Posts from April 2011

April 17th, 2011

Agreeing to Disagree in the Penny Press!

The linear procession that is my weekly plow through the latest furrow of the Penny Press couldn’t have started off worse this time around – not even with a ‘short’ story by Alice Munro: The New Yorker featured a long piece by Jonathan Franzen that was just about as appalling an exercise in narcissism as anything I’ve seen from somebody who doesn’t run a book-blog. Franzen, of course, is the author of Freedom, the big gaseous novel that’s going to win the Nobel, Pulitzer, and Zee-Magnee Prizes for Greatest Thing Ever Created By Anybody, Including When God Created the Universe. He’s also one of the ground-zero survivors of the suicide of his friend and fellow author David Foster Wallace, and I understand and accept where that confluence leads. It’s probably inevitable that some writing would result from it – after all, in such circumstances, even the least literary person in the world might be moved to put pen to paper. Franzen is not the least literary person in the world – he himself has commented many times on his apparently uncontrollable urge to, as he puts it, “narratize” himself – so something like this essay was probably going to happen at some point.

But I find myself asking the same question about this piece – a clumsy half-cloning of a literary appreciation of Robinson Crusoe (for which an expedition to Selkirk Island was enacted, of course – nobody reads at home anymore, silly!) and a reminiscence of a lost and troubled friend – that I ask about so much of Franzen’s work: did it have to be so bad? Did it have to show so little thought, or rather, so much completely misdirected thought? I know Franzen would probably say it’s his arch and awkward impulses that make him worth our time as a writer, but there’s a difference between adopting an arch and awkward kitten and working full-time at the animal shelter.

Franzen’s been writing things – fiction, nonfiction, and the pure self-absorption he and Wallace perfected for a whole new generation – for years; how could he not have seen how maladroit this piece would end up being, if he insisted on keeping the mechanical framework of the Defoe device? It’s maddening to watch him churn out the requisite travel-essay paragraphs (it’s so windy there!), the requisite lies (tobacco addicts always, always, always claim their vacations from the busy world were also vacations from tobacco, when if that’s how addiction worked, nobody would be addicted), and the requisite posturing (litt’rary authorities are startled awake and hauled on stage, as though Franzen felt compelled to say, “hey, don’t forget – I’m an incredible intellectual heavyweight, in addition to being this shy and sensitive guy”) – especially maddening because behind all that stuff, he’s actually got something to write about this time. I would have read a Daniel Defoe essay from him with interest, but yoking it so stubbornly like this to a very, very different kind of essay – more interesting, yes, but also more shameful to actually publish – is a beginner’s mistake, or else the mistake of somebody who no longer has those ‘first readers’ every writer needs so badly.

So our author goes to Selkirk Island to read Robinson Crusoe – but also because he has to do something in the wake of his friend’s suicide. As a result, neither the trivia nor the trauma is well-served, but the trauma is at least arresting … and interestingly conflicted. I was surprised – and I shouldn’t have been – by the sharpness of the anger in Franzen’s writing about what Wallace did. And of course I was fascinated, who wouldn’t be, by the new personal details Franzen reveals about Wallace’s final year and downward spiral, the idea Franzen has that Wallace considered his suicide to be, in drug addict terms, “one last score” and an act of vengeance against both himself and his closest friends. But just because such details are fascinating doesn’t mean I should have been reading them – the personal, wounded parts of this weird piece are the best writing Franzen’s ever done, but they should have remained in his journal where they belong. I wish I could get this point through the Yaddo-addled brains of all our most lionized young writers: the reading public doesn’t, in fact, need you to “narratize” every aspect of your lives – exercising more restraint and more narrative control would actually make you better writers.

Fortunately, that first course didn’t ruin the meal. I moved on to the new Harper’s, and once there I did what I now happily always do: I turned straight to the “New Books” column and settled in to read Zadie Smith. I don’t know Smith, and I have no idea what she thinks of her new gig as Harper’s fiction critic, but sometimes even Irish Catholics know when not to question a good thing, so I just sit back and enjoy the show. I’ve rhapsodized here before about Smith as a literary critic, and here that rhapsody is put to the worst test the love of any book critic can face: what do you do when a great critic writes about a book you just don’t care about?

