Monday, October 30, 2006
There can be few innocent delights quite as enjoyable as a trip to the Brattle Bookshop on a fine spring day.
Thanks to global warming, that's exactly what we here at stevereads experienced today, since it was nearly 70 degrees in downtown Boston on the 30th day of October (about 35 degrees warmer than normal).
But we've learned to put aside thinking about the viciously incongruous changes in the weather (especially since New England is currently embarking on a season formerly known as 'winter,' when daytime temperatures can routinely be expected to dip below 50) and just concentrate on the fact that the absence of cold, wind, or rain means that the Brattle's bargain carts will be out in all their glory.
Some of you have visited these carts with me in the past, and most of those who have disdained them at first glance. This is understandable: the books are arranged in no special order, and they have a (literally) weatherbeaten look about them. You'll find no rare first editions here (the shop's proprietor, Ken Gloss, simply doesn't make those kinds of mistakes), but if you're not a book-snob and you're patient, you will almost certainly find treasure.
A big part of searching the carts involves ENGAGING with them. SO many friends over the years have experienced the same thing: they FIGHT the carts, obdurately waiting for the good books to shout out, grudgingly picking up one or maybe two in the course of fifteen minutes - only to look up and see me with a bulging armload. It's not that I'm a book-slut; it's that I squat down and dig around - I don't only listen to the books, I ask them questions.
Of course, another part of the difference is that at any given time I'm carrying around in my head a MUCH longer list of book-requests and potential book-recipients than most people. This, plus the extremely varied nature of my own reading, mean two things above all others: 1) I'm always going to enjoy myself browsing at the Brattle, and 2) I'm always going to WANT more than I can BUY.
The key is winnowing. As you're prowling the carts, you pull everything you're seriously interested in - hence the bulging armload. Don't leave anything on the cart thinking you'll come back to it: not only will you need all your potential choices in hand when winnowing-time comes, but anything you leave behind could be snapped up by somebody else (or completely blocked by a grunting, talking-to-himself Bill Knott). Then when you've gathered all the potential buys, be ruthless. Which are whims? Which are motivated by some trivial detail (cover design ... ulp ... edition size ... double ulp ... UK edition ... triple ulp...)? Is everything you buy something you'll REALLY read, or something a recipient will REALLY read?
Inevitably, there'll come times when even after you've winnowed for all you're worth, you're holding more books than you can buy. It happens to me all the time. It happened to me today.
The Brattle bargain shelves are segregated into $1, $3, and $5 sections. Even when I've got ducats aplenty in my pockets, I totally ignore the $5 shelves. And it's on the $3 shelves that the fun begins! I scan the $3 shelves not in order to buy but in order the HANDICAP which volumes might get marked down to $1 before some scab comes along and snatches them up. It's on the $3 carts that temptation is strongest, because there's always a voice in the back of your mind (even at your poorest) saying 'Aw, screw it - it's only $2 more ... buy it now!'
Usually, I'm adamant against that voice. Today I browsed all over, picked out a whole bunch of things - Michael Grant's little Penguin volume on Roman classics, a nice-looking edition of Ambrose Bierce's 'Devil's Dictionary,' a satisfyingly plump trade paperback of Elizabeth George's "Deception on His Mind," a handy little dictionary of world rulers, a UK edition of Flanagan's 'Tenants of Time, a study of American birds ...
In the end, I was the bitch of the $3 shelves. This time, anyway.
I picked out a trade paperback of the O.F. Moshead edition of Pepys' diary, mainly because of Ernest Shepard's utterly charming illustrations. I already have this edition in hardcover (where it's called 'Everybody's Pepys'), but this is hands-down my favorite edition to give to people, so I reasoned it was good to have a spare lying around. I know, I know - this is in direct violation of the Steve Library Accord of 2005 (no book purchase shall henceforth be made on behalf of speculative future recipients, since this leads to 80,000,000 feckin books covering every square inch of the the apartment)
I also picked out the big fat Running Press trade paperback called 'The Unabridged Mark Twain,' even though I've variously bought and sold and bought again this same volume countless times over the years, and I couldn't tell you why. All four of these Running Press volumes (the others are Poe, London, and Shakespeare) are well worth keeping for the sheer overabundant bounty they offer, so I made a mental vow not to dump this one EVER (even though its moronic 'opening remarks' are by that moron of all morons, the moronic Kurt Vonnegut).
The third thing I plopped for today was a nice trade paperback of Cecil Woodham-Smith's biography of Queen Victoria, which I bought because it's a nice sturdy trade with a Landseer painting on the cover. Woodham-Smith's version is a lot less bloated and plodding than Elizabeth Longford's, and it's a lot less acidic than Lytton Strachey's - it's in fact a lucid, delightful read all by itself.
I walked away shamed but happy - the $3 shelves had won this round, but for less than $10 I'd loaded up on three fat, fantastic volumes. It's only my expertise negotiating the $1 carts that made $9 feel like a lot of money. You gotta love a bookshop like that.
at 6:06 PM
The highlight - well, no, maybe the most noteworthy thing? - about the latest issue of Harper's is an essay by Marilynne Robinson dealing with "The God Delusion" by Richard Dawkins.
As some of you may know, we here at stevereads deeply revere Robinson's great novel 'Housekeeping.' We find far more problematic her second novel 'Gilead,' which read like something an extremely intelligent novelist would write if, a couple of years after her first novel, she discovered a lump during a routine breast exam - it wafted of religious hysteria.
In her review of the Dawkins book, she comes close to trotting out Stephen Jay Gould's 'non-overlapping magisteriums' but doesn't quite do it - for her, I suspect, we're still in a demon-haunted world.
She chides Dawkins mainly for having a wobbly grasp of history, for having no keen ear for the outermost implications of his own arguments, and for seeming indifferent to the state of science today.
All of which would be to the good if Robinson knew how to write nonfiction. As it is, calling her prose turgid would be an insult to the turgidy memory of John Ruskin:
"I have never seen the suggestion anywhere that the threat of imminent catastrophe on a 'biblical scale' - a phrase favored by journalists - wich has hung over the world for more than half a century, might have consequenes for the stability of the global public mind."
"Yet the image of a deeper reality invoked by [Dawkins] here suggests a basis for the ancient intuition of the persistence of the self despite the transiency of the elemtents of its physical embodiment."
"When the Zeitgeist turns Gorgon, the impulses toward cultural and biological eugenics have proved to be one and the same. It is diversity that makes any natural system robust, and diversity that stabilizes culture against the eccentricity and arrogance that have so often called themselves reason and science."
If you listen closely to some of these utterances, especially that last one, you'll hear the whispered matins of a 14th century monk ...
However, the piece did have one good effect: it's prompted me to review the Dawkins book myself, right here at stevereads. Several of you have emailed me wondering what I thought in detail, and it's wrong for me to deprive you so! Expect it soon!
Also in this issue of Harper's, we're informed that a man in Upper Pradesh, India was born with two fully functional penises - and has asked to have one of them cut off.
This story is unbelievable for not one but two reasons. We can only assume it was garbled in transmission, that what the Upper Pradesh man was really asking for was a great deal of alone-time.
And the final item comes from James C. McLane, an associate fellow at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. He's written a detailed proposal about the first manned mission to Mars.
He says the American public has an outdated and often tragic fixation with manned missions, especially missions with multiple passengers. He points out that a modern vessel capable of getting to Mars would only require one operator. And he suggests, for pratical as well as aesthetic reasons, that the trip be one-way.
We here at stevereads whole-heartedly agree. The only task left is to choose the exact right person for the job.
The person should be able to make vital decisions in a pinch - a real take-charge individual, somebody who's already a leader, a decider.
The person chosen will be travelling a very, very long distance into a total unknown - so they should be armed with the kind of religious faith that gains intensity from being embraced late in life, after many a foray into sin and depravity.
The person chosen will be alone for the long journey and then alone forever on Mars, so they should be extremely comfortable living in a mindset that not only doesn't require the input of others but actively seeks to avoid it. Our candidate should have a strong go-it-alone componant to their makeup.
