Friday, June 29, 2007

Viking Warrior

Our book today is Judson Roberts' "Viking Warrior," book one in a projected series of 9th Century Viking tales called 'The Strongbow Saga.'

The book can be found in the 'Teen Fiction' section of your local Barnes & Noble, although exactly WHY that is so mystifies us here at Stevereads. "Viking Warrior" features a young protagonist (teenage slave Halfdan, who circumstances not only free but arm with the great bow of the series' title), yes, but by that yardstick alone "Catcher in the Rye" would be shelved in 'Teen Fiction' ... and many other items on the Western canon also.

Certainly there's no simplicity in Roberts' story of a young slave in 9th Century Denmark: Halfdan's status as a non-person is subtley, sophisticatedly handled, and the personalities of all the characters, young and old alike, are rendered with a very satisfying complexity. Roberts has worked out a diction for his characters that's the perfect blend of contemporary speech, Icelandic sagas, and Prince Valiant:

"I woke up [one character says] and felt the need to empty my water, and possibly more, besides. I walked through the byre, intending to go out to the privy, but before I stepped out of the shadows of the byre doorway, I heard voices outside and stopped. After a time, I saw them - dark shapes of men hiding in the edge of the woods behind the privy. Had they not carelessly revewaled their position, no doubt I would be dead now, lying in a pool of piss and blood. I watched for a while. After a time, one of them stepped out into the open and waved his arm, as if to signal someone at the other end of the longhouse. Though there's no moon, I could see light from the stars glinting on his helm and spearpoint and could tell that he carried a shield. We are surrounded by armed men."

The book isn't all swash and buckle, however, not at all; one of its most marked characteristics is the strength of its female characters. Here a woman in his village tells Halfdan of the time she told her father she would only marry a man she loved:

"I remember clearly the evening that I announced my intention to Father. He'd been talking at dinner of a chieftain who lived on the island of Fyn, and how he was looking for a wife. I expected Father to react with rage, for he was prone to great fits of anger whenever someone disobeyed his will, and I knew that arranging my marriage to form an alliance was a thing he could use to great advantage. That night was not the first time Father had speculated aloud on who might prove an advantageous match for me. Instead of anger, though, a sad expression crossed his face. Then he clasped my hands between his, kissed my forehead, and gave me his blessing. 'On this matter,' he told me, 'you should indeed follow your heart.' I think he spoke so because he regretted that he had not followed his. Thus far, my heart has not spoken, so I am not wed."

The book's plot pivots around the murder of Halfdan's beloved brother and Halfdan's vow to avenge the crime. The second half of "Viking Warrior" is fairly drenched in blood and violence, and Roberts wades in it up to his knees, gleefully sparing the reader nothing of the gore and carnage. Viking Age Denmark was a violent place, and Halfdan's consummate skill with his heavy bow certainly makes him a part of that world. The narrative of his escape from the massacre that claims his brother's life is page-turningly thrilling, and the overall structure of a classic revenge-plot is always satisfying.

But it's the quieter, more human moments that give the book its real charm. Roberts brings alive the concepts of his time by bringing to life the people who live them every day, and that's the quintessential historical novelist's trick.

Take the moment when Halfdan's brother proposes a toast to him in front of all assembled, wishing him a happy birthday. Halfdan has only recently been freed, and the cheers shock him:

"This time I barely heard the cheers that echoed round the hall. I was stunned. As a thrall, I'd never counted my existence over a greater period than one day to the next. Unlike free men and women, slaves do not come of age. The birth months of property are not celebrated. From force of habit, I'd thought no differently since I'd been freed."

"Viking Warrior" ends way too soon, and we here at Stevereads had no sooner finished it than we were dispatching a pale, sleekit, timrous, cowerin' intern to buy the next volume, "Dragons from the Sea" (at their own expense, naturally). We'll report on it in due time, but judging from this debut, we doubt we'll be disappointed.

But maybe that's just the 'teen' in us talking ...

Sunday, June 24, 2007

No Bad Dogs

Our book today is "No Bad Dogs" by Barbara Woodhouse, a bestseller from the early '80s that puts us in mind of the great Renaissance painter who sent home apprentice after frustrated apprentice because, when they asked his advice on how to paint, he'd spend three days creating a little masterpiece in front of them and then say, "Do that."

Some people have a 'knack' with dogs. We've all seen it: dogs act differently around these people, show an almost immediate acceptance of them while still being wary around all others. Dogs have not been forthcoming on the reason for this; it's the single way in which they are inscrutable (although it almost certainly has its ultimate roots in smell, as does virtually everything else in their world).

This 'knack' very probably derives from a lack of fear. Almost all human beings retain just enough contact with their prehistoric cell-memories to feel just the slightest hitch of fear, just the slightest internal pause, when confronted with even the most benign of dogs. This is on one level understandable, since dogs - even in their current profusion of eugenically engineered shapes and sizes - are quite obviously predators (cat people will talk your ear off about how cats are still 'feral,' but nevertheless, cats all bear the most important genetic modification of all: they're all small). Their muzzles are full of teeth - both fangs and great grinders - their bodies are covered in quite visible muscle, and they display every day the vastly superior span of their senses, senses fitted for hunting.

It stands to reason, then, that dogs - even those most pathetically beset by overbred domesticity - would retain the essential hunter's ability to sense fear. In the wild, after all, fear engenders mistakes, and mistakes are invaluable to a hunter: the antelope whose fear prompts it to separate from the herd is the antelope who merits the pack's attention. Even attenuated by generations of interbreeding, that instinct lives in every dog.

People with a 'knack' for dogs have either never had that essential tic of fear or have unlearned it through a lifetime of dogs liking them, obeying them. In any case, they approach dogs differently from the vast majority of mankind, and this is a singular joy for them.

Unless of course they decide to write a dog-training book. A book in which they inevitably end up saying, "Do that" to people who can't possibly do so.

Barbara Woodhouse had a 'knack' with dogs. We here at Stevereads had the pleasure of meeting her, during a book-tour of hers in the mid-'80s. She was a proper, earthy, thatcherite British lady, sure of herself to an extent ungiven to unlanded peoples, and it was clear at once: she had an amazing connection with dogs. They loved her on sight, saw her instinctively as pack-mother, and wanted nothing more than to do what she requested, no matter what.

The 'no matter what' here encompasses a great deal, since if asked Mrs. Woodhouse would sum up her success in dog-training with one word: choke-chains.

Mrs. Woodhouse never met a dog-problem a choke-chain wouldn't help. Oh, not the small-link choke-chains, she quickly assures her readers, no: the large-link versions, which 'cause the dog no discomfort.' Only sayable by someone who's never had one around their own neck.

In truth, as we here at Stevereads can report, choke-chains of any diameter pinch like holy Hell. They are no different whatsoever from today's more popular electronic 'bark collars': in both cases, well-meaning young dog owners have spent their money on a device of torture.

Let's get this straight, for definition's sake: an implement of torture is any device that enables someone to compel another person's behavior or compliance by physically coercive means.

The lady likes choke-chains. She likes them just as our current nine-days-wonder Cesar Milan likes kicking dogs onto their backs and kneeling on them. In both cases, an individual with a genuine knack for dealing with dogs refuses to simply say that and instead push a product, an approach, as the secret of their success.

For Mrs. Woodhouse, the secret is the choke-chain, wide-linked and used with great discretion, mainly to startle the dog into knowing you mean business. In example after example, she's given a problem dog by the dog's owners, applies her choke chain approach and achieves nearly instantaneous results, much to the wonderment of her human clients.

Reading these stories now, thirty years and thirty fads later, it's clear what's happening in them: the dogs, frightened, stubborn, and disoriented, meet Mrs. Woodhouse, almost instantly attune to her (in her books, she refers to this as 'telepathy'), do what she's asking because it's suddenly important to them to do so, get the blissful reward of her thanks, and then get returned to their still-clueless owners. They get the same ill-behaved dog they started with, and Mrs. Woodhouse gets another statistic to pad her success-rate.

The ironic thing, of course, is that her books - especially "No Bad Dogs" -make it clear that she deeply, personally loves dogs (not a claim we'd say is really tenable with Cesar Milan). And not only does she love them, she revels in her connection with them, clearly sensing on some level that this connection is extremely rare:

"I find the chattering that goes on in class by those people who don't concentrate very hampering to this mind communication. It is like constant interference on the radio. But then I don't suppose many people know what a thrill it is to be on the same wavelength as a dog."

This is simply put and undoubtedly true. It isn't a particularly exalted wavelength, it must be admitted - it's mostly about poop and food and endless, endless sleeping, but shot through it all is a talent for affection so strong and pure it puts almost every other species on Earth to shame, and it IS thrilling when you feel it instead of only guessing at it.

