Bad Parenting in the Penny Press!

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When I opened the latest issue of my trusty Outside magazine, I thought the worst in bad-parenting outrage I’d have to face would be found in the letters column. Readers wrote in protesting the recklessness that writer Ted Conover had written about in an earlier issue, a monstrous and self-serving article called “This is How We Roll” about how he tried to recapture his youth train-jumping out west … and as an added twist, brought along his teenage son. Outside ran an admonishing letter from a train safety expert an then ran a response from Conover that brought back to my mind all the worst elements of his piece:

Readers of my piece will know that its recurring theme is misgivings over my son’s desire to follow my footsteps in an activity that I acknowledge repeatedly is dangerous and illegal. I write about keeping him safe while not being a hypocrite; I express relief when it’s over. I am grateful we could do this together and agree about the danger: this was not just another travel adventure.

trainsBut it turns out that wasn’t the worst the magazine had in store for me – not by a long shot. A few pages later, there’s an article by Ben Hewitt called “We Don’t Need No Education” that at first glance I took to be a parody of some kind. It was only when I settled down to read it that I realized the author was completely serious.

Completely serious about a new yuppie-prepper fad called unschooling. Not homeschooling, where parents opt to keep their kids out of public or private standardized go-to-a-building schools and instead instruct them at home, following some kind of board-approved curriculum. I’ve had my reservations about home-schooling, but it turns out unschooling is something quite a bit worse: it’s where you take your kids out of public or private standardized go-to-a-building schools, keep them home, and then proceed to teach them … nothing at all. The movement is based on the idea of letting kids – the author’s two boys are 9 and 12 – decide entirely for themselves how they want to spend their days.

Not for Hewitt’s two boys the ho-hum time-wasting of memorization or test-taking; they don’t read, they don’t study, they’re as ignorant of literature or higher mathematics as a hare in a field. As Hewitt emphasizes over and over, they’re too busy communing with the natural world for any of that cut-and-dried standardized stuff other, less enlightened parents inflict on their kids. Hewitt’s sons can tell how severe the coming winter will be by the thickness of the tree bark in the woods; they can differentiate moose-crap from deer-crap at fifty yards; and they strike the author as so much happier than most kids.

He has a dream for them, you see:

This is what I want for my sons: freedom. Not just physical freedom, but intellectual and emotional freedom from the formulaic learning that prevails in our schools. I want for them the freedom to immerse themselves in the fields and forest that surround our home, to wander aimlessly or with purpose. I want for them the freedom to develop at whatever pace is etched into their DNA, not the pace dictated by an institution looking to meet the benchmarks that will in part determine its funding. I want them to be free to love learning for its own sake, the way that all children love learning for its own sake when it is not forced on them or attached to reward. I want them to remain free of social pressures to look, act, or think any way but that which feels most natural for them.

All of which sounds very high-minded, and none of which changes that fact that Hewitt is taking entirely egotistical advantage of the fact that no state in the outsideUnion has yet thought it necessary to draft laws specifically preventing this kind of child abuse. The two poor boys on which Hewitt is inflicting his delusional nostalgia about what an idea childhood should be – well, those two boys are almost automatically consigned to a very, very small adult world, one lived entirely on back-country trap-lines and at local feed stores swapping local stories with the locals over local matters. Despite the fact that Hewitt makes a point of giving them regular ‘social time’ with schooled children, he’s systematically unfitting them for Western society – in order for himself to feel good about the eight years of their childhood, he’s robbing them all but one or two dimensions of the sixty years of their adulthood. So they’ll know how to fish in forest streams, and they’ll be able to tell from the behavior of moss whether or not a storm system is coming – but they’ll not only have no idea how to study, how to concentrate on things that don’t immediately interest them, how to compete, intellectually, with their peers, they’ll have absolutely no interest in doing any of those things.

Aside from outrage, my main reaction to the article was a somewhat urgent hope that this fad dies a quick death. American schoolchildren are already among the dumbest in the civilized world – a movement that aims to make them even dumber, to return them to some kind of quasi-primitive Neverland existence right out of James Fenimore Cooper (do Hewitt’s kids know what an iPad is? Do they think it’s alive? For God’s sake), is just about the last thing the country needs.

“What if they want to be doctors? They will be doctors,” Hewitt writes. “What if they want to be lawyers? They will be lawyers.” He doesn’t say how on Earth this might happen, with his boys drying beans and discussing pine moss all day every day. They might need help to become those things; they might need instruction, and they certainly can’t look to their cravenly irresponsible father for anything like that.

Comics! Superboy and … who?

future's end superboyOn the one hand, I’ve trained myself over the last two years to hold virtually the entire run of DC Comics at arm’s length, since the comics company I’ve loved for so long is still in the throes of “The New 52,” a top-to-bottom revision of their superhero continuity, a revision almost entirely for the worse in terms of color, personality, and idealism.

But on the other hand, like any sensible person I’m attracted to bright shiny things, and DC Comics this week all bear matching pretty holographic covers for their new “Future’s End” storyline (in which we take a peek at all of our familiar characters in stories set five years in their future). So I picked one almost at random – I veered away from Batman or Action Comics, from Birds of Prey or Aquaman or the Phantom Stranger and instead plopped for Superboy. I’m not sure I could tell you why – granted, Superboy was perhaps my favorite old-time DC character, but in “The New 52,” he’s a mean-spirited laboratory experiment gone awry. I think perhaps it was just the striking simplicity of the cover’s holograph.

I ended up liking the issue, primarily for the very vivid artwork by Ben Caldwell, but I was just about to make the sour summing-legion2up that the issue’s most enjoyable thing was the cover – until I got to the two-page house ad at the back.

And then the angels sang – for I was once more looking upon my beloved Legion of Super-Heroes.

