It’s such a satisfying feeling, to buy the new issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, slide it into the front pocket of my battered leather satchel, and know with complete certainty that I have absolutely subway-proof reading ahead of me. Each issue of Asimov’s costs $5 – and yet for that price you get, every single month, not only industry updates, book reviews, and a column by the great Robert Silverberg, but also a first-rate science fiction anthology (usually around seven stories). And thanks to the editorial team at the magazine, these quality pickings happen month after month.
I’ve never read an issue of Asimov’s while in calm repose here at Hyde Cottage. I keep it in my bag and read it exclusively while out and about the city of Boston, traveling by bus and subway, or waiting in line at the bank or post office. It’s a peripatetic periodical for me, very much in keeping with the spirit of its namesake, who in his heyday was a champion reader-on-the-go and whole lived in the New York public transit system like a genius loci (during that heyday, the most popular photo of him showed him hailing a cab with the flat-footed imperiousness of somebody who grew up in pre-gentrification Brooklyn). The result of all this occasion-prompted use is predictable: by the time I’m ready to buy the new issue, my old issue is battered all to Hell and gone. They’re read with love and gratitude, these issues.
February’s issue had plenty of good stuff in it but two unmistakable highlights. The first was the cover story, “The Charge and the Storm” by An Owomoyela. It’s about a young human woman named Petra living as an administrator on a desolate world in a community composed of both humans and their insectile alien hosts, the Su. Some of the humans in the colony are restless at what they see as their second-class relationship to the Su, and Petra is a natural object of their attention, since although she’s smart and idealistic, she’s also deep in collaboration with the Su.
The story is packed with enough complexity and human drama to fill a novel (indeed, in 2015 I read plenty of sci-fi novels that weren’t nearly as rich as these 28 pages), and it’s paced with occasional quiet moments in which Petra pauses to think:
Here in Third Cluster, there were patterns inlaid in the floor, murals, windows: all the things the human population did to make the colony habitable. There were windows through which you could see the roiling clouds – or the battered landscape, when the clouds lifted enough that the ghostly shapes of rocks and craters could be seen. Sometimes, Petra could see vast shapes moving in the distance, not quite the way the clouds moved, and wonder if they were some echo of the vanished ecosystem the Su had clambered out of.
Sometimes, Petra wondered what the hell the Su had done to this planet.
But my favorite story in this issue is “Exceptional Forces” by Sean McMullen, a lean and superbly chiseled story about an eccentric Russian astronomer who’s at a conference in order to deliver a bombshell of a paper: his findings that Earth faces imminent invasion from the conquerors of the Andromeda galaxy. When he’s invited the hotel room of a beautiful woman, the scientist is certain she’s an assassin hired by the world’s shadowy puppet-masters to prevent him from giving a talk that might alarm the general populace out of its complacency.
At first, the woman denies his accusation. But she quickly sees he’s too smart to fool and so confesses that she is, in fact, an assassin. But something about him fascinates her despite herself, and they soon start forestalling the inevitable by swapping secrets with each other, tit for tat. He tells her about the upcoming intergalactic invasion, and she tells him she routinely has sex with her victims before killing them. As their tense banter continues, McMullen does a wonderful job of shading in the growing fascination each is feeling for the other, and he keeps the surprises coming:
“My husband is impotent. It was a botched operation for a misdiagnosed prostate condition. I still want a sex life, so I only screw people I’m about to kill.”
A highly intimate secret, the sort that would only be whispered to the dead or dying, so probably true.
“You started with the prostate specialist.”
Her mouth dropped open and her eyes bulged.
Spontaneous reaction. So it was a real secret.
“How – I mean … Who told you that?” she demanded.
“You spoke the words botched and misdiagnosed with particular venom. I am good at picking up nuances.”
She stared at me intently. It was not a glare of hate, but the stare of a master chess player who realizes her opponent is more than a talented amateur.
Surprise, mixed with intense concentration. Splendid.
“Your turn,” she said.
The two stories happily indicate the breadth of an average issue of Asimov’s – the range from intricate and sumptuously-detailed serious concept-driven science fiction to pure pulp adrenaline. My February issue is in smudgy tatters. Time for the March issue!
The latest issue of National Geographic is as packed with glorious goodies as all other issues of the magazine tend to be, and one of them brought back a lot of great memories: an article about the sprawling natural park region all around “the Tall One,” the moody and incredible mountain I knew as Mount McKinley. The article is written by Tom Clynes and features gorgeous photography by Aaron Huey, and as with most National Geographic feature articles, the message isn’t merely one of celebration. Out of some sense of providing a balanced picture, Clynes not only talks to tour guides and wilderness officials but also talks about the bitter scum-creatures who insist on viewing the Denali wilderness – and all the animals within it – as their personal property. There are pictures of these ranchers and trappers, along with their gruesome handiwork: dead wolves and decapitated moose.
