Sunday, April 27, 2008

Bloodsport in the Book Review!

Ordinarily, we here at Stevereads would have folded in anything of interest we found in the Sunday Times Book Review into our next Penny Press roundup, but this week was just too tasty to ignore! We'll return to our regularly scheduled long, obscure, and totally ignored book reviews in due course!

If you've read the Book Review this week, you doubtless already know which piece caught our eye: yep, the one featured on the cover - New Republic brontosaurus Leon Wieseltier reviews Martin Amis' The Second Plane, and the results aren't pretty. Wieseltier has been TNR's literary editor for a quarter-century, and in all that time he's managed to stay open-minded to the feel of writing - amazingly, his ear has not been corrupted, jaded, or deafened. He can be a delighted friend to the darndest books that cross his desk, but if he doesn't like what you write, hoo boy, you feel it in every sentence.

He doesn't like The Second Plane, and that would be bad enough, but in addition he's also at the top of his game in the review from first to last - this is a bad combination for Amis, alas, no matter how much fun it is for readers:

He [Amis] has a hot, heroic view of himself. He writes as if he, with his wrinkled copies of Bernard Lewis and Philip Larkin, is what stands between us and the restoration of the caliphate. He is not only outraged by Sept. 11, he is also excited by it. "If Sept. 11 had to happen, then I am not at all sorry that it happened in my lifetime." Don't you see? It no longer matters that we missed the Spanish Civil War. No pasaran!

Haymaker follows haymaker:

And what is gained by preferring "horrorism" to "terrorism," except perhaps a round of applause? Amis's freshness is flat and neurotic and genuinely tiresome. He writes as if Orwell never lived. He is dead to the damage his virtuosity inflicts upon his urgency. Instead, he pulls focus, and pulls, and pulls. His book reminds me of what Heath Ledger is said to have remarked, in disappointment, about Philip Seymour Hoffman's Oscar: "I thought it was for the best acting, not the most acting."

There is a pitch a really good reviewer can reach in a piece such as this, a pitch during which the writer can scarcely put a foot amiss. It's exhilarating to watch but also terrifying: it incurs a certain involuntary sympathy toward the victim. We here at Stevereads have never been a fan of Martin Amis - indeed, we've spent many a profitless hour de-programming young people who, having read nothing else, read him and think the sun shines out his arse. But even so, how can we help but feel a twinge of empathy for somebody on the receiving end of a pile-driver like this:

Pity the writer who wants to be Bellow but is only Mailer. What we have here is a hormonal unbeliever. Amis's sympathy to Islamism is based upon a more comprehensive antipathy to religion. In Amis's universe, you are either religious or you are rational. Or to put it in the bracingly original terms of The Second Plane, it is misology that is the cause of thanatism. Amis calls himself not an atheist but an agnostic, but still he is catching a wave to Dover Beach. "Today, in the West, there is no good excuse for religious belief - unless we think that ignorance, reaction and sentimentality are good excuses," whereas in the East, well, you know.

As good as that is, as expertly excising as that is, it's not the best Wieseltier has to offer. When he digresses, when he pauses to talk about the things Amis has written about, you want nothing so much as to read the book he'd write on these same subjects:

But does Amis really think that reason has no blood on its hands? I do not say this to extenuate holy murder, obviously. All murder is unholy. I wish only to suggest that the simpleton's view of the world that Amis is angrily promoting contributes not very much to the study of the passions that are scalding the planet. There are religious people opposing the terrorists and secular people supporting the terrorists. After the 20th century, the question of which worldview kills more, the godful one or the godless one, was made infernally moot. Anyway, the safety of the West cannot wait upon the progress of enlightenment in Waziristan.

He concedes a number of the basic points Amis makes in his book - points about Islamic fanaticism and the like - but it's no victory for Amis:

I have never before assented to so many of the principles of a book and found it so awful. But the vacant intensity that has characterized so much of Amis's work flourishes here too.

He finishes by mentioning Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke in connection with Amis' book and draws doleful parallels between them:

They are both productions of misplaced literariness. They treat the most fundamental matters of politics and philosophy - what individuals and societies should live for, and what they should die for - as occasions for the display of artifice and the exhibition of temperament. The consideration of their arguments is regularly diverted by the consideration of their effects. For this reason, such writings will have more impact than influence. The criticism of language may be required for the criticism of politics, but politics is not mainly language. History may be generously lighted by the bright beams of the imagination, but the student of history is not primarily an artist. And the great campaign against the medievals of our time will be dreary and long and homely.

In the final analysis, we cannot fault Wieseltier's damnation of Amis' book in any of its main or minor points - it's as thorough and painstaking an evisceration as anything the Book Review has published in a many a long moon. No, the only thing we object to coming from Wieseltier are his opening comments, in which he intones that book reviewing has become "decidedly less grand, less intellectually and aesthetically primary - no longer the literary or philosophical or political adventure that it used to be." Instead, "everything must now be short and pert and helpful."

To which we here at Stevereads naturally object! Not only is Stevereads a bastion of literary purty - no 'pert' sycophants we! - but the good lads over at Open Letters Monthly have created a bolt-hole in the literary landscape in which no past favors apply, in which neither fear nor favor is showed to any literary endeavor. If a damn fantastic old dog like Wieseltier feels so genuinely bleak about the state of the reviewing art, he's always welcome to mosey on over to OLM and start writing pieces! Fire from Olympus is always welcome - as Wieseltier himself points out, there is never enough reason in the world.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

On Sci-Fi tonight!

Our very own Brian (he of Moving Picture Trash infamy) must be pleased: the Sci-Fi Channel's movie this evening is directed by none other than Brian's nemesis/salvation Uwe Boll - it's Bloodrayne 2: Deliverance, in which Boll does Old West vampires!

But there's more to Bloodrayne 2: Deliverance than that! Call it a Tale of Two Wretched Tobacco Addicts. Once upon a time, these two good-looking young tobacco addicts starred in the mini-series adaptation of the then-popular kid's book Dinotopia. One of them was straight but a horndog, a kid who would jump on anything with a pulse when the mood was upon him (and it's been upon him night and day roughly since he was 11) - including his co-star. The other was as gay as a day in may. One of these wretched tobacco addicts - the straight one, of course (the deck being stacked, as it were, in his favor) - cared not a fig for how the public perceived him; the other was terrified of being exposed (the Hollywood code for this? if the star in question says he's aware of the gay rumors surrounding him and is "OK" with them).

One of these wretched tobacco addicts went on to star in a thoroughly delightful TV series (one of the true inheritors of Northern Exposure's mantle of intelligent playfulness) that was canceled almost before it could air. The other went on to make millions starring in a TV series so freighted with impossible plot-tricks that P. T. Barnum would've said, "that's a little much, ain't it?" If there's a moral to the story, we here at Stevereads can only assume its this: tobacco addicts are wretched.

And that public taste sucks, of course. But you all knew that.

Friday, April 25, 2008

In the Penny Press!

Lots and lots of indignation in the Penny Press this time around - indignation, outrage, and at least one article intended to produce those reactions.

Nothing more effectively produces bitterness in 2008 America - at least, the tiny parts of America that bother to read anything, let alone magazine articles - than the subject of President George W. Bush and the religious-nutjob core base that still believe in him. This uniter-not-divider has, as has been commented on many times by many voices, succeeded in dividing this country along virtually all of its faultlines, more deeply than any single individual - President or otherwise - has ever done in the country's history, and although his job-approval ratings (those fickle things - we know all about them here at Stevereads) are abysmal, that dividing will go on long after John McCain has taken over his job. The gap between the haves and the have-nots in America has never been wider or more invidious; the distrust the average citizen feels toward the government has never been greater or more richly deserved; the faith Americans feel in the future of their country - both its safety and its morality - is shattered almost beyond recall. And there are two open-ended wars going on, each of them relentlessly chewing up a whole generation of undereducated, prospectless young American hillbillies (the dead dying for absolutely no purpose, the living inflicted with a vast category of mental problems, the fallout of which will be decades in the sorting out). There is, in short, plenty to be bitter about.

