Posts from October 2016

October 1st, 2016

Sorry, Lady – This Beach is Private!

sorry-ladyOur book today is Sorry, Lady – This Beach is Private!, a 1963 collection of the cartoons and illustrations of James Stevenson, he of New Yorker fame. This volume collects dozens of Stevenson’s now-iconic little gems from his long heyday with the magazine throughout the 1950s and ’60s.

They’re every bit as much of a treat now as they were half a century ago, which is a tribute not only to Stevenson’s sly, often counter-intuitive visual style but also to his way with a zinger. The second is no stevens2surprise, given the fact that words were always his abiding passion. In addition to being an artist, Stevenson was also a caption-writer for other artists – the full reach of his deadpan wit in the New Yorker of the time would be difficult to calculate. And he was a prolific writer, producing a string of good novels and one very good one written right around the same time as most of the cartoons collected here were being drawn.

stevens4It’s easy to spot that storyteller flair in these pictures. True, many of them are just the kind of throwaway lighthearted visual gag at which the New Yorker has always excelled, but with Stevenson you quite often get much more than that. His cartoons can sneak up on you, with the visual component seeming settled and ordinary while the verbal component subverts; he revels in finding the absurd lurking just below the surface of the ordinary. In a full-page cartoon, two women have perhaps spent too much money on a gaudy antique. “Suddenly I’m scared to go home,” the caption reads, but the genius of the moment derives from how small the women seem compared to the naked, grasping trees looming above them.

All the New Yorker staples are here: tyrannical businessmen, hapless husbands, stevens1fatuous partygoers, egomaniacal children. And Stevenson could no more resist the occasional foray into topicality than could any other New Yorker artist (one cartoon shows a group of women peering through the high fence of the White House, explaining, “We’ll settle for him or her or Caroline or the baby!”). But the best bits of this collection are timeless cartoons, or rather cartoons like the one on the book’s cover, where the timeless clashes with the crude present.

stevesn3And most of all, Stevenson is the illustrator of the great days of the American summer vacation, in the era when middle class families rented houses for the whole summer, loaded the car, and joined the natives at some carefully-chosen beachfront location. The boating, the swimming, the antiquing, the shelling and fishing … all of it crops up repeatedly in this book, sometimes looking very tempting to the 21st century sensibility conditioned to more stress and less relaxation than the generation Stevenson chronicles here.

The seasonal vacation is the setting for what’s widely considered his most classic stevens6creation, the cartoon sequence called “Weekend Guests,” where Stevenson’s novelistic flair is on full display in a flow of scenes depicting some of the trials that arise when summer guests are out of sync with hosts and vice versa. We get both sides of the great divide: the host and hostess looking up the stairs and saying “If they aren’t down by noon, I’m going to go up and pound on the door,” but also the guests, up in their room, trying to be quiet: “Sh-h-h! If they know we’re awake, we’ll have to go and do something.”

Stevenson wrote many books for children as well as the ones he wrote for adults; he mastered through long practice that art of the gentle barb. And decades of great work followed the period enshrined in Sorry, Lady – This Beach is Private! – so far as I know, uncollected. It’s a great deal to look forward to, if any enterprising soul ever manages to create The Complete James Stevenson.

April 16th, 2015

Good News and Bad News in the Penny Press!

As obvious as obvious gets, and yet I chuckled aloud over my bai sach chrouk:

new yorker cartoon

January 13th, 2015

Pulps in the Penny Press!

bunch of magazines

new yorkerNaturally, reading Louis Menand’s story in the January 5 New Yorker, “Pulp’s Big Moment,” sent me irresistably to my own bookshelves, specifically to the bookcases of mass-market paperbacks I’ve been ruthlessly pillaging lately (as I’ve aggrievedly mentioned already, nobody needs four different mass market paperback copies of Mansfield Park; the ability to resist the urge to buy a duplicate of a book simply because I happen to like the book has been very, very slow blossoming inside me, but I do believe I’ve finally got it), in search of exactly the kind of so-cheesy-they’re-great pulp paperbacks Menand describes.

