June 22nd, 2015
Some Penguin Classics feel like perpetual surprises – a bomb in a hymnal, as Sir Kenneth Clark might have written – and that certainly applies to Madame de Lafayette’s 1678 novel The Princess of Cleves, the short but untiringly punchy story of the elegant Mme de Cleves, a fixture at the splendid court of the French king Henri II. It’s a setting our author wastes no time in setting up as almost parody-worthy:
At no time in France were splendour and refinement so brilliantly displayed as in the last years of the reign of Henri II. The monarch was courteous, handsome and fervent in love; though his passion for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, had lasted for above twenty years, it was no less ardent, and the tokens he gave of it were no less exquisite.
Since he excelled at every sort of physical exercise, he made that his main occupation. Every day there was hunting and tennis, dancing, tilting at rings or similar pastimes. The colours and ciphers of Mme de Valentinois were everywhere to be seen, as she was herself, attired in a manner that might have befitted her grand-daughter, Mlle de la Marck, who was then of marriageable age.
Reading or re-reading The Princess of Cleves after a setup like that always, as noted, brings surprises. I just recently re-read the book and was struck by this fact over and over; our clever author is forever establishing the tableaux of a proto-romance and then sweeping those tableaux aside with a well-mannered ironic chuckle. The book’s main character, Mme de Cleves, is tormented by her ungovernable passions for a man who’s not her equal nor suitable for her, and both she and her intended husband and the object of her passion, the Duc de Nemours, are politely tortured by Mme de Lafayette for the 150-something pages of a book so quietly unnerving that she found it expedient to deny her authorship rather strenuously.
Some of the textual reasons for the low-boil scandal of the book are hinted at in this Penguin volume’s wonderful Introduction by the great French translator, the late Robin Buss:
The more one considers the moral of this book, the less ‘moral’ it seems. Like affairs of state, which are subject to sudden and disastrous change as the result of a trivial accident such as the death of Henri II, the lives of individuals are tragically determined by fate and by circumstance. Within these constraints, people act, driven by egotism and impulse, rather than by virtue or moral imperatives, and are punished for disregard of social, rather than religious taboos. If Mme de Cleves is heroic, it is not because she is virtuous, but because in the end she chooses the one course that will permit her to preserve her integrity and to remain, relatively, free.
Buss was entirely too eager to draw connection-lines between The Princess of Cleves and the gloppy bouillabaisse of Proust, and there’s a bit of that even in this Introduction – but actually Mme de Lafayette is the progenitor of an entirely different, entirely opposite genealogy of French literature: the bearable branch. And SO much of that starts with this book, plainly writing things that aren’t plain, and calmly developing into things that are entirely predictable and yet continue to surprise.
June 20th, 2015
Our book today is Sebastian Junger’s 2010 book War, which I read at a gallop when it first appeared and which I initially disliked for what I took to be facile grandstanding on the part of the author. I went into the book with the best of dispositions, helped along by the stunning cover photos by the great Tim Hetherington: the front cover showing the eye of a very young man and the back cover showing a bright-sun tangle of muscular American soldiers grappling with each other like a living re-enactment of Leonardo’s The Battle of Anghiari. But something in the tone of Junger’s writing, combined with the ubiquity of his square-jawed mug throughout the book looking just so artfully begrimed, soured the reading experience for me as I went along. I’ve always had a low tolerance for the Christopher Hitchens kind of foreign correspondent, helicoptering to hot spots, roughing it without handlers or hair products for a week, then helicoptering back out to do a four-page spread for the glossies on life in the shit. And as I read War, I kept barking my shins on just these kinds of affectations – until finally I sprinted to the end of the book in a fog of irritation.
I recently found a very cheap copy of the book, however, and I felt a pang of guilt at this over-and-settled reaction, especially since I remembered how amply supplied the book was with Junger’s signature punchy writing, this time in the service of the 173rd Airborne in the very worst part of a bad country:
The Korengal Valley is sort of the Afghanistan of Afghanistan: too remote to conquer, too poor to intimidate, too autonomous to buy off. The Soviets never made it past the mouth of the valley and the Taliban didn’t dare go in there at all. When 10th Mountain rolled into the valley in 2006, they may well have been the first military force ever to reach its southern end. They were only down there a day, but that push gave 10th Mountain some breathing room to finish building the KOP at the site of an old lumber-yard three miles in. The lumberyard was not operational because the Afghan government had imposed a ban on timber exports, in large part because the timber sales were helping fund the insurgency. Out-of-work timber cutters traded their chainsaws for weapons and shot at the Americans from inside bunkers made out of the huge cedar logs they could no longer sell.
