June 17th, 2017
Our book today is Charles Wilson’s 1997 classic Extinct, in which an intrepid marine biologist finds himself enlisted in the most unlikely contest of all: with the megalodon, a gigantic species of prehistoric shark that could grow to 50 or 60 or even 80 feet but has been considered extinct for millions of years. In Wilson’s book, see, the megalodons have survived unglimpsed by humans for all those millions of years by hiding out in the abysmal depths of the Marianas Trench, where they’ve …
… you’re making that face, and I don’t blame you. Like me, you’re thinking: wait a minute – isn’t that the exact same plot as Steve Alten’s novel Meg, also published in 1997? Intrepid marine biologist? Check. Gigantic prehistoric killer shark? Check? Hiding in the Marianas Trench all this time? Check, check, and check. So what’s going on?
As far as I can tell, mere blind Darwinism is going on. The general reading public was presented in 1997 with two novels about gigantic prehistoric killer sharks, and it picked one of those two and turned it into a cult classic – and it forgot the other one. And that’s a shame, because Charles Wilson’s career shows him to be a reliable old hack of the first order, somebody who can cook up a sturdy plot, populate it with sturdy one-dimensional characters, and stir it like a fine, filling gumbo. And Extinct is not exception: it’s a terrific read, especially in summer, when all thoughts turn to mutilated, half-eaten ocean bathers.
It’s also, of course, an utterly absurd book – and for the same reason Meg is an utterly absurd book: because despite its trappings, it’s as deeply anti-scientific as your average young-Earth creationist church pamphlet. The Marianas Trench is less than 2000 miles long and less than 50 miles wide. It’s about 6 or 7 miles deep at its deepest point – and something that had evolutionarily adapted to life way down there would instantly and grotesquely die if it vacationed up at the ocean’s surface. The Trench is another world: lightless, crushing, confined, and lacking great shoals of prey animals. In other words, the Marianas Trench isn’t your Get Out of Jail card – it’s no more capable of supporting a bunch of breeding populations of 80-foot superpredators for millions of years than Loch Ness is. The scientific illiteracy takes the usual form: the monster somehow exists free of its own population. Your megalodon novels might have one meg or two or four, but they don’t have hundred of thousands of carnivorous super-predators, somehow living on algae in complete darkness for millions of years.
Still, it’s a totally nifty schlock hook: not just an enormous great white shark, but a super-enormous great white shark, something that could swallow its human victims whole, in one gulp. Turn one of those things loose on an unsuspecting coastal community, drag in your heroic marine biologist, contrive your plot so that everybody, and I mean positively everybody spends time waist-deep in the water, imbue the giant killer shark with the intelligence of a particularly evil chimpanzee (instead of a goldfish with a thyroid imbalance), and you’re off to the races.
In the case of Extinct, the heroic marine biologist is Alan Freeman, but he’s not the only one interested in the megalodon that inexplicably begins eating people along the Mississippi Gulf Coast; no, there’s also Admiral Vandiver, a crusty old salt who’s always harbored a crackpot secret theory that the megs somehow survived for millions of years in the deep trenches of the ocean without any human shipping ever suspecting a thing. But why, Vandiver wonders, would the megalodons have retreated to those deep trenches in the first place (“to make novels like Extinct possible” not being an option on the admiral’s table, keep in mind)? What are the possibilities?
Something chasing them from the shallower waters? It was unlikely that there was ever a creature that swam in the seas that was so fearsome that the megalodon had run in fright. Maybe not a creature at all, he thought. Perhaps in the world changing from glacial to tropical climates a hole unimaginable today had appeared in the ozone layer. Maybe somehow the megalodons were sensitive to that. The dim rays of the light spectrum could penetrate to around fifteen hundred feet in water – that might have driven them at least to those depths. Or perhaps a switching of global temperatures created something on the order of an all-encompassing, worldwide poisoning of the shallow waters in the same manner that weather triggered what would be termed a red tide today.
The admiral’s not conclusively sure how this monster is alive today, much less why it isn’t back in its home at the bottom of the sea but is instead willing – and, somehow, able – to lurk in the extremely shallow waters of the coastal marshes (seriously, this thing, which is the size of a city bus, spends the first half of the book hanging out close enough to shore so that it can snatch deer off the bank). And Alan Freeman doesn’t have any answers either. And while the two of them – at cross-purposes, naturally – continue searching for answers, the megalodon continues its demented killing spree – including that signature coup de grace that mere great white sharks can’t manage:
Leonard’s eyes widened in shock.
The bottle fell from his hand.
The shape made a sudden lunge forward. Stella was swallowed whole from the rear to the front. No sound. A last glimpse of her blond hair. The great mouth closed.
The creature, dark and glistening, lay unmoving as the waves crashed around it and against it, its black, round eyes staring directly at Leonard.
Too paralyzed to move, Leonard nearly passed out. With a superhuman effort, he took a step backward. Another step. His body trembling as if he were standing naked in a hundred-degree-below zero wind, he finally managed to turn – and ran.