“You can’t tell a book by its cover,” Menand writes, “but you can certainly sell one that way. To reach a mass market, paperback catcher in the rye coverpublishers put the product in a completely different wrapper. The pulp-paperback cover became a distinctive mid-century art form …” And Menand mentions specifically one such ‘art form’ that I immediately found on my own shelves: the old Signet mass market (“Good Reading for the Millions”) of The Catcher in the Rye, showing a scarfed and overcoated young man, presumably Holden Caufield, confronting the seedy nightlife of peep shows and loose women with only his deerstalker cap and overnight suitcase to sustain him. Menand reminds his readers that it was J. D. Salinger himself who later insisted on the book’s iconic, boring all-maroon design.

In my search I found a few more of these brownish-gold old pulp-style paperbacks, which delighted me (since I usually no longer find anything at all that I’m looking for)(this will all be solved by the Grand Inventory) – including the first that came to hand, Nora Loft’s delicious 1963 Tudor novel The Concubine, with its banner: “For this woman a king discarded his wife and child, defied the Pope, and destroyed his oldest friend.” Flipping through this surprisingly sturdy little volume, I was reminded of how good it is, how assured Lofts is at shifting moods even in the same scene:

“In Cranmer,” Henry went on complacently, “I shall have a Primate prepared to acknowledge me as Head of the Church, and to declare that I am a bachelor, and have been all along.

She said, “Yes, Cranmer is very … pliable.” She spoke in an abstracted tone and did not look at Henry, but away, over the loop of shining river to the fields where the harvest was in progress, the harvesters burnt as brown as the sheaves they handled. She was suffering from one of her intermittent attacks of feeling insecure.

concubine coverAnother of these old metal-rack paperbacks I found was Frederick Pottle’s 1956 edition of Boswell’s London Journal with its happy, colorful cover giving us an idealized glimpse of Georgian London on a sunny day. The reality of course could be far less sunny, as even parrish covera random entry from Boswell can show, like this one from Thursday, 17 November 1762:

We chatted a good deal. Stewart told me that some blacks in India were attacking their boat in order to plunder it, and that he shot two with his own hand. In the afternoon between Stamford and Stilton there was a young unruly horse in the chaise which run away with the driver, and jumping to one side of the road, we were overturned. We got a pretty severe rap. Stewart’s head and my arm were somewhat hurt. However, we got up and pursued our way. During our two last stages this night, which we travelled in the dark, I was a good deal afraid of robbers. A great many horrid ideas filled my mind. There is no passion so distressing as fear, which gives us great pain and makes us appear contemptible in our own eyes to the last degree. However, I affected resolution, and as each of us carried a loaded pistol in his hand, we were pretty secure.

And the last of the little paperbacks I found this time around was Parrish, the masterpiece and bestseller by Mildred Savage of boswell london journalNorwich, Connecticut, here issued in a “Giant Cardinal Edition” from 1958, with a cover blaring about the Warner Bros. movie starring Claudette Colbert, Karl Malden, and an absolutely dreamy Troy Donahue: “Parrish is just eighteen now – unsure, innocent, alone. But in the violence of ambition and the scorch of passion, that boy will be forged into a man.”

lucy reading pulpsMuch as I love the odd individuality of these little paperbacks, finding them and flipping through them all really made me realize both how fragile they are (their binding holds up surprisingly well, but their pulp paper is now frittering away) and how impractical they are for long-term keeping or re-reading. That was one of the points of Menand’s article, actually: these things were manufactured on the cheap and pumped out to every drugstore, train station, and bowling alley in the country – they were never intended to be a permanent part of anybody’s library.

They’ll stay in mine until they can’t be read any longer … but I’ll be keeping an eye out for newer, sturdier versions.





