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.


Sam said...

The only thing better than a great dollar cart selection are the FREE review books that magazines and journals no longer need, if you can worm yourself into their mailrooms before the things get sold to rapacious used book stores with city-roaming vans. I'm reading one such book, which I could NEVER otherwise afford: Life in the Undergrowth, by David Attenborough, all about bugs big, small, and smaller. The best things are of course the hundreds of incredible photographs, but Attenborough has arranged the book (made in conjunction with a TV special, that I very much want to see) in a wise way, chronologically from the first creatures to emerge from the sea up to the super complex insect societies; and his prose is lucid and friendly. Might even be worth the splurge if you can't find it for free!

lockep said...

Jeez! Where are the Penny Press and Comics reviews?!?! It's like all you read are BOOKS... and big, thick, and gay books that I don't understand! That said, I do myself have a very impressive collection of brown recluse bite jpegs that I turn to browsing when the world gets me down...

steve said...

So what you're saying, Sam, is that you're BETTER than the rest of us? That people give you free books because of your sooper-sexy voice? Perhaps that you're studying the rest of us the way Sir David studies his precious bugs?

steve said...

I just KNOW the preponderant reaction I'm going to get from this entry, ESPECIALLY from all the people who whined the loudest for it: a big muttered 'meh' of pained indifference, accompanied by something along the lines of 'oh gawd, I don't even have time to read the Metro! When will I ever get around to all these books?'

Which is exactly why I was going a little light on the book-entries...

Beepy said...

Steve...if manatees were carnivores, I'd feel as if I'd just stood up after a big steak dinner. Thanks so much for the book news.

Lockep...I feel justified in giving Steve trouble about not writing about books because every time I ask what he's been reading, he tells me to go read his blog.

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