November 8th, 2015
Ah, yes: windows open, ceiling fan going, bare feet propped up on the nearest basset hound – all the typical hallmarks of November in New England! And how better to pass a hot, languid November weekend than with a nice fat biography, to take your mind off the sultry weather?
Certainly I myself don’t know any better way. I have a long-standing love affair with big fat biographies; they really allow their authors to lay out the full fruits of their research, and the resulting account of a person’s life can benefit enormously from the slow accumulation of small details – whereas a conspicuously short biography always raises suspicions in my mind that the author is using that concision as an exclusionary tactic, a way of shaping one particular interpretation. There can be exceptions, of course: I’ve read plenty of short biographies that were excellent. But in a nice big thousand-pager, the constant overlay of endless facts stretched out over endless chapters can set up almost a parallel narrative to anything the biographer is trying to impose on the mass of assembled data. Even when you read as fast as I do, you end up living with the subject in a book of that kind of length, and I like living with a book every bit as much as crawly-slow readers do.
Long, hot weekends like the ones that characterize November (and every other month) in Boston therefore always pull my mind toward the surplus of enormous fat biographies on my shelves here at Hyde Cottage. These were some of my main temptations this time around:
John Marshall: Definer of a Nation by Jean Edward Smith – This book, from 1996, clocks in at only 700 pages, but what it lacks in that extra ooomph it makes up in sheer convivial readability. I’d read two biographies of Marshall before this one, and they’d predictably concentrated on the man’s writings, legal cases, and decisions, all of which were monumentally important in shaping the United States. So I was at first surprised by Smith’s decision to write so much about the man as well, giving us the first detailed and well-rounded portrait of Marshall’s personality that anybody had ever thought to create. I discovered that three-dimensional Marshall in this great book, and I also discovered Jean Edward Smith, whose big biographies I’ve eagerly consumed ever since.
The Life of Captain James Hook by J. C. Beaglehole – This 1974 biography of the greatest seafarer since Ulysses is slightly longer than the John Marshall book, at 760 pages, and it’s equally definitive. Cook’s life and career is a great sprawling thing full of large personalities and very small technical details, full of benchmarks now largely forgotten by readers of popular biography. Beaglehole writes a very scholarly line of prose, but it somehow manages likewise to be a surging epic of sea life and exploration, of strange new worlds and squalor and valor. Beaglehole also has a very sly understated humor the sparkles at the oddest moments. Like Marshall, Cook can seem very much larger than life when you look at his accomplishments in outline – this book counters that handily, presenting readers with a passionate, prickly man.
Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times by Robert Dallek – It almost feels like a kind of heresy to read a Johnson biography not written by Robert Caro, and certainly Caro’s Master of the Senate is a perfect example of the kind of enormous fat biography I love to read on a long November summer’s afternoon. But this 1998 biography of LBJ (another 760-pager, the concluding volume of a multi-part work on the man) has enormous merits on its own, largely owing to Dallek’s wry, reserved tone throughout. He allows Johnson a great deal of space to speak in his own voice, and he’s done a lot of old-fashioned legwork with the people who knew LBJ, and this volume wonderfully pulls all that together in an intensely readable brick of a thing. I never like Johnson any more after re-reading it, but I like Dallek just a bit more each time.
John Ruskin by Tim Hilton – Of course, some enormous fat biographies would test the patience of Job – some of them seem more like taunts than invitations. A famous stereotype of this would be those not-infrequent Victorian behemoths that needed several hundred pages simply to bombast their way to the day their putative subject was born, but the breed most certainly exists still in our present day (Reiner Stach, for instance, writing a 600-page volume on the boyhood of Kafka), and at a whopping 900 pages, this omnibus volume combining Hilton’s two already-hefty biographies of that great Victorian sourpuss John Ruskin certainly qualifies. Ruskin is one of those subjects even enthusiastic readers tend to regard with a studious kind of alarm; he’s the attack-cleaning project you’ve never yet got around to, the long end-of-term exam for which you can never adequately prepare. He wrote no single accessible masterpiece; he deeply influenced two entire generations but was nearly-complete gibberish to himself, and in 2015 even otherwise literate people, if asked to pair something, anything with Ruskin’s name, they would draw a blank. So the idea of spending 900 pages with such a figure is probably enough to warn most readers away, but I’m actually a fan of the man’s writing, and after reading this book, I’m a fan of Hilton’s writing as well: he’s fiercely opinionated and memorably eloquent (the paperback I own is covered with critical praise and deserves every word of it), and if he doesn’t quite land a case for why we should all know Ruskin better than we do, well, I’m not sure anybody could do that.
The Stranger from Paradise: A Biography of William Blakc by G. E. Bentley – Yale University Press spared no expense in producing this heavy 500-page volume when it came out back in 2001: it’s not only beautifully designed but lavishly illustrated (with Blake’s own work, naturally). This was the first big biography of Blake I’d ever read that concentrated more on his career as a professional illustrator and engraver than on his fame as a poet. Bentley likes pursuing some daffy line about how Blake the religious fanatic was really a kind of alien being making his way through the streets and relationships and meeting houses of his day-to-day life. But thankfully, Bentley’s book is extensively concerned with the real world, and after a few hundred pages, his Blake begins to emerge as a far more complex and interesting (though still barking mad) character than any version of the man I’ve read in biographies before or since.
Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth by Gitta Sereny – And if Bentley’s Blake book surpasses all other biographies of the man, how much more true is that of the last of our tremendous fat biographies, Gitta Sereny’s magnificent 750-page 1995 masterpiece about Hitler’s architect? Sereny had all the tools and resources at her disposal to write either a conventional biography of this complex “good Nazi” or, after her many face-to-face interviews with the man, to write some kind of muted defense of Speer’s highly questionable integrity. Instead, she chose to delve deeper into the twisted psychology of Nazism – and of Speer in particular – than all but a handful of writers had ever even attempted with this kind of subtlety. Every time I re-read this book, I’m struck anew by the incredibly nuanced way Sereny navigates her topic. Her Albert Speer is fascinating and sometimes charming without ever for a moment ceasing to be an oily, narcissistic monster in a good suit. Conveying that kind of multiplicity is very often beyond the abilities of biographers, but Sereny makes it look easy.