But at least the bulk of the piece is celebration. Denali hosts hundreds and hundreds of awestruck tourists every season, but Clynes also visits its back country in the off-season, in the middle of winter, and he gets to those regions in pretty much the only way possible:
“Dogs connect people to history and to an experience most people will never have,” says kennel manager Jennifer Raffaeli. “In the winter they’re the most reliable and reasonably safe way to move around parts of the park. Unlike a snowmobile, they’re always ready to start up. They also have a survival instinct, which is something no machine can ever have.”
That afternoon the cold snap breaks, and we mush in a caravan of three dog teams to the ranger station at Wonder Lake. At 2 a.m we step outside our cabins to catch a dazzling show of the aurora borealis as the dogs sleep nearby.
“A lot of Denali is untouchable to most people, but with the dogs, traveling like this, you can touch it,” Raffaeli tells me as we stare in awe at the curtains of multicolored light flowing across the sky. “The sense of peace you get here in the winter is so intense it’s almost beyond belief.”
This brought back a flood of memories of the times I’ve visited Denali myself, and those memories, encountered again while sitting in a cozy book-lined parlor listening to the contented snoring of two old dogs who couldn’t climb a flight of stairs, let alone mush over broken terrain, were of course both sweet and bittersweet. Long, long gone are the wonderful dogs I knew back then, from under whose warm weight I looked up at those “curtains of multicolored light flowing across the sky.” Long, long gone are the adventures big and small we encountered far from the haunts of humans. It was wonderful to recall those experiences, and it was almost equally wonderful to see, from Clynes’ story and especially from Huey’s stunning photographs, that Denali is still entrancing people – and luring some of them deeper into its back country, to experience its humbling wonders.
And as an added bonus, the issue’s photos also included one that made me hoot with unexpected laughter – surely the most “what the hell?” shot of a grizzly bear anyone has ever managed to get. It shows an enormous bear breaking the herbivore diet and eating a hapless ground squirrel:
I love a 16,000-word TLS rumination on the lesser novels of George Eliot as much as the next bookworm (the keening sound you just heard coming from Up North was a certain Open Letters Monthly colleague saying “WHAT lesser novels?”), but sometimes, when rummaging through the week’s Penny Press, I get my biggest smiles from reading deadline writers in tetchy moods. I know full well how it feels when outrage comes bubbling up between the floorboards of a piece of prose, and I know how enjoyable it can feel to stop fighting and let it happen. I’ve done it myself from time to time, and there’s an unapologetic part of me that loves seeing other writers do it.
I got that treat twice this week, for instance. In The Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz reviews The Revenant, the new and egregiously overpraised movie adaptation of the Michael Punke novel. The movie is directed by Alejandro Inarritu and stars a hilariously bad Leonardo DiCaprio spitting up phlegm onto his beard, and just from the title of Podhoretz’s review, “Ah, Wilderness!”, I knew I was in for some fun. And I wasn’t disappointed:
The Oscar-winning director, Alejandro G. Inarritu, and the star, Leonardo DiCaprio, have done nothing for months but talk about how difficult it was to film The Revenant. It was so difficult, you wouldn’t believe. They were out. In the cold. They had to haul equipment up mountains. DiCaprio had to pull a live fish out of a river and eat it – and it wasn’t even cut up by a sushi chef! Oy, the difficulty! It nearly broke them! Imagine the bravery these two men showed, getting paid only $20-30 million (DiCaprio) and probably something like $5 million (Inarritu) to put up with such suffering, such pain, such indignity! But they didn’t mind the sacrifice, because they were sacrificing for us, you see. To bring us art.
Even better was a resplendent takedown in the February/March issue of Bookforum. In a piece cleverly titled “The Flowers of Romance” (too cleverly? Will non-Francophile readers get the reference?), Heather Havrilesky very patiently and mercilessly tears apart the literary output of Nicholas Sparks, concentrating on his new book, lavishing plenty of scorn on his older books, and along the way pithily reminding her readers why the potting of such an easy target matters:
But let’s not kid ourselves about the literary value of 482 pages of small talk interspersed with well-worn folksy truisms about how everything is exactly as it should be. At a time when popularity is taken not just as a signifier of value but as the exact same thing as value, it is necessary and worthwhile to absorb just how bad the really bad books manage to get away with being while still selling millions of copies internationally.
And elsewhere in the Penny Press, in an issue of Outside whose cover would be sheer genius if it weren’t absolutely plastered in text, there’s a picture of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady modeling for the Under Armour clothing line. The picture shows Brady in full sprint-workout, covered in sweat – but both the sprint and the sweat are fake. Somehow, in 2016, neither of these details surprise.