That Mrs. Woodhouse could feel all that - that she could sense on some level how rare it is to feel all that - and still champion something as barbaric as a choke-chain is ... well, it's a serious indictment. Who knows, who can count, how many dogs over the last thirty years have been choke-chained into absolute misery because of Mrs. Woodhouse's wrongheaded teachings? We hold the suffering of every single one of them against her.

And yet, as her writings clearly show, she's one of us. Catch her when she's not talking about torture devices, and this couldn't be clearer:

"Why do hundreds of us give up our holidays to stay with them, cry our eyes out when we lose them, defend them against all those horrid people who don't love them and on our deathbeds make provisions for them in preference to our needy families? It is because there is something about a dog that gets to you. Even if you own a problem dog imbued with all the evil the devil himself invented, you still know that, inside that dog, there is something very lovable - a dog that will never criticize you, a dog that doesn't care whether you are from the top or bottom drawer, a dog that doesn't care whether you are clever or stupid, beautiful or hideous, rich or poor. He is yours and you are his."

And there's quite a bit of good old-fashioned rock-solid advice about dog ownership hidden in Mrs. Woodhouse's books, especially "No Bad Dogs." It's just the central theme we must discard, and we must discard it for the same reason we discard 'bark collars' and 'alpha male' nonsense and Cesar Milan's weird attempts to establish physical dominance over a species who could, to an individual, eviscerate him in an instant if they wished to.

It's not that there aren't biologically incorrigible dogs; there are, we've loved more than a few of them and seen them to their tragic ends. But they are not the same as the non-biologically incorrigible dogs, the willful ones, the stupid ones, the stubborn ones, the impossibly entitled ones. These dogs can be argued with, pleaded with, negotiated with ... but at the end of the day, they love us and should be given their way. Victories over the indisciplines of such dear, pigheaded creatures are paltry victories indeed; only a species as neurotic as man would seek them in the first place.

Mrs. Woodhouse's title is entirely right: there are no bad dogs. And since that's true, surely there's no need for choke-chains?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

A World Undone

Our book today is “A World Undone,” G. J. Meyer’s magnificent one-volume history of the First World War, published in 2006 and now available in a pretty, hand-friendly paperback. The book is some 700 pages long, and it’s so fluently, engagingly written that readers will reach page 700 wanting more. As far as single-volume WWI histories go, this one is better than its predecessors by a margin so wide it feels slightly ungentlemanlike even to mention it.

(Needless to say - or threaten - we here at Stevereads have read all the works cited in Meyer’s bibliography, and as he points out in his introduction, a great many of those books are very, very good - in particular, Leon Wolff’s “In Flanders Fields,” Hew Strachan’s “The First World War Vol. 1, To Arms,” Rod Paschall’s “The Defeat of Imperial Germany, 1917-1918,” and Laurence Lafore’s “The Long Fuse.” But nevertheless, Meyer - who naturally doesn’t point this out in his introduction, since he’s not Gore Vidal - has written a better book than any of them).

(Ah, Laurence Lafore! The author of “The Long Fuse” was also a great lecturer whose impassioned oratory on the war and its causes often brought who auditoriums of students to their feet in spontaneous, thunderous applause. We here at Stevereads took a WWI class with him when he was in his dotage and could scarcely anymore get to his own feet, much less bring audiences to theirs. In conference with him to discuss our final paper, we proposed a study of the effect the war had on whales. He became gruffly animated and grumbled, ‘Ah, good, good. Some interesting material, urm. Get on to the War Records Office. Think it’s in Cardiff, urm.’ ‘Not Wales,’ we gently corrected, ‘whales. The large mammals who live in the ocean?’ At which point the old legend grew phlegmatically irritated and barked, ‘Whales? What the devil? This isn't a game!’ We refrained from pointing out that the whales no doubt found that out the hard way. But the paper got an A).

Meyer covers the whole of his subject, from the horrific, familiar great battles - Gallipoli (an especially captivating chapter), the Marne, Ypres, Verdun, the Somme, Passchendaele (the book’s masterpiece) - to the lesser known sidelines (the state of the German Jews, for instance, or the Armenian genocide), and everywhere he’s as keen to expose absurdity as he is touching to illuminate heroism. Because of the peculiar nature of the Great War, he often gets to do both at the same time, as in this paragraph about the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination would trigger the events that would lead to war (and who’s already had a bomb thrown at him immediately prior to this passage):

“After a standard ceremonial welcome - the mayor absurdly, didn’t deviate from a script declaring that everyone in Sarajevo adored the archduke and was delighted by his visit - Franz Ferdinand announced a change in his itinerary. He insisted on going to the hospital where the people injured by the bomb had been taken. It was the right Hapsburg gesture, a demonstration of concern for the servants of the crown. Franz Ferdinand asked Sophie to stay behind, out of any possible danger. She refused, saying her place was with him. This did not seem reckless. The military governor of Bosnia, who was riding in the same car with the couple that morning, had already declared his confidence that there would be no further trouble. If he knew anything about the Serb fanatics, he said, it was that they were capable of only one assassination attempt per day.”

Throughout the book, Meyer’s employs very effective device for organizing the vast amount of material he wants to share with his readers (the book is clearly designed to welcome first-timers): in each main chapter he advances his central story, the coming of, unfolding of, and conclusion of the war. But almost every chapter is shadowed by an ancillary essay called ‘background’ that expands on some topic covered more briefly in the main chapters. Thus subjects like ‘The Serbs,’ or ‘The Romanovs,’ ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ or ‘Ludendorff’ get their full airings without impeding the bigger story (as an experiment, we here at Stevereads ordered an intern to read the book without the ‘background’ chapters. She reported back that the main narrative felt completely whole, and complained that she really wished we’d given her more than a day to finish her task - apparently, she’d had to skip her ‘wedding.’ We informed her that her fiancee was better off without a bride with so little work ethic and fired her on the spot, but at least the experiment was a success).

Meyer begins his big book with a long list of major characters who’ll appear in its pages, and he ends the book by telling the reader what became of many of these figures after the war. He ends this feature (and his book) with one of these figures - a young official named Winston Churchill:

“One of the war’s youngest leading figures also appeared to live too long. Winston Churchill’s career prospered in the decade after the Treaty of Versailles. He served as secretary of state for war from 1919 to 1921, as colonial secretary in 1921 and 1922, and as chancellor of the exchequer from 1924 to 1929. Along the way he left the Liberals to return to the Conservative Party, where he had begun a quarter century earlier, but the Conservatives despised him for his old apostasy and distrusted him deeply. From 1929 on he was consigned to what he called ‘the political wilderness,’ a has-been issuing warnings about the rearmament of Nazi Germany that few were prepared to take seriously.
But that is another story.”

That’s the final sentence of “A World Undone,” but we hope not its final word. We here at Stevereads whole-heartedly urge Meyer to TELL us that story, as engagingly as he’s told us this one.

That story, or any other story he likes.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

The Rasputin File

Our book today is “The Rasputin File,” and thereby hangs a tale.

Over our customary absinthe in the back room of the Black Lotus tea shop, my esteemed colleague the Swipper once again slapped the table top and said, “I tell you, I’ve read a book you haven’t!”

“We’re sure you have,” we replied, perhaps a trifle dismissively. “Some lurid work, full of big-chested women and protracted car chases.”

“No!” the Swipper shot back. “A real book. A history book, with a bibliography and everything.”

We chuckled. “Oh Swippsey, will you never learn? No such book escapes our attention here at Stevereads. And even if one did, it would hardly be known to a tyke such as yourself. Let’s just finish our absinthe and gossip about Beepy.”

“Beepy can go to Hell!” the Swipper blurted out, which did not dismay us (it being almost certainly true), until he followed it with the far more problematic “And so can you!” bolted from the table, and left the tea house. Only a sense of deep social embarrassment prompted us to finish his drink. And the rest of his food.

The next day he showed up at the palatial chrome-and-stone offices of Stevereads, book in hand. Plopping it down on our desk, he sat opposite and said, “There, you magnificent bastard. Ever read that?”

It was Radzinsky’s book, and somehow we hadn’t. Of course we and everyone else had read and very much enjoyed his “The Last Tsar,” a masterfully researched biography and a fittingly baroque headstone to the Romanovs. But “The Rasputin File”? Never heard of it.

We’d heard of its subject, naturally. Grigory Efimovich Rasputin, the ‘mad monk’ who established a hypnotic influence over the Tsarina Alexandra and the ladies of her court, noble and otherwise. Rasputin, whose epic death (stabbed, shot, beaten, poisoned, and finally drowned) had just enough wiff of unkillability about it to guarantee his place in the villain-roster of all future pop fiction (lately in Hellboy, for instance). We began reading.