In this week's Rolling Stone, the always-reliable Matt Taibbi journeys to the heart of one of those divides, going undercover to the 'evangelical front lines' - in this case the evangelical empire of John Hagee (whose presidential endorsement John McCain so gratefully absorbed). Taibbi dons a dim disguise and boards a bus to a revivalist camp outside San Antonio. Amidst much good prose (and some lamentably excessive sexist phrasings), Taibbi comes to the nub of such evangelical outreaches:

In these Southern churches there are few wizened old sages such as one might find among Catholic bishops or Russian startsi. Here your church leader is an athlete, a business dynamo, a champion eater with a bull's belly, outwardly a tireless heterosexual - and if you want to know what a church beginner is supposed to look like, just make it the opposite of that. Show weakness, financial trouble, frustration with the opposite sex, and if you're overweight, be so unhealthily, and in a way that you're ashamed of. The fundamentalist formula is much less a journey from folly to wisdom than it is from weakness to strength. They don't want a near-complete personality that needs fine-tuning - they want a human jellyfish, raw clay that they can transform into a vigorous instrument of God.

Taibbi enters into their day-long confessionals, takes part in all their revelations, and in the end has nothing but dire divulgements about the big-tent religious emergencists who currently hold sway in our government. He's stark about it:

By the end of the weekend I realized how quaint was the mere suggestion that Christians of this type should learn to 'be rational' or 'set aside your religion' about such things as the Iraq War or other policy matters. Once you've made a journey like this - once you've gone this far - you are beyond suggestible. It's not merely the informational indoctrination, the constant belittling of homosexuals and atheists and Muslims and pacifists, etc., that's the issue. It's that once you've left behind the mental process that a person would need to form an independent opinion about such things. You make this journey precisely to experience the ecstasy of beating to the same bit grisly heart with a roomful of like-minded folks. Once you reach that place with them, you're thinking with muscles, not neurons.

We'll come back to neurons in just a bit, but first we move to the current issue of GQ, which interviews former G.W. Bush political mastermind (and thoroughly indictable unnamed co-conspirator) Karl Rove. In the interview, we learn a redacted version of Rove's opinions on the ongoing presidential election (he's delighted with the Democrats' prolonged infighting and picks them apart in what we must allow is the 'classic' Rovean style), but the most arresting moment happens early in the piece, when interviewer Lisa DePaulo says: "But when people say you've created this climate of fear ..." To which Rove instantly replies, "I laugh."

Even the obligatory indifference of the professional freelancer is rocked by this - DePaulo blankly repeats, "You laugh?" It isn't enough, of course. It could never be enough. No length of months at the Hague in full view of the world could ever make it enough. When asked about the climate of fear he alone orchestrated in modern America - a climate in which every single person with dusky skin is considered a terrorist, a climate in which such strident xenophobia is considered basic patriotism, a climate in which municipal buses now play repeating loops, warning loops urging everybody on board to actively suspect everybody else on board - Karl Rove laughs.

Of course, in addition to the outwardly provocative there's that which provokes through its very sincerity. An example of such must surely be the Gossip Girl homage in last week's issue of New York magazine, and we suppose it's just faintly possible its sincerity is in question. The article, "The Genius of Gossip Girl," boldly proclaims that show to be the greatest teen drama in the history of television - and a harbinger of a whole new kind of TV, one freed from nightly schedules and the usual idea of ratings ... TV gone viral, as it were.

The piece is a hoot to read. It's underlying premise is that the dark Sith Lords of the CW network are intentionally spotlighting their batch of hot young stars, giving them money, assuring them clothes and party invitations, in an effort to conflate them with the characters they play on the show - in other words, product-placement done with live human beings. By all accounts the strategy is a success; certainly it's not hard to get the actors to come up with quotes their characters on the show could easily say, such as when Penn Badgley is asked about their newfound level of celebrity and comes out with this:

I think the last time people treated anybody like this was demigods like in the time of ancient Greece.

And the article goes on about one of demigod Badgley's co-stars:

But he [Badgley] doesn't have it nearly so bad as Chace Crawford, whom Penn (self-deprecatingly, adorably) calls the show's 'designated hot guy.' After some haggling involving mentions of well-lit public places, Chace agreed to meet us for a chaste lunch at Chelsea's Empire Diner. When he walked in, wearing black Levi's skinny jeans and a Diesel hoodie that hit his slender wrists just so, the restaurant's flamboyant waiters shrieked and hugged him. They later said it was because he was a regular; but shrieks and hugs are a natural reaction to someone who looks like him. (We should know: by the end of our own conversation, our voices had gone up at least two octaves. Only Mariah Carey's dog could hear us.)

Of course, the article at least has to mention the ongoing Internet drama surrounding Crawford's sexuality - both his co-star roommate and former 'N Sync member JC Chasez have felt called upon to issue public protestations that Crawford is straight, but the rumors continue to fly (including, just last week, the eruption of a 'Missed Connections' posting on Craigslist that would only be from the actor if he's as dumb as he looks, which seems impossible). This shouldn't be so: Crawford showed up wearing skinny jeans ... Crawford is, therefore, gay. But however the issue gets settled, he certainly can't be known to be gay, not with scadloads of money riding on Gossip Girl - the whole point of this human product-placement is that the actors seem to be just like their characters, and vice versa. If the 'designated hot guy' is revealed as seeking other hot guys, he'll be out of a job about a nanosecond before the CW is out of a hit.

Of course, not everything in the Penny Press this time around was gossip and glamor - although the underlying theme of indignation manages to stay true. In the TLS, for instance, Michael Bentley can't help but utter an aside about the book he's reviewing - an aside that will be ruefully familiar to editors everywhere:

... the reader, deprived of colons and semicolons, enters a world waist-deep in present participles, and has to cut some of them down from their rope before the subject of the sentence becomes clear. An old-school subeditor could and should have served the author better, and at least helped get the quotation marks to face the right way.

And in the same issue, but on a considerably higher temperature of indignation, Raymond Tallis offers a long and feisty essay refuting A.S. Byatt's earlier TLS piece in which she tried to use contemporary neurophysiology to frame the fascination she feels for the poetry of John Donne. Tallis is having none of this and roundly takes both Byatt and the entire cross-discipline fad in literary criticism to task, asserting that there is more to both humans and reading than this cross-discipline approach dreams of:

...neuroscience groupies reduce the reading and writing of literature to brain events that are common to every action in human life, and, in some cases, in ordinary non-human animal life. For this reason - and also because it is wrong about literature, overstates the understanding that comes from neuroscience and represents a grotesquely reductionist attitude to humanity - neuroaesthetics must be challenged.

This is a valiant defense of a doomed viewpoint - of course the totality of the reading experience is neural - what else could it be? The only reason neuroscience (and by extension neuroaesthetics) looks reductionist in 2008 is because it's still in its infancy, but that's hardly the discipline's fault. What Tallis is doing here, probably without knowing it, is bringing God into the picture, retreating to the tired, familiar old redoubt that has served humanity so well since Darwin and Freud undertook to dethrone it: there is more to me than physiology. When I read, this line of thinking says, I'm doing more than just firing neurons.

But the only reason anybody wants to assert this is because when you're reading (especially if you love reading), it feels like you're doing so much more than firing neurons. Tallis' faith is to be commended, but accompanying his article there's a picture of an MRI scan taken of a person's brain in the act of reading, and you'd be amazed at the sight of it: hardly any part of the great dark enfolded mass is lit up ... just a little bit of orange around the edges, that's all that signifies the whole-body transport to Middle Earth or Lonesome Dove or Vanity Fair. Four times that area is lighted up while, for instance, a lunkhead UMass frat brother is charging down a soccer field, ball in play. That doesn't feel right - it feels somehow unjust, and Tallis is reacting to that as much as anything else. Byatt will no doubt respond; this could be the beginning of a protracted back-and-forth hootenanny of the kind the TLS was once famous for - we shall see.

And we shall see, when we take up the Penny Press again! In the meantime, the tardy among you might take this opportunity to go back and review our review of Gossip Girl - the book, that is. You know you want to.

