Monday, December 24, 2007

The Best Books of 2007!

But even in the midst of waste and desolation, there is hope. Even in 2007, a year in which the forces of darkness were exalted, there were bright spots here and there, and it's our duty here at year's end to extoll those bright spots, to assure you all that your reading is not in vain - indeed, that your faith in reading is not misplaced. Very, very good books are still being published, and we take the occasion of this, our final posting of 2007, to sing their praises as their merits warrant.

That 'published' provides our only pausing - for the best writing we saw this year, the best by a very wide margin, was writing as yet unseen by publication. It's one of our singular privileges here at Stevereads to see much of this kind of unpublished material, and we're honored by it, though it forces us into a position of being proudest of things nobody else has seen.

But among what remains, there's much to commend your attention, and much to merit our praise. Here, then, without further ado, are the best books of 2007:

10. Nova Swing by M. John Harrison - The renewed presence of Harrison in the sci-fi lists is a gift unlike any currently being given in the publishing world. We recently heard a very young acquaintance refer to his previous novel Light as "so good it was almost scary," and we agree: there's something pleasantly unsettling about writing this good. Harrison's latest, Nova Swing, returns to the fictional world of Light, and the characters an dialogue on hand here are if anything even sharper than the previous book.

9. The World Without Us by Alan Weisman - this book certainly asks the most beguiling hypothetical of any work this year: what would happen to the Earth and all of its inhabitants if every single human instantly disppeared tomorrow? Weisman and all the experts he consults can't help but conclude that such a disappearance would be hugely beneficial to everybody else living on this planet, a conclusion we here at Stevereads whole-heartedly second.

8. The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch - this flooringly great debut fantasy novel is equal parts M. John Harrison's Viriconium novels and Dickens' Oliver Twist. It's the story of the eponymous young orphan and apprentice thief (that fanciful name 'Locke' is an obvious tipoff that we're in the realm of fantasy), and it's told with such shining strength and humor that you'll literally be smiling as you read, carried along by Lynch's amazing voice. With bookends like him and Harrison, the genre of science fiction need not fear for its future.

7. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett -this is certainly the most charming little book of this or many another season. Bennett's delightful story introduces the Queen (never explicitly identified, but certainly Elizabeth II, that most modern of monarchs) to the joys of reading for pleasure. What follows is a winningly unerring description of the way reading can insinuate itself into any life and make it better for the reader and stranger for the new reader's nearest and dearest. This book can be read in an hour, but its author has clearly been gestating it (or something like it) his whole life, and it'll stick with its readers long after that hour's up.

6. Reclaiming History by Vincent Bugliosi - This monstrously huge 1500-page tome on JFK's assassination (with a further 1500 words encoded on an accompanying disc) is many, many things: it's remorselessly, even inhumanly thorough in sifting through facts, dates, and crackpot conspiracy theories; it's endlessly contentious, attacking, chewing, and ultimately killing every single one of those theories; and of course it's completely insane, as any work that delves so deep into such wayward waters must perforce become. But the main thing this gigantic book is for its entire length is good reading, which is a truly remarkable feat.

5. Mistress of the Arts of Death by Ariana Franklin - this is the story of our lady Adelia, trained in the medical and forensic arts in the 12th century, when such training hardly ever given to women. She's called to Henry II's England to investigate a series of murders, and the adventures that follow are stamped with an intelligence and lightly-worn learning that adorns virtually no historical fiction being written today. The future adventures of our insightful, unsentimental lady Adelia can only bring reading joy to future lists such as these.

4. Whatever You Do, Don't Run by Peter Allison - this is a delightful collection of campfire 'crankers' is the next best thing to you'll get to actually plunking down the $4700 and buying yourself a week in the veldt in person. Allison is everything you want in such a raconteur: he's young but not callow, experienced but self-effacing, and very funny. There are great stories here about marauding apes, vicious hippos, and drunken British Royals, and all of said stories are served up with the same winning smile on every page.

3. The Landmark Herodotus, edited by Robert Strassler and translated by Andrea Purvis - lavish with maps and charts, positively profligate with notes and secondary materials, this new translation of the oldest of historians (here ably and more than ably rendered by Purvis) is the greatest single edition of the author ever produced.

2. The Big Bad Wolf and Me by Delphine Perret - Every year produces at least one book allegedly designated for children or 'young adults' which for all that cannot be fully appreciated by actual children and are clearly aimed at more knowing adults. This is one of those books, a quietly joyful story of a little boy who encounters a chapfallen Big Bad Wolf, who's depressed because nobody's afraid of him anymore. The little boy takes him in, and through a series of increasingly droll and hilarious enconters, the Big Bad eventually gets his scary back. There's been no more intelligent and utterly winning 'young adult' book this year - nor book of any kind, for that matter.

1. Sacred Games by Vikram Seth - It's difficult to summarize this, the best book of 2007. It's appeared on many such lists (although none, it of course need not be pointed out, as learned or definitive as this one), and the accompanying summaries have staked out the necessary ground: a sprawling societal saga set in the teeming modern city of Mumbai (Bombay, to those of us who visited it in less politically correct days), featuring a fascinatingly drawn crime lord and an indelibly characterized Sikh policeman who decides almost against his will to enter the fray on the side of right. This enormous novel is unabashedly old-fashioned, if old-fashioned means plot-driven and full of great, shrewdly-drawn characters talking fantastic, note-perfect dialogue. It's a monumental achievement on behalf of its young and personable author, and it deserves its spot atop our list summarizing the year of our lord 2007. It's out in paperback just recently, so you should all treat yourselves to a reading experience unlike any you've ever had.

And there you have it - the year 2007 rendered in its literary particulars ... a weird and worrisome year secularly and poltically and no less so reading-wise, since it saw the advent of's Kindle, the latest electronic assualt on the citadel of book-reading. But amidst everything, books, real books, continue to appear.

We here at Stevereads hope to continue to be your guide for such books in the new year. But for now, we shutter the palatial offices here at Stevereads (well, we shutter our penthouse retreat - the fifteen lower office levels continue to operate at full capacity, most certainly including Christmas Day itself) and head off to our country estate up at Montauk, with Hippolyta mulling wine in the kitchen foyer (for our guests, you filthy-minded little ewoks - for our guests), Leni and Blondi tirelessly stalking perimeter patrol in the slicing snow, and Beepy contentedly munching seaweed somewhere out in the offshore dark. We wish you all a Merry Christmas and a marvellous New Year's Day, and we hope with whatever hope we can muster that we'll rejoin you all in the uncharted territories of 2008.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Worst Books of 2007!

The year 2007 rushes headlong to its end, and we here at Stevereads are borne along. Every day brings more and more year-end tasks to be undertaken, and although this is seemly, it detracts from our great enterprise here, that is, talking about books.

In part, those two forces combine at this time of year, since it's a natural occasion to look back on letters and assess what happened, good and bad.

This is our patch, after all, books. Their active prosecution, mind you, not their passive reception. We leave bad movies to hilarious, acerbic Brian, and we leave the wrangling of current comics to our sprightily sane comrade Gianni (and his increasingly boisterous comments-field). Our Lady Disdain can handle the pop-culture edge in her own inimitable way. But our own bailiwick is not politics (although if it were, we would point out that the addition of Oprah Winfrey to the presidential campaign narrows the outcome of that campaign down to one name) nor music nor the intricacies of 'Lost' - our concern here is books, and at the end of the year we naturally reflect on the best and the worst of what the last twelve months had to offer. Reflect, and adjudicate, as is our sacred duty.

So here, without further ado, are the worst books of 2007, a year in which that's truly saying something, since virtually every major author in the world chose 2007 to squat, grunt, and then crap all over the literary landscape. In other words, if you managed to write a book worse than, say, Exit Ghost you had to be trying mighty hard - and each of these worthies pulled it off.

10. Microtrends by Mark Penn - an idiotic book by Senator Hillary Clinton's chief synergy-wonk, purporting to spot tiny but vital currents in American society. The book is pure bunkum, and it's worrisome to think of the people who are out there buying it hook, line, and sinker.

9. Shining at the Bottom of the Sea by Stephen Marche - Marche's main conceit - that his book purports to be a survey of the literature of a fictitious place - does double duty as being both enormously egotistical and hugely condescending. Pastiche is a lowly enough incarnation of literature as it is - pastiche that thinks it's trenchant is not only hilariously overreaching but inherently mean-spirited. The inhabitants of Sanjania ought to sue.

8. The Perils of Peace by Thomas Fleming - the setting of the piece, the extremely touch-and-go period in early American history when colonial arms had won victory but colonial statesmen were a long way off from winning viability among the nations of the world, would seem to be foolproof for the historian; only Fleming could have made it boring. But make it boring he does, ladling out one credulous, sententious glop of uneven, largely unresearched prose after another until the hapless reader is willing to give the whole bloody mess back to the British.

7. The Year of Living Biblically by A. J. Jacobs - Book-marketing gimmicks have been shameless and, shall we say, soulless since time immemorial (the Roman poet Horace once acquired a new publisher who advertised his latest work as being posthumous, much to the poet's dismay - until he got the payments, after which he didn't mind so much), but seldom has a gimmick been so offensive as this; Jacobs (whose willingness to do things he ought not in pursuit of royalty checks makes him a kind of living gimmick) decides to apply the Bible's multiple teachings literally to his Upper West Side life. The result is a book blasphemous even to atheists.

6. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid - the first truly horrible work made possible by the events of September 11, this arch, wretched, over-mannered, almost unbelievably condescending little book is told in the first person by a character who's killed on the last page, if that gives you any hint of its technical incompetence. But this is the least of its shortcomings; the dialogue is arch, the people are cardboard CNN bullet-headlines, and the incredibly complicated tangles of Islamic fundamentalism - tangles that currently ensnare the world - are reduced to mere posturings. This book should have been supremely important and overwhelmingly moving, given our times. Instead, it stands only as the way not to go about things.

5. Tree of Smoke by Dennis Johnson - a fine and capable short story writer goes disasterously awry in this, the very worst Vietnam novel ever written. Every shopworn vanity of Freshman Comp. is on display here; endless baggy disgressions are treated like Sophoclean profundities, characters are allegorized to no point or purpose, and dialogue is all pointed, empty pomp. What could have been a great book in other hands is here the misfire of the year.

4. I am a Strange Loop by Richard Hofstadter - alledged to be a meditation on the nature of human consciousness, this mess of a book (by the author of Godel, Escher, Bach) lurches between preening self-importance and ridiculous species-blindness. The great roving sea-turtles of this beautiful planet, the ground-shivering elephants of the African plain, the blue-black ravens who gossip in churhyards, the leaping, jumping wolves of the arctic circle, the shape-shifting brainy cephalopods of the world's oceans - all these beings and half a dozen more alive on Earth today would, if they could bother to read this silly book, say in unison, 'um, human? Aren't you forgetting all of us?'

3. A Free Life by Ha Jin - A searching generational saga that ... blah, blah, blah. How long has it been that Jin's been a blah, blah, blah author? This bloated, sophomoric book has no beginning, no middle, no end, and no point - it's only reason for being is the collection of human details that go into making Ha Jin the human being he is, and really, isn't 2007 late enough in the epoch to declare that insufficient grounds for talking about a book, or better yet from publishing it? Are we all really duty-bound to admire, say, Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation, a work of no merit whatsoever, simply because its author might have carried a rifle as a child? And likewise are we to accord to a piece of crap like A Free Life some kind of literary regard simply because Jin's name isn't Fergusson? It's infuriating, that such a disposable work should be granted even a season's respect simply because none dare call it autobiography.

2. Never Give Up by Teddy Bruschi - inspirational, feel-good sports memoirs are generally innocuous things, bromides for a season, full of patent reassurances as to the value of courage, pluck, and never giving up. Bruschi - he of that world's marvel, the New England Patriots - has enjoined ghostwriters to produce a similar book, but its occasion is far deadlier: Bruschi suffered a stroke a year ago and, once recovered, caused this ill-advised book to come to be, full of bromides about seizing your dreams and whatnot. The wrong here is that Bruschi, after suffering a potentially life-ending medical irruption, voluntarily returned to the pursuit of a sport in which he's routinely exposed to the most violent physical collisions on the planet. The NFL's money managed to buy doctors to approve this course, but they were villains, perverted utterly from the Oath they took when they began their careers. Strokes from which men fully recover are meant to be warnings, warnings to amend ways of living. For ordinary mortals, this would take the form of eating better and getting more exercise. For young men like Teddy Bruschi, this takes the form of retiring from a career that consists of fanatically exaggerated physical exertion and gigantically violent physical collisions. Bruschi's refusal to do this merits his book a place on our list.

1. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris - it's difficult to know where to start with this, the worst book of 2007. It's ostensibly a workplace comedy, but it would be a gross injustice to such smart little masterpieces as Randall Jarrett's Pictures from an Institution to call it so. Everything about this book - 'book' is the best we can do, since it's neither novel nor memoir but rather, as is pictured on the dustjacket, an endless stream of post-it notes - is repulsive, from its hipster disdain for any of storytelling's traditional payoffs (plot, conclusion, even narrative coherence) to its craven embracing of its own modest successes (best symbolized by the cigarette perched above our hot young author's ear in his author photo - a cigarette which has been airbrushed out of existence in all subsequent editions, just as Ferris' too-cool-for-school insouciance has vanished with the onset of hefty publisher's checks) to its relentlessly obnoxious tone. You know that young guy you work with? The one who's never happy with anything work-related, the one who's so thoroughly practiced in running down everything that even something clearly and purely to his benefit meets with nothing but his scorn, the one who's mildly funny but whose humor grates pretty quickly, since it's so ultimately defeating? Ferris is that young man, and his incredibly tiresome book is nothing more than a long collection of workplace-griper stories - the craziness of 'lifers,' the craziness of bosses, the craziness of rules ... basically the craziness of everybody who isn't willing to pay Ferris $150,000 a year just to show up - deriding such crazinesses is all this book tries - and fails - to do. That this kid will hereafter have a paid literary career is the singular crime of 2007's world of letters.

And there you have it! 2007's chief rogues gallery! But fear not - the best is yet to come! Up next: the best of 2007, to round out our year together.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Heaping Helping of Historical Fiction!

A list has been suggested, called for, even implored, and we here at Stevereads never turn away from a good juicy list. We consequently fired off the appropriate memos and admonitions to the pertinent research departments, telling them to postpone our upcoming Best and Worst Books of 2007 listings (and, it need hardly be added, cancel their own squalid Holiday plans, which were never all that important in the first place), and we've come up with a list - not a definitive list, since such a thing would be beyond the scope of even this site, but a meaty list all the same. Here are thirty-odd kick-ass historical novels, books which, should you encounter them on the bargain carts at the Strand, will suck you in and keep you enthralled from first page to last. These are some of the best books historical fiction has to offer, offered in no particular order:

1. Child of the Morning by Pauline Gedge - the evocative tale of the great Egyptian pharaoh Hatchepsut, a woman in the ultimate man's job.

2. Clodia by Robert DeMaria - a bouncy, chatty novel about Catullus in Republican Rome; the history here is rock-solid, and even the sensibilities are almost perfect.

3. The City of Libertines by W.G. Hardy - another great novel of Caesar and Catullus and the fall of the Roman Republic.

4. The Emperor's Virgin by Sylvia Fraser - a lively, literate look at the lamentable reign of the Roman emperor Domitian.

5. I, Claudius by Robert Graves - well of course this book had to appear on the list, even though it basically sucks as a work of fiction, because it's so successfully anecdotal and conversational - reading it feels like coming to some kind of historical-fiction home.

6. Gold for the Caesars by Florence Seward - chronicling the sad reign of the emperor Domitian - and the new dawn of the military emperor Trajan.

7. Mr. Midshipman Easy by Captain Frederick Marryat - a rattling good naval yarn set in the Napoleonic, although this place could equally be given to any of Captain Marryat's novels, all of which are as fine and stirring now as when they were written.

8. The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth - set mostly in colonial America and featuring a wildly tangled plot and a hilarious, scandalous version of Captain John Smith.

9. Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian - another novel set in the Napoleonic era, but this one is like nothing else on this list, as odd and scintillating historical novel as we here at Stevereads have read in many a year.

10. The Antagonists by Ernest Gann - the gritty, heavily detailed story of the first century Roman siege of the Jewish fortress Masada.

11. Entered from the Sun by George Garrett - the greatest of George Garrett's three great historical novels, and also the best novel about Christopher Marlowe (beating even Anthony Burgess' twilight work Dead Man in Deptford) ever written, even though Marlowe appears nowhere in it.

12. The Kingdom of the Wicked by Anthony Burgess - a panoramic view of the first century, centering on a fledgling Christianity and a fumbling, corrupt Roman Empire, this is basically the Acts of the Apostles as written by a chain-smoking drunken word-besotted genius.

13. The Right Line of Cerdric by Alfred Duggan - a richly realized novel of Alfred the Great, by far the best fictional treatment of that enigmatic figure - although all of Duggan's works could stand here with equal justification.

14. The Alexandrian by Martha Rofheart - of all the innumerable novels written about Cleopatra, this is the best, the one that comes closest to capturing accurately the characters of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, and Marc Antony.

15. The Murder of Sir Edmund Godfrey by John Dickson Carr - the veteran mystery-writer turns his hand to historical fiction spread lightly on a bed of tightly-researched fact, all revolving around the mysterious death of Edmund Berry Godfrey, which was used by the odious authors of the so-called 'Popish Plot' to further their witch-hunt. Never was such a horrible disgrace so engagingly written-of.

16. Three Years to Play by Colin MacInnes - A really good, vigorously archaic novel of Shakespeare, full of 'thees' and 'thous' and enough no-longer-current contractions to satisfy the most romantic among you. Sorry, amongst ye.

17. Shakespeare by John Mortimer - Here is John Mortimer, creator of the immortal 'Rumpole of the Bailey,' writing the novel to a mini-series that never amounted to much despite starring Tim Curry and a roster of other notables. This is the best, most sensitive novel about Shakespeare ever written.

18. The Man on a Donkey by H.F.M. Prescott - Quite simply the greatest Tudor novel yet written. Not to be missed.

19. The Conspiracy by John Hersey and The Ides of March by Thornton Wilder - no sense dealing with these two books separately; they're both highly enjoyable, they're both epistolary, and they both deal with the people and the events leading up to the assassination of Caesar.

20. Imperial Governor by George Shipway - the feelingly-narrated story of the sorry folk who were unlucky enough to be in charge during Boadicea's ill-fated revolt against patriarchal Roman rule.