It was a bit of a thready swallow, working my way past the smug cover photo of Fox News shill Megyn Kelly in the latest issue of Vanity Fair, but I was certainly glad I did, since the issue itself was chock-full of murder, celebrities, and murdered celebrities, plus great photos, grotesque real estate ads, and, in this issue, two short opening pieces of interest.
The first was James Wolcott’s smart, amusing “Podcast Nation,” in which he writes about a phenomenon I myself haven’t fully figured out yet: podcasts and what they’re all about – who they appeal to. I’ve listened to a smattering of podcasts in the last few years and completely failing to see the appeal, so I read Wolcott’s random musings here with extra interest, including the sweeping characterizations that are the sure-fire sign of a hack padding out a word-count:
Podcasts are essentially radio on the installment plan, a return to the intimacy, wombed shadows, and pregnant implications of words, sounds, and silences in the theater of the mind. As commercial radio trashed itself with so many commercials, demographic narrowing (in many markets, pitching to Aging Angry White Male), and the incessant pandering of the religious/right-win tom-tom drums, podcasts redeemed the medium by restoring its lost creative promise.
More interesting and far more alarming was Michael Kinsley’s short piece “The Unbearable Silence of P. C.,” about the rampant censorship of the so-called “progressive Left” in the US and UK. Kinsley is specifically worked up about British biochemist Sir Tim Hunt, who was driven out of his job and publicly ruined for jokes he made about women in the science lab, but to put it mildly, the problem exists in America too, where college undergraduate babies can scream in the face of their deans and professors (and where one of those instructors can in turn call for a mob to attack a reporter and not be arrested for it). I thought one bit of Kinsley’s piece was especially on-point, about how the greater danger isn’t the infringement of a legal protection of free speech but rather the more nebulous (but not less intentional) dampening of the whole societal expectation of free speech:
The First Amendment is nice to have if you find yourself arguing for free expression in a case before the Supreme Court. And that’s no small thing. But the Constitution isn’t the most important guarantee of free speech for the average citizen in ordinary circumstances. More important is a culture of free expression, where people are encouraged to say what they think, where eccentricity of all kinds is tolerated or even appreciated, and where Voltaire’s aphorism is baked into everyday life.
It’s not often that I agree with Michael Kinsley about anything (in fact, his 2015 “plagiarism – meh, no big deal” piece was one of the most corrupt and idiotic pieces Vanity Fair has ever run), but in this I think he’s exactly right: First Amendment or no First Amendment, if people start to think that they can’t speak freely, their right to do so won’t mean much. Kinsley’s piece prompted me yet again to thank whatever gods may be that I spend no time in academia.
The New Year in the Penny Press started out for me with a nasty little shock. Despite bungling my subscription paperwork to such an extent that I get two copies of every issue of the New Yorker in the mail ever week, I had occasion shortly after the year began to buy a copy of the magazine at a newsstand – at which point I noticed for the first time that the New Yorker is now $10 an issue (if the actual cover-price of a thing leaves you with insufficient change out of a $10 bill to buy anything else, that thing costs $10).
Circumstances were such that I would have felt awkward not going through with the purchase, but the issue curled like a rattlesnake in my leather shoulder-bag, and when I finally got around to reading the issue, I read it with a wounded squint of eye. It’s true that there was a first-rate profile by Laura Secor of Asieh Amini, an Iranian activist who’s dedicated her life to attacking some of the barbarities of the Iranian penal system. And there was a very good short by Ottessa Moshfegh called “The Beach Boy.” And there was some typically smart TV criticism by Emily Nussbaum of a show called “Transparent.” And there was a long review of a recent volume of the poetry of Yehuda Amichai by James Wood, and an opera piece by Alex Ross, and a typically witty movie review by Anthony Lane, including some sharp observations on the filmmaking of the loathsome Quentin Tarantino in context of talking about “The Hateful Eight.” “Above all,” Lane writes, “we get confirmation of the director’s preeminent perversity: patient and elaborate in his racking up of tension, he knows only one way to resolve it, and that is through carnage, displayed in unmerciful detail.”
Admittedly, it’s a profusion of first-rate material, a lineup of some of the best writers appearing in periodicals today. But not every issue boasts such a lineup, and every issue on the newsstand now costs $10 apiece, which is highway robbery, a price that would be excessive even for the big square-bound glossy magazines. It makes buying the latest issue while out-and-about in Boston or New York unthinkable; buying an annual subscription is now the only non-insulting way to get the magazine, and it’s easy to imagine the subscription price skyrocketing in similar measure sometime soon.
Maybe I allowed too much of the irritation of that New Yorker issue to slop over into my reading of the new issue of Smithsonian, a magazine I’ve come to like very much. This latest issue has a fascinating story on WWII bombs and another first-rate story on the white storks of Europe, but the cover story is “Unearthing the World of Jesus” by Ariel Sabar, with its arresting “artist’s interpretation” of a sixth-century painting that’s possibly of Jesus as some kind of unshaven epicene Apollo figure.
