Thursday, March 27, 2008

In the Penny Press!

Quite a bit that's noteworthy in the penny press this time around, which is a bit surprising! Take the 31 March issue of the New Yorker, for instance: instead of having one article that's mildly interesting and fourteen that are instantly forgettable, this issue lots of great stuff in it. Great and by turns both fascinating and infuriating.

The infuriating comes hung on the same point here as everywhere else in the Penny Press this week: Senator Barack Obama's epic speech on race in America, the one he made in response to the furor kicked up by his association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright but which so quickly and overwhelmingly surpassed the occasion of its origin as to render that occasion irrelevant. Obama's speech, made by the first serious black presidential candidate in American history - a deeply intelligent, deeply personal speech as frank as it was remarkable - was instantly a milestone, but that hardly matters in this present tawdry age. The noxious new verb is 'swift-boating': the quick, conspiratorial, clamorous and only hazily accurate. This week in the penny press, the swift-boating of Obama's speech, and the New Yorker is, alas, no exception, with George Packer writing the astonishing line: "It isn't clear that Obama's elevated dialogue last week is in the long-term interest of his campaign."

In Packer's defense, he does also write this: "The speech seemed to have been composed in intense solitude, and it has the personal drama, the encompassing structure, the moral and intellectual intricacy, of a great essay."

Still, we'll come back to annoyance on this particular point. In the meantime, there's plenty in this issue of the New Yorker that carries no annoyance at all, that only pleases. Like, for instance, David Owen's wonderful piece on the persistence of the penny, a familiar subject for devotees of The West Wing, in one episode of which Sam Seaborn has to deal with the whole issue of why something as useless as the penny continues to exist. Owen has an abundance of fun facts to pass along, like this:

More than a few people, upon finding pennies in their pockets at the end of the day, simply throw them away, and many don't bother to pick them up anymore when they see them lying on the ground (Breaking stride to pick up a penny, if it takes more than 6.15 seconds, pays less than the federal minimum wage).

Pennies, it turns out, cost more than a penny apiece to manufacture, and nickels cost nearly twice their worth to turn out - a state of affairs the mint and the treasury know perfectly well, but what's to be done? The problem is the million or so vending machines all throughout the country - they sort and value the coins they're fed by weight, and altering the composition of the nickel to make it more cost-effective would almost certainly change its weight. Americans cannot live without their vending machines, so the problem of the nickel might well be intractable. This doesn't stop Owen from having his fun with the subject:

Consider, after all, the opportunity cost of stroring billions of dollars' worth of small coins in dresser drawers, often for decades, and then losing track of them entirely. This taxlike penalty is self-imposed, since no law prevents anyone from filling his pockets with pennies before leaving the house, but even people who do use small change bear the burden of lugging it around and sifting through it - the old-lady-with-a-coin-purse problem, which has doubtless been slowing checkout lines since the Lydians invented coinage, in 500 B.C. or so.

Hell, even one of the issue's poems appealed to us this time around, which will no doubt grieve our young poet friends, who deplore our taste in the art. This is by Stanley Moss, and it's called "Anonymous Poet":

Sometimes I would see her with her lovers
walking through the Village, the wind
strapped about her ankles.
Simply being, she fought
against the enemies of love and poetry
like Achilles in wrath.
Her tongue was not a lake,
but it lifted her lovers
with the gentle strength of a lake
that lifts a cove of waterlilies -
her blue eyes, the sky above them -
till night fell and the mysteries began.
My friend I love, poet I love,
if you are not reading or writing tonight
on your Underwood typewriter,
if no one is kissing you, death is real.

But the most surprising thing of all - the most surprising thing in any given issue of the New Yorker, is to find that the short story is good, and that's the case this time around as well: Jeffrey Eugenides turns in "Great Experiment," a fast-paced and utterly winning short story involving greed, graft, and Democracy in America. This short story alone is worth the price of the magazine, and we here at Stevereads recommend it.

The issue ends with a Hilton Als piece on current theatre in New York, one that deals with Carol Churchill's latest work, "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?" Als generally likes the new play (the British press held a dim view of it), calling it "wildly beautiful" (a glance at the text of the thing itself is sufficient to show anybody that), and he of course approves of Churchill's body of work, although it's a little puzzling to see him call "Top Girls" "malodorous" - the work is an assured masterpiece, nothing 'malodorous' about it.

But then, we suppose Churchill should be happy to escape with her scalp, since "Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?" doesn't fare so well in the same week's issue of New York magazine, where Jeremy McCarter maintains the play a "cartoonish" failure and then lards it with faint praise:

Even when she's not at her incisive best, Churchill delivers a sly theatrical punch. When [main characters] Sam and Guy coo about the endlessness of space, she makes the giddiness of megalomania sound like the giddiness of love. Yet much like the scattered laughs in David Mamet's presidential comedy November, moments like this serve mainly to remind you how small the play looks next to the writer's other, tougher work, and how much better our murky times ask great writers to be.

Yeesh. And as if that weren't bad enough, the same issue also includes an infuriating squib referring to a hatted and hoodied Tom Brady as "a New York Patriot" ...

And the irks just keep on coming, because this issue, like the New Yorker, feels the need to oh-so-cynically swiftboat Barack Obama's race-speech, saying it contains factually arguable misstatements and the like, inconsistencies that will get major air-play when the footsie-playing preliminaries of the primary season are over and the heavyweight savagings of the general election begin. The article, by John Heilemann, doesn't stint the candidate's intelligence, but even so, the put-upon world wearniness of the thing is grating on its face:

Obama knows that this is coming. He has his answer ready: that a lot has changed in twenty years, that voters want to move past the kind of politics that "uses patriotism as a cudgel"; that they are burning, yearning, to declare, as he put it in his speech last week, "Not this time." One hears him say these sorts of things and hopes, audaciously, that he is right. Then one sees the Republicans licking their chops and fears that he is not.

To which we here at Stevereads feel like responding, simply: will you all please just shut the Hell up? If these nefarious Republicans are indeed licking their chops for the bloodsport to come, isn't there at least a chance that Senator Obama will have changed the zeitgeist even minimally, even to the point where the tactics Republicans are drooling to employ will explode in their faces? That's the magic of espousing a campaign of vague-enough 'change': if your opponents to anything they've done before, they make themselves your target.

Barack Obama has so far run a cleaner, more upright presidential campaign than virtually any other aspirant in American history. It's possible, just possible, that such a campaign has strengths of its own, unique to it, that need not tremble in such abject John Kerry vulnerability to the tactics it may face in a general election. Swift-boating appeals to the tabloid mentality, the least-common-denominator baseline of the American psyche; there are other, better aspects of the collective American mind - there always have been. Ironic indeed - and intensely historical - if Barack Obama were to be the one to tap into them, even to save his chances.

Luckily, the issue ends on a wonderful one-two punch, both blows falling in the magazine's regular 'Party Lines' feature. First, and most wistfully, Martin Sheen, who is and will always be President Jed Bartlett (as one TV ad campaign put it years ago, "the president we can all agree on"), telling his interviewer that he considers former president Bill Clinton a friend and likes Obama 'a lot.' And second, at the premiere of the second season of Showtime's The Tudors, Peter O'Toole (who turns in a wickedly nonchalant performance in that season as Pope Paul III) is asked his opinion of Pope Benedict XVI. His response is priceless:

[Places finger under nose and raises hand in a Hitler salute] He's winding the clock back nicely, isn't he? He might go back to 1530 if he keeps on going. He doesn't like women, but then again, very few popes do.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

In Memoriam: Craigen Weston Bowen

We here at Stevereads pause in our labors to mourn the passing of Craigen Weston Bowen, who was killed recently by cancer at the age of 54.