21. The Sheriff of Nottingham portrayed in 'Robin Hood Prince of Thieves' by a ham-on-wry Alan by Richard Kluger - a thoroughly unpretentious and involving look at the man most of you will know as the villain who plagues heroic Robin Hood (inimitablyRickman, gleefully snarling lines like "no more table scraps for widows and orphans - and Christmas is cancelled!") but who features in this book mainly as a good man with the singular misfortune of being an English official in the reign of King John.

22. Jem (& Sam) by Ferdinand Mount - a fun and frolicsome (and bounteously intelligent) Restoration romp starring Samuel Pepys and our main character Jem, an actual historical personage and lineal ancestor of our author, who is here utilizing a lifetime of learning to have his fun.

23. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry - calling this magnificent work the best western ever written automatically demeans it, even though such a statement is nothing less than the truth. In fact, this story of two redoubtable Texas Rangers leading a cattle-drive from Texas to Montana is one of the most instructive and powerful novels written in America in the 20th century. Alone of all the books on this list, it's required reading for all Americans.

24. The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara - an electrifying, kinetic recreation of the Battle of Gettysburg, in which the entire cast North and South (all of whom, unprecedently for historical fiction, are actual historical figures) are brought completely to life.

25. Romola by George Eliot - the great novelist tries her hand at Renaissance historical fiction, with generally admirable results. The Italian Renaissance still hasn't received the great fictional epic it deserves, but Romola comes closer than any of the other contenders.

26. Salaambo by Gustave Flaubert - Another famous novelist trying his hand at historical fiction, in this case the theater of ancient Rome. Flaubert here is at his most gaudy and melodramatic - you'll feel guilty reading it, but you'll eat it up nonetheless.

27. Deus Lo Volt! by Evan S. Connell - Here one of America's greatest writers throws himself into the tone and mindframe of the great Crusade chroniclers - a supremely odd concoction that at first had its packagers calling it history and now has them styling it as fiction, although in reality this remarkable book isn't quite either. Connell has been subverting genres his entire career, and this amazing book is no different. Read it and be amazed.

28. The Winds of War/ War and Remembrance by Herman Wouk - this two-volume opus is the final word on the 20th century prewar era (with all of the war thrown in).

29. The Persian Boy by Mary Renault - Almost her best novel and certainly her longest, the heartfelt story of Bagoas, the Persian castrati who was captured into the train of Alexander the Great and, according to our lady

30. The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault - We end with Renault's best work, a thoroughly adult and intelligent love story between two men, taking place against the tumultuous backdrop of the Peloponnesian War. This is first-rate, beautiful writing combined with impeccable historical research to yield a book you won't want to end.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Daughter of York

Our book today is Daughter of York by Anne Easter Smith, whose previous historical novel was A Rose for the Crown. That previous book handily embodied every single thing historical fiction can do wrong: creaky dialogue, anachronisms on every page, escapism offered in the place of fact. The past was in many, many respects a better place than the present - and in a greater number of ways not so. Then, everything tasted better and privacy was possible; now, people (including, needless to say, people you love) don't die from stepping on a nail, and anyone who wants to (as opposed to anyone who can afford to go there) can see pictures and videos of the Holy Land, or the Ganges river, or Victoria Falls.

In either case, both the historian and the historical novelist must be true to what was true at the time about which they're writing. Characters must not speak in B-movie dialogue (or if they do, it must be part of your conceit that they do, not an obvious accident). 14th century characters must not have 21st century reactions. The past must be allowed to be the past, or the whole exercise of writing about it is rendered redundant.

With that in mind, we present Daughter of York, a long historical novel about Margaret Plantagenet, King Edward IV's idiot sister, who - since she was vain, stupid, eloquent, and strong - deserves a book of her own. She was nervy, but she wasn't brilliant; she was no Eleanor of Acquitaine, much less an Anne Boleyn or a Barbara Villiers. It would take a subtle hand to bring her to life.

Whether or not Anne Easter Smith possesses that hand would ordinarily be our job her at Stevereads to tell you. But we are not excessively cruel (not excessively; just to the level required) - we shall here, without comment, simply append the first page of Miss Easter Smith's new novel. As to the rest of a critic's portfolio - well, on this rare occasion we're prepared to let you all sample the goods on display and make the determination on your own. Here's that first page:

"The Micklegate towered above her, seeming to touch the lowering sky, as she knelt in the mud and stared at the gruesome objects decorating the battlement. Rudely thrust on spikes, several human heads kept watch from the crenellations, wisps of hair stirring in the breeze. A paper crown sat askew on one of the bloodied skulls and drooped over a socket now empty of the owner's dark gray eye. The flesh on the cheeks had been picked clean by birds, and there was no nose. Yet still Margaret recognized her father. She could not tear her eyes from him even as his lifeless lips began to stretch over his teeth into a hideous smile.
It was then Margaret screamed.
'Margaret! Wake up! 'Tis but a dream, my child.' Cecily shook her daughter awake. She watched anxiously as Margaret's eyes flew open and looked around her with relief.
'Oh, Mother, dear Mother, I dreamed of Micklegate again! A terrible, ghastly dream. Why does it not go away? I cannot bear to imagine Father and Edmund like that!' Margaret sat up, threw her arms around her mother's neck and sobbed. 'Oh, why did they have to die?'

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

In Memoriam: Elizabeth Hardwick

We here at Stevereads pause to note with intense sadness the death of Elizabeth Hardwick, whose little biography of Herman Melville is better than all the big ones, and whose literary essays shine with wit and discernment the equal of anything this side of Virginia Woolf. Hardwick helped create the great New York Review of Books, but more importantly, she almost single-handedly created a new kind of literary essay, more passionate and more personal than the old mode but no less learned.

In a perfect afterworld, she would now be free to drink late, late into the night, talking books and good letters with Erasmus and Montaigne and Gibbon and all her departed comrades from the New York intellectual scene she so adorned. Stuck as we are in this world, we can only salute her memory and try to get along without her, as unthinkable as that seems right now.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Open Letters Monthly for December!

Feast your eyes, gentle sapients, on the December issue of Open Letters Monthly, the much-labored work-product of deep-voiced, boyish Fiction Editor Sam, lanky, Byronically accessible Poetry Editor John, and cranky, vaguely schlerotic Nonfiction Editor yours truly.

We present to you all this month a vast spectrum of intellectual content, an array only equalled anywhere by Sam's New York Review of Books and of course the mighty TLS, and with more esprit de corps than either or those two august organs.

Here you'll see our sensitive, insightful Karen Vanuska turn her unerring eye on the forlorn correspondence between a postwar Britisher and a heavily-watched parolee of the Soviet Union. Here also is caustic, thin-skinned Contributing Editor Greg Waldmann reporting from the world of politics, this time assessing the latest book by ersatz President and selfless world-advocate Al Gore. Freelancer David Moser takes a philosophical look at the season's crop of New Atheists. Contributing Editor Joanna Scutts uses her customary combination of intelligence and eloquence to take us into the world of literature - as it's taught at West Point, of all places. The field of poetry is given a large amount of caring attention (as would of course be expected under the watchful eye of Poetry Editor John Cotter): Jeff Eaton gives us a peppy examination of two new titles from No Tell Books; the award-winning Clayton Eshleman favors us with another of his poems, and Contributing Editor Adam Golaski unveils the first installment of his brilliant adaptation of 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,' here under the title Green. Energetic freelancer Panagiotis Polichronakis turns in a glowing appraisal of the new Landmark Herodotus.

Down at the bottom of the table of contents lurks our monthly quiz - this one in a more foul mood than usual and not caring who knows it. There is much long-winded filler matter besides, but the jewel of the site this month is Sam Sacks' long and gorgeously-written overview of the writings of Marilynne Robinson, the best piece of criticism her work has yet received anywhere and an essay not to be missed.

And as if such a feast weren't enough, December enjoys the birth of the Open Letters blog, thereby relieving you all of the grinding necessity of waiting a full month for more snark, updates, and guidance on all things Open Letters.

So make the bookmark, brew some cocoa, and click on over! And as always, your comments are always welcome!

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Complete Letters of Pliny the Younger

Our book today is the Complete Letters of Pliny the Younger, this time in a new translation by P.G. Walsh. Walsh's translation is quite startlingly good - a marked improvement over even the best previous renditions - but there's only so much he can do with his author, because Pliny Secundus, Pliny the Younger, was a boob, a ponce, and a monumental suck-up.

He was born well and fostered well - when his father died, he became the ward of awe-inspiring consular Verginius Rufus and, more importantly, his uncle the Elder Pliny, about as vicious and remarkable an individual as is ever born into any generation. If the Elder Pliny's collected works - there were upwards of 40 books, not counting ten volumes of collected correspondence - were still extant in their entirety, they would overshadow the nephew to the point where we could safely ignore him. But they are not, and the nephew's correspondence, preening and blockheaded (and cringing, when it comes to his letters to the emperor) though it is, nevertheless sheds valuable light on the life and inner workings of imperial government in the first century. They are sometimes compared in this regard to the voluminous correspondence of Cicero, which is unfair: Cicero was an as big or bigger horse's ass than Pliny the Younger, but he could at least write - his letters flow like rivulets, they're beguiling. Pliny's letters are more of the Radar O'Reilly variety, plodding, point-driven, and relentlessly self-absorbed.

