Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Comics! the end of the world as we know it!

A banner week in comics! Everything from little tidbits to continuity-shaking mega-events was on hand at the Android's Dungeon. The mouth-breathing virgins at that venerable establishment were all a-twitter over it, in much the same way the rest of us start heart-afluttering when Hippolyta strides into the room (we suspect Hippolyta herself would never under any circumstances stride into the Android's Dungeon, so we'll never see the two worlds meet, alas).

Starting out on the tidbit side would be the latest issue of Conan, a rollicking good time with magnificent artwork and a glowering Cimmerian who's always perfectly in character. Robert E. Howard would very likely have been irked beyond measure by the legendary rendition of his character made by Roy Thomas and John Buscema, but he'd have flat-out LOVED this new run, which bids fair to being the best adaptation of the character yet done in any medium (things are equally good over in Red Sonja, in case anybody's interested).

Also on the tidbitty side is the first issue of 'Legion of Monsters' - we here at Stevereads know nothing about this thing, having encountered it by chance, but half of this particular issue deals with the retro Marvel horror character Werewolf by Night.

Only this is a Werewolf by Night for the Midnighter generation - he's no longer a victim as he was in the '70s. No, he not only controls his transformations but revels in them. In this issue (drawn by Gred Land, whose weirdly photographic work we confess we're liking more and more), our hero saves a comely young female werewolf from her superstitious townspeople, and even though it's only eight pages or so, you want more when it ends. Half the issue is taken up with a rather by-the-numbers Frankenstein's monster story, but we here at Stevereads call for a monthly Werewolf by Night title, drawn by Land and while we're at it, written by this issue's scribe Mike Carey.

Moving out of tidbit range, we find the lastest issue of The Amazing Spider-Man, written with unusual delicacy by J. Michael Straczynski and drawn with career-high skill by Ron Garney.

The story so far: Spider-Man has broken from Iron Man's fascistic ranks and taken his wife Mary Jane and his Aunt May into Motel 6 hiding while he figures things out. Of course since his identity is public his movements have been tracked - although in this case rather improbably only by the incarcerated Kingpin (not the government, which presumably can afford more tracking gadgets than are available at the prison commissary). Kingpin has put out a hit on Peter and is family, so half the issue shows Mary Jane and Aunt May in an assassin's crosshairs.

In the meantime, Straczynski is presented with the unenviable task of needing to tell his story without revealing any of the dramatic revelations over in the concluding issue of Civil War.

He pulls it off wonderfully. Nothing in this issue feels forced or avoiding, especially the Daily Bugle newsroom scene that should have been the weakest in the issue. The neglected central figure in this whole Civil War storyline is J. Jonah Jameson, and he doesn't get the moment he deserves in this issue, but the sequence is very strong anyway, as is the rest of the issue.

'The rest of the issue' boils down to one thing and one thing only: when Peter Parker gets back to his Motel 6 to comfort Mary Jane and Aunt May, his spider-sense tells him something is wrong. He lunges to save Mary Jane and succeeds, only to realize that Aunt May has been shot.

This is a watered-down version of what should have happened - clearly, the whole Civil War storyline SHOULD have huge personal consequences for everyone involved. Identities are known; dependents are known - it shouldn't just be the Kingpin who's making hay off all this.

Nevertheless, it's Aunt May who gets shot this time around. That specific thing has never happened to the venerable lady before, and although Spider-Man #200 upped the ante for Aunt May peril, this is the logical extension of that.

This issue ends with Aunt May gutshot - if she's to live, she'll need extensive immediate medical attention. The writers of Civil War have made it completely impossible for Peter Parker to GET her that aid, without being promptly hauled off to jail. We'll see how - or if - they resolve it in the next issue.

Fortunately, all is not lost at Marvel. As will almost certainly be the pattern for the next few years, Marvel gets to tell its GOOD stories only in alternate places - in the Ultimate continuity, or, in the case of the 'Illuminati' mini-series, the past.

The second issue of 'Illuminati' is a potent little delight. The premise, as all of you will no doubt remember, is this: the movers and the shakers of the Marvel universe (minus the Black Panther, Doctor Doom, and Magneto, much to the detriment of the idea) get together regularly as a sort of Ex-Com board meeting. Our cast is Reed Richards, leader of the Fantastic Four, Iron Man of the Avengers, Prince Namor of Atlantis, Professor Xavier, leader of the X-Men, Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, and Black Bolt, king of the Inhumans. Namor is the closest we come to any kind of partisan bickering, although writer Brian Michael Bendis does a wonderful job of it (a wonderful job that SHOULD be ongoing in monthly titles for HALF of these characters ... how shameful is it for Marvel that they have no ongoing title for the Sub-Mariner, Doctor Strange, OR the Inhumans? DC is thinking about giving an ongoing title to Ibis the Frickin Invincible, but Prince Namor goes a-begging?).

In this issue Reed Richards shares with his fellow Ex-Com members his quest to find all the gems of power that outfit the Infinity Gauntlet, the better to make sure they never fall into the wrong hands. Bendis does a curiously un-subtle job of making the point that ANYBODY'S hands would be the wrong ones for that amount of power, and that's not his only failing so far - true, his Reed Richards and his Iron Man are note-perfect, but he clearly has no idea what to do with either Doctor Strange or Black Bolt (about whom it's not even made clear the question of language - without Black Bolt's interpreter present, has any roster of hand-gestures been agreed upon? Does anybody know what he's trying to say, ever?), and his Professor X is a curiously tentative figure.

Still, Jim Cheung's artwork is fantastic as always, and apart from the Doctor Strange mini-series currently underway, this is the best book Marvel's currently publishing.

Over at DC, the sheer number of really, really good titles is, well, a little embarrassing. Those of us who've been reading comics a long time remember vividly an extended stretch - a very extended stretch - in which Marvel comics were almost uniformly good and DC comics were almost uniformly bad. Times change, it seems.

There's the first issue of the 'Brave and Bold' relaunch, for instance, featuring the positively last appearance of that perennial retiree, George Perez. His artwork here is as legendarily, even weirdly detailed as always, illuminating this inaugural team-up between Hal Jordan and Batman.

Alas, Mark Waid's writing ain't quite so legendary. The main problem with an otherwise nifty issue is that (excepting one wonderful scene with our two heroes gambling in Vegas) everybody in it SOUNDS exactly the same, most certainly including scrappy working-poor test pilot Hal Jordan and aristocratic Bruce Wayne. But the artwork is the selling point here in any case, and Perez as usual doesn't disappoint.

Also from DC is the latest issue of Wonder Woman, written by Allen Heinberg and drawn with superb artistry by Terry Dodson. After three issues of Diana Prince-style futzing around, this is the issue where the one true Wonder Woman finally returns, and for all his tendency to nod and wander, Heinberg handles the moment wonderfully. Oh, don't mistake: this still isn't good enough, not by a long mark. The whole premise of '52' and like titles is that for an entire year the DC universe went without the three titans at its top: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. The journeys each of these three underwent in that year should by rights be the stuff of comics legend, and yet they've been uniformly botched, leached of the epic significance they might have had. But at least as of the next issue of Wonder Woman, the whole question will be behind us, and we'll be free to concentrate on the traditional character again.

And speaking of traditional characters, the current run on Green Arrow continues to be the gold standard by which the character will be measured. Writer Judd Winick and epochal artist Scott McDaniel continue to give us the best rendition of Green Arrow yet made.
The current issue guest-stars Batman, which is both enjoyable and taunting (as some of you may know, we here at Stevereads stand by our conviction that McDaniel could be the greatest Batman artist of all time), and the dialogue is winningly sharp - the villains who draw our two heroes into separate conflicts refreshingly admit outright that they never expected to actually WIN against two of DC's A-list heavyweights. This is definitive work.

As is the current run on Robin, surely the best that character has ever received (apart, that is, from his occasional appearances in the old Scott McDaniel run on Nightwing). In this latest issue, all Tim Drake wants to do is successfully go out on a date with a beautiful girl, and his evening keeps getting interrupted by Batman and the super-villain of the week. It's funny stuff, rendered just so by Adam Beechen's expert writing. This 50-year-old character has never been in better hands.

But none of this really matters, not this week, not in the shadow of the most important - in every neutral reading of that word - comic of the year. No, Marvel's Civil War #7 must command any comic-book discussion this week, no matter what our mighty Hippolyta says.

And true to form, it's an unmitigated disaster. The entirety of Marvel's Civil War storyline has been one long exercise of poor judgement, a What If story cranked up on black market steroids. Any hope that the fascists-v.s.-freedom fighters plotline could be resolved with any degree of coherence, let alone satisfaction, has been dwindling for months, to the point where the main motivation for reading issue #7 was to see just how big a frickin train wreck it would be.

The answer? Pretty damn big. The bulk of the issue is devoted to the gigantic battle between Captain America's forces and the fascist, gulag-operating forces of Iron Man. This battle rages back and forth - Hercules uses the fake Thor's fake hammer to crush the fake' Thor's fake head, Prince Namor and a bunch of Atlantean warriors join the fray on Cap's side for absolutely no reason whatsoever, the Vision disrupts Iron Man's armor (a trick he must have picked up from Kitty Pryde, but nevermind), and just when it looks like Captain America's side might be winning, a group of oridary working joes tackles him for absolutely no reason whatsoever. This causes Cap, for absolutely no reason whatsoever, to SURRENDER and order his troops to stand down. The issue ends with him in jail, the gulag in full operation, and Tony Stark in charge.

