Six More for the Scribblers!

penguin gibbon memoirA good many of you responded favorably to that last “Six for the Scribblers” writer-biography round-up (and some of you pointed out that the entry didn’t, in fact, include six biographies but instead only five, against which my only lame defense is to note that this is “Stevereads” not “Stevecounts”), and since there are EVER so many more such biographies to choose from, I thought I’d go back to my shelves and pull down six (I promise this time!) more winners for your consideration.

The first is that most treacherous of all writer-biographies: the ones the writers write themselves. I have a bit of a weakness for these, even though they’re typically stuffed to the gunwales with gossip, self-justifications, and outright lies. I’ve read Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings and Anthony Trollope’s An Autobiography many times, even though I know the authors aren’t going to be so interesting as to include any personal revelations (I’ve also read all of William Dean Howells’ autobiographical writings many times, even though I know the author isn’t going to be so interesting as to leave any personal revelations out)(and don’t get me started on Theodore Dreiser’s autobiographical stuff). And because of the deep and abiding love I have for his great book, I’ve read Edward Gibbon’s Autobiography many times as well, usually in the spiffy 1984 Penguin edition, which presents the 1897 John Murray text, with the great Betty Radice doing the editorial duties and sounding off in her inimitable way about the author lucy reading byronhimself:

Language in all its refinements was never his interest, and, in spite of his ear for the rhythms of English prose, he shows no deep feeling for verse; perhaps because he was unmusical. But no one has exceeded his capacity for absorbing a subject and retaining it in a memory as well indexed as it was capacious, and no historian has achieved a better combination of assembled material and imaginative insight.

And then there’s the unmistakable prose of Gibbon himself, those rolling periods that did so much for the maturing of the English language, even when the actual sentiments they convey are just so much sheep-dip:

I shall not expatiate more minutely on my economical affairs which cannot be instructive or amusing to the reader. It is a rule of prudence, as well of politeness, to reserve such confidence for the ear of a private friend, without exposing our situation to the envy or pity of strangers: for envy is productive of hatred, and pity borders too nearly on contempt.

k - haymanGibbon had many predecessors, of course, in terms of sharpening English into a language worthy of French. One of the most forgotten of those predecessors today is the Tudor poet and diplomat Thomas Wyatt, whose 1929 biography by E. M. W. Tillyard still ranks as my favorite, even though it’s really just a biographical sketch prefacing a collection of the man’s verse. Even so, Tillyard is never less than quotable:

Wyatt was a man of action, swift in emergency, brilliant at initiating a move, one who delighted to have his intellectual faculties tried. The intrigues and delays of the court of Spain irritated him intensely: in the bustle and movement, the rumours and alarms of Charles’s journey through France, he was happy. He read Charles’s intentions with clear insight, and realizing soon that he could not influence the issue of events, he wrote home begging to be recalled. One cannot help admiring the way in which he faces the truth and unhesitatingly lets his master know the worst.

Scholars like Tillyard are hampered in writing a Wyatt biography by how many factual blank spots there necessarily are in any pre-modern life. To put it mildly, this isn’t a problem Lionel Stevenson has in his fantastic – and still very much unrivaled – 1947 biographylucy reading showma of vanity fair of William Makepeace Thackeray, The Showman of Vanity Fair. Stevenson includes almost every one of the thousand choice anecdotes generated around Thackeray in his lifetime, and he sums up his subject quite well:

At the age of fifty Thackeray had reached the fulfillment of all his dreams. The years of nomadic restlessness were at an end. Ever since he left India, when he was six, he had been essentially rootless – the various houses in London had been little more than caravanserais. Now he owned a home built according to his demands and handsome enough to fulfill his ideas of luxury. Having earned the thirty thousand pounds to replace the inheritance he had squandered, he was able to give up the wearisome labor of editorship and to see some promise of escaping even from the creation of novels, which had always been an agonizing strain upon his nerves. The placid writing of history had beckoned to him for years as the future solace of his retirement. He was at last what he had always yearned to be – a gentleman of independent means and literary tastes, dwelling in the mellow atmosphere of the eighteenth century and preparing to apply himself to a suitably elegant hobby.

Naturally, when world-wide fame is mentioned in the same breath as authors, one particular author tends to come to mind, the one who “woke up one morning and found himself famous,” and Lord Byron has certainly not lacked for biographers. The best of these so far is Leslie Marchand, who finished a massive three-volume life of Byron in 1957 and in 1971 came lucy and wyattout with an extremely winning one-volume overview called Byron: A Portrait, which follows its famous subject at a very sprightly pace from birth to fame to scandal to exile to death – and a little beyond death:

There was something in Byron’s restless spirit that did continue to breathe when he expired, that moved his close associates to devotion to his memory and to contention with others, but scarcely ever to indifference. Few man have had a more far-reaching influence beyond the tomb. [John Cam] Hobhouse soon felt this. He wrote: “poor Byron – he always kept his friends in hot water during his life and it seems his remains will be of no easy management after his death.”

It would be hard to find a famous writer less like Byron than Franz Kafka, and yet they’ve both received an entire library section of biographies, ranging from the short and controversial to the long and definitive. Somewhere in the middle is Ronald Hayman’s fine 1981 study K: A Biography of Kafka, which sketches in all the well-known details and provides through it all a witty and slightly caustic running commentary that hislucy and james boswell subject might have appreciated:

At ten o’clock in the evening of 22 September 1912 the twenty-nine-year-old Franz Kafka sat down to begin his story ‘Das Urteil’ (‘The Judgment’). When he finished it at six in the morning, his legs so stiff he could hardly pull them from under the desk, he knew he had used his talent as never before. He had discovered ‘how everything can be said, how for everything, for the strangest fancies, a great fire is ready. They’re consumed and resurrected.’ The equation of destruction with creation is characteristic. He frequently destroyed his own writings, as if the less successful ones were weeds that could choke worthwhile work before it emerged.

Kafka made a biographer’s job a bit easier than some, since he was a voluminous letter-writer. But his conflicted instincts for self-revelation take a distant back seat to those of James Boswell, who wrote innumerable letters and, more to the point, kept scandalous, garrulous journals for virtually the whole of his life. In 1991, John Wain produced a wonderful selection from those wonderful books, The Journals of James Boswell, 1762-1795, in which we follow Boswell into every imbecility and folly he ever thought to commit to paper. Wain is a discerningly sympathetic guide, setting us at ease right away about the enormous, slobbering elephant in the room:

Strange, how many people feel obliged to go into a well-and-bucket act where Boswell and Johnson are concerned. If Johnson is profound, Boswell is a nonentity. If Boswell is interesting, then Johnson is a comic ogre. In fact anyone not in the grip of that particular compulsion can see that they were both interesting, both valuable.

lucy reading more writers livesAnd Boswell does the rest, merrily, handily, showing at once the artifice and the lack of self-consciousness that he somehow managed to wear side-by-side. Every page in these journals is every bit as entertaining as anything in Boswell’s famous Life of Johnson, and most of the entries do what the best of that big book does: makes us both admire and cringe at Boswell’s candor. Take the entry for Wednesday, 23 March 1768, for instance:

I had this morning been at Tyburn seeing the execution of Mr Gibson, the attorney, for forgery, and of Benjamin Payne for highway robbery. It is a curious turn, but I never can resist seeing executions … One of weak nerves is overpowered by such spectacles. But by thinking and accustoming myself to them, I can see them quite firmly, though I feel compassion.

I can whole-heartedly recommend these six author-biographies, and there are many, many more (for example, I’m sure, looking back on this particular list, that some readers are going to ask for – demand? – an all-female list to follow, and I can certainly oblige, as ridiculous as that is). Perhaps a regular feature? Stranger things have happened.

The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters!

the travels of jaimie mcpheeters coverOur book today is Robert Lewis Taylor’s 1958 historical novel The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters, which made as much of a splash as any book could reasonably be expected to make. It sold briskly (thanks to an innovatively energetic ad campaign); it garnered an enviable collection of critical praise (The New York Times called it “tremendously exciting,” the old Boston Transcript praised its “grubby verisimilitude,” and the San Francisco Chronicle, perhaps inevitably, referred to its “rollicking good humor”); it won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (undeservedly, it must be admitted – good as it is, it’s not a patch on Mary Renault’s The King Must Die); and it spawned a popular TV series. It’s a pure demonstration of sic transit gloria mundi that the book and its author are now completely forgotten.