And were quickly fascinated. Radzinsky writes in a distinctly Russian manner (which translator Judson Rosengrant perfectly captures, for good or ill) - confiding, spurty, liberal with exclamations. His historical research is first rate (obviously here including the cache of Rasputin-related documents that surfaced in the mid-90s), but he makes no secret of the fact that his primary goal is to tell an amazing story.

At this he certainly succeeds. Rasputin’s rise from humble peasant origins to the heights of imperial access is swiftly, thrillingly recounted, and along the way Radzinsky effortlessly weaves in all strands of Russian history and psychology (his digression regarding the history of ‘holy fools’ in Russian history, for instance, is so intensely intelligent that at less than a page it does more on the subject than some writers have done in whole chapters). His command of his primary materials (mainly a great Everest of letters) is absolute, but he’s also acute at reading between the lines. His book is full of characters who are distinctly strange but compellingly real.

None moreso than Rasputin himself, who emerges from these pages as a weird, crazed, paranoid, lecherous, opportunistic, manipulative creep. Radzinsky is very good at showing all the ways Tsar Nicholas disliked and mistrusted the mad monk, and by the end of the book we sympathize completely with His Highness. By the time the coterie of drunken plotters finally get around to killing Rasputin (a sequence of events Radzinsky wonderfully reconstructs), we’ve been impatient for that very deed for two hundred pages.

Quotes abound throughout the book attesting to the fact that it wasn’t a very nice person who was stabbed, shot, beaten, poisoned, and drowned that night, but one of our favorites is this one, from barrister’s wife Sheila Lunts:

“I called him, and he came to see me when there was nobody home except me and the maid. In the study he started pressing himself on me terribly. I remarked to him, ‘Leave off with that, don’t, let’s just be friends. I have never deceived my husband.’
He asked, ‘Is it true that you’ve never deceived him?’
‘On my word of honor,’ I replied.
‘Well, I believe it then!’ Rasputin said. ‘But if you ever want to deceive him, let me be the first!’ Then Rasputin asked if I had any wine. I told him I didn’t have, but that there was some 180-proof spirits. Rasputin drank a little glass of the spirits and took a bit of apple. Then ... he started dictating some rubbish to me in Church Slavonic. I filled up a whole page ...”

We finished the book at a gallop and were very much pleased with it. We laid it back down on the desk and confronted the avidly-watching eyes of the Swipper.

“Well?” he demanded.

“Well, Swippsey,” we conceded. “You were right. That was a real book we hadn’t read. Allow us to buy you a drink, by way of apology.”

So we returned to the Black Lotus and sipped absinthe and gossiped about Beepy into the wee small hours.

A Secret Edge

Our book today is Robin Reardon's “A Secret Edge,” a slim and surprisingly sensual gay coming-of-age novel centering around the personal awakening of high school track star Jason Peele.

When the book opens, Jason is the picture of an ordinary high school student - hanging out at the mall, doing his homework, going on awkward double dates. But he has growing doubts about how normal he is, and the addition of handsome young Raj to his track team fans those doubts into agonies. Raj is gay and far more assertive than Jason, and one of the book’s strong points is how quickly it cuts to the chase (as Raj tells Jason, “we have to [be fast]. We won’t get much time, and we won’t get any encouragement”). Not only are all the book’s various coaches, parents, and extended families soon dealing with the relationship that springs up between Jason and Raj, but our two protagonists waste no time in, er, fraternizing.

Reardon’s prose is clean and light and almost always convincing as Jason’s first person narration (almost: for instance, it’s extremely unlikely any 2007 teenager would refer to something as “the sixty-four thousand dollar question”). And sprinkled throughout the book, usually connected with the physical, sensual aspects of two teenagers falling in love, there are little bursts that very nearly qualify as prose poetry, like when Jason thinks, “I could listen to him talk all day. His voice sings, and he makes consonants sound like something he’s trying to taste with just the tip of his tongue.”

The overall shape of the book’s plot will be familiar to anybody who’s ever read in this particular sub-genre. Some family members are instantly supportive, others take a benign amount of adjusting. Minor misunderstandings (in this case, oddly and interestingly, involving a pocket knife and the teachings of Gandhi) threaten to part our young lovers. Each boy suffers a beating by homophobic thugs. The book’s final scene is both unabashedly melodramatic and undeniably satisfying. Sequels are easily imaginable and would be welcomed here at Stevereads.

The only disturbing thing about the novel is that it needs to be written at all. And yet it does: storylines very similar to this one unfold daily in small towns and big cities across the world, usually containing far less hope and far less honesty than is found in “A Secret Edge.” No matter where you’re reading this, somewhere nearby there’s a young man similar to Jason Peele who cannot make any of the decisions he eventually does - who would lose (or believes he would lose) his family, his friends, and maybe his life if he tried. Despite the proliferation of gay acceptance in American popular culture (an actor on a hit TV show uses a gay slur about a fellow cast member, and not only is that cast member’s career not ruined by it, but the actor is fired for saying it - it’s by such baby-steps that tolerance takes root), we still live in a time when a gay coming-of-age novel that didn't feature a beating would seem unrealistic.

“A Secret Edge” doesn’t join us on our soapbox, of course. It’s busy telling its sweet, intimate story of a good kid falling in love for the first time, and it does so effectively. Here’s hoping the real-life equivalents of that kid find it and draw some measure of courage from it.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Wolf Empire

Our book today is "Wolf Empire" by Scott Ian Barry, a big, luxuriously-produced coffee table book full of the author's black-and-white photographs of the wolves he's followed and studied for years. There's a heartfelt introduction, lots of heartfelt prose to accompany every photo, and heartfelt testimonials from Tom Brokaw and Robert Redford.

Just about the only way this book could be any more harmful to wolf welfare would be if each copy came with a complimentary steel trap.

Barry is an emotional writer; his prose is to natural history what Windham Hill is to jazz. He deplores the way wolves have been demonized by the folk stories of every ancient and medieval culture in the world. But his good intentions seem to blind him to the fact that angelizing wolves is equally deplorable and equally dangerous. Both take a complex living species and abstract it into the realm of metaphor. And as any student of the Holocaust will attest, exterminating a metaphor is a whole lot easier than exterminating a people.

We can't fault Barry's intentions - his love of wolves, his desire to protect them by educating the public about them, these things are clear throughout "Wolf Empire."

But you can do a world of harm with the best of intentions, and Barry does several continents' worth. He claims that he wants more than anything for wolves to be seen as independent, glorious beings in their own right - but in his introduction, where he talks about wonderful, transforming experiences he's had lecturing audiences (including an enormous one in Madison Square Garden) he's had showcasing wolves to high schools, nature advocacy groups, and general audiences. But in the black and white pictures he so helpfully supplies from these transformative events, we see two things: first, Barry himself, looking dreamy and hipsterish, and second, and very, very much worse, in the pictures Barry is holding a leash. The animal on the other end of the leash has black fur and glowing eyes, but it isn't a wolf anymore. That bears repeating, as sad as it is: a creature that can be led on a leash and induced to howl in front of an audience is not a wolf anymore.
And so, what point are you making by parading around such a spectacle? You can go on all you like about your 'packmates,' but this creature you're leading from auditorium to auditorium by leash and chain? She doesn't want to be there and would bolt if you gave her the chance. Parading her around - even for the laudatory purpose of showing people she's not the bogeyman - removes the very thing you most want her to keep: her individuality, her status as a member of an equal nation. If William Lloyd Garrison had accompanied his abolition lectures with a Negro on a chain ... well, it's hardly necessary to finish that sentence, is it? The heart of all equal rights considerations - Negro, Sioux, female, gay (these have been mankind's challenges in recent quasi-enlightened times) - is dignity. In a future we can only hope for (one Barry obviously hopes for), the self-evident next steps will be taken, and nobody will think about treating wolves (and tigers, and elephants, and oxen, and dolphins, and eagles, and whales and so on and so on) with anything less than the same dignity that the inventors of the word 'dignity' so spottily bestow on members of their own kind.

If establishing the basic, separate, individual dignity is central battle for wolf welfare, Barry is quite unintentionally hurting the cause. His black and white photos are astonishing in their intimacy; they aren't always perfectly composed, but their sheer access is something the photographic record will turn to for years to come (especially once the last wild wolf is eradicated from the world). But the shots he's chosen, and especially the text he's written to accompany them, counterbalance their worth.