And sure enough, this re-reading – done more calmly and more forgivingly than the first – showed me set-piece gems I’d overlooked the first time. Hyperventilating critics hailed the thing as one of the greatest pieces of writing about men in combat ever written (such talk didn’t exactly do wonders for my attitude at the time), but this time around I was able to remind myself that Junger never said that; he just presented what he’d seen while stationed with his platoon. I was struck by how many vivid scenes the book contains:
The men spend the last hours of daylight packing their gear and making sure their ammo racks are correctly rigged. Chuck Berry is playing on someone’s laptop inside the brick-and-mortar. Donoho helps Rice adjust his rack, cinching it down in the back until it’s balanced and snug. Rice’s assault pack weighs seventy pounds and his weapon, ammo, and body armor will be at least another forty or fifty on top of that. Buno has a pack that looks so heavy, Rueda can’t resist coming over and trying to lift it. Moreno bets Hijar ten bucks that Hoyt can’t do twenty pull-ups on one of the steel girders in their barracks. He does, barely. The men paint their faces with greasepaint but Patterson makes them wipe it off and then they just sit and talk and go through the slow, tense countdown until the birds arrive. Some men listen to music. Some just lie on their cots staring at the ceiling. In some ways the anticipation feels worse than whatever may be waiting for them down in Yaka Chine or up on the Abas Ghar, and every man gets through it in his own quietly miserable way.
I often comment that one of the many unsettling things about novels is the way they can shift and squirm in your mind long after you read them, as shards and facets work their way through your imagination. And I often follow up that comment with an exclamation of relief that nonfiction isn’t the same way; you read a book on Subject A, you assess it against all the previous books on Subject A, and you hold it in your mind in preparation for the next book on Subject A. And because Subject A never itself changes, the writing skills of each historian of it come into greater and more easily calibrated light (the process can actually become easier the more well-known the subject is; Stacy Schiff’s forthcoming book on the Salem Witch Trials being a perfect case in point). But War actually shifted and squirmed around on me while I was away from it and certain I knew what I thought about it. There’s a lot more here than I originally credited – and it was a nettlesome pleasure to discover that.
June 18th, 2015
Comics this week were a mixed bag as always. I bought issue # 18 of the Superman/Wonder Woman ongoing series mainly based on the stark drama of the cover, on which two young men in Superman and Wonder Woman costumes are regarding each other with grim expressions. On the inside, it turns out the issue takes place in some kind of radical alternate continuity in which a) Superman has no cape and can’t fly (indeed, seems to have largely his 1930s power-set), b) Superman’s secret identity as Clark Kent has been revealed to the entire world, and c) not only has some super-villain stolen the old Kent Family farm house from Smallville, that same somebody has also stolen the buried corpses of Ma and Pa Kent. It’s a wacky what-if story writer Peter Tomasi has concocted (with good but very grim artwork by by Doug Mahnke, depicting Superman as a no-nonsense mid-30s tobacco addict European runway model), and I’ll probably buy the next issue just to see how the whole mess comes out.
The usual arrogant-asshole “New 52” Superman was front and center in the plot of the first issue of Justice League of America, written and drawn by fan-favorite artist Bryan Hitch. The bit of plot revealed in this issue is boringly familiar from the Bryan Hitch/Warren Ellis school of Impossibly Enormous Evil Threats Dreamt Up While High – some evil thing is stalking its way through parallel dimensions wiping them out/enslaving them/popping all their eyeballs, and that evil thing is on its way to our Earth, and only the good guys stand in its way, yadda yadda yadda. How’s Hitch put it this time around? Ah right:
I can tell you that the whole future is going to end. Whatever is coming is going to change everything. The future, the present, and the past. It’s already happening. We are already part of it. Your death is tied up in this, like a fixed beacon in time, across all time. A universal extinction level event and the shockwave reaches back to the beginning of time.
It’s entirely possible that Hitch is the only person left in the comics world who doesn’t realize that you can’t really keep doing this kind of End of Everything EverEverEver thing more than once without it becoming comical. And the gimmick is undercut right in this issue, since some unrelated bad guys spring the old Superman villain the Parasite (he absorbs energies and superpowers on contact) on the Justice League – and he proceeds to mop the floor with them. Just the one Superman villain nearly dismantles the team without really trying – which doesn’t really speak well to the team’s ability to handle a universal extinction level event going back to the beginning of time.
The only Marvel comic I bought this week was a spin-off of the company’s new “Battleworld” continuity-revamping mini-series event. It’s called Thors and features a script by Jason Aaron and artwork by the great Chris Sprouse – and the gimmick is that in this alternate continuity (I think it’s alternate – who can really tell anymore?) all the various versions of the comic book character Thor that have appeared in Marvel comics over the years. I soaked up the great artwork, but I couldn’t help noticing that one variation of Thor was entirely missing from the issue: the blond, clean-shaven heroic version who starred in Thor comics for fifty years. The Thor I’ve chronicled here at Stevereads for years now. I’d have loved to see Chris Sprouse draw that iconic character – maybe next time.
June 18th, 2015
Sometimes, a New Yorker cartoon captures things just about perfectly:
June 16th, 2015
The beginning of summer’s long-delayed genuine warmth is a strong mnemonic trigger, effortlessly peeling back years and bringing treasured old reading experiences back to the forefront of memory. For me, many moons ago, summer was always a time for science fiction and fantasy – no idea why, since I read ample amounts of it in all other seasons too, but the start of this summer of 2015 randomly reminded me that it’s been a solid forty years since the summer of 1975, when I first encountered the science fiction of Cordwainer Smith.
The guiding lights at Ballantine Books, bless them, were for a short time hell-bent on bringing all the sci-fi of Cordwainer Smith out in colorful paperbacks for, it was certainly hoped, a wider audience than this author had ever had before – maybe in an attempt to elevate him above the “cult” status that was all he’d achieved before then.
