March 2nd, 2017
Our book today is Brazilian illustrator Vin Vogel’s follow-up to his 2015 classic The Thing About Yetis – joyful news to those of us who loved that book and its roly-poly head-tufted version of the famed Himalayan snow-man. The new book from Penguin’s Dial Books imprint is called BedTime for Yeti, and it opens by revealing a fact that’s eluded cryptozoologists but that I myself have long suspected: “Yetis and their stuffed friends stick together like peanut butter and jelly.”
Our Yeti takes this stuffed friend everywhere: birdwatching, butterfly-netting, playground-swinging, even partnering at the lucrative Yeti lemonade stand. They read comics together, eat cookies together, and even brave the dreaded Yeti bath-time together. And most especially, they’re together at bedtime every night.
But fans of Mo Willems’ indispensable Knuffle Bunny will be able to anticipate the main peril of such a close friendship – is there a well-rounded reader anywhere in the world who isn’t familiar with the look on little Trixie’s face when she realizes that her beloved Knuffle Bunny has been misplaced?
This happens to Yeti: the little suffed friend goes missing, and Yeti pandemonium results: the basement is searched, as is the toy box and the garbage, all to no avail. And to make matters worse, an inevitable trial is drawing nearer: facing bedtime alone. This can be a problem, we’re told, because “The thing about yetis is that (sometimes) they’re afraid of the dark.”
The night is not only dark but stormy, and our Yeti is terrified of every creeping shadow on the bedroom walls (astute readers will recall the main character of Greg Long’s 2013 Yeti Turn Out the Light having similar problems). But just when courage seems hardest to find, our Yeti sees a chance to save his little stuffed friend from danger and promptly forgets about his own fears in order to save the day.
The toddlers who will love this book for Vogel’s bright, happy digital artwork very likely won’t notice those messages of friendship and overcoming the fear of a dark bedroom, try though their designated book-reading adults might to emphasize them. But every toddler who flips these pages will immediately understand the underlying and far more important message: hold onto your little stuffed friend until you’re 70.
March 1st, 2017
A ten-year anniversary is a milestone for any kind of monthly publication. The meshing of personalities, the jostling of priorities, and the unpredictable vagaries of the work-flow might be expected to hang together for a little while, a year maybe, and it might be hoped they could work for a little longer than that, perhaps five years, before personal and impersonal forces pulled the whole thing apart like saltwater taffy. So ten years is a nice impressive lifespan for such an endeavor – and how much more so for something created by a small handful of people who a) live in different cities, states, and countries, b) don’t get paid for their work, and c) have to fit their efforts into lives already crowded with work, family, other writing commitments, and the ever-present demands of the New Orleans nightlife?
And yet, for ten years the cast of editors behind the scenes at Open Letters Monthly have been doing just that: month after month putting out one of the finest little literary journals in the English-speaking world, issues full of reviews, poems, and essays, issues pulled and cajoled and compromised and argued together by editors who are also writers, and writers who are voracious readers.
March marks the 10-year anniversary of Open Letters Monthly, and I couldn’t let the first day of that anniversary pass without singing its praises here at Stevereads. It’s been the privilege of a lifetime to be a part of this ramshackle, striving, wonderful collective project. Here’s to ten more years!
February 27th, 2017
Our book today is a gutsy historical thriller from 2011 called Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr, the eighth novel featuring his scuffed and downtrodden detective – and reluctant SS member – Bernie Gunther, solving crimes and trying to keep his morals clean in WWII-era Germany. In this particular installment, he’s been summoned to Prague by Reinhard Heydrich, the newly-installed Reichsprotector of what was once Czechoslovakia, who worries that his new prominence may end up attracting the kind of trouble he know our hero Bernie understands with deep, unwilling insight. Bernie obeys because he has no choice – he hates the stupidity and venality of the Nazis, but he’s also a pragmatist and in several key ways a coward. He’s also just about the least believable Lothario in all of crime fiction, and sultry woman’s name in this case is Arianne.