Mars' environment is prone to extremes of harshness - conditions not for the faint of heart. Our candidate should have a bellicose - even glib - attitude toward these dangers, a real 'bring 'em on' mentality, even if - especially if - his equipment isn't equal to the task. Our heroes are larger than life, and/or they dress the part!
And the physical reality of Mars is awe-inspiring - gigantic mountain peaks, nearly bottomless gorges, wind-carved devil-faces, the works! In the face of all this majesty, our candidate should have a certain element of proper humility. So we should find someone who's been a failure at every job they've ever held, preferrably someone who's failed despite having everything handed to them without any work.
As soon as such a candidate is found, they should be shipped off to Mars without delay. As McLane says, this sacrifice "could well usher in a new age of international cooperation and respect for humanistic values." Which would certainly be an improvement over the world we live in now, wouldn't it?
As side note, since everybody else will be feeling the love except our lone Marsonaut, it would probably be best if the person we send HATES both international cooperation and humanistic values. That way they won't be missing anything.
So stand forth, O brave Marsonaut! Stand forth and do your duty! It's time for you to cut and run from planet Earth - as Mr. McLane so persuasively argues, once you're gone, once you're finally pried off the face of the feckin planet and hurled into space, the rest of us will find ourselves united, not divided. O what a glorious future!
at 8:05 AM
Sunday, October 29, 2006
Once upon a time, years ago, when we were both students at State University, my nemesis Pepito came across me rummaging through his midden-heap pile of new comics (if you're a possession of Pepito's, there's a 99 percent probability you'll end up on the floor around his ankles, unless you require some degree of refrigeration). He said 'Why don't chu buy your own comics, puta?'
I apologized gracefully, and I thought the matter was closed. It was only a month later that that Pepito was caught in the lab explosion that disfigured him and turned him to a life of crime and world domination, but I never forgot his earlier question.
In fact, I DO sometimes buy my own comics - always from the good folks at Comicopia (insert hyper/hot link here). The Weekly Dig (ditto) recently voted them the Dig This comic shop of Boston, and I couldn't agree more. The store's owner is funny, wry master of realpolitik, his goateed lieutenant knows that successful retail means smiling at everybody even when you don't feel like it, and best of all, the shop boasts that rarest of subspecies: the FEMALE comic-geek. And the cherry on the pie here is that she's gorgeous - avid, luminous eyes, rings in her lower lip, and a joyfully adept command of the English language. I can't count the number of times I've lingered in the stacks just to listen to her 'geek out' with some customer about some title she loves, just for the joy of hearing passion at work.
The point is, I bought some comics this week. Let's go issue by issue, shall we?
* The New Avengers #24, written by Brian Michael Bendis and magnificently drawn by Pasqual Ferry - this issue kinda-sorta addresses the question of what you do if you create a half-assed knockoff of Superman (in this case, the Sentry) and need him to take a position in the ongoing Civil War storyline.
Make no mistake, the Sentry is a suckass character, no matter how his various writers decide to gussy him up (psychological problems, basically, are the only thing that stop him from being the only superhero the Marvel universe would ever need).
The problem is generational - i.e. company-based. It's only in the DC universe that HEROES have Sentry's kind of virtually unlimited power. Wonder Woman, who's as strong as Hercules; Green Lantern, who can make anything he imagines happen; Superman; the Spectre.
Marvel has always been different. Its heroes have always been less-powered and more vulnerable (even Thor, a god, reverts to human form if separated from his hammer - and not just any human but, of course, a CRIPPLED human). At Marvel, it's always been the VILLAINS who were all-powerful (Molecule Man, the Beyonder, Mephisto, Galactus, etc).
So of course it's awkward that Marvel would invest some weight in this Sentry tool - AND then have no feckin idea how to deal with him when its big crossover event occurs.
The issue finds Sentry on the moon, mooning over whatever. The Inhumans, who live on the moon, attack him and then invite him to dinner. Throughtout the issue, Bendis' writing is wonderful and adult and evocative, and it's nothing to Ferry's fantastic artwork.
The key development of the issue is Iron Hitler's visit to Attilan, where he tries to make the case for his putsch against super-beings who disagree with him.
I like the sense of restraint. I like the fact that the Inhumans aren't portrayed as saints (or simps - the important thing to remember about these people is that they aren't third world refugees: they're older than mankind, ruled by a man who - despite the somewhat disparaging entry in the Official Handbook - 2 tons indeed!), and, simply, I like the Inhumans
Still, you just KNOW that the ramifications of this issue won't be played out. If they were, a character who's able to find and crush any opposition would end the whole Civil War pretty quick.
*Next up is a shame-faced admission of error on the part of the good folk here at stevereads. As you all know by now, we're usually completely infallible - but for some reason, Alex Ross' ongoing Justice League title, Justice, sent a crazyworm up our butt pretty much immediately, and it's stayed there ever since.
I don't know why the latest issue caught my eye at all. Not only was there the aforementioned crazyworm, but there was also the fact that the cover, thought beautifully drawn, features the Flash bearing down on Captain Cold at super-speed. This was certainly not a mark in its favor: the Flash is a boring character. He runs fast! Big feckin deal! So he has the best rogues gallery in the DC universe, so what? You know how he defeats each of them? By running fast! Yawn.
For whatever reason, I bought the issue - and am well reprimanded for the aforementioned crazyworm resentment of the title. This is fantastic stuff, epic and delightfully true.
This storyline, the big, ungainly storyline, is, I now see, entirely under its writers' control (Jim Krueger and Alex Ross). And more than that: this is the great, all-encompassing JLA storyline those of us reading the title in the 70s dreamt of.
Everyone's here. Not just the core magnificent seven, but everybody - the Hawks, Ray Palmer's Atom, fishnetted Zatanna, Green Arrow and Black Canary, the Elongated Man, even the Phantom Stranger ... and there are wonderful additions that we certainly never saw in the 70s: the Doom Patrol, the Metal Men, the Marvel Family, even the hints of Kirby's Third World.
For me, the best single part of this issue was the very first page, a dialogue between Superman and Batman that's as deep, as worthy as anything found in our sacred text, Kingdom Come.
Other great moments?
Batman's interrogation of Captain Cold - again, perfect characterization, in a way we actually seldom saw back in the 70s, when DC was still indecisive about how to 'do' Batman: grim avenger the character started out as, or the happy-go-lucky TV goofball from the 60s TV show who put so very much money into DC's coffers.
Green Lantern's very stirring rebirth, reciting that dorky oath over his power battery
The final sequence girding of our heroes, realizing they'll have to fight their own kin and proteges, and furthering the reader's confidence (some of us belatedly) that this entire thing is under tight control, the ultimate dream-story actually playing out for us every month.
Along the same lines, kinda sorta, was the Geoff Johns/Richard Donner/Adam Kubert relaunch of Action Comics . My hesitations came from three sources: 1) the weird, Freemasonry coincidence of having a Kubert brother apiece drawing Batman and Superman, 2) the fact that arc-relaunches start to get a little tiring when they happen so often, and 3) one of the only aspects of John Byrne's disasterous reconception of Superman (HOW could DC EVER have been that desperate?) I liked was the idea of Superman being the ONLY survivor of Krypton. In recent years that concept has been seriously blurred (the Eradicator, Krypto, Zod, two or three Supergirls, etc) - and this issue gets even blurrier, introducing a little-kid 'superboy' only moments after poor Kon-el's corpse was in the ground. We'll see what comes of it, but I'd rather Johns (and Donner, who I'm sure had about as much a part in writing this thing as I did) found some other plot-device to goose up his new graphic-novel-in-the-making.
Still, this is grand stuff. Mainly that's due to Adam Kubert's elaborately fantastic artwork. It feels wonderful, actually looking forward to both Action Comics and Superman again - now if only something could be done about the Legion, I'd be one happy blogger.
at 5:42 PM
Friday, October 27, 2006
A VERY disturbing feature of this month's Atlantic deserves separate mention. Under the heading 'Reading List,' Terry Castle gives us: "Post-Brokeback, more gay love stories for straight people."