Of course there many other such excellent fat biographies that I use to beguile the long, hot afternoons of autumn in New England. Local lore and mythology hints that in ages past the autumns in Boston could actually turn cold enough so that people shut their windows and did something called “bundling up” when they went outside. That same folklore maintains that those cold days could likewise spark a desire to pull down some big book and lose yourself in it, although that seems hard to believe. But for these endless summer days, the expedient works just fine.
November 5th, 2015
Yesterday’s comics featured – as they now tend to do on an almost alarmingly frequent basis – the first issue of a new series, in this case Hercules #1, written by Dan Abnett and drawn by Luke Ross (the credits also include the rather hilarious line “Hercules created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby”). I bought it with fear and trembling, since the track record of Marvel Comics at re-envisioning their classic characters is spotty at best.
But I was pleasantly surprised: Abnett here gently updates the character about as well as such an update could be done. No violence is perpetrated upon the 60-year history Hercules has as a Marvel character (to put it mildly, this hasn’t always been the case: over the years, Hercules has been violated, de-powered, dumbed-down and conceptually neutered so many times you’d think he was every female superhero ever). True, he’s given a slight visual re-tweeking, but not only is it very slight (basically, he gets pants)(and a disastrous man-bun that looks every bit as ridiculous on him as it does on every 2015 douchebag who’s trying to make it popular), it’s also acknowledged: at one point, we see our current Hercules looking at a glass case containing his old traditional outfit, with its leather leg-lacings and odd ear-flaps.
This Hercules lives in Astoria and performs “labors” for fees, although his fees seem to take the form of “propitiations” – the two little boys who hire him in this issue to confront the disguised monster dating their older sister offer a Japanese trading card, for instance (there’s a wonderful little scene where we see him carefully add it to his collection).
While the boys are walking with him to their apartment, we get a good sample of the issue’s largely grounded dialogue (in a splash page that’s very well done by Ross, although considering the fact that this issue costs as much as a solid lunch, three splash panels in 15 pages might be a smidge too many):
“You’re really Hercules?”
“Yes, but that is just a name. I am also Herakles. Before that, I had other names.”
“What other names?”
“Old names. Names that were old by the time writing began. Names that were sung. I go by Hercules. I’ve become an adjective. Foolish to ignore that kind of recognition.”
And after he’s confronted and defeated the monster boyfriend, the boys ask him who taught him to be a hero, and he answers: “I picked it up as I went along. I labored at it. When I was becoming … what I am, there were no other heroes around to teach me.”
That idea – that Hercules was the first super-hero – is simple and winning, as is the issue’s underlying theme that Hercules is now willing to adapt to the modern world, using high-tech gear in combat in addition to swords and maces. And I’m hoping the presence in this issue of “The Forgotten One,” one of Marvel’s lamest characters despite the fact that he was an Avenger for about ten minutes, means there’ll be plenty of interaction here with the rest of the Marvel Universe.
So: a sigh of relief. A character-relaunch that succeeds on all counts. I won’t get too comfortable, mind you – this is still a company with its creative head mostly up its aesthetic ass – but I’ll buy the second issue.
November 3rd, 2015
Romance novels have a long history of, well, romanticizing types of men who are entirely best avoided in real life. Arguably, this began with my beloved Regency romances, since as a matter of historical fact, the typical Regency “buck” or “Corinthian” was a thoroughly deplorable creature, chubby, alcoholic, and positively dripping with venereal disease. Likewise virtually all the favorites of romance writers: Scottish highlanders were griping, small-minded domestic rapists; English dukes are petty, money-grubbing landlords; young billionaires are notorious douchebags and always have been; and outright laughter should be the only response to the very idea of romantic members of biker gangs.
It’s an insistence that has quite a bit to do with lazy, stereotypical ideas of “powerful” occupations, and it’s depressing that even now, well into the 21st century, we have a bestselling series of books in which a male multimillionaire treats his girlfriend like a plastic toy. It’s depressing that we so seldom see romance novels that don’t care about the status or money of their men – almost no romances starring assistant retail managers or transit police or writing instructors as their male protagonists (it’s perfectly OK – expected, even – for the female characters to have these jobs, because they’re going to be rescued from them in the end anyway).
But perhaps the most popular of all these strange romanticized types is the cowboy, or some cowboy-type derivative, and that’s decidedly odd. I’ve met and known actual cowboys, and there is nothing, absolutely nothing, romantic about them at all. First, they tend to be strangers to hygiene (something they share in common with Regency dandies, Scottish highlanders, English dukes, biker dudes, and most billionaires, come to think of it … hmmm…); second, they tend to be aggressively, stupidly virginal; third, they live to dip: as with professional baseball players and managers, chewing tobacco is literally the center and focus of their entire lives, so these supposed romantic icons keep plastic cups of congealed brown spittle in strategic locations in their trucks and throughout their homes, and their teeth wobble in their sockets, and their tongues are dark, slimy brown. And fourth and most damningly, they’re completely unimaginative – as one visitor to 19th century America (who would later go on to become both a billionaire and an English duke, though thankfully not a douchebag) quite accurately remarked, the average cowboy’s life and mentality is virtually indistinguishable from the livestock he tends from dawn until sunset every day.