It’s the story the titular young hero, who follows the pioneer wagon train west from St. Louis to California in the 1849 Gold Rush, a standard spine of travel-novel around which Taylor was free to deck all the period-research he’d done piecemeal over the course of two decades. The book has a deal too much of that regurgitated research, but it’s saved from tedium by the fact that Taylor has a very entertaining grasp of his main character, who comes across as a dimmer, less funny version of Huck Finn:

Well, this was all right. I turned around slowly, naked as a jaybird, roasting one side after another, letting the a roaring in the wind coverheat sink clear into my bones. When you come right down to it, there’s nothing like a fire for putting the spunk back into a body. Looked at in some ways, the situation didn’t exactly call for a celebration – I was standing pelt-bare in a strange woods out I the middle of nowhere – but I felt fine and ready to push ahead.

The bulk of the book, as the title suggests, consists of Jaimie’s various coming-of-age adventures, during which he learns the ways of adulthood, the ways of prostitutes (gold-hearted and otherwise), and the ways of the Indians he encounters along the way (those particular scenes are the book’s most memorable by a long shot). These adventures are punctuated regularly by Jaimie’s reflections, not all of which are quite as lucy reads taylorprofound as their author probably thought when he was writing them:

In books I’ve read, I notice that they do a lot of talking about so-and-so’s “character,” making the point that hardly anybody’s what they seem but that everybody’s pretty deep and shifty. I can well believe it.

Taylor wrote a whole shelf of other books in his forgotten career, including 1978’s A Roaring in the Wind, which has an even creakier premise than The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters: a naïve Harvard city-slicker heads out West to Montana, gaining worldly knowledge enough to replace all that stupid book-knowledge he’d been taught at school. It’s a big, very enjoyable book all the same, not quite sunk by the fact that a staggering ten reviewers referred to it as some kind of yarn.

These books are gone now, at least as much gone as any book ever is these days (probably you could buy a copy of each for one penny in 40 seconds online, if you were of a mind to), but re-reading them brought back memories of a reading-era that seems now a bit simpler. Or maybe it’s that the whole sub-genre grew up quickly when Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove appeared.

The Allure of the Islands in the Penny Press!


Conde Nast Traveler’s latest issue is their regular celebration of islands, which the magazine’s fantastic new editor-in-chief Pilar Guzman justifies with elegant simplicity:

Everything just tastes, looks, and feels better on an island. (It’s a little like how airplane altitude adds two starts – and many more tears – to every movie experience.) Maybe it’s that the relative difficulty of getting to most islands, combined with the thrill of that first sighting on the horizon, awakens the explorer in all of us.

The four main islands considered in the issue represent an odd assortment – two of them are hopeless causes: Yolanda Edwards does a game job trying accentuate the positives of the island of Antigua, and who knows but that she might fool a few Traveler subscribers into visiting the foul, benighted, steaming-hot thief-infested hell-hole. But even her task pales before the job Patrick Symmes has in trying to put a shine on the godforsaken island of Cuba. He fails as badly as Edwards does, but you’ve got to give them both points for trying.

Far more successful is Maria Shollenbarger’s wonderful piece on the far-distant Indonesian archipelago of Raja Ampat, which she visits on board a fancy, lovely antique-replica ship with an attentive crew. A long, long time ago, I too visited the gorgeous, hot islands of Raja Ampat in a small, scuffed sloop crowded with brave beagles. We had three casks of water and a little barrel of dried food, and I lost count of how many tiny, overgrown islands we investigated, my boys and I, their broiling crowd led by my best friend Aidan and filled out with cautious, worrying Judge, inseparable Nine and Line, sweet-natured Wayel, bell-voiced Nore, and kindly, happy Moro, who was born with no eyes and was watched over by all the rest of conde nast travelerus. To put it mildy, we didn’t have any of luxuries Shollenbarger enjoyed:

We want for little. One evening the chef sends out platters of spring rolls; another, wafer-thin pizzas just when passengers start feeling puckish. Glasses are never allowed to empty, wet towels disappear and warm dry ones are quietly draped over shoulders, and every return from an afternoon at the beach or a snorkeling session is met with jokes and fresh juices or iced tisanes.

But the highlight of the issue for me, of course, was Ondine Cohane’s lively profile of the lesser-visited islands of Venice (including “the bright-green island of Sant’Erasmo”), which she styles as an attractive alternative to the more familiar tourist-crammed haunts of the city proper:

There are more than a hundred islands in Venice’s 212-square-mile ecosystem, but most tourists simply camp out near St. Mark’s Square and rarely venture beyond the clogged arteries that connect the main sights of the Rialto, the Grand Canal, and the Bridge of Sighs. The outer islands, however, are where traditional Venetian culture still runs deep, where layers of history can be peeled back in still-quiet settings, and where chefs, hoteliers, and artisans are innovating in ways that would be impossible on the Grand Canal, where tourists’ expectations of a quintessential Venice experience means there’s little opportunity for experimentation.

I know every footstep of those Venetian islands, every tree and crook, the taste of every lagoon breeze in every season, and the reminder of that time made me realize with a little start that almost all the places on Earth I’ve loved the most have been islands: Venice itself, of course, and Sicily, and Ireland, and Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket (and Cape Cod itself, for that matter)(and, for much sadder reasons, St. Lucia) – no wonder this issue and all the ones like it please me even more than the rest of the Conde Nast Traveler year.


Six for the Scribblers!

lucy reads preserved smithOur books today are six sterling choices from that strangest of all biographical sub-genres, the literary biography. A writer friend of mine (too soon gone, but his books live on, which is kind of the whole point, isn’t it?) summed up the strangeness rather well one day while we were prowling the Brattle bargain-carts when I playfully suggested that one day he himself would be the subject of a biography: “I sit at a table in my basement for ten hours a day, every day, smoking, sipping whiskey, and typing. Zsa Zsa Gabor I’m not.”

He had a point. Most writers are poor miserable creatures, hopelessly narcissistic and boring. It’s almost as though in order to render the flow of humanity with such fascinating vigor, they have to embody the worst of humanity themselves, to become resentful stenographers, overcompensating with whatever small notoriety life gives them for the fact that they don’t build bridges or lead troops into combat or raise families. And their daily toil is even less appetizing than their lives: there’s really only one way to grind out pages, and it doesn’t exactly lend itself to drama.

And yet, our curiosity about such creatures and their work is entirely understandable. If there weren’t bridges, we’d find some other way to cross the river, but without Pride and Prejudice or The Tale of Genji we wouldn’t adapt – we’d just be less. That entails a great debt, and it’s understandable that we’d want to know about the people who gave us those priceless things.

Hence, the burgeoning field of the literary biography! I’ve read thousands of these things, and I almost always notice a pervasive split-reaction: thelucy reads lord rochester actual lives of the authors in question are, as hinted, often grindingly mundane – and yet the biographers, borne aloft by their love of the writers’ works (what but that would have brought them originally to their thankless work?), often deck those biographies out with the best prose of their careers. That’s the heart of the split reaction: literary biographies are often the best, most engrossing kinds of biographies even though their actual subjects are often loathsome when they aren’t dull.

In a way, they themselves become characters in a larger story (I’ve always loved the bookstores that have murals not of romantic, heroic fictional characters but their pale, daub-headed authors), and those stories, when told well, can spell-bind almost as surely as the novels and histories and poems by their subjects.

So here are six prime choices, for your consideration!

wharton coverEdith Wharton by Hermione Lee – Lee’s massive 2007 biography of the 20th century’s greatest novelist has everything in it, from groundbreaking archival research to irresistible narrative to – always a wonderful bonus – remarkably thought-provoking analyses of Wharton’s large body of work, not just the novels but the scattered nonfiction and huge file of correspondence. The result is a monumental last-word type of thing, a book I’ve enjoyed more each time I’ve revisited it since the heady year I first read and reviewed it. I enthusiastically recommend it, right after you’re done with Wharton’s great novels.

