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.
The latest issue of Harper’s very much wanted me to pay most of my attention to William Deresiewicz’s cover essay on how colleges and universities these days have been co-opted by a “neo-liberal” agenda that infests institutions of higher learning – and how the students themselves have also been co-opted by this agenda, now solely concerned with what practical, business-world advantages they can get out of their college years instead of, I suppose, wandering the quad in togas contemplating the nature of perfection, as Deresiewicz implies they did in the good old days.
This kind of silliness is the main Harper’s stock-in-trade: Subject X isn’t as good as Subject X used to be back when we were young, and the reasons why are both a) the product of lazy indulgence, and b) not our fault. Deresiewicz uses the formula almost without deviation (the raw chunks of misunderstood or just-plan-wrong information from America’s educational history are a bonus), worrying for thousands of words that students aren’t coming to colleges anymore in order to commune with the Muses but rather to hustle, to make connections, to grab what information they need in order to hurry on to create business start-ups and the like. Whither Pope? Whither Swinburne? “It is not the humanities per se that are under attack,” he writes. “It is learning: learning for its own sake, curiosity for its own sake, ideas for their own sake.” According to him, students aren’t coming to college anymore in order to reflect and think and grow, and the change is having a demoralizing effect on those lonely warriors on the front lines:
All this explains a new kind of unhappiness I sense among professors. There are lots of things about being an academic that basically suck: the committee work, the petty politics, the endless slog for tenure and promotion, the relentless status competition. What makes it all worthwhile, for many people, is the vigorous intellectual dialogue you get to have with vibrant young minds. That kind of contact is becoming unusual. Not because students are dumber than they used to be, but because so few of them approach their studies with a sense of intellectual mission. College is a way, learning is a way, of getting somewhere else. Students will come to your office – rushing in from one activity, rushing off to the next – to find out what they need to do to get a better grade. Very few will seek you out to talk about ideas in an open-ended way. Many professors still do care deeply about thinking and learning. But they often find that they’re the only ones.
This piece wasn’t the first thing of Deresiewicz’s that made me wish he’d occasionally (maybe out of a sense of intellectual mission?) set one foot off an Ivy League campus, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. This is an author who can do all the background research necessary to write a piece like this – research about the internationalization of the jobs market, and about the skyrocketing of college costs, and about the increasing deficiencies of high school education – and come away from it all blissfully untouched by any sense of what it means that college costs at least $25,000 a year, or that for most people, $25,000 a year is a lot of money. Come away from it all still content to write a piece carping at young people for not majoring in the Pre-Raphaelite Aesthetic and then, fully ensouled, leaving college and living the rest of their lives on the annuity Grandfather Bigelow set up during the Pierce administration.
As I mentioned, the magazine clearly intended Deresiewicz’s headline piece to grab my attention, but the real goodies were to be found elsewhere in the issue (just as last month readers had to grit their teeth through a headline piece on parenting by loathsomely self-absorbed people like Sarah “Kid or no kid, it’s still all about me” Manguso before they could enjoy a great essay by Sam Sacks on, well, what’s wrong with war fiction today), ranging from Elaine Blair’s fantastic review of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel to Matthieu Aikins’ searing piece on a dangerous gangster running the streets of Karachi.
But my favorite thing in this issue was the photo-spread by the great Glenna Gordon,
“Romancing Kano,” in which she gives readers a vibrant, complex glimpse into the lives of the women of Kano, Nigeria’s second-largest city. She concentrates this Harper’s collection around littattafan soyayya, the “love literature” homemade romance novels written by women and bought by women in a city under siege by a strain of mouth-frothing Islam that would forbid women physical freedom, let alone literacy.
I’ve been to Kano, and I’ve experienced the immense hospitality (and utterly infectious laughter) of Nigerian women, and these beautiful photos both brought back memories of those days and also raised old familiar fears about the candles of those lives being snuffed out. One of Gordon’s photos shows a woman laying on a bed in her home, reading one of these Kano-market novels, and it’s a lovely image, and it takes a minute to remember how enragingly, doubly blasphemous (a woman reading, and a woman reading something that’s not the Koran) such a picture is to the armed Islamic fanatics currently destroying 2000-year-old ruins and mass-kidnapping schoolgirls for sex slavery. It was the highlight of this issue, seeing these slender glimpses of hope.
