Friday, September 29, 2006

comics! Pepito's pile o' crap!

My nemesis Pepito is, as has been said before, an odd duck, especially in his comic-buying habits. You'd expect that somebody who knew enough to LIKE good titles would also know enough to AVOID bad ones, but no! There Pepito is, trawling the new-release shelves of the Android's Dungeon with all the indifference of a Russian shrimp-ship.

Take this latest batch, for instance. In order to get to the good bits, you have to wade through Grade A crapola like Moon Knight and Ion and Checkmate and this new Heroes for Hire title that reeks so much of ass you come away from it with a craving for pee.

True, the pile includes 52, which is consistently good. And the latest issue of the Flash which has a wonderful scene starring Jay Garrick, the original Flash. He's attempting to stop a couple of crooks making a getaway when he's upstaged by a new character called the Griffin, who very nearly kills the bad guys in the act of stopping them. Jay Garrick takes him to task, telling him "A real superhero can stop crime without leaving a trail of corpses."

But still, it's a long journey to Birds of Prey and Robin, both of which are excellent. And at the end of the road is Justice League of America #2.

I just recently met the writer, Brad Meltzer, and a nicer guy you couldn't ask to find. It will make bitching about his book just that much harder.

Nevertheless, bitch I shall! This issue was just as well-written as the first one, and the artwork is just as good, but the flush of the new has worn off - cracks are starting to show.

Crack #1: As a framing device in the first issue, it worked just fine ... but - Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman are STILL sitting around a table talking about trading cards? I know this is all taking place in Inevitable Graphic Novel time, but still - it's starting to look a little silly.

Crack #2: Vixen's superpowers come from a piece of JEWELRY. And she's dumb enough to let a super-villain TAKE it. But we're supposed to believe this is League material?

Crack #3: While we're on the subject - I'm assuming that the lineup on this issue's cover will end up being the lineup of the team when this Inevitable Graphic Novel is concluded - which leaves me wondering what kind of bong was being passed around while the Big Three were playing with their trading cards. Black Lightning? Arsenal? Hawkgirl? Red Tornado? Vixen? Vixen, for gawd's sake?

There's a reason we're not talking about A-listers here. There's a reason we're not seeing Green Arrow or the Flash or Hawkman or even Zatanna. The reason is Batman - the new team is noticeably light on members who were involved in Batman's mind-wipe from last year's Identity Crisis. I just wish Meltzer would MENTION that fact, maybe have the Big Three TALK about it.

Crack #4: Vixen? So we turn down Captain Marvel and Power Girl, but we definitely WANT somebody who gets lured to a bar for a booty-call and LOSES the source of her powers to a couple of D-listers nobody's ever heard of?

I realize some of this is certainly corporate (though Meltzer swore it wasn't) - DC comics are still doing the whole 'one year later' thing, and the ultimate fates of characters like Aquaman, Supergirl, or the Atom have to remain up in the air. But let this entry serve as a silent plea to Meltzer and the DC Powers That Be: eventually, might we have back the Magnificent Seven? Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, the Flash, Aquaman, and the Martian Manhunter ARE the League.

Vixen? We've been down that road before, remember? It featured the world's first and only BREAK-DANCING SUPERHERO. Surely once is enough?

comics! Ultimates!

I've got a plea for all of you, involving Ultimates #12:

Please let this be the last Mark Millar comic you ever buy.

That's not just failed anticipation talking, although I WAS looking forward to this issue. No, it's a broader indictment: 'comics these days' only get that way if we LET them.

Some of you are familiar with the storyline so far: angered by the Bush administration's war-mongering and meddling in the Middle East, the 'axis of evil' (aided and abetted by Loki for reasons of his own) developes Middle Eastern equivalents of the Ultimates. These equivalents (wonder if that's their team name?) lead an army of huge machines and goons in power-suits on a full-out invasion of America. At the end of the last issue, the Ultimates' cause seemed hopeless, until the last-panel appearance of the Hulk.

OK, flash forward the year it took for this issue to come out, and here we are, Hulk smashing big machines like they were Dixie cups, while the rest of the team faces off with their foreign (= evil) counterparts.

The centerpiece duel is between Captain America and Abdul al-Rahman, but it doesn't amount to much because in the first second of the fight, Hawkeye, who has infallible aim and two sharp shards of glass, AND who's out of Abdul's line of sight, sends one shard into his left ear and one into his right Achilles tendon, crippling him and taking him out of the fight.

Oh wait ... that doesn't happen! Instead, Hawkeye tries to JUMP ON Abdul and gets picked off by the foreign (=evil) version of Quicksilver. So Captain America and Abdul fight.

Meanwhile, the foreign (=evil) version of the Hulk is kicking the crap out of the Ultimates version, crowing the whole time that the key to his ability to do so is that he retains his super-genius intellect, whereas the Hulk has the mind of a brutish thug.

Meanwhile, Hawkeye's bacon is saved by the real Quicksilver, who grabs onto his foreign (= evil) counterpart and runs so fast the poor SOB is torn apart by the speed. Right before he's torn apart, he pleads for his life. Right after he's torn apart, Quicksilver triumphantly says 'That's what happens when you threaten my friends' even though he and Hawkeye hate each other.

Meanwhile, in one of the worst-drawn fight-sequences since Herb Trimpe was still alive, Captain America and Abdul continue to duke it out. Abdul yells at Cap to 'Stop talking! Stop talking!' and then talks a bluestreak himself.

Cut to the real Hulk/foreign (= evil) Hulk fight, which is going poorly for the bad guy. We stay just long enough to see that he, too, is begging for his life.

We look away long enough to see Iron Man return to the fight, drunk, blasting away at the bad guys from the middle of his very own stash of WMDs. We know the tide has turned.

Then we return to the Hulk fight, just in time to see the foreign (= evil) Hulk get both his arms ripped off by our hero. The villain whines, "I ... I don't understand. How could you do it, Banner? How could you beat me? When I'm so much smarter? It doesn't make sense..."

To which our hero replies, "You know your problem, ugly scientist guy? YOU THINK TOO MUCH!' The last said while Hulk punches his fist clean through the head of his foe.

Meanwhile, Abdul is clearly losing his fight with Captain America, who urges him to give up. To which suggestion Abdul says "And why should I give up? So you can humiliate me and execute me before your fellow officers?" To which Cap replies, "Don't be ridiculous. That's not the way we do things in this country."

Just then a handy crowd of power-suited goons pile on top of Captain America, and Abdul, saying he takes no pleasure in it, prepares to cut his head off. At the last second, the Hulk grabs Captain America's shield, forgets that he hates the Ultimates, forgets also that Cap's shield has no sharp edges, and throws it at Abdul, severing both his hands (in a clever bit of scripting, Cap then throws off his goons by saying 'Hands off, creeps!')

When Abdul says 'My God, do you even appreciate why we did this thing?' Captain America impales him through the heart with his own weapon. You know, the guy who doesn't have any HANDS anymore? Yeah, that one - that's the guy Captain America IMPALES.

At one point in the issue, some of our heroes rescue President Bush from the wreckage of Air Force One. As they're bringing him to safety, he tells them he ain't gettin' outta Dodge until he knows the Vice President is safe. You get used to that sort of thing - the President is often portrayed in Ultimates as a dimwitted boob.

But don't be deceived. This comic comes to you straight from the middle of a GOP wetdream.

I'm not talking about the fact that our heroes not only kill their foes by the bushel when they could just as easily capture. I'm not even talking about the fact that lots of the foes killed are killed in the act of begging for mercy.

I'm talking about the culture of distrust the Bush administration has created in this country. The president is just an ordinary joe, and he actively distrusts 'eggheads' of any kind - a fact so beautifully brocheted by Steven Colbert to the President's face. He believes in simple, dead-or-alive frontier justice, without any nuance or ethic whatsoever.

And he's found his super-team at last.

Millar wants the dumb, bloodthirsty 13-year-old boys in his audience (regardless of their chronological age) to look at each successive panel in this issue and yell 'Hell yeah!' He doesn't care what he has to have these characters do, as long as he gets that reaction.

But you can't snort your coke and have it too. If this team is a bunch of fascist stooges who consider morality or thought to be excess baggage, that's Millar's choice as a writer. But readers have choices too.

Readers have choices too. When I saw that panel where the Hulk punches his enemy's head off yelling 'YOU THINK TOO MUCH!' (when what's clearly meant is just 'YOU THINK!'), I stopped reading Ultimates. Oh, I limped along to the end of the issue (yet another cliffhanger, and one I've longed to see). But at that point I was done with Mark Millar.

I urge you all to be so as well. The world doesn't need any more of this kind of thinking - it needs a whole lot less. You can't do anything about what's said at the U.N. ... but you can skip buying Ultimates #13.

Poetry Class!

In acknowlegement of the fact that a) some of my readers are also popular young roaring-boy poets and b) my own poetic tastes run to Tennyson and Longfellow and don't extend much further than Robert Service, I'll periodically include a poem here at Stevereads.

These won't be poems like "The Song of Hiawatha," where I already KNOW that it's a great work of art. These will be poems that struck some kind of note inside me - and I'll be inviting you-all to write in and TEACH me about them, for good or ill.

My first example comes from this week's New Yorker. It's by somebody named Deborah Digges, and it's called 'The Birthing':

Call out the names in the procession of the loved.
Call from the blood the ancestors here to bear witness
to the day he stopped the car,
we on our way to a great banquet in his honor.
In a field a cow groaned lowing, trying to give birth,
what he called front leg presentation,
the calf come out nose first, one front leg dangling from his mother.
A fatal sign he said while rolling up the sleeves
of his dress shirt, and climbed the fence.
I watched him thrust his arm entire
into the yet-to-be, where I imagined holy sparrows scattering
in the hall of souls for his big mortal hands just to make way.
With his whole weight he pushed the calf back in the mother
and grasped the other leg tucked up like a closed wing
against the new one's shoulder.
And found a way in the warm dark to bring both legs out
into the world together.
Then heaved and pulled, the cow arching her back,
until a bull calf, in a whoosh of blood and water,
came falling whole and still onto the meadow.
We rubbed his blackness, bloodying our hands.
The mother licked the newborn, of us oblivious,
until he moved a little, struggled.
I ran to get our coats, mine a green velvet cloak,
and his tuxedo jacket, and worked to rub the new one dry
while he set out to find the farmer.
When it was over, the new calf suckling his mother,
the farmer soon to lead them to the barn,
leaving our coats just where they lay
we huddled in the car.
And then made love toward eternity,
without a word drove slowly home. And loved some more.