She was the deputy director of the Strauss Center for Conservation at Harvard's Fogg Art Museum, and her passion for the work she did preserving pieces of art was matched by the passion she brought to every endeavor - and every friendship - in her life. She climbed rocks (as near as Quincy and as far as Yosemite) with the same elegant, glowing enthusiasm she did everything else. Conversations were explorations with her, simple outings became hilarious expeditions, gardening could be a kind of prayer, and the highest reward in all of it was to hear that laugh, so throaty, so fluting, so utterly inimitable.

That laugh is gone from the world now, as is all the joyful teaching she did all the time, without ever meaning to. But her profession was also her best talent in life: she brought beauty to everything she touched. We who cannot right now imagine a world without her can take some small comfort in that.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Rock Monster!

Be sure to set your Betamaxes for tonight's all-new Sci-Fi Channel original movie (almost all of which is technically wrong, since the movie is hardly original and even less 'all new,' having been filmed in 2006), 'Rock Monster'! The thriller stars extremely nice young Canuck Chad Collins (who's pushing 30 now and still hasn't really broken out, but who knows? Lots of people are going to see this movie - even more than saw 'Lake Placid 2' - and you never know what might come of that! Stevereads note to all you casting directors out there who worship at our blog: hire Chad! He'll never be late, he'll be off-book faster than anybody else, and he's extremely funny!) as a hapless lad who pulls a sword from a stone ... but this isn't boring old Camelot! Hooo no!

The movie also stars Jon Polito, who's managed to inject an element of winking humor into every performance he's ever given - and this one is no exception! He's the only one you'll be watching who knows he's in a Sci-Fi movie, and that's always good for a chuckle.

So tune in to "Rock Monster" tonight at 9 (Eastern Standard Time, it goes without saying ... geez) with a tub of hot popcorn and a roomful of friends! You'll have a fine time!

Friday, March 21, 2008


Just a brief note here on two current issues, since a) they represent polar opposites in terms of conception, b) they possess some exact similarities in terms of conception, and c) somebody's gotta talk about comics around here! Worry not, all you non-comics readers: we'll be brief.

First up is issue #7 of the new J. Michael Straczynski/Olivier Coipel relaunch of Thor - only ooops! Coipel has already decamped for fresher coke-fields! Leaving Straczynski to bravely soldier on alone - for the two or three more issues it takes before he's bored and twitchy too, or until some slightly-larger relaunch paycheck is waved under his nose. We here at Stevereads have bemoaned before this mayfly tendency among comic creators these days, so we won't belabor the point here. We're only glad the book's new artist - Marko Djurdjevic - is almost as good as Coipel; in the bad old days, the art chores would have fallen to George Tuska or Herb Trimpe - Marvel hacks who lacked talent but could at least be relied upon.

And the storyline in this issue had an interesting twist as well. At the end of the previous issue, Thor had expended all his Asgardian power in a gigantic planet-wide effort to revive all his fellow gods (currently slumbering inside mortal hosts) ... all perhaps save one. As he confesses to his own mortal host Don Blake, Thor is hesitant to revive his father Odin, because Odin only knows 'the old ways, the old patterns,' and Thor wants to break free of them. The issue left us unclear whether or not Thor had decided to bring his bat-shit crazy daddy back to life.

(or did it? One of Coipel's final panels on this title he told everybody he'd be with for years was an indistinct shot of somebody looking vaguely Odin-like, materializing in a busy city square)

This issue begins with Thor so exhausted from his efforts that he has to go into the Odinsleep (or, more properly now, the Thorsleep), a kind of mystical coma designed to restore his strength. In this coma, our hero (who, so far in this title, has yet to do anything all that heroic - with the single exception of beating the living snot out of Tony Stark) exists in a state between life and death - and in that state, he sees his father re-fighting the epic battle with the flame-demon Surtur that claimed his life before this re-boot began. Odin is victorious, and he and Thor have a father and son chat - about how Asgardian sons always kill their fathers (heartwarming stuff). Odin relates a time eons past when he had a chance to revive his own father, Bor, and didn't - because, he tells Thor, it's perfectly natural for sons to want to step out of their fathers' shadows:

If you had wished to recall me from the darkness, my son ... you would have made some effort before now. Would have summoned mages. Would have asked questions. Would have tried. You did not. As I would have not, in your place.
Figures - the first time in the title's history where Odin talks straight with his son, and he's DEAD.

The issue ends in mid-flashback (and a record LOW number of pages of artwork) with a hearty 'to be continued...' teaser, and we here at Stevereads have a STUNNING PREDICTION for you all to mull over for the next month: the shadowy figure revived by Thor in the previous issue isn't Odin - it's BOR! Get ready for some grandfather-grandson trash-talking!

The second title we're taking up today is issue #172 of Robin, written by Chuck Dixon and drawn with wonderful low-key detail by David Baldeon. This issue continues the book's ongoing storyline which finds Robin dealing night after night with a new 'mask,' Violet, who steals from the rich and corrupt and gives to .... herself. Our current Robin, Tim Drake (here portrayed by Baldeon as in his late teens, on the verge of no longer being a 'boy' wonder), has had lots of experience in the run of this always-excellent title with young women who wander back and forth over the sharp line of right-and-wrong he learned from Batman, and Violet is no different: he's fascinated by her, but he's also compelled to stop her.

The issue's most interesting wrinkle is that he's being aided in that goal by two Gotham detectives, who want to partner with him openly, as an agent and confidential informant, as sort of a ground-level Jim Gordon sans bat-signal. Tim is suspicious of them, and even though their in-car patter (which we hear and he doesn't) seems innocent enough, the device has lots of potential for future complications.

The end of the issue finds Tim no closer to catching Violet, but the takedown of an illegal casino that is the issue's main action is expertly done and consistently fast-paced.

Which is where the similarities and differences of these two titles come in. The differences are obvious: Thor's the most powerful super-hero either Marvel or DC have to offer (no matter what INSANE happenings might have taken place in the famous Avengers/Justice League team-up from a few years ago), and Robin's the least powerful. Thor's title is now pretty much entirely involved in introspection and house-setting (the actual storylines are obviously being kept back for the second graphic novel), whereas Robin's book is humming merrily along on the strength of plot and character.

But the similarities are greater: both books are really good - among the best their respective companies currently put out. Thor is still in an epic holding pattern, but we here at Stevereads have faith (how can we not, him being our favorite Marvel character and all?). And Robin - through pretty much the entire run of this book - is finally getting the consistently excellent treatment the character has always deserved.

So until other voices should resume talking about comics (ahem ...), we'll let those two stand as our recommendations of the week. Even coming in mid-story in both, you'll find lots to entertain you.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

The Life of Captain James Cook

Our book today is The Life of Captain James Cook by J.C. Beaglehole, a womping-huge 1974 masterpiece that will stand forever as a near-perfect example of the biographer's art. The thing is 700 pages long and has not one word that isn't beautifully chosen.