And yet, every new batch of romance novels is guaranteed to feature at least a couple of stories in which headstrong, capable young women are (eventually) swept off their feet by these chaw-spewing troglodytes. Take these three new releases:
Wild About the Wrangler by Vicki Lewis Thompson – The trouble with this otherwise-delightful novel starts right on the cover, where we see a girlishly beautiful young man, topless, in black hat and weathered jeans, looking pensive in the chaparral. With his bubble butt and his lack of a “cowboy tan” (i.e. fish-belly white except for his forearms), he looks nothing like what his character, expert rider and horse-tamer Mac Foster, would really look like. In Thompson’s Texas Panhandled story, Mac is smitten with up-and-coming artist Anastasia Bickford, who’s off-limits for any number of reasons, including that she’s his boss’s sister. In a world where the two would ordinarily have nothing to do with each other, chance brings them together: Anastasia turns to Mac to help her overcome her fear of horses (a decidedly inconvenient fear, since she’s made a career of drawing them). And love blossoms, despite the fact that Mac as he’s described would not only have nothing in common with anything in Anastasia’s world but would also, realistically, have no interest in her world, since it doesn’t involve livestock, Tetris, or chaw. Might as well find a sparkly vampire in the Panhandle.
When Somebody Loves You by Shirley Jump – In this new novel from the wonderful author of the “Sweetwater Sisters” series, the big black-hatted lunkhead on the cover is “reclusive quarter horse breeder” Hunter McCoy, who’s been burned by personal tragedy and has buried himself in his work when he meets “practical Jersey girl” Elizabeth Palmer, a magazine writer who travels to Chatham Ridge, Georgia to find and interview this Hunter McCoy guy. She’s embraced by the town; since this is “The Southern Belle Book Club” series, she joins said club and chats with its members (not about books, mind you – some fantasies are too much even for romance writers), and eventually she meets Hunter and senses a wounded animal in need of healing. What follows from there is fairly paint-by-numbers, but again, the basic premise is flawed by egregious wishful thinking: I’ve met horse people, and to put it mildly, they have no interest in spontaneous romance erupting in their lives. They’re very, very careful android businesspeople – spontaneous romance would slough off them like water off a duck’s back. In real life, Hunter’s personal tragedies would curdle into racism and alcoholism, and Elizabeth would be viscerally hated for the mere fact that she’s a writer.
Wrapped and Strapped by Lorelei James – Once again, this book (James’ follow-up to her irresistibly-titled Hillbilly Rockstar) is problematic right from the cover, which agains shows a slim and beautiful young man topless and Stetsoned in a field. His skin is shiny with sweat, and his trapezius muscles are as defined as in a Michelangelo sculpture (he’s even got pronounced iliac ridges! A very nice feature, but try getting them outside a New York City gym) – in short, he’d be, at the very least, mocked by any real cowboys he happened to encounter (problematic too is the tease in the title, when in fact no cowboys are wrapped or strapped in the course of the book, more’s the pity). The cowboy in question this time is ranch foreman Hugh Pritchett, who’s quickly thrown into unwanted contact with LA do-gooder (and vegetarian, for God’s sake) Harlow Pratt (sister to Tierney, sister-in-law to Renner, friend to Tobin … you know, just your typical Wyoming names …). In reality, a ranch foreman out West would be a humorless, sexist bore, but in James’ telling, Hugh has a hidden taste for sarcasm that matches Harlow’s as they make creative (or is it procreative?) use of a horse trailer and embark on their rocky road to romance. Wrapped and Strapped is much the most enjoyable of our trio this time around, and not just because James is the most adept writer of these three by a wide margin. No, a large part of the enjoyment comes from the fact – tipped off in those wacky names – that James embraces the fact that she’s writing quasi-fantasy.
As for quasi-fantasies about nonprofit aid workers or hotel shift supervisors or highway maintenance workers, well … those will have to wait.
November 2nd, 2015
Our book today is a nifty gem from the old “Oxford Book” line: 1986’s The Oxford Book of English Ghost Stories, edited by Michael Cox and R. A. Gilbert, with its great cover art showing John Atkinson Grimshaw’s endlessly evocative An Old Lane by Moonlight (honestly, what anthology wouldn’t be improved by such a cover? And haven’t I seen it used for more than one collection of Sherlock Holmes stories?). In a bit of nostalgia for all the childhood Halloweens I watched from afar – one is not invited to go trick-or-treating if one is constantly accompanied by a small crowd of hungry dogs – I take down a ghost story collection every year at this time and savor familiar goodies (or, in the case of a book on, for instance, Japanese Yurei, encounter entirely new goodies). Cox and Gilbert packed this volume with such goodies, and they come right to the point in their Introduction: “Whatever we do with the dead they will not go away,” they write. “Whether we entomb and isolate them or scatter their ashes, they remain as ghosts in our memories and faced with their continuing presences we have no option but to learn to live with them.”
This is certainly true: humans have been telling ghost stories as long as humans have been humans – we have cave paintings of dead animals and people having posthumous adventures, and the advent of literature only multiplied that tendency. And yet, writing a successful ghost story is much trickier than simply frightening your audience, which might be why writers like Stephen King have never managed it (the subtlety of something like Peter Straub’s Ghost Story being utterly beyond such schlock-purveyors). In fact, our editors quote the great LP Hartley on the subject, who described the ghost story as “certainly the most exacting form of literary art, and perhaps the only one in which there is almost no intermediate step between success and failure. Either it comes off or it is a flop.”
Curiously, considering they had awareness enough to include such a quote, Cox and Gilbert actually pick a few flops for this collection. But oh! The successes far, far outnumber them! We have The Friend of the Friends from Henry James (who was, apparently, only boring when he wrote about the living), The Judge’s House by Bram Stoker (a nicely unconventional choice), Mr Jones by Edith Wharton (criminally underestimated as a teller of ghost stories, despite the appearance of half a dozen anthologies over the years specifically designed to highlight this knack of hers), and Soft Voices at Passenham by T H White (once you get away from the sweet melancholy of The Once and Future King, you realize what a deeply creepy author he was – and in it’s there in The Once and Future King as well, as anybody who’s read the unicorn scene can attest). There are little bits of perfection from two masters of the form, Ahoy, Sailor-Boy! By AE Coppard and Oh Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad by MR James (fully three-quarters of the authors in this anthology have two initials for their first names – it must have been a fad among mothers at the time).
