Posts from April 2016

April 3rd, 2016

Between a Rock and Bleeding Mouth-Cancer in the Penny Press!

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gqAs I’ve mentioned before here at Stevereads, it’s always a pleasure for me to see a glossy square-bound lad-mag divert from quick-ab workouts and $35,000 wristwatches to talk about some of the less venal elements of what goes into making a well-rounded person. The most vulnerable of those elements is of course the gentle art of reading, so it’s usually a distinct treat when a magazine like Esquire or Men’s Journal runs a short piece on the added value that your average bro can get from your above-average book.

The latest GQ (the one with a picture of a very old Clint Eastwood on the cover) has just such a feature: “21 Brilliant Books You’ve Never Heard Of (Championed by 21 Writers You Have).” Naturally, such a feature isn’t really going to present me with 21 books I’ve never heard of, but the title promises some off-the-beaten-path choices, and the feature delivers.

We get Ben Fountain praising Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man, for instance, and we get Hanya Yanagihara recommending, oddly and delightfully, My Abandonment by Peter Rock. Wells Tower calls G. B. Edwards’ The Book of Ebenezer Le Page “a work of seaweed, heart, and waves that break on granite” (true enough, especially in how it reflects the thing’s readability). TC Boyle puts forward Denis Johnson’s great slim novel Fiskadoro, and A. O. Scott, bless his hitherto-inconspicuous heart, praises Mary McCarthy’s great novel The Groves of Academe while not actually talking about it all, and Marlon James singles out Russell Hoban’s masterpiece Riddley Walker (and pays the simple readerly respect we all must pay: “if it wasn’t for Salman Rushdie, I would never have heard of it”).

It’s true that the otherwise-trustworthy Emma Straub recommends the dreadful Stoner by John Williams, but we also get some of our best working novelists making cases for books they think are underappreciated: George Saunders writes about American Youth by Phil LaMarche, Junot Diaz praises The Motion of Light in Water by Samuel Delany, and the great Adam Johnson recommends Robert O’Connor’s terrific novel Buffalo Soldiers.

In fact, there was hardly any fault to lay at the door of the feature’s editors, who assembled a very thought-provoking mixture of lesser-known books and interesting recommenders. No, the fault came from the emphysema sandwich-buns that encased the feature: the last page of the magazine before the feature started and the first page after it ended – the absolutely inescapable brackets of the thing – were both full-page color ads for tobacco products, just exactly like this was a 1956 issue of GQ rather than a 2016 issue. One of the ads was for chewing tobacco, and the other was for super-sexy cigarettes, and in both cases, there were federally-mandated warning boxes telling readers that chewing tobacco isn’t a “safe” alternative to smoking, and that cigarettes contain elevated levels of carbon monoxide. No mention made of the fact that in studies not heavily subsidized by the tobacco industry, the data shows that fully 100% of idiots who use chewing tobacco develop tooth-rot and mouth cancer, and that fully 100% of idiots who smoke develop emphysema and lung cancer. No exceptions, unless the tobacco industry is paying for them outright. The ads instead offer only the very mildest finger-shaking admonitions – X isn’t safe, Y contains carbon monoxide – instead of This product will give you cancer.

And just as an editorial team was responsible for the quality of that “21 Brilliant Books” gqbooksfeature, so too is there responsibility for the ads that bracketed it: Jim Nelson is the Editor-in-Chief of GQ, which means that in order for those ads – extolling the cool-factor of weaponized tobacco, for Christ’s sake, in 2016, for Christ’s sake, when the science of how absolutely lethal this crap is has been settled for seventy years – to appear in the magazine, he either had to approve of them or else not quit his job because of them. So either Editor-in-Chief Jim Nelson wants GQ readers to get addicted to carcinogens in order to keep his ad-revenues flowing, or he’s too spineless to take a principled stand against it.

Either is despicable, and especially so in this case because there’s already a long-cultivated association (carefully encouraged by the tobacco industry) between being a writer and ingesting vast amounts of carcinogens. Thanks to the placement of these ads, that association will only be strengthened in the minds of the biddable young twentysomething men who are such a key component of GQ‘s audience. I’ll just have to hope that the ones who are smart enough to want to read some of these books are also smart enough to avoid the evil fate to which Jim Nelson wants to condemn them.

February 28th, 2016

A Sensible Career Path in the Penny Press!

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Impossible for me to pass over Michael Dirda’s “Freelance” column from last week’s TLS, and likewise TLSimpossible for me not to respond. Dirda uses the little space this time to reflect on his long stint as an editor at the legendary Washington Post Book World, and in his typical fashion, he manages to build enormous amounts of depth and complexity into a very small space. This “Freelance” piece not only reads like an autobiography but very much makes this reader want to read such a book.