In other words, the bad guys win.

Somewhere out there, Stan Lee is spinning in his grave.

And the worst part of it all is that this isn't the Ultimate continuity ... it ISN'T some What If hypothetical. This IS the Marvel Universe now. A universe in which the government not only controls the superheroes (doling out assignments, hiring and firing, cutting a weekly paycheck) but jails anybody who doesn't play along. A universe in which Venom and Bullseye work for he government and Captain America is in jail.

Howls of contempt for this conclusion have echoed from one end of the Stevereads intern-pool to the other, and rightly so. The combination of how terrible this whole Civil War storyline was handled and how title-by-title strong DC currently is has actually created the temptation to ignore Marvel comics altogether. We'll see what next week brings.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Oscars! 2007

As some of you may already know, we here at Stevereads have an uncanny knack for Oscar-predictions that is legendary. Since this is the first time the ceremony has come around in the short, happy life of this site, we thought we'd deviate just a bit from our usual fare long enough to predict Sunday night's winners and losers for all of you. Call it a variation on Stevesees. So without further ado, here's the 2007 version of Stevereads Annual Infallible Oscar Picks!

Best Supporting Actress: Well, since 'who gives a fuck' isn't in the running this year, we're going to pass blithely over the fourteen young women nominated for 'Babel' and pick Cate Blanchett for 'Notes on a Scandal.'

Best Supporting Actor: The Academy must already be feeling a bit of morning-after remorse for ignoring 'Dreamgirls' for Best Picture, and we here at Stevereads predict that this will manifest itself here, with the Oscar going not to the heavily-favored Mark Wahlberg but instead to none other than Eddie Murphy.

Best Actress: Rumors are deafening about a Judi Dench surge-from-behind upset in this category, and one hesitates to call anything a lock-solid certainty (except that half the nation's crtics have been calling half the categories lock-solid certainties for weeks), but nevertheless: Helen Mirren can't possibly lose.

Best Actor: Although it's HUGELY gratifying to see Ryan Gosling get nominated, and although Forest Whitaker would seem to fit the mold that usually wins the category (scenery-chewing bombast masquerading as good acting), we here at Stevereads predict the Oscar will go to Peter O'Toole. Not only was his performance the actual best of those nominated (something our old friend Locke has always maintained is immaterial), but denying him the Oscar would be the equivalent of clubbing a baby harp seal to death on live TV. Whitaker can wait another year - only the most coked-up Vegas bookies would say the same about O'Toole.

Best Director: We predict that Martin Scorsese will continue his Susan Lucci-style losing streak, and that instead of HIS stupid, manipulative movie getting him the Oscar, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's stupid, manipulative movie 'Babel' will win HIM the Oscar.

Best Picture: Well, it all comes down to this, doesn't it? Bloated, stupid 'Babel,' bloated, stupid 'The Departed,' bloated, moving 'Letters from Iwo Jima,' smart, utterly absorbing 'The Queen,' or 'Little Miss Sunshine,' which has GOT to be in here as some sort of fraternity prank.

Leaving out the 'Little Miss Sunshine' aberration, that leaves four big movies, each with a host of handicapping pros and cons. For reasons that defy human understanding, 'Babel' is currently favored to win. This is impossible - surely the Academy is still deeply shamed for having given Best Picture to 'Crash' ... they're not going to turn around and give the award to a movie in every way identical to that one. 'The Departed' was awful, but the Academy might favor it as a sop for ignoring Scorsese for director yet again. 'Letters from Iwo Jima' has Greatest Generation mojo. But in the end, we here at Stevereads have to believe the Academy will go with 'The Queen' ... it's the best-acted, best-written, and best-directed of the movies under considertion. Surely once in a while that's got to count for something.

So, to recap:

Best Supporting Actress: Cate Blanchett
Best Supporting Actor: Eddie Murphy
Best Actress: Helen Mirren
Best Actor: Peter O'Toole
Best Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Best Picture: 'The Queen.'

So now you-all know who the winners will be. But still, you should probably watch the awards ceremony anyway: some of the speeches will certainly be worthwhile, and there are always the outlandish dresses to ogle. And you'll be able to impress your friends at whatever Oscar party you attend, since you'll know all the winners beforehand.

All part of the service here at Stevereads.

I have returned!

Yes, I have returned, my bloodthirsty little ewoks! I was heavily preoccupied lately with this whole Anna Nicole Smith business (the baby? it's mine), but now I'm back and better (and buffer) than ever! I've cleared my throat with my customary Kennedy-ana, and coming up soon will be: comics reviews, BOOK entries, heavily debatable LISTS, another thrilling edition of Stevesees, and of course in our immediate future, Stevereads Annual Infallible Oscar Picks!

In lieu of all that, I thought I'd share a recent picture of myself, just to keep all of you stewing in envy!

Kennedy-mania in the Penny Press!

Holy Haddock! It's Kennedy-mania in the Penny Press this time around! Like chum in the water to those of us here at Stevereads.

In New York magazine, Mark Jacobson turns in a piece called "American Jeremiad" about Robert Kennedy Jr, and it's a puzzler of a thing. On the surface, it looks like a straightforward interview/profile. But either Jacobson or his editors seem to want it to be some kind of expose - there are lunges at drug use and the like, and even an alert reader is hard-pressed to figure out WHY they're there.

RFK Jr. is certainly an easy target, what with the drug- bust in the shadow of frickin' Mount Rushmore, but that's hardly the point - after all, EVERY Kennedy is an easy target, that's half the point of BEING a Kennedy.

And reading the article, you get the sense that Jacobson has a pretty good handle on the whole Kennedy thing. This is a rare enough thing in a reporter of any stripe, but still: one could hope for an entirely preconception-free approach.

It's a good strong piece nonetheless. The two men met at the North Castle Diner in White Plains and talked about a fairly wide variety of topics, mostly RFK Jr's favorite stomping ground, the environment.

RFK Jr 'came to the river' (nominally, the Hudson River Valley, but in the broader context, all things natural) late in life - after the aforementioned coke bust - but despite the bitter little sour-grapes snipes of the one naysayer Jacobson can dig up, there's no way to doubt his conviction to the issues that have taken over his life in the place of drugs and drink.

To his credit, Jacobson doesn't dwell overlong on his subject's sordid past - especially not when his subject is so eager to provide alternate targets.

It turns out Robert Kennedy Junior, at least from the evidence gleaned from this interview, is every bit as sharp, every bit as focussed, and very nearly every bit as intelligent as his martyred father (that 'very nearly' will only sound ungenerous to the uninitiated, but it's true, and even JFK grudgingly admitted it, always referring to his brother as 'the brains of the outfit').

At one point Jacobson asks RKF Jr about that nebulous catch-all, the vision of America. Now for a moment, picture our current president being asked to verbally render his account of that theme. Picture that, roll it around in your mind for an excrutiating long moment. Then when you can't stand it anymore, listen to the reply Jacobson got:

"There is an ancient struggle between two separate philosophies, warring for control of the American soul. The first was set forth by John Winthrop in 1630, when he made the most important speech in American history, 'A Model of Christian Charity,' on the deck of the sloop Arbella, as the Puritans approached the New World. He said this land is being given to us by God not to satisfy carnal opportunities, or expand self-interest, but rather to create a shining city on a hill. This is the American ideal, working together, maintaining a spiritual mission, and creating communities for the future.
"The competing vision of America comes from the conquistador side of the national character and took hold with the gold rush of 1849. That's when people began to regard the land as the source of private wealth, a place where you can get rich quick - the sort of game where whomever dies with the biggest pile wins."

That 'whomever' alone is enough to bring hot tears to the eyes of every intelligent American who's been watching the news for the last six years.

Some of you will know where we here at Stevereads stand on the Kennedys. We couldn't be more indifferent to the various sex scandals and drug scandals - they aren't indicators of anything at all, just accurate demographics of a large family. The plain truth is, for most of human history governments have been ruled by families, for good or ill. This has been mostly for ill, to the tune of 95 percent. The luckiest common people have always been the ones who happened to live under GOOD families.

Read that verbally-coherent John Winthrop quote again. Think about the family currently ruling this country. Then ask the question RFK Jr. himself asks during Jacobson's interview: What's wrong with more generations of Kennedys?

"It's a good question, especially since we'd just spent the past 45 minutes discussing the comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq and how he is certain his uncle Jack would have stopped the sixties war because 'he was a military man and he knew what idiots the brass were and not to trust anything they said.' He is equally sure that had his father lived to become president in 1968, the war would have ended then. 'Because he said he would and he wasn't a liar.'
No, I have to admit. If not driving an SUV is going to make the planet a copasetic place for future generations of Jacobsons, then there might as well be more Kennedys, too. There is just too much history between us, too much investment in hope, requited and not. You might even drink to it, if Bobby Kennedy Jr. drank."

Over in the latest Vanity Fair, there's another Kennedy-related item, this one about the man himself, JFK.

Robert Evans, Hollywood mucky-muck and author of the genuinely entertaining memoir 'The Kid Stays in the Picture,' is writing a new book, 'Kid Notorious.' And in this memoir, he retails a JFK anecdote of his very own.

