January 25th, 2016
Our book today is Real Tigers, Mick Herron’s return to Slough House, the forbidding location on the wrong side of the Thames from Regent’s Park, the sleek headquarters of M15. Slough House is where M15 sends its disgraced agents, the ones so tarnished as to be considered beyond rehabilitation. Thus sidelined into oblivion, these “slow horses” are supposed to be so crushed by mindless paperwork that they eventually retire themselves out of service altogether:
The rest hum with the repetitive churning of meaningless tasks; of work that’s been found for idle hands, and seemingly consists of the processing of reams of information, raw data barely distinguishable from a mess of scattered alphabets, seasoned with random numbers. As if the admin tasks of some recording demon had been upsourced and visited upon the occupants here; converted into mundane chores they are expected, endlessly, ceaselessly, to perform, failing which they will be cast into even remoter darkness – damned if they do and damned if they don’t. The only reason for the absence of a sign requiring entrants to abandon all hope is that, as every office worker knows, it’s not the hope that kills you.
It’s knowing it’s the hope that kills you that kills you.
The Slough House series – Real Tigers follows Slow Horses and Dead Lions – is a pure, addictive delight to read, very much in spite of all the problems you can spot even in that brief excerpt. Herron’s prose abounds in cliches, tautologies, and whatever the hell that final line is, that kind of Hollywood-style tag-line that sounds cool but is actually gibberish. Whatever you call that, Herron has a pronounced weakness for it. At one point a character mutters the cliché “water under the bridge,” and then we get another of those weird mean-nothing lines: “But he said this with the air of one who spent a lot of time on bridges, waiting for the bodies of his enemies to float past.” I love it, but I don’t get it.
In this latest Slough House story, recovering alcoholic Catherine Standish, the assistant to Slough House’s brutish boss Jackson Lamb, has disappeared. In short order, the “slow horses” receive a ransom demand for her release: they must infiltrate Regent’s Park and steal vital, heavily-guarded information for the kidnapers if they want to see Standish alive again.
In many ways, it’s the plot we’ve been waiting two books to read: our battered, self-destructive losers must prove their worth by taking on M15’s best and, in their offbeat way, winning. “Nobody left Slough House at the end of the day feeling like they’d contributed to the security of the nation,” we’re told at one point, but this might one case in which that ends up not being true – and you can tell Herron relishes the strangeness of that every bit as much as he intends us to.
January 24th, 2016
It occurred to me that since the city of Venice is so dear to my heart (Venice, Italy, that is – sorry, all you handsome young weightlifters! Venice, California isn’t our setting today), I should formalize an ongoing feature about the endless stream of books generated by La Serenissima, and how better to start than with the city’s most famous son, Marco Polo?
I recently found (at my beloved Brattle Bookshop, naturally) a battered old copy of Henry Hart’s Venetian Adventurer: The Life and Times of Marco Polo from way back in the 1940s. I snatched it up, paid my pittance, brought it back to Hyde Cottage, and there patiently restored its dust jacket so that it could withstand many more decades. And then I sank into Hart’s big book (starting with his inscription to its original owner) and immediately started loving it, not least because he’s not two paragraphs in before he’s offering some entirely justified praise of Sir Henry Yule’s massive 2-volume annotated 1921 The Book of Ser Marco Polo, which Hart calls “one of the finest pieces of English research scholarship ever produced.”
He then starts his own account with a rolling, enticing opening paragraph:
There set forth from the port of Venice in the year 1253 two brothers, bound for Constantinople on a trading venture. Probably neither of them dreamed that their voyage was to bring them fame, and that through them and the son of one of them European geographical knowledge was to be enriched as never before. That their adventures and those of the young Marco were to be immortalized in one of the most famous books in all literature could not have entered their minds, nor could they have known how far from home destiny was to guide them.
The two brothers were of course Maffeo and Nicolo Polo, daring and prosperous merchants from an era when, as Hart puts it, “Venice, Bride of the Adriatic, was at the zenith of her power.” And they brought along young Marco, who would go on to spend the better part of the next quarter-century in the Far East and in the Mongol Empire of Kublai Khan, then come back, was imprisoned by the Genoese, dictated his famous book full of stories about China, was released, and went on to become a prosperous Venetian merchant himself. He died in 1324, but that book he dictated went on to live for centuries, go through thousands of editions, and recently become one of the gorgeous little hardcovers from Penguin Classics (a first-rate edition by Nigel Cliff).