They aren't total disasters - there are ghost stories and lots of plummy bits about household slaves and real estate prices. And books - refreshingly, the letters are full of the love of books, which wouldn't have been evident in the writings of his celebrated uncle, who didn't enjoy books so much as use them like an old, alcoholic British attache might have used the young Thai girls on his ministry staff.

And there's some joshing, all done in a Plimptonesque mandarin style but companionable nonetheless:

To his friend Paulinus
I am angry. Whether I should be I am not sure, but I am angry. You know how love-feelings are sometimes unjust, often intemperate, and always susceptible. But what provokes them is weighty and perhaps just. Anyway, it is as if my anger is as justified as it is fierce. I am considerably angry because I have not heard from you for so long. There is only one way you can prevail on me, which is to send me, now at long last, streams of the lengthiest letters, for in my eyes this is the only genuine means of excusing yourself. All other excuses will not ring true. I won't hear of 'I was not in Rome,' or 'I was too busy.' As for 'I was somewhat out of sorts,' even the gods would not buy that!
I am on my estate, enjoying the two fruits born of leisure, books and idleness. Farewell."

There's at least a human quality here, albeit a middling one (even on this, Cicero beats him - when the latter's marble facade comes down, it comes all the way down).

He tries to hit this collegiate note as often as he can, wanting badly to appear the fuzzy-prioritied man of letters:

"To his friend Julius Naso

Etruria has been battered by hail, and the report from across the Po is of a bumper-harvest but with prices correspondingly dirt-cheap. My Laurentine estate alone offers a return. In fact, I have nothing there but the house and the garden, and the beach immediately beyond. None the less, it is my only profitable property, for there I write a lot, and cultivate not my non-existent land but myself with my studies. Already I can show you a full cupboard of papers, the equivalent of a full granary elsewhere. So if you are keen on a reliable and rewarding property, purchase something here! Farewell."

Charming? Maybe. But there you see the reality peeking through despite itself: the skeleton of this lovely little picture is a late-night TV real estate pitch, one specifically aimed toward wealthy acquaintances. It's letters like these that give you the impression you might not have liked Pliny the Younger all that much. You certainly wouldn't have liked his ambition.

And he had loads and loads of ambition. He was deficient in courage (his uncle the Elder died while trying to save people from the firestorm of erupted Vesuvius; the Younger, also present, was content to sightsee from a safe distance), but he knew how to go after what he wanted. Under the reign of Domitian he started up the ladder of public offices, and under Trajan he was awarded the governorship of Bithynia-Pontus. Ponce or no ponce, governors need watching, and as a result we have among Pliny's letters a collection of exchanges between him and Trajan on various matters pertaining to the management of his province. Here Pliny is abject and fawning to the one Roman emperor who found such behavior distasteful, and he's extra-punctilious about everything because he no more trusts himself than others trust him. Trajan (or rather, Trajan's clerks, the emperor not really being a paperwork kind of guy) is constantly besieged with letters from his new governor on every subject conceivable:

"Gaius Pliny to the emperor Trajan

I am asking you, my lord, to state in reply what rights you wish the cities of Bithynia and Pontus to have in demanding the moneys owed to them from rents or sales or other sources. I have found that several proconsuls have allowed them the right of first claim, and that this had the force of law. My view, however, is that through your foresight some procedure should be established and ratified, by means of which their interests can be protected for ever. For the decisions made by the proconsuls, though wisely conceded, are temporary and precarious unless your authority is brought to bear on them."

What Pliny is talking about here, when all his mincing equivocations are removed, is graft - he's asking whether or not the governor's office, and not the city municipalities, might not have first crack at all owed revenues (most certainly including taxes), and he's asking Trajan to endorse the graft officially. The emperor's reply squelches the idea, as anyone but Pliny would have known it would:

"The rights which the cities of Bithynia and Pontus should wield in the matter of the moneys which for one reason and another are owed to the public weal must be decided in accordance with the law of each. If they have the privilege by which they are ranked before all other creditors, it must be safeguarded; or if they have no such privilege, it will not be incumbent on me to grant it and do injustice to private individuals."

In other words, things were working fine before you got there, leave them alone. Two years later, when Pliny died in office, he was not an overly wealthy man.

Walsh's translation, as noted, does all that can be done with this material, and his end-notes are ample and widely read. The volume is part of the Oxford World's Classics series, which can always be trusted to be excellent. Pliny is above all things a gossip, and those of you who find gossip fascinating (and you know who you are) will find much to please you here. Those with meatier interests can only hope that more of the Elder's works come to light someday.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Heresy in the Penny Press!

Who among us (certainly who in the extended community represented here at Stevereads) could help but feel his blood run cold upon seeing the cover of the latest Newsweek?

There is imp-faced Jeff Bezos, founder of, holding up his latest assault on book-reading discrimination, a paperback-sized gadget called the Kindle. And the accompanying headline? 'Books aren't dead (they're just going digital).' The story is called 'The Future of Reading' by Steven Levy, and its interior subtitle goes like this: 'Amazon's Jeff Bezos already built a better bookstore. Now he believes he can improve upon one of humankind's most divine creations: the book itself.'

We here at Stevereads realize that such things are more often than not added by copy-writers, but even so: it's rare to have an article-writer's status as a whore so openly announced before the piece has even started. And what follows amounts to little more than a five-page advertisement for the Kindle, which represents the next generation in electronic reading devices designed to supplant the humble book as the means by which readers read.

But even before we get to the piece itself, we're objecting: Bezos hasn't built a better bookstore - he's designed a better book catalogue. You can only find there what's presented to you, or what others have found before you. There are no quiet nooks at where you can take yourself away and give a not-quite-randomly chosen half-dozen books equal crack at winning the honor of being the one you take home. Nowhere on will you find any book not connected to the one you came in seeking. And needless to say, nowhere on will you find anything equivalent to the amiable, challenging, guiding expertise of professional book-clerks. Your barren alternative online is little better than the baying of the mob. This is not a better bookstore - this is no bookstore at all but an electronic shopping-hub. There's nothing wrong with that, but let's not confuse our terms.

And none of this changes the fact that the Kindle, or something like it, may very well represent the death of the book as we've known it these five hundred years.

It fits neatly in the hand. It runs for 30 hours on one battery-charge. Its font-size can be changed according to the ocular shortcomings of the reader. Electronic marginalia can be made. Thousands of volumes can be kept on the one gizmo. It costs $400 right this moment, but it'll cost $50 by the time this post is made public. It could very well catch on in a way its previous electronic brethren have not.

The reason it will, if it will, is simple: the American public has seldom been stupider than it is today. More than half of them never pick up a book in adult life; a full third of them couldn't actually read it if they did. These numbers grow worse every year, and they spell the doom of the American Republic even if nothing else changes (since America is incomparably more powerful than any other nation on Earth, that doom will come from within, through despotism, rather than from without, through barbarian invasions). The members of the moneyed classes who still tell themselves they're 'book people' will sign up for a Kindle for one (non-bookish) reason and one (non-bookish) reason only: through it, the latest James Patterson bestseller will cost you $9, not $25.

Yep, that's right: The latest James Patterson thriller, Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down (he's got to be the only writer alive whose career will end the instant he runs out of childrens nursery rhymes)(and the irony that such a simplistic writer would utilize such rhymes is surely unintended), the latest oh-so-serious ghost-written campaign autobiography, A Promise to Promise, the hit self-empowerment tract, You! You're the Best! Go for It! - if you want to (so to speak) read any of these, you can download them instantaneously for less than half the price it would cost you to buy them at your local Barnes & Noble the day before you take your flight to Bangladesh to bilk the brown natives out of some huge amount of money they didn't know they had a right to. In short, since you yourself are evil, why in Hell shouldn't you buy your 'books' in as evil a manner as possible? And now, why shouldn't you read them in such a manner, busily, on the go, angrily, eminently distractable (the Kindle allows for in-breaks for the latest headlines from Google News, or, or the latest footage of a cat masturbating himself on Youtube - because, as we all know, reading can be so fucking boring after the first, like, fifteen pages or so), and most of all conveniently? Convenient because you haven't actually picked up a book in fifteen, twenty years - you learn everything you need to learn (although that word should be accompanied by quotes, since you aren't in fact interested in anything that doesn't directly affect your wallet) from an LED screen. And more importantly - most importantly for this particular debate, and in terms of humanity in general - through an LED screen whose use is paid for by a not-at-all disinterested mercantile third party. In other words, in the pristine new world Bezos promises, the 'books' are being 'provided' by the corporations that stand to profit most from the distribution of their wares. Of bookselling itself, the actual task of putting the right book in the hands of the right person, Levy's article is silent.

Instead, we get lots of quotes from Bezos (Levy has the effrontery to characterize Bezos as one of the aforementioned 'book people'), things like "Books are the last bastion of analog," and "This isn't a device, it's a service." Bezos seems incapable of opening his mouth without a soulless irony spewing out, as when he says of books "Why do I love these physical objects? Why do I love the smell of glue and ink?" It's like if Phil Sheridan had rhapsodized about the glories of Indian culture while his soldiers were destroying village after village.

But Bezos can be ignored, despite the enormity of the evil he's doing; his motivation is plain and simple greed (a word that never occurs in Levy's piece), and so he is contemptible but dismissible. But either his device will catch on or the next one will, and the changes it will unleash are not to be underestimated. The entire world changed when the printing press became practicable - changed in ways that even now, six hundred years later, we perhaps do not fully understand. If there's to be a second such revolution, the effects will be no less profound.

