteria draped from the eves and sparrows darted in and out of pink Victorian birdhouses above the portal. A thousand rosebuds bobbed above a white picket fence that wrapped halfway around the front and corner of the house.
But as in all the best of these kinds of books, the ambit immediately widens from bird life to all life in and around Ipswich’s Great Marsh. Sargent is a very quiet writer, a careful observer with a deceptively simple writing style. Even when he encounters something unexpected and amazing while out on a photo-ramble, he mutes his enthusiasm with a bit of whimsy:
As I approach, the fawn becomes even stranger. It has a beautiful reddish brown coat and large soft ears. Yet its ears never twitch and its eyes never blink. Finally I’m sitting beside the fawn and can see her telltale row of white spots. I take several photos, then retreat out of sight to change my film. I return and she is still there. She hasn’t moved a muscle; she still holds her head to the side in a characteristic post. I move in closer to take a closeup and I can almost hear her say, “Damn, damn. What have I done now? Oh, what did mother say? Gotta keep still, gotta keep still.”
One main thread running through The House on Ipswich Marsh that differentiates it from its near-namesake is that while Wyman Richardson concentrated almost exclusively on the happy present, Sargent is continually noticing the past that’s all around him in remnants:
The remains of an old pier stand above the tidal marsh. During World War II this shipbuilding facility employed 600 men, who worked round the clock in shifts to build landing craft and wooden minesweepers in anticipation of D day. Now the former shipyard has reverted to a lonely marsh.
I’ve written many times before here at Stevereads of my love of salt marshes in all weathers, and that love is why I treasure The House on Ipswich Marsh and revisit it regularly, in lieu of the real thing.
2015 was a very bad year for adulthood. In its twelve months, the aging Baby Boomer generation and the despised Millennials faced challenges to common sense and decency on all sides – and failed every single one of those challenges. Privileged college undergraduates screamed at their college administrators in public and were not disciplined; pampered college undergraduates tried to create “safe spaces” on their campuses, where they wouldn’t be confronted with ideas (or skin colors) they didn’t already like – and they weren’t expelled for it; a college instructor was filmed inciting a group of students under her authority to physical violence against a member of the Press and was not prosecuted for it. All across the country, adults started using the term “identify as” synonymously with “play-act as” and intended to be taken seriously (or they’d sue, of course); one such adult actually asked me, “Do you identify as a dog?” – and she meant it in a legal, reality-defining way, and when I patiently pointed out that, as she could see with her eyes, I am, in biological fact, a human, she was genuinely offended. It was a year in which tens of thousands of grown-up taxpaying adults shouted their support for a racist, bigoted, misogynistic bullying idiot not because they agreed with any of his policies but because they wanted to be part of his gang It was a year in which thousands of shaving, voting, bill-laying adults continued their full-scale retreat into their imagined fantasy-version of childhood, an utterly wretched period they’ve somehow convinced themselves was simpler, easier, and more honest. Those adults read children’s books in record numbers, wore pajamas in public, and used kids-speak like “all the feels” and Twitter abbreviations in public. It was a year of regression and rebellion-politics, in other words, a year in which a greater-than-ever proportion of adults in the civilized world decided to deny reality and demand respect for their denial. It was all appalling, and a good deal of it slopped over into the Republic of Letters, with predictably deplorable results. These were the worst offenders of 2015:
10A Time for Truth by Ted Cruz (Broadside Books), Gods, Guns, Grits, and Glory by Mike Huckabee (St. Martin’s), American Dreams by Marco Rubio (Sentinel), Crippled America by Donald Trump (Threshold), Rising to the Challenge by Carly Fiorina (Sentinel), Taking a Stand by Rand Paul (Center Street), etc. – The run-up to any US presidential election season is going to see an influx of campaign tracts masquerading as books, and such booklets will be much the same: simplistic, self-congratulatory, ghostwritten (indeed, the Stevereads Worst Books of 2015 contains more ghostwritten books than any previous year – I count 14), and inordinately stupid. But this crop share an added similarity that pushes the whole batch from seasonal annoyance to Year’s Worst, and that similarity is racism. The theme running through all of these campaign books – under the surface in some, proudly displayed in others – is one of recovery: America is weak, lost, even crippled, and the candidate in question is sadly but sternly pointing this out (as an act of tough love) and offering a regimen to fix things. In every single case, the regimen boils down to hate – of intellect, of poor people, of difference, of experience, but most of all of the black man who’s been in the Oval Office for the last two terms, and most of all because he is black. By every objectively measurable standard, America is not weaker, more lost, or more crippled than it was eight years ago – and yet the tone of all these books is one of cumulative regret, a sense of sorrow that the country has been badly off-course in all that time. And the root of that tone isn’t hard to see; it shows itself every time these candidates soak up support from donor conventions that are little more than un-upholstered Klan rallies; it shows itself in every passage where these candidates question the patriotism of the President of the United States; it shows, of course, in the ongoing quest of one of these candidates (uncriticized by the others) to prove that the black man in the Oval Office isn’t even actually an American at all. These are noxious little books, in other words, hate-mongering, fear-mongering screeds coming before the American reading public at one of the most complex moments in the 21st century and offering only the 18th century by way of solution. Reading them all has been more like taking pathologies at a mental health clinic than learning the thoughts of would-be national leaders.