Hart, author of a row of books on Chinese history and poetry, tells the story of the man behind that famous book, and he does it in such a grand, old-fashioned way that I was swept along on every page despite knowing that story backwards and forwards. Hart anchors his telling of that story on two things: the man and the book. The man, for him, is a quintessential Venetian, and the book – well, Hart is its biggest fan:
The Venetian character has been described as a combination of “cleverness, dissimulation, patience, perseverance, greed for gain, and tenacious energy.” It may be said that Marco possessed all of these to a high degree with the exception of dissimulation, which appears nowhere in his work.
As far as I can recall, Hart is the only writer I’ve ever encountered who believes there’s no dissimulation in The Travels of Marco Polo. But the sheer enthusiasm of his readings of that great book is so winning that I didn’t mind his belief in the honesty of its author. Hart follows his hero along all his travels, recounts his catalogues of birds and plants and peoples and customs encountered, and everywhere does his best to imagine what life was like for the intrepid explorer all those centuries ago:
We of the twentieth century cannot picture to ourselves the terrors and hardships of a journey over the thousands of miles of the central Asian plain, desert, and mountain ranges nearly seven centuries ago. Hunger, thirst, the crossing of snowclad mountain ranges and long stretches of scorching deserts, threats and attacks of banditti and savage tribes, discomforts of every kind – these were some of the physical deterrents from such an adventure. But even more terrible were the superstitions and fears of the unknown, the incredible sensitiveness to tales of strange inhuman monsters and evil spirits which peopled the plains and the mountains. Such travel then involved not only venturing into the regions of an unknown world but conquering deadly fear by means of sublime faith or stubborn courage or both.
Eventually, the famous story winds its way back to our starting point, back to Venice. The Travels of Marco Polo is an intensely Venetian book in its character and its systematic exclusions, in its subtle backdoor egotisms and its omnivorous curiosities, and in the incremental grandiosity of its design; a Roman or a Florentine of the 13th century might have written an account similar in scope or detail, but only a Venetian could have given the thing the key to its immortality: its tone.
And ultimately, the story Hart has to tell ends in Venice as well, at the deathbed of the man who came to be known as “Mr. Millions” (for his endless grab-bag of stories as much as for his personal wealth). Hart writes it rather well:
A priest entered and approached the bed. With gentle touch and low murmuring voice he administered the last rites of Holy Mother Church to the dying man, then silently, with a gesture of benediction, passed out through the door by which he had entered. Before midnight Messer Marco Polo the Venetian had fared forth on his last great journey, the longest and the most adventurous of them all, and he was not coming home again to Venice.
There’ve been many dozens of Marco Polo biographies written in the last sixty years, of course; on simple documentary grounds, Hart’s book has been as thoroughly superseded as his own exceeded the documentary reach of Sir Henry Yule’s big book. But documentary evidence can only take you so far – you also want your biographer to understand the heart of the subject, and that’s why Marco Polo: Venetian Adventurer is my favorite life of Marco Polo – and, by inevitable extension, a wonderful look at a now-vanished Venice.
January 23rd, 2016
I love a 16,000-word TLS rumination on the lesser novels of George Eliot as much as the next bookworm (the keening sound you just heard coming from Up North was a certain Open Letters Monthly colleague saying “WHAT lesser novels?”), but sometimes, when rummaging through the week’s Penny Press, I get my biggest smiles from reading deadline writers in tetchy moods. I know full well how it feels when outrage comes bubbling up between the floorboards of a piece of prose, and I know how enjoyable it can feel to stop fighting and let it happen. I’ve done it myself from time to time, and there’s an unapologetic part of me that loves seeing other writers do it.
I got that treat twice this week, for instance. In The Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz reviews The Revenant, the new and egregiously overpraised movie adaptation of the Michael Punke novel. The movie is directed by Alejandro Inarritu and stars a hilariously bad Leonardo DiCaprio spitting up phlegm onto his beard, and just from the title of Podhoretz’s review, “Ah, Wilderness!”, I knew I was in for some fun. And I wasn’t disappointed:
The Oscar-winning director, Alejandro G. Inarritu, and the star, Leonardo DiCaprio, have done nothing for months but talk about how difficult it was to film The Revenant. It was so difficult, you wouldn’t believe. They were out. In the cold. They had to haul equipment up mountains. DiCaprio had to pull a live fish out of a river and eat it – and it wasn’t even cut up by a sushi chef! Oy, the difficulty! It nearly broke them! Imagine the bravery these two men showed, getting paid only $20-30 million (DiCaprio) and probably something like $5 million (Inarritu) to put up with such suffering, such pain, such indignity! But they didn’t mind the sacrifice, because they were sacrificing for us, you see. To bring us art.