Erasmus by Preserved Smith – Did somebody mention a huge file of correspondence? The collected letters of the once-famous and now-forgotten 16th-Century “Prince of Humanists” fill an entire long shelf of close-printed hardcovers issued by the University of Toronto Press, and that was just the beginning of his written output – the rest of it would look prodigious even my modern electronic-word-processing standards and by the standards of his own time looks nothing less than miraculous. Despite nominally taking Holy Orders, Erasmus was purely a writer, living and breathing by his literary endeavors. It’s an utterly daunting amount of material to master in order to even begin to write about the man, and yet Erasmus biographers, those brave souls, have tried it anyway – and to my mind, none has ever done so brightly graceful a job of it as good gentle Preserved Smith half a century ago. Other biographers fill in more of the brawling Renaissance world where Erasmus lived than Smith does, but nobody manages to capture thelucy reads bruccoli silvery apothegms of the master as Smith. It makes his book a joy to read, which feels somehow fitting in connection with Erasmus.

seeing mary plainSeeing Mary Plain by Frances Kiernan – Kiernan’s 2000 biography of McCarthy is a pricelessly bon vivant reading experience, enlivened on practically every page by the fact that McCarthy was always the best possible commentator on her own boisterous life. Even now, an unthinkable quarter-century since McCarthy died, it’s still the best – and safest – practice for a biographer to do a lot of stepping aside and shutting up in order to let the mistress of ceremonies do her inimitable yarning. Kiernan is winningly sympathetic (her subject could be, as Catholic mothers were wont to say, a bit of a trial) biographer, although even her wonderful performance in these pages couldn’t revive McCarthy’s rapidly-fading reputation, alas; as much as I’d hate to see the fiction-reading world forget even her strongest novels, I’d hate even more for her workhorse-perfect “occasional prose” to be forgotten.

Lord Rochester’s Monkey by Graham Greene – This 1974 biography of John Wilmot, the Second Earl of Rochester (sometime-poet and the id to Charles II’s superego), is a sparkling example of that most paradoxical corner of the literary biography sub-genre: biographies of writers written by other writers (the celebrated example of the season is very good lord rochester's monkeynovelist Adam Begley’s biography of very bad novelist John Updike). I once thought that made them extra pathetic, but I’ve come to see them as doubly fascinating. On the surface, it’s a neatly proportionate idea: who better to understand the travails of a writer’s life than another writer, after all? Of course the whole thing usually falls apart – writers are peacocks, after all, and peacocks don’t like sharing the harem. But in this case it mostly works, helped by the fact that Greene and Rochester are such diametrically opposite personalities. You can practically sense Greene both admiring and envying Rochester’s scabrous enormities, and where the book’s researches at times grow inevitably thin, the difference is supplied by the quality of Greene’s paid-deadline prose, which is universally quite good. Rochester hasn’t exactly been showered with biographies in the centuries since his death, but he got a gem of one here.

Some Sort of Epic Grandeur by Matthew Bruccoli – Of course, when writing about writers, a biographer must always be prepared to write about ruin, perhaps a more personal and jarring kind of ruin than attends some sort of epic grandeurother biographical subjects. Prose and poetry are pulled from inside the person, after all, and those resources are seldom infinite except in hacks (I’ve avoided dealing with hacks in this entry, although they, too, get their share of biographers). In fact, I often wonder if that isn’t a secret part of the enjoyment that comes from reading author biographies: there’s something almost Greek-tragedy about the toll these geniuses pay to brighten our inner worlds. In any case, tales of wrecked authors are commonplace, and surely one of the highest peaks of that melancholy mountain chain is occupied by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who became a best-selling author and national phenomenon with his first book and had become a by-word for ruined talent and blasted health by the end of his life and career, not all that long after that best-selling debut. His was a dramatic, meteoric life and a tragic one, and it gets its best biographer in the indefatigable Bruccoli. In many ways Some Sort of Epic Grandeur is an anomaly of an author’s biography – for most of his career, Fitzgerald worked hard to hide the fact that he was working hard, and since Bruccoli for the most part faithfully reproduces this façade, what results reads like the opposite of the drudge’s-life my old friend at the Brattle described. I know many a young-idiot author who’d consider it an enviable thing to have the first ten years of Fitzgerald’s professional life even if they had to pay for it with the last ten years of it.

And there you have it – six quick lives of the scribblers! There are hundreds of thousands of others, naturally, and we’ll get to them all … but these are a good start.

Mystery Monday: The Queen’s Head!

mystery monday header

Our book today is The Queen’s Head, a 1988 murder mystery set in the England of Elizabeth I, written by a first-class hack under the pen-name of “Edward Marston” (there’s an in-joke there, but you’d have to be mighty well-read to spot it, and there’s no class of scribblers better-read, of course, than hacks). The Queen’s Head centers on a London acting troupe, Lord Westfield’s Men, although the main star of the book, Nicholas Bracewell, is occupied backstage as the company’s general factotum and manager – and, naturally, as an amateur sleuth.

the queen's head coverIt’s a taut, economical whodunit, one that opens with a quick, effective description of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587 and then whisks us straight into the hurly-burly Elizabethan theatrical world. Marston has researched that world with the verve and thoroughness of a working professional who’d hate getting called out on some piggling detail by a dry-as-dust academic, and he brings it alive with well-chosen details on every page.

His most clever move is the conception of Bracewell himself: he’s a friendly, supportive everyman rather than a Sherlock-Holmes-style martinet, and that allows him to be a perfect sounding board for the outsized personalities all around him. And as the action of The Queen’s Head commences, the biggest of those personalities belongs to flashy star-actor Will Fowler, the current toast of the London stage. In scene after scene, Marston wonderfully captures the peculiar allure of that stage-play world (an allure that hasn’t changed from that day to this, one suspects) – as in the early scene where Bracewell and Will Fowler try to convince broken-down old actor Samuel Ruff not to retire to his family farm in godforsaken Norwich. They come right out and ask him, “How can anyone exist without the theatre?”

“Cows have their consolation,” suggested Ruff.

“Leave off this arrant nonsense about a farm!” order his friend with a peremptory wave of his arm. “You’ll not desert us. D’you know what Nick and I talked about as we walked here tonight? We spoke about the acting profession. All its pain and setback and stabbing horror. Why do we put up with it?”

“Why, indeed?” said Ruff gloomily.

“Nick had the answer. On compulsion. It answers a need in us, Sam, and I’ve just realized what that need is.”

“Have you?”



“You’ve felt it every bit as much as I have, Sam,” said Fowler with his eye aglow. “The danger of testing yourself in front of a live audience, of risking their displeasure, of taking chances, of being out there with nothing but a gaudy costume and a few lines of verse to hold them. That’s why I do it, Sam, to have that feeling of dread coursing through my veins, to know that excitement, to face that danger! It makes it all worthwhile.”

“Only if you are employed, Will,” observed Ruff.

“Where will you get your danger, Sam?”

“A cow can give a man a nasty kick at times.”

“I’ll give you a nasty kick if you persist like this!”

Only a little while later, Will Fowler is killed in what looks like an ordinary bad tavern brawl, and his dying words embroil Bracewell in the cleverly-constructed mystery at the heart of The Queen’s Head. Marston is an unabashed fan of what used to be the genre’s staple elements – plot-twists, whole shoals of red herrings, and the Clever Reveal – and the whole thing moves along like precision clockwork to an ending that will leavelucy reads edward marston any mystery fan craving more.

Fortunately, there’s more – lots more. I lost count of how many Nicholas Bracewell mysteries Marston ended up writing, but it had to be well over a dozen. And this wasn’t his only ongoing series, not even close: he did one featuring two ship’s detectives during the heyday of the luxury-liner era at the beginning of the 20th century, and he also did many books in a quite good series featuring two men – a soldier and his whip-smart assistant – investigating location-oriented mysteries brought to light by the compiling of William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book. Probably there were lots of other series as well (pen-names being like tattoos – once you’ve broken down and tried it once, you tend to try it many times), but these two stand out in my mind as being especially enjoyable.

But I think the Nicholas Bracewell mysteries ring the truest to both our author’s personal interests and his natural wit. If you’re a fan of Tudor fiction, you should dig up this great old series and treat yourself.



The June 2014 Boston Public Library Book Sale!

bpl june 2014Even a winter-fancying polar bear (or perhaps arctic fox? I’ve had my nose licked by the latter and only been silently, systematically terrorized by the former, so maybe we’ll go with “arctic fox”) such as myself could hardly have complained about the gorgeous summer day that unfurled today in observance of the Boston Public Library’s June book sale: high white clouds, air that stayed comfortably on the warm side of hot, fluffy white eider filling the air and yet not provoking allergies.

So I kissed my furry little babies good-bye and made my way to the single specific place I love more than any other on Earth: the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, the old building designed by Charles Follen McKim of the legendary architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White and built in 1895 (of its half-dead conjoined parasitic twin, the Johnson building, I try to say as little as possible – I keep hoping I’ll wake up some morning and learn the whole thing was a bad dream). Over the last seven years, I’ve gradually taken into my private home life all the actual functions of the BPL; my new-release books come in the mail, my computer rests on top of a sleeping basset hound, and the combination of my personal library and the Internet proves sufficient for all the research I ever need to do these days. And yet I find reasons to go there, virtually every day. I’ve been to every single one of the world’s great libraries; I’ve had the privilege of using two dozen of them; but of all the big libraries, I love the BPL most of all (and as far as little libraries go, well, there’s one that I love more than any other – for one particular white-haired old reason).