The book's subject will attract biographers as long as men draw breath, and naturally so. It's a singularly rare thing when the last of a breed is also the best of that breed, but so it was with Captain Cook, the last voyager to new worlds. Neil Armstrong and Edmund Hilary are contemporary members of this most exclusive of all clubs, but they pale in comparison and would be prompt to admit it. They each have their moment of almost intolerable glory - but Cook saw dozens of Everests. He was a frequent visitor to Tranquility Base.

With wooden planks and wind-filled sails, he threw back the borders of the known world as only Alexander the Great, with his sweating armies, had done before him.

Unlike Alexander, Cook's story has humble origins, with our legendary hero tending shop and looking like nothing spectacular. His hagiographers have made much of this, and right at the onset of his immense book, Beaglehole is quick to settle their hash:

The building which contained his house and shop was close to the sea, and as early as 1812 was pulled down lest it should be washed away, to be rebuilt at its present position in Church St. by his successors in business; the counter on which the youth measured out raisins and ribbon was removed in 1835 to Middlebrough, 'Captain Cook's shop' is but dubiously his. Over the original site the waves flow deep. The importance of this shop-keeping interval is not commercial. What Cook learned from it, obviously, was that he did not want to be a shop-keeper.

Once he first went to sea, all danger of his being a shop-keeper was past. When time and circumstance align perfectly, a person can find their perfect medium, can become their destiny in a way no dint of simple work can achieve. Alexander as a provincial Macedonian king, having his food tasted and engaging in occasional border-skirmishes? Unthinkable. Michelangelo a restless seminarian? Equally unimaginable - although not from want of trying - is a young Corporal Hitler, frustrated soldier, frustrated artist, and ultimately frustrated anti-Semite (the alignment works both ways, alas). And Captain James Cook as a land-bound retailer? Fate would not allow it.

And it was not to be: he born in 1728 and rated commander while still a young man. after which his seaborne accomplishments follow hard after each other. He circumnavigated New Zealand, charted the coast of eastern Australia, surveyed the St. Lawrence and the Newfoundland shoreline (mapped first by him), visited Java, the Cape of Good Hope, the barren extremities of the Antarctic, Tahiti, the New Hebrides (mapped first in detail by him), New Caledonia (which he discovered), a dozen or so other South Pacific archipelagos (which he also discovered and mapped), the gorgeous Sandwich Islands (which he also discovered), the Hawaii-an islands in all their scarcely-plumbed glories ... Cook voyaged across the whole of the known world, and he did so because the arcane additions of descant and horizon came as a natural language to him, allowing him to ply the known - and unknown - world as no mariner ever previously had.

Beaglehole is good at evoking the daily reality of such mariner-feats, as he does with contrapuntal regularity to the over-claims of the myth:

On 26 December 1770 the restored Endeavor weighed and came to sail. She was to have eleven days of the same frustrating sort of passage she had had through the Strait of Sunda three months before, in reverse, with unpleasant squally rainy weather for the last part of it. She was like a hospital ship, said Cook, upwards of forty of her company sick, the rest in a weakly condition except for the sail-maker, more or less drunk; yet the Dutch captains congratulated him on his good luck in not seeing half his people die.

Cook was killed when he made an ill-advised landfall among the previously-friendly inhabitants of Krakakoa Bay in Hawaii ... the natives stove in his head with rocks and would have overrun his entire crew if it weren't for the implemented safeguards that were always a part of Cook's designs.

He died a brutal, ugly death in the small surf of one of the only islands on Earth he didn't himself discover. Stupid tribal rivalries, the sectarian eagerness to crow a victory, the atavistic urge to display a celebrated skull-bone: who knows, but it doesn't really matter anyway - the legend, this time based entirely on facts, had already taken on a life of its own. After 700 pages, we would expect Beaglehole to have some affection for his subject (who in real life was a very difficult man to know and an impossible one to love), and it shows nowhere more poetically than in his farewell to the great captain:

There are statues and inscriptions; but Geography and Navigation are his memorials ... [New Zealand chief] Te Horeta would repeat the Maori saying, e kore to tino tangata e ngaro i sote, to tokomaha, a veritable man is not hid among many. Such things; Geography and Navigation; if we wish for more, an ocean is enough, where the waves fall on innumerable reefs, and a great wind blows from the south-east with the revolving world.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Uncle of Europe

Our book today is 1975’s Uncle of Europe, The Social and Diplomatic Life of Edward VII by Gordon Brook-Shepherd. Our author learned his writing craft in the old-school world of Fleet Street – in other words, he can research the Hell out of a subject and then turn around and write the hell out of that subject, with no assists needed at either end from scuttling uncredited assistants of any kind. And his subject – well, what can be said of his subject that those of you who don’t remember his age will understand?

We must make the attempt, for posterity’s sake. Picture the reality: Queen Victoria lost her beloved Prince Consort Albert in 1861 and went into four decades of semi-secluded mourning. This was certainly her right as a grieving wife, but it was a gross dereliction of her duty as her people’s monarch – the British have always demanded more of their kings and queens than a pulse on purple cushions, and for the second half of her very long reign, Queen Victoria consciously refused to participate in spectacle. Regardless of what her various critics have said through the years, this, too, was an act of indisputable greatness on her part, but it left her subjects pantingly eager for something other than Kipling’s Widow at Windsor.

To say the least, her eldest son and heir apparent, ‘Bertie,’ filled the bill. In his youth and embarrassingly into his not-so-young years, Bertie had been the bane of his handlers and the bright light of his subjects for all the escapades he got involved with that never met the approval of his serially disapproving parents. Everything he did, he did to epic proportions: he borrowed (by the 1880s if not earlier, no money-lender worth his salt, Jew or Gentile, in London had passed up the opportunity to make a special arrangement with the heir), he, em, dated (the bastard-count at his ascension in 1901 was already circling around four, with fairly extensive payments being made on regular bases from the practically-limitless resources at the Crown’s private disposal), he ate prodigiously (Edwardian meals were known for their dimensions, but even so, ‘Bertie’s had courses that went on for hours), smoked prodigiously (indeed, perhaps moreso than any single individual in history who wasn’t employed by a carnival side-show for that purpose: twenty-five enormous cigars a day and an endless intervening stream of cigarettes), and most of all, he enjoyed – and once he was King insisted on – exactly the oversized pomp his mother had for forty years mostly avoided.

His people, to put it mildly, went wild. Queen Victoria had set her name on an era and elicited a certain kind of affection from her subjects, most of whom, by the end of her long reign, had never known a world without her. But King Edward, once freed from her shadow, was the exact opposite: he loved showy costumes and uniforms, exulted in display, entertained lavishly, and scarcely ever spent a day that didn’t have a public element to it. He was more beloved than his mother had been (or, indeed, than any British monarch has been since) because he entirely dedicated himself to being king, in the most public sense of the job.

It’s perhaps because of his dedication to this very aspect of his job that King Edward VII was initially treated poorly by his historians, many of whom characterized him as a dilettante flaneur, a showboating sybarite whose addictions to racing, gambling, whoring, yachting, and spa-ing rendered him nothing more than the world's most spoiled brat.

To correct this impression, Philip Magnus in 1964 published a thorough and conscientious biography of King Edward that drew on a slew of previously unexplored primary sources and was adapted into a very entertaining BBC mini-series. Brook-Shepherd is respectful of this stately monument, but he has his own story to tell, and his years of research turned up plenty of previously unexploited sources of his own. Unlike Magnus, he’s not intending to tell the whole of King Edward’s life. He’s concerned mainly with the reign, and even there his focus is specific: the ways in which King Edward interacted with – and shaped – the international world of his time.