Levy takes stabs at various of these changes (inevitably, he paints pictures of deserted bookstores, "lonelier places, as digital reading thrusts us into an exciting - and jarring - post-Gutenberg era"), but he stresses one above all others: that widespread electronic reading and publishing will change what reading and especially writing are. As Levy gleefully puts it, company's coming.

Books will no longer be complete when their author writes them. They'll no longer be complete when their author wrangles with a good editor to get them in finished shape. No, in the brave new world whose threshold we cross, every reader will have the potential to change what they read, because the whole process will be electronically open. Writers will post their thoughts on each chapter as they're writing it, and readers with knowledge - or even opinions - on the subject matter of that chapter will be able to chime in and perhaps change the final product. And that 'final' isn't final either - authors will have the ability to go back into their books and change anything they like, forever fine-tuning and tinkering, like Leonardo Da Vinci carting the Mona Lisa around with him for years, never fulfilling his contract, never selling it, changing it by minuscule changes whenever the whim struck him.

Levy writes about this new era of transparency with the exuberant enthusiasm any whore feels for the john who's paying the day's way. He's talked to people, you see:

"Talk to people who have thought about the future of books and there's a phrase you hear again and again. Readers will read in public. Writers will write in public. Readers, of course, are already enjoying a more prominent role in the literary community, taking star turns in blogs, online forums and Amazon reviews. This will only increase in the era of connected reading devices. 'Book clubs could meet inside of a book,' says Bob Stein, a pioneer of digital media who now heads the Institute for the Future of the Book, a foundation-funded organization based in his Brooklyn, N.Y. town house. Eventually, the idea goes, the community becomes part of the process itself."

We speak for ourselves here (although we know without asking that Beepy whole-heartedly agrees), but we speak it nonetheless: the very idea of this is awful, just awful. We want no truck with writers so feckless they need the rabble's aid in their endeavors - what would Flannery O'Connor have said? Or Jane Austen? Or Tacitus? Writers absent themselves from felicity a while - that's exactly what we want writers to do. Levy writes as though the 11,000-year-old divide between writers and readers were one more pathetic artificial analog construct, to be swept away in the face of the Top Ten objections Anne-Marie of Elksbone Michigan has to Anna ("We almost have the same name! LOL!") Karenina's death.

This is the essential flaw of the whore's article, just as it's the essential flaw of the alleged book-lover Jeff Bezos' new gizmo. Music is an arrangement of notes in sequence - it can survive transmutation into any medium that can produce the physical sounds of which it's composed. Visual images - be they pictures, movies, or what have you - require lightwaves and receptive eyeballs and that's all ... they don't require pigment, or canvas, or cathode rays. They might have required those things to come into being in the first place, but not afterwards: the Mona Lisa doesn't need you to buy a trip to France.

Likewise reading - marks on a contrast of whiteness can be conveyed in any number of media and count as reading. Website people read, if this is what constitutes reading;; even wretched bloggers (surely the lowest of the low - we here at Stevereads have nothing but a kind of amused pity for them) read, if this is all that's required.

Seeing images, yes. Hearing music, yes. And reading text, yes. But not viewing paintings, for which of course there can be no digital counterpart, nor either experiencing live music, for which electronic media can offer no succor. And especially not reading books - reading, yes, but not reading books. Because it's no more possible to say 'Books aren't dead - they're just going digital' than it is it say 'Bodies aren't dead - they just not alive!'

Reading, yes, but not reading books. For all that the satanic Bezos gets wrong, there's one thing he gets right: he says the essential thing about books is they disappear. And so they do: they are our essential companions, silent, self-sufficient, always ready. We roll over them in bed, we scribble all over them (sometimes in successive chronological order, as we reread both the book and our old comments), we stick things in between their leaves, we invest them with histories - where we found each volume, what we paid for it, who was with us at the time maybe - and when we're done with all that, we pass them on, just as we take them, eagerly, hand to hand. The ones we keep with us comfort us with their familiar, silent serried ranks on our shelves - a totally impractical use of space, true, but how bare, how uninhabitable the room would be without them! They aren't storing the data of their contents - they are inextricably bound up in it. A $500 satellite-dependent liquid-screen 30-hour-lifespan handheld device locked into the stock of an internet booksite ... it's not only laughable to think such a thing could be a 'better' book, it's vaguely obnoxious to do so.

Which isn't to say this new Kindle gizmo or something like it won't succeed in supplanting the book - but when it happens, it won't be because books failed the ongoing march of technology ... it'll be because the reading public failed books. Not all the reading public, naturally - not the real readers, who'll always know themselves and each other - but the huge cresting tide of page-turning idiots who've always made sure Tom Clancy outsold Gilbert Sorrentino. Unlike in all past eras, that majority of non-reading readers now has the power shutter bookstores and eradicate the very idea of a backlist.

We here at Stevereads urge everyone reading these words to fight this usurpation of the few by the many. Don't let the Kindle - or anything like it - start a bonfire of the vanities. This thing is not the future of books - it's the killing of them. It and its exponents must be forcibly rejected, mowed under like crabgrass, in favor of a future in which there are still bound and printed books. That we write in. That we lodge $1 bills in. That we write our hearts into. That we then ill-advisedly lend to the unreturning unworthy. We live in our books, and we should fight all attempts at eviction.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Oxford Book of English Verse

Our book today is the venerable Oxford Book of English Verse in the second edition helmed by the mighty Helen Gardner.

In John Mortimer's short story "Rumpole and the Golden Thread," the main character Horace Rumpole opines that when time and tide have washed away all remnants of the England he knows, three things will still survive: the British Breakfast, the presumption of innocence, and ... the Oxford Book of English Verse. In this as in so many things (like never pleading guilty, or the salubrious qualities of Chateau Thames Embankment), we here at Stevereads find ourselves in complete agreement with that lovable Old Bailey hack.

Or rather, almost complete. Rumpole's allegiance is, after all, to the first edition of the Oxford Book produced in 1900 through the herculean efforts of Arthur Quiller-Couch. Here we must admit a small apostasy: good as the Quiller-Couch volume is, it's nevertheless a quaintly Victorian conception, more a response to Palgrave's Treasury than to anything alive in the world of poetry at the turn of the 20th century. Even Quiller-Couch's revision of his own seminal work is more grudging than great-hearted.

No, it's enough to say he planted the seed and guarded its first sapling growth. Helen Gardner it is who brings it to perfection. Her volume, in turn, can never be bettered - when the time comes, it will need to be broken apart and entirely remade.

Botanical metaphors seem inevitable in describing a work of this much beauty and variety. An old Arab saying has it that a book is a garden you can carry i your satchel. If this is so, then the Oxford Book of English Verse represents the opulent parks and walkways of Versailles. Four pillars hold aloft the grand edifice of English letters - the novels of Jane Austen, the plays of Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and this indispensable volume.

Like those other pillars, it's really many volumes, as many volumes as there are readers who find it. The lovestruck mooncalf will find heartfelt outpouring aplenty. The melancholy brooder will find his surfeit of sighs. And the jeering satirist will find knives to make him smile. Gardner's range is far greater than Quiller-Couch's, and she is much more willing than he was to cut chunks of great verse from longer works. There is everything here, and all an appreciative reader can really do is flip pages and share their favorites. We here at Stevereads are no different in this, and we will leave you today with a few selections.

The first is from Henry King (1592-1669), written in one dash of self-pity the morning after he learned one of the best-kept secrets in the world:

Sic Vita

Like to the falling of a star,
Or as the flights of eagles are,
Or like the fresh spring's gaudy hue,
Or silver drops of morning dew,
Or like a wind that chafes the flood,
Or bubbles which on water stood:
Ever such is man whose borrowed light
Is straight called in, and paid to night.

The wind blows out the bubble dies;
The spring entombed in autumn dies;
The dew dries up, the star is shot;
The flight is past: and man forgot.

And here's the great John Dryden, waxing at his most pithy, as he always did when his heart was hurting:

Farewell, Ungrateful Traitor

Farewell, ungrateful traitor,
Farewell, my perjured swain,
Let never injured creature
Believe a man again.
The pleasure of possessing
Surpasses all expressing,
But 'tis too short a blessing,
And love too long a pain.

'Tis easy to deceive us
In pity of your pain,
But when we love you leave us
To rail at you in vain.
Before we have descried it
There is no bliss beside it,
But she that once has tried it
Will never love again.

The passion you pretended
Was only to obtain,
But when the charm is ended
The charmer you disdain.
Your love by ours we measure
Till we have lost our treasure
But dying is a pleasure,
When living is a pain.

And we'll end on a hopeful note, one of the most hopeful notes ever struck by a poet and one of our most loved pieces of verse (even though we don't believe a word of what it promises), by Christina Rossetti:

Does the road wind uphill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day's journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.

But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow, dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.

Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.

Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.

Thanksgiving indeed!

Just the other day we were strapping on the old feed bag at Captain Jack's Hungry Shack with our good friend Waldo when he made a comment that we found interesting. Since this virtually never happens with Waldo, we thought we'd share it. He was face-down in a bucket of peach cobbler when suddenly he looked up and, dribbling crumbs, said: "You know, it's been a long time since you reminded your readers that you are, in fact, a stone cold super-hottie."