What follows is pretty awful stuff. For instance:
"The Charioteer by Mary Renault (1959). A yummy, plummy page-turner - 'Gone with the Wind' for the educated-pansy set - by a writer best known for her novels about ancient Greece. Laurie, a young British soldier recovering from devastating wounds suffered at Dunkirk, is loved by two men: Andrew, the beautiful and virginal Quaker orderly who cares for him in the hospital, and Ralph, a schoolmate once exiled for homosexuality, who now resurfaces as a handsome naval officer. Which one to choose? (I myself would go with Ralph, whom I imagine looking like George Clooney.) Lots of bedpans, bandage changing, and poetical blatherings about Plato, but also a hugely satisfying dollop of the creamiest Homo Romance."
Every entry is like that - breathless, hand-fanning, aesthetically blind (he refers to K.M. Soehnlein's leaden, soporific novel "The World of Normal Boys" as "deft" and "astonishing," for intance). One imagines it was meant as humor - most blackface is. But in his final selection he becomes simply odious:
"My Dog Tulip by J.R. Ackerley (1956). Religious fundamentalists frequently condemn homosexuality on the grounds that it leads to bestiality. And right they are! Though an avid devotee of guardsmen and other virile types the British writer J.R.Ackerley found the love of his life in Queenie, a female German shepherd he adopted in the mid-1940s. (She is renamed Tulip in this classic - and hilarious - memoir of their liaison.) Looking at pictures of Queenie's sexy snout, lithe haunches, and noble, lofting tail, one can see why Ackerley succumbed: she's a Hot Hot Hottie from Hottsville. Woof."
This kind of prancing idiocy is better ignored than investigated, I know, I know - but I can't let this go by in silence. Ackerley's book is indeed a love story, as deep and true a one as any chronicled in 20th century literature ... but it's not a sex-story, as this moron so heavily implies (aided and abetted by the cartoon at the top of the piece, showing Ackerley in bed with his dog).
Not only does this little squib cast a slur on Ackerley's name and his wonderful book, but it turns back the clock ever so slightly on the whole field of gay fiction.
'Gay love stories for straight people'? What does that even mean? If they're 'for' straight people, does that mean they'll have elements different from if they were 'for' gay people? Is 'Brokeback Mountain' the template here - that straight people will 'accept' a gay love story if you a) never use the word 'gay' b) never use the word 'love' and c) make damn sure the protagonists (don't say lovers! that won't play in Peoria!) are either miserable or beaten to death at the end?
If we're generous, we might interpret the phrase to mean 'love stories in which the main characters are gay but that you don't have to be gay yourself to understand or like' ... still pretty much nonsense (doubt a whole lot of 19th century slave-holders read 'Gone with the Wind'), but at least then the outcome isn't necessarily a passive-aggressive morality play for the good folks of Connecticut.
Given such parameters, we can do better than this Castle moron, with his daquiri-waving and his calling his male friends 'Mary' and his rolling his eyes and flouncing off in a cloud of Clinique at the first sign of literary complexity. What possessed the Atlantic's Ben Schwarz to run this little abomination is beyond me.
So here's a little corrective, courtesy of the right-thinking folks here at stevereads! Six gay love stories 'for' straight people - and for gay people, and mostly for reading people.
Hey, Joe by Ben Neihart - There's no easy way to describe the lazy, lyrical ways of this beautiful, idiosyncratic little novel. It's title character wanders through its happenings (some random, some intensely thrilling) in a daze of sweet nature, pot fumes, and raging omnivorous sex-urges. The book is bittersweet in its own right, but now, looking back at it and realizing how big a part the living, breathing New Orleans is to the story, the thing is almost heartbreaking, in a thoroughly enjoyable way.
The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault - Have no fear: there's no Platonic 'blatherings'- instead, there's a moving and extremely well-realized historical novel set during the long 25-year war between Athens and Sparta. The heart of Renault's historical novels is her amazing ability to transport the reader into the mindframe of another time, in this case a time when the love between her two main characters, Alexias and Lysis, was not only condoned by their society but esteemed by it. All of her historical novels are magnificent (something 'The Charioteer' most certainly isn't), and this one is the most poignant, capturing a growing young love against the backdrop of the death of the world's finest civilization.
Clay's Way by Blair Mastbaum - This debut novel, the story of a weird, confused relationship between two teen boys on Oahu, is suffused with all the awkwardness and urgency of adolescence. The author has a real knack for creating atmosphere - there's no hint of the guidebook in his Hawaiian backdrop, and no hint of Hallmark in his depiction of what love can do to young people.
Fool's Errand by Louis Bayard - Hapless, hoping Patrick falls asleep in a nook of a loud house-party and is half-woken by the vision of a perfect man in a cranberry sweater. He spends the bulk of the novel chasing that half-glimpsed ideal, and it's all beautifully, acutely done.
As Meat Loves Salt by Maria McCann - Set in 17th century England, this very involving novel centers on a young soldier erotically fixated on another soldier - the upheavals in England at the time of the novel are very adroitly made to mirror the unspeakable changes the main character is experiencing.
Almost Like Being in Love by Steve Kluger - a hugely inventive and sweetly sentimental (though it would never admit the fact) novel about a high school jock and a high school geek who make a profound connection and then - years later - test its validity. Kluger is so energetically involved in every single aspect of this book that re-reading is virtually required.
The key to ALL these novels isn't being gay, or knowing somebody who's gay - what a poor, pathetic little key that would be for ANY kind of niche-fiction. What a scornful little accolade it would be, to say about a book 'sci fi fans will love it' - no, the point of these novels (and they're just examples) is that READERS will love them. Without the woof.
at 9:52 PM
Thursday, October 26, 2006
Though not worthy of inclusion with the Eagleton/Dawkins donnybrook, there were a couple of other things worth mentioning about the latest London Review of Books this time around.
For instance, there's this letter from Russell Seitz of our own Cambridge Mass.:
Back in Nasa's glory days, even photographers were kept 17,000 feet away from the Apollo 11 launch pad - about a mile per kiloton of explosive yield were the Saturn V to suffer a mishap. Yet one enterprising colleague of mine slipped away down a canal to a point two miles closer. The lift-off safely hurled the 'spam in a can' astronauts moonwards, but the wayward journalist emerged hours later, stone deaf and looking like Wile E. Coyote on a bad day. He recovered sufficiently to take the press bus to the base of the launch pad, which we were aghast to find sprinkled with Saturn V nuts, bolts, and other bits shed during lift-off. Nasa declined to comment, but a Mercury astronaut later explained their significance. Any damn fool can get close to a virtual hydrogen bomb, but it takes the right stuff to climb into one fully aware that it had been built by the lowest bidder.
Bravo, Russell! Thanks for at least trying to convey how an earlier generation looked up to its astronauts ...there's no equivalent today - or rather, I should say today's society isn't equivalent.
Also good in this issue was a review by Peter Campbell of the new exhibit at the Tate of Hans Holbein's drawings and portraits.
Campbell is a very good, very sensitive reader of Holbein's work - work which has always been deeper and more mischievous than it seems at first blush.
He begins with an extended conceit that's so irrestible I immediately wanted somebody to WRITE it, as a novella - except I'm the only person I know who could write it, and I'm kind of busy:
Imagine a party attended by sitters from English portraits. The Gainsborough crowd rustle in, a blur of silk and powder. You can't quite bring their faces into focus, but you seem to recognise them. They are elegant and casual. The people who come with Reynolds are their contemporaries, but the atmosphere changes. The men have more gravitas and fall naturally into classical poses, the women are winsomely theatrical. The aristocratic Van Dycks tend towards the soulful and control the arrangement of their pedigree-revealing features, their gestures and their ringlets with an exquisite care that intimates carelessness. The Lelys tumble through the door from another party - the men's coats unbuttoned, the women's bosoms as white as their eyes are bright. The Hogarths, a decent, prosperous lot, are here for the food and drink. The Hilliards - some in allusive fancy dress - are full of poetry. The Freuds, who haven't dressed up at all, slump in armchairs. Some of them fall asleep.