I can see some faults in this thing right away (the willfully erroneous grammar and punctuation, to sound all 'poety,' and of course that 'of us oblivious'), but I kind of like this.

What does everybody else think? Not just the poets, either - did anybody else like this?

In the Penny Press! Foodies and John Donne!

The Penny Press is abuzz this week with Helen Mirren's performance in 'The Queen,' but alas, no echo of that great shout of acclaim will reach this site. This is, after all, Stevereads, and one doesn't read a movie (what a blessed thing it would be if one could!).

In a perfect world, when you were all done savoring the glories and delights of this site, you'd all click over to and delight in all his thoughts about the movies and tv he's been watching. The prose would be just as tangy, the jokes would be less dependent on a working knowledge of Latin, and the cultural references would be a little more current. But this is not, as the ever-burgeoning popularity of Rachel Ray demonstrates, a perfect world.

Rachel Ray's name comes up in one of the latest New Yorker's most interesting pieces - Bill Buford's article on the rise of food TV in America.

We here at Stevereads are indifferent to foodie passions (some of you will have first-hand knowledge of the exact state of our culinary discrimination ... kindly keep it to yourselves), but one thing about which we certainly aren't indifferent is Julia Child. And you can't write about the current boom in food-tv without pretty much starting your story with Julia Child.

Buford's tribute to her is too brutally idiosyncratic to be anything but heartfelt:

Child, too, was unlike anything else on television: six-feet-two, virtually hunchbacked, seeming too ungainly for a small screen, with a long, manly face, but one that was also remarkable for its intelligent expressiveness. In it you could see her making connections, finding wonder in the properties of egg whites or the behavior of gelatine, a wonder that was at the heart of what now seems like a natural pedagogical imperative. She made people want to cook, often inspiring them with a single detail.

Buford's piece winds its way through the usual suspects of successive celebrity chefs - and his narrative comes to a halt once it enters the ever-expanding empire of Rachel Ray. He rightly assesses that her fame rests mainly on her 'supper in 30 minutes' tactic, and he tries to be diplomatic.

He talks about media savvy and cross-market appeal, but he avoids one central detail: not to put too fine a point on it, but Rachel Ray is, in addition to all her other qualities, an idiot. And the marketing strategy that's made her into an empire is aimed squarely at an audience composed of other idiots. It's not 'supper in 30 minutes' because everybody's over-extended these days - it's not that, no matter how many marketing executives tell you it is. No, it's 'supper in 30 minutes' because the network estimated - and rightly so - that the vast majority of TV-watching Americans are TOO STUPID to handle anything more complex. Rachel Ray is Cooking for Dummies brought to perky everygirl life.

Julia Child would have wept. Like James Burke and Carl Sagan and David Attenborough, she was a populizer in the old, vanished sense of the word, someone who believed you could LEARN anything, that you could stretch your mind to gain any new skill. Rachel Ray and her ilk believe in lopping off parts of that new skill until it's small enough and simple enough to fit in a Happy Meal box. Gawd forbid you should ask the American public to WORK to learn something.

Fortunately, as has been said here many times, there's always the mighty TLS.

The cover of this week's issue sports the 1595 painting of John Donne (the one that bears more than a passing resemblance to my young friend Sebastian), and there are two wonderful pieces on the poet inside.

And there are many other wonderful things inside! You can always count on the TLS reviewers to toss off carefully-considered statements you want to write in some kind of commonplace book. For instance, in a review of three books concerning empires, John Dunn (hee) says this:

No one has ever reflected more deeply about empire as either a cultural artefact or a political enterprise than Gibbon, and no one has ever seen more deeply into the political and economic realities of human collective life on a global scale than Adam Smith.

One thing that WASN'T in this issue was any kind of critical backlash to the lambasting the TLS served out upon the new Oxford Book of American Verse. John Ashbery writes in with a tepid little factual correction, but there are no howls in defense of the work itself. Maybe next issue...

(this issue also features a glowing review of 'The Queen,' but again, this isn't THAT blog ...)

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

in the penny press!

The trifecta of book review organs - the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books, and of course the mighty Times Literary Supplement - are guaranteed to provide a solid hour of the highest quality mental stimulation when sat down and read in unison.

The highlight of the New York Review this time around, at least for me, was Joan Didion's forensic examination of Dick Cheney. She strikes an absolutely priceless tone (unintentionally, I assume), mandarin befuddlement threaded all the way through with deep distaste ... like a society doyenne hearing a loud, wet crunching sound and finding an unknown creature on the bottom of her shoe, half-crushed but still attempting to squirt venom.

She can't riddle him out into the light, of course. Morgoth is gone, but even his lieutenant Suaron is still largely incomprehensible to the minds of Men.

But in the process of her bafflement, she runs through the usual story with a wonderful, icey precision that's a joy to read.

The London Review of Books likewise had a highlight for me: Jerry Fodor's review of Michael Frayn's "The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of a Universe." It's a pan, but the peculiar combination of steep intellect and po-faced humor Fodor uses are more reminiscent of the TLS than the LRB:

As the blurb on the front of Frayn's book puts it:

'What would [the] universe be like if we were not here to say something about it? Would there still be numbers, if there were no one to count them? Or scientific laws, if there were no words or numbers in which to express them? Would the universe even be vast, without the very fact of our tininess and insignificance to give it scale?'

Why, yes, it would. (Frayne often treats rhetorical questions as though they were philosophical arguments; it's a bad tactic.) The universe would still be just the size it is even if there weren't astronomers to measure it. And water would still be H2O even if there weren't chemists to analyse it. And water would still run downhill, and there would still be hills for it to run down, even if none of us were here to take note of its doing so. You can't pin the natural order on me, Frayn; I'm not guilty. I didn't make the universe; I wasn't even there at the time.

But it's the TLS that really comes through, as always. For instance, Oliver Taplin reviews two new books on ancient Greece, and in the course of doing so, he lets his favorite editorial hobbyhorse out into its paddock:

My philhellenism outweighs my admiration for the BM (great though that is), so I shall make up for these omissions. The ultimate legal claim of the Museum, which bought the goods from Lord Elgin, sheltering behind an Act of Parliament, is a fortiori even dodgier than his claim to legality in dismantling large stretches of ancient masonry to get at the frieze and other sculptures. It is a tasty irony that the piranhas of the press cluster round the Getty and other newer Museums who are being hounded to return antiquities that were taken after a certain legalistic date, while the great museums of Europe complacently give pride of place to all the booty that was expropriated before the barrier came down. But there is a crucial and underappreciated point about the Parthenon Marbles, regardless of legal questions. Elgin hacked them off less than twenty years before the beginning of the War of Independence which would liberate the core of Greece from centuries of Ottoman rule. Even as the swell of Hellenism was rising throughout Europe, he took advantage of a declining regime that cared nothing for the heritage of Greece; he snatched them from the outstretching hand of freedom.

Sorry - no sale. The 'outstretching hand of freedom' in this case cared no more about Hellenistic treasures than the lazy old Ottomans did. Lord Elgin almost certainly SPARED the Parthenon friezes from destruction. And even if he hadn't, he still did the right thing.

The British Museum has nothing to apologize for. It spends millions every year on expert restoration, meticulous upkeep, and state of the art climate control for all of its archeological treasures. England's breathtaking cathedrals are guarded and upkept by a veritable army of caretakers. The same thing is true even moreso in the United States.

As far as I'm concerned, ANY country that can't say the same should cough up its art treasures. Those treasures, cultural or otherwise, belong to the whole world. Young children yet unborn deserve to experience root wonder-shock of looking up at the Great Pyramids. Hungrily sensitive artists who're only babies now deserve to stand in silence before every Vermeer there is.

Been to the Hermitage lately? Seen what the rampant smog and pollution (not to mention teenagers with spray-cans) have done to the Acropolis? Anybody know until how recently docents were allowed to smoke in the Sistine Chapel?

Send the big, Atlas-class medivac platform-helicopters to every corner of the globe, as far as I'm concerned. Pluck up every great building and work of art currently being dripped on or cluttered with McDonalds wrappers and deposit them in carefully manicured grounds in Japan, Switzerland, England, and the United States. If Egypt objects to the resulting big parking lot at Gizah, tell them they should have thought of that when they were looking the other way while kids on mopeds took runs half-way up the sides of the pyramids, or while drunken wedding parties were allowed to cavort deep inside them. Then tell them to shaddup. Tell you what - when you go to canopied, climate-controlled Sphinx Pavillion in the gorgeous country of Kent, you can have free admission with proof of your Egyptian citizenship.

Elsewhere in the issue, Eric Griffiths turns in a wonderful review of the new Royal Shakespeare production of 'Troilus and Cressida' - which, as many of you may know, is one of Stevereads favorite Shakespeare plays. At some point, every halfway creative type who's been heavily influenced by Homer feels the urge to take a whack at the master's material, and this is Shakespeare's (serving double duty as a reference to Chaucer as well, although it's best not to explicitly compare the two; great as Shakespeare is, he's no match for Chaucer when they're both working the same material at the height of their respective powers)(arguers feel free to Comment ... and of course any of you who feel like piping up in defense of the artistic merits of Troy War are welcome to do so)

Griffiths largely dislikes the new RSC production, but he has marvellous things to say about the play itself and its dynamics - all good stuff, like this:

Of all Shakespeare's works, 'Troilus and Cressida' is set furthest back in time, while it simultaneously bristles with idioms jazzy in their day.

