Thursday, October 30, 2008

november in open letters!

It’s November, and this time around that means two things: a new president of the United States, and a new issue of Open Letters. As the heavily-bitten nails of the electorate will attest, the outcome of the former is still a matter of some doubt. Fortunately, the outcome of the latter is a LOCK: we have yet another grand issue for you, full to bursting with a wide array of interesting pieces (and also some by me)! There’s Sam Sacks writing beautiful prose about the nobody who won the Booker Prize; there’s Jeff Eaton writing funny prose about the Founding Fathers debating the Constitution; there’s Sara Shaffer writing indignant prose about the appalling state of pet food manufacture; there’s Astrid Van Sarisgaard writing fascinating prose about the planet Mars; there’s John Rodwan writing feisty prose about Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell, and lots, lots more! Set aside some time, pull up a comfy cushion for your bum, pull your pet of choice in close, and snuggle up next to the largest collection of great reading you’ll find anywhere this month!

And don’t forget to mark us on your calendar, jot us down in your crowded appointment book, to make sure you show up to our second Open Letters reading, Monday, 24 November at 7 p.m. at the Brookline Booksmith. There’ll likely be three readers – on three very varied subjects, naturally – and there’ll be lots of great talk and smiling faces … one of which, we sincerely hope, will be YOURS!

kingdom come!

It's been over a year since I last sang the praises of DC's Kingdom Come, and in that year, three things have happened that marginally justify my singing its praises again:

1. Batman: Dark Knight did boffo business at the box office and caused a tsunami of geek-gasms all over the known world, and it accomplished these things mainly by being smart, stylish, largely faithful to its comics inspiration, and most of all not exceedingly dumb. That, plus the surprise success of Iron Man (and the lesser but still entirely respectable success of The Incredible Hulk) and the ongoing blossoming of sci-fi on TV and cable, has further eroded the ages-old preconception of comics (and graphic novels) as inherently trite, unworthy reading material fit only for pimply prom-rejects and mouth-breathing virgins. Put simply, more people are willing to read a graphic novel in 2008 than were willing to do so in 2007.

2. The basic premise of Kingdom Come, a dystopian world on the brink of dark and sucking chaos, has never looked more similar to our own world than now, with international terrorism and violence matched recently by the burgeoning collapse of the world economy. In Kingdom Come, virtuous everyman preacher Norman McCay sees visions of a looming apocalypse, the fate of the world teetering on the outcome of a fateful battle between good and evil. In the real world, a presidential election is about to be held that increasingly seems to represent exactly that scenario, and in that battle between good and evil, to quote Dr. "Bones" McCoy, "Evil usually wins ... unless good is very, very careful."

and 3. It has a cool new cover! Alex Ross found an extra fifteen minutes, whipped up a nifty fold-out cover showing our heroes gathered around their conference table (with the villains neatly caught in the reflection), and pocketed what was no doubt a much-needed $50,000. Surely a new cover is sufficient grounds to praise this book again, especially since it'll be a while (or maybe never) before DC brings out any kind of paperback version of the deluxe hardcover I praised back in 2007.

And the cover might be new, but everything inside is just as wonderful and stirring as ever: the whip-crack pacing, the great treatment of our iconic core cast, and even the book's dedication to Christopher Reeve, which brings an even greater lump to the throat when you realize he was alive when the dedication was first made. I can only hope he read enough of the book itself to be proud of the dedication (it goes without saying he would have instinctively pictured himself in the movie-role of the older, more jaded Superman ... as it is, who knows who we'll see in the movie that, after Dark Knight, is sure to be made someday?), and I can likewise hope all of you who haven't yet read this book (ahem ...) will take this totally spurious opportunity to do so. You won't be sorry.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Clarendon and His Friends

Our book today is Richard Pollard's luminously good 1987 Clarendon and His Friends, about a man who had what one person aptly called a "genius for friendship."

Clarendon was the name of the Earldom Edward Hyde thought up for himself - he hardly ever referred to himself that way, although there was something fitting in it, as Pollard himself writes in the first paragraph of his book, a paragraph of such easy, relaxed beauty and rhetorical strength that the reader is assured literally from the first moment that this is a book they'll be able to both absorb and trust, at least as much as any work of history can be trusted:

Clarendon is so much a part of the landscape of English civilisation that he is almost lost in it. Unlike his greatest opponent Cromwell he presents no unfamiliar outline to arrest the curiosity or stir the emotions of his countrymen. The title that he chose for his earldom carries the sound of church bells heard across the fields in summer; tranquil, dignified, ordered, at home with itself. The Clarendon building at Oxford, tall, firm, balanced and quietly magnificent, evokes responses of the same order. Yet if one thinks of him by the name he bore throughout the conflict that gave him both his place in history and his subject-matter as a historian, the associations of sound are very different though not less true to the man. Mr. Hyde (as he habitually refers to himself in the History and the Life), or Sir Edward Hyde, as his contemporaries knew him when he was forging the policy of constitutional Royalism, sounds as if he ought to be a more acerbic, quick-witted, ambitious, amusing person than the ponderous figure, swathed in his Lord Chancellor's robes, that gazes at us, not without an inviting sparkle of intelligence, from the engraved frontispiece of the History of the Rebellion.