And the normal joy of going to the BPL was only increased by a nice big book sale! I walked in the front door, past the statue of Handsome Harry Vane, to the foot of the marble stairs – and then I turned left (not a momentous thing in itself, of course, but I’m old enough that it felt strange! For a long time, a long time ago, the BPL had a regular book-sale you reached by turning right at the foot of those ornate stairs – but right is now a cute book sale signlittle restaurant full young patrons on laptops, deaf to the deal-hunting ghosts still lingering around them) and went downstairs to the book sale.

It was crowded, and as a long-time friend of the library, that pleased me. The books were laid out on tables and shelves, all ridiculously cheap, all a bit ramshackle, with BPL staff happily bustling around re-filling and re-stocking. I noticed an encouraging number of young people (and a splendid absence of those loathsome dealer-creatures tapping the ISBNs of every book into the online-pricing app on their cell phones)(because all us book-lovers are just suckers who don’t realize the gold mine we’re sitting on). At one point soon after I got there, a clerk called out that in order to move along their stock, every book in the room was half-price.

(A note to the young women of Boston: if you’re at a big library book sale with your handsome, muscular boyfriend and the two of you hear that all the books are now half-price and he grunts and says, “Huh – guess they must not be very good, huh, babe?” – break up with him. Don’t even wait out the day to do it. Just use him to lug your books back to your apartment, and then break up with him. You’ll thank me later)

And I found books! The easiest, fastest catch was the entire run of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin novels (minus only The Yellow Admiral, but hey – that gives me something to look for when I’m out and about on Monday, doesn’t it?), perfect to replace the uneven and incomplete accumulation of those wonderful books that I currently own, and getting all of them for less than $10 is a bargain not even my beloved Brattle Bookshop could equal.

bpl book sale june 2014I also found a couple of gay-fiction novels I used to own: Metes and Bounds by Jay Quinn and Under the Big Sky by S. Bryan Gonzales, the former about gay beach bums and the latter about gay rodeo riders. While I was thumbing through them, I was struck again by what curiosities they seem now, at least in the Western world: homosexuality enjoys greater public acceptance than it ever has, gay marriage is being legalized in one American state after another, and even the terrifying plague haunting so many of these novels is now a manageable health condition rather than a gruesome death sentence. When I first read these two novels, something like a gay “world” still existed, parallel to and persecuted by the straight world – and there’s no more fruitful seed-bed for fiction than parallel worlds. But now, in 2014? I’m not sure “gay fiction” is even possible anymore, or that there’d be a point to it if it were. I’ll be curious to see what the next ten years does to what remains of the sub-genre.

Anyway, I’m a sucker for UK-paperbacks, so when I saw one of Richard Holmes’s biography of the Duke of Marlborough, I snatched it up – a lovely-looking paperback that will now form the modern-research counterweight to my copy of the enormous, thunderingly good Marlborough biography by his even-more-famous kinsman, Winston Churchill.

Less, um, elevated was my choice of Wilbur Smith’s trashy ancient Egypt novel River God, which I found in a nice clean trade paperback. Aside from those two gay novels, this was my only book sale purchase today that stands a good chance of being a book-sale donation some time soon.

Not so the last two finds! The first of these was Christopher Clark’s 2012 book The Sleepwalkers, about the various complex factors that marched all of Europe into the First World War. I duly requested an advance copy from Harper as soon as I found out about the book, and as usual I heard nothing back from them. Then I duly repeated my request once the book’s publication was imminent – and again, I never heard anything back from them. And since I’ve made a small mental note not to add to the financial bottom line of publishers who ignore me, I skipped buying the thing even once it was right under my nose in bookstores. But such scruples don’t extend to library book sales, and there’s an extra irony to the fact that the copy I found is in fact an advance copy – so somebody out there had his book-request not only answered by fulfilled. Must be nice. Still, I’m eager to read the book.

And then there’s the jewel of my book-sale acquisitions this time around: The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, a hyper-detailed and lucy homecoming - june 2014utterly engrossing masterpiece of reading history by Jonathan Rose. It came out in 2001, and since in 2001 I had no expectations of getting publisher copies of anything, I simply bought it like plain folks and was blown away by the easy, compendious scholarship on every page, tracking microscopic social trends I’d have thought there was no way to track. I can’t count the number of times in the last ten years when I’ve reached for this book in order to consult it – only to find that my original copy had disappeared during some house-move or Brattle-sale or puppy-rampage or misguided lending. Needless to say, I’ll try to be more mindful of this copy, since random chance threw it in my path.

And that was it – not because there weren’t more goodies I might have wanted to snap up, but because the tote bag I brought with me was full, and so was my skimpy little shoulder bag. So I left the library (I’ll visit it again on Monday, I told myself), rode the subway back to the house, opened the front door, and I stood there smiling as a fat little sleeper slowly woke herself up to greet me. Every book-sale should have such an ending – and there’s a cool, beautiful night unfolding now that’s just perfect for reading!


A June Book-Haul!

book-haul 6 june 2014My favorites at over at BookTube continue to do their book-challenges and their book-unboxings and their book-hauls, so I thought I’d post my own first book-haul of June 2014! Not my first book-haul of the month just across the board, mind you; in my unofficial capacity as postal-gopher for Open Letters Monthly, I’m in the Christmas-every-day position of getting hauls of new and forthcoming books all the time – 51 so far in June. But although I do my best to read all of those incoming OLM books, there’s a slightly different feel to them than there is to the quite separate stacks of book-hauls that I hunt down and assemble for myself from Boston’s various used-book venues. Some fairly impersonal metrics of utility or buzz govern the selection-process of many of those new and forthcoming OLM books, after all, but the used books? The used books are just for my own enjoyment.

It’s for this reason that these Stevereads book-hauls have no new books in them, even though new and forthcoming books form roughly 80 percent of what I read. Instead, these deal with the remaining 20 percent (which might sound like a small percentage, but keep in mind that numerically speaking, it’s still more books than most people read over the course of two or three years) – but it’s a 20 percent near and dear to my heart! I love it when some new OLM book fills me with eagerness to sit down and read it (Joshua Howitz’s War of the Whales, for instance, or Samuel Hynes’s The Unsubstantial Air), but all my 20 percent “personal” books fill me with that same eagerness, even if – as is often the case – it’s an eagerness to re-read something.

So here’s my first June book-haul, with a little accompanying palaver about each! Just like they do it over at BookTube, only a) without the hair product, b) with no nagging requests to “like” and “subscribe,” and c) no books written for children!

At the top of the pile is something you’d surely think would be a screaming redundancy in my personal library, and you’d be right: it’s The Lord of the Rings, of which I the fellowshiphave about six different editions (two sets of mass market paperbacks, one set of trade paperbacks with movie-still covers from the Peter Jackson movies, one UK-paperback trilogy, and a couple of one-volume collections). But this particular Lord of the Rings is different, and it’s a difference that made me gasp a little when I saw it at my beloved Brattle Bookshop (which accepts phoned-in gift certificates from all and sundry, hint-hint): this white-spined 1970 boxed set edition is the very first Tolkien I ever owned. It was through this edition that I was introduced to this author – and these three books – that would go on to bring me so much pleasure. Opening them again now, after 45 years (by the smell of it, this set lived a long, neglected life in somebody’s basement for most of that time), I had vivid reminders of the surprise and dawning happiness I had when I first read the trilogy – and I encountered again Peter Beagle’s one-page Introductory note with its great final paragraph:

I said once that the world he charts was there long before him, and I still believe it. He is a great enough magician to tap our most common nightmares, daydreams and twilight fancies, but he never invented them either: he found them a place to live, a green alternative to each day’s madness here in a poisoned world. We are raised to honor all the wrong explorers and discoverers – thieves planting flags, murderers carrying crosses. Let us at last praise the colonizers of dreams.

wide as the waters coverNext is Benson Bobrick’s 2001 book Wide as the Waters, his history of the fascinating events and personalities behind the creation of the King James Bible. It’s well-trod ground – Adam Nicolson and Alister McGrath both did books on the exact same subject, pitched for the exact same kind of audience – but I’ve never read Bobrick’s, even though his 1997 book Angel in the Whirlwind is a very, very good account of the American Revolution (and even though I read, enjoyed, and reviewed his colorful The Caliph’s Splendor), so this particular entrant in our list today falls under the ‘new to me’ heading that’s always exciting, since nature abhors lacunae.

