Saladin!

saladin coverOur book today is Saladin, the great 2008 biography by Director of Research at Paris’s Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique Anne-Marie Edde, now at last available in a sturdy paperback in an English-language translation by Jane Marie Todd. And although six years is a disgracefully long gap between French intellectual curiosity and American intellectual curiosity, the book’s appearance is a happy occasion nonetheless. Saladin, the powerful and oddly charismatic 12th century Kurdish Muslim who founded a dynasty, shone with brilliance on a dozen battlefields, and, most famously in the West, beat the Europeans of the Third Crusade and yet showed them more of what they themselves called “Christian mercy” than they ever showed to the Muslims they fought.

“The actions by which he distinguished himself are relatively well known, the individual less so,” Edde quite accurately writes. “In Saladin’s case, the difficulty of grasping his personality is amplified by the success of his legend.” That legend found expression in countless romances and poems, a handful of national delusions (it hardly escaped Saddam Hussein’s notice, for instance, that he and Saladin shared the same home town), and dozens of English-language biographies in the last century alone. Like most of the rest of those biographers, Edde has to spend a little preliminary energy dealing with that outsized legend:

His name is usually associated with the Crusades, with chivalry and courtliness, generosity and respect for one’s foes. His image, portrayed since the Middle Ages in various chivalrous romances and chansons de geste, has continued to evolve in conjunction with the historical circumstances. During the Age of Enlightenment, authors such as Voltaire and Gotthold Lessing depicted him as an enlightened sovereign, tolerant and open to all religions. Even today, he is probably the only Muslim ruler in history whom Hollywood studios could imagine casting as a hero.

In greater detail and with more disgressive curiosity than any recent Saladin biographer, Edde looks at the whole of Saladin’s life and legacy, lucy reads saladinscraping away as much of the accretions of legend and embellishment that has grown around the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, and she concentrates very refreshingly not on Saladin’s clashes with Richard the Lionheart but rather on his constant manuevering to maintain power against threats from his own tenuous alliances. The result is a biography that feels broader and more true than any previous Western Saladin biography, constantly revivified by Edde’s determined efforts at balance:

It would be futile, however, to seek behind that bombastic rhetoric any real ambition to extend the empire from the Caspian Sea to the Atlantic, or any desire to obliterate all trace of Christianity. Saladin’s actions on the ground, his clearly displayed priorities – to reunify the Muslim Middle East and drive out the Franks – and the measures he took to allow non-Muslims from his territories to live in peace are proof of that.

Lag-time or no, it’s very nice indeed to add this big, learned biography to 2014′s shelf.

The High Price in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

 

… and we’re not talking about cover prices, although they’re expensive enough (it really does make palm-to-forehead sense to subscribe to any magazine you regularly read). No, the real price for reading a lot of the Penny Press is the garbage you confront on your way to reading the good stuff. This is true in the sports-and-healthy living magazines like Men’s Journal, which are so choked with tobacco ads that you practically need a face mask to read them, and it’s true of the glossy fashion magazines like GQ and Esquire, which bombard you with perfumed pages and ads for $10,000 wrist-watches before letting you pass on to first-rate fiction and feature writing.

And it’s nowhere more true than the political magazines, which try to pad out their partisan screeds in the front half of the magazine with well-commissioned book reviews in the back half of the magazine.

The July 21 issue of National Review is a good case-in-point. Since I’ve been reading the magazine for years, I have a pretty good idea of what to expect in the opening pages, so I turned right away to the book reviews in the back.

I was amply rewarded, as I always am. There was Joseph Postell writing very intelligently about F. H. Buckley’s thought-provoking book The Once and Future King: The Rise of Crown Government in America. And there was Ryan Cole, turning in a smart but far too lenient review of Fierce Patriot, Robert O’Connell’s smart but far too lenient biography of William Tecumseh Sherman. True, the most Michael Bishop could do with Lawrence James’s bloviating Churchill and Empire was bloviate a bit more, but that was a small inconvenience when laid aside John Bolton’s thunderous take-down of Hillary Clinton’s Hard Choices. Like the rest of the people in the world, I winced when Bolton was made U.S. representative to the United Nations, since the man is a blowhard and a bit of a blockhead, but lord knows, those things don’t disqualify anybody from being a book reviewer! He lays into Clinton’s book with gusto, declaring that the book is all the more unimpressive for being so well-vetted:

Her defenses in the book are the best that years of political-spin strategizing and word massaging could produce. None of the arguments presented there will improve with time, so it is significant how little there is in Hard Choices to support a second Clinton presidency, based on Hillary’s tenure as secretary of state.

It’s naturally that tenure – and the Benghazi attack that will forever be its signature – that draws Bolton’s most personal ire, especially when he’s contemplating the national reviewfact that Clinton left her office right before the thick of it:

This is stunning. I have worked for six secretaries of state, very different in background, style, and demeanor. I am convinced none of them would have gone home that evening. But Hillary did.

So yes, the back half of the magazine pulled its weight as always – but dear God, the price to be paid was steep this time around! I refer of course to Charles Cooke’s cover piece on Neil de Grasse Tyson and “America’s nerd problem.” I’ve read a lot of vile nonsense in National Review over the years, but this piece goes in the Hall of Fame.