"Imagine such a party and you see that while individuals differ - and while successful portrait painters must, in getting a likeness, preserve differences - painters also turn their sitters into types, sometimes, but not always, flattering ones...
"What distinguishes the Holbein contingent at the party is that they don't know there is a party. Holbein doesn't suggest congeniality by imposing his personality on their personalities. You will remember each face, and would recognise it years later in an identity parade, but as itself, not as one managed by Holbein.
Although none of you care about Holbein portraits any more than you care about Chilean water-additives, I liked this bit. Holbein - volatile, explosive, every inch the 'tempermental artist' - would have loved this description.
Holbein's portrait of Erasmus is a little marvel, we here at Stevereads can attest directly. The great man, the middle-aged world-famous humanist, is sitting bolt upright at his cantilevered writing table. He's dressed thickly, against the perennial cold of all 16th century houses, but there's another reason too: the robes and cap he wears are costly things, signs of the commercial bankability of the sitter.
His spatulate hands are at work on some enterprise of the mind or soul, but on his fingers are rings of jewel and gold, remunerable artifacts.
He's almost smiling, this man who never in life stopped smiling. He's wearing heavy clothes against the chills that always plagued him. He's not working, but you can tell from the semi-ironic cast of his long, expressive face that he KNOWS he's not working, that he knows he's pretending to work for the sake of the painting. 'Look,' the painting says, 'This is Erasmus; this is what he does, and he's obviously successful doing it.'
Easily the most impressive thing about the painting is exactly what Campbell says: once you've seen it, you know above all just what Erasmus actually LOOKED like. It's a rare thing to combine that ability with genuine artistic sensibility, so if one of you loyal readers would like to pony up the funds to send me to the Tate, I promise to blog all about when I get back!
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
The London Review of Books is a steady, pleasant publication, far more intelligent than the New York Times Book Review, and far less fiercely complex and involved than the mighty TLS. Its articles and reviews amble about comfortably on the midslopes of Parnassus, so when something really firebrandy pops up, it's immediately noticeable.
This latest issue has one such piece - hoo boy, does it ever.
The piece is by Terry Eagleton, and it's a review of Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion.
Eagleton begins promisingly:
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.
He goes on in this vein, much like he's preparing a case:
If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they [most book reviewers] would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.
This is promising stuff, especially if you've already read Dawkins' book, as I have; it looks to be building the case that Dawkins' latest book is a shoddy, tossed-off affair - this is certainly true, and a beginning like this one makes the prospect of a full-length spanking suddenly appealing.
Alas, the prospect is dashed pretty early on. And what takes its place is weirdly unsatisfying. The reader quickly becomes aware of three facts: 1) Eagleton hasn't in fact read Dawkins' book, 2) Eagleton is loopily religious in exactly the same degree and measure that Dawkins is loopily atheist, and 3) Eagleton isn't even prepared to make a coherent case FOR faith BASED on faith. He'd much rather pontificate:
Believing in God, whatever Dawkins might think, is not like concluding that aliens or the tooth fairy exist. God is not a celestial super-object or divine UFO, about whose existence we must remain agnostic until all the evidence is in. Theologians do not believe that he is either inside or outside the universe, as Dawkins thinks they do. His transcendence and invisibility are part of what he is, which is not the case with the Loch Ness monster.
Reeling, we move on:
The Jews of the so-called Old Testament had faith in God ... they had faith in God in the sense that I have faith in you. They may well have been mistaken in their view; but they were not mistaken because their scientific hypothesis was unsound.
At which point your loyal reader stopped, looked up gasping at his Chinese waitstaff, and said aloud: "Yes they were."
Transcendence and invisibility are the absolute CORNERSTONES of the Loch Ness monster and the tooth fairy. They're the cornerstones of EVERY human fantasy big and small through all of history.
I believe in you because I can SEE you. I can watch your behaviors, develope a sense of your patterns, rudimentarily predict your actions (Sebastian will always make some unconscious, incredibly condescending comment to waiters in restaurants - like carefully spelling out the word 'soup'; Jeff will always have a practical solution to any problem that turns up in company, whether he's heeded or not; John will always be between ten and three hundred minutes late for any pre-arranged meeting; Pepito will always grow attached to the live chickens he buys for his santeria rituals and end up KEEPING them and giving them snuggly names, etc)
If I couldn't see you, if nobody I'd ever known had ever seen you, if nobody in any reliable record had ever spent a single moment in your presence, you can be damn sure I WOULDN'T believe in you, and nobody else would either. God is not a celestial super-object or a divine UFO? Both descriptions seem pretty near perfect.
But Eagleton isn't nearly done:
God is not a person ... he is, rather, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever, including ourselves. He is the answer to why there is something rather than nothing. God and the universe do not add up to two, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects.
This, not some super-manufacturing, is what is traditionally meant by the claims that God is Creator. He is what sustains all things in being by his love; and this would still be the case even if the universe had no beginning. To say that he brought it into being ex nihilo is not a measure of how very clever he is, but to suggest that he did it out of love rather than need.
Oh my, my, my.
At the very least, we know conclusively by now that we are no longer reading a book review. This would be interesting in a stretch of autobiography, but it's extremely depressing in the London Review of Books.
But Eagleton, somehow getting all this past an editor, has a LOT more to say:
God is transcendent of us (which is another way of saying he did not need to bring us about), he is free of any neurotic need for us and wants simply to be allowed to love us.
Somehow, 'oh my' just doesn't seem to adequate at this point.
Love? Where did love come into this? Love, the name that humans append to an EXTREMELY narrow bandwidth of an EXTREMELY narrow emotion? Love? What does the universe know of love?
The universe is a beyond-calculation huge expanse of open space and hydrogen one degree above absolute zero. It knows nothing of love, but that's OK, since Eagleton clearly means '20/21 st century America' when he talks about transcendence.
And what about his wild claim that his hippy-granola lower-g god wants nothing more than to be allowed to love 'us'?
To say the very least, to say the comically least, God - the Jewish God, the Christian God, the Muslim God - wants a great deal more from His believers than simply an invitation to a cuddle-puddle. The God of the Jews tells His followers that they are the chosen people and all others are worthy of contempt or pity. The God of the Christians tells His followers to make disciples of all nations. The God of the Muslims (it STRENUOUSLY bears pointing out that we're talking about the EXACT SAME God here) tells His followers to murder the unbeliever. That's hardly the same as this Facebook friend folderol Eagleton so blandly calls fact.
All of this would be more endurable if Eagleton had actually read Dawkins' book, as I said. But if he can write "Dawkins considers that no religious belief, anywhere or anytime, is worthy of any respect whatsoever," he clearly hasn't. But it's even more alarming that he obviously hasn't read his Bible in quite a while either, as when he writes that Jesus was put to death "because the Roman state and its assorted local lackeys and running dogs took fright at his message of love, mercy, and justice..."
The local lackeys in question (not sure how the Roman-hating elders and chief priests of the Temple would have liked that description, but we'll skip over that) sought the death of Jesus not because they were buzzkills to his love-jones but because he defied their authority by a) denouncing them publically and b) smashing up their concession stands. And the Romans killed him because he declared himself the King of the Jews, which in the Roman world was treason.
OK, so Eagleton hasn't read Dawkins' book, and he hasn't read the Bible ... but what about a feckin newspaper now and then? What but a total ignorance of the world and everything in it could account for a passage like this:
On the horrors that science and technology have wreaked on humanity, he [Dawkins] is predictably silent. Yet the Apocalypse is far more likely to be the product of them than the work of religion.
Yeesh. Can Eagleton really be this dense? Attributing the swiftly-approaching Apocalypse to technology is like attributing toast to the toaster. The next time a building blows up, or a city is flattened by a suitcase nuke, or cloud of chemical death is loosed, I guarantee you it will be religion that does it - religion merely USING technology. Religious conflict has accounted for more human death and suffering than any other possible factor or all such factors put together. It takes exactly zero mental work to see this.
