Posts from May 2012

May 31st, 2012

Predictable Trials in the Penny Press!

It was a gruesome, entirely telegraphed one-two punch this week in the Penny Press: first, Esquire had a “How To Be a Man – The Fatherhood Edition,” and then The New Yorker had a double-sized science fiction issue. As the cognoscenti might put it, oy.

Horrified – as pretty much anybody would be – by the prospect of a New Yorker science fiction issue, I tackled the Esquire first. I nibbled around the articles at the peripheries, the ones not necessarily about fatherhood, although even most of those outlying districts were pretty gawd-awful. The slogans for the “Fiction for Men” section, for instance: “Outlaws. Cigarette punches. Sex. Blood. Bank robbers. Revenge. Fear. Lust. Greed. These are stories for men, by the biggest writers in America.” The sensible part of me was immediately warning me that the entire section would be an angering waste of time – after all, the reading demographic that’s so confidently summoned by those word-blurbs isn’t “men” … it’s “teenage boys.” And that sensible part was right: the short stories that followed were hideously awful. Stephen King and his son Joe Hill team up to provide something called “In the Tall Grass,” which consequently has twice the genetic defects found in either man’s prose alone … both inbred and sterile. Colum McCann turns in a Civil War story that’s as bloated and sold on itself as his wretched novel Let the Great World Spin. Lee Child presents a new Jack Reacher short story that’s so bad the second half doesn’t even bother to check in and see what happened in the first half. After that, as if sensing how tired their teenage-boy readers must be going this long without a picture of a scantily-clad woman or a full-color ad for cigars, the editors give us “short short” fiction – several writers turn in one 79-word paragraph apiece, apparently under the impression that a 79-word paragraph can do stand-in duty for an entire story. Since it can’t, all of these blue-book exercises fail to be much of anything at all – with the single and hilariously ironic exception of the only one written by a woman. Tea Obreht’s entry is at least intriguing:

At dawn, he found that several young women had appeared, without any warning or clothes, in the millpond by which he had concealed himself overnight. Rather than risk capture attempting to explain that it was they, not he, who had intruded, he was obliged to flee with the stolen bicycle under his arm. Years later, court martial revoked, he would meet her again, marry her, the only girl among them who had thrown a book at his retreating back.

But there it was, waiting patiently for me: “Fatherhood for Real Dads,” and it was just as pandering and pea-brained as I’d feared, absolutely full of advice and tips that wouldn’t have looked one bit out of place in 1959. It’s full of pointers on how to teach your kid (it’s not stated, but the strong implication of every word is that ‘your kid’ will be a boy) how to be responsible, how to stand up to bullies, ease into smoking those cigars (not optimal, maybe, but as our editors put it, “you can only do what you can do”), and all the rest. The lock-step conformity being tacitly praised in every word of the feature would have made Hitler’s heart beam with pride. And as for tolerance – in “Tips and Tricks for Real Dads,” along with things like “Eczema: Stelatopia moisturizer; banana peels,” or “The kid keeps accidentally kicking you in the nuts: Protect your nuts. It’s gonna happen,” I fully expected to read something like, “Gay? wrap the kid up, walk down to the basement, and throw him in the furnace.” Maybe it got cut for space reasons.

I wasn’t expecting any relief, but it came just the same – and from a very unlikely source: Scott Raab interviewing Bill Murray. Not that either isn’t always a relief from any kind of tedium – it’s just that both are that dreaded sub-species of guy’s guy: Chicago men. And as our sainted former president Jed Bartlet once observed, when you put two Chicago men together, you suddenly realize why they call it the Windy City. To compensate for the fact that Chicago is hands-down the major city with the least noticeable indigenous personality, Chicago men always immediately set in with the grandiose crapola about how tough guys do things, about the Chicago way … about, gawd help us all, respect.

So there I was braced for it, but instead, the interview was great – Raab mainly got out of the way of his subject (this isn’t one of those jobs where he’s sent to interview the latest young unshaven Hollywood thing and has to do most of the being-interesting himself)(although those pieces can be mighty fun to read, mainly because Raab is mighty interesting and could probably just free-associated for 1000 words and keep my attention), and he and Murray have a written chemistry I could read for pages and pages. At one point Raab asks Murray if he ever thought about doing stand-up:

Murray: No. I saw them work, and they seemed so unhappy. If an audience didn’t like them, they’d get so miserable about it. It looked too miserable. I did it once and it was fun. But I only had to do it once to realize I could do it, but I don’t want to do it. I’ve done it a little bit lately – I’ll emcee a concert, something like that.

Raab: It’s no surprise you can do it. You’re Bill Murray.

Murray: But you still have to be funny. If you’re not funny, then it’s “Guess who’s not funny?”

So then, a bit of relief before the real plunge. Into the New Yorker science fiction issue.

The problem with such a thing manifests before you’ve passed the cover – in fact, in this case, it’s summarized by the cover, a Daniel Clowes cartoon called “Crashing the Gate” that doesn’t show anybody crashing a gate … instead, it shows three science fiction cliches, a raygun-toting space cadet, a robot, and a bug-eyed monster, blasting through a book-lined living room wall to interrupt an Upper West Side literary cocktail party. I’m sure the magazine’s editors – and maybe Clowes too – would say the whole thing is batter-dipped in irony, but I’m not buying it: this is meant to reinforce the ghetto walls, not tear them down. The problem with a New Yorker science fiction issue is that The New Yorker thinks science fiction is ridiculous, and The New Yorker is completely convinced – and rightly so – that most of its readers think so too. So the issue can’t help but be one protracted exercise in condescension.

That’s exactly what it is, but oh, it was so much worse than I expected. There are numerous one-page pieces where some big names in the despised sub-genre – Ray Bradbury, William Gibson, Karen Russell, China Mieville, Margaret Atwood, and the mighty Ursula Le Guin – toss off quick reflections on What Sci-Fi Has Meant To Me, and although there’s nothing worthwhile in any of these pieces (indeed, only more condescension: by having a bunch of authors mistily reflect on their childhood memories of sci-fi reading, you quietly stress the idea that science fiction is mostly for children)(to have an entire science fiction issue in which not one adult talks about currently reading science fiction is … well, I’d call it a travesty, but I’m pretty sure that’s the whole point), there are some bizarrities: Mieville referring to The Stars My Destination as Alfred Bester’s recognized masterpiece, for instance, or Le Guin implying that the only reason science fiction stories are disparaged by the mainstream is because of their unusual trappings … not because genres – all genrescan inspire lazy, bad prose (also – she writes an entire piece on the ‘boy’s club’ nature of science fiction without once mentioning her friend James Tiptree? Like I said – bizarre).

And the main attractions weren’t any better. There are short stories by Sam Lipsyte, Jonathan Lethem, and Junot Diaz (the Table of Contents also lists a short story by Jennifer Egan, but her contribution, “Black Box,” turns out to be a collection of miscellaneous Twitter-posts of no discernible content – perhaps an editorial error?), and although Lethem is a perennial disappointer, even the Lipsyte and Diaz are just plain bad: lazy, undercooked slumming, virtually designed (or maybe explicitly designed), again, to reinforce for snobby, hidebound readers that science fiction above all isn’t all that good. And the feature rounds off all these little outrages with one last little outrage: Emily Nussbaum’s piece on “Doctor Who” is not only distracted (half of it is devoted to something called “Community,” apparently because the world’s longest-running science fiction show just doesn’t merit a whole essay of its own), but because Nussbaum very obviously isn’t a long-time Doctor Who fan. She tries gamely enough, but the gaps are glaring – and so, again, is the condescension: why give the assignment to any of the thousand long-time Doctor Who fans who could have done it with not only rhetorical skill (which Nussbaum has in abundance) but also a fan’s … er, respect?

That’s not, alas, a rhetorical question. The answer is: because if The New Yorker did that, it would lose all those ‘cool points’ it’s racked up with the hipster-literary crowed pictured on Clowes’ cover. If it turned over any of these piece supposedly appreciating the living, breathing genre of science fiction to people who are actively, fiercely in love with that genre (instead of a handful of ‘old masters,’ two-thirds of whom haven’t written a sci-fi novel in years and one of whom … coughAtwoodcough … has, no matter what you might think, never actually written a science fiction novel at all), you’d lose the ability to write the whole two-week exercise off as a pleasing-the-nerds piece of irony.

And unlike in Esquire, this time there was no relief. Reading Anthony Lane on Wes Anderson – a twee reviewer writing about a twee director – doesn’t exactly count, nor does a posthumous essay by Anthony Burgess. No, unlike Esquire, this whole thing is a wash. Time to turn to Outside and read about bear attacks (and picture the victims as New Yorker editors, or else pansy-punching Esquire dads) …

October 24th, 2011

Insults Large and Small in the Penny Press!