Even better was a resplendent takedown in the February/March issue of Bookforum. In a piece cleverly titled “The Flowers of Romance” (too cleverly? Will non-Francophile readers get the reference?), Heather Havrilesky very patiently and mercilessly tears apart the literary output of Nicholas Sparks, concentrating on his new book, lavishing plenty of scorn on his older books, and along the way pithily reminding her readers why the potting of such an easy target matters:
But let’s not kid ourselves about the literary value of 482 pages of small talk interspersed with well-worn folksy truisms about how everything is exactly as it should be. At a time when popularity is taken not just as a signifier of value but as the exact same thing as value, it is necessary and worthwhile to absorb just how bad the really bad books manage to get away with being while still selling millions of copies internationally.
And elsewhere in the Penny Press, in an issue of Outside whose cover would be sheer genius if it weren’t absolutely plastered in text, there’s a picture of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady modeling for the Under Armour clothing line. The picture shows Brady in full sprint-workout, covered in sweat – but both the sprint and the sweat are fake. Somehow, in 2016, neither of these details surprise.
January 22nd, 2016
Our book today is a lurid little treat: Cheap Thrills, a short, pithy, and heavily illustrated history of the pulps by the irrepressible Ron Goulart and subtitled The Amazing! Thrilling! Astonishing! History of Pulp Fiction.
It was originally written back in 1972, as Goulart tartly observes: “At the time I was researching Cheap Thrills there was no Internet and computers were found only in sci-fi movies. I did much of my research by actually reading pulp magazines.” Goulart started his research early enough to catch the last dying embers of the pulp world, and he started collecting these fragile old things in the decades before that became a very, very expensive thing to do. And he was a premium Old School hack himself, the kind who tried never to write a free sentence, a late sentence, or a boring sentence – and largely succeeded. His novel Shaggy Planet is still cracklingly hilarious to read, and the cheesy Flash Gordon novels he wrote in the 1970s are still enormous fun.
And ‘fun’ is the key word in Cheap Thrills. Yes, this is a deceptively well-researched volume, one of the original groundbreaking studies of the whole pulp phenomenon, but it also bubbles along like the ‘then what happened’ adventure stories that were Goulart’s speciality (and of course the speciality of the pulps themselves). About the founder of this squirrelly little cult, for instance, he writes: “Nobody liked Frank A. Munsey. When he died, in 1925, his eulogists said things like, ‘Frank Munsey contributed to the journalism of his day the talent of a meat packer, the morals of a money changer and the manner of an undertaker’” – and then very wisely continues: “But eras and movements, like people, can’t pick their fathers and so a history of the pulp magazines has to begin with the ruthless and unlikable Munsey.”
He takes his readers through the whole of that colorful history, from Munsey’s primitive original attempts in Argosy and dozens of similar venues to all the other big figures from the pulps world – the artists, the writers, and most of all the idea-men, the scruffy, hustling entrepreneurs and con artists who kept trying to make a quick fortune off the young century’s magazine boom. And of course these figures included Hugo Gernsback, the man who actually invented the term “science fiction” and whose abysmal luck elicits Goulart’s sympathy – and his zingers:
Hugo Gernsback was at it again. But, like many other inventors, he never had much luck with his own inventions. The ’30s were filled with the sound of one Gernsback science fiction magazine after another falling over.
Goulart’s book is lavishly illustrated with great pulp covers from the brief decades of the craze, covers featuring the mind-boggling cast of characters those over-worked and over-liquored hack writers dreamt up. There’s the Spider, and Nick Carter, and Captain Future, and of course there are the giants of the genre: Tarzan, Doc Savage, Flash Gordon, the Shadow, and a teeming posse of cowboys.
But the real treat of Cheap Thrills is neither its delightful narration nor its addictive pictures – it’s the final portion of the book, in which Goulart has the stroke of genius to reprint the typewritten correspondences he had with various writers and editors from the pulp era. While in the process of answering as many of Goulart’s questions as they could, these men and women spin some priceless yarns about what it was like to create a legendary era. I return to Cheap Thrills all the time, but I confess: I re-read these grand old letters more often than I do the book’s text itself – and I smile at little confessions like the one Norman Daniels made to Goulart in 1969:
I wrote under so many names. I had to keep a file so I’d know who was who when I wrote the by-line. One issue with eight or ten stories was published under that many names – all of them mine.
Multiple by-lines! Ah, what a wonderful, vanished era!