November 3rd, 2013

Reliable – and Otherwise – Old Hands in the Penny Press!


When you read as many magazines as I do, you quickly learn to tell the players without a scorecard. There are always newcomers on the scene, but there’s also a fairly small cadre of old-hand regulars who turn up wherever the money (and the readership) is good. These old hands can be relied upon to present us with the best stuff we’re likely to find in any given issue of any newspaper or magazine.

nyorkerExcept when they don’t, of course. Civilians unfamiliar with the rigors of a regular deadline can have no clear conception of how it can warp even a strong writer. Our front-line book-reviewers have it the worst in this regard: they’re bombarded with new titles every week, and in place of the calm and sometimes lengthy deliberation necessary to assess these new titles, they have the princely allowance of four days – four days during which they must also deal with the daily demands of pretentious neighborhood delicatessens, sultry French mistresses, and YouTube cat videos. As a result, even the best of them has been known to praise Alice Munro – time was short, they’re only human, the Dark Side beckoned (when they’re advised – perhaps by a sexy friend – to simply read faster, their responses can be unkind).

Regular writers for the brainier magazines have less excuse. In their case, most of their ‘pitches’ are accepted in loose, almost conversational terms – they have time, in other words, to pause, to consider, before they write their 3000 words. This is why they can be so good – as in Adam Gopnik’s piece for the 4 November New Yorker (rumor has it, that is – I’m a subscriber, so I won’t actually see that issue until some time in the new year) about the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination. The piece is called “Closer Than That,” and it’s a gem of beautiful, gently argumentative writing on the nature of assassination conspiracy theories:

This constant cycle of sense and speculation is not about to end. Josiah Thompson, one of the most rational of the skeptics, wrote once that “you pull any single thread, any single fact, and you’re soon besiege with a tangle of subsidiary questions.” And this is true: any fact asserted can be met with a counter-fact – some of them plausible, many disputed, most creating contradictions that are unresolvable. But this is not a fact about conspiracies. It is a fact about facts.

But over in The New Republic (whose books & arts coverage is getting bigger and better literally with every new issue), we encounter a baleful example zibaldoneof an old hand – this time the ordinarily-delightful Adam Kirsch – badly letting the side down. He turns in a long and very eloquent piece, yes, but it’s a piece singing the praises of the black hole monstrosity of the season: FS&G’s immense hardcover publication of the Zibaldone of Giacomo Leopardi. Kirsch took this 5000-page thing home (in the mail it comes in a wooden crate, like a zoo animal) and curled up with it … he started reading and sifting through the notes and crackpot jottings that Leopardi did during one blessedly contained period in his life in which he decided to write down every single thought he had about anything, in the random order in which those thoughts occurred to him. Leopardi stopped generating the resulting manuscript – it is flat-out wrong to call it a ‘book’ in any sense that we understand the word, just as it would be wrong to call the Amazon rainforest a ‘garden’ – as soon as he regained his senses (he went on to become a critically important poet, although when Kirsch refers to him as “the greatest modern Italian poet,” he’s forgetting somebody), and a team of editors at FS&G undertook the unimaginable task of translating and annotating into English a four-foot-tall stack of pages Leopardi should have used as kindling for a few winters.

Such books create a necrid momentum toward being reviewed. Commissioning editors feel a silent whispering from them, and they begin casting around for likely reviewers. In this case, they tend to think the ideal reviewer should be a) a fast, strong reader, b) conversant in modern European history and literature, and c) if possible, able to read either the Italian in which the Zibaldone was written or the French in which its most important previous translated edition was written.

All of these things are wrong. The ideal reviewer for the Zibaldone is the one who refuses the job. This is not a book that can be reviewed, because this is not a book. It’s not even a notebook in any useful sense of that word, since typical published notebooks are characterized at least as much by their omissions as their concentrations. The Zibaldone omits nothing at all. It’s not a composition: it’s a weather front.