Whatever the reasoning behind those wonderful reprint volumes was, I found a little blue paperback of The Best of Cordwainer Smith when it first appeared in the metal spinner-rack at Trow’s Stationary, brought it to my favorite summer reading-place, surrounded myself with beagles, and was drawn into the stories so completely that I forgot all about the heat of the day (and read late, late into the night by lantern light). And my own curiosity about this “Cordwainer Smith” person was echoed by Fred Pohl in his Introduction to the 1979 Smith collection The Instrumentality of Mankind:
“Cordwainer Smith” forsooth! The instant question that burned in my mind was who lay behind that disguise. Henry Kuttner had played hide-and-seek games with pennames in those days. So had Robert A. Heinlein, and “Scanners Live in Vain” seemed inventive enough, and good enough, to do credit to either of them. But it wasn’t in the style, or any of the styles, that I had associated with them. Besides, they denied it. Theodore Sturgeon? A. E. van Vogt? No, neither of them. Then who?
The Introduction to the 1975 volume The Best of Cordwainer Smith opens with a masterful bit of summary and deduction by J. J. Pierce, who pieces together the facts and basic outline of Paul Lineberger, the man who worked under the pen-name of Cordwainer Smith – an author, poet, and Sinologist who was born in 1913 and died in 1966, never sought the limelight, and whose sprawling invented science fiction worlds so obviously hinted at a backstory that, as Pierce points out, readers will never have fully dramatized:
Smith’s universe remains infinitely greater than our knowledge of it – we shall never know what empire once conquered Earth and brought tribute up that fabulous boulevard [in “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard”]; nor the identity of the Robot, the Rat, and the Cop, whose visions are referred to in Norstrilia and elsewhere; nor what ultimately becomes of the cat-people created in “The Crime and Glory of Commander Suzdal.” … The world of Cordwainer Smith will always retain its enigmas. But that is part of its appeal. In reading his stories, we are caught up in experiences as real as life itself – and just as mysterious.
The incompleteness frustrated the hell of out me when I was first eagerly reading these stories (I very much doubt that I’m the only person who’s ever indulged in “Instrumentality” pastiche fiction), but nowadays, at age 28, I tend to agree with Pierce: the hints at some much bigger sense of organization add an allure to these stories.
And the stories themselves are so bracingly brilliant, from Smith’s standout debut “Scanners Live in Vain” to “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard” to the terrifying “Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons” to “Think Blue, Count Two” to “The Colonel Came Back from Nothing-at-All” to “The Dead Lady of Clown Town” in which even so far-flung a bastion of humanity as a world orbiting Fomalhaut can still dance to the ancient rhythms of human biology:
Human flesh, older than history, more dogged than culture, has its own wisdom. The bodies of people are marked with the archaic ruses of survival, so that on Fomalhaut III, Elaine herself preserved the skills of ancestors she never even thought about – those ancestors who, in the incredible and remote past, had mastered terrible Earth itself. Elaine was mad. But there was a part of her which suspected she was mad.
The brutally clean, orderly world overseen by the Instrumentality of Mankind (calm, emotionless super-telepaths) has flourished for thousands of years on the ruins and sub-strata of barbaric previous eras, and the Lords of the Instrumentality very much prefer it that way, as they try to explain to Lord Sto Odin in “Under Old Earth”:
Who can fly anywhere today without seeing that net of enormous highways? Those roads are ruined, but they’re still here. You can see the abominable things quite clearly from the moon. Don’t think about the roads. Think of the millions of vehicles that ran on those roads, the people filled with greed and rage and hate, rushing past each other with their engines on fire. They say that fifty thousand a year were killed on the roads alone, We would call that a war. What people they must have been, to rush day and night and to build things which would help other people to rush even more! They were different from us. They must have been wild, dirty, free. Lusting for life, perhaps, in a way that we do not. We can easily go a thousand times faster than they ever went, but who, nowadays, bothers to go?
In addition to the volumes of short stories, Ballantine also published Cordwainer Smith’s great novel Norstrilia, one of the all-time best science fiction novels ever written – with its attention-commanding opening sections about the unlikely centrality of the rough-and-tumble planet Norstrilia:
The place? That’s Old North Australia. What other place could it be? Where else do the farmers pay ten million credits for a handkerchief, five for a bottle of beer? Where else do people lead peaceful lives, untouched by militarism, on a world which is booby-trapped with death and things worse than death. Old North Australia has stroon – the santaclara drug – and more than a thousand other planets clamor for it. But you can only get stroon from Norstrilia – that’s what they call it, for short – because it is a virus which grows on enormous, gigantic, misshapen sheep. The sheep were taken from Earth to start a pastoral system; they ended up as the greatest of imaginable treasures. The simple farmers became simple billionaires, but they kept their farming ways. They started tough and they got tougher. People get pretty mean if you rob them and hurt them for almost three thousand years. They get obstinate. They avoid strangers, except for sending out spies and a very occasional tourist. They don’t mess with other people, and they’re death, death inside out and turned over twice, if you mess with them.