January 21st, 2016
Our book on this glorious day is Boston: Cradle of Liberty, a slim hardcover gem from 1965 written by Edward Weeks and illustrated by Fritz Busse. It’s the kind of keepsake tchotchke historic cities like Boston generate on a monthly basis (this March, it’ll be A History of Boston in 50 Artifacts, for instance), but this one stands out from the crowd for a few reasons.
Foremost, of course, being Ed Weeks. He’s entirely forgotten now, but once upon a time, for a very long time, he was the heart and soul of the old Atlantic Monthly back when it was headquartered in Boston. Weeks was the magazine’s “Peripatetic Reviewer,” and he was its eminence gris, and he knew every writer of any worth in two generations, and it very often seemed, in leisurely browses of the Brattle Bookshop or even more leisurely lunches in the back room of Goodspeed’s, that he’d read everything ever written. He had an absolutely infectious way of talking about books – not like they were exclusive society events but rather like they were warm, convivial parties that had been going on a long time. He would open the forbidding brownstone door onto the cold street where you were standing, and as the light and warmth and laughter spilled out, he’d quietly, happily invite you in – that was the experience of learning about books and authors from this wise and wonderful man.
Something of that literary mindset fills even the pro-forma boilerplate that’s all little books like Boston: Cradle of Liberty ever require. Here in these pages are all the familiar old stories of the sacred cod and the confusing streets, the eccentric Bostonians with their odd mixture of warmth and prickles, and even the requisite boosterism no tourist-production can disavow – in this case, for example, compelling Weeks to digress a little about a grand new architectural marvel the city was then contemplating (in a detail of exquisite irony now lost on its readers, Weeks tells us the work is being done under the guidance of the “enlightened” Mayor John Collins), a glistening new hub called the Prudential Center:
Boston has long enjoyed two uptown plazas, Copley Plaza, and the smaller one the Christian Scientists have erected before their mother church. Now there is a third built by the initiative of the Prudential Life, with offices, a hotel, a vast auditorium, and on the 52nd floor of the Tower a restaurant reminiscent of the Top of the Mark from which one will see Boston old and new. The public and private cost of this entire development spread over a decade is one billion dollars.
But when Weeks leaves off regurgitating such press-release stuff (I doubt he knew any more clearly what he meant by “public and private cost’ than I do today, but oh, the true tales of the Pru’s financing I could tell you would make your each particular hair to stand on end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine), he can be relied upon to wax on matters literary, as he does in the sharply delightful little ditty at the heart of this book, “A State of Mind Surrounded by Water”:
Writers in our time still gravitate to Boston, attracted by the intellectual stimulus of Harvard and the less nervous wave-length distinguishing Boston from Manhattan. Robert Frost gravitated here, first to Louisburg Square and then to Cambridge; so did the late Bernard De Voto, who did his big historical books in Cambridge. Mark Antony de Wolfe Howe came to Boston from Rhode Island and was for long our most amiable biographer. At the foot of Beacon Hill, at 44 Brimmer Street, the house built by his grandfather, lives the seafaring historian Rear Admiral (Ret.) Samuel Eliot Morison, whose books about Columbus and John Paul Jones and whose histories of Harvard and of the Navy in World War II put him in a class by himself. John Marquand came back to Boston and his boyhood home in Newburyport to write his best novels, and today his place is taken by Edwin O’Connor, whose Irish heritage and skill in characterization mark him as our most discerning novelist.
All the classic old-style book-grandee hallmarks are there, most especially the unfailing taste: none of Boston’s more facile and publicity-friendly pundits in 1958 would have mentioned Bernard De Voto, let alone that delightfully stuffy old Athenaeum fixture from a century ago, Mark Antony de Wolfe Howe, whose string of Boston books are now permanently, resoundingly out of print, alas. And leave it to Edward Weeks to praise Edwin O’Connor and Samuel Eliot Morison, two of the many fantastic authors he championed throughout his life.
The second reason Boston: Cradle of Liberty manages to survive my ever-increasing book-culls is, naturally enough, the artwork that fills it. The artist is Fritz Busse, one of the best hands at conveying the nervy and very new-feeling energy of mid-century cities in the grip of urban renewal and cultural diversification. This is extra-tricky in a place like Boston, where the new and the old have always jostled a bit awkwardly, and Busse manages it beautifully, capturing both the monumental Boston that will stand until the Atlantic washes it under and the frenetic Boston of the day-to-day – in this case, a largely now-vanished day-to-day that adds an element of nostalgia to Busse’s drawings that he himself didn’t intend.