On newsstands now, as the saying goes, is one of my very favorite semi-regular Penny Press confections: a New Yorker cartoon collection. This one is meant to commemorate the magazine’s 90th anniversary (as unbelievable as that figure must seem to some of us), and (equally unbelievable, in its own way) this seems to be the only such recognition that milestone is going to get in 2015 – a glossy bound magazine rather than a book. Still, for $13 this is one nifty little anniversary item and might just reach more New Yorker fans than a $50 hardcover would have done.
This issue is set up decade by decade, a fairly standard arrangement that’s still irresistible, since it shows the steady evolution of the magazine’s cartoonists efforts to mirror the fads of their society. When you watch that evolution, driven by temporary fads, played against what’s often demonized as the eternal New Yorker “themes” (therapy, class friction, downtrodden workers, over-privileged kids – basically, the Upper East Side), you get a weird and not at all unpleasant suggestion of an institutional brain guiding the whole process, decade after decade, allowing for changes in architecture and clothing styles and argot, but keeping the feel of everything remarkably consistent. It’s a big part of what makes New Yorker cartoons so oddly comforting – at their best, they’re predictable but not boring, socially relevant but also anodyne, simultaneously cutting and coddling. All of which might sound vaguely horrifying to some people (I’ve known various changing guards of such people my entire life), but me? Sign me up! As an old friend discovered just recently, one of the surest ways to make my eyes positively light up on a book-gift is to give me one of those mildewy old hardcover cartoon collections the New Yorker used to publish fairly regularly back when the Cold War was on.
This magazine substitute isn’t half bad either. Most of the New Yorker all-time classics are here, including “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it” and “I don’t care what you say – I’m cold!” and, a personal favorite for obvious reasons (and taped to my old transparent blue desktop computer), “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” New Yorker greats like Peter Arno, Charles Addams, George Booth, my beloved Helen Hokinson, Saul Steinberg, and my favorite, Gluyas Williams (whose “The Day the Cake of Soap Sank at Procter & Gamble’s” leads off the collection even though it’ll make no sense whatsoever to most of the issue’s readers) are all represented here, as are newer giants like Dan Shanahan, Joe Dator, and the mighty Roz Chast, although the collection’s “more than 262.5” selections means quite a few favorites are going to be left out, this issue is full of wonderful stuff.
And by flipping through the pages, you get to see some of those standby New Yorker themes slowly adapt themselves over the decades. The earliest cartoons lean heavily on a semi-affectionate spoofing of the cluelessness of the very uppermost ‘class’ in America in the ’20s and ’30s (you see this quite often in the Saturday Evening Post covers of the time as well), the joshing of the toff. But gradually both toffs and their ribbing disappear from the landscape. The very rich remain (they shall be always with us), but they slowly take on more sinister and cutting tones, especially after President Eisenhower warned the country about the military-industrial complex. Likewise artful innuendo (including a famous “All right, have it your way – you heard a seal bark!” panel by James Thurber) is replaced by explicit talk of sex, and Botox, and Facebook.
I could have hoped for another elaborate hardcover volume like the one the magazine produced to celebrate its 75th anniversary – after all, it’s not every magazine that gets to turn 90 – but this glossy issue will certainly tide me over until the big 100-years hoopla commences in 2025. And in the meantime, there may still be one or two of those mildewy old volumes I haven’t yet discovered …
After a solid week of Penguin Classics, what better palate-cleanser could there be than a sojourn through the Fall Fashion issues of the glossy magazines? It’s a way to run a quick finger down the ‘content’-xylophone from the deeper notes of Longfellow and Dostoevsky to, well, to the very, very strange world of fashion.
Almost all the big square-bound glossies indulge in a Fashion issue at least once a year, doubling their page-length with very lucrative ads from all the biggest designer houses, and usually I avoid these issues like the proverbial plague, mainly because the editors of these issues tend to shelve any serious freelance articles they may have on the docket until later issues, figuring, no doubt, that a probing expose on Salvadoran torture gangs doesn’t exactly mesh well with the latest runway exotica from Paris and Milan.
I go to these magazines for those serious freelance articles, naturally, but I confess, I always feel a touch of interest in these elaborate fashion digressions, and for the least likely reason: oddly enough, I’ve known a few professional male models in my life, including one who, when he was in the business, was, you could say, fairly prominent. And from these three young men I’ve heard many war-stories from that business, fascinating stories and fascinating theorizing about what high-fashion bizarrities really are. One of these young men offhandedly told me that the weird, other-worldly stuff paraded down the high-profile runways aren’t, of course, meant to be worn in daily life but are instead “what poor people will be imitating in ten years” (what can I say? One of these three young men was a bit of a douche). Another said the big fashion shows are meant only as “comic book versions” of the designers’ actual aesthetic vision. All three told tales of clouds of tobacco, rivers of hard liquor, and discreet piles of cocaine (and, incidentally, daily eating habits that even I would consider indulgently bad), as well as horror stories of megalomaniacal show-runners and designers treating models like herd animals. I believe there were a couple of mentions of sex as well.