I first encountered Kerr’s Bernie Gunther twenty-five years ago when I read Berlin Noir, an omnibus containing the first three novellas featuring the character, and although I liked some of the descriptions, the novellas themselves made no deep impression on me. I could sense Kerr’s intelligence easily on the page – easily enough for me to recommend the omnibus to bookstore customers who were looking for something to satisfy their Dashiell Hammett sweet-tooth – but I didn’t think much of the books themselves, and I didn’t think about poor down-on-his-luck Bernie Gunther at all once I’d put Berlin Noir aside.
Both the author and the character came rushing back to me only comparatively recently due to one of the best possible reasons: they were recommended to me, and not by just anybody, although that would be sweet enough, but by one of my colleagues right here at Open Letters Monthly: our indefatigable mystery columnist Irma Heldman, it turns out, has always been a big fan of Philip Kerr. As I was doing my own thing at OLM, I couldn’t help but notice Irma taking every opportunity to praise the Bernie Gunther series enthusiastically, starting with 2009’s stylish reprint of 2006’s The One from the Other, and it all reminded me of the good things I enjoyed about Berlin Noir, to which this book was a long-awaited sequel. Back in 2009 Open Letters had only been in existence for a couple of years, but already by that point I’d been pleased by some of Irma’s recommendations, so I read The One from the Other and A Quiet Flame and realized immediately that Kerr is that rare bird among genre authors: somebody who gets more readable when he’s got more elbow-room. I thought they were terrific, much better than the stories on offer in Berlin Noir, and after that I tried never to miss a Kerr new release.
And yet, I somehow missed Prague Fatale in 2011, so I was delighted to find a copy for 50 cents – I burned right through this multi-layered and yet manifestly predictable story, in which Kerr sets an old-fashioned locked-door mystery inside an atmospheric war novel about the perils and tensions of occupied Prague, which is described over and over again with very dark, sharp energy:
To see Prague in the autumn of 1941 was to see a crown of thorns with extra points, as painted by Lucas Cranach. A city of church spires it certainly was. Even the spires had smaller spires of their own, the way little carrots sometimes grow bigger ones. These lent the unfeasibly tall Bohemian capital an unexpectedly sharp, jagged feel. Everywhere you looked it was like seeing a Swiss halberd in an umbrella stand. This sense of medieval discomfort was accentuated by the city’s omnipresent statuary. All over Prague there were statues of Jesuit bishops spearing pagans, heavily muscled Titans stabbing each other with swords, agonized Christian saints horribly martyred, or ferocious wild animals tearing each other to pieces. To that extent Prague appeared to suit the cruelty and violence of the Nazis in a way Berlin never did. The Nazis seemed to belong here – especially the tall, spindly figure of Heydrich, whose austere, pale features brought to mind the face of a flayed-alive saint.
Of course, some of the author’s ticks reminded me of everything I’d disliked in the pages of Berlin Noir, foremost being the incredibly hokey dialogue Kerr sometimes puts in Bernie’s mouth – dialogue that says nothing so clearly as that its speaker knows he’s in a hard-boiled detective novel:
“These are the times we live in, I’m afraid. All sorts of things make me suspicious, angel. Two aces in a row. Double sixes. A sure thing for the state lottery. A kind word or a compliment. Venus rising from the sea. I’m the kind of Fritz who’s apt to look for a maker’s mark on the scallop shell.”
It bothered me a bit this time around, even with Irma’s recommendations ringing in my ears. That’s the tricky thing about book recommendations: one size doesn’t fit all, and you can sometimes gain more insight into the recommender than the recommended. Prague Fatale, for example, reminded me on a few occasions of something I’ve noticed from ten years of reading her columns: Irma is often willing to overlook a great deal if an author will give her genuinely snappy prose. And it reminded me that I will too, so everything worked out just fine! Heydrich has been a figure of fascination for me since I read Edouard Callic’s biography of him back in the 1980s (and the English-language translation of Laurent Binet’s book about him back in 2012), and I loved Kerr’s portrayal of him, ice-cold and yet somehow also creepily magnetic, the star of the novel even though Bernie secretly loathes him.
