Posts from December 2014

December 6th, 2014

The Best of 2014: In the Penny Press!

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The roll call of periodicals I read was grimly undiminished in 2014. The list – currently National Geographic, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, GQ, Esquire, Vanity Fair, New York Magazine, Men’s Journal, Outside, The London Review of Books, Bookforum, Publisher’s Weekly, Harper’s, The Rolling Stone, Audubon, The Atlantic, Asimov’s Science Fiction, The National Review, The New Republic, The Boston Review, The Nation, Smithsonian, Yankee Magazine, The Saturday Evening Post, Natural History, The Journal of Roman Studies, and of course the mighty TLS – is fairly long, and so the pool of candidates for the list is correspondingly huge. And inevitably, the more one reads (and the more Twitter-links one follows), the more one comes to realize how much other good stuff is almost certainly slipping by unread. This list, unlike the others in this annual Stevereads Gotterdamerung, is constructed in the full awareness that it’s only a rough approximation. That’s irksome, and in response I’ll be including a bit more than my customary ten items this time around:

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18. The Teen Whisperer by Margaret Talbot (The New Yorker) – Naturally, I’m as appalled by the limitless super-phenomenon of YA author John Green as any other thinking adult. I shudder to think that this smiling, affable purveyor of fairly ordinary two-dimensional overwritten children’s books is the most influential and best-selling author in the history of mankind, with a vast cult of millions of tweens who would unhesitatingly garotte their grandmothers if he or his brother Hank so much as suggested it. But appalled or not, I couldn’t help but love Margaret Talbot’s shrewd – if droolingly hagiographic – profile of John Green, including her insights into how reading itself has changed for Green’s numberless fans:

In a different era, “The Fault in Our Stars” could have been that kind of cultish book. For many young people today, however, reading is not an act of private communion with an author whom they imagine vaguely, if at all, but a prelude to a social experience – following the author on Twitter, meeting other readers, collaborating with them on projects, writing fan fiction. In our connected age, even books have become interactive phenomena.


17. 21st Century Limited by Kevin Baker (The Atlantic) – Any profile of the American long-distance passenger rail system is bound to be heavily steeped in nostalgia, and this is certainly true of Kevin Baker’s lovely piece in the Atlantic. But Baker balances things out with some very good observations about the nature of the allure here:

“The romance of it!” But just what this means, they cannot really say. It’s tempting to think that we are simply equating romance with pleasure, with the superior comfort of a train, especially seated up high in the observation cars. But hang seen a rural train emerge silently through a gap in the New England woods, having seen the long slide of a 1 train’s headlights, I suspect that the appeal of trains is something more primitive than this. Trains are huge things that come upon us like predators. Almost from the beginning of the machine age, Americans yearned and sought ways for the train to connect their little towns – to connect them – to the greater world.

16. The War of the Words by Keith Gessen (Vanity Fair) – The story of Amazon v.s. the book world is far from over, but one of the best reports from the front lines was this smart and surprisingly funny piece by Keith Gessen from Vanity Fair, where for once Gessen’s tendency to make every single thing that happens in the world about himself actually works in favor of the performance, since he’s both a piece-writer for the glossies and a published author himself and thus vested in the whole question. And maybe as a result of this, he manages to fill his piece with great quotes and apercus:

Inside and outside of publishing, people disagree about how the business will shake out. “Book publishers had the longest time horizon to prepare for the digital transition,” the industry lawyer told me, “and they were the least prepared.” From Amazon’s perspective, demographics is destiny: people who read print are dying, while digital natives are being born.

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15. Snowden in Exile by Katrina Vanden Heuvel & Stephen F. Cohen (The Nation) – Until I read this long interview with Edward Snowden in The Nation, I had very firm opinions about the guy, and they weren’t favorable by any means. Somehow, through the shrewdness and comprehensiveness of the questions and discussions provided by Vanden Heuvel and Stephen Cohen, this piece brought me to a new understanding, mainly, I think, by allowing Snowden to do so much of the talking himself:

“When people say, ‘I have nothing to hide,’ what they’re saying is, ‘My rights don’t matter.’ Because you don’t need to justify your rights as a citizen – that inverts the model of responsibility. The government must justify its intrusion into your rights. If you stop defending your rights by saying, ‘I don’t need them in this context’ or ‘I can’t understand this,’ they are no longer rights. You have ceded the concept of your own rights.”

14. The Human Factor by William Langewiesche (Vanity Fair) – It’s well-known – hell, I’ve been saying it for years – that William Langewiesche is the Homer of air travel, and this brilliant piece in Vanity Fair, about the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447, is this great author at the height of his powers:

There is another unintended consequence of designing airplanes that anyone can fly: anyone can take you up on the offer. Beyond the degradation of basic skills of people who may once have been competent pilots, the fourth-generation jets have enabled people who probably never had the skills to begin with and should not have been in the cockpit. As a result, the mental makeup of airline pilots has changed.


13. The Dogmatist by John Gray (The New Republic) – I might have little patience with John Gray as a philosopher, but I have a new respect for him as a book reviewer after this New Republic piece savaging not only the new memoir by Richard Dawkins but also Richard Dawkins himself, and in such virtuoso terms that I almost felt sorry for Dawkins:

One might wager a decent sum of money that it has never occurred to Dawkins that to many people he appears as a comic figure. His default mode is one of rational indignation – a stance of withering patrician disdain for the untutored mind of a mind one might expect in a schoolmaster in a minor public school sometime in the 1930s. He seems to have no suspicion that any of those he despises could find his stilted prose of indignant rationality merely laughable.

12. What To Call Her? by Jenny Diski (The London Review of Books) – It seems almost blasphemous to cite this piece by Jenny Diski from The London Review of Books about her experiences when she was a girl living in the household of Doris Lessing instead of any of her incredibly moving essays about her recent ongoing struggle with cancer, but I can’t help it: this piece is such a perfect balance of tender and bittersweet that it got my vote:

As with my cancer diagnosis, it’s hard to avoid thundering cliches when writing about the start of my relationship with Doris, and hard not to make it sound either Dickensian or uncannily close to the fairy tales we have in the back of our minds. ‘It’s like something out of a fairy story’ was a phrase people often said to me when they learned how I got to live with Doris. To which I would answer yes, or sort of, or say nothing at all.

11. Dead End on Silk Road by David Kushner (Rolling Stone) – In beautifully controlled prose and scrupulous reporting, David Kushner in this Rolling Stone piece tells the harrowing story of the “Silk Road,” a backstage illicit shadow-Internet of crime, and of Ross Ulbricht, who for years oversaw the Silk Road as “Dread Pirate Roberts,” profiteering enormously and casually ordering the deaths of buyers and sellers who crossed him, until finally the Feds caught up with him. Kushner sifts through the evidentiary record and unfailingly sniffs out the best bits:

Though DPR was careful to keep a distance from his customers, he occasionally lifted the veil slightly – after Green helped the seller unload a kilo of coke to a buyer for $27,000 worth of Bitcoins, DPR reached out to him. “Congrats on the sale,” DPR wrote, initiating an exchange in which he later referenced his girlfriend. Curious about how DPR managed his double life, the seller asked, “Does she know who you are? … Dread, I mean.”