But when a reviewer commits the sheer amount of time necessary to plow through this new English-language edition and its longer-than-most-books Notes section, that reviewer practically volunteers to become Patty Hearst. The trusty search for patterns becomes, after hundreds of pages devoted to improperly parsed irregular Greek verbs, a squalid struggle for mere mental survival. Kirsch starts out valiantly asking “What, then, are the relations that bind together the many particulars treated in this vast composition?” But this isn’t a vast composition – it’s 466 vast compositions, none having any connection to the others. And there aren’t ‘many particulars’ here – there are millions of particulars, coming at the poor reviewer in batches that can stretch for a thousand pages at a time. Unless the critic is very, very careful (and regularly fortifies himself with Regency romances), Stockholm Syndrome sets in. This monstrosity can drive even the best of readers right to the edge of the madness that possessed Leopardi while he was writing it. Kirsch has clearly – although one must hope temporarily – succumbed when he mentions “the intellectual tension of the Zibaldone.”

Intellectual tension, in a miscellany that’s nearly 5000 pages long. We must pray that The New Republic’s Isaac Chotiner sends Kirsch on a long Caribbean cruise.

June 29th, 2012

Madcap Opinions in the Penny Press!

A jim-dandy issue of The New Yorker last week (starting off, as so many jim-dandy issues do, with an instant-classic happy-neurotic city-dweller cover by Edward Koren) with plenty of goo stuff inside, including a hilarious short story by Paul La Farge in which the main character has a mid-life crisis of a type immediately comprehensible to every condo-owner in Brooklyn and utterly incomprehensible to, for instance, the entire continent of South America:

I’m nearly forty years old and I don’t know anything about Emily Dickinson, or Kate Chopin, or Stendhal, or Hardy, or Fielding! I’ve never read Turgenev!

The issue also features an absorbing piece by Calvin Tomkins on Nicholas Serota and the world of the contemporary art museum. But probably the best thing in this issue, at least from a bookworm’s point of view, is an essay by the legendary John McPhee on his relations with various New Yorker editors over the course of his long career. The piece is especially resonant about mandarin editor-in-chief William Shawn (since the Open Letters Monthly parallels fairly make themselves, I’ll refrain from pointing them out), and I was smiling through most of it – except for one little aside:

Editors of every ilk seem to think that titles are their prerogative – that they can buy a piece,, cut the title off the top, and lay on one of their own. When I was young, this turned my skin pink and caused horripilation. I should add that I encountered such editors almost wholly at magazines other than The New YorkerVogue, Holiday, the Saturday Evening Post. The title is an integral part of a piece of writitn, and one of the most important parts, and ought not to be written by anyone but the writer of what follows the title.

I’m a big fan of John McPhee, but this is pure, unadulterated hooey.

First and most obviously, a title is certainly not ‘one of the most important parts’ of a piece of writing, any more than a name is one of the most important parts of a person’s identity. But more importantly, editors have every right to change the titles of the pieces in their magazines, for the very simple reason that the title – as it appears in a Table of Contents often hastily scanned by a prospective reader who’s standing at a news-rack minutes before his commuter train pulls out – serves a radically different purpose than the text of the piece. The title is a hook – a shiny lure. Once the prospective reader mentally commits to reading a piece, once that reader takes in the first paragraph and then the second, he is the writer’s responsibility, fine. But getting the reader there, nudging them to make that commitment, is a function of advertising, not rhetoric. It’s an exponent of the whole-effect of a given magazine issue, and as such it falls squarely within the editor’s purview.

And a good thing, too, since most writers stink at advertising – hence, at titles. Oh, gentle reader, when it comes to writer-suggested titles, I could a tale unfold whose lightest word would make each particular hair to stand on end, as quills upon the fretful porpentine! And the odd thing is, I’m sure John McPhee could too: surely everybody knows that F. Scott Fitzgerald wanted to call his book Trimalchio in West Egg? And then there’s the novel by Tonino Benacquista, forthcoming from Europa Press. It’s English-language title is The Thursday Night Men, and it’s the story of a trio of men who get together and tell sad stories of the women in their lives. The stories are by turns ribald, bittersweet, and scathing, and the narrative focus is far more on emotional tolls of love than the physical dimensions of love-making.