Once I finished Prague Fatale, I considered creating a bookshelf here at Hyde Cottage dedicated to the books or authors I’ve taken up solely due to the recommendations or prodding of fellow Open Letters people. I may still do it, although the shelf would have to be fairly wide …
February 21st, 2017
Our book today is the paperback release of a history that’s near and dear to my daily routine: Devin Leonard’s utterly delightful Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service, brought out Grove Press last year to nerdishly enthusiastic reviews (including one from USA Today that included the simple, true line, “What’s most remarkable is the way [the] book makes you care what happens to its main protagonist, the U.S. Postal Service itself”). I read it and loved it, and I pored through it with the loving attention you might give to the pages of your high school yearbook.
Like many people in the book-world, I live and die by the US Postal Service. I get deliveries from two different USPS stalwarts every single day: in the early afternoon, the mail-truck swings by, with the driver lugging a plastic mail-tub of book-packages up to the porch, chatting for a bit, then driving off, and an hour or two later, the on-foot mail carrier arrives, bringing me now only the day’s harvest of magazines but also any last few stray single book packages that weren’t on the mail truck. And since I also get FedEx and UPS deliveries every day, I’m pretty much the precise target-audience for Devin Leonard’s book; I’m naturally curious about the delivery service that brings me such reliable spikes of enjoyment – not just bookish but also personal enjoyment, since I’ve noticed that my USPS people are friendlier and more outgoing than the others.
Reading Leonard’s book, it’s easy to see why: scarcely any kind of worker in the country deals with more people on a daily face-to-face basis than the men and women who deliver the mail. Six days a week, those workers actually walk out from the 36, 723 post offices in America and make direct physical contact with the homes and businesses of every single person in the country, creating a living webwork of interaction between 300,000 letter carriers and everybody else. The USPS delivers a staggering 513 million pieces of mail every day – according to Leonard, that’s 40 percent of the mail delivered on any given day in the whole world. And as I could attest from those daily rituals of mine, the USPS numbers dwarf those of other carriers:
People often talk about how the postal service is lumbering and inefficient compared with private sector competitors such as UPS and FedEx. But the USPS delivers more items in nine days than UPS does in a year. It transports more in seven days than FedEx brings to its customers in a year. In 2011, Oxford Strategic Consulting, an English firm, studied the postal services in developed countries and found that the USPS was by far the most efficient at handling letters, delivering 268,894 per employee – twice as many as the UK’s Royal Mail and five times that of Germany’s Deutsche Post. The USPS refers to the study proudly, though being the world’s most efficient letter handler doesn’t have the same cachet that it did a generation ago.
That elegiac note – of changing times, of falling revenues and slackening importance – sounds throughout Leonard’s book. He gives a very spirited history of the postal system in America, tells all the grand stories of postal triumphs and iniquities, of postal strikes and famous – and infamous – postal workers (the chapter “Going Postal,” which is about just what you think it’s about, makes hilarious if alarming reading), and he’s a very good storyteller, so none of this feels like space-filling exposition. But always in the background there’s the sense that the whole edifice of the USPS is shakier than most people would believe:
Now the USPS is slowly vanishing. It has sold off its historic post offices. It has closed processing plants. A decade and a half ago, the USPS employed 905,766 people; in 2014, it had a workforce of 617, 877. But even as the USPS shrinks, its losses continue to swell. By its own calculations, it owed nearly $71 billion in mid-2015. The possibility of that money being repaid seems unlikely.
By the time I finished Neither Snow Nor Rain (and by the time I finished my in-paperback re-read), that unwanted note was sounding in my head, that almost unthinkable chance that in my lifetime the USPS could go out of business and morph into something very different – and, inevitably, something worse – than the sturdy, trustworthy thing that now makes up such a large part of my day. I’d really hate to think that Devin Leonard’s book is memorial in addition to being a history.
February 15th, 2017
Some Penguin Classics breathe with the towering wisdom of the world’s great literary figures. And then there’s Voltaire.
The voluminous writings of Francois-Marie Arouet have been a mother-quarry of pseudo-profundity for over two centuries, of course, so in that respect this slim new volume from Penguin – a new translation by Desmond Clarke of the Master‘s 1763 book Treatise on Toleration – is unsurprising. The American presidential election campaign of 2016 culminated in a resounding victory for the forces of intolerance, one of a string of such victories being celebrated all around the world in governments both openly repressive and allegedly progressive. The lamps are going out all over the Europe of the still-young 21st Century, so it’s a praiseworthy if predictable move on the part of Penguin, to issue this handy new edition of a short, compacted work in which Voltaire famously makes a case for rational inquiry, balanced consideration, and the toleration in the title.