The article is classic Smithsonian in its beautiful layout and careful writing, but it irritated me because both the article and all the experts quoted in it seem to be angling toward a pre-set conclusion, which isn’t how history or archeological interpretation are supposed to work. The reader-friendly assumption throughout the article is that Jesus – the more-or-less recognizable figure from the Gospels – actually existed at one point as a real person, and it’s the job of relic-hunters and site-diggers only to find more and more evidence of that. Some of the experts Sabar quotes sound downright impatient not to have turned up a driver’s license or a verified Twitter account:
“The sorts of evidence other historical figures leave behind are not the sort we’d expect with Jesus,” says Mark Chancey, a religious studies professor at Southern Methodist University and a leading authority on Galilean history. “He wasn’t a political leader, so we don’t have coins, for example, that have his bust or name. He wasn’t a sufficiently high-profile social leader to leave behind inscriptions. In his own lifetime, he was a marginal figure, and he was active in marginalized circles.”
Not a sufficiently high-profile social leader? A guy who, according to his own mythology, was followed everywhere by crowds numbering in the thousands, all of whom hailed him as a great miracle-worker capable of raising the dead? Seems to me if there had been such a figure in first-century Judea, somebody would have mentioned it at the time, even as a passing anecdote. The fact that in two thousand years not one single such mention has ever been found would, I’d think, be grounds for a bit more critical distance even in a piece called “Unearthing the World of Jesus.” After all, the title of equivalent pieces is never “Unearthing the World of Hercules,” right?
But as I mentioned, probably I was taking out some unfair frustrations on the innocent Smithsonian. Either way, one thing’s for damn certain: if he really did exist, Jesus would never have charged $10 for a single issue of the New Yorker, for God’s sake.
This late in the year, for good or ill, the year’s publishing success stories are fairly well known – both “success” in terms of sales and “success” in terms of critical worth (and the rare, happy instances where the two coincide). So a negative review of one of these success stories jumps off the page, and recently in the Penny Press I noticed a distinct whiff of the iconoclastic.
It started small: in The New Republic, Kate Bolnick reviews Stacy Schiff’s The Witches, her history of the infamous Salem Witch Trials and at one point veers slightly away from the peals of universal praise the book has prompted:
Indeed, Schiff is so convincing about the personal motivations driving these powerful men, I was surprised to see her take up the longstanding feminist assertion that by making themselves “heard” the bewitched girls exhibited an unprecedented agency – America’s first feminist uprising. From where I sit, it seems more likely that an internalized misogyny compelled the young women to send their elders to their deaths, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the nineteenth- and twentieth-century suffrage movement, when, as Schiff argues, “a different scourged encouraged [women] to raise their voices.”
It’s a minor thing – one quick paragraph in a review that’s otherwise entirely full of praise – but it stuck out; as far as I know, those have been the only words of even slight dissatisfaction that any reviewer in any major venue has directed at Schiff’s book. Over in the latest New York Review of Books, for instance, John Demos gives the book its customary wall-to-wall praise.
Ah, but elsewhere in that same New York Review of Books I found even more idol-tipping going on. The idol in the first instance being more the author than the book: Max Rodenbeck, the Middle East Bureau Chief for the Economist, reviews Heretic, the new book by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who has for years been one of the darlings of the more self-congratulatory echelons of the Republic of Letters, a Muslim woman who renounced her faith and risked her life by speaking and writing against the barbarities of her former ideological world.
Given such a biography, it was a bit startling to read Rodenbeck treat Heretic, refreshingly, like any other book – that it, roughly when he thinks it’s straying:
There are several problems with her approach. These include such troubling aspects as her use of unsound terminology, a surprisingly shaky grasp of how Muslims actually practice their faith, and a questionable understanding of the history and political background not only of Islam, but of the world at large.
But in purely literary terms, no chorus of praise has been more vocal and uniform than the critical reaction to Hanya Yanagihara’s massive novel A Little Life – which only served to heighten my interest when I realized that elsewhere in this NYRB, Daniel Mendelsohn, one of the best book-critics working today, wrote a piece on the book that was, to put it mildly, disenchanted. I started the piece eagerly – and was almost immediately frustrated, then irritated, then enraged.
Mendelsohn takes the novel to task for being a simple concatenation of the miseries of its main characters:
We know, alas, that the victims of abuse often end up unhappily imprisoned in cycles of (self-) abuse. But to keep showing this unhappy dynamic at work is not the same thing as creating a meaningful narrative about it. Yanagihara’s book sometimes feels less like a novel and more like a seven-hundred-page-long pamphlet.
Likewise he has plenty of negative things to say about the book’s actual prose:
The writing in this book is often atrocious, oscillating between the incoherently ungrammatical … and painfully strained attempts at “lyrical” effects … You wonder why the former, at least, wasn’t edited out – and why the striking weakness of the prose has gone unremarked by critics and prize juries.
