Thursday, February 28, 2008

A Lily Pad reminder!

Just a reminder for those of you who don't frequent the Open Letters Blog: this coming Saturday, at 7:30, all of us at Open Letters will be throwing our One Year anniversary party/reading at the Lily Pad in Inman Square, Cambridge - three of our most promising freelancers, Joshua Harmon, Sommer Browning, and Adam Golaski, will be reading from their works, and more importantly - more historically! - all three Open Letters editors, suave, alluring John Cotter, deep-voiced and rampantly likeable Sam Sacks, and your very own Stone Cold Super-Hottie, moi, will be making an exceedingly rare joint public appearance and speaking! Admission is free and would be cheap at twice the price! Come enjoy the elevated discourse - and stay for the wine and cheesy bits!

Hope to see you all there!

P.S. And while you're checking out the Open Letters Blog for any pertinent details I might have left out, be sure to read Sam Sacks' delightfully pointed 'micro review' of the new Russell Banks novel - it might save you some money!

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Oscars, Part Deux!

Well, we here at Stevereads were right. But the Academy - that shameless coven of spoilsports and dimwits, caught in a tight fishnet of popularity-contest mentalities - picked otherwise, strayed from the path of wisdom and started spraying around undeserved honors in all directions. And withholding them, in the case of Ben Affleck and "Gone Baby Gone.": We must not be petulant; we must revise our perfect choices in light of Hollywood's tawdry reality. We must be bigger that way.

So here's the list of our new, revised Oscar picks, also infallible, for you-all to print out and consult during your coke-soaked Oscar Night parties. No need to thank us.

Best Supporting Actress: Our reasoning here is unchanged - Cate Blanchett will win for her Bob Dylan turn in "I'm Not There." The only possible spoiler would be Ruby Dee for "American Gangster" (Saoirse Ronan might get more attention than she deserves as well, but only because her omission would mean the much-touted "Atonement" itself would be entirely omitted), but sentiment only goes so far: Blanchett will win.

Best Supporting Actor: Again, our reasoning holds true - no matter how deserving Casey Affleck is for his work in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," the Oscar will go to Hal Holbrook for his indelible performance in "Into the Wild," and he'll get up onstage looking like a million bucks and give a salty, pitch-perfect acceptance speech, and even Philip Seymour Hoffman will smile. Then Holbrook will be dead within the following year.

Best Actress: The odds-on favorite right now is Marion Cotillard for her performance in "La Vie en Rose," and there may have been a time when we here at Stevereads might have thought the same way. But the Academy has spoken, and the tea leaves speak of history in the making: Cate Blancett will win for "Elizabeth: Golden Age," thereby becoming the only actress in Oscar history to climb up on the stage for both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress in the same evening. Count on her to have something witty to say the second time. Our suggestion for the second win? "People will say we're in love."

Best Actor: It's this category more than any other (well, except Best Director, which is still so sore a spot that we find it hard to mention) that disappoints us here at Stevereads. Tommy Lee Jones for a picture four people saw? Viggo Mortensen for a silly, cotton-candy role? Johnny Depp, for anything, ever, under any circumstances? Yeesh. We look away for a moment or two, and chaos erupts! What's going on here? We might not like roasting tobacco addict Josh Brolin, but he deserves a nod for "No Country for Old Men." We likewise have little regard for roasting tobacco addict Emile Hirsch, but how can the Academy ignore his affecting performance in "Into the Wild"? Johnny Depp? Johnny Depp?

We can ignore him, as we can safely ignore the other weirdo nominees. The contest will come down to George Clooney for "Michael Clayton" (a very strong performance, one of the rare ones where Clooney seems to give a crap) and Daniel Day-Lewis for "There Will Be Blood," and the winner, as we predicted weeks ago, is hands-down: Day-Lewis will win for his performance, which has already achieved iconic status. He will certainly win, and in his acceptance speech (for the record, we're predicting he won't make one because he won't attend) he'll come across as a nickel-plated asshole.

Best Director: We tell you: the wound is still raw. Ben Affleck deserved to be not only nominated but to win for "Gone Baby Gone," just as the Patriots deserved to win the Super Bowl. That his efforts weren't even noticed is a great groaning injustice the like of which the Academy hasn't perpetrated in quite some time, and it renders the actual contest somewhat meaningless. The Coen brothers will probably win, but who cares? They didn't do the best directing of the season, Ben Affleck did. and he was ignored for his trouble. We're sorry, we know you all look to us for wisdom and guidance, but we can't help it - this category is a struggle for second best, and who cares about that? Ben Affleck is 2007's Best Director, and all the rest, to quote Leo McGarry from "The West Wing," is crap.

Best Picture: well, as we previously wrote, this is the one for all the marbles, and it should be "Gone Baby Gone," but it won't be, since the Academy didn't see fit even to nominate it for consideration. So again, we're talking here about a kind of consolation prize, since the winner, no matter who it is, won't be the best. But still, there are strong contestants, so we have to weigh in. The contenders are "Atonement," the loathesome "Juno," "Michael Clayton," "No Country for Old Men," and "There Will be Blood." Aside from "Juno" (which fails to realize that if you're hip and cynical about everything, you'll de facto be hip and cynical about the handful of things you can't be hip and cynical about without abrogating your moral humanity)(but it hardly matters, since the film is so trivial its nomination has to be some sort of fraternity pledging-prank), they're all solid, well-made movies, although "Michael Clayton," essentially a thriller along the lines of "No Way Out." We think it's safe to say it'll be ignored on this account. That leaves "Atonement," "There Will be Blood," and "No Country for Old Men." "Atonement," as already noted, will be completely ignored. That leaves "No Country for Old Men," which isn't really a movie at all so much as it is a bristling collection of horrible portraits, and "There Will be Blood," which is weird and utterly involving and, as we've noted, utterly dominated by a consummate acting performance. So we're giving it to "There Will be Blood" for the big win.

So there you have it! Print it out and take it to heart, trotting it out at your benzadrine-fired Oscar Night parties! We have spoken. So be it.

In the Penny Press!

Surprises aplenty in this week’s Penny Press, and almost all of them the good kind!

For instance, it’s always nice when a writer you like, while writing about something else entirely, makes an aside you enthusiastically agree with; Stephen Jay Gould used to do it with comforting regularity, and in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books Edmund White does the same thing. While writing about that prize-winning 19th century Boston nelly Howard Sturgis (writing specifically about his novel Belchamber, although Sturgis’ novel Tim is a genuinely touching evocation of what it is to have a schoolboy crush), he invokes Sturgis’ expat milieu and makes a winning digression:

Through his parents little Howard met such American luminaries as Charles Francis Adams and Edward Boit (a Boston artist who’d settled in Paris and whose daughters were painted by John Singer Sargent in one of the most technically astonishing canvasses of all time).

We here at Stevereads can’t help but cheer a little cheer: Sargent’s painting The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, is indeed one of the greatest paintings of all time. On many occasions, we here at Stevereads have lost ourselves staring at it, plumbing the depths of its mystery and beauty, and it’s gratifying to hear somebody else so casually give it the credit it deserves.

And that’s not a patch on the carpet of wonders to be found in the latest New Yorker, starting with Adrian Tomine’s sublime cover illustration ‘Shelf Life,’ showing the pitiless life-cycle of a book, from creation to publication to purchase to discard and oblivion.