He had in mind specifically religious toleration. The little treatise was sparked by the notorious case of the Huguenot shopkeeper Jean Calas, who in March of 1762 was sentenced to death for the crime of murdering his own son in the family home. Calas was innocent – his son had committed suicide – but he was also Protestant, and France’s vindictively Catholic authorities tortured Calas to death with extravagant brutality. Voltaire jumped on the bandwagon of the case for posthumously exonerating Calas, and the Treatise on Toleration was the loudest canon-blast in Voltaire’s arsenal. In it, he rails against the intolerance of France’s Catholic Church.
The case is laid out, as much as possible, along lines of logic and common sense. As Clarke summarizes in his perceptive Introduction:
If members of a political community accept the reciprocity of moral obligations and consider a principle such as the following: ‘Do not do what you would not like someone to do to you’, the implications for toleration are obvious. Each religious group or church must grant freedom of thought to others. Otherwise, they would face their fellow citizens with the following demand that cannot be satisfied simultaneously and reciprocally: ‘Believe what I believe and what you cannot believe, or you will die.’
The Master summons the whole history of Christianity to make all of his points about the long and complicated relationship the Church had always had with persecution and toleration – which calls for great chunks of cod-history buttressed with a delightful sub-profusion of footnotes (which Clarke further buttresses with notes of his own). To give him credit, Voltaire can very often make this kind of stuff interesting:
We are told that Nero persecuted Christians. Tacitus tells us that they were accused of setting fire to Rome and that they were then abandoned to the anger of the people. Has that accusation anything to do with their beliefs? Certainly not. Would we say that the Chinese who were slaughtered by the Dutch a few years ago in the suburbs of Batavia were sacrificed for their religion? No matter how much we might wish to deceive ourselves, it is impossible to claim that intolerance was responsible for the disaster that befell a few unfortunate half-Jews and half-Christians during Nero’s reign.
“If a government is not to have a right to punish human errors, those errors must not be crimes,” Voltaire writes. “They are crimes only when they are detrimental to society, and they damage society as soon as they inspire fanaticism. Therefore, in order to deserve toleration, people must begin by avoiding fanaticism.” And against this instance of fanaticism, our author was successful: Jean Calas was posthumously exonerated, and some of the worst of the creatures who broke him were cashiered. It’s enough to make a strong optimist wonder what brave Treatise on Toleration from 2017 Penguin will be reprinting in 2207.
February 13th, 2017
Our book today is the English-language translation of Andrea Molesini’s utterly remarkable debut novel Not All Bastards Are From Vienna. The book originally appeared in 2010 and is here translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar and Patrick Creagh, and although I chuckled about it when the Englished version appeared last year (how could I not chuckle, considering the ridiculous title?), I never actually got around to reading the book, despite the long list of plaudits it received when it was first published. Getting the pretty paperback in the mail from the good folks at Grove Press was a very welcome reminder.
The book’s main action takes place in the autumn of 1917 and concentrates on the Italian country villa of the wealthy and vaguely aristocratic Spada family – including endearingly eccentric grandfather Gugliemo, Donna Maria, the strong-willed leader of the family, enigmatic family servant Renato, and teenager Paolo, an orphan who’s living with his grandparents on the fateful night when a detachment of German soldiers arrives and peremptorily billets itself in and around the family’s great house. “If you think you are unable to fit us in,” the German captain calmly informs Aunt Maria, “you will be obliged to leave the house.”
The family doesn’t leave, of course; instead, under Maria’s steely guidance and with the various species of guile brought to the situation by each family member (and, increasingly, by the initially dazed village priest, Don Lorenzo), they dig in for a long campaign of tacit resistance to the barbarities of war represented by the this group of brutal looters and their stiff, perhaps slightly worthier captain. And in the course of that resistance – including the more formalized paramilitary kind that inevitably takes shape in the village – young Paolo comes of age as we read, gradually learning to parse his own capacity for heroism and gradually coarsening to the prices occupation exacts, the changes it works in every aspect of the world as he formerly knew it:
And then, I personally had learnt something from the war. My bed was now a lumpy mattress, prickly and noisy, the soles and uppers of my shoes were worn out, the few scraps of meat I got to eat were as tough as leather, I drank unsweetened coffee, and everything, absolutely everything, stank. The streets stank of rotting wood, sweat, men, mules, and dung, and there was the stench of clotted blood in bandages, of rotting flesh, of piss, of stagnant water. Even in the garden I smelt cigarettes an tar, diesel oil, burnt rubber and dust. Wartime dust was different from the dust I knew. It got right under your clothes, penetrated curtains and walls, pervaded fields and woods. Even in winter, with the roads half iced over, the columns of lorries and mules managed to raise dust.