(The ellipses were two singled-out lines from the book, each demonstrating the mentioned flaw; Mendelsohn knows perfectly well that such a trick – pulling a handful of lines out of a massive text – will work on any large novel ever written … why, I could show you sentences from The Golden Bowl that would make each particular hair to stand on end, like quills upon the fretful porpentine … but he pulls it anyway with utter serenity)
And what of the dozens of Mendelsohn’s fellow reviewers (not to mention the book’s thousands of readers) who obviously didn’t consider sentence-level lapses worth mentioning in the face of the sheer power of the narrative? That mention of “critics and prize juries” should have set you to worrying, but Mendelsohn doesn’t leave things to chance: he addresses two of those fellow reviewers directly, Jon Michaud in The New Yorker and Garth Greenwell in The Atlantic, attacking the praise they lavished on the book. His strong implication is that he could have gone right down the line of such reviewers if he’d had the space and time.
Long before I got to this point in the piece, I’d realized that this isn’t book criticism – it’s simple bitchiness, of a bitterly disingenuous type. There is no chance – absolutely zero chance – that Mendelsohn would have written a review anything like this before Yanagihara’s novel reaped all its praise; this isn’t an assessment of the book, it’s a tetchy little gripe about bandwagon-jumping. And as if that weren’t bad enough, our one lone voice of critical sanity in a vast wasteland takes things one step further: he starts speculating on why the novel has been such a hit – after some incredibly condescending throat-clearing, that is:
It may be that the literary columns of the better general interest magazines are the wrong place to be looking for explanations of why this maudlin work has struck a nerve among readers and critics both. Recently, a colleague of mine at Bard College … drew my attention to an article from Psychology Today about a phenomenon that has been bemusing us and other professors we know: what the article refers to as “declining student resilience.”
And what are the details, you may ask, of this article that’s been bemusing Mendelsohn and his fellow academics? They revolve around coddled undergraduates who’ve begun checking themselves in to student counseling services to deal with the trauma of spotting a mouse in the dorm room or having a mean roommate. And while such examples may have sparked some tittering in the faculty lounge, Mendelsohn is quick to expound on the deeper problems they represent:
As comical as those particular instances may be, they remind you that many readers today have reached adulthood in educational institutions where a generalized sense of helplessness and acute anxiety have become the norm; places where, indeed, young people are increasingly encouraged to see themselves not as agents in life but as potential victims: of their dates, their roommates, their professors, of institutions and history in general. In a culture where victimhood has become a claim of status, how could Yanagihara’s book – with its unending parade of aesthetically gratuitous scenes of punitive and humiliating violence – not provide a kind of comfort?
A quick Google-check of the thirty-something book reviewers who praised A Little Life in the major literary journals and “better general interest magazines” puts their average age at roughly forty-five. They’re not coddled, clueless adolescents afraid of mice. But it doesn’t matter to Mendelsohn, lost as he is in a fog of patronization: if you liked A Little Life, you’re not just wrong – you’re psychologically spongy, an addled student taking craven comfort from all the wrong things while Daniel Mendelsohn and his fellow adults look on, bemused. Right underneath its priggish, swanning outrage it’s actually a whopping insult to virtually all his equals in the world of professional book-reviewing. Equals who weren’t just wrong to like A Little Life despite its flaws but who are childishly ignorant if they liked it.
When I finished the piece, I was right away curious what those book-reviewing equals might make of it. John Powers of NPR, Sam Sacks at the Wall Street Journal, Jenny Davidson for Bookforum, and the list goes on – does it bother them, that Mendelsohn is saying their careful, well-articulated estimations of A Little Life are not only wrong but merit them a sidebar article in Psychology Today? Probably they all take it with admirable equanimity. For myself? Well, I too review books for a living, and I too was blown away by A Little Life – and this particular idol-bashing royally ticked me off.
The lad mags I love so much have a love of their own: so-called “bucket lists”! For some unaccountable reason, the core readership of magazines like Esquire, GQ, Outside, Details, and Men’s Journal – over-monied young white male douchebags – just love “bucket list” features designed to help them tick off the last few things they want to do before they die, even though they’re in their mid-twenties. True, most of them are dumb enough to consider some kind of smoking (asshole cigars, trendy-legal pot, “vaping,” or what have you) as a fashion or “lifestyle” choice rather than a corrosive chemical addiction, but even indulging as they do, simple actuarial probabilities give them at least twenty more years of racist, misogynist condescension before they have to start trash-talking and firing their way through a succession of long-suffering doctors. So you wouldn’t think they’d care all that much about “bucket lists” designed, at least in theory, to round off a few loose ends from a long, adventurous life. But no – hardly three issues of any lad mag go by without such a list.