We were forced to admit that he was right (also a rarity where Waldo is concerned), and after brooding on the subject for a while, we decided to do something about it. Rushing to the back of our estate grounds (we're spending the Thanksgiving weekend at the retreat at Montauk Point), we instructed one of our 'houseguests' to take a digital snapshot :

After all, it's Thanksgiving! And now you all have something for which to be truly grateful. No need to thank us.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty

Our book today is The Collected Stries of Eudora Welty.

We here at Stevereads vividly recall our one and only meeting with Miss Welty – we were visiting the Mississippi desk of Stevereads and were in the middle of a long and typically contentious phone call with Robert Penn Warren when Miss Welty stopped by the office on an impromptu social call. She was a bit of a homebody, so this was unexpected and went unreported by the staff. We wrapped up our phone call (as usual, we met Warren’s price in the end) and stalked into the bullpen, only to find Miss Welty waiting patiently, seated with both hands folded over her purse.

Stunned at finding one of the greatest prose stylists in the world sitting unattended in our newsroom, we thundered for an explanation. A startled intern stammeringly reported that they’d all mistaken Miss Welty for the nighttime cleaning lady and consequently paid her no mind.

She chortled at this and positively prohibited the mass-firings that sprang immediately to our vengeful mind, and in retrospect the mistake seems illustrative

Many years have passed. We shuttered the Mississippi desk (the graft was excessive even by our standards), and Miss Welty died. But her luminous, amazing stories live on, a gift to each new generation as long as reading endures.

The illustrative part comes from the fact that these are humble stories, narrowly focussed, full of small and precisely rendered details – unassuming stories, just as their author could be so unassuming.

‘The things everybody does every day,’ is how it’s phrased in one story, and although this is not technically the case (otherwise there would be no cause for writing of it), most of the stories manage to make it feel that way. The secret lies in how thoroughly Welty knows her characters. Every person who walks through these pages can be seen and heard by the reader. This is a rare talent in a writer, one not possessed by titans who possessed many larger gifts in abundance.

She is, in other words, the Miss Marple of American letters, seeing the world and knowing it straight down to the bottom by knowing in absolute detail the goings on of her own Southern version of the village of St. Mary Mead. She might as well be writing in her own voice when she has one character exclaim:

“Randall, when are you going back to your precious wife? You forgive her, now you hear? That’s no way to do, bear grudges. Your mother never bore your father a single grudge in her life, and he made her life right hard. I tell you, how do you suppose he made her life? She don’t bear him a grudge. We’re all human on earth. Where’s little old Woodrow this morning, late to work or you done something to him? I still think of him as a boy in knee britches and Buster Brown bob, riding that pony, that extravagant pony, cost a hundred dollars. Woodrow: a little common but so smart. Felix Spights never overcharged a customer, and Miss Billy Texas amounted to a good deal before she got like she is now, and Missie could always play the piano better than average; Little Sister too young to tell yet. Ah, I’m a woman that’s been clear around the world in my rocking chair, and I tell you we all get surprises now and then.”

In fact, it’s the local immediacy of her prose that’s fooled many a critic into using the word ‘gentle’ to describe her stories (in “Music from Spain,” for instance, he main character in the story’s opening paragraph reaches across the breakfast table and slaps his wife across the face; in the late story “The Demonstrators,” a young girl is stabbed in the chest with an icepick), but the mistake is understandable anyway, because even Welty’s savageries are drawn with such care and sympathy that they feel if not gentle at least empathetic.

Be it horror or tension, satire or morality play, her ability to evoke all aspects of a scene is unmatched by an American author (and we here at Stevereads have learned through bitter experience that no lady author takes kindly to being called ‘America’s Trollope’). Sixty different little authorial decisions are being made in a passage like the following, and all of them correctly:

“Screams surrounded the house. The little MacLain children and their nurse had gotten away from old Miss Lizzie, their grandmother, and come to play in the Rainey yard. Gradually other children, Loomis and Maloney, attracted by the magnetic MacLains, played there too, all drunk with the attractions of an untried place, and a place sinister for the day. The little Mayhews, every time they were gathered up and brought away from these into the house, cried. Blue jays were scolding the whole morning over the roof, and logging trucks thundered by shaking their chains and threatening the clean curtains.”

And of course there’s the thing everyone even vaguely acquainted with Miss Welty’s fiction will be looking for, waiting for. And we can faithfully report what you all suspected anyway: even among the incalculable richesses of this bursting story collection, the gem-perfect comic masterpiece “Why I Live at the P.O.” stands out.

If any of you know Miss Welty, you most likely know her from this one story, and that’s just as well, for though it cannot show you the whole range of what our author can do, it can at least show you that she’s capable of making something that’s flawless, which is impressive enough in its own right.

The story is impossible to summarize (but, we suspect, easy to google – hinthint), but it hardly matters, since any random slice of it conveys the barely-controlled lunacy of its goings-on – and perhaps provokes out-loud laughter in the process. Herewith a random slice, because no mention of Miss Welty would be complete without it:

“So the first thing Stella-Rondo did at the table was turn Papa-Daddy against me.
‘Papa-Daddy,’ she says. He was trying to cut up his meat. ‘Papa-Daddy!’ I was taken completely by surprise. Papa-Daddy is about a million years old and’s got this long-long beard. ‘Papa-Daddy, Sister says she fails to understand why you don’t cut off your beard.’
So Papa-Daddy l-a-y-s down his knife and fork! He’s real rich. Mama says he is, he says he isn’t. So he says, ‘Have I heard correctly? You don’t understand why I don’t cut off my beard?’
‘Why,’ I says, ‘Papa-Daddy, of course I understand, why I did not say any such a thing, the idea!’
He says, ‘Hussy!’
I says, ‘Papa-Daddy, you know I wouldn’t any more want you to cut off your beard than the man in the moon. It was the farthest thing from my mind! Stella-Rondo sat there and made that up while she was eating breast of chicken.’
But he says, ‘So the postmistress fails to understand why I don’t cut off my beard. Which job I got you through my influence with the government. ‘Birds nest’- is that what you call it?’
Not that it isn’t the next to smallest P.O. in the entire state of Mississippi.”

There’s no parsing this kind of genius, so we’ll leave it as is and end with our strongest possible recommendation here at Stevereads: find this book, this wondrous collection – find it and read it and then periodically reread it throughout your lives.

It’s in this way that Miss Welty is with us forever. It’s not ideal – much, much better would be her living and breathing down south, turning in wise, impeccable story after story every other month to the Atlantic Monthly. These stories would be national treasures and cautionary tales, scaring and instructing all the age’s lazy and stupid practitioners into silence, until they better learn the craft she so unassumingly adorned.

We miss you, Miss Welty. But we – and everybody else – at least get to consult with you every time we need a gust of pure, sweet air.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Price of Glory

Our book today is The Price of Glory by Alistair Horne, his pithy and magnificent history of the 1916 battle of Verdun.

Horne is alive to the horrible uniqueness of his subject, and his rolling prose is equal to the task of describing what he calls “the grimmest battle in all that grim war”:

Certainly it was the longest battle of all time, and during the ten months it lasted nearly three-quarters of the French Army were drawn through it. Though other battles of the First War exacted a higher toll, Verdun came to gain the unenviable reputation of being the battlefield with the highest density of dead per square yard that has probably ever been known.

It began in the mind of German General Falkenhayn, who conceived a plan at the end of 1915 to shake the war out of the shape it was in; in short, he did exactly what commanding generals are supposed to do: he conceived a plan to create victory. The difference was something that would become more obvious in the second World War but that was nevertheless visible even in the tender year of 1915: Falkenhayn was a commanding general, yes, but he was a German commanding general, and therefore evil. So instead of devising a military plan to hoist his country out of a stagnant military situation, he came up with a two-pronged attack designed to do what German military commanders always want to do: destroy dreams and prey on the innocent.

The preying on the innocent part came in the resumption of unlimited submarine warfare, since ‘warfare’ in this case meant U-boats sinking every non-German vessel they could find, regardless of combat status. The dream-crushing came in Falkenhayn’s choice of where to strike in his renewed Western offensive – not any of the strategically superior choices along the French line, but the fortress of Verdun, chosen specifically because the French had from time immemorial considered it impregnable. That this consideration might be TRUE didn’t forestay Falkenhayn for an instant – it was the dream he wished to crush. And so was the debacle of Verdun born – the worst and most eroding of all Pyrrhic victories.

That it WAS a French victory is often forgotten, as in a sense it should be – Verdun should always stand as a stark epitome of the sheer waste of war, regardless of who’s winning and who’s losing. Two sides dug in and sullenly hammered at each other for week after week, month after month, gaining no ground and losing none, winning nothing and losing nothing but life after life in the trenches and on the field.

Horne was born in 1925 and consequently has no personal axe to grind with the Great War. He approaches his subject with a caustic but practiced balance. For him, quite rightly, Verdun is functions not merely as a symbol of all the worst fallacies of World War I but also of wars in general. He cites valor where he finds it, and he’s quick to shine a light on idiocy. His entire book is quotable (although modern American readers will find the fact that he doesn’t translate his French quotes a bit halting), but it’s in his mini-character sketches that he excels. Here, for instance, is a bit of his portrait of Marshal Petain:

Those long years in junior command had given him an intimacy with the poilu denied to most of the other French chiefs, and because of his low rank in 1914 he knew – unlike Haig and Joffre - very well what wounded men looked, like. In his rapid rise to stardom he still retained a measure of the paternalism of the good C.O. He knew how much apparently little things mattered to the fighting soldier. Neglect of them could throw him into a searing rage; as when he discovered that a rest camp for troops out of the line had been placed within the sound of the guns. ‘What an idiot!’ cried Petain, on learning at Verdun that a battalion commander, having received the order of alert just as the rations arrived, had ordered his men to depart forthwith on empty stomachs; ‘He doesn’t deserve to be a corporal.’