And that’s what I found: despite its absurd, damning, Trimalchio in West Egg title, Not All Bastards Are From Vienna is a tremendously moving novel, full of memorable characters and scenes. Even half-way through the book, I was still periodically amazed to remember that it’s a debut – at no point does it read like one, particularly in the place that debuts usually wear like a scarlet “B” (for “Botched”), the ending, which here hurls the reader to a final, brutal page. I wish I’d been on the spot to sing its praises last year, but better late than never: if you see the paperback in your bookstore and find yourself in the mood for first-rate historical fiction, don’t hesitate.
February 13th, 2017
Our book today is a delectable trifle, the perfect thing to brighten up a day-long snowstorm: The Duke, the first of author Kerrigan Byrne’s romance novels to break the lock-step of glottal fricatives that characterized The Highwayman, The Hunter, and The Highlander and strike out into new consonantal territory (will it be followed by The Devil, and The Dermatologist? Only time will tell!).
A historical romp, but not a Regency: Byrne’s latest is a Victorian romance (the stern old sovereign herself makes a decidedly unamused appearance), with a “hero of the empire” at its center: Collin “Cole” Talmage, the Duke of Trenwyth, a handsome, rich paragon who, by the time we meet him, is weighted down by tragedies: the death of his family, the betrayal of his friend, and the serious wound he receives on the battlefield. It’s that hospital stay that brings him back into contact with Imogen Pritchard, with whom he shares something of a past: years ago, the two dropped their inhibitions and experienced a, erm, passionate interlude. In the present, the wounded, hospital-patient Cole seems to remember neither the interlude nor Imogen herself, but then, he’s been through a lot, and his disappearance has had all of London wondering:
Had he been lost to some Oriental jungle and the savages living there? Killed in the skirmishes between the Ottoman Turks and the Russians? Defected to the obscene wealth of a profligate sultan? Or made his own little tribal kingdom somewhere in the wild desert, complete with a harem to do his bidding?
That last alternative should be all the clue needed for a newcomer to Byrne’s fiction to know the lay of the land, as far as heavy-breathing is concerned. There’s plenty in The Duke to which Victorian prudes would have taken umbrage, but for all the snap of Byrne’s dialogue and for all the prettily-realized pauses that she works into her breakneck narrative, it’s not just the prudes who’ll be taking umbrage to disappointingly large portions of The Duke (and it’s not just the Irish, although they’ll be none too pleased with the quote we’re about to read) – even die-hard romance readers will find themselves bugged right out of the story by weird little speed-bumps like this moment that Imogen first glimpses Cole’s, er, member of Parliament:
He turned around, and Imogen couldn’t have swallowed had liquid been poured straight into her gaping mouth. Somehow, she knew that Collin Talmage, the Duke of Trenwyth, had never in his life been afflicted with the Irish curse. His sex stood proudly erect from the sinewy definition of his lean hips. He glanced down, rather sheepishly, and flicked her a look full of pure, sinful invitation.
Surely he didn’t mean to put that … that … inside of her. It wouldn’t, couldn’t possibly fit. Her mind recoiled, but her body … her body responded.
There’s a fine line between the good-natured anachronisms on which the modern historical romance depends and the kind of arch silliness that can spoil even the lightest confection – and that usually marks the work of an amateur. Byrne isn’t an amateur, but that just makes passages like this (and there are plenty throughout the book) all the more puzzling. Two well-raised and unmarried young people would simply never find themselves in such a moment in 1877 London, but such moments must be commonplace in order for modern historical romances to work, and so we content ourselves to suspend our disbelief. But if two young Victorians are going to find themselves in such a moment, it’s crucial that they not make things worse, as it were, by behaving even more anachronistically than the moment itself. Who, reading faithfully to such a moment, won’t feel their faith in an author badly fractured by arch silliness like “Surely he didn’t mean to put that … that … inside of her”?