The fashion issue of Details gives a mighty snapshot of that world on its cover, which features 31 of the top male models working today, and the Details crew devotes their efforts 100 % to their subject – the issue has virtually no editorial content whatsoever (not that it’s ever exactly War and Peace), just display after display of preposterous clothing on painfully thin androgynous models.
The fashion issue of Esquire is a slightly more substantial affair. It has a profile of arrogant young actor Miles Teller (profiled before the box office performance of his starring vehicle, Fantastic Four, gave him a bit less cause for arrogance), an interview with Keith Richards by the redoubtable Scott Raab, and a short but meaty review by Richard Dorment of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. But the issue is nevertheless crammed full of the aforementioned preposterous clothing on painfully thin androgynous models.
And then there’s the fashion issue of Vanity Fair, a big fat thing which has a very interesting article about Chelsea Clinton by Evgenia Peretz and a hilariously appalling piece by Nancy Jo Sales on the ‘culture’ of Tindr – but which is mostly just one fashion display after another. And turning through those slick pages, one after another, looking at all these impossible-looking people draped in these impossible-looking clothes, I was struck by two things: the egregious fragility of the fashion items – you can tell just by looking at these things, from the handbags to the sweaters to the blouses, that they’re not constructed to survive even ten uses – and also, secondarily, almost incidentally, their obscene expense. The Salvatore Ferragamo scarf? $450. The Marcelo Burlon shirt? $279 – and the matching poncho? $638. The Bottega Veneta polka-dot dress? $2400. The Haute Dogs lip glosses? $50 per color. The grotesque red Gucci bag? $2980
These figures are only fractions of the price tags you find in the men’s “gear” magazines, where $10,000 wristwatches are not uncommon, but they’re still mighty depressing. The pictures are gaudy and weird and eye-catching, but its depressing to think there are people in the world who’ll pay $3000 for a flimsy shoulder bag that would fall apart if it were asked to carry, say, ten books – not to mention the fact that $3000 would buy you 3000 $1 books at the Brattle bargain carts.
The people who are the actual customers for the kinds of clothing in these fashion magazines are the people I sometimes see at the Brattle sale lot – glancing at it in blank, uncomprehending disinterest before passing on without a second thought. It’s a shame – but at least I managed to hook all three of those former model-boys in reading for pleasure! And we’ll get back to that very thing tomorrow, now that we’re done with the camera-flashes and the runways.
As I’ve noted on many occasions, book-reviewing can be tricky business for people who aren’t me. Most reviewers have actual personal lives, for instance, and I’ve heard that those can take up time and effort, entail trips to Ikea, and sometimes lead the unwary into the wilds of Canada. Most reviewers likewise devote ungawdly number of hours per day to sleeping, during which neither writing nor reading is possible. And also most reviewers have sometimes sizable gaps in their reading: when a new doorstop volume on the Franco-Prussian War or the life of Robert Graves or a study of submarine warfare during the Second World War, the first thing most reviewers will do is scramble, in a half-blind panic, to bring themselves up to speed on said subjects. All these things can oppress a reviewer, creating a pressure that sometimes vents in odd ways, jetting out in odd directions that might provide momentary relief but almost always mar a review. Some reviewers vent this pressure in reflexive rhetorical gimmicks and cliches (“X reads like what you’d get if the books of Y and Z fell in love and had a child”), others trundle along evenly for long stretches and then lash out at some seemingly random and trivial bauble (you can never quite predict when this will happen, for instance, with the little old lady who reviews the same book every week for the Silver Spring Scold, although it’s always a bit nervously funny when it happens).
My heart goes out to these poor pressurized creatures. I myself have read roughly 150 pages an hour for roughly eight hours a day for roughly the last five hundred years, annotating everything furiously and forgetting nothing along the way. And unlike so many of my fellow reviewers, I encounter no radical difficulties in writing prose in English – in fact, I rather enjoy it. As Rumpole of the Bailey says of Chateau Thames Embankment, it keeps me astonishingly regular. But these things don’t apply to most of my fellow reviewers, alas. Rather, they do the best they can and occasionally buckle under the strain and vent a little.