Byron in Italy

Our book today is Byron in Italy by Peter Quennell, a slim and powerful account of the years the poet spent traveling after his scandalous behavior (alluded to in our last entry, in what is quickly degenerating into Stevereadsbyron) prompted English society to denounce him (most famously at Lady Jersey's party in 1816, in which he was 'cut' by an entire room full of people who only two years ago couldn't invite him out often enough) and England to become too bittersweet a place for him to live.

Byron is a gigantic subject, and Quennell's approach, giving precise detail to one segment of the life, is the most rewarding approach (this book can be seen as a sequel to his earlier work Byron, the Years of Fame, but it can be read entirely separate from that book). Rewarding, but also damn frustrating at times - despite the copious letters and jottings the poet left posterity, he remains maddeningly elusive. In scene after scene, anecdote after anecdote, as you read four or five accounts of one event or outburst, you'll find most of the details lining up toward some kind of unified picture - only to get the disconcerting impression that Byron himself is looking out of that picture's frame, at you, with a mocking smile on his face, as if to say, I wasn't really here; all of this bored me so.

Quennell's book makes its peace with this unsettling impression by piling on the facts and moving straight ahead - and this also is much the best tactic (Quennell's books are uniformly excellent - his biography of Hogarth remained the best work on the subject for sixty years, until it was gently but firmly supplanted in 1997 by Jenny Uglow's own Hogarth book). Here we have Byron and his entourage making their way from Venice to Ravenna to Pisa to Genoa, constantly squabbling and braying and pausing to sleep with the locals.

Byron is only 28 at the time, and he's the constant center in a never-stalling whirlwind of interpersonal drama, played out by the famous cast of characters we meet here again in Quennell's book. There's steadfast friend John Cam Hobhouse; there's opportunistic rogue Edward Trelawney; there's the poet Shelley and his wife; and of course there's poor miserable Doctor Polidori, so pathetically in love with the indifferent Byron. At one point Polidori whines to Byron that he can do anything that Byron can do, is just as good a man. To which Byron responds - you very much get the impression he's listing the first three things (from a very long list) that come to his mind - with three things he can do that Polidori cannot: "I can swim across that river - I can snuff out that candle with a pistol-shot at a distance of twenty paces - and I have written a poem of which fourteen thousand copies were sold in one day." It's a wonder Polidori had the nerve to speak at all.

Quennell is wonderful in giving the reader a sense of what Italy - and most specifically Venice - might have meant to the bitter and aching Byron:

Having touched the rock bottom of gloom and agony, his spirits bounded up again toward the surface, and burst into the sunshine of an ordinary sensual life. To his surprise, he had discovered that he could still enjoy himself.

Of course, even in Venice, where he eventually installed himself, his hangers-on, his mistresses, and his various captive animals in the great, foreboding Palazzo Mocenigo on the Grand Canal, there were impediments to complete enjoyment - foremost being the presence of his own countrymen. In one letter (not in Quennell's book, but still worth quoting!), Byron's mixed tone of contempt and humor is captured perfectly:

Mr. Hobhouse is gone to Naples: I should have run down there too for a week, but for the quantity of English whom I have heard of there. I prefer hating them at a distance; unless an earthquake, or a good real eruption of Vesuvius, were insured to reconcile me to their vicinity.

(Indeed, though Quennell is busy telling the facts of his story, it bears mentioning here that the letters of no other poet in the world are as much sheer fun to read as Lord Byron's - Auden thought them the best introduction students could have to Byron's verse, and reading even a small quantity of them handily demonstrates why: they glow with life).

For all his straightforward narrative intentions, however, Quennell is at his best when digressing to talk about poetry, human nature, and the creative arts. He says of Byron that he possessed "a peculiar degree of self-awareness (a quality very different from self-knowledge)," and he digs deep into the motivations behind the poet's famous excesses:

In every artist's nature, more or less acutely developed, there exists the impulse, which has been conveniently, if perhaps not very accurately, entitled la nostalgie de la boue. With love of order coexists a feeling for disorder; with desire for clarity, propriety, and delicate distinctions - lacking which a work of art cannot emerge from chaos - goes a taste for the kind of experience that is gross but lively. So rarefied is the atmosphere in which art is born that the artist, when he transfers his attention from art to life, often chooses to breathe a steamy and relaxing climate, the air of the brothel, the crowded restaurant, the smoke-fogged drinking party.

In other words, occasionally every great poet must have sex with a double-jointed Romanian.

(Byron himself, naturally, could be eloquent on the subject of his own creative drives, as in another ex cathedra letter:

I am glad you like it [Childe Harold]; it is a fine, indistinct piece of poetical desolation, and my favourite. I was half mad during the time of its composition, between metaphysics, mountains, lakes, love unextinguishable, thoughts unutterable, and the nightmare of my own delinquencies. I should many a good day have blown my brains out, but for the recollection that it would have given pleasure to my mother-in-law.

All of Byron's famous mistresses are here - the terrifying, imperious Marianna Segati, the serene and oddly alluring Countess Teresa Guiccioli (in order to approximate the Venetian pronunciation of her last name, try to imagine what a hissing snake would sound like if it were drowning in its own spittle - that, or dirty water sluicing very quickly through a tangled grating), and Shelley is here too, an otherworldly creature whose fascination with what it might feel like to die seemed entirely to lack the awareness that once you succeeded in feeling it, you couldn't come back and talk about it. And Mary Shelley is here, faithful in the full knowledge of how fruitless her faithfulness was.

And most of all there is Byron himself, dressing like a Renaissance prince, rising late and singing to please nobody but himself (and working - the young poetasters who fashion themselves on Byron would do well to note how fast and steadily the pages flew from Italy to London during this period), lazily smarter than everybody around him and beginning to feel like a parody of himself. That Byron is Quennell's greatest portrait, and it deserves readers.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


Our book today is Melbourne by Lord David Cecil, who is of a branch of the Cecils and is a direct descendant of the illustrious title character - all of which is apropos of nothing, other than that far-ranging sources (material and alive) that might otherwise have been reticent or recondite might have been flung open to somebody with those kinds of biological credentials, whereas a biographer from a row-house behind Euston Station might have had to make do with what was available in the branch library.

Or maybe not, and in either case, as in all cases, the ultimate measure will be the quality of the writing, the sharpness of the historical insight. Pedigree is meaningless to either one of those things, as one of Melbourne's greatest admirers, President Kennedy, would have been the first to affirm. And as luck would have it, Lord Cecil (the fourth son of the Marquis of Salisbury) wrote a damn fine book.

We here at Stevereads no doubt drifted onto this book through contemplating the checkered fates of Ireland over the last 150 years or so, fates in which Melbourne as Prime Minister played a large part. But regardless of the momentary predispositions with which one comes to this splendid book, one is almost immediately subsumed into the story Cecil is intending to tell, and all the old reasons for finding these pages fall away - the pages themselves give you ample reason to keep turning them. Hell, the book's prologue, titled "The World" and describing at length the wealthy Whiggish society into which Melbourne was born, is more informed, more allusive, and more beautifully written than many entire books on the subject:

Still, as unseemly as some of its manifestations were, one must admit that there is something extremely attractive in this earthy exuberance. And, as a matter of fact, it was the inevitable corollary of their virtues. English society had the merits of its defects. Its wide scope, its strong root in the earth, gave it and astounding, and irresistible vitality. For all their dissipation there was nothing decadent about these eighteenth-century aristocrats. Their excesses came from too much life, not too little. And it was the same vitality that gave them their predominance in public life. They took on the task of directing England's destinies with the same self-confident vigor that they danced and diced. .... For they were not unmoral. Their lapses came from passion, not from principle; and they are liable at any time to break out into contrite acknowledgments of guilt and artless resolutions for future improvement. Indeed, it was one of the paradoxes created by their mixed composition that, though they were worldly, they were not sophisticated.

Who can resist a book that spins a spell like that before it's 30 pages old? And the glittering, cheerful prose just keeps burbling along, through Melbourne's birth and upbringing, through his apprenticeship in government and his Prime Ministerships under Queen Victoria (whom he genuinely liked, and who genuinely liked him) - the parliamentary battles, the great questions of the day, the ceaseless drama and tension of a high statesman's life ... it's all here, told in vigorous, thrilling prose.