The conclusion of The Duke was so endearing (and so well-orchestrated) that I was able to limp around my own reading fracture at all these moments where Byrne’s characters knew as well as I did that they were in a 21st century novel playing costume-dress. But I’d much rather they not know that, so I’m hoping the next book in the “Victorian Rebels” series, The Scot Beds His Wife, will keep it’s fourth-wall mugging to a bare minimum. We shall see.
February 3rd, 2017
Our book today is a bright little thing of wonder housed, this time around, in a brittle package: it’s a selection of the writings of John Burroughs called The Birds of John Burroughs: Keeping a Sharp Lookout, a volume published in 1976 by Hawthorn Books, edited by Jack Kligerman with nice stately black-and-white illustrations by Louis Agassiz Fuertes.
I was delighted to find it and pay my pittance for it, since John Burroughs is always a happy find in any book-hunting expedition. He was a lyrical nature-essayist of the first order, and he wrote voluminously for his entire long life (“His essays,” we’re told, “have the kind of open-endedness that one finds in winter woods, not the shape that one finds in individual trees or in many of the journal entries of Thoreau”), so you might think that encountering some book or other of his would happen every single time you set foot into a used-book venue of any kind – but it isn’t so. The lovely uniform sets done for this author a century ago proved to be swan-songs; nobody reads John Burroughs anymore, and that’s a shame. In his easy combination of personal focus and lovely prose, he’s a clear precursor of later 20th century writers like Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez:
Getting toward the high tide of summer. The air well warmed up. Nature in her jocund mood, still, all leaf and sap. The days are idyllic. I lie on my back on the grass in the shade of the house and look up to the soft, slowly moving clouds, and to the chimney swallows disporting themselves up there in the breezy depths. No hardening in vegetation yet. The moist, hot, fragrant breath of the fields – mingled order of blossoming grasses, clover, daisies, rye – the locust blossoms dropping. What a humming about the hives; what freshness in the shade of every tree; what contentment in the flocks and herds!
Burroughs is a very intentionally homely writer, usually foregoing the sweepingly large canvas in favor of a much more narrow focus – and stressing that nature’s “procession” will come to those who wait regardless:
One has only to sit down in the woods or the fields, or by the shore of the river or the lake, and nearly everything of interest will come round to him – the birds, the animals, the insects; and presently, after his eye has got accustomed to the place, and to the light and shade, he will probably see some plant or flower that he has sought in vain, and that is a pleasant surprise to him. So, on a large scale, the student and lover of nature has this advantage over people who gad up and down the world, seeking some novelty or excitement; he has only to stay at home and see the procession pass. The great globe swings around to him like a revolving showcase; the change of the seasons is like the passage of strange and new countries; the zones of the earth with all their beauties and marvels pass one’s door, and linger long in the passing. What a voyage is this we make without leaving for one night our own fireside!
I keep waiting for some enterprising publishing imprint like Penguin or Random House to assemble a big, glorious volume of this author, or better yet, a a new uniform set of the man’s complete writings. I day-dream that such a new edition would be filled not only with the wonderful artwork that graced their equivalent pages decades ago but also with the high-detail black-and-white photos of those long-ago editions.
But no such future production would have the bit of artwork I like best from this cheap paperback I bought the other day: a carefully hand-drawn and colored little item somebody pasted onto the book’s first page, with the inscription: “From one owl to another – cutest owl I saw yet … a saw-whet!” Which is why I’ll be keeping this old paperback, fragile as it is.
February 2nd, 2017
Yet another terrific week for DC Comics … which still feels distinctly odd to say. For the last five years or so, while DC’s lineup of iconic superheroes was in the throes of the company’s “New 52” continuity remake, I mostly dreaded seeing the titles on offer every week at Boston’s one-and-only Comicopia. From the New 52, I’d quickly come to expect cold and alienating characters, grim story lines, and messy, lunging plots more concerned with setting up the next tent-pole mega-event than entertaining readers in the here-and-now; I’d fallen into the grim plight of relying on Marvel Comics for my weekly comic book joys, meager as they were.