It’s been a rough couple of weeks for New York magazine here at Stevereads. Last week there was that noxious, fawning travesty of a piece by Evan Hughes titled “Just Kids,” a gushing piece of hagiography that tried to get its readers to shudder with veneration for those literary titans, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Mary Karr, and Jeffrey Eugenides. The article tries over and over to elicit frissons of retroactive horror that once upon a time, bookstore clerks and reading audiences didn’t recognize the greatness in their midst, these scruffy, unassuming kids who were, unbeknownst to all, the greatest writers to ever walk the Earth. I read the thing with white knuckles, trying hard not to bunch it up and hurl it at the nearest basset hound – my nerves no doubt strained by the fact that I only just read the exact same article in Vanity Fair – only that article was written by one of the literary titans, and it was a different group of demigods, the group right after the one Hughes writes about.

I’d no sooner calmed down from reading Hughes’ piece than I saw the cover article of the following week’s issue, “The Kids are Actually Sort of Alright” written by Noreen Malone. The piece springboards from the ongoing “Occupy Wall Street” farce to an analysis – such as it is – of the second-half of the “Millennial” sub-generation, the kids the issue’s cover claims are ‘coming of age in post-hope America.’ The article itself makes for fantastic reading (Malone is one hell of a writer, if this is any indication), but it’s hard to care about that when the subject is such an inherent waste of time. The young people profiled by Malone (she repeatedly characterizes herself as one of them, but I’m free to doubt it – if she’s not making very good money freelancing features for Vanity Fair inside of three years, I’m the Shah of Persia) have been let down by a cratered economy, yes – but they’re also, quite apart from any economy – insufferably feckless, pampered, arrogant, and brainless. And like their smelly compatriots in Zuccotti Park, each and every one of them is a walking talking chunk of pure hypocrisy. When unwashed young people marched and sat in and protested in the 1960s, they were marching and protesting and sitting in against actual things – mainly an obscene, illegal war in Southeast Asia, but also vicious, backward racial policies at home. And although those unwashed young people were every bit as insufferable as their modern-day counterparts, they at least weren’t big fat liars: there certainly wasn’t anything anybody could do to make them suddenly embrace the war in Vietnam, or fire-hoses in Alabama.

Nothing could be further from the truth about Occupy Wall Street and the zombie-liars effecting it today. These young people drone about the radical distribution of wealth in this country, about the evils of greed and the miseries of poverty. But not only are they not poor (every occupier I’ve seen on the news has in his hands a nicer computer than mine – I’ve lost count of how many iPads I’ve spotted … I don’t have an iPad)(and the iconic cover photo of this issue features a ‘street performer’ named Kalan Sherrand, 24, who looks to be a two-pack-a-day tobacco addict – that’s hundreds of dollars a month in New York, which is certainly more extra cash than I have), but they’re not sincere – if you walked up to any one of these kids when they weren’t grand-standing for Youtube and offered them $4 million, they’d promptly take it. They aren’t angry with the so-called 1% for their rampant, unseemly greed – they’re angry at the 1% for sucking up all the money before they themselves got out of high school and had a fair chance to suck it up themselves.

I turned to a jam-packed issue of the New York Review of Books in search of a little relief, and of course in that issue I turned first to Daniel Mendelsohn, since in this issue he reviews Alan Hollinghurst’s fantastic new novel The Stranger’s Child. One of our very best literary journalists – who just happens to be gay – reviewing one of our very best novelists – who just happens to be gay – a perfect match, I thought, and perhaps a perfect anecdote to the rather disappointing reviews of this book I’ve been reading all over the place since it reached this country. The grumpy part of me has been overheard saying the reason for this is as simple as it is deplorable: that the critical community has been so ravaged by the mental scurvy of post-modern crapola that it’s no longer inclined to lay out the effort to grapple with an honest-to-gosh real adult novel. Surely, I thought, that won’t be the case with Mendelsohn, who, in addition to his extreme stylistic finesse, is also (along with Anthony Lane) one of our smartest working critics.

And I wasn’t wrong – about that part of the review, anyway. Mendelsohn is very observant and very funny, and although he manufactures reasons to rein in his praise of the book (like lots of critics, he ends up faulting it for the very central thing Hollinghurst is intentionally doing in the book, which is a lot like having critics fault Ulysses for being “ulimately non-traditional” or Brideshead Revisited for being “a bit elegiac”), he treats it with very becoming intelligence.

Until I got to his footnote. Here it is:

I may as well mention here, not without dismay, another lapse into an old British literary habit. Daphne’s marital history seems intended to suggest a descending arc: her second, untitled husband is a bisexual painter who is killed in World War II, and her third and final spouse is a certain “Mr. Jacobs,” a small-time manufacturer who did not, apparently, fight in the war. This seems to be a marker of the “plain Sharon Feingold” sort. In this context it’s worth mentioning that in the 1920s section of the book, the irritating photographer who plagues the Valances – he represents the distressingly crass “modern” world of publicity and celebrity – is called Jerry Goldblatt.

Naturally, I was horrified at the suggestion, and in this one case, I hope the lie authors always tell about never reading their own reviews is true, otherwise Hollinghurst has by now read himself called an anti-Semite in the New York Review of Books. It’s absolutely no mitigation whatsoever to try gentrifying this kind of thing by putting it in a footnote, and it helps not at all to couch that footnote in the kind of semi-involuntary rhetoric Mendelsohn uses – it’s an odious thing to suggest no matter how you do it. The names are utterly immaterial here (as a critic so expert at seeing beneath surfaces should bloody well have known) – it’s the sentiment that’s important, and the sentiment being imputed to Hollinghurst here is entirely absent not only from this book but from all his others. In other words, it’s a cheap shot. Not the sort of thing to pick up my mood at all, especially since it was done by a writer I like to a writer I like. Talk about a no-win situation.

There was a small glimmer of hope, however, as there usually is in the Penny Press. In the 24 October New Yorker  (the second one in a row featuring a sublime cover by Barry Blitt), there’s a winningly odd piece by Elif Batuman about birding in Turkey – yes, birding in Turkey – that’s just bound to end up in all of those ‘Best Magazine Writing of the Year’ volumes in due time. The piece is classic New Yorker, everything we long-time readers come to the magazine hoping to find: an irresistibly told tale of something odd and semi-poetic. And it featured a quick, classic exchange that shows perfectly why the rest of the world finds Americans so inexplicable. At one point Batuman is being told about bird-watching contest held in Turkish wilderness, in which contestants drove around like mad and made lists of all the birds they saw. They weren’t required to take pictures:

When I asked what prevented people from cheating, Cagan stared at me with ravaged eyes. “Who would cheat at a bird-watching contest?”

The answer, of course, is “your average American,” but Batuman is too kind to offer it.

August 20th, 2011

Good Guys and Very, Very Bad Guys in the Penny Press!

Despite the fact that the latest issue of GQ hypes itself as a “football issue,” there’s quite a bit of good stuff in it – and one piece of such appallingly bad stuff that it sets the senses reeling.

The good stuff centers, as always, on pretty much the last thing you’d think about when thinking about a ‘lad mag’ – even one of such long-standing as GQ: the strength of the writing. The always-entertaining J. R. Moehringer, for instance, is back pounding his customary beat, profiling pretty-boy football players. In this case it’s New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, who’s buff, beautiful, and, according to Moehringer’s rather modest check-list (showtunes? check! Glee? check!), bi-curious (it’s odd that Moehringer would attempt to make such a mystery of things, actually – one picture accompanying the article clearly shows Sanchez wearing ‘skinny’ jeans, and since all adult males who wear ‘skinny’ jeans are gay, the picture settles the question). Moehringer writes snappy prose about the ability of this athlete he calls the “consummate little brother” to simply not see what he doesn’t want to see:

Selectively not noticing might be Sanchez’s gift, his secret for surviving the pressure and scrutiny of New York. When it comes to his fame, for instance, Sanchez is often oblivious – which has kept the craziness from changing him. After two years of adulation and jeers, he still calls older men “sir,” still opens doors for women, still sends thank-you notes, still poses with fans and spends long afternoons with sick children – and still won’t say a bad word about Tom Brady, no matter how much you egg him on.

We’re given to believe that Sanchez is a genuinely nice guy, and elsewhere in this same issue, nice guys finish last: Alan Richman, the best food critic writing today, has always been that singular anomaly: a genuinely nice restaurant writer. No prima donna antics, no bellowed “Do you know who I am?” threats – opinionated, yes, but fair. Which makes his latest piece, “Diner for Schmucks,” all the more startling: it’s a full-length torch-job of the trendy Queens restaurant M. Wells, generated more by the boorish behavior of the place’s owners than the place itself. The piece winds up with a refreshingly candid admission that food critics – and by extension, all dining patrons – have allowed trendy restaurants to get away with crappy service in exchange for the dubious honor of being allowed to eat there. “All we care about is accessibility,” Richman writes, “getting through the door. Such restaurants are rarely held accountable, no matter how

note: this is not Alan Richman

uncaring they might be. I doubt that the people who operate these sought-after spots ask themselves if they are treating their customers properly. They are not obliged to do so.”