And of course that other thing is here too, that business that will forever spring to mind as long as anybody who knows anything about Lord Melbourne hears his name. And it's in Cecil's book too, as it would have to be: the torrid affair his wife, Caroline Lamb, undertook with Lord Byron. Being made a fool of by your wife's behavior with another man is quite humiliating enough; if the other man is Byron, well, the whole business gets into the history books.

Unlike the multitude of biographers who've touched on this affair in the last century, Cecil is restrained in his romanticism and strict in his personal assessments. "Society was presented," he writes, "with the extraordinary spectacle of a love drama, performed in the most flamboyant, romantic manner by two raging egotists, each of whom was in fact wholly absorbed in self."

They did not do it very well. Caroline over-acted her part, and Byron could not keep his up. Under the glaring spotlight of public attention, they postured about the stage, getting in each other's way, tripping each other up, turning on each other in childish abuse, pausing to explain to the audience how abominably the other was behaving. Indeed, it would have been an ignominious exhibition enough but for the personalities of the performers. But both in their varying degrees were people of genius, and in the most ludicrous postures, the most farcical contretemps, they managed somehow to remain magnetic and picturesque.

They managed this by both of them happening to be physically beautiful (if Caroline Lamb was a genius, every chicken in China is up for the title), but no matter: Cecil doesn't let the famous affair take over his narrative. Readers get the full details of it, yes, but then the story moves on - at least as much as Melbourne himself was ever able to move on completely from his wife's betrayal and desertion. And thronging 'round this affair, and so much more deserving of our attention, are all the other fascinating figures and issues of the Melbourne's day, here brought to life by a book no biography-reader should miss. This is the genre written just about as energetically and winningly as it gets.

It's out of print, of course. We're working on a brightly-colored link with Alibris, so we don't have to feel quite so apologetic every time we end a glowing review with words to that effect. Or rather, we should say our slope-shouldered, chicken-chested, pocket-protected feckless interns are working on it. As soon as they've come up with something to our liking, we'll proudly unveil it (after first sacking the lot of them for taking so fecking long, that is).

In the meantime, there's always the Brattle, the Strand, and Powell's!

A New Edition!

Frequently, we here at Stevereads are called upon to observe the end of things - the end of some friend or author's life, the end of some young writer's career, once we've taken him out for a spin in the park, etc. Far too seldom are we ever given the opportunity to acknowledge the beginning of something, or someone.

So it's with pardonable pleasure that we hail the timely arrival of young child into our midst! Yes, it turns out his proud young parents, our friends Tyler and Betsy from out West-a-ways, have undergone some kind of human mitosis-like process and spawned, and of course they named the infant Steve, as is only fitting. We offer a fond wish for the tyke's happiness and good health, and we add a little secular prayer that he grows up as sunnily lovable as his mother - and maybe just a tad less spittle-fleckingly, vein-throbbingly rageful as his father.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

A Colder Eye

Our book today is A Colder Eye by Hugh Kenner, a rollicking exhumation, examination, and occasional exquisite extirpation of several modern Irish writers, from Lady Gregory to Yeats to Joyce to Flann O'Brien, and although Kenner was a scholar of gigantic erudition (he taught at Johns Hopkins for years and was a friend of Ezra Pound - indeed, thinking about Pound due to our last entry prompted us to think about Kenner's great book The Pound Era, which in turn drew us to our current subject), A Colder Eye is devilishly fun to read.

About which you probably shouldn't get us started; here at Stevereads, we hold an extremely dim view of the vast majority of writing coming out of academia (Kenner researched and wrote this book while at Hopkins), as being so minuscule and jargon-choked as hardly to constitute English. Scholars in any field should know better than anybody how to make their subjects interesting to the layman, since it's presumably greater enthusiasm for that subject that prompted them to study it in the first place. In scientists and statisticians and the like, some inability to convey their enthusiasms in ringing English might be expected and forgiven. But literature professors specialize in the very tools they should be able to use to share their passions with the non-specialist reading public. And yet, literature professors reliably produce the most impenetrably obscure prose of all, pouncing on trifles and nowhere even hinting that we read books because it's enjoyable to do so, or should be.

No so Kenner in A Colder Eye. Indeed, the worst part of writing about the book is resisting the temptation simply to string together a long list of quotes. We here at Stevereads shan't do that, even though it would be easy and we're pressed for time (Megmo the Eskimo is celebrating some sort of birthday this evening, and we've got to catch the next plane to Jackson Hole if we're going to make it in time to drink all the young people under the table). Instead, we'll skip the main course of Kenner's book and just serve you a couple of delectable side-dishes.

The main course, naturally, being his fantastic, penetrating analysis of the great Irish writers on whom he concentrates. Even in full-length individual studies, you'll scarcely anywhere find dissections of the works and careers of such figures as Samuel Beckett, Sean O'Casey, J. M. Synge and the like (all the giants of the Revival, and several of the wee folk as well) as you will in this book.

But it's a couple of side-dishes we'll spoon down for now, the first being the innumerable little gems of insight into the Irish literary mind and character Kenner sprinkles throughout his book. Reading along, you become more and more eager to encounter one of these, and they never disappoint:

A thing not clear to Yeats at all was the way his sense of poetic tradition, being English, pertained wholly to writing, hence to readers. Introspection, which was what he meant by "lyric," was the mauve flower of a pen-and-paper culture after many centuries of which a Shelley could write, "I arise from dreams of thee" and be talking to no one at all, needed have no one in mind at all, might be no more than conjuring up a mood with the help of first- and second-person pronouns. That is the act of a man accustomed, like most writers, to manipulating language while all alone.

But the mind of Ireland is held by the realities of talk, the most notable reality of which is the presence of others. If you were to say "I rise from dreams of thee" when there was no "thee" and you were not in your night-clothes, the chief thing you'd do is let people know you were daft.

Hee. Anybody who's ever had an Irish grandparent will recognize immediately the brutal truth of this, and maybe even feel a little sorry for poor Shelley.

Equally entertaining is Kenner's unfailing ability to unearth just the exact right amount of trivia to flesh out all the minor characters in his story, such as Oliver Gogarty, who was Joyce's real-life model for Buck Mulligan. Gogarty, Kenner informs us, was known throughout Dublin for his witticisms ("Of a surgeon enmired in a divorce case: 'He made his reputation with his knife and lost it with his fork'" ... "Of Eamon deValera: 'a cross between a corpse and a cormorant'"), and a small piece of his poetry is offered to the reader:

I will live in Ringsend
With a red-headed whore,
And the fan-light gone in
Where it lights the hall door;
And listen each night
for her querulous shout,
As at last she streels in
And the pubs empty out.
To soothe that wild breast
With my old-fangled songs,
Till she feels it redressed
From inordinate wrongs,
Imagined, outrageous,
Preposterous wrongs,
Till peace at last comes
Will be all I will do,
Where the little lamp blooms
Like a rose in the stew;
And up the back-garden
The sound comes to me
Of a lapsing, unsoilable,
Whispering sea.

And just when you think those lines border so closely and so persistently on doggerel that they must surely lack all merit for study, Kenner turns for a moment to study them - and takes you with him, and convinces:

The end of that compares well with any attempt to catch in English the sound of Homer's polyphloisboio thalasses ... Anapestic rhythm and adjectival accumulation - "imagined, outrageous, preposterous wrongs" - tells us that Gogarty's been reading Swinburne; other verses of his bespeak a straw-hatted classicism like Housman's or Hilair Belloc's . At his death The Lancet affirmed that his lyrics would be remembered "as long as there are men to quote them," which is true if you think about it.

Irish literature, being pretty consistently the best literature of the last two centuries, of course deserves continuous study and has continued to receive it, but even so, it's scarcely ever in its long and argumentative history had a colder eye turned upon it than Kenner's in this wonderful book ... and that it's an eye twinkling with perpetual humor just makes it all the more fitting. If you're already familiar with the various great figures Kenner tackles here, you'll find his arguments endlessly interesting. And if you're unfamiliar with the lay of this particular land, you could have no better guide to lead you through the mazes of fact, fiction, and that essential item in between, referred to hilariously by Kenner as "Irish facts."