But Eagleton is so intent on putting Dawkins in his place that he fails to notice that his own idealogy is equally absurd.
As some of you will know, we here at Stevereads are calmly, 100 percent atheist. We say: of course there is no God, no afterlife, no nothing of any kind. There's this tiny little blip of life, and that's all.
When people assert that the above is true for all other living things that have ever walked the Earth EXCEPT mankind, who at death sends off a carbon-copy ghost that travels to an alternate dimension and lives there forever with consciousness and personality intact, we calmly point out that if you just sat and THOUGHT about that scenario for a second, you'd see how silly it is.
Humans are afraid of dying. Humans have an enormously complex brain, prone to creating fantasies. Put those two things together and do the math yourself.
So, if Dawkins had written an excoriation of the evils of religion that was GOOD, we'd applaud it. And likewise if Eagleton wrote a either a condemnation of Dawkins' book or a defense of religion that was GOOD, we'd love reading it, as we love reading C.S. Lewis.
But as it is, the book and the review are equally dumb and irritating. I'll keep you all posted on the letters page fallout that's SURE to happen.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006
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 ...
Monday, October 23, 2006
It's a little distressing, how everybody out there EXCEPT the poets are responding to my 'poetry class' posts. Is this because the poets are too busy brooding? Or is it that they consider my choices SO far beyond the pale that they can only feel silent pity for me?
In any case, it's the New Yorker that ran the poem in question today. Some of you will instantly recognize it as a 'Steve poem' - but since the whole purpose of these little tutorials is to broaden that definition, I'm including it anyway:
Memory buries its own,
And of what now forever must be
The longest day of his life
What mostly remained was a blur
Under too bright lights - so he
Could scarcely tell if the things
Sharpest in his mind were
Nothing but fantasies, sewn
Afterwards, out of grief,
And guilt's imaginings.
Yet it seemed memory called up
(After the interminable birth,
As his finger stroked the arm
Of a child who would not last
Even one whole day
And all of its time on earth
Ministered to by vast
Machines that couldn't mend the harm
In a single transcription slip
In reams of DNA)
A look so haunted, so
Haunting, he would not confess
(Not even later, to his wife)
How it stayed with him, on him: the slow
Flicker in a watery eye,
The mute call - through all
The exhausted hopefulness
The condemned come to know
In the end - from animal to animal,
Imploring, Please save my life.
That's called 'Son' and it's by Brad Leithauser, and yes - it's heartbreakingly sad (and about the death of a child to boot). But I also think it's GOOD. And in wondering aloud whether or not it really is, I should stress I'd like to hear also from you genuine versifiers out there.
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.
Top Five Science Fiction Movies of All Time:
5. Silent Running
4. Blade Runner
3. Starship Troopers
2. Pitch Black
Or what about this:
Top 5 Most Consistently Well-Written Star Trek Characters:
5. Bones McCoy
3. Captain Janeway
2. Trip Tucker
Thursday, October 19, 2006
My extremely young friend Elmo spends a great deal of his time with alien species. He betakes his sylphlike form to the nearest open parkland and slowly, by ineluctable stages, he VANISHES from the human-view of all the living things around him. Those living things then proceed to pay Elmo the highest compliment they can: they completely ignore him.
They cavort in front of him, they scamper all over him, and they let him into their own perceptions of the living world. Elmo loves to play games with his own perceptions in this way - it's his particular drug. It's a drug-habit he shares with, among many other people (including innumerable anonymous British bird-watchers throughout the ages), David Attenborough - and a habit entirely unknown to various crocodile hunters of recent vintage. Buff, married, obviously gay nature-jumper Jeff Corwin has spent innumerably more hours around innumerably more species than Elmo ever will, but he's a pathetic, complete stranger to the interest, the joy, and especially the exhilaration Elmo can find in a walk in the park.
So when it's Elmo supplying me with a batch of current comics, instead of his roommate, my nemesis Pepito (theirs is a marriage of convenience, I assure you), I know to pay attention.
Five issues this time around, an uneven batch. Starting thing off are the Wildstorm relaunch of Wildcats and the Authority.
This is ominous stuff, this sudden reappearance of Wildstorm titles like pesky super-villains you were sure were dead and buried. Wildcats has always been a crappy concept, and we all know the Authority was only ever a two-arc wonder.
So imagine my surprised happiness when both these debut relaunches turned out to be really, really good.
No, they stink, both of them, a whole lot. Wildcats is the worse by far, despite Jim Lee's technicaly adept pencils. The main point of this first issue is that cool people smoke. They smoke cigarettes when they're down on their luck, they smoke cigars when they're kicking ass, but in either case, they're NEVER loser enough NOT to smoke. Geez.
The Authority #1 had a little more complexity to its crapitude. It's unbearably slow-paced and clogged with cliches, but Gene Ha's artwork is genuinely interesting. I'll never look at another issue of this turgid piece of poop, but that artwork was interesting.
Luckily, the rest of the batch didn't suck. The latest issue of X-Men had fantastic artwork by Yanick Paquette and a fairly snappy story besides, although can I just say I HATE this big blue kitty-cat Beast? The movies were a success - can't we dial back this 'secondary mutation' crapola to the classic Kelsey Grammar look?
The latest Ultimate Fantastic Four continues the God War story arc, and it's incredible - Mike Carey's writing is better than the vast majority of sci-fi short stories that appear in Asimov's and Analog, and Pasqual Ferry's artwork is the best of his career. The only irritating thing about this whole story arc is that it IS a story arc. I'd be happy to buy the grapic novel it was obviously designed to be NOW, instead of waiting for the whole process to run its course.
Wrapping up batch in question is the title by now guaranteed to get a totally ambiguous reaction from the crack staff at Stevereads: 52.
Every issue, there's stuff I really like and stuff that really irritates me, and this issue is certainly no exception. So let's go through it categorically, shall we?
Well, of course a comics veteran such as myself not only likes but LOVES the whimsical gesture of having Elliot Maggin as Oliver Queen's campaign manager.
*In the days before comics grew up, Elliot Maggin provided readers with an endless stream of good stuff, wiry, witty issue after issue. I don't know that he or any of his colleagues in those simpler days could write a comic today - and I'm not sure they'd want to. But this little invocation was a nice squirt of nostalgia.
*the look of Super-Chief - great size, great buffalo-mask.
*Judging from the memorial sculpture carved by the Martian Manhunter in this issue, it seems that Maxima is finally dead. And so our long national nightmare is over.
*the continued fascinating and well-done characterization of Black Adam - now accompanied by Isis and this new character Osiris.
*the hilarious way Ambush Bug infiltrates the 'next issue' banner at the end of the issue.
*Um, week 24? At the end of Infinite Crisis, Oliver Queen was a pin cushion, two arrows through his lungs and a convicted killer standing over him. Not only does this opening sequence not jibe with the story being told in flashbacks over in Green Arrow (I predict this is going to happen a lot), but it doesn't make sense on its own.
*the unholy resurrection of Keith Giffen's weird, apparently unappeasable fetish for loser-supergroups. Note to Keith: they weren't funny then, and they aren't funny now.
*Osiris? Did I miss an issue? Where did this kid (however entertainingly written) come from? Did I miss an issue? Wait ... Elmo, Pepito, you izquierda ... DID I miss an issue?
*Uh, the DEATH of Super-Chief? After one friggin issue? Geez.
*My usual complaint about 52 in general: the basic concept of this whole series - in addition to showing us the events that took place in the 'missing' year after Infinite Crisis - is to show us what the super-hero (and super-villain) world would be like without Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman in the picture. And this opportunity - it's unlikely there'll be another - is being hugely wasted.
Put simply, we shouldn't be reading stories about a bunch of losers (and Super-Chief, sniff) trying to be the Jutice League.
Wonder Woman was not only the most powerful woman in the world but an ambassador and de facto friendly face on the superhero community. Superman, despite his extensive rogues gallery, spent most of his time averting natural disasters. And Batman kept the most viral assortment of stone-cold psychopaths under constant control.