The piece’s argument – such as it is – boils down to: real Muricans don’t need no fancy thinkers to get the job done. In complaining about the “extraordinarily puffed-up ‘nerd’ culture that has of late started to bloom across the United States,” Cooke starts by singling out every public figure who’s ever finished a sentence on camera without shouting and then flailingly broadens his scope to include – well:

One part insecure hipsterism, one part unwarranted condescension, the two defining characteristics of self-professed nerds are (a) the belief that one can discover all the secrets of human experience through differential equations and (b) the unlovely tendency to presume themselves to be smarter than everybody else in the world. Prominent examples include MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, Rachel Maddow, Steve Kornacki, and Chris Hayes; Vox‘s Ezra Klein, Dylan Matthews, and Matt Yglesias; the sabermetrician Nate Silver; the economist Paul Krugman, the atheist Richard Dawkins; former vice president Al Gore; celebrity scientist Bill Nye; and, really, anybody who conforms to the Left’s social and morel precepts while wearing glasses and babbling about statistics.

I don’t know which is worse here, the schoolyard-bully (and Maoist, with his “Cultural Revolution” street thugs beating up anybody with an education) taunting about wearing glasses or the patently obvious fact that in Cooke’s context, “babbling” about statistics is the same thing as consulting statistics. At a time when the modern world has never been more complex or faster-moving, Cooke’s ridiculous essay is a proud, cornpone rallying-call for people to stop thinking and go with their gut – it’s an embarrassment, and none of Cooke’s editors should have let it through into print.

Yet they did, and they let worse through as well. Cooke saves his most repulsive rhetoric for Tyson himself, and because he and his editors know National Review shares newsstand space with publications not still ideologically mired in the South Carolina 1950s, he has to resort to the kind of oily code-speak his kind always use when they’re not 100 % sure of their audience:

The movement’s king, Neil deGrasse Tyson, has formal scientific training, certainly, as do a handful of others who have become celebrated by the crowd. But this is not why he is useful. He is useful because he can be deployed as a cudgel and an emblem in argument – pointed to as the sort of person who wouldn’t vote for Ted Cruz.

I wonder what “sort of person” that would be? Astrophysicist? Harvard graduate? Or might it be something a bit more innate? Might that be why Cooke, who has just enough technical knowledge to turn on a light switch, refers to Tyson’s multiple degrees, honorary degrees, peer-reviewed articles, and books as “formal scientific training, certainly”? Might it be why he dusts off some of the most hoary racist lingo in referring to uppity Negroes as mere “useful” tools of … well, it’s not hard to guess who, right? It never is, with this kind of rhetorical filth.

I know, I know – I shouldn’t have read it. I should have known better and read only the back half of the magazine. But the waste of doing that irks me, since I paid for the whole thing. But isn’t that just the way with my kind? You know, the kind who wouldn’t vote for Ted Cruz.

The Atheneum Centenary!

the atheneum centenaryOur book today is a bit of a specialty item, I readily admit: it’s the sturdy volume commissioned and printed in order to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the venerable Boston Atheneum, Boston’s great private library, and right away we’re on squishy ground, since the long and torturous history of the Atheneum could admit of half a dozen founding moments.

The date chosen by this present volume, The Influence and History of the Boston Atheneum, is 1807, the year the Atheneum was formally incorporated in the spring in Scollay’s Buildings, roughly were Scollay Square would hannah adamsdevelop a century later (and which was unconscionably bulldozed and paved over in 1962 to make way for the monstrosity that is the current Boston City Hall). It was in the spring of 1807 that the Atheneum’s five trustees, William Emerson, John Thornton Kirkland, Peter Oxenbridge Thatcher, William Smith Shaw, and Arthur Maynard Walter, took over what had been the dear old Anthology Society and made what had been a rambling and ad hoc affair into something regular and official.

The Influence and History of the Boston Atheneum takes that 1807 date as the essential birthday (disregarding the half-dozen earlier premises and collections, a disturbing number of which met their end in blazing infernos), and in 1907 its authors could write very stirringly (if ornately, in the orotund style of the day) of its special character:

It is in no sense a private place, yet it has qualities of privacy as fine as those houses where the very fact of your reception is in itself a subtle pleasure. It is not a public place, where the whole world may jostle you until you wonder whether in some better world than this you may find yourself, if you are good here, among angels without elbows; yet it has the impersonal generosity of such publicity as makes your presence in its halls and alcoves a cordial matter of course.

james perkinsI’ve been a member of the Atheneum for a very long time, and although there’ve been whole years where I hardly darkened its doorstep once in twelve long months’ time, there’ve been other years when I could honestly say I needed the place, needed its tasteful Edwardian splendor, needed its respectful proximity to the Old Granary Burying Ground (watching cold winter rain fall on the grave of Samuel Adams), needed most of all the sacrosanct peace and quiet of its fifth floor.