But the cover’s not the only thing, not by a longshot! Ordinarily, your average issue of the New Yorker has only one or at most two things to recommend it, but this one is full of good and interesting things, starting with Hendrik Hertzberg’s short piece beginning the issue, writing about the imbecilities of the United States’ drug policies, specifically those involving marijuana:

Nearly a hundred million of us – forty percent of the adult population, including pillars of the nation’s political, financial, academic, and media elites – have smoked (and therefore possessed) marijuana at some point, thereby committing an offense that, with a bit of bad luck, could have resulted in humiliation, the loss of benefits such as college loans and scholarships, or worse. More than forty thousand people are in jail for marijuana offenses, and some seven hundred thousand are arrested annually merely for possession.

On this Hertzberg is entirely right: though we here at Stevereads are partial to a stiff shot of whiskey (preferably before the fire at our estate at Montauk, with Leni and Blondi sitting alertly at our feet), we agree whole-heartedly with our young friend Mister Allison and many, many others that marijuana use should of course be legalized in America – the drug is far less socially destructive than alcohol (as is every other drug known to man), and although it’s equally physically destructive as its close cousin tobacco (though its most fervid adherents will strenuously deny this – well, as strenuously as they do anything, the poor things – it’s nonetheless true: you take heavy, corrosive particulate matter into your lungs, and you try your hardest to keep it there as long as possible), it doesn’t have any of that drug’s devastating effects on people nearby. Oh, it’s every bit as tenaciously addictive (another assertion that would stir its addicts, if they could be stirred) as any of the other substances, but when the sun sets on the issue, it’s a minor stimulant, like coffee – it isn’t in any way near the same weight-class as either tobacco or alcohol in terms of being a danger to the public, and yet both those substances are perfectly legal (indeed, im-perfectly so: we personally know nine individuals under the legal buying age of 21 who regularly smoke and drink – and hence, who regularly buy beer and cigarettes from vendors who are legally forbidden to sell them to minors). It should be legal – the sheer silliness of it being otherwise is, we suppose, some sort of moral issue, as sad and weird as that sort of thing always strikes us. What else could it be, so long after the ‘60s? Unless there’s some truth to the paranoid rumors that the government actually wants to hopelessly target the peddlers and users of marijuana, as a sop to the much-touted ‘war on drugs’ that its enemies say can never be won. If so, and even if no, it’s a colossal waste of taxpayer money.

But good as Hertzberg’s little squib is, it’s the least thing in the issue. Take for instance Larissa MacFarquhar’s long and very good profile/obituary of serial novelist Louis Auchincloss.

The piece is noteworthy not only because nobody’s bothered to do one in a few decades (and why would they, Auchincloss being the single most boring novelist in the history of the world?) but because MacFarquhar manages to unearth a couple of really good quotes, as when Auchincloss (with unintentional irony) ruminates about his time during the war: “I had all my life a curious sense of immunity, that nothing would happen to me. And nothing ever did.”

Or his response to Norman Mailer when Mailer said the two of them had nothing in common, a response that’s so witty and lively that it was actually made by Gore Vidal:

Nothing in common! We live in the same silly island, publish our wet dreams, and go to the same silly parties – and have for years! It would take a mother’s eye to tell the difference between us. Of course, it is true I don’t marry quite so much.

And MacFarquhar does more than find great quotes; she makes some too, in writing so good it begs to be quoted:

A novelist of manners must balance satire with nostalgia. If he is too indulgent, his story will collapse into sentiment; if too contemptuous, it dries up and becomes sociology. Auchincloss is the least gushy of writers: in his fiction he has virtually no interest in romantic love (though he is fascinated by male friendship), and of the human race as a whole he has a very low opinion. He can’t abide writers like Whitman, who slosh about and ‘yearn,’ as he puts it. He is never maudlin about the nonsense of the past … and yet The Rector of Justin is his best novel, because it is one of the few times he permits his elegaic moralism to dominate a book. He loves his mad Puritans, and believes they are no more.

That’s better critical analysis than Auchincloss deserves, since MacFarquhar is right: The Rector of Justin is his best novel – and it was written during the Crimean War. That an author who’s written so dully and indifferently for so many decades should still be alive when so many better, sharper voices are silenced is a kind of sustained mockery on the world of letters. We can take some small consolation from the fact that Gore Vidal, thought leeched of most of his talent, is still alive as well.

Comfort also comes in the middle of the Auchincloss piece, in the form of an inserted poem, a lovely thing by J. D. McClatchy called “Chinese Poem”:

Whatever change you were considering,

Do not plant another tree in the garden.

One tree means four seasons of sadness:

What is going,

What is coming,

What will not come,

What cannot go.

Here in bed, through the south window

I can see the moon watching us both,

Someone’s hand around its clump of light.

Yours? I know you are sitting out there,

Looking at silver bloom against black.

That drop from your cup in the night sky’s

Lacquer you wipe away with your sleeve

As if its pleated thickets were the wide space

Between us, though you know as well as I do

This autumn is no different from the last.

We here at Stevereads have been accused of having a tin ear when it comes to poetry, but we find that charming. We think we like this J.D. McClatchy person.

And then there’s the issue’s shocker: not only did we like the short story (this virtually never happens), but we liked it even though it was written by … Salman Rushdie. Salman Rushdie! An author for whom we’ve had so far nothing but contempt! An author who has shown hardly a spark of genuine talent in his entire career! But his latest story, “The Shelter of the World,” represents something – an elevation of tone, a maturing of humor – we’ve never seen from him before. The story revolves around the Emperor Akbar the Great in the city of Sikri, and it’s threaded throughout with this wonderful new tone:

‘Your time has come,’ the Emperor assented [to a fallen foe]. ‘So tell us truthfully before you go, what sort of paradise do you expect to discover when you have passed through the veil?’ The Rana raised his mutilated face and looked the Emperor in the eye. ‘In Paradise, the words ‘worship’ and ‘argument’ mean the same thing,’ he declared. ‘The Almighty is not a tyrant. In the house of God, all voices are free to speak as they chose, and that is the form of their devotion.’ He was an irritating, holier-than-thou type of youth, that was beyond question, but in spite of his arrogance Akbar was moved. ‘We promise you that we will build that house of adoration here on earth,’ the Emperor said. Then, with a cry – Allah Akbar, ‘God is great,’ or, just possibly, ‘Akbar is God’ – he chopped off the pompous little twerp’s cheeky, didactic, and therefore suddenly unnecessary head.

The puckish humor and light touch on display here are worlds away from the crass and idiotically self-serving stuff with which he gained his fame as a writer. We here at Stevereads can’t help but hope it lasts. We’ve always wanted to like this author; it would be nice to finally be able to.

Speaking of authors we want to like (but aren’t always able to), the latest issue of the Atlantic features a piece by Christopher Hitchens that reminds us of why we liked him in the first place. It’s a review of the New York Review of Books’ recent re-issue of Gregor von Rezzori’s novel Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, and it’s not blowsy or arrogant or sloppy or ignorant – instead, it bristles with learning and clear prose, not to mention great insights, as when he mentions the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion:

Incidentally, it is entirely wrong to refer to this document of the Czarist secret police as a ‘forgery.’ A forgery is counterfeit of a true bill. The Protocols are a straightforward fabrication, based on medieval Christian fantasies about Judaism.