Dirda briefly looks at the omnivorous nature of his tenure’s outlook on the Republic of Letters:

I believed, too, that that literature included much of what was then dismissed as “genre” trash … Did anyone write better dialogue than George V. Higgins and Elmore Leonard? Weren’t Charles Portis’s True Grit, James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, and John Crowley’s Little Big among the best American novels of our time? J. G. Ballard and Angela Carter were arguably Britain’s most remarkable short-story writers; Ursula Le Guin was surely at least as important as Susan Sontag.

And he gives a look into the parameters of his actual job:

Still, I was mainly an editor, responsible for assigning half-a-dozen new titles each week, as well as monthly columns devoted to science fiction, mysteries and children’s books. Here, I wanted what all editors want – lively copy. Bernard Shaw once said that he could make even the most tired businessman read his music reviews. Over time, Book World published many really terrific pieces, often by superstars away from their usual playing field.

This is characteristically but inaccurately humble, and you can see it in the invisible bridge from the dirdapenultimate line to the last line. Shaw was indeed fond of making that quip about tired businessmen, but we go straight from that to what Book World, as some sort of Borg-like collective, published – the missing thing is Dirda himself. Shaw might have bragged about entertaining tired businessmen by main force, but the original drafts of many of his music reviews – the pages he submitted to The Star in the first place – were often unbearably tail-chasing and almost invariably too long. They wouldn’t have reached those tired businessmen if they hadn’t been helped into better shape by Shaw’s tough-minded Irish editor, a better critic than Shaw could ever dream of being but without his gift for self-promotion. The point being: those really terrific pieces Book World ran during Dirda’s tenure didn’t simply appear out of thin air. He set the tone, and, as hifalutin’ as it might sound, he provided the vision. And that’s no easy thing to do issue after issue for years on end. As a smart historian wrote almost a century ago, “It is astonishing how easily an otherwise respectable editor or biographer can get himself into a state of complete intellectual dishonesty.” The way is inviting, and Dirda never took it.

book worldHis short “Freelance” piece shades into somewhat melancholy tones, which surprised me even for this mostly-melancholy writer. And of course I pricked up my ears when he got to the nub of it:

Not that I’d recommend freelance writing about books as a sensible career path. In many ways, it’s a boring life. You read, scribble, turn away in disgust from what you’ve written, scribble again, send in your review or essay, wait, revise the edited copy, wait some more. When the piece finally appears, no one notices unless you’ve made a mistake. You really have to love books to keep on with this, week after week.

This puzzled me, and I have to think Dirda wrote it on a glum day. He alludes to the entire print Book World run under his tenure being trundled to storage facility somewhere, to molder in the darkness unconsulted, and he reflects that at least he has his memories to console him. But he can lay claim to a good deal more than happy memories and an old archive mothballed somewhere. I know for a fact that his Book World brought readers like me a great deal of pleasure throughout its entire run, and that’s no small accomplishment. It’s not true at all that “no one notices unless you’ve made a mistake” – readers noticed the great lineup of reviews Dirda orchestrated so often and so well. Those review-reading pleasures might be evanescent, but they were no less real for being so.

And that’s the rightful motivation for doing it, as Dirda must know (I, for one, don’t believe for a second his implication that his main motivation for writing his book reviews these days is a steady paycheck). A well-done book review can challenge complacency, fill in gaps of learning, broaden associations, and most of all, entertain. Who cares if those reviews aren’t carved in marble? Who cares if they end up moldering in a dark, forgotten archive somewhere in Plattsburgh? The sheer fun of the conversation, of both entertaining and being entertained, is plenty justification for taking up the practice of book reviewing, surely? Boring? Not a minute of it!

February 24th, 2016

Writers by Nature in the Penny Press!

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nature conservancyOne of my newer magazine subscriptions is The Nature Conservancy, published by the deep-pocketed conservation group of the same name. The magazine is slightly oddly-sized, and it’s full of great nature photography, and the small handful of issues I’ve read regularly so far have impressed me with the breadth and sensitivity of their prose. The feature-length articles are as good as anything I find in my beloved National Geographic, although in the latest issue to reach me, even those feature-length articles were beat out by a bright little feature called “Writers by Nature.”