Up next is a wee little Dover paperback you can hardly see: an 85-page reprint of the elegant, idiosyncratic translation of “Tristan and Iseult” that the great Hilaire Belloc first did in the early years of the 20th century and then fiddled with for a decade. This Dover edition is a pretty thing, green and slim and with a cover featuring a detail from the famous painting of the unhappy young lovers by J. W. Waterhouse (as is so often the case with me, I immediately found myself wishing it weren’t a detail – the full painting is RIFE with telling details, and there’s something unexpectedly adorable about super-hottie Tristan’s metal booties) – it was an impulse buy, since it’s nicer than any other edition of this tale I have.

A big thing is next: Elizabeth George’s hugely satisfying 2012 novel Believing the Lie, which struck me at the time as a marked departure for her, even though on the surface it’s yet another detective/police procedural novel starring Inspector Lynley (i.e. the Earl of Asherton). Back when it was new in hardcover, I dug into it with my customary eagerness for this writer’s books, and right away I started noticing differences, some minor and some major; this is a bigger novel in its feel and confidence, rich enough and textured enough so that for the first time I felt a little annoyed at the publisher’s label of “An Inspector Lynley Novel” – to me, for the first time, this felt instead like a novel that just happened to number Inspector Lynley as one of its characters, less beholden to formula than any previous Elizabeth George novel I’d read. I noticed that this same believing the lie - georgetrend continued – if anything, deepened – in last year’s big novel Just One Evil Act. Of course I have no idea what happened to the hardcover of Believing the Lie I originally owned, so it was nice to find this paperback – I strongly recommend it, especially if you like your murder mysteries dense and atmospheric.

“Dense and atmospheric” also very much applies to the next book, A. C. Grayling’s controversial Among the Dead Cities, a study of the history and the morality of the concentrated “area bombings” on civilian targets carried out by the Allies during the Second World War. The book came out in 2006, and I consumed it eagerly and found it both invigorating and disturbing (had Open Letters existed then, I would certainly have reviewed it), just as its mild-mannered author had no doubt intended. In dealing with all aspects of the Allied bombing campaigns, Grayling’s logic is both window-clear and inexorable:

But there are other questions about Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They fall into a category made special not just by their character but by their timing. The bombing of Hamburg in Operation Gomorrah took place at the height of the war, when the outcome of the struggle was not yet certain, even though the Allied powers knew they had industrial and manpower advantages that so far outstripped those of the Axis states that the balance of likelihood already lay well on their side. These other, later bombings occurred when almost everyone involved could see that the war’s end was approaching. One can seriously ask for their justification even if one is already persuaded that such area attacks as Operation Gomorrah, conducted at the height of the war, were necessary or at least warranted by the circumstances at the time.

among the dead cities - graylingMy original hardcover copy of Among the Dead Cities vanished just as mysteriously as, apparently, my original copies of every other book I’ve ever owned, so I was pleased to find this one to re-read and put on my burgeoning WWII shelves.

Up next is a big book I just plain missed when it came out in 2008: Lawrence Freedman’s A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East, in which Friedman – a genial, intelligent writer whose book Kennedy’s Wars was an entirely credible entry into a field crowded with crap – examines the long and troubled United States involvement with Iraq and Iran, starting with the administration of President Carter and extending down to the dolorous present-day. I missed reading this when it came out, I missed reviewing it for Open Letters or anybody else, and I somehow managed never to come across it in any of a thousand used bookstore trips in the last six years. But I just recently found a copy, so it, like the Bobrick, goes to the top of the pile (although I shouldn’t kid myself: if you were to spy on me tonight at 2 a.m., you’d likely find me breathlessly absorbed in The Two Towers).

Last from this haul is a big, lavishly illustrated edition of Gavin De Beer’s 1967 study of the Second Punic War called Hannibal: Challenging Rome’s Supremacy, one of the best books I’ve read on one of the most perennially interesting subjects human history has to offer. De Beer has pronounced opinions on every aspect of Hannibal’s war with Rome, from the exact composition of his hannibal - de beerarmies to the exact route he took to cross the Alps, and all of it is livened up considerably by an open admiration of the book’s central character in all his apparent contradictions. De Beer smartly acknowledges that those contradictions matter little in the face of posterity’s verdict:

Little has changed, and yet, down the corridors of time, something has changed. The Greeks beat the Trojans, but now, after three thousand years, it is a greater compliment to be called a Trojan. Scipio beat Hannibal, but now, after two thousand years, it is Hannibal who has vanquished his victor, for he commands a fame and a sympathy which are not extended to Scipio. The same can be said of Arthur and the Anglo-Saxons, Harold and William the Conqueror, Napoleon and Wellington. Admiration is like belief; as Shelley so eloquently showed, it is not a matter of volition, but of temperament, and therefore of taste.

It’s been at least thirty years since I last read De Beer’s book or even saw a copy, so finding it the other day struck something of the same chord as finding that old box set of The Lord of the Rings: joy mixed with strong nostalgia. Now if I can just manage to hold onto them this time …

lucy's book haul 6 june 2014


The Fault in Our Star in the Penny Press!


As usual, the “Summer Fiction” issue of the New Yorker had its fair share of good things. In years past with these issues, I’ve often had to look elsewhere than the actual fiction to find those good things, but in 2014 the magazine has been on the run of its life for short stories, and this issue is no exception. There’s quite a bit of quality stuff here, my favorite being David Gilbert’s “Here’s the Story” – although I should qualify that, I suppose: in the middle of the issue is a two-page cartoon on the issue’s “My Old Flame” theme called “Gradual Impact” by Alison Bechdel that’s easily the best, most affecting work of fiction in this issue – a strange, utterly true-feeling (purely autobiographical?) little story about the weird, hesitant paths an unexpected love affair can take.

new yorkerBut as enjoyable as the fiction in the issue was (and the nonfiction too, for the most part, including Christine Smallwood’s better-than-she-deserves profile of stunt-reader Phyllis Rose, the distaff A. J. Jacobs), how could anything recover the issue for me after the howling blight at the heart of it, the thing that will cause this issue to sell out of every newsstand and distribution center all over the country?

I refer, of course, to Margaret Talbot’s piece called “The Teen Whisperer” about YA novelist John Green.

I’ve made no secret of my dislike for this charlatan and “Nerdfighteria,” the vast, sprawling cult he leads with his brother Hank. I have no beef with the strictly average Young Adult novels he writes – somebody’s got to write such things, and they serve a useful training-wheels function in conditioning young reading muscles for the more rigorous joys of the reading awaiting them down the road (at least, they used to perform that function – but I’ll come back to that). No, my problems with John & Hank Green, with “Nerdfighters” and “Nerdfighteria” and their idiotic motto “Don’t Forget To Be Awesome” is the way the whole lock-step conformist mess undermines the very individuality it alleges to celebrate. The ranks of “Nerdfighers” in their thousands quote back and forth the catch-lines from The Fault in Our Stars; they pattern their every last behavior according to these limp, overwritten little things; they check their smallest stray individual thought against the consensus of their chat-boards – and they worship the Green brothers with a blind idolatry that would have embarrassed the golden calf at Mammon.

And they put their money where their Vidcon screams are. When Talbot quotes Hank Green saying “We really believed in the importance of online video as a cultural form,” she’s performing the PR function she serves throughout most of this well-written piece; the “Vlogbrothers” don’t care a rip about cultural forms – but it’s pretty easy to care about the surging Alpine river of cash funneling through their numerous “merch”-revenue-generating sites, including the online “DFTBA” clearing house for gimcracks and music by handpicked artists. It’s true that Talbot is occasionally very gently critical; about their “Crash Course” videos, she writes, accurately, that “if you watched them all you’d know a lot, but you’d also think you knew more than you did.” But at no point in her piece does she even so much as hint that the Green brothers have carefully positioned themselves at the top of a gigantic money-generating empire – much less that they care about such non-awesome things.

Instead, she goes for hagiography of  so egregious a sort that you immediately start wondering if the New Yorker is owned by the same parent-company that owns the move studio producing the adaptation of Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Talbot quotes YA expert Lizzie Skurnick saying that Green’s books have hidden depths: “They’re sophisticated points, but they’re there.”

They’re not. His books are shallow – not only necessarily so, since they’re written for children, but also intentionally so, with the young characters all sounding like grad school students and the adult characters zombie-shuffling around as one-note caricatures of how an adult guy thinks young kids think adults think.