In this case, Smith writes about Edouard Levy’s Suicide and Peter Stamm’s Seven Years, and I couldn’t care less about either book, which made the going tough. But even so, the wonderful, winning tone, the voice Smith is creating in these columns won me over (finding the right voice being, of course, essential to the long-term business of writing anything) – won me over to her column, that is, not to the pretentious pieces of poop she reviews in it this time around. Here’s hoping next month she gorges herself on murder mysteries, or else takes in Black Lamb and Gray Falcon and tells us all about it. And in the meantime, this particular issue of Harper’s has one other thing that’s enormously worth your attention – no, not that laughably hideous cover illustration, which struck me as a bizarre practical joke until I remembered what century I live in … no, Nicholson Baker’s scintillating essay “Why I’m a Pacifist” is the non-Smith highlight of this issue, a refreshingly meaty essay where I’d expected to find yet more Franzen-style narcissism. It was so good it almost convinced me that some of its daffiest contentions just might be true.

But, much to my surprise, the real saving grace of my Penny Press trawling this time around came from a source I’d almost completely discounted: the good old Atlantic, whose slide into just another Beltway glossy has been decried here and elsewhere. Much to my dismay, I’ve come to associate the Atlantic with reading disappointment, and certainly a glance at this issue seemed to confirm that: a ‘genius’ issue without one true genius on display, a ‘culture’ issue as though that were a special, distant place (Selkirk Island, perhaps?) for which we should designate an isolated visit once in a while … and that Editor’s Note! Has 2011 yet seen so vertiginous a combination of arrogance and cringing? The Editors intend, I think, to offer some kind of justification for their decision to include to short stories in their ‘culture’ issue even though they’ve long since banished fiction from their ordinary (non-culture?) issues. Airy words are aired about the special qualities shared by the two stories in question, one by Stephen King, the other by Mary Morris, but I knew better than to get my hopes up, and I was right: the stories have a lot in common, beginning with the proudly-declared triviality of their origins and ending, I suppose, in how boring and awful they both are, but when the Editors describe them as “entertaining, interesting, and gloriously open,” they’re adding a whole lot of sawdust to the bread.

No, it wasn’t the special ‘cultural’ offerings on hand that made the issue for me: it was the workhorse rear-end (…) of the thing that did the trick, as always. Once all the ‘geniuses’ are done being interviewed about how incredible they are, the real power-hitters come out, and we get three fantastic essays in a row. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes the impossible: an essay about Malcolm X that I actually found interesting. Christopher Hitchens reassures me that his medical treatments must be going well, because he turns in a long and utterly beguiling essay on yet another subject that doesn’t usually interest me at all: the poet Larkin and his various smutty doings. And best of all, towering over this week’s Penny Press offerings, there’s the mighty Benjamin Schwarz, writing about James M. Cain’s novel Mildred Pierce – and in the process writing about yet another subject that doesn’t interest me at all: Los Angeles. Only a whole lot of money could ever possibly induce me to visit Los Angeles again, and nothing on Earth could make me re-read Mildred Pierce – and yet there I was, eagerly lapping up every word Schwarz wrote about both, solely on the basis of how wonderful those words are:

Moreover, in Mildred Pierce, Cain wrote the greatest work of American fiction about small business. He made compelling the intricacies of real-estate deals and cash flow, of business planning and bank loans, and of relations with suppliers and customers (“She had a talent for quiet flirtation,” as Cain explained of Mildred’s technique, “but found that it didn’t pay. Serving a man food, apparently, was in itself an ancient intimacy; going beyond it made him uncomfortable, and sounded a trivial note in what was essentially a solemn relationship.”) He rendered the plodding method and the fundamental gamble of small-time commerce – the foundation of Los Angeles’s service-oriented economy – not just absorbing but romantic.