I couldn’t help but sympathize, of course, although it was something of a stretch. I only regularly patronize one restaurant – once a week like clockwork, I go to my little hole-in-the-wall Chinese food place in order to hunker down over a gigantic plate of fried rice and read the week’s stack of periodicals (yes, it’s right at that back-wall table that I actually encounter The Penny Press!). I get that same heaped-high plate every single week, and I’m on my second generation of staff there. There’s never anybody else there, and I’m accorded the highest display of courtesy: I’m served and then ignored. I doubt the place would rate even a moment of Richman’s expensive attention, but at least its owners wouldn’t show him the suicidal rudeness that M. Wells’ owners did.

Once you venture past dreamy Mark Sanchez and affronted Alan Richman, however, this issue of GQ becomes solely the province not of nice guys but of one very, very bad guy: Philadelphia Eagles quarterback and convicted dog-torturer Michael Vick. I couldn’t believe it when I first turned the page and encountered this article, couldn’t believe the very talented writer Will Leitch could suppress his nausea long enough to write it – and to write it morally neutral, as he studiously does throughout despite the rather obvious fact that he didn’t actually like his interview subject.

And there’s nothing, absolutely nothing, to like. The gist of the piece is that Vick was convicted of dog-fighting, served time in jail for it, and emerged a changed man – a changed man with a large and never-idle PR team whose job is to promote the living brand that is this new, changed Michael Vick. We’re dutifully told how golden he is on the playing field; we’re informed of all the community service he does, the speeches to underprivileged youth, the PSA’s for animal rights groups, etc.

The one thing we’re not told is that he’s personally repentant, because he’s obviously not. Leitch plays it as straight as he can and gets back responses that turn the stomach. At the time of his arrest back in 2007, Vick said:

“I’m never at the house … I left the house with my family members and my cousin … They just haven’t been doing the right thing … It’s unfortunate I have to take the heat behind it. If I’m not there, I don’t know what’s going on.”

He tells Leitch during the interview four years later:

“I was walking away, just totally refocussed on something else … I just happened to get caught out in the yard trying to help out.”

He also tells Leitch:

“For a while, it was all ‘Scold Mike Vick, scold Mike Vick, just talk bad about him, like he’s not a person. It’s almost as if everyone wanted to hate me. But what have I done to anybody? It was something that happened, and it was people trying to make some money.”

Leitch goes on:

It benefits Vick to be just like every other athlete again, full of braggadocio and bromides and advertisements for lime sports beverages. This is all Vick could ever have hoped for: to reclaim the normal, pampered, stupidly happy life of a professional athlete. And why shouldn’t he? He served his time. We can be repulsed by his past, we can choose not to root for him, but we can’t drown out the cheers from Eagles fans. In the $9 billion juggernaut of the NFL, Michael Vick’s transgressions just don’t matter anymore, and maybe they never did.

Freelance writers (Leitch is more than that, of course – he’s the brain behind Deadspin, the consistently most-enjoyable sports-site on the Internet, but in this case he’s cashing a check), I’ve come to learn, are obliged to spin a certain ration of bullshit in order to make a living. It can be a fairly good living, so you accustom yourself to the bullshit – and if you’re clever, like Leitch, perhaps you seed your neutral-seeming paid work with subtle, subversive hints. But we should all be absolutely clear: Vick’s ‘transgressions’ did matter, and they do matter. He didn’t just happen to get caught out in the yard, and the hateful cynicism of such a line is all the more reason to condemn this conniving little lying coward. He didn’t just get caught out in the yard on the wrong day – he helped to drown head-clubbed fighting dogs who hadn’t performed viciously enough for him. He stood alongside the jerking, pivoting bodies of dogs hanging by their necks and punched at them like they were a boxing-bag at the gym, laughing with his employees the whole time. And the criterion by which he judged a dog’s viciousness was simple: he clocked how long it took that dog to tear apart the bewildered, old, helpless, friendly suburban house-pets his employees had plucked out of their yards earlier that day. There aren’t words to describe how vile, personally, those employees are, and Vick is worse than all of them, because despite his conniving little cowardly lies, they took their orders from him.

I don’t condemn Leitch for whatever bullshit he felt he needed to spin. But I condemn the NFL, and I condemn all those animal rights groups, and I sure as hell condemn GQ for doing its part to aid in the public rehabilitation of Michael Vick. He should be in the void, alone, forever.

August 4th, 2011

Back to some familiar faces in the Penny Press!

Predictably, the short story “Reverting to a Wild State” in the 1 August issue of The New Yorker has the gay literary world all a-twitter (we can’t use that word anymore, can we? Not without sending dozens of people scurrying for their feeds). The story is by Justin Torres, and it’s about a cute young gay man who begins to cheat on his nice, normal boyfriend with an older man who likes to pay him to clean house in his skimpies (“The man passed comment on all the usual parts of my body, but the unusual as well – my calves, the notch at the top of my spine. To comment is not necessarily to compliment, we were both aware”). The narrative is rather pretentiously fragmented into four numbered parts counting down backwards (we start at 3 and end up at 0), but readers can ignore such details and concentrate on the important stuff. There are four important things about this story, and the first two are the ones getting it so much attention this week: it’s gay-themed, and it’s published in The New Yorker. Those two things don’t coincide very often (New Yorker readers of any standing will remember the first story to break that particular barrier), and this occasion is made all the more noteworthy due to the third important thing: the story is well-written – it captures with agility the mercurial flashes of breaking up, of the weird little things you remember when a relationship is ending, and the weird reactions those memories produce:

Nigel was always finding discarded plants and taking them home to regenerate. Everywhere in our apartment were plants, thriving. This, too, infuriated me – and when Nigel instructed me not to come home that night, when he told me to come by the next day, while he was at work, and remove all my shit and never come home again, I thought of those plants, of a space in the world without them.

“It’s over,” Nigel said. “You’re free.”

illustration by autumn whitehurst

It’s the fourth important thing about the story that bugs me, however: it’s bigoted. The main character is in a long-term relationship with a loving partner, and then – out of the blue – he reverts to a wild state, apparently the wild state from which all cute gay boi’s come, a wild state that’s always with them, calling them to abandon their lovers and start polishing some rich guy’s woodwork for pocket money. The main character doesn’t leave poor earnest Nigel because he’s in love with someone else or even attracted to someone else – he leaves a stable, caring relationship for a cash-and-carry arrangement in which he’s mainly a sex object, and the title of Torres’ story leads us to think he does this because it’s his nature, like a salmon. There’s a segment of the American population that believes all gay men are by nature shallow, sex-obsessed bed-hoppers, and that segment of the population has used this characterization to deny gay men civil rights and equal legal treatment (in addition to denying them jobs, physical safety, and sometimes the right to go on breathing). I’d bet my last basset hound Torres doesn’t consider himself a part of that segment of the population – he went to the University of Iowa, after all, and trained dogs, and worked in a bookstore. So why this story? Something he himself experienced but lacked the patience to transmute? Or is it that a significant chunk of The New Yorker‘s subscribers come from that aforementioned segment of the population, and what little gay fiction they ever force themselves to read must be of this ‘I can’t help myself’ blackface variety? Neither answer is good enough, and I find myself wondering about a third.

Leaving a magazine wondering something unsavory is of course part of the risk you run when you read as many magazines as I do. But there’s one that almost always leaves me feeling the clean, uplifting kind of wonder – National Geographic, of course. Specifically, the current issue, the one with the polar bear on the cover – only NO! That’s not a polar bear – it’s a white black bear, a “spirit bear” from the deep rain forests of British Columbia! In an article by Bruce Barcott, I learned there may be as many as a thousand of these remarkable animals roaming the forests and feeding on fish, and that nobody quite knows why they’ve developed their distinctive coloring, and that their existence was largely kept a secret by the local tribes, who venerate the animal and don’t want outsiders hunting it (a laudable intent utterly undone by this issue – if even 1 percent of the world’s insane trophy-hunters read this article and realize there’s a whole new kind of bear they’ve never killed, the spirit bear will be extinct before the next issue of National Geographic hits the stands). I myself have trekked all over those very same rain forests of British Columbia (with beagles in tow), and although I was perfectly well aware of all the other animals lurking about, I had no clue I was sharing those mossy glens with a creature I’d never even heard about. Leave it to National Geographic to show me something that wonderful.

I’ve likewise been staring ardently at the moon for a very, very long time, loving the light it sheds in the night, taking a comfort I can’t explain from its placid stability – and yet before this issue of National Geographic, I would never have guessed that the moon had a liquid outer core just bubbling there at some 2,600 degrees F. The accompanying article mentions the possibility that in the distant past, the moon might have been actively molten, although speculation is that it’s core is stagnant today and has been for millions of years. But still – the idea that the moon, this planetoid that for my entire life I’ve considered beautiful in large part for a tomb-like beauty dependent on the lack of a beating heart, actually has a fire burning under all that grey rock … the idea is jarring, although not necessarily in a bad way. Thanks to this issue, the world around me will be different in my mind because it contains a big, fierce animal I never knew existed, and the moon itself will be different because I now know it harbors a fire to match its rock.

National Geographic makes me burble like this, as some of you will know.

August 2nd, 2011

Not Quite the Usual Suspects in the Penny Press!