Hyde was named Lord Chancellor by Charles II while there was as yet no country for him to be Lord Chancellor of; Hyde had followed Charles into exile after the victory of Cromwell, and there he stayed at his king's side through every manner of near-vagabondish deprivation and hardship. Ollard writes well of the hopes of those forlorn days:

The enemy, until death removed him in September 1658, was Cromwell. Although he did not assume the position of Head of State until 1654 he had established himself in supreme power by executing the King and crushing the Levellers in 1649. The subjugation of Ireland and Scotland had reinforced his impregnability and had destroyed any hope of maintaining a Royalist redoubt behind which an army might be embodied. If Cromwell was to be got rid of, there were only three ways to do it: a general rising, a coup d'etat, or assassination. They were not, of course, mutually exclusive.

At first, Charles was appropriately grateful, although Hyde, like everybody else to whom the Merry Monarch owed anything meaningful, was eventually betrayed by the man he'd served. There was never a king nor hardly yet a man with less loyalty than Charles II, but for more than twenty years, Hyde was blissfully unaware of this fact, or chose to look the other way when he saw others rudely discover it.

He was a quiet, mostly fastidious little man, a worrier who talked very loudly when drunk, a merry letter-writer, a better-than-average prose stylist, and an indefatigable reader. He wrote a history of Cromwell's rebellion and an autobiography that are both very much worth reading (later historians had a great deal of fun nit-picking both, usually with far less understanding and always with far less literary skill than their poor victim). One of the greatest pleasures of Clarendon and His Friends is Ollard's terrier willingness to attack any and all received opinions of Hyde, especially those conflicting with demonstrable evidence, like for instance Macaulay's slander (one of many) regarding Clarendon's alleged dislike of young people. Macaulay writes, "Toward the young orators, who were rising to distinction and authority in the Lower House, his deportment was ungracious: and he succeeded in making them, with scarcely an exception, his deadly enemies."

Ollard responds:

Had he, in Macaulay's phrase just quoted, 'an inordinate contempt for youth'? When he died in 1674, an exile, broken and forgotten, one of his young friends wrote to inform another of the private arrangements for his burial in Westminster Abbey. The recipient of the letter, Sir John Nicholas, Edward's eldest son, had also been the recipient of some of Hyde's most charming letters in the 1650s. The writer, Henry Coventry, was the elder brother of William, one of Hyde's most redoubtable critics. How many statesmen would have taken the trouble, as Hyde did, to write to an ambassador, Rochester, telling him how his son watched every post for a line from his father? How many fathers had lived so happily and affectionately with their own children and have been so warmly and so movingly remembered? He liked the young.

He liked the life of the mind too, as Ollard consistently points out. Hyde was a great reader, a lover of finding things out and getting them down right (he kept innumerable commonplace books, as impetuously started as they were abandoned ... now all lost, I believe), but he was more than just a passive receptacle for everything he read: it filled him with plans, ideas, and schemes for his own writing. Ollard, as always, finds the right quotes and knows their significance:

That he was itching to get back to his history is evident. Did he ever tinker with what he had written, or make notes for its revision and extension? When he talks of 'falling to my book,' does he simply mean that he is going to read? Probably, but not certainly. Even when he was Lord Chancellor of England at the height of a war, passing sleepless nights over the mounting Bills of Mortality occasioned by the Great Plague, he found, or made, time to write. "I find myself insensibly ingaged in my olde exercise of writinge ...

(Hyde's love of those happy studies, reading and writing, was born and nurtured in tandem with the great friend of his young manhood, Lucius Cary, second Viscount Falkland, as smart and lively and promising a young man as anybody could ever hope for as a friend; Lucius Cary was immensely wealthy, extremely handsome - his one surviving portrait shows hardly anything authentic except his habitual slouch - and winningly outgoing, and there can be little doubt - Ollard certainly doesn't doubt it - that Hyde loved him more than he loved him more than anybody else in his life. Falkland had that effect on virtually every friend he made, and when he died, age 30, at the Battle of Newbury in 1643, Hyde wasn't the only one so grief-stricken he couldn't function for a few days).

Hyde's daughter Anne was a spirited, delightful spark of a girl, able to hold her own in conversation with anybody, and unabashedly confident of her fine-tuned ability to hone and wield her sexual allure ("wantonness" was something she despised as much as her father did, but for different reasons: for him, it was an open door to lavish, untenable expense; for her, it was amateurish). It's typical of sexist nomenclature to say such women "ensnare" men (whereas aside from the most notorious mustache-twirling villains in Clarissa, nobody ever says it about sexually confident men), and who are we to argue with sexist nomenclature? Anne ensnared James, the Duke of York, the big-boned and droolingly stupid brother of Charles II, and matters quickly reached the awkward point where something had to be done.

She married James (her daughters, Anne and Mary, Hyde's granddaughters, both became queen), and in recognition of that fact (or compensation?) Charles offered Hyde a Dukedom. Hyde didn't want to appear grabby, so he settled for an Earldom - not that any of it mattered when Charles II had one of his periodic needs to hang some close confederate out to dry, as happened to Hyde in 1667 when he was driven out of office and into exile by the House of Commons for alleged misdeeds stemming from the Second Dutch War. At any point in the proceedings, Charles could have saved him, but the king did nothing but watch.

Hyde lived in exile for the rest of his life, writing the whole time and keeping up the incredibly industrious correspondence for which he was famed in his own day among his friends and enemies alike. Friends received an endless stream of letters, long, wonderful, casually erudite letters that actually rewarded periodic re-reading. Only the stream wasn't, of course, truly endless: eventually Hyde was taken ill and died, and there were no more letters. One bereft correspondent put it this way:

"Of late he was pleased to entertaine a a particular and kind commerce with me by ample letters in literatory matters; and I persuade myselfe one of mine was one of the last which he read before his falling sicke, which I am certaine His Lordship's delight in subjects of that nature would have produced a large and learned reply if it had pleased God to lett him and his bookes together a little longer ..."