Certainly Brook-Shepherd’s title is aptly chosen. At the time of Edward VII’s reign, he really was something close to being 'the uncle of Europe.' The kings of Portugal and Belgium were his cousins, his father-in-law was the King of Denmark, the Kaiser was his nephew, the Czar was his brother-in-law, and half the old noble families of Germany were related to him by blood or marriage. Unlike his august mother, King Edward made many trips abroad in an attempt to strengthen or renew many of these connections, and to make new ones. He was by all accounts a genial, outgoing man, easily capable of making an excellent impression on strangers both high and low born. According the Brook-Shepherd, one of the keys to his success was his keen social memory, which allowed every encounter with him to feel personal. Our author gives a typical anecdote:

Among the lowly examples of his [the way the public pestered the King during his stays at the Royal resort of Biarritz] was a pair of blind beggars who posted themselves soon after noon every day on the road from the Hotel du Palais to the beach where they would be sure to catch the King on his regular stroll. Caesar [the King’s indomitable and possessive dog], who, of course, went on these walks as well, developed a particular dislike for these tattered creatures and would start barking as soon as he spotted them. For them, however, this was a most convenient signal to warn them of the King’s approach and, at the dog’s first bark, they would put on their most pitiful look and extend their bowls for money. The King never failed to drop a handsome contribution into each bowl and to give them what must have been a most warming greeting: A demain. One day, only one of the beggars turned up. The King’s concern that one of his faithful sentinels might be unwell turned to curiosity when the missing man appeared as usual the following morning. Had he been ill? He asked the beggar. No, sire. Late, then? This second question threw the poor man into great embarrassment. Finally he blurted out, “Pardon, monsieur le Roi, it was not me who was late but you who were early!” The King roared with laughter an offered profuse apologies together with his normal contribution.

Brook-Shepherd is quick to point out that this affability was offered in measured doses; the King was very much still the King, different from normal men and fond of ostentation, as during his trip to Gibraltar:

If the King’s passage across the Mediterranean had any political undertone to it, this lay in the demonstration it gave of England’s naval might. Like some genial water-borne Pied Piper, King Edward had been steadily collecting warships behind him as he went. On 21 April 1903 it was a miniature fleet which left Malta in his wake. Eight battleships, four cruisers, four destroyers and one dispatch vessel now accompanied the Victoria and Albert on the next stage of her journey, to Italy. It all made rather a nonsense of the signal sent ahead to Naples. This announced that the King of England would be arriving there ‘incognito.’

The case that King Edward was not the 'meddler' his critics have called him (the loudest of such being the Kaiser) but rather a thoroughly informed and often very effective proponent of British interests abroad is skillfully presented here, and Brook-Shepherd wholly makes his case. One comes away from the book with a very different Edward than the one portrayed by Philip Magnus, a much more engaged monarch, not so totally the slave of his appetites and his mistresses.

Still, one of the most satisfying attractions of the book has nothing to do with the King but is instead all caught up in the setting. England before the War, before the horrifying 20th century really began in earnest, can seem like an idyllic time of lawn-parties and great banquets and an energetic kind of innocence. This is the era when Mary Poppins descends on the Banks family (“It’s great to be an Englishman in 1910! King Edward’s on the throne, and it’s the Age of Men!” sings the thoroughly hen-pecked Mr. Banks), and when Bertie Wooster is being motored to various country houses by his faithful valet Jeeves – a time before mustard gas and trench warfare and food rationing and aerial bombardments and concentration camps, when there was something grandly right about your country’s king sumptuously going about his business with all the pomp of Nineveh and Tyre.

This was not the reality, of course, and every Edwardian knew it, most certainly including the King who gave his name to that brief interlude (the illusion was shattered when he died and London was witness to a brace of kings marching in funeral state – with King Edward’s fiercely loyal dog Caesar up in front, alone and visibly desolate). But though it was an illusion, it was for all that an exceedingly sweet illusion, often evoked in Brook-Shepherd’s anecdotes:

The cause of the fuss [on a private golf course at the royal resort of Marienbad] was a Russian nobleman who had invented for himself a special club for getting out of trouble whenever he landed in the rough: a mashie fitted with prongs which swept through the long grass. The trouble this time was that, in playing his shot, he had actually impaled the ball on one of the prongs. What should he do – shake the ball off; remove it and drop a penalty; or just go on playing? Ponsonby the oracle simply disqualified the Russian for using an illegal club and then marched off, leaving an even louder babel of argument behind him.

Indeed, we can close this look at The Uncle of Europe and its subject with the author’s own personal assessment of the attractions the Edwardian Age holds for the Englishman of today, as touching as it is sad:

Inevitably, for me and many of my countrymen, there is a whiff of nostalgia about all this as well. England under the Stuarts was gay though not yet great. England under Queen Victoria became great, yet was no longer gay. The England of Edward VII was both great and gay. One wonders, writing these lines, when we shall see either quality again.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Diary of Samuel Pepys!

Our book today is the Diary of Samuel Pepys, kept by him for almost a decade, from 1549 to 1559, and of course so infinitely interesting a work cannot be encompassed in any one entry, even here at Stevereads where we love his work abidingly. It isn’t just that the diary is vast, although it is encouragingly large; it’s that Pepys is such a remarkable narrator of himself, so acutely observant and yet so wholly confessional – he resists complete analysis in the same way that Shakespeare does, and he likewise draws out the same endless curiosity.

But we can chip away at his happy monument here and there, always glad to be in his company even when he’s truthfully reporting himself at his most blockheaded or hypocritical.

We could take as our theme, for instance, a character mentioned more frequently in the Diary than any other: our author’s wife. They married very young – he was twenty-two and she was just fifteen – and since neither one of them had any money, we can presume there was some genuine affection binding them. Certainly by the time they began to make friends in London society they were in a more sincere kind of love with each other than all but a handful of the time’s couples – those friends could see it not in the smiling serenity of, for instance, the future Queen Anne’s marriage to Prince George of Denmark, her amiable dolt of a husband, but in the fiery emotions of their numerous fights. Pepys and his wife shared a childless bed until her death at age 29 (after fourteen years of marriage), and despite his numerous infidelities, their imperfect passion remained strong until she was taken from him.

Much as we love the Diary, much as we might have loved Pepys himself had we known him, we must say it: he couldn’t have been a particularly endurable husband. Partly this can be attributed to the era in which he lived: women were seldom educated and often thought of as a topical variation of children – and, like children, not quite human. The real pity of such a situation, of course, is to be reserved for the victims of it – Pepys was free to go to his office, to sit up late debating and drinking at a tavern or coffee house, to take in a scandalous new play; his wife could scarcely do any of these things unless she was attended by a man. To a woman as high-spirited as the one Pepys married (he never once in the entire course of his writings bothers to tell us her name), these daily restrictions were virtually intolerable; time and again in the Diary, we read of her pleading with her husband to hire a waiting lady for her, somebody to talk to because she was so desperately lonely. And for all his evident love of her, Pepys himself can often be found either treating her like a piece of furniture:

1st January 1662: Waking this morning out of my sleep on a sudden, I did with my elbow hit my wife a great blow over her face and nose, which waked her with pain, at which I was sorry, and to sleep again.