Of course, with all this brilliance comes some trepidation as well. It turns out that virtually all of this edition's fiction reviews were devoted to historical fiction. This is where the ice water came into the afternoon's reading, because, as some of you know, I myself am that most improbable of beings, a historical novelist. And I can tell you this: we live in terror of two things: 1) some closeted, micro-obsessive expert calling us on some fact in our books ('it wasn't sunny on the 14th of May 1202'), and 2) the TLS (let's be honest: the only review organ that realistically could) taking us out behind the woodshed. Even seeing this happen to others produces not the faintest hint of schadenfruede.

One of the novels in question, C. J. Sansom's Sovereign, just barely gets a pass. It's a Tudor novel (again, a close call - I myself have written a Tudor novel), and although the reviewer, Michael Caines, calls it 'less demanding' than such Tudor-fiction classics as The Man on a Donkey or The Blanket of the Dark, he largely absolves it of blame, albeit grudgingly:

Sovereign is sore afflicted with outbreaks of humourless, barking laughter, sighs, frowns, raised eyebrows, and the setting of lips. It has a bad case of 'Jesu!' - the expletive for all occasions - and at least one impassioned cry of 'Fie!'. These are things to make the reader smile and read on.

Two of the other specimens under review are of particular interest to stevereads: Michael Cox's The Meaning of Night because we largely kinda-sorta liked it, and Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale because, as some of you may have noticed, Barnes & Noble has decided, for reasons known best to themselves, to strip down to its skivvies and hop into bed with this book - huge, eye-catching displays at the front of every B&N in the whole country, huge amounts of money spent to make this author the next Dan Brown (all based, one likes to believe, on one buyer's joyful reaction to the book, somewhere way back along the chain of evidence). Sheer human nature prompts a body to want the TLS to savage the book.

Sadly, the dice fall otherwise. Judith Flanders (a psuedonymn) doesn't exactly savage The Meaning of Night but she doesn't leave you any reason to go out and buy it either:

The Victorian elements are intensively researched - there are references to Evan's Supper Rooms, the Toxophilite Society in Regent's Park, mudlarks scavenging in the Thames - but throughout there is a sense of a list grimly being got through, each item ticked off and out of the way. Glyver does nothing at Evans's; he visits it simply so that it can be described.

On the other hand, Setterfield's book gets a sanctioned pass: "Setterfield is singularly successful in her aims." So those of us wanting to hate The Thirteenth Tale must hold our breath until we've actually read the book (I have, and I largely share the verdict of my esteemed colleague The Mama Chan: it's hyperventilated boilerplate, not entirely without literary merit but two fat fingers' worth away from actually being good).

Our final item? Druin Burch's good-cop/bad-cop review of David Wooton's Bad Medicine and Katrina Firik's Brain Matters.

Burch loves the first, and it quickly becomes apparent that he's going to USE that love to jump up and down on Firlik's book, in absolutely delightful fashion:

Katrina Firlik's Brain Matters makes a stimulating change from all this compelling originality and provocative thoughtfulness. If you have ever suspected that pushing a finger into the soft goo of another person's brain leads to fresh and startling conclusions about human life, this is the book to disillusion you. Firlik is full of breathless enthusiasm; so full of it, unfortunately, that other qualities are kept at bay. She wants to tell you about her life as a neurosurgeon, and her best point is her infectious eagerness. The style is reminiscent of a teenage essay on 'what I did during my neurosurgical training', and the insights are at roughly the same level. She reveals that sick patients are people too, 'not just a collection of clinical data'; she lets us into the fact that 'life is not a dress rehearsal', and that 'you can't judge a person's intelligence by his outward appearance'.

Initially, it's hard to pin down exactly why her thoughtless and cliched anecdotes are so insufferable. Blind adoration is appealing in its way, but Frilik seems to worship even the most stupid and destructive aspects of the American hospital system. Teaching by humiliation, pointlessly long hours and the infliction of needless operations on damaged patients are all held up for praise. But the source of the real chill gradually becomes apparent. It is Frilik's conviction of her own superiority, and her misguided overestimation of her own dull, workplace thoughts. At the end of 'Brain Matters' she invites us to marvel with her at the superlative intelligence of a group of her colleagues. 'What might be accomplished,' she asked, awed at the qualities of people like herself, 'if the same group lent their collective brain power to, say, improving public health education or homeland security?' Both books demonstrate the dangers of doctors who think too much of themselves.


And that's all we have for you at this moment in the penny press ... sure, there's news tonight of a marauding bobcat out in Grafton - and the consequent bobbling-newshead paundering about the THREAT TO OUR SUBURBS, but nevertheless: reading-wise, that's all you need to worry about.

clarion call

Most of you still haven't answered my question of a while back (and some of you, oh so charmingly, are STILL answering me privately instead of on this blog): what are you reading at the moment? What have read recently? Granted, it won't be as exhaustive (or sexy) as mine, but even so - spill!

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Will one of you KINDLY tell me why I can't upload one picture on the left, one picture in the center, and one picture on the right, without the right-hand picture ending up SQUASHED by the center picture? For pete's sake, I've got Ronnie Reagan pass-blocking Sir Isaac Newton! It's .... it's downright unseemly!

Why would Blogger even OFFER the different picture-placement options if this combination doesn't work?

And I swear, the first one of you who says 'well, maybe you should ask Blogger that' is getting a basset hound in the mail, first thing ...

times of our lives, Part 1

Of course you all know how dearly I love the art of biography. For my money, it's hands-down the most intrinsically fascinating genre of writing there is. There's the grandeur of lives lived on a wide stage, and there's the peculiar satisfaction of the petty human foibles interwoven with all that greatness.

(needless to say, stevereads takes an exceedingly dim view of the current glut of autobiographies written by people who've done nothing, experienced nothing, sought after nothing, created nothing ... so all you Elizabeth Wurtzel's out there whose only claim to any kind of fame is that you're sometimes unhappy? Shaddup and sit down ... nobody on Earth is interested in what you have to say about, inevitably, yourself)

So here's a list! Since I'm tossing it off the top of my head, I'm not willing to call it definitive - I'll work on that. In the meantime, one axiom to keep in mind: this list doesn't include memoirs. Moss Hart, Benvenuto Cellini, Anthony Burgess, Robert Graves, Elias Canetti, Frank Harris ... none of them is here. That'll be another list.

So; here are some great biographies!

* Founding Father - Richard Brookhiser = Brookhiser is an endless talker and loves George Washington of all things, The result is incredibly readable and not a bit hagiographic.

*Longfellow - Newton Arvin - a marvelously empathetic of a great poet you should read more often, ya little bastids.

*The Nature of Alexander - Mary Renault
- Of all the gazillions of Alexander biographies out there, this is the only one written by someone actually in love with the subject. Renault is one of the century's best novelists, and her biography reads like one (in a very, very good way)

*Robert Louis Stevenson - Frank McLynn
- McLynn is a 'professional' biographer, a term of some obbrobrium in academic circles, but I say what's wrong with somebody deciding the genre they want to write is biography? The point is, McLynn is extremely GOOD at it, and with Stevenson he has a rich mine of great material.

*Some Sort of Epic Grandeur - Matthew Bruccoi - A wonderful biography of F. Scott Fitzgerald

*Power Broker - Robert Caro - a big, blustery biography of Robert Moses, the raper of Manhattan

*Seeing Mary Plain - Frances Kiernan - a fittingly intelligent and scrupulous biography of Mary McCarthy

*The Education of Julius Caesar - Arthur Kahn - Maybe only Jesus and Shakespeare have accrued more biographical crapola than Julius Caesar, but unlike those two other guys, there's a MOUNTAIN of source material for Caesar. That fact has drawn biographers like flies, and a large number of them are worth reading. I chose Kahn's because a) it's sharply, wittily written, and b) it suffers from none of the hindsight-awe that afflicts so many other biographies of the poxy debt-shirker.

*Mary Queen of Scots - Antonia Fraser

*The Queen - Ben Pimlott - believe it or not, the queen in question here is Elizabth II, not I, and there's not a hint of condescension in any of its 700 pages. Instead, there's an endless supply of smart, quotable prose and a clear-eyed assessment of what monarchy means in the modern world. It wouldn't always make comfortable reading for the Queen herself, but I think a copy of this wonderful book should be handed out to every moviegoer who lines up to see Helen Mirren's magisterial portrayal of the same august personage later this season.

*Leonardo - Serge Bramly - Leonardo too has had his legion of biographers, from Vasari on down, but Bramly's book beats them all for its sassy, cold, evaluative tone, at once knowing and questing. Bramly strips away all the larger-than-life accretions that have attached to his subject over the centuries, and Bramly seems as surprised as anybody when that doesn't serve to lessen the man's stature at all.

*Henry VIII - Francis Hackett - Well, likewise Henry, who's had hundreds of biographers. But unlike the other such cases, where I'm coming down in favor of my pick on the basis of some stylistic nuance or other, with Hackett things are much simpler: his book is better than any other on the subject. Better researched. Better paced. And hugely, infinitely better written. Those of you who know me are no doubt familiar with the passage I'm going to quote - steel yourselves, my little widgets! This blog is for the world.