Hyde was a picky reader, and he could be prickly of his pride, but it's hard to believe he wouldn't have felt honored by Clarendon and His Friends, even though it's no hagiography and takes him to task in clear language for all his shortcomings. It's that clear language that would have won him over; this is just a wonderfully-written book. Anyone interested in the English Civil War shouldn't be without it.

A Sad Little Story in the Penny Press!

There's an achingly sad little story in the latest issue of the successfully-redesigned Rolling Stone (gone is the whole pothead oversized-paper-zine format - it's now shaped like an ordinary magazine)(for an unsuccessful magazine redesign, you can turn this month to the Atlantic), an article by David Lipsky on the life, career, and suicide of David Foster Wallace. Wallace's widow and such friends as fellow author Jonathan Franzen go on the record with Lipsky, who crafts a wonderfully told and ultimately heartbreaking story of how one young guy felt his life slip out of his control.

The basic theme is helplessness, and of course that doesn't sit well with me. It's the problem I've always had when confronted with what at one point in the piece is called clinical depression; despite ample evidence to the contrary that I've seen over the past twenty years, I still sometimes reflexively think of it as a more or less elective illness. These people expect to be happy all the time, this thinking goes, and when they're not, they start taking pills.

Reading this Rolling Stone article would cure a more stubborn person than I am of such thoughts. Here is a scrupulously honest, entirely agonizing portrait of a talented young man whose own thoughts and feelings took turns of such wanton strength and wayward direction that he was as stunned and embarrassed by them as anybody. This was clearly not a person just wanting attention or pity - nor, wrenchingly, was it a person who wanted to die. The pattern manifests itself early, when Wallace abruptly tells his college roommate he's leaving school. "He wasn't able to talk about it," the roommate says. "He was crying, he was mortified. Panicky. He couldn't control his thoughts. It was mental incontinence, the equivalent of wetting his pants."

Wallace went to the University of Arizona for his MFA (what is it with that place? Who would voluntarily go someplace where it's 100 degrees every single day?) and sold novels and short stories, and he told that same college roommate that the act of writing brought him some relief: "He once said to me that he wanted to write to shut up the babble in his head. He said when you're writing well, you establish a voice in your head, and it shuts up the other voices. The ones that are saying, 'You're not good enough, you're a fraud.'"

But he was also taking a prescription drug regularly, and when he stopped for a time and then tried to re-start, the drug was no longer effective in calming or regulating his thoughts, his fears, his panics. He's described as "terrified" and "suffering," and by the time you reach the end of the article, you wholly believe it. The piece ends like this:

At the end of August, Franzen called. All summer long he had been telling David that as bad as things were, they were going to be better, and then he'd be better than he'd ever been. "David would say, "Keep talking like that - it's helping." But this time it wasn't helping. "He was far away," Franzen says.

A few weeks later, Karen [Wallace's wife] left David alone with the dogs for a few hours. When she came home that night, he had hanged himself.

"I can't get the image out of my head," his sister says. "David and his dogs, and it's dark. I'm sure he kissed them on the mouth, and told them he was sorry."

Dogs, writing, and supportive loved ones - and it still wasn't enough to save him, because medication (and electro-shock treatment) couldn't restore balance to his brain's chemistry. The article leaves you feeling the exact same kind of pointless, resolutionless sorrow that a sudden, unexpected death often evokes ... except it's also cathartic, because you're actually alive and able to read it all and appreciate how well-done it all is. So Rolling Stone kicks off its first redesigned issue with a stunning piece of nonfiction, and I find myself wishing David Foster Wallace were still alive and irritating me. Suddenly, I miss him.

So good job, Lipsky.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


Our books today are four of the late Gordon Dickson's "Dorsai" books, Dorsai!, Lost Dorsai, Spirit of Dorsai, and Soldier, Ask Not. These four titles are nowadays billed as 'segments' of something called 'The Childe Cycle,' but that need not overly worry you - Dickson was a chronic big-dreamer, and by the time of his death the over-arching structure of his 'Childe' books had taken on the doomed hyper-comprehensiveness of the unfulfillable - kind of like science fiction's answer to Mr. Casaubon's "The Key to All Mythologies."

Unfortunately, the "Dorsai" books ended up bloated, boring, and hopelessly convoluted; later tomes like The Final Encyclopedia, Young Bleys, and The Chantry Guild are joylessly impenetrable. And there are misfires early in the series too - notably Necromancer and Tactics of Mistake. But our four books today all crackle with energy and invention, each a perfect demonstration of how great Dickson's talent was before he forgot one-half of the Horatian dictum "to instruct and entertain."

The shared background of the books is Dickson's imagined future world of the so-called Splinter Cultures: in this future, groups of humans have left Old Earth and settled other worlds, allowing those worlds to sharpen their specialties and narrow their focuses - a kind of cultural natural selection. The planets Newton and Venus have devoted themselves to cutting-edge science, to the exclusion of all else; Harmony and Association are hotbeds of religious ecstasy (and fanaticism); Mara and Kultis are home to the Exotics (think of them as super-psychologists, with a little stage-magic thrown in); and central to these early books, there's the world of the Dorsai, whose natural resources are scanty enough so that the planet's chief export resource is its fighting men and women, the super-mercenaries known as the Dorsai.