Horne’s subject is just about as depressing as one can be, but his wonderful book at least gives us a superb example of military history at its finest. Verdun was a victory, yes, but as Winston Churchill remarked, it was a victory bought at such a price as to be all but indistinguishable from defeat. Horne follows his subject straight through to its grim conclusion and then follows his main actors down the post-war years of their various rises and falls. His book is hugely worth reading and should be mandatory for all American military commanders – too many of whom seem to share the lunatic belief quoted by one of Horne’s sources: that in war, the choice is always between Verdun and Dachau.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Death Star

Our book today is “Death Star” by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry, and as anybody can guess from its title, its subject is the building, operation, and eventual fate of the gigantic doomsday weapon from “Star Wars.”

We all remember the exact moment we heard the line. We here at Stevereads experienced it in a shabby mulit-plex in West Seneca, just outside of Buffalo, and we confess it, we were quietly thrilled.

Of course we’re referring to ‘Star Wars’ (we here at Stevereads care not one jot about the franchise’s insanely megalomaniacal creator or his control-freak grip on the terminology attending his creation – ‘Star Wars’ is ‘Star Wars’ … the first, Part One, period)(when Lucas was an intern here, dreaming of making film adaptations of the John Carter novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, he would not have dreamt of being such a control-freak dictator … his future movies might benefit if he recalled something of that humility) the moment when our intrepid heroes, crammed inside the Millennium Falcon, drop out of hyperspace and into a great field of debris, beyond which hangs a dull grey malevolent moon. “That’s no moon,” old Ben Kenobi intones, “it’s a space station.”

His fellow adventurers don’t believe him at first, of course: why should they? A space station as big as a moon? It’s a classic science fiction moment, one for which the aforementioned lunatic, George Lucas, deserves full measure of credit. Even on old VCR tapes fuzzy with age, the moment still has the power to amaze.

So it’s not all that surprising that the ‘Star Wars’ fictional franchise would get around to giving it its due. That franchise is a deeply disturbing thing when examined in any kind of detail; the fandom it supplies like a crack dealer supplies his gibbering detail-obsessed addicts makes, it need hardly be said, no literary judgements. Members of that fandom have spent HUNDREDS of HOURS of their personal lives detailing the Mirialandan cultural epochs, with no even small hope of their work ever being acknowledged by their Dark Lord, much less used – even ‘Star Trek’ fandom has nothing by way of psychotic obsession to offer as compromise, which is saying something.

So we must walk on eggshells, but it’s still possible to do so. Can anyone, for instance, forget Alan Dean Foster’s ‘Splinter of the Mind’s Eye,’ the very first and still one of the best pieces of ‘Star Wars’ fiction? And, much later, Timothy Zahn gave us a genuinely talented ‘Star Wars’ novel just bristling with technical details and some pretty good character analysis.

Now, much later, comes the latest ‘Star Wars’ novel, ‘Death Star’ by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry. It’s a hardcover, and its dust jacket cover art is reminiscent of the great Vincent DiFate, and its whole enterprise is replete with a quality conspicuously absent from most ‘Star Wars’ fiction: intense readability.

‘Death Star’ tells a story we all know already, only from the inside out. We know that a revolutionary moon-sized space station, armed with a planet-killing laser, will move on the planet Alderaan and utterly obliterate it. We know this space station is commanded by a spare, ascetic man named Grand Moff Tarkin, and we know he has to deal with a towering, enigmatic black-robed figure named Darth Vader.

Reaves and Perry know perfectly well that they’re playing off this already-established tension, and they do so expertly. Vader appears tellingly seldom in the book, the evil emperor hardly at all, and of course the various medics, technicians, and enlisted grunts who move the narrative forward never know anything about a heroic Corellian freight captain and his enormous hairy first mate/pet, nothing about a weirdly-matched pair of gay robots, and nothing about the budding romance between a weirdly-coiffed Senator’s daughter and a farmboy from a desert planet. These workaday people know nothing of any of this, and they certainly don’t expect that their enormous space station (the inner day-to-day workings of which our authors convey with wonderful and eye-opening detail) will be stage to the final encounter between the old Republic’s two greatest warriors and former best friends, the armor-encased Annakin Skywalker and the prematurely-aged Obi-wan Kenobi.

It doesn’t matter that THEY don’t know – the whole point of this quick-footed novel is that WE know. And one of the best things Reaves and Perry do is to humanize the thousands of ordinary people whose workaday lives are caught up in the station’s construction and workings – somehow, the fact that none of those ordinary people are evil manages to underscore how evil their leaders are.

Of course, the novel wouldn’t be any fun without those evil leaders, and Star Wars fans will prick up their ears every time one of them makes an appearance. And naturally, given the book’s subject, the lion’s share of these appearances will go to Grand Moff Tarkin, who was played with such delicious icy reserve by Peter Cushing in the movie. At one point early in the novel the writers take us inside Tarkin’s thoughts as he’s musing about setbacks in the construction of his beloved space station, and we learn with some delight that there’s no love lost between him and our other main bad guy:

“In addition to these annoyances, Darth Vader, the emperor’s pet, was wont to show up unannounced now and again to lay his heavy hand on the whole process. Vader, unfortunately, was beyond Tarkin’s command, even though, as the first of the new Grand Moffs, he was a man whose whim was law in the entire Outer Rim Territories.”

Our authors are quick to show us that the feeling is mutual:

“This trip, he [Vader] felt, should not be necessary. Governor Wilhuff Tarkin – ‘Grand Moff Tarkin,’ as he had been recently designated; a ridiculous rank, in Vader’s opinion – knew his duty. He had been charged by the emperor to create this behemoth that was supposed to strike fear into the hearts of the Rebels, and certainly he knew what would happen to him if he failed in his duty.”

Every Star Wars fan knows story unfolding offstage while these two jockey for advantage and their minions go about their daily lives. Reaves and Perry very wisely show us nothing of that story until its course locks it into the novel. The key, as the faithful know, is a stolen set of plans for the Death Star. Those stolen plans set the stage for one final confrontation between Vader and Tarkin:

“The shimmering image of Darth Vader appeared before Tarkin, life sized, as if he were standing in the same room.
‘Grand Moff Tarkin. Why have you called?’
‘I understand there is a remote possibility that a set of plans for this battle station may have been stolen by Alliance agents.’
Tarkin clamped his teeth tight enough to make his jaw muscles ache. ‘You knew this?’
‘I have my own agents.’
The black helmet had no way to change expression, of course, but Tarkin could hear the amusement in the Dark Lord’s voice. ‘I see,’ he said, his tone carefully neutral. Now was not the time to be at odds with the Emperor’s lackey.
‘I will find out if it is true, and if so, I will deal with it.’ The black helmet inclined questioningly. ‘That is why you called me, isn’t it?’
Tarkin nodded. Vader might be many things, but fainthearted he was not. Once he began a task, he seldom served from finishing it. Odds were that the story was no more than a baseless rumor, but if not, no one was better equipped to determine the facts and eliminate the problem than Darth Vader. A useful, if dangerous tool – no matter how Tarkin might feel about him personally.”

The search for the stolen plans leads to the capture of heroic Princess Leia, and one thing after another lead to the climactic lightsaber duel between Darth Vader and Obi-wan Kenobi. Reaves and Perry even here resist the temptation to start telling that other story – we see no further into Ben Kenobi’s thoughts during that fight than his exact words from the movie allow. Instead, they stick to the story of the Death Star until its last minute, when all but a handful of the characters whose lives we’ve been following get blown to smithereens. There are a couple of heroic survivors, but Grand Moff Tarkin goes down with the ship, believing in its invincibility to the last second.

In all, an entirely satisfying Star Wars novel – which is an extremely rare occurrence in a crap-crowded subgenre. If the book contains anything depressing, it’s the odd digression one of the characters makes while inspecting the Death Star’s library, of all things. It turns out that even long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, some things never change:

“It was a pity that most people didn’t actually go to libraries anymore, not when they could sit in the comfort of their own quarters and access files electronically. Want to read the hot new interstellar caper novel, or the latest issue of BEINGS holozine? Input the name, touch a control, and ZIP – it’s in your datapad. Need to study the history of winged intelligent species? No more difficult than inputting search parameters, then scanning the bibliographic references and choosing a place to begin.”

But fear not! Apparently, even in such a far-flung setting, there are a few holdouts:

“There were, of course, old-fashioned beings who would trundle down to where the files were. On some worlds the most ancient libraries kept books – actual bound volumes of printed matter – lined up neatly on shelves, and readers would walk the aisles, take a volume down, sniff the musty-dusty odor of it, and then carry it to a table to leisurely peruse.”

We here at Stevereads are happy to number several of those ‘old-fashioned beings’ among our legion of readers – we’re happy to know that even in the Star Wars universe they’re out there doing what they’ve always done: losing themselves in reading while the rest of the universe is zapping lasers at each other.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Comics again! Intolerable provocation!