So here's the passage, and oddly enough, it's not about Henry at all - it's about the death of Erasmus, and its offhand brilliance lies in the fact that it's the damn-perfect prettiest summation ever written of Erasmus, one of the hardest men in all history to understand (and damn hard to love, for all the immeasurable worth of doing so):

"Meanwhile rational Europe, trying to keep inflammable passion and mad peasant blood within decent bounds, had lost its greatest spokesman in Erasmus. He died in April. The torch of good reason was for the moment dimmed. Two firebrands, still obscure, were planning the conquest of mankind for a Christ of their own making, each asking their followers to immolate their reason and bind their will. In 1536 John Calvin published his 'Institutio.' In the same year a Spanish Basque, to be known as Ignatius Loyola, was finishing the studies at Paris that underlay the Society of Jesus. Henry's 'moderation,' on the terms of his own dominance, would push half-evolved Europeans along the road of the modern state, while Calvin and Loyola, borrowing statecraft and rousing the lust of warfare with the breath of the Eternal, would stir in religion precisely the same appetite for earthly dominance. Beside them Erasmus might seem a feeble creature, sitting by his open fire with a glass of Burgundy in front of him. But Erasmus had made the New Testament his labor of love. He was not a hero, like Loyola or Calvin. He was not an 'emperor' as Henry now called himself. He was only a humanist. Beside him the Jesuits, affirming liberty and vowing obedience, or the Calvinists, affirming predestination and applying the scourge, recalled very ancient priesthoods and glorious savage instincts that cry out from the caverns to be released, even if they must carry a Bible in their hand.
"Yet the Galilean Jew could not have despised the humanist: if he had rested by the fire with Erasmus, this book of the New Testament on his knees, and a glass of Burgundy before him, perhaps he might have raised those sad eyes to see that truth and charity had lingered for an instant at Basle, finding an honest welcome there, that the word was still alive; that the arm of war and the methods of torture, to which his own thin hands bore witness, were perhaps not the only way to prize the divinity in man."

He hated fish-suppers and had his doubts about the Jews, he argued with his friends as often as with his enemies and was loved almost equally by both. And that little passage does more than whole biographies to convey the man.

The book is also chock-full of great stuff about Henry. You'll just have to take my word for it (or ask me to get you a copy).

*The Life & Times of Chaucer by John Gardner - As some of you may know, I consider Gardner one of the 20th Century's great, neglected authors (some others, being crowded off the podium by Philip Roth and D. H. Lawrence and Doris Lessing? Well, John Barth - Joseph Heller - Anthony Burgess - a list for a future date!). In this case, Gardner responded to a lifelong affection for Chaucer in the same way Mary Renault did: he stepped across the aisle and wrote non-fiction on the subject.

He does a fine, beautiful job. It's true that he doesn't have every last detail technically correct in the way that an historical expert on Chaucer would (sit down, Sebastian - I was referring to myself), but there aren't that many actually interesting details extant in any case. Any 'life' of Chaucer will be inextricably bound up in his works, and that's where it helps to have a novelist doing the writing.

It's all beautiful, and it could all be quoted here, but some of you out there will know which passage I'm going to single out. It's the very last paragraph of the book:

"When he finished he handed his quill to Lewis. He could see the boy's features clearly now, could see everything clearly, his 'whole soul in his eyes' - another line out of some old poem, he thought sadly, and then, ironically, more sadly yet, 'Farewell my bok and my devocioun!' Then in panic he realized, but only for an instant, that he was dead, falling violently toward Christ."

There are many, many great biographies of Chaucer out there, but this one is the most touching, the most personal, and the only one that stands as a work of literature in its own right.

*Mrs. Jack by Louise Hall Tharp - A wonderful, friendly biography of Boston's inimitable Isabella Stewart Gardner. Those of you who might be championing Jack Beatty's almost equally wonderful book on the same subject, 'The Art of Scandal'? Shaddup - he gets his place on the list, and in the meantime, there's a world of importance in that 'almost.' Those of you who've never read this book? You're in for a real treat. And: those of you who've never been to the Gardner Museum, the magnificent palazzo she built to house all the artworks she looted from around the globe? Shame on you. And if you actually live in Boston and STILL haven't been? Beyond-the-pale shame on you!

*The Rascal King - Jack Beatty - If ever a perfect subject met a perfect chronicler, this book is it. The 'rascal king' in question is of course legendary Boston mayor James Michael Curley, and the chronicler is the gleeful, razor-smart Jack Beatty, who would never let history get in the way of a good story. His biography of Curley is magnificently chatty and expansive, and the best thing anybody could say about it is this: its subject would have liked it.

*Tip O'Neill and the Democratic Century - James Farrell - much as I hate to give the impression of an ongoing theme, you have to take my word for it: I didn't plan out the order of these entries before I typed them.

Nevertheless, this is yet another great book about an inimitable Irishman written by an inimitable Irishman.

*Hitler - Joachim Fest - For a bit there, I was worried that Fest's public personality might overshadow his biographical achievement. Once Gunter Grass announced that he'd been a member of the Waffen SS, Fest jumped up and down on him in public pronouncements, heightening suspicion that Grass only made his announcement in order to drum up interest in his new memoirs. And Fest's new memoirs, "Not Me," takes its title from the fact that Fest never joined the Nazis. But Fest just recently croaked, and I needn't have worried anyway: if ever a book was destined to outlive its author, Fest's 'Hitler' is one of them - this is the best of a very, very big bunch.

*City Poet by Brad Gooch - Gooch is a former model and a good novelist, and here, in a totally fortuitous meeting of author and subject, he writes an entirely winning biography of perennially underestimated American poet Frank O'Hara. Gooch is a sensitive reader of the poems, and he has a wonderful facility for conveying the feel of the times. O'Hara would have, um, scanned Gooch's verse any day of the week - and more importantly (well, maybe), he'd have liked this book.

*Captain Cook by J.C. Beaglehole - this is a wopping great big book that doen't have a single boring or thoughtlessly crafted sentence, which is something of a miracle in and of itself. Beaglehole examines every aspect of the life of England's greatest sea-captain (anybody got a problem with that? Nelson fans? Cochrane fans? Shaddup, alla youse).

*Dutch by Edmund Morris - I said it at the time, and I say it still: this weird and disjointedly garrulous book is, in the end, entirely stunning. No greater literary tribute has ever been given to a living president than this one to President Reagan. It isn't anything close to a conventional biography, even though all the biographical facts are there. Rather, this is ... well, I don't know what to call it - impressionistic? Pointilistic? Regardless of WHAT we call it, the fevered, almost hallucinogenic sensation of reading it perfectly mirrors the weird experience of living through the Reagan years. And the prose is gorgeous, often for dozens and dozens of pages at a time. That combination of factors wins out for me over the more straightforward books about the Gipper.

*Somebody Else by Charles Nicoll - Nicoll's masterpiece is undoubtedly 'The Reckoning,' his book about the en who murdered Christopher Marlowe. But this book, about the Rimbaud who went to Africa and sold guns and never, so far as we know, wrote a line of poetry again, comes in a very close second (and is more presentably biographical). Nicholl here is at his investigative best, piecing together hundreds of disparate clues about what has to be the starkest literary transformation in the history of literature.

*Tolstoy by Henri Troyat - Troyat too is a professional biographer, and here he has a whopper of a subject and acquits himselfl admirably. It's no coincidence that Tolstoy's life reads like something out of one of his own novels (there's a fruitful dissertation to be written on WHICH authors this is true for and WHY), and Troyat captures that very well.

*Jack Aubrey's Brief Lives - I know, I know - this isn't strictly a biography of one person, but I REALLY wanted to plug Aubrey's book, since it's one of those endless treasure-troves of a book, a huge collection of sometimes incredibly brief and almost koan-like sketches (sometimes not even a page - Aubrey asked Dryden to supply a page-long biographical sketch of himself, and when the poet didn't come through, Aubrey dutifully put the blank page in his book). The edition to get here is the Penguin, hands down - the long, introductory essay there is a work of art all by itself.

*Emerson, the Mind on Fire by Robert Richardson - Emerson might very well be the hardest American to biographize ... his writings are utterly unforgettable and unlike anything else in the country's canon, but ... and here's where the problem comes in ... he was COMPLETELY BARKING INSANE. Richardson not only tackles this problem, he triumps over it and makes it look easy. Emerson would have ... well, he'd have read the first ten pages, misunderstood them, and then parsed them into a 150-page Platonian meditation on the vitality of mortality. But the rest of you will really like it.

*Son of the Morning Star by Evan Connell - The story of the Battle of Little Bighorn is inherently dramatic, an endlessly transformable, but even so, nothing can fully prepare the reader for the harrowing, magnificent job Connell does with his subject. His narrative spirals upward toward its pre-ordained climax in several separate strands. As good as they are, none of Connell's other books (across their charmingly broad spectrum) comes close to this one in sheer, beautiful power.

*Queen Victoria by Lytton Strachey - how could we contemplate a biography screed without mentioning Strachey! His book on Queen Victoria is predictably brilliant - wry, incisive, and crammed with more witticisms than a whole season of 'The Simpsons.'

*In the Presence of the Creator by Gale Christianson - This is a stately, keenly detailed biography of Isaac Newton, and Christianson is especially good at painting a broad background. It's a shame it's out of print, but then, you kids are probably all about the eBay, aren't you? Maybe one of you ungrateful little sprouts will think to shell out an extra $5 to get a copy for old reliable stevereads, who lost his own copy in a HORRENDOUS FIRE that destroyed ALL HIS WORLDLY BELONGINGS...

*Admiral of the Ocean Sea by Samuel Eliot Morison - Hard, very hard, to pick from all of Morison's great biographies, but this one, about Christopher Columbus, wins by an edge, mainly because it's Morison's most personal book (you'll all notice that I obviously consider this an important element of writing biography), even moreso than the ones he wrote about men he actually knew - I think because he felt a kinship with Columbus, voyaging into the unknown on tried vessels using a matchless ability to read the sea. This is one old salt yarning about another, and it really isn't to be missed.

Well! I'm tossing great biographies off the top of my head, and even so, just LOOK at the size of this entry! Clearly, I'm going to need to revisit this subject!

I'll do two things: first, I'll get to work on a definitive 'top 50' list, and in the meantime, I'll come back later on and do another one of THESE, these windbaggy annotated thingees, with a few more titles. Will that satisfy you all, you bloodthirsty little ewoks?

Sunday, September 24, 2006

In the penny press!

The only noteworthy thing about this week's extra-big 'fashion' issue of the New Yorker (well, aside from a really offensive Muslim-baiting cartoon about which I've already written them) is a little piece up at the front of the issue called 'Air Kiss.'