“Aaaarrrgh” indeed. No idea why Stella went so quietly; after all, if she’s been swallowed whole then she hasn’t been bitten, right? As far as she’s concerned, she’s been suddenly scooped up into a foul-smelling sleeping bag – she wouldn’t instantly die from that (although the meg might; its mouth might be big enough to swallow a grown woman whole, but its esophagus certainly couldn’t handle anything that size unless it was chewed first), so why wouldn’t she raise a ruckus?
It’s one of many unanswered why-type questions in books like this. Why does this one megalodon come to hang out in Mississippi waters? Why does it concentrate so hard on snapping up grade school kids when it could feast on schools of hefty tuna in the open ocean? Why, once they know there’s a supernaturally big and clever shark in the water, does the book’s entire cast contrive reasons to be out on boats, down on dives, or otherwise splashing around?
Extinct is, even after all these years, quintessential summer reading, and in quintessential summer reading, we don’t ask such questions. Instead, we ask: does this hack novel keep me interested? And it does, dear reader, it most certainly does. Find a copy at your summer getaway’s used bookstore and read it happily on the beach. And then – why not? – toss it aside and plunge into the water for a nice refreshing swim out beyond the breakers.
June 16th, 2017
Some Penguin Classics are examples of that peculiar sub-species of literary work that somehow always feels pointedly relevant, no matter the age or era: in this case, the great writings of celebrated New England crackpot, Henry David Thoreau – Walden and Civil Disobedience. This is a new edition, with a simple, arresting cover illustration by Jason Holley and a new Introduction by English professor Kristin Case, who nods in the direction of that weird eternal relevance right away. “The questions that drove Thoreau to Walden Pond in 1845 were the same questions that face young people, particularly recent college graduates, two hundred years after his birth,” she writes. “What should I do for work? How should I spend my life? And how far should I accept the answers arrived at by others?”
Thoreau’s decision to absent himself from decidedly manageable hustle and bustle of mid-19th century Concord and go live in a little shack on a lot of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s land gained him a small amount of notoriety in his own day and has been irretrievably enshrined in American cultural mythology ever since, mainly because it was one of those insignificant gestures that seem to signify eighty different things. Something similar is at work in the pages of Civil Disobedience, even though on the surface the two works look so different that Case is right when she points out that Thoreau scholars have often complained that the two works feel like they were written by two different authors. The feeling is deceptive; in reality, great thematic strands unite these two things and everything else Thoreau wrote. One of those strands is hooey, but Case, ever the true believer, has a different one in mind:
Imagination is among the keys to Thoreau’s enterprise and one of the themes that unites his writing on nature and his writing on politics. To answer, even to earnestly ask, the question of how to live is to engage in the work of imagination. It is to imagine something other than what already exists, something other than what we can see. Here we might think again of that sentence from Walden‘s conclusion: “The volatile truth of our words should continually betray the inadequacy of the residual statement.”
Not exactly a crystal clear sentence, that, but re-reading this lovely new Penguin edition reminded me of how good Thoreau can be when he’s not woolgathering or posturing. The key, as Case writes, often is that element of imagination, when Thoreau effectively blends his habitual melancholy with a whimsical element that sticks in the memory – like the daydreaming in which he indulges while out working the ground:
As I drew a still fresher soil about the rows with my hoe, I disturbed the ashes of unchronicled nations who in primeval years lived under these heavens, and their small implements of war and hunting were brought to the light of this modern day. They lay mingled with other natural stones, some of which bore the marks of having been burned by Indian fires, and some by the sun, and also bits of pottery and glass brought hither by the recent cultivators of the soil. When my hoe tinkled against the stones, that music echoed to the woods and the sky, and was an accompaniment to my labor which yielded an instant and immeasurable crop.
“Our times have never needed the shock of Thoreau more,” writes Thoreau scholar William Howarth in The American Scholar, painting a now-familiar nightmare scenario: “We face a government eager to kill all measures of natural protection in the name of corporate profit. Elected officials openly bray that environmentalism “is the greatest threat to freedom.” One federal, state, and local levels, civil liberties and free speech are under attack. Thoreau is too: the barriers to reading him as a voice of resistance – or reading him at all – are multiplying swiftly.”
If this is true – and I wouldn’t underestimate the 21st century on such a score, particularly after this last year – then this Penguin Classics re-issue couldn’t be more timely, as appalling a thing as “timely” always is for any classic to be.
June 12th, 2017
Our book today combines the best of both worlds in the animal kingdom: it’s Shark Dog! By Ged Adamson, his fourth and most winning children’s picture book yet, newly released by Harper.
The plucky little girl who narrates Shark Dog wastes no time in telling us that her bug-eyed red-bearded father is a world-famous explorer. In fact, she’s accompanying him to a fantastic land with beautiful butterflies and tortoises as big as cars when something strange happens: late at night, something leaps out of the ocean and thumps on deck. Our little narrator hardly has time to wonder what it might be before she’s face-slurped in a way that only one animal species on Earth has completely mastered.