Take the one in the latest issue of Outside. It’s by Kate Siber, which certainly sounds like a woman’s name, but the list itself couldn’t be more lunkheadedly masculine if it were chiseled on the wall above a men’s urinal in Pamplona.
I confess, when I read these lists I like to check off the items on them that I myself have done. Of course, when I did them, I had not thought of any “bucket list” in mind – I was just out in the world, trying to enjoy myself and do interesting things. And yet, it turns out I scored fairly well on this latest list. It’s true that I’ve never “cage-dived” the enormous great white sharks that swarm off California’s Farallon Islands (as, indeed, no sane person has), but even so, I’ve managed to do a quite a few of the things on this.
I’ve “tripped out” on the Northern Lights, for instance. The list advocates seeing them in Iceland, and I’ve done that, although I’ve also enjoyed them in many other places, including dark spots far, far from the lights of mankind. Likewise the “go it alone” entry, which encourages readers to go solo camping; the list emphasizes that if you’re doing this for the first time, you should prepare extensively so that you don’t end up the dumb live-footage emergency-rescue clip at the end of the evening news, and I agree. It also helps to have a group of well-trained dogs along for the trip – not quite going it alone in that case, but my, they do come in handy.
Likewise the list urges its readers to try North Rim back-country camping down the Grand Canyon and paddling the remote beauty of the Allagash in Northern Maine, both of which I’ve done. Spending the night lodged high in a Douglas fir is also recommended, and this, too, I have managed to do, though never strictly voluntarily. And utterly in-voluntary have been any of my up-close encounters with grizzly bears, and yet this article in its madness suggests that readers seek out these 600-pound killing machines – go to Admiralty Island during salmon season and just hang out with the bears, who are so intent on gorging on salmon that they’re “decidedly carefree about your presence.” To which I can only add: they’re decidedly carefree about your presence – right up until the moment they’re not. At which point you become intimately acquainted with the fact that a) they’re extremely easily enraged, b) they have claws the size of ice-picks, and c) they can accelerate to 45 mph in the time it takes you to pee yourself. Sheer insanity, to knowingly go anywhere near them, salmon of no salmon.
But one item at least on this list is something twenty-something douchebags are unlikely to do but that I can testify is life-changingly worth doing. It’s listed under “Cross the Ocean,” and I’ll quote it in full: “The right way to do it, as part of a sailing crew. Online hubs list openings for sailors on boats making crossings. Many captains don’t require extensive experience, and they’re happy to offer passage if you’re willing to work hard for it.”
That’s simply, absolutely true (and was true even before these mysterious-sounding “online hubs”), and the adventures that can result from picking up and making that choice enormously out-distance mountain-biking down a vertical rock slope in spandex or hiking to find that one super-rad hot spring in Utah. But then, if you made the mistake of telling any of those accommodating captains that you were checking them off your “bucket list,” you might find yourself swimming home.
Ah, the joy of returning to the mighty TLS – or rather, in this instance, of it returning to me! There was a dark interval there where, as many of you will no doubt have noticed, the TLS vanished from local newsstands here in Boston – an annoying interruption in my enjoyment of the single greatest review organ in the known world. But I took the interruption as another reminder of something I’d tried to do several dozen times in the previous year: subscribe, so that these issues would be delivered to my door and I’d no longer need to trek out in snow and ice to find some ragged copy on some distant newsstand somewhere.
A simple enough procedure, you’d think, subscribing to a periodical. It is, after all, their lifeline, the bedrock of their finances – you’d infer, therefore, that they’d make it easy and attractive to do.
In reality, I’ve long since given up on the “attractive” part. As a perk for subscribing to the New York Review of Books, for instance, I get two things: issues that reach me a week after they reach newsstands, and a little red address/appointment book like people used in the Ye Olden Times before cellphones made such things painfully obsolete. As a perk for subscribing to the New Yorker, I get issues that reach me a week after they reach newsstands, and they keep the tchotchkes to themselves. As a perk for subscribing to The New Republic, I get the issues two full weeks after they reach newsstands – I get, in other words, old issues, in exchange for paying them money for things that aren’t written yet.
But even though I’ve given up on the “attractive” part, I still rather naively expect the “easy” part. Which has been a big mistake when it comes to the TLS. Time after time, their “help center” has baffled any attempt on my part to pay them money. I think I submitted this latest subscription-attempt more as a doomed gesture of defiance than anything else.
But it worked! The 9 October issue arrived on my doorstep (on 15 October, but still – nobody’s expecting miracles at this point), and even if it’s the only issue ever to arrive there again, I gathered it to my bosom with a sigh of gratitude, and the very next day, I took it to my hole-in-the-wall lunchtime restaurant and consumed it with abashed humility of a lover when the spat is over.