We're smiling at that one, as we race to catch a plane to attend an Eskimo's birthday party ...

Thursday, April 17, 2008

In the Penny Press!

Sometimes, the penny press will turn in a banner week on almost no issues, and this is one of those weeks. Sometimes, we here at Stevereads will take the cullings of our interns, hole up in our office, and read through the most wretched pile of doo-doo imaginable, all of it coming from a dozen periodicals (and before you ask, yes, sometimes the problem is the interns - hence our policy of random mass-firings, to keep herd-turnover at a steady simmer). But every so often, a mere handful of titles will yield a bounty of great stuff.

In this case, a mere two periodicals, the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. Both were jam-packed with interesting, irritating, and noteworthy things, but even amidst such a cornucopia, one piece stands out: of course we're referring to Nick Paumgarten's lamentably titled New Yorker piece "Up and Then Down," all about elevators. It's a joyful tour de force, one of the best pieces of periodical literature we've read in years. Everything you'd ever want to know about elevators is here set down in pithy, compelling prose, starting with all the juicy stuff:

Still, elevator lore has its share of horrors: strandings, manglings, fires, drownings, decapitations. An estimated two hundred people were killed in elevators at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 - some probably in free-fall plunges, but many by fire, smoke, or entrapment and subsequent structural collapse.

But our favorite quote - in a piece full of great quotes - has to be from Rick Pulling, spokesman for Otis elevators:

To the age-old half-serious question of whether a passenger barrelling earthward in a runaway elevator should jump in the air just before impact, Pulling responded, as vertical-transportation professionals ceaselessly must, that you can't jump up fast enough to counteract the rate of descent. "And how are you supposed to know when to jump?" he said. As for the alternate strategy - lie flat on the floor? - he shrugged: "Dead's dead."

Cheery guy - just what you'd expect from an elevator specialist.

The piece isn't perfect only because it isn't comprehensive. Speed is duly mentioned, but not the great elevator sequence in Poseidon; elevator shaft deaths are mentioned, but the out-of-the-blue shaft-demise of scheming, evil Roz on L.A. Law isn't evoked - and most glaringly, the turbo-lifts of Star Trek don't come up at all: elevators that are voice-activated and can go horizontal as well as vertical? The world had never seen the concept before Star Trek debuted it.

We here at Stevereads remember vividly the first time we rode on an elevator. It was a deeply unpleasant feeling of helplessness, and we have not often repeated it since (we take the stairs, and now we require all our wretched interns to do likewise). If you are somebody who routinely trusts these infernal machines, Paumgarten's piece will give you grave doubts about ever doing so again. But in a good way - in the best way, as all great essays do.

The issue has other high points - Lynne Cox's piece on swimming the Northwest Passage is wonderfully constructed, and Caroline Alexander's piece on the few remaining tigers in the wild will both inform and infuriate. In any other New Yorker issue, either of these pieces would have carried the day with top honors. But nothing really beats a good elevator piece, as we all know.

The latest New York Review of Books had fewer clear-cut winners. The great Frank Kermode tries to do something with Ezra Pound, which we here at Stevereads can tell you is an utterly hopeless endeavor; Pound was a spineless Nazi collaborator whose works should be studiously ignored by everyone for that reason. Trying to say anything more about him or his work, trying to make it anything more than the work of such a person, is both pointless and vaguely traitorous. Certainly Michael Chabon has more luck examining Richard Price's latest book Lush Life, largely to useful issue. Chabon is a very bright writer who really ought to be doing book reviews for a living, instead of writing hithertofore slightly disposable novels, and his review of Price - an author who, decades ago, broke out the exact same case of tricks Chabon currently uses (Chabon should view Price as the ultimate cautionary tale, and yet in his piece he persistently refuses to do so ... perhaps in private, we can only hope).

His piece on Price is good. He regularly delivers good stuff:

It ought not to strike us as amazing that a novelist as gifted as Price can write black characters (nor, God knows, that he simply dares to write black characters). Price succeeded with Strike - as he would go on to do, turning the tables, with the black detectives in Freedomland and Samaritan - by writing him not as a black character but as a Richard Price character, half-assed, sharp-witted, a dreamer of vague and unremarkable dreams, filled with shame and remorse toward his mother and his straight-arrow brother, cursed with into his own useless superiority t0 those around him, too smart for his own good, and too hampered by conscience and scruple to succeed at any of the things his world offered him as means to success. Things are tough for a Price protagonist, it turns out, on either side of the color line, on both sides of the Hudson.

We have all taken a communal vow to like Chabon, so it behooves us not to point out the considerable number of problems with that paragraph (and lots of paragraphs like it), choked as it is with tautologies ("shame and remorse," or "useless superiorty" and "too smart for his own good"), red herrings (that nonsense about white writers not daring to write black characters), and pueriley circular argumenting (Price writes black characters by not writing black characters?). No, the important thing to remember is the undeniable enthusiasm with which Chabon sets about his task - and that enthusiasm is abundant, although it must be said that the piece as a whole lacks the verve (not to mention the impeccable gravitas) that Open Letters' presiding genius Sam Sacks brings to the same subject. Merely avail yourselves of the link to the right, and you'll see what we mean. The comparative proses speak for themselves.

The always-reliable Tim Flannery turns in a piece on two books about insects that's largely very enjoyable. He offers the drolly understated line "I have known a few spider curators in my time, and they can on occasion be troublesome" - which alone is worth the price of the piece. Flannery speculates most enjoyably on the seemingly cellular hatred humans have for spiders:

Hillyard believes that arachnophobia commences in childhood. Infants are not usually afraid of spiders, but as they get older their fears increase. Paradoxically, as adults, many recover from their fears. One could deduce from this that at some time in our evolutionary history considerable mortality was inflicted on children, as they played in the sand and mud, by a venomous spider. That spider, of course, would have to have lived in Africa, where we evolved. Is there any evidence for the existence of such a creature? Extraordinarily, there is.

Of course, there are low points too - one of them predictably provided by high-profile hack Joyce Carol Oates, reviewing - in that's the word - Keith Gessen's All the Sad Young Literary Men, the current crown jewel of the literary-masturbatory circle. Oates fruitlessly kicks the thing around for a while (wretched and disastrous comparisons to F. Scott Fitzgerald hover around the piece's peripheries) , unintentionally damns it in all the direct quotations she chooses, and finishes with the fatuous and mendacious assertion that if the book is faulty, it's the AGE that must be at fault:

In this debut novel there is much that is charming and beguiling, and much promise; if there is not, in these candid and unpretentious pages, the old Fitzgeraldian magic, one must concede that this is not an era hospitable to literary magic.

How to even categorize all that's wrong with those two slim lines, all the corner-cutting, all the prevarications, all the shim-shammery at which Oates so specializes? Let's leave aside the redundancy (we guess old dogs are as susceptible to it as young ones) of 'charming' and 'beguiling,' and passing over in gentlemanly silence the cowardly writerly manuever of fake substitution: are there passages of charm and beguilement, or aren't there? There cant be both, no matter how much you'd like there to be in order to get you off the hook - indeed, that hook is supposed to be the defining discomfort of all real reviewers: if you're blogging about something, that's one thing, but if you're actually reviewing it, you have to say things. Oates is clearly enamored of Gessen's admittedly impressive young literary journal n + 1, but that doesn't diminish her responsibility to call bad or weak writing bad, or weak.

Still, the week in the Penny Press fully validates itself in terms of quality. We'll see what next week brings around.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

God Emperor of Dune

Our book today is God Emperor of Dune, Frank Herbert's 1981 third sequel to his massively successful and influential Dune, and even just that half of a sentence suddenly requires about a year's worth of explanation and clarification, which we here at Stevereads will attempt to boil down to just a couple of enjoyable paragraphs, as a public service (and to save ourselves some labor, since we plan on writing about all the other sequels in due time). And it's not just a factual rear-guard action we have to wage, informing and filling-in, no: because in addition to everything else, we've found that the sequels to Dune, in and of themselves, are apt to spark arguments from Manhattan to the Ivory Coast.