But DC’s latest tweaking of their New 52 formula seems to have worked wonders pretty much across the board of the company’s marquee titles (I say “pretty much” because I’m holding off on trying more of those titles – things like Green Arrow or Green Lantern until their current story-arcs end). I look forward to the latest issues now, and they never disappoint – in fact, they often rise above my expectations, and lately they’ve been doing that in the same way: in every issue, in the midst of whatever’s going on, the writers pause to give readers a wonderful tight-focus take-a-breath moment of pure character … pretty much exactly the element that was missing from so much of the New 52. All four of the issues I bought this week had such moments, starting off with the issue that could be characterized as one protracted such moment:
Justice League – In this stand-alone issue written and drawn by the deplorable Bryan Hitch, our heroes of the Justice League – Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, the Flash, Aquaman, and two Green Lanterns – have flown up into low orbit to confront a gigantic alien machine that’s suddenly appeared. It hits them with an energy-blast so powerful it buries them a mile underground, and while they’re pulling themselves together (the issue is called “Regroup”), they talk out many of the issues that have been dividing them and sapping their self-confidence lately. In recent years I’ve lost pretty many all the faith I once had in Bryan Hitch as a storyteller, but in this issue he’s in excellent form: all of the League members are squarely in character, including Batman, whose interaction with the League is very tricky to get right even for writers who give a crap about what they’re doing. There’s very little in the way of action – the whole issue takes place in a hole in the ground – but I loved it. And the comic book-style action was delivered in double dose in the next issue I got:
Superman – This issue, written by Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason and drawn by Tony Daniel and Clay Mann, concludes the “Multiplicity” storyline in which the Supermen and Superwomen (and, um, Super-Rabbit) from dozens of alternate dimensions are being hunted by a gigantic mysterious alien who then imprisons them and siphons their superpowers. “Our” Superman deliberately lets himself be captured by this alien so that he can learn about it and spring a trap that will free both himself and his fellow super-prisoners. But before the trap can spring, there’s a moment when Superman takes it upon himself to revive the flagging morale of his comrades: “You’re Supermen and Superwomen. We’re all created equal, because we want to help, and nothing will ever destroy that as long as there’s one person left taking a breath with an ‘S’ on their chest.” A nice simple sentiment, and once again, not the kind of thing readers were likely to encounter in the New 52. And there was an unexpected moment just like that in our next issue:
Aquaman – This issue, written by Dan Abnett and drawn by Brad Walker and titled “Peace in Our Time,” comes as a kind of calmer epilogue to the world-shaking events of the multi-part story that preceded it; Aquaman and his fellow Atlanteans are helping the little Massachusetts town of Amnesty Bay pick up the pieces. Back when he was just the odd half-human boy Arthur Curry, Aquaman grew up in Amnesty Bay, and in the course of this issue Abnett gives us a nice feeling of a home-town hero working amongst old friends. But one of those old friends, an Amnesty Bay cop named Erika, has fresh memories of the battles that only just lately concluded, and the moment Abnett provides between her and Aquaman is touching and a little sad. “I saw you, Arthur,” she tells him, “in this crisis, and when that monster tore through here … I saw you put your life on the line. I saw you fight like … like savage stuff trying to stop that thing. I saw what you really are. Not the boy I grew up with. Not the boy I’d crushed on so hard. You kinda scare me.” To which Aquaman, amazed, responds, “I scare you?” “I didn’t mean,” she goes on “… you’re superhuman. I never really took that seriously before. I saw what I saw. It was serious. You were serious.” He tries to reassure her: “Erika … I’m still Arthur Curry.” And she says: “No, you’re not. You never were. I was fooling myself.” It’s a fairly stark moment, and yet there’s none of the bitter angst that would surely once have filled the scene. And when it comes to bitter angst, surely its home in comics is our final title this week:
Batman – This issue, the first chapter of a new “I am Bane” story-arc, is written by Tom King and drawn by David Finch, and it serves mostly as a high-tension prologue to the story of the New 52 Batman’s next bit confrontation with his hulking foe Bane. Batman has learned that Bane is coming to Gotham, and he warns his young proteges (the current incarnation of DC’s Caped Crusader spends a great deal of time hanging out with muscular young men, bless his black little heart) to get out of town and let him deal with the monster himself. But the best moment of the issue comes later, when he delivers the same warning to someone else: he swings down onto the rooftop of the Gotham PD headquarters in answer to the Bat-Signal … only to find not Commissioner Gordon but Catwoman, who’s now wanted for multiple counts of murder. “You shouldn’t be here. You shouldn’t be anywhere near here,” he tells her. “I know,” she answers. “And yet. Here I am.” And when Gotham’s finest burst onto the roof with guns drawn, she says, “I have to go,” and adds, “When you need me …” Batman tersely replies, “I don’t need you,” to which she responds “And yet” and leaps into the night, leaving Batman to repeat to himself, “And yet.” It’s a quick moment, a breather before the action commences (as it does in only two pages, with the best cliff-hanger ending I’ve seen in a DC comic in years), but it’s refreshing just the same.