In addition to figuring out everything that happened in that missing year, this series should be about what happens to the world when none of those things is true anymore. What happens when the only person between UN sanctions and the superhero world is, for instance, Black Canary? How does Catman handle a Richter 7 earthquake in northern China?
How the hell does Captain Marvel handle the Joker?
Alas, we'll never see that storyline. 52 seems intent on a more soap-opera theme instead. Guess we'll have to take the good with the bad of that, and I'll just have to silently (well, metaphorically, you undertand) regret the path not taken.
Wednesday, October 18, 2006
Unlike with virtually every other penny press publication in existence, the TLS never needs pruning for these dispatches. It's always great, in all its parts. The task I have here at Stevereads is to single out the things I think will be of interest to you little marmosets, not, as with other publications, to pick out what's good.
We should start with the perennially enjoyable J.C.'s NB column: it always has something to start the senses.
This issue is no exception: JC has a great deal of fun with a new issue of Perdika Press:
The poetry pamphlet is among life's gentler pleasures. Fine paper, good printing and elegant design are essential; editorial discrimination, even more so. Perdika Press has issued the first three of a projected series of numbered pamphlets, nicely printed and well designed. What about the contents? The 'Series Editors' are Mario Petrucci, Nicholas Potamitis and Peter Brennan. According to Mr Brennan, 'Nicholas undertakes design, typesetting and runs the website. Mario advises on every aspect - very much a hands on counsellor'.
From Mario's counselling emerged the decision to devote the first Perdika edition to work by Mario Petrucci ('one of the most dynamic and original poets writing in English'). Thus we have 'Catullus,' eight 'contemporary adaptations' of the Roman poet, with original facing ('No one is better equipped to present Catullus to the modern reader'). Catullus' 'Melitios oculous tuos Iuuenti/siquis me sinat usque basiare' is wittily transformed into, 'Honey - when it comes to kissing/ we'd out-score Juventus.'
That's awful, of course, and it prompts one to recall that my young friend John Cotter is a dab hand at Catullus adaptations himself - his are, in fact, breathtakingly good. Perhaps he'll share one with all my loyal readers? Or better yet, compose a NEW one, based on Melitios oculous, for our delectation? Well, he's a busy lad, but we can always hope ...
Speaking of poets, Andrew Motion has a wonderful piece in the same TLS about the preservation of original manuscripts in public libraries. He has a wonderful passage about seeing a couple of autograph drafts of Wilfred Owen's sonnet 'Anthem for Doomed Youth' with comments by Siegfried Sassoon:
I learned more about writing by looking a those two pages and in whole terms of study and instruction. To realize at a glance that first thoughts were not inevitably best thoughts; to see in the most pratical way imaginable how what we used to call inspiration needed to be combined with ingenuity and sheer hard work; to understand how valuable the interventions of a second and sympathetic mind might be: all these things made my discovery of those pages feel like a revelation. And when I later saw the pages themselves, in the British Library, the revelation deepened and the pages became almost sacred. I still glimpse them in my mind's eye now, almost forty years later, whenever I write a poem. Think harder, they say to me. Stretch your imagination. Write better.
Wonderful stuff! 'Think harder ... stretch your imagination ... write better.'
One little thing in this TLS did perturb, however. In a brief review of Cinematic Savior - Hollywood's Making of the American Christ, Stephenson Humphries-Brooks writes:
To this point Jesus movies were made by Protestants. With 'Jesus of Nazareth,' Rome takes over. Zeffirelli - and, following him, Mel Gibson - bases his interpretation on Isaiah' Suffering Servant: 'He was wounded for our iniquities ...' With Gibson, however, this theme has been joined by another, roped in, so to speak, from the Western ...
I know, I know - it says 'however.' But even so, considering a) the depth of Gibson's current public disgrace and b) the scabrous ineptitude of 'The Passion of the Christ', I felt I should stress to any of you out there who might not be familiar with Franco Zeffirelli's "Jesus of Nazareth" - it's NOTHING like 'Passion of the Christ. NOTHING. "Jesus of Nazareth" is incredibly intelligent and moving and epic. Linking it - however ephemerally - with a loud, brainless, masochistic, anti-semitic piece of crap like 'Passion of the Christ' does it a disservice that can only be remedied by all of you putting 'Jesus of Nazareth' on your Netflix list right away!
So there you have it, folks, for perhaps the first time in history: Catullus, John Cotter, and Jesus Christ!
The latest Esquire presents loyal readers with quite a crisis. In the latest TLS, James Campbell gives Richard Ford's new novel The Lay of the Land a very thoughtful and ultimately positive review.
But over in the latest Esquire (the issue that crowns nearly-brainless roasting tobacco-addict Scarlet Johansson as 'Sexiest Woman Alive'), we have Scott Raab weighing in on the very same novel.
As some of you may know (well, Locke will know, but the rest of you might speculate), I have a checkered history with Scott Raab - but quite apart from that history, I can tell you this: the man has, with all due respect to Agatha Christie, a mind like a bacon-slicer. If he makes a well-considered intellectual argument against something, you'd damn well better think about it before you LIKE that thing.
(Oh, what a free-for-all our comments-field would be, if some of the figures from my past weighed in! The only one who sometimes does, my old friend Locke, has scarcely shown what he can do when he's riled - you young people are as clever as the day is long, but ah! Once upon a time, giants walked the pre-Internet earth...)
(Although in either case it's certainly true: the comments field around here is where the action is! That's where the fun is!)
He read the same novel and came away with very, very different reactions:
.... Ford himself has been proclaimed by no lesser a god of fiction than his late pal Ray Carver to be the land's best writer 'sentence for sentence.'
Nonsense. The Sportswriter is an undeniably great and peculiar novel, a minor-key fugue ... Independence Day reaches for more and grasps not quite as much. The Lay of the Land is longer and weaker than both. This isn't to say Ford is not one hell of a writer; he is ... but sentence for sentence or pound for pound, a slugging middleweight is still a middleweight, and by the end of Lay Ford's a buckle-kneed, arm-weary middleweight clinching and waiting for the bell.
I confess I don't understand why in 2006 we're not reading reviews of Scott Raab's own novels .... but we're fortunate enough to have him before us every month in the Penny Press, so that's a good thing.
Here we are again! Once again - it happens all the time - I've come across a poem I either like or am at least interested in, and once again I'm opening up the discussion to all the poets and writers (and poetry-readers, basically all of you) out there.
The LAST such attempt garnered no responses whatsoever, but surely by now you all know how little Steve likes no responses whatsoever. So here it is, the poem that struck me this time around:
He Has in Him
He has in him a road, built over
The fields of paddy,
Over the river, silted, buried,
Over the temples razed,
Over a pond of lilies.
He has abridged everything
From sunrise to sunset.
He has avoided mentors,
Birds with clipped wings,
Orgasms as disasters.
And accepted all the perils
In building a road
Like having to listen to the sound
Of tyres on tar, the wailing
Of the lilies, buried, in his sleep.
That's by Rabindra Swain, and once again, I kinda sorta like it. And once again, I await the verdict of my betters.
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Since about 250 pages of the latest Atlantic Monthly are devoted to Joshua Green's profile of Hillary Clinton, it seems only right to start off with that - and to note right away that Green comes off as ... well, not to say 'an asshole' but certainly a CAD.
He spends the gigantic bulk of the article maintaining all the bells and whistles of journalistic objectivity - the hours logged with his subject, the tells-it-like-he-sees it descriptions, the wide-ranging secondary sources. For 249 of its pages, I was reading intently and learning something on every page.
Then I got to the last paragraph and uttered a 'what the fuck?' that I'm sure was also uttered in a certain breakfast-nook in Chappaqua:
Yet it is fair to wonder if Clinton learned the lesson of the health care disaster too well, whether she has so embraced caution and compromise that she can no longer judge what merits taking political risks. It is hard to square the brashly confident leader of health-care reform - willing to act on her deepest beliefs, intent on changing the political climate and not merely exploiting it - with the senator who recently went along with the vote to make flag-burning a crime. Today Clinton offers no big ideas, no evidence of bravery in the service of a larger ideal. Instead, her Senate record is an assemblage of many, many small gains. Her real accomplishment in the Senate has been to rehabilitate the image and political career of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Impressive though that has been in its particulars, it makes for a rather thin claim on the presidency. Senator Clinton has plenty to talk about, but she doesn't have much to say.