As usual with this critic, I could go on quoting (Hitchens on Larkin is equally quotable), and reading this piece by him and that piece by Zadie Smith (and knowing that Sam Sacks is there, every week, over in the Wall Street Journal) reminded me yet again that the current state of heavyweight American book-criticism is in good hands. Even if they all occasionally write about books I wouldn’t cross the street to read.

April 1st, 2011

Promise of Plenty in the Penny Press!

An exceedingly enjoyable day in the Penny Press, proving once again its unending (one hopes) plenty, its aggregate ability to laughter, stimulation, and irritation to even the dreariest afternoon.  My old standbys could do no wrong today, starting, of course, with the mighty TLS, which this time around had as many quotable little bits as an episode of Deadwood. In Maren Meinhardt’s wonderfully clear-headed review of the controversial Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which does more justice to the book in four paragraphs than most reviewers have managed to do in four or fourteen pages, she sums things up nicely:

Behind the posturing and special effects, the tenets underlying Chua’s position are surprisingly sensible and relatively tame: most things that are worth doing need application and tend to become enjoyable once once one gets good at them; it is the job of parents to help their children get to that point.

I haven’t yet managed to understand the outrage and commentary this book has produced, but then, my own tenets of parenting went out of fashion 400 years ago; practically every day, I see children launch themselves into utterly abominable public behavior, and they do it in the very consciously calculated certainty that their parents will not under any circumstances simply physically force them to mind their manners. Instead, such spoiled brats get to indulge themselves, scornful of the fact that the worst their parents will do is try to talk to them, to reason them out of their merchandise-destroying tantrum. “Amethyst,” as I heard one over-pronouncing young mother say during one such tantrum, “remember what we discussed about social discourse?”

Elsewhere in this issue, P. J. Carnehan turns in a meaty review of a new art exhibit called “Georgian Faces” and wins this week’s prize for Best Opening Line in a Review:

It’s good to know that, during the latter half of the eighteenth century, the defense of Dorset against the prospect of invasion was in the hands of well-dressed men.

But then, the TLS has always been a showcase for linguistic pith – most often at the expense of the poor authors whose works fail to impress. It’s true that Edmund Gordon over-praises Philip Hensher’s merely good novel King of the Badgers (his follow-up to his genuinely great The Northern Clemency), but oh, the sweet compensation found in Matthew Adams’ demolition of David Baddiel’s The Death of Eli Gold! I haven’t read Baddiel’s book myself, which is about four narrators recalling the life of the title character, but after the working-over Adams gives it, I’d be happy to buy the author a consoling drink:

Ascribing to each character a distinct narrative voice, the novel attempts to offer a picture of their psychological and emotional development as they adjust to the great novelist’s passing. It is a potentially effective idea, but Baddiel’s frivolous approach to language and characterization, combine with his evident disregard for the reader, means that that potential is never recognized.

… The novel is sore with afflictions of this kind. To a different kind of enterprise, they might not have been so comprehensively damaging. But The Death of Eli Gold is a long, static, ostensibly reflective work, and as such it is almost totally dependent on precision, weight, and authenticity of voice. It has none of these qualities …


One magazine-reading need my beloved book reviews don’t fill is my foolishly persistent need for short fiction (well, almost never – the London Review of Books can keep running Alan Bennett’s marvellous novellas forever, as far as I’m concerned) – ‘foolish’ because I’m so often disappointed you’d think I’d have stopped voluntarily long ago. Granted, writing a good short story is devilishly difficult, so I should keep my expectations low. But Penny Press days like today inflate those expectations – I found not one but two excellent stories. The first, “Twin Forks” by Daniel Woodrell, is in the latest Esquire – it’s about a man named Morrow who buys a camp ground and general store out West hoping to escape some of the demons he left behind in Nebraska; it’s got some very effective imaginings of loss and pain that a very different main character might have called a mid-life crisis, and the central scene, in which Morrow (with a little backstage help from his shop assistant Royce) confronts two machete-wielding drug addicts who pull up in front of his store in a beat-up car with two women in the back seat:

The women climbed from the beater and stood beside it, the elder subdued and expectant of the worst, the younger dark and expressionless, staring at Morrow. He looked back and could not believe how pretty her eyes were – what color is that? – then couldn’t believe he’d noticed. He abruptly fired into the air while yet lost in her eyes and presence, said, “One more step.”