We get slow, incremental scares, as when ME Braddon’s skeptical Michael Bascom encounters the specter of his dead father in 1879’s The Shadow in the Corner:
Yes: there was the shadow: not the shadow of the wardrobe only – that was clear enough, but a vague and shapeless something which darkened the dull brown wall; so faint, so shadowy, that he could form no conjecture as to its nature …
And we get the more standard outright startle-scene, as in The Confession of Charles Linkworth, a taut 1912 story by the always-dependable EF Benson:
‘Something is coming!’ said the doctor.
As he spoke it came. In the centre of the room not three yards away from them stood the figure of a man with his head bend over on to his shoulder, so that the face was not visible. Then he took his head in both hands and raised it like a weight, and looked them in the face. The eyes and tongue protruded, a livid mark was around the neck. Then there came a sharp rattle on the boards of the floor, and the figure was not longer there. But on the floor there lay a new rope.
An addendum to Hartley’s comment about the all-or-nothing nature of the ghost story’s success would surely be born out by this great green volume: surely a successful ghost story is also one that will raise goosebumps even on the third or fourth re-reading. Plenty in this creepy company do.
November 1st, 2015
Lately I’ve been going through all the mass market paperbacks I own (an ungodly number, which is part of the reason I’ve been going through them, but more of that in a later post), and as I’ve been looking again at all their covers, I realized something more clearly than I’d ever realized it before: a species of ephemera has quietly crossed into extinction while our attention has been elsewhere. As book production-cost have skyrocketed in the last twenty-five years, the remit of the mass market paperback has narrowed, and certain frills and extras that were once considered standard have all but disappeared – including originally-commissioned cover art. Nowadays, only massively successful novels will even be considered for an eventual mass market release (trade paperbacks being the cost-effective reprint of choice these days), and even those that get it will simply carry over the cover-art they had on their hardcover dust jackets. There’s no chance, for instance, that Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings will get a mass market paperback in the US, but if it did, it would certainly have the same cover as it had in hardcover. Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch was easily successful enough to warrant the financial outlay of a mass market, but again, the cover art stayed the same.
Such was not always the case, of course. During the heyday of the mass market paperback – printed on cheaper paper, designed to be disposable, sold on train station spinner-racks – reprints of hardcover releases got new covers so often it was almost a matter of course. There seemed almost to be an industry understanding that while hardcover new releases were somewhat ‘prestige’ in their permanent solidity (solicited for awards, stacked on bookstore tables during the holidays, etc.), their mass market versions had to compete in a more lurid and flagrant environment in which a stately, subdued cover would fail to grab the attention of harried Larchmont commuters. Very often, new covers were commissioned – and now that they aren’t being commissioned anymore, I find I suddenly miss them!
So I’ll be looking back at them from time to time here at Stevereads, but before I do, I wanted to go slightly off to the side of the theme – because I could hardly talk about mass market cover illustrations without mentioning some of the cheesy (and occasionally otherwise) sci-fi/fantasy covers that so enchanted me back in that glorious era known as the 1980s, now could I? These aren’t precisely examples of what I’m talking about, since a) they’re not paperback reprints of books that had hardcover releases, and b) sci-fi/fantasy is one of the genres where you can very much still find original cover-art even in the cost-conscious 21st century. But they’re nifty covers all the same! They’ll serve perfectly well as a springboard to the rest!
And of course I could have included a hundred of them here – the period in question being something of a golden age – but I’ll stick to these nine for the time being:
On Wings of Song by Thomas Disch – This rambunctious 1980 novel published by Bantam takes place in the not-so-distant dystopia of the Free State of Iowa, in which idealistic young Danny Weinreb literally dream of flying free over a better world: “He dreamed he was flying over an imaginary Iowa, an Iowa of marble mountains and blithe valleys, of golden, unreal cities and fabulous farms dazzling the eye with fields of Faberge wheat.” The uncredited cover of this Bantam paperback fits the picture to the words, showing a young man overjoyed at the fact that he’s soaring over the farms of Iowa. The cover of a later edition shows an equally happy young man flying over not Iowa but a futuristic city of skyscrapers – not quite as effective, because more pointlessly “sci-fi” in a condescending way.
A Storm Upon Ulster by Kenneth C. Flint – Flint’s 1981 fantasy novel re-telling the story of Cuculain and the other champions of Ulster standing against the glorious power of an angry Irish queen originally had a fairly lackluster cover; in this 1985 reprint the old cover was replaced with a very simple, very evocative illustration by Don Maitz, showing Cuculain as a shirtless hunk with a flaming sword. He’s wearing shredded chain-mail and carrying a nocked and scraped wooden shield, and he’s looking sternly off-stage – it’s a clear, straightforward composition that signals the bounty of action and violence Flint provides in the novel, one of the many he wrote working a light layer of fantasy over the Red Branch stories of Irish mythology.
Procurator by Kirk Mitchell – This 1984 Ace paperback is set in a fantastically-realized alternate history in which ancient Rome never fell and has spread the reach of its empire all over the world (I’ve praised the whole series here at Stevereads). In Procurator the procurator Germanicus is in Anatolia investigating a potential uprising among the “wraphead” zaims, and the paperback sports a wraparound cover by Jim Gurney, who would later go on to immense fame as the creator of the Dinotopia books. Considering the fact that the novel features an enemy force capable of massing and killing legionaries with the power of their minds, Gurney’s decision to illustrate the large Roman tank-galleys making their way through a snowy, forested landscape is counter-intuitive but all the more effective for it, emphasizing the workaday nature of the future empire Mitchell describes so well.