The incident recounted took place on an American Airlines flight. Four male friends were reprimanded for kissing each other and resting their heads on each others shoulders. The friends become understandably irate and ask to see the plane's purser (we won't digress on what an exceedingly GAY request that is).

When the purser shows up and asks them to identify which stewardess (sorry ... flight attendant) did the tsk-tsking, and when the guys point out a beehive-hairdo'd fiftysomething woman, the purser rolls her eyes and sympathizes with them.

Then the men asked 'if the stewardess would have made the request if the kissers had been a man and a woman,' at which point the purser stiffened visibly and started toting a no-kissing party line.

I think even at this point we're still supposed to be sympathizing with the guys, but it was at that point I started sympathizing with the entirely helpful purser, who naturally took offense at the thinly-hidden accusation of bigotry.

SOMETHING happened on that American Airlines flight, but after reading this little account, I'm fairly convinced it was ugly on both sides of the aisle.

(The issue also featured a tribute by Alex Ross to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, and it's Ross at his least pompous, because this was a loss that hurt. Most professional singers develop a repertoire and a manner, and more often than not it then becomes them. Pavarotti has been more or less unconscious on stage for the past twenty years. The divine Beverly Sills once, after an evening of sumptuous vocal beauty, was asked by an adoring fan what sublime mindframes she was in during her performance. She chuckled and said, 'I was going over my taxes.' Lorraine was different. Her music was endlessly, renewably personal to her. What's so often said of so many sawhorse hacks was literally true of her: no two performances were ever the same. And that applied to all performances, including the impromptu ones. Like the one more than twenty years ago very close to Christmas, when she and two newly-acquired friends stumbled, a little drunk, down into Boston's Park Street T-stop around 10 o'clock one snowy night. A raggedy man in fingerless gloves was playing a very clearly-realized version of Handel's 'Hallelujah' chorus, and Lorraine went over to him and listened enraptured exactly as if she'd never heard it before in her life. When he was finished, she shimmied up to him and asked if he knew any OTHER arias from what she called 'the sacred text' - he said he knew them all, and she asked for 'O Thou That Tellest' ... the man's grimey face brightened a little and he started playing, and a few seconds later she started singing. She started singing, and by the time she was done, the man had stopped playing, the crowds on both platforms had stopped moving, and the train conductors were hanging out of their windows, mesmerized. That voice is gone from the world now, but Ross does a good job of capturing what it was like)

Over in New York magazine, there's a very nice, openly nostalgic piece by James Atlas on the New York Review of Books, concentrating on the state of that mighty organ in the wake of Barbara Epstein's death. The piece takes you through all the usual highlights of the Review's history - a story's no less good for being often told - and ends on a somewhat troubling note, wondering if there's a place in the modern world for something like the New York Review. I read the piece with fond remembrances - how many train trips, how many boring lectures, how many long solitary lunches have been saved, just outright saved, by having a big fat New York Review in my bag? - but also with a little anxiety.

Atlas can't be right, can he? Surely the world will always need the New York Review of Books? I guess the only way that might change is if the Review itself changed, presumably after Robert Silvers steps down.

If only this blog were frequented by someone with INSIDER KNOWLEDGE of the New York Review!

Plus, the magazine's Approval Matrix had two items of note, both in the 'Lowbrow Despicable' quadrant: first, 'the Gothification of Jared Leto' featuring a funny picture of the actor (he DOES still act, right?) in heavy eye-liner. And second, the simple, direct assertion: "Brett Favre should be considering retirement." Sad, but true. There's really no POINT to being a quarterback if you're not Tom Brady.

And in this month's GQ (the one with roasting tobacco addict Josh Hartnett's vapid, utterly clueless face on the cover), there's a wonderful, subtly nasty piece by Jeanne Marie Laskas on self-outed former New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey.

Laskas crucifies McGreevey mainly by letting HIM provide the cross and nail himself to it. She asks him frank, simple questions - how did his decision to come out affect his wife, his parents? And then she steps back, turns on the tape recorder, and faithfully recounts how McGreevey - lost in his contemplation of himself - doesn't actually ANSWER anything.

The picture of McGreevey that emerges from the article is that of a narcissistic creep - gay, straight, or otherwise. Which is a little ironic, given how well his book is selling in the bookstores.

I am well rebuked

Inexcusable, to write about animal bites without including PICTURES!

Pictures, especially, of the MOTHER of all animal bites, brought up by Locke: the brown recluse spider, ladies and gentlemen! The area around its bites DIES and can NEVER BE REVIVED!

Saturday, September 23, 2006

some books i've read lately

It bears pointing out from time to time that the government here at Stevereads is not a democracy (certainly not! one of the WORST forms of government ever devised! But that's a crackpot digression for another time), nor is it an oligarchy (although many of you who write in would make fine oligarchs in your own right). It's an absolute monarchy - not to say a tyranny - and the absolute monarch is my sexy self.

However, let it not be said that Stevereads was ruled by a despot, by an arrogant martinet who never bent an ear to the piteous cries of his people!

One such cry has gone up from a few people - and other large, slow-moving mammals - and somethinig in the bathetic bleating tone of it all has touched the icey recesses of my heart.

And so, without further ado: Some Books I've Read Lately

Yesterdays with Authors by James T. Fields - pride of place has to go to this wonderful volume of literary reminiscences written by the eminent Boston publisher and most clubbable man-about-town Jim Fields in 1871. This book was a best-seller, reprinted many times and justly so, but it's completely unknown today, as is Fields himself. I found this copy languishing on the Brattle dollar-carts, perilously close to the Brattle Dumpster. The fact that I paid a dollar for all the wonderment this book contains between its covers is proof again - as if any were needed - of what a miraculous place is that cart-filled lot on West St. (the copy I have is inscribed: 'To Rose Saltonstall from Rose Lee, Xmas 1882' - making it in itself a part of Boston history)(the ink has gone brown, and both women are sleeping in their respective mausoleums)

It wouldn't be stretch to say Fields knew all the great literary figures of his day; he helped to publish half of them, and he got drunk with nearly all of them, both in London and in Boston at the famed Saturday Club (of which both Fields and your current blogger are life-long members). And that's by far the most striking aspect of the book for a modern reader: how ALIVE all these storied literary names are in Fields' stories. He writes about Thackeray, Hawthorne, Dickens, and Wordsworth, but dozens of other famous names come and go across his stage. He knew all these people, and they knew and liked him.

His account of Thackeray is his most affectionate, painting a very human picture of a Falstaffian giant of a man, whole-heartedly enjoying life. But every chapter brims over with memorable anecdotes and scenes. Here's one, picked at random, about a sea-trip Fields once took with Hawthorne:

Hawthorne's love for the sea amounted to a passionate worship; and while I (the worst sailor probably on this planet) was longing, spite of the good company on board, to reach land as soon as possible, Hawthorne was constantly saying in is quiet, earnest way, "I should like to sail on and on forever, and never touch the shore again." He liked to stand alone in the bows of the ship and see the sun go down, and he was never tired of walking the deck at midnight. I used to watch his dark, solitary figure under the stars, pacing up and down some unfrequented part of the vessel, musing and half melancholy.

Or this, about Dickens:

That day he seemed to revel in the past, and I stood by, listening almost with awe to his impressive voice, as he spoke out whole chapters of a romance destined never to be written. The only other guest at his table that day was Wilkie Collins; and after dinner we three went out and lay down on the grass, while Dickens showed off a raven that was hopping about, and told anecdotes of the bird and many of his predecessors.

The casual, living immediacy of it all ("after dinner we three went out and lay on the grass") is almost heartbreaking, but in the sweetest of ways.

William Dean Howells has a couple of books of literary reminiscences like these, but Fields' are superior, because Howells was himself an author when he wrote his pieces, so there are always two people trying to take center stage. Fields is transparent, and so the more beguiling.

An absolute treasure, selling (only not) for $1.

Bitten by Pamela Nagami - JUST the kind of book for which Steve has a pronounced soft spot, this is a collection of stories of animal bites from around the world, and their awful, horrible, delightfully grotesque after-effects. Spiders, snakes, ants, ticks, komodo dragons, lions, rats, and of course humans themselves - they're all here in all their mandibular glory, presented in enough gory detail to make hypochondriacs go right out and hang themselves. Unlike the Fields book, Bitten is readily available at your nearest Barnes & Noble, and I can't recommend it enough.

Forever Young by William Noonan (with - and in this case very, very with, if you catch my meaning - Robert Huber) - this is Noonan's account of his life-long friendship with John Kennedy Jr., and it makes for dreary, unintentionally pitiful reading. On almost every page, in virtually every anecdote faithfully recalled and recounted by Noonan, it's ACHINGLY clear that the Kennedys, Shrivers, and Lawfords viewed him as a peripheral figure at best. Time and again in the book, Noonan proudly recounts a conversation or incident without seeming to realize how much a buffoon it makes him look.

Still, the book did have one telling little moment for me: at one point, in the middle of yet another anecdote, Noonan makes offhanded mention of the fact that John Kennedy Jr. never had any money on him, that friends at restaurants or movies always needed to loan him cash. JFK Jr. never knew his famous father, couldn't possibly have picked up any habits from observation, and that's where the little chill comes in, since JFK also forgot to carry money with him. Ever.

Still, that's slim pickings to hang an entire book on. This one is best avoided. We may never get a truly good biography of JFK Jr (doubt we'd have gotten one of JFK if he'd died so young), but in the meantime better silence than drivel like this.

Summer Cruising by Dave Benbow
Going Down in La-La Land by Andy Zeffer

- Well, what would you have me say? Romance, science fiction, mystery, westerns, and yes, gay fiction ... I give everything a try. And more often than not, I pay for it with frustration and wasted time. That was certainly the case with these two gay novels, neither of which was worth the paper it was printed on - one-dimensional characters, idiotic setups, and curiously boring sexual titillations. Oddly enough, experiencing two such letdowns in a row has made me all the more eager to read a GOOD piece of gay fiction. I'll let you know if that ever happens.