The men halted at the sound, looked at each other, laughed till they bent in the middle and had to lean together. The machetes fell to the ground. The driver turned to the staring girl, “Toss me the keys to the trunk.”

Royce said, “Don’t let them open that trunk. You won’t want that.”

Woodrell is unknown to me, but the bio-note in Esquire indicates his a fairly seasoned writer, which might help to explain how effective most of “Twin Forks” is – although when it comes to short stories, I’ve seen many, many seasoned hands fall flat. My notorious case in point would be Alice Munro, who has never written a single well-done short story despite having spent an entire lifetime doing nothing but trying. So imagine my surprise when I turned to her preferred venue, The New Yorker, and found – not a well-done Munro short story, of course (what were you thinking?), but an utterly fantastic tale written by a newcomer to the field. The writer’s name is Ramona Ausubel, and the story is called “Atria,” and if it’s any indication of her talent, her forthcoming book of short stories is worth pre-ordering right now.

“Atria” stars teenager Hazel Whiting, an intelligent and quirkily introspective high school student with a dead father and a hapless mother (“Hazel and her father were never in the world together – by the time she entered, he had already closed the door behind him”). Hazel is a fairly dispassionate observer of the world around her, and when she loses her virginity to a convenience store clerk one afternoon, she does so with almost clinical detachment (“This is it?” she thought. “This is the whole entire thing?”). Shortly after, she’s raped by a different man and becomes pregnant, although she refuses to believe she’s carrying an actual human baby:

She thought of the men who could have created this. “How could you be a person?” she asked her growing baby. She dreamed that night, and for all the nights of that summer, of a ball of light in her belly. A glowing knot of illuminated strands, heating her from the inside out. Then it grew fur, but it still shone. Pretty soon she saw its claws and its teeth, long and yellow. It had no eyes, just blindly scratched around, sniffing her cave. She did not know if this creature was here to help or to punish her.

The story is told in writing so confident and yet loose-limbed that I’m hard-pressed to think of a similar style – maybe early George Saunders, but there’s an ease here that he has yet to achieve (and, to be fair, doesn’t seem to want to). There’s ample dramatic control as well – the final eight paragraphs of this story will have your heart in your throat, and the effect is entirely uncontrived, springing from Hazel’s character itself. It was a thrill to read, and it’ll be a thrill to add another young writer to my ‘must read’ list. Going from “Atria” to the next Munro aunt-a-thon will be a harsh thing.

And since today is the first of the month, there’s another entry in the Penny Press I naturally want to mention – and since this post marks the 800th entry here at Stevereads, I’m allowing myself a little indulgence! The first of every month marks the appearance of a new issue of Open Letters Monthly, and since it’s the best online literary and arts review there is, it not only qualifies as a part of the Penny Press but also stands implicit comparison with the best of its paper-and-staple brethren. I play a part in the creation of OLM every month, but this in no way cheapens my evaluation – I was a periodical reader long before I was any kind of periodical participant, and I’m well able to click on over to the latest issue of OLM on the first of the month and simply encounter it as a reader. It’s true that I know the genesis of the pieces with an intimacy I don’t have with other magazines (in this case, for instance, I know the title Jeff Eaton’s fantastic review of Colonel Roosevelt had before it got the boring-ass snoozer of a title it currently sports – stuff like that), but knowing that kind of thing can’t make the reading experience any better or worse, believe me.

So I’m indulging myself here at Post #800 by telling you this: Open Letters is a hell of a good read every month.