9 Killing Reagan by Martin Dugard (with Bill O’Reilly) (Henry Holt) – We’ve seen already how laughable Martin Dugard is when he tries to write history, so most of the idiocy of this book (written in some kind of collaboration with FOX comedian and well-documented liar Bill O’Reilly) comes as no surprise. Even so, the extent to which Dugard takes things here is a little staggering. Most of the book is just badly-summarized swipings from real biographies of Reagan, and what passes for a central theme – that Reagan getting shot in 1981 essentially “killed” him by accelerating the onset of his Alzheimer’s – is so ludicrous it ought to have embarrassed even a fraud like Dugard.
8Love and Lies: An Essay on Truthfulness, Deceit, and the Growth and Care of Erotic Love by Clancy Martin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) – Imagine you’re invited to the Dumbo prestige-loft of a loathsome young power couple for an evening of food nobody wants to eat (kale) and music nobody wants to hear (Mahler). They have no interest in anything you might have to say – you were invited because of your Twitter numbers, in order to join an audience, and that audience was invited solely in order to sit and mutely appreciate the dual performance of the power couple. And the performance itself? Why, stories about themselves, of course – how smart they are (even though it doesn’t take you long to figure out that they’re actually quite stupid), how cool they are (even though it doesn’t take you long to figure out that they don’t really have any sense of proportion or grace), and, ultimately, how much better they love each other than other couples do (even though it doesn’t take you long to figure out that they virulently hate each other)(and even though during this very party each of them propositioned you in the bathroom). Now imagine the grueling ordeal of that evening captured in book form.
7Hello Life! ‘by’ Marcus Butler (Gallery Books), In Real Life ‘by’ Joey Graceffa (Atria), Binge ‘by’ Tyler Oakley (Gallery Books), The Amazing Book is Not on Fire ‘by’ Dan Howell and Phil Lester (Random House), A Work in Progress ‘by’ Connor Franta (Atria), etc. – In addition to cat videos and video game play-along videos, the sticky loam of YouTube has also given rise to a peculiar, very specific phenomenon: cute-boy millionaires. They didn’t start off as millionaires, of course; they just started off as brainless cute little hair-styled narcissists. But in the era of YouTube, these cute boys turned their cameras to their favorite subject: themselves – and they found an audience of millions of teenage girls. That audience allowed YouTube to generate ad revenue from the channels of those cute boys, which made those cute boys into millionaires without, of course, chipping away at their narcissism at all. In fact, the money and the screaming, worshipful audience hugely increased the narcissism of these vapid cute boys – it led them to the mistaken belief that they could think, that they could have concerns and causes that extended beyond which kind of hair products to use. And one horrific result of this mistaken belief foisted itself on the reading world in 2015: books ghostwritten in the on-camera voices of these cute-boy millionaires, books laying out the life-philosophies of preening little creatures with brains like pretty soap-bubbles. The merchandising managers of these millionaires know the value of multiple streams of income, and the cute boys know that they like income, and the only victims are trees and readers.
6Exceptional by Liz & Dick Cheney (Threshold) – The sheer effrontery of a public figure as openly, unmitigatedly evil as former Vice President and war-architect Dick Cheney maintaining a public persona after leaving office would be startling enough, but Cheney has done much worse, popping up on talk shows in order to vociferously defend his worst illegalities, writing memoirs exonerating himself from the obscenities he committed in broad daylight, and, in this bizarrely malevolent book co-written with daughter Liz, implicitly positioning his eight years in power – during which two wars of conquest were started and a $600 billion-dollar deficit was run up – as high points of recent American history, a time when the “exceptional” nature of the United States was most closely realized. No single page of this book, no single paragraph, and hardly any single line is free of flat factual errors and outright lies, all told along the central theme that will be familiar from the first item on this Year’s Worst Books list: that the last eight years of American life have betrayed and subverted on a fundamental level – by the black man in the Oval Office. This is not the customary whine of a political grandee whose party is out of power – none of the books on this list are – but rather the far more concerted anger of a man who believes the entire basis of American decency has been polluted at a basic, personal level. And in its anger it gets almost every single fact about American history wrong.
5Evolution 2.0: Breaking the Deadlock between Evolution and Design by Perry Marshall (BenBella Books) – Since the only people who think there’s a “deadlock” between evolution and creationism are creationists, the very title of Perry Marshall’s affable distillation of snake oil hints at the lies to come in the book, and sure enough, there they are, all the usual suspects of creationism: that random mutation and natural selection aren’t sufficient to shape life as we see it in the world today, that molecular mechanics are too complex to be the result of natural processes, and so on. Marshall is far from the first creationist to ineptly characterize these kinds of things as indications that life was designed by supernatural forces (and of course he has only one supernatural force in mind, a personal force whose name and opinions he believes he knows; books like this are never about the benevolent creativity of Thoth), but his book is extra-mendacious in its ingratiating, fake-compromising tone, as though the author were striving to make peace between two equally-valid camps who have more in common than they want to believe, when in reality there is no compromise between magic and reality.