And it’s fair to say that the time most closely chronicled in this volume – from roughly 1870 to 1900 or so – was the heyday of the place, “the most memorable centre of intellectual activity yet developed in English speaking America.” This wonderful old volume rattles off the famous names – most now forgotten – who helped to bolster the reputation of the place: dear old Hannah Adams in her bonnet, George Barrell george bemisEmerson, Francis Crowninshield, Nathaniel Bowditch, Thomas Wren Ward, Charles Eliot Norton, Francis Parkman, Lemuel Shaw, Edward Lowell, Samuel Gridley Howe, joyless Charles Francis Adams, handsome, generous young George Bemis (whose special connection, donated to the library, is detailed in these pages, although that bare listing can’t do much to suggest the bright light of the boy, the joy of knowing him), William Hickling Prescott, caustic Josiah Quincy (whose wicked humor glimmers in the portrait done of him by Gilbert Stuart that now hangs in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, ignored by visitors even when it’s pointed out to them), and all the others, hundreds of scholars great and small making their way to 10 ½ the sumner staircaseBeacon Street with what Barrett Wendell here perfectly describes as “eager catholicity of taste.”

He sums it up nicely:

The Atheneum has never taught us to be critical; yet it has never suffered us to be smugly content. There is ineffable charm in the outlook from its quiet windows, on the old burying-ground where the Boston generation which Copley painted lies secure. Their gray stones – particularly in the warmth of summer when the grass springs about them and the trees grow rich with shade – bring us fantastic intimations that this world of ours springs from lucy nodding over atheneum centenarya root deep in ancestral New England soil. And we turn from this assurance of our fellowship with our fathers to the persistent voices of elder ages and of younger, whispering from the friendly array of books here within our very reach.

It’s an older and somewhat vanished Atheneum featured and celebrated in these pages – the hallmark of which was the grand, reverie-inducing Sumner staircase, which is long gone now (in fact, it’s depressing to realize, by now everybody who ever climbed those stairs is long gone as well). But the building is still there, and the tall windows of the upper floors still look down on the peace of the old burying-ground (and across now at an immense new Suffolk Law Library) – and there’s peace for the living, too, especially when they most need it.

A July Book-Haul!

spaulding book-haul, 12 July 2014The dog days of summer have settled into place (although it’s resolutely refusing to feel that way in the entire eastern half of North America), and all my young friends over on BookTube are happily ensconced in making their July book-videos – very much including the book “hauls” they somehow manage to take in despite lacking, most of them, anything resembling a vigorous bookstore culture where they happen to live (they’re devotees of The Book Depository and The Book Warehouse, these young BookTubers). As I’ve mentioned before, it gives one a yen to join the fun.

On a warm day in Boston recently, I took in a book-haul of my own – hardly surprising in its own right, since I do that practically every day when visiting my favorite orifice in the whole world, the sainted Open Letters Monthly Post Office box. But this book-haul wasn’t the latest crop of forthcoming books sent from publishers – and it also wasn’t, mirabile dictu, the latest harvest from my beloved Brattle Bookshop. No, since Boston and I go back a very, very long time, I know every single nook and cranny where books can be found – including discarded books that would otherwise be boxed up and sent to the incinerator.

I recently snagged a full tote bag of such books, and they’ll constitute my Stevereads book-haul for July, starting off with that fixture of used bookstores, the fat little red mass market paperback of the collected short stories of John Cheever. This is an author who’s been growing on me for a decade now, and I’ve found myself re-reading especially this collection with a great deal of enjoyment. I have it, of course – this copy’s a double, because it’s a neat thing to give away.

Also in little mass market paperbacks are two stellar romances, A Courtesan’s Scandal by Julia London and Temptation and Surrender by Stephanie Laurens, two lavish modern Regencies that I remember liking very much the first time I read them – and that are both helped out considerably by the presence of a certain someone on their covers …

Next is Michelle Moran’s 2009 novel Cleopatra’s Daughter, about one of the children Cleopatra had with Marc Antony. I read it when it first came out and temptation insetremember considering it a fairly solid Roman historical novel, ripe for re-reading, especially since the price, as it were, was right.

Then there’s Gordon Grice’s The Red Hourglass, a baleful, horrifying classic of natural history writing the like of which you’ll never have read in your life. It’s all about the apocalyptic havoc animal-venom can wreak on the human body, and the long chapter on the Brown Recluse spider will be one of the most freezingly terrifying pieces of nonfiction you ever read. This one too is a double, of course, intended as a gift – provided the recipient is made of some fairly sturdy stuff.

Along the same lines as the Grice is Stephen Herrero’s classic Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance, which is effectively a natural history of North American bears rather than something specifically danger-oriented. This heavily-illustrated volume covers just about everything – mating, life cycles, tracking, behavior, etc. – but it keeps coming back to its central subject: what happens when bears and humans interact, and how to stop those interactions from turning deadly. I owned a copy of the original edition of this book and found it fascinating, although I’ve also had my fair share of bear encounters in the wild and can counter-balance the book’s hopeful, ecological outlook with the simple observation that when it comes to frothing, ferocious engines of pure hate and destruction, the North American bear is second only to the North American moose. So a book like this can induce shivers.

Shivers of a very different kind with the next book, the mighty Helen Gardner edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse, which is (with all due apologies to Rumpole of the Bailey!) the best edition of this timeless classic. Gardner couldn’t equal the sturdy Victorian beauty of the prose of her predecessor, Arthur Quiller-Couch, but she’s ten times the editor he is and very nearly ten times the scholar, and those are the qualities for this job. The edition I found the other day has a dreadful Giorgione cover illustration (that was dramatically fixed in the following edition), but it hardly matters: there’s an undeniable thrill to finding a volume like this – one of the English languages tiny handful of true ‘desert island books’ – in perfect condition, in a pile of discards nobody had the sense to want anymore.