DC’s “New 52″ version of the Legion was cancelled a while ago, and this is the first time they’ve made an appearance since then. Back when the Legion was cancelled, the team had been split in two – but this team serenely, gloriously flying past in that house ad is united again. Back when the Legion was cancelled, the team was fractured, dispirited, and haggard – but this team is full and confident … and traditional: there’s Mon-el front and center, there’s Shadow Lass beside him, there are classic characters like Sun Boy and Dream Girl and Ultra Boy, and there are great more recent characters like Tellus and Dawnstar and an ice-armed Polar Boy. It was like a gift.

Apparently, the team will be appearing in a comic called Justice League United in October for an entire story-arc. It’s not exactly a re-launch of their own title, which it bloody well should be, but it’s more than I have now, so I’ll take it. Talk about a bright shiny thing.

 

 

Penguins on Parade: The Gang of Four!

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Some Penguin Classics feel commercially motivated, and of course that speculation applies firmly to something like big, hefty Four Tragedies, collecting the Penguin texts of Shakespeare’s Hamlet,Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. This edition has been reprinted many times over the last thirty years, for one very Shakespeare_4 Tragediescommercial reason: schools all over the world use it for their Shakespeare courses. At some point in the 20th Century (or earlier? I don’t recall, but it certainly feels to me like a comparatively recent thing), these four tragedies began being lumped together in handy one-volume editions like this one.

This Penguin volume is fantastic; the introductions, the textual analyses, and end notes are all first-rate – I endorse it, make no mistake. I love the clear, almost forensic way Anne Barton conducts her Introduction of Hamlet:

Hamlet never says why it is that he should remain unable to do the obvious: collect his friends about him, confront Claudius, accuse him, and then draw his sword and run him through. It is true that, until Act IV, he lacks real evidence of his uncle’s villainy. This fact matters more than some commentators on the play have allowed. But it cannot be the whole explanation for Hamlet’s delay, if only because Hamlet’s tortured self-accusations make it clear that it is not.

And I’m always happy when any introduction to Othello includes Thomas Rymer’s famous devastating critique of Desdemona’s death:

What instruction can we make out of this catastrophe? Or whither must our reflection lead us? Is not this to envenom and sour our spirits, to make us repine and grumble at Providence, and the government of the world? If this be our end, what boots it to be virtuous?

And the Introduction to King Lear is likewise very wry and very smart:

The modern popularity of the play is closely associated with a movement which uses as its touchstone the ‘meaning’ attributed to Shakespeare’s plays, the spiritual messages they convey to us. Of course the idea that the work of art is a ‘message’ from the author is not new. Hazlitt tells us that ‘King Lear is the best of Shakespeare’s plays, for it is the one in which he was the most earnest.’ But modern critics are usually unable to stop at this point; they want us to ask the next question: ‘What is Shakespeare in earnest about?’ One trouble with asking this question is that it produces answers of unbearable obviousness; it is a long way round about to learn only that Shakespeare felt love to be superior to hate or was strongly against sin.

And there’s something about the tone of the Introduction to Macbeth that hints at the fact that it’s the oldest of the four essays reprinted here:lucy reads shakespeare

As a crime-does-not-pay story it is less concerned with the uncovering of the crime to others than with the uncovering of the criminal to himself. The play spreads out from our interest in the hero; and the hero is here a criminal, or rather a man obsessed by his relation to those criminal tendencies that are so universal that we best describe them by speaking of ‘evil.’ The play is a discovery or anatomy of evil. Of all Shakespeare’s plays Macbeth is the one most obsessively concerned with evil.

No, this Penguin is really good, easily more than the simple Shakespeare-primer it needed to be in order to sell like hotcakes to schools. The only thing that bothers me about this and innumerable other ‘big four’ anthologies is that the sheer crowd of them tends to reinforce the idea that these four plays are Shakespeare’s best tragedies. I wish there were a big fat Penguin volume that included Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth - but also Romeo and Juliet, King Henry VIII, and my favorite Shakespeare play, Julius Caesar.

Or, for that matter, why not – at long last – an enormously fat Penguin Classic Complete Shakespeare? I’d buy it!

Mystery Monday: The Stone Wife!

mystery monday header

Our mystery today is The Stone Wife by Peter Lovesey, new from the wonderful folks at Soho Crime, the fourteenth of Lovesey’s novels to star stolid CID Superintendent Peter Diamond and his equally-stolid crew of investigators based in the lovely, historic old city of Bath. There’s pretty, intelligent Detective Sergeant Ingeborg Smith, and there’re veteran officers John Leaman and Keith Halliwell, and there’s ever-eager rookie Paul Gilbert, and although they all get speaking parts in these novels, the lot of them together are less memorable than a stalk of celery. Lovesey’s Bath police procedurals operate on a strictly cash-and-carry basis: you buy or borrow one, you get your ‘hook’ of an opening scene and your tepid mystery, you follow an investigation as humidly plodding as the one you and your less imaginative friends might concoct yourselves, you get a couple of resolutely nondescript concluding twists, and then you put the thing in the box of stuff going to the next church rummage sale. And by the time that rummage sale rolls around, you won’t be able to recall a single detail from that book, not if your life depended on it.

the stone wife coverThe opening scene in The Stone Wife revolves around the title figure: an old stone carving of a figure art experts reckon is the Wife of Bath from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The object has sat in storage for fifty years, unrecognized, but now it’s up for sale at a Bath auction parlor, and the bidding is growing unexpectedly fierce when a group of masked and armed gunmen interrupt the proceedings. When the most aggressive bidder argues with them, they shoot him and then run off without the stone carving – and soon Peter Diamond and his team are on the scene, trying to figure out not only who the gunmen were but why the bidder was foolish enough to try to stop them.

The investigation – such as it is, such as it ever is in the Lovesey book – takes two directions: first, Diamond his men try to figure out the provenance and provocations of the stone Wife of Bath, and second, in one of those very long and very preposterous sub-plots some mystery authors simply can’t be convinced to abandon, Ingeborg goes under cover in an attempt to trace the gun used in the shooting.

So one half of the book is just more of the same plodding police questions interspersed with pretty much the only piece of ‘personality’ Lovesey bothers to give Diamond, which is that he dislikes computers and most modern technology, especially as means of doing anything as useful as solving crimes (this is tiresomely foreshadowed even in the title of the first Diamond mystery, The Last Detective):

Diamond went over to the desk and switched on the computer. He was no expert, but he knew the basics these days and after the condescending remark about e-books he intended to demonstrate that he wasn’t out of the Stone Age.