Or like a small child he can bully:

5th April 1664: Coming home I find my wife dressed as if she had been abroad, but I think she was not; but she answering me some way that I did not like I pulled her by the nose, indeed to offend her; though afterwards to appease her I denied it, but only it was done in haste. The poor wretch took it mighty ill, and I believe besides wringing her nose she did feel pain, and so cried a great while; but by and by I made her friends, and so after supper to my office a while, and then home to bed.

Some other aspects of his behavior towards her will be instantly recognizable to contemporary women, alas. It seems that in all ages, men can be equal parts incompetent and huffily defensive about it, with the long-suffering ladies left to roll their eyes and endure it as best they can:

6th January 1663: Thence my wife and I home, and found all well, only myself somewhat vexed at my wife’s neglect in leaving her scarf, waistcoat, and night-dressings in the coach to-day that brought us back from Westminster; though, I confess, she did give them to me to look after, yet it was her fault not to see that I did take them out of the coach.

The salutary difference in Pepys’ diary, however, is the quiet domesticity that shines through, the great and immediately human counterbalances to carelessly tweaked noses. Innumerable entries open with Pepys and his wife abed in the morning, quietly talking, and far more frequently than they fight, they can be found laughing together:

10th May 1666: Going out towards Hackney by coach for the ayre, the silly coachman carries us to Shoreditch, which was so pleasant a piece of simplicity in him and us, that made us mighty merry.

Her illness was swift and unexpected, and her death came closer to destroying this maddening, indomitable man than anything else that had tried. All the things he had built from the nothing they’d shared – the nice house, the fine fixtures (so lovingly detailed in the Diary, the only book we know that is hugely materialistic but not at all venal), the costly drapings, the paintings, the art objects, the musical instruments, the finely bound books, the modest fortune in money – all these things he had built for her as much as for himself, though he didn’t always admit that even in the privacy of the Diary. He outlived her by thirty-four years but never remarried, which is singular tribute itself from such a lover of women as he was. And when he died in 1703 he was buried with her.

Her name was Elizabeth.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Deus Lo Volt!

Our book today is Deus Lo Volt! by Evan S. Connell, the cover of which calls it a novel, although this is a fairly simplistic understatement. In reality, it's an imaginary chronicle of the Crusades. Not a novel, because it does only a handful of the things novels do, and those mostly by accident. And not an actual chronicle, because the examples of those that survive are all known, and this isn't one of them. But rather, a scrupulously realized imaginary chronicle.

Readers familiar with Connell (we revere him here at Stevereads) will also necessarily be familiar with this kind of conundrum. Like no other first-rate author alive today, he continues to question the shapes and natures of our accepted genres; his essays read like treatises, his reviews read like private correspondence, his Custer book Son of the Morning Star reads like a symphony, and Deus Lo Volt! reads exactly like a contemporary account of the Crusades - and thereby envelopes the reader in a rich, profuse, and thrillingly bewildering alien world.

An alien world populated by familiar names - Saladin is here, and Richard Lion-Heart, Jerusalem is here - and vast abundances of Connell's spikey, beautiful prose:

We visited a deserted hermitage among the rocks and saw a garden that was laid out by these monks. A pleasant stream trickled through it. We walked down the slope and entered a grotto in which we found a lime-washed oratory with a red cross made of baked clay. In another grotto we saw the skeletons of two men who lay as though asleep, the bones of their hands folded on their ribs. They were laid toward the east like those consigned in earth.

Of course, any account of the Crusades, contemporary or imaginary, will have an unintended resonance in the present-day world, since, after a refreshingly long dormant period, those same Crusades have just recently sprung to full and bloody life again, with a religious zealot Christian ruler making war on the evil Saracens, to punish them for their wrongdoing. The 300 square miles on which these new battles are being fought (and on which God-fearing young people on both sides are dying, now as then) are the same in 2008 as they were in 1208, so Crusade books come freighted with sad ironies. Connell's book is no different - here is his Saladin's answer to the Emperor Frederick's threat of war:

Our people flourish in numerous realms, Babylon with its dependencies, Gesirah with its castles, India, others too numerous to mention. The limitless residue of Saracenic kings exalts us. The caliph of Baghdad, should we appeal to him, would rise from his throne and hasten to our aid. But if you have set your mind upon war, then we will meet and destroy you.

All of this is handled with Connell's trademark steep intelligence and canny eye for detail. This is part of the reason why it's simplistic to refer to Deus Lo Volt! as a novel: this book is every bit as historical as Son of the Morning Star, just as Son of the Morning Star is every bit as novelistic as this one. Connell is using the boundaries of traditional narrative to play his deeper games - small wonder, then, that the timid publishing world really doesn't know what to make of him.

Luckily, the single thing all of his books have in common is their shining wordplay, the effortless way the smallest mundane details are woven into the narrative in a way that's both droll and meaningful. We smile even as we're carried along:

Or there was a certain knight hunched in a ditch attending to business when some Turk galloped at him with a lowered lance. Others perceiving his danger cried out for the knight to flee, but all unfastened he could not. Then he clutched a stone that he aimed and threw and struck this enemy on the temple. So the Turk dropped off his horse and broke his neck and died. Then the knight caught the horse, mounted, and rode back to camp. God directs the aim of those who believe.

If you need any further proof of the truth of that final sentence, read that paragraph out loud and really hear it. Strange and wonderful are the works of this author, and this book one of the strangest and most wonderful. In a literary age in which fewer and fewer writers challenge their readers, the ones who do - and Evan S. Connell is the best of them - must be treasured. Find a copy of Deus Lo Volt! and prepare for nothing less than an adventure.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

A Friendly Reminder!

While we're on the subject of great movies, we here at Stevereads thought we'd give you all a friendly heads-up for the Sci-Fi Channel's original thriller "Ogre" which has its world premiere tonight on that well-respected station (actually, by all accounts it's neither 'original' nor all that much of a 'thriller,' but what can be done? The air is the air). The plot involves a town whose residents (including John Schneider) have been granted immortality - as long as they continue to supply their resident ogre with human sacrifices. You guessed it: cue hapless teen visitors! The bad guys and virtually everybody on their prospective menu (including young veteran Tyler Johnston, who really ought to be thinking about moving on to broader pastures) are all Canadians, so your vicarious gore will be guilt-free! Enjoy!

Stevereads Goes to the Movies!

We here at Stevereads have just returned from the Grand Odeon Movie Palace, where we treated some wretched interns to a picture show (unbeknownst to them, they're all being sacked on Monday, so we figured it was the least we could do), and we have a declaration to help the rest of you clarify your lives:

"10,000 b.c." may very well be the greatest movie ever made.

Some of you will no doubt already have seen this film's trailers, showing snarling sabertooths and herds of mammoths, and you may be thinking it's not the thing for you. But we're here to assure you: this movie is even better than its trailers!

It's directed by Roland Emmerich (he also "co-wrote" it with Harald Koser), the sooper-genius who brought us all "Independence Day," the nearest thing we here at Stevereads have ever had to a religious experience (topping even our brief marriage to Ethel Merman), and this is evident right from the start - the audience knows they're in the hands of a master showman, and really, what more can an audience want than that?