4Kissinger Vol. I by Niall Ferguson (Penguin Press), Being Nixon: A Man Divided by Evan Thomas (Random House) – Regression and rebellion-politics reach their peak in lying biographies of bastards, and these two noxious books represent the worst of that fad in the course of 2015. You can get a strong hint of the lies in store for you in both these books by the frequent mentions Niall Ferguson makes to James Boswell and Samuel Johnson, but of course both volumes have far, far worse in store than the mere egotism of their authors, each of whom makes a strong protestation (Evans implicitly, Ferguson explicitly) of objectivity and then proceeds to slant, shape, and massage their documentation in order to exonerate their appalling subjects from the court of historical judgement that’s already branded them as two of the worst villains the 20th century produced. Both Evans and Ferguson have done excellent work prior to the writing of these books, and after the writing of these books, both of them should not only be denied all future book-contracts but also denied all future interaction with ethical human beings, since the only person worse than a public official willing to bully, cheat, and kill in order to revel in personal power is a biographer willing to lie about those officials to future generations.
3Reagan: The Life by H. W. Brands (Doubleday), Destiny and Power by Jon Meacham (Random House) – Two more widely and publicly honored historians, two more fat volumes of lies about public officials from the recent past, in this case two presidents whose contiguous time in office was not a saint’s progression around the stained glass windows of Ely Cathedral. In both books, the authors – who damn well know better – use as their primary sources (and almost their only sources) the air-brushed, self-serving, and lawyer-vetted official memoirs of the men and women involved, and so in both books the authors come to exactly the gummy, Patton-watching conclusions about those men and women that the men and women themselves now most contentedly want readers – and history – to reach. It’s a glaring inversion to the proper relationship between biographers and the historical record, and it’s hugely unsettling that it’s happening closer and closer to immediate living memory. A “biography” along these lines of George W. Bush or Slobodan Milosevic can’t be far away.
2Alone on the Wall by David Roberts (with Alex Honnold) (W. W. Norton) – We circle back again to the retreat from adulthood with this rambling hagiography of sociopathic narcissist Alex Honnold, who’s built a career as a “free solo” rock climber, i.e. climbing tall rock-faces without any equipment other than his hands and feet. Roberts predictably portrays Honnold as some kind of free-spirit visionary, an innocent soul living a simple kid’s life in our crazy, complicated world, wanting only to hang out in his van, look befuddled all the time, and play on rocks. There’s almost no trace in Roberts’ book of a money-hungry, groupie-rogering pothead, and by the standards of the “biographies” on our list this year, I guess that means such a money-grubbing, groupie-rogering pothead must not exist. Whew!
By far the cheeriest of our sub-genres is this one, romance novels (I used to find murder mysteries more cheering – because you’re guaranteed to read about at least one dead human – but I’ve mellowed a bit), and yet the successful crafting a cheery escapism is no small feat of writing, which makes the sheer amount of wonderful romance novels published in 2015 all the more impressive. Unlike most of the categories in this annual gotterdamerung, I had genuine problems narrowing the list down to the ten best:
10 A Scoundrel by Moonlight by Anna Campbell (Forever) – This is the fourth installment in Anna Campbell’s “Sons of Sin” series and the most headlong: a young woman named Nell is plotting an elaborate revenge against notorious rake James Fairbrother, the Marquess of Leath on behalf of her sister and all the other women whose reputations Fairbrother has tarnished over the years. But when Nell actually meets the object of her plot, she finds quite a different man than she expected – and the romantic sparks start to fly! This author long since won me over with her flair for dialogue, and this book certainly did nothing to change that devotion.
9 The Duke and the Lady in Red by Lorraine Heath (Avon) – This author’s utterly delectable series “The Scandalous Gentlemen of St. James Place” comes to an end with this volume, in which scheming, money-desperate Roslind Sharpe agrees to a shocking proposal from the licentious Duke of Avendale: he’ll solve all her financial problems – in exchange for a week as his mistress! As with Anne Campbell, so too with Lorraine Heath: I come to her books already a fan (her earlier book When the Duke was Wicked sealed the deal for me) and just wanting more.
