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.


Anonymous said...

you thnk Chaucer is better than Shakespeare? Ive had like ten English teachers who would disagree with you!!

Kevin Caron said...

Ive had like ten English teachers who would thnk your spelling and grammar need work!!

I'll refrain from weighing in on the Chaucer/Shakespeare debate, as I'm from Canterbury (CT), and potentially biased.

steve said...

I want to know who that first poster is - and more importantly, I want to write your term papers for you!