As mentioned, these books come and go – and they never come back again. A veritable avalanche of them rumbled off Boston presses in order to cash in on the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, and the books just keep on coming. Most of them are ephemera, but this one – like some other little gems of this joyous day! – is a keeper.
January 20th, 2016
It was a bit of a thready swallow, working my way past the smug cover photo of Fox News shill Megyn Kelly in the latest issue of Vanity Fair, but I was certainly glad I did, since the issue itself was chock-full of murder, celebrities, and murdered celebrities, plus great photos, grotesque real estate ads, and, in this issue, two short opening pieces of interest.
The first was James Wolcott’s smart, amusing “Podcast Nation,” in which he writes about a phenomenon I myself haven’t fully figured out yet: podcasts and what they’re all about – who they appeal to. I’ve listened to a smattering of podcasts in the last few years and completely failing to see the appeal, so I read Wolcott’s random musings here with extra interest, including the sweeping characterizations that are the sure-fire sign of a hack padding out a word-count:
Podcasts are essentially radio on the installment plan, a return to the intimacy, wombed shadows, and pregnant implications of words, sounds, and silences in the theater of the mind. As commercial radio trashed itself with so many commercials, demographic narrowing (in many markets, pitching to Aging Angry White Male), and the incessant pandering of the religious/right-win tom-tom drums, podcasts redeemed the medium by restoring its lost creative promise.
More interesting and far more alarming was Michael Kinsley’s short piece “The Unbearable Silence of P. C.,” about the rampant censorship of the so-called “progressive Left” in the US and UK. Kinsley is specifically worked up about British biochemist Sir Tim Hunt, who was driven out of his job and publicly ruined for jokes he made about women in the science lab, but to put it mildly, the problem exists in America too, where college undergraduate babies can scream in the face of their deans and professors (and where one of those instructors can in turn call for a mob to attack a reporter and not be arrested for it). I thought one bit of Kinsley’s piece was especially on-point, about how the greater danger isn’t the infringement of a legal protection of free speech but rather the more nebulous (but not less intentional) dampening of the whole societal expectation of free speech:
The First Amendment is nice to have if you find yourself arguing for free expression in a case before the Supreme Court. And that’s no small thing. But the Constitution isn’t the most important guarantee of free speech for the average citizen in ordinary circumstances. More important is a culture of free expression, where people are encouraged to say what they think, where eccentricity of all kinds is tolerated or even appreciated, and where Voltaire’s aphorism is baked into everyday life.
It’s not often that I agree with Michael Kinsley about anything (in fact, his 2015 “plagiarism – meh, no big deal” piece was one of the most corrupt and idiotic pieces Vanity Fair has ever run), but in this I think he’s exactly right: First Amendment or no First Amendment, if people start to think that they can’t speak freely, their right to do so won’t mean much. Kinsley’s piece prompted me yet again to thank whatever gods may be that I spend no time in academia.
January 19th, 2016
Yet another digression before we even get to our technical main topic! This time it’s the “Hornblower Saga” mass market paperback 1970s reprint run of all the classic Horatio Hornblower adventures by C. S. Forester, each with a gorgeous new cover by an uncredited artist.
The Hornblower books have of course been reprinted many, many times, in many formats, in every language in the world. I myself have owned probably half a dozen complete sets over the decades, and I’ve read and re-read many a mass market paperback until it collapsed into pulpy dust in my hands. But these old Pinnacle paperbacks have always been my favorite design.
For two reasons, mainly (in addition to simple good timing, that is – they came to me at a time in my life that was perfect for enjoying the slightly stodgy grandeur that’s at the heart of Forester’s writing), and, fittingly enough for our Art of the Mass Market feature, both revolve around the covers.
First, we don’t see Horatio Hornblower himself. Virtually all of the other edition covers I’ve seen show us our heroic Napoleonic-era seaman shouting or waving a sword or battling the elements. We see his different uniforms at all the stages of his career – stages often reflected in the titles of the books: Mr. Midshipman Hornblower, Lieutenant Hornblower, Commodore Hornblower, Admiral Hornblower in the West Indies, Lord Hornblower. And he’s always depicted predictably: athletic, square-jawed, blandly good-looking. In a way, this approach to book covers for the series is totally understandable – after all, the series entirely pivots on the exploits of this one man. But I’ve never been a big fan of book covers telling me what fictional characters look like, and I’ve always disliked having Forester’s meticulously atmospheric novels reduced to discreet moments of action. These books are at least as much about the British Navy as they are about its most famous fictional officer, and these great Pinnacle covers give us ships instead of men – ships at war, ships in storms, ships bathed in tropical sunset or locked in Russian ice. It’s somehow always struck me as more fitting.
