Monday, December 18, 2006

Books! a small selection from the pile!

We here at Stevereads are aware that some of you think we spend all our time either arbitrating lovers' spats between Hippolyta and Sebastian, or slapping down Kevin's comic book snobbery, or asking Jeff to explain something. or making smart-aleck remarks about the colossal failure of Beepy's one-woman Broadway play (a musical revue of the novel of Fanny Burney? Oh Beepy! This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you ...).

But such is not entirely the case. As hinted at in the title of our little community here, we do a fair amount of reading.

A suggestion was recently made that we at least mention - and preferrably review - every single book we read. We viewed the suggestion with a certain amount of doubt, since it seems pretty damn masochistic on the part of the suggester.

Our young friend and comrade in intoxication, TS Bacon, has already made himself merry by jibing at the obscurity we sometimes sink into here at Stevereads ('What obscure 16th century guy are you writing about now?' he's been known to waggishly call across the quad). If we were to annotate every book we read, this site would be SWAMPED with obscurity, and we surely don't want THAT.

Just the other day, for instance, we read a wonderful examination of the processes of the plebian voting assemblies of the Roman Republic. Days earlier, we read and very much enjoyed a long, annotated analysis of currency debasement in the reign of Queen Mary. Now we ask you: aside from provoking another sarcastic volley from TS Bacon, what good would it do for such books to be reviewed at length here?

Tedium is not our aim, but let's be honest: we here at Stevereads read deep in history and biography and the classics, just as many of our readers read deep in their own domains. Into what hinterlands of specificity could John lead us all on twentysomething poets, after all? Or Beepy on the complex societies of Guineau Pigs ***? Or Kevin on subatomic birds and beasts and their antics? Or Sebastian on ... well, on Sebastian. And so on.

We here at Stevereads read, for instance, every Star Trek novel that's written. We read every one of the burgeoning (and nauseatingly consistently crappy) line of DC Comics novels, though there's absolutely no reason to. We read at an enormous ground-clearing speed, and this tempts us into byways of both scintillating erudition and pure crapola so often that it wouldn't serve anybody's purpose if we were to dissect every single thing we read.

But that leaves plenty we CAN discuss! SO many books worthy of your consideration! Here are a few:

The Shock of the Old by David Edgerton - this wonderful book is all about recent advances in technology, but the catch is that 'recent technology' handily includes a great many things that feel like they've been around forever.

Edgerton's tone is wonderful - knowing yet wondering, smart without any condescension. It reminded us here at Stevereads of the calm, funny, wonderful voice of James Burke as he narrated the long-lost mini-series 'Connections' (we'd go on at great, detailed length about 'Connections' ... but alas, this isn't 'Stevesees' so it falls outside our jurisdiction)(on a side note, several of you have urged the CREATION of just such a site as 'Stevesees' .... partly because not all of you read nearly as much as you watch stuff, and partly, one assumes, because you just CAN'T GET ENOUGH of my sweet self - so what say the rest of you? That most awesome of all questions is upon you: do you want EVEN MORE Steveblogging in your future, for 2007? We abide by the will of the people)

Likewise there's an unexpected brio in Simon Baker's 'Ancient Rome,' the companion volume to the upcoming BBC documentary. Oh, don't get me wrong: these series are always (almost! almost always! We think, of course, of Ken Burns' magnificent 'The Civil War') imbecilic. They freeze-dry the past and then carve it up into pre-digestible packets and serve it up with hammy music and untrustworthy graphics. They're least-common-denominator history, and usually their book-companions are equally dumb.

But not in this case! Baker's book is smart and fast-paced and might prove very useful to the general reader who wants a good accessible introduction to ancient Rome.

Of course such an introduction will feature the Second Punic War and its epic confrontation between the Romans and Hannibal, and if that name doesn't sound right without 'Lector' added to it, you're probably the target audience for Thomas Harris' latest book, "Hannibal Rising."

Maybe you'll approach the book with the excitement, remembering how you enjoyed the good doctor's three previous appearances. We here at Stevereads thought 'Red Dragon' was an extremely well-done thriller. We liked 'Silence of the Lambs' even more, found it a broader and more beautiful work. And we thought 'Hannibal' was in almost all ways superior to both, a masterfully ambitious book of true wisdom and steep art (except for the wretched, awful, illogical, treacherous conclusion, for which Harris ought to feel ashamed for the rest of his life).