Against this backdrop, Dickson again and again created fascinating stories, mainly centering around the Graeme family, specifically Donal and twin brothers Ian and Kensie. These three either star in the novels and short stories that comprise these four books or else crop up in them at key moments. The story of this family and the chaotic growth of the Splinter Cultures away from (and occasionally against) Old Earth had huge potential - Dickson only barely scratched its surface before he died. To an old hack sci-fi writer such as myself, the obvious grand clincher of a plotline would involve all these squabbling cultures banding together against a common enemy from outside, one intent of destroying them all. Deadwood-to-the-stars, as it were. But Dickson never got around to writing that story, as satisfying as it might have been.

Still, what we have today is satisfying enough! Dickson might eventually have intended his whole 'cycle' to be a parable of the totality of human existence, but before he went down that rabbit-hole, he wrote some great, thought-provoking sci-fi adventure stories set in a future world as fascinating as any on the market. Plus, it's pretty obvious from these four books how cool Dickson thinks his Dorsai are.

And they are - these men and women who are a little bigger, a lot faster, and who adhere to a military code that at times makes them seem utterly alien to the other Cultures, especially the hum-drum ordinary men of Old Earth. That contrast is at the heart of Soldier, Ask Not, which centers on the burning desire of one man of Old Earth, Tam Olyn, to plant his flag for the home world and have his revenge on the excesses of the Splinter Cultures. As he puts it:

... I am a man of Earth.

That does not impress you? Not in these days when the sons of the younger worlds are taller, stronger, more skilled and clever than we of the Old World? Then, how little you know of Earth, and the sons of Earth. Leave your younger worlds and come back to the Mother Planet, once, and touch her. She is still here and still the same. Her sun still shines on the waters of the Red Sea that parted before the Children of the Lord. The wind still blows in the pass of Thermopylae, where Leonidas and the Spartan Three Hundred held back the hosts of Xerxes, King of the Persians, and changed history....

...The men of the Dorsai may be warriors above imagining. The Exotics of Mara and Kultis may be robed magicians who can turn a man inside out and find answers outside philosophy. The researchers in hard science on Newton and Venus may have traveled so far beyond ordinary humans that they can talk to us only haltingly, nowadays. But we - we duller, shorter, simpler men of Old Earth still have something more than any of these. For we are still the whole being of man, the basic stock, of which they are only the refined parts - flashing, fine-honed, scintillant parts. But parts.

Responding to a tragedy in his life, Olyn seeks revenge on these worlds and their specialized beings, and eventually one of tools he's tempted to use to gain that revenge is a creation of Dickson's called The Final Encyclopedia - and it's positively goose-pimpling to read his descriptions of this vast storehouse of active, interlinked information ... information of all kinds, continuously fed and updated and multiplied until it takes on a kind of matrix or interconnectivity of its own ... a vast, centralized encyclopedia that puts all the combined knowledges and whims and artistic choices of every discipline at the fingertips of the most casual user ....

In Dickson's future world, such a Final Encyclopedia will take more than a century to build (since it's being accumulated, steadily) - and of course long before it's finished, it'll be too big to be housed on Earth's surface; it'll have to be launched into orbit around Earth. Dickson died in 2001 and hadn't been in the best of health for a time before that; I don't know if he ever really saw the real-world form his Final Encyclopedia ended up taking (he certainly couldn't even dream that some day an old snail-mail correspondent of his would have access to that amazing creation from the comfort of his bed on an autumn's evening, without need for special headset, jetpack, or inter-orbital shuttle).

Soldier, Ask Not is probably Dickson's most accomplished novel, although it drags in certain sections. Likewise the novel Dorsai! physically and opposite sides of the same coin emotionally, with Ian "all ice" and which centers on Donal Graeme as a kind of focal-point of planetary destiny. The book is fast-paced but feels anticlimactic, although it gives us some fine portraits - not only of Donal, who's strange and mystical in ways that puzzle his fellow Dorsai, but also of the towering identical twins Ian and Kensie Graeme, who are quintessential DorsaiKensie "all blood."

The brothers (and another pivotal Dorsai character, Amanda Morgan) feature prominently in Dickson's best-written Dorsai book, Lost Dorsai, a very intriguing story about what happens if a Dorsai were to embrace pacificism. There's plenty of action in this book, but the character-work is its highlight and some of Dickson's best work.

But for my money, the purest distillation of his Dorsai mythos comes in the short novella "Brothers" which forms half of Spirit of Dorsai. In that story, Kensie Graeme is leading a Dorsai Expeditionary Force putting down insurgents on the world of St. Marie, and his job is just about over - when a sniper guns him down in a city street. Kensie's allegedly emotionless brother Ian order the planet be put under martial law until his brother's killers are found, but he also orders his soldiers to wait until an investigation is made. The men are reluctant to obey, wrathful and mindful of an infamous incident in Dorsai past, the subject of a marching song:

It was the song of the young Colonel who had been put to death one hundred years before, when the Dorsai were just in their beginning. A New Earth city had employed a force of Dorsai with the secret intention of using them against an enemy force so superior as to surely destroy them utterly - so rendering payment for their services unnecessary while at the same time doing considerable damage to the enemy. Then the Dorsai had defeated the enemy, instead, and the city faced the necessity of paying, after all. To avoid this, the city authorities came up with the idea of charging the Dorsai commanding officer with dealing with the enemy, taking a bribe to claim victory for a battle never fought at all. It was the technique of the big lie; and it might even have worked if they had not made the mistake of arresting the commanding officer, to back up their story.

