Sunday, November 30, 2008

Bible Study: The Book of Joshua!

Our text today is from the Book of Joshua:

Yahweh drove them headlong before Israel, defeating them completely at Gibeon; furthermore, he pursued them toward the descent of Beth-horon and harassed them as far as Azekah, and as far as Makkedah. And as they fled from Israel down the descent of Beth-horon, Yahweh hurled huge hailstones from heaven on them all the way to Azekah, which killed them. More of them died under the hailstones than at the edge of Israel's sword. Then Joshua spoke to Yahweh, the same day that Yahweh delivered the Ammonites to the Israelites. Joshua declaimed:

"Sun, stand still over Gibeon,
and moon, you also, over the Vale of Aijalon."
And the sun stood still, and the moon halted,
till the people had vengeance on their enemies.

Is this not written in the Book of the Just? The sun stood still in the middle of the sky and delayed its setting for almost a whole day. There was never a day like that, before or since, when Yahweh obeyed the voice of a man, for Yahweh was fighting for Israel. Then Joshua, and all Israel with him, returned to the camp at Gilgal.

That's from the famous Chapter 10 of Joshua, famous for that bit about the sun refusing to set until the Israelites had had time to take vengeance on their enemies. The kings of Jerusalem, Hebron, Jarmuth, Lachish, and Eglon have all marched with their armies against the city of Gibeon, which has just made a separate peace with Joshua, conqueror-king of the Israelites. Gibeon sends word to Joshua at Gilgal, begging him to come lift the siege.

Joshua is the most terrifying figure in the Jewish Bible. It's not just that he's grizzled with experience (he'd been a lieutenant of Moses, legendarily one of only two who were always steadfast in their bravery), although that's a part of it. And it's not just that he has the ear of Yahweh, clearly the most terrifying deity in Palestine (clear, that is, to everybody from random Canaanite prostitutes to most - though, obviously, not all - kings). It's that for one of the only times in the Old Testament, Yahweh has found a human who's a, God help us, kindred spirit.

Yahweh is as powerful as the gods of Olympus, but He has none of their counter-balancing sensuality. Nor does He have the grubby mundanity of the Norse deities. And the bizarre grace of those characters in the Mahabharata? Forget about it - that's the last thing Yahweh is. He's created this gigantic sandbox-world, and He's watched it populate with all kinds of people, and He's chosen one group of them to champion against all comers (sometimes - on alternate Tuesdays, those hailstones could easily have been pelting the Israelites). But he's a bit, shall we say, extreme.

In Joshua, he's found his Facebook soulmate. Because Joshua is a homicidal psychopath. When he catches the league of five kings by surprise (an odd thing for him to need to do, since Yahweh already told him he'd win - but then, Yahweh helps those who help themselves. Sometimes.) and puts them to flight (that bit about Yahweh throwing the gigantic hailstones is one of the only times anywhere in the Bible where any kind of specific physical action is attributed to Him)(He's more a remote-control kind of catastrophizer), he doesn't want to subdue them or teach them a lesson or even ransom them.

So they hole up in a cave, the five of them, and when Joshua's done slaughtering their armies (mention is made of only a few straggling survivors), he has them dragged out from their cave, he kills them (there's the strong implication that he does it personally), he hangs their bodies on trees for the afternoon, and then he tosses their remains back into the cave and seals it up with big rocks (we're told those rocks are still there to this day - the Book of Joshua often goes out of its way to assure us that its events can be independently verified - notice that allusion above to The Book of the Just, now lost).

And that's the end of that - or so you'd think! But no! You see, Joshua has one problem with the rest of Palestine: it still has people in it. Not just conspiring kings, and not just their armies, and not just able-bodied (and presumably grumbling) men - it still has anybody living in it. That irritates Joshua, as it would irritate any homicidal psychopath.

Unlike most homicidal psychopaths, however (cases like Joshua and Brigham Young are rare), Joshua had the full and fervent backing of a bloodthirsty god. That's the sort of thing that gets you results.

The rest of Chapter 10 is a record of those results. Joshua led his army into Makkedah and killed every single person living there. Then Joshua led his army to Libnah and killed every single person living there. Then Joshua led his army to Lachish and killed every single person living there. Then Joshua led his army to Gezer and killed every single person living there. Then Joshua led his army to Eglon and killed every single person living there. Then Joshua led his army to Hebron and killed every single person living there. Then Joshua led his army to Debir and killed every single person living there. We get a wide-angle view:

Thus Joshua subdued the whole land: the highlands, the Negeb, the lowlands, the hillsides, and all the kings in them. He left not a man alive and delivered every single soul over to the ban, as Yahweh the God of Israel had commanded. Joshua conquered them from Kedesh-barnea to Gaza, and the whole region from Goshen as far as Gibeon. All these kings and their kingdoms Joshua mastered in one campaign, because Yahweh the God of Israel fought for Israel. And then Joshua, and all Israel with him, returned to the camp at Gilgal.

And plenty tired they were, no doubt. Systematic genocide, as any Nazi could tell you, is thirsty work.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Poetry Class!

A Postcard from Crete

(i.m. Giles Gordon, 1940-2003)

Icarus', you say, 'was clearly misdirected,
Waving himself to death in the Aegean.
He should have striven for the moon instead.'