Long-time readers of “In the Penny Press” are probably ready to go cross-eyed the next time I natter on about some wretched tobacco addict in Esquire or the skimpiness of your average Atlantic feature article, but I can’t help it: I go where my interests take me. Just the same, I ought to be more mindful of variety here at Stevereads – especially since there’s quite a bit of variety to the magazines I read and enjoy regularly. Two of my old stand-bys, for instance, have scarcely ever been mentioned here: Arion and The New Republic.

Of course Arion’s a natural fit: it’s Boston University’s square-bound Classics journal, and every issue is filled with essays on the kinds of topics only small and steadily-shrinking segment of the reading population would find interesting at all. That’s too bad, because the quality of the writing in any issue of Arion is top-notch, and the current issue is no exception (in all the time I’ve been reading this journal – and that’s all the time it’s been published, a quite delightful little run – there have been no exceptions; even the mountebank Camille Paglia did superb work when writing under its aegis). The Spring/Summer 2011 issue has typically rich pickings, including a marvellous look at many of the various statues of Antinous, the Bithynian boy-toy of the Roman emperor Hadrian. The piece is written with delightful brio by Amelia Arenas, who points out that “although we know little about the young man, there are more images of him than of most Roman Emperors, so one can say that Antinous lives only in our visual imagination. Thus ‘who was this boy?’ and ‘what did he look like?’ are almost the same question. I’ve been thinking about Antinous for a very, very long time, and such an elegant phrasing never occurred to me. And Arenas has also given the subject a lot of thought – not only the subject of that one beautiful boy, but the subject of visual memory itself:

Consider what happens with those yellowing family photographs we keep in cardboard boxes under our beds – all those smiling strangers who will never make it into a frame simply because we don’t know who they are. The same happens when we look at the pictures we took at our last party. They end up in the dump, if they don’t match in some way what we think we look like or wished we looked like – whatever it is that we see in the mirror when we strike our flattering morning pose after we finish shaving or putting our makeup on.

Every issue of Arion features a handful of more ruminative pieces like this one, plus a scattering of original translations, and some book reviews that are toweringly magisterial – and that can be summarily devastating, as in this issue’s long review of a book called Monotheism Between Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity. You wouldn’t think a book with a title like that could spark ire – let alone wit – in any critic, but the always-entertaining Colin Wells rises superbly to the challenge. His review – called “Spotting an Elephant” – is the single most entertaining piece in this issue (unless you happen to be one of the hapless editors of the book in question), and its opening salvo deserves to be quoted in full:

 Is it possible to say anything meaningful about a book on the spread of Christianity in which the word “miracle” does not appear even once? The nine scholars whose essays comprise Monotheism Between Pagans and Christians in Late Antiquity have a lot to say about modalities, hermeneutical processes, hegemonies of discourse, even “theopantistic” ideas. About miracles, however, not a sausage. Without a doubt, they are good academicians. They peck at the right buttons, they jump through the right hoops. They’ve apparently read the sources, though how they missed all those miracles is perhaps something of a miracle itself. As for what is obviously the main object of the exercise, I’m sure that most of those without tenure or its equivalent will find it forthcoming in due course.

Rightly so, I would add resignedly. As you may have guessed, this book comes out of an academic conference, one that was held at the University of Exeter in July 2006 and that also produced a companion volume, One God: Pagan Monotheism in the Roman Empire … Neither is an actively bad book, which is about the best that can be said.

Wells – who goes on to describe himself as a professor of Nothing at No University – goes on, in fact, to say a great deal that’s meaningful about this book, and about the dangers of approaching a big, living subject while wearing academic blinkers and spouting academic jargon, and even though it’s shooting fish in a barrel, it’s a hoot to watch. There’s a very large amount of intellectual rigor underneath his razor-sharp levity, and that kind of thing is to be embraced wherever it’s found. I find it all the time in Arion.

I find it all the time in our other periodical today, the venerable New Republic. I’ve been a reader of The New Republic for a very long time (a dear old friend of mine used to write for them regularly and eventually wore down my resistance to overtly political periodicals), and just as with Arion, I don’t think I’ve ever read an issue that didn’t mentally thrill me in some way. The front half of every issue is devoted to fire-throwing essays and analysis about current political news stories, and the friends of mine who hate TNR hate it for those stories – apparently, they conform to some sort of political philosophy or other. Since my own political philosophy has, sadly, completely vanished from the Western world, I can view that half of the magazine with benign indifference. This frees me to concentrate on the back half of every issue, which is nothing short of amazingly stimulating, memorable, quotable, even … dare I say it? anthologizable. The back pages of every issue are devoted to long-form book reviews, and those reviews are a positive joy to read whether I agree with the reviewer or not (of course, the long form makes it particularly trying when I disagree – earlier this year, a reviewer bashed a book I liked, and the bashing kept going on and on, and my agitated marginalia kept going on and on, the reviewer getting funnier and more serious, the marginalia getting shriller and more uppercased – the proprietors of the Chinese food hole-in-the-wall where I read my periodicals would have thought I was insane to get so worked up over a magazine article, except they’ve long since already decided I’m insane).

This latest issue has a long, virtuoso piece by Evgeny Morozov – it’s ostensibly reviewing two books about Google, but it’s really a magnificent meditation on the subject (but without slighting the job of actually reviewing the books – that’s the trick of long-form reviewing, a trick that eluded many of that dear gang at the old Saturday Review), complete with caveats about the dangers of meditating on the subject:

Eric Schmidt once quipped that “the Internet is the first thing that humanity has built that humanity doesn’t understand.” To a large extent, this is also true of Google. Even its founders … must be profoundly confused about Google’s impact on privacy, scholarship, communications, and power. It is for this reason that writing about Google presents an almost insurmountable challenge.

He meets the challenge, just the same. Likewise Franklin Foer, who takes an equally juicy subject – the literary feud between Mary McCarthy and Lillian Hellman – and has a blast with it. He dramatizes the appearance McCarthy made on “The Dick Cavett Show” in which she infamously commented that every word Hellman writes is a lie, and he sets up the coming story with the wonderfully understated line, “When Lillian Hellman heard the quip in her bed, she laughed.” There follows a corker of a narrative that remembers to be dutiful toward the book it’s nominally reviewing but that’s unashamedly revelling in its own independent powers to entertain the reader. There aren’t enough literary journalists in the world who can do that – it requires a maddeningly complex combination of relaxing and bringing your A-game, and since most writers consider those things to be opposites, they never manage it. Foer does it like he was born doing it.

And if these back pages of TNR scintillate and entertain more these days than perhaps they did in decades past, it’s largely due to one man: the section’s editor and presiding spirit, Leon Wieseltier. So it’s very comforting to turn to the back page of the magazine and find another instalment of his “Washington Diarist” feature – comforting because (as I’ve relearned just in the last four years, at a certain other literary journal) there’s something elementarily reassuring when the person in charge of a literary organ is also one of its strongest writers. It’s not true in many other professions – you wouldn’t expect a football coach to be stronger or faster than his players – but it’s mighty pleasing when it happens in book journalism.

What Wieseltier does in these marvellous little pieces is even trickier than good book reviewing – it’s in fact the trickiest kind of writing there is: the personal essay. The reason the personal essay is the trickiest kind of writing is because it’s poised on a razor: a bit too much personal or a bit too much essay, and the whole thing gets shredded under its own weight. That’s why although America has produced many good essayists it’s produced very few great ones. I’m almost ready to nominate Wieseltier to that latter category, on the strength of entries like this one. It’s titled “The Night Birds” and begins with a random observation: our diarist has noticed that the birds in his garden tend to talk late into the night, rather than during the day. From there the thing gently and wonderfully unfolds in just the way a personal essay should – smart but not show-offy, disparate but fluid. “… the smart rooms in which I may sometimes be found are not lacking in people who are lonely in society,” he writes (I strongly nominate “The Smart Rooms” as the title of his memoirs), and like all really talented essayists, he subtly makes you realize metaphors where you never suspected them before.

These two periodicals delight endlessly, and it’s mere oversight that I haven’t been telling you that all these years! There are other poor neglected stragglers out there, and I’ll get to them all in due time – but first, we return to a couple of more familiar members of In the Penny Press’ Rogues Gallery!

July 16th, 2011

A New/Old Friend in the Penny Press!

As as been mentioned here from time to time, I love magazines. One of the consequences of loving magazines quite as much as I do is the receipt of sweet deals on subscriptions – the various periodicals get together over beer and billiards at their local pub and swap names on the most prominent suckers and marks they’ve encountered recently, and invariably my name comes up. “Oh hey, Financial Times, you should send this Donoghue guy a sweet subscription deal,” says National Geographic eagerly. “Nah, no dice,” responds Financial Times despondently. “We try him every other year, but it’s just a waste of our government-reimbursed postage – it’s like the guy ain’t interested in the markets, like, at all.” “You should try him again,” Nat Geo persists, somewhat smugly. “Drop your per-issue rate just another dime, and sing him some song about quality of prose and crap like that – he’ll crack, trust me.” “Really?” says Financial Times, a glimmer of hope in its bar-code. “He’s right,” pipes up Harper’s. “We haven’t published a good issue in about twenty years, but we gave him a sweet deal, and his renewal checks come in like clockwork. Guy’s a patsy.” At which point Financial Times puts on his hat and coat and says, “Would you excuse me, boys? I’ve gotta go improve my Circulation.” And three weeks later, I know more than I’ll ever need to know about Special Drawing Rights and the Cape Verdean escudo.