But the mysterious visitor isn’t a dog – not quite. Rather, he’s a shark dog, an adorable and friendly little guy with four legs, a wet snout … and a fin sticking out of his back.
And the combination isn’t just skin deep. “Sometimes, when he did dog things, he was more like a shark,” we’re told (accompanied by the book’s most priceless visual, of a poor cat being stalked through tall grass), “and sometimes, when he did shark things, he was more like a dog” (he brings the famous explorer his slippers during a deep-sea dive).
But the shark dog is clear on one thing: he loves his adventures with his new family. Until, that is, he seems to start pining for his own kind. “Maybe it’s time we took him back,” suggests the famous explorer, so they do (on the plane ride, I was green with envy at the explorer’s in-flight reading material: National Sharkographic).
And anybody who’s ever an odd, ungainly little dog will smile at the book’s outcome.
June 6th, 2017
I opened the latest issue of Esquire with very pleasantly modest expectations. I was looking forward to a helping of the smart-but-mostly-vapid entertainments Esquire tends to serve up so well – glossy spreads of $15,000 wrist watches, listicles on the Top 5 Things Your Sternum-Length Beard Says About You (in reality, it’s only one thing: you’re an insecure douche-bucket), that sort of thing. In the past, I’ve sometimes found these things a bit annoying, but they were just what I needed this time around, and for most of the issue, they’re exactly what I got: the Sacred Manly Bond of hand-destroying illegal fireworks, the Country’s Best Steakhouses (which somehow seem to change every three issues), and the cover feature this time around, an engaging interview with 5-foot-tall 6-pack-a-day Game of Thrones starlet Kit Harington on how the success that’s made him a millionaire is a bit inconvenient. So far, so good.
Then I came to a surprise. In the back of the issue was a short piece by novelist Richard Ford – about the book reviews he’s received over the course of his career.
This kind of thing is something of a rarity. Most big-name authors don’t talk about the entire Penny Press industry that depends on their books – much less the entire section of the reading populace that depends on that industry. And there’s a good and self-evident reason why authors avoid those subjects, but self-evidence isn’t always safeguard enough: every once in a while, an author will break ranks (and the fourth wall) and talk about the Kakutani in the room.
It’s never a good idea. Talking about your critics, as a wise man observed almost a century ago, invariably devolves into complaining about your critics, and complaining about your critics is “the surest and fastest way to confirm that they were right about you all along.” So spoke the unsung genius of the Great White Way. Too bad word of it never reached the Great White Wordsmith.
Ford opens his piece, called “Perilous Business,” by telling the story of the first time he read a review of one of his books. The review was by Larry McMurtry, and it was politely negative, and Ford has stewed over it ever since. He tells us that he “can’t make himself” to go and look up just what it was McMurtry wrote – a totally unconvincing gesture of indifference, since it’s pretty obvious he has the thing memorized – but that it was withering, a harbinger of every bad review Ford would ever receive. “The only way I can take a bad review of my book is personally,” Ford writes, “as something bad that’s happened to me.” No thought given to the possibility that his book was something bad that had happened to its readers. I certainly remember the book in question; in his review, McMurtry was being generous.
It almost never fails with stoic, guy’s-guy writers: they’re full of terse, tough assessments of all and sundry whenever they’ve got an interviewer’s microphone in front of their face, but the instant they find themselves on the receiving end of such an assessment, they start blubbering like a slapped toddler. In the case of Ford – who’s written one good novel, one good memoir, and a massive sloughing mountain of third-rate junk – the self-pity is mixed with lots of invidious gossip. It’s not just that he’s a great writer who really shouldn’t be handled by pissy little book reviewers in the first place (except for the handful he singles out as “reliable” – reliable! I can’t think of a higher compliment … if it’s coming from an editor. But having a writer call me “reliable” as a reviewer? The skin crawls), no, it’s not just that he’s competent at his job – it’s that book reviewers are incompetent at theirs. He has it on insider authority, you see:
Recently, a highly placed official in a semi-prestigious reviewing organ remarked to me, in a taxi, that in her view all reviewing is completely subjective from the git-go and shouldn’t be worried about. Which was to say that while book reviews may make a big difference to a book’s success in finding readers, they’re mostly all just a load of crap and too unreliable to bother with.
“Book reviews,” he informs us (when he’s not hearing taxi cab confessions, that is), “are always written at the mercy of a reviewer’s williwaw state of mind.” Unlike serious novelists, book reviewers don’t actually sit down and think about what they’re doing. There’s certainly no craft involved. They’re under-educated. They’re overworked. They’re underpaid. They’re badly distracted. They’re just so willawashy. That’s why, we’re told, “there’s neither a deep nor a wide recent tradition of high-quality reviewing in the U.S.” (“And there are blogs,” he tells us, adding – although by this point he scarcely needs to: “I don’t know much about them”) See? It’s not just a few reviewers who haven’t been “reliable” when it comes to praising Richard Ford books … it’s the whole gosh-darned field! All these dozens and dozens of book reviewers out there letting the side down, willawallowing in their own petty affairs while serious novelists are trying to create serious novels!