He's constantly warning himself out loud about the dangers of anthropomorphizing his subjects - and that's just as well, since he's constantly doing it too. One beautiful female wolf is named Kim Basinger. Another is called Cary Grant. In neither case is there the faintest resemblance (aesthetically speaking, the canines win paws-down), but the mere act of making the comparisons, of impulsively talking about wolves as though they were furry, quadrupedal humans, opens a hole in the floor - and through it goes every drop of dignity. The worst such example in "Wolf Empire" is surely the shot of a young female in full diurnal shed, her thick, luxurious fur temporarily splotchy and largely missing. The caption? "Don't Look at Me - I'm Naked!" It's enough to make you throw your feces at somebody.

Although it hardly needs saying, the problem with this kind of anthropomorphizing, the problem with characterizing wolves as furry humans, comes not from watching them while they play or frolic or resemble Kim Basinger - the problem is when, after you've accepted them on those grounds, they do something according to their nature. So when Flora the circus elephant, harrassed finally beyond enduring by the daily beatings, whippings, and starvings of her handlers, snaps during her 'housewife' routine at a show in Alabama, throws her vacuum cleaner through the torso of her trainer, crushes two other handlers to death, and rampages down Main Street in her apron and house slippers, humans feel not only frightened but betrayed - the police on Main Street shoot her down with just that much added feeling of justification.

That's not the way, and "Wolf Empire" isn't the way (even the title suggests a political entity, a rival state - when, after all, has history ever been kind to empires, from Rome's to the Reichmarshal's to Darth Vader's?).

What we need is a radically different approach, a radically different idealogy, an idealogy in which wolves (and all the other great races, but we'll focus for now) aren't intrusively photographed, led into auditoriums on chains, or equated with movie stars but simply LEFT ALONE, to be themselves in their own world.

Humans don't need to be extra-perceptive to determine which species want their friendship. It's such a rare thing that it's easy to spot. Dogs, of course, made that choice thousands of years ago, unique in its intimacy. Cats (typically) remain undecided, and horses' involvement has never been anything but involuntary. Ravens and dolphins seem interested in seeking out the company of man - company, not domestication. And that's more or less it - the rest of what Kipling would call the free peoples of the Earth want nothing from mankind other than to be left alone.

Left completely alone, which includes no photographer's shutter whirring in the distance.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Essential Fantastic Four, volume 6

Our book today is the sixth volume of Marvel Comics’ ongoing reprint series, ‘Essential Fantastic Four #6,’ collecting issues 111 through 137 of the Fantastic Four’s monthly comic book from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

The sheer number of you we lost just now with that little description is a sorry reflection on the cultural snobberies of our age, but we shall persevere, not only in the hopes of changing that status quo, but also because Kevin, Elmo, and all the other scattered faithful will appreciate the effort to level the playing field.

So: the Fantastic Four. For those of you languishing in ignorance (you know who you are, and you’ll need to be up to speed if you’re to take in the religious event known as ‘Fantastic Four - the Rise of the Silver Surfer’ in theaters as we speak), that means Reed Richards, the world’s smartest man, Sue Richards, his fiery and compassionate wife, Ben Grimm, his crusty old-school best friend, and heartthrob Johnny Storm, Sue’s younger brother. They go up into space in a stolen spacecraft, accidentally get exposed to cosmic rays, and get transformed into the Fantastic Four: Mister Fantastic, who can stretch his body like silly putty, the Invisible Woman, who can fade from sight and generate equally-invisible force fields, the Thing, rocklike monstrosity of enormous physical strength, and the Human Torch, a living firebrand capable of hurling flame.

They were Marvel’s flagship title, a super-group that was first and foremost a family, with squabblings and interpersonal dynamics that were, in the early ‘60s, virtually unheard of in comic books. Their identities are known to the public - indeed, they’re celebrities, and Stan Lee is a fine, funny chronicler of the ups and downs of that status. Far from a Fortress of Solitude or a Batcave (and we should remember that the Justice League originally hung out in a cave), our heroes make a Manhattan skyscraper their headquarters.

The list of Stan Lee’s innovations on this one title alone virtually defy tabulation, and they get taken for granted by today’s over-pampered comics-reading set, who think all the gritty givens that form the basis of every comic out there were somehow ALWAYS there. They weren’t. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby invented them.

This presents problems in an of itself, namely: what do you do when the creating ur-titans get older and want to retire, or seek out new pastures? How do you pass the torch on something so newly minted?

In the case of Marvel comics, the answer is: pretty bloody awkwardly. Stan Lee insisted on being credited as writer long after he’d lost interest in the title and ceded actual scripting chores (writing and re-writing dialogue, checking continuity, etc) to three of the greatest wunderkins ever to grace a comic book company: Gerry Conway, Archie Goodwin, and Roy Thomas. DC Comics, during their own transitionary period, could only have dreamt of caretakers so conscientious (well, OK, they had one - Julie Schwartz - but he was unique).

But first, we have to get through the dwindling of the old order, and in the case of the Fantastic Four, that was a long, protracted, severely depressing trough of truly terrible issues (the sack of crap collected in Essential Fantastic Four #5 is a thing you wouldn’t drop on the head of your worst enemy).

Luckily, thanks to the growing influence of the trio named above, by volume #6 some light is breaking through the clouds. Stan Lee is credited with writing a great number of the early issues collected here, but he didn’t; Thomas and especially Goodwin were generating every word of dialogue, altough often enough under Lee’s heavy influence.

It must be admitted right up front that this volume’s worst misstep is also a really, really big misstep: the second coming of Galactus is botched so badly we here at Stevereads challenge any of you to tell us how that particular story ends, or even what-all happens in it.

Galactus this time around is heralded by Gabriel, perhaps his lamest-assed herald (Terrax was bad, but perhaps not quite so bad) Galactus has had so far. Gabriel walks on air like an angel and signals the end of the world - i.e. the world’s being gulped down whole by planet-chomping Galactus - by blowing on his horn. Get it?

He fights the FF almost to a standstill, despite the fact that he ends up being a friggin robot who they should have trashed in about four panels of trying. But that’s not the worst of it: when Galactus shows up, he displays his awesome presence and power by ... well, by talking a lot of trash and hanging out a lot at Coney Island. Suddenly, Galactus is Vinnie Pastoranza, the bad boy of Our Lady of Perptual Grace in Brooklyn. The story is so bad that we don’t even care a) when the Silver Surfer shows up, b) why he shows up, or c) what the hell he does once he’s there.

No ultimate sacrifice this time around. No Ultimate Nullifier. Galactus wears shortpants and plays around with the Cyclone for a weirdly unseemly amount of time, and all through it, you get the impression that this whole thing went wrong for the exact same reason so many Hollywood blockbusters go wrong: too many cooks, too much creative interference, or, as my somewhat disturbed old friend Franco always said, too many hands down the boy scout’s pants. (in case you’re wondering, it was at that exact moment that this review got Beepy’s attention)

You’d think nothing could save a collection that manages to feature a bad Galactus storyline, but you’d be wrong: there’s some strong stuff here, beginning with the volume’s first story-arc, featuring a big, fat baddie named the Over-Mind and a wonderful, protracted Thing/Hulk battle that displays some of John Buscema’s finest penciling on the title (the crisp inking by Joe Sinnott works perfectly here, where it would have been disastrous on, for instance, Kirby’s pencils). In the course of that battle, and in the course of the Over-Mind battle that follows, the FF inflict a great deal of property damage on Manhattan - for which they’re threatened with eviction by their landlord, and for which they’re actually arrested by the police (Reed Richards writes out a check for their $20,000 bail) - today’s readers will be forgiven for seeing seeds of Marvel’s recent wretched ‘Civil War’ storyline, and yesterday’s readers will be forgiven for wistfully wondering what glories could have been wrung from that premise by writers like Thomas or Goodwin.

It’s in this series of issues that Johnny Storm loses his sometime-girlfriend, Crystal of the Inhumans, to none other than Quicksilver, who’s just mutie-bastid enough to rub Johnny’s face in it. This is also the period in which Medusa of the Inhumans joins the team, and re-reading these issues gave us a fresh appreciation for how she’s portrayed: mature, capable, with just a hint of the disdain that might come naturally to royalty (this volume also features a great little sequence where heartsick Johnny looks up his old sweetheart Dorrie Evans - and finds her to be a cheery, plump house-frau mother of two... at a time in American history when even the squarest melvin could get some groovin, Johnny can’t catch a break)

The highlight of this volume, though, is also one of the single-issue highlights of the Fantastic Four’s entire history. It’s a story called “Three Stood Together,” in which the Black Panther, traveling incognito to the white supremacist African nation of (somewhat disappointingly) Rudyarda, is thrown in jail for being black, and the Thing and the Human Torch go there to break him out (and stop the bad guy, of course)(who’s Klaw, of course). From the start, the two heroes are disgusted by the country’s separate but equal doorways labeled ‘Europeans’ and ‘Coloreds,’ but the story raises a broad spectrum of racial issues (like, for instance, when the Thing questions why T’Challa is temporarily calling himself ‘The Black Leopard’ and T’Challa answers: “I contemplate a return to your country, Ben Grimm where the latter term [Black Panther] has ... political connotations. I neither condemn nor condone those who have taken up the name - but T’Challa is a law unto himself”).