And the other half of the book is Ingeborg in disguise, working her way with almost Clouseau-level implausibility into the heart of a heartless criminal enterprise. We never for one instant believe any single part of this half of the book – Ingeborg remains so thoroughly and obviously a cop the whole time that you’re constantly expecting the bad guys to start giggling at the ineptitude of her disguise. And it doesn’t help that in these sections Lovesey’s prose is on near-complete autopilot in a way he’d dream of doing with his male characters:

She held her breath and took the first heart-stopping steps out onto the stretch of deck where the filming had taken place. So far, so good. For a short distance she would have the great black funnel between herself and the gangway. After that only a series of skylights projected above deck level. Her movement was more like gliding than striding, a steady progress towards the aft end of the ship. Good thing she wasn’t wearing heels. The smallest sound would have been like drumming on the deck. She was prepared any second to be caught by the flashlight beam. You can’t escape the speed of light.

All of which isn’t to say The Stone Wife and all the other Peter Diamond mysteries don’t offer anything to their readers. I’ve read all of these books quite willingly over the years, as good near-mindless fun. As an old friend of mine once said when confronted with his sweet-tooth for this kind of fiction, “Sometimes, what really hits the spot is a murder mystery with very little murder – and very little mystery!”

Very little murder, and very little mystery – Peters Diamond and Lovesey strike again!

Comics! The Wedding of Crystal and Quicksilver!

avengers 127Our story today is an oldie from the halcyon days of 1974, when a United States increasingly mired in the Watergate scandal got some much-needed distraction by turning to the pages of Marvel Comics for the comics event of the year (if you don’t count the first appearances of both the Punisher and Wolverine – but since they’re two of the dumbest, most boring comic book characters ever created, I’m not counting them): the wedding of Quicksilver and Crystal.

Well, OK, so ‘the United States’ in general didn’t get any much-needed distraction from that event; the United States in general was reading Jaws and pining all unknowingly for Internet porn. Nevertheless, the aforementioned wedding was the talk of comic book geeks! Quicksilver, the hot-tempered Avengers member capable of running at super speed (who made his big screen debut in this year’s X-Men: Days of Future Past played by pack-a-day tobacco addict Evan Peters, and who’ll make very much bigger splash in next year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, where he’ll be played by five-pack-a-day tobacco addict Aaron Taylor Johnson), had been injured in a recent storyline left to recover in Attilan, the hidden Himalayan refuge of the Inhumans, a secret race of genetically-altered beings ruled by the silent, regal Black Bolt. In Attilan, Quicksilver was cared for and eventually fell in love with a young Inhuman named Crystal, who’d years before been a temporary member of Marvel’s inaugural super-group, the Fantastic Four, where she’d been in love with Johnny Storm, that group’s Human Torch.

Quicksilver’s sister, to whom he’d shown fanatical devotion over the course of fifty issues of The Avengers, lost that devotion when she fell in love with her fellow Avenger the Vision; Quicksilver hotly disowned his sister, telling her he wouldn’t speak with her as long as she professed to love a machine, and in Avengers issues immediately preceding the ones we’re eventually going to discuss, the Scarlet Witch had more pressing concerns than her brother’s bigotry – namely, a Vietnamese martial arts superhero named Mantis, who’d recently moved into stately Avengers Mansion as the Yoko Ono-style girlfriend of the Swordsman, who’d returned to join the team. Mantis turned out to be, you’ll forgive the term, just a touch predatory; she showed less and less interest in her loser boyfriend – and more and more interest in the Vision.

Patiently and intelligently, Avengers writer Steve Englehart developed this love-quadrangle into some of the most sophisticated romantic and cross-romantic relationships ever seen in superhero comics, and for most of that time, not a peep was heard about Quicksilver; he wasn’t in The Avengers anymore, and Crystal wasn’t in The Fantastic Four (although by a strange quirk, that team had recently taken on Crystal’s older sister and fellow Inhuman, Medusa, as a new member), and the Inhumans were still a few years away from having an ongoing title of their own – fans just assumed that brother and sister weren’t speaking.

Which brings us to the bombshell that opens Avengers #127, “Bride and Doom”: the Avengers – consisting of the Scarlet Witch, the Vision, Mantis, gorgonthe Swordsman, plus Thor and Iron Man (as usual, the absence of Captain America from any Avengers story feels somehow wrong) – have just sat down to enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner lovingly prepared by their butler Jarvis (even though the Scarlet Witch and the Swordsman still have their costume gloves on, and even though the Vision doesn’t eat food, and even though Iron Man still has his face-plate bolted on – and isn’t Mantis just insufferable enough to be a vegetarian? Guess Thor would have been doing most of the turkey-eating) when suddenly in a flash appears among them the gruff Inhuman Gorgon, alongside the enormous teleporting dog Lockjaw. Gorgon is easily provoked, and the stamp of his hooved feet cause mini-earthquakes, but at first he’s all smiles. “So, my friends, have I arrived too early, then?” he asks. “Why aren’t you prepared to depart for the wedding?”