Lost Dorsai by Gordon Dickson – The art of the mass market reaches something of a pinnacle in this 1980 Ace paperback, which not only features an oh-so-late-’70s cover by Fernando Fernandez but also dozens of very evocative black-and-white illustrations throughout this story of Michael de Sandoval, the “lost Dorsai” of the title, a son of the warrior-world of the Dorsai cantonments but himself dedicated to a kind of pacifism that’s alien to the professional mercenaries of his homeworld. I think this might account for the slightly feminine air of Michael in his red tunic on the cover, showing us a Dorsai of a far less military bearing than most of the characters in this long and decidedly uneven series from Dickson.
Hiero’s Journey by Sterling Lanier – Connoisseurs of fantasy artwork won’t have any trouble recognizing the work of Darrell K. Sweet on the 1983 Del Rey cover of Sterling Lanier’s 1973 novel about Per Hiero Desteen, a telepathic warrior-priest in Lanier’s tremendously entertaining post-apocalyptic novel set thousands of years after a great Death that laid waste to all the civilizations of the world. All of Sweet’s trademarks are here, from the fine, fine detail to the penchant for static scenes (this penchant reached utterly disastrous extents in some of his later covers for Robert Jordan’s “Wheel of Time” novels) and especially to specific call-outs to the contents of the books themselves. Here we see Hiero parlaying with one of the intelligent mutated bears he encounters in his travels, and at his back his enormous mutated war-moose Klootz – things that will please readers of the book and deeply confuse newcomers, a risk Sweet always ran, even in these early cover.
Caverns by Kevin O’Donnell – This 1981 Berkley paperback is the first installment in Kevin O’Donnell’s enormously entertaining “Journeys of McGill Feighan,” which chronicles the adventures of the title character, a hapless, floppy-haired young man named McGill, who’s born with the ability to become a “Flinger,” people who can teleport – themselves or other things (up to 918 kilos and not a speck of dust more). McGill’s personal history – he was swallowed by a giant gastropod tourist while he was still a baby, and in his young adulthood he’s an object of special interest to the Far Being Retzglaren, and as the series progresses he faces treachery from inside the ranks of his fellow Flingers and also becomes a kind of foster-father to a quasi-dinosaur, and it’s all grandly done by O’Donnell … and the tone of the series is captured wonderfully by the cover of this first volume, where Janet Aulisio shows poor McGill clearly out of his depth.
The Orphan by Robert Stallman – The cover of Stallman’s wonderful, bittersweet 1980 novel shows a naked, frightened little boy crouching before an enormous furry creature as a huge moon rises behind a barn and silo in the background – and yet the boy is not frightened of the creature; in fact, something in the boy’s wild tangle of red hair suggests a deeper affinity. It’s a fine, simple composition, another by Don Maitz, although the three-line “Timescape” border obliterates his name on the cover itself. Stallman’s book is a lyrical and violent tale of a werewolf in Midwestern America, and the menace and innocence of the story is perfectly conveyed by this cover choice.
King of the Sea by Derek Bickerton – This 1981 Berkley paperback of Bickerton’s 1979 novel shows the novel’s antihero, Andy Holliday, in what becomes his natural habitat: underwater, swimming with dolphins. He comes to that habitat through a steadily-escalating series of disillusionments with his own species, and this blue, striking cover (uncredited, and I don’t recognize the style) captures the culmination of that defection: Halliday declaring a one-man war against the humans who are despoiling the ocean world he’s come to love – the calm faces of the dolphins and the uniform deep blue color contrast very nicely with the explosion happening up on the surface. I’ve praised Bickerton’s novel before here at Stevereads, and it’s always a pleasure to praise it again.
Retief of the CDT by Keith Laumer – No list commemorating the vanished world of classic mass market artwork would be complete without an example of the, shall we say unmistakable work of the artist known as Rowena! I’ve written about her classic cover for Robert Hogan’s Thrice Upon a Time, and here, in this 1979 reprint of Laumer’s 1971 collection of stories starring his two-fisted diplomat of the future, Retief of the Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne, she, um, re-imagines the main character, who transmorgrifies from Sean Connery to … well, whatever that is on the cover: bulbously muscular, high-cheekboned, doe-eyed, bare-chested, wearing leotards and a gigantic, futuristic codpiece. We may never know the conversation the artist had with her model before this cover was painted – and we may be fortunate in that.
October 30th, 2015
Our book today is a gorgeous 1994 “Rumpole” volume from the Folio Society, featuring ten classic stories chosen by their author, John Mortimer, who introduces the collection by sketching out the very simple guideline he used to select which bits of his large “Rumpole” canon he wanted to include:
In this book I have chosen ten of my favourite Rumpole stories. They are the stories I have enjoyed writing most, those which made me laugh a little when I was writing them (the only reliable test of a successful piece of work), and which drew some laughter from the actors when they read through the televisions versions.
Of course the author of the stories won’t like the same ones as the readers – two or three of my favorite “Rumpole” stories aren’t included in this volume, but on the whole the wonderful mythology of the Rumpole universe is on display here, from our Old Bailey hack himself to his imperious wife Hilda (“She Who Must Be Obeyed”) to his various chamber-mates and the rogues gallery of judges who clash with our disheveled hero in court.
This volume includes “Rumpole and the Show Folk,” “Rumpole and the Younger Generation,” “Rumpole and the Tap End,” “Rumpole on Trial,” “Rumpole a la Carte,” and one of my favorites, “Rumpole and the Bubble Reputation,” in which Rumpole temporarily abandons his “always defend” philosophy in order to train his courtroom crosshairs on Hilda’s favorite author, that premiere bottler of historical bilge-water, Amelia Nettleship:
You may be fortunate enough never to have read an alleged ‘historical’ novel by that much-published authoress Miss Amelia Nettleship. Her books contain virginal heroines and gallant and gentlemanly heroes and thus present an extremely misleading account of our rough island story. She is frequently photographed wearing cotton print dresses, with large spectacles on her still pretty nose, dictating to a secretary and a couple of long-suffering cats in a wistaria-clad Tudor cottage somewhere outside Goldaming. In the interviews she gives, Miss Nettleship invariably refers to the evils of the permissive society and the consequences of sex before marriage. I have never, speaking for myself, felt the slightest urge to join the permissive society; the only thing which would tempt me to such a course is hearing Amelia Nettleship denounce it.