The movie (narrated by Omar Sharif, who's got to be 200 years old - we'll have an intern check, might as well get some use out of the little twerps before Monday, right?) revolves around brooding young mammoth hunter D'Leh (played by toxic tobacco addict Steven Strait), whose childhood sweetheart Evolet (extremely accomplished young veteran Camilla Belle) has been abducted by evil warlord Affif Ben Badra (that's the actor's name, incredibly enough, not the character's ... we just liked the sound of it: my girlfriend's been kidnapped by Ben Badra!). D'Leh assembles a band of heroes, including Cliff Curtis as somebody called Tic Tic (a dippy name, yes, but he's the best thing in the movie) and toxic tobacco addict cutie-patootie Reece Ritchie as Moha (also a dippy name, but Ritchie's the real thing, as Peter Jackson saw and as all the world will see when "Lovely Bones" comes out), and the bunch of them set out to save the girl. Nonstop adventure ensues!

This movie's nay-sayers (there are bound to be a few) will inevitably carp about the heavy use of CGI to bring all the prehistoric beasties to life (the carnivorous ostriches alone are enough to make you swear off poultry); they'll no doubt say this CGI stinks, that it doesn't look believable, etc. To which we have two responses: A) how would they know, never having laid eyes on a mammoth? and B) they're just plain wrong. The special effects in this movie are wonderful - an eye-popping evocation of a world so strange you have to remind yourself periodically that it's Earth.

Which isn't to say "10,000 b.c." could do double-duty as a documentary, far from it: virtually every detail that's scientifically knowable is done wrong in the movie. Species that never overlapped are shown cheek by jowl, and anachronistic technology abounds. Probably there are wretched little smeagols blogging about such discrepancies even as we speak. And their efforts entirely miss the point.

The point is, this is a fun movie. It's got fast-paced directing, great special effects, some attempts at character backstory, two slightly-unpredictable character epiphanies, and a rousing climax. It isn't Bergman, and it isn't trying to be.

That having been said, there is some good acting in the film (good as the material allows, anyway). Belle has excellent timing and a fresh vivacity about her, and Strait (who although fairly one-dimensional in "The Covenant," managed to steal a scene or two in "Sky High") is very effective as a young man racing to put his life back together.

And all those mammoths! They are as clearly the stars of this show as the gigantic alien spaceships were of "Independence Day," and they represent a huge (no pun intended) step forward from the days when directors needing mammoths had to drape shag rugs over long-suffering Indian elephants and hope for the best. The CGI prehistoric creatures sell the movie - even if nothing else in it were done well, "10,000 b.c." would still be worth seeing just for its megafauna.

But lots of other stuff is done well - our interns left the theater happily chattering about how much they enjoyed the movie - how much more they enjoyed it than they expected they would. We predict that come Monday it'll be crowned the #1 movie in the country, and we urge you all to make time this weekend to take it in. We're confident you'll enjoy yourselves.

Friday, March 07, 2008

In the Penny Press!

It need hardly be said that we here at Stevereads smiled approvingly at the cover story of the latest issue of National Geographic "Minds of Their Own," written by Virginia Morell and including magnificent photographs by Vincent Musi. Natioal Geographic is of course the world's greatest magazine by such a wide margin that direct comparisons are embarrassing, but even so, this has been a significantly fantastic last roughly ten months, and this issue - and this marvellous, thought-provoking (no pun intended) article only continues the streak.

Morell's piece is refreshingly almost entirely free of humanocentricisms - which makes it incredibly rare when it comes to any writing on this particular subject. Oh, don't get us wrong - there's still quite a bit of making nonhuman animals learn new languages, decipher spatial problems in sequence, talk in English, etc. - in other words, equating particularly human intelligence for all kinds of intelligence - but mercifully, there's quite a bit of better thinking in the article too, thinking that tries to step outside the age-old paradigm of chimps wearing human clothes.

The story is structured to have stars, and there they all are, in Musi's amazing photos, set against calm white backgrounds, looking out at human readers with clear, inhuman beauty and directness. The minds behind those inscrutible faces remain a mystery, but the playfulness - and the ease - with which these stars bemusedly try to bridge the gap between their worlds and man's world is as obvious as it is shaming. They are entire alternate civilizations, and their kinds have been whipped, train-carted, butchered, food-processed, machine-gunned, castrated, mocked, tortured, and mass-executed by humans (who've been no gentler with their own kind as well) - and yet, looking at these miraculous pictures, we see no rage, no resentment ... only an elementary curiosity and perhaps an abiding desire that mankind's awakening awareness of their potentials maybe prevent mankind from wiping them out entirely.

We see Azy the orangutan (currently residing in Iowa, of all places), who can easily out-think most chimpanzees. We see Shanthi the Asian elephant, who's in captivity in a zoo and yet still manages to display some fraction of her species' vast capacities for sociability and gestalt thinking. We see Edward, a Black Leicester longwool sheep, who's as good at recognizing human faces as any human reading the article. We see JB, a giant Pacific octopus, currently held in captivity in a Baltimore aquarium, who, we're confidently told, has a "distinct personality" and enjoys squirting the scientists who study him every day. We see Maya, a bottlenose dolphin, currently in captivity in Baltimore aquarium, whose beautiful face shows all the grace and forebearance so characteristic of tursiops truncatus. We see Alex, the African Gray Parrot, who not only knew a large vocabulary but wasn't shy about advertising that fact to other birds in the lab where he lived, telling the younger ones, in English, to "Talk clearly!" when they made some mistake in their new language.

And there's our cover girl, Betsy the Border Collie, who has a vocabulary of 340 words and routinely out-performs all the higher primates when it comes to intuiting human behavior. Her owners are glowingly proud, of course, and she continues to add to her 'verbal' acquisitions.

In reality, none of those learned behaviors is technically verbal. at least not in Betsy's case. Betsy's exemplary performance has nothing to do with what humans call intelligence - dogs by and large are strangers to that function, as it's known to humans or any other species that legitimately retains it (manatees, needless to say, aren't mentioned in the article). Dogs are amazingly elastic observers of all moving things, and as for humankind - well, man has no more devoted spectator nor could have than this species, these creatures who've mapped their own genetic future to that of mankind. It's their business to intuit what humans want, and they do it better than anybody else - in reality, that's what Betsy's doing, not learning words and really knowing what they mean, or even what it means for them to mean anything.

But this is a small quibble; the article itself does a fantastic job of exploring the concepts of intellect and selfhood - exploring just how universal those concepts might be among the living creatures on this planet. We whole-heartedly recommend you rush right out and buy a copy, read this revelatory article, and then politely introduce yourself to the next non-human you meet, even if it's the Reichmarshall.

Of course, this being National Geographic, there's a lot more worth in the issue than this one story. There's a very good article on the modern ecological problems faced by Iceland, and the article on new attempts to bring democracy to the beautiful landlocked Asian nation of Bhutan has enough surrealism in it to satisfy your inner Joseph Heller. The country's revered monarch, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, recently abdicated in favor of his son, Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, who is introducing Western-style democracy to his land. One village woman is quoted as being confused by this: "We have a good and wise king," she says. "Why do we need democracy?"

To which we here at Stevereads would only add, "Amen," but the surrealism gets better:

Even Bhutan's chief election commissioner concedes that he would prefer not to have elections. "Given the choice, of course, we'd want to continue to be guided by the monarchy," he says. So why change? "It's a simple thing: The king wants it."


And if quandaries like that start to make you wonder if humans aren't the least rational beings on Earth, turn back to "Minds of Their Own" and read it again - it'll only get better the second time.