The essential problem with this whinge-fest and others like it is always the same: a willful misunderstanding of what book reviewing actually is. Ford isn’t the first novelist I’ve encountered who seems to think book reviewers are just another arm – a nice “reliable” arm – of their publisher’s publicity department, and I’m sure he won’t be the last. Every pouty word in “Perilous Business” shows that Ford no better understands the world of book reviewing than he understands the world of novels written without posturing cliches. “To knock a book down in print,” he tells us, “is like coming upon a hitchhiker on the side of the road and rather than passing him by, deciding to run over him.”
Wrong. Completely wrong, of course. Passing a hitchhiker (“on the side of the road” reminds us that in every single piece of Ford fiction, we’re always, mechanically, informed that meals are cooked “in the kitchen” and sleeping is done “in the bedroom”) is easy; a hitchhiker makes no claims on any individual passing motorist; a hitchhiker has no advertising budget. Therefore, swerving to hit a hitchhiker is an act of motivationless malice. If a novel were a hitchhiker, the only thing printed on its front or back cover would be its price.
Novels aren’t hitchhikers on the side of the road. Novels not only want things from you – important things, like your money, your attention, and your acclaim – but they’re also willing to lie to get them. Picture a hitchhiker with a sign saying “Will $$$PAY$$$ for lift to Sacramento – loves puppies.” You see that and pull over, but the hitchhiker turns out to be a flat-broke cat-lover who may or may not be fizzing with Hepatitis C. You’ll wish somebody had run over that hitchhiker long before you fell for that sign. At the very least, you’ll wish you’d been warned.
I can’t speak for the brainier practitioners of my profession, of course. Book reviewers like my Open Letters colleagues Rohan Maitzen and Sam Sacks are often dealing in deeper verities, pitching at least part of their discussion for states unborn and accents yet unknown (the fact that Ford would dismiss them as “a load of crap and too unreliable to bother with” makes the ol’ Southie blood boil). But for myself, I’m not the guardian to the gates of Parnassus – I’m the watchdog of my readers’ time and money. They’ve got a very limited amount of either to spend on fripperies like new novels, and when they’re browsing the New Releases tables of their local bookstore, they’re confronted with one sign after another saying “Will $$$PAY$$$ for lift to Sacramento – loves puppies.” So I’m naturally less than effusive in my sympathies when an overpraised novelist starts talking about his paycheck:
Whenever I think about reviews of my books, I usually only think about the bad ones – the ones, again, that drive readers away, take bread out of my children’s mouths, devalue half a decade of honest effort, steal money out of my pocket, and cast a dark shadow over my future … I wonder if those bad-review writers would do it if they knew the chain reaction they’d set in motion. If they would, then they deserve what they get both here and beyond. I wouldn’t want to know too much about these people’s personal habits – how they treat their spouses and pets. I know, I’m way too sensitive.
Too sensitive, yes. Also a blockhead, and yet the implication that book reviewers are being mean is so common as to be almost williwall-to-wall. The idea that a negative review is taking bread out of the mouths of over-privileged children and otherwise dipping into their college funds is so wrong-headed and vain that it just had to be a novelist who first thought it up. It’s like blaming a restaurant’s crappy food on its bad reviews.
A book reviewer – at least, the unreliable kind – doesn’t care about the money in your pocket, or about the bread in your children’s mouths, or about how long it took you to create your latest boring slice of late-middle-age suburban angst. They care about whether or not your latest book is any good. They’ve read all your earlier books – no williwalk in the park, if you happen to be a slog of an author – and they know the claim your name and reputation (“Will $$$PAY$$$ for lift to Sacramento – loves puppies”) make on readers who are trying to decide whether or not to shell out $35 for your latest book. What those readers want in a book reviewer is an ally and advocate. Book reviewers who are thinking about how a novelist is going to make his next pool payment might be reliable, but they’re also bad at their job. And a novelist who complains about critical reviews – especially one who implies that the reviewers who don’t like his books are incompetent – well, that novelist is a bit of a putz.
So: a spike of adrenaline buried in the pages of what I’d hoped would be a nice diverting issue of Esquire. Our regularly-scheduled sushi-shop ratings will resume next issue – I’m devoutly hoping.