The binding of this volume is rock-solid, and as the best possible treat, the stories are lavishly illustrated by Paul Cox, with distinct hints of the late, great Leo McKern, one of those perfect embodiments of a fictional character (like Joan Hickson as Miss Marple, or the great Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes) that sometimes come along to delight readers.
Of course, the nagging thing about slipcased gems like these Folio Society volumes is that you finish them wishing they just kept going – how I would love a volume like this one that somehow included every Rumpole story ever written, all of them illustrated. But I’ll take what I can get.
October 27th, 2015
Our books today are samples from the delightful old line of Viking Portables that flourished in the postwar years and whose compact, jam-packed format has by now entirely disappeared and, given the givens of our post-literate society, will likely never appear again.
They’re instantly recognizable on the shelves of used bookstores, these Viking Portables: they’re squat and thick and colorful, an unapologetically high-brow anthology series originally designed for US servicemen during World War II and maintained for years afterwards as tight-printed little bricks of literature. At one time or another, I think I’ve owned nearly every Viking Portable that’s ever been made, but these six stand out for me:
The Viking Portable World Bible – This 1944 volume assembled by Robert Ballou is a true gem. It contains accessible English-language excerpts from all the major Scriptures of the world – the Rig Veda, Upanishads, and Bhagavad Gita of Hinduism, the New and Old Testaments of the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Dhammapada and the Diamond Sutra of the Buddhists, the arcane texts of the Zoroastrians, selections from the Koran and the sayings of Confucius, and generous portions of the Tao Te Ching. Each faith gets a short but remarkably comprehensive Introduction, and the translations used, though hardly ever ecstatically poetic, are clear and easy – and the result is surprisingly eye-opening: running the foundational scripts of all the world’s major faiths together in one volume, reading them that way, has a remarkably exposing effect on their purported wisdoms. Small wonder, I’ve always thought, that most of the atheists I’ve known in the last sixty years owned a well-read copy of this book.
The Viking Portable Roman Reader – Basil Davenport edited this 1951 volume with the intent of creating a one-stop market for all the choicest bits of the literature of ancient Rome – an impossible goal, but he comes damn close to achieving it. He ranges across centuries to find the best English-language translations of passages from Virgil, Livy, Horace, Ovid, Petronius, Marital, Juvenal, Tacitus, Cicero, Caesar, Catullus … and he brings his volume all the way up to Boethius and St. Augustine. Each of the great “ages” of Roman literature gets its own perceptive (if slightly waspish) introduction, and like all the best anthologies, this one leaves the reader hungry to find more of the writings of each author it includes. Of course, once the best, most skillfully translated and annotated versions of those authors have been hunted down, a book like the Roman Reader isn’t needed anymore – but it’s served a mighty good purpose.
The Viking Portable Medieval Reader – Edited by James Bruce Ross and Mary Martin McLaughlin in 1949, this volume takes a thematic approach to its sprawling subject (European life and literature from 1050 to 1500), grouping writings under headings like “The Body Politic” or “The Christian Commonwealth” or “The Noble Castle” and bringing together writers across a span of centuries and perspectives, everybody from Gerald of Wales to John of Salisbury to Peter Abelard and St. Francis of Assisi. And Ross and McLaughlin venture far afield from these usual suspects as well, including dozens of fascinating and now-forgotten Medieval writers, many of whom are getting their first accessible English-language translation in these pages. The Viking Portables often made genuine little advances over mere reprint anthologies in just this way, and I remember how thrilled I was to find some of these writers (old friends of mine from long, long months of study) appearing in a bright paperback for sale in every bookshop in Iowa. Who knows how many medievalists today were inspired by the thrilling variety they encountered in this volume and a couple like it?
The Viking Portable Renaissance Reader – It’s not surprising that the same holds true for this wonderful 1953 entry, since it too is edited by Ross and McLaughlin – in fact, this book may very well represent the pinnacle of what the Viking Portables achieved. The Table of Contents is organized along the same lines as the Medieval Reader, thematically rather than strictly chronologically; we get intriguing headings like “An Age of Gold,” “The City of Man,” “The Book of Nature,” and “The Kingdom of God,” and filling out those sections we once again have not only famous names like Marsilio Ficino, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Boccaccio, Cervantes, Montaigne, and Machiavelli but also another assembly of now-forgotten lesser lights, sometimes presented in their first mass-market English-language translation. And the effect of all these voices together, writing with such amazing skill and learning and humor on all the most important questions of their time (a time whose wonder they saw as clearly as later ages have seen it) is electrifying – something critics back in 1953, every bit as predisposed to ignore popular reprint volumes as their present-day counterparts are, noticed almost in unison, which is always nice.
The Viking Portable Elizabethan Reader – Hiram Haydn edited this 1946 volume roughly along the same organizing principles as the Medieval and Renaissance readers: there are groupings here for exploration, astronomy, religious schism, courtly life, engagement with the past, and half a dozen others. But if anything, the range of titans assembled in these pages is even greater than what Renaissance Florence could produce: Donne, Spenser, Sidney, Jonson, Wyatt, Bacon, Marlowe, Shakespeare, and a dozen others, all excerpted with a very discerning ear, all combining to create a vibrant portrait of an age (indeed, just about the only shortcoming is that Haydn only sees fit to include one passage from the writings of the queen who gave her name to the age – and not a particularly good passage at that). And like all the best Viking Portables, there’s quite a bit included in this volume that can’t easily be found elsewhere.