There's virtually nothing of those books in this one. A well-etched scene here, a sharp turn of phrase there, but that's quite all. Everything else in it is thin gruel indeed and often inadvertently funny.

Harris here gives us the origin story of Hannibal Lecter, a noble childhood blighted by the barbarity of the Second World War.

Rich stuff, in potential - but the potential is entirely squandered. Hannibal the child is creepy and homicidal. Hannibal the teenager is creepy and homicidal. No attempt is made to probe what makes young people turn into the older men they become. Indeed, the strangest thing about this book might very well be the utter indifference it shows toward human psychology, the very bread and butter of all the previous books.

No, this just a tale of young Hannibal exacting revenge on the men who, during the war, killed and ate his sister. The revenges take all manner of baroque forms, and then the book ends. There's no life in it at all, and that's not even its biggest mystery.

No, the biggest mystery of this book is why we're still hearing about Hannibal Lecter at all. Oh yes, yes, there's the money being offered to Harris - but dammit, the man WRITES like somebody who values writing over money. Why aren't we reading about NEW characters from him, perhaps characters even more compelling than Clarice Starling and Hannibal Lecter? Why are we still reading about this one guy?

The book gives no hint of an answer, and for that reason and many others, it's the very first Thomas Harris book that's not worth reading. Let's hope it's the last such. We need all the good writers we can get.

Never, never would we have thought we'd ever have cause to segue to Norman Mailer - of all people - upon mention of 'good writers,' but facts must be faced.

And the fact confronting us here is this: at the end of his life, in his 80th year, after having mis-fired more often than black market Canadian fireworks, Norman Mailer has written a great book.

It's achievement enough to write one - all who write yearn to do so, and ninety-nine percent fail. The tiny fraction who succeed almost always succeed only once.

Mailer succeeded twice - first with 'The Naked and the Dead,' and then with 'The Executioner's Song' - and the law of diminishing returns demands that's enough. The same law certainly says no writer is going to hit the top of his game after the age of 60, much less 70. 80 is beyond the pale, and yet here is 'The Castle in the Forest.'

This is a mighty work, quietly so. It's a garrulous (this was unavoidable), wise, questioning, extremely detailed, historically acute, and dauntingly eloquent book, exactly the KIND of book so often written by a striving 23-year-old.

It's nothing short of miraculous that it's written by our Norman Mailer, in the 8th decade of his life.

But perhaps it's understandable, that fire should be struck from such an old flint. Not only is Mailer old enough to feel the ultimate motivating force of any writer (my voice is to be heard no more? MY voice? No! It must not be!), but in 'The Castle in the Forest' he's writing to his singular strength.

Mailer has always been a writer of ultimates. He's sought for them, for some clear and clean vindication of writing at all - the unspoken yearning of the so-called 'greatest generation' for .... well, for validation, though they (nor their subsequent advocates) would adamantly deny it.

Here Mailer takes on not God (he's tried that, disasterously) nor Jesus (he's tried that too, with results even more embarrassing than those achieved by his erstwhile sparring-partner Gore Vidal) nor even Hitler (though he's the heart and soul of the book) but Satan himself, Satan and the whole problem of evil in the world.

These are questions best fit for old men of fierce intellect, but I'd have been the last person on Earth to nominate Mailer - vain, posturing, misfiring Mailer - to that cast, until this book. Until this book, I'd have said there's no more reason for reading Mailer.

And lots of reason for reading Pynchon, but there's the rub: After a similar period of silence, both our lions have whelped betimes, and their offsprings will groan the bookstore tables side by side.

But Pynchon's huge book is a false-born monstrosity compared to this thing from Mailer, fierce and long and endlessly, angrily justifying its own length and complexity.

This is a book of an extremely young man. And so, the least likely words in the whole world: God bless you, Norman Mailer. This book took long, long brutal hours to write (at an age when most other men seek only rest), and it instructs and often scintillates. So we here at Stevereads undertake a re-consideration of Mailer's entire corpus, which is a mighty burden this late in the year.