May 14th, 2017
Our book today is a handy pocket-sized thing from semi-pro ex-pat Evan Rice, The Wayfarer’s Handbook: A Field Guide for the Independent Traveler, new in a pretty blue-lettered hardcover from Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. Rice is a handsome young Baltimorean who early on in life discovered a deep passion for travel, and according to his book’s bio-note, he’s spent more than two years on the road, visiting 32 countries on six continents. In the pages of this little book (extra-sturdy, no dust jacket, clearly designed to be carried to the back of beyond and consulted liberally en route), Rice distills the practical wisdom he’s distilled from all that moving around, and from the interactions he’s had along the way with that peculiar sub-category of traveler that will be well-known to anybody who’s ever strayed for days or weeks from the well-lit tourist pathways of the world – the tumbleweed sub-category of Rice’s fellow semi-pro travelers, carrying their battered possessions and scuffed-but-reliable tech in sun-stained rucksacks, pausing in one place just long enough to work a bar job in order to restore funds, renting the cheaper and best obx rentals they can find just enough to get in their feet again, then scabbing up the cheapest gray-market plane or train tickets and moving on to the next place. Rice is clearly taken with his fellow vagabonds:
In seeking out these gems of nature and culture and unexpectedness, I also found a group of people who chose to experience life in a way that I didn’t know was possible. Independent travelers of all ages, who went to wondrous places for indeterminate amounts of time, driven by reasons that even they didn’t seem to understand. They were so effortless in their movements: relaxed but aware, self-reliant but blissfully aimless, improvising their own spontaneous paths through the world. And best of all, they were free. Truly, completely free, in a world that increasingly opposes that notion.
(They’re free from conventional 9-to-5 jobs, these blissfully aimless souls, but it should be noted that they’re not free from chemical addiction; they are, universally, roasting tobacco addicts)
But at the same time Rice seems well aware of the specific brand of sheep-dip these non-itineraried travelers often like to sling about, and he’s having none of it:
It has become increasingly fashionable among the backpacking set to romanticize the act of travel at the expense of others, to deride anyone less adventurous as “conformist” and in doing so subtly imbue oneself with some kind of enlightenment. This is a comforting but false superiority; to judge others based on your own goals is reductive and foolish.
The Wayfarer’s Handbook has no time for such snobbery (although “fashionable” hardly does justice to how ubiquitous that snobbery is – even on a weekend-trip dip into the Appalachian Trail’s more suburban locales, you’re sure to find a pod of backpackers who have nothing but disdain for people who don’t have eyeball-piercing body stench); instead, it’s packed with every last little detail of world-traveling that anybody would ever need to know – and plenty of stuff that nobody needs to know but that makes for entertaining reading even so. This little book is clearly intended to be a companion as well as a handbook, a source of interest and a conversation-starter for all those long, rattling train-rides our author likes so much.
Readers learn the different types of shipwreck, the ancient place-names of dozens of modern spots, the kinds of mirages, the taxonomies of various mythical beasts like the jackalope, and the best remedy for eating extra-spicey food (it’s not water – try honey or even chocolate instead). The pages are dotted with fun trivia about travel and great quotes from the vast literature of travel, and also with mottos Rice has snatched from the more sedentary world and applied to his vocation, such as a bit of instruction printed on a jar of Hellmann’s Mayonnaise: “Keep cool – but do not freeze.” Some of the items he relates will be jarring to his more stay-at-home readers, like finding the United States right alongside Uzbekistan and Iran under the heading “Enemies of the Internet” (“countries who engage in the most severe Internet censorship and surveillance”), but the ultimate effect is wonderfully mind-expanding. This is a book that will delight armchair travelers every bit as much as their more peripatetic brethren.
“The world has never been safer, easier, and cheaper to explore than it is right now,” Rice writes with the bouncing optimism that characterizes the whole book. When he does his duty and offers advice on what poor luckless travelers should do in the unfortunate event of disaster, he’s always eager to keep things in their proper perspective, reminding his readers that a little simple preparation goes a long way, reminding them of the value of a good hand-wash and a trusty roll of mosquito-netting, and, very reluctantly, giving some pointers for, say, a bear attack:
If the bear begins charging, remain still, stand your ground, and begin yelling. Most initial charges are bluffs and, regardless, attempting to run will likely have far worse consequences. If the bear makes contact or remains focused on you, clasp your hands on the back of your neck, lay facedown with your backpack on, and “play dead.” Most bear interactions with humans are defensive: they simply want to ensure you are not a threat to their cubs or food source. However, if the bear does not leave the area and begins attacking, immediately fight back with any weapons available while making as much noise as possible.
If a bear does “make contact,” I suspect readers won’t have any trouble with the “begin yelling” part – it’ll come naturally. But here’s hoping it won’t be necessary.
May 8th, 2017
Our book today is a treat for readers (you can tell by the cascade of poorly-drawn books on the front cover, I guess): My Life with Bob, subtitled “Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues,” and it’s written by the most powerful person in the world of books, Pamela Paul, the editor of the New York Times Book Review and the person who dictates all the books coverage for the Paper of Record. And as that subtitle indicates, the “Bob” in the title isn’t a person – it’s Paul’s “book of books,” the painstaking record she’s kept for decades of every book she’s ever read.
It’s an accumulation that’s in some ways more immediately satisfying, she points out, than a normal personal journal would be; “diaries contained all kinds of things I wanted to forget – unrequited crushes and falling-outs with friends and angsting over college admissions,” she writes. “Bob contains things I wanted to remember: what I was reading when all that happened.”