In Memorian: Austin Olney

We here at Stevereads pause to mourn the death of Austin Olney, a forty-year Boston fixture at Houghton Mifflin and one of the last of the great breed of old-fashioned editors now endangered by the crotch-scratching simian hordes of Wiki-morons flinging their own poo at every literary venue in the modern world. For forty years, Austin helped to hold back this tide, and the literary world will be forever in his debt.

No doubt modest tributes will flow in their due course - Austin was, very reluctantly, something of a legend, having worked with authors as varied as Tolkien and "Curious George" creator Margaret Rey - and we must only hope that some of them capture the quiet genius of the man.

He could see possibilities in even the most wretched piece of prose, and he lived to believe in writers, taking real, personal joy in helping them to identify and then improve their own writing styles. More than one writer under his tutelage came to realize that he supported them more passionately and persistently than their nearest and dearest often did. He had a priceless gift for spotting untapped potential.

Of course, it helped that he was enormously intelligent, with a range of interests so vast and varied that it would have been intimidating in another man, a man less willing to put it all at the disposal of any who needed it. His edits on a manuscript were as urbane, as well-informed, and as witty as the man himself. Writers would get back pages literally covered in corrections, and yet they wouldn't feel corrected - only thrilled and honored at being the subject of such high-quality, focused attention.

(The funny grace of those edits was instantly memorable; in one author's manuscript, an unbelievably verbose character elicited this comment: "He's awfully chatty, isn't he? If I were him, I'd worry I was boring people." Relaxed and friendly - but the author got the point)

Words were his passion (he was an early and vocal advocate of The American Heritage Dictionary, for instance, rightly calling it the greatest dictionary ever made), but words of course feel inadequate to honor his life and quiet labors. He'd have looked over this entry and laughed quietly. "Oh my," he'd have said, "all that, for me? Let's see if we can prune a bit, hmm?"

But in this case we're letting it stand.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Stevesees: New Amsterdam

We return to Stevesees just briefly, to take approving notice of the new Fox series "New Amsterdam," an offbeat New York crime drama featuring the main character John Amsterdam, who's three hundred years old, gifted (or cursed) with physical immortality by long-vanished Native Americans, who stipulated that time would find him when he found the one true love of his life.

We meet him centuries later, when he's a homicide detective in Manhattan (death, he says, intrigues him - "it's always playing hard to get"). In the first episode, he's somewhat predictably saddled with a sharp-tongued sassy new female partner and a fairly pro-forma crime to solve procedurally. And there's some interest in that, mainly as the viewers get more and more hints about the full dimensions of Amsterdam's long life - presumably he's been a detective for some many years, and thanks to the just slightly off-kilter physical movements and the can't-quite-place-it accent of lead Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, it all comes off as believably just a stitch away from placeably mundane.

He's seen so many partners come and go that he can't take her seriously. She's smart, sharp, and sensitive, but she faces an unbeatable edge of accumulated experience in her new partner, who's a little slow to acknowledge that she can even tell him anything, much less teach him anything.

Instead, he laconically taunts her with lines that are complete nonsequiturs to anybody who doesn't know his unbelievable past, like telling her he knows a bar was once a speak-easy in the 30s because he used to drink there, or that she reminds him of his last 609 girlfriends.

He's slightly sloppier elsewhere in his life, when he's confronting a young murder suspect on a subway platform and allows himself to be shot (he first calmly tells his young attacker what it felt like to be shot by the old style unjacketed bullet - that it felt like 'fire dropped in your veins' - as anybody unfortunate to be shot before 1921 could attest, if any such were still alive). As he's collapsing on the subway platform, he has the indistinct but immovable sensation that after all these centuries, he's come an armsbreadth away at last from the woman who can create inside him his much-dreamt-of mortality (as problem-prone modern day TV would have it, the subway platform security cameras - which he later scrutinizes - show an unhelpful plethora of beautiful young women flocking to his aid), and so the series gets its giddy-yap: at the thought that now, after all this time, his wait may be over.

His old (literally and figuratively - indeed, the two can't help but be the same, in this series) friend Omar, played pitch-perfectly by always-welcome character actor Stephen Henderson, can sarcastically comment all he likes "You meet your true love and the die? Doesn't sound too romantic to me," but Omar is less tolerant of the friend he's known so long that he can't help but be privy to Amsterdam's central secret. And when he hears about this subway encounter, he warns, "When you don't find her, you're gonna go crazy. And the last time you went crazy ... it was a long damn ten years."

Actually, in the first episode, the dynamic between these two is the best thing in the show (the dynamic between Amsterdam and his new partner gets much, much better in the next few episodes), comfortably handling the scam they've got going on the side: Amsterdam builds ornate desks that Omar then sells as 'antiques' done a century ago by a revered master - who was, naturally, Amsterdam.

His sloppiness on that subway platform - allowing himself to get shot, subsequently getting carted to the morgue and needing to sneak out unseen - sets in motion the show's other ongoing plotline, the suspicions of the doctor on call when he's brought in (she even notices that his blood type is " Rz/Rz," which was common among certain Native American tribes but is now extinct), a doctor who may be the very life-love he's seeking.

But sweetest aspect of the show is the nice ear the writers have for time. Time winds its way through this series like another character, and it's handled better and more sensitively than most TV shows usually do (the show's obvious ancestor, "Highlander," was so caught up in the hurly-burly of sword-fights and decapitations that it hardly ever paused to mine this very obvious aspect of its main character - the show did so only once to our recollection, with Duncan MacCleod comforting an old woman in her hospital bed who had once been his beautiful young lover)("New Amsterdam" nods in "Highlander"s direction, when in a future episode a kid asks Amsterdam if he's ever had his head cut off and he gamely says he hasn't).

Living forever and finding your one true love: mankind's two longest-running dreams, fused into one TV show. The Native American woman who gifts Amsterdam with immortality solemnly intones, "In all of time, there is only one person we are meant to be with," and the series buys into this idea completely, preferring not to face a much starker possibility: that an immortal would find the love of his life not once but a few times, and lose that love every time. The pilot comes close, when Amsterdam tells a grieving mother that he knows the pain she's going through: "He was six, my son - almost six. It's pain without end."

Obviously, a weekly TV show with any hopes for success can't take 'pain without end' as its tagline, but still: at times, there's a very appealing sadness to Coster-Waldau's portrayal of Amsterdam.

But it's a dogged optimism that wins the day and brings the first episode to its stunning 20-second last shot: we see Amsterdam hundreds of years ago, as he wakes up on the first morning of his new life. He's disheveled and bearded, and around him under a clear sky is a pristine wilderness. And as the camera pans, his appearance neatens - and the wilderness changes: villages appear grow and disappear, muddy streets appear and widen and become paved, buildings appear and grown and wildly multiply, cars appear, and people, and more people, in one sweeping arc that brings us back to the present, to Amsterdam walking his dog in the place where he was born all those centuries ago: Times Square. It's a bravura visual feature that's over ironically fast, and a great deal of historical care went into its construction - we noticed building facades and adornments that really did once exist, their recreations here flickering into and then back out of existence in an instant. If "New Amsterdam" can give its viewers even one such thrilling moment every episode, the show will amply justify its existence.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

March 2008 at Open Letters!