The Viking Portable Tolstoy – In this post I’ve shied away from Viking Portables devoted to one author, but this big 1978 volume edited by John Bayley (and featuring throughout the sturdy Maude translations) deserves to be the exception. The predictable way to do a 900-page Tolstoy anthology would involve a 200-page excerpt from War and Peace and a 200-page excerpt from Anna Karenina, and Bayley knows this and pointedly avoids doing it. Instead, he fills his volume with other Tolstoy – selections of autobiographical writings, a stage-play, and plenty of essays, all filtered through Bayley’s unobtrusive but infinitely knowing editorial discretion. For many years that now embarrass me, the unconventionality of this volume annoyed me, but now I see it for the genius it is, giving the overworked business commuter and the curious student a Tolstoy very different from the crafter of long, forbidding epics, and giving them such a generous helping of that other Tolstoy that they really come to know him.
One by one as the years went by, the Viking Portables disappeared from bookstores. A handful of them were reprinted in larger trade paperbacks with such shoddy production quality that their covers would pop loose from their pages if you so much as looked at them funny (and the covers themselves had become boring, neither the Art Deco drawings nor the evocative photographs of earlier versions). But the bulk of the line was simply allowed to lapse out of print, and I’ve always considered that a real shame. These books were designed to be both fascinating and timeless; the deserve to be finding their way into the libraries of readers in the 21st century. The Penguin Press rescued one of the best-selling books in the line, the Viking Portable Dorothy Parker, dusted it off, gave it a spiffy new design, and added it to their Deluxe Classics line. Surely all the old Viking Portables deserve the same treatment? If nothing else, then in recognition of past service?
October 26th, 2015
The lad mags I love so much have a love of their own: so-called “bucket lists”! For some unaccountable reason, the core readership of magazines like Esquire, GQ, Outside, Details, and Men’s Journal – over-monied young white male douchebags – just love “bucket list” features designed to help them tick off the last few things they want to do before they die, even though they’re in their mid-twenties. True, most of them are dumb enough to consider some kind of smoking (asshole cigars, trendy-legal pot, “vaping,” or what have you) as a fashion or “lifestyle” choice rather than a corrosive chemical addiction, but even indulging as they do, simple actuarial probabilities give them at least twenty more years of racist, misogynist condescension before they have to start trash-talking and firing their way through a succession of long-suffering doctors. So you wouldn’t think they’d care all that much about “bucket lists” designed, at least in theory, to round off a few loose ends from a long, adventurous life. But no – hardly three issues of any lad mag go by without such a list.
Take the one in the latest issue of Outside. It’s by Kate Siber, which certainly sounds like a woman’s name, but the list itself couldn’t be more lunkheadedly masculine if it were chiseled on the wall above a men’s urinal in Pamplona.
I confess, when I read these lists I like to check off the items on them that I myself have done. Of course, when I did them, I had not thought of any “bucket list” in mind – I was just out in the world, trying to enjoy myself and do interesting things. And yet, it turns out I scored fairly well on this latest list. It’s true that I’ve never “cage-dived” the enormous great white sharks that swarm off California’s Farallon Islands (as, indeed, no sane person has), but even so, I’ve managed to do a quite a few of the things on this.
I’ve “tripped out” on the Northern Lights, for instance. The list advocates seeing them in Iceland, and I’ve done that, although I’ve also enjoyed them in many other places, including dark spots far, far from the lights of mankind. Likewise the “go it alone” entry, which encourages readers to go solo camping; the list emphasizes that if you’re doing this for the first time, you should prepare extensively so that you don’t end up the dumb live-footage emergency-rescue clip at the end of the evening news, and I agree. It also helps to have a group of well-trained dogs along for the trip – not quite going it alone in that case, but my, they do come in handy.
Likewise the list urges its readers to try North Rim back-country camping down the Grand Canyon and paddling the remote beauty of the Allagash in Northern Maine, both of which I’ve done. Spending the night lodged high in a Douglas fir is also recommended, and this, too, I have managed to do, though never strictly voluntarily. And utterly in-voluntary have been any of my up-close encounters with grizzly bears, and yet this article in its madness suggests that readers seek out these 600-pound killing machines – go to Admiralty Island during salmon season and just hang out with the bears, who are so intent on gorging on salmon that they’re “decidedly carefree about your presence.” To which I can only add: they’re decidedly carefree about your presence – right up until the moment they’re not. At which point you become intimately acquainted with the fact that a) they’re extremely easily enraged, b) they have claws the size of ice-picks, and c) they can accelerate to 45 mph in the time it takes you to pee yourself. Sheer insanity, to knowingly go anywhere near them, salmon of no salmon.
But one item at least on this list is something twenty-something douchebags are unlikely to do but that I can testify is life-changingly worth doing. It’s listed under “Cross the Ocean,” and I’ll quote it in full: “The right way to do it, as part of a sailing crew. Online hubs list openings for sailors on boats making crossings. Many captains don’t require extensive experience, and they’re happy to offer passage if you’re willing to work hard for it.”
That’s simply, absolutely true (and was true even before these mysterious-sounding “online hubs”), and the adventures that can result from picking up and making that choice enormously out-distance mountain-biking down a vertical rock slope in spandex or hiking to find that one super-rad hot spring in Utah. But then, if you made the mistake of telling any of those accommodating captains that you were checking them off your “bucket list,” you might find yourself swimming home.
October 25th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics prompt a sigh of relief, especially after the loosey-goosey anything-goes Week O’ Penguins we’ve had this time around (Ray Russell, I ask you!). After watching a coked-up gag-writer like Charles Beaumont pull down his own Penguin Classic (if that happened in a typical three-page Charles Beaumont story, he’d be super-honored until he discovered that … he could never read any OTHER book!)(*SIGH*), it’s like a draught of cool water to arrive at the end of our week and find ourselves reading a tried-and-true indomitable like Jane Austen’s Emma, which is one of the latest additions to the Deluxe line, just in time to celebrate the 200th anniversary of its original appearance in 1815.
Although … even now, in the apparently safe harbor of Emma, we come full-circle to the place where we started: mystery.