The secret, of course, is the strength of the writing – and I know this because the strength of the writing keeps me reading essays on subjects I’d otherwise immediately ignore. In this latest issue, for instance, one review deals with Teju Cole’s novel Open City, which I found stilted, canned, and stomach-churningly egotistical. You’d think, therefore, that a review of it would hold no interest for me – but Andrew Martin’s piece in the latest OLM is so urbane and allusive and chatty that I found myself reading along and happy, despite anything I might think about its subject:

The darkness and light that Cole describes seem to project themselves back onto the image of the solitary man in a flickering subway car, and forward onto the titles of Mahler’s final works. Moreover, the connections don’t feel forced. They are clearly the work of someone thinking—they are self-consciously essayistic in construction—but the prose is steady, driving. One keeps reading the book for these moments, and there are many of them.

And if I was initially sceptical about any review dealing with a junk writer like Cole, you can imagine what I initially thought about an entire feature on perfume. My first reaction was that a high-priced ephemeral vanity product like perfume didn’t deserve even a glance from what is primarily still a literary review – I certainly wasn’t willing to grant perfumery the status of an art. But I read Elisa Gabbert’s “On the Scent” column avidly each time it appears, and I do so for her agile, confident prose:

An all-natural perfume would stick out like a sore thumb at the perfume counter in a department store, as they smell and behave in a fundamentally different way and lack ingredients found in the majority of commercial fragrances (such as synthetic musks, dihydromercenol, and Iso E Super); perhaps counterintuitively, it’s usually synthetic chemicals that make a contemporary perfume smell “fresh.”

Likewise I’ve been mostly uninterested in novelist Ahdaf Soueif’s involvement with the recent political upheaval in Egypt, tempted to write it off as Norman Mailer-style opportunistic grandstanding – until I read Rohan Maitzen’s exploration of Soueif’s activism as seen through the prism of her novels In the Eye of the Sun and The Map of Love. In every piece she writes for OLM, Maitzen exhibits both a joy in meaningful complexity and an explicit faith in the power of literature – it can be an incredibly thought-provoking combination:

“I know there’s an awful lot I don’t know,” Isabel says to Amal. “That’s a start, isn’t it?” Against this epistemological humility, which enables exploration, discovery, and cooperation, run powerful countervailing certainties that, refusing empathy, instead license prejudice, inhumanity, and violence.

Soueif’s novels work against such certainties. Even the heartrending conclusion to The Map of Love is productive, because our mourning prompts us to ask why, to demand a better, more just, more hopeful resolution. Both novels also not only invoke but create their own version of the Mezzaterra: a literary common ground, an optimistic, if endangered, space well served by the novelist’s tools.

Perhaps the ultimate example of this kind of bait-and-switch occurs when a first-rate writer decides to review a book that’s not mediocre (like Cole) but outright awful. This contrast is jarring enough when less talented reviewers do it (I myself, for instance, do it all the time) – when really talented people indulge themselves like this, the effect can be surreal. Perfect case-in-point: in the latest OLM, John Cotter (another of those ‘Must Read’ young novelists on my list) turns in a review of “Alta Ifland”‘s 60-page collection of short stories called Death-in-a-Box. The booklet is flyblown garbage in its every pretentious sentence, but something in it caught Cotter’s imagination and prompted a beguiling review that’s several orders of magnitude more thoughtful and poetic than its subject:

Ifland’s spiky narration turns fables into essays and then into sermons, milking the efficacy of the forms she passes through; just as characters double and blend, so do forms. Not that all of this blending works all the time; generally speaking, these stories begin with strong premises and then escape themselves. Sometimes this is an uroboros (as in “Death-In-A-Box” where the premise with which we begin winds elegantly back on itself); sometimes these endings are fine disappearing acts (as in “Twin Sisters” when one character disappears into another); sometimes these escapes are just French exits, unsatisfying evasions (as in “Uncle Otto,” where a zany character piece decomposes into drunken paperwork).

And the list goes on, in every issue of Open Letters. Part of this is luck, no doubt (magazine editors dislike admitting it, of course, but luck plays a disconcerting role in whether or not a potential freelancer says ‘yes, sure’ – and whether or not that freelancer then delivers the goods), but a bigger part of it is hard work on the part of OLM‘s editors, who find, chase, shape, and polish these pieces every month. The process of that finding, chasing, shaping, and polishing is no different at OLM than it is at the TLS or The New Yorker, except in scale and number of available hands on deck, and the results of all that work were among the many Penny Press offerings that pleased me today – so I thought it deserved a mention right alongside the others. Credit where credit’s due, and all that.