Paul has written about Bob before, but this kind of subject is almost by its very nature inexhaustible, particularly for somebody like Paul, who’s “engulfed” in books. And of course every reader is always pruriently curious about the books that make up every other reader’s life. But the real strength of My Life with Bob, the element that gives it such a strong, easy readability in its own right, consistently isn’t the copious book-talk that fills its pages – the “Bob” part. Rather, it’s the “life” part where Paul’s considerable storytelling gifts shine to best advantage. She might protest that diaries remember things she wants to forget, but it’s pretty clear from the stories here that she hasn’t forgotten much.
This is a chronicle of failed and sometimes mortifying relationships in her dating – and marrying – life, a chronicle of constantly trying to gain some purchase on other people, some quick and reliable understanding of them, from the books they read and the books they want other people to read. That communicative aspect of reading Paul understands well from feeling it herself many times:
Sometimes you fall so much in love with a book that you simply have to tell everyone, to spread the love and to explain the state you’re in. You read passages aloud to anyone who will listen. You wait with bated breath, watching for signs of appreciation, wanting that smile, that laugh, that nod of recognition. Please love this book too, you silently – and sometimes not so silently – urge. You become insistent, even messianic in your enthusiasm.
Her own messianism has met with uneven results over the years. She recounts stories of uncomprehending boyfriends (one of them watched her finish a book and snidely said, “Hurry up, go note it in Bob”), stories of trying to align her reading with her former husband’s (they split on Magic Mountain and Paul Johnson’s Modern Times), stories of re-entering the dating life and encountering men whose favorites betray some fundamental flaw in their nature, such as the “ridiculously handsome” Abe, whose love of George MacDonald Fraser’s “Flashman” books prompts her to savor the highly idiosyncratic joy of “hate-reading” a book:
There can certainly be a pleasure in hate reading. As with The Fountainhead, I have hated my way through several books to the last page, not always out of generosity to the writer. It’s a force of will. You will be read no matter how hard you make it. Some say reading hateful books feels like time wasted – and with so little time, so many books, why bother with the bad? But there’s something bracing about reading a book you despise, because loathing is usually mixed with other emotions – fear, perverse attraction, even occasional, complicated strains of sympathy. It’s one of many reasons I believe in negative reviews. It can be interesting when a book provokes animosity. But hate in and of itself is not a very interesting response to a book, and oh, how I hated Flashman.
My Life with Bob is generously stocked with bookish anecdotes like this, with favorite books of mine found wanting (I side firmly with the ridiculously handsome Abe on the merits of Flashman) and titles I consider ridiculous fluff sometimes granted serious consideration because they answered a particular need at a particular time – and all kinds of books in between. And Paul so skillfully braids her book-talk with her life-talk (I got the strong impression that most of her life-stories have been honed to perfection by frequent retelling) that The Book of Bob always and invitingly doubles as The Book of Pam. It’s hard to think of a more intuitive – or more honest – way to go about describing a life lived in books.
May 6th, 2017
Our book today is a bone-chilling monster story of the most intimate kind, a story about a monster who’s not only gargantuan and wantonly destructive but … kind of cute. The book is Rodzilla (new from Margaret McElderry Books, a division of Simon & Schuster), with words by Rob Sanders and pictures by Dan Santat, and it opens with the city of Megalopolis in turmoil: stomping through its streets, toppling its buildings, barfing and farting all over its innocent civilians, wobbling and drooling through its scenic parks is a towering monster known as Rodzilla.
The property damage might be typical of most monster stories, the panicked citizens and wide-eyed news commentators might be staples of the genre, but even so, there are strange differences about this particular disaster scenario. For instance, this monster never really stops smiling. And he’s got an adorable pug nose. And stubby fingers. And no teeth in his enormous grinning mouth. And how many city-stomping monsters wear a T-shirt that says “Totally Rod”?
Not that any of it seems to lessen his path of destruction. “Rodzilla has grabbed a taxi … and a bus,” we’re told. “He’s the mightiest creature to ever roam the streets. Residents can only stare at this chubby monstrosity. They gaze in horror at his toothless grin.”
Thankfully, not all Megalopolis citizens are quite so paralyzed with fear. Just as the monster’s rampage seems unstoppable, a young woman and man step forward to confront … their barfing, crying, laughing, waddling, playroom-destroying toddler, Rod – who’s a such a little monster!
It’s all utterly delightful. Elementary school teacher Rob Sanders has a fine ear for the relentless onslaught of melodrama that is the inner life of every toddler, and the illustrations by Caldecott-winning artist Dan Santat are warm and bright and full of antic motion. And despite the carnage and the mess and the toys scattered everywhere, the ending is happy – the monster is pacified. For now.