I found everything right where I’d left it: the donnish sniper-fire of the Letters page (“Can Professor Featherstone be unaware of the seminal work of Prussian monographist Karl Himmelfarb?”), the choice wit of J. C.’s “NB” page, and some fantastic, brainy book reviews by great writers – in this issue, for instance, both John Kerrigan and the mighty Katherine Duncan-Jones on Shakespeare and John Ure on Waterloo, plus a wonderfully intense little piece by Jonathan Dore on John McPhee’s Coming into the Country. There were also “echoes,” which always please me to read – “echoes” in this case being reviews of books I’ve reviewed myself, as in the aforementioned Kerrigan review of James Shapiro’s The Year of Lear, or Gavin Jacobson’s review of Robert Zaretsky’s Boswell’s Enlightenment, or Jenny Williams’ review of the new version of Alfred Doblin’sThe Three Leaps of Wang Lun, from the New York Review of Books, or Kate McLoughlin’s review of Hazel Huchison’s The War That Used Up Words.
In all, it was like easing into a nice hot bath after a too-long interval of desolate showers. I’ll hope for such an immersion every week, cockeyed optimist that I am.
As Hamlet would say, look here upon this picture and on this: two young men, both in their thirties, both white, both good-looking in generic kinds of ways, both intelligent, both multi-millionaires, both objects of interviews in a recent issue of New York magazine – and both, on the surface of those interviews, raging douchebags (admittedly not a Shakespearean term, although one likes to think he’d have taken to it).
The first is by Boris Kachka: it’s an interview/profile kind of piece about Garth Risk Hallberg, whose debut novel City on Fire made ripples in the frog-pond of the literary world by netting him squintillions in its sale-price. The piece, oddly titled “The Unprecedented Garth Risk Hallberg,” seems to go out of its way to portray our debut author as just the kind of garrulous, self-absorbed douchebag you’d expect to be the recipient of such outrageous good fortune as selling a first novel for more than Eudora Welty earned in her entire career (let’s call it the Justin Cronin Template). Kachka meets Hallberg in a series of trendy eateries (all outdoors despite the withering heat, of course – the de rigueur requirement of all famous young tobacco addicts) and chronicles Hallberg’s various monologue-style answers to routine questions – routine questions that still sometimes manage to irritate, it seems:
The music was blaring from a speaker mounted on a passing bicycle. “I want that for my bike, that’s awesome,” he said, a toothy grin breaking his middle-distance stare. But it didn’t throw his conversation off course; not much can. “Hold that thought,” he’ll say to an interjected question, just barely flashing impatience before rolling into his next subject.
Hallberg’s old buddies don’t exactly do him any favors in the douchebag sweepstakes (there’s a picture from 1997 at what we can charitably hope was Peak Douchery for all of them, grouped together, armored in fifteen trendy layers, helmeted in thick woolen caps, all so visibly proud of how much and how seriously they smoke), painting a picture of him as boringly anti-modern; “He still owns a tiny flip phone,” we’re told, “and he guards his time, attention, and privacy by burrowing into what one friend calls a ‘pre-connected universe.’” At one point Hallberg even seems to teeter on the brink of committing the very worst offense of which such a supremely lucky person can be guilty: at one point he almost says he had it coming. He flirts very briefly out loud with the idea that if you take his squintillion-dollar payday and factor it backwards, over the years he spent writing, and you work out the hourly rate, you’ll see that a cold draft for a squintillion dollars is really, when you do the math, nothing more than what he deser – but then he stops himself and pulls himself back from that unforgivable blasphemy.
The article quite inadvertently leaves us with the impression of a Franzen-in-training, yet another young (ish) novelist who trendily scorns modernity, has self-importance coming out his pores like a thin ooze, and thinks he deserves fame.
And if such was the parting impression of that first interview, it was the starting impression of Kyle Buchanan’s brief interview with former Spider-Man star Andrew Garfield elsewhere in the issue. In that interview, Garfield starts complaining before he’s even taken a seat: “Coming in today to do interviews, I’m like, Why? I know that I’m an actor and it’s part of the job, and I feel lucky I get to do that, but it’s such a weird thing. What do I have to say?”
Never a promising start, of course, when a petulant little tobacco addict movie star pretends he’s mystified by the whole publicity apparatus in which he’s spent the previous ten years of his life (apart from five-month vacations in Ibiza, that is). It tends to mean the star in question is feeling extra tetchy and intends to take it out on the interviewer. Buchanan, ever the professional, attempts to ease things by spinning out a line of interview-friendly patter about Garfield’s upcoming movie. But all this does is provoke the star:
For me, it was very articulate. You fucking said it. Hearing you talk, I just suddenly feel like my head is wrapped in cellophane. Why don’t you just do this interview? You’re saying the right shit.
To which Buchanan replies, “I don’t think my editors would appreciate it if I wrote only, ‘Andrew Garfield nods periodically.’” – to which the star replies without missing a beat, “Just attribute what you’re saying to me.”