And there are trademark Hitchens flashes of humor, too, here happily presented without rant:

It was once said that Austria’s two achievements were to have persuaded the world that Hitler was German and that Beethoven was Viennese.

Again, here’s hoping this Christopher Hitchens sticks around – we’ve missed him.

But the issue’s main attraction is a consciously provocative article called "Marry Him" by Lori Gottlieb, which makes a heretical argument in favor of Settling, of marrying Mister (or Miss) Good Enough instead of waiting for Mister (or Miss) Right.

It’s a punchy little subject, amply served by Gottlieb’s lively prose style:

Whenever I make the case for settling, people look at me with creased brows of disapproval or frowns of disappointment, the way a child might look at an older sibling who just informed her that Jerry’s Kids aren’t going to walk, even if you send them money. It’s not only politically incorrect to get behind settling, it’s downright un-American.

Her article is forthright and funny but also serious, centering on the folly of expecting to meet a sex partner who’s also a personal equal. We here at Stevereads have done battle with this particular folly for long centuries, so we were grateful for every word of Gottlieb’s piece, whose only flaw is that it’s too much aimed at women, when we can assure you, men need the same advice in the same measure:

Unless you meet the man of your dreams (who, by the way, doesn’t exist, precisely because you dreamed him up), there’s going to be a downside to getting married, but a possibly more profound downside to holding out for someone better.

To which we here at Stevereads would add a further note: Pay for sex, for Pete’s sake. Take it out of the equation of personal interaction entirely. That way, you’ll use one yardstick, one set of standards, in forming all your personal relationships. Sex will no longer be a factor, prompting you to lavish your personal time on a simpleton, or a monster – instead, since you’re satisfying your needs the old-fashioned American way, by paying, you’ll be able to shape your personal attachments with your brain and your heart, instead of your naughty bits. Just a thought.

And there you have it! An uncommonly fruitful foray into the Penny Press! Glad to have you all along for the ride, and don’t forget to tune in a little later, when Stevereads will take its second – and definitive – look at the Oscars!

Friday, February 22, 2008

House of M

Our book today is the Marvel Comics graphic novel House of M, which would more properly make it a subject for our esteemed colleague Gianni over at The Latest Issue, but we can't help ourselves. The more we re-read this book, the more convinced we become that it's the best thing Marvel's put before its readers since Marvels came out a decade ago. This book's storyline was the last gasp of the grand old Marvel style, a style that played out bittersweet Stan Lee style 'what if's against a backdrop of decidely unglamorous heroism.

Some of you will need some backstory. You can dig around on Gianni's site for it (we assure you, his postings are more enjoyable the second time through), but we'll provide a quick thumbnail sketch here in case any of you are too lazy to click over and do the requisite hunting.

One of Marvel's master villains is Magneto, an Eastern Eurpopean Holocaust survivor, a mutant with complete control over Earth's magnetic fields and a fanatic who believes, ironically enough, that mutants constitute nature's true master race. Non comic-fans among you will know the character's name because he was brought to masterful, indelible life on the big screen by Ian McKellan, clearly having the time of his life.

In the comics, Magneto had two children, both mutants like himself: his hot-headed son Pietro, codename Quicksilver, who can run at fantastic speeds, and Wanda, codename the Scarlet Witch, who can cast reality-altering 'hexes.' Magneto is a thorough-going bad guy (he wants his species to succeed, after all! What else could he be? It's a well known scientific fact that homo sapiens gained ascendancy over Neanderthals - and half a dozen other species of modern human - through diplomacy and tea parties), but Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, after a rocky start, become full-fledged heroes, members of the Avengers, Earth's most prestigious superhero team. Quicksilver can't travel anywhere near as fast as DC's Flash, and the Scarlet Witch at first can only cast three 'hexes' at a time before becoming exhausted, but there they are, mutants, fighting alongside Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor against all manner of threats to Earth's very survival. Full-fledged four-color heroes, but it wasn't destined to stay that way.

The Scarlet Witch fell in love with the Vision, the Avengers' android member, and because these stories are written piecemeal by many different writers - some significantly brighter than others - there came a storyline in which she became pregnant and gave birth to twins.

Well, of course future writers had to deal with That. An android and a mutant? Obviously, those children, who couldn't have been conceived in the tried-and-true birds-and-bees method, had to be accounted for somehow. Hack writer John Byrne made an attempt twenty years ago, chalking it all up to the machinations of an extra-dimensional demon, but that was never very convincing. Years and years later, our present writer Brian Michael Bendis came up with an entirely better scenario: it turns out that the Scarlet Witch's probability-altering hex-spheres were always more powerful than she or we knew, little bubbles in which her subconscious got to rewrite reality itself. She wanted children, and so she made them, and what was the harm?

Except that in the comic book world, if you're a woman, you always lose control of such awesome power, and the Scarlet Witch is no exception. And when she loses control of her ability (than which there can be, realistically speaking, none greater), all Hell breaks loose. In an Avengers story that need not delay us long here, she loses control and several Avengers - Ant-man, the Vision, and Hawkeye - die as a result. But all along she's aware of what she's doing to her friends, and it agonizes her. When the surviving Avengers converge on her, she offers no resistance - but her father Magneto shows up and demands the custody of his daughter. And since this particular team's roster has no Thor to challenge a being of Magneto's power, they stand by and let him take Wanda away to the ruins of his mutant state of Genosha. But all parties concerned know this is not the end of the matter.

This is where House of M - written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Olivier Coipel - begins. The book opens in the ruins of Genosha, on such a subdominant note as might a great symphony begin: two old friends, battered by time and circumstance, are talking on a shattered rooftop. The one is Magneto, but old and broken, without his metal helmet and scarlet cloak, rangy hair hanging in his face. The other is Charles Xavier, erstwhile leader of the X-men and the world's greatest telepath. These two have been the closest friends and the most bitter enemies, and Bendis' dialogue is a marvel of workaday compression. We can't keep drugging her and psychically putting her to sleep, Xavier wearily tells his old friend. It's inhumane. And it's hardly foolproof. And it's barely working.

I put my children through hell because of what I believe, Magneto confesses. I destroyed whatever hope they ever had, at a decent life ... because of what I believe. My war against the humans. And the truth is - I waged my war against the humans and I lost. And now I've lost my war and my children.

They're talking about Wanda, of course, who's been removed from the battlefield but still remains the prize of it: a biddable young woman who shapes and reshapes reality itself to her whim. Xavier and Magneto know she can't control her power, and Xavier - at least in front of her grieving father - can propose no alternative to what they're aleady trying.

But there are others no less involved, and when Xavier turns to them, this fantastic story starts in earnest. Because of course the two other groups of people concerned with the fate of the Scarlet Witch are the Avengers, her former teammates, and the X-Men, her fellow mutants. Xavier calls an extraordinary gathering of the two groups, telling them, I have made this special trip to New York to discuss with you an almost impossible matter. We need to decide the fate of Wanda Maximoff.

It's a mixed group he's talking to - there are idealists like Spider-Man, moralists like Captain America, and cold-hearted pragmatists like former villainess telepath Emma Frost and perennial fan favorite Wolverine. It's the latter two who immediately answer Xavier's question with hard reality: the Scarlet Witch must die. Someone do the math for me, Wolverine says, How many more of you does she have to kill before you snap out of it?