8 Her Wild Hero by Paige Tyler (Sourcebooks Casablanca) – Over the years here at Stevereads, I’ve made no secret of my preference for historical romances over any of the more contemporary types that increasingly flood the market (one of my latest order-forms had no historicals), and I have good reasons for that preference (and one of them is not, as some of you wags have suggested, that I personally miss the Regency period): in my experience, historicals tend to be better-constructed than their contemporary counterparts and also slightly more reserved, not cutting straight to the sheet-scorching. It’s on this latter point that I tend to appreciate Paige Tyler’s novels as exceptions to the rule: she creates emotionally believable characters even when those characters are otherwise … fairly exotic, shall we say? (The hero in this latest book is a gun-toting Special Ops agent who’s also a were-bear, for example) And her female characters – very much including our heroine this time around, Kendra Carlsen, tend to be tough without simply being male characters written as women, which is very refreshing.
7 Running Wild by Susan Andersen(HQN Books) – In terms of sheer climate as well as plot, we’re not moving far from Her Wild Hero‘s jungle-located action to the jungle-located action of Susan Andersen’s Running Wild, the final book in her “Sisterhood Diaries” series, in which strong-willed Mags Deluca is searching desperately for her parents in the wilds of the Amazon jungle while trying to avoid getting killed by the drug-cartel enforcers who are chasing her and somehow involved in her parents’ disappearance. Along for the ride is Finn Kavanagh (the brother of a previous hero in the series), and the two become romantically attracted to each other even as they’re running for their lives (the cover must represent a happily-ever-after moment someplace dry, since dressing like that anywhere in the Amazon region would instantly result in a living carapace of chiggers). As in the other books in this series, in Running Wild Andersen juggles action and romance very well.
6 The Duke Can Go to the Devil by Erin Knightley (Signet) – This delightful novel is yet another entry in a series – in this case, Erin Knightley’s “Prelude to a Kiss” series (which also featured the wonderful The Earl I Adore) – but most Romance authors are seasoned hands at making their books-in-series read like stand-alones, while tucking away their “Easter egg” rewards for long-time readers (I counted three in this latest book). Knightley in particular makes every book feel fresh, and I think that might apply more to The Duke Can Go to the Devil than any previous book in this series. Knightley is also crackerjack at plots that invert expectations – in this case, confronting a prim-and-proper Duke with a free-spirited sea captain’s daughter and letting the rippling dialogue flow!
5 Put Up Your Duke by Megan Frampton (Avon) – This is the second installment in Megan Frampton’s “Dukes Behaving Badly” series, and as you might have guessed from the title, some of its plot-business centers, rather unconventionally for a Regency, on boxing: it’s the preferred hobby (and means of release) of Nicholas Smithfield, who needs it more than ever because a) he’s just become a duke, b) he’s been contracted without his doing into marriage with Isabella Sawford, and c) she’s a delicate, intelligent soul, not at all the type this hardened rake is accustomed to bedding. There follows a wonderfully-executed coming-to-love story, one that Frampton peppers with nifty sub-plots, the best of which involves Isabella’s sister Margaret, who defies their parents’ marriage plans; the short note she sends them is one of the most arresting moments in the book and virtually begs for Margaret to have a book of her own.
4 Better When He’s Brave by Jay Crownover (William Morrow) – After Better When He’s Bold and Better When He’s Bad, this is the third volume in Jay Crownover’s gritty “Welcome to the Point” series, and unlike most of the other books-in-series I’ve been mentioning, this one really is improved if it’s read after its predecessors – but even read alone, it’s still plenty good enough to be on this Stevereads list! It’s the story of pure-souled tough guy Titus King, a cop fighting what seems like an uphill battle against the forces of crime in the seedy town of the Point (details are scarce, but I get the impression it’s not in Iowa). In the way of romance novels, his life is complicated by the arrival in town of a young woman named Reeve Black, who needs his help but also tugs at his heart (and other bits of his anatomy) – and Crownover writes it all with such lean energy that the pages just fly by.
3 Taming the Rake by Monica McCarthy (Buccaneer Press) – In this entry in her “Rake Slayers” series, the delightful Monica McCarthy descends from her usual haunts in the Scottish Highlands and fashions a Regency of wonderful energy and depth. The “Rake Slayers” here are a group of London women who’ve made a pact to infiltrate the lives of the city’s most notorious womanizers, set them up, and then dump them – to give them a taste of their own medicine, as it were. The match-up this time around is Lady Georgina Beauclerk and the dissolute Earl of Coventry – but after she’s forced herself into his ramshackle world and brought order and – gasp – respectability, her own expectations are rumpled when she realizes that underneath Coventry’s hardened veneer there’s a man worth knowing.
2 The Love of a Rogue by Christi Caldwell – I’m a newcomer to Christi Caldwell’s “Heart of a Duke” series (of which this is the third installment), but this book was so good I intend to rectify my omissions right away in the New Year. This is the story – at once both predictable and utterly heartwarming – of poor Lady Imogen Moore, who’s the object of high-society gossip because her intended groom suddenly married her sister instead. She takes refuge in the company her best friend, Chloe Edgerton, but this refuge is soon endangered by Chloe’s young “chaperone” of a brother, Sir Alex – who begins to fall for Imogen just about as quickly as she begins to fall for him. The result is a treat of a book – and the addition of a new ‘must read’ Romance author to my list!