And second, we get the world of Hornblower without any carnival-barking. The design for the series on each cover reads “The Greatest Naval Adventures of All Time!” – but there’s nothing else. No blurbs from any of Hornblower’s flotilla of literary admirers over the years, no canned plot summaries, and most amazingly of all, no back-cover copy whatsoever. In an incredibly rare decision for paperback book marketing, the editors of this series decided to let those beautiful wraparound cover illustrations speak entirely for themselves.
I’ve always found the result spellbinding. The orange sunlight of Hornblower and the Hotspur just continues on the back cover, where we see other ships in the squadron. The cold silver light of Commodore Hornblower‘s frozen Russian harbor wraps around to more ice and snow on the back. And in my favorite cover in the series, Ship of the Line‘s storm at sea is rendered all the more ominous under a low black cloud on the back cover, with one lonely ship in the distance.
Covers like these don’t natter at you. They present you with dramatic images and then let you spin your own stories around them. I think that’s why they’re the only Hornblower covers that haven’t grown stale for me over the years. Of course, stale or fresh makes little difference when we’re talking about paperbacks from fifty years ago – much as I love these old mass markets, they’re hardly usable anymore as books. Just recently I re-read this set’s copy of Beat to Quarters and it very nearly disintegrated in my hands. Probably it’s time to retire the whole line from active duty, as it were – in which case this appreciation of their covers can serve as a final salute.
January 18th, 2016
Our book today is Universe 10, the tenth installment in the great old science fiction anthology series by one of the best and sharpest-eyed editors the genre ever produced, Terry Carr. This slim volume is from 1980 – the copy I have is a hardcover, although I expect most of the loyal readers Terry amassed over decades of putting out top-notch anthologies knew his works by their paperback editions – and I’ve given away more copies than I can readily remember, all for the sake of one story in the book: “The Ugly Chickens” by Howard Waldrop. If you’ve known me for any length of time and our conversations have come around to science fiction, chances are that in addition to recommending Startide Rising and Damiano’s Lute and The Orphan, I’ve also recommended a small number of short stories. And in that number, right alongside “Scanners Live in Vain” or “Kith of the Elf-Folk” or “Brothers” or “Souls” I’ve also recommended “The Ugly Chickens” – and then handed you a copy of one or the other of the anthologies where Terry Carr included it. Because that’s what you kind of had to do, in the decades before the Internet: when it came to short stories, you had to go and physically find the thing somewhere and hand it to somebody if you ever expected them to read it.
But it occurred to me the other day – while browsing the Brattle bargain carts, naturally – that my affection for “The Ugly Chickens” has caused me to neglect revisiting the rest of the stuff in this volume, and when you’re dealing with an editor as borderline-infallible as Terry was, that’s clearly a mistake. So I recently read through the whole thing again, and the experience was both happy and sad: I smiled at some of the gems assembled here, and I missed the assembler.
The collection starts off with a decidedly off-form story by Michael Bishop, the right after that there’s “A Source of Innocent Merriment,” a typically smart and subversive piece by James Tiptree that opens with customary ease:
His eyes did not bear the look of eagles, his skin was not bronzed by the light of alien suns. Like most astro-explorers, he was a small, sallow, ordinary figure, compact and flexible, now sliding inconspicuously to paunch. His face, from the distance he had been pointed out to me, seemed ordinary too: boyish and a trifle petulant. He was sitting alone. As I came toward him through the haze and spotlights of Hal’s place, he glanced up, and the very bright blue of his eyes was striking even in the murk.
This collection also contains “And All the Skies are Full of Fish” by R. A. Lafferty, which got rave reviews from all the readers I knew back in 1980 but did nothing for me at all. It still does nothing for me at all, but at least I see a bit more of the worth they were seeing way back then. Likewise for “Bete et Noir” by Lee Killough, which I originally thought was included here solely because our editor seldom exercised a tight rein over his taste for high melodrama. I still think that, but the hammy way Killough goes about it right from the first notes appealed to me a bit more this time around:
On gray days, when the clouds hang in heavy pewter folds and the wind comes down cold and sharp as a blade, I think of Brian Eleazar. We stand facing each other in the sand garden, surrounded by the elaborate and alien patterns of rock outcroppings in a score of minerals and dune of a dozen different colored sands. The sand underfoot is fine and white as sugar over a deeper layer of red. Across it, between us, the trail of footprints shows scarlet, as though they were stepped in blood.
