Monday, October 23, 2006

In the Penny Press! Darwin on the shortlist!


Our tour of the Penny Press today begins with the New Yorker, of course (some of you will know that I very annoyingly read the New Yorker on Fridays, religiously, which invariably means I want to talk about it long after those few of you who read it have forgotten what you skimmed).

It couldn't possibly equal last week's jam-packed issue, and it didn't - but it was damn close. Another wonderful issue.

The biggest surprise was a second consecutive week of my LIKING the fiction - usually, I hate the New Yorker's timid, pallid, plotless fiction. But this week's short story, "Stairway to Heaven" by Aleksandar Hemon, was pretty good (despite the young-author enabling validation of smoking).

By far the best thing in this issue was Adam Gopnik's "Rewriting Nature" piece about Charles Darwin and On the Origin of Species.

Gopnik is a problematically sporadic writer, for a fairly simple reason: on the one hand, he's an impeccably refined prose stylist. And on the other hand, he's a feckin liar.

In a civilized society (you know, one with some legal equivalent of habeas corpus), this wouldn't work out to a problem - the lying would overcompensate for any amount of writing-skill, and the author would be out-of-hand condemned.

But this isn't a civilized society - it's Byzantium: corrupt beyond redemption, choked by religious zealotry, and threatened on all sides by barbarians with an iron lock on eventual victory.

So we can forgive Gopnik for being a feckin liar - we can like his prose despite the fact that in every piece he writes, he includes at least one howling wopper.

This time around, it's one little tossed-off phrase in his review of From So Simple a Beginning edited by Edward O. Wilson:

And Wilson's collection, read right through, shows that Darwin really was one of the great natural English prose stylists.

'Wilson's collection,' in this case, is a 2,700 page volume that includes The Voyage of the HMS Beagle, On the Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, and The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals.

In other words, that 'read right through' is pure unadulterated codswollop. When Gopnik insinuates that he read 2,700 pages of Darwin's prose style, I'm tempted to offer him Rumpole's response: Pull the other one, it's got bells on it.

Still, the article itself is pure gold. Here's Gopnik on the essential dilemma Darwin faced:

He sensed that his account would end any intellectually credible idea of divine creation, and he wanted to break belief without harming the believer, particularly his wife, Emma, whom he loved devotedly and with whom he had shared, before he sat down to write, a private tragedy that seemed tolerable to her only through faith. The problem he faced was also a rhetorical one: how to say something that had never been said before in a way that made it sound like something everybody had always known.

Gopnik concentrates on what he calls 'the single most explosive sentence in English' ("We thus learn that man is descended from a hairy quadruped, furnished with a tail and pointed ears, probably arboreal in its habits, and an inhabitant of the Old World.") - he comes back over and over to the novelistic bravura Darwin brings to all of his prose:

Analogy is avoided, and then the most unsettling analogy of all is grandly asserted, and without apology. They're us; we're them.

Over in the New York Review of Books, Paul Kennedy reviews Niall Ferguson's The War of the World to largely favorable conclusions. I myself have written a review of said book, and it's clear to me now that the forum for which that review was intended isn't going to run it. So I'll get to work on transcribing it here as soon as possible, so that all you worshipful Stevereads acolytes can drool over it.

At one point in his review, just before launching on a shortlist of other notable histories of the 20th Century, Kennedy writes: "All shortlists are artificial creations" ...

... which might be true of all OTHER, LESSER shortlists, but which, as I'm sure you'd all agree, certainly ISN'T true here at Stevereads. Our shortlists are so authoritative as to be oracular.
For instance:

Top Five Science Fiction Movies of All Time:

5. Silent Running
4. Blade Runner
3. Starship Troopers
2. Pitch Black
1. Alien

Or what about this:

Top 5 Most Consistently Well-Written Star Trek Characters:

5. Bones McCoy
4. Worf
3. Captain Janeway
2. Trip Tucker
1. Quark

See? Oracular!

13 comments:

Sam Sacks said...

Whaddaya mean they're not going to run the review?! Provided the site still exists they sure as hell will run it.

Jeff E. said...

About a month before Pitch Black was released in theaters I saw on late-nite TV a cheap, Australian(?) sci-fi show based on the Riddick character. It was all back story (Riddick's past, his imprisonment, etc.) and at the pace they were setting they would have rolled though the Pitch Black episode in 20 minutes and kept going. It was very, very good. Any idea what that was?

steve said...

I remember that show! It was called Jeff's On Crack, and it's just about to be released on DVD with lots of added bonus features, including the episode of MASH where Colonel Potter takes it up the ass from Hawkeye!

SO many fond, delusional memories of Jeff's On Crack!

Jeff E. said...

"Into Pitch Black is an hour-long companion special to the USA Films feature film "Pitch Black." It tells the story of how, in the distant future, the transport ship Hunter Gratzner fell out of the sky, its crew members were awakened from hypersleep, and a bound and gagged prisoner, Riddick (Diesel), escaped. Nineteen weeks later, broken transmissions arrive from a search and rescue team that has landed on the desert planet T2 to discover the fate of the starship. The transmissions are beamed to an investigator (Gant), who has been assigned to figure out what happened to the ship, to the team that went after it, and to Riddick."

To read the whole review of "Into Pitch Black" click the link below and then scroll about 1/2 way down the page.

SciFi.com review of Into Pitch Black

Crack, indeed.

steve said...

ulp ... does this mean I owe you another book?

Jeff E. said...

What does your conscience tell you?

And then, regardless of your conscience, yes you do. {:^)

Kevin Caron said...

Jeeze, Steve - at least do a Google search before you crack on Jeff!

steve said...

Don't you 'do a Google search' me, you punk! My 'crack' was FUNNY, dammit! Don't make me turn this blog around!

Kevin Caron said...

Truth be told, I was a big fan of "Jeff's On Crack" myself - especially Season Two.

Kevin Caron said...

Those Sci-Fi Shortlists are a head-scratcher, by the way. I don't think I would have gone with any of those choices, on either list ('cept maybe Bones). Weird.

steve said...

head-scratcher indeed! Keep up these seditious comments, and I'll scratch your head myself - with DEATH!

Kevin Caron said...

Yes, sir!

1moreslogger said...

Comments got short and grumpy at the end but the Rumpole quote alone was worth reading it all.