Fortunately, I get to close out this manatee-pleaser on a positive note, with a GREAT teen fiction offering:

Peeps by Scott Westerfield - this book is a fanastic example of everything I look for in so-called teen fiction: it's hugely smart, seamlessly plotted, utterly free of narrative fat, and with more sheer inventiveness on any one page than lots of 'adult' books have in their entire lengths.

Peeps is about poor sexy hapless Cal Thompson, who's been infected with a mysterious disease. Cal's only a carrier, so he hasn't turned into a full-fledged 'parasite positive' - what the rest of the world calls vampires. But all of Cal's ex-girlfriends aren't so lucky - they're all full-fledged peeps, and he has to hunt them down.

Like all the best teen fiction, this book is fast-paced, unapologetically violent, and surprisingly funny. I can pretty confidently predict you'll love it, and if you do there's good news - the sequel just came out.

So there you have it! A small fraction of the BOOKS I've been reading lately! Feel free to share what YOU'VE been reading - you know I'm interested.

Friday, September 22, 2006

comics! Send in the clones!

Only two comics in the bin this week, but both of note: Civil War #4 and the launch of a new X-Men mini-series.

First things first: Civil War.

Well, at least I can breathe a small sigh of relief: the Thor who appeared so dramatically at the end of the last issue (about a year ago) turns out not to be the REAL Thor. He's a CLONE Thor with a mechanical hammer. So my favorite Marvel character is still MIA, not buddying up with the fascists to char-broil Captain America. Thank Heaven for small favors.

And the writing, pacing, and artwork in the issue are all their usual superlative. So that's good.

You can sense I'm leading up to some 'buts' here, can't you?

OK, let's take them from the small to the large:

Small: Even under the sooper-dooper best of conditions, a Thor clone would only possess physical attributes the original Thor possessed. And as all you long-term geeks out there know, controlling the weather isn't one of those attributes - Thor can't do it biologically, he does it through power granted him by Odin. Still, Reed Richards COULD have rigged some weather-warping technology into the fake hammer, so I let it go.

Small: But even so! Just how fast was this replacement Thor-clone grown? In the timeline of Civil War, it can't have been more than a month since sides were declared - that doesn't seem like enough time to grow an adult clone, teach it everything it needs to know (it calls Dagger by name, for instance), and get it a Thor costume that fits properly.

Which brings up a question every bit as creepy as the whole Iron Man-putting-spy-sensors-in-Spidey's-underwear question from last issue: how long has a Thor-clone been growing? We're told that Tony Stark gathered a lock of Thor's hair after the FIRST MEETING of the Avengers, and absolutely NOBODY is bothered by that. Even though it means that Iron Man is not only a crazy sumbitch super-villain but always has been.

(super-geeky side-note: hair that just falls off your head and winds up in the couch cushions is useless for cloning - it needs to be YANKED off to contain any DNA ... but hey, since cloning a supernatural being from another freakin dimension should be impossible anyway, what's a few follicles among friends?)

Small: Iron Man tells the 'tough old bird' Captain America that the high frequency blast he just used usually puts the human brain in 'shutdown' ... but only ten panels later, none of its victims (including Daredevil, whose head should probably have popped right off) seem to be shut down.

Small: why is it that even after four issues (and countless tie-in issues) we're still not seeing clearly who-all is in Captain America's resistance army? It blunts the drama a bit, still not knowing the sides.

Large: So the Thor-clone kills Bill Foster, blows a hole in his chest, and ... Iron Man still has ANYBODY on his side? Peter Parker says everybody's "a little freaked out" by it, like it was somebody showing up with a tattoo? What the eff?

And of course Large: that final panel. The government recruiting not just foreign nationals (like Radioactive Man) but actual psychopaths - Taskmaster, Venom ... Bullseye. Riiiight. This has its requisite shock-value, but, to use a favorite comic-geek refrain, it would NEVER happen. Millar's storyline is forcing our well-known and long-established heroes to be not only morally bankrupt but downright stupid. It strains the seams of an already head-scratching plotline.

Of course the issue's other big storyline is Sue Richards leaving her husband to join the opposition ... a storyline that has great potential, since that's just the kind of rifts we should be seeing more of. We'll see what comes of it (although, back in the category of Small, I should point out that although Sue in her note to Reed mentions the fish dinner they had that evening, the panel clearly shows her eating steak).

The new X-men mini-series was a much simpler affair: 'First Class,' a kind of re-introduction to Professor Xavier's original class of students, rendered all the more nostalgic for me since I remember clearly buying the FIRST version of this story, about forty years ago. I conjured with its possibilities back then, just like I did with this issue.

It's a simple, day-glow thing, with wholesome homilies and no angst whatsoever, a welcome ray of sunlight in the X-world (over in Uncanny X-men, I'm pretty sure somebody gets gutted this week, and over in Astonishing X-Men, a character gets shot multiple times in the back, and last week in Ultimate X-Men somebody got all the skin on his body burned off ... so you might be able to see what I'm getting at here).

Reading this issue, I naturally started comparing it to that Lee and Kirby first issue of decades ago. I had one person at the time to talk comics with (boy, has THAT changed), and we pointed out how Kirby's artwork seemed crowded and rushed, how Stan Lee's writing - though jam-packed with new ideas - didn't seem nearly so spontaneous or funny as in other titles.

Thinking back on it now, I whole-heartedly agree with myself! X-Men #1 was a decidedly second-rate effort, engaging to me mainly because of the new idea of a SCHOOL of super-heroes.

'X-Men: First Class' is, when you dispense with nostalgia, in every way a superior thing. The artwork isn't anything like Kirby's, but then, KIRBY's artwork in X-Men #1 wasn't much like Kirby's. And the writing is hugely better - smart, funny, and fast-paced.

The culprit, I think, is TV. When X-Men #1 came out, the average house in middle-class America had exactly one TV, and it was a great ponderous thing that showed mostly news and half-hour serials long on action and devoid of character-development.

In the intervening decades, whole generations of kids (and comic book creators) have been raised to think in terms of the hour-long dramas that eventually took root in the industry. I'm sure this issue's writer, Jeff Parker, felt it only natural, the whole concept of an issue in which we not only get good action sequences and an interesting antagonist but also sharp characterization, all pulled together neatly by page 22.

Lee and Kirby paved the way, yes indeed, but it's 'Star Trek' and 'Buffy' that gave us the comics we have today. 'Nuff said!

And next week, if all goes well? ULTIMATES!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

everybody together now!

I confess, I'm wondering if any of you are out there - so here's a quick way to show your love of all things Stevereads! Send me what you're using for your computer screen's background right now! I'll start the ball rolling by appending my own this week.

In the Penny Press! ME ME ME

Obviously, INCREDIBLY obviously, the most interesting thing in the latest Atlantic is ME. Specifically, my letter in the letters page:

In his reply to Alecia Flores, who chided him for taking a gratuitous potshot at President Kennedy, Christopher Hitchens - apparently riding is one-trick pony into the ground - takes yet more potshots at a man who can't fire back!

For instance, he refers to JFK as 'the boy president' - a potshot that also has the virtue of being incomprehensible, since Kennedy was forty-three when he was elected president and had already been a congressman, a father, and a combat veteran. How much, one wonders, had Mr. Hitchens done by that age? How would he have liked being called a boy?

And then there's the old favorite: the smirking insinuation that Ted Sorensen, not JFK, wrote 'Profiles in Courage.' We have mountains of sworn statements; we have eyewitness testimony to the actual act of writing (JFK was in the hospital during part of the book's composition, and, predictably, he was a great favorite of the nurses); we have handwritten and annotated drafts of every single page of the book. But does any of that matter? No! Not when a nod and a wink can pass for knowledge of a subject.

And how many witnesses, how many long-suffering dinner guests trapped in mini-lectures by the commander in chief, how many subsequent references and remarks made by JFK himself, does Mr. Hitchens need before he can refrain from implying that Kennedy wouldn't have read such books as Cecil's 'Melbourne' or Agar's 'Price of Union'?

Finally, Mr. Hitchens gets his dramatis personae wrong. JFK wouldn't have been 'the Galahad of Camelot' - of course, he'd have been the king. One wonders how much patience he'd have had with bargain-basement Mordreds.

Of course Hitchens offers no reply - honestly, how could he? Nevertheless, his silence bespeaks a maturity I thought he'd all but lost! That, plus the superb piece in this selfsame issue on Jessica Mitford - at once fervently enthusiastic and coolly appraising - prompts me to declare an end to our nascent blood-feud!

Also in this issue was yet another wonderful, funny article by Sandra Tsing Loh, this one about uber-parents and the grotesque lengths they go to in order to get their little kids into the right grade schools, high schools, and colleges. The whole thing is a delight, but one tasty quote should suffice:

On the one hand, I worry that unless they join some sort of MTV-sponsored witness-protection program, such children have no hope of ever getting laid. (One imagines [the kids and their parents] years down the road, sharing a lone Zima at a vast granite kitchen island as the pair of them nostaligically go through old torts). On the other hand, I have to admit to a grudging admiration for the sheer professionalism, the smoothly oiled Bonnie-and-Clyde teamwork of these academic parent-child hit squads. I too had insanely pushy parents, but in retrospect they seem like pikers. Yes, my Danzig-born mom wrote all my sister's school papers (which my sister then dutifully copied and presented as her own). However, the result was not Ivy League entry but instead, as my sister will joke, 'my strange German syntax, to shake, I have never been able.' When I was a senior at Caltech, my Shanghai-born scientist dad kept calling my dorm room to shout, over the thumping ZZ Top, 'Sandra! Apply to any grad school in any engineering major!' Sadly, thanks to the freedom of the EZ student loan the great cheapskate himself had helped me secure, I was already off dating a rock-bagpipe player and spectacularly bombing my physics GRE. (Out of a possible 99, my percentile was 7 - that's right, one digit - a number so low it inspires almost Talmudic awe in those who hear it uttered).