The volume also, delightfully, includes a couple of pieces of speculative nonfiction. It was a positive treat to read Eric Iverson’s “Report of the Special Committee on the Quality of Life,” for instance.
But inevitably, I keep coming back to “The Ugly Chickens,” Waldrop’s antic and surprisingly poignant alternate natural history of a certain flightless bird, which gets mentioned during the short city bus trip at the story’s beginning:
“I haven’t seen any of those ugly chickens in a long time,” said a voice close by.
A gray-haired lady was leaning across the aisle toward me.
“I used to live near some folks who raised them when I was a girl,” she said. She pointed.
I looked down at the page my book was open to.
What I should have said was: That is quite impossible, madam. This is a drawing of an extinct bird of the island of Mauritius. It is perhaps them most famous dead bird in the world. Maybe you are mistaking this drawing for that of some rare Asiatic turkey, peafowl, or pheasant. I am sorry, but you are mistaken.
I should have said all that.
What she said was, “Oops, this is my stop.” And got up to go.
My name is Paul Lindberl. I am twenty-six years old, a graduate student in ornithology at the University of Texas, a teaching assistant. My name is not unknown in the field. I have several vices and follies, but I don’t think foolishness is one of them.
The stupid thing for me to to would have been to follow her.
She stepped off the bus.
I followed her.
Of course, enjoying that story all over again (and feeling all over again the simmer of frustration over the fact that Waldrop is still virtually unknown, now even among the newer generation of sci-fi fans) gave me the strong desire to find and re-read all the dozens and dozens of anthologies edited by Terry Carr. Maybe I’ll snatch them up as they appear at the Brattle. You’ll be the first to know.
January 17th, 2016
Some Penguin Classics need to work harder than others to define their terms. Take, for example, the nifty recent volume edited by Laura Ashe, Early Fiction in England from Geoffrey of Monmouth to Chaucer – even the title of the book might prompt a quizzical expression from the average reader, who might just naturally associate “early fiction in England” with Richardson and Fielding, hundreds of years later than Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chaucer. The so-called renaissance of the 12th century is all well and good, but can a volume titled Early Fiction in England actually manage to find any fiction?
Professor Ashe seems well aware of the tangle of ideas here preceding the emergence of a revitalized European literature in the 12th century, and she notices the shortage of one key element:
The earliest English writers had access to all the learning of the known world; churchmen travelled freely from north Africa and the Middle East to the monasteries of Yorkshire and Kent, bringing books and knowledge with them. English writers translated scripture, philosophy and theology; they wrote practical handbooks of medicine, astrology, weather prediction and recipes; they composed language and grammar guides for those learning to read and translate; they wrote saints’ lives and vivid accounts of the deaths of martyrs; they produced the unique vernacular poetry about loss, and love, and despair; they composed epic narratives of heroic warriors and their monstrous enemies. But despite all this, they did not write fiction.
After reading such a summary, the natural response might be to say those early English writers – and readers – weren’t actually doing without fiction but rather creating and enjoying it in forms somewhat different from the forms writers and readers use today. Surely the stories of Scripture, the elaborate teleologies of philosophy and theology, and most especially the entirely spurious wonders (physical and psychological) of all those saints’ lives were doing the work of Smollett, Burney, et al and just not getting the credit?
But again, we come back to defining our terms, and Professor Ashe has a veritable web of a definition for fiction – one that seems tailor-constructed specifically to disqualify every last scrap of martyrology:
‘Fiction’ is not a synonym for ‘literature’, as it is often used today. It is a label used to imply a contract between author and reader, a contract whose terms are known without being explicitly stated. The terms are these: that both author and reader know, and are aware that the other knows (and knows that they know), that this narrative is not an account of events which can be known to have happened.
This seems a bit dodgy to me, just a trifle too convenient. I know it’s customary nowadays to set no upper limit on the credulity of pre-Enlightenment common folk, but nobody in AD 986, reading all those juicy stories about executed martyrs walking around carrying their severed heads in the crooks of their elbows, or stories about fish in the river singing the praises of the local slain bishop, or sacred children causing flowers to grow in winter … nobody reading those stories ever looked up and said, “Honey, this story reminds me of that time last week when I heard that trout talking about Bishop Athanasius.” I look at Professor Ashe’s distinctions – that fiction is a story I know is made up, and you know it’s made up, and you know I know it’s made up – and I wonder how many smart, educated people more or less just like herself she’s consigning to the turnip truck in order to widen the ambit of a Penguin anthology.