“No way,” DPR replied. “Maybe never.”

“How can you hide that from her? I have to guess that [you are] spending at least 10 to 12 hours a day on SR.”

“I’ve become good at hiding,” DPR replied.

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10. This Old Man by Roger Angell (The New Yorker) – Legendary writer Roger Angell’s piece in The New Yorker this year about being 90 was remarkable not only for its unsparing clarity but also for its ideological flexibility. Readers over a certain age will find themselves nodding at every one of his sudden-seeming realizations:

My list of names is banal but astounding, and it’s barely a fraction, the ones that slip into view in the first minute or two. Anyone over sixty knows this; my lists is only longer. I don’t go there often, but, once I start, the battalion of the dead is on duty, alertly waiting. Why do they sustain me so, cheer me up, remind me of life? I don’t understand this. Why am I not endlessly grieving?

9. Veronese’s ‘Allegories of Love’ by T. J. Clark (TLS) – The mighty TLS is seldom represented in this year-end list, mainly because the journal concentrates so heavily on task-specific book reviews that don’t lend themselves to stand-alone virtuoso writing. This extremely thought-provoking piece by T. J. Clark about the great Veronese was the first of two happy exceptions this year:

Veronese has a Shakespearean ability to use the sensuous and structural qualities of his medium – the exact disposition of light, space, colour and figure within the picture rectangle – to make standard materials mutate. And surely the main task of art history is to give an account of how ‘As would be expected …’ is no answer.

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8. The Greatest Showbiz Book Ever Written by Frank Rich (New York) – As a matter of course, I try never to miss anything that Frank Rich writes, and since I’m already a big fan of Moss Hart’s Act One, I read this long appreciation of the book with avid interest – and I wasn’t disappointed:

What lifts Act One above other riveting backstage sagas and rags-to-riches success stories is the loneliness and sadness the hero has to overcome. “I have a pet theory of my own, probably invalid, that the theater is an inevitable refuge of the unhappy child,” Hart writes early in the book, no doubt knowing full well that his theory is valid.

7. In the Egosphere by Adam Mars-Jones (The London Review of Books) – This epic-length and very polite career-evisceration of Philip Roth by the brilliant Adam Mars-Jones is electrifying from start to finish, even for somebody like me, who’s been eviscerating Roth’s writings for thirty years. Mars-Jones’s piece is full of great quotes (“Having the rug pulled from under your feet certainly gives you a fresh perspective on the ceiling, but it’s also likely to breed chronic mistrust of rugs,” and many other examples) and also a delightful number of challenging broader pronouncements:

Postmodern games have a necrotising effect on a novel’s flesh. The dispiriting thing about literary postmodernism is that it reinforces the writer at the expense of the reader in what was already an asymmetrical relationship.

6. Blood on the Sand by Matthew Power (Outside) – This Matthew Power piece from Outside is the hauntingly sad story of young Jairo Mora Sandoval, who spent his brief adult life protecting the great sea turtles who beach themselves on the sands of Costa Rica in order to lay their eggs. Sandoval was killed by bandit egg-poachers, and Power’s piece makes no bones about his heroic status:

Just a few weeks before his death, Mora told a newspaper reporter that threats were increasing and the police were ignoring Wildcast’s pleas for help. He called his mother, Fernanda, every night before he went on patrol, asking for her blessing. When Lizano saw Fernanda at Mora’s funeral, she asked for her forgiveness.

“Sweetie,” Fernanda replied, Jairo wanted to be there. It was his thing.”

And “Blood on the Sand” is doubly sad, because Power himself – as talented and friendly a young feature-writer as ever drew breath – died suddenly of heat stroke in 2014, with this and a handful of other pieces standing now as his memorials.


5. Losing Aaron by Janelle Nanos (Boston) – When Aaron Swartz hanged himself in 2013, the emotional ripples shot out in all directions (starting with Tim Berners-Lee’s ridiculous “Let us weep” tweet, but generally improving from there), and one of the most touching I’ve encountered so far was this piece by Janelle Nanos for Boston magazine about Aaron’s father Bob and his own torturous attempts to deal with the tragedy – including a quite natural layer of anger:

In March, Bob made his way back to campus for Aaron’s memorial service. He wrote the words he would speak that day in his office in the Media Lab building. Dressed in a dark-gray suit, he stood at the podium and cited the work of other digital visionaries who flouted the law: Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and the founder of Polaroid, Edwin Land. “These people did exactly what MIT told them to do, they colored outside the lines … but today’s MIT destroys those kinds of people,” he said.

4. Never Out of the Storm by Tim Kendall (TLS) – This gorgeous, lightning-quick piece by Tim Kendall from the TLS deals with the lyricist Ivor Gurney, a WWI veteran whose querulous, yearning regard for his own poetry (neglected even while he was still alive and certainly ever since) is nicely captured by Kendall:

Then, with his greatest work still to write, Gurney was dropped, his manuscripts returned again and again until he gave up trying. “Surely this is a good poem,” he would write in cover letters to editors, bewildered as he was by repeated rejection. Pleading got him nowhere: he never published a third volume, and died of tuberculosis on Boxing Day 1937, aged forty-seven, with a reputation primarily as a gifted composer who had not quite realized his potential. The poetry was all but forgotten.

ivor gurney in 1915


3. Gombe Family Album by David Quammen (National Geographic) – The mighty National Geographic magazine fielded dozens of first-rate pieces in 2014, but the one that struck me most sharply was an interview by naturalist David Quammen with Jane Goodall about her time with the chimpanzees of Gombe … an interview during which she relates my personal favorite of her life-story anecdotes:

It was a bit shocking to be told I’d done everything wrong. Everything. I shouldn’t have given them names. I couldn’t talk about their personalities, their minds, or their feelings. Those are unique to us. Fortunately, I thought back to my first teacher, when I was a child, who taught me that that wasn’t true. And that was my dog, Rusty. You cannot share your life in a meaningful way with any kind of animal with a reasonably well developed brain and not realize that animals have personalities.

jane goodall in gombe

2. Cage Wars by Deb Olin Unferth (Harper’s) – The subject of the factory farming of produce animals has generated quite a few articles and books in the last few years, and this piece by Deb Olin Unferth in Harper’s stands out for its fantastically readable evocation of what chickens themselves are actually like:

In nature chickens live in smallish groups in overlapping territories. They have complicated cliques and can recognize more than a hundred other chicken faces, even after months of separation. They recognize human faces too. They have distinct voices and talk among themselves, even before they hatch. A hen talks to her eggs and the embryos answer, peeping and twittering through the shells.