And we can continue on an equally positive note: Philippa Gregory's sequel to her bestselling and intensely enthralling 'The Other Boleyn Girl,' 'The Boleyn Inheritance' is every bit as good as the original, a stunning, wonderful reading experience.

As some of you may know, we here at Stevereads have not only read widely in Tudor fiction but also dipped our own oar into those turbulent waters. We can say with some authority: it's monstrous horrible hard, to write historical fiction in that particular time period. Everybody knew everybody, everybody intermarried with everybody, and everybody with a little money had three or four titles, and used any one of those titles as NAMES, on a randomly-rotating basis. Keeping it all straight was a burden even while LIVING through it. For the historical novelist, it's a minefield almost impossible to traverse.

Gregory pulls it off luminously. 'The Boleyn Inheritance,' the story of the largely unfortunate women who succeeded Anne Boleyn as Henry's queen, is a damn fine job. It will please the most exacting Tudor scholar, and like its predecessor, it will equally please someone completely ignorant of the period. One of the delights of 'The Other Boleyn Girl' was watching it WIN OVER people who never saw themselves reading 500-page historical novels. It's our pleasure to report that the sequel also has this magic about it.

So there you have it! A small nosegay of new, accessible books about non-obscure subjects! I'd go on longer, but I think I hear a ruckus in the comments field - I must go and see who's pulling whose pigtails ...


hippolyta said...


1) You're asking for a beating from Mama Chan by recommending Philippa Gregory.

2) Yes, Norman Mailer is in his 80s (83) but this would plant him solidly in the 9th decade of his life, not the 8th. Lest we forget, there are ten early formative years that aren't preceded with a 1 or 2 or 3... For example, I'm in my twenties and in my... oh... what?... THIRD decade of life.

Jeff E. said...

It's nice to see our newest comments field gladiatrix isn't afraid to smack Steve around whenever possible.

Ken Burn's civil war documentary is, of course, utterly wonderful. I haven't seen the one he did on baseball, but this summer I read the 35lb coffee table book that was the companion volume to it and that was quite good.

I was in B&N on Saturday and saw two new books that I thought looked good, both of which were reviewed in the NY Times Book Review the next day. I'd be curious to hear your opinions of them, Steve.

The new biography ‘William James’ by Robert Richardson jumped out at me because of Richardson's masterful bio of Emerson and decent bio of H.D. Thoreau. Unfortunately the Times reviewer said he's very ham-fisted with the subtleties of James' philosophy, so I'm in need of a second opinion.

'Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy' by Ian Toll got a great review for Toll's treatment of the psychology of the cocksure, dueling-obsessed officers in the new navy. Sounds like a good read.

What sayeth the Great Steve?

Kevin Caron said...

Wonderful post, Steve (and not just because I'm mentioned by name once or twice, though that helps). It's dripping with love for books (nice to see an all-rave episode from one who has earned his street cred after ample, justified exposure of his deadly critical fangs), which I honestly find quite motivating. I've always found it hard to get too down on life when I can stop and think of all of the great books I have yet to read.

I would certainly check out a "SteveSees" blog; you've got my vote.

Sam Sacks said...

Mama Chan beats people if she doesn't approve of the books they like? Does she have meaty forearms? Terrifying.

I also liked Burns' Jazz documentary. However, my roommate has just starting Netflixing the New York documentary by brother RIC Burns, and so far it's awful, reductive and inelegant.

But Steve! We here have all read three hundred thousand reviews of Pynchon's latest, and your passing innuendo of its merits (or lack thereof) doesn't cut it. Care to flesh out your thoughts on Against the Day? Likewise anyone else in these here fields who's read it.

I agree that The Naked and the Dead is great. And I haven't read Mailer's other stuff, so I'm less poisoned against him...and therefore will give this one a go.

steve said...

I, too, consider Richardson's biography of Emerson a masterpiece - which makes it all the more melancholy for me that his William James book isn't anywhere near as good. Oh, he's done all the research - future James biographers will all use this book - but the element that made his Emerson book so thrilling, the feeling that he was delivering up the man himself, vitally alive, is almost entirely missing in his new book. I think the reason is clear (it's the same reason that's similarly thwarted everybody else who's attempted this task): William James is just too damn complicated for him. Faced with such complexity, Richardson too often yields to the temptation to flatten out an insight or pad over a discrepancy - and after a while, these add up. It was Edith Wharton who once remarked that it was the two brothers themselves, Henry and William, who were the only people on Earth who could write their biographies, each of the other, and I think (with all due apologies to Leon Edel) she might have been right.