At the end of the issue, after the bad guy has been beaten and all set right with the authorities, our heroes encounter once again a stone wall inset with separate doorways for ‘Europeans’ and ‘Coloreds,’ and the Thing, steaming over the whole concept, abruptly tears down the whole wall, and the three walk out over the shattered labels. It’s a little hokey, but when you consider how many times apartheid or black power movements had been mentioned in comics prior to that (i.e. never), you recall the power the issue had when you first read it.

The next volume of Essential Fantastic Four will contain, by our reckoning, five real high points in the history of the title. But this volume has its share of nifty bits and is by no means despicable. Despite some notable missteps (cosmic bikers? a big furry creature with a WWII land mine for a head?), this volume is well worth your handful of fivers.

Monday, June 11, 2007

New England White

Our book today is “New England White,” the second novel by Yale law professor Stephen Carter, whose first book, “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” was the source of much controversy and the object of much critical praise.

A great deal of that critical praise was of a decidedly anxious nature, with reviewers not knowing exactly what to MAKE of Carter’s book. “The Emperor of Ocean Park” is gorgeously, intricately written, and lord knows the critics had no problem with that, per se. But the book was also not only heavily plot-driven but driven by a plot that was a) comprehensible, b) exciting, and c) expertly handled. Critics accustomed to slathering undeserved praise all over the latest precosities of Haruki Murakami, Charles Frazier, or Michael Ondaajte experienced a slight tremble at this kind of writing; a little plot (or, as writing workshops would call it, plot-structure) might be a good thing (might, mind you - plot does so get in the way of gauzy autobiographical maunderings), but this much? You could virtually feel them squirming, wanting to make some sniffing remark about Agatha Christie but restraining themselves because, well, the author received so much money for the book...

And it got worse for these poor scribes. Because not only was Carter’s book unabashedly plot-driven, but the plot was almost entirely concerned with black people. And not just black people but black people who consistently refuse to act like black people in fiction do: these were intelligent, elegant, articulate people, and they organized their intelligence, elegance, and articulation not along the lines of race, like any normal black person would do, but along the lines of tenure, commerce, and real estate - why, like the rest of us. Is it any wonder that most critics broke ranks and ran, when confronted with something like this? Most of them retreated into the Land of the Qualifiers - an astonishing debut, but, a remarkable success, but, an amazing new voice, but .... and so on, ad infinitum.

Actually, there’s no ‘but’ about it. Plot is not the dirty little secret of fiction - indeed, it’s only recently come to be seen as such, to the enormous misfortune of fiction-readers everywhere. Filmy vagaries and ill-formed plots are, after all, the accepted hallmarks of all ‘serious’ fiction. If it actually makes any sense, it can’t be taken seriously.

So let’s hear it for Professor Carter: he not only turned in a densely plotted, elegantly written novel in “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” but he’s done it again in “New England White.”

The setting is the same as before, the scenic New England college town of Elm Harbor (all due deference to the whole idea of author’s extending themselves, but we sincerely hope Carter keeps returning to Elm Harbor for the rest of his natural life), and the plot features campus and even national politics, intrigue, and a deliciously unfolded murder investigation. The plot also features two characters from the first book, Julia and Lemaster Carlyle, and they’re wonderfully realized with all their flaws. One critic described Carter’s characters as “the Huxtables written by Tom Wolfe” - which manages, in only two points, to get four things wrong. One hopes Carter isn’t inclined to drink.

In the meantime, he gets on about his business, and his business is, quite unapologetically, to entertain his readers. If we have to condescend and call this the return of somebody, it’s certainly not the return of Henry James - this is John Marquand, or maybe Louis Auchincloss, although it’s not really anybody, just as all great new voices in fiction aren’t really anybody that came before.

One of the most enjoyable parts of reading Carter is that you know, from virtually the first page, that every single thing he writes about, no matter how small or irrelevant to his larger plot. He’s like Robert Penn Warren in that way, but again, we won’t, we shouldn’t talk about so-and-so’s come again.

Here he is tossing off one quick paragraph in connection with the late stage illness of old patriarch Byron Dennison. It’s important to remember here, while you’re reading this great prose, that Dennison and his illness is relatively meaningless to the larger plot of the book. This paragraph is just gravy:

“Hiatus, because the nurse came in and fiddled and fussed and started making notes with a stylus on a handheld computer. Bay flirted without enthusiasm. The nurse smiled tiredly. The break was welcome, at least to Julia, because she did not know what to say. The authorities! Well, of course, Bay would think that, having long been part of the power structure himself. Julia remembered, when she was at Dartmouth, how the black students, herself included, would sit around and condemn any members of the darker nation who wielded real influence, on the insidious theory that their success was itself evidence of their disloyalty.”

The book barrels along, building momentum to a very satisfying multi-pronged conclusion (unlike most writers of fiction these days, Carter knows perfectly well that one of the adornments of any novel is the perfection of its endings) - there’s an intellectual climax, a moral climax, and a surprisingly visceral and effective physical climax.

Of course, “New England White” is a hardcover and as such hideously expensive. But if you’re short on cabbage, there’s always your nearest library - and Carter’s equally wonderful first novel is now in bookstores in a (relatively) affordable little paperback. If you don’t know this author, you should make his acquaintance

Just don’t tell Haruki Murakami.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Duchess of Acquitaine

Our book today is Margaret Ball's historical novel "Duchess of Acquitaine," with its charmingly chummy subtitle, 'A Novel of Eleanor' (brave, foolhardy Ball, trusting that none of her prospective readers will read the book's title, then read the subtitle and say 'who's this Eleanor chick?').

The book's heroine is, of course, Eleanor of Acquitaine, one of those figures from history about whom it can be said with certainty that if she'd never existed, historical novelists would have had to invent her. By all accounts shapely, beautiful, forceful, and intelligent, she was also immensely rich, which allowed her to live her life on a scale and with an intensity undreamt of by all but a handful of women anywhere in the world of the 12th century.

She owned and ruled large territories; she composed poetry and patronized love poets; she traveled to exotic locales such as Jerusalem and Constantinople; she grew into a consummate political strategist, but she also felt and often acted on strong passions. She was the daughter and neice of great lords. She was the wife of two kings. She was the mother of four kings. No wonder writers have been drawn to her like vultures to blooded meat.

A long line of historical novelists have tried their hands at Eleanor, with varying degrees of success. To Norah Lofts she was pliant and yearning. To Jean Plaidy she was flinty and shrill. To Sharon Penman she was wise and compassionate.

And of course one dramatist was drawn to her - James Goldman created an immortal portrait in his play "The Lion in Winter," in which Eleanor's unique upbringing and vast intelligence have combined to make her a sardonic force of nature, easily the equal of the men around her:

"I even made poor Louis [her hapless royal French husband] take me on crusade. How's that for blasphemy? I dressed my maids as amazons and rode bare-breasted half way to Damascus. Louis had a seizure, and I damn near died of windburn but the troops were dazzled."

Ball couldn't possibly match the pitch-perfect sophistication of this, and she doesn't try to. Her Eleanor is above all things young - "Duchess of Acquitaine" is accurately titled: our heroine is a young woman throughout its length. The formidable, world-weary queen of the novelists is still a decade away when Ball's novel ends. As far as we recall, nobody's ever written a novel about this Eleanor before.

The book is light and elegant but not lightweight and certainly not precious. Ball's extensive research is nowhere on display - rather, it's visible only in the tone accurately portrayed, the essential little detail got right every single time. The reader is not belabored with great chunks of undigested exposition. Instead, the narrative moves deftly along, full of dialogue and the play of personalities.

Indeed, one of the nicest touches Ball brings to her story is the consistent, buzzing, quarrelling humanity of her characters, most certainly including Eleanor herself. Maids, stableboys, grooms, dukes, prelates - all at some point or other scratch themselves, or eat something disagreeable, or smell of horse sweat. The overall effect is of making her characters vividly, even redolently, real in a way seldom done by other writers perhaps more enamored of glamor.

Still, Ball's approach is daring enough. This is, after all, an Eleanor story unfamiliar to readers who'll come to the book looking for civil wars and a tempestuous marriage. This is the story of a young woman, smarter than virtually everyone around her but still feeling her way in the realms of politics and intrigue (and, only embryonically, war).