The same certainly holds true for the next book in our haul, Wilton Barnhardt’s great, sudsy 2013 Southern novel Lookaway, Lookaway, in which a magnificently dysfunctional North Carolina family falls apart before the delighted reader’s eyes. I loved the book as soon as I read it, in an advance copy long before publication, and I loved it even more when I re-read it once I got the finished hardcover. I considered it one of the best novels of 2013, so it was a treat to find a free copy. I know exactly who’s getting it, and that’s a nice feeling too.

One of the features of a random haul like this is that it’ll almost always feature at least one book that you always meant to get around to and never did. For me, this time around, that book was Kevin Phillips’s Wealth and Democracy from 2002, but I confess, having been so ruinously bored by Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, I almost hesitated to pick up this book, so clearly a spiritual ancestor of the Piketty bore-fest. But I really liked Phillips’s The Politics of Rich and Poor, and I feel certain that if Open Letters Monthly had existed back in 2002 (how did the world manage to scrape by without it?), I’d have requested this courtesan insetbook from the publisher and consumed it eagerly. Resolved then not to let Piketty trauma afflict me, I added this to my pile. I’ll report back what I thought of it.

I’ve already made plain what I thought of Joyce Carol Oates’s The Accursed: I loved it, considered it, too, one of the best novels of 2013 (much to my surprise, since this is an author who’s seldom pleased me in the past), and then promptly lost my copies (I had the ARC and the finished hardcover, both mysteriously vanished) – so it was very handy to find this paperback in the bin, especially since this is a prime example of the kind of book that reveals more of itself upon re-reading.

And speaking of re-reading! Hee. When I saw this neat little hardcover copy of The Return of the King, I couldn’t help myself – I grabbed it, even though I have one or two editions of the book already and have read it once or twice. And as inevitable as the sunrise, it was the first book from this haul that I read, thrilling again to the Siege of Gondor and Battle of Pelennor Fields, the madness of Denethor and the death of Theoden, and the long Appendices at the back that are in themselves so full of stories that they could easily spawn a thousand pieces of LOTR fan fiction. Granted, I could have enjoyed all those things by simply returning home and taking one of my other volumes of Return of the King off the shelf – but this one was right there! Hopelessly impulsive, I know.

Impulsive too the last book in our haul this time around, yet another novel from 2013, Julie Garwood’s Hotshot, a paper-thin but mindlessly entertaining modern-day romance in which a sexy resort owner falls in love all over again with the sexy FBI agent who was her childhood friend. The book has all the trappings of New York Times-ready contemporary romances: the female lead has a man’s name, the male lead has a ridiculously action-hero name, the writing consists almost entirely of clichés and idioms, and the plot, such as it is, turns on a mundane triviality. If Garwood weren’t such a practiced and snappy pacer (and if the cover didn’t feature a certain someone), the whole thing wouldn’t be worth picking up off a table, let alone reading. But she is, so I did.

And there you have it! A nice healthy July book-haul! It doesn’t reflect what came to the OLM Post Office box on Friday, or yesterday, but since Sunday is the one day of the week when I don’t traffic in books of any kind, it’ll do just fine for today.

 

 

Mystery Monday: Thus Was Adonis Murdered!

mystery monday header

Our book today is 1981’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered by Sarah Caudwell, the pen name taken by Sarah Cockburn, the witty and delightful sister of thus was adonis coverfamed muckraking journalists Patrick, Alexander, and Andrew Cockburn. She was a London barrister in the eccentric Rumpole mode, and in the down-time from her busy legal profession, she wrote murder mysteries – of which Thus Was Adonis Murdered is the first.

It’s also the first to feature Caudwell’s signature character, Professor Hilary Tamar, prickly, working-omniscient professor of Medieval law who also presides rather informally over an energetic and often hilarious group of young barristers who crack wise, mock each other, and, almost incidentally, solve crimes, with Professor Tamar’s help.

These spirited barristers seek that help – and they confer with each other – in large part through a series of long letters; this is that rarest of rare birds, an epistolary murder mystery. The book pre-dates the Internet Era, or else the device would be hopelessly twee – but as it is, Caudwell not only integrates it well into her tale but also uses it for full effect in perpetuating one of the little gimmicks of this and subsequent novels: we never learn the gender of Hilary Tamar (Caudwell herself had a long personal history of tilting at the sexist windmills of her day, which gives the gender-question trick a little poignancy – although not as much, one suspects, as its author might have thought).

Thus Was Adonis Murdered decamps from England and centers mainly around that always-reliable murder mystery destination, Venice. To Venice has gone young barrister Julia Larwood, a friend of our central group, and in Venice she becomes embroiled in a mystery when a tourist is found stabbed to death within incriminating proximity of a copy of the Finance Act Julia brought with her to Italy for some light bed-time reading. As quick as you can say ‘nothing doing around the office,’ our heroes are off to Venice to snoop around, being guided sometimes in spirit and sometimes in the flesh by Hilary Tamar, who, like Sherlock Holmes, routinely sees deeper into things than anybody else but who, unlike Holmes, is freely willing to admit when she can’t:

It does me no credit – save in showing how little this chronicle is written in any spirit of self-advertisement – to admit that even now I was unable to identify the murderer and the motive for the crime. All the essential evidence was available: except to confirm an hypothesis already virtually assured no further investigation should have been necessary. Certain of my colleagues in the world of Scholarship would perhaps not scruple to omit all reference to their subsequent enquiries, preferring to set forth immediately the conclusions to be drawn from the evidence and to veil in silence their own delay in reaching them. The true scholar, however, should disdain such paltering.