This happened recently, when I got a sweet deal offer on Smithsonian magazine, the print-arm of the venerable Smithsonian Institution. The magazine started in 1970 (hoovering up loose-end talent from ailing other journals, if memory serves), and back then I never missed an issue. But years passed, and subscriptions failed – I was out of the country, I was temporarily ‘cutting back’ to only fifteen magazines, or (more likely – much, much more likely, alas) they offended me with some innocuous cover story and I responded like “Red” Will Danaher in The Quiet Man: “Write their name down in me little book – now draw a line through it!” For whatever reason, Smithsonian and I parted ways and have only just recently re-connected.

It’s been like a wondrous homecoming. I’d completely forgotten the riches I was missing. Each issue features a wide variety of regular columns, stunning photography, and fantastic articles, and here I was missing it every month! Just these last two issues have given me such enjoyment that I’ve wanted to press them on the fellow patrons of my hole-in-the-wall Chinese food restaurant (except there aren’t any other patrons, ever).

Two cover stories especially stand out: Ernest Furgurson’s compact account of the First Battle of Bull Run has a fast-paced, almost cinematic feel to it:

About 5:30 that morning, the first shell, a massive Federal 30-pounder, whanged through the tent of a Confederate signal station near Stone Bridge without hurting anybody. That round announced Tyler’s advance, but the Confederates would not detect McDowell’s main effort for three more hours – until Capt. Porter Alexander, far back at Beauregard’s command post, spotted through his spyglass a flash of metal far beyond the turnpike. Then he picked out a glitter of bayonets nearing Sudley Springs. He quickly sent a note to Beauregard and flagged a signal to Capt. Nathan Evans, who was posted with 1,100 infantry and two smoothbore cannon at the far end of the Confederate line, watching Stone Bridge. “Look out on your left,” he warned. “You are flanked.”

Equally fantastic is another cover-piece, this one on whale sharks, adapted from Juliet Eilperin’s great new book Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks. An old friend of mine assures me that these monstrous creatures a) are harmless to swimmers and b) spend 98 percent of their time cruising at mind-boggling depths, through caverns measureless to man. Eilperin’s article nevertheless has a stunning photo of a group of whale sharks who congregate regularly at the surface off the coast of Brazil.

But it’s more than just cover stories, of course – I read a richly illustrated, engaging piece about Agatha Christie by Joshua Hammer (him again! Must I now search for his work all the time?), a great, thought-provoking piece on early American horticultural artists by Daniel Kevles, and a long and revelatory piece by Abigail Tucker about archaeologist Patrick McGovern, who holds that the history of mankind is far more intricately intertwined with the history of intoxicants than we’ve customarily suspected. Among the article’s many pleasures is its Jekyll-and-Hyde portrayal of the good professor, first looking like the very last person you’d want to have a beer with:

… and then looking like, well, the very first person you’d want to have a beer with:

I finished these two re-introductory issues with a big smile on my face, feeling the warm glow of catching up with an old friend, feeling the determination never to let the acquaintance lapse again. My dealings with the Institution itself are of considerably older vintage, but that Institution sits at the bottom of a drained swamp where the average winter temperature is 89 degrees (with tropical humidity), so we don’t see as much of each other as we once did. The magazine, however, ships directly to Boston, where the average winter temperature is 69 degrees (with tropical humidity), which is slightly better.

there's a lone human at top-center

July 8th, 2011

The Proof in the Pudding in the Penny Press!

Recently I was talking with a friend of mine, as well-read a young man as you’re likely to meet all week, and he related a fascinating – and disturbing – thing: facing an hours-long trip, he bought a copy of the current Atlantic and a copy of the new Vanity Fair to read on the way, and he found there to be no contest between the two in terms of general literary merit.

Vanity Fair won hands-down.

This is disturbing for the same reason that it’s fascinating: it’s supposed to go the other way. Atlantic has a century-long reputation as the pinnacle, the showcase of periodical literary merit; Vanity Fair too has a long reputation of occupying a pinnacle – but a different one, a pinnacle of stylish and exuberant celebrity gossip. Both have been indispensable magazines forever – but they’ve been separate and fairly distant peaks in the same mountain range. I’ve praised both often here at Stevereads, and I’ve also commented on what struck me as a general dumbing-down of the Atlantic (staved off only by virtue of the brilliance of some of its regular contributors, foremost being Benjamin Schwarz) and a general deepening of Vanity Fair‘s content under leadership of the visionary and irritating-as-hell Graydon Carter. So this switcheroo shouldn’t really surprise me – but it was jarring to hear it as an assessment made by somebody else, somebody who perhaps doesn’t watch the Penny Press quite as avidly as I do.

There’s undeniable truth to the assessment. The latest Atlantic was so relatively unremarkable that I felt no compunction to write about it, whereas the August Vanity Fair is so chock-full of fantastic, interesting, challenging stuff that virtually any potential reader will find something to keep them reading. The issue wisely opens with humor, the redoubtable James Wolcott writing with his usual zest, this time about the arrest of I.M.F. chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn for sexual assault:

Devouring the news reports, you could picture [Law & Order‘s] Jerry Orbach’s Lennie Briscoe and Chris Noth’s Mike Logan cavalierly parting the curtains separating executive class from the peasantry, spotting the suspect, identifying themselves as N.Y.P.D., and ordering the suspect to unbuckle his seat belt and take a little ride with them downtown. After receiving the requisite amount of indignant lip from the suspect about important meetings in Brussels to attend, and how this is all a terrible mistake, Lennie would crack, “Sorry, pal, consider yourself grounded.”

Wolcott strikes a very welcome note of reminder that what this guy is charged with is no laughing matter – but he also can’t resist going for chuckles himself whenever he can:

But Americans like to rag on the French, as the fatuous renaming of French fries as “freedom fries” during the Iraq war showed, and the Frenchification of the case had the ooh-la-la effect of making the scandal seem almost cute. And when journalists get cute, something curdles inside.

Of course, the magazine will never entirely forget its roots: Alexandra Wolfe turns in an appropriately soapy ‘profile’ of something called Emma Stone. This creature appears to feature somehow in movies, but the photo accompanying the article is the single most disturbing non-Cute Overload image I’ve seen all year. The life-form in the photo has a head the size of a State Fair pumpkin and no arms, no legs, no breasts, no muscles, no tendons, no circulating blood, no belly, and no buttocks. I didn’t read the piece, of course (that way lies madness), but I can’t help but wonder what kind of roles this thing could play. Whitley Streiber-style aliens, I’m assuming.

Most of the issue is deadly serious, however – and wonderfully unapologetic about that fact. There’s a gripping excerpt from a new book by Robbyn Swan and the great Anthony Summers that look at the links between the 9/11 terrorists and Saudi Arabia – 15 of the hijackers on that day were Saudis, and it’s all but impossible to believe they were operating without the knowledge – or outright financial support – of the U.S.’s alleged ally. The piece – and, one imagines, the book – digs as deep as it can into the connection between the Saudi royal family and the funding of al-Qaeda. The main thing that stonewalls their investigations is the angering fact that most of the key documents have been completely redacted – on direct orders of former President George W. Bush.

(Angering in a lesser way is the interview the insufferable Dave Eggers conducts with cranky old childrens book illustrator Maurice Sendak about his new book Bumble-Ardy. “I called him the other day to talk about it …”)

Edward Klein turns in a chatty (and equally stonewalled – I lost track of how many times I read a variation on “The Palace refused to comment”) piece on the Queen’s wayward, scumbag son Prince Andrew and his “sybaritic lifestyle” – which apparently includes underage girls and convicted sex offenders. Reading it made me squirm with vicarious embarrassment, and it made me certain that in due course I’ll be writing about Prince Andrew’s arraignment in an American court of law – watch for it in “Keeping Up with the Windsors.”

There’s so much more in this single issue, like Tracy Daugherty’s engrossing look at the origins of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, but for me the most intense – and saddest – piece was Alex Shoumatoff’s harrowing report on the recent resurgence of elephant-poaching throughout central Africa. He interviews many of the people engaged in a daily struggle to protect elephants (the article is accompanied by a recent photo of Iain Douglas-Hamilton looking typically masterful but so old – it made me apprehensive about a day when Africa’s elephants will lose their most passionate human protector) and relates a tiny fraction of the lore that has connected humans with elephants throughout the entire history of mankind, although he’s careful to maintain the distinction:

But elephants are not human, of course. They are something much more ancient and primordial, living on a different plane of existence. Long before we arrived on the scene, they worked out a way of being in the world that has not fundamentally changed and is sustainable, and not predatory or destructive. We have been in close association with elephants from the beginning. The few dozen humans who left Africa may have even followed an elephant trail, but the prodoscideans are on a distant branch of the tree of life, closer to manatees and aardvarks than to primates. It is amazing, really, that something so antediluvian and unlike us is still here. This is the feeling we get as we are watching these elephants. They are what they are, and they put things into badly needed perspective. The world needs them. We need them.