Readers will naturally be curious about Henry. That's young Count Henry of Anjou, the future King Henry II of England, the great love, great foil, and great nemesis of the adult Eleanor's life. Even across eight centuries, the chemistry between these two shines - it informs every novel, every history, and of course it's the heart and soul of Goldman's play (he came to Paris with 'a mind like Aristotle's and a form like mortal sin,' Eleanor says. 'We shattered the commandments on the spot').

The measure of Ball's courage is that this Henry is hardly on her stage at all; she simply refuses to tell that story, having faith instead in her own. This faith is well-founded: she carries off her task with aplomb, without the slightest trace of the anxiety she must certainly have been feeling.

Her book is the better for it, since Eleanor's young life makes for fascinating reading even in the dry historical documents that register it. In the hands of a skilled novelist with an ear for dialogue, it becomes a goldmine.

So: virtually no Henry, but we do get (in an oddly oedipal eventuality) an absolutely vibrant, utterly living portrait of Geoffrey of Anjou, Henry's indominable father. He stalks across these pages alternating between serpentine calibration and blood-curdling rage - he's easily Ball's most memorable male character. He's the type of ferally smart, instinctively bloodthirsty figure who makes you wonder how on Earth the generations continued. He's not a monster like his son was, a monster with a higher purpose - he's just a monster, with a hard army and some cold cash at his back.

Still, Henry is here, a little grubby, a little desperate, but present nonetheless, as testimony to Ball's awareness that she's only telling part of an entirely remarkable story.

She concludes her story with her young Eleanor in the passionate embrace of this vulpine young man, and those readers familiar with their history will feel exactly the heart-pang Ball intends, as her young Eleanor senses that this is the beginning of everything good in her life.

"Shadowy figures passed before her eyes," Ball writes, "not the army of skeletons that had tortured her dreams before Outremer but tall, proud men whose features mingled the Plantagenet fairness with the height and dignity of Aquitaine. Sons. I will have sons, and they will live."

Well, yes. But we all know (at least, we hope) the horrible realities that followed from those dreams: the dead young king, the sundered country, the civil wars, the fretful reconciliations, the terrible deals with all posterities. Ball knows them as well as we do, and yet she tells her more innocent tale in the full sunshine of its own merits.

Still, the fact that she ends this novel at such a moment tempts the reader to think she might move on to write of stormier times for her heroine. That would be bad news for Eleanor, but good news for us.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy

Our book today is David Cannadine's meticulous, magisterial magnum opus, "The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy."

You see the challenge right away, the dare: any large work of history whose title starts with 'the decline and fall' intentionally invites comparison with the mother of all historical works, Edward Gibbon's "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire."

Gibbon's book is longer, smarter, and even now better than almost everything that's followed since on any subject, and don't think serious historians don't ponder that horrifying fact from time to time. Watered-down popular histories - replete with pieties and Polaroid morals - always abound and care not at all about what their more respectable brethren are doing. Middlebrow histories - usually written by third-tier academics with their eyes on the possibility of an unexpected bestseller here or there - are slightly more palatable but still essentially pietistic, essentially written for children. And written for children advisedly, for children still expect all their stories to have happy endings. And as educational standards in the United States have continued their dire downward spiral, more and more adult readers approach the reading of history at the level of children, unaware of the facts, ignorant of virtually all elements of the past that don't directly involve themselves personally. Except these children are investment brokers, actuaries, corporate accountants, federal lawyers, computer systems analysts, biotech workers, and political activists, and Presidents, and many, many others who will be the architects of our future, whether we like it or not.

The publishing industry can hardly be blamed for catering to this burgeoning demography of slack-jawed idiots. That's where the money is, after all, and publishers care about nothing in advance of money.

The net effect, though, is that actually real, serious histories are being written for a rapidly shrinking minority of readers. And it gets worse: serious historians, sensing perhaps how quickly the iceberg on which they're perched is shrinking, increasingly panic in one of two directions: either they clutter their works with impenetrable professional jargon, or worse, much worse, they start dumbing things down in the furtive hope of finding a popular audience. If you examine the history section of your local Barnes & Noble, you'll find a dozen examples of people who should know better writing for people who don't know better. It can get depressing.

Which is why our book today is such a pick-me-up: it's serious, high-minded, heavily researched real history, and if it's not the equal of Gibbon, it's certainly worthy of his company.

Cannadine's subject is that oddest and most storied of societal phenomena, the British aristocracy. Readers of Lord David Cecil's biography of Lord Melbourne (as always when writing about the British gentry, every sentence runs the risk of becoming a parody of itself) will recall his sparkling opening portrait of this set at its pinnacle, with its unhampered fox runs, its palatial country estates, and its dazzling London balls. Lord Cecil pays loving tribute not only to the splendor of those exalted beings but also to their ethos of public service.

Cannadine is largely writing about the early 20th century, when that splendid edifice was showing cracks and crevices all along its spectrum. Readers familiar with history will come to this book already knowing the bullet-points: the grandeur in decline, the encroachment of government in the form of taxation and labor reform, and then the great death-blow of the First World War. This is fine with Cannadine: like all the best historians, he assumes a large amount of knowledge on the part of his readers.

This shouldn't discourage anybody from picking up the book. Rather the opposite: the smooth felicity of Cannadine's prose makes him a wonderful teacher. From Herodotus to Livy to Froissart to Parkman, it's a point worth stressing: all great history is also great writing. If you come to this book knowing something about the waning of the landed gentry (even if it's from reading "Brideshead Revisited")(Hell, even if it's from watching "Brideshead Revisited"), you'll find yourself effortlessly borne along and deeply stimulated. If you come to this book knowing nothing at all on the subject, you'll still be borne along and stimulated, and you'll learn a great deal in the process.

It's a sad process, in our opinion here at Stevereads, for the subject is ultimately a sad one: the societal elite whose decline Cannadine explores, despite its predictable wretched excesses, was a mostly beneficial thing the likes of which may not be seen again. By the beginning of the 20th century, the power and privilege of the aristocracy had begun to fade - but that ethos of public service remained, and it remained in contrast to the ranks of 'new rich' which had arisen all around it:

"For members of the titled and genteel classes, this was the fundamental and most powerful objection against plutocracy: it was neither decent nor disinterested. The justification for government by a landed and leisured class was - as Gladstone had always believed - that they ruled out of a sense of duty and in the national interest. They were not men on the make: the government of the country was to be carried on, not ripped off. But financiers, capitalists, speculators, men who organized government loans and sought government contracts, were by definition not disinterested: they were in politics for what they could get out of it, rather than for what they could bring to it. Moreover, they usually possessed no territorial stake in the country, no feeling of historical association, no loyalty to a locality. Their fortunes, if based in England, were primarily held in highly liquid assets; they kept much (and sometimes most) of their wealth overseas; they moved their millions promiscuously around the world in search of higher profits; and none of them put the majority of their riches into British land. So the plutocrat was doubly dangerous: on the make in Britain, yet not even loyal to it."

One of the books best little bits, quite naturally, is its treatment of that representative of the British landed aristocracy who had the single greatest impact on the 20th century, Winston Churchill. His talent for oratory won him the hearts of all of wartime England, but Cannadine makes it clear that this popularity was the result of Churchill's aristocratic background, not a contradiction of it:

"When Winston Churchill succeeded Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister in May 1940, he was the first authentically genteel Prime Minister to hold office since A. J. Balfour. As C.P. Snow has rightly described him, Churchill was 'the last aristocrat to rule - not preside over, rule - this country,' and he did so with a mixture of power and panache, eloquence and magnaminity, which exemplified patrician high-mindedness at its most majestic."

(Since the passage is so good, we'll refrain from quibbling about whether Churchill was ever 'magnanimous' about anything in his entire life)

Cannadine examines all aspects of the gentry's changing world in the years leading up to the First World War and the inter-war years - public service, travels abroad, social life and marriage, etc. - and he does it with such unfailing zest and erudition that the result is uniformly magnificent. (Although the book only mentions Bertie Wooster and Jeeves once, which Jeeves would refer to as 'a singularly unfortunate lacuna')

It's heartbreaking to think the audience for this kind of history-writing is numerically negligible and may be entirely gone in another century.

We here at Stevereads will be finding such works and singing their praises anyway, in the hopes of sending at least one person to at least one of these books. Merely opening them is all that's required: their masterful authors will take it from there.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


Our book today is "Bottomfeeder" by B.H. Fingerman. It's his first novel, and it deals with a New Yorker named Philip Merman, who works nights at a series of dead-end jobs and has a pasty pale complexion.