The oddest thing in the issue was Virginia Postrel's piece on Superhero movies called "Superhero Worship" which, despite those two facts, seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with superheroes or superhero movies. Great topic idea, though...

Over in Esquire (the same issue in which Brad Pitt says he and Angelina Jolie will get married once everyone in the country can legally marry), there's a brief interview with a 21-year-old creature named "David Lehre" (apperently, he's a filmmaker who's 'exploding' ... but there's a picture, and he doesn't look old enough to NOCTURNALLY explode, if you catch my meaning) who at one point affirms that he, like all other right-thinking individuals, is a fan of "High School Musical."

There's also a page-long pan of Cesar Milan, the so-called "Dog Whisperer" during which several ACTUAL dog-experts speak up about what a fraud the guy is. I've read his book, but far more importantly I've now seen his show, and I can tell you one thing beyond any doubt: most of the dogs he 'fixes' are only badly surprised, not rethinking their lives.

Domesticated dogs aren't exactly the smartest species in the world, but they know perfectly well that a human isn't a dog. Milan's whole approach - establishing himself as 'alpha dog' and then claiming he gets results when a 'pack' structure then forms with him at the top - well, it just isn't happening on his show. Instead, time after time, you see a dog go blank-eyed and immobile when confronted with this human acting so weird.

Almost all domestic dogs WANT to please humans - they've been genetically engineered over thousands of years to do so. Importing this pack-leader crap is literally turning back the clock 8,000 years.

So if you're having problems with your dog, kindly DON'T bare your teeth and kneel on their chest. Patient conversation will do just fine (except in your case, Beepy ... sorry about that).

Elsewhere in the issue, Tom Junod writes a book review of the Koran that's just a few good sentences shy of being utterly imbecilic. If any of you should happen to read it (i.e. if any of you can teach me how to link directly to it), please disregard it entirely. Even a 'Dummies' book will give you a better introduction to what is, beyond doubt, the most important book in the world today.

But by far the weirdest thing in this issue was Chuck Klosterman's article on 'Survivor' and 'Lost.' Heck, not even the whole article, just one sentence:

" 'Lost' is probably the best network drama in the history of television (The only other candidate might be 'Twin Peaks')."

Even in this day and age of 24-hour inane commentary, that's got to be the single DUMBEST fucking sentence I've read in the month of September.

So we'll close out this edition of In the Penny Press on that note and hope for better sense next time.

'Lost' the best network drama in the history of television? Jesus Christ on a fucking cross.

Sunday, September 17, 2006


After an extensive tour of Europe, Scandinavia, and the subcontinent, my nemesis Pepito has at last returned and begun supplying me once again with stacks of comics. Comics of indiscriminate quality, needless to say.

Pepito doesn't only buy crap, although dios mio, he crap he DOES buy! He must be the only person in the world still hanging in there with this wretched Aquaman relaunch, for instance.

The thing that bugs me most about this relaunch (even more than the turgid plotting, the cliche-soaked writing, and the murky, morose artwork) is the same thing that bugs me about the new John Byrne Asian Atom: they aren't really relaunches at all. They're cowardly little trial-balloons.

In both titles, the 'real' title characters are plainly still out there somewhere. The new Aquaman is a normal guy who's given superpowers, instead of being the son of a mermaid and a lighthouse keeper. Right. THAT's gonna stick. The whole time we're following the adventures of this guy in gold chainmail, we all know he's not the REAL Aquaman.

Same thing with the Asian Atom. We're explicitly told that the REAL Atom, Ray Palmer, is still missing after the mega-inexplicable events of Infinite Crisis (still waiting for one of you to tell me what the Hell actually HAPPENED during that storyline ...).

The only reason the REAL versions of both these characters haven't shown up by now, in a final-panel splashpage (with a next issue blurb saying something like 'Seeing double!' or 'Next time: things get interesting!') is because DC wants to see if these new versions will SELL. It's the most cowardly kind of character overhaul out there.

And the added twist is that it's so unnecessary. Look at Wonder Woman, tackling the whole 'year later' gimmick straight-on. Look at Birds of Prey, or the weird, increasingly wonderful stuff going on in OMAC. Look at the towering greatness that is Green Arrow.

(Don't look at Superman, alas - the powers that be at DC missed a golden chance to show some massive creative balls and have all the Superman books feature a completely powerless Clark Kent trying to adjust to his new, normal life ... a HUGE gamble to take with their flagship character, but oh! Just imagine how good it could have been!)

Icon-changes happen, I know. But they never last, and the whole of their merit lies in how well-built they LOOK. And both these relaunches look like they were cooked up during free period by a couple of high school stoners. Anybody remember the blue-leotarded Aquaman? How about the 'Savage Sword of Conan' Atom? Geez.

What kills me is that this moment - the after-crisis sorta-kinda slate-clearing - was the PERFECT moment to re-define both these characters for real, instead of these lame-ass attempts. As it is, we'll have to wait ten years, until DC has another crisis and kills another Flash.

But it wasn't all doom and gloom in Pepito's latest batch! There were good items too.

Like the first issue of 'The Trials of Shazam' (although: gloomy title) - neat, unusual artwork and some very good cliffhangers.

Or the latest issue of the Teen Titans, where this new loser-ass team (a kid who burps fire? And hey, while we're at it, let's let DEATHSTROKE'S DAUGHTER on the team? What's the worst that could happen?) goes to Russia and gets verbally spanked by Red Star. My only real complaint comes in at the end, when we the readers get to see the roster of the team during the 'missing' year. And my gripe with that, you ask?

Some of the characters, although intriguing, aren't POSSIBLE. Or if they are, they represent some of the biggest dropped balls in comics storytelling history. Little Barda? Surely even the offspring of Mister MIracle and Big Barda would need more than a year to develope, um, boom tubes quite that big? Miss Martian, complete with the trademark big red X right across her, um, twin moons? Zatarra? Zatanna has a brother we never knew about? And Osiris, standing next to Black Adam and looking a helluva lot like his son? (my money's on his being Isis' brother)

I mean, it worked - I'll certainly be reading future issues now, if only to see how some of these characters can be explained. Little Barda? The mind boggles ....

(although one thing bears pointing out: the team is set on finding each of these characters because one of them BETRAYED the team. So fine, let's find each of these new characters and learn their stories and in the process build a interesting team with some of them. But traitor? Puh-lease! Scroll back up and re-read those words: DEATHSTROKE'S DAUGHTER)

But by far the best thing in this batch of Pepito's comics - and it pains me to say this - was the latest issue of Green Lantern.

It pains me for this reason: I've never really cottoned to one-note superheroes. Atom can shrink. Flash can run. Green Lantern has his ring. Big woop. Give me no powers (Batman, Adam Strange) or multiple powers (Superman, Wonder Woman) any day.

But there's absolutely no denying what going on in Green Lantern since its conceptual (if not numerical) relaunch: this stuff is brilliant. Geoff Johns' writing is hard and fast, and Ivan Reis' pencilling is huge and gorgeous, very nearly the equal of 1970s John Buscema (he's very nearly there, it kinda sorta grieves me to admit ... the meticulous opulence of his wide-angle views is the equal of anything Buscema could do even at his peak, but his interpersonal action-sequences lack the requisite ooomph)(this isn't a criticism at all - the guy's probably 20, and if he keeps on this way, I have no doubt even the mighty Buscema will be displaced in due time, just the way his sons have all but displaced Joe Kubert)(that process will be complete when the ABSOLUTELY FUCKING INEVITABLE happens and somebody gets one or both of them to do a new version of Tarzan)

The issue starts poorly - with a stupid-ass cover that should never have been approved by any editor - but hoo-boy! Once you get inside, the thing is brilliant. Heady action, great characterization (not, alas, the title character - Hal Jordan is every bit as bland STILL has Barry Allen was, despite HUGE numbers of ways to fix that fact), especially Guy Gardner, who continues to steal both this book and Green Lantern Corps with absolute regularity. What a HUGE mistake it would be, to give him his own book or ever change him from what he was meant to be: the one Green Lantern in the whole galaxy who's playing BAD cop.

I have to tell you, boys and girls, if ALL the re-visionings of DC's biggest guns were being done with this sure touch of epic, we'd be seeing a DC lineup that hasn't been seen since WWII. Imagine if the whole POINT of Infinite Crisis ... that DC's signature big guns returned to BEING big guns with huge fire and a renewed sense of themselves ... were being done across the board.

Well, we'll have to take what we can get.

Next comic-chat we have, I promise: all my thoughts about '52'!

Friday, September 15, 2006

In the Penny Press!

Lately I feel a little twinge of self-consciousness whenever I pick up a Weekly Dig. This stems from some disparaging comments my young friend Sebastian recently made about the rag.

He admitted up front that his interest in the Dig grew tepid once he'd slept with all its female employees and done coke with (and then, what the hell, slept with) all its male employees.

But Sebastian is currently out of town (the reason? Belated egalitarianism. The other day at lunch, he grew pensive and then said, "Do you realize that most of the people in this country have never done this, had lunch with me? Why, most of the people in this country have never even MET me!" He put down his wafer-thin slice of brie, and a tremor of something like determination rippled through his louche, lanky frame. "This shall not stand," he said. and preparations began immediately for an extended trip out of town. "Boulder, hmmmm. Sounds rocky. I'd best buy a pair of sturdy boots," he'd say to Fulke, the hastily-renamed elderly Iranian exile Sebastian's parents pay to do his parking, tidy up his apartment, and, um, disappear his more importunate dealers. "What are they wearing in Cleveland this season?"), so I felt psychically free to enjoy this week's Dig.

What can I say? Its intellectual merits notwithstanding, the Weekly Dig is virtually guaranteed to make me laugh out loud every week. I don't count such a service lightly.