Well, yes, yes, we know: we just five minutes ago officially signed over comics-related matters to our distant colleague Gianni over at The Latest Issue – and we meant it, we meant it. But this week, the provocation has been so extravagant, so pin-pointed to our particular obsessions here at Stevereads that even our worst enemy (that would be Desmond Tutu, for self-evident reasons) would have to forgive us for leaping into the fray one last time. The provocation comes in pure, undiluted form, in the latest issue of Action Comics, issue #858.

Why, the mere cover is provocation enough: Superman, flying over an obviously futuristic city, his right fist thrust forward showing … you guessed it … a Legion flight ring. A legion flight ring, ladies and gentlemen! We are awe-inspiring here at Stevereads, yes, but we are still but flesh and blood. We rose to the bait.

And hoo boy, what bait! In this particular issue, Chapter 1 of “Alien World,” written by Geoff Johns and drawn in an oddly inimitable style by Gary Frank, Clark Kent is being chewed out by Perry White in the offices of the Daily Planet when he super-hears Metropolis citizens in panic at the onslaught of Superman’s old arch-enemy Brainiac, this time suited up in the form of a giant robot. Of course Kent excuses himself and flies off to belt the malefactor.

But there’s a twist this time around – the robot turns out to be not Brainiac but the tool of Brainiac-5, which is the exact point when some brown-nosing intern at Stevereads stopped reading and raced up the spiral staircase to our office, bursting through the doors and interrupting an impromptu meeting we were taking with Jacques Barzun, all to blurt out “the Legion! They’re talking about the Legion!”

We took the issue and read it right through on the spot, after which (as soon as we fired the hapless intern for reading funny books on our time) we apologetically dismissed Jacques (it went hard with him – he’s no doubt rightfully worried about how many meetings he’s got left in him – but some things come first) and sat down to compose our thoughts.

The key moment comes once Superman has disabled the giant robot and learned it’s being piloted by Brainiac-5: Superman asks, “who are you?” and Brainiac-5 answers “I am one of your friends” and zaps him with some kind of energy discharge, which triggers a flashback to the first moment young boy Clark Kent met Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, and Cosmic Boy, who’d traveled back in time to greet the legendary Superman before he became a legend. The energy-discharge sequence clearly indicates Superman had somehow repressed or forgotten this encounter, and many more such encounters. Superman says: “Of course, the Legion used to visit me between school days. We had adventures in the future between classes … then I moved to metropolis, there was the crisis, and I never saw the Legion again.”

All of which is interesting in a ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ sort of way, but it begs the essential question.

Gianni himself might phrase that question thus: What the frak?

A little background for the uninitiated: the ‘crisis’ referred to here is that gigantic disorganized mess of a comics event, Crisis on Infinite Earths. It was an effort on DC Comics’ part to prune the bewildering profusion of backstory it had accumulated in nearly fifty years of comics storytelling. There had cropped up, in the course of those years, a very near infinite number of alternate-earths, alternate dimensions, and the ultimate goal of Crisis was to pair that down to one and one only. And in that single new reality, Superman had revealed himself to the world as a full-grown adult. He’d never put on the costume earlier – there had been no Superboy.

That invalidated the Legion. Its founding members – the aforementioned Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, and Cosmic Boy – had taken as their central inspiration to form their club in the first place the adventures of the most famous super-teen of them all, Superboy. No Superboy, no Legion.

Or maybe not. Legion writers post-Crisis took the natural step: they posited that the Legion had taken its inspiration not from Superboy but from Superman and all the heroes of the second millennium. Fans of the Legion could still have their valiant team of future heroes, they’d just have to do without the whole ‘Superboy and’ prefix. Speaking as one of those fans (and as the proud possessor of about 300 comic books devoted to the adventures of a character DC Comics now said never existed), we took what we could get, and we weren’t disappointed: some of the best Legion runs in the team’s entire history (a very long and very convoluted history about which our old friend Locke is entirely correct: only a very, shall we say, special cadre of comics fans know). No Superboy, true, but we got our Legion and it was still great.

And that’s the way it was, as Uncle Walter used to say, despite various flirtations (the most attractive of which was also the briefest, when the Superboy clone was mysteriously transported to the future and donned the costume to fight alongside the team), until the present moment.

The present moment when, it appears, the powers that be at DC Comics have decided that official DC continuity (and it doesn’t get any more official than Action Comics, the most venerable of all venerable comics titles) now encompasses the fact that young Clark Kent often traveled to the future to have adventures with the Legion of Super-Heroes.

The real Legion of Super-Heroes, as Frank’s glorious two-page spread in the middle of the issue demonstrates in heartbreaking magnificence: there they all are – Triplicate Girl, not one of whom is a saucy tart, Princess Projectra, who’s not a great big snake, Timber Wolf, who’s not an enormous bear-like creature … there’s no Blok, no Dawnstar, no Wildfire, no Tyroc; but there’s Star Boy (not insane), there’s Colossal Boy (growing big, not small), there’s Brainiac-5 (organic, not mechanical) and everybody else … Shadow Lass, Mon-el, Chameleon Boy, Invisible Boy, Element Lad, Dream Girl, Phantom Girl, Ultra Boy, Karate Kid … even Bouncing Boy and Matter-Eater Lad.

That two-page spread broke our heart here at Stevereads.

As some of you may know, we consider the current run of the Legion extremely dismaying. The team is a conglomerate of disaffected punks who hate adults on spec and yearn to rule the cosmos. The team-members all hate each other and conspire against each other, and there hasn’t been a single ‘Long Live the Legion’ moment in almost two years. Even in the past, even when Keith Giffens’ legendary run on the series introduced a more dystopian element, there was still ample room for the particular kind of heroism that the Legion has always embodied; not so now, and we sense that the dissatisfaction this engenders is more widespread than the powers that be at DC might at first be willing to acknowledge.

Or perhaps not. After all, more ‘traditional’ incarnations of the Legion have been cropping up all over the line of DC comics in the last two or three years, not the least of which has been the hit Cartoon Network series which so completely foreshadows this current Action Comics development that we can’t help but think they are two prongs of the same prongy-thing. Despite the continued crabgrass-tenacious life of the current incarnation of the Legion, there’s obviously a group, a voice a bloc, who yearn for a return to the real Legion, the one more or less embodied in Frank’s two-page spread (not ‘exactly,’ as some of you might expect of our reactionary selves here at Stevereads – we’re not frozen in time, after all! Dawnstar is a great idea, Blok not so much; Quislet is a disaster, but Gates is a perfect addition; Tyroc screams, so to speak, for redress, but a bold, courageous, black, female Kid Quantum is perfection realized). We here at Stevereads whole-heartedly second such a group, such a movement, such a dream.

The basic scenario is simplicity itself: young Clark Kent, long before he became Superman and moved to Metropolis, traveled through time to the future in order to share adventures with the 31st century’s enormous group of super-teens, the Legion of Super-Heroes. Since he can’t very well have these adventures while wearing a cardigan sweater-vest, perhaps his new teammates give him a uniform to wear while he’s with them – and perhaps, knowing the great future that awaits him, they pattern that uniform after the famous garb of the Man of Steel.

The key to all of this, it goes without saying, is Saturn Girl. Each time young Clark is returned to his own era, the memories of his time in the future must be blocked by Saturn Girl’s telepathic powers, to reveal no trace of the future and no hint of the great destiny awaiting him. And presto – just like that, an ongoing Legion title is possible.

The only obstacle is the current ongoing Legion title, which has done significant damage to the basic continuity of Legion mythology. In its current incarnation, the Legion is not a valiant band of adventurers but a sour, cynical gang of adult-hating little jerkwads – heroism is entirely absent, for the first time in the Legion’s long history. There are other harms (characters are out of character, powers are stupidly skewed, etc), but this is the worst of them. In an interview in the latest Wizard magazine, legendary Legion writer Jim Shooter – who’s returning to the title in a month – makes it as clear as he diplomatically can that he dislikes all of these changes, but he states his intention to be a good team player and not do anything about them. And it’s doubtful how much he could do even if he wanted to – giant (in all senses of the word) though he is, Shooter is two or three decades past the point where he was a ‘hot’ writer, the kind of writer who can move into a title and make wholesale changes. Comic-geeks of today don’t know him from Adam, and comics industry honchos know that, and more’s the pity: in one issue, Shooter could undo all the damage this awful run has wrought (we here at Stevereads suggest the ‘Dynasty’ escape-clause: it was all a dream! Or, rather, a telepathically induced delusionary episode on somebody’s part – preferably an adult, given the anti-adult tone of the whole run … our nominee would be Phantom Girl’s termagant mother), and then he’d be free to forge a new era of Legion greatness, an era that tells the essential Legion story: that into a weary, orderly future world there erupted the bright smiles and dazzling colors of a new age of super-heroes, a thing unseen in over a thousand years.

We’re not picky, and Shooter (New Universe notwithstanding) is a writer we trust – certainly he’s a Legion writer we trust, as amazing an advent as if Paul Levitz himself had been induced to return to the fold – any scenario he comes up with will be fine by us, we yearn so deeply to read great Legion stories again.

The point of all this is that somebody somewhere – multiple somebodies, by the looks of it – wants the Legion, the real Legion, back in a monthly comics forum. We here at Stevereads are most certainly among that yearning group, and if this latest issue of Action Comics is any indication, we’re not alone by a long shot. We want our Legion back, not some variant but the real thing, the thing so handily illustrated in that two-page spread in this current issue of Action Comics.

Our Legion back. We here at Stevereads entirely support that.