Talbot is a smart writer, and when she gets going on the meat of her subject, she forgets to shoe-polish and makes some shrewd comments on the tremendous changes the Internet has wrought on the very act of reading:

In a different era, “The Fault in Our Stars” could have been that kind of cultish book. For many young people today, however, reading is not an act of private communion with an author whom they imagine vaguely, if at all, but a prelude to a social experience – following the author on Twitter, meeting other readers, collaborating with them on projects, writing fan fiction. In our connected age, even books have become interactive phenomena.

But she keeps coming back to the uphill task of elevating Green to sainthood and his books to an entirely different section of the Keokuk Public Library. She recounts a nat wolffvideo-chat Green has with a group of young cancer patients like the ones in The Fault in Our Stars, including one young girl who has the same kind of cancer as one of the book’s characters. At one point this young girl tells Green “At least you got me right,” and the scene unfolds like something out of the Gospel of Mark:

Afterward, a teacher wrapped the session up, and everybody waved. The screen went blank. Green put his head down on his arms and cried.

The only thing missing is “Not my will, Father, but thine be done.”

But even that’s marginally pardonable in a New Yorker profile (although the magazine’s long tradition of biting observation is summarily abandoned for the length of the piece – Talbot makes no mention, for instance, of the fact that the DFTBA site has been at the heart of a string of sex scandals involving some of its popular YouTube stars and singers, and she raises no questions, not even the self-evident ones involving what John Green knew about all that and when he knew it). No, it’s Talbot’s (I hope) unthinking elevation of Green’s books that really rankles me, especially one bald line:

Y. A. novels are peculiarly well suited to consideration of ethical matters.

the fault in our stars posterThis isn’t true. This just isn’t true. Dammit, this isn’t true. ADULT fiction is peculiarly well-suited to consideration of ethical matters. YA fiction is for children, and no matter what John Green would like his legions of followers to believe, the ethical matters in the world of children are less complex than the ethical matters of adulthood. Entire arms of government are created, funded, and staffed in every Western country specifically for guarding the welfare of young people – not just their physical needs, but their personal welfare. There is nowhere in the world an adult version of these services, because adults are expected to live face to the wind – their risks are greater, their penalties harsher, their sorrows more poignant, and their joys sweeter for being as autonomous as only freedom can make them. I’m sure the ranks of “Nerdfighteria” are per capita smarter than any comparable aggregate of children has ever been – and the Green brothers should take a bow for that – but mouthy precocity is a pallid substitute for hearing the youngest daughter of an Italian nobleman say “I love you” at the exact moment you realize you’re in love with her brother; it can’t compare to the astringent sadness of losing to a mystery illness a lover you thought would live forever; it has no claims to the weirdly uplifting feeling of relief that rushes over you when you revisit a place you haven’t seen in half a century and realize you remembered it all wrong; it can’t even imagine the loss of hope, much less the bleakly centering realization that you can live without it. What sane adult would trade even yesterday’s sunset for all the years of days between age 12 and 16?

“Young adult” fiction used to know these things. Readers of young adult fiction used to be characterized by their eagerness to sneak into their parents’ study and read real books – those books were a recognized prize, like a driver’s license or the rescinding of curfew. Carefully-bowdlerize “Stories from Homer” and “Tales from Shakespeare” used to be vaguely embarrassing things for readers who were finally able to move on to Homer and the “source material” for “the fault in our stars” – those books were carefully shelved in an attic corner as mementos of a more innocent reading time (if you probe my own shelves, for example, you’ll find a delicately-preserved copy of Roger Lancelyn Green’s The Tale of Troy), and in their place on the nightstand came things like Pride and Prejudice and King Lear and Middlemarch and The Magic Mountain and hundreds of books and poems like them – works in which the full, adult range of the authors’ experiences was reshaped by the full strength of their creative powers – not hobbled by slang and cookie-cut for a target demographic.

Adults who follow the modern fad of lazily, arrogantly confining themselves to YA fiction deprive themselves of that greatest of all human inheritances. And adults who take that fad one step further and start equating YA fiction with adult fiction – who try to mainstream their lazy fetish and assure their fellow 35-year-olds that it’s perfectly OK to still be reading books written for 15-year-olds because those kids’ books have “sophisticated points” (as an incredibly depressing near-unanimity of commenters did on a recent Slate post that was, in its every word, completely right) - are advocating the mental equivalent of the obesity epidemic that’s now making Americans the most unhealthy and most easily mocked people on Earth. These fetishists can talk until they’re blue in the face about how YA fiction has relevances and resonances and what-not, but the simple truth is, they read these books because these books are easier than books written for adults. And as reasons go for reading things, that’s not very awesome.




Summer Books: The Iliad!

chapman iliadOur book today is Homer’s Iliad, a choice some of you will have been expecting all throughout this “summer books” thread, since I’ve made no secret of the fact that I re-read Homer every year, the Iliad in June and the Odyssey in August. I use them as mental bookends to what we’ll increasingly need to call “traditional summer,” the hot, humid stretch from 1 June to 1 September (or, in the U.S., from Memorial Day to Labor Day) that’s less and less meaningful in a planet that’s heating up so rapidly. Decades and decades ago, when I first implemented this Homeric re-reading habit, the mere possibility that the Earth, the seasons themselves, would change in my lifetime was as far outside the realm of my imaginings as, say, the benign collapse of the Soviet Union or the fact that a washed-up C-list Hollywood actor would become the greatest president in the republic’s long history. But the Earth itself is changing, and as its mean temperature continues to rise (with each successive year not only globally hotter than the last but also the hottest ever until then recorded), rampaging super-storms and melting infrastructures will become the norm, summer will stretch from one end of the year to the next, and “traditional summer” will be the stretch from 1 June to 1 September in which it’s a rainless average of 135-140 degrees Fahrenheit in Boston. Obviously, there will be no Stevereads in such dark times.

But until then, we have “traditional summer,” when June is warm but pleasant, July is a firestorm of broiling heat and sopping humidity, and August starts like a furnace and slowly, grudgingly tapers off toward the “warm but pleasant” area of the spectrum again. And as long as we have “traditional summer” I’ll have “summer reading.” And as long as I have summer reading, I’ll turn to Homer!

Ah, but which Homer? Since time immemorial, I’ve opted in the summer to read Homer in English-language translation rather than in the Greek, even though in recent years I’ve entertained graver and graver doubts about the efficacy of any translation of the Greek and Roman classics. With every new translation of Catullus or Horace or Virgil or Homer that appears in the Open Letters Post Office Box, with every one of these things I read, I see more and more shortcuts, more and more creative license that strikes me as lazy or unwarranted, and less and less of the joys of the original being conveyed in any way.

So far, I’m staving off a wholesale moratorium by reminding myself that a large joy of reading any translation is the pleasure of the translator’s company, not the reviving of the original author’s. As Leland de la Durantaye writes in the latest Boston Review, “Even under the most favorable circumstances translation is a difficult process, punctuated by moments of stark and alarming impossibility.” That helps to move the whole spotlight from conveying a writer’s work to a monoglot audience onto watching a translator do what amounts to a pastiche performance. And every summer, I spend a little time before my bookshelves deciding which pastiche performance I’ll pick this time around. There are always leading contenders, starting, for me, with the great translation completed by dashing, oafish George Chapman in 1611. Chapman translates Homer into a bragging, rollicking Elizabethan quasi-epic (or maybe it always was that? After a hundred pages of Chapman, you’re so word-drunk you don’t even clearly remember anymore), with the dialogue seeming to resound for the stage. Take the moment in Book Thirteen when Ajax and Hector come near enough to each other on the clashing front lines to exchange taunts; the Greek ranks had been blasted by direct intervention from Olympus, and Ajax is eager to make sure Hector knows that with Jupiter off the battlefield, things will go quite differently:

“Oh good man, why fright’st thou thus our men?

Come nearer. Not Art’s want in warre makes us thus navie-bound,

But Jove’s direct scourge; his arm’d hand makes our hands give you ground.

Yet thus hop’st (of thy selfe) our spoile. But we have likewise hands

To hold our owne as you spoile; and, ere they countermands

Stand good against our ransackt fleete, your hugely-peopled towne

Our hands shall take in, and her towres from all their heights pull downe.

And, I must tell thee, time drawes on when, flying, thou shalt crie

To Jove and all the Gods to make thy faire-man’d horses flie

More swift than Falkons, that their hoofes may rouse the dust and beare

Thy bodie, hid, to Ilion.”