1 The Duke Who Knew Too Much by Grace Callaway – At long last, the first in a series! Grace Callaway’s book is the first in her “Heart of Enquiry” series, and this excellent brew of romance and intrigue and emotion is also the Stevereads best Romance novel of 2015. On one level, it’s also the most conventional novel on our list this year, the story of a worldly young London man, Alaric McLeod, the Duke of Strathaven, and a high-spirited young country girl, Emma Kent – imagine Pride and Prejudice if Elizabeth Bennet lost her sarcasm and Mr. Darcy gained a title. But Callaway has many, many more complications in mind, and the obstacles and detours she throws in the way of her two would-be lovers are all the more intriguing for being so historically unlikely. In the end, what started out looking like the most predictable romance imaginable turns into a smart, sexy romp not quite like anything else I read this year.
Our book today is a great gaudy thing from a great gaudy decade, The Fantastic Art of Boris Vallejo from 1978, with an Introduction by the late great science fiction editor Lester Del Rey, a third-rate hack of an author but an absolute impresario when it came to finding, editing, and packaging sci-fi and fantasy books from one of the genre’s golden ages. I loved most of the execrable books in his Del Rey lineup when I found them on the spinner-rack of Trow’s Stationary.
And when it came to packaging, the Peru-born artist Boris Vallejo played a big part. His paperback covers were utterly distinctive, and that was of course their purpose, as Del Rey knows perfectly well and makes clear:
Except perhaps in the case of a few best-sellers, it is the cover art which must sell a mass-market work of fiction. That is what the reader sees first. Unless the cover painting attracts the right attention, the book will remain untouched on the stands, to be returned unsold to the publisher.
As modern-day practitioners of the art will attest, it’s no easy thing to craft one of these covers. Certainly Lester Del Rey himself, having commissioned more than his fair share of them over the years, knew the challenges involved:
The requirements for such a successful painting are many and difficult. The final reproduction is small – about four by seven inches in most cases. This means that every detail of the work must be visible at first glance, even when greatly reduced. And the books appear on the stands in rows and tiers that tend to bury any single volume in an overall blur. Somehow, the cover must stand out strongly in the multitude.
There are all sorts of ways such a cover can stand out, and the SFF genre lends itself naturally to most of those ways. The genre is stereotypes that look great in full color; helpfully, Del Rey lists them on the back jacket of this book: “magnificent women – heroic men – beasts and monsters – lands of glory and mystery – worlds of the distant past and the incredible future!”
Mostly, Vallejo – a passable draughtsman with some sense of scale, zero sense of motion, but a good grasp of comic-book anatomy – gets the first three right and just stops there. He’s comfortable giving his fans heroic men, magnificent women, and beasts and monsters, and some of those covers were instantly iconic. Look at the cover he did for a reprint of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ sole Roman historical novel, I am a Barbarian, for instance: man versus tiger, and the winner gets the requisite cringing woman! Or the wonderfully exploitive covers he did for “John Norman”’s wretched misogyny-fest “Gor” novels, where the “magnificent women” are usually not only cringing but in chains (even back when these books first started coming out, I thought, “So your idea for a fantasy series is a world where women are objectified and enslaved? This was your great leap of imagination?”) – these images are not only very simple, they’re also very squarely aimed at a target demographic. Likewise the cover for a “handbook” of Burroughs’ Barsoom novels: John Carter might look all bare-chested and heroic, but we only get a demure rear-end view of Dejah Thoris.
And yet, you could never quite tell with Vallejo. Despite what the preponderance of selections in The Fantastic Art of Boris Vallejo might suggest, quite often this artist seemed to be aiming the appeal of his work at, shall we say, a very different demographic altogether. This book Del Rey assembled a lifetime ago is only a couple-dozen pages long, so it can hardly include all the work Vallejo had done even up to 1978 (there have been many collections since); it leaves out his great series of Tarzan covers, for instance, like the … curious one he did for Tarzan’s Quest. And then there’s Barba the Slaver, a … curious cover he did for “Dael Forest”’s “Tales of the Empire” series, and there are plenty of other … curious examples.
It kept a reader on his toes, I guess. And looking at all these covers also served to remind me of all those gloriously squandered summer evenings I spent actually reading the books that came adorned with the fantastic art of Boris Vallejo. I’d never re-read those books today, I think, but if I find a more comprehensive Vallejo collection one of these days (at the Brattle Bookshop, of course), I won’t hesitate to snap it up.
Our book today is George Reiger’s 1983 book Wanderer On My Native Shore, a wonderfully personal work of natural history sub-titled “A Personal Guide & Tribute to the Ecology of the Atlantic Coast” which we’ve met before here at Stevereads, but I read it again recently in a kind of commemoration of that pleasant melancholy that always comes to me at summer’s end – a melancholy that’s been enormously extended in 2015 by the fact that mid-80s heat and humidity has stayed and stayed and stayed here in Boston. The calendar has said summer is ending, but September had not one but two heat waves, and even now, on the doorstep of October, the weather outside is mild and chokingly humid, perfect for shorts and sandals. So I’ve kept revisiting these books of summer, and Reiger’s book – with graceful illustrations by Bob Hines – has been a battered favorite of mine since I first bought it in a Cape Cod bookshop when it first came out.