I recently burrowed through my moldering science fiction paperback collection (not with the kindest of intentions, I admit) and found all over again my trusty handful of Cordwainer Smith paperbacks and indulged myself in re-reading these great stories on a warm evening – no beagles this time, but all the rest of the wonder remained joyfully intact, I found.
June 13th, 2015
2015 has been blessedly full of whoppingly huge new biographies, and I’ve read as many of them as I could (and I’ve got my lustful eye on the remainder, hoping to devour them before the year ends). I unabashedly love whoppingly huge biographies, but they have one drawback: their printed versions take up a hell of a lot of shelf-space.
When it comes to new books, I increasingly solve this problem in the most effective way possible: I eschew printed versions in favor of electronic ones, which take up no shelf-space, gather no dust, tempt no mice, and fill no crates on moving-day. My trusty e-reader is always with me, fits snugly in my hand, and requires no pen and paper in order to accommodate all the notes I care to write.
But there’s a gap in the e-book world, and it’s a big one, and I doubt anything will ever close it: vast swaths of books printed prior to the digitization of everything never got formatted as e-books and, given their swarms of millions of titles, likely never will. Thanks to Project Gutenberg, thousands and thousands of public-domain titles from Ye Olden Times are available as free and neatly-formatted e-books. And thanks to the demands of the modern market, you can be sure a big new biography of Ronald Reagan or (potato, potahto) Genghis Khan will have a near-simultaneous publication in electronic form. But a 1996 biography of King Alfred the Great? Or a 50-year-old study of historical references in the Sidney Psalter? Digitization requires at least the ghost of a profit motive, and these and countless similar books don’t have one.
So as much as I love a nice full electronic library (I allow myself a discreet $200 a month for e-books), I find my shelves of printed biographies quite full. But one way to manage the space, I’ve found, is to find compact paperbacks of as many mid-range biographies as possible – not the classics, the ones I turn to often, the ones I read as works of literature and not just works of reference, but the ones that fill out a library. Compact lives! Usually printed on cheaper paper and with cheaper bindings, but often representing huge amounts of valuable work on their subjects. Take six examples:
Sir Walter Raleigh by Raleigh Trevelyan – This 2002 life of the famed Elizabethan courtier, explorer, and chronic malcontent is one of four Raleigh biographies I currently own; it was published by Penguin, and it’s full of Trevelyan’s spirited evaluations of this staple of historical fiction:
There was nothing effeminate about him. The extravagance and richness of his clothes vastly annoyed his contemporaries, but were part of his attraction for the Queen, who of course could dress far more bizarrely. His armour might be of silver, studded with pearls, diamonds and rubies. He had certainly committed some terrible cruelties in the past, but mostly under orders. He was a byword for vanity and ambition, and was accused of being ‘damnably proud’.
Queen Victoria: A Personal History by Christopher Hibbert – This Harper Collins 2001 has neither the sardonic wit of Lytton Strachey nor the heft of Stanley Weintraub nor the odd, chatty wisdom of Lady Longford, but I’m a die-hard fan of jack-of-all-trades Hibbert (I have approximately 150 of his 745 books), and I love his zest and his ability to pull great quotes from his encyclopedic lifetime’s reading:
On the evening of the Queen’s death, the novelist, Henry James, had come out of the Reform Club into Pall Mall. The streets around it seemed to him ‘strange and indescribable'; passers-by spoke in hushed tones as though they were frightened. It was, for him, ‘a very curious and unforgettable impression’. He had not expected to be so moved, since it was, after all, ‘a simple running down of the old used up watch’, the death of an old widow who had thrown ‘her good fat weight into the scales of general decency’.
Jonathan Swift: A Hypocrite Reversed by David Nokes – This 1985 book from Oxford was for years and years my go-to biography of Swift. The appearance of Leo Damrosch’s biography in 2013 changed that, but Nokes’ book is still a treasure-trove of Swiftiana, and the author’s own analyses are of course unchanged in their wonderful rigor:
Throughout his life Swift adhered to an ideal of conservative humanism which saw specialization itself as a first dangerous step towards that distorted simplification of complex human phenomena which characterized the views of all factions and fanatics. I have therefore attempted to present a portrait of the whole man in his multifarious roles as satirist, politician, churchman and friend and, in particular, have sought to re-establish the balance between his public and private lives which has been missing from some other recent biographies.
Caesar by Christian Meier – Fontana Press brought out this version (translated from the German by David McLintock) in 1995, and it’s something like the eighth or tenth Julius Caesar biography I own – and it’s of course up against some fierce competition, since Caesar is one of those subjects that tends to bring out the best in even the hacks who write about him (a perfect case-in-point being the volume actually titled Caesar in Colleen McCullough’s series of novels set in ancient Rome; it’s the only book in the series that rises to the level of ‘readable’). Meier can be a leaden writer, but even he is often moved to some nifty insights:
Caesar and his opponents thus represented two disparate realities: the old reality, which had once been the whole and was suddenly reduced to a part, and the new, which had detached itself from the old and could hardly have been realigned with it even if war had been avoided – so wide was the gap, so great the mutual alienation. It was this disparity that characterized the situation – not just conflicting interests, mistrust, fear, hatred, or the pathological exaggeration of individual pretensions.