And the best thing I encountered in the Penny Press in 2014:

1. The Fiction in the New Yorker – From the very first week of the year and straight on through with hardly a dud week in the year, the New Yorker has had the single greatest run of short stories in its long and venerable history. I ordinarily feel about New Yorker fiction pretty much the same as everybody else does: it’s well-done but predictable, intelligent but Upper West Side anodyne, as free of challenge as it is of outright tedium. But in 2014, that picture was radically altered; through some backstage editorial shifting or higher-caliber slush-pile interns or whatever the reason might be, the fiction in the New Yorker has all year been brightly, insistently re-energized – hell, even the artwork and layout looks to my eye to be receiving extra loving care. And the results have been electrifying: stories like “Here’s the Story” by David Gilbert, “Ba Baboon” by Thomas Pierce, “The Big Cat” by Louise Erdrich, “Eykelboom” by Brad Watson, “Original Sins” by Kirstin Valdez Quade, “Last Meal at Whole Foods” by Said Sayrafiezadeh, “Motherlode” by Thomas McGuane, “The Pink House” by Rebecca Curtis, “Wagner in the Desert” by Greg Jackson, and (a personal favorite, for obvious dog-related reasons) “Madame Lazarus” by Maile Meloy – these and dozens of other stories have confidently reclaimed the whole term “New Yorker fiction.” No idea if it’ll stay this way in the new year, but in 2014 it was the best thing I read In the Penny Press.



May 14th, 2014

Back to the ’90s in the Penny Press!


The 1990s came rushing back into the spotlight for me today in the Penny Press, first in the latest Vanity Fair, which had not only an entertainingly angry piece by Lili Anolik on the whole culture-altering media circus of the O. J. Simpson trial, and then a piece written by Monica Lewinsky, whose scandal with President Clinton brought the whole of the United States government to a standstill back in 1998, and finally an excerpt from Matt Berman’s new memoir about working in the 1990s on John Kennedy Jr.’s start-up magazine George. Berman’s an affable narrator, telling a familiar story of an ordinary guy vfunexpectedly caught up in the vortex of Kennedy fame. It’s the animating heart of Berman’s new book, JFK Jr, George & Me (as it was of Christina Haag’s far more vibrant and memorable Come to the Edge), and one of the main characteristics of that book is here in this article: the effective way Berman casts himself as something of a starstruck bumbler who’s less aware than his readers are of the significances happening all around him.

One such moment struck me, of course. Berman’s at a laid-back meeting at Kennedy’s place when Kennedy’s wife, Carolyn Bessette, starts up a conversation with Berman:

John offered me a Rolling Rock. I sat down and tried to look comfortable. Carolyn sprawled next to me, putting her arm on the back of the sofa behind my head. She stared at me with her clear blue eyes. “Matt, where did you grow up? I bet Connecticut.” I mentally examined myself, searching for clues to her comment. Was my sport coat too preppy? Did I have a bad haircut? Do I have an accent? Then I remembered that she had grown up one town away from where I had; she was from Greenwich and probably recognized the type.

It’s hard to know what ‘type’ Berman is talking about here. The Greenwich where Carolyn Bessette grew up was about as far as you can get from the working-class Connecticut whose marks Berman is here worried she spots in him; it’s impossible to tell if Berman’s at all aware of the rumors that there might have been a much more direct way for Carolyn Bessette to know about the ways of young men from working-class Connecticut. And if he does know about those rumors, you have to wonder what other things he knows but does not say in this article or in his memoir. That’s the amazing thing here: that even twenty years later, the fog machine can still be found working.

And over in The New Republic, in a short, fantastic piece called “American Plague,” Michael Hobbes writes about the greatest scourge of the early 1990s, the AIDS epidemic, which, he rightly points out, struck the United States far worse than it struck any other country:

Looking at the data on AIDS deaths, you see that the virus hit the United States early and hard. In 1982, the first year of nation-wide CDC surveillance, 451 people died of AIDS in America. Just five died in Britain. In 1985, when Germany started reporting, it had 170 AIDS deaths. The United States had almost 7000.

Hobbes looks at all the possible reasons why this disparity might exist, but you end up worrying that the real reason is the last one offered, the most nrterrifyingly simple one:

“At the end of the day, it’s best understood as a function of health disparities writ large,” says Chris Beyrer, the director of the Johns Hopkins Fogarty AIDS International Training and Research Program. The core difference between the United States and Western Europe, he says, is that “we’re a much bigger, much more complex, and much more unjust country.”

Of course, it’s not all 1990s-retrospectives. The best thing I read today in the Penny Press was by Timothy Snyder (author of 2010’s utterly magnificent Bloodlands), a piece called “This Battle Means Everything,” also in The New Republic, that looks at the turmoil currently ratcheting up in Europe and has some extremely sobering things to say about it all:

We easily forget how fascism works: as a bright and shining alternative to the mundane duties of everyday life, as a celebration of the obviously and totally irrational against good sense and experience. Fascism features armed forces that do not look like armed forces, indifference to the laws of war in their application to people deemed inferior, the celebration of “empire” after counterproductive land grabs. Fascism means the celebration of the nude male form, the obsession with homosexuality, simultaneously criminalized and imitated. Fascism rejects liberalism and democracy as sham forms of individualism, insists on the collective will over the individual choice, and fetishizes the glorious deed. Because the deed is everything and the word is nothing, worlds are only there to make deeds possible, and then to make myths of them. Truth cannot exist, and so history is nothing more than a political resource. Hitler could speak of St. Paul as his enemy, Mussolini could summon the Roman emperors. Seventy years after the end of World War II, we forgot how appealing all this once was to Europeans, and indeed that only defeat in war discredited it.




September 13th, 2013

A Big Anniversary in the Penny Press!

magazines-in-a-bunchAs impossible as it is to believe, Vanity Fair is 100 years old. And yet I must believe it, for there’s Graydon Carter telling me so in his “Editor’s Letter” opening this extra-big anniversary issue, pompously holding court as he’s done so inimitably for what feels like most of those 100 years. Carter headed the team that’s recently put together the truly spectacular book Vanity Fair 100 Years: From the Jazz Age to Our Age, and the experience has put him in a gently woolgathering mood. He ranges his wind-baggy rhetoric over the century in question, stretching from the birth of modernism to the birth of the Internet, and he reflects wistfully on Frank Crowninshield, the man who gave the magazine its recognizable form. “A Yankee born in Paris and educated in Rome, Crowninshield – known as ‘Crownie’ to intimates – was cosmopolitan to his bones.”

vf100Crowninshield died two years before Carter was born, but that slight bar to intimacy doesn’t stop Carter from calling him “Crownie” for the remainder of his opening remarks. Thankfully, those remarks are brief, although they’re hardly the end of the issue’s woolgathering. No: Carter has commissioned ten essays for the occasion – one writer per decade, and readers unwise enough (as I was) to read them straight through will get a very rocky start. The 2000s are covered by somebody named Bill Maher (a quick Wikipedia search reveals that he’s a TV talk show comedian, and a quick YouTube search reveals that he’s an imbecile) in what amounts to the transcript of an unconvincing Catskills stand-up routine. The 1990s fare far worse: their emcee is talentless egomaniac vanity publisher Dave Eggers, who’s very nearly Carter’s match for insinuating that a vast stretch of time’s main purpose is to sit still while he, the Great Man, reflects upon it. The 1980s – lucky in this as in all things – get Kurt Anderson, and things pick up from there: Lorne Michaels writes about the New York of the 1970s, Robert Stone about the turmoil of the 1960s, Jan Morris about greeting Edmund Hilary when he descended from summiting Mount Everest; Daniel Okrent dares to be dark about the 1940s, Laura Hillenbrand and A. Scott Berg do fine historical turns on the ‘30s and ‘20s respectively, and – in a neat twist that works better than it should – Julian Fellowes (he of “Downton Abbey” fame) eulogizes the 1910s.