My old Dell paperback of Thus Was Adonis Murdered has an uncredited Edward Gorey cover illustration that doesn’t really fit the book (true, lucy reading sarah caudwellthere’s a gondola, but all the characters on the cover are looking at a prim purse-holding woman – a pretty clear indication that Gorey either thought or was told that “Hilary Tamar” was a prim purse-holding woman). The Penguin paperback edition’s cover was scarcely better, a clumsily cut-and-paste collage of typical Venice sights.

I wish I could tell you that the current paperback edition looks better, but there isn’t one – the mystery world has moved on from Sarah Caudwell and Hilary Tamar. This was no doubt made a bit easier by the fact that Caudwell died in 2000, having written only four of these intelligent and impeccable novels. Still, I’m happy to recommend them all – starting with this one.

A Gathering of Shore Birds!

a gathering of shorebirdsOur book today is the utterly charming A Gathering of Shore Birds, a 1960 compilation of the wonderful bird-life columns Dr. Henry Marion Hall wrote for Audubon Magazine more than half a century ago. The editors at Devon-Adair (as the outfit used to be in palmier days, happy and sane) had the inspired notion to collect Hall’s columns, supplement them with some of his other bird-writings, add a light but helpful ornithological critical apparatus, and adorn the whole thing with illustrations by the great bird-artist John Henry Dick, who could at times be an irascible SOB but who possessed a subtle touch all but unrivaled in 20th century natural history artwork.

The result is a book to treasure, a guide book and natural history of the roughly 60 species of shore birds that live and breed in North America. These birds, members of the much larger Charadrii family, will be instantly familiar to anybody who’s ever walked on a beach or paddled down a stream: they flicker at the edge of wave-wash, they stalk daintily on the verge of swamp-grass, and they provide the cheeping, whirling soundtrack to virtually all the places where water meets land.

These plovers and pipers and curlews come alive under Hall’s pen. He’s their passionate appreciator, shifting easily from the specific details that are any bird watcher’s delight (as Roland Clement pithily puts it in his Introduction, “only propinquity reveals the charm of birds”) to the broader canvas where naturalists tend to be at home. When he writes about the common sanderling, for instance, he contrasts the bird’s humble appearance with the surprising vastness ofshorebirds1 its world:

The flight of shore birds on a rising tide shows a wild ecstasy capable of carrying them considerable distances before the impulse fades and hunger makes them pause. Our coastal measurements mean little to their long pinions – a hundred miles from the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine to Highland Light in Massachusetts – what do such insignificant intervals mean to migrants which flit from Baffin Bay to the Argentine?

(“Taking off from some northern strand, many of them have barely struck their stride when they sight the tip of Cape Cod, flung like a golden sickle in the sea,” he writes, here as so often elsewhere in the book orienting himself by the Cape)

sanderlingHall began his love affair with the bird world in the traditional Darwinian manner: with a loaded gun. But he eventually saw the cruelty and folly of shooting the things he loved, and so he turned to conservation and became a voice of admiration in the pages of Audubon – a frequently very eloquent voice, as when he’s writing about the Red-backed Sandpiper and digresses poetically about the worlds contained in even the simplest bird calls:

The sands, shores, and reedy wilderness find vocal expression in the flight-notes of many shore birds. Every region and every hour of the day seems to have its minstrel. Night cries out in the notes of the birds that fly by night. In the humble lay of the woodcock, water lilies under stars lucy reading gathering of shorebirdsand moonlight swamps may be heard. The ethereal winnowings of Wilson’s Snipe render audible the mystic silences of sweet-water meadow land and northern bogs. And in the same way the play of sunlight on the sand, the moan of distant surf, and even the wild beauty of barren lands find echoes in the lays of dozens of other shore birds.

I recently found an old weathered copy of A Gathering of Shore Birds (at my beloved Brattle Bookshop, of course, although the original copy I owned came from a floor-creaky old used bookshop – on Cape Cod, naturally) and savored it again before adding it to my “Nature” bookcase. Maybe it’ll stay there this time.

 

Pit Bulls in the Penny Press

bunch of magazines

Naturally, I was eager to read Tom Junod’s piece in the new Esquire, “The State of the American Dog,” which is about the unfair stigmatizing of pit esquirebulls in America and their subsequent skyrocketing execution rates in animals shelters across the country. And on a prose level, the piece itself doesn’t disappoint: Junod is a strong writer, and some of his larger points ring true to me:

This is the story of an American dog: my dog, Dexter. And because Dexter is a pit bull, this is also a story about the American dog, because pit bulls have changed the way Americans think about dogs in general. Reviled, pit bulls have become representative. There is not other dog that figures as often in the national narrative – no other dog as vilified on the evening news, no other dog as discriminated against, no other dog as promiscuously abandoned, no other dog as likely to end up in an animal shelter, no other dog as likely to be rescued, no other dog as likely to be killed. In a way, the pit bull has become the only American dog, because it is the only American dog that people bother to name. When a cocker spaniel bites, it does so as a member of its species; it is never anything but a dog. When a pit bull bites, american dog 1it does so as a member of its breed. A pit bull is never anything but a pit bull.