Not on some of the main points, mind you. This 200th anniversary Deluxe Annotated edition is introduced by Juliette Wells, whose book Everybody’s Jane: Austen in the Popular Imagination was a perfect combination of authoritative and accessible, and that’s a combination you definitely want in a pretty new paperback edition like this one, a paperback edition we can easily imagine being assigned in college classes. Wells gives us a wonderful Introduction to this wonderful book, the last one published in Austen’s lifetime and the first one whose business arrangements she wrangled herself rather than using her brother as a proxy. Wells allows herself comparatively few pages in which to orient the reader, and as in Everybody’s Jane, she manages to work quite a bit into every paragraph:
Austen cared greatly what her readers thought of her novels, and she was anxious about whether Emma would hold the same appeal as her previous works. “I am going to take a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” her family recalled her saying when she began writing Emma, and when the novel was published she described herself as being in “a state of doubt as to her [Emma’s] reception in the World.” In particular she was concerned that readers who enjoyed the sparkling Pride and Prejudice would consider Emma to be “inferior in Wit,” while those who admired the morally serious Mansfield Park would think Emma “very inferior in good Sense.”
Wells is first and foremost a great teacher of Jane Austen, and for all its beauty and accessibility, this Annotated Deluxe Edition is clearly intended for students approaching Emma for the first time, as is made pretty explicit in the brief section called “Tips for reading Emma,” which includes common-sense advice like:
Pace yourself. If you’re reading for your own pleasure, take a chapter at a time. If you have a deadline – a class assignment or book group meeting – spread out the reading so that you’re doing some each day rather than big sections all at once. To the extent that you can, emulate the audience for whom Austen wrote: they read for pleasure, at their own pace.
(Not only do I know of no Austen fan who requires such advice, I know of no Austen fan who’s capable of following it; this must be at least my 35th re-reading of Emma, for example, and I could no more “pace myself” than I could sprout wings and fly to the moon – I gobbled it, immoderately, as always)
But even though these “tips” are clear and concise, there’s still, as mentioned, a mystery about this annotated volume of Emma … mainly involving the lack of annotations. It’s true that Wells provides eleven excellent “contextual essays” on things like food, health, love, or money in the world of Jane Austen’s novels, but such things, however interesting, do not an annotated edition make, as Wells must know as well as anybody. Yes, her readers will be fascinated to learn about dancing or social stratification in Emma from those brief closing essays, but first-timers reading the text of the novel itself will have none of the hand-holding that actual annotation is supposed to provide. When dear old hypochondriac Mr. Woodhouse says “I am too nice,” for example, there’s no authorial intervention to stop first-timers from immediately thinking they know what he’s saying, when he’s really not saying that. When we’re told that Mr. Martin has certainly read The Vicar of Wakefield but not The Romance of the Forest or Children of the Abbey, we’re being told something much more about him than the books on his nightstand, but readers who don’t already know that won’t learn it from this edition, unless they find it buried in one of those contextual essays at the back – certainly they’ll get no guidance on this or dozens of other small points while they’re actually reading the book itself.
It’s a small point, of course. As I’ve noted about annotated editions just in general, they’re often guilty of over-helping. Small misunderstandings or not, no beginning reader of Emma is going to fail to be utterly overjoyed by the book, and those beginning readers could hardly do better for themselves and their personal libraries than to invest the $17 in making this Penguin Classics Deluxe edition their Emma of choice. It’s just a bit odd, that’s all – which makes it par for the course during this particular Week O’ Penguins.
October 24th, 2015
Some Penguin Classics seem like classroom-ready compromises, as in the case of Jane Kingsley-Smith’s new paperback combining the two most prominent plays by John Ford with the two most prominent plays by John Webster. Why, you can almost hear being asked in some Penguin editorial meeting, should we force students to buy “complete plays” editions of both Ford and Webster when it’s only at most these four plays – “The White Devil” and “The Duchess of Malfi” by Webster and “The Broken Heart” and “ ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” by Ford – that those students will be studying in the limited time they have?
And Kingsley-Smith, bless her loyal heart, is fully aware of the criticisms that have been leveled against these two over the centuries, and she’s quick to defend them, not only by invoking that most useful of all literary shibboleths, the anxiety of influence:
Since the early nineteenth century both dramatists have been accused of the same crimes, most notably plagiarism, amorality and technical incompetence. Webster and Ford wrote for the King’s Men, Shakespeare’s company, at a time when its most celebrated playwright was either reducing his theatrical output or dead (see The Duchess of Malfi and The Broken Heart respectively), but Shakespeare remained a tyrannical presence, compelling his successors to remember and revisit his works.
… but also by hauling in modern critics who can be relied upon to work up nearly pyrotechnical grades of bullshit:
In the last fifty years the renewed popularity of Webster and Ford in the theatre has been complemented by a critical re-evaluation. Their reworking of Shakespeare is now more often attributed to creative ingenuity, which challenges audience expectations, rather than to mere slavish devotion.
“The ‘flaws’ in structure and characterization,” Kingsley-Smith tells us, “tend now to be perceived as deliberate artistic choices.”
Well, they at least tend to be claimed as deliberate artistic choices (and such claims are always dangerous, because they prefer what rhetorical game-playing can do over what it should do – this is exactly the kind of self-consciously disingenuous doubletalk that gets the movies of Michael Bay into allegedly serious film criticism courses). Newcomers to Ford and Webster, reading their works for the first time in this handy volume, will see plenty of deliberate artistic choices in these plays, and perhaps they’ll keep in mind that artistic choices that are deliberate can also be plagiaristic, amoral, and incompetent. Penguin once upon a time printed a selection of critical essays by George Bernard Shaw, who knew a thing or two about both Ford and Webster and would have had a few choice words to say about their “creative ingenuity.” Maybe Penguin Classics will revive and expand that grand old Shaw volume one of these days; the aforementioned students, among others, might find it interesting.