To which Hector fires back:penguin pope iliad

“Vaine-spoken man and glorious, what hast thou said? Would I

As surely were the sonne of Jove, and of great Juno borne,

Adorn’d like Pallas and the God that lifts to earth the Morne,

As this day shall bring harmefull light to all your host; and thou

(If thou dar’st stand this lance) the earth before the ships shalt strow,

They bosome torne up, and the dogs, with all the fowle of Troy,

Be satiate with thy fat and flesh.”

But it might not be Chapman this time around, since I’ve been pretty steadily re-reading his plays and might not be able to stomach quite so much more of his bombast, delicious as it is. And certainly you can’t get much further from Elizabethan bombast than the ultra-fine drawing room urbanities of Alexander Pope, whose 1720 Iliad (in the satisfyingly plump Penguin Classic, of course) is done in gorgeous rhyming couplets that sap almost all of Homer’s power and substitute for it a conception of the poet’s art that would have been utterly unrecognizable to both Homer and Chapman:

Hector! come on, thy empty threats forbear:

‘Tis not thy arm, ’tis thund’ring Jove we fear;

The skill of war to us not idly giv’n,

Lo! Greece is humbled not by Troy, but heav’n.

Vain are the hopes that haughty mind imparts,

To force our fleet: The Greeks have hands, and hearts.

Long e’er in flames our lofty navy fall,

Your boasted city and your god-built wall

Shall sink beneath us, smoaking on the ground;

And spread a long, unmeasur’d ruin round.

The time shall come, when chas’d along the plain

Ev’n thou shalt call on Jove, and call in vain;

Ev’n thou shalt wish, to aid thy desp’rate course,

The wings of falcons for thy flying horse;

Shalt run, forgetful of a warriour’s fame,

While clouds of friendly dust conceal thy shame.”

And if it’s clear even from Ajax’s taunt that Pope is filling in spaces in order to facilitate his rhyme scheme, it’s even clearer in Hector’s response:

“From whence this menace, this insulting strain?

Enormous boaster! doom’d to vaunt in vain.

So may the Gods on Hector life bestow,

(Not that short life which mortals lead below,

But such as those of Jove‘s high lineage born,

The blue-ey’d Maid, or he that gilds the morn.)

As this decisive day shall end the fame

Of Greece, and Argos be no more a name.

and thou, imperious! if thy madness wait

The lance of Hector, thou shalt meet thy fate:

That giant-corse, extended on the shore,

Shall largely feast the fowls with fat and gore.”

penguin iliadOf course, when considering Iliad translations another Penguin Classic comes to mind, the best-selling 1950 version by E. V. Rieu, done in ringing prose that holds up marvelously well in the face of half a century of higher-profile verse versions. His Ajax is still angrily defensive, but now and then he slips into British public school slang:

“You there,” he called to Hector, “come closer, and give up these futile efforts to make Argives run away. We do know something about war, and if took a thrashing, it was Zeus with his wicked scourge that gave it us. I suppose you imagine that you are going to destroy our ships? But we too have hands, which are ready to fight for them, and likely, long before you get the ships, to capture your fine town and sack it. As for you, I say the time is drawing near when, in your haste to save yourself, you will pray to Father Zeus and the other gods to make your long-maned horses faster than falcons as they gallop home with you to Troy in clouds of dust.”

And likewise with Hector’s response, which has an amusing hint of the antiquated class system:

“Aias,” he said, “arrant nonsense is what one expects from a clodhopper; but you surpass yourself. Of one thing I am sure – sure as I am that I should love to spend my days as the son of aegis-bearing Zeus and the Lady Here with the honours of Athene and Apollo – and that is that this day will be disastrous for the whole Argive force, and that you will die with the rest of them, if you dare to stand up to my long spear, which is going to tear your lily-white skin. Yes, you shall fall by your own ships, and your flesh and fat shall glut the Trojan dogs and birds of prey.”

For many years, I favored the 1974 translation by Robert Fitzgerald – there’ve been many consecutive summers in which I picked Fitzgerald time after time. There’s a very appealing baroque flavor to his version, a flintiness that almost approximates the hard edges that bark your shin when you read Homer in the Greek. The most dramatic element of this Ajax-Hector exchange isn’t the fact that each man spins out a hypothetical scenario (characters spin fantasies all through the poem, almost by reflex) but rather how violent this wishful thinking is – and Fitzgerald captures that fairly well:

“Come closer, clever one!

Is this your way to terrify the Argives?

No, we are not so innocent of battle,

only worsted by the scourge of Zeus.

And now your heart’s desire’s to storm our ships,

but we have strong arms, too, arms to defend them.

Sooner your well-built town shall fall

to our assault, taken by storm and plundered.

As for yourself, the time is near, I say,

when in retreat you’ll pray to Father Zeus

that your fine team be faster than paired falcons,

pulling you Troyward, making a dustcloud boil

along the plain!”

But Fitzgerald’s tendency for clotted, self-consciously antique phrasings, I’ve come to see, gets in the way of his version of the power of Homer, and you can really see fitzgerald iliadthat in Hector’s reply, where Fitzgerald’s fussing with word-order inadvertently (I hope) draws attention away from the yelled, spitting comments being made:

“Aias, how you blubber;

clumsy ox, what rot you talk! I wish

I were as surely all my days

a son of Zeus who bears the stormcloud, born

to Lady Hera, honored like Athena

or like Apollo – as this day will surely

bring the Argives woe, to every man.

You will be killed among them! Only dare

stand up to my long spear! That fair white flesh

my spear will cut to pieces: then you’ll glut

with fat and lean the dogs and carrion birds

of the Trojan land! You’ll die there by your ships!”

fagles iliadIn more modern times, the most celebrated Iliad has been the 1990 translation by Robert Fagles (with a magnificent Introduction by Bernard Knox), which sold like hotcakes in a beautiful Viking hardcover, then sold like hotcakes in a sturdy Viking paperback, and then sold like hotcakes as the Penguin Classic Iliad that bumped Rieu’s from the publisher’s frontlist. I never quite warmed to the Fagles translation the way so many other readers did; he seems at many places to be the very last thing Homer ever is: wordy. But the last time I re-read his translation I perceived more of what I think he’s about – there are fine little internal rhymes, and there’s a sense of rhetorical pacing that owes virtually all of its dramatic punch to 20th century fiction. This little moment in Book Thirteen is a good example, in fact, since Fagles is at his best in rendering dialogue. The very word-choices of his Ajax – “packed with people,” “gut and crush” – reflect a bruiser:

“Madman! Here, come closer -

trying to frighten Argives? Why waste your breath?

No, no, it’s not that we lack the skill in battle,

it’s just that the brutal lash of Zeus that beats us down.

Your hopes soar, I suppose, to gut and crush our ships?

Well we have strong arms too, arms to defend those ships -

and long before that your city packed with people

will fall beneath our hands, plundered to rubble.

And you, I say, the day draws near when off you run

and pray to Father Zeus and the other deathless gods

to make your full-maned horses swifter than hawks -

whipping dust from the plain to sweep you back to Troy!”

And his Hector’s response is that of an affronted intellectual, a community college instructor who dislikes not just the effrontery of his one obnoxious student but that student’s very existence. He scorns – almost scorns – his enormous enemy with clipped reminders (“And you will die with the rest”):

Enough of your blustering threats, you clumsy ox -

what loose talk, what rant!

I wish I were as surely the son of storming Zeus

for all my days – and noble Hera gave me birth

and I were prized as they prize Athena and Apollo -

as surely as this day will bring your Argive death,

down to the last man. And you will die with the rest.

If you have the daring to stand against my heavy spear

its point will rip your soft warm skin to shreds!

Then, then you’ll glut the dogs and birds of Troy

with your fat and flesh – cut down by the beaked ships!”

And if I’m feeling extra-adventurous (or extra-patient), I can always reach for Stanley Lombardo’s 1997 translation, which drew a good many astonished review when it first appeared – mainly because of the audacity with which he cuts corners in order to convey drama. It’s an approach that would have been immediately recognizable to lucy reading homer 4 june 2014George Chapman, actually, although every time I revisit Lombardo, I’m reminded that the same approach can have markedly different results. Here’s his Ajax:

“Come closer, sweetheart. No need to be coy.

We’re not exactly inexperienced in war,

You know. It was Zeus who whipped us before.

I’m sure you’d like to rip our ships apart,

But be just as sure we have hands to defend them.

Your city, with all its people, will likely fall

A lot sooner, captured by us and plundered.

As for you, the day will soon be here

When you pray to Zeus and all immortals

For your combed horses to outfly falcons

And take you through the dusty plain to Troy.”

And here’s his Hector, talking about metaphorical as well as literal guts:

“You bumbling ox, what a stupid thing to say.