The scene: it's the summer of 1949 and Evans is a hot young actor sharking debutante balls on the Upper West Side.
In his anecdote, he's at one such party when Congressman Kennedy shows up:

"A couple of minutes later, the luncheon's guest of honor arrived. What a shocker! He was No. 1 on America's Most Wanted List - to shack up with, that is. His name: Congressman Jack Kennedy, from Massachusetts. He was top honcho on every lady's 'heat list.' The more he broad-smiled, the wetter them panties got. He knew it, and they knew he knew it!"

OK, let's hold our noses against the mogul-prose and forge on. In the anecdote, Evans claims .... well, he claims so much, it's probably best to let him do the talking:

"The clock struck three. Desserts were being served. The good congressman stood and thanked Miss Society for the fun lunch.
Then, wide-smiling all, he begged an early exit. 'It's not easy keeping a seat anywhere these days, much less in Congress. If I weren't running for re-election, I'd take up residence right here on East 73rd Street. But I have to be on the road before the sun goes down, and I promised His Excellency, Bishop Donahue, I'd spend a bit of time with him before I left for Boston.' The congressman had them words down cold. He knew what to say, when to say it, and how to say it.
Wishing everyone good-bye as he was leaving, he took me by total surprise ... he actually remembered my name! Impressed? Big! Yeah, but dumb me. I must have been itchin' for trouble.
'When you see His Excellency, would you give him my regards?'
A dead-ass silence hit the patio. Miss Society closed her eyes, thinkin,' This ain't Harlem. I knew I shouldn't have invited him!
The congressman, he gave a triple take.
'You know His Excellency?'
'Very well.' He didn't believe me. His face showed it.
'Very well, huh?'
'That's correct, Congressman. Very well.'
He was enjoying the confrontation, certain I was lying.
'Join me then. We'll pay him a visit together.'
'Is that an invite?'
'Absolutely!' Then a wide smile. 'I'm sure he'll take great pleasure in seeing you again!'
We left together ... by far the best exit of my young life. Them debu-tramps? Their open mouths matched their upturned noses. What they didn't know was that the actor from the West Side was not showboating. He did know His Excellency. He knew him well. Well enough to put him right smack in the slammer!
For the record, I was never invited back to East 73rd Street.

As we drove across the park to West 96th Street, the congressman threw me a look. 'Why did you say that you knew Bishop Donahue?'
'I'm an actor. I like getting reactions.'
'I was right! You don't know him.'
'You are wrong, Congressman! I do know him well ... It's a story you don't wanna hear.'
The congressman's street smarts matched his Harvard diploma. He didn't ask another question."

The congressman drops our sooper-cool young memoirist off somewhere, and they meet again only in '62 at a swanky Fifth Avenue gala. The prose that follows is breathless even by Evans' standards:

"Our eyes met. Our hands shook. Would he remember me? The last time we eyed each other, I had yet to shave. At best, a trivial incident on his historic climb to the top step of the world's ladder.
But that was why he was standing on it: he remembered well!
Smiling, Jack got in the final lick: 'I've followed your career closely. Congratulations.'"

Well, OK. Evans isn't a young man anymore, and everybody's entitled to their tall tales. But even pardoning the naked self-aggrandizement on display in his anecdote, there are a couple of places where it smells like cod liver oil.

For instance, even in '49, the Congressman almost never went anywhere alone. MAYBE in Boston, but never in New York. There were always cronies, handlers, and even sometimes friends along.

Also, His Excellency Bishop Donahue was in fact one of the only New York prelates who DIDN'T partake of the slammer-able offense to which Evans alludes.

Also, and this one is a bit of a clincher, the Congressman absolutely NEVER drove his own transportation. Had he driven even the short distance Evans mentions, just across Central Park, there would have been piles of sideswiped trees, signs, small animals, and people left in his wake.

Only the final detail, the fact that JFK remembered Evans' name, rings entirely true: no Kennedy ever forgot a name or disposition. But even that is in its way a refutation: they remembered everybody - it wasn't a mark of distinction.

Still, 'The Kid Stays in the Picture' was an entertaining read, so this new memoir might be also. Kennedy fish-stories notwithstanding.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

SteveSees! Life-sucking fiends of sci-fi!

Yes, gentle sentients, you read that right: SteveSEES!

Call it a little experiment, nothing more. If I enjoy this sort of thing half so much as I do the other, perhaps I'll do it more regularly.

Certainly there are fewer groundrules than obtain at Stevereads! There, I am an all-knowing, even saintly overlord both feared and beloved, incapable of error or contradiction.

No so here! As some of you may know, I watch a great deal of TV - shows, repeats, VCR tapes, DVDs. And it's not mere background noise for writing or reading - I'm a full-throated enthusiast of TV, have a very high regard for the very large number of very talented people who do work in the medium (I came close to JOINING such people, a long time ago, when a friend of mine invited me to join the writing staff of a now-forgotten show called "Parker Lewis Can't Lose" - I quite sensibly declined, since in addition to deeply disliking the climate of LA, I'm also not that funny).

I hate the snobbery of 'Kill Your TV' bumper-stickers in Cambridge. I hate the knee-jerk snobbery so many people show toward the medium. I can understand if people more pressed for time than I am (I sleep freakishly little) rule it out of their lives for practical reasons. I'd argue that these people ought to train themselves to concentrate on more than one thing simultaneously - it's not a hard trick to learn (or I couldn't have mastered it myself), and it can double the amount of things you get DONE in an evening. But still, I understand if people want to cut it out of their lives just so they'll have time for homework and socializing and, in the case of the pretty people, even sex.

As with books, so with TV: I sift and sniff all the time for good stuff. TV doesn't have any MORE crap than any other medium - at least, that's my steadfast belief - and it's not the fault of anybody working in the industry that their overlords are venal and stupid. Most of us have venal and stupid overlords, after all - it doesn't make US venal and stupid. Good people everywhere are always trying to do good work. I like to look for their work on TV.

Fair warning: I also like crap, for its own sake.

Unlike over at Stevereads, here I'm not infallible. True, I've watched a very large amount of TV. And true, I put faith in the tenets of my own aesthetics (as everybody does). And true, I'll very tenaciously make my case for anything I like. But there's no authority here, only gamesome debate.

There's a good reason for this. The best TV critic I've ever read (the best pop culture critic just in general, and oh my, far and away the best movie critic) is currently silent, fed up with the litigious cynicism of the age.
In the meantime, here I am! Fallible, contentious, and happy to be both!

Our opening fair dates from last Sunday and is very comfortingly situated in the realm of science fiction, which suits me right down to the ground.

The extreme old-school science fiction (I trust none of you will commence a-quibbling about what constitutes science fiction! Listen carefully: if the AXIAL PREMISES on which your fiction depends are a) internally consistent and b) in any way different from the laws of observable reality, you're writing science fiction - and yet, I'm aware of the fact that under that definition, there's no difference between science fiction and fantasy... that's because there ISN'T any difference between the two) and the extreme new-school science fiction, head-to-head!

First up was 'Masterpiece Theater's new production of 'Dracula.'

As many of you will know, I deeply love Bram Stoker's novel, and I'm always eager to see it get adapted, especially with a special effects budget.

Although, even without one, Bela Lugosi managed to be the quintessential Count, urbane yet threatening, his malevolent face plastered on the covers of all the BEST editions of the novel.

'Masterpiece Theater' is to be commended for the idea of embracing science fiction, especially since their track record is so different. These are the people, after all, who gave us 'The First Churchills' and 'Upstairs Downstairs' and 'Brideshead Revisited' and 'I, Claudius.'

Their 'Dracula' is a curious affair. An almost complete dramatic failure, but a curious affair.

With a work as frequently dramaticized as 'Dracula,' you have to ask how many points there are in favor or against any new rendition. You gradually accustom yourself to the fact that your beloved work will NEVER be fully realized on any kind of video-screen, and you start counting casualties from that moment.

(Oh! The high hopes I had for Francis Ford Coppola's 'Dracula'! A strong, unconventional cast - by anybody's reckoning, Gary Oldman is an interesting choice to play the Count - a director capable of greatness, a comparatively unlimited special effects budget ... and when I saw it in the theater, I was bitterly disappointed. The directing is awful, the acting is mostly awful - of course leading the pack is Keenu "I know where the BASTUD sleeps!" Reeves, but there's also Anthony Hopkins, hearing and completely missing every cue he's offered, and Winona Rider, trying - and failing - to act like somebody who HASN'T been having sex since she was 8 - and the special effects were, well, weirdly used. But every subsequent viewing has made me like it more, so maybe Coppola knew what he was doing after all)

In Bram Stoker's perpetually underrated novel, the truth of the matter is PLENTY dramatic enough: an undying Carpathian count has set his eyes on England and is (legally, Stoker's little masterstroke) buying up derelict properties all over London, places that will serve as nesting-spots to house an increasing brood of undead.

You'll scarcely find any of that in the Masterpiece Theater production. Instead, there's a Count who's the focus of some kind of evil religion, and there's a Lord Holmwood who agrees to finance the Count's move to London because he's been lead to believe a blood transfusion from the Count will cure him of his syphilis - because as long as he's infected, he refuses to sleep with his new wife.

Stoker's plot is of course much better than this nonsense. In the original, Dracula's wants are elemental: he wants a new hunting-ground, one he can eventually come to rule as absolutely as he did Castle Dracula.

In this new 'adaptation,' it's extremely hard to know exactly WHAT Count Dracula wants. He detains Jonathan Harker at his dilipidated keep in Transylvania (this production has no idea what to do with Harker, so he dies early), but all he talks about is how Englishmen don't really believe in God anymore.