Charles II by Ronald Hutton – This 1989 volume (also from Oxford) doesn’t actually illustrate the above-mentioned rule about keeping the second-tier also-rans around in paperback, since Hutton’s book is by far the best biography of Charles II ever written; no, in this case the only thing that’s illustrated is my inability to find a hardcover copy of the book! I’ve tape-reinforced this paperback as much as I can, but it’s still going to disintegrate on me, since I re-read it in whole or in part on a regular basis, just to bask in the author’s brilliance:
At his core there lay a vacuum, and what emerges most powerfully from the accounts of those who knew him is a feeling of unreachability, a frustrating instinct that the man inside the king eluded the observer. He suffered no apparent fears of inadequacy. Nor was he, as some have thought, a private melancholic, for he genuinely enjoyed his many pleasures with the same carelessness which he brought to much of the business of ruling and to some of his personal relationships. Yet he remains, for us as for contemporaries, a set of strongly marked characteristics with a cold void at the centre of them. He was a monarch who loved masks, whether of ceremony, of role-playing, or of intrigue. Behind those coverings, something was always missing.
Coleridge: Early Visions by Richard Holmes – The same thing applies with this 1989 Penguin paperback: Holmes’ two-volume work is the best thing ever done on Coleridge (in a mighty crowded field), I just haven’t found them both in sturdy hardcovers (nor have they been issued in one big extra-sturdy volume, as they bloody well should). As some of you will know, I have a soft spot for the Romantic poets (and for Lord Byron, the god of their idolatry) and have, over the decades, tried to winnow the really good biographies from the endless gush of titles published every year. When I finally get around to a definitive editions-and-lives Romantics Stevereads post, these volume by Holmes will certainly be on it, complete with the author’s borderline-reverence of his subject (a very common trait in Romantics biographies):
But Coleridge was much more than a Romantic poet: he was also a journalist of genius, a translator, a matchless letter-writer (six volumes), an incomparable autobiographer and self-interrogator in his Notebooks (over sixty surviving between 1794 and his death), a literary critic, a spectacular lecturer, a folklorist, a philosopher, a psychologist (specializing in dreams and creativity), a playwright and dramatic critic, and – that much disputed word – a metaphysician. He was also a travel-writer, a fell-walker, and amateur naturalist with an inspired eye for movement and transformation processes – cloud structures, plant growth, animal activity, light shifts, water changes, wind effects. All these aspects I have tried to bring alive, although Coleridge scholars will know what dreadful chasms … I have perilously skimmed over, in this first volume at any rate.
These little paperback bricks are in some ways the construction-stuff of my entire biography library, so it feels good to give them the praise they deserve! In a little while, I’ll do six more …
June 9th, 2015
I don’t often give my second-tier periodical reading the attention it deserves here on Stevereads, which is a little unfair considering how much reading enjoyment it so regularly gives me. It’s true that my main fare comes from mighty banquets like the TLS or the New York Review of Books or Harper’s or the Atlantic or The National Geographic, but there’s plenty of other magazine reading to be done, and it’s the second-tier journals that fill in those gaps. Basically, I’ll go wherever there are book reviews, no matter how repulsive the journal itself may be.
And when it comes to repulsive, the quasi-respectable journals don’t get much more odious than the Weekly Standard, the cover story of which this week is something called “Obama’s Reformation,” a story about various “religious freedom” exemptions to US anti-discrimination laws that naturally portrays the religious groups in question as victims of authoritarian governmental overreach. The piece is written by Adam White, who’s identified as an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, which is exactly what you’d guess it is from its name, a ‘think tank’ New York cabal that would have to become more progressive before it could even be called crypto-fascist.
And the crypto-fascism if anything increases before it levels out, in this particular issue of the Weekly Standard, with somebody named Gary Schmitt turning in an excellent review of Emma Sky’s The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, full of lively descriptions such as this quick bit about the odd couple nature of Sky’s relationship with General Odierno in Iraq:
A more odd-looking pair would be difficult to find: a relatively tiny, waifish English woman in her 30s and a bald, six-foot-six massive former football player who (to her mind) was weirdly fond of Texas and its gun-toting, electric-chair-wielding yahoos. Although they appear to have routinely crossed swords on the wisdom of the decision to oust Saddam – with her dismissing it as part of some crazy neocon conspiracy – she admits she stood “in awe of him” and his capacity to lead in such a complex effort effectively and charismatically.
The review might have been good, but Schmitt himself? He’s “Director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.” It’s not often that you don’t even need to Google something to know everything important about it, but this is surely one of those times.
That’s the besetting problem with magazines like the Weekly Standard, and it’s the reason why mentally reasonable readers tend to give them a wide berth: the writers for such magazines, even the book reviewers, are duty-bound to import an ideological slant into their pieces – in this case, the standard American ultra-right wing nutjob “conservative” ideology that’s currently embodied by the racist, sexist, xenophobic, craven little megalomaniacs who constitute the warped version of the Republican Party today. In the Weekly Standard, this ideology takes the usual form of a wistful, semi-angry regret on the writer’s part that we’ve all allowed those shrill feminists and homo-sexuals to drive society’s agendas so far from the Lost Golden Age “we” all remember as being so much better, so much more sensible than the crazy way things are today.