The rest of them aren't so sure, and eventually pity wins out and they decide to go to Genosha and try to talk to Wanda directly. But when they get there and approach her tower, the world goes white.

And when it resumes, it's radically changed. Mutants are no longer a feared and persecuted minority - they're the majority, walking openly among dwindling and well-treated humans. Emma Frost is a successful lawyer living in (where else?) Connecticut; Spider-Man, known openly as Peter Parker, is married to his childhood sweetheart and beloved of his Aunt May and Uncle Ben (the latter of course being alive in this world); Wolverine (and many others) are contended government agents; and then there's the biggest change of all: Magneto is no longer an outlaw master villain - instead, he's the internationally recognized leader of Genosha, ruling alongside his children and grandchildren - the House of M. At first glance, it looks like a mutant's paradise.

Naturally, it's Wolverine who starts to unravel it all (Bendis' only explanation is that Wolverine's had his memories altered so many times this new reality can't really take root ... ignoring what seems to us the more likely explanation, Wolverine's ever-present healing factor, constantly restoring him to 'normal'). He wakes in the arms of a woman he doesn't love, on a great government heli-carrier high above Manhattan, with flags of the House of M flying everywhere. In response, he does the only thing he can: he jumps overboard.

He survives the catastrophic landing, of course, thanks to his healing factor, and he immediately sets about learning the truth - i.e. stealing some mook's bike and going to Salem Center, to Graymalkin Lane: to the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters, where the whole X-Man dream began. He finds it occupied by a normal suburban family who've never heard of Charles Xavier.

The government wants Wolverine back, and they send super-powered mutants to track and retrieve him. He's running from them when he's abducted by another group of super-powered mutants, this time a group of underground counter-agents who've monitored his escape and think he can help their cause.

The root of their cause is a little girl from Hell's Kitchen named Layla ("Like the song?" "No.") who can cause people to remember the previous reality and their lives in it. She's given each of these underground renegades that vision, and with Wolverine's help, they go looking for other recruits.

Their first stop is Connecticut, where they awaken Emma Frost. Bendis gives her reaction all the visceral punch he an, ably assisted by Coipel's enormously powerful visuals. With wild rage in her eyes, she growls:

House of Magnus! House of Magnus? Logan, we're gonna - we're going to find Magneto and oh! That is it! This is it! We're going to kill him! And his kids!

They awaken Cyclops too, but the real tragedy is still to come: Peter Parker. As long-time Marvel fans will know, the core set of Stan Lee/Jack Kirby characters from the 1960s have one thing in common: deep down, they'd rather not be heroes. With the possible exception of Thor (although even he would probably have preferred not being exiled from Asgard and physically bonded with a crippled surgeon), each of these core characters was turned to heroism by tragedy: the Fantastic Four (especially the Thing) want their normal lives back; Tony Stark wants his healthy heart back; Stephen Strange wants his surgeon's hands back; the mutants of course would like their afflictions lifted - but most of all, most heartbreakingly, there's Peter Parker, whose life is so full of tragedy that he can only benefit from the curse of the Scarlet Witch. His beloved uncle Ben is shot to death at the beginning of Peter's career as Spider-Man, and a little later his first great love Gwen Stacey dies during a pitched battle with the Green Goblin.

Say what you want about him, Bendis knows where his Marvel drama is to be found: the prolonged scene in which our renegades confront Peter Parker and awaken him is the most moving and harrowing sequence in the whole of the graphic novel. They find him out for a stroll with his Aunt May and Uncle Ben, his wife Gwen, and their little boy - long-time fans can't help but wince at the perfection of the picture that our renegades are duty-bound to rip apart.

And when they do, Peter's response is predictable: he freaks out worse than anyone has so far. But when Wolverine calms him down and gets him past the initial shock, what the normally-gentle Peter has to say is reminiscent of Emma Frost:

Logan, I swear to God ... I think I'm going to kill them. Magneto. His stupid daughter. I'm gonna kill them with my bare hands. I'm not ... I'm not going to be able to stop myself.

They organize (under the tactical leadership of Cyclops, since in this altered reality Steve Rogers was never frozen in suspended animation as Captain America and is a 100-year-old pensioner) and decide to take the fight directly to Magneto in Genosha. But before they do, some team-members voice classic Bendis misgivings (at least, they were once upon a time: these days it's sadly less in evidence):

My point is - when something of this magnitude happens - you have to step back for a second and and say: maybe this was time for this to happen. Who are we to decide how the world's supposed to be? When the meteors hit the earth and destroy a species - it's natural selection, right? Maybe this is how mutants become the next dominant species.

Misgivings or no, they go, interrupting the grand proceedings at Thunder Bay, where Lord Magneto is being joined by dignitaries from all over the world: King T'Challa of Wakanda, Princess Ororo of Kenya, a conspicuously unscarred Victor Von Doom of Latveria, King Namor of Atlantis ... and last of all, the House of Magnus itself: Magneto, Quicksilver, Wanda, the green-tressed Lorna Dane and the two little boys who are Magneto's grandsons - Coipel renders them all in pathetic Prussian splendor, the women with hair heavily bedangled, the men in epaulets with breastfuls of gaudy medals. It's when they first appear in all their finery that we're given our first clear visual clue that everything they stand for is not only corrupt but powerfully, quintessentially wrong.

Their grand gathering is terminally interrupted when Wolverine and his counter-insurgents crash the party. A furious fight ensues (as Cyclops tells his troops, they're literally fighting for everything), during which Doctor Strange discerns that the Wanda they're seeing isn't the real one - he spies a light on in her tower window and spirits himself up there to see her, finding her playing with her two little boys. As the fight rages below, Doctor Strange eventually discovers that the evil genius behind the Scarlet Witch's re-writing of history wasn't Magneto at all but Pietro her brother, and Bendis shows us the heart-breaking scene: the two of them, brother and sister against the world as always, the perfect coda to over forty years of watching these two conflicted characters in one incarnation after another. I'll take you from here, Quicksilver tells his sister.

Wanda: And they'll follow. No.

Quicksilver: I will fight them for you. I won't let them take you from me again. I won't -

Wanda: It's over.

Quicksilver: No.

Wanda: It should have ended months ago.

Then, a little later, in a perfectly-done sequence (Coipel's artwork here is very still and very heavily shadowed):

Quicksilver: We never had a chance. Magnus chose his 'mutant race' over us. We were just little kids, and he abandoned us. Even so - we fought so hard to get out from under it all.

Wanda: How was it supposed to be?

Quicksilver: We were supposed to be a family.

Wanda: Yes.

Quicksilver: We were supposed to be great heroes.

Wanda: We were, for a bit.

Quicksilver: I liked being an Avenger more than I ever said.

[for old-time fans, that line is worth the price of the whole graphic novel]

Wanda: Me too. And look what I did to them. I would do anything to take it back.

This line gives Pietro his horrible inspiration: he tells her she can take it back - that with her vast reality-altering powers and access to Xavier's vast telepathic powers, she could re-make the world so that they get all the things they've ever wanted. That was the genitive moment of the House of M.