There's no good acting in this production (a shame, since David Suchet - who gets the here thankless role of Van Helsing - is entirely wasted), and that's curious in and of itself. Tom Burke turns in the most reliable (though still mediocre) performance as a thoroughly heroic John Seward (although since this production lacks Renfield entirely, it would have a hard time accounting for Seward's presence - if it bothered to try, that is) Dan Stevens shows a precocious predilection to chew scenery as Lord Holmwood.

And the biggest curiosity of all is in the center role: Marc Warren as Count Dracula.

Some of you will remember Warren as Private Blithe, from the great, the epic 'Band of Brothers.' Blithe lost his ability to see, temporarily, because he couldn't stand the things he was seeing. Blithe was a perfect 'wise fool' for the 'Band of Brothers' universe (at least, as long as such a simplistic contrivance could last in that universe), and Warren is wonderful in the role.

He's not wonderful as Dracula. This is no doubt the fault of the material, but nevertheless: this is a Count you're never either afraid of or sympathetic with. During the show's setpiece scene, where the Count erupts from Lucy Westerna's bed to, um, pleasure her right next to her sleeping, fully clothed new husband, the viewer has NO idea what's going on or what to think ... sad for her? Happy for him? Sad for both? Happy for both? Icky for watching?

It doesn't matter anyway, because there's no drama in the production. You're never for a moment compelled to watch. And sure enough, in due time and without much effort, Dracula dies (along with a requisite and clunky 'or DOES he?' final scene that's easily the worst thing in 'Masterpiece Theater's history). There's never any of the best parts of the novel - the ineluctable sense of growing doom, the gradual, seduction-like process by which Dracula infects his female prey, and most of all, the growing sense of comraderie between Van Helsing and his young friends against an evil neither they nor the world has ever seen before.

But fortunately, this tepid Dracula wasn't the only consumer of men's lives and souls on offer last Sunday, because as all of you should know, Sunday night is when 'Battlestar Galactica' airs.

Ah, I can hear the groans from here! All you Cantabridgian TV-snobs out there, matched in your legions by all the science fiction snobs out there!
Nevertheless, that's exactly what I'm talking about: 'Battlestar Galactica,' the best show currently airing on TV.

In last Sunday's episode, the Fleet takes on large number of refugees, including a great many Sagitarrons, who don't believe in modern medicine.

The refugees start falling seriously ill, and in their midst is a Caprican doctor played (with customary aplomb) by Bruce Davison, a doctor on a personal vendetta against Sagitarrons, although it requires our heroic Lt. Helo (Tahmoh Penikett) to detect it and root it out.

Far be it for me to criticize a true-blue (well, true-maple) Canadian actor who embraces science fiction (ulp ... where would ANY of us be without Captain Kirk?) (and certainly he has big - literally, they're enormous - shoes to fill in the whole Canuck-on-board-Galactica contest, after our late long-lost Billy was killed off, Billy played by goofy Canadian stoner Paul Campbell, who's currently enjoying the benefits of Youtube - snippets from his new pilot "Nobody's Watching" can be seen there and led - unprecedentedly, I believe, to the show's being given a shot at the fall lineup) but it bears pointing out that Penikett can't really hold his own with Davison, Edward James Olmos as Admiral Adama, and the indomitable Donnelly Rhodes as Doc Cottle.

No matter, though - the episode is great enough on its own to swallow any such quibbles. As usual, Davison brings depth and plausibility to a role that could, in other hands (coughDeanStockwellcough), have been one-dimensional ethnic-cleansing, with a little mustache-twirling thrown in. And Richard Hatch continues to surprise and delight as Tom Varek - in this case worrying about the effect on the Fleet if Baltar is given a high-profile trial.

At the mention of such a trial - which, we're told, will be followed by hanging the guilty man - viewers can't help but hear a deliberate echo of Saddam Hussein's sham-trial and scandalous execution. That's the glory of this new revamped 'Battlestar Galactica' - it tackles big, real-world issues with exactly the wit and terrier intensity that's a hallmark of the very best science ficiton.

Come to think of it, that might have been what the folks at Masterpiece Theater were thinking, when they imported the whole foreign-religious-fundamentalism theme into their new 'Dracula' ... if so, they, like everybody else, could have benefitted from a close viewing of 'Battlestar Galactica.'

Monday, February 12, 2007

Look Out Below!

It happened again! There's a brand-new RANT underneath the OJ and elephant-poop! Scroll for the gold, baby! Scroll for the gold!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Comics! Yet more Pepito-poop!

Ah, the eternal, unchanging rules of life! Never eat at a place called Mom's, never play pool with a man named Slim, don't spit into the wind, don't pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger, don't tug on Superman's cape, the check is never, in fact, in the mail, and ... my arch-nemesis Pepito will always buy crap when he goes to the comic shop.

He goes in almost at random, one imagines. He probably has things in mind that he WANTS, but as often as not he walks out with, well, just anything. Examine the sedimentary layers on the floor of Pepito's crude lean-to, and you'll find single crossover in a series of which there are no other issues, say, or the third issue - and only the third issue - in a mini-series. There's no reason or system to any of it, which adds a certain interesting element of the unknown to any batch of Pepito's comics my young friend Elmo manages to snatch for my examination.

Take this latest batch.

It starts with YET ANOTHER issue from the Brubaker/Lark run of Daredevil, surely the worst run on the title in living memory (including that horrendous ongoing plotline about Matt Murdock's happy-go-lucky twin brother, and that's saying something). Surely ONLY Pepito is still buying this title - and yet, we say that about so MANY titles, and it can't be true of ALL of them.

This issue features an in-jail dialogue between Matt Murdock and the Kingpin - for Pete's sake, you'd think NOBODY could screw up such drama-packed scene. But in Brubaker's hands, it sits there as flat as a pancake.

Then there's the last issue of the Creeper miniseries, none of the previous issues of which Pepito bothered to buy. This last issue is of course incomprehensible therefore in terms of plot - perhaps Pepito only bought it for its Batman guest appearance. But despite that guest shot, despite not knowing what the frack is going on, it's still pretty clear this issue is crap - crappy writing, crappy artwork, even crappy coloring. Wearily, we turn elsewhere.

To nothing better, alas. Once again, we have to believe that Pepito is pretty much the only person still buying 'Ion - Guardian of the Universe.'

In case you had the good sense not to buy the - gakk - ten issues of this title, it revolves around Kyle Rayner, the Green Lantern nobody loves, and it has the remarkable distinction of being the ONLY Green Lantern-related title currently on the market that ISN'T slam-bang fantastic. Instead, it stinks like manatee-breath.

And yet, Greg Tocchini's artwork has real potential, if not yoked to this pukey title. And this latest issue fetures a cameo appearance by Guy Gardner that's as delightfully in-character as ALL his appearances these days seem to be.

Then there's the latest issue of Blue Beetle. Not THE Blue Beetle, Ted Kord, the one we all KNOW is going to be back among the living someday soon (disasterously so ... big guns like Hal Jordan or Green Arrow, no matter how well-done their deaths are - and boy, Green Arrow's was done well! - HAVE to come back ... but Blue Beetle? The character's best contribution to DC continuity was to die for it - the shock value of his resurrection would invalidate SO much good stuff ... you'd like to think the powers that be at DC would see that).

No, this title is devoted to the kid who inherits the original Blue Beetle scarab, and as written by John Rogers it's pretty entertaining. Once again, we can easily imagine Rogers - matched here with first-rate artist Rafael Albuquerque - doing some OTHER book, some book that MATTERED and therefore could develope into something really, really good. A young super-hero would be best (these two clearly have a knack for the demographic) - might we suggest a reboot of Kid Eternity? One that, unlike the last few, doesn't suck? Just a thought.

Still, even Pepito is bound to pick up SOMETHING that's actually interesting. But even there, a problem crops up: because the book in question, Teen Titans, shouldn't BE interesting - it should be great.

Difficult to pinpoint exactly when this book stopped being that, but sure as hell isn't these days. Geoff Johns' writing is the least skilled he's done in years and years, almost mysteriously so, since he has material to work with here. And Tony Daniel's artwork is just competent enough to be atrocious - every body looks the same, all the action sequences are garbled and static, and there are about two facial expressions to go around.

But it's the writing that really nags at you. This issue features Deathstroke (him again ... yawn ...) building his own Titans team comprised of evil clones, drug-warped good guys, and former good guys with issues.

It's the barest possible hint at the truly fantastic storyline that could be here instead, but good luck finding more than scattered hints of that in this current run.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Don't let the sleeping dog lie! Some newer entries are popping up down below!

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Devil's Work in the Penny Press!

A great deal of interest in the week's harvestings from the Penny Press!

We'll start with the New Yorker and the brouhaha reported there over Google's much-ballyooed plan to scan bee-llions and bee-llions of books into a gigantic, enormous, gargantuan text-database that will be searchable in ever so many ways.

As with so much that Google does, your first response is 'well then, what's the possible harm that?' Such is the ultimate game-plan of the most powerful force in the Western world.

Apparently, though, there are those who do indeed find harm in the idea. Two different groups of plaintiffs are suing Google over the idea, according to Jeffrey Toobin's article on the whole subject in last week's issue.