When he tells them which wedding, the team is shocked (Sal Buscema does the fine artwork for this issue, beautifully inked by Joe Staton, with a wonderful, brooding coloring job by Englehart himself)(although a great many of the female faces have been quietly re-drawn by Marvel’s butt-insky art director, John Romita, Sr.) – and the fact that his errand has misfired enrages Gorgon: “You did not know! It was arranged for that arrogant, posturing fool to notify you, but you did not know!” Seismic foot-stamping follows, quickly pacified by Mantis, who soothes Gorgon by saying, “Your frustration may well be justified … yet you must not vent it upon our house!” (To which the Scarlet Witch immediately responds, “This is the Avengers’ house, Mantis. You’re here merely as a courtesy to the Swordsman! But let it pass” – the final bee-yotch being left unspoken)

And right at that point, this storyline should have ended. The Scarlet Witch should have said, “Well, Gorgon, neither I nor the Avengers will be attending this wedding, since the groom, though a former Avenger, hates both me and the Vision so much that, as you can see, he couldn’t bring himself to invite us.”

our 3 teamsBut instead, inexplicably, the Avengers decide to go, and from that moment on, one realization before all others begins to impress itself upon the reader about this issue: how little sense it makes. In what was then a very rare move in comics, Avengers #127 is continued not in Avengers #128 but in Fantastic Four #150 – but there’s no logistical help forthcoming in that issue, since it’s even more screwed up than its predecessor (the weird inconsistencies start even with the respective covers: the Avengers cover, drawn by Gil Kane, is a powerful, iconic classic, whereas the Fantastic Four cover, despite also being drawn by Gil Kane, is a dorky and confused mess).

The problems start right away. The Avengers are greeted upon their arrival in Attilan by the Inhumans (in a bit of dialogue no doubt inserted by continuity-freak editor Roy Thomas, Crystal tells the Scarlet Witch that it’s nice to meet her) and by the Fantastic Four, consisting of Reed Richards and his wife Susan, the Human Torch, the Thing, Medusa, and the Richards’ young son Franklin, whose in the care of his nanny, the ancient sorceress Agatha Harkness. Everybody’s all smiles, even though Quicksilver isn’t present (Crystal tells us that Gorgon ‘radioed’ to tell everybody in Attilan that the Avengers would be jetting in instead of teleporting – presumably he used the Avengers’ radio to do that, since he wasn’t carrying one himself), and while everybody’s moving to the banquet area, Mantis points out an enormous, garishly-costumed statue and asks about it. Medusa tells her it’s Omega – a machine created by Black Bolt’s evil brother Maximus, a machine that was powered by the social guilt and bigotry the Inhuman royal family felt about their repression of the “Alpha Primitives,” a kind of Inhuman serf class. Omega, Medusa explains, had been fantastic four 150rendered inactive once the Inhumans decided to face their prejudices and initiate legislation making the Alpha Primitives full equals before the law. Immediately before this scene, we’d seen Maximus in his own quarters, ranting to somebody off-camera about how, together, they would wipe out the Inhumans; that mysterious stranger then blasts Maximus unconscious and declares an intention to act alone. We next see that mysterious figure – now cloaked – inciting a group of Alpha Primitives to rebellion.

The scene shifts to the banquet area, where our heroes are performing various feats of strength and skill for a cheering crowd as Black Bolt and Crystal (but still no Quicksilver) look on. Suddenly, Iron Man and Medusa begin attacking the Alpha Primitives in the crowd; they’re restrained by their teammates, whereupon they pass out – leaving some very angry Alpha Primitives, who rage, “Despite his ‘reforms,’ Black Bolt wants us dead, brothers!”

But they don’t actually do anything, and the scene shifts to nighttime, where at last we see Quicksilver, having an earnest conversation with Crystal about the fact that her sister and Iron Man went berserk a few hours ago and started attacking Alpha Primitives in a crowd of spectators – no, no … sorry, they’re not discussing that! Neither one of them seems to care about it – they’re talking about how Quicksilver still hasn’t reconciled with his sister. When the Scarlet Witch shows up, Crystal leaves them to talk in private and goes out walking – where she’s suddenly abducted by … a revived Omega! He grabs her and walks off – no guards in Attilan, I guess, and no onlookers to notice a thirty-foot-tall giant striding toward the imperial palace)(and no resistance at all from Crystal, despite the fact that she’s one of the most powerful Inhumans – and when our assembled heroes learn of it, they immediately suspect Maximus and troop off to his cell, where they find him unconscious.

When the Avengers confront the Alpha Primitives about whether or not they revived Omega, they’re met with instant denials and hostility: “We have had enough of Black Bolt’s repression!” Whereupon Quicksilver loses his temper: “You spew slogans while my fiancee’s life is threatened? You posturing fool – learn what it means to mock Quicksilver!” – and he starts slamming into them at super-speed. Maximus regains consciousness, grabs a laser-rifle, and starts firing on the Alpha Primitives himself, clearly under the same kind of mind control as Iron Man and Medusa (but not Quicksilver, who seems to attack the Alpha Primitives just because he’s a violent jerk).

omega & crystalThere erupts a violent fight that’s quickly interrupted by the re-appearance of Omega, who’s now emitting some kind of energy that gradually paralyzes all members of the Fantastic Four, the Inhumans, and the Avengers (this happens without first making them insane, and there’s no sign of Crystal). Once all his enemies are motionless, Omega pulls off his face-mask and reveals himself as … Ultron-7! The vicious killer robot who, as Ultron-6, had recently been defeated and dismantled by the Avengers! Had that more innocent generation had the terminology, it would collectively have gasped “WTF???”

It’s a mess of an issue, yes, but hoo-boy, things get EVER so much worse in the conclusion, over in Fantastic Four #150! Here the writing is by Gerry Conway and the art is by Rich Buckler-doing-an-extended-Jack-Kirby-homage, and the scene opens right where we left off – kind of: the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and the Inhumans all stand paralyzed before Ultron-7, who explains that a) he used ‘the power of his computerized will’ to immobilize them (why this would work on, for instance, Thor, or right through Iron Man’s armor, isn’t explained – but hey, who knew anything about computers in 1974?) and b) he’s now releasing them from that control because he wants them to “experience” their destruction at his hands. He explains that Maximus used a tractor beam to retrieve his severed head from the rubble of his earlier defeat, ‘revive’ it, and attach it to the body ultron-7of Omega.

Once our heroes are released, they immediately try to fight Ultron-7 – at which point he unleashes even more of that computerized will, threatening to ‘strike to the depths of your souls – and drain the last vestige of your mentalities! Your skulls will be filled with psychic rubble … your bodies will be possessed by gibbering idiots … and there is nothing you can do to stop the process … Nothing you can do at all!”