And some of the magazine’s standard players are here like clockwork (one can’t help but wonder what kind of piece Carter would have extorted out of Christopher Hitchens – and to miss seeing it), including James Wolcott writing at the top of his game about the peccadilloes of some of TV’s celebrity chefs, including the nationally-disgraced Paula Deen:

Deen’s trademark dishes, such as her bread pudding made of Krispy Kreme doughnuts cut into cubes, recall the grand tradition of good-ol’-boy cuisine that helped Elvis Presley keel over at Graceland. Rich in sugar, flour, and nostalgia, they slow down the metabolism and thought processes, inducing a semiconscious sloth bliss state that is deaf and blind to the entreaties of Barack and Michelle Obama as they extend a head of broccoli as America’s last hope. A true American entrepreneur, Deen excelled in playing it both ways, promoting a diet conducive to diabetes and then pushing diabetes medicine.

Also in this issue, Sarah Ellison, in a well-balanced piece about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, swerves just slightly to get in a little well-deserved dig:

The U.S. government has tried to decapitate his organization, which has only made him a martyr. No one is talking, as they were when he was free to mingle with the outside world, about his thin skin, his argumentative nature, his paranoia, his self-absorption, his poor personal hygiene, his habit of using his laptop when dining in company, or his failure to flush the toilet.


The curious thing about this special anniversary issue of Vanity Fair, in fact, is how ordinary it is – it serves as the best possible reminder of just how extraordinary the magazine always is, month after month. An old (one might almost say intimate) friend of mine alerted me to the customary VF pattern a long time ago, and the magazine has stayed true to that pattern ever since: the fluff and “Hot Type”-style flutter is always quartered in the front half of every issue, and the meat in the back half – and so it is here, with the longer, jump-cut articles after the half-way mark tending to be the highlight of the Table of Contents. Certainly that’s the case in this issue, where we get “What Lies Beneath,” a great piece by William Langewiesche about the vast, unmapped underground of New York City – the waterways, the subways, the sewer system, and how all of it fared during the pounding of Hurricane Sandy. He specifically disavows urbane-legend rumors of giant albino alligators, the killjoy, but even so, the piece is superb – we can only hope it’s the prelude to a book.

Criminal film directors, the royalties of two different countries, the idle obscenely rich right here in the United States, plus great photography throughout – special issue or no special issue, it’s a feast. Crownie would have been proud.

June 13th, 2013

Reading Mary Plain in the Penny Press!


The July issue of Vanity Fair has many standard features that are depressing. First and most noticeably, there’s the cover story-hand job common to most glossy magazines; in this case it’s a ‘profile’ of Hollywood’s current top box office Everyman, Channing Tatum, whose he-man pouting on the cover over the banner reading “Channing Tatum: An Action Star Who Can Act!” The banner might be true, but if Tatum can act it hasn’t yet been caught on film, and probably the piece’s talented author Rich Cohen knows that and was under orders to produce a standard-issue bro-file fawning all over Tatum in supposedly ‘up front’ ways that are nevertheless carefully choreographed to conceal everything the chunk of meat’s management wants concealed (Cohen makes no mention of Tatum’s tobacco habit, for instance, nor does he even lightly allude to the fact that Tatum isn’t exactly brightest warbler in the aviary).

The depressing features extend well beyond the cover, of course. There’s a culture-clash/French-bashing article by James Wolcott that reads like it wasvf tatum cover assembled from a kit and depresses in exact proportion to how talented Wolcott used to be; there’s yet another fawning puff piece, this one on Pippa Middleton’s love of tennis. Ingrid Sischy’s long profile of the odious John Galliano at least works in some uplift amidst its own depression: true, Galliano is a toxic, self-aggrandizing former pretty-boy piece of pastry who was a waste of protoplasm even before he exiled himself from civilized society with The Anti-Semitic Outburst Heard Round the World, but in compensation the reader gets to spend some time in the wonderful presence of Sischy’s writing, which is always a treat. Likewise Michael Joseph Gross’ long article on the cyber-war currently being waged between the U.S. and Iran, which was upliftingly well-written but depressing as all get-out to read.

But no issue of Vanity Fair ever entirely disappoints (not since Graydon Carter took over, much as I begrudge to admit it), and this one has a true gem underneath all the depressing mud: Laura Jacobs has an absolute corker of a piece about Mary McCarthy’s blockbuster 1963 novel The Group and the shockwaves it set off, both in the literary world and among McCarthy’s Vassar classmates.

Although even in this piece, there were plenty of slightly depressing elements. True, Jacobs can be wonderful about McCarthy’s prose:

And her memoirs, well, one thinks of brutal honesty dressed in beautiful scansion, Latinate sentences of classical balance and offhand wit in which nothing is sacred and no one is spared, not even the author herself. There was never anything “ladylike” about Mary McCarthy’s writing. She struck fear into the hearts of her male colleagues, many of whom she took to bed without trembling or pearls. For aspiring female writers, she remains totemic.

But I don’t agree with the weird reduction in that penultimate line, that oddly sexist equating of sexual predation with literary fearlessness – it makes a troubling lead-in to the following line, where you’re left wondering just which of McCarty’s traits these female writers are aspiring to (not that it matters in this case, since no aspiring female writer under the age of 35 has even heard of Mary McCarthy, let alone read her)(one of the sharpest young female writers I know, for instance, would scorn the very idea of reading somebody who’s actually had the bad grace to be dead – if the ink isn’t still wet on your latest chapbook, you might as well be one with Nineveh and Tyre).

Likewise troubling is the bit where Jacobs relates some of the withering critical responses to The Group and then blandly agrees with them. She quotes Robert Lowell: “No one in the know likes the book.” And she quotes Dwight Macdonald: “Mary tried for something very big but didn’t have the creative force to weld it all together.”

To which Jacobs nods, “All true, and all beside the point,” even though it’s not true, nor is it true that the book’s “plot was almost nonexistent and its emotional hold next to nil.”  And worst of all is the piece’s resort to psychobabble in defense of a flawed assumption:

Novelist lift material from life because they must. First novels are invariably autobiographical, which is why second novels are so difficult: the writer needs to recede and let the characters create themselves. McCarthy never learned to back off and loosen her grip. Maybe she couldn’t. She’d lost so much so young.

Or, alternately, there’s the faint possibility that Mary McCarthy knew what she was doing, that she wasn’t just some helpless fawn banging her head against the iron cage of her Freudian childhood hangups – that, ultimate heresy, she might have understood more about what was happening in her own fiction than virtually all of her critics, then or, apparently, now. It was McCarthy’s best friend Elizabeth Hardwick who once said, “When it comes to the written word, I wouldn’t bet against Mary.” Maybe Jacobs was emboldened by the fact that Hardwick herself nevertheless frequently did bet against her friend.