Reiger doesn’t concentrate on the Cape but rather on Eastern seacoasts in general, starting in Maine and working his way down the coast to Key West. Reiger was an extensively-published nature writer and a hugely influential nature-editor at magazines like Field & Stream, National Wildlife, and Audubon, and all through his leisurely tour in this book, he stops to indulge in discourses on the natural history of the places he visits, like the lovely area of Sandy Hook, New Jersey:
The Army’s occupation of this pivotal piece of real estate during the decades of northern New Jersey’s most frenetic growth saved this peninsula from a fate that can be seen most everywhere else along the neighboring coast. Although a sunny June day will bring more than 50,000 bathers to the Hook’s seaside beaches, horseshoe crabs, identical to their arachnoid ancestors which steered with their telson tail spikes between the feet of wading dinosaurs, spawn on the peninsula’s bayside flats while gulls and shorebirds crowd around to gobble the greenish eggs. In the fall, monarch butterflies pause on their migration to Mexico to feed on seaside goldenrod blooming in the dunes, while sharp-shinned and Cooper’s hawks hunt robins in a three-hundred-year-old holly grove just north of Spermaceti Cove – named in 1668 after a sperm whale stranded and was salvaged there.
It often seems like Reiger has read every work of popular natural history from Aristotle to the week his book went to press, but there’s also a persistently personal note running through the book. Reiger knows quite a bit about the nature of the places he’s visiting, but he always takes care to place himself in his stories, mixed in with the natural history:
All eagles seem to be half-vulture. Although as ornithologist Alexander Sprunt, Jr., points out in his North American Birds of Prey, “eagles can attain considerable speed when the necessity arises – certainly enough to capture some of the ducks,” bald eagles prefer picking off sick or crippled waterfowl rather than chasing down healthy birds. One December afternoon not many years ago, retired Fish and Wildlife Service director John Gottschalk, artist Ned Smith, and I watched a pair of bald eagles hunt a Virginia marsh for crippled black ducks when there were pods of healthy diving ducks in the open channels around the marsh. During several decades of eagle watching, Alexander Sprunt saw a bald eagle take only one uninjured game bird – a hen mallard – besides an occasional coot, which normally fly like they are crippled!
I love re-reading Wanderer On My Native Shore, love revisiting Reiger’s stories and re-examining the bright drawings of Hines. In the past, those re-readings had always connoted summer’s waning days to me, but I’ll still keep re-reading it even if I have to recalibrate that.
Our book today is Sir Edward Creasy’s durable 1851 classic work of popular military history, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, a worthy work that no 21st-century reader can approach without feeling just about the saddest irony in the world. Creasy, surveying the sunny morning of his Victorian era, with Napoleon Bonaparte long since defeated and with international diplomacy enjoying its golden age, could look upon his subject – warfare – with the complacency of a doctor looking at the last remaining laboratory specimens of a once-rampant disease:
It is an honourable characteristic of the Spirit of this Age, that projects of violence and warfare are regarded among civilised states with gradually increasing aversion. The Universal Peace Society certainly does not, and probably never will, enrol the majority of statesmen among its members. But even those who look upon the Appeal of Battle as occasionally unavoidable in international controversies, concur in thinking it a deplorable necessity, only to be resorted to when all peaceful modes of arrangement have been vainly tried; and when the law of self-defence justifies a State, like an individual, in using force to protect itself from imminent and serious injury.
Still, he concedes immediately, “There is an undeniable greatness in the discipline, courage, and in the love of honour, which make the combatants confront agony and destruction.” And through close accounts of fifteen big battles (‘big’ is one of his unapologetic criteria, although he’s much keener to ‘pivotal’ than his critics used to give him credit for being), he gives his readers ample amounts of honor, courage, agony, and destruction.
He’s got a sweet tooth for enormous set-piece affairs, especially if they’ve got a moral twist to them. From the ancient world, he picks the battles of Marathon, Syracuse, Arbela, and the massacre of the Roman legions in the Teutoberg Forest, where Publius Quinctilius Varus lost three legions and a great big crowd of auxiliaries through both tactical stupidity and, as something Creasy lays on with a trowel, through a vaguely Asiatic and very un-Roman decadence that the German mercenaries all around watched with steely interest:
For this purpose, the German confederates frequented the head-quarters of Varus, which seem to have been near the centre of the modern country of Westphalia, where the Roman general conducted himself with all the arrogant security of the governor of a perfectly submissive province. There Varus gratified at once his vanity, his rhetorical taste, and his avarice, by holding courts, to which he summoned the Germans for the settlement of all their disputes, while a bar of Roman advocates attended to argue the cases before the tribunal of the Pro-consul; who did not omit the opportunity of exacting court-fees and accepting bribes.