But Ultron-7 reckoned without one little x-factor: Franklin Richards! As Conway’s narration tells us, “Franklin … who has lain in a coma these many months. Franklin, a mere child … whose brain contains power enough to consume an entire planet!” Franklin wakes up, zaps Ultron-7, re-unites with his overjoyed parents, and we cut straight to the big wedding.

As Benjamin J. Grimm would say, “Yeeesh.”

franklin strikesI remember loving the fact that this storyline jumped from one title I loved (this run of Avengers is one of the best, most rewardingly adult in the book’s history) to another title I loved (this run of Fantastic Four is one of the best, most rewardingly adult in the book’s history), but oh my, this two-parter doesn’t bear forty-year scrutiny well at all. As I re-read it, a thousand questions cropped up – questions neither Englehart nor Conway (or Roy Thomas, who was the editor of both these issues) even seem aware of, let alone able to answer.

Why would a mutant, an android, a Vietnamese Buddhist, and a Norse Freaking God even observe Thanksgiving?

Why would Gorgon make the trip with Lockjaw without asking his own cousin Crystal whether or not the Avengers had actually been invited?

Why would the Scarlet Witch decide to gate-crash her brother’s wedding without such an invitation? Just to be … well, something that rhymes with Scarlet Witch?

Why wouldn’t the Avengers return to Attilan with Gorgon and Lockjaw, as was clearly Gorgon’s intent?

If Maximus attached Ultron-7’s head to the body of Omega, how could Omega’s deactivated body still have its head when Mantis asked about it? franklin smilingSince Maximus is gunned down before the Avengers arrive, he’d have had no opportunity to make the switch.

Omega’s body is thirty feet tall – but Ultron-6’s head was normal human-sized. So how did it get to be gigantic? If Maximus did it, how could he lose control of a robot whose very brain he had to take apart and rebuild? And if Ultron-6 did it, then why would he have needed Maximus’s help at all?

Why would a disguised Ultron-7 try to create dissent among the Alpha Primitives? What would he care about internal Attilan politics at all, let alone enough to manipulate Medusa, Iron Man, and Maximus into attacking the Alpha Primitives and thereby inciting a riot?

Why would Ultron-7 disguise himself as Omega at all? And once he’d done that, why would he kidnap Crystal? And what the heck happened to Crystal? One minute he’s stalking off with her, and the next time we see her, she’s with Quicksilver at the altar – where was she during the big fight?

And speaking of the big fight: why didn’t Ultrons 1-6 display this ‘computerized’ ability to paralyze biological brains? For that matter, why didn’t any subsequent Ultrons display it either?

And why would Conway tell us Ultron-7’s electronic death-rays revived little Franklin from a coma when Englehart clearly showed us Franklin awake and smiling in the earlier chapter?

old girlfriendsTrue, Conway does give us a nice little moment where Thor and Iron Man, hesitating to join the wedding, each reflect on their romantic pasts – Thor mentioning both his mortal girlfriend Jane Foster and his immortal girlfriend Sif, Iron Man talking about his trusty friend Pepper (and musing, a bit disturbingly, “I’ve been searching for someone to replace her since”) – but for the most part, the issue reads as if he and Englehart never even talked about this joint venture they were undertaking … which, given the state of the Marvel command structure at the time, maythe wedding well have been the case.

Re-reading that joint venture was undeniably fun – these old issues hold so much emotional resonance for me, this period in which it sometimes seemed like Marvel could do no wrong (Reed and Sue getting divorced! Peter Parker acting like a real adult! A simmering love-quadrangle at the heart of the Avengers! The Infinity Saga over in Thor! The ongoing glory that was the company’s Conan titles at the time, etc.). But even so, this two-parter really underscored how much better at shared-title stories Marvel (and DC) have become. That improvement may have been entirely profit-driven (witness the sixteen “Original Sin” spin-offs and tie-ins currently proliferating around that summer event in Marvel’s current lineup), but it’s largely yielded stories with a LOT more internal consistency than this one.

Marvel fans will be encountering Quicksilver, the Scarlet Witch, and Ultron (and the Vision? Could he be the mysterious caped figure floating above the battle in the leaked poster?) in the next two-billion-dollar Joss Whedon movie, but I’m guessing Ultron will employ legions of killer robots in that movie, not the power of his computerized BRAIN

Two Guidebooks … of Venice!

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Our books today are two unconventional little hand-sized guidebooks to the marvellous city of Venice, 1966′s very popular and often-reprinted classic Venice for Pleasure by J. G. Links and Another Venice from the year 2000 by Jacopo Fasolo.

venice for pleasureOf course these two books are two little bits on a towering heap of Venice guidebooks – hundreds and thousands of such books of every shape and price have been manufactured over the last two centuries – but these two are interesting on one level for the subtle ways they stand in opposition to each other. Links’s book has a Canaletto painting on the cover and is chock-full of black-and-white photographs and reprints of the many classic works of art and architecture, whereas Fasolo’s book features only his own drawings, for instance, but there’s a more fundamental difference. When he wrote his book half a century ago, Links set out a fairly revolutionary approach to sightseeing for his readers, namely eschewing the gaudy, booming gondola industry and hoofing it:

There is not a building in the city proper that cannot be reached on foot and the spread of cafes on land has done much to compensate for the loss of amenities on the water. This being the case, it seems only sensible to walk in Venice; nowhere else will the walker be so well rewarded, and the streets, hard though their surface appear, have a miraculous spring in the paving which makes fatigue almost impossible.

Whereas Fasolo comes down firmly on the other side: “To see the buildings of this “other” Venice, you will have to climb into a boat and silently glide along the city’s remoter canals, those without foundations.”

They nevertheless share some things in common (aside from making sure they hit all the big sites and top-notch churches, that is), not only with another veniceeach other but with virtually all other Venice guidebooks ever written. All such books have to begin with a kind of aesthetic decompression sequence; they have to reassure their readers that their initial impressions of Venice might not – horrors – be entirely favorable. Links tells a familiar story:

Let it be said at once, many people are disappointed in Venice. ‘Do you know what he said to me when he came back from Venice?’ a distinguished old gentleman asked me once; ‘he said he was disappointed! I must say I envied him his power of imagination.’