The gist of the matter is this: somewhere in the early '80s, an idea took hold in what, for want of a better term, we'll call the science fiction community, and that idea was this: Dune is, of course, great - but either a) Dune Messiah stinks, Children of Dune is good, but all the others - God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune, all stink, or b) all the sequels stink. This opinion was disseminated wide and far and can today be heard firmly parroted by science fiction fans who've never actually read any of the books in question.

This idea is almost entirely wrong. It's true, Dune Messiah is a very, very rare creative misfire by Frank Herbert. But all the other "Dune" books are fantastic, each in many ways better than the one before it. Herbert's art grew wiser as he grew older. There are epic battle-scenes in Chapterhouse:Dune that are drawn with only a handful of extremely deft master-strokes, and God Emperor of Dune is full to over-brimming with a gigantic and playful wisdom. It's in every way a thoroughly remarkable book, poorly served by the knee-jerk condemnation floating around the sci-fi world, a condemnation made all the easier by the largely atrocious books churned out lately by the author's son.

For those of you coming cold to the world of Dune, a few preliminary words: the setting is the far, far future, a galaxy-spanning empire ruled by an emperor and fueled by the spice melange, which prolongs life for those wealthy enough to afford it, and the mind-expanding qualities of which allow the navigators of the Spacing Guild to ply the space-lanes between star systems, thus making the empire possible at all. The spice occurs on only one planet: Arrakis, the desert planet - Dune.

In Dune, the control of the spice is wrested from the empire by the desert people of Dune, lead by an exiled scion of a noble Imperial house, Paul Atreides. He thereby becomes the most powerful man in the empire, and when a resurgence of his enemies manages to kill his infant son Leto, he's devastated and names his next son Leto as well. This second Leto grows to young manhood in an empire controlled by House Atreides but riven everywhere by striving power factions - the Spacing Guild, the shape-changing Tleilaxu, rival imperial houses, Fremen purists from the sand-villages of Dune, and perhaps most effectively of all, the Bene Gesserit, an ancient and secretive quasi-mystical sisterhood following their own long-sighted ends. Leto II's grandmother was a Bene Gesserit, and he grew up both schooled in their ways and resentful of them.

In response to a crisis in Children of Dune, Leto does something remarkable and unprecedented: he accepts the larvae of Dune's enormous, savage sandworms into his own body. They begin immediately to make physical changes that give him physical abilities which allow him to save the day in that book, but the after-effects are unknown.

Those after-effects are the main scaffolding of God Emperor of Dune, because the novel opens thousands of years after the close of Children of Dune. As far as we're aware here at Stevereads, this is the only time such a devise is used in all of science fiction, and it's only made possible by that amazing gamble young Leto II takes in the previous book. Because it turns out the sandworm organisms he grafted into his body have changed that body, strengthening it and altering it as they slowly, gradually transform Leto into the title character, the God-Emperor whose rule has lasted for thousands of years. In God Emperor of Dune Leto is no longer human in any way - not only is he physically transforming into a great sand-worm, but he's mentally coping with being a not an individual but a self-defining community, vastly older than everybody around him, constantly incubating a plan, a hideous, long-term plan to at last domesticate humanity.

Herbert captures all these utterly weird eventualities with a width of vision that's hugely, dramatically convincing. Long, long hours of deep contemplation perhaps gave these insights to Herbert (that, and losing his beloved wife, a loss he heartbreakingly makes memoir of in a later Dune volume), but the genesis of it hardly matters - the result is a book of precipitate speed and power. Here, for instance, is God-Emperor Leto wistfully contemplating his lost humanity:

I feel the vanished parts of myself. I can feel my legs, quite unremarkable and so real to my senses. I can feel the pumping of my human glands, some of which no longer exist. I can even feel genitalia which I know, intellectually, vanished centuries ago....

Herbert has many strengths as a writer, but his strongest by far is his ear for dialogue (two things should be pointed out here: first, this is, oddly enough, the hardest trick for writers to master, and second, Herbert's son utterly fails at it - hasn't written a convincing word of dialogue in thirty years). In Heretics and Chapterhouse his dialogue explodes off the page, becomes in and of itself an action, but even in God Emperor it's achieved a crystalline quality most science fiction writers can only dream of:

"Where did you get the spice-essence?" Leto asked.
"We bought it from smugglers," [Bene Gesserit sister] Anteac said.
"There've been no smugglers for almost twenty-five hundred years."
"Waste not, want not," Anteac said.

Events in God Emperor of Dune are pre-ordained - Leto has the spice-gift of predicting the future, only to an extent no other savant has ever approached, and he's plotted the course of his life down to the last 'accident' that twists its path. But somehow, Herbert manages to weave this element of pre-destination throughout all his "Dune" books without ever sapping the dramatic impulse that pulls them all forward. The entirety of the series (possibly excepting Dune Messiah) is hugely worth your time, regardless of nerd-sci-fi prejudices, and we here at Stevereads - being immortal and semi-human ourselves - favor this particular book above all the others in the series. The next time you see a paperback of it for 40 cents, take a chance and dig right in!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Darwin and the Beagle

Our book today is Alan Moorehead's Darwin and the Beagle, his 1969 tour through Charles Darwin's 1836 unexpected classic The Voyage of the Beagle, which was originally put out as just another memorandum in scientific circles. It was publisher John Murray who saw immediately that the book is something more than a valuable scientific treatise - it's also one of the most rip-snorting travel yarns ever written. Murray bought the rites to the book for a song, and it's been in print ever since, more popular with every passing generation. Anybody who reads the book can instantly tell you why: when Darwin got consumed in writing about evolution and the natural sciences, the literary world lost one heck of an adventure-writer. The Voyage of the Beagle is one of the world's small company of inexhaustible treasure-troves.

But for those of you who feel a little intimidated by it - and for all the rest of you, who are quite rightly of the opinion that no excuse is needed to revel in more of Alan Moorehead's prose - Darwin and the Beagle is the perfect compromise. Here is one of the greatest travel-writers of the modern era taking you carefully through Darwin's great book, giving you all the best bits, leaving out the spots where river-measurements might get a little tedious for the uninitiated, and serving the whole thing up in impeccable, nimble prose.

Moorehead is the author of a good many great books, including The Blue Nile and The White Nile, and he's very much worth your time as a writer in his own right. Our present book was almost certainly what the harried British legal profession used to call a 'money brief,' but forty years ago, that didn't necessarily mean it must stink (unlike the present age, where it's a mathematical certainty that any movie 'novelization' done by Peter David will, in fact, stink)(in the fullness of time, we here at Stevereads will be getting to the whole sub-genre of movie 'novelizations,' never you fear ...). Just look at Anthony Burgess' Shakespeare, written a year later than Darwin and the Beagle: it, too, is a genuine honest-to-gosh book, not just some mocked-up approximation of one.

Of course, the chief glory of Darwin and the Beagle isn't the prose, nor was it ever meant to be. No, the main selling-point of the book is its extremely copious illustrations - some in full color, many, many more in black-and-white, as full a pictorial representation of that epic voyage as any reader could want (and, incidentally, one that is entirely, proudly disdainful of including photographs). These are all contemporary illustrations, betraying no greater knowledge of the world than Darwin and his contemporaries had.

His contemporaries, in this case, meaning first and foremost his fellow voyagers in the Beagle. She was a little ship but intensely seaworthy, helmed by Captain Robert FitzRoy, a young, charming, mercurial man who took an instant liking to the 21-year-old naturalist Charles Darwin, who joined the crew for its circumnavigational voyage while having as little knowledge of what they'd be facing as anybody else.

What they'd be facing would include dozens of previously unknown animal species (all of which would be carefully, painstakingly described and sketched), dozens of previously unexamined aboriginal races (most of which FitzRoy sketched himself, betraying a typically Victorian talent for many trades), and the germs of ideas that, when fully realized, would completely change the world.