Junod expertly tells the story of how a huge surge in the number of pit bulls and pit bull mixes has been spurred by the wrong kind of owners and has resulted in, among other things, a correspondingly huge surge in unwanted, abandoned, and eventually dead dogs:

The demographic shifts that are transforming America’s human population find a mirror in the demographic shifts that are transforming America’s canine one, with the same effect: More and more we become what we somehow can’t abide. We might accept pit bulls personally, but America still doesn’t accept them institutionally, where it counts: indeed, apartment complexes and insurance companies are arrayed in force against them. And so are we: For although we adopt them by the thousands, we abandon them by the millions. The ever-expanding population of dogs considered pit bulls feeds and ever-expanding population of dogs condemned as pit bulls, and we resolve this rising demographic pressure in the way to which we’ve become accustomed: in secret, and in staggering numbers.

Junod talks to animal control people and dog savior ‘angels’ across the country, and he intersperses his exposition with stories of his own pit bulls, his present dog Dexter and his previous dog Carson, both of whom he describes as gentle, loving souls – and that creates a bit of a dissonance problem in the piece.

Junod opens his article with a story about how he was out with Dexter for a walk one day when his dog was attacked by a murderously unstable cocker spaniel (“murderously unstable cocker spaniel” being, as he correctly points out, something of a redundancy). Junod frantically tries to separate the dogs, because he knows what happens to pit bulls who bite other dogs, regardless of who started the fight. In that case he’s lucky enough to convince Dexter to release the cocker spaniel instead of killing the dog. But he also relates an incident with his earlier dog, where Carson is unwisely allowed close enough to a perfectly friendly dog and immediately attacks. Once again, Junod is lucky enough to intervene before the other dog is killed, but while his anecdotes are intended to ‘humanize’ the two pit bulls he’s owned, they inadvertently do some other things as well.

I’ve known plenty of dogs – including plenty of pit bulls – who, if attacked by a murderous cocker spaniel, wouldn’t fight back. They’d go into fight-avoidance mode instead, screaming and surrendering in order to avoid violence (one of my two current dogs, for example, wouldn’t fight another living thing to save her fat, gassy life). But Dexter, once attacked, fought back and would – Junod makes it clear – have very calmly killed the cocker spaniel if the encounter had lasted another minute. And likewise Carson, but on a different point: the fact that an openly aggressive dog was allowed to get close enough to a peaceful animal to allow an attack says little about the pit bull and a lot about the pit bull’s owner (one of my two current dogs, for example, instantly and savagely hates all other dogs – so I don’t ever allow her to amble over to a dog, hoping that this time it’ll be different; I don’t let her get close enough to attack, because I’m an adult and I’ve made my peace with the fact that she will attack).

The article sounds a very much-needed warning bell about the deplorable state of pit bull life in America today. I walk dogs at my local animal shelter, and Junod is entirely right: most of them are pit bulls or pit bull mixes, and all of them have had utterly miserable lives (most of the dogs I walk can’t possibly be adopted out again – they’re basically just waiting to be executed). And more so than most other kinds of dogs, all those pit american dog 2bulls are at the shelter in the first place because some human somewhere was an asshole to them, or about them.

But there’s an element of willful blindness in Junod’s piece that bothered me as I was reading it. In his story about Dexter, he seems to be intentionally turning a blind eye to his dog’s capacity for violence, and in his story about Carson, he seems to be turning an equally blind eye to his own negligence. It’s a tendency that’s even reflected in the stunning photos by Michael Friberg that accompany the piece. Most of those photos are great shots of wide-eyed, friendly pit bulls who are either safely adopted or up for adoption (I can only guess how many adoption offers this article will generate). But one of them is of a pretty female dog named Chica, about whom the caption reads: “Picked up as a stray by an animal control officer … euthanized for medical reasons.” But the actual picture of Chica shows her in mid-growl, a fraction of a second from lunging at the camera. She couldn’t look any different from the other dogs in the article: she’s frightened and angry and utterly unsocialized. So why this business about her being executed for “medical reasons”? I see dogs like her every single week: she wasn’t executed for medical reasons – she was executed because her unschooled aggression made it impossible to adopt her out.

Which makes me wonder why the caption said otherwise, why it invoked something reassuringly neutral like “medical reasons” instead of commenting on what’s visually true in the picture. Was it perhaps to avoid including in the article any examples of pit bulls euthanized for savagery? And if so, does that serve the same interests as the article itself?

Either way, it was a moving piece of writing, and it’s sure to generate a lot of mail to Esquire. And it’s prompted me to make an extra trip to the animal shelter this week, to kiss some extra-wide faces and pray for miracles.

The Third Reich in Power

third reich in power coverOur book today is The Third Reich in Power, the massive 2005 middle block volume in Richard Evans’s enormous Nazi Germany trilogy, the first volume of which covers the Hitlerian rise to power and is necessarily the sketchiest of the three and the third volume of which, The Third Reich at War (which I reviewed back in 2009 for my darling Open Letters Monthly), is powerhouse stuff but can’t help but feel over-familiar, considering how many thousands of books have been written on those exact same war years.