As far as we here at Stevereads can tell (the issues get a bit murky, or at least murkily reported), the issue revolves around whether or not Google is telling the truth about what it's doing, and what it plans to do. Right now, it's scanning these bee-llions and bee-llions of books under a carefully-controlled regimen: works in the public domain will be fully scannable, fully readable, fully accessible. Works protected by copyright will only be available in 'snippets,' with the bulk of the work still available only through paying. And the vast middle-ground of printed works, the ones whose copyrights are somehow in doubt, well ... they're getting scanned too, and I guess we'll let gawd sort 'em out.

The bug up the ass of our plaintiffs is this: that Google is lying. That once they've scanned every book in the known universe, from medieval books of hours to the latest John Grisham, they won't, in fact, abide by 'snippets' like they promise. The basis of the case, so far as we can make it out, is that Google is simply too big to tell the truth.

But let's envision Google's version of things for a moment: an unprecedentedly gigantic book-database cross-indexed six ways from Sunday, with tantalizing tidbits of copyrighted stuff thrown in. Let's ignore the copyrighted stuff for a second and concentrate on Google's projected database of things for which no conceivable copyright claim could exist.

In other words, the many hundreds of thousands of good, worthy, and entirely forgotten books that molder untouched on library shelves all across the world. Books that you will never read even if their topics interest you, for the simple reason that you'll never know they exist. According to Toobin's article, Google is now scanning those books (or will be, once these lawsuits are settled, as everyone involved seems sure they will be) literally by the truckload, with the intent of making them readable, searchable, and cross-indexable to anybody with Internet access.

So you happen to hear one of the lovely hymns of Henry Francis Lyte and conceive a desire to learn more about him. You Google him, ironically enough, and perhaps you read a Wikipedia entry on him that, in Wikipedia's wacky way, has, shall we say, a playful, coquettish relationship with factual accuracy. Perhaps there's an audio file of 'Abide with Me.' But after that? If you're still curious, you better get out your beleagured credit card and spend time truffle-hunting on Alibris.

This projected Google database would change that process more dramatically than anything since Gutenberg. Lyte wrote volumes of poetry that were well-liked in his day, and there were at least two literary memoirs of him published in the mid-19th century. There've been considerable entries in hymnology reference works. All of this is not only long since out of print - it's also lock-solid certain to STAY out of print, if left to the devices of conventional publishing.

The sprawling, compulsively detailed journal John Quincy Adams kept throughout his long life on the world's stage? Likewise. The papers and letters of astonishing autodidact polymath Sir George Cayley? Likewise. The magisterial historical writings of Frantisek Palacky? Likewise.

Right now, if you're lucky enough to live near a first-rate research library (if you live almost anywhere between Cleveland and Salt Lake City, you probably aren't), and if you have several weeks to devote to your quest, you MIGHT be able to locate a couple of these works. In Google's proposed future, you'd be able to call them up at the touch of a button - and not only them, but works that have mentioned them.

With all due deference to litigious New Yorkers, such a future sounds like paradise.

The problem, as far as we can make it out, is that writers and publishers are afraid a) that Google isn't putting enough effort into determining whether or not the works it's scanning are, in fact, lapsed in copyright and b) that Google can't guarantee its copyrighted materials won't eventually find their way before the eyes of the public.

A) seems like sheer lunacy to us. If you're a major author and your copyrights are violated, well ... you're a major author! The courts are at your disposal, and Google has deep pockets. And if you're not a major author, if your best success in publishing landed you way, way back in the cheap seats of the midlist (or more likely, landed your dad there, or your grandfather, or your wacky uncle who nobody talks about), well ... are you saying you DON'T want two million people seeing your work who didn't see it before? Do you really think that isn't going to work out to your benefit?

No, the people who are worried here are retail publishers and bookstores (needlessly, since nothing, and that means absolutely NOTHING, will ever replace the feeling - the NEED - to curl up with a good book) and textbook publishers (deservedly, since after trial lawyers and CEOs, they're probably the most evil, money-grubbing SOBs in the country). What Google's proposing can only help the rest of us, wondering, as we are, what Pitt the Elder wrote about Cicero.

Names such as Pitt the Elder and Cicero don't enter into the standout story in last week's New York magazine - and delightfully so. 'Even Bitches Have Feelings' is by Vanessa Grigoriadis, and it's about the delicious rise and fall of publishing creaturatrix Judith Regan.

As should be obvious to everybody reading this blog, books are summitly important here at Stevereads. Books, literature, reading - the whole whirling world of it, highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, everything from the latest Musil translation to the latest "Smallville" novel. We search for quality everywhere we might find it - just like the rest of you.

That's why we're in the perfect position to tell you without doubt: Judith Regan is the Devil.

It's not just that she commissioned, bought, and publicized bad books. Tastes vary, after all, and not everybody is lucky enough to read this blog (and if by chance you ARE reading this blog, Ms. Regan - it's a longshot, admittedly, but still: none of us can be sure who Sebastian might currently be sleeping with - take our advice: stay away from publishing 100 percent entirely, forever. You are the Devil. Never even touch a book with your hands again).

No, it's not just that she championed bad books. And it's certainly not that she had a track record of hit bestsellers - one should never be faulted for having great instincts (although in this case it's distressing, since it makes her eventual return to publishing rather likelier than not).

No, the reason Judith Regan is the Devil is this: she championed anti-books. She championed - and got gigantic, other-author-pauperizing publishing deals for - books that are meant not to be read but to be SHOT UP, directly into the limbic system. Books that were conceived and packaged under the gross and cynical assumption that most of the book-buying public actively DISLIKES the act of reading. Anti-books, designed to GET YOU OFF in between video games.

Can it come as a surprise to ANYBODY, then, that the Devil would solicit a book from one of her foremost living minions, O.J. Simpson?

As some of you will know, we here at Stevereads think the O.J. Simpson trial was a twenty million dollar waste of the taxpayers' money. The suspect had motive, means, and opportunity, and he fled from the police. In any jurisdiction of any court in the entire history of jurisprudence, those four factors together obviate the need for a trial: they are in and of themselves an admission of guilt.

Nevertheless, the late great Johnnie Cochrane was a full-blown magician, and the American trial system respects the work of full-blown magicians, so O.J. Simpson walks unimpeded under the all-seeing sun.

And he's hurting for money, especially since a civil court found him guilty of killing his wife and her friend. That's where Judith Regan came in: she championed a book by Simpson, "If I Did It," in which he hypotheticizes about killing his wife. Regan is on record saying she viewed the book as a confession, which might or might not be true (she seems to have lied like it was a bodily function) - but one thing is certain: she didn't view the book as a BOOK. It was an event, a phenomenon, a happening, whatever you want to call it .... but it wasn't anything you sit down and READ - and more importantly, it wasn't anything you were SUPPOSED to sit down and read. Sitting down and reading ANYTHING ... actually reflecting on ANYTHING .... is and always has been antithetical to what the Devil wants. The Devil doesn't want readers - the Devil wants addicts.

Once Harpercollins and Rupert Murdoch fully realized what a noxious thing they'd been coerced to sign on for, they not only dropped the book, they dropped Judith Regan too.

This is hugely, overwhelmingly a good thing for the entire publishing industry. No shades of opinion: it's just a good thing. Judith Regan was a pea-brained potty-mouthed opportunistic misogynistic anti-Semitic manipulative least-common-denominator blabbermouthed force of Evil. Just the simple fact of her absence raises the publishing level of discourse across the board.

We can only hope there isn't some eager young Regan wannabe out there, dreaming of bagging a ten million dollar advance for a collection of Paris Hilton's text-messages ...

Penny Press! A Compartmentalized TLS!

A place for everything, and everything in its place in last week's TLS. The issue had all the requsite features every issue does, in this case doled out one at a time to several authors.

Michael Brett, for instance, gets the Best Quip. In his review of "Islam and the Abolition of Slavery," he points out that for a book to cover such an enormous subject in only 293 pages requires the author to dash all over the place, lingering nowhere. Brett's quip:

"'Islam and the Abolition of Slavery' is a tour de force, but one with a distinct resemblance to the Tour de France."


The Spirited Objection comes from the always-reliable Raymond Tallis, whose review of Neil Gorsuch's "The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia" rises gradually to an exalted pitch:

"The recklessness of the Roman Catholic Church with the lives of millions of believers, by vetoing condoms and in some cases actually lying about their effectiveness, thus sacrificing human life on the altar of doctrinal purity, is about as grotesque an example of instrumentalism as one could imagine."

We here at Stevereads are entirely in favor of physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients with no hope of improvement. So naturally we agree with Tallis' ringing final lines:

"To oppose assisted dying is to make an active decision to impose suffering. I hope when I am being marched to imminent death by my disintegrating, pain-racked body, my doctor will not risk a fourteen-year prison sentence for refusing to abandon me in my hour of greatest need."

To Jamie McKendrick falls the Thoughtful Appreciation. He turns in a very thoughtful essay on Giorgio Bassani's fantastic novel "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" (soon to be given a new translation by Penguin, joyous news).

Bassani's book is a wonderful story of young love, set in the golden town of Ferrara against the backdrop of pre-World War II darkness spreading across Italy.

We here at Stevereads have very fond memories of Ferrara (and of her greaest adopted son, Ariosto), and "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" wonderfully evokes the nature of the place.

We can't speak for the quality of the new translation (no copy has yet made its way to our door), but we can enthusiastically recommend the book (and all of Bassani's work, particularly "Behind the Door"). If memory serves, there are at least two English translations in existence - albeit not, alas, in print. Time for yet another trip to Alibris!