I wish it were as certain that I were Zeus’ son

And Hera my mother, and that I were honored

Equally with Apollo and Athena

As it is that this day will bring doom

To every last Greek, and you among them,

Killed by my long spear, if you have the guts

To wait for it to pierce your lily-white skin

And leave your larded flesh to glut the dogs and birds

Of Troy, after you had fallen amid the ships.”

Of course, if the day is hot enough, anything goes. But “come closer, sweetheart”? Maybe I’ll try the Stephen Mitchell version again.

Summer Books: Trash!

hawaiiOur books today form an essential part of “summer” reading: trash. I mentioned yesterday the peculiar mongrel enjoyability of a crappy book, but I mentioned it in context of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, which is thickly populated with very brainy authors, most of whom, when sober, would sternly disavow the idea that they ever intentionally wrote anything crappy. High-mindedness is always thicker in the atmosphere of lesser genres, since they creep about everywhere under the man in the street’s sneers at their legitimacy … or rather, since the man in the street knows less about literature the he does about particle physics, the sneers of snobby critics. Since one of the central tenets of sci-fi/fantasy is the intelligent extrapolation of the recognizably real into the sustainedly strange, serious practitioners tend to look at crappy sci-fi/fantasy as letting the side down. It’s that question of legitimacy: I’ve heard many a science fiction author lament that a bad sci-fi novel hurts the genre of science fiction worse than a bad novel hurts the fiction genre.

But outright trash fiction? It tends to get a pass from the high priests of the genre – except when trash authors like Jennifer the first man in rome coverWeiner write irate op-eds whining about how their books don’t get treated with enough respect, but such maneuvers can be readily dismissed, since despite the tsunami of aesthetic relativism currently swamping the Novel Readings comments field, when it comes to fiction of any kind, the proof is in the pudding: the merits – or lack thereof – are right there on the page, provided the reader is skilled enough and experienced enough to assess them. A book isn’t good or bad “for me” – a book is good or bad, or else green is blue and hot is cold and we are all lost.

Translation: Weiner’s novels stink – but that’s not an outright condemnation, at least not in a post like this! Her novels stink, but thousands and thousands of people enjoy them just the same, and that’s the key to all trash fiction: it’s all Scollay Square vaudeville, and as long as everybody keeps that in mind – as long as nobody’s expecting a National Book Award for Fifty Shades of Grey – summer is the perfect guilt-free time to indulge in a little trash-reading.

Or, in my case, trash re-reading. This might seem like a contradiction in terms: surely the whole point of trash is that you don’t keep it? You don’t re-read it? But what can I say? If a book has brought me that jolt of pleasure, if it manages the aforementioned peculiar mongrel enjoyability, I’ll probably think fondly enough of it to keep it and return to it. In my defense, if pressed, I can always remind my accuser that I also read more new books – in more genres – than most people do.

valley of the dollsBut on languid summer afternoons, sometimes the latest study of Alfred Russell Wallace or the Reform Bill or the critical reception of “Paradise Lost” takes a back-seat to books of a less serious nature.

Although not necessarily – hell, hardly ever – less earnestness! Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of trash fiction is its earnestness; the huge majority of these books take themselves so relentlessly seriously that you can’t help but giggle. And surely the most monumental example of that ever fielded is the seven-book “Masters of Rome” series written over the course of 20 years by Colleen McCullough. Each of these books is several hundreds pages long, and taken together they run to a million words of turgid, lifeless prose, and each book fairly bristles with McCullough’s leaden defensiveness about her enterprise. She laboriously lists the number of Loeb Classical Library editions she has (all of them, essentially); she backs each book with a hundred-page appendix of historical discourses, and she stuffs every chapter with meticulously-researched micro-details.

And yet, ye gods, is it all trash! Boring narration, numb plotting, stilted dialogue … not one single step our industrious author takes is the right one. The “Masters of Rome” series may not be the most trash ever produced by one author (how many books has Stephen King written?), but it’s certainly in the running for the most earnest trash ever written by one author. Every time I return to these books (and I do return – I wouldn’t part with them), I giggle just a little bit harder.

Likewise with the endless novels of James Michener, whose fat books can be found moldering in beachfront cabanas and summer homes all over the world.the man who made husbands jealous Like McCullough, Michener responded to some internal warning, some sneaking personal suspicion that he was producing dead-prose trash by piling more and more dead-prose trash onto his whisker-thin plots until every last angle and detail was buried and softened and obscured, like a picnic table under four feet of snow. Michener’s epics – Alaska, Chesapeake, Poland, Texas, and my personal favorite, Hawaii, plus a dozen more – are distended encyclopedia entries on their given subjects with just the lightest sprinkling of actual plot added on top. Those plots are uniformly contrived, and the heaps of exposition is delivered with the smoothness that only an old hack could do it, and something about the combination makes these huge novels some of the most enjoyable trash ever written. They manage the almost unbelievable feat of providing panoramas without the smallest hint of aesthetics, and so they have all the weird but undeniable allure of slowly paging through somebody else’s albums of vacation photos. I tend to read one every summer, and the main question I always face is which. I’m leaning toward Texas this time, in honor of the unfathomably hot summer I spent there a long time ago in the company of a gorgeous, brainless slab of beef named Cody and a charming armadillo named Ruby.

It was a roasting hot summer when I first read another entrant on our list, Jacqueline Susann’s 1966 novel Valley of the Dolls, which, in its drug- and alcohol-suffused excess is the trashiest of all the trash novels on our list this time around. It tells the story of three ambitious showbiz women over a couple of decades, a couple-dozen lousy men, and a couple-thousand afternoon drinks, and on every page, Susann does a heroic job of substituting gossip and titillation for the actual talent she so conspicuously lacks. Those substitutions are what make Valley of the Dolls so much mindless fun, although lately I worry that the Brainless Argument-Baiter contingent of the “third-wave” feminists (by far the biggest contingent, a billion-strong shrill idiots who wouldn’t know a worthy application of their energy if it walked up and gave them a playful slap on the behind) might be missing the essential vacuousness that is both the heart and the point of this book. In short, I worry about movements to have it put on women’s-lit college reading lists. There’d be an irony in that glaring enough for even Jackie Susann to spot.

she coverAnd if there’s a danger with Valley of the Dolls that trashy garbage will be first co-opted by the brainless and then re-packaged to the credulous as something other than the trash it is, that danger has become a reality with Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She, which is now in the Penguin Classics line and is regularly taught in college classes on “colonial literature” and “Victorian conceptions of womanhood” and such clap-trap. An entire generation of readers has been taught to read this horrible, enjoyable book not as the racist, sexist romp that it is but rather as a document, a valuable period resource. I re-read virtually all of Rider Haggard in two-year cycles – always in the summertime – but t least I keep my wits about me when I do it: I’m at no risk of forgetting it’s trash I’m reading.

No such danger with the rambunctious novels of Jilly Cooper! These big, buxom books – Riders, Rivals, Polo, and my personal favorite, The Man Who Made Husbands Jealousare the rare exception to our earnestness rule: they know exactly how full of soap suds they are, and they don’t appear to mind in the slightest. Here we get protracted juicy melodramas about beautiful discontented rich people screwing each other over both metaphorically and un, and all of it set against a country-club backdrop that Cooper brings to life with all the skills of an old newspaper hack. These books are mindless, predictable, and unabashedly venal – the perfect fare, in other words, for a budding heat wave.

Which isn’t to say no trash-fiction can ever be any kind of important in its own right! Some of it actually manages to be, and one of the prime examples of lucy and the trash - 1that is certainly the fiction of Burt Hirschfeld, an indefatigable hack who couldn’t write a boring sentence to save his life (unless the client was paying for boring sentences, in which case …). Hirschfeld wrote a dozen novels under his own name, ranging from adaptations from the TV show Dallas to such trash bonanzas as Acapulco, Fire Island, Provincetown, Key West, and of course Return to Fire Island, and they’re set in much the same world as Valley of the Dolls, where drugs and alcohol are everywhere, money is everything, and every character is a shark of some species or other. Nine-tenths of everything Hirschfeld wrote is trash pure and simple, trash only, but in every book (and in some more than others, especially Cindy on Fire), there are glimmerings of something more, some hint of this author’s yearning to be an actual chronicler. Hacks often feel such yearnings, and they often find canny ways to express them even in books specifically commissioned to have no depth at all. I’ve seen this time and time again, and I mean to study it someday and find out what it really signifies. You haven’t heard the last from me on the now-forgotten Burt Hirschfeld!

But in the meantime, I’m picking Aspen.






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