This kind of nonsense is bad enough in lead stories like that piece of crap about “religious freedom” under fire, where even an unwary reader goes in expecting that the whole thing will be a code-worded screed designed to attack all inroads made by social equality into the time-honored preserves of wealthy white people in entrenched positions of power (gays wanting to marry? Women wanting equal pay? Minorities wanting protection from summary execution by the police? Aw, c’mon – remember how things USED to be? Why do we all have to CARE about this stuff?). But it’s worse when it crops up in book reviews, which are supposed to be about the books under review.
Take Charlotte Allen’s review of Medieval History by Kevin Madigan, in which there’s this little tidbit:
Yet Madigan’s book, although admittedly informative, as [sic] least as much about the preoccupations, ideological and otherwise, of today’s academic historians of the Middle Ages as it does about the Middle Ages themselves. For example, while Medieval Christianity follows the general chronological order of the Middle Ages, starting with Rome’s fall and ending with the dawn of modernity in the early 16th century, the book is organized primarily in terms of topics. This seems to reflect the disdain of many contemporary historians for “diachronic” – that is, strictly sequential – accounts of human history in favor of “synchronic” approaches that examine events as related clusters.
Ah yes, those “contemporary” historians pandering to the PC learning disabilities of their pill-popping, lawyered-up never-went-to-Choate students by serving up bite-sized “diachronic” topics instead of normal meat-and-potatoes sequential history (remember how things USED to be?). I seem to recall that Jacob Burckhardt’s The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy – in all its diachronic glory – was written back in 1860, and was preceded and followed by countless other such works, but maybe Burckhardt & co. likewise had lazy, Commie students to accommodate.
And sometimes, this ideological mission creep can go from oily to genuinely offensive, as in the case of Edwin Yoder’s review of Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth, which ends, incredibly, with this:
Constitutionally speaking, John Wilkes Booth’s act had the effect of largely confining the postwar examination of Lincoln’s official stewardship of the Constitution to scholarly literature. Only there, and only in scattered instances, was there any searching evaluation of Lincoln’s huge expansion of presidential powers. Lincoln the agile lawyer adroitly rationalized quite extraordinary executive measures as essential exercises of war powers, identifying what Booth viewed as “tyrannical” as mere normal precedent. Succeeding wartime presidents have not been slow to follow. This was, perhaps, the crowning irony of Booth’s heinous and destructive crime.
Quick: despite the ridiculous sop of that “heinous and destructive,” do you think Yoder is for or against Booth shooting Lincoln in the head?
Expansion of executive powers … in the wrap-up to a piece on John Wilkes Booth. It would be funny if it weren’t so revolting.
But lest I give the wrong impression, there’s quite a bit of legitimately wonderful stuff in these second-tier journals! It’s not all code-worded crypto-fascism! Take the last issue of the Boston Review, for instance. It has a very good review by Meghan O’Gieblyn of Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed;
The ritual takedown of a scapegoat may gratify, however fleetingly, an impulse for justice, but it often benefits the very institution supposedly under attack. We perpetuate the system when we limit our outrage to a single person. That is not to say systemic problems are immune to public activism, but even minor change requires persistent and sometimes tedious work.
And the last issue of the venerable American Scholar has a wonderful (too short!) review by Graeme Wood of Eye of the Beholder: Johannes Vermeer, Antoni van Leeuwenhoek, and the Reinvention of Seeing by Laura Snyder:
One of the pleasures of her book is that it demonstrates how Vermeer and Leeuwenhoek, rather than copying reality, showed that it contained within it more than one could have supposed – inner space, both psychological and biological. To see the world in a milkmaid’s averted gaze, or in a splash of pond scum, takes genius of a high order …
It might not seem like much, but it’s enough to keep me coming back.
June 7th, 2015
Our book today is the lovely 1947 volume The Birds of Britain, written by zoologist James Fisher as part of the wonderful “Britain in Pictures” series from Collins that was once so popular and that now stands in bad needs of a series-wide reprint. That day will never come, I suspect, but The Birds of Britain – all 50 elegant pages of it – can still be found in second-hand shops all over the UK (and even, as if you couldn’t guess, on the shelves of my beloved Brattle Bookshop here in Boston, “the next parish over”).
And it’s such a find! All the “Britain in Pictures” books are, from Sir Francis Meynell’s English Printed Books to Edith Sitwell’s English Women to Sean O’Faolain’s The Story of Ireland to Rose Macaulay’s Life Among the English, but there’s something fascinating about any book on British birds, because Great Britain is perhaps the only place on Earth where the bird-watching crowd is even more obsessive and deeply, deeply unhinged than in New York (New York magazine recently did a photo-spread on the Summer plumage on display in Central Park – it was pretty damn disturbing to see so many institutionalizable individuals out roaming around with binoculars). When The Birds of Britain identifies its author as “a young and distinguished zoologist,” what it really means is “he keeps multiple lists.”
The book is very generously illustrated with paintings and engravings by all the giants of bird-illustration, from Benjamin Fawcett to Joseph Wolf to Thomas Bewick, and the thing starts off very forthrightly in a short chapter called “A Bird’s Eye View of Britain” that indulges in the ur-British habit of preparatory throat-clearing:
Gilbert White, the curate of Selborne, introduced his Hampshire parish to posterity with a catalogue of its natural features. There is every reason why we should follow his example. Modern convention might have it that the main character should, as it were, amble casually in from the wings somewhere in Scene II. Britain cannot be so treated. We cannot delay the description of what is the subject and the scene, of this essay – the countries of England, Wales and Scotland, and their place as the home, and the support, of many different kinds of birds.