Back in the present, the course of the battle has brought Magneto in contact with Layla, and when he learns that Quicksilver, in rewriting reality, also re-wrote him, his wrath is limitless: he effortlessly brings the battle to a halt - and then kills his son in a fit of rage. This shatters whatever tenuous hold Wanda had on sanity completely: she restores Pietro to life, and then in a wonderfully escalating monologue that wanderingly follows its own logic, she reacts to it all:

Look what you've done to us, daddy. Pietro was right - you - you ruined us before we even had a chance. Why would you treat your own children this way? Babies. Why? Because you actually think you're better than everyone else. The arrogance of you. You think because we're mutants we're better than them. That we deserve to rule. That's what you wanted and I gave it to you. But look ... look what it becomes. Even when you get what you want, you're still this horrible man. We're not the next step. We're not gods. We're freaks! Look at us, daddy! We're freaks! MUTANTS! You chose this over us and you RUINED us! Daddy ...

Off to one side, Emma Frost whispers, "Oh no ..."

Then Wanda says: "No more mutants."

And the world goes white again.

Bendis' storyline goes on from there to a final chapter in which everything has changed again: the world now has fewer than 200 mutants, and most of our central characters now remember vividly not one but three different realities. Marvel is still spinning out stories based on this new reality, some good some not so good. But House of M stands apart for its intelligence and old-fashioned Marvel might-have-been mucking around. We can scarcely imagine a better rendition of the essential tragedy of Magneto and his children, but we'll wait ten years and see if Marvel surprises us once again. In the meantime, comic book fans and non-fans alike have our strongest recommendation for this sad, bittersweet book.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Stevesees! R.I.P. Roy Scheider

We revive Stevesees today despite the lamentable absence of our beloved Hippolyta to cheer us on (she vanished from the site at roughly the same time as the Reichmarshall did - do we detect Romance in the air? Perhaps a whirlwind trip to Argentina to visit some, um, old friends of the Reichmarshall? Alas, we'll probably never know...), and we do so not only to honor the memory of recently deceased actor Roy Scheider but also to sing the praises of sequels.

But first, Scheider, a perennially underrated performer who managed to impart an extra bit of grace, an extra ounce of believability, and most of all an almost imperceptible twinkle into even his most mediocre parts. He was the quintessential knockaround part-player, of a type the stage and screen will always have and always need - the character actor who turns in the work and eschews the histrionics.

Unfortunately, histrionics almost always gets the attention and wins the awards. This was the case in 1979, when he was nominated for Best Actor for his part in All That Jazz and lost to Dustin Hoffman vamping in primary colors in Kramer vs. Kramer - the one is a scintillating, bravura star-turn, the other a deeply boring assay at suburban ennui, of a type that's always popular with the Academy. And look at his most famous performance, as Police Chief Brody in Jaws: he's impossibly bracketed between the ham of Robert Shaw and the wry of Richard Dreyfuss.

Which brings us to sequels, because it's in a sequel that Roy Scheider's craft shows to perfect advantage. Of course we're referring to Jaws 2, the sequel to the record-breaking Jaws - and as in most cases, the sequel is better than the original.

Purists will howl, of course. Jaws 2 better than Jaws? Unthinkable! What about the stagecraft, the narrative, the filmic cohesion? To which we here at Stevesees say: there ain't no Muse of filmic cohesion. Jaws 2 wins out over Jaws because it resolves the mystery that's central to both movies and ignored by the first: the shark. In Jaws, a twenty-five foot great white shark starts eating humans off the shores of Amity island. After some initial reluctance, the town council agrees to pay professional shark-killer Quint (the Shaw character) to take a boat out after the shark. Police Chief Brody and marine biologist Matt Hooper (the Dreyfuss role) go with him, and they quickly find themselves demoted from hunters to hunted by a shark who's always one step ahead of them, mysteriously canny and malevolent. Emphasis on mysteriously. The film tries hard to convey a sense of realism - scores of 'natives' are trucked in from Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket, and Scheider gives Brody a very appealing everyman fallibility - but the elephant in the room is the shark itself, a superhuman monster who's swum in from a different genre altogether.

In Jaws 2 (Jeannot Szwarc directed it with a fine eye for visual contrasts, always violently juxtaposing violence onto tranquility), this mystery is cleared up: the shark in this movie is motivated by plain and simple revenge. It is supernatural, and almost no attempt is made to tell us otherwise. When a group of local kids find a killer whale carcass washed up on the beach with a giant bite taken out of it, Brody calls in a local expert and hesitantly asks her about motive, specifically whether if a shark were 'destroyed' off Amity, another shark might come along and ... to which the expert (the actress sounding exactly like the factual old biddy in Hitchcock's The Birds) tartly replies, "Sharks don't take things personally, Mr. Brody." Which, as all fans of horror movies will tell you, is the movie's way of lock-solid guaranteeing you that sharks do take things personally - or at least that this one does.

And just look at all the things it does in its brief reign of terror! It chases a water-skier and gulps her down; it plays peek-a-boo with a scuba diver; it successfully eats a Coast Guard helicopter; and, in the film's best, most emotionally satisfying sequence, it terrorizes the shit out of what has to be the most obnoxious group of teenagers this in film. The first movie's shark would have been pooped after twenty minutes at this pace.

And Jaws 2 has the requisite horror movie puritanism. The beginning of the young snot killing spree when the shark zeroes in on one sailboat that's straggled behind the others. And why has it straggled behind? Because young Billy and Tina want to do it without being ogled. In fact, he's in the very act of spreading a blanket on deck so she won't get bruises when the shark head-butts the boat and sends him ass-first into the ocean.

The movie is full of memorable scenes, and Scheider shines in all of his. Probably two are best, and they're connected. In the first, Chief Brody, his instincts tingling at the possibility he might be dealing with another shark, is positioned high atop a shark tower, ignoring the happy scenes down on the beach in favor of scrutinizing the water. There he spots a vaguely shark-shaped shadow, trains his binoculars on it, trains them again - Scheider's body-language is a perfect little depiction of a man whose fears are convincing him of something as we watch. In one quick decision, he knows he's looking at the shark he's begun to suspect is out there; he descends from the tower, pulls his gun (Szwarc drily shows us that nobody on the beach is at point afraid of anything but the gun-waving Brody), yelling for everybody to get out of the water. When he comes to the edge of the surf, he raises his weapon and fires - just past a boy still running to get out of the surf. And when the shadow turns out not to be a shark at all ("It's just bluefish!" yells a fisherman, thus christening a semi-popular band by that name that played Nantucket hot spots for a couple of years, until sharks got them all)(just kidding about that last part: it was boring old heroin). The crowds ignore Brody's pathetic calls for them to go back in the water; they drift away, leaving him alone on the beach with his little boy, both of them very quietly picking up his shell casings.

The scene that follows is very different and equally good: Scheider's Brody has been fired off-camera - and drunk a skinfull off-camera too. He comes home and tells his wife he's been fired - something that hasn't happened to him since he was a kid - and Scheider gives the confession a pained, bewildered tone another actor would have curdled.

So here at Stevesees salute Roy Scheider for a first-rate job entertaining us over the years, and we salute sequels - many of which, like Scheider himself, are a whole lot better than people think they are.

And we'll let Stevereads have the final word for now: Richard Sackler's novelization of the movie (he co-wrote the screenplay) is actually a first-rate adventure novel full of great lines and sharply-drawn characters. Many of you have received this book compliments of Stevereads; we suggest you dig it up and give it a try. You won't be disappointed.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

In the Penny Press!