May 1st, 2017
Our book today is a new paperback original from Penguin, The Red Line, Walt Gragg’s debut novel, which tell the story – in pointillist, gripping detail – of a Russian surprise attack on Germany at the Czech border, an attack that starts with massive tank-companies abandoning their war games and advancing straight at the border defenses, an attack launched under cover of a serious blizzard, an attack authorized by the ruthless autocrat of Russia as the first step in a bid to conquer Germany – and beyond.
It’s never quite a reassuring thing when a novel of this kind immediately earns the description “prescient,” because it’s not like predicting the winning lottery ticket for yourself – it’s like predicting the losing lottery tickets for everybody else. Gragg seems comfortable with the concept, however. “Despite the fact that our relationship with Russia at the time appeared rosy, I had little doubt that given Russia’s history we would eventually find ourselves where we are today,” Gragg told Publisher’s Weekly in an interview. “So despite the fact that the book’s political scenario looks like it was written last week, its central core was actually put on paper more than 20 years ago.”
That “central core” isn’t quite exactly our current world political situation, but it’s close enough in the gist: Vladimir Putin’s successor, an even more absolutist dictator named Cheninko, has risen to power on the back of a revitalized Communist power-grab in Russia, and one of his most daring generals has devised a plan that will allow Russia to conquer all of Germany in under a week, the whole time double-talking the US and the UN until the whole thing is a fait accompli. When it comes to these broader-scope explanations of politics and international pressure, Gragg’s sheer enthusiasm can sometimes lead him astray into a king of vagueness that almost breaks the spell he’s weaving:
There’d always been that 20 percent in both the East and West who refused to accept the changes occurring at the end of the first Cold War. Instead of joining the new world order, they continued on with a policy of fear and suspicion. In the East, they seized the opportunity a struggling Russia created. A new hatred was born, stronger and more resolute than ever.
But on the small scale, the scale of individual military commanders on both sides, The Red Line downright crackles with energy – and an air of authenticity I presume comes from the author’s own military experience (service in Vietnam, including some time spent with Special Forces). For instance, in the novel’s intense opening segment, Sergeant First Class Robert Jensen observes that the Russians – still on war games as far as he can tell – have moved large groups of foot soldiers into support positions around their tanks … and draws the only possible conclusion:
For the briefest of instants, Jensen’s mind begged him to believe it was nothing more than another Russian ploy to test their American adversaries. Just that brazen general trying to see how his foe would react this time.
But the veteran platoon sergeant knew otherwise. Tanks and BMPs at the wire might be a test of wills. Moving dismounted infantry into position to support the armor, however, could mean only one thing. As much as he fought against it, there was just one conclusion he could reach – the Russians were preparing an attack.
The Red Line‘s action scenes are superbly done, and the whole thing is virtually all action scenes. I think it’s fairly certain that any 21st century reader flying through these pages will be pausing periodically to wish that they felt just a bit more fictional than they do. The author’s protestations about starting the novel 20 years ago notwithstanding, there’s scarcely a single detail in this terrific novel that doesn’t feel like it could be showing up in tomorrow’s news. And since Gragg does a resolutely thorough job describing the raw human cost involved at every stage of his version of World War III, readers are spared nothing at all. I finished The Red Line hoping two things with equally fervor: first, that the author writes a second book, and second, that the real-world version of his first one leaves anybody alive to read it.
April 29th, 2017
Our book today is a children’s title depicting an epidemic of bed-poaching. When night falls on the farm in Go Sleep in Your Own Bed by Candace Fleming and Lori Nichols (new from Penguin Random House), it finds a scene of unfolding chaos that begins when a sleepy pig crosses the barnyard headed for a blissful night of sleep:
Pig toddled to his sty,
But when he plopped down – Moooo! – Who do you think he found?
A cow has bedded down in Pig’s stall and needs to be shoo’d away. The cow drowsily makes her way to her stall and settles down … only to find an intruder of her own, a hen, who squawks loudly at being squished underneath Cow. Ordered to go find her own bed, she goes to the coop … and discovers a horse, squeezed in and comfy.
And so the progression goes, as somehow every animal on the farm managed to bed down in the wrong location. Fleming and Nichols keep the artwork very pleasantly animated, and each animal’s weary trek to find their own bed is accompanied by the kind of sound effect – cloppety-plod, trippety-slump – that’s particularly satisfying to share with little readers.
The story reaches its climax when the farm’s dog is evicted from the sheep pen and slinks off to his kennel for the night – and encounters what is surely the higest blasphemy of bed-swapping: a cat, curled up where only dogs should be. And in typically diabolical fashion, the cat runs not to … wherever a cat actually goes, but rather straight to the farm house.
And the ploy works. The porch light snaps on, and the farmer’s little girl rushes out saying “Oh, there you are! Come sleep in my bed!” The book ends with the cat snuggled warm and comfortable in the girl’s bed, and by that point children who perhaps have too strong a penchant for asking “Can I sleep in your bed?” every night will get the message that they’re perhaps making a nuisance of themselves. And readers of all ages will get the message the one useless parasite-animal in the story is the one who ends up with the nicest bed of all – a point already familiar to cat-owners, I suspect.