There follows short and spirited accounts of all the usual suspects from the British aviary world, all the harriers, owls, warblers, avocets, ruffs, spoonbills, cranes, godwits, bitterns, bearded tits, eiders, fulmars, wrens, hawks, martins, grouse, wagtails, grebes, crows, and mergansers – all given brief, punchy outlines of appearance, habits, range, behavior, and conservation, which was just becoming a preoccupation among nature-lovers who were realizing that the pre-war industrial boom might be endangering all the wildlife in the islands:
There is scarcely an acre in Britain where man has not altered the habitat, and with it the bird life. One complete bird community which we have so far not mentioned in detail, has been completely upset by man. This is the community of the marshes and fens … Conservation has rescued these in the nick of time; a few sanctuaries, snatched from the tentacles of utilitarian agriculture and saved from draining, now support them.
It’s a tribute to conservation – and to the severely mentally imbalanced obsessions of the aforementioned tribe of avid birders – that there’s still a great variety of these birds from half a century ago to be seen in a leisurely stroll through Britain’s various natural habitats. Notebook in hand, of course.
June 6th, 2015
Is there any more pleasant a thing to do on a cold, overclouded early summer morning than to attend a library book sale? For a bookworm, surely not – and so I ventured out one humid, bitter morning to the Boston Public Library Book Sale organized and run by the City-Wide Friends of the BPL and crammed into a third-floor room roughly the size of a water closet, where I was body-slammed, roller derby-style, as I filled a basket with books I most certainly don’t need.
The idea of such a sale – indoors, cramped, stuffy, combative – is to absent yourself from felicity awhile, until you get back to your private chamber, where you can unbag your books and explore them at leisure.
My own book-haul this time around was a varied thing! There were Regency romances – the modern kind put out by the wonderful folk at Harlequin. I scooped up a handful of them … in fact, I scooped a little too easily, discovering only once I was back among my own dogs that I’d bought two copies of the same title, Lady Folbrooke’s Delicious Deception by Christine Merrill (fortunately, I don’t lack for eager recipients for such doubles).
And of course library book sales are perfect opportunities to take chances on books you’ve never read. One example of that kind of book, this time, for me, was Jan Cohn’s 1980 biography of the mystery novelist Mary Roberts Rinehart, whose books, now out of print, are still so richly satisfying. Cohn’s brief book is based almost exclusively on primary sources, including, delightfully, Rinehart’s own autobiography:
“There is no truly honest autobiography,” Mary Roberts Rinehart wrote in the opening pages of her own autobiography, My Story, published in 1931. The truth about one’s own life is blurred and altered, she explained, through conscious acts of tact and unconscious defenses of memory. Beyond that, for a storyteller, for one whose gifts lay in the ability to shape human experience to fit the molds of fiction, the act of autobiography became in part an act of fiction-making. My Story is almost an autobiographical novel.
“Even in her eighties she radiated energy, vitality, power,” Cohn writes, “She was, recalls one who knew her in those years, a tycoon – a charming woman, but a tough woman, one who had made it in a man’s world.”
There’s no such central work for the subject of another BPL gamble of mine, Lisa Jardine’s 2004 biography of Robert Hooke, the great friend of Restoration architect Christopher Wren (about whom she’d written an earlier and quite excellent biography) – a fact she acknowledges right up front:
Biography is the art of giving shape and coherence to the life of an individual. Where the subject has a major achievement to his or her name, a life can be crafted as a ‘before’ and ‘after’ around that beacon moment. Where an individual has been prolific and varied in his endeavours and achieved a breathtaking amount, yet without leaving his lasting mark on history in the form of a single significant discovery, it is far harder to give him a place in history. Hence Hooke’s shadowy presence – a man without a defining great work to give his life shape.
But for me, by far the most attractive offering of any big book sale is a chance to re-discover things I’ve already read. I found a copy of L. Michael White’s 2004 From Jesus to Christianity, which I haven’t read since it first came out. And I found a copy of Tom Dolby’s earnest, awkward gay novel The Trouble Boy, likewise from 2004. I found a big paperback of James Ellroy’s brilliant, disturbing 2001 novel The Cold Six Thousand, which gave me a wistful little pang of a type I’ve grown accustomed to feeling in the last ten years: the pang of missed opportunities. This big paperback is an Advance Reader’s Copy, and turning it over in my hands and dipping into its staccato prose, I couldn’t help but think about how I’d have received such a copy in the mail back in 2001, if I’d been back in the book-reviewing game at the time.
And in terms of old, old favorites, I found the lovely white Oxford World’s Classics paperback of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, with a cover featuring A Prior Attachment, a detail from a painting by the great Victorian master Marcus Stone; I found the 1963 reprint of Mary McCarthy’s great little book Venice Observed; and best of all, I found the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition from 2006 (hence, just a smidge too early for either Stevereads or Open Letters Monthly to have afforded me the chance to cadge a free copy from the good folks at Penguin) of Richard Pevear’s very lively translation of The Three Musketeers, the find of the day for me – and the subject of an upcoming post of its own.