Our reactions are all over the map in this week's Penny Press, ranging from delight to dark despair, with lots of local stops.

Sometimes the little things gave a spurt of delight. For intance, Esquire's new guide to casual style has a comment it's almost impossible not to like: "Justin Timberlake doesn't look quite as good as he thinks he does." Hee.

Other times, it's much bigger things that take the topspin right off the serve, as is the case in the latest New Yorker - it features two appalling things instead of one, probably because it's a double issue. The lesser of the two is John Updike starting off his review of a edition of the works of Flann O'Brien in pidgin Irish. Because, you know, Irish writers really don't have much to distinguish them other than how odd they talk. Jaysus.

The bigger of these two big things was yet another short story by Alice Munro, this one called 'Free Radicals.' Some of you may have noticed over the years that Munro is not one of our favorite authors. In the last decade, this contempt has become all the sharper (and all the sweeter) as more and more lazy critics have taken to calling Munro some variation of 'the greatest short story writer alive today' or (Gawd help us) 'a modern-day Maupassant.' We've had fewer and fewer converts to our age-old contention that Munro owes her fame to two factors that have nothing whatsoever to do with talent: she's stuck to just the one genre, and she's a woman. We guarantee you: if some talentless schmuck had started writing, say, really sucky one-act plays in the 1950s and was still doing it six decades later, he'd be called 'the greatest' too, even if his one-acts had grown even worse.

Such is not the case for Munro; her short stories have always been just exactly the same level of awful, and one presumes they always will be. 'Free Radicals' is exactly the same as every other Munro short story: it's plodding, soggy, doggedly quotidian, over-long, and completely void of any catharsis, insight, change, climax, or plot. Every character sounds the same as every other, and the whole thing is swathed in an amnesiatic fog that absolutely defies recall. If you can read 'Free Radicals' and then - right then - tell me what happens in it, I'll give you the hat off my head.

But don't just take our word for it! Here's the fourth paragraph of the present story, centering on a wife who's just lost her husband:

She hadn't had time to wonder about his being late. He'd died bent over the sidewalk sign that stood in front of the hardware store offering a discount on lawnmowers. He hadn't even managed to get into the store. He'd been eighty-one years old and in fine health, aside from some deafness in his right ear. His doctor had checked him over only the week before. Nita was to learn that the recent checkup, the clean bill of health, cropped up in a surprising number of the sudden-death stories that she was now presented with. "You'd almost think that such visits ought to be avoided," she'd said.

Even the most indulgent freshman composition teacher would feel compelled to savage such prose. Just look at all that's wrong with it, all the junk that's left hanging around the prose, all the equivocation, all those endless, suffocating pluperfect constructions. She hadn't had time to wonder about his being late - in other words, it never crossed her mind, so why mention it? And since some deafness in one ear isn't in any way life-threatening, what does its inclusion do except make a tedious sentence even moreso? And what's with the vaudeville impossibility of somebody draping themselves over a sidewalk sign to die? Ever hear or read of anybody doing that? And what about those last two sentences? At the beginning of the first sentence, Nita's learning about sudden-death stories is in the future, and by the end of the same sentence it's in the present. And by the end of the next sentence it's in the past. And Nita's final sentence has not one but two brake-locks on it, the almost-think and the ought-to-be. This is very, very bad prose - tortured and sloppy and obscure - and it goes on forever in 'Free Radicals,' and yet sure as sevens there are readers out there who'll slog through it and say, "Munro has done it again!" Actually, we here at Stevereads would say the same thing, but we'd mean it in a different way.

But our outrage over yet another Alice Munro slogfest is nothing compared to our outrage at Tom Chiarella's latest piece for that same issue of Esquire. It's called "Learning to Smoke," and it chronicles the author's first foray in the world of smoking, at the age of forty-six, as a story-gimmick.

We've seldom read a more disgusting piece of periodical literature, because Chiarella finds smoking wonderful, even the few bad side-effects he bothers to mention. The whole piece could have been ghost-written by an ad man from Big Tobacco (we're 100 percent sure it's emailed to every single person in the industry), only this is worse, because Chiarella is a very good writer.

His friends - even the tobacco addicts, especially the tobacco addicts - are horrified by his decision and warn him that it's not a game, that he'll become addicted. He happily assures them that even if he does, he's only going to pursue 'the lifestyle' for a month - after which, he'll just quit. He's aware that this quitting might be difficult and might involve some unpleasant symptoms, but that's OK - he wants to experience that too. The possibility that once addicted he might not be able to quit, even if he wants to, isn't mentioned in the piece. The possibility that, faced with the flat fact of that failure, he might start to rationalize, equivocate, and outright lie about this new thing in his life, sits on the piece like wet fog but is never addressed. Instead, the essay is a long love-letter to the oh-so-adult sublime pleasures of burning your own lungs. Take as one example a scene from the 'second week' of his experiment (the semi-quotes only come off if some completely impartial observer can tell me Chiarella no longer smokes - but such an observer would be lying, so it hardly matters). He and his girlfriend have just had a nice restaurant dinner, and suddenly, for the first time, he feels 'a faint pinging sound in the center of my chest.' His girlfriend asks if he's OK.

"I'm okay," I said. "It's just, I feel like, I don't know ..." I paused and swallowed to be sure this wasn't just some weird new need for more food. "I think I need a cigarette." She smiled and stood, held out her hand, and we went to the exit, stood on the handicap ramp, and smoked two American Spirits. She didn't like my smoking any better now, but she accepted it and even allowed herself to enjoy it in moments like these. Up and down the street, now blanketed by darkness, the streetlamps formed friendly circles of light, so it looked like a kind of orchard. People stood, one or two per light, out there smoking cigarettes, looking up quietly at the stars or the cars or the windows of houses and stores. "Wow," I said.

Yech - disgust prevents further quotation. The whole thing is like that, pretty prose enslaved in the praise of the ugliest thing humans have yet devised doing to themselves. Nowhere in the article is there any mention of some of the worst non-lethal effects of the addiction: the way hard mucus clogs the vocal chords and flattens the vocal register until all addicts have the same android raspy monotony; the jumpy, incessant clock-watching between doses (the addicts who breezily say something like 'oh, I don't even think about it most of the time' are lying their asses off); the sticky, chelatinous yellow armor-plating that coats the tongue; and most of all the pervasive reek that surrounds the addict in a ten-foot sac of nauseating stench at all times. Chiarella doesn't mention any of this stuff - his piece makes it seem as though smoking isn't much different from, say, chewing gum: easy to take up, easy to do lots of, and easy to stop. Revolting, that Chiarella would shill like this for a freelance gig.

Fortunately, all is not lost in the Penny Press! Over in the latest issue of New York magazine, Sam Anderson turns in a spiffy, first-rate review of Toby Barlow's wonderful new verse-novel called Sharp Teeth. Here's the opening paragraph of the piece, to give you a sample of the joys to come:

Let's say that you've recently polished off your local library's collection of vampire sonnets, and perhaps even flipped, with a melancholy hand, the final page of your older brother's three-volume haiku sequence about a marauding colony of Minotaurs - that you've exhausted, in other words, the literary exploration of monster subcultures written in obscure forms. Well, take heart. Toby Barlow's first book, Sharp Teeth, is a verse novel about werewolves. This makes it not only a decisive answer (nay!) to the age-old question 'Is long-form monster poetry dead?' but also a perfect marriage of form and subject: Both the werewolf and the verse novel (which lopes across the centuries from Pushkin to Browning to Vikram Seth) are shaggy hybrids that appear once in a blue moon and terrify everyone in sight.
Hee. As fun as that is to read, it's even more rewarding to re-read; that final sentence is the funniest damn thing we've read so far this year.