Yeesh. I'm guessing somebody's access-codes have been shredded ...
The issue also features a heartfelt though somewhat scatter-brained tribute to YouTube written by Michael Hirschorn. Like so many writers who set out to describe just exactly what YouTube is revolutionizing and just exactly how it's doing so, Hirschorn quickly loses his way and begins nattering (amazing how lenient we become toward this - nattering, but extremely well-paid nattering in a premium forum ... the latter two qualities, you'd think, disqualifying the former; personally, off the top of my head, I can think of four people I know who could have written this piece better, ALL of whom would benefit immensely - personally and professionally - from having a piece published in the Atlantic).
Of course I, like everyone else, worship YouTube. I spend at least 30 minutes a day there, indulging in every stray whim of visual curiosity. College girls puking in plain view? You got it! Precision-flying plane slamming into a crowd of spectators? You got it! Surging ocean waves at sunset? You got it! Insane basset hound named Lucy having a fit right in front of the camera? You got it!
I'm not convinced that it spells the death-knell of anything, let along movies and tv, but nevertheless: I'm entranced. If I could figure out how to TRANSPLANT YouTube videos onto these posts (as even a casual glance at other blogs reveals EVERYBODY else knows how to do), I'd be treating you all to my latest finds practically every day. But alas, the last time I called up one of my young friends and asked him to give me step-by-step instructions on how to import something to my site, my phone's battery died (and the sun came up) while he was still going strong.
So in the meantime, you'll have to make do with typing 'crazy cat' and 'crazy dog' into YouTube yourselves! Endless hours of mindless fun!
Of course, there are those who would say that if you're willing to plug yourself into YouTube, you're one step closer to being willing to LIVE video games all the time. Lots of those people are quoted in Jonathan Rauch's article on video games in this issue.
Much space is devoted to how COMPLEX video gaming technology is becoming, how the graphics and sound effects are becoming more and more lifelike all the time, how the interface of user-interaction is getting more and more complex all the time.
The piece concludes with this:
We can't know where the quest to build interactive drama will lead, but we do know that the dramatist's tools are the oldest and most potent of all emotional technologies. Sooner or later, drama will converge with the video game, the newest and most vibrant of all entertainment technologies. And then? Not long ago, I attended a stage performance of Aeschylus' The Persians,' the most ancient work of the dramatic literature. Even in translation and at a remove of 2,500 years, it left an audience of modern Americans feeling stunned and disembodied, as if the intervening millennia had disappeared. Wow, I heard myself think, if I could play that, I'd be so excited!
To put it mildly, there's a lot wrong with this. We'll pass over that bit about stage-plays being referred to as 'entertainment technologies' and focus on the central nub of the issue, the one I focus on with all the hundreds of video game addicts I know.
You know them too, I guarantee it. You're statistically likely to BE one yourself. These are the young people who, when you ask them at work or school every morning what they did the evening before, sheepishly offer vague non-answers: 'nothing,' 'not much,' 'stuff' .... because the real answer, in each and every case, is: "I played video games from 6:30 pm until I passed out, between 2 and 4 am, fully clothed but unfed and unwashed."
Some of these people might say this sordid little truth out loud once - it'd be good for an office chuckle. But none of them would ever say it as many times as it actually happens, because it happens every single time they have free time of any kind. 10 page papers with footnotes are written on the B line on the way to the class where they're due, so that radioactive mushrooms can be detonated from 6:30 pm to 4:30 am.
Some of these addicts are intelligent young people, and some of them have in the past attempted to defend or even justify their addiction to me, on just the same grounds as the above ridiculous quote does: that video games AREN'T just passive thumb-exercises. That they have depth and worth and dramatic power and even (in one arguer's disasterous case) LITERARY merit.
I realize nobody wants to admit when they've let something into their lives they can't control, but this is just silly. Rauch here is being willfully blind to the gaping problems in his own assertions.
The reason his modern American audience was enraptured by 'The Persians' has nothing to do with 'entertainment technology' - it arose from the fact that Aeschylus, the play's single, human author, used a combination of intellect, historical knowledge, intuition, and most of all poetic talent to craft a thing that would draw an audience in and work a deep impression on them.
But he didn't specify WHICH impression, or which shades of different reactions each person would feel. I'm sure no two of Rauch's fellow audience-members felt the EXACT SAME exhilaration over the performance - it would be altered by their seat-mates, their view of the stage, their knowledge of Athenian history, their experience of life and of theater. In other words, although everybody in the audience would be moved by the power of 'The Persians,' no two audience members would have seen the exact same play.
That's literature's central power: its ability to transform us, individually.
Nobody has ever been transformed by a video game (well, except for those few - their number grows every year - who, by playing literally non-stop, managed to transform themselves from living to dead), and nobody ever will be. And the reason is simple: video game users are entirely passive. All their possible interactions with their game are pre-programmed, and knowing this prevents them from CARING what their own reactions are to anything that happens.
While stage plays seem on the surface even less flexible (Hamlet never lives; Mary Tyrone never takes up jogging), Rauch could testify that in reality they're far moreso - since when they're done well they form an intensely interactive, intensely individual bond with each member of the audience, and audience that, through the strength of that bond, VERY MUCH cares about its own reactions.
All of which is already known to video game addicts - they weren't advancing their argument in any kind of sincerity. They were just killing time until they can get back to their hand-controls.
Still, as irritating as I found this video game piece, I'm afraid top irritation honors for this issue go to the regular 'Post Mortem' feature, this time eulogizing 'crocodile hunter' Steve Irwin.
We here at Stevereads have little patience with the old nostrum about not speaking ill of the dead. We think it probably originated in the Middle Ages, when there was a good chance the dead would pop back out of the ground and SMACK your ill-talking pie-hole. But nowadays, thank to 'C.S.I.' our dead STAY dead, so we're free to ill-talk our heads off.
And what's the point of it anyway? It does a disservice to the truth to whitewash ANYTHING. If I were ever going to be dead, I'd like to think my friends would be frank about my shortcomings (and if me being dead was offered hypothetically, my having shortcomings is SO much moreso...), just like I'd want my enemies to at least grudgingly admit my good points.
That being said, some of you may already know what I think of this opportunistic blockhead Irwin.
But if you didn't know, this post mortem, written in high priggish style by Mark Steyn, would take you on a guided tour of all my reasons.
Steyn takes the same line on Irwin that Irwin took on himself during his brief, unbearable tenure as something that could be passed off for a kind of sort of 'naturalist.'
Irwin died of a stingray barb to his heart, as most of you know. Any guesses on how you get a stingray to barb you in the heart? Let me tell you, since my freakish little nature-boy Elmo never speaks on this blog: you pick one up and FUCK with it. Otherwise, you - and it - are perfectly safe.
Steyn quotes Irwin on the subject:
We can't keep looking at wildlife on a long lens of a tripod. Then there's this voice of God telling you about the cheetah kill. After 450,000 cheetah kills, it's not entertaining anymore.
That's Irwin in a nutshell: the pseudo-naturalist for the video game age. An adult cheetah accelerates to 70 mph in under seven seconds; its frontal cortex analyzes course-changes in its intended prey so fast that neuroscientists can't tell you how the brain tissue in question can do it; the entire hunt takes roughly fifteen seconds from start to finish, and the smallest mishap can result in a broken leg for the cheetah, thus death. In the entire animal kingdom, just about three creatures rely on the adaptation of spectacular speed-bursts to secure their prey.
But is that 'entertaining' enough for the joystick generation? NOOOOOOO.
It makes matters worse, very much worse that Steyn decides to burnish Irwin by tarnishing somebody who does it right: believe it or not, David Attenborough comes in for a paragraph of trashing:
In the presence of animals, he lowers his voice to a breathy whisper ... Sir David keeps his breathy whisper even when he's back in the BBC studio doing the voice-over.