Moorehead keeps his eye on that prize, but he's happy to delineate its high and low points for his readers. And his sense of wonder never flags:

The Atlantic, now that they were about to leave it, made them a gift of some magical moments. One calm, dry day a myriad butterflies came streaming past them from far out at sea. It was like a snowstorm; as far as one could see, even with the aid of a telescope, the sky was filled with soft, white, fluttering wings, and it was not until evening that a wind came up and blew them away.

Such innocent wonder wasn't all of it, of course: a voyage to the ends of the Earth and back would hold many private awakenings for the sheltered young man the crew referred to affectionately as 'our flycatcher.' Later writers have made free to link each one of these little moments to the big theories Darwin would later hatch, and Moorehead is no exception, although the crackling immediacy of his prose saves him from being unbearable about it:

And now abruptly Darwin was made aware that the brutality in nature, the persecution of the weak by the strong, applied to human beings as well. They had entered a part of the forest where the track had become overgrown, and a negro slave with a sword had been sent ahead to cut a way through. Darwin was trying to speak to this man in broken Spanish, and was gesticulating to emphasize his meaning when he observed with a sense of shock that the man thought he was about to be struck. He cringed, dropped his hands, and held up his face, waiting submissively for the blow to fall. Darwin was horrified. Were all the slaves as terrified as this, so broken in spirit?

Contrarily, it seems fitting that the conception of evolution should have come upon Darwin as slowly and gradually as the reality of evolution by natural selection takes place in the world, but still, popularizers love their bright lights on the road to Damascus, and in a way it's comforting - great ideas are inherently dramatic, they should crack like thunderbolts, not creep like moss. And if Moorehead succumbs to this particular temptation a couple of times, those times certainly do his wonderful book no harm. Here you'll get the fascinating story of the Beagle told to you by an enthusiastic guide who wants to make sure you miss nothing good, and surely that's reason enough to read the book? It's currently out of print, but second-hand copies turn up regularly at the four great used bookstores still left in the United States. So give a look - you'll be pleased you did.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Such Times

Our book today is Such Times by Christopher Coe, and those nine words toll more sheer sadness than some whole books do. Because Such Times is one of the most winsome and powerful novels ever written about the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s, and its author died of that epidemic while he was still only forty-one.

Such Times is one of the greatest AIDS novels ever written, and it is so very self consciously, since its author experienced the worst of that time and intentionally wove it into the story of a long-term love between two men.

Readers today will have little awareness of how bad it was, back when they were infants crawling on their parents' carpets. Right there in the heart of the modern age, this disease erupted - not in Somalia or South Queensland but in Manhattan, stalking and killing not the poor and wretched but the young and the pretty, every last one of whom was within cab-distance of Cedar Sinai medical center.

The problem, of course, was that this particular virus was new in the human population, and young viruses thrive on being new. They can cut a swath denied their older, more seasoned brethren, and they can do so for one simple reason - they've yet to learn the first rule of viruses: don't kill your host too quickly. If you do, you get the cellular satisfaction of a large body count, but you get called a scourge and sometimes you get the resources of whole governments turned to your destruction.

Unless you mostly target the right groups, which is the main reason why we can still, in 2008, talk about the scourge of AIDS. If the corn-fed populace of the American Midwest thought of AIDS as their epidemic, rather than a plague them homersexuals, well then money and research would have been forthcoming, especially in the reign of Ronald Reagan. Instead, scandalously, the American government in the '80s reacted in the same dilatory fashion toward a catastrophe engulfing gays as it did the American government two decades later toward a catastrophe engulfing the blacks of New Orleans.

Coe's a smart enough author to make generous use of his tragic backdrop but not to let it override his story. There's dark humor here, and a perfect ear for dialogue, and some beautifully wrought vignettes of life in a different era. But necessarily the main mood of the book is grief, and it's always perfectly invoked:

There may have been a day this year when I thought of him as dead right off, the first time he came to mind. Most days I think of him as though he is alive. It can happen anywhere. Walking on a street, reading a magazine, I will see a listing for a concert, a review of a movie, a new place to go for dinner, and will think: Jasper and I should hear that, see that, go there. My mind then works out of habit to remember what date we made, when Jasper said we would see each other next. When this happens, it only takes a second, maybe not even as long as that; it is quick, not a time you can measure by a watch, but most of my life is contained in that time.

AIDS in America has become a 'manageable' disease in the 21st century, which has the unlooked-for side effect of throwing the initial onslaught of the epidemic into a weird kind of alternate-history, prompting the few survivors to look around themselves bewildered and ask, did it all really happen? The roll-call of their lost friends will assure them it did, but the literature of the disease has no such apparent consolations. It exists always in a state of culpable improbability - full-blown plague years, unfolding in the heart of the most medically sophisticated society in the history of the world. The literature indicts, and it does so by its very absences - here are writers who will never produce derivative autumnal works, or confound expectations, or rise above them. They're silent now, and Christopher Coe with them, except for the books we already have. Such Times is one of the best of those books, and we here at Stevereads sadly but earnestly recommend it.

The Physics of Aristotle

Our book today is the so-called Physics of Aristotle, written in the 4th century b.c. and perhaps intended by its author as a kind of overview introduction not only to his gazillion (Greek for 200) other books but also to his way of writing ('perhaps' is repeated silently throughout that synopsis and everything that follows, since we don't know what Aristotle's intentions were - the Physics and all his other works were published by others, and it's as likely as not that Aristotle himself never lifted a finger to revise them).

The Physics (that's not it's real title - Aristotle would probably have called it 'On Natural Things,' which wouldn't have been helpful, since that's basically what he called all his gazillion books) is a systematic inquiry into the basic concepts, the underpinning shapes and natures of reality itself. That sounds absurdly over-reaching, but it's only after Aristotle that philosophers cropped up like toadstools to muddy the waters of such thought and make them undrinkable. Aristotle wouldn't have considered himself a philosopher at all in the sense of the breed with which we're now inflicted. He spent too much time watching bugs crawl over parchment to measure their strides, or carefully nursing marmoset babies with tissues soaked in goat's milk.

He's traditionally called the greatest philosopher of all time (Dante was particularly avid in his admiration), but his gazillion works are entirely free from any hint of caring about such distinctions - instead, they're full of the most muscular, free-wheeling, and utterly engaging intellectual investigations readers will find anywhere (the closest equivalent in many ways is Saint Augustine's City of God, but it falls short in the blinding rigor of its faith).

The accretions of centuries of admiration, even veneration, have conspired to make Aristotle one of the most intimidating figures in the Western canon, and that's a real shame, for the simple reason that he's one of the most enjoyable authors of any era. His style is simple and often conversational (understandable, when you consider that most of his gazillion works are probably elaborate lecture-transcripts) - the Robin Waterfield translation, currently put out by Oxford University Press, is the recommended version to demonstrate this - and the debates he carries on with himself and his subjects are endlessly fascinating.

The Physics takes as its subject matter the most elemental basics of the physical world, and before you start rolling your eyes, stop to consider how much more you knew by age 15 than Aristotle knew in his entire life. The natural world was his obsession, and he enlisted the steady stream of intellectually curious young men who constantly filled his life (the most famous of which, of course, was Alexander the Great) in acquiring specimens and oddities for his examination. But the natural world is only as yielding of its secrets as your tools are sharp to unearth them, and the tools of scientific investigation are incalculably sharper now than they were when Aristotle sought to know everything that was knowable.

You know that the Earth is a planet in a solar system, that it revolves around its mid-range sun along with a host of other planets, moons, and asteroids. You know that all living species on Earth are more or less related, that life forms descend into families and species, that cosmology currently indicates a very, very old universe of matter and energy streaming outward from a single explosive instant. Even if you paid no attention whatsoever in any biology class you ever sat through, you know more about that bug crawling across the parchment than Aristotle in all his efforts could know.

And it bears remembering that nobody had ever tried it before. Heraclitus, Empedocles, and the like had blazed the various trails of Aristotle's inquiries, but the depth and scope of those inquiries are like nothing anybody had ever done before. He searched everywhere, asked questions about everything, and wrote it all down in a prose that's direct, unpretentious, and sometimes playfully cat-tailing:

'Place' may refer either to the shared place that contains all bodies or to the particular place which immediately contains a body. For instance, you are now in the world, because you are in the air and the air is in the world; and you are in the air because you are on the earth; and by the same token you are on the earth because you are in this particular place, which contains nothing more than you. So if place is what immediately contains a body, it must be a kind of limit, and the upshot is that a thing's place would seem to be its form and shape, by which the thing's magnitude is defined and the matter of its magnitude is determined. For the form of anything is its limit.