The original title, no doubt conceived and urged by the book’s author?

Homo Erectus.

The prosecution rests.

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) …

April 5th, 2012

Pleasures a-Plenty in the Penny Press!

The dark days of the Penny Press appear to be over, but that might be connected to the fact that my reading today was from three of the most reliable sources of periodical enjoyment currently on the market. First up was my Bible, the mighty TLS, which featured a very peppy review by Alex De Waal of Andrew Feinstein’s The Shadow World (which yours truly reviewed here), and a wonderful short review by Patrick Evans of Donkey by Jill Bough, among the usual bounty of other good things. And the latest issue of New York magazine, like every full-color glossy in the country this week, features a full-page ad for a new TV show called Magic City which premieres tomorrow and stars Steven Strait (that’s him on the left) in a delectably juicy role with exactly the kind of sharp writing he, like any smart actor, prefers.

And then there’s the new New Yorker, which features a great essay on cowboys and Indians by Rivka Galchen, a great essay on procreation by Elizabeth Kolbert, and an absolutely hilarious “Shouts & Murmurs” by Paul Rudnick, who reminds us that at every Passover Seder, the youngest child asks the Four Questions – Rudnick then imagines follow-up questions of a more modern bent, like: “In a Jewish family, isn’t ‘tiger mother’ just a term for ‘amateur’?” “When Elena Kagan was sworn in as a Supreme Court Justice, did her mother murmur, ‘Maybe she’ll meet someone’?” and “If a Jewish astronaut had been the first man on the moon, would he have said, ‘That’s one small step for a man, and there’s parking?'” Hee.

And – amazingly – Jonathan Lethem’s short story “The Porn Critic” was actually very good. And there was a sweet little poem by Rachel Hadas:

The Yawn

My visiting tall son

is sleepy. His sweet gape

brings back his father’s yawn.

Seeing our lost husband and lost father

suddenly conjured up, I laugh. My son

frowns. Does he think

it’s at him I’m laughing?

The cat opens her mouth to mew.

The orphaned piano: it yawns, too.

A thoroughly enjoyable quick turn through the latest Penny Press, with the Dark Times hardly recalled at all!

March 16th, 2012

WTF in the Penny Press!

By this point, I’ve pretty much accepted that my once-beloved Penny Press has turned into a crown of thorns, a punishment to be inflicted over bowls of guksu jangguk where once it was a soothing boon after a long week of yelling at my basset hound.

So I can read with equanimity the “Soapbox” feature at the back of the latest Publishers Weekly in which freelance writer and former bookstore manager Barbara Bloom writes, “Except for magazines and newspapers, I can’t think of another industry that prints prices on it’s products …”

And, turning to the Fiction reviews, I can remain calm when I see that Alice Randall’s execrable Ada’s Rules: A Sexy Skinny Novel received not only praise but a starred review.

And I can keep from flinching all during James B. Stewart’s long and well-written piece in the New Yorker in which he talks about the worst of New York’s super-rich and how assiduously they work to avoid paying anything like their fare share of city income tax – and in which he casts the worst of the bunch as the piece’s hero.

And because the Penny Press has become this painful bed of Procrustes, I can even suppress my age-old reflex to look upon the Atlantic as a refuge. True, it’s the home of Benjamin Schwarz, one of the country’s greatest book-critics, but just look at the rest of the magazine: hideous, artless cover (no offense to Ben Bernanke, who actually has a pleasant face!), opening blizzard of one-page semi-vacuous little quasi-pieces on headline-y subjects, the increasing identification as a Beltway publication largely unconcerned with the mind or heart of the culture … in every way, writers of gorgeous prose and deep thought – writers like Schwarz – are more and more isolated oddities, holdouts against such a tide.