And he’s plainspoken and funny about the way the city regularly overwhelms its visitors:

Very few travellers seem to enjoy their first visit to Venice. They are awed, dazzled, overwhelmed by its appearance. Its sights arouse their admiration, or, sometimes, their disgust. They marvel at its art, grow incredulous as they learn its history and thank heaven fasting for its existence. Above all, they are exhausted by it; physically, mentally and emotionally, its assault is too much for the ordinary human being to withstand in the few days usually at his disposal. He flees to Florence, where everything has its feet firmly on the ground.

Fasolo opens his own little book with a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke, written way back in 1907 and summing up some of the same visceral reactions:

It almost seems difficult for me to admire this Venice: you have to start at the beginning to learn. Its marble is ashen, a pallid grey, as luminous as the edge of a coal that has just stopped smouldering. How inexplicable are the red of the walls and the green of the shutters; so restrained and yet impossible to ignore; it is the past, but in the fullness of flight; it is so pale, just as people turn pale as their emotions increase.

lucy reads about veniceUnlike Links, Fasolo quickly slips into the kind of quasi-exalted verbiage designed to allay this feeling of being overwhelmed, although he’s at least quite good at it:

The water breathes in unison with the ocean, permeates every nook and cranny of the city, constituting its roads and walkways and infusing the buildings with an ever-changing light, reflecting their image and constantly forging new forms. Each step is punctuated by exceptional motifs and a wealth of sensations that the ever-mutating situations of the light and water surfaces multiply and extend to the very limits of the surreal.

He’s entirely right about that surreal quality of the city proper, just as Links is entirely right about the incredibly limiting effects of having only a few days to take it all in – and the two elements together can make Venice a very frustrating place for visitors, a frustration little guidebooks like these two do relatively little to ease. I’ve been very lucky in my own experience with Venice: I’ve had the chance to soak in that surreal light-shifting quality at leisure (and in all seasons, which is equally crucial), and I’ve had the luxury of time. When I re-read things like Another Venice or Venice for Pleasure, I’m reminded of the luxury, and of the crowds of hurrying tourists I used to watch scuttling from church to church in the sweltering summer months. Probably some of those tourists had one of these books stuffed into their backpacks, and maybe they perused those books in just the right circumstances: in an comfortable chair, on a lazy afternoon, back in Iowa.

Roman Revivals in the Penny Press!

augustus nyrbIt’s been two blessed years since the New York Review of Books reprinted John Williams’s flatulently boring 1965 novel Stoner and the presumably bored grandees of the book-chat world surprised all rational people by taking it up as some sort of lost classic and singing its praises from every literary pulpit in the English-speaking world. Two blessed years since this furtive and thankfully short-lived attempt at a Williams revival.

It was long enough for me to hope that the lunacy had departed from the book-chat ranks, who’d then drift back to over-praising stridently pixie-ish Workshop women. But no – the NYRB struck again by reprinting Williams’s stupefyingly dull 1972 novel Augustus, and it, too, has reaped heaps of grotesquely inaccurate praise. The attractive paperback features a specially-commissioned new Introduction by Daniel Mendelsohn, one of our most intelligent and pleasingly mandarin book critics. At first his excellent essay raised my hopes, since for the first few hundred words it seems very pointedly to avoid actually praising the book (I smiled when he calls it Williams’s “most rigorous” book, which is certainly true as far as it goes). But no, the ether eventually affects even his first-rate brain and the superlatives start rolling out – culminating rather unforgivably in his equating of nat geo neroAugustus with a handful of truly great historical novels like The Memoirs of Hadrian and the novels of Mary Renault.

And one of my most reliable reactions to such a frustration – turning to National Geographic – was thwarted this time around, and for, amazingly enough, the exact same reason! The latest National Geographic features a cover story that doesn’t just flirt within the prospect of renovating the reputation of the Roman emperor Nero but actively engages with it. I wasn’t prohibited from inquiry by the issue’s absolutely awful cover (quite possibly the worst the magazine has ever sported – an illustration of a statue of Nero holding up a lighted match while a background of Rome burns), and I settled in with Robert Draper’s article hoping against hope that the tag-lines about revisiting “Rome’s Bad Boy” was an exaggeration merely meant to sell magazines.

But no, alas. Draper goes to Rome and manages to find half a dozen bumptious Italian historians willing to say that Nero got a bad rap – that despite all those murdered relatives and despite the fact that he flattened half of Rome for his egomaniacal building projects (helpfully illustrated in the text), he was actually a progressive and misunderstood ruler. Two of the people Draper interviews say the same thing: that Nero was “no better and no worse” than the emperors who came before him or after him – a statement so preposterous it must require, I guess, the restraint of a National Geographic writer not to laugh right in the faces of the people who say it.

So: Roman revivals on all sides! Where to turn for relief? Well, fortunately the world of high fashion always makes such perfect sense …

high fashion

 

The English Country House!

the english country houseOur book today is a gorgeous 1974 Thames & Hudson volume called The English Country House: an art and a way of life, written by Olive Cook with loads of great photos by A. F. Kersting. The book has one of the most interesting and charming subjects of them all to examine, and it opens with a quote from Henry James that couldn’t be more quintessentially true:

Of all the great things that the English have invented and made part of the credit of the national character, the most perfect, the most characteristic, the only one they have mastered completely in all its details so that it becomes a compendious illustration of their social genius and their manners, is the well appointed, well administered, well filled country house.

James of course knew what he was talking about; he himself made a habit of shuttling (ever so unwillingly, of course) fromgreat chalfield manor country house to country house during his time in England, and if you’ve ever visited such a country house, you’ll understand immediately why – under the right circumstances, they can be little pieces of Heaven on Earth.