The whole piece is just as good, and to make matters even better, it's not misplaced praise: Sharp Teeth is a wonderful, fizzy joyride of a book, well worth your time when it comes out in paperback next year. We'll be sure to remind you.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Don't Let This Happen To You

Poised as we are on the eve of the venerable Westminster Dog Show, some of you out there might find yourselves thinking about getting a dog. Perhaps you'll watch the show - one of the oldest sporting events in the modern world - with an eye towards sizing up each breed. About this we here at Stevereads have two pieces of advice:

1. Recall that all the dogs you'll be seeing are champions, carefully trained not only to meet their breed's specifications but also for tractability, for the ease with which they obey commands. Without that training, you could be left with a dog who's angry, truculent, froward, bossy, brick-stupid, and as gassy as a Louisiana peat-bog.

2. Even after you've considered that point, skip the whole idea. Don't even think about contacting breeders; go to your local dog pound and take your pick from a dozen wonderful dogs waiting for the welcoming home most of them have never known.

The Other Man

Our book today is The Other Man by Michael Bergin, and it should be an extremely simple matter to dismiss out of hand.

As some of you may know, Michael Bergin was a successful male model in the early 90s and a cast member of Baywatch at the height of its popularity (which was saying something - it was and remains the most popular TV show in the world-wide history of the art form). What you may not know is that he started out his young life as an ordinary mook from Naugatuck, Connecticut, a town so obscure, he says, you'd have trouble finding it on a map. In 1992 he was a struggling young model, working as a bellhop, hurrying off to one casting 'cattle call' after another, and looking up at all the brightly-lit windows in all the high-rises, imagining all the happy people living behind them.

At this point, his story is much like that of all the other handsome young men who went to those 'cattle calls.' But in 1992 he met a beautiful young woman named Carolyn Bessette, and everything changed. It was bound to: the besetting irony of Carolyn Bessette's life was that she who wanted stability more than anybody created change, stimulation, and upheaval in every life she entered. She couldn't help it; her presence was simply electrifying. Long before Bergin met her, when she was a student at Boston University, it was the same: you met her, and your life changed.

She swept into Bergin's life like a whirlwind. He was instantly in love, and being very attractive himself, it wasn't long before they were lovers and he was even further besotted. His book has an open, frank tone throughout (no co-author or ghost-writer is credited), but nowhere is it more honest and athletic than in its descriptions of what it's like to be young and entralledly in love:

She looked across at me and smiled. Her whole face lit up when she smiled. I thought, I could look at that face for the rest of my life. I didn't even know her, but I felt connected to her in ways I couldn't begin to understand.

But with him it was only love - with Carolyn Bessette, it never was. When she found a beautiful young man who could answer for himself well enough, she set about ... well, shaping that young man. It was her way: she could spot potential a mile off, and once she saw it - in a musician, an ad campaign, a male model -she set about almost involuntarily (but if not so, certainly dutifully) doing what she always did, refining, improving, enlivening.

She so set about with young Michael Bergin, and he himself knew exactly what was happening. It stands to his credit that he absorbed it all with wide-eyed and incredulous gratitude:

She even helped with my diction, but she did it with such gentleness and such generosity of spirit that I was never embarrassed. 'Try not to drop your word endings,' she said. 'It makes your sentences sound unfinished'
She was right. Doin'. Sayin'. Goin.' I sounded like a small-town hood, and Carolyn was trying to help me change that. She was educating me. Shaping me. refining me. And I not only allowed it, I appreciated it.

He benefitted from it, too, as he'd be the first to admit: she changed the way he talked, the way he walked, the way he presented himself to the world, the way he thought about himself - she made sure he bought the right clothes, the right shoes, the right skin-care products ("all the boys use them, whether they admit it or not," she told him, and she was right).

His career blossomed - it might not have been specifically due to her ministrations (although it might have been too - there's no telling which casting director or marketing developer here or there responded not to the chiselled abs but to the added polish provided by this one so unlikely source), but suddenly he was getting steady work, his body was on billboards twenty feet high in Times Square, and he was living a life - in Manhattan, Milan, and parts south - that he hadn't dreamed as a high school sports star in Naugatuck.

In his account (and, realistically speaking, whose counter-version are we ever likely to have, all those concerned being either happy or dead? Indeed, it's a small wonder this book itself ever got written), none of any of this mattered to him: he was entirely smitten with Carolyn, and not even the temptations of the wide world could serve to distract him.

She was mysterious about herself, always, and this drove him crazy - she was always ready with a dozen very good, very pointed questions about him, but she was equally adept at deflecting attention from herself. But Bergin is persistent (although he admits he's had more than his share of meaningless sex, when he squarely asserts that he prefers deeper relatioships, you believe him), and eventually he learns more about her.

In the course of all this, while the focus of the book remains very much the love story between these two, readers get a whole lot more. Bergin is something of a natural storyteller, and he has a winning, everyman voice that perfectly juxtaposes with the weird high-life world in which he finds himself. Baywatch gets off lightly, but the world of professional modelling is delightfully skewered in all its trashy vapidity. Bergin is grateful for all the opportunities it provides him, but he's got a mischievous streak in him, and like any good storyteller, he always remembers his best lines:

The entire thing [a photoshoot with drug addict Kate Moss] was insane. I remember standing around in my underwear while they were setting up the lights when this gay guy came over, reached inside my crotch, and grabbed my penis like it was a piece of meat.
"Hey!" I screamed at him. "What the fuck are you doing?"
"Hey yourself!" he shouted back. "That's my job. I'm the stylist. I have to style your penis, too."
"I can style my own penis, thank you very much."
"You're not being very professional, Michael."
"Just tell me where you want my penis, and how you want it to look. I can take care of it myself. My penis and I understand each other."

Bergin characterizes himself as 'the straightest guy in the world,' and he'd pretty much have to be, to tell an anecdote in which he says 'just tell me where you want my penis' to a grabby gay man.

But the story always comes back to her, and it's increasingly complicated by a development Carolyn would certainly have preferred to keep from Bergin: her deepening relationship with the scion of American royalty, JFK Jr.

As you read Bergin's account, and despite what he himself says, you can't help but think the avoidance went both ways, but it doesn't matter: she was actively deceiving him long after he deserved better from her. She was secretive about their comings and goings, she was evasive about the blank spots in her calendar, and when he confronted her directly, she lied about the extent of her involvement with JFK's son.

Bergin's book is studded with literary quotations about love lived and lost but there's not a word about love's lies, and that's because he's a gentleman, the kind of 'good guy' who never met a person but made a friend and never made a friend but kept one. And if the book went only that far, it would be a touching memoir of the price that even relatively innocent bystanders can pay for connection with the tumultuous Kennedy clan.

But the book goes further, and that's why it ought to be dismissable out of hand. Bergin goes through agony as he loses her to the world and the persona of JFK Jr, and he's open about it:

Finally, the fascination with them [in the media] abated, but only marginally. I don't think a week went by without some mention of them in the press. As for the photographs, they were everywhere. I found them hard to look at. Carolyn seemed so damn happy, he was so damn handsome, and they looked so damn good together - and so rich.