Still, despite my sang-froid, I must have had some small tender spots left, and it was the Atlantic that found one of them.

I was reading James Parker’s short piece on George R. R. Martin’s ongoing epic fantasy series “A Song of Ice and Fire” (and the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones), and yes, I was irritated. How could I not be, when Parker was using the same stupid gimmick that irritated me so much when Roger Kimball did it a little while ago in The Weekly Standard? The stupid gimmick of fake-distancing yourself from your subject so that you can cause your audience to gasp all the more breathlessly when you then swoop in and reveal your knowledge – “Wow!” we’re supposed to react, “He said he didn’t really care about the subject, and yet, he seems to know everything about it! How formidable must he be when he does care!” It’s a disgusting ploy, something that should embarrass anybody older than fifteen, but there Parker is, wheezing away at it:

Historical fantasy, as a genre, is not my cup of tea. The books are too long. The names are too silly. An there’s that stony-faced proclamatory style – as if irony were a late-20th-century novelty, like the digital watch.

Nevermind that the Martin books aren’t “historical fantasy” – even allowing for that, the reaction some readers might have, “well, if this kind of writing isn’t your cup of tea, you’re probably not qualified to assess it,” is meant to be squelched in the very next line, when Parker insufferably starts dropping names – Tolkien and Mervyn Peake within three lines of each other, with Cretien de Troyes and T. S. Eliot thrown in for good measure. The whole message of the idiotic gambit – “well, this whole genre is really beneath my notice, but if I choose to bestow my notice, hooo boy! Will you sure be impressed!” – is completely antithetical not only to reading but to criticism; it’s a juvenile attempt to keep the spotlight squarely on the writer, not on his subject. But even so, having been recently inoculated as it were, I might have overlooked it – especially if Parker actually managed to say some interesting things about this oft-chronicled subject.

Then I hit the wall:

In the ninth episode [of the first HBO season], the character we had presumed to be the hero of the epic – Lord Eddard (or Ned) Stark, strong, upright, and focally placed within the story (also: played by Sean Bean) – got his head chopped off. What the fuck?

That last line isn’t mine – it’s Parker’s, appearing in the pages of the Atlantic, which was founded in Boston in 1857 and has been edited by, among others, Jim Fields, William Dean Howells, the great Bliss Perry, and the epoch-defining Bill Whitworth. I read, as part of an author’s commissioned and considered thoughts on HBO’s critically acclaimed Game of Thrones adaptation, What the fuck? – and I read it not only because Parker was too lazy to realize he wasn’t writing an email to a friend but also because the Atlantic‘s editors saw no problem with leaving it in.

So something small and remarkable is now going to happen: I’m going to let my subscription to the Atlantic run out. Political savant and perpetual literary dilettante William F. Buckley always used to quip that you could never tell what would be the last straw for a magazine’s long-time reader (and it’s safe to say the Atlantic has no longer-term readers than I) – but you could rest assured it would be something “very small and perhaps inconsequential.”

In my case, after a very, very long time reading the Atlantic, it was three little words. Later in the week, I’ll go by Mount Auburn Cemetery and apologize to Fields.

March 7th, 2012

Badly Infected in the Penny Press!

My last few scrapes with the Penny Press left me thinking things might not be able to get any worse, but I was wrong: things hit rock bottom when I read this sentence in a review by Guy Dammann in the 2 March TLS: “In Don Giovanni, the general consensus was that the opera ended – as it is thought to have done in the revised Vienna version – with the hero’s descent into the flames.” That such an abomination could happen at all is bad enough – that it could happen in the TLS is surely a sign of the End of Times.