And for my next 800 entries? Six words: All Paul Marron – All The Time!

March 4th, 2011

Kings, Princes, and Emperors in the Penny Press!

The mighty Colin Burrow could hardly fail to grab my attention in the latest London Review of Books, since the scamp chose to start his review of the new Yale edition of Samuel Johnson’s Lives of the Poets with this choice little gem: “Most literary criticism is ephemeral, too good for wrapping up the chips but not worth binding, keeping, annotating or editing.”

I tried to resist the urge to race over to Open Letters Monthly and reassure myself that it hasn’t been quite as bad as all that for the last four years – instead, I plunged forward with Burrow’s own exercise in the journalistic version of lit crit, his wonderful article, which has precisely one paragraph on that poor Yale volume and two glorious pages on Johnson’s glorious book (which I’ll get around to here on Stevereads one of these fine days, and which I urge all of you to take down from your shelves and re-read). Burrow is a mere stripling in years, but his prose uniformly sparkles with great, knowing lines like this one:

When Johnson has nothing to say in the literary-critical section of a life he will accuse and author of overusing triplets or Alexandrines, or of being merely pretty. He sometimes delivers the squelch complete, as when he says of the unfortunate George Granville: ‘His little pieces are seldom either spritely or elegant, either keen or weighty. They are trifles written by idleness and published by vanity.’

I hooted with laughter and had to resist by sheer will-power the urge to rename this blog “The Squelch Complete.”

A fairly good example of “The Squelch Complete” is delivered by the redoubtable Mary Beard over in the TLS (it’s been a very good fortnight for Burrow’s chips-wrappings), where she sinks her teeth into a new biography of the Roman emperor Elagabalus, a Cambridge University Press volume by Leonardo de Arrizabalaga y Prado (names that beautiful just aren’t fair, says a Donoghue of 100 generations of boring old Donoghue). It’s always a joy to watch Beard at work, although perhaps Arrizabalaga y Prado isn’t doing any jigs after this rather public spanking. An entire little universe of mythology has sprung up about Elagabalus in the seventeen or so centuries since he briefly rule the Empire – so much so that he seems far more comfortably the province of fiction than fact (Beard doesn’t mention the entertaining 1966 novel about him called Child of the Sun, although I cheered when she alluded to Alfred Duggan’s 1963 novel Family Favourites). Arrizabalaga y Prado attempts to cut away all that mythology and get at the boy himself, but apparently his methodology leaves something to be desired (‘apparently’ because Cambridge has been a bit laggardly in sending me a copy of the book, the caitiffs), since Beard ultimately concludes “… a sceptical historian who cannot sustain his scepticism is even worse than one who was gullible all along.”

Scepticism might be the order of the day over in the new issue of Vanity Fair, although it’s a corker of an issue just the same. Readers might be forgiven for being sceptical when cover-boy and rancid tobacco addict Robert Pattinson bemoans his fame to interviewer Nancy Jo Sales – except that he seems every bit as aware of the inanity as anybody else would be. “Yeah,” he says, “but every time you read about someone famous talking about being famous, you’re like, ‘Shut the fuck up.'” Sales is a really good writer, but nevertheless, her piece provokes scepticism on many levels. She asserts more than once that Pattinson is a “thinking man,” a ‘thoughtful’ person – but he comes across as just another pretty moron in a ridiculous hat; she portrays him as a sensitive fellow, but the whole time he’s being interviewed, his dog is apparently fighting for his life just outside the door; and scepticism is just one of the many unsavoury responses provoked by that weird Annie Leibovitz cover.