The interview continues for a few more questions, and Garfield eventually snaps into the routine and starts spewing the kind of autopilot patter he knows perfectly well is part of his job. But the short piece leaves the impression of an entitled young (ish) snot who’s got the nerve to complain in the midst of more sheer good fortune than some entire countries experience in a century – a douchebag, in other words.
And yet, these two pictures are not alike! They are in fact, despite appearances, like unto Hyperion and a satyr! The odd drifts and sub-currents of that Boris Kachka piece notwithstanding (although I swear, if I hear one more artiste imply that they need complete silence and a cabin in the Poconos before they can write a line of English prose, I’m going to plotz), Garth Risk Hallberg is neither a douchebag – he’s actually very nice, ungainly, thoughtful person – nor, more importantly, overrated – City on Fire is an incredible work of fiction, as capacious as the indie-darling An Infinite Jest but enormously better written. Kachka’s interview, with its chi-chi hangouts and its waffles, gets ever so slightly more douchey as it progresses, and yet its subject isn’t a douchebag at all. Whereas after its bumpy start, Buchanan’s interview with Andrew Garfield becomes slightly less douchey as it goes along, despite the fact that its subject is indeed a raging douchebag, a talentless, banal, whinging mannequin who should be modeling Fall sweaters in the latest J. Crew catalogue instead of being oh-so-imposed-upon to give yet another interview to the fawning media.
So let that be a lesson to us all: never judge a douchebag by his cover (story)! Instead, let us all respond in the only fitting ways: by boycotting the wretchedly pompous Andrew Garfield, and by rushing out to your favorite Williamsburg tobacconist to buy a copy of City on Fire!
How could I not make mention of the fact that Esquire, one of my most steadfast glossy lad-mags, hits its 1000th issue this month? To put it mildly, it’s not every magazine that reaches one thousand issues – hell, there aren’t many writing endeavors of any kind that reach such a milestone (blushing modesty prevents me from dwelling on the fact that over at the “Weekly” section of Open Letters Monthly, I recently ran my 1000th signed book review).
The issue features a blizzard of quotes and excerpts from pieces dating all the way back to 1933, some arranged by topic (war, sex, etc.), others arranged alphabetically, and all accompanied by an eye-popping selection of the artwork and photos that have filled the magazine every month for all that time. There’s the famous quote from Gay Talese’s 1966 piece “The Silent Season of the Hero”:
“Joe,” said Marilyn Monroe, just back from Korea, “you never heard such cheering.” “Yes I have,” DiMaggio answered.
And there’s Chris Jones writing a brief paragraph about famous NFL cheater Tom Brady:
The ultimate survivor. Tom Brady will always win. I don’t mean that as a compliment. I mean it in the sense that if Lucifer walked the earth, he would be someone very much like Tom Brady and he would be impossible to kill.
We get an excerpt from “The Shooter,” the deplorable first-hand account of the Navy SEAL execution of Osama bin Laden in 2012:
There was bin Laden standing there. He had his hands on a woman’s shoulders, pushing her ahead, not exactly toward me but by me, in the direction of the hallway commotion. It was his younger wife, Amal …
He looked confused. And way taller than I was expecting … he was holding her in front of him. Maybe as a shield, I don’t know …
In that second, I shot him, two times in the forehead. Bap! Bap! The second time he was going down. He crumpled onto the floor in front of his bed and I hit him again, Bap! Same place. That time I used my EOTech red-dot holo sight. He was dead. Not moving. His tongue was out. I watched him take his last breaths, just a reflex breath.
And the always-dependable Stephen Marche turns in “The Ghost of Hemingway,” an original – and haltingly sad – quick profile of the patron saint of Esquire‘s founding, Ernest Hemingway:
Of all the great modernist writers, Hemingway is the least admired but the most imitated. Serious readers worship James Joyce. They worship Kafka. They worship Borges. But nobody tries to write like them, not in America, anyway. And yet every section of the bookstore shows Hemingway’s influence. “When you find a good line, cut it, “ was Hemingway’s advice to writers of the future. In his lack of metaphors, strong active verbs, and masses of dialogue, he has had more influence on someone like Elmore Leonard than on even Raymond Chandler or Jim Thompson. Two of the greatest film noir novels of all time – The Killers and To Have and Have Not – are Hemingway stories.
Of course, despite the rather uncanny extent to which Esquire has remained true to its men’s-men ethos over the decades even while that ethos was in some ways warping out of all recognition of its former self, some things have definitely changed. I couldn’t help but notice, for example, the full-page ad featuring young director-hottie tobacco addict Xavier Dolan and a new Louis Vuitton “Cartable” leather satchel. A quick consultation with the Louis Vuitton website confirms that the bag sells for $4,850 – roughly four times the annual income of the average American man in 1933. I guess the high culture messenger bags will cost around $13,000 when Esquire hits issue #2000. I’ll report back.