Monday, December 24, 2007

The Best Books of 2007!

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

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 It's one of our singular privileges here at Stevereads to see much of this kind of unpublished material, and we're honored by it, though it forces us into a position of being proudest of things nobody else has seen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 22, 2007

The Worst Books of 2007!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Heaping Helping of Historical Fiction!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Daughter of York

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

In Memoriam: Elizabeth Hardwick

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

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

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Open Letters Monthly for December!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Complete Letters of Pliny the Younger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"To his friend Julius Naso

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

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

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

"Gaius Pliny to the emperor Trajan

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

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

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

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

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