And an issue of the TLS wouldn't be complete without the Outrage-Inducer piece. This issue's comes from Stephen Burns - it's a long, adulatory review of David Foster Wallace's "Infinite Jest" (on the occasion of that book's now being ten years old).

Burns starts up his blather right from the starting-gate, hauling in Italo Calvino and Norman Cohn to set up a discussion of 'millennial fiction' - then he lets the reader have it, right in the solar plexus of good taste:

"One of the most artistically significant of these millennial novels is David Foster Wallace's encyclopedic masterpiece 'Infinite Jest' ..."

When any kind of 'masterpiece' is attributed to David Foster Wallace, you just know James Joyce can't be far off, and sure enough, "Ulysses" gets a mention in the next paragraph, where it and "Infinite Jest" are put on the same shelf as 'Hamlet.'

All the giants are mentioned in due course: Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith (Burn oddly also mentions George Saunders and Lawrence Norfolk, both of whom actually have literary talent; we presume they were included by mistake) ... all good in their way, but none comparing to the Master:

"The desire to adapt (rather than explicitly reject) the legacy of post-modernism and move toward a fiction that humanly engages is probably 'Infinite Jest's most palpable contribution to contemporary fiction."

Such passages illustrate the transformation of criticism into outright lying, and the article is full of them. There are possible explanations for this kind of sunshine-pumping sycophancy (massive drug use? a burgeoning homoerotic affair between author and reviewer?), but they are resolutely extra-literary. Writing like this makes us want to rush to the loo and make a 'palpable contribution' of our own.

Wallace's book is an enormous, spoiled mess, an epic failure, a gigantically extended demonstration of hubris - hubris being the defining and linking flaw of all the navel-gazing giants listed above. Of the novel's 1,079 pages, perhaps four are any good.

But the thing sure is LONG, ain't it? And Eggers' "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" is manically detailed. And Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" has BLANK PAGES! Surely there must be SOMETHING going on here!

Alas, it's not difficult to write a 1,079-page book if do it the Wallace way. You can do it yourself! The steps are easy:

1. Come up with the thinnest possible scrap of an actual plot (Burn admits that the various plot-strands in "Infinite Jest" are left hanging, but of course he views that as a GOOD thing, the poor wretch)

2. Start typing.

3. (this one's crucial, so pay attention) Don't STOP typing.

Here at Stevereads we're blessed with readers who are also writers, and it's that third step that will give them the most trouble. Because if you follow the Wallace way, you'll JUST KEEP TYPING - no agonizing over word-choice (or even word-repitition), no pausing to refresh, no questioning whether or not something you're writing actually BELONGS in your book, and most of all no revising.

If you can turn off your writerly urges to do all of those things, if you JUST KEEP TYPING, you'll have 1,079 pages by Armistice Day, no problem. They'll be a big, egotistical mess, but they'll BE there.

The reader isn't a dozen pages into "Infinite Jest" before he's painfully aware that this is exactly how Wallace wrote it. Well, any reader except Burn, who incredibly blames the book's endless roster of flaws on anybody BUT its author.

He says that "from the very beginning, the novel has been dogged by textual errors. When the proofs were delivered to Wallace, he claims he discovered 'about 712,000 typos,' and some of these evidently made their way into the first edition."

Apparently impervious to irony, Burn proceeds to list some of these 'textual errors':

"Another character has his head frozen to a window on November 18 and appears to stay there until November 20, although he takes part in a conditioning run in between those two days."

You'd think such 'textual errors' might pile up enough to make even Burn see the light, but you'd be wrong: they just make him protective of his author:

"These problems (and others like them) are minor issues in such a long, complex work but it is disappointing that after ten years, the publisher who has reissued this important and influential book has not corrected such errors."

If Burn were reading this blog, we'd ask him one simple question: exactly HOW is the publisher supposed to correct such 'textual errors'? By re-writing them? Then what's become of the book's importance and influence?

The more pertinent question might be what's become of the author's JOB, if his sloppy plotting and lack of revision bloat his book to 1,079 pages and riddle it with 'textual errors'?

Monday, February 05, 2007

Poetry Class! 2007!

I readily admit, I've got a soft spot for dog-poetry. I've read yards and yards of it, and I've written yards and yards of it, and I don't view it as a poor cousin the verse in general. Men have forged their relationships with dogs for as long as there've BEEN men, or dogs - such a relationship is surely worthy of a song or two. I wish that 'dog' and 'doggerel' weren't so closely linked, but there's nothing I can do about that.

So let's try this one out for our panel of severe judges and see what they make of it:


The old dog lifts his head, snaps at an insect;
Roused, attempts to get up, raggedly does so,
Hind-legs sprawling on the polished travertine,
Back hunched from lying, and pads across the floor
To find a cooler, more comfortable place.
Where would that be? Here, or else here? He noses
Beneath the curtained windows ... Nowhere pleases,
And he collapses randomly, breathing hard,
With a muffled knock of bones, out of the sun
At least.

Sunburned, robust, Elisabetta
Follows him with her eyes, leaning on a broom
(Her sweeping interrupted to let him pass),
And comments, "Ha bisogno della morte!"

That's by Robert Wells, and I kind of like it. Now let's hear why I shouldn't.

Penny Press! Fire & Brimstone in the TLS!

Both the sacred and the secular come in for a bit of a toe-stubbing in last week's TLS (we here at Stevereads are always a week behind on the TLS, because instead of simply buying it on the few newsstands that carry it, we wait for our good and true friend the canon of Colchester to send along his own copy - mainly so we can enjoy all his spidery marginalia).

The sacred part comes in the form of another review of its most dogged watchkeep, Richard Dawkins. Steven Weinberg reviews "The God Delusion" to generally favorable effect, although it's a far more timid-sounding piece than Weinberg usually submits.

For instance, Dawkins' silly, indefensible concept of 'memes' is given a complete pass:

"In the unkindest cut of all, Dawkins even argues that the persistence of belief in God is itself an outcome of natural selection - acting perhaps on our genes, as argued by Dean Hamer in 'The God Gene,' but more certainly on our 'memes,' the bundles of cultural beliefs and attitudes that in a Darwinian though non-biological way tend to be passed on from generation to generation."

That's rich, that 'Darwinian though non-biological.' It's very uncharacteristic of Weinberg, to float such a fat one over the plate.

Allow us to clear something up before our young friend Elmo jumps in and does it first: there is absolutely NO 'non-biological' way for ANYTHING to get 'passed on' from one generation to the next (other than via culture, which in most societies changes fairly rapidly - see examples below). Dawkins says there is, being an intensely religious man: he says small, discrete cultural items somehow exist separate from the particular humans who create them and can float from one generation to the next.

Gawd only knows what a 'meme' really is - Dawkins himself has wandered all over the map in defining it - but the single truth remains: as my old friend Lydia says, only a mortal could ever imagine a daffy idea like memes.

When two young male friends are out in public in America, they link arms and walk shoulder-to-shoulder as they go down the street. When a single young woman in America goes out in public, she paints two bright nickel-sized spots high up on her cheeks. When anything tragic happens in public - an ambulance howling by, a fire, a gargantuan traffic snarl - every witness ostentatiously raises their left thumb to their mouth in unison and bites down HARD, usually until blood comes.

We here at Stevereads would be willing to bet real money that not one of our readers, of whatever age, RECOGNIZES any of those behaviors. And yet, only two generations ago (a mere eyeblink, in Darwinian terms), they were the unquestioned norm in this country. We won't even talk about: never questioning the authority of the police (most certainly including individual policemen), the inefficacy of 'lady drivers,' and fish on Fridays.

And now, two, even ONE generation later, it's all gone. And lots and lots of other things have taken their place - texting, speed-dating, myspace - and THEY'LL all be gone, in the blink of an eye, replaced by other, unguessable things.

In other words, there's no such thing as memes. Even if you narrow your scope to the northeastern United States (as you bloody well shouldn't, if you're really talking about any truly biological axiom), the idea is lunacy. Truly generational transmission ONLY happens biologically .... Dawkins knows this, but he can't stand the reality of the world his own ideas call into being.

That world - a world in which there are no invisible,sanctified things, a world in which all life is happenstance, a world in which all LEARNED things are capable of vanishing utterly, indeed most often do so - that world is too frightening for more mortals, most certainly including Dawkins, to contemplate. The great ruck and run turn to conventional religion to gain sucrease from such realities ... Dawkins chooses another path, but one no less theological. And Weinberg gives him a pass, in order to discuss other aspects of "The God Delusion."

One of those aspects is the sweeping, even-handed way Dawkins disposes of all religions equally. Weinberg's objections are well put:

"I don't know on what ground one can say a peaceable well-intentioned person like Abdus Salam was any more a true Muslim than the murderous holy warriors of Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, the clerics throughout the world of Islam who demonstrate against supposed insults to their faith, but not against the atrocities committed in its name. Dawkins treates Islam as just another deplorable religion, but there is a difference. The difference lies in the extent to which religious certitude lingers in the Islamic world, and in the harm it does. Richard Dawkins's even-handedness is well-intentioned, but it is misplaced. I share his lack of respect for all religions, but in our time it is folly to disrespect them all equally."

We here at Stevereads certainly DON'T share Dawkins' disrespect for all religions ... but even so, this is surely on the money, a weakness in Dawkins' book we'd failed to spot ourselves: the thing's naive.

Naivete is at the heart of the secular matter on our agenda as well. Marybeth Hamilton turns in a review of Chris Anderson's "The Long Tail."