One of the most annoying of those lashings-out takes the form of the reviewer being UNFAIR. You can be displeased by a book your reviewing; you can be annoyed by it or angered by it or embarrassed by it, but before you can give vent to any of those reactions, you absolutely have to be fair to the book before you. If you can’t do that, regardless of your starting-point dislikes of the book in question, how can your readers possibly trust you?
I was asking myself these kinds of questions while I was reading last week’s London Review of Books, unfortunately. Take, for instance, a review of Michael Bundock’s The Fortunes of Francis Barber, written by the great historian Charles Nicholl who at one point rolls out an absolutely chilling admission:
I once intended to write Barber’s biography, and gathered a good deal of material for it, but for various reasons the book never got written. It has now, I am glad to report, evolved into another book (in which Barber features but is not the sole subject) so I am free to enjoy this admirable account with something approaching equanimity.
Which is, in the narrow circles of scholarly book-reviewing, the equivalent of a high court judge saying, “I had once intended to marry the wife of the accused myself, but after our definitive, albeit extraordinarily acrimonious, breakup, I am happy to report that I can view the accused’s murder trial with something approaching equanimity.” In other words, after Nicholl makes such a disclosure, you can be completely certain the very last thing you’ll read is anything “approaching equanimity.”
And sure enough, when Nicholl finally does get around to talking about Bundock’s book, he says that when it comes to the “ambit of immigrant history” his book is “critically defective” – and then proceeds to criticize a point of minutia not in Bundock’s book but in the book of an earlier researcher into Francis Barber’s life – a point of minutia so small and picky that only a scholar who’d trawled through the same dusty Jamaican archives would would even think about it for an instant, let alone quibble about it. So much for “something approaching equanimity” – I just hope readers aren’t dissuaded from buying The Fortunes of Francis Barber; as I implied in my own review (which you can read here), it’s a wonderful book.
And author Daisy Hay fares no better at the hands of reviewer Tom Crewe in the same issue of the LRB. He’s purporting to review her book Mr. and Mrs. Disraeli: A Strange Romance, but he’s only a few paragraphs of plot-summary along before he commits one of the mortal sins of book-reviewing: he starts finding fault with a book about Subject A for not being about Subject B instead:
What’s missing, in Hay’s book as in all recent writing on Disraeli (there have been seven biographies in less than ten years), is an attempt to identify the place he occupied in the public imagination in his lifetime.
And then Crewe is off to the races writing about that place-in-public-life, with scarcely a backward glance at Hay’s book, which is about an almost entirely different subject and which is no more reviewed in this review than Bundock’s book was reviewed in Nicholl’s piece allegedly about it (if you’d like a genuine, engaged review of Hay’s book, you can turn, naturally, to Open Letters Monthly and read one here)
You’d think reviewers pulling stunts like these would think twice when contemplating that most fearsome of all public battlegrounds, the letters column! And as chance would have it, the letter column in this very issue of the LRB displays a classic example of the kind of pie you can get in the face if you vent instead of reviewing. In this case, it’s author Jeremy Treglown piping up to defend himself in deliciously icy tones:
I’m intrigued by Dan Hancox’s freewheeling account of my book Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936. He says I ‘point out’ that Picasso was ‘content to live and work in Spain under Franco’. I don’t: he wasn’t and didn’t. Franco himself, Hancox claims, ‘wrote some of the programme notes’ for the 1960 National Fine Arts Festival (a biennial event, by the way, not, as he implies, a one-off). It would be fascinating to see them. He grumbles that I don’t comment on a decision taken by the PP government when the book, first published in September 2013, was already in press. That decision was part of the PP’s dismissal of plans for Franco’s burial place that had been adopted in 2011 by the PSOE. Hancox seems not to have noticed that I supported the key proposal on pages 65 and 278.
“I don’t: he wasn’t and didn’t” – wonderful. It shouldn’t be necessary, but: wonderful.
The Penny Press this week featured a long article on a remorseless natural disaster, something that strikes without warning, wantonly destroys property, and inflicts untold pain and misery on humans around the world.
I refer, of course, to corgis.