The Physics takes just this kind of thorough, analytical approach to its attempts to bring clear, repeatable definitions to all the vague terms that had been floating around the world of discourse since long before Hesiod started writing verse about them all. Assuming we all know what we mean by form, or time, or even the workings of chance was simply not acceptable to Aristotle; he probes everything, always, in the manner of Plato's Academy, inspired by the legendary Socrates. Aristotle never rests in his probing, and although some of his gazillion books plow so deeply into their territories that they make for heavy going, the Physics is at once simple and thrillingly complex, tackling everything from the elements to the infinite to the mechanics of change:

Change is not only opposed by change: rest seems to be the opposite of change too. So here is another issue we had better settle. A change is opposed in an unqualified sense by a change, but rest is also opposed to it in that it is the privation of change, and there is a sense in which we describe the privation of anything as its opposite. Now the opposite of change of a particular kind is rest of the same kind; for instance, the opposite of change of place is staying in one place. But that statement needs some qualifying. What's the opposite of staying in a given place? Is it movement to that place or movement from that place?

Aristotle wrote 2000 years ago, and there's nothing that promises a deathly dullness these days than anything that smacks of the Greek and Roman classics. We here at Stevereads have seen what happens when nominally intelligent young men (young women, in our experience, are more adventurous) are presented with such classics: their eyes glaze over, their mouths dip open just a bit, and they instantly, adamantly stop caring. They shouldn't: in life, Aristotle gloried in connecting with the curiosities of such young men (along with the horror any civilized person would feel, there was a definite thread of pride running through his reactions to Alexander's conquest of the known world - and what naturalist wouldn't love receiving live ostriches in the mail?), and even now, ages later, his writings - starting with the Physics - have abundant power to thrill and provoke.

So find yourself a copy of the Physics and dig in - we're sure you'll enjoy yourselves.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

In the Penny Press!

A wholly remarkable thing in the Penny Press this week: a fair and even intelligent assessment of great American poet Frank O'Hara.

He wanted boy-flesh, and he had a taste for heavily-salted canned soups, and he was always short of ready cash, and he had a high-pitched voice, and he was never, ever boring - and in addition to all those things (which in their own right would have made him an indelible memory to those lucky enough to know him), he did the one thing more you need to do to insure that citizens of the Empire of China are reading your works a thousand years from now: he wrote great poems.

They don't look great. We here at Stevereads are willing to grant you that. Lost in the cacophony of the present day, lost in the free-for-all of current poetic form, they get lost, as does everything else. We number among our young friends a poet of great ability, and he sees the blinding ability of Frank O'Hara - but he'd be hard-pressed to convey that greatness to any of the innumerable poetry-readings he attends, crowded with hep y0ung p0ets who understand everything about the genre except how to be good at it. It's a revelation to hear my young friend read O'Hara (late night, say, over the phone): he senses immediately the slangy, worldly-wise, conversational brilliance his poetry-reading cohorts can be relied upon to miss.

Comics! Superman and the Legion!

Just a quick note here to tip our hats to the conclusion of Geoff Johns' epic "Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes" storyline unfolding in Action Comics.

The storyline - the best Action Comics has hosted in many, many years (and one of the best Superman storylines in recent memory, period), left us all on a great cliffhanger last time around, with a powerless Superman (in the future where the storyline takes place, the nefarious xenophobic Earth-Man has used captive Sun Boy's solar powers to turn Earth's sun red, thus depriving Superman of his powers)(which is silly for two reasons: 1. Sun Boy is the teenaged result of a freak lab accident - he's just not powerful enough to pull off solar transformations, even nefariously augmented, and 2. it wouldn't change everything anyway - Superman is from a world with a much greater specific gravity than Earth - even with a red sun in the sky, he'd still be super-strong and damn near invulnerable ... but we digress ....) fearlessly attacking Earth-Man, who's purloined all the super-powers of every member of the legendary Legion of Super-Heroes.

At the commencement of this issue, that fight is going exactly as you'd expect: Superman's losing badly. But our heroes are active behind the scenes, trying to revive Sun Boy and get him to reverse the spectrum of the sun (the actual means by which he's revived is hilarious and fitting, and it's all the more ironic that the suggestion comes from Brainiac 5).

They succeed, and a restored Superman faces an enraged Earth-Man in full view of the watching crowds, who've been brainwashed into thinking Superman is human and hates all the aliens currently living on Earth. "That's not Superman," says one helmeted police officer. "Superman wouldn't help aliens. He's for human rights. He's for us!"

Gary Frank is not the artist for Superman. His costumes have too many real-life wrinkles, and we've already discussed his penchant for 'rabies faces.' But still, his Superman can occasionally be visually stirring, and this is one of those times. The Man of Steel looks at the crowd and calmly says, "I'm for everyone. And you should know that, officer."

(a moment later, just before he takes the fight to Earth-Man and away from the innocent bystanders, he has an even better, even more quintessentially Superman exchange with that same officer: "Get everyone clear, officer." 'Yes, sir." "And be nice to each other while I'm gone, okay?")

There follows an epic battle in which Superman enlists the aid of the newly cobbled-together (and all grown up) Legion of Super-Heroes to fight Earth-Man. Needless to say, the bad guy loses, interplanetary war is averted, and the Legion is restored to public esteem. For those of us who devoutedly wish for a monthly Legion of Super-Heroes comic in normal continuity (and we're damn near getting it, in Jim Shooter's revamped Legion over in its own book, a title that just keeps getting better and better), this stuff is pure gold: this Legion is just what we remember our Legion being - heroic, quipping, conflicted, but always shining. Johns must have fed on the same back-issues, because his treatment of the Legion is pitch-perfect.

The issue's ending - indeed, it's hard not to think of it as the graphic novel's ending - is so satisfying as to be almost euphoric. The adult Brainiac-5 assures Superman that he'll need a couple of minutes to repair the irrevocably shattered time-sphere that brought our hero to the future, and just like that, we're back the past: not Superman's present, but his past as well. The issue's ending opens on a sunlit scene outside the Kent family farm in Smallville. A time-sphere opens and disgorges a very young Legion - Cosmic Boy, Saturn Girl, and Lightning Lad - and one other ... a nerdy little teenager called Clark Kent, who's been brought forward by the trio to share in their 31st century adventures and has come back crowing and laughing with the largeness of his adventures in their world.

It's a touching moment. He plaintively wonders if he'll ever see them again, to which they reply "what are you doing tomorrow?" Lightning Lad scorches an "L" in a nearby tree and says "Meet us here after school."

The issue ends with a grown-up Superman standing by that same tree, safely returned to his own time, looking back at his time with the Legion - young and old - as some of the best times of his life. It's a perfect grace-note on which to end what has been the best 'adult Legion' storyline ever written.

The oddities linger, of course. The new adventures of the Cartoon-Network Legion are being produced by the same parent-company that produces both Bryan Singer's Superman movies, and so the very young, obviously early-teened Super-figure in those adventures is called 'SuperMAN' by his young teammates - almost as though the DC powers that be want to pointed avoid using the term 'Superboy' ... and what about the conclusion to this epic, satisfying as it is? We're supposed to believe that young Clark Kent's hard-working parents could pay for every Kansas sweatshirt burned off him in the 31st century in pitched battle with the Emerald Empress?

No, somebody somewhere in some DC boardroom has said, 'Let's not call anybody 'Superboy' - and that kind of thing is only ever said if somebody's thinking of profit down the line. We'll have to wait and see what that amounts to - a live-action series of movies (or even TV-movies) starring some young teen heart-throb like Zack Efron or Jesse McCartney can't be entirely ruled out - but in the meantime, this present series has been so immensely satisfying that we, for once, can't complain. Long live the Legion, indeed.