This week's issue featured a very sharp, very snarky city-guide to the hordes of incoming college students who afflict so many of Boston's neighborhoods (here in Southie we're mercifully spared this phenomenon - nobody around here is uppity enough to send their kids to college - but I sympathize nonetheless ... I've done my time in lower Allston).

The guide lists the the pros and cons of every neighborhood, things to do there, and, helpfully, how to get killed there. So naturally I looked up South Boston!

Things to do: Drink your brains out on Broadway on St. Patrick's Day. Drink your brains out at Murphy's Law every day. While it's still nice out, head down to Sullivan's on Castle Island for hot dogs, ice cream, and humping in the grass under Fort Independence. Then drink your brains out.

How to get killed in Southie: Duck into one of those quaint little no-name dive bars that make you feel you're Really Experiencing Old Bawstin, get completely shattered, and start quoting lines from 'Good Will Hunting' at the patrons. Move the garbage can/lawn chair/baby stroller that's blocking the only open parking spot on the street - in Southie, self-defense with a two-by-four is a sane, rational response to having your parking spot taken. Be the yuppie who believes the neighborhood didn't exist before you moved in.

To which I might add one item apiece: under things to do, you might consider visiting Dorchester Heights - it's a very pretty little place to spend an hour or two. And under how to get killed, one must add 'cross the Irish mob' ... despite what the FBI would have you believe, they're still out there, and they can be mean as hell.

The Boston student experience is neatly summed up in the 'things to do' section of Allston/Brighton:

Join the other 56,389 people with the exact same idea and set off for Landsdowne Street on a Friday night in search of trouble. Find some noisy local band and attach yourself to it like a remora. Get a venereal disease. Share it with your roommates. Battle the annual bedbug epidemic. Fall off your balcony.


The guide also has a fairly funny assessment of the T:

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority - the T - is the nation's oldest subway system. It may also be the nation's worst. The trains never run on time, the stations are decrepit, the escalators are always broken, and the system shuts down at 12:30 am - way before any normal person's night should end. For generations, the state's political elite have been giving their surly, alcoholic, half-retarded cousins great-paying government jobs with the T; the result is a system that's wholly inept, and one that resents you for a) being alive, and b) expecting a mass transit system to, um, work.

The Charlie Card system comes in for this comment:

In many ways, Charlie is the T's answer to its staggering inability to keep its own employees from robbing it blind. After years of trouble, the MBTA said to itself, 'Fuck it, if we can't stop you guys from stealing money, we just won't use money anymore.' Problem solved.

Of course, this edition of In the Penny Press isn't all shits and giggles. Over in the New Yorker, for instance, the bulk of the current issue is turned over to a very long, very absorbing article by David Remnick on Bill Clinton.

The article fully justifies the unusual length given to it: it's unfailingly interesting reading. The further the nation slips into a bellicose, torture-sanctioning, fascistic mirror-universe version of itself, the more intriguing Bill Clinton and his tenure in office seem to me. The man bald-facedly lied to the nation ("I did not have sexual relations with that woman") and then tried to wriggle out of admitting it in the most weasley way imaginable ("It depends on what your definition of 'is' is"). But even his enemies credit him with being hugely intelligent and thoroughly engaged. Which is a far cry from a stupid, bigoted, vacation-taking asshole.

The difference is so salutory that I found myself all throughout Remnick's piece LIKING Clinton, even though it's pretty clear he can still lie like a marble flagstone when he wants to (he tells Remnick he has no idea whether or not his wife is planning on running for President ... says it with a straight face ... the mind boggles).

The piece makes for fascinating reading nonetheless, which made shifting from it to the issue's NEXT piece all the more jolting. Finish the Clinton article, turn the page, and WHAM! You're reading "Something That Needs Nothing," a mind-numbingly boring short story by someone who wants us to believe her name is Miranda July.

The story starts with a monolithic block of exposition. Then it moves its handful of baking-pan shallow cardboard characters through a meaningless, inconsequential semi-plot. There's a great deal of wooden dialogue. And the the thing just sort of STOPS, with no ending worth noting and no dramatic payoff. All of which raises one question:

Why on Earth would John Updike pick a dipshit pen-name like Miranda July?

Luckily, there's plenty of good stuff in this week's New York magazine, foremost of which is John Homan's sensitive review of Bruce Wagner's new book Memorial.

Wagner is one of the best writers currently working, and it's alway been a source of frustration for me that more people don't know about him. Here's a bit of Homans, to help things along:

... if the obscene is Memorial's yin, beauty is its yang. The book, with epigraphs from Walt Whitman and Gerard Manley Hopkins, is filled with stunning sentences, a kind of wild pop-culture nusic, though Wagner seems to pipe them in a mock-poetic voice, as if he doesn't want to fully possess them. There's an underlying question, in this book more than any of his others, as to whether poetry is appropriate in such a world, and whether the sublime can transcend the conflicted circumstances of its birth.

Also in this issue, John Leonard reviews a few of the season's new TV shows, commenting on how quite a few of them hark back to the old serials, where the entire season tells one long story.

I don't know if Leonard is just being contrary or if he forgot to take his cranky-medication, but he actually seems AGAINST such shows on principle:

More often, the compications necessary to keep a serial going are so finger-in-the-eye baroque that if we miss a week, we are confused, and if we miss two, we are so embarrassed we may give up. And don't tell me about TiVo. I watch more television than you do. If, because I was out trying to have a half-life, I missed something the first time around, when am I likely to catch up? The portal heads among us, with their DVDs, TiVos, and video streams, need reminding that most people work for a living and, when we come home, actually turn on and tune in to whatever, hoping between dinner and bed for an hour of coherent, disposable narrative, like apple pie at the Automat.

I hardly know where to start with this little bit of spleen. What's the point of that snotty little 'I watch more TV than you do' bleat if you're calling for MORE 'disposable' programs? Who the hell cares how much TV you watch if you're actually calling for the medium to be DUMBER?

If poor widdle Leonard can't manage to, you know, FOLLOW a show or two, maybe he ought to re-think his job as a fucking TV CRITIC.

"24" has never for a moment been anything but insanely enthralling TV, whether Leonard could find the wherewithal to keep up or not. The new show "Vanished" has been consistently gripping. The serial format is tried and true, based on the most fundamental underpinning of all fiction, 'what happens next?' ...

So: on the one hand, Leonard still has plenty of disposable TV - "House," for instance, or the new show "Justice." And on the other hand, a serial done well delivers better than anything else on TV (while we're on the subject, I whole-heartedly recommend you buy or rent "Murder One," a fantastic early example of how TV can do this format right).

Over in Harper's, a strong issue with many points of interest. First, Daniel Ellsberg writes a piece in the 'Notebook' section for which he's uniquely qualified.

Ellsberg released classified information about the Vietnam War to the press - the so-called Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg did what he did in the hopes of even slightly shortening the war, and in this article he urges a lot more of the same on the part of current and recent government employees.

He singles out Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism expert whose opinions about, among other things, Iraq weren't in line with the Bush administration. Clarke tells Larry King that if he'd have publicly criticized the president before the invasion of Iraq - much less gone public with internal evidence that the public justifications for the war were bogus - he'd have been 'fired within an hour.'

Ellsberg agrees with him:

His unperceived alternative, I wish to suggest, was precisely to court being fired for telling the truth to the public, with documentary evidence, in the summer of 2002. For doing that, Clarke would not only have lost his job, his clearance, and his career as an executive official; he would almost surely have been prosecuted, and he might have gone to prison. But the controversy that ensued would not have been about hindsight and blame. It would have been about whether war on Iraq would make the United States safer, and whether it was otherwise justified.

That debate did not occur in 2002 - just as a real debate about war in Vietnam did not occur in 1964 - thanks to the disciplined reticence of Clarke and many others. Whatever his personal fate, which might have been severe, his disclosures would have come before the war. Perhaps, instead of it.

Ellsberg calls for 'the Pentagon Papers of the Middle East.' He pre-supposes that the Bush administration is gearing up for a presumptive nuclear strike on Iran, and he urges everyone involved in the administration with any documented knowledge of that gearing-up to come forward, publish, speak out - even at risk of their personal lives.

This is stern stuff, with which I entirely agree. Our current administration is composed almost entirely of small, brutal creatures who completely RELY on the fact that most people like to act in crowds, looking out for their own interests.

The only way to deal with such creatures is to confront them directly, over and over, all the time, on every single point. 'Security' people order you to open your bag for inspection? Don't do it. Tell your friends not to do it. If EVERYBODY refuses, the basic machinery of fascism breaks down.

Certainly Ellsberg's advice is a Helluva lot better than that found elsewhere in this issue, specifically an essay by George McGovern and William Polk called "The Way out of War."

McGovern is an old nutjob who once ran for president, and for all I know, Polk is descended from the nutjob of the same name who actually WAS president. But I started their article with an open mind, I swear.

Until I got to this:

We should of course withdraw from the Green Zone, our vast, sprawling complex in the center of Baghdad... The Green Zone should be turned over to the Iraqi government no later than December 31, 2007. By this time, the U.S. should have bought, or rented, or built a 'normal' embassy for a considerably reduced complement of personnel. Symbolically, it would be beneficial for the new building not to be in the Green Zone. Assuming that a reasonable part of the Green Zone's cost can be saved, there should be no additional cost to create a new American embassy for an appropriate number of not more than 500 American officials, as opposed to the 1000 or so Americans who today staff the Green Zone.

I confess, I read this with my jaw agape. And it's about here my forebearing open mind slammed shut - this kind of daffy utopianism is only possible if the people involved NEVER WATCH TV NEWS OR READ A FUCKIN NEWSPAPER. If you're worried about the cost, why not sententiously 'advise' that when people eat, they poop money? THAT should pay for things quite nicely.

But I haven't even shared the true whammy of the piece, the perfect sign to back away slowly from these two looney tunes:

Insofar as is practical, the new building should not be designed as though it were a beleagured fortress in enemy territory.

Hell no! Why on Earth WOULD it look that way?

Sometimes, the penny press can be so damn exasperating ...