April 19th, 2017
As I’ve mentioned here on Stevereads before, 2017 marks the ten-year anniversary of Open Letters Monthly, the online literary journal where I have the honor to be Managing Editor. It’s naturally been an occasion to look back at those ten years – the hundreds of pieces we’ve published, the thousands of books, the writers, the editors, the breakneck problems that crop up out of nowhere and require all-hands-on-deck responses and the need to use zipvit for energy to solve issues … and the sense of accomplishment that comes from managing to keep creating such a thing for so long.
So long of course being relative. The standard industry metric – most recently repeated by JC in the TLS but universal in any case – has always been that ten years is the expected lifespan of the stereotypical “little literary journal,” and yet there are the glorious exceptions, the team-endeavors that manage to beat the odds and keep producing issues even after their first decade has been survived. And I’ve found that while I’ve been basking in that private glow of pride, I’ve been more aware than usual when other magazines, things I’ve read for years, have anniversaries.
Ten years has at times felt like a century at Open Letters, in both good ways and bad ways; there were many months where the deadline loomed and we were all fairly certain it spelled disaster, and yet invariably an issue would materialize. The idea of doing that kind of juggling act for twenty years, or thirty, is a pause-inducing thing, so I pricked up my ears when I noticed that the rock-solid little digest science fiction magazine Asimov’s is currently enjoying its fortieth anniversary.
I didn’t read it in its first year or two – I suspect I was otherwise occupied back in the late ’70s, although one can never be 100% sure – but I haven’t missed an issue of Asimov’s in decades, and during the stretches where I wasn’t a subscriber, I was perfectly willing to walk well out of my way to find the latest issue on what archeologists now refer to as “newsstands.” And no matter who was helming the magazine, no matter which decade was being obliquely reflected in its pages, what I got at the end of those newsstand treks was always the same: a terrific mix.
There’s editorial matter at the front (including a regular column by the great science fiction writer Robert Silverberg, who shares with many SFF titans an almost adamantine solipsism that’s, alas, on full display in his column for this anniversary issue), and each issue is sprinkled (littered?) with truly execrable little poems, and of course the book reviews are ignominiously herded into the very back pages, abutting with box-ads for sea monkeys and the like. And then there’s the meat of every issue: short stories, longer pieces called “novelettes,” and one novella – all of which have always been written by a perfect balance of established industry names and relative newcomers.
Ten years at Open Letters has reminded me of what I’d learned during previous managing editor stints, and what the editors at Asimov’s must know like the grooves of their own faces by now: you put together the issue you can, not necessarily the issue you want, and you hope the whole time for those one or two items per issue that really sing – the kinds of things you can actually say, over drinks once the new issue is safely launched, that you were genuinely proud to publish them. At too-great intervals, there’ll be many such gems in one issue, but usually, they’re rare, and you pack them and pad them into their issues, girding them all around with well-meaning but less luminous matter, trying, like all good parents, not to show the favoritism you very much feel.
This 40th anniversary issue of Asimov’s is a classic in just that way. There are 13 stories, and they range from gimmicky place-holders to more worthy and more turgid works to a couple of glorious gems, the kind of story that editors see as making the whole tawdry business worthwhile, at least until next issue.
This time around, one of those gems is actually featured on the cover: Suzanne Palmer’s Number Thirty-Nine Skink, about a sentient exploration vessel on an alien world, fulfilling its programming by replicating life-forms (including the titular lizard) with which to seed the world’s biosphere and maybe jump-start terraforming. But the vessel’s human crew are all dead, and the vessel is clearly experiencing a very programmed kind of grief, and the machine’s mission is very, very compromised, and Palmer writes it all so briskly and matter-of-factly that an entire world is sketched in just a few paragraphs (Asimov’s reigning short story kind, Robert Reed, does this better than anybody, but he’s not in this issue – although his story in the previous issue was the best thing the magazine has run so far in 2017) that it all feels as textured and satisfying as a novel.
Same thing goes for Alan Smale’s story “Kitty Hawk,” in which a very gentle alternate history is pursued with poetic intensity: Katharine Wright, sister to Orville and Wilbur Wright, has made her way to the windy beach at Kitty Hawk in the wake of her brother Wilbur’s sudden death while testing the flying machine the brothers hoped would give mankind entrance to the sky. Katharine is grieving for Wilbur, and so, in his odd way, is Orville – but he’s determined to continue perfecting the Flyer, determined to push on to the breakthrough he and his brother dreamed about. When Katharine rolls up her sleeves to help him, the story flows smoothly out from that simple premise into something truly memorable, and all without a single alien or spaceship in sight.
In short, and maybe fittingly, the 40th anniversary issue of Asimov’s features the same kinds of peaks and valleys, in roughly the same ratio as most of the issues that have come before it. And I’m pretty sure the editors over there would agree with me that this in itself is one hell of a victory.