Being somewhat familiar with the world of retail, we here at Stevereads have read Anderson's book with great interest - and eventually great disgust. Anderson argues that the marketplace is undergoing a radical change in its very nature, from the traditional model - in which large retailers sell a few copies of a wide variety of items and very many copies of a small number of items (blockbusters, be they albums or films or books) - to a wild new frontier in which anything and everything can be a blockbuster to its own niche. Needless to say, this is a phenomenon of the young, as Hamilton points out:

"Already teenagers - 'the leading edge of all our futures' - make no distinction between 'mainstream' and 'underground' tracks on iTunes, produce their own music digitally as often as they consume it, and are guided in their purchases not by the print media but by peer comment and blogs. In those developments, Anderson sees a democritization of creativity, a diminishing of the rarefied aura surrounding the artist, and an erosion of the authority of intellectuals. Above all, he forecasts an end to an all-encompassing, homogeneous mass culture. So say goodbye to Britney Spears and American Idol: we have entered the world of the Long Tail, where the mass audience is dissolving into masses of niches, and unfettered choice in creating endless demand."

Endless demand ... enough to give any old retail warhorse pause ....

There's something missing from this shining picture of utopian egalitarianism, and it's a something so idiosyncratic and non-reproducible that one despairs of even mentioning it to the hurly-burly track-burning yoots of today.

It's a little thing in the scheme of things, hardly worthy of a pause in Anderson's great theorizing, but it's nevertheless something real, something human, and something each and every one of us has BENEFITTED from, in our travels.

That little thing is this: the advice of a shop clerk.

Anderson's brave new world of commerce leaves out such anachronistic things - as you've all heard, our yoots are leading themselves, blogging and commenting, sharing 'this is kewl's or 'this sux's. Everything becomes instantaneous self-diagnosis, and the very idea of expertise is not only disregarded but mocked as old-fashioned. If you've stuck with any subject long enough to KNOW about it, you must, after all, CARE about that subject - and caring about anything is sin #1 to the X-Box crowd.

Since individual enthusiasms can be genuine and contagious, we'll resist the urge to use the phrase 'the blind leading the blind.' But the fact remains: the apparently endangered phenomenon of the knowledgeable shop clerk. Such a clerk does far more than convey his momentary likes and dislikes; he works like a careful diagnostic specialist, disinterestedly surveying the customer's aesthetic history in order to determine not only what they'll like but what they'll benefit from.

I'm sure that each of you has a story about some such encounter, the wonderful feeling of having such well-stocked experience at your ready access ... even the feeling of being in good hands.

We'll just have to hope Anderson's prognostications fail to come about; there are certainly indications that he might be letting his geek's mania get the best of him. Hamilton points out one such:

"But - a point so obvious as to be almost banal, were it not that Anderson himself never makes it - travel on those pathways is limited to those with access to the technology. For all his expertise on matters digital, Anderson is remarkably indifferent to what even the techno-enthusiasts who compile Wikipedia call 'the global digital divide'. Globalization is mentioned in the book only once, praised for 'the hyper-effecient supply chains it brings.'"

Of course, it wouldn't be an issue of the TLS without the many delights of J.C.'s 'NB' column. But this time around, it's a disturbing thing JC has to report:

"It is sometimes said of Herman Melville's novel 'Moby-Dick' that if you edit out the 600 or so pages in the middle, you would be left with an exciting adventure story. Weidenfeld and Nicolson are doing something of the sort, with the launch of Compact Editions, which cut the classics down to size. 'Anna Karenina,' 'Vanity Fair,' 'David Copperfield,' and 'Moby-Dick' - all defenceless under the laws of copyright - will be issued in abridged versions. 'The reductions in length have been done with sensitivity and in no way detract from the spirit of the original,' the publisher told the Bookseller. 'They retain all the elements that made them a classic in the first place.' According to our grasp of classic logic, cutting 'Moby-Dick' in half means it is no longer 'Moby-Dick.'
Weidenfeld says that 'market research' has shown that a significant number of readers are deterred by the 'elitist image' of literary classics. But our elementary logic tells us that classics ARE the elite. That's why they're classics."

Well, of course we here at Stevereads second JC - to a point. Hacking up the classics and then heavily implying that you're somehow IMPROVING them is perfidy at its worst, fully deserving JC's scorn.

But ... there is something to be said for carefully abbreviated versions of the classics. We here at Stevereads are in the business of getting people (mostly young people, but we're not picky) to read the classics. And we have sometimes been aided in our mission by, among other things, carefully abridging the works we're trying to sell. Take out the 'informational' chapters of 'Moby-Dick,' for instance, or the protocol-heavy chapters of 'Tale of Genji,' or the weird socio-historical disquistions in 'Les Miserables.' Once the reader is hooked on these works, they'll return of their own accord to snap up all the stuff they missed the first time. If they're scared off by the size or complexity of the book before them, they'll never get hooked at all.

We'll just have to wait and see how well-done the edits are in these new slimmed-down classics. We've requested a full spread of them from our representatives in the field, and we'll of course keep you bloodthirsty little ewoks apprised.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Penny Press! Autocracy and Ruin in the London Review!

Two items of interest in the latest London Review of Books, one long and one short.

The long one is VERY long, refreshingly so: Perry Anderson uses the murder and funeral of outspoken Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya (also written up at length in last week's New Yorker) as a springboard to examine the length and breadth of Putin's Russia on a broad variety of topics.

Anderson is very good and very thorough, and by the end of his survey the reader will feel he has the matter of modern-day Russia well in hand. That alone justifies the price of the issue, since the subject is a formidable tangle.

And of course the central problem is the United States and its seemingly incurable itch to export its own brand of democracy to every country on Earth.
Most of these attempts have been land-and-cash-grabs thinly wallpapered with jingoism, but even the casual reader of history (that's all of you, ya mewling tools) will see that often they've been sincere. The sincere belief that America's ways - and thereby its successes - ought to be emulated by nations that have it less good.

That this is naive doesn't entirely forgive it even in the thinking, and very little forgives it in the attempting. Those who've done any amount of honest travelling in this world (package tours and hotel-to-hotel ratepayers, quietly take a seat in the rear, thanks) know that the single good thing about the otherwise-noxious and loathesome fad of 'multiculturalism' is that it prompts otherwise hidebound, insular, flyover-state people to consider the serious possibility that other nations, other cultures, might have a stand-alone intrinsic worth of their own. A worth sometimes very different from strip-malls and tent-revivals.

There's an obdurate truth at the heart of this problem that ought to make Americans proud, not ashamed: this country was blessed in its birth. In its pre-destiny days, it was blessed with two essential elements of spadework: a biddable multi-millionaire (in the person of John Hancock) and a tireless opinion-changer (in the person of Samuel Adams). And when the destiny days came about from their work, there came a host such as no newborn country has ever had or could ever reasonably hope to have again. John Jay, James Madison, Josiah Quincy, Benjamin Rush, Paul Revere, Caesar Rodney, James Wilson, John Marshall, Daniel Webster ... these names make an impressive roster, and that's BEFORE you get to Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and most of all Alexander Hamilton. Even George Washington managed not to get captured and hanged on national TV.

Add to such a pantheon lucky timing (the mother country from which they rebelled was exhausted from nearly a century of continuous warfare) and lucky location (as we've maintained all along here at Stevereads, if the British Empire had been run from Montreal instead of London, we'd all be subjects of the crown today), and you get a very potent formula.

If luck and geography make a thing so, it's hardly destiny. And yet, looking around them and seeing that thing work, Americans consistently try to IMPOSE that thing on other countries, without regard for luck or geography. And the results are almost never good.

Anderson reserves comment on the subject, merely pointing out that when Communism fell apart in Russia in the 1980s, the United States was quick to praise and slow to guide. And he very rightly hints that no guidance would have amounted to much in any case.

Russia has no history of democracy, no racial memory of Magna Carta, no safeguards in place against the ravages of capitalism (a more savage creed by far than socialism or fascism, in its undiluted form). To expect Russia to embrace American-style democracy as soon as the Berlin Wall falls is the epitome of American wishful thinking.

The point of Anderson's long article is that Russia under Putin seems to be drifting back to itself, to its thousand-year-old pattern of a strong, quasi-autocratic centralized government. This is different from the American pattern (increasingly so with every day, thank Gawd), and that rankles Americans - but as Anderson correctly points out, Putin is overwhelmingly more popular with his people than either Bush or Blair is with their own.

Anderson is very good with the big picture:

"The reality is that Russia's rank in the world has been irreversibly transformed. It was a great power continuously for three centuries: longer - this is often forgotten - than any single country in the West. In square miles, it is still the largest state on earth. But it no longer has a major industrial base. Its economy has revived as an export platform for raw materials, with all the risks of over-reliance on volatile world prices familiar in First and Third world countries alike - over-valuation, inflation, import addiction, sudden implosion. Altough it still possesses the only nuclear stockpile anywhere near the American arsenal, its defence industry and armed services are a shadow of the Soviet past. In territory, it has shrunk behind its borders at the end of the 17th century. Its population is smaller than that of Bangladesh. Its gross national income is less than that of Mexico."

The overview Anderson gives will no doubt make some of Stevereads' older readers nostalgic for certain aspects of the Cold War days. This certainly isn't Anderson's intention, though: he wants to give a soup-to-nuts summary of the way things stand now in Russia, and he succeeds admirably.

A trifle less successful - and a helluva lot shorter - is Philip Conners' review of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," also in this issue.