But then, Hardwick didn’t write The Group

April 15th, 2012

Hatchets and Ratchets in the Penny Press!

There were annoying things to wade through in the Penny Press this week, but I knew ahead of time what a glowing prize awaited me at the end, so I waded with a smile on my face!

Unfair to say ‘wading’ was involved in reading the wonderfully-written Vanity Fair piece by Michael Joseph Gross on Internet piracy, privacy, and a whole cluster of similar topics that will involve all of us at some point in the very near future. Gross’ article was just the smooth, intelligent read I’ve come to expect from this writer, although annoyances did manage to surface around the edges of his subject, like when one of his sources was talking about encryption security for popular websites:

Even so, the most influential Web sites, such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, balked at adapting to the new reality they’d helped bring into existence. No communications on any of those sites were fully encrypted yet. Without mockery [former hacker Jeff] Moss recites their arguments in a plain tone, strained only by mild weariness: “It’s too expensive. We never designed it to be all encrypted. And, you know the Net is not a private place anyway. It’s not really our problem.” His response, in the same tone, is that, since these corporations built their empires by encouraging everybody to share everything, they have a responsibility to provide security.

Needless to say (or maybe it isn’t), that last line is mighty annoying – and a good, quick indicator of some of the worst ways the Internet has changed society, blurring the line between professional obligation and personal responsibility with the end goal in mind of absolving idiots of the consequences of their own behavior. If a young couple in White Plains is scraping by with two jobs, living in their four-room apartment and never having any more than $300 in the bank, and they take it into their heads to believe some bank’s promises that they can, after all, afford a house … if that young couple, knowing their own finances to the last penny and, presumably, knowing the difference between daydreams and reality, decides to take on the mortgage for that house anyway, that young couple deserves everything that happens to them. They don’t deserve a federally-funded bailout; they don’t deserve immunity from prosecution when they have to abandon that mortgage, and they most certainly don’t deserve victim-status on the evening news.

Likewise the last line of that quote. Those enormous Internet sites that ‘encourage’ people to share everything about themselves have absolutely zero responsibility to provide encrypted security for the people who decide to do just that, and it’s a sign of our infantilizing times that anybody would thing otherwise. I know dozens of young people who post every single thing they do and think on Facebook in real-time as they do it and think it; the concept of privacy seems literally inconceivable to them. Which is fine, I guess, and may be the world they’re choosing to live in – but if you make that choice, you can’t then cry foul if it backfires. If you jump into a big river, you can’t blame it if you end up drowning.

So I guess it could be said that I have nobody but myself to blame that I intentionally jumped into Lewis Lapham’s cover essay in the new Harper’s on the dangers of Americans forgetting their history. I knew going in that Lapham can be a windbag of the first order, and I knew going in that such a subject – how kids these days just don’t know nothing, and how egghead academics aren’t helping matters – was guaranteed to bring out the worst in this writer. But I read “Ignorance of Things Past” anyway, so I guess I deserve the frustration that comes from reading Colonel Blimp nonsense like this:

Not being a scholar affiliated with a tenure track, I don’t much care whether the mise en scene is Athens in the fourth century B.C., Paris in the 1740s, or Moscow in the winter of 1905. I look for an understanding of the human predicament, to discover or re-discover how it is with man, who he is and how it is between him and other men. To consult the record in books both ancient and modern is to come across every vice, virtue, motive, behavior, obsession, consequence, joy, and sorrow to be met with on the roads across the frontiers of the millennia. What survives the wreck of empires and the sack of cities is the sound of a human voice confronting the fact of its own mortality.

No use pointing out the shrieking irony of such a passage (and the piece is one big crazy-quilt of such passages), I suppose – how the relentless New Age-y abstracting of history into moralizing sermons like this one about ‘the sound of a human voice confronting the fact of its own mortality’ (or whatever) is exactly why so many Americans know nothing about history, how the knee-jerk equating of detailed knowledge with tenure-track academia is absolutely lethal to the study of anything (and, despite Lapham’s probable protestations, is the most toxic legacy of the George W. Bush interregnum), how claiming you care about history too much to be concerned with the actual facts of history is pretty much fatuous beyond belief … etc. No, no use pointing out any of that – I just hiked up my waders and made it to the opposite shore, to the two glories of the week’s Penny Press … in, of all places, The Atlantic, which I’d only just recently anathematized here at Stevereads (although there was a curious and brilliant piece in that Harper’s – “Byzantium” by Rafil Kroll-Zaidi, something I’ll want to re-read a few times before I’m even 100 % certain I understand everything the author was trying to do).

And the added irony? I don’t agree with either of the pieces I so loved and am so praising! First up was the great B. R. Myers reviewing not only Chad Harbach’s much-praised debut novel The Art of Fielding but also diagnosing the very culture of the current book-world that feels compelled to position one or two ‘it’ novels every season for compulsory consumption by party-going literary hipster elite. Myers rightly scorns that self-appointed elite, and it’s certainly a pleasure to watch him scorn some of its past honorees. And he’s right that The Art of Fielding was positioned as just such a book last year (and he’s right that “aren’t we great?” article about it in Vanity Fair didn’t help things any). And it’s great to listen to him fulminate, since virtually nobody does it better:

Enough; writing too much about a novel this slight is as unfair as writing too little. Sometimes the only ay to counter the literary establishment’s corruption of standards is to take a highly praised trifle apart, for one’s own benefit if no one else’s, but as I have said, the publicity that launched The Art of Fielding was a rather innocuous affair. Just the year before, a mediocre book that is already half forgotten had been touted as a classic for the ages, and its author likened to the greatest novelist of all time; that was some serious bullshit. Misrepresenting a dull story as an engrossing one is nothing in comparison.

The only thing he’s wrong about is The Art of Fielding itself! He’s so incensed by the machinery surrounding the novel (although he kindly exempts Harbach himself from having much of a hand in that machinery) that it tends to burr his sensitivity to the gigantic merits of the novel at the center of that machinery. He’s certainly wrong to equate it with a self-regarding pile of dredge like Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. And he might even be wrong in his implication that all book-reviewers are name-dropping lemmings incapable of finding even an ‘it’ novel genuinely good, or genuinely great. Some of the people who praised The Art of Fielding so much last year wouldn’t be caught dead at a cocktail party, after all.

The opposite problem cropped up in the issue’s other powerhouse offering: Clive James wrote a gorgeous, rambunctious piece lauding the living daylights out of Dwight Macdonald, not only for the new reprint of Masscult and Midcult but for every bloomin’ word he wrote:

A supreme author of critically gifted prose, Macdonald at his dazzling best was just as open: anything produced by anyone, he would examine for its true quality. That’s what a cultural critic must do, and there are no shortcuts through theory. But deep down he knew that, or he would never have bothered to coin a phrase. Back again because they never really went away, Dwight Macdonald’s essays are a reminder that while very little critical prose is poetic, great critical prose always is: you want to say it aloud, because it fills the mouth as it fills the mind.

