Posts from August 2012

August 18th, 2012

Six (More) Full of Picks!

The Silent Majority has spoken (not in the Comments field, mind you – how gauche would that be?)(Sigh), and so we hurry slightly our time-table in order to produce another quick list of top-notch anthologies. Once again, the utmost care has been taken to provide a list that’s a) full of winners, b) full of variety, and c) not full of Oxford University Press volumes, the show-hogs.

English Country House Murders – Otto Penzler’s The Mysterious Press put out a veritable fusillade of books in its 30-something years of existence, and a good number of them have been fine, fannish productions. But only one has become a must-have-it classic – only one is something I’ve found treasured in personal libraries on four different continents: 1989’s English Country House Murders, featuring 22 “tales of perfidious Albion.” As you can tell from the title, all the stories have a particular setting in common: the ivy-coated many-roomed long-storied English country house, where a number of guests arrive for the weekend and, in most of these stories, that number minus one leave again on Monday morning. Editor Thomas Godfrey opens proceedings with an urbane and hilarious essay attempting to lay out the rules of a true English Country House Murder (including a prohibition on characters named “Lefty”), and that’s followed by such great stories as Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of Abbey Grange,” Baroness Orczy’s “The Fordwych Castle Mystery,” Dorothy Sayers’ “The Queen’s Square,” Ngaio Marsh’s “Death on the Air,” and Ruth Rendell’s “Fen Hall.” Godfrey even throws in a bit of Jeeves & Wooster. And since I’ve spent weekends at a few actual English country houses (never featuring homicide, but still), I can attest: no such familiarity is required to enjoy the hell of out this book.

The Science Fiction Century, edited by David Hartwell – This huge 1997 volume might just be the single greatest sci-fi anthology ever created, and that’s saying quite a bit, since the genre has produced some enormously talented (and prolific) editors in its century of life. Hartwell himself edits anthologies like he was on a stop-watch, and an astonishing number of them are good, fully conveying his own bottomless enthusiasm for the genre he’s done so much to shape. This book is a thousand pages long and reads at a sprint, mainly thanks to the discriminating but often surprising choices. Any anthology that bucks chronology in order to start with James Tiptree’s “Beam Us Home” is doing something not only right but wonderful, and the volume goes on to include a bizarrely thought-provoking collection of classics like “Fire Watch” by Connie Willis, or “Drunkboat” by Cordwainer Smith, or “Beggars in Spain” by Nancy Kress, or “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison … but also such unusual items as “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster, “2066: Election Day” by Michael Shaara, and “The Scarlet Plague” by Jack London. For me, a great anthology is one I can argue with but also respect, and this is a quintessential version of that.

The Art Book this incredible 1994 Phaidon volume is avisual anthology, and it does more good, thought-provoking work in its 500 pages than many a more verbal book could do in twice the length. It accomplishes this little miracle through the simplest means possible: it’s arranged in strict alphabetical order! No schools, no time periods, no movements – just A to Z. This causes countless downright thrilling juxtapositions – the great William Dobson is nestled right next to the talentless Theo Van Doesburg; the sublime Frans Snyders is opposite the gimmicky David Smith; gloriously, those two great Victorians, William Holman Hunt and Jean Ingres, are facing – confronting! – each other. Each featured artwork is accompanied by a very good overview and description, plus the relevant dates and present location, and thanks to the careful selection of artists, the over-all effect is as exciting and instructional as a walk through any art museum in the world. This is a firm entry on that short list: a book every single thinking person should own and frequently consult.

American Sea Writing, edited by Peter Neill – The Library of America produced this gorgeous little hardcover in 2000 with a brittle, almost transparent dust-jacket and deckle edge pages, a pretty, handy look that perfectly matches the inviting elegance of the selections inside. As you’d expect from a volume dedicated to regarding the sea, all the great early New Englanders are here: William Bradford, Roger Williams, Cotton Mather, etc. We also get such welcome predictables as Owen Chase, James Fenimore Cooper, and Richard Henry Dana (as well as Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “Old Ironsides” and a bit from the Lewis & Clark journals). Crevecoeur’s “Peculiar Customs at Nantucket” is here in full, as is Poe’s “MS. Found in a Bottle” and Longfellow’s “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” There’s Melville, Thoreau, Whitman, and Hawthorne, but there’s also Lafcadio Hearn, and Mark Twain’s “About All Kinds of Ships.” The modern pieces are equally well-chosen, from Peter Matthiessen’s “Under Montauk Light” to bits from Samuel Eliot Morison and Barry Lopez and John McPhee. One egregious omission: Peter Benchley – but for a collection this strong, I can overlook it.