I found this fat orange Penguin paperback recently at a certain Boston used bookshop, and since it was in perfect condition and effectively free, I snapped it up even though I already have the whole trilogy over there on my history shelves (what can I say? I often require very little in the way of nudging in order to justify a re-reading) and plunged into it again, this middle volume The Third Reich in Power.

To my mind, it has a kind of creeping power not given to the other two. This is the longest of the volumes, almost a thousand pages, and in those pages Evans uses his stately prose style and incredibly compendious research to portray the tightening of a nightmare. This volume is the horrific testing-cage, the years, from 1933 to 1939, when the rabid and brutal Nazi regime, regardless of the deceit and chicanery it used to reach power, had a chance to become a state among other states. Among the many other things Evans’s account does so well, it demonstrates with cutting, crystalline sureness that a gang of brutal, sadistic thugs can never be a state and will seldom ever really want to be. As Evans makes clear, their goals ran counter to civilization’s goals right from the start:

War had been the objective of the Third Reich and its leaders from the moment they came to power in 1933. From that point up to the actual outbreak of hostilities in September 1939, they had focused relentlessly on preparing the nation for a conflict that would bring European, and eventually world, domination for Germany. The megalomania of these ambitions had been apparent in the gigantism of the plans developed by Hitler and Speer for Berlin, which was to become Germania, the new world capital. And the limitless scale of the Nazi drive for conquest and dominion over the rest of the world entailed a correspondingly thoroughgoing attempt to remould the minds, spirits and bodies of the German people to make them capable and worthy of the role of the new master-race that awaited them.

This is history in the grand Thucydidean mode, slightly removed, with a light frost over its objective dispassion. Much like Michael Burleigh’s great one-volume history of the Third Reich from 2000, this Evans book is clearly intended to be monumental rather than intimate. We get the sweep of constricting policies as they were felt all across the widening stretch of the Nazi dominion, and Evans handles it all marvellously. But occasionally the sheer person drama of events pulls his narrative to a halt lucy reads richard evansand focuses it, for a moment here and there, on almost unbearably personal details:

The endgame was now under way. Overcoming his fury at the Italians, who compounded their offence by offering to call a conference with the British and the French to impose a settlement on the lines of the Munich Agreement, Hitler made a last effort to secure Anglo-French neutrality. Further meetings with [British ambassador Sir Neville] Henderson failed to budge the British on the crucial issue of their guarantee to Poland in the event of armed conflict. Much of what Hitler had to say, including the offer of a plebiscite in the Corridor coupled with the return of Danzig to Germany, was no more than window-dressing designed to assure the German public that he had made every effort to maintain peace. When Ribbentrop communicated the offer to Henderson in the Reich Chancellery at midnight on 29 August 1939, he read it out at a speed too great for the ambassador to make proper notes, then flung it on the table saying it was out of date anyway. The interpreter at the meeting later reported that the atmosphere was so bad he thought the two men would come to blows.

This account by Evans is magisterial and yet makes gripping reading. It comes festooned with praising blurbs, and it deserves them all even in a summertime re-reading virtually designed to notice dry spells and weak spots. This particular re-reading was an odd digression for me – unforeseen thousand-pagers always are! – but I’m very glad I did it. And who knows? Maybe I’ll re-read the other two volumes as well now. Maybe – radical thought – I’ll read the copies I already have, instead of happening upon a cheap extra!

 

Mystery Monday: A Face Turned Backward!

mystery monday header

Our book today is A Face Turned Backward, the 1999 second installment in Lauren Haney’s delightful series of murder mysteries set in ancient Egypt and featuring stalwart (and easy on the eyes) Lieutenant Bak, commander of the Medjay police force in the frontier town of Buhen during the reign of the Pharaoh Hatshepsut. The book’s (indeed, the series’s) habitual focus on how blasted hot it is in Buhen and its surroundings makes A Face Turned Backward and its companion volumes a face turned backward coverparticularly on-point reading as the first touch of genuine summer weather finally makes ready to be felt in Boston.

Even though it’s clear from that aspect of these books that if Haney ever visited Egypt, the unearthly heat of the place made a lasting impression on her (it certainly did on me – the only place I found hotter than Egypt’s deserts at midday was my Cairo rooming house at midnight), she’s too adept an old plotter to let it take over her stories, which are always not only elegantly constructed but richly detailed. Take just this moment of heroic Bak’s progress through the city on his way to a murder scene:

Bak, armed with his baton of office and a sheathed dagger at his belt, hurried through the towered gate, staying well clear of the ant-like line of men, backs bent low beneath heavy sacks of grain, who were unloading a squat cargo vessel and hauling its contents to a storage magazine inside the fortress. Their dissonant voices rose and fell to the words of an age-old workmen’s song. The stench of their sweat and the earthy smell of the grain tickled Bak’s nose, making him sneeze.

If you count them off on your fingertips, you’ll recognize this as Fiction Writing 101′s standard appeal to all five human senses, and the rest of A Face Turned Backward is equally immersing. In this adventure, what begins as a fairly routine concentration on foiling upriver smuggling uncovers a much bigger and darker kind of criminal plot, and Bak (and his hapless assistants) are thrust into the middle of lucy reads lauren haneyforces that seem bent on toppling the monarchy itself. And along the way, Haney pauses the narrative with refreshing regularity to remind is that there’s more to Bak than a pretty face. He’s a contemplative young man. When he comes upon the mysterious wreck of a merchant vessel, for instance, he instinctively imagines her in better days:

Bak felt unaccountably saddened by the wounded vessel, an ordinary trading ship of moderate size, unadorned except for the eye of Horus painted on the prow. Yet seen from a distance it must have been beautiful, sweeping up the river with its weathered wood dark and glossy, its rectangular sail spread wide like the wings of a gigantic bird.