As some of you may recall, we here at Stevereads largely enjoyed "The Road" (and it remains one of the few witching-hour works on which we and The Mama Chan actually agree, so call your stock brokers), and we've been following its reception in all the major outlets.

Connors is fairly praising, although he spends more time assessing McCarthy in general than this book in particular, sometimes amusingly:

"There are briefs against McCarthy. A chilling detachment from the psychology of his characters. A dearth of well imagined women. An obsessive attraction, bordering on glorification, to blood and violence. A reliance on gnomic utterances by cameo prophets. Enough evidence can be marshalled on each of these counts to convict him of the overarching crime of not being Henry James."

We here at Stevereads largely agreed with his review, but only up to a point, as when he writes: "... for sheer dexterity and inventiveness with English prose there is no contemporary American novel that stands beside 'Blood Meridian.'"


Needless to say, we disagree (and consider it fairly cheeky that a limey publication would have to stones to make such a sweeping claim). Oh, we're well aware of how excessively the celebrated Harold Bloom has praised "Blood Meridian," and we like it well enough ourselves. And we suppose Connors might be relying heavily on that 'contemporary' to shield his outrageous claim from people like John Barth or Joseph Heller, both of whom could write rings around McCarthy. But surely the corpse of Carol Shields is still warm enough to merit her being called 'contemporary'? And are not Pete Dexter and Peter Matthiessen still alive and working? For that matter, since we're talking about 'sheer dexterity and inventiveness with English prose' how about Norman Mailer, who proves with "The Castle in the Forest" that he's very much still in the game of dextrous, inventive Enlish prose?

No, when the history books are closed on Cormac McCarthy, we here at Stevereads feel confident he'll be ranked as a great good writer, not a good great writer. And there's surely nothing wrong with that, no matter what poor beleagured Saint Harold might say.

Books! Fiction, fiction, and more fiction!

Every afternoon, the delivery man drops off his pallet of book-boxes to our loading dock here at Stevereads. Dozens, sometimes hundreds of advance galley copies are in those boxes, all sent by publishers and agents living in the forlorn hope of a mention here on the literary tastemaker of the Interweb.

Browsing at your local Barnes&Noble might give you the impression you've seen the whole spectrum of books on offer, but you'd be wrong. Oh, you'd be wrong. There are things that exist in galley form that seem like elaborate pratical jokes rather than forthcoming books.

Fortunately, the central miracle of publishing still holds true: somehow, against soul-crushing odds, people write good books and then push, push, push to get them into the light of day.

That process of pushing is odious - classes, glad-handing, conference-going, junket-going, back-patting, drink-swilling, more glad-handing ... all done to such an extent that in almost all cases, the person who throws himself into it becomes LOST, becomes basically a living commercial for himself, 24 hours a day.

However, as disgusting as all that sounds, increasingly it seems to be the basic minimum you need to do to get your works before the public eye. To those of us here at Stevereads, this seems a faustian bargain at best - but entering into it has brought some good and interesting reading to our loading dock in the last few days.

Gawd only knows how much of themselves the authors in question had to sacrifice - and lie about - to get their books before us. But nevertheless, some of the books themselves are pretty good. Some of them are better than pretty good.

We'll put three of them before your notice today. We have gamesome, active readers here at Stevereads - people like ourselves, always eager for that next great reading experience. We offer the following three titles for your consideration, in ascending order of their likelihood to provide that experience:

Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett - The woman in question is Meg Giggs, a young ward of Thomas More, and the novel also features another such young ward, John Clement, and the romantic connection between them. That oonnection is complicated by the feelings she developes for the painter Hans Holbein, and it's complicated by the turmoil of the English Reformation, and it's complicated by the wopper of a secret John Clement is carrying around.

The secret stretches the bounds of credulity, and the portrait of More is boringly pious (wouldn't it be refreshing to see a TRUE portrait of More, the ultimate junkyard-dog lawyer? Saints melted pretty quick in the heat of Henry's England), but the novel works on you anyway. As we've mentioned in this space before, Tudor fiction is especially tricky to write - almost everybody who tries it ends up swamping their book with their research. Certainly Bennett is guilty of this too - keep an eye out for paragraphs longer than ten sentences - but she compensates with a nice sense of how people interact. And it doesn't hurt that Erasmus (surely the patron saint of the Internet, and certainly our guiding spirit here at Stevereads) is all over this thing like poison ivy ... scarcely a page goes by without a mention, which will just have to do until a full-dress Erasmus NOVEL comes along ...

Ascent by Jed Mecurio - This is a better book than Bennett's, and at half the length, a wry, sharp book with a killer premise: what if, under a shroud of Soviet secrecy, Russia got a man to the moon before the United States?

Mercurio takes that premise and fleshes out his enigmatic central character, Yefgenii Yeremin, against its backdrop. Yeremin becomes a crack MiG pilot (the aerial combat sequences are absolutely thrilling, easily the most virtuoso writing in the book) and eventually gets selected for a space program so secret his participation will never be known (we defy you, however, to look at pictures of the Apollo missions the same way again once you've read this book).

Although Mercurio never says it outright, the best part of Yeremin is that he's got the 'right stuff' ... his hunger for the open skies is identical to that of Yaeger, Aldrin, Armstrong and the rest. There's a great little moment in the novel where Yeremin's been grounded by heavy rains for four days. When the sky finally clears, Yeremin's soul itself exults:

"Yefgenii's mask moulded to his face. His harness felt snug. The aircraft fitted him and he fitted it. The picture outside the cockpit represented a universe in its most comfortable and understandable aspect: a patchwork of land below, a sky above, and in between a sport of death and survival for men to play.
The rains had given him a glimpse of life without flying, of his life as it would be without his becoming any more than he already was. In an ordinary life, opportunities never come, or they come and aren't taken, or they're taken and squandered. Whatever the reason, the obituary is blank."

Since we all know the Soviets didn't get to the moon first, you can all guess the ironic twist of the book's end ... but one of the best parts of rock-solid plots is that you can see their twists coming and still enjoy the hell out of them, and this is one of those times. 'Ascent' is one lean, wonderful novel, and you shouldn't miss it next year, when it comes out in paperback.

Mistress of the Arts of Death by Ariana Franklin - Of the three, this one wins hands-down in terms of writing (and damn near in terms of plot ... it's just that Mercurio's is SO perfect, so elegant and irrestible). The plot is no faint shakes either: it's Middle Ages England under the reign of Henry II, and in Cambridge little children are being murdered - and maybe crucified. The populace naturally suspects the Jews, who are confined to the town's castle indefinitely for their own protection. Henry II, dismayed by the fiscal absence of his Jewish subjects, contacts his kinsman the King of Sicily and has dispatched to England three remarkable individuals: a methodical female doctor, her Arab eunuch bodyguard, and their unflappable Jewish mission-leader.

The writing here is pitch-perfect, such a fast, unrelenting joy to read that we're sincerely hoping Ariana Franklin is at least seventy years old. That Franklin's book and Bennett's book are both historical fiction at all is as good a demonsration of the width of the spectrum as one could want.

No question about it, the show here belongs to the lady doctor of the title, Adelia, who's indelibly portrayed as a person entirely frustrated with the age in which she lives. But one of the sweetest little pleasures of Franklin's book is its handling of Henry II, a hugely complex character who's devilishly difficult to pin down.

Henry II was a fiercely strong and fiercely individual monarch, so it's to Franklin's credit that she refuses to portray him as a one-dimensional villain. Here he is in conference with a Jewish elder about this crisis that's afflicted them both:

"'Yes, yes. The real point is that one seventh of my annual revenues comes from taxing you Jews. And the Church wants me to get rid of you.' The king was on his feet, and once again harsh Angevin syllables blasted the gallery. 'Do I not maintain peace in this kingdom such as it has never known? God's balls, how do they think I do it?'
Nervous clerks dropped their quills to nod. Yes, my lord. You do, my lord.
'You do, my lord,' Aaron said.
'Not by prayer and fasting, I tell you that.' Henry had calmed himself again. 'I need money to equip my army, pay my judges, put down rebellion abroad, and keep my wife in her hellish expensive habits. Peace is money, Aaron, and money is peace.' He grabbed the old man by the front of his cloak and dragged him close. 'Who is killing those children?'
'Not us, my lord. My lord, we don't know.'
For one intimate moment, appalling blue eyes with their stubby, almost invisible eyelashes peered into Aaron's soul.
'We don't, do we?' the king said. The old man was released, steadied, his cloak patted back into shape, though the king's face was still close, his voice a tender whisper. 'But I think we'd better find out, eh? Quickly.'
As the sergeant accompanied Aaron of Lincoln toward the staircase, Henry II called, 'I'd miss you Jews, Aaron.'
The old man turned round. The king was smiling, or, at least, his spaced, strong little teeth were bared in something like a smile. 'But not near as much as you Jews would miss me,' he said."

Henry II was a lightning bolt in buckskins, a leader-thing of a kind largely unthinkable in the present world. None of the many biographies and novels written about him since his death has managed to capture more than a few facets of his character. James Goldman comes closest of all in his durable stage-play "The Lion in Winter," and even he has an audience to please, so he periodically pauses to make Henry cuddly before resuming the blood and mayhem.

Maybe someday a writer will come along who'll capture all of what Henry II was (bedecked in fiction, or otherwise), but in the meantime, the few snippets in "Mistress of the Art of Death" will have to suffice.