From the Middle Ages, he picks the Battle of Chalons in 451, the Battle of Tours in 732, the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (how could he not?), and Joan of Arc’s victories over the English at Orleans in 1429 – the whole while adding a running context that actually makes this a more fluid reading experience than “Fifteen Decisive Battles” might suggest. And as his time-frame inches closer to his own day, he chooses the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, the Battle of Pultowa in 1709, the defeat of General Burgoyne at Saratoga in 1777, the Battle of Valmy in 1792, and of course he winds things up with the grand finale of Waterloo in 1815. And it’s all done with such quintessential Victorian gusto (and a good deal of very solid research – military historians are a notoriously fussy lot, but several of these accounts hold up in their main lines even today) that the book is immediately readable.
Still, there’s that clinging sad irony, inescapable when Creasy hits his favorite triumphalist note:
In closing our observations on this the last of the Decisive Battles of the World, it is pleasing to contrast the year which it signalised with the year that is now passing over our heads. We have not (and long may we be without) the stern excitement of martial strife, and we see no captive standards of our European neighbours brought in triumph to our shrines. But we behold an infinitely prouder spectacle. We see the banners of every civilised nation waving over the arena of our competition with each other, in the arts that minister to our race’s support and happiness, and not to its suffering and destruction.
Creasy died in 1878, so he lived long enough to at least begin to see, in names like Antietam, Fredericksburg, and Gettysburg, that he and all his fellow club-members had been wrong about the demise of armed warfare. But he was gone to his grave long before he could learn just how wrong he’d been. The horrible roll-call that’s extended since his death – the Somme, Verdun, Kursk, Luzon, Khe Sanh, and on and on – might have been sufficient to curb his armchair enthusiasm for that “undeniable greatness.”
As I’ve noted on many occasions, book-reviewing can be tricky business for people who aren’t me. Most reviewers have actual personal lives, for instance, and I’ve heard that those can take up time and effort, entail trips to Ikea, and sometimes lead the unwary into the wilds of Canada. Most reviewers likewise devote ungawdly number of hours per day to sleeping, during which neither writing nor reading is possible. And also most reviewers have sometimes sizable gaps in their reading: when a new doorstop volume on the Franco-Prussian War or the life of Robert Graves or a study of submarine warfare during the Second World War, the first thing most reviewers will do is scramble, in a half-blind panic, to bring themselves up to speed on said subjects. All these things can oppress a reviewer, creating a pressure that sometimes vents in odd ways, jetting out in odd directions that might provide momentary relief but almost always mar a review. Some reviewers vent this pressure in reflexive rhetorical gimmicks and cliches (“X reads like what you’d get if the books of Y and Z fell in love and had a child”), others trundle along evenly for long stretches and then lash out at some seemingly random and trivial bauble (you can never quite predict when this will happen, for instance, with the little old lady who reviews the same book every week for the Silver Spring Scold, although it’s always a bit nervously funny when it happens).
My heart goes out to these poor pressurized creatures. I myself have read roughly 150 pages an hour for roughly eight hours a day for roughly the last five hundred years, annotating everything furiously and forgetting nothing along the way. And unlike so many of my fellow reviewers, I encounter no radical difficulties in writing prose in English – in fact, I rather enjoy it. As Rumpole of the Bailey says of Chateau Thames Embankment, it keeps me astonishingly regular. But these things don’t apply to most of my fellow reviewers, alas. Rather, they do the best they can and occasionally buckle under the strain and vent a little.
One of the most annoying of those lashings-out takes the form of the reviewer being UNFAIR. You can be displeased by a book your reviewing; you can be annoyed by it or angered by it or embarrassed by it, but before you can give vent to any of those reactions, you absolutely have to be fair to the book before you. If you can’t do that, regardless of your starting-point dislikes of the book in question, how can your readers possibly trust you?
I was asking myself these kinds of questions while I was reading last week’s London Review of Books, unfortunately. Take, for instance, a review of Michael Bundock’s The Fortunes of Francis Barber, written by the great historian Charles Nicholl who at one point rolls out an absolutely chilling admission:
I once intended to write Barber’s biography, and gathered a good deal of material for it, but for various reasons the book never got written. It has now, I am glad to report, evolved into another book (in which Barber features but is not the sole subject) so I am free to enjoy this admirable account with something approaching equanimity.
Which is, in the narrow circles of scholarly book-reviewing, the equivalent of a high court judge saying, “I had once intended to marry the wife of the accused myself, but after our definitive, albeit extraordinarily acrimonious, breakup, I am happy to report that I can view the accused’s murder trial with something approaching equanimity.” In other words, after Nicholl makes such a disclosure, you can be completely certain the very last thing you’ll read is anything “approaching equanimity.”