This is just as awkward as disagreeing with Myers! I’ve avoided jumping on the Macdonald bandwagon this time around specifically because I’ve always thought his prose was overrated (I read this reprint just recently, and I still think so), and here’s one of my favorite living critics singing hymns of that very praise!

Still, even such unwanted deviations aren’t enough to dim the pleasure of finding two such pieces back to back in a periodical I’d only just recently dismissed as all but intellectually irrelevant (“what the fuck?“) – it was a very pleasant surprise, in light of which I’m prepared to take the high road and forgive both Myers and James. This time.


January 16th, 2012

Uppity primates in the Penny Press!

Jumping (somewhat belatedly) into the fray of 2012’s Penny Press, we find the party in full swing, which is always inviting. In the 6 January TLS, for instance, Mary Kenny writes a letter whose simple honesty about the late Christopher Hitchens will be cried down instantly by the millions of arrested adolescents who jumped on the bandwagon of his tardily-adopted religion-bashing:

Christopher Hitchens, whom I knew in the 1970s (and who was much encouraged by my husband, Richard West, as well as by Anthony Howard), was often brilliant and beguiling, and he was also brave. But he would not have become a world-famous celebrity if God Is Not Great had been a more conscientious book; and that’s the pity of it. It was because his message could be reduced to a simple, tabloid black-and-white picture that Hitchens became more famous than Vaclav Havel.

Of course, during the week-long obsequies in the wake of Hitchens’ death, no such clarifications were possible, but it’s nevertheless true: if Hitchens had written a book praising disco (Recatching the Fever, or some such), passionately calling for its return, and that book had somehow struck up an international response, it would have been in the cause of disco that Hitchens would have hit the lecture circuit, and he’d have been every bit as eloquent and biting and funny and crowd-pleasing on that subject as he was on how shitty your parents were for making you go to church when you were a kid. And more importantly (and this is also more than Mary Kenny is willing to say, bless her), before, during, and after those disco-lectures, there would have been not one word about the tyranny of organized religion – because there would have been no money in such words. When fans would approach the touring Hitchens and tell him he was their intellectual hero, he invariably responded by saying something like, “Don’t make me a hero – just buy my book.” When serious young idealists approached him on tour and told him how much his ideas meant to them, he invariably responded by saying something like, “Don’t tell me your beliefs – just buy my book.” I give the man all the credit in the world for a freelancer’s naked opportunism, but I got a little weary, at the end of 2011, hearing how the world had lost a great philosopher (or worse, in the case of Salman Rushdie, a great philosophe).

That same issue of the TLS had a wonderfully controlled review by Andrew Scull of Raymond Tallis’ latest screed, Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity, which Scull summarizes quite succinctly:

As an atheist and a materialist, Tallis cannot appeal to a soul, a ghost in the machine that can operate and somehow direct the actions of the body. But he is fiercely dismissive of those who contend that we are nothing more than complicated organic machines, fated to live fully determined lives along lines programmed into our bodies and brains. Humankind’s place in nature is, he insists, unique. We are nothing but our bodies and our brains, and yet we are somehow able to move beyond our biology. Our self-conscious, self-reflective capacities allow us to transcend the limits of our bodies, to create an ever-richer and more complex mental life and culture, and to make choices, to act freely on the world.

Scull maintains more control in the face of this nonsense than I would have, certainly, but then, Tallis and his like have always irritating, since this outlook justifies every kind of cruelty mankind has ever perpetrated on the rest of the animal world. It takes a signature ability of the human brain – self-reflection – and elevates it to the sine qua non of the Chosen, and the people who do that elevating never seem to stop and reflect on the rigged game they’re playing.

There is a symphony in the way scents layer down on top of each other out in the natural world, for instance – the older ones yielding their strongest flavors over time, merging those flavors with both the surface (plant, wood, rock) and the surface-trails insect and bird-life has tracked through them, the less-old ones merging with the older ones and creating (both immediately and over time) new dimensions, and of course the newest coats charging the whole lattice with new meaning, filling it with both data-heavy short-term information (“This is me,” “this is what I ate an hour ago,” “this is my sexual receptivity, and for whom,” etc) and data-heavy longer-term information (“this is where I live, and I generally like/don’t like visitors,” for instance, and all the scent-graffiti that accumulates from others, both short and long-term). All of that – the whole totality of it – blends together into an incredibly detailed, incredibly vital tapestry – something that can be either intensely interactive or solitarily absorbing. Simply reading it can induce a zen-state of pure reception that’s often more compelling than hunger, thirst, or need for shelter.

Humans are physically incapable of experiencing that symphony. They lack the physical senses even to know it’s there, much less to read it. If an alien species came to Earth with force-fields and laser-guns to compel mankind’s submission and, far more importantly, a centuries-old philosophical framework built on asserting the moral, intellectual, and ethical superiority of beings who could experience that scent-symphony, mankind would find itself in cages, or in funny costumes, or experimented upon – at the very least, mankind would find itself relegated to a secondary caste of beings. And mankind’s protest would be: “But this is inherently unfair! You’ve arbitrarily set the criteria for superiority based on a physical capability you just happened to evolve, and that we just happened not to evolve – you’ve taken the random chance that you have such an ability and made it the basis for everything!” And then mankind would be prodded back into its lab cages, or its circus shows, or its meat-processing plants – not by argument, but by those force-fields and laser guns.

Tallis makes much of his atheism, but he’s unwilling to face some of its most embarrassing consequences. I suspect that in this he’s no different from the late Hitchens, who makes yet another hagiographic appearance, this time in Graydon Carter’s “Editor’s Letter” at the front of the February Vanity Fair. Carter is wonderfully opinionated on just about everything, so of course he wasn’t going to let the death of his long-time correspondent Hitchens pass in seemly silence. Instead, he’s got a classic anecdote to tell, about a typically epic lunch he attended with Hitchens – a lunch at which enormous amounts of alcohol were imbibed by all, despite looming deadlines. The sequel will be familiar to Hitchens fans: “After stumbling back to the office, we set him up at a rickety table with an old Olivetti, and in a symphony of clacking he produced a 1,000-word column of near perfection in under half an hour.”

Saint’s lives must have their miracle-stories, I know, but Carter is old enough to realize this was no unique talent in Hitchens. In the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s – hell, in any decade he cares to name – there have been word-hacks over-fond of wine would could bang out 1000 words of clean copy on an Olivetti even three sheets to the wind. Some of those hacks could even do 2000 words, or 3000. I suspect that Carter himself has known more than just one such seedy paragon.

Fortunately, as always, he introduces an absolutely great periodical. There’s a stand-out, horrifying profile of Mitt Romney by Michael Kranish and Scott Helman, retailing all the usual ghastly stories about how brusque and inhuman the presumptive Republican front-runner is. The piece (cunningly called “The Meaning of Mitt”) also relates sobering anecdotes from people who encountered Romney in his capacity as poo-bah of the Mormon faith. These new anecdotes are uniformly damning, and one of them, told by Suffolk University’s Judy Dushku, is all the more so because she’s a kind and very mentally flexible person – if she came away from Romney with a bad impression, you can take that bad impression to the bank.