Well, OK, except: no he doesn't. He keeps the 'breathy whisper' (note the sneer associated with feeling awe or reverence for the natural world ... pshah! what's this simp THINKING?) only when he's doing voice-overs for on-site lines uttered in that whisper that didn't come out clearly on tape - his actual in-studio voice-overs are all done in normal voice.
The differences, of course, go much deeper. Attenborough has studied birds and animals his entire life; all that Irwin knew about the animals he FUCKED with was what he hurriedly glimpsed on his cue cards.
I watched a program of his once - he was in India, and some local residents told him there was a 20-foot anaconda living in a nearby drainage ditch. And that was all it took: without further ado, while the cameras watched, Irwin walked over to the open brackish ditch and lept in - I remember thinking 'the man is insane, literally insane - he has no idea if the anaconda is anywhere nearby, no idea if four or five actually poisonous snakes are in the ditch, no idea what skin-fungi he'll pick up, some of them untreatable, some of them fatal. '
I remember asking myself: why on Earth would anybody DO such a stupid thing?
Subsequent viewings gave me my answer. The entire thing was about money - Irwin grabbed at ratings the way he grabbed at wildlife. It turns out he did both ineptly - TV sees no better nature-ratings than David Attenborough's, and it's a little unlikely that Sir David will ever die by a sea-snake up his ass.
A tragedy for Irwin's wife and family, yes, and I suppose his viewers will miss him for the five minutes it takes to find another lunkhead adrenalin junkie to jump into drainage ditches.
But in my limited but valid brief as spokesman for at least a corner of the animal kingdom (the wonderful branch of canidae! One can't help but notice that Irwin never decided to FUCK with any kind of wild dog; he might not have known much about wild exotica, but give the man credit: he could sense when he stood a good chance of being ripped apart like a fat rag-doll), I have to say: good riddance.
The immense marvels of the natural world - those who've survived the onslaught of humanity - aren't here for the ratings-amusement of mankind. They are their own gorgeous, incommunicable worlds, and naturalists like David Attenborough understand that. Jackass croc-jumpers like Steve Irwin not only don't but don't WANT to.
So: the 'crocodile hunter' got a stingray barb in the heart. Great final-ever ratings stunt, but please: let's have no others.
Friday, October 13, 2006
I whole-heartedly approve of Blacks, Latinos, gays, and even Freemasons mixing willy-nilly in our schools, businesses, and playgrounds. I'm a fervent believer that all humans are equal (of course, those of you who know me well know that in my mind, I phrase it 'all humans are equally evil' - but the point's effectively the same).
But when it comes to my books, I segregate ruthlessly.
There are four rings. In the outermost, the rectum of my collection, are the books steadily being culled from the shelves for a more-or-less permanent cycle of selling and trading. This cycle is of course vital to the life of my collection, but it's ironic, since my GOAL is to buy only those books I intend to keep forever. My outer ring is a wry, permanent testament to the fact that even when it comes to book-buying, my judgement isn't perfect (control your shock, my young Jedi!).
The next ring is by far the biggest: my collection at large. These are the dozens and hundreds of books lining the shelves of all my various dog-chewed bookcases. These are the books that take an afternoon to move on moving-day. These are the books I prowl every day, the books I re-arrange, the books that sometimes surprise me by simply being there ('when did I get THAT?')(or, as I confess I often find myself saying, 'when did I get YOU?'). Of course it's FROM these books that the to-sell books come, but that's not a worry: 95 percent of these titles are safe from any purge.
They're a miracle, really. In virtually all ages prior to this one, such a library - relatively minuscule (I'm fairly certain at least a couple of you in the Silent Majority have larger ones) - would have been the world's own envy of every reading individual.
And those individuals YEARNED for it, make no mistake. Books were rare and costly and unwieldy, and even the most avid readers usually didn't possess more than a couple dozen. And I'm always grateful for that, I am. History provides few more intelligent, hungry-minded individuals than Henry VIII, and I currently have ten times the number of books he owned in his lifetime. I have ten times the number of books Henry VIII had. This circle gets what the kids call mad props.
The next circle is far more exalted - they're the four or five dozen books that are invited into my room, whatever room I'm sleeping in, in whatever apartment I happen to live.
Some of you will know the tiny little nerd-haven I make of whatever room I happen to occupy. The outer apartment is one thing, but my room ... well, that's where the books I most treasure are. The ones I like to SEE every day. The ones I USE, which is the ultimate dream of every book ever written (and who knows if maybe a whole LOT of them don't get that distinction? After all, my room is duplicated by prisoners' under-beds and teenagers' window-sills, and they're filled with Stephen King and law books and Nora Roberts).
This is where you'll find my Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (a free book to the first of you who can tell me how many tons Thundra can lift - and no fair peeking! Do it from memory! Honor system, people!). Here you'll find my Readers Digest guide to North American wildlife. Here you'll find Clifton Fadiman's Little Brown book of anecdotes. Here you'll find all the good volumes of the Cambridge Ancient History. Here you'll find my beautiful Penguin collected Jane Austen (one big fat beautiful volume). Here you'll find my Chapman's Homer.
The books in this circle are exalted. They get boxed first and most lovingly in all moves. They get consulted, frequently. They never get sold and almost never get given away. They're heavily bookmarked, heavily annotated. They're my working books.
Today I had the rare and incredibly sweet pleasure of adding a book to that ring. Today I found Tom McArthur's edition of the Oxford Companion to the English Language, and I knew instantly that I'd found an addition.
This book is wonderful, plain and simple. It's the quintessential browser's paradise, since its brief rather predictably sprawls all over creation. After all, there's nothing in the world that doesn't fall under the rubric of 'The English Language.'
There's no way to fully convey the wonders of this volume. It roams, it digresses, it fulminates, it sneers. The entry on Shakespeare is worthy of independent publication, the entry on Old English could double as an introductory course on the subject. And the quips are just as good. Take this one on the subject of Humor:
As there are stereotypes of national humour with some support in cultural fact, so there are widely accepted if not wholly reliable notions about humour in former ages. England before the Norman Conquest, for example, is nobody's idea of a country full of wags and wisecrackers....
So without further ado, I log in and add a book to the second circle. Of course, this entails removing a second circle book already on duty. In this case it's a volume called High Seas given to me by my young friend Sebastian (his comment at the time? 'You've been a-sea and all, right? I thought you might enjoy this more than I - sounds frightfully WET to me...'). Sebastian is a) too fragile and b) too distractable to roger, so his time in this room is extremely limited - he'll never notice the switch).
I know, I know - this entry leaves unnamed one further circle. The Oxford Companion to the English Laguage succeeds seamlessly into my second circle, but some of you might be asking, what about the first circle?
Well, the first circle, as some of you may know, are my Essential Books. These are the books I not only use but NEED. Several of them are the books I've travelled the world with, during my 'lost years' ... Here, in one bookcase, are my ... well, my indispensables: my King James Bible, my Ovid (in the original and five translations), my Juvenal, my Dryden and Byron and Sheridan and Shaw and Spenser and Tacitus and Ariosto and Jeremy Leven and Graves and Browning and Livy and Huizinga and Syme and Morison and the Venerable Bede .... my Homer and my Tasso, my Horace ... my Horace.
It's very, very rare that I make an addition to this circle, and it's always a cause of intense joy. The last addition was the Oxford World Classic paperback of Boswell's Life of Johnson, the original volume of which I VERY mistakenly leant out to a young well-wisher who a) will never admit that it's out of their depth and b) never sheepishly give it back.
So additions to this particular ring are exceedingly rare. You can be sure you'll hear all about it, if this blog lasts long enough to record it (and judging from the anemic level of reader-comments, that's damn unlikely)
And in the meantime, let's all welcome this addition to the second-most exalted rank of my book-world! Of course I invite all of you loyal readers to comment at length about your own book-circles! I know you have them - I've been in enough of your apartments - and I urge you to make a clean breast of it!