You wrote from Crete, the fifth time in twelve years
The family had stayed at Rethymon.
'Far fewer Germans than usual, mercifully.'

Too hot to do much sight-seeing, you report,
But the children have been 'thrilled to be informed
That Zeus was born in a cave just down the road.'

'We're even giving Knossos a duck this time.
But wonderful flowers, vegetation, reading,
Food, wine, ouzo, raki ... Love from Giles.'

I turn the postcard over, foolishly
Looking for you, white-suited, on the boats
Crowding the harbour. You're not there, of course.

You're here in your own words, each scribbled sentence,
As you were always present in your words,
Filling them with your wit and despair

That words can never quite hold what we are.
Maybe you should have striven for the moon,
But striving for the sun you flew as far

As any other Icarus I've known.
I miss your laughter, Giles. This card from Crete
Seems now I look at it your last good joke.

Robert Nye

Friday, November 28, 2008

Alexander Hamilton!

Our book today is Robert Hendrickson's massive two-volume biography Alexander Hamilton, the best work on the most remarkable Founding Father of them all. There've been many, many Hamilton biographies in the two centuries since he became fair game, and many of those biographies have been superb - Ron Chernow's recent book on Hamilton comes to mind and is very, very good.

But nothing written about Hamilton really comes close to the epic reach, the effortless command of infinite detail, and most of all the sharp writing ability of Hendrickson's 1976 work. The two volumes are immensely heavy, densely packed even in their slightly oversized dimensions - they're out of print, and they're likely to remain that way forever, and that's a shame.

Hendrickson was himself a war veteran (wounded twice in World War II), like Hamilton, and he was also a veteran of New York politics, also like Hamilton, and something of these resonances informs Hendrickson's mind-bogglingly thorough crawl through the vast heap of record available on Hamilton's life and time. Given the sheer scope of this work, it's amazing that the narrative always manages to stay vital and even gripping.

Hamilton's story is as problematic in historical retrospect today as it was in the living, two hundred years ago. He was born in the British West Indies, a total outsider to the internecine war brewing in the American colonies, and he came to fight for those colonies not out of any deep-seated philosophical urge (much less simple patriotism) but at first for the prospect of actual physical glory and then later out of loving loyalty to George Washington.

And when the fighting was over and that most unlikely thing, independence, had been won on the battlefield, Hamilton focussed with typical energy on the hydra-headed problems of keeping that independence and making it grow and adapt. It can be fairly said that immediately after the United States won their freedom from Great Britain, an unspoken murmur went up and down the Eastern seacoast: now what? Fewer men than you'd think actually had an answer to that question.

Hamilton saw it the clearest, although the clarity of this thoughts made them bitter medicine at the time - and maybe still. He saw the disjointed, squabbling federation of independent duchies that constituted the United States in the wake of Yorktown, and he knew what needed to be done to weld them into a truly unified organism that could live and adapt and thrive. Hamilton himself, more than any other Founding Father, knew the value of adapting to survive, and his vision of a strong centralized federal government ruling the individual statehoods lost him some friendships (never a small thing to a man who valued friendship as deeply as he did).

Hendrickson is a magnificent biographer, not least because he restrains himself from pushing a political agenda of his own (he most certainly had such agendas, but he was from a proper Thucydidean school of magisterial remove, and his book is all the stronger for it). Hamilton is very often ideologically manhandled by modern-day historical writers, but Hendrickson is content simply to tell his subject's story - in huge amounts of detail that he manages to keep entirely engrossing throughout.

He starts in the least promising of places: Hamilton's house in Harlem, the Grange, at 267 Convent Ave. - a seedy and violently depressed area of New York real estate in 1976 (much changed today, by recent reliable accounts, and all of it changed from the heart-soothing view of natural grandeur that made Hamilton pick the spot in the first place). "It is well to have the number firmly in mind," Hendrickson writes, "because all routes and approaches to it are singularly barren of directional arrows, enscrolled plaques, trail blazes, or other indicia of landmark significance." But as you're making your way past the thieves and pimps and drug addicts, you abruptly reach your destination:

Suddenly there he is!

On a granite pedestal near the stunted flagpole is the grimy bronze statue of a man in greatcoat and knee pants who seems to be striding purposefully westward toward the river. His back is to the muddy little weed patch of yard in front of a foursquare frame house set back about 25 feet from the sidewalk building line. His head is turned slightly southward, and his eyes look across the river past the Weehawken palisades toward the continental empire beyond. His distant view is completely shut out now by a row of brownstone tenements across the street.

When he was still basically a fiercely intense, beautiful, red-haired boy, Hamilton became a star of Washington's beleaguered Continental Army, eventually becoming the general's closest aide. Hendrickson's extensive military background really shows when he writes of the Revolution's battles and alarms (one wishes he'd written a military history of the war). He shows an insider's hard-won expertise:

At this desperate hour of the American Revolution, nothing really remained of it but the courage and resolve of George Washington and the little band of officers and men like Hamilton and his company who remained faithful through the long, bitter marches, retreating with him. Cornwallis and his army could cover a good 20 miles in a single day. In pursuit, the miles are shorter than in retreat. When the Americans flung themselves down to rest at night after fleeing only the same distance that Cornwallis had pursued them, the Continental Army was twice as weary and spent.

Hendrickson's story is full of main and secondary characters, for