All of which must have been heart-breaking, and like we said, if the book only went that far, it would be a clean little tragedy. But it goes one step more. It goes to the point where Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy, the lawfully-married wife of John Kennedy Junior, first called Bergin wanting sex.

That's where everything should have stopped cold. Bergin's parents were small-town salt of the earth, and they raised him with care and attention. He knew perfectly well one of the most basic rules of being a good guy: you don't sleep with another man's wife. It doesn't matter what emotional ties you have with her, and it doesn't matter how miserable she tells you she is: you don't sleep with another man's wife.

Bergin does, every time she asks. He reduces himself to expedient excuse-making, and to hurrying out the rear entrance, shoes in hand, whenever JFK Jr shows up at the front door. It's not manly, and it's not moral, and even so, credit has to be given to Bergin for narrating it all so unflinchingly. He tells us he coudn't help himself, and it takes guts to admit that.

She married her American prince, even though a dispassionate reader might think she'd made a mistake in her choosing. Bergin had to read all about it in the tabloids and see it all on the news, even while his own life was moving forward with Baywatch Hawaii (those of you who scoffed at the mention of Baywatch will scoff all the more at the mention of Baywatch Hawaii, but if you look at the tapes you'll see it clear as day: in the midst of his personal tragedies, somehow Bergin learned the beginnings of how to act).

And he had to live through thet horrible day in 1999 when the news broke that JFK Jr's private plane had gone down at sea with the loss of all hands - including Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy. She died young and beautiful, alongside her quite-probably-troublesome husband, and that was all the world at large had to say on the subject.

Unless you were Michael Bergin, that is. In the months following the tragedy, more and more trash-journalists scented the scandal of Bessette's last months, and Bergin found himself in the spotlight again, forced to watch the press hound his former lover even more fiercely dead than it had when she was alive. That, he tells his readers, was the genesis of this present book: he meant it as a defense of Carolyn's reputation. And despite everything that by all rights ought to make it disgusting (not only the cheating, but the praising of a former lover after you've got yourself a new one - if it didn't work for King David, it's not going to work for a kid from Naugatuck), you end up believing him. This book was the last thing he could do for that tortured young woman, the last help he could be to her.

Certainly he saw it that way. His book - his entirely readable and touching book - is subtitled 'A Love Story.'

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


Our book today is Bernard MacLaverty's Cal, a lean and bullet-powerful 1983 novel set in the midst of Ireland's 'Troubles.'

Its eponymous young teenaged hero is pale and skinny with straight hair falling long into his face. He smokes and plays guitar up in his room, living as a Roman Catholic on the dole in a solidly Protestant neighborhood of Ulster (his father Shamie works in the local slaughterhouse). He spends his time largely idling - which can hardly be said for some of his friends, who're involved with the IRA and are forever scheming petty violences. They're also forever trying to involve him, and he's at heart such a friendly young man that he doesn't always refuse them, though he always wants to (the behavior of his friends - veering between obsequious wheedling and crass bullying - is perfectly captured by MacLaverty).

One key involvement happened when he was the driver on an outing in which his friends shot to death a policeman. Readers unfamiliar with the day-to-day life of Republican Ireland will find it vividly rendered in CAL - the miasmic sense of uncertainty, the clench of doubt at every sound heard outside the house at night, the fervid insularity of a persecuted minority. This atmosphere explains Cal's inability to just walk away - these are schoolmates, old friends, cronies of his father. They show up at his home, they call him by the Irish transliteration of his name - Cahal - and they remind him of some idea of loyalty.

They're helped by his essential aimlessness of his teenage life, but that aimlessness ends abruptly when Cal spots and instantly falls in love with Marcella, a new clerk at the library (again, MacLaverty's skill at conveying the sheer intemperate heat of young love is unparalleled in modern fiction).

That love - even before he (or she) allows himself to call it that - changes young Cal, enlivens him in a way that nothing else ever has. Of course the first and most obvious place this shows itself is in the house which (since the death of the saintly mother who is the first and only adamant prerequisite of all Irish fiction) he shares with his father Shamie. These domestic scenes are rendered with a fine, almost Japanese painterly minimum of brush-strokes:

On Friday afternoon the lorry dropped him off at the safer end of the street and he walked the rest, head down, tensed against the cold. He had to wait until after tea for the water to heat sufficiently for a bath. They had finished early and he was in long before his father.
When Shamie came through the door Cal had the dinner ready to serve and was singing in the kitchen, drumming on the draining board with two pliable knives. He wanted to keep the good news of his job until they were sitting eating. It would be something to talk about. A children's programme was turned low as they waited for the news.
When they sat down at the table Cal said,
'I got offered a job.'
'Good man yourself,' Shamie clapped him on the shoulder, the only part of Cal he could reach from where he sat. 'Doing what?'
'Morton's farm. Where the potato picking was.'
'What's the money like?'

'I don't know. But it's bound to be better than the dole.'
'Cheers anyway,' said his father, raising his cup of milk to him.

The father and son love each other, but it's a peculiarly Irish kind of love - i.e. composed in large part of dislike. They fight almost constantly, and MacLaverty has a perfect ear for the give and take of it. In fact, as befits an Irish writer, all his dialogue is perfect, even tossed-off lines:

After a while he heard someone squelching through the mud. He looked up and saw Cyril Dunlop walking across the yard. He was the same age as Cal's father and they knew each other from about the town. They would stand for hours on end chatting at the street corner and then Shamie would come home and say, 'That Cyril Dunlop was in every Orange march that ever there was. And believe me, Cal, that Orange Order is rotten to the core. They wouldn't give you daylight if they could keep it off you.'

The animating tragedy of the book stems from the fact that Cal was the driver on the strike that killed Marcella's husband, as he knows the instant he sees her. The tension this introduces - will he tell her? Will she hate him for it? - animates the love story and propels it forward and makes this book almost hypnotically readable.

The prose is spare almost to the point of starkness, utterly unblinking and unsentimental. And the story is resolutely small: there are no sweeping observations here about British Occupation or 'the Troubles' - merely minutely and wonderfully tuned observations of how such larger forces might twist two people in love.

CAL has been in print a long time and had many editions, one of which is still in print. We here at Stevereads whole-heartedly recommend it.

Friday, February 01, 2008

February's Open Letters Monthly!

February's issue of Open Letters Monthly is now, as the kids say, live! It begins (under a wonderful photo, the very first wonderful photo the site has ever had) with a one-two combination of stunning, fantastic prose: Sam Sacks reviewing Richard Price's new novel Lush Life, and John Cotter turning in our best One Encounter to date, a very personal look at two pieces of 20th Century German art. Brian Kirker is as informative and amusing as ever in his review of the new supposedly definitive DVD of Blade Runner; Lianne Habinek reviews Jesse Ball's fascinating new novel Samedi the Deafness; grumpy Greg Waldmann takes a look at Ronald Brownstein's The Second Civil War - and yours truly can be found as always, off in a corner, ruminating on things that interest nobody else. All this - plus a poem by Chad Reynolds and of course our brain-busting Open Letters Quiz - is just a link-click away, so go, go, and enjoy! You can start by admiring the site's wonderful photo ...