But the issue’s highlight was so sparkling as to wipe away all such tawdry worries. The always-reliable Bob Colacello turned in a piece called “Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunched!” – a wonderful, fittingly gossipy, absolutely glowing portrait of an effervescent phenomenon that’s now almost vanished: the so-called ‘ladies how lunch,’ the battalion of wealthy society matrons (and the men they sometimes brought along) who made a long, leisurely ritual out of highly visible lunches at some of New York’s most glamorous venues, places like the Colony Club, Le Pavillion,Orsini’s and of course Le Cirque. These women – everybody from the Duchess of Windsor to Jackie Onassis to society bluebloods like Pat Buckley and Nan Kempner – ruled New York’s glittering apartments for decades (from the real kick-off during the Kennedy years to the Reagan ’80s), and Colacello’s piece captures that lost world perfectly – it’s one of those VF articles I read and then instantly hope to see as a full-length book sometime soon.

“Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunched!” was so enchanting it distracted me from the annoying fact that neither Daniel Craig nor Matt Damon mentions smoking during their Proust Questionnaires, even though they’re being asked about the things that matter most to them in the world – and it distracted me from the Burberry ad at the front of the magazine, in which talented stage and screen actor (and ten-pack-a-day tobacco addict) Eddie Redmayne is so dedicated to his addiction that he has to hide his cigarette behind his leg even during the one photo of him that made it into the shoot. Hell, the piece even distracted me from the fact that Mitt Romney might by some fluke end up as President of the United States. That’s some writing! (And of course I liked the fact that the greatest beauty among the “ladies who lunched” actually made it into one of the photos, there on the left-hand side)

November 9th, 2011

Full and Proper Credit in the Penny Press!

It’s a bit unnerving, getting royally hacked off at Christopher Hitchens these days. The man’s health is fragile, after all, and it hardly feels sporting to get riled up at somebody in such a position. So I read his latest piece of Kennedy-bashing in the new Vanity Fair with my fist knotted around a napkin, trying to maintain a caring, indulgent silence while he yet one more time slanders the dead. Nothing new in the slanders, either – while purporting to write about the newly-released (and hugely best-selling) book of interviews Jackie Kennedy did with Arthur Schlesinger fifty years ago, Hitchens bloatedly mentions that JFK, while maintaining a “stupefying consumption of uppers and downers,” took credit for Profiles in Courage even though it’s an “often exploded falsehood” that he wrote it, took credit for his inaugural address even though “it has been well established” that John Kenneth Galbraith and, God help us, Adlai Stevenson wrote it, and took credit for While England Slept even though “full and proper credit may not have been given to the book’s chief author, the biddable journalist Arthur Krock.” At first, reading all this envious garbage, I felt the blood boil … but then, as I scrutinized the paragraphs, I realized the truth: Hitchens, no doubt maintaining a stupefying consumption of cancer medications, was clearly in no shape to write even two slanderous pages for Vanity Fair. Once I’d exploded this falsehood, it became pretty well established that the piece’s chief author was obviously that biddable journalist, James Wolcott. I hope someday when Hitchens is no longer around to defend himself, Wolcott gets full and proper credit.

That issue of Vanity Fair had other irritants as well, including a half-page notice about the new Broadway revival of Godspell starring the douchebag Hunter Parrish as Jesus Christ. The only way I could be pleased with such casting would be if opening night concluded with an actual crucifixion.

Fortunately, it’s Vanity Fair, and that means it’s not possible the an entire issue will disappoint. This one has a wonderful, nostalgic look at “The Invincible Mrs. Thatcher” by Charles Moore, a perfect in-depth prep for the upcoming “Iron Lady” movie.

And over at The New Yorker, Louis Menand turns in a long, excellent review of John Lewis Gaddis’ new biography of that arch architect of Soviet containment, George Kennan – by far the most comprehensive, readable, and intelligent review that book has so far received. And in the same issue, David Remnick is also in top form in a scathing “Talk of the Town” piece about the idiot Herman Cain that also manages to get in some good whacks at the frankly terrifying Mitten Romney:

The knowing people who know things in Washington generally believe that, once the electoral process begins in January, Romney will shed Cain, Perry, Bachmann, and the rest in rapid fashion. Perhaps. To look at Romney is to see plausibility. But a large portion of the Republican electorate seems determined to hop from one fantastically flawed alternative to the next rather than settle on him. A few may be loath to vote for a Mormon; others have ideological difference that make it hard to embrace him. It is Romney’s spooky elasticity, his capacity to reverse himself utterly on one issue after another – health care, climate change, abortion, gun control, immigration, the 2009 stimulus, capital-gains taxes, stem-cell research, gay rights – that seems to bother voters most. They might rightly ask if there is even one thing that Mitt Romney believe in with greater conviction than his inevitability.

But it’s New York that takes the prize this time around, not only for David Edelstein’s masterful review of the new movie “J. Edgar” –

You might wonder: “Who is the gay, pinko, subversive director behind this Tommy-gun assault on our national security and masculinity?” Clint Eastwood, of course. J. Edgar is the latest chapter in Eastwood’s never-ending project to deconstruct the macho, jingoist, homophobic, right-win archetype he once embodied – and prove himself an artist whose simplicity of style belies the most sophisticated understanding of the dual nature of the American character of any living filmmaker.

But pride of place rightly goes to this issue’s cover story by Jesse Green, “What Do a Bunch of Old Jews Know About Living Forever?” The idea of the piece is interesting enough – studying extremely long-lived Ashkenazi Jews and what, if any, secrets of longevity their genes might hold – but the true reward here is Green’s sheer, glowing writing. Even on a conceptual level, he hits nothing but home runs – including his decision to insert as many Jewish jokes as the piece will support:

“Oy,” says Sophie.

“Oy vey,” says Esther.

“Oy veyizmir,” says Sadie.

“I thought we weren’t going to talk about our children,” says Mildred.


Klein brags to Cohen about his new hearing aid: “It’s the best one made – I now understand everything!”

“What kind is it?” Cohen asks.


And the single best thing in this issue of New York? In the “Party Lines” page, Princess Charlene of Monaco is asked, “What do you think about how the royal family of Monaco is portrayed on ‘Gossip Girl’?”

To which she responds, “What’s ‘Gossip Girl’?”

Hee. A little of that goes a long way toward easing my disappointment at learning that John F. Kennedy was a functionally illiterate gibbering pill-popper.



September 9th, 2011

Right and Wrong (and a little comfort) in the Penny Press!

Ordinarily, the running disagreements I have with the Penny Press are matters of degree, of shading, and they’re conducted sotto voce over a heaping plate of food in the little hole-in-the-wall restaurant I frequent solely for the purpose of keeping up with all my periodicals. It’s rare that these disagreements aren’t essentially pleasant things, the rewarding tingling of stimulating disagreement; it’s rare that I’m confronted with things that are flat-out wrong.