With text by Amanda Fiegl and wonderful color illustrations by Stan Fellows, foxthe piece highlights some of the great writing that’s been inspired by lands protected and upkept by the Nature Conservancy, from the California mountains of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden to the Adirondacks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, from the Nebraska prairie frogof Willa Cather’s My Antonia to the ponds of Maine that are immortalized in Rachel Carson’s The Edge of the Sea:

Here were creatures so exquisitely fashioned that they seemed unreal, their beauty too fragile to exist in a world of crushing force. Yet every detail was functionally useful, every stalk and hydranth and petal-like tentacle fashioned for dealing pondwith the realities of existence. I knew that they were merely waiting, in that moment of the tide’s ebbing, for the return of the sea.

Fiegl includes other writers, figures like Wallace Stegner, TC Boyle, and of course Annie Dillard and her Blue Ridge Mountains, and she adds a few poets as well. And that’s it – no great page-length, just a rest point in between the issue’s bigger articles. But I loved it, and I’m coming to expect such grace notes in every issue. It’s certainly nice when some corner of the Penny Press does nothing more controversial than simply convert me into a fan!

February 11th, 2016

On the Runways of Alpha Centauri This Season in the Penny Press!

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Fortunately, no matter how frustrating or confusing the Penny Press is on any given week, we’ll always still have the beacon of clarity that is high fashion.

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February 11th, 2016

Send in the D-List in the Penny Press!

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vf hollywood 16The latest issue of Vanity Fair had an amusing little one-page squib that managed to provoke in me an old and often-provoked reaction. The piece, called “Unsung Superheroes,” is written by Scott Jacobson, Mike Sacks, and Ted Travelstead (don’t ask me why – the thing is 300 not particularly taxing words long; I have no idea why it required even one credited stoned author, let alone three credited stoned authors), with an accompanying illustration by the great Zohar Lazar, and it presents readers with a lineup of D-rate superheroes to complement the A-list teams those readers have been seeing in movie theaters for a decade now.

There are characters like “The Bean Counter,” “Pop-Uppity,” “Mud-Slinger,” and, a hero who could have come in handy elsewhere in this issue, “Grammar Girl”:

Swoops in to save the day whenever frightened townsfolk desperately need to know who vs whom, that vs which, and just plain right vs wrong. Her modifiers never dangle and her voice is never passive. She has just the right effect. Or affect. She’ll tell you.

And why, you might ask, would a space-filling trifle such as this provoke any kind of reaction in me? unsungWell, it’s a long story – nearly 25 years long, in fact – and I feel this same reaction whenever I see a D-list team of losers trotted out into the spotlight: I flash back to 1993.

Specifically, to Legion of Super-Heroes #49, written by Tom and Mary Bierbaum and drawn by Stuart Immonen. In that issue, stalwart Legionnaire Tenzil Kem, code-named Matter-Eater Lad (that’s his superpower, for those of you not up on your bits of Legion lore: he can eat anything), is on the planet Tartarus and preparing to face the dictator Evillo with a hastily-recruited band of local D-list superheroes, including Policy Pam, whose superpower is the ability to sell insurance to anybody, at any time, Echo-Chamber Chet, who loudly echoes everything that’s said to him, and my personal favorite, Spaceopoly Lad, who’s superpower is the ability to finish every game of Spaceopoly he starts.

And what reaction does all this provoke in me, you might ask? Not nostalgia, surprisingly – back in 1993, DC Comics still had sense enough to publish new Legion of Super-Heroes comics every month, echo-chamber chetsomething they haven’t done now in three long years. So you might be expecting the chain of associations to go something like this: Vanity Fair‘s “Unsung Superheroes” – Legion of Super-Heroes #49 – bring back the policy pamLegion!

But no – not only do I think for a second that there’s any chance of such a thing happening, but I’m not sure I’d want it to happen in the current DC continuity. No, my reaction is a far more straightforward capitalist whining: how the sprock can a quarter-century have elapsed without DC Comics dusting off and reprinting the entirety of the Keith Giffen-T&M Bierbaum era of the title, one of the best runs in the team’s entire 50-year history? Why are readers wanting to experience that spaceopoly ladrun forced to grub through the single-issue boxes in the basement of their local Android’s Dungeon? Nice solid deluxe reprint volumes of these issues would sell – and they’d introduce a whole new generation of readers to the glories of one of comicdom’s grandest traditions.

All that from Pop-Uppity! Who can explain it?

February 11th, 2016

Lawrence Osborne in the Penny Press!