This incident from the Dorsai past hangs over the events of "Brothers" like an insistent threat, and the deadline the troops give their commanding officers (by overwhelming vote) before they attack the cities of St. Marie gets closer and closer as Ian and his allies search for the assassins. It's a tense, well-told tale of tragedy and revenge, and in addition to everything else, it treats its readers to Dickson's wonderfully Kiplingesque poetical talents! Because naturally, in addition to alluding to that old-story camp song, he sings it for us, and it goes like this:

... one fourth of Rochmont's fighting strength -
One battalion of Dorsai -
Were sent by Rochmont forth alone,
To bleed Helmuth, and die.

But look, look down from Rochmont's heights
Upon the Helmuth plain.
All of Helmuth's armored force
By Dorsai checked, or slain.

Look down, look down, on Rochmont's shame
To hide the wrong she'd done,
Made claim Helmuth had bribed Dorsais-
No battle had been won.

To prove that lie, the Rochmont lords
Arrested Jacques Chretien,
On charge he dealt with Helmuth's Chiefs
For payment to his men.

Commandant Arp Van Din sent word:
'You may not judge Dorsai,
Return our Colonel by the dawn,
Or Rochmont town will die.'

Strong-held behind her walls, Rochmont
Scorned to answer them,
Condemned, and at daybreak, hanged,
Young Colonel Jacques Chretien.

Bright, bright the sun that morning rose
Upon each weaponed wall.
But when the sun set in the west,
Those walls were leveled all.

Then soft and white the moon arose
On streets and roofs unstained,
But when that moon was down once more,
No street nor roof remained.

No more is there a Rochmont town
No more are Rochmont's men.
But stands a Dorsai monument
To Colonel Jacques Chretien.

So pass the word from world to world,
Alone still stands Dorsai.
But while she lives, no one of hers,
By foreign wrong shall die.

They little knew of brotherhood
- The faith of fighting men -
Who once to prove their lie was good
Hanged Colonel Jacques Chretien!

Of course in an overview like this one, only a fraction of the good stuff that awaits you in these four books can be sampled, so just take it on faith: if you like vigorous, down-to-earth (so to speak) science fiction, and especially military science fiction (if you know somebody currently serving in any branch of the military, find a copy of Spirit of Dorsai and mail it to them today), the early sagas of Gordon Dickson's "Dorsai" cycle won't let you down.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Hope for the Future in the Penny Press?

You've no doubt already seen the issue: Entertainment Weekly's cover-story about the new Star Trek movie coming out this spring ... the new director is interviewed, the cast and crew are interviewed, Leonard Nimoy is interviewed, and EW drops various hints about whether or not the new movie is a warp-fueled piece of tribble-crap. The magazine seems prepared to like the movie. Star Trek fans should be prepared to hate it.

A Hollywood contact sends along a small, rough clip, something for which she could certainly lose her job, but she knows I'm one of the biggest fans of the original Star Trek alive, so her heart was in the right place. No way to know if this clip will even be in the finished movie (judging by its content, I'm guessing it will), but even its brief duration glaringly demonstrates two things:

1. The performance given by general-casting nobody Chris Pine as James T. Kirk is amazing, as daring a re-invention of the character made famous (or infamous) by William Shatner as Zachary Quinto's embodiment of Spock is a slavish imitation of Nimoy. Pine's comment in EW - that he went to boarding school, lives in the Valley, and is basically a preppy douchebag ("I wouldn't follow me into battle," he says), is undercut by the fairly adoring comments of his cast-mates and blown out of the water by his performance.

2. This movie is so far outside of the precious continuity rabid Star Trek fans so treasure that even a Medusan navigator couldn't find the way back to the old Paramount 'bible' for the movies. Even the little snippet I saw gigantically contradicted some pretty big items in that continuity; if this movie is a hit, about half the episodes of the original series will be violently undermined.

If the movie is a hit ... that's the big question. Can a Star Trek movie be a hit if it pisses off the majority of Star Trek fans? Aren't Star Trek fans the audience for such movies? Director J. J. Abrams says he's making a movie not for fans of Star Trek but for fans of movies, and although virtually all his quotes on the subject sound encouraging (especially his mention of wanting to "make optimism cool again"), I have to question the wisdom of the studio letting him do whatever the Hell he wants to Star Trek's past in order to try to give it a future. What about those of us who've watched and loved the show from the beginning? Who've maybe loved the way its lore grew more and more complex with each new set of hands, like a weird, ever-expanding tapestry? The two episodes of the original series most badly violated by this new movie (invalidated by it, really: if the movie 'really' happened, they couldn't have, and vice versa) are two of the best episodes ... was it really impossible to make a new Star Trek movie without effectively telling Star Trek fans those episodes weren't good enough to stand unaltered?

In the world of Star Trek, no detail is "real" unless it's been filmed. No amount of fiction, fan fiction, or speculation outweighs something done for the TV screen, and movies tend to outweigh even that (the exception being Star Trek V, which fans tend to hate and ostracize from the 'canon,' even though it wasn't all that bad a movie). Looked at only from that perspective, there are things we don't 'know': the precise details of how Kirk took command of the U.S.S. Enterprise, the precise details of his first meetings with his legendary crew: Spock, Scotty, McCoy, Chekhov, Sulu, and Uhura, etc. It was an obvious and excellent idea for Abrams to center his movie on that early period (somebody has been insisting that this was the way to go for about, oh, twenty years ... sigh ... studios never listen ...) - after all, this is the essential myth that started it all, the first and best crew of the Enterprise (not to mention the template for all later crews of all the various Trek incarnations). The story of how it all began has enormous potential.