But I was cursing over my kimchi bokkeumbap this time around, and of course things started to go wrong at the mention of the ten-year 9-11 anniversary. Every periodical in the Western world has latched onto that anniversary and used it as an occasion to unleash some threat-matrix-level amounts of pretentious bloviation onto an innocent reading public, and The New Yorker is at the front of the pack (in defense of the concept, New York magazine’s dedicated issue last week was superb). The heart of the problem is the seeming inability of pretentious people to understand the difference between a momentous event happening and a momentous event happening to them. Unless you were one of the survivors or one of the victims, the 9-11 attacks didn’t happen to you – as impossible as it may be for you to believe, considering your SAT scores, you were only a bystander to the events that tragic morning.

As these commemorative editions continue to flow off the newsstands, the pretentious young writers providing the copy are reacting to that bystander status in two ways: by ignoring it (“I was on my stoop in Dumbo playing educational games with my two kids, Castorp and Always Question, when we were hit“) or exalting it (“I was in a tiny village 200 miles upland from Puerto Mayo, just about to file the story that would take down a local drug kingpin, when I happened to glance at the bar’s little TV and saw grainy footage that would very nearly make me miss my deadline …”). Neither of these two approaches is exactly preferable to respectful silence, but then, editors don’t a dollar a word for respectful silence.

If anything, though, the commentaries are worse than the commemorations, and that brings me to George Packer writing in the 12 September issue of The New Yorker. Specifically, to this paragraph (although the piece he writes contains many like it):

A great many counterfactual histories could be written about those [George W. Bush] years. If Al Gore had been allowed to take office, if bin Laden had been captured at Tora Bora, if the focus had stayed on Al Qaeda, if real nation-building had been tried in Afghanistan, if America hadn’t gone to war in Iraq. All these alternative paths would have been helpful, but none of them would have been decisive, because the deeper problem lay in an ongoing decline that was greater than any single event or policy.

This isn’t a question of shading – this is just plain wrong. That extremely even-handed ‘we-musn’t-be-seen-to-judge’ non-committal might be de rigeur in the Whole Foods aisles in Cambridge, but it smacks of craven equivocation out in the rest of the world. In reality, every single one of those ‘alternative paths’ Packer writes about would indeed have been utterly ‘decisive,’ and it’s borderline delusional to say otherwise. Not decisive, if George W. Bush hadn’t stolen the election? Not decisive, if we’d had a thinking individual (with extensive experience of both government and foreign policy) in the White House instead of a biddable idiot? Not decisive, if the leader of Al-Qaeda had been caught and Al-Qaeda itself destroyed in the immediate aftermath of 9-11? This is serene historical contextualization run absolutely amok, and it chaffed me to read it. The real way to desecrate the memory of 9-11 isn’t to forget the anniversary – it’s to affect to being blithe about the moral imperatives at play on that day.

Naturally, I turned to the mighty TLS for some relief, but alas – none was forthcoming. Not only was the provocation on the cover in pretty poor taste (in case you’re wondering – and you’re not, because you were never meant to – the ‘them’ refers to ‘canonical authors’ not gays), and not only was the rotting fraud Michel Houellebecq given serious attention by a writer who ought to know better, but even in the issue’s hindquarters, in the little ‘In Brief’ reviews that are usually such a joy, there were nettles. Specifically, somebody named Jacques Testard reviews Alan Jacobs’ well-intentioned but soporific book The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, plays with it a bit like a bored kitten, and then finishes up his 200 words with this little doozy:

Readers of this review, however, will be well connected to the world of books, if not to a Kindle. The Pleasures of Reading in the [sic] Age of Distraction is an informed piece of democratic didacticism, but those confirmed readers of literature have no need to look here. Just remember that it’s OK to read anything, anything at all, so long as it gives you pleasure.

Well, yes, I muttered over my zeeuwse bolus, but that kind of dictum is also mindlessly blithe. Granted, in a free country without censorship, it’s OK to read anything, anything at all, that gives you pleasure – but if you stop there, your reading life will be pretty damn cramped. ‘OK’ here is clearly meant to shield serial readers of romances or Star Trek novels from the criticism of their betters, but it gets a little too definitive for its own good. I often premise my own book-recommendations to strangers along the same initial lines – what sorts of things do you like? – but my end goal is to move them a bit beyond their comfort zones, not to keep them happily penned in their back yards forever. After all, pleasure is a complex thing, and (especially when it comes to reading) parts of it have to be learned. Yes, you should feel OK reading anything, anything at all, that gives you pleasure – condescending readers are missing the big picture – but if you blithely stop there, as this Testard person implies you should, you’ll miss the big picture too.

Turning from the TLS, I had scant hope of finding relief anywhere else, especially in the customarily-infuriating pages of Graydon Carter’s Vanity Fair. This is the venue where I often find the very best long-form freelance writing anywhere on the newsstand, but it’s also the place to find some of the most arrogant, shoddy workmen in the business, and my nerves were already frayed.  And at first, this current issue boded poorly. True, it was a relief that the editors decided to forego a 9-11 cover-theme, favoring us instead with what I presume is a CGI close-up of some forthcoming Hollywood space alien (or is it abstract art? Could it be a rendition of the scar-pits of lower Manhattan on 9-12?). But once you’re done being frightened by whatever that is on the cover, you’re forced to wade through the first 100 pages before you get to any actual content. Those initial pages are wholly given over to fashion ads, which in and of themselves are invitations to incomprehension. True to form, this current batch has some high points

… and very, very low points

But miraculously, relief did indeed arrive, and from the place I least expected it. Right in the middle of a long, almost physically excruciating piece recounting debut novelist Chad Harbach’s rise to glory, there’s a simple and utterly restorative little paragraph about the much-maligned publishing industry:

And yet every single person I met while writing this article – the publishers, the editors, the marketing and sales people – genuinely loved books. That’s why they were working in a business that, in the end, wasn’t particularly lucrative. They liked reading books and cared enough about them to devote their lives to making them. For every company or editor or agent who no longer cared, there were a number of younger people who did.

I’ve been connected with that industry in one way or another for many, many years, and I can attest to the truth of every word of that paragraph – well, except for the one four words from the end. In the publishing world as everywhere else, ‘younger’ is still mostly a well-deserved pejorative term: it’s the older reps and publicists and editors and publishers and even novelists who tend to have long-cultivated enthusiasm for the written word (I know of roughly 150 young novelists currently working in the field, and if you handed each of them a check for $1,000,000 and told them it was valid only on condition they never write another word of fiction, 147 of them would instantly agree). A one-word quibble is hardly significant, on such a grim Penny Press day as this.

I’ll have to hope for better luck with the London Review of Books, in due time.


July 8th, 2011

The Proof in the Pudding in the Penny Press!

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

Vanity Fair won hands-down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 10th, 2011

In the Post with the Penny Press!

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

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

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

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

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

Who does Jerry Fodor think he is?


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

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

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

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

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

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

Epstein is having none of it and blasts back:

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

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

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

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

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

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