Fortunately, the issue wasn’t relying solely on this smelly kid’s celebrity. There’s a spirited, chatty look at the Middletons, who are soon to be the in-laws of the heir presumptive to the British monarchy, and there’s a moving little excerpt from Christina Haag’s surprisingly heartfelt new book about her time dating John F. Kennedy Jr. – the book, Come to the Edge, is a beautiful little testament to the weird draw the Kennedys could always exert on those they allowed to get close to them; it’s pretty much exactly the kind of thing the family patriarchs – Jackie Onassis and Senator Ted Kennedy – would have privately frowned upon, but I’m glad for it just the same; and it certainly helps that Haag has such a vivid, entirely honest prose voice.

And quite apart from all these kinds of royalty – British, American, critical, literary, and vampiritic – VF also had a two-page ad I’ve seen in other magazines and like immensely …. an about magazines.  In this one, there’s a picture of a wide-eyed tree-frog (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Pattison, now that I think about it) and a block of text that’s as defiant as it is cheering:

Media continue to proliferate. Attention spans continue to shrink. And free content is available everywhere, from the Internet to the insides of elevators. Why then are 93% of American adults still so attached to magazines? Why do so many people, young and old, spend so much time with a medium that’s paper and ink, a medium you actually have to pay for in order to read? In a word, engagement. Reading a magazine remains a uniquely intimate and immersive experience. Not only is magazine readership up, readers spend an average of 43 minutes per issue.

Any lover of books will take issue with that ‘uniquely,’ but still: I like reading such a battle-cry, because I’d hate to live in a world without magazines – and what would our too-infrequent In the Penny Press do without them?

June 28th, 2010

Believing the hype in the Penny Press!

The Penny Press bounced around quite a bit last week on the profundity scale (or rather I did the bouncing, by reading all kinds of stuff), and of course near the low end of that scale is where you’ll always find anything connected with the latest Hollywood micro-phenomenon, pint-sized himbo Taylor Lautner.

In the latest GQ, Mickey Rapkin is given the thankless task of sleepwalking through yet another high-profile interview with this kid, who’s clearly been given a somber talking-to since he nearly outed himself under Neil Strauss’ careful supervision in Rolling Stone. As a result, Rapkin gets absolutely nothing for his trouble except the standard entirely hypocritical “I’m just amazed to be here!” line. At one point Lautner self-servingly exclaims, “Is this really happening? Am I really here?” In response (to us, not to Lautner, who would have burst into tears), Rapkin gets in a good observation:

Those are pretty good questions. He might also ask: What on earth did I do to deserve that $7.5 million contract and the adoration of millions? He’s handsome, yes. But in two Twilight films, Lautner has logged fifty minutes of screen time. Total. In the first movie, he spoke 239 words.

In other words, the hype associated with this tiny little packet of muscle and mindless ambition far, far exceeds any thespian payoff that’s yet happened or is ever likely to happen. Apart from the Twilight saga, Lautner’s next movie is a special effects extravaganza called Stretch Armstrong – but then, Tom Cruise did Legend and still ended up being a gigantic pain in the ass.

And we’re not free of hype even at the opposite end of the profundity scale! In last week’s TLS, Iain McGilchrist turns in a witty, wonderful review of Raymond Tallis’ Michelangelo’s Finger, a popular science book touching on many subjects, mostly related to the particularly human capacity to charge a pointing gesture with meaning. McGilchrist is chugging along just fine until he gets to the subject of non-human animals – one species especially:

Dogs are particularly sensitive to human attention, to the direction of our gaze, and, for example, whether we will be able to see them stealing meat. They make use of a very human feature, the whites of the eyes, thought to have developed precisely because of our sensitivity to gaze direction, a remarkable turn of events that Tallis oddly does not mention. Tallis says dogs don’t – can’t on principle – understand “meant meaning” associated with a sign, the basis of human communication. But the evidence suggests they almost certainly do just that. Without any training, they will fetch things if merely shown a photograph, or presented with a replica, and, of course, they understand the intentional nature of words and commands. Walkies, anyone?

I don’t know what canines McGilchrist has been hanging out with, but if any dog in the history of the world has ever, “without any training,” gone and fetched an item after being shown a photograph of that item, I’ve never met that dog. I doubt even Taylor Lautner could do that, although he probably understands what ‘walkies’ means.