And Star Trek fans have to be prepared to make sacrifices. The last two movies tanked at the box office, and the last TV incarnation was cancelled - the first series to suffer such a fate since the original back in the 60s. If the franchise is ever going to be popular again, it seems obvious some things will need to change. For instance, fans might have to swallow some retro-fitting of character timelines. In current Trek continuity, that legendary crew don't share much of a common past before the Enterprise. We get the sense that Kirk and McCoy are old friends, but McCoy doesn't seem to know much about the ways of Starfleet Academy and certainly doesn't seem to have known Kirk there. Both Scotty and McCoy seem older than Kirk, and Scotty has served on a wide variety of vessels. Spock served with Captain Pike on board the Enterprise for a decade, for Pete's sake, and given the previous billets for Spock, Kirk, McCoy, and Scotty (nothing for sure about Uhura), the most likely inference is that Chekhov and Sulu were still midshipmen at the Academy when the others were out and about serving in the Fleet.

The plot scenario this naturally suggests - a brash young Captain Kirk taking command of the Enterprise from burned-out Captain Pike and 'inheriting' a crew of old comrades already in place (taking with him his best friend Gary Mitchell and calling McCoy as soon as Enterprise's old surgeon Dr. Boyce retires) - has been written up memorably in the endless volumes of Trek fiction (anybody care to name the book?), and it has lots of dramatic potential. Problem is, all that potential is fairly subtle - the resultant movie could be made to be extremely good (Mister Roberts, anyone?), but hoo-boy, it's not the movie J. J. Abrams has made, and if Star Trek fans can't accept that and embrace it anyway, how on Earth can the movie succeed?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Running Press Unabridged Shakespeare!

Our book today is the Running Press Unabridged William Shakespeare, a fat, friendly complete edition of the Bard's plays, poems, and sonnets. It was published in 1989 as an edition, although its text was the revised Globe edition of 1911, and its dense textual notes were originally done by Israel Golancz for the Temple Shakespeare. Even the one-page introduction isn't new - it's from the Globe edition. In the Running Press edition itself, there is nothing new or original.

That's what's so nice about it. There's no tacked-on fourteen pages of windy "enduring glory" "mirror to mankind" blah-blah-blah jobbed out of some quasi-known professional intellectual, first published in The New York Review of Books and now pasted on mutatus mutandis to an overpriced and unwieldy hardcover. There's no Larchmont must-have-it wonder of the season about it. The Running Press Shakespeare is, as far as any collected Shakespeare ever can be, a humble thing. It's meant to give you Shakespeare, with as little interference as possible.

Collected Shakespeares have appeared in vast, bristling legions ever since 1623, when John Heminges and Henry Condell brought out what we call the First Folio - complete with a blah-blah-blah introduction warning readers that any other collected Shakespeare they may encounter is to be scorned. The idea of a collected Shakespeare seems so natural - he wrote enough to make a hefty volume of close-printed pages, but not so much that such a volume is impossible. There's no such thing possible as a Running Press Unabridged George Bernard Shaw, for instance, and the Running Press Unabridged Aeschylus wouldn't be that big a book.

Shakespeare is so essential a piece of intellectual furniture - one of that small handful of authors every intelligent person must not only know but strive to know well - that it's both a duty and a joy to be constantly re-reading him, and everybody has their own favorite way of doing that. I think the best set-up is threefold: first, you need to have the great second edition of the Riverside Shakespeare (the brown one, not the weird black one with its fourteen variations of "Hamlet" and its twenty-three variations of "King Lear"), because its blah-blah-blah material is actually splendid and eternally relevant. Second, you need all the plays in good convenient individual paperbacks, for separate study - probably the best candidates are the Signet Classic paperbacks, since a) their notes are excellent and b) they have the ingenious addition of including Shakespeare's original sources for that particular play, plus a usually good selection of criticism on that play.

But in addition to those two things, you also need a good knockabout complete Shakespeare. The Riverside is too big and, it must be said, too dignified - you can't grab it off the shelf and race out the door for the park or the subway or jury duty. You need all its scholarly apparatus for those times when you're delving deep into some textual question or other, but sometimes you just want as much Shakespeare as you can comfortably hold in your hand (note: Beepy - and the Earl of Southampton - just started paying attention).

For such a volume, the paper of the pages must of course be thin but not too thin; the print must be small but not too small; the lines must be double-columned (and maybe the part-names abbreviated, as irritating as that is) but not triple-columned. There won't be room for footnotes, and really, when you start reading Shakespeare, really reading him, you can largely dispense with footnotes without harming your understanding of what you're reading. What you want is something reassuringly solid but not carpally painful.

For me, that's the Running Press volume, which is currently not in print (is Running Press even in existence anymore? Ah well ... even if it's not, its text is, and who knows where it'll crop up again). In it, you get everything Shakespeare wrote in one handful about the size of child's shoebox. The cover design is simple and artful, the binding is durable, and inside it you get Shakespeare without distraction.