Specifically, to a wonderfully wonky article in the latest Vanity Fair by Michael Joseph Gross about the many seething, boiling crowds of corgis Queen Elizabeth II has overseen for the last fifty years, with whom she’s been photographed innumerable times, and who’ve caused many a statesman, both foreign and domestic, to curse fair Albion after having a wayward ankle mauled. Gross’ article quotes many corgi enthusiasts about how spirited and frolicsome the little dears are (one interviewee is willing to concede that they can be “a bit naughty”), but at no point does anybody use the word “monsters.” Noblesse oblige, no doubt.
Nevertheless, and I say this as somebody with the most vested of all vested interests, the breed is rotten. Not Dalmation-level rotten, nothing nuclear like that, but still: calling corgis “a bit naughty” is like calling Donald Trump “a bit dim.” These are dogs who savagely attack their own litter-mates when jockeying for position at the food-bowl; these are dogs who listen carefully to human instructions and them pointedly ignore them; these are dogs who never waste an opportunity to make a pain of themselves. These traits are common in squat, tubby breeds with short legs (dachshunds, for instance, or a certain other breed which shall remain nameless), but they’re virtually weaponized in corgis.
Nevertheless, as Gross makes clear, the little monsters serve a much-valued function for this particular owner:
The corgis are more than symbols, though. In a life ruled by protocol, they provide an easy way for the Queen to break the ice with strangers. In what can be an isolating position, she gets from them unlimited amounts of love and physical affection, uncompromised by the knowledge that she is the monarch. Whenever possible, the Queen feeds the corgis herself and leads them on daily walks, which also serve as a kind of therapy. Her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, has referred to this form of therapy as his wife’s “dog mechanism.”
One dog breeder recalls a visit from a young Queen keen on inspecting a new litter, and the point is emphasized:
“We sat on the floor and talked about corgis. There’s a litter of puppies crawling around on our hands and knees and we’re sitting on the floor being tramped on and chewed and bitten. Puppies don’t care who it is, me or the Queen of England. They don’t care. They can chew bits of anybody.”
To which is should be strongly added: corgis don’t care. Corgis can chew bits of anybody. Not all puppies behave in such a way, and even those who do usually grow out of it.
One of the more melancholy points of Gross’ piece is that Queen Elizabeth appears to be as thoroughly responsible a person when it comes to dog ownership as she is when it comes to everything else; recognizing the fact that she herself is getting too old to manage crowds of headstrong, ankle-tangling dogs, she’s been steadily scaling back the size of her menagerie. All too soon, the article implies, the threat of corgis will no longer be present in all the royal haunts of Britain.
Just this opposite of this kind of impending relief applies in the week’s other disaster story, the piece Kathryn Schulz writes in the New Yorker about the Cascadia subduction zone (read: massive fault line) that runs for several hundred miles off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, from California’s Cape Mendocino to Vancouver Island. This New Yorker issue sports an absolute gem of a bright, happy summer cover by the great J. J. Sempe, but on the issue’s Table of Contents, Schulz is in full catastrophe mode about the mega-earthquake-tsunami that’s long overdue to erupt from the Cascadia zone:
Soon after that shaking begins, the electrical grid will fail, likely everywhere west of the Cascades and possibly well beyond. If it happens at night, the ensuing catastrophe will unfold in darkness. In theory, those who are at home when it hits should be safest; it is easy and relatively inexpensive to seismically safeguard a private dwelling. But, lulled into nonchalance by their seemingly benign environment, most people in the Pacific Northwest have not done so. That nonchalance will shatter instantly. So will everything made of glass. Anything indoors and unsecured will lurch across the floor or come crashing down: bookshelves, lamps, computers, cannisters of flour in the pantry. Refrigerators will walk out of kitchens, unplugging themselves and toppling over. Water heaters will fall and smash interior gas lines. Houses that are not bolted to their foundations will slide off—or, rather, they will stay put, obeying inertia, while the foundations, together with the rest of the Northwest, jolt westward. Unmoored on the undulating ground, the homes will begin to collapse.
“Among natural disasters, tsunamis may be the closest to being completely unsurvivable,” Schulz writes. “The only likely way to outlive one is not to be there when it happens: to steer clear of the vulnerable area in the first place, or get yourself to high ground as fast as possible.” And she lays out the stark impossibility of the West Coast population being able to do that: the evacuation routes aren’t posted, the emergency relief plans aren’t in place, and public awareness of the potential danger is nonexistent. Basically, if the “Big One” Schulz describes ever actually happens, millions of people might die, and that whole stretch of North America would become a disaster area that would take many years to make habitable again.
Which is very nearly as bad as corgis, when you think about it.