Of course you finish the article completely convinced that we are living in the last days of the wild elephant – and by extension the last days of non-human ‘apex’ animals of every kind: polar bears losing their habitat, sharks being hunted to extinction, tigers virtually non-existent in the wild, etc). This is staggering, sobering stuff, but at least a thin note of thanks is due to Shoumatoff for writing so sharply about it all.

It’s only right to extend that vote of thanks to the whole of Vanity Fair, which manages to produce an issue as good as this one every single month. And free of charge, I’ve got a solution to the disturbing dilemma my friend (and I, and every reader of the best magazines) experienced: Vanity Fair should hire Ben Schwarz and give him a nice roomy monthly column devoted to books. There! Problem solved! Mr. Carter, kindly make a generous offer (and while you’re at it, I’d be happy to BLOG for VF, but don’t expect me to update my wardrobe – if it was good enough in 1960, it’s good enough now, dammit).

June 10th, 2011

In the Post with the Penny Press!

One of my favorite guilty pleasures when it comes to my beloved Penny Press is the printed correspondence: the home of the crank, the crackpot, the gas-bag, the pedant, the nit-picker, and, to the limited extent this isn’t the same thing, occasionally me. Different periodicals handle this component differently – some give the letters they receive lavish space (it’s a giddy feeling, opening the London Review of Books, for example, and seeing a full two-page spread of letters) but no replies; others print fewer letters so as to leave room for angry, aggrieved responses from the writers in question; some (like the ‘lad mags’ of which I’m so unaccountably fond) print very few letters of any kind – and for a long, long time, the New Yorker famously printed none. Epic battles sometimes erupt in letters-columns, battles that can span weeks or even months, with neither the letter-writer nor the challenged reviewer/author yielding an inch of ground (every so often, the editors of the TLS, for example, will need to append a magisterial note announcing that the ‘topic’ is now closed).

To give you a good sense of the variety involved, I’m devoting this instalment of In the Penny Press to a random selection of reader missives across a small smattering of my week’s haul of magazines. We’ll kick things off with the aforementioned London Review of Books, which certainly had other things to recommend it than simply the correspondence! There’s a great piece by the mighty Diarmaid MacCulloch on Malcolm Lambert’s fantastic new book Christians and Pagans: The Conversion of Britain from Alban to Bede, for instance, and Michael Wood also acquits himself well writing about Auden’s daffy critical prose. And Page 7 there’s a rather eye-catching ad:

And when we turn to the letters page, we find two responses to a review by Jerry Fodor of a book about illusions. One response is plaintive:

I thought the whole point of illusions was that what you see is not what you get. The illustration of the Muller-Lyer illusion on Jerry Fodor’s piece defeated the object of the exercise in that the upper line, which was supposed only to appear longer, was actually longer by nearly two millimetres.

And before you can even fully register the fact that the letter-writer measured that little line, you get this next letter:

Who does Jerry Fodor think he is?


Naturally, there are riches on hand in any issue of the TLS. This particular issue, dated June 3, has riches that seem geared exclusively for ME (an article on Katherine Parr that mentions Erasmus in its second sentence, a piece on Thomas Wyatt, another on Edmund Spenser, one on Venetian navigators, plus a positive review of The Death Marches, a truly great and ground-breaking work of history), but if we by-pass those riches for now and turn to the letters page, we find a passionate response to a review of Alan Taylor’s disappointing new book about the War of 1812, which he characterizes, bizarrely, as a civil war. The letter-write courteously (Canadian, of course) points out the simple fallacy:

The War of 1812 was not a war between groups within the same nation state or republic, which I understand to be the usual meaning of the term ‘civil war.’ The Canadas were not part of the American nation state or republic: the United Empire Loyalists who settled in Canada had repudiated participation in that nation state or republic thirty years earlier. The only nation state in the area was the United States of America, and the Canadas were not part of it. Nor could the British and Americans be said to be part of the same nation state or republic, so a war between them could not be characterized as a civil war.

Yeesh. I realize Canadians love to use repetition as a rhetorical device, but even so: that letter’s author leaned a little heavily on “nation state or republic” …

More pith than ponderousness is usually the order of the day over at Vanity Fair, where Christopher Hitchens’ recent appreciation of the King James Bible drew some equally appreciative responses, including one that’s got the best opening you could ask for:

I, a Latter-Day Saint, found Christopher Hitchens’s analysis of how agenda-driven translations of the Bible tend to skew the book’s core messages to be very useful. However, Hitchens never recognizes that, in spite of the weaknesses inherent in any translated work, the message still resonates for those who will hear in the writing its most important moral lessons. Indeed, it is American greed, not imperfect translations of sacred texts, that most often distracts from the greatness that could be ours.

No real ire there, although there’s plenty to spare over at the New York Review of Books, where Helen Epstein’s blistering recent article on inflated flu-warnings prompted a response from bio-environmental research scientist saying the World Health Organization did the right thing declaring a pandemic of the disease. “We simply got lucky,” the letter-writer asserts.

Epstein is having none of it and blasts back:

In response to criticism concern the pandemic declaration, WHO Director General Margaret Chan stated that “at no time, not for one second, did commercial interests enter my decision-making.” I believe her, and I also believe that she and her colleagues were following their own guidelines when they issued the pandemic declaration. However, what few of them may have appreciated is the extent to which those guidelines had been shaped over the past decade by the pharmaceutical companies that stood to profit from the declaration.

(The same issue features a fantastic article by Marcia Angell examining the reprehensible behaviors of some of those pharmaceutical companies when it comes to ‘testing’ and marketing new anti-depression drugs … more on that when the two-part series concludes next time…)

Then there are those rare letters that are more blackly infuriating than any possible instigating article could ever be, as is the case in the latest New Yorker. Michael Specter’s article on laboratory-grown artificial meat drew many responses, but one just leaped off the page for its sheer, calm, businesslike evil:

I fear that making our need for livestock obsolete may render the animals themselves obsolete. These animals have co-evolved with humans over many centuries as domesticated species cultivated for consumption. Placing a value on the existence of cows, sheep, pigs, and chickens as both edible and sentient beings gives them species-appropriate lives, albeit with a scheduled death. Participation in the animal-rearing and animal-harvesting process offers more leverage in how they are treated, and in their ultimate fate, than if the process were avoided entirely.

In the past, I’ve sometimes hesitated to agree with animal-rights activists who compared animal-‘harvesters’ to the Nazis who ran the extermination camps, but reading a letter like that takes a hammer to such hesitation. There’s no line, no phrase, no animating thought anywhere in that letter that isn’t calculated, dead-hearted viciousness, from the lies (no ‘co-evolving’ happened over those centuries – what happened was deliberately faulting inbreeding and lots and lots and lots of artificial growth hormones) to the hilarious-in-any-other context juxtapositions (“edible and sentient”) to the nauseating business-world euphemisms to disguise almost unimaginable horror and suffering (“species-appropriate lives” – as if it could be “appropriate” for any species to spend its entire life standing in a box being urinated upon by the animal in the box above you). The letter-writer’s contention – that gigantic factory slaughterhouses working 24 hours a day are actually good for cows, chickens, sheep, and pigs – certainly has the ring of pea-brained fascism about it, and reading the letter made me old-fashioned enraged. It made me hope the letter-writer experiences a species-appropriate scheduled end to their life at the earliest possible convenience.

But that – even that – is the glory of the periodical letters-page: you never know what you’re going to get, because magazines reach such a vast and varied audience, and that audience reacts in all kinds of ways. I confess that even when reading the most heady and challenging journals out there, I always turn to the letters page first. And I worry that if paper-and-staple magazines disappear, this odd permutation of them will disappear as well. The Internet has Comments fields, and they can certainly be fun – but their content is almost entirely off-the-cuff; writing a letter (even an email) and formally sending it to a magazine whose content has moved you takes more deliberation than simply firing off an anonymous comment about how cute Alex Day is. If magazines really do migrate to the Web (and magazine-reading statistics last year and this hint that this won’t be happening any time soon), I hope their odd and infuriating and endlessly entertaining printed correspondence migrates with them.

June 5th, 2011

Thinkers and Stinkers in the Penny Press!

Those two Old Standbys of the Penny Press, New York magazine and The New Yorker, almost always deliver the goods. I remember well the dreadful week when there was nothing in either of them – it was the week George W. Bush was elected in a populist landslide/called in favors from his father’s apparatchiks on the Supreme Court, and generally there was nothing much to crowe about. It was a long wait for the TLS.

But that hardly ever happens. Usually, like clockwork, at least these two New York-centric magazines arrive in the trusty PO box and provide some pleasure, some stimulation, so irritation. They employ the steadiest writers, they return over and over to the steadiest subjects, and they have the slightly grubby work-ethic of weeklies, where an enormous amount of content has to be generated constantly. Other periodicals among the staggering horde to which I subscribe are more glamorous, and more often than not one of those others will hit the week’s high note (it’s tough to match the brainy glitter of a perfect Vanity Fair piece, and The London Review of Books is generally great when it isn’t all political, and I need hardly repeat my reverence for the mighty TLS) … but these two are like the evening’s first bottle of plonk: hard-working, ground-clearing, mood-setting. I don’t know what I’d do without them – and I don’t like to think about an all-digital future five minutes from now in which I find out.