There's a list of character names, a list of sonnet first lines, and about fifty pages of small-printed endnotes delineating where and how the lines of the various plays differ from one version of Shakespeare to another. There's a massive amount of learning in those fifty pages. Here's an example from "Twelfth Night":

Act II, scene v, line 44: "the lady of the Strachy"; this is one of the unsettled problems in Shakespeare. Hunter ingeniously suggested that Shakespeare ridicules, in the scene between the Clown, Sir Topas, and Malvolio (IV. ii.), the exorcisms by Puritan ministers, in the case of a family named Starchy (1596-99), and the difficult Strachy was a hint to the audience to expect subsequent allusion to the Starchy affair. Others suggest 'Strozzi,' 'Stracci,' 'Stratarch.' Halliwell refers to a Russian word meaning lawyer or judge. The incident of a lady of high rank marrying her steward is the subject of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi.

That's a lot of detail, hard-studied and pithily put, but none of it clutters up the pages of "Twelfth Night" itself; if you're reading the play and find yourself impassibly confused by that "lady of the Strachy" mention, you can jog back to the last fifty pages and find the above excellent elucidation. But if you're reading the play and want to skip over it (believe it or not, the general sense of it is quite obvious in the scene), the Running Press volume won't get in your way. That's exactly how scholarly appendages to great writers should work.

So if you're scouting around used book stalls for a one-volume Shakespeare (to supplement your Riverside, not replace it, mind you), you could do a lot worse than to opt for the Running Press edition. And while you're at it, you might like their volumes of Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, and especially Jack London. Big fat volumes, full of treasure.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

A Heartbeat Away from being Wrong!

From the pre-Internet Stevereads Archives, 29 September 1987:

At the risk of kicking a dead horse - or donkey - we should turn our attention one last time to Joe Biden.

Taking time and effort to thank his supporters, the senator from Delaware at least managed to make a rather graceful departure from the presidential race. Bowing out in a storm of press attention, Biden avoided arousing the same degree of outrage and indignation which attended Gary Hart's withdrawal. Biden even promised he'd be back in 1992.

Throughout the swift erosion of his campaign, Biden characterized himself as a man with powerful emotions, one who tends to exaggerate when he's angry. When he announced the end of his campaign, he told his listeners his mother always warned him that his temper would be his downfall.

Ma Biden spoke truer than she knew. Had Biden never lost his temper and shot off his mouth about his standing in his college class, much of his humiliation in the press would never have happened. But the senator's kidding himself if he believes his temper, however volatile, was the sole cause of his downfall.

As nearly everyone in the country knows by now, he also plagiarized. Both in college and in his campaign, he swiped ideas without giving due credit. Whether he did it on purpose or not is not the issue. The fact remains that he certainly didn't do it out of anger.

When Biden says he'll make another bid for the presidency in 1992, he implies that the mistakes which sunk his 1988 campaign were temporary glitches which can be corrected over the next four years.

But Biden's exaggerating again. What he revealed to the American public during the string of revelations which scuttled him was not a mismanaged campaign or even a character assassination by the press. Instead, what he revealed is that he's just not the stuff of which presidents are made. Not now. Not in 1992. Not ever.

---- Ah, how little we knew back in '87 of what cheap, cheap stuff presidents can be made! Now Joe Biden stands an embattled little chance of becoming Vice President of the United States, and he's an energized, commanding figure in the race, and the press has entirely forgotten that he once got caught with his hand in the rhetorical cookie-jar. Compared with lying a country into two wars and one economic depression, it seems decidedly small potatoes, doesn't it? And you have to admire the guy's pluck, pulling himself back together even after receiving the awe-inspiring editorial condemnation of The Daily Iowan! Way to get back in the game!

Friday, October 17, 2008

small consolations in the penny press!

It's been a weirdly dismaying week out there in the literary world, as some of you may have noticed. First, the Nobel Prize for literature was awarded to ... the third-best poet from the island of Mauritius (note to the freakishly wayward Nobel Committee: at best, you've only got a few more years left before Vladimir Putin conquers your neutral asses, so you might want to think about giving the next Prize to somebody known, instead of every year playing this idiotic game of watching copy-editors all over the Western world scurry for Wikipedia immediately after your announcement). Intelligent readers barely had a moment to collect themselves after that gigantic gesture of irrelevancy than the Booker Prize was awarded to an earnest nonentity from Chennai, out in the colonies (note to the Booker judges: see above, and while you're at it, try actually reading Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence).

And on top of all that, Open Letters Political Editor Greg Waldmann, attending a book-party on the Upper West Side, while talking about the upcoming U.S. presidential election, was heard to say, "The election's over. Unless something horrible happens, it's already over." Granted, Waldmann was drunk at the time (Political Editors! Can't live with 'em, can't live without 'em, know exactly where to find 'em at 2 in the morning!), but still - you'd think somewhere in his mainly Slovakian upbringing there would have been a kindly Irish washerwoman who could have patiently taken him aside and said, "Jaysus Mary and Joseph! Are you wantin' trouble t'find you?" As it is, his sloshy pronouncement virtually guarantees that a) the election isn't over, and b) something horrible will happen.