So I resigned myself to my new reality, in which my beloved Penny Press, the boon and solace of my idle hours, had now become a garden of weeds, a briar-patch of bitter disappointment. And yet, even so, an article in the latest New Yorker so thoroughly appalled me that half-way through it I was just angrily reading, my bacalhau with piri piri quite forgotten.

The article is by Michael Specter, and it’s about H5N1, otherwise known as “bird flu” – but it’s not about the bird flu that made the news back in 2003 by killing nearly sixty percent of the 587 reported infected people (previous estimated kill-ratios for pandemic viruses peaked at around two or three percent) before it was contained. No, that bird flu just wasn’t bad enough, and Specter’s article is about Ron Fouchier, a virologist at the Erasmus Medical Center in Rotterdam … Fouchier, and his dream of making H5N1 even worse. Specter sums things up succinctly:

To ignite a pandemic, even them most lethal virus would need to meet three conditions: it would have to be one that humans hadn’t confronted before, so that they lacked antibodies; it would have to kill them; and it would have to spread easily – through a cough, for instance, or a handshake. Bird flu meets the first two criteria but not the third.

Fouchier, in his lab in Rotterdam, tried to achieve that third criteria, but the virus wouldn’t cooperate. He and his colleagues “mutated the hell out of it,” but H5N1 stubbornly remained hard to catch. Finally, according to Specter, “he spread the virus the old-fashioned way, by squirting the mutated H5N1 into the nose of a ferret and then implanting nasal fluid from that ferret into the nose of another. After ten such manipulations, the virus began to spread around the ferret cages in his lab.”

In case you didn’t catch that, notice: after ten tries in which the deadly virus he was dealing with refused to become even deadlier, Fouchier at last achieved his goal of creating a version of bird flu that passed easily from one host to another – the first two times it failed to do that, the first four, the first eight times, another man might have stopped, might even have said, “Good God, what am I doing?” – but Fouchier kept going, and eventually his ferrets started being really miserable:

When Fouchier examined the flu cells, he became alarmed. There were only five genetic changes in two of the viruses’ eight genes. But each mutation had already been found circulating naturally in influenza viruses. Fouchier’s achievement was to place all five mutations together in one virus, which meant that nature could do precisely what he had done in the lab.

Except that in uncounted thousands or millions of years, nature hadn’t done that. One man did that, apparently for shits and giggles. And then once he’d done it, he refused to undo it – so that mutated H5N1 virus, an unbeatable mutated bird flu that kills sixty percent of its hosts and can be communicated through aspiration, still sits in a storage lab in Rotterdam. As one scientist Specter interviewed put it:

We have no room to be wrong about this. None. We can be wrong about other things. If smallpox got out, it would be unfortunate, but it has a fourteen-day incubation period, it’s easy to recognize, and we would stop it. Much the same is true with SARS. But with flu you are infectious before you even know you are sick. And when it gets out it is gone. Those researchers have all our lives at the end of their fingers.

And this is true for ‘those researchers’ entirely because of Fouchier, who decided to create this mutated virus but is grousing about it when Specter interviews him. “People are acting like I am some mad scientist,” he says, and who knows if Specter wasn’t at that moment thinking the obvious: you’re an accredited scientist who did something palpably, dangerously insane – in purely technical terms, you are a mad scientist. In any case, it’s frightfully clear from the article that Fouchier is a walking, talking disassociative episode, utterly incapable of connecting himself to, well, evil. “There has been a lot of speculation that this virus cannot be transmitted easily or through the air,” he says at one point. “That speculation has been wrong.” No, that speculation was entirely right until you tried eleven times to MAKE the virus easily transmittable. You want to say. Or words to that effect.