Certainly last week’s New York started out in the best possible way: with not one shot of Matt Bomer’s gorgeous puss, not two, but three – the new promo for the TV series “White Collar” features Bomer in his preferred environment, standing in front of a three-way mirror (you thought I was going to say ‘in a three-way,’ didn’t you, you filthy-minded little woodchucks, didn’t you?). Bomer is a genuinely nice guy (and extremely talented – as sharply written as “White Collar” is, it only scratches the surface of what this guy can do) who looks a lot like one colleague of mine and acts a lot like another (he himself is not a colleague, although any time he wants to write an essay for Open Letters, he can consider himself invited), which can feel mighty inviting.

It’s tough not to feel that the whole issue is downhill after that visual stunner, but there are some fascinating bits here. Probably most fascinating is Jessica Pressler’s little “Intelligencer” report on a new video-conferencing service called Expert Insight, in which assorted “gurus” on subjects ranging from sports coaching to economics to poker playing give hour-long video-chats with clients who are willing to pay an hourly fee to pick the expert’s brain. Pressler’s piece – being located up front in the “Talk of the Town” section of the magazine – treats the subject lightly and goes for laughs (she asks her ‘expert,’ Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt, what he’s wearing). But the idea is an obvious winner – reading this little piece about it gave me a chill, as though I were reading something about Friendster ten years ago: In the dawning world of instant, omnipresent celebrity, where everybody has a blog and nobody knows which blogs to read, something like Expert Insight could become the intelligentsia’s new version of speed-dating. Find an expert whose advice actually works for you, and pay that expert for an hour of his time in order to ask him specific questions and get specific answers – it could be a virtually interactive Wikipedia. Those experts could build followings much like YouTubers do (well, not exactly the same – I doubt many experts would be helping themselves to go topless), and ideally it would all be based on the simplest possible criterion: does their advice work? And if so, what is that advice worth? I serve as a ‘book guru’ for roughly 100 people right now, and I would never dream of charging money for that service (quite the opposite – I give them the books), but what if I did? What if I created a video-conferencing channel where people could sign up for hour or half-hour sessions of my book-advice (or, for example, my dog-training advice)? What if my Open Letters colleagues all did the same? Need a hot tip on some currently-writing novelist? Call Sam Sacks! Need help threading the thicket of Victoriana? Dial-a-Rohan Maitzen! Trying to get your debut novel published? Video-conference John Cotter! Need to know which ‘adult’ bookstore on Staten Island is the one for you? Give Greg Waldmann a call!

Silly ideas, perhaps, but the background one is rock-solid: if I were the investing type, I’d want some shares in Expert Insight’s less-dorky, more user-friendly successor.

This issue also features a great little interview with Christopher Plummer, who plays a gay father in Beginners and who will always have my gratitude for doing such a wonderful, wonderful voice-over job in My Dog Tulip. At one point Plummer is talking about his kissing-scene with Goran Visnjic:

“[Visnjic] was nervous ’cause he’s very butch, and he would be pacing up and down saying, ‘My God, my God, we’ve really got to kiss,’ and I began to get petulant about it and said, ‘What’s so bad about kissing me?’ It was nerve-racking, but once it happened, it was rather pleasurable, actually … We fell into it as if we’d always been gay.”

The issue’s most interesting piece (once one has flipped past the longer bits about a man being cured of AIDS and a serial killer on Long Island, that is) was Claude Brodesser-Akner’s meditation on the new economics of Hollywood blockbusters. He writes that “real movie stars have been losing leverage in Hollywood over the years” and then points out that of the ten sequels opening this summer, only one has a bankable star: Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean. This is just a bit odd – if Brodesser-Akner doesn’t consider Ryan Reynolds or Shia Labeouf ‘real movie stars,’ there’s just a chance he’s letting nostalgia cloud his view of the situation. And his premise is off just slightly, since several of the movies I think he’s referring to – Green Lantern, Captain America, most of all Conan, etc. – aren’t sequels or even prequels.

But even so, the sentiments behind the piece – summarized by one producer like this: “In the eighties, the star was the brand. In the nineties, visual effects became the brand. Now the brand is the brand” – is fascinating. Big-name movie-opening movie stars, he reports, have been demanding bigger and bigger cuts of their movies’ profits – with the inevitable Darwinian result that many of them have priced themselves right out of the franchises they helped to create. The Hollywood thinking reflected in this piece is that since visual effects and brand-name recognition are now the keys to carrying a summer blockbuster, star-name recognition isn’t worth such enormous price-tags, and it’s hard to disagree – especially when the lesser-wattage stars do fine work. In the bad old days, it might have been a 30-something Mel Gibson hamming it up as Thor, instead of its relatively unknown but just-as-good star Chris What’s-His-Name; the result would almost certainly have been a worse movie, and even in the din of special effects and CGI technology, aren’t the movies the point? If we remove glamour-grabbing stars from the equation, don’t we free the professionals to hone their craft?

Considering its longevity in the magazine market, one would expect nothing but professionalism from the venerable New Yorker – and those expectations would be shattered upon first glancing at the 6 June issue: just look at that crappy cover! It’s titled “Moral Guidance,” and it’s by Bruce McCall, and literally every detail of it is not only inept but annoyingly, distractingly inept. It would take all morning just to list them: the proportions are all wrong, everywhere (the walking couple are nowhere near each other in space, and they are midget-sized compared to the guy standing in the doorway), the sidewalk is seventy feet wide, the stockades are on a different plane than the storefront, the storefront awning has no depth, the shadows of everything are falling in different directions, the stockade wouldn’t actually hold its prisoners, since there’s eight or nine inches of open space in the hand-and-head-slots, etc. And really, that last bit is the straw that broke the camel’s easel: it’s not just that McCall’s covers are bad, it’s that they’re SO bad that the badness has just got to be self-conscious, a part of his shtick – that same contempt for craft we’ve bemoaned here many times. His covers – this one is a perfect example – are full of plain-old mistakes, things that would have taken five seconds with a brush to fix. Which raises the obvious question: doesn’t the New Yorker have an art editor anymore? Why didn’t anybody at any point in this issue’s production look at that stupid, talentless cover and say, “Look, this is the New Yorker – our covers have been famous for a century, some of them are hanging in art museums – send this back to the artist and tell him to fix it or he’s fired”?

Fortunately, things get better once you actually open the issue! Ryan Lizza turns in a very good piece about the health insurance bill asshole idiot Mitt Romney passed when he was briefly pretending to care about being governor of Massachusetts. Lizza is far more fair and balanced on the subject than the subject deserves, although you could use all the balance of a Barnum & Bailey high-wire act and Romney would still come off looking and sounding like John McCain all over again: just another borderline-insane narcissist who will say or do anything, literally anything, to be President of the United States (“Oh, I know where Osama is, my friends, and we’re gonna get him! Just give me the job, and I’ll get him! Just give me the job, and we’ll start drilling in ANWR the same day! We’ll drill anywhere you like! Just give me the job!”).

There’s also an excellent, thoughtful essay by Louis Menand about just what we expect from colleges, and what we have a right to expect. Some of Menand’s provisional premises are a bit shaky, this one being the worst:

The theory goes like this: In any group of people, it’s easy to determine who is the fastest or the strongest or even the best-looking. But picking out the most intelligent person is difficult, because intelligence always involves many attributes that can’t be captured in a one-time assessment, like an I.Q. test. There is not intellectual equivalent of the hundred-yard dash.

This is tricky, especially since it flies in the face of Menand’s own experience of living day-to-day – and the experience of all the rest of us: it’s actually extremely easy to determine who the smart people are in any random gathering. Hell, I can usually do it visually, before anybody in the group has even opened their mouth. Like athleticism or even musical ability, intelligence very often has an affect, and once you’re good at reading that affect (which Menand most certainly is, making his comment all the more mysterious), determining intelligence can be done even quicker than the hundred-yard dash. I think Menand only puts forward his contention because he doesn’t want to face the fact that a college education actually proves absolutely nothing about a person’s intelligence. Just yesterday, on the subway, I eavesdropped on a conversation between two young women reminiscing about their time together at Brown, and it was like listening to two crickets in tall grass: neither one of those young women had ever had even so much as a single thought in their entire lives – they were morons, despite their diplomas. Likewise, the smartest human I know left college after one year, and I know plenty of intelligent people who never went at all. The value of college is entirely social, not intellectual, and this also Menand – a long-time educator – must know. But he kicks the discussion around in a quite lively manner just the same.

This issue had lots of other good stuff in it (including a worrisomely thoughtful review of “The Hangover 2″ by David Denby that, again, gives the subject a disarming amount of credit), but let’s close with the single best thing from our Old Standbys this time around, an arrestingly good – and wrenchingly sad – poem by Franz Wright called “Recurring Awakening”:

I stop a tall girl all in blue on the hall

and receive first a harried and desultory apology

then, point blank, news that you passed late last night.