The nighttime jobs and the pasty skin are connected, but not in the way you might think. They go together because Philip is a vampire, although that word is virtually never used in this zingy, addictive take on the urban undead.

As is the tiresome custom these days, Fingerman in his Acknowledgments thanks pretty much the entire Manhattan phone directory, but we here at Stevereads are acting under the impression that he actually wrote the book himself. So when he writes 'stay tuned,' we can hope for more such books from him.

Philip has over time evolved a (for want of a better word) moral code to supply his appetite (it's a conceit borrowed wholesale from Anne Rice's "The Vampire Lestat," although she's pretty much the only person in North America who doesn't get a shout-out in the Acknowledgments): he tries his level best to prey only on the worst dregs of humanity, hence the book's title.

Fingerman is no Tolstoy. The prose here is of a decidedly purple tint, but so overbrimming with feral intelligence that the reader will quickly acclimate and beging slumming it with abandon, succumbing to the guilty pleasure in much the same way Philip succumbs to his dark hunger. We mention this as a public service, since the book sports a blurb from Max Brooks, author of the genuinely well-written "World War Z" - readers coming to this book from that one are in for a very different reading experience. Different, but equally entertaining.

The zing and pop of Fingerman's prose is consistently smile-inducing, which is something that certainly can't be said for most genre fiction (and which might account for the way the book is packaged; you'll find it in the fiction section of your local Barnes & Noble, not in science fiction). There's a scene early on when a very hungry Philip is riding the late night subway, scanning the sparse occupants of his car for a potential victim. He discounts a number of people for various quirky reasons, then he settles his attention on a junkie:

"The junkie? Good lord, what a heinous specimen. A living - if you can call it that - billboard for the anti-drug lobby. I can see and smell the open sores on his emaciated arms and ankles from where I'm seated. He's a tall stringy ulcer of a man, junk sick and trembliing. His hair is a tangle of clotted, greasy, dirty blond, plastered down to his face. Occasionally his eyes pop open and look heavenward, his cracked lips mouthing a silent prayer. He looks like every portrait of Jesus on the cross you've ever seen, except he's wearing more clothes, less thorns. I've made my choice.
Junkie Jesus is going to die for my sins."

The novel's most prominent oddity - a character who feels like he was blown in from another book altogether - is Philip's cloying, annoying non-friend Shelley, who's like a cross between Allie McBeal and Anthony Blanche. At one point Shelley (who's convinced Philip is gay) brings up the subject of Monica, the wife who divorced Philip:

"'You're already on thin ice, Shel. The thinnest. Let's just pretend this is Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, okay? Only substitute the word 'wife' for 'baby.' 'Don't talk about the wife, Martha.' Okay?'
'What kind of st-st-straight man would make a r-r-reference like that?'
'One who likes movies? What kind of stupid ...? What is it with you, Shel? Do you enjoy pushing my buttons? It's like you're trying to drive in a wedge with a fuckin' mallet.'
'I'm s-s-sorry. It's j-j-just that you're obviously quite vain, Phil. The cosmetic s-s-surgery b-b-bears that out. B-b-but only ever since Monica l-l-left you ...'
I don't like to think of her by name. I do, and often, but it always pains me. And I especially don't like hearing her name from his mouth. I pick Shelley up by the lapels and slam him into a wall as hard as I can. I'm actually holding him a few inches off the ground. He's gotten my blood up, riled me. I'm not that strong, especially between feedings, but he's a flyweight. He looks down at me, eyes wide, imploring. That's right. Maybe now you get it, Shelley. Maybe now you see why you shouldn't keep ticking me off. See how much trouble it could get you in?
'I could kill you so easily,' I hiss.
'I w-w-wish you w-w-would,' he whimpers. 'Oh God, I w-w-wish you w-w-would.'
Fucking Shelley.
He ruins everything."

The novel amounts to the misadventures of Philip and Shelley and swiftly delivers the reader to a satisfyingly indeterminate ending. Those of you who like your genre fiction guilty pleasures fast and funny could do much worse than to poke your nose into "Bottomfeeder."

But not before you read "World War Z," mind you. Dinner before desert, after all.

Monday, June 04, 2007

In the Company of Crows and Ravens

Our book today is a marvelous, boisterous volume titled "In the Company of Crows and Ravens," written by John Marzluff and copiously illustrated by Tony Angell.

This is a thoroughly wonderful work, sprightly and endlessly playful and inquisitive - much like its subjects, only minus the mischievous streak that all corvids display (the only way our authors could have duplicated this would have been to fill their index with page-references that go nowhere, title-headings that are totally evasive, etc. Corvids, in other words, love nothing so much as to mess with people - indeed, the absence of such features from this book is the strongest piece of evidence that it wasn't written by a raven).

This is natural history at its very best. Our authors give us the full range of their subjects' raucous life and times. We get history, folklore, and the very latest science pertaining to corvids, and we get it all in bouyant prose, accompanied by a delightful illustration on virtually every page.

We learn the huge and oddly uniform presence corvids occupy in all the many mythologies which feature them (basically, the role is always the same: the super-smart kid in the back of the class who's always talking, but only telling the truth about 45 percent of the time). We learn the various natural histories of the species throughout time. We learn the apparently endless anecdotal evidence that attests to the unique attributes of these birds.

We would be remiss if we didn't record our own favorite anecdote (not found in this book, alas):

A woman of our acquaintance once upon a time living in Saskatchewan, would routinely respond to her dog's porch-yelpings by putting out his twice-daily bowl of groud beef and various vegetable items. Often he wouldn't be right there on the porch when she laid the bowel down, but that was understandable - he could have wandered off, after all, distracted by something as canines will be. There came a time when the woman noticed that her dog was crying for his food-bowl more often than usual and getting thinner at the same time. After a considerable amount of puzzlement and then some clandestine surveillance, she learned the amazing truth: a raven, noticing that food could be gained from this house upon request, had learned how to make that request - by flawlessly imitating the poor dog's call. Every time the dog wandered away from the back porch, the raven would swoop down and call for takeout, hide while the bowl was being put out, and then chow down.

As David Quammen puts it in his wonderful essay "Has Success Spoiled the Crow?", this type of behavior is called cruising for a bruising. Corvids do it all the time.

This makes the reader naturally curious about how they do it - which means asking about their brains. Fortunately, Marzluff is right there with some fascinating information:

"Bird brains are not entirely like our brains. In all animals the forebrain is responsible for learning and memory. But in mammals like us, the enlarged parts of the forebrain are the hemispheres with the distinct convoluted surfaces known as the cerebrum. The frontal and temporal lobes of our cerebrums are the most important to memory, planning, problem solving, attention, and imitation. In smart birds like corvids and parrots, the inner portion of the forebrain, especially the nidopallium, is pronounced. The nidopallium is densely packed with nerve cells, making it an effecient storage, processing, and coordinating center. We know that the forebrain is important to learning and memory because it is largest in birds that excel in learning tests. Damage to it reduces a bird's learning ability. Another portion of the forebrain, known as the hippocampus, may be most important in spatial memory. In many corvids, chickadees, and tits (European chickadees) that cache seeds for future use, the hippocampus is huge. It may even expand during the autumn when caching is common and shrink during the spring when stored foods are used less."

Some of you will never have seen a raven, and even those of you who've seen crows probably haven't sat down and studied them. In either case, you can finally take heart: this splendid book is the next best thing.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Gossip Girl

Our book today is Cecily von Ziegesar's "Gossip Girl," a controversial and much-maligned little opus that is hugely popular with its legion of teen readers.

The maligning is mostly done by educators, parents, and miscellaneous disapproving book clerks, and after reading the book, we here at Stevereads aren't entirely sure this wasn't our lady authoress' intention.

The novel concerns the raucous life and times of a small group of over-privileged girls on the Upper East Side. They complain (there's a slightly more accurate word, one that sounds like 'itch'), they sleep around, they quote, tote, and promote a veritable bestiary of brand-name accessories, they largely deplore their largely absent or oblivious parents, they smoke and drink and most of all, as you might have guessed, they gossip.

Hence the book's title, a title it shares with an online web-page quoted throughout the novel like a cough syrup-swilling Greek chorus. Our anonymous Gossip Girl is nothing if not discreet: she uses only single letters to identify the various members of her jet-setting peer group as she notes their doings about town. Here's a sample excerpt:

"B,K, and L all in 3 Guys eating fries and hot chocolates with big fat Intermix bags under the table. Don't those girls have anywhere else to go? And we thought they were always out boozing it up and partying down. So disappointing. I did see B slip a few splashes of brandy into her hot chocolate, though. Good girl. Also saw that same wigged girl going into the STD clinic downtown. If that is S, she's definitely got a bad case of the nasties. Oh, and in case you're wondering why I frequent the neighborhood of the STD clinic - I get my hair cut at a very trendy salon across the street.