Refreshing’s the word – these issues of DC’s flagship titles have been completely refreshing after years of often murky storytelling. I’ll report back next week.
February 1st, 2017
The first day of February dawns crisp and bright and cold here in Boston, with new-fallen snow still white and undefiled on the ground and lining every tree-branch. It’s the very picture of a new, clean page – what better setting for a new issue of my beloved Open Letters Monthly?
We have a lovely issue this month, a compact thing of a dozen pieces arranged along our usual lines: the top bulk of the Table of Contents devoted to new reviews, essays, columns, and poems, with a smattering of reprinted gems from our enormous back-catalog to round things out. And this month the pickings are sinfully rich:
In “The Disgraceful Lowlands of Writing,” Robert Minto writes about Reiner Stach’s magnificent now-completed three-volume biography of Franz Kafka, calling it a masterpiece that belongs on the same shelf as Leon Edel’s biography of Henry James, or Hermione Lee’s of Virginia Woolf, or Joseph Frank’s of Dostoevsky.
Editor Justin Hickey reviews Skunks Dance, a surreal new YA novel from Remora House by St. John Karp, and he finds the book – with its hidden corpses, headless statues, rare comics – “filthy, fractious, and gonzo” … but also, underneath the stylized zaniness, genuinely something more.
Editor Zach Rabiroff looks back into history, reviewing Jennifer Roberts’ The Plague of War, about the war that erupted between the Spartans and the Athenians – “the yin and yang of Greek society, each representing the antithesis of the other” – for control of the ancient Greek world. And since it was a time when the fate of nations could turn on the words of self-serving demagogues, it’s just possible that some contemporary resonances creep in.
Paul Goldberg’s bitingly surreal and memorable historical novel The Yid is the subject of a terrific review by A. E. Smith, who sifts through the book’s multiple layers of narrative centering on a small group of aging Jews in Stalinist Russia who are more than they seem. Smith calls the novel “a highly subversive consideration of both the nature of that Soviet enterprise and of the role of Jews in building and sustaining it.”
Another historical novel, The Kid by Ron Hansen (author of The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), deals with one of the most storied of Americans: Billy the Kid. In his review, Jeff P. Jones (himself the author of the historical novel Love Give Us One Death: Bonnie and Clyde in the Last Days) finds that Hansen “revels in humanizing his subject while managing, remarkably, to preserve Billy’s fundamentally inscrutable nature.”
Our indefatigable mystery maven Irma Heldman turns her attention to The Death of Kings, the latest in the excellent John Madden series by Rennie Airth. Irma is impressed by the series (as a shiver of relief runs through the whodunnit department of Viking Press) and revisits the run of its novels in order to bring readers up to speed for this latest installment.
And there’s so much more! Yours truly continues his “Year with the Tudors II” with a look at Tracy Borman’s new book The Private Lives of the Tudors, and OLM‘s redoubtable poetry editor Maureen Thorson presents the issue’s two poems, “5 June 2016/Birmingham” by Jessica Smith and “back-door typical” by Theodora Danylevich. And from our archives we reprint three classics: Joanna Scutts on Joe Sacco’s The Great War, Sam Sacks on Zadie Smith’s essay collection Changing My Mind, and John Cotter on Paul Auster’s memoir Winter Journal.