'Six Frigates,' on the other hand, is flat-out wonderful. It's less scholarly than I would have liked (and it is so for a REASON I intensely dislike: you can feel at every turn that Toll thinks 'scholarly' means 'dull' ... grrrr), and its alert reader will finish it feeling slightly ill-informed about the time period in which it's set. But hoo-boy! Toll knows good stories when he finds them in dusty archives! The book is ALIVE in exactly the way Richardson's isn't.

Two interesting choices, in other words, but 'Six Frigates' gets the nod as far as spending-money goes.

steve said...

Sam! For about half a dozen reasons, I would LOVE to have a good detailed account of your reaction to Mailer's book ... I can't for the life of me predict if you'll love it or hate it, but I feel certain it'll HIT you one way or the other.

For my part, I can certainly 'do' Pynchon at length, but it's crowding all the end-of-year goodies I've got percolating. Only so many days left in the year, after all!

steve said...

And O! My sweet Hippolyta, have no fear: to me, you'll always be a pre-pubescent girl ...

... wait ... that came out wrong ...

Jeff E. said...

Sweet! Thanks Steve. I'll wait to see what Santa brings this year, but if I don't find 'Six Frigates' in my stocking I think I'll go for it when I get back to NYC.

hippolyta said...

Likewise, Steve.

steve said...

A) Jeff, if this paganano-mythical 'Santa' fails to deliver 'Six Frigates,' I TRUST you'll allow me to give it to you myself. After all, your spending money is better tended in being saved up for chair-restoration projects in (early) 2007...

B) why thank you, Hippolyta ... er, wait! Hang on a sec! 'likewise' in this case would impute to ME the status of a pre-pubescent girl! And that's hardly accurate, for such an example of MOLTEN, RAGING, HAIRY-CHESTED heterosexuality as myself! Surely, there's a misunderstanding somewhere along the line ...

hippolyta said...


Hey, by the way, did you end up buying that "Studs and Spurs" half-nekkid man-meat calendar that you were drooling over at work the other day?

Kevin Caron said...

Well, now we know where we're going to get the next "I'm a Stone Cold Super Hottie" picture from...

Beepy said...

Kevin - Thanks for my morning laugh. I hope I can get the coffee off my keyboard...

steve said...

A) I wasn't 'drooling,' I was aesthetically appreciating.

B) I'm sure I have NO idea what Kevin is insinuating by his comment

C) However, the comment itself is once again bringing him perilously close to BANISHMENT ETERNAL (and the Beepy he rode in on!) ...

Kevin Caron said...

I guess now I'm joining you on the brink of extinction, Beepy! This'll cheer you up - from the "Findings" section of the new Harper's:

"It was discovered that manatees, contrary to common opinion, are really quite smart."

"Common opinion?" Guess they didn't poll SteveReads!

Now back to my regularly scheduled blizzard.

Ted Burke said...

I quite agree that The Castle in the Forest is a great novel,but Norman Mailer has written a number of brilliant books. Joan Didion, reviewing The Executioner's Song , made the point that the recieved wisdom about Mailer was that he had yet to write the Big Book that he'd been promising since Advertisements for Myself and that in fact such folks were more concerned with celebrity than they were with the actual writing. Mailer, she insisted persuasively, had in fact writter several "Big Books", including in her precis An American Dream, Why Are We in Vietnam. Didion is a hard critic to satisfy and her praise for Mailer's frequent is on solid ground. He is often the fool, the braggart, the out and out asshole, but few literary writers have taken the risks Mailer has with his reputation. What remains, after he is gone and the gossip meaningless to anyone, are the books, alot of them, most of them
offering the sort of genius that is of it's time and beyond it as well. Mailer achieved greatness long ago by the practice of writing, and The Castle in the Forest , likely to be slammed by a rash of blurb addicted dunces sadly equipped with keyboards and internet connections, is to my thinking just further proof of the brilliance he's demonstrated time and again, decade after decade.