Your Email

Q: dear gossip girl,
are u really even a girl? u seem like the type 2 pretend to be a girl when u'r really a 50-yrs-old bored journalist with nothing better 2 do than to harsh on kids like me. loser.


A: Dearest jdwack,

I'm the girliest girl you'd ever want to meet. And I'm pre-college, pre-voting age too. How do I know you're not some fifty-year-old bitter dude with boils on your face taking your angst out on innocent girls like me?

- GG

You know you love me,

Gossip Girl"

This was the point in the novel when we here at Stevereads became convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt that 'Cecily von Ziegesar' is indeed a 50-year-old man, Not a journalist, and with no boils on his face (a redunancy anyway, in our experience), no: imagine instead that one of the real-life fathers of our wayward protagonists knows his way around a word processor (or better yet, the gay 50-something brother of such an individual). Hell, given the word choices and individual diction, we can practically name the brownstone.

And it couldn't matter less. The most important thing to know about "Gossip Girl" is that it's been thoroughly Hester Prynned. For the crime of expressing entirely natural feelings, this wonderful little book has been consigned to the dock, pilloried as advocating a dangerous, hedonistic teen lifestyle. Pilloried for corrupting the youth of Athens.

To which we say: what a load of sheep-dip.

Not only is this book a hugely addictive reading experience (which is, it always needs to be pointed out, no mean feat), it's also from its first page to its last surprisingly trenchant social commentary. These girls (the boys are mostly handsome and clueless, the way all right-thinking preteen girls like their boys) not only comment on each other, endlessly and ruthlessly, but the narrative endlessly comments on them.

What arises from this meta-commentary is one observation before all others: this book, this innocent little book, in no way endorses the vapid, substance-abusing lifestyle of these jaded young ladies. In fact, through its relentess, barbed descriptions of the hollow nature of their lives, the book is counting on its readers to end up condemning what they're reading about.

But then, that's the key to the furor around "Gossip Girl": trust, The sad and simple truth is, most educators, parents, and worrisome book clerks drastically underestimate the incredible tensile strength of the average teenage girl's intellect.

We here at Stevereads can tell you something about teenage girls: they're much, much smarter, tougher, and, ultimately, cooler than most of their would-be protectors are willing to imagine.

The one thing they hate, the one thing they hate in unison despite having nothing else in common (except for how lame 'High School Musical' is, that is), is being talked down to. The books written for them? They want from those books the exact same thing that every single reader of this blog wanted, when they were teenaged: the real stuff, unwatered, preferrably served up to them over their protectors' objections.

This sleek, smart book is largely a book for them, but we can all enjoy it and maybe learn from it. We here at Stevereads urge you to read it (there are bargain volumes available for less than 5 dollars), to enjoy it, and maybe even to learn from it.

You know you love me.

Friday, June 01, 2007

god is Not Great

Our book today is the newest eruption from Christopher Hitchens, "god is Not Great." (that lowercased 'g' is the conceit of the author, not a Stevereads typo)(and those of you who thought it WAS a Stevereads typo, who thought such a thing as a Stevereads typo was even POSSIBLE, are hereby banished FORE'ER from our site).

There are few guilty pleasures more guilty or more pleasurable than reading Hitchens when he's got a bee in his bonnet about something. His expose of Mother Teresa, "The Missionary Position," prompted on virtually every page the same kind of involuntary laughter that greets an audible fart in church service. And his lethal little dagger of an indictment, "The Trial of Henry Kissinger," was muckraking at its finest.

This time around, he's after bigger game than diminutive future saints or corpulent war criminals: he's attacking organized religion, all of it, in all its forms and denominations. The subtitle of his book is "How Religion Poisons Everything."

He never gets around to demonstrating how religion poisons, say, a beautiful sunset or a note-perfect episode of "The Simpsons" (he sure as Hell never demonstrates how religion poisons his bank account since this book achieved its current status as a bestseller ... God works in mysterious ways, we presume), but in the meantime it's pretty consistent fun watching him play punch-ball with a whole herd of sacred cows.

His overall thesis, the positive side of it anyway, is that humanity might once have needed religions to make sense of such things as earthquakes or plagues or thunderstorms, but that in the intervening millennia that need has evaporated in the bright light of science. Now that we know what causes earthquakes and thunderstorms, we don't need to invent gods - and enable the sadistic rules that humans think up to serve them - to explain them.

This is silly, barstool stuff, true, but thought-provoking nonetheless. It's no good telling a Masai tribesman (to say nothing of the average educated American, seeking solace over the death of a loved one, or even seeking to account for the beauty of a tidewater sunrise) to repose the deepest trust of his soul not in gods but in genes. Paris might be worth a mass, but it isn't worth a molecule.

The single most refreshing thing about Hitchens as a writer is that he isn't ever stupid; he knows as well as anybody the amount of codswollop in what he's saying. He's exaggerating to make a point, something we've been known to do from time to time here at Stevereads.

His point being that organized religions universally make their adherents do horrible things, not only to non-believers but also to themselves (along this line he takes a spirited swipe at the Jewish custom of circumcision, calling it barbaric and asserting, a little oddly, that it's physically harmful; as one critic rather hilariously pointed out, this last bit would come as a surprise to the Jewish community, which is thickly populated with a) hypochondriacs, b) doctors, and c) worrying mothers).

He's certainly got no shortage of examples in our sorry old world, and he hits them all - nutcases, fanatics, terrorists, all the usual suspects are eviscerated with a fine rhetoric sharpened on daily-encountered idiocy.

In fact, given the plentitude of his legitimate targets, the frequency with which he picks on cheap, easy targets is a little discouraging. The world is and always has been full of religious abuses - but despite that, Hitchens more than once takes the easy bait, or else fudges the facts. Like when he writes:

"On February 14, 1989, my friend Salman Rushdie was hit but simultaneous death sentence and life sentence, for the crime of writing a work of fiction."

No matter how despicable the Rushdie fatwah was, this is putting it rather simply. After all, it wasn't just a simple, innocent 'work of fiction' - it was a novel at least in part intentionally designed to give offense to Islam. That it succeeded in a way disliked by the author isn't entirely Islam's fault. As the divine Rumi says, only a child can innocently tickle a bull.

Likewise Hitchens can sometimes be, shall we say, questionable on his scriptural interpretation (had he been raised Irish Catholic, like any decent person, this wouldn't be an issue). Take for instance his gloss on the Christian resurrection:

"The extra claim not to have 'really' died makes the whole sacrifice tricky and meretricious. (Thus, those who say 'Christ died for my sins' when he did not really 'die' at all, are making a statement that is false in its own terms."

To put it mildly, this kind of misses the point. In the Christian mythos, Jesus does indeed die - not with air quotes but in horrible reality, nailed to a beam of wood and spitting up blood for three hours. The thing that Hitchens can't allow here is the very point of the story: instead, for him, if a person dies and then comes back, they must never have died in the first place.

But the central tenet of the Christian mythos - call it nonsense if you want, but be accurate about it, for Christ's sake - is that Jesus was human and died, graphically and protractedly. And then came back. And then came back. No use writing an anti-Christian book if you're not going to get that right.

But then this isn't just an anti-Christian book, it's an anti-religion book. Hitchens wants humanity to completely forsake the primitive doctrines that have dictated its behavior for the last seven thousand years. No doubt he's looking at the latest CNN reports when he says 'this arcana need no longer define us; we're all better than this.'

"god is Not Great" is an imperfect manifesto, but then all manifestos are imperfect. This tired old world could do with a rest from the errands of the gods, so we here at Stevereads are allowed to hope Hitchens's vision is the right one. But even so, with so many sunrises still to account for, we'll wait and see.

Open Letters Monthly!

There's cause for big smiles over at Open Letters Monthly, where the June 'refreshment' is up and bursting all over with delicious content. Wunderkind writer Sam Sacks reviews the literary life of wunderkind writer Michael Chabon. John Cotter, at length and in gorgeous prose, writes about a poet you probably haven't heard of but should. Enigmatic freelancer Hugh Merwin takes Barbara Kingsolver out to the woodshed - or maybe in her case the pantry - over the organic food craze. Yours truly is on hand, stemwinding about one damn thing after another. And there's lots more besides, in Open Letters' biggest, best issue to date, all of it served up with eye-catching professionalism by our redoubtable web Czar Nick. So click on over to Open Letters and join in the fun. Then be sure to come back here, so's I can continue EDUMICATING you bloodthirsty little ewoks!