As usual, the Friends compensated with smiles and old-fashioned carney-barking for the drastic limitations of their new venue, although as I was lugging my tote bag of books away, I thought again that the BPL really ought to find a more generous space for this wonderful (and cash-generating) event. I mean, if that little room was so hot and close on the 6th of June, I can just imagine what it’ll be like on the 1st of August when the next sale happens – and when I go back, rain or shine.
June 6th, 2015
Our book today brings back sweet, sweet memories. It’s Our Capital on the Potomac, a wonderful 1924 history of Washington, D.C by Helen Nicolay, who was an energetic researcher and something of Beltway aristocrat, being the daughter of President Lincoln’s beloved secretary John Nicolay.
She was a wonderful hostess, an inevitable fixture in the town’s best private libraries, a champion ruminator in archives. She liked to eat; she loved to laugh; she was welcome at the doorsteps of diplomats, lawmakers, and a string of presidents for over half a century. The stories accumulated in Our Capital on the Potomac were as much the product of a lifetime’s good talking as of a lifetime’s quiet reading.
The book starts, refreshingly enough, not with the Founding Fathers but with the American Indian inhabitants of the region. The narrative moves through the Revolution, gives us a vivid account of the planning and designing of the new capital city by Pierre L’Enfant, watches as the city expands along those plans and fills with life, and all along the way pauses at regular intervals to attest to something that visitors to the place almost always feel: “A traveler might come to wonder or to criticize,” Helen tells us, “but if he lingered to partake of the city’s bread and salt, he forgot all except the beauty of its setting and the hospitality of his friends.”
Those two themes – the beauty of its setting and the hospitality of friends – dominate this book and give it life. Our author has done a great deal of work researching the city’s history (and she’s witty about it, too, remarking for instance that “the most effective use William Henry Harrison made of the Executive Mansion was to die in it”), but her real subject is the city’s soul.
And at the climax of her story, she’s elbowed off-stage by an even better raconteur than she is, by the whirling, laughing center of the world, by the actual embodiment of the peculiar shot and charge of the nation’s capital. It happens in all such stories of the city, with all the lines of its history warping to funnel all the energy straight to the gravitational center. The book delights and delights and delights for a century and a half … and then, as soon as President McKinley tragically dies in office, bottle-rocket anecdotes start firing off on every page:
One diplomat’s career was entirely ruined so long as Roosevelt remained President, because of a dinner-table remark that Holland was the ideal billet for a man below the rank of ambassador. Mr. Roosevelt asked why, expecting some profound reason, and was told, “Because it takes such a short time to get to the opera or a dinner in Paris or Berlin.” “Think of it!” he exploded, mentioning the matter years later to a friend. The offender found himself firmly retrograded, until at the end of Roosevelt’s term he was “gnashing his teeth in Persia” and begging to be sent back to civilization.
Or this one:
Next morning he ran gaily downstairs to the eight-o’clock breakfast with the children which which his day invariably began, stopping on the way, as a telephone bell rang, to pick up the receiver. As he listened, [his visiting sister] saw a broad smile overspread his face and he answered the piping voice at the other end:
“No, I am not Archie. I am Archie’s father. All right. I will tell him. I won’t forget,” and rang off, laughing. “How the creatures order you about!” he quoted from “Alice in Wonderland,” and sketched for his sister’s benefit the disgust of the small boy at the other end of the line when he found he was talking to the President of the United States and not to his chum.
But Helen, as susceptible to the syrupy sentimentality that tends to afflict everybody who stays in the capital for any length of time as anybody else, periodically looks away from Theodore Roosevelt to the city’s past. She tells us about how President Taft turns the first spadeful of earth on the Lincoln Memorial (and then years later helps to take part in the finished monument’s dedication), and she rises to the occasion of describing the odd feeling of quiet exaltation that overcomes visitors to the spot:
As one mounts the many steps leading to the memorial, something happens. Perhaps it is the effort of ascent; perhaps it is the ever closer view of the big fluted columns toward which one climbers. Things of the outer world seem to grown less important as one nears the top. But even so, the mind is scarcely prepared for the quiet and the sense of awe that prevail within as one faces the great seated figure with its head bent forward and its hands resting on the arms of its chair, one fist clenched, the fingers of the other hand relaxed but by no means nerveless. For an instant, perhaps the knees and square-toed boots of the statue seem a little too much in evidence, but only for a moment. After that they merely stand for the homely qualities of speech and idiom that people forgot after they had been with Lincoln for a brief time.
But she also looks forward in her story, bringing it to a wonderful conclusion by narrating the much-belated official funeral of Pierre L’Enfant:
Looking over the plain that was field and woodland when he knew it, and is now filled with houses and parks, we trace the outlines of his plan, see rising over it the Capitol dome, faintly luminous like a great pearl in the afternoon light, and, turning, follow the same lines upon his tomb, where his old map of the city has been engraved, for epitaph and memorial.
But the plan is engraved deeper still in our hearts.
I’ll admit, I love books about DC (and I’ll less readily admit to having lived there, once upon a time), and I revisit the best of them regularly. This is one of the best of them.