And while we're on the subject of Open Letters, the March issue is 'live' now - and it's our biggest issue yet, over-brimming with goodies of all kinds and types! You won't find a more inviting table of contents anywhere, folks - in print or online - so be sure to click over and have yourself a good generous read. Among the month's highlights: the third installment of Adam Golaski's groundbreaking and utterly captivating adaptation of 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,' Green; Garth Risk Hallberg's re-examination of Helen DeWitt's extraordinary novel The Last Samurai; Joanna Scutts' review of the latest books dealing with that legendary - and legendarily misunderstood - figure (so to speak), Mata Hari; Sam Sacks' heartfelt deconstruction, dissection, demolition, and de-materialization of two debut novels that no doubt hoped for gentler handling but failed to earn it; tween freelancer Finch Bronstein-Rasmussen reviewing Susan Fraser King's new novel Lady Macbeth; Greg Waldmann's surprisingly personal account of legendary pianist Alfred Brendel's Carnegie Hall farewell performance; the head-splitting Open Letters Quiz, and of course yours truly, off in the background, nattering on about some damn thing or another!

So click on over and get comfy on your favorite reading couch! We promise what we deliver: thought-provoking criticism, joy-producing poetry, and a bunch of quotable one-liners to divert your idle hour! And remember as always: our writers are frail, needy things - so leave comments, if you're so inclined!

The First Open Letters Reading!

Well, the clean-up teams have finished their work, the maternity wards have been warned to clear whole month of November, and the memories are starting to return: the first ever Open Letters reading was a smashing success! On behalf of my two co-editors, I want to thank all of you who came and listened so courteously and applauded so generously. There were no empty seats at the Lily Pad, and there was no shortage of room-filling conversation and laughter. We made a warm little room on a cold Cambridge night!

Sam Sacks gave an endearing account of the earliest days of the site and its origin-story, then he introduced our star poet Sommer Browning, who read her oddly lyrical, loopy, and utterly winning poetry with a total lack of the mellifluous pomposity that characterized the rest of the evening - what was she thinking?

Yours truly gave a wheezingly historical introduction to Adam Golaski that had the usual effect: it made everybody in the audience wonder some variation of 'um, who is this guy? weren't we supposed to be hearing an editor next? Does anybody know what shelter this guy's wandered in from?' Fortunately, Adam was able to save the day with a wonderfully understated reading of a portion of his hugely talented rendition of 'Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,' Green.

There was a short break (during which my continued efforts to escape were thwarted), after which John Cotter gave a smiling, inviting welcome to the audience and a detailed, fascinating introduction to our featured reader of the evening, Josh Harmon, reading from his evocative novel Quinnehtukqut.

When Josh was finished and the applause had died down, John took the podium again asked for a second round of applause for our readers - he then invited everybody next door to the Druid pub, where celebrations continued into the wee small hours.

A success, we repeat - and this without really anything much in the way of actually promoting the thing! If Open Letters ever has another reading (we feel certain John would change that to 'when,' and given the success of the evening that was his baby, who can gainsay him?), it's certain to be an even bigger event - and we here at Stevereads are getting started early by inviting all of you to attend! A fun time can be guaranteed, on ever so many levels!

When We Were Gods

Our book today is When We Were Gods by Colin Falconer, and it treads the thrice-trod ground of the storied romantic entanglement of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt with ... well, really with the burgeoning Roman Empire, although specifically with two very different individual Romans: first an older and slightly grizzled Julius Caesar, envisioned by Falconer as a frustrated statesman dreaming of some last-minute glory, and second by Marc Antony, Caesar's one-time top enforcer, portrayed by pretty much everybody other than Falconer as an ambitious dupe Cleopatra first used than tossed aside.

This storyline has been revisited by writers of historical fiction ever since Plutarch made most of it up, two thousand years ago, and usually these writers manage to get only one out of the three main characters right (about the same ratio of success usually applies to Kirk, Spock, and McCoy in Star Trek - and from what we've seen, we have every reason to expect that ratio to hold true in the upcoming movie, since in it, Kirk has been cast as a bland, blond nobody and McCoy has been cast with an actor easily fifteen years too old for the part, leaving the field clear for what we're certain will be a spot-on Spock).

Caesar is in some ways the easiest. Most writers offer up a variation on the slightly effete, bored, blank space conjured up by Rex Harrison in the famous movie. Here's a sample of Falconer on the man, in a section in which he visits the tomb of Alexander the Great with Cleopatra:

The Great One could have been a statue. His hands were crossed on his breast, his golden hair spread out around his head like flax. The skin had been highlighted with cosmetics, to give it a more natural hue, but beneath the embalmer's artistry the skin was like parchment. One of the nostrils was gone, knocked off by some accident, it was said. by one of her ancestors.
Ceasar was overwhelmed by what he saw. He had taken no more than a few steps into the chamber when he gasped and fell to his knees.
She was astonished. It was the first time she'd seen him in awe of anything. He is human after all, she thought. And what he most reveres is my own bloodline. Perhaps I have a greater hold on this man than I believe.
For a long time, he did not speak. Finally, he said, "He was far younger than me when he died, and yet he had conquered half the world."
"You are greater than he is," she whispered.
"How can I be greater? When I compare myself to him, I have achieved nothing."
"But you are still alive. Alexander is dead."
This seemed to cheer him slightly.

Cleopatra herself elicits slightly more original handling from Falconer (although it should be pointed out that his writing on all his many characters is really quite good, a good deal better than virtually all other such novels on this subject, most certainly including the latest over-Loebed doorstop from Colleen McCullough), as in this little peroration in which she tries to spell out to Caesar just exactly how important she is:

As queen I hold the monopoly on all of this. It is the queen who tells the peasants how much to plant, and the products are pressed in my factories. All that oil is mine. It is Cleopatra's grain that feeds the Mediterranean, and the tax on wheat is twenty million bushels a year. And there is so much you haven't seen. My papyrus plants make paper for the whole world. I have a monopoly on wool, a quarter share on all fish and honey sold in Egypt, a third share of all the grapes. I have salt and natron pits. I have gold mines in the south. I take a twelve percent duty on all goods that go up the Nile...

You go, girl!

However, as good as Falconer's book is - and it's very good, good enough to be recommended here at Stevereads - it stays true to the golden ratio: it only gets one of its three main characters exactly right, and it's the one most writers reliably get wrong. Falconer's Marc Antony is a lowbrow brute you can't help but like, a foul-mouthed soldier who's nevertheless more honest than everybody around him. That honesty does him no good - in fact, it dooms him - but it's at least enjoyable to read. Falconer's Antony is worth the price of the book, as in this bath house scene, where he and Cicero catch sight of young Octavian (the future 'Augustus' of the known world) cavorting:

"Octavian," Cicero muttered.
Antony examined him critically. "Look at him. Bottom as hard as a camp bed. Talking of beds, they say his friend Maecenas has camped there overnight once or twice."
The boy jumped into the hot water and disappeared from sight.
"They say he's Julius' favorite," Cicero murmured. "One day he might be named as his heir."
"That little bitch? He would make a Consul a good wife, certainly. But I doubt he shall ever amount to anything. The first rain and he sickens like a wet cat."

Of course Antony - and all his allies, including Cleopatra - turn out to be drastically wrong about Octavian's staying power, but that's a large part of the fun of revisiting this story so regularly, isn't it? We all know how it ends. It's up to each author to take the material up and make something interesting out of it. Shakespeare of course created one of his most lush and over-ripe masterpieces. Shaw crafted a play in which he himself more or less shuts up, always a noteworthy occasion. And Colin Falconer has made a novel well worth your time.