You passed at three-thirty in the morning.

What is it, some sort of exam?

She smiles at herself,

epicenter of this

revelation, I find myself walking along

a high ridge in the wake of an ice storm

at the heart of some annihilated fairy tale

of forest in West Virginia,

a redwing blackbird’s

feet clenched to one crystal branch

per deceased tree: eyes stitched shut

and beak wide open.

And finally, there it is: your face, floating

at my feet with nose pressed to transparent black ice;

yes, you are certainly dead, all the signs point to it.

Wrapped in white cerements,

white face more youthful

and grave than I have ever seen it, frowning slightly

as though it were reading, one eye blind

in a blond swath of hair,

vague smile like the velvet depression

the lost diamond has left in its case;

now strangely you are moving

in a wide circle around me, stepping

sideways in time

to some slow stately dance

hand in hand

with the handless

in their identical absence

of affect, lips moving in unison.

I can’t hear a thing, but it’s said

the instant of being aware we are sleeping

and the instant of waking are one

and the same – and thus, against delusion

we possess this defense.

Only if you refuse

to respond, if I can only write you,

and write on black wind-blurred water, what’s the use?

April 26th, 2011

Super-Exposure in the Penny Press!

Readers who might once have been irritated by the sight of a topless Rob Lowe on the cover of Vanity Fair (the top item in a strong Penny Press week) will, like all right-thinking individuals in the world, instantly recall his fantastic stint as Sam Seaborn on the still-intensely-missed The West Wing and crack a grudging smile instead. Lowe, it appears, has written some kind of book about his various adventures in Hollywood. I haven’t checked yet to see if it includes any wistful anecdotes about his tenure on one of the best TV shows of all time; the excerpt in this month’s VF is about his much younger days, when he starred in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Outsiders” with a whole team of fellow Hollywood he-boys, all under the watchful gaze of their passionate (and self-evidently insane) director. While it’s fun to watch Lowe contort himself to be nice-guy diplomatic rather than outright calling the young Tom Cruise a robotic authority-douche, neither the grossly overpraised book nor the soppy, ham-handed movie has ever interested me, so I quickly roamed away in search of greener pastures.

Luckily, this month’s issue had plenty. There was a bitterly, sinus-clearingly angry shout-piece by Joseph Stiglitz about the gigantic gap between the top wealthiest 1 percent of Americans and everybody else. This is by a wide margin the angriest piece I’ve read in Vanity Fair in many, many years. Stiglitz rehearses the starkest inequities in America’s financial landscape:

Economists long ago tried to justify the vast inequalities that seemed so troubling in the mid-19th century – inequalities that are but a pale shadow of what we are seeing in America today. The justification they came up with was called “marginal-productivity theory.” In a nutshell, this theory associated higher incomes with higher productivity and a greater contribution to society. It is a theory that has always been cherished by the rich. Evidence for its validity, however, remains thin. The corporate executives who helped bring on the recession of the past three years – whose contribution to our society, and to their own companies, has been massively negative – went on to receive large bonuses. In some cases, companies were so embarrassed about calling such rewards “performance bonuses” that they felt compelled to change the name to “retention bonuses” (even if the only thing being retained was bad performance). Those who have contributed great positive innovations to our society, from the pioneers of genetic understanding to the pioneers of the Information Age, have received a pittance compared to those responsible for the financial innovations that brought our global economy to the brink of ruin.

He ends up sounding a warning to the super-rich that their days might end in a public uprising of a kind not seen in America since Shays’ Rebellion – the warning is the only major flaw in the piece. It forgets that sage line from “1776”: Most people with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor.” Comparatively few Libyans or Egyptians want to be military despots (I hope, anyway), so they have no ideological restraint in rising up against military despots. But virtually everybody in America – especially every young person – wants to be a plutocratic bastard who can buy a jet but can’t quickly recall his kids’ names. As long as that’s true, the super-rich in the United States have nothing to fear from the common folk they’re disinheriting.

After the fire and brimstone of Stiglitz, it was curiously peaceful to wade into Christopher Hitchens’ piece on the debt Western society owes to the stately cadences of the King James Bible. It’s a piece without surprises (we’ve read many similar things done on this, the anniversary of the publication of that epochal work), unless its own existence counts – these new long pieces from Hitchens can’t help but be viewed as extremely literary progress reports on the state of Hitchens’ illness. Encouraging progress reports, since for a while there last year it looked as if he wouldn’t be doing much of this kind of work again. I hadn’t realized until I saw this piece and his last one just how much I’d miss them if they were gone forever. And it’s interesting that he’s keeping up with his reading, although I imagine that would be the last thing to go in any case:

The rack and the rope were not stinted for dissenters, and eventually Tyndale himself was tracked down, strangled, and publicly burned. (Hilary Mantel’s masterpiece historical novel, Wolf Hall, tells this exciting and gruesome store in such a way as to revise the shining image of “Saint” Thomas More, the “man for all seasons,” almost out of existence. High time, in my view. The martyrdoms he inflicted on others were more cruel and irrational than the one he sought and found for himself).

Much less satisfying was James Wolcott’s tired screed against superhero movies, which consists of him whining about how loud and confusing they all are, for all the world as if he were a crotchety 90-year-old who just wants the grandkids to settle down:

For all of the tremendous talent involved and the technical ingenuity deployed, superhero movies go at us like death metal: loud, anthemic, convoluted, technocratic, agonistic, fireball-blossoming, scenery-crushing workloads that waterboard the audience with digital effects, World War IV weaponry, rampant destruction, and electrical-flash editing.

This quintessential complaint of the elderly – wanting things to be different from the dictates of their own natures – is unlikely to yield a Bergman superhero movie any time soon; I’ll just have to hope that instead Wolcott regains his sense of fun in time for the onslaught he’s so correct in predicting.

The New York Review of Books, as always, provides a corrective to that kind of complaining. There’s nothing quite as restorative as literary journalism done really, really well, and since I myself gravitate toward all things historical, The NYRB can often get my tail wagging – as in this latest issue, where the indomitable Gordon Wood reviews two books on John and Abigail Adams and Sean Wilentz reviews Edmund Morris’ Colonel Roosevelt. Both pieces are thoughtful, detailed, and wonderfully assured, which is tough enough to do when reviewing a contemporary novel that any schmoe off the street might pick up and enjoy (“what’s it about” will usually cover 99 % of their readerly needs) and is bloody murder to pull off when writing about history, about which the average reader neither knows nor knows to care. Reviewing works of history is doubly tricky: you’ve not only got to give your review-readers enough background on the book so they’ll appreciate your observations about it, you’ve also got to give them enough background on all of human history so they’ll know what the Hell you’re going on about. Both Wood and Wilentz do a great job at this every time they turn out a review – it’s an inspiration.

Of course, since nobody reads history it’s those fiction-reviews that keep the show on the road, and they, too, very often elicit inspiring performances. Over in the London Review of Books, for instance, Adam Mars-Jones (easily the coolest reviewer-name we’ll see today) out-does every other writer in the issue by turning in a fantastic piece on Philip Hensher’s new novel King of the Badgers. This is a classic case of the review being every bit as interesting, fun, and well-written as the book it’s reviewing, a contemporary novel about a crime that might have been committed in a benighted seaside town. Mars-Jones concentrates a chunk of his review on the novel’s gay characters, a discussion he opens in the most inviting way, by highly literary rambling:
For a straight writer to have a gay hero is highly unusual …The most famous and successful venture in homosexual ventriloquism by a novelist is still Anthony Burgess’s Earthly Powers. I had doubts about the book when it came out in 1980, disliking the easy equation of homosexuality with cowardliness, even though this was an equation accepted by many homosexuals of the generation of Burgess’s octogenarian narrator, Kenneth Toomey. Terrence Rattigan was surprised to find during the war that he was brave in an ordinary way. Out of this realisation came his interest in such non-cowardly homosexuals as T. E. Lawrence and Alexander the Great.
Mars-Jones returns to this subject of ‘writing gay’ all through his long and fantastic review, including a great little bit on the imagined popular reception of the 1950s novels of Angus Wilson:
Wilson was running the risk of having his novels labelled sordid and unwholesome. Awkward breakfast-table conversations were on the cards, with the brigadier’s wife saying brightly, ‘Doesn’t he do all those spivs and pouffs well?’ and her husband muttering: ‘Damn sight too well, if you ask me.’ If he had put more homosexual reality into the book [Anglo-Saxon Attitudes], it would either have been rejected by publishers or else approached by reviewers with gas masks, pomanders and tongs.
And it’s entirely fitting that right there in the midst of the best review in this issue of the LRB there’s a big, beautiful ad for … none other than Open Letters Monthly! Where readers will find many excellent reviews every single month! The ad was superbly designed by Greg Waldmann and features a generous quote from the always-discerning Scott Esposito … and best of all, it’s sitting right there, in the middle of another great review journal. The air of confraternity is salubrious, to say the least – and if the appearance of such an ad should move writers like Adam Mars-Jones and his most talented peers to peruse Open Letters, well, so much the better.