Tuesday, October 24, 2006
Books: Starships and Trojans!
We here at Stevereads are regularly inundated with advance reading copies of all manner of upcoming books, hurled at us by supplicant publishing houses in the faint hope of a mere mention here on this, the hottest site on the Interweb.
Ah, if only that paragraph were true! But we here at Stevereads have done precious little to get the word out to the rest of the world that this little bit of paradise even exists. And none of YOU little marmosets has done enough either - we're all guilty here.
Instead of being courted as a digital tastemaker, I'm forced to get my advance copies the old fashioned way: a rickety, jury-rigged network of friends and acquaintances seeded throughout every level of the book industry - from lowly booksellers all the way up the food chain (yes, I'm not ashamed to admit it, though it's a season-ending social stain: I actually know a publisher).
We all keep up a vigorous, vaguely circular current of favors and counter-favors (some of us are worse at it than others, Jack...), and it manages to keep me supplied with a large number of things I want to read nownownow.
Four items from the last four or five days stand out from the muck of rotten novels and featherweight memoirs:
Ships of the Line, edited by Margaret Clark - this is a wonderful, wonderful treat for any Star Trek fan. It's a hugely detailed, merrily authoritative compendium of all the various vessels featured in all the various incarnations of Star Trek. The cover alone would make a poster lots of fans would like to frame. A great deal of this material has been in print before - in the form of two nearly-identical little paperback volumes, one devoted to smaller vessels, the other to starship-class vessels. These two volumes are almost comically inter-confusable and in any case stupidly hard to find, so this new volume comes as a godsend from the Great Bird of the Galaxy.
Two volumes of military history:
Dunkirk by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore - The author's writing style is a bit dry, but his research is immense and leaves out no detail or ramification of the gigantic ignominious defeat that is his subject.
The more you know about military tactics and strategy, the more you groan aloud when reading about Dunkirk, and to his credit, Sebag-Montefiore reigns in any outrage he's feeling. Slogging through this book's 700 pages, I found myself wishing for a little MORE outrage, a little more fire under the floorboards. As it is, I could only recommend this big book to devotedly avid military history readers. The rest of you would be bored spitless, even though the book deals with an utterly fascinating subject (pull down your Palmer & Colton - I've certainly given you a copy over the years - and get more of a Dunkirk THRILL in four pages than this entire book manages to deliver).
Delivery isn't a problem with Paul Cartledge's Thermopylae - he knows he has a slam-bang great story to tell, as has everybody else who's told the same story.
This is a really good book - readable, well-researched, almost fun, about a hugely crucial Western battle that's equally memorably captured in Frank Miller's 300, a great hardcover graphic novel about Sparta's doomed fight against the hordes of Persia.
Thermopylae is well worth your time, as exciting and informative as any book on an entirely relevant 2000-year-old Bronze Age conflict could be to the iPod generation (i.e. completely, although none of you will read the sentence non-ironically..).
The last item on our little tour is the best: Robert Fagles' new translation of Virgil's Aeneid.
Fagles is already well-known for successfully pulling off the other two legs of the translation triple crown: he's already done the Iliad and the Odyssey, to critical acclaim that was perhaps a touch overdone. That acclaim is going to go into overdrive when this book come out.
Like the previous two volumes, this one is adorned with a fantastic, separately anthology-worthy long essay by Bernard Knox. Like with the previous two volumes, I find myself only middle-of-the-line praising Fagles' translation but absolutely ecstatic about Knox's introduction. In some scary future world where readers can design every feature of their own books (Japanese scientists are already working on it ...), I would transplant the Knox introduction onto some better translation of Virgil.
And which would that be, you all breathlessly wonder? Some of you will know that I accord top Homer-translating honors (for this century) to Robert Fitzgerald, who also did an Aeneid. Or what about good old Stanley Lombardo, whose own Aeneid failed to garner the attention his slightly free-wheeling translations of Homer did? Or what if we range beyond the 20th century? Some of you will already know of my fondness, my more than fondness, for Dryden ....
But no, it would have to go to Allen Mandelbaum. His Aeneid is the best English translation I've ever read (and I've read every published one, and a couple that very deservedly aren't published). Mandelbaum comes the closest to capturing all the different moods of the poem - its stately grandeur, its sometimes wild imagery, and most of all the quality that foils so many translators: the beauty of the verse (more than one translator over the centuries has got so caught up in the whole 'poet of empire' aspect of Virgil that they seem to forget he wrote some of the most beautiful pastoral verse in the world).
Still, Fagles' Virgil - like his Homer - is very good, certainly good enough to recommend - and the addition of magnificent opening essay tips the scales well in the book's favor. This thing will be VERY well-stocked at your local Barnes & Noble when it comes out, although the mind boggles at WHY (other than money changing hands, which is the reason, but still...) - surely there aren't 30 adults in the country who'd actually relish this as a present come year's end?
And there you have it! A tiny little crystal-ball peek into a few choice upcoming titles. Many such journeys are possible; let me be your gateway ...