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I’m always pleased when one of my beloved lad-mags pauses from its barrage of plugs for $50,000 wristwatches and full-page ads for cigarettes in order to talk about books; it’s slightly encouraging to me, that the editors of these magazines sometimes think that in addition to grotesquely expensive status-symbol gimcracks and incipient lung cancer, young men should aspire to feed their largely empty minds with some good writing.

mjAnd it’s extra-satisfying when the writing those editors single out actually is good, as was the case in the latest issue of Men’s Journal, which devotes two pages to an interview by Darren Reidy with a mighty fine writer of both fiction and nonfiction, British expat Lawrence Osborne, author of a bunch of really good books, including The Ballad of a Small Player, The Wet and the Dry, and his terrific new book Hunters in the Dark. Lawrence Osborne lives on the outskirts of Bangkok, and his instant summary of the place when Reidy asks him about it aligns perfectly with my own memories of the place:

Well, it’s fucking hot. It’s 95 into the night, so I usually work after dark. It’s cooler, and you have the beautiful sounds of frogs and cicadas. I’m in a very jungly area here – mango trees, wild peacocks. It’s not the bright lights side of Bangkok, although all of that is very close by. So I work until around 2 am, and then I go down into the seething masses and get some street food, beers. Also, it’s very feminine here. At midnight, women outnumber men three to one on the street.

I could listen to Lawrence Osborne natter on about pretty much anything, but Reidy seems to zero in on his best subject right away – drinking – and asks him about drinking in Muslim countries, getting a typically blunt response:

Absolutely, and in all Muslim countries. Go to Bahrain on the weekend, when all the Saudis drive over. It’s like Caligula’s Rome. You can spend a weekend in a five-star hotel and listen to the Arab guys trashing their rooms. It makes Vegas look like a Salvation Army hospital. And then they all have to drive back on a Sunday night. Most of them are shitfaced, and they have to wait until they’re sober. Pakistan is like that as well. There’s absolutely no moderation in the consumption of alcohol.

It’s only with the final question that the interview made me grimace a bit. Reidy follows up that great revelation about hard-drinking Saudis by … well, I’m still not sure where this twist comes from:

Why the hypocrisy?

Clearly alcohol is a symbolic thing, because 40 years ago you could drink anywhere in the Middle East, no big deal. It’s some crisis in a world dominated by seemingly Western values. But why hasn’t that same crisis happened in Japan and Thailand? In the Far East, these cultures have been able to absorb Western influence without any neurotic fallout. They feel a level of security in their own culture, or they’re indifferent. But that’s just my opinion. I’m just someone who likes to drink.

Dominated by Western values? Why hasn’t the same crisis happened in Japan? This was all pretty huntersconfusing – it’s as if neither Reidy nor Osborne is even aware of the Iranian Revolution spearheaded by illiterate sociopath Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, in which one maniac and a small cadre of zealots managed to drag a modern-day country back to the 8th century, managed it mainly because the men who found themselves every day in those early weeks within arm’s reach of Khomeini – men who just a month before had been enjoying their weekly New Yorker, their I Love Lucy reruns on TV, and yes, their freedom to drink – didn’t simply kill the vicious old lunatic and hope his glassy-eyed followers then came to their senses. The fact that Saudi businessmen have to travel across state lines in order to enjoy themselves has nothing to do with the “hypocrisy” Reidy mentions, and certainly nothing to do with Osborne’s vague invocation “Western values.” It’s purely because of modernity-rejecting religious fundamentalism.

But you should all still read Hunters in the Dark. No Lawrence Osborne book, in fact, should be missed.

January 30th, 2016

Asimov gems in the Penny Press!

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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.

asimov'sI’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!

January 26th, 2016

Geographica: Denali!

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The latest issue of National Geographic is as packed with glorious goodies as all other issues of underlondonthe 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 denaliwolvesmiddle 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:

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January 23rd, 2016

Cat-Scratch Fever in the Penny Press!

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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 the lucky oneknow 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 outsidecleverly 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 bradyrunningtarget matters:

But let’s not kid ourselves about the literary value of 482 pages of small talk interspersed with well-worn folksy truisms about how everything is exactly as it should be. At a time when popularity is taken not just as a signifier of value but as the exact same thing as value, it is necessary and worthwhile to absorb just how bad the really bad books manage to get away with being while still selling millions of copies internationally.

And elsewhere in the Penny Press, in an issue of Outside whose cover would be sheer genius if it weren’t absolutely plastered in text, there’s a picture of New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady modeling for the Under Armour clothing line. The picture shows Brady in full sprint-workout, covered in sweat – but both the sprint and the sweat are fake. Somehow, in 2016, neither of these details surprise.

January 20th, 2016

The Spoken Word in the Penny Press!

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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 vfBritish 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.