If you have visited such a house, it’s overwhelmingly likely you’ve visited it as a paying customer, handing over your entrance fee to the smiling National Trust employee standing in front of the velvet rope in the front hall. I confess I’ve done that too, many times – I’ve visited almost every country house Cook and Kersting document here, and I know the history of these magnificent old buildings to the last detail. But books like this one have an added allure for me because one of my oldest friends comes from English “old money” (the main branch of her family’s own country house, just outside of Leeds, is, to put it mildly, an eye-opener) and through her kindness – and in her company – I’ve spent many weeks and weekends not just visiting but actually living in English country houses all over the country, in all seasons. I met and came to know some of their current owners, spent many deliciously peaceful afternoons tucked into upstairs nooks while autumn rain pattered on inner courtyards, or walking on the grounds during England’s preternaturally elongated twilights.

oxburgh hallCook and Kersting’s book brought back all those memories and more. They tour their readers vicariously through some of the grandest old buildings in England, and Cook is throughout the book a lively and highly informed guide, shifting easily between historical overview and architectural developments, as when she’s telling us about Great Chalfield Manor in scenic Wiltshire:

Brick gave wing to unprecedented flights of fancy in various directions: it encouraged romanticized elaborations of the traditional house of the immediate past, it gave rise to new, extravagant forms of customary features and it also stimulated the feeling for ordered design already apparent in the composition of Great Chalfield Manor. It even led to a structural absurdity – the replacing of the wattle and daub filling in the important timber-framed houses with brick. For of course the timber frame becomes redundant in the brick-built house.

Some English country houses are of course known for their oddities as much as for their quiet grandeur, and some manage to combine the two – like Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk, with its gorgeous rooms and its overlooking view of the quiet river Gadder and its gaudy moat meant to evoke an entire martial past the place never came close to actually warranting. Cook is particularly good about this place, which passed into the hands of the National Trust half a century ago:

A less overweening expression of individual pride and power, a more romantic allusion to the past than Faulkbourne Hall, Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk translates the theme of the moated, quadrangular castle into weathered red-brick domesticity with conspicuous success. It is unforgettable because of the contrast in scale between the symmetrical south ranges and the immense, dominating and co-ordinating gatehouse, seven storeys high, and also because towers, battlements, stepped gables, oriels and crenellated chimneys, starting up like carefully positioned castles in a game of chess, rise so directly from the moat upon which the house seems to lie like a galleon becalmed.

“Like a galleon becalmed” is, come to think of it, a pretty good shorthand description of the effect most English country houses have on even the most familiar lucy reads about country housesvisitor; like castles, manors, and country houses everywhere, they’re intended to be worlds unto themselves, bastions and refuges, and they retain something of that feeling even though their beds have been soaked with blood and their walls have echoed with the screams of the unmedicated dying for centuries. I once spent a torrentially rainy week in a rather large old country house in the beautiful country of Kent and I came to know a reed-frail boy who was the youngest son of the family. He never spoke above a low murmur, and he was painfully shy, but once he opened up to me, he confessed how much he loved the house and grounds. After a couple of conversations, I had an astounding realization and had to ask him outright to confirm it: I realized he’d never actually left the house and grounds – that he’d never, in 16 years, set foot outside.

He admitted it, and I thought there would follow some expressions of regret or longing – but there were none. I asked him if he were ever curious about the world outside the Park, and he sighed and said, “I’d be so afraid of being disappointed.”

That  wasn’t the only week during which I knew exactly how he felt, and this wonderful book – a Brattle find, naturally – brought it all back to me.

Enrico Dandol & The Rise … of Venice!

enrico coverOur book today is another recent Brattle find: Enrico Dandolo & The Rise of Venice, a 2003 study of medieval Venice (and its most remarkable citizen, whose life spanned almost the whole of the twelfth century) by Thomas Madden, who has a wonderful way of scraping away the romantic veneer of post-Renaissance Venice and showing his readers the decidedly less glamorous city two centuries before:

In the eleventh century Venic was a different place. Dirt and mud abounded. A boat ride down the Grand Canal was anything but spectacular. Venice’s central waterway was flancked, not by gowering palazzi, but by piers buzzing with workers loading and unloading merchant vessels, wooden buildings ranging from large warehouses to tiny hovels, and, most of all, land. Yes, open areas were still plentiful in Venice. A traveler on the Grand Canal could watch farmers cultivating vegetables, fishermen netting their catch in closed-off rivers, and men and women tending vines and inspecting their grapes. Many Venetians also scratched out a living in the lagoon’s plentiful saltworks. The city’s landscape was dotted with marshes crossed by tributaries flowing out of the Grand Canal. On the banks of the canal, where one day masterpieces of architecture would stand, cows grazed and pigs ate at the trough.

Madden chronicles the contentious international relations of the time and the rise of powerful new mercantile families like the Dandolo clan. There are plenty of drawn daggers between these clans (perhaps inevitably, Madden has written a particularly violent book), but the main villains of the piece are the marauding Normans muscling in on Venetian trade routes and land bases. “The Normans were wild and warlike,” Madden writes, adding wryly, “in other words, bad for business.”

In 1147, when the Normans invaded the Adriatic and conquered the Byzantine island of Corfu, threatening those trade routes, the Venetian patriarch (of the Polani family) announced Venetian participation in a naval war to repel the Normans, but the Dandolo family objected – a puzzling step Madden duly interrogates:

Although in keeping with reform thought, Dandolo’s decision to oppose the alliance with Byzantium is an odd one, suggesting that he and his supporters had become overly zelous in their goals. Having already captured Thessalonica, the Normans were gunning for Constantinople itself. It was in everyone’s interest, both in Venice and in Rome, to stop them. Control of Corfu already gave the Normans an opportunity to close off the Adriatic Sea, thus strangling Venice’s access to eastern markets. Few Venetians could accept such a state of affairs, least of all the Dandolo, who derived much of their wealth from trade.