And sure enough, when Nicholl finally does get around to talking about Bundock’s book, he says that when it comes to the “ambit of immigrant history” his book is “critically defective” – and then proceeds to criticize a point of minutia not in Bundock’s book but in the book of an earlier researcher into Francis Barber’s life – a point of minutia so small and picky that only a scholar who’d trawled through the same dusty Jamaican archives would would even think about it for an instant, let alone quibble about it. So much for “something approaching equanimity” – I just hope readers aren’t dissuaded from buying The Fortunes of Francis Barber; as I implied in my own review (which you can read here), it’s a wonderful book.
And author Daisy Hay fares no better at the hands of reviewer Tom Crewe in the same issue of the LRB. He’s purporting to review her book Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance, but he’s only a few paragraphs of plot-summary along before he commits one of the mortal sins of book-reviewing: he starts finding fault with a book about Subject A for not being about Subject B instead:
What’s missing, in Hay’s book as in all recent writing on Disraeli (there have been seven biographies in less than ten years), is an attempt to identify the place he occupied in the public imagination in his lifetime.
And then Crewe is off to the races writing about that place-in-public-life, with scarcely a backward glance at Hay’s book, which is about an almost entirely different subject and which is no more reviewed in this review than Bundock’s book was reviewed in Nicholl’s piece allegedly about it (if you’d like a genuine, engaged review of Hay’s book, you can turn, naturally, to Open Letters Monthly and read one here)
You’d think reviewers pulling stunts like these would think twice when contemplating that most fearsome of all public battlegrounds, the letters column! And as chance would have it, the letter column in this very issue of the LRB displays a classic example of the kind of pie you can get in the face if you vent instead of reviewing. In this case, it’s author Jeremy Treglown piping up to defend himself in deliciously icy tones:
I’m intrigued by Dan Hancox’s freewheeling account of my book Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936. He says I ‘point out’ that Picasso was ‘content to live and work in Spain under Franco’. I don’t: he wasn’t and didn’t. Franco himself, Hancox claims, ‘wrote some of the programme notes’ for the 1960 National Fine Arts Festival (a biennial event, by the way, not, as he implies, a one-off). It would be fascinating to see them. He grumbles that I don’t comment on a decision taken by the PP government when the book, first published in September 2013, was already in press. That decision was part of the PP’s dismissal of plans for Franco’s burial place that had been adopted in 2011 by the PSOE. Hancox seems not to have noticed that I supported the key proposal on pages 65 and 278.
“I don’t: he wasn’t and didn’t” – wonderful. It shouldn’t be necessary, but: wonderful.
This last week turned out to be a sharply sad one for me, in the realm of comics. I was reading a spattering of the latest “Convergence” spin-off issues from DC, all of them set in the various fractured sideline-realities and featuring DC characters from various titles and imprints over the decades before the company’s “New 52” continuity-reboot. It’s been fun seeing these old characters again – Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family, for instance, or the normal, traditional Superman who’s hopelessly in love with Lois Lane, or Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes, or the WWII-era Justice Society of America, the first super-team of them all. But as these isolated two-issue stories have started wrapping up, it’s finally dawned on me that these things are every bit the wistful – and final – good-byes they seem to be on the surface. And that’s made reading them unexpectedly hard to do.
Take two issues as examples. In the wrap-up to the “Shazam!” storyline, written by Jeff Parker and drawn by Evan Shaner, once all the teaming up and fighting are over, our heroes – Captain Marvel, Mary Marvel, Captain Marvel Junior, Bulletman, and Bulletgirl (and a talking tiger in a war plane – a long story) – are flying into the sunset when Captain Marvel says: “There’s never really a happy ending … or even an ending. All we have are the moments, and this one is pretty special to me … in the sky again, with my best friends. With my family!”
And things are even more explicitly valedictory in the wrap-up to “The Justice Society of America” two-parter, in which our heroes – Hawkman, Doctor Fate, the original Green Lantern, and the original Flash – use a one-time-only spell to recapture their lost youth and powers so they can defeat a killer robot attacking the city. The issue – written by Dan Abnett, drawn wonderfully by Tom Derenick, and actually called “One Last Time” – largely consists of that battle, during which our heroes realize that doing this, using their powers to champion the cause of right, has been the joy of their lives:
I share my friends’ frank appraisal. They speak of the wonder of being super-men. The sheer, glorious, thank-god-I’m-alive, this-never-gets-old, unbelievable, astonishing sensation of being members of the Justice Society. It kept ups going through the toughest moments. The compensation of feeling blessed. We thanked fate and fortune and the stars every day that we were getting to do the things we were doing. We were lucky we ever got to do them at all. Just once would have been an utter privilege. We were damn lucky we got to spend our whole lives doing them. Now we’re getting to be those people again, one last time. And we’re going to savor every second of it.
But when the fight is over, they revert to old men again and shuffle off to get some coffee. And reading that scene, it really dawned on me: DC is saying one last good-bye to these characters before shifting their main focus back to the militarized, joyless main line they created a few years ago. Here’s hoping some of the sunlight and optimism of the concepts they’re shutting down this month leaks into that main line, even if these great old characters don’t.