Specter’s article conveys a disturbing naivete in the scientific community (a naivete I’m assuming Specter doesn’t share – he’s just being a good reporter) about the worst possible outcome of what Fouchier has done – terrorism. Specter mentions at one point that most of Fouchier’s colleagues discount the possibility because “flu is so hard to control.” One scientist says, “Nobody’s going to make this in his garage. There are so many better ways to create terror.” You almost want to throttle him – it’s such quintessentially stupid scientific thinking: X wouldn’t be efficient, so nobody would do X. As if the most efficient way to knock down two skyscrapers was to hijack two commercial airliners, fly them hundreds of miles, and slam them into the buildings hoping for a nice solid hit. The terror threat here (aside from Fouchier’s ludicrous comment that “this institution has paid millions of dollars to insure that this research was carried out in the safest possible manner” – translation: some samples are already missing) comes specifically from the disposition of so many terrorists not to care about controlling the damage they do – or suffering from that damage themselves. A lunatic infecting himself with this mutated bird flu and then zealously meeting as many people as he can in, say, downtown Mumbai or London or New York – a lunatic like that isn’t hard to imagine. Unless, apparently, you’re a scientist.

And that’s where the Penny Press has driven things: sitting there staring at this article, feeling more certain than ever before that the end of mankind is nigh, and that arrogant little men in lab coats are the ones who’ll bring it about. As part of this doomsday scenario – and as an attempted defense against this rock-bottoming of the Penny Press, I’m contemplating a subscription to Entertainment Weekly, which is light and bouncy – or at least that’s the general consensus.

February 22nd, 2012

Superdogs in the Penny Press!

Once you hold your nose and get past Bruce McCall’s predictable, boring cover for the 27 Feb New Yorker, you have a genuine treat waiting for you inside: a great article called “Beware of the Dogs” by somebody writing under the pseudonym of “Burkhard Bilger” (in anticipation of the tsunami of innuendo I’m sure is coming, I should state for the record that I am not, in fact, “Burkhard Bilger”), all about the dogs (and trainers) of the New York City canine units. The author, whoever he is, does a great job – this is one of those sui generis pieces that could only really look natural in the New Yorker, one of those pieces that makes me glad all over again that there is such a thing as the New Yorker.

“Burkhard Bilger” shadows some NYC canine crime units and visits their training facilities, meeting the men (good-natured and well-adjusted, the lot of them) who do the training and the entirely superior beings who submit to being trained:

A good dog is a natural super-soldier: strong yet acrobatic, fierce yet obedient. It can leap higher than most men, and run twice as fast. Its eyes are equipped for night vision, its ears for supersonic hearing, its mouth for subduing the most fractious prey. But its true glory is its nose. In the nineteen-seventies, researchers found that dogs could detect even a few particles per million of a substance; in the nineties, more subtle instruments lowered the threshold to particles per billion; the most recent tests have brought it down to particles per trillion.

The image of police dogs took something of a collateral hit when the country saw photos of U.S. military dogs being used to terrify illegally detained foreign prisoners, and the NYC cops “Burkhard Bilger” interviews often have to stage fake drugs-in-the-crowd incidents in order to keep their dogs sharp (actual drugs-in-the-crowd incidents being yet another on the long list of things the city’s current mayor has effectively outlawed). But these men and their dogs have seen plenty of real action, and everybody our author talks to concurs: dogs make a big difference:

“One canine team can do the work of ten or fifteen guys in a gang situation,” Lieutenant John Pappas, head of the squad, told me. “It’s ‘Fuck you! I’m not going anywhere.’ But when you throw in some jaws and paws – holy shit! It changes the landscape.” In 2010, one station on the Lexington Avenue line was hit by twenty felonies in a matter of months. Once a canine unit was sent in, the number dropped to zero. “It’s like pulling up in an M1 Abrams battle tank,” Pappas said.

Given the incredible statistics operating in New York, I supposed I should count my blessings Boston hasn’t likewise increased its use of police dogs in the subways; such dogs invariably stop what they’re doing, come straight over to me, and go all rubbery with face-smooching joy – which causes all their human handles to pop the safeties on their revolvers and demand to see every last used book in my shoulder bag. Sigh. Reading about such an encounter is a lot more enjoyable than trying to talk yourself out of one.