Katharine Graham’s Washington – It’s hard to re-read this volume (as I do, often) without a lump in the throat, since in many ways it’s more of a living record of Kay Graham than her justly-lauded autobiography Personal History. Graham was a member in good standing of that powerful and exclusive genus, the Washington Society Matron (Americanus dominatrix), but unlike a great many of those behind-the-scenes power brokers, she also knew and doted on her city’s history and culture, and all of that is reflected in this big book, which was left unfinished at the time of her death and completed by her long-time assistant, Evelyn Small. The various sections reflect whole sub-genres of Capital writing: “President-Watching,” “Visitors to Washington,” “Wartime Washington,” “How Washington Works,” for instance (and of course “Washington Women”) – and there’s a wonderful amount of Graham’s own original prose throughout, introducing sections and pieces. As with English Country Houses (and the sea, now that I think of it), so too here: I’ve had some little experience with the book’s subject – enough, at any rate, to know that the subject is given a wonderful, nearly perfect portrait in these pages.

World Poetry, edited by Katharine Washburn and John S. Major – There’s not much I could say about this magnificent 1998 volume that I haven’t said many times before here at Stevereads (and elsewhere), so I’ll close this little celebration by quoting one of its many fantastic selections, this one from the poet who used to be called Li Po, here translated by Elling Eide:

Beneath the blossoms with a pot of wine,
No friends at hand, so I poured alone;
I raised my cup to invite the moon,
Turned to my shadow, and we became three.
Now the moon had never learned about drinking,
And my shadow had merely followed my form,
But I quickly made friends with the moon and my shadow;
To find pleasure in life, make the most of the spring.

Whenever I sang, the moon swayed with me;
Whenever I danced, my shadow went wild.
Drinking, we shared our enjoyment together;
Drunk, then each went off on his own.
But forever agreed on dispassionate revels,
We promised to meet in the far Milky Way.

December 13th, 2011

Stevereads Honor Roll 2011: Nonfiction!

1. The Death Marches  by Daniel Blatman – As bitterly mysterious as the Nazis “Final Solution” was, its death-throes were even more so. Through Blatman’s ground-breaking research, it becomes clear that the Nazi bigots simply couldn’t stop killing, even when the effort to do so, in manpower and materials, was literally suicidal. This book, an absolutely unforgettable portrait of pathology writ large, is tragic and jarring reading, not least because of the utter pointlessness of it all, the grinding waste. After the Nazis knew that their war was doomed – after any sound-minded man among them must have known that the must soon negotiate with the Allies – they rounded up thousands of Jews from their various concentration camps and put them on long, punitive marches from which only a fraction emerged alive – a gruesome, wildly insane measure which Blatman examines with admirable thoroughness.


2. Murder Most Foul  by David Bevington – This is hardly the first book to examine the strange and lasting appeal of Shakespeare’s greatest play (not my favorite one, but there’s simply no denying its power with audiences), but it’s one of the most briskly comprehensive I’ve ever read, and it’s also a great deal of fun. Of course Bevington, being only human, can’t resist wondering just why it is, exactly, that this particular play – lopsided, too long, decidedly odd – should so consistently compel the imagination of generations. But the real strength of his book comes from avoiding theorizing in favor of analyzing – how the various manifestations of the play have reflected their various epochs, acting styles, etc. Read the book –  then read the play again.


3. Rome by Robert HughesIn the most exuberant, extended love-letter to a city since Peter Ackroyd’s London, Hughes – as embattled and irrepressible a prose stylist as ever, here at the top of his form – mixes the historical and the archeological with the personal to create a vibrantly readable portrait of the Eternal City. Hughes is one of those increasingly rare writers who seems to have read everything, seen everything, done everything, and formed fierce and endlessly entertaining opinions about it all. Reading his written instructions for how to make clam chowder would probably be a great time – reading his meditations on a storied place like Rome, which won his heart decades ago – well, that’s a spellbinding combination.