It's a sentiment you find cropping up in a lot of different places, and it's damn unsettling. Say what you want about President George W. Bush, but in the ramp-up to neither of his elections did you ever read ominous prose hoping nothing, you know, happens to him. But with presidential front-runner Barack Obama, this kind of worry has crept even into the hallowed pages of The New Yorker, where the always-interesting Hendrik Hertzberg's "Talk of the Town" piece started off with some crack observations about candidate John McCain's supposed love of "town hall" style chats with his supporters ("McCain's town hall meetings have been one-man shows, based on a relationship between candidate and audience that falls somewhere between that of a celebrity to his fans and that of a king to his subjects - one important man in a roomful of little people") but ended up with that same worried expression on its face:

"I admire Senator Obama and his accomplishments," he [McCain] told a restive crowd in Lakeville, Minnesota, last Friday. "I will respect him, and I want everyone to be respectful." The crowd - the mob - booed. If McCain loses, or even if he wins, his campaign will be remembered as a tragedy in the Aristotelian sense, in which a hero is ruined through some terrible choice of his own. One can only hope that the tragedy will be his alone, and not the nation's.

This tallies neatly with comments heard everywhere in the last week, all to the effect that Barack Obama is some kind of Kennedyesque marked man, that the rabid supporters of his Republican rival (and his equally mob-baiting running mate) will stop at nothing to thwart his bid for the White House, that maybe the reason Obama seems too good to be true is because, tragically, he'll never get to be too good to be true. And this is the kind of talk certain Political Editors only encourage when they've been a little too grabby with the Glenlivets. Yeesh.

Rather unhappily, something of the dour tone of all this broke out of politics and seeped into some other parts of the latest New Yorker, most notably John Lahr's scathing review of the new Roundabout Theatre Company production of Robert Bolt's "A Man for All Seasons." But surely, you say, scathing theater reviews are par for the course with New York magazines? Maybe so, but Lahr isn't lambasting the new production starring Frank Langella: his scathing review is of the play (with a little slopped-over scorn for Thomas More himself). You know times are tough when even Robert Bolt isn't safe:

Bolt ... spins his yarn as if he were trying to make history accessible to nincompoops. He reduces the tumult of the English Reformation to a domestic drama about a good guy with strong feelings about divorce who tangles with a king who wants an heir. Caricature, not character, is the play's idiom. Although Bolt uses Erasmus's famous encomium about More as a title, he is uninterested in complexity, and certainly unable to demonstrate it.

Again: yeesh. Eugene O'Neill better watch his back.

You'd think you could gain some respite from all this stress in the pages of the latest GQ, where inevitably a lighter tone is struck, but at first you'd be as overwrought and confused as you were in The New Yorker. For instance, there's yet another full-page ... ad? poster? ... something picturing a confused-looking Justin Timberlake sporting stubble and wearing the most gawd-ugly white trash polyeurythane jacket imaginable, and superimposed over the whole page are the words "My Name is William Rast." To which the most prompt answer is "No it's not - your name is Justin Timberlake." But clearly the thing isn't a misprint; so what is it? A clothing ad? For something that ugly? Not likely. A movie ad? Without a single detail about the movie? Just some guy's name? Who knows? Presumably Justin Timberlake, but he hasn't been updating his blog, so the subject remains dark.

Equally confusing is Carter Smith's photo-spread of outdoorsy clothes starring underrated young actor/tobacco addict Scott Speedman. Despite the wide spectrum of outdoorsy-style things he could be pictured doing, Speedman in several shots is shown holding, examining, and even perhaps writing books. This has its own layer of irony (in real life, Speedman is so sinfully lazy that he couldn't finish his morning's Sudoku, much less that pesky novel that's been germinating inside him for lo, these last 12 years), but perhaps it's wishful - if so, Speedman should email the editors of Open Letters Monthly without delay; they'll help him with his productivity, if nothing else.

But good things come to those who wait, and this issue of GQ is no exception! The hoot of the issue - the hoot of the month so far - is Devin Friedman's hilariously cringe-inducing "Will You Be My Black Friend?"

Friedman looks around his life one day and realizes it's drastically monochromatic: he has virtually no black friends or acquaintances. This doesn't sit well with him, of course:

There's a bright line there. The Condoleeza line. Admitting that you count your black friends is a violation of the Unracist White Person Magna Carta, but really, I couldn't handle walking around knowing that I have the same number of black friends as George W. Bush.

So he does what we all do when faced with a tough problem: he puts an ad on Craigslist. After first quite drolly summarizing the lay, as it were, of the land:

People basically want to do one of three things on Craigslist: buy a sofa, find a place to live, or get a blow job in the next fifteen minutes. You can do other things, I guess, like find a tennis partner or someone to read your aura. But are you sure "aura reader" doesn't really mean "guy who's willing to give you a blow job in the next fifteen minutes"?

The piece has lots of laughs in it, although even here there are somber notes being struck in the background. Ultimately, Friedman isn't saying white people and black people can't be friends - he's saying they don't want to be friends:

Amicable racial estrangement is also the story of America at large, circa right now. Demographically, studies show that the country has been quietly resegregating - and this time, self-segregating. It's the era of racism without any actual racists - 8 percent of white people say they would be "uncomfortable" voting for a black man to be president; it's the other 92 percent who say they'd vote for a black person, but as often as not aren't actually friends with one, that I'm talking about. Contemporary life can be arranged as a series of homogeneous zones that white folks can glide between - with only the most glancing, waiterly contact with all but the least foreign-seeming black people, or really with anyone different from you at all.

We'll have to hope Friedman is wrong about this growing racial complacency, or that if he's right, the presidential nay-sayers (and fate-tempters) are wrong about the bullseye between Barack Obama's shoulder blades. Twenty years ago, a wise man in Iowa said, "The only way to put race relations in America on the right track is for a black man to get elected President." Let's hope he was right about that part and not about his next line: "And that is simply never going to happen."