But the anthology itself, regardless, is superb! In between the thick garlic-bread loaves of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account of King Arthur and Chaucer’s account of embattled Troy, we get a wide range of delights: Wace’s Brut is here, and Sir Orfeo, and Marie de France, and the great, now-forgotten Walter Map. Professor Ashe herself provides a translation of Amis e Amilun that’s one of the highlights of the whole book. And as with so many Penguin anthologies, so too with this one: it’s a delight to think of all the college and high school students out there who’ll be encountering all these great old writers in such a fresh and energetic presentation. And the fact that the good professor’s fancy-dancing about what fiction is and is not can only spark debates is just a much-appreciated bonus.
January 16th, 2016
It’s been a long time, and a lot of water has gone under the proverbial bridge since Marvel’s latest mega-event “Secret Wars” mini-series began its nine-issue run back in 2007. Writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Esad Ribic launched the event – in which some kind of universe-killing singularity wipes out the entire continuity of the Marvel universe, leaving the super-villain Doctor Doom in possession of a godlike amount of power and a little world to shape and rule with it – with a great deal of enthusiasm, promising fans huge, re-shaping changes in all the favorite comic book characters. And now, the descendants of those fans have the final issue of the mini-series before them at last.
I always go into an event-series like this one with high hopes, which is nuts, I realize. In “Secret Wars,” Doctor Doom possesses the power to re-shape reality, and with a plot like that, the most tempting brass ring at the end of the run will be the possibility that when the dust settles, Marvel can use the mini-series to make fundamental changes to their monthly comics – that is, to give themselves a “do-over” when it comes to boneheaded plot-mistakes editors have allowed their writers to make over the last few years. Marvel has made an ample, almost embarrassing number of such mistakes recently, so such a series would have plenty of work to do.
And this issue’s cover – a hyper-kinetic masterpiece by Alex Ross – certainly got my hopes up. At the center of the cover, Doctor Doom and Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four are grappling, and radiating outward from them are jagged shards showing iconic moment after iconic moment from the long history of Marvel Comics: we see the birth of Franklin Richards; we see the rebirth of Steve Rogers as Captain America; we see the death of Elektra; we see the first appearance of the Phoenix; we see the fabled realm of Asgard. It all seems to bode well – it seems to hint that when the drama of the issue is over, Hickman and his editors will re-set Marvel’s continuity along the traditional lines that served the company so well for sixty years. Thor will no longer be a woman. Professor X and Jean Grey will no longer be dead. There will be only one team of Avengers. Steve Rogers will still be Captain America. There will only be one team of X-Men. And so on and so on.
The issue itself finds action in full-tilt. The Black Panther and the Sub-Mariner have accessed a source of near-infinite power themselves and are using it to battle Doctor Doom – until Hickman decides to shift the fight abruptly to a one-on-one fight between Reed and Doom, with the winner getting the power of a god.
Reed wins, and there’s a gigantic white flash, and then? Then I was hoping things would go back to normal.
But no. Instead, after all these years of waiting, the end result is an unmitigated mess. When the white light fades, we find Reed and his family calmly going about the business of using their godlike power to shape entire universes. They’ve got no plans to return to Earth – they appear to be living on the “Battleworld” planet Doom first created. We get a couple of glimpses of the “new” Marvel Universe, but since “Secret Wars” was originally intended to conclude back in early 2008, Marvel’s various comic books have been publishing in full spate since then, showing fans the changes this mini-series was supposed to be the first to reveal.
Those changes are troubling. “Secret Wars” was the first Marvel mega-event ever that not only didn’t involve the X-Men but also scarcely mentioned mutants, for instance, and of course one of the biggest changes the mini-series brought about is the one I already alluded to: the Fantastic Four, the founding, flagship team of the Marvel renaissance, is no more. And in the larger, more money-driven world beyond Marvel’s comics, the company doesn’t own the cinematic rights to either the X-Men or the Fantastic Four – and in the wake of this reality-resetting mini-series, the X-Men have been reduced to one tiny splinter-group among many (with no iconic male Wolverine among their ranks), and the Fantastic Four has been eliminated altogether. The whole thing reeks not of a creative bullpen but of a corporate boardroom.
This particular issue had its strong points, as the entire mini-series has had: Hickman’s writing of these great, foundational Marvel characters crackles with life, and Esad Ribic’s artwork in these pages is the best stuff he’s ever done. But the plot makes little to no sense even by mega-event standards, and the end result is still a Marvel continuity in ass-over-tea kettle disarray. Maybe the next Secret Wars will have better luck.