4. Art Museum (Phaidon)This enormous, gorgeously-produced tome takes its readers – viewers, really – on a sumptuous guided tour of the greatest art museum imaginable, an art museum of the mind, comprising dozens of period-and-theme galleries and hundreds of ‘rooms,’ each filled with priceless artworks in virtually every medium. Book lovers like to imagine a personal library of unending proportions, shelves overflowing with every book every written. This is the art-lover’s equivalent, and it’s an utterly amazing tour de force of a coffee-table book – one of the finest things Phaidon’s ever produced, in a long catalogue of really fine things. Hang the expense: you really can’t be without this book.


5. Wild Dog Dreaming by Deborah Bird Rose – There’s an astounding, thought-provoking sensibility that winds its way through this book, a profound meditation on the meaning of humanity’s place on Earth. The author positions mankind as a malevolent event as much as a species: the embodiment of the current great age of extinction. And she takes as her lyric, tragic focus in these pages the dingoes of Australia, who are being hunted out of existence even while you’re reading this. In Rose’s careful handling, they stand in for all the species of animal being destroyed every week by a thoughtless and voracious humanity, and yet, despite everything, this isn’t ultimately a bitter book – amazingly, there’s hope and optimism in these pages.


6. The End by Ian KershawWWII has been yielding a bumper-crop of superb volumes lately, and in this riveting, grim book, great Hitler biographer Kershaw autopsies the Third Reich in its death-throes, matching touching human details and impressive narrative sweep to give us a panoramic look at Germany and especially Berlin at the very end of the war. Kershaw knows all the old face-saving characterizations about how the entire German people was ensnared by Hitler the psychological magician, and he has little patience for such stuff in this powerful book, preferring instead to paint a picture of a nation so at odds with itself that it huge chunks of the populace saw not alternative but to keep fighting even after they knew such fighting was hopeless. This is stirring, vigorous history-writing at its best.



7. Catherine the Great by Robert MassieMassie caps a tremendous career with something as far from the fabled ‘twilight style’ as you can get – this big book about a fascinating ruler who happened to be a woman has all the energy and crackle of a young man’s book (complete with sharp readings of primary sources and some judicious fight-picking), but delivered with the calm assurance of a lifetime’s experience. To a greater and fuller extent than any previous English language biographer, Massie gives us the real Catherine, the astute and canny administrator who could hold her own against all the age’s most powerful personalities (many of them inside her own country). It’s refreshing to read, especially after so many books that were only catalogues of her various lovers.


8. Ethan Allen by Willard Sterne Randall – The American Revoluion’s young hero-warrior hasn’t lacked for biographies in the last two hundred years, but this is far and away the best of them all, a hugely researched and gamely told story of a man who led the famous terrorist cell The Green Mountain Boys in the taking of Fort Ticonderoga at the outset of the American Revolution – and then spent pretty much every waking moment of the remainder of his life bending laws, physically intimidating people who disagreed with him, and obstructing every effort made by anybody around him to do anything at all. An entirely reprehensible figure, here given by Randall an even-handed but ultimately positive assessment that carries the reader along anyway, on the strength of the deep research and smooth writing.



9. Livia, Empress of Rome by Matthew Dennison –  One long virtuoso acting performance by the great Sian Phillips a generation ago in the BBC production of “I, Claudius” has cemented Livia, wife of Augustus, in the popular imagination as a scheming comic book super-villain, complete with melodrama, suppressed humanity, and great one-liners. Dennison’s fast-paced, clear-headed book does the best job I’ve ever seen at giving readers the real flesh-and-blood Livia, who might not be as interesting as Robert Graves’ smiling mass murder (who could be, after all?) but sure is more believable.



10. Pacific Crucible by Ian TollEven after 70 years and one unjustly overlooked HBO mini-series, the Pacific theater of WWII still takes a back seat to its more famous sibling, the assault on Hitler’s Festung Europa. This great book of Toll’s (his best one yet – no small praise, considering how fantastic his others have been) won’t change that (nothing much beats the drama of fighting a mad conqueror on the fields of France – just ask the French about Agincourt), but it’s yet another brilliant addition to this year’s outpouring of memorable WWII histories.