At the heart of all these dangers and intrigues is Enrico Dandolo himself, old as the hills and sharp as a tack despite many personal tragedies and the loss of his eyesight. In most histories of the Fourth Crusade, Dandolo is an arch, almost cartoonish planner, a figure trusted by nobody. Madden has to deal with this figurelucy reads about enrico dandolo before he can develop his much more complex and nuanced picture:

A word should be said at the outset about the character of the doge. A great many accounts of the crusade rely heavily on the harsh words of Nicetas Choniates, a Byzantine senator who never met Enrico Dandolo. To this is added the shopworn stereotype of “Venetians first; Christians afterward.” The result is a rather grotesque caricature of the doge, based on little knowledge of the man or his world, which is then pressed into service to explain the outcome of the crusade. Dandolo in these accounts is portrayed as a conniving and clever trickster who beguiled the naïve northerners into a web of confusion so as to pervert their pious crusade into a war of Venetian profit and revenge. He kept his designs secret, mulling them over in the dark recesses of his black heart, where they apparently can be discerned only by the sharp eyes of contemporaries who never met him and by various modern historians.

“Needless to say,” he writes, “this colorful character will not receive another airing here.”

It’s the groundwork to the more famous Renaissance Venice that’s being laid in these fascinating pages. I read the book in one eager gulp, and I still scratch my head a bit that I missed it when it originally appeared. But catching omissions like that is part of what Stevereads does, so here it is at last!

A Season of Giants!

a season of giants coverOur book today is an oversized ‘coffee table’ treat, Vincenzo Labella’s lavishly illustrated 1990 tour of the Italian Renaissance, A Season of Giants, 1492-1508: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael. Labella claims right from the start that his book centers on three titanic artistic geniuses of the period, and when it comes to those three, our author never met a guide-book cliche he didn’t like:

This book is about that season and its protagonists. They were not supermen; to the contrary, even as they climbed to the highest peaks of excellence and fame, they retained their natural vulnerability. Far from being unassailable, they were hurt, and in turn, hurt others by envy, jealousy and pride. They were arrogant in the self-assurance of their talent, humble in the knowledge that beyond any finishing line there was another and yet another to be crossed. The threads of their lives were spun from different origins, yet were interwoven, and often entangled, in that unique loom of the Renaissance tapestry that was Florence.

Ordinarily, that kind of thing fairly quickly irritates me (no doubt because I’m prone to it myself), but there’s something about the unabashed, almost boyish enthusiasm with which Labella goes about the task of giving his (fairly good, fairly breathless) summary of the high Renaissance that wins me over every time I dip into this book. And of course Labella doesn’t confine himself to his central three artists – could anybody have that kind of self-control? No, we get all the other big names of time time: from Columbus and Machiavelli to those two opposite pole-stars that briefly pulled at Florence’s – and at Michelangelo’s – imagination, the vicious religious zealot Savonarola and the thinking man’s libertine, Lorenzo the Magnificent:

The two sides of the Florentine coin, the sacred and the profane, had always attracted Michelangelo with equally suggestive power, as did the classical greatness of the Magnificent’s new Athens and the religious revival of Savonarola. His first sculptures, the Madonna of the Stairs and the Battle of the Centaurs and the Lapithae, are perfect examples of this dichotomy; and the later Bacchus and his first Pieta executed in Rome would confirm it.

Labella comes by his easy penchant for scene-painting in the best way possible: he paid his dues as a hack journalist and thereby learned how to make virtually laocoonanything interesting – and how to make interesting things downright riveting. Time and again in A Season of Giants, he zeroes in on just the perfect human scene to offset the epic struggles of genius that are his main theme. Take for example the discovery of the Laocoon:

Rome awoke on the cold morning of January 14, 1506, to a sweeping tramontana wind that carried the icy breath of snow across the mountains into the Tiberina valley. In the vineyard of Felice de Freddis on the Esquiline hill, amid the ruins of the baths of Emperor Titus, a farmer was digging holes in the frozen ground to bury seedlings.

Suddenly, he stopped, reeling back and crying in horror. A hand had emerged from the earth, the pale whiteness of skin visible beneath the dirt. The man ran to the house of his master. Soon a small crowd gathered around the spot; someone dared to touch the hand, cold as marble. Indeed, marble it was: a mutilated arm, a head, then a tangle of arms and serpents and more heads emerged as the digging continued. Finally, a large statuary group, surprisingly well preserved, was unearthed.

I’m sure a big part of the allure of this particular book (there are, after all, many, many books on the Italian Renaissance) for me is the fact that it was the companion-volume to a long-gone TV mini-series that was such a frothy blend of crap and quality (often in the course of the same two-minute scene) that I fell in love with it instantly. The mini-series showed on TNT and starred a bunch of really good actors – F. Murray Abraham, Ian Holm, Jonathan Hyde, John Glover – doing some of the worst work of their entire careers (although even Michaelangelo's that was subject to maddening fluctuation; true, Hyde and Holm’s work can’t be salvaged, but Abraham is an at times very effective Pope Julius II, and there’s one fleeting moment of John Glover’s Leonardo that will absolutely break your heart). The mini-series also starred handsome Mark Frankel as Michelangelo in a stiff and studious performance that doesn’t really give you much inkling of what this actor was capable of (he died in a daredevil racing accident only a few years after this mini-series aired). The pacing and directing of the lucy reads a season of giantsmini-series is just as problematic as the acting, alas: most of those four hours are, I can objectively look back and admit, pretty unwatchable no matter how prettily they’re filmed … and yet, there are moments – the nighttime journey of the David on rollers to its morning unveiling spot, for instance, and especially the surprisingly moving final moments of the show, when Michelangelo’s stern, carping father stares in gaping awe at the newly-finished Sistine Chapel ceiling and realizes – in a very smart bit of emphasis on the part of the show – that the whole staggering cycle of the thing is about the reconciliation of fathers and sons.

I got the oversized companion book back in 1991 mainly because I was taken with the mini-series, and I ended up liking the book on its own merits. I kept that original copy for years and years, packing it into boxes and moving it from apartment to apartment, until finally at some point I lost track of it. Just recently I found it again at (where else?) my beloved Brattle Bookshop – and I don’t just mean ‘found a copy’ – I mean, of course, ‘found my copy,’ complete with pages of dog-sketches tucked into the back. I’ll try a little harder to hold onto it this time.

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