It’s been more than a decade since the last Lieutenant Bak mystery, and Lauren Haney is no spring chicken; it’s possible we’ll have no more of these adventures, which makes the ones we have all the more savory. I strongly recommend them all.

 

 

Comics: Shopping for Art!

savage hulkcoverIt’s always a thing I feel a little bit ashamed to admit, but there it is: I go to comic books mainly for their artwork. I know all about the brilliance of today’s comics writing – I hear about it all the time from comics aficionados, that today’s industry writers are smarter and more literate than they’ve ever been. They have greater scope than in the past, since the mainstream superhero comics have shifted to a pacing that’s always got one eye on the graphic novel collection down the line. This can make buying individual monthly issues pretty frustrating – more than ever, they’re now just chapters in a future book, with little internal urge to be dramatic pound-by-pound (and since the individual issues are now $5 apiece, Marvel and DC have left ordinary regular comic-shop customers precious little reason not to wait for the graphic novels and forego buying any comic books at all).

Even so, I’m a sucker for picking individual issues from the comics racks! And my choices are always guided by artwork – as, for instance, this week: I bought the first issue of a new Marvel series called Savage Hulk, written and drawn by the great Alan Davis, which would almost always be plenty reason enough to buy. It’s an odd thing, but unlike such earlier Davis masterpieces as The Nail and Superboy’s Legion, it appears to be set firmly in normal continuity, not a what-if kind of story. It’s set in Marvel’s past and takes hulk1as its jumping-off point from issue #66 of the old first run of The X-Men in which the team of teenage mutants take on the Hulk in Las Vegas and only manage to defeat him temporarily thanks to the telepathic powers of their teammate Marvel Girl.

The fight is re-hashed in this issue, and a new one is clearly in the offing for future issues, which raises awkward logistical problem of the fact that as super-teams go, the old X-Men stand less of a chance against a rampaging Hulk than virtually any other. Cyclops’s optic energy beams bounce off him; Iceman’s projected ice is easily shattered by him; Beast, the team’s strongman, can lift 2 tons as opposed to the Hulk’s 100; the broad-winged Angel is a bystander – and even the team’s later additions, Polaris with her magnetic powers and Havok with his energy-blasts, would be all but useless. In fact, only Marvel Girl’s telepathic powers would stand a chance of working, and then only to calm the Hulk down into his human alter-ego, Bruce Banner, not to beat him.

hulkinterior1Even so, this issue was really good – a delightful retro thing, featuring the old-fashioned Hulk, the one who occasionally rampages and only wants to be left alone (there’s a wonderful sequence in which Davis shows him sitting in the middle of the desert at night, reaching up for the beauty of the stars). I haven’t read anything about this series, but I very much liked the first issue.

And if I was drawn to buy it because of Alan Davis, how much more so must that have been true for John Romita Jr., one of my favorite working comics artists (and, incidentally, a heck of a guy), especially if he’s drawing Superman, my favorite superhero character.

It’s been much, much harder to be a Superman fan in these last three years, during the regime of “The New 52,” in which the character of Superman took on such an ominous and offputting new spin. This Superman is an alien super-being, floating one foot off the ground, dating Wonder Woman, entirely distanced from normal humanity, utterly humorless – and the basics of that characterization aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, since they were the basis of the latest Superman movie, which has so far made almost a billion dollars. This Superman barely even thinks about protecting the innocent and wouldn’t bother to foil a bank robberysuperman front1 even if every little old lady with a savings account begged him to, so he’s a bit of a trial to read – in fact, I usually haven’t been buying Superman on the comics stands (that bizarre absence, plus the still-mourned lack of my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes, feels utterly unreal).

But for Jr Jr, I at least sprang for Superman #32, the start of a new storyline in which a boring ponytailed new super-character named Ulysses enters the DC universe, introducing himself to Superman by helping our hero defeat a fairly nondescript new villain. There are rare-enough personal moments – we see Clark Kent at the Daily Planet offices, and, more interestingly, we see him at home in his superman panel1apartment, unsuccessfully trying to have phone conversations with first Wonder Woman and then Batman, and then paging through a photo album, patently lonely. These are exactly the kind of details that have been missing from this comic since it was re-invented, and they were refreshing to see, even though they certainly aren’t going to last.

The artwork sure was nice, however: Romita’s panel-work is so unapologetically muscular and elemental, in some ways just perfect for this new bludgeoning version of the character. This artist will sacrifice almost anything for dramatics (at one point Superman uses his heat vision on the bad guy, and one beam lands a full foot wide of the other – which isn’t of course, how vision, heat or otherwise, works). But somehow it all works (less so with the issue’s curiously static cover, which has a fine age-old principle but boring execution); I ended up enjoying the issue, and I’ll probably follow the whole of Romita’s run – which won’t be very long, of course! Even in this issue, in an interview, he’s already enthusing about the other DC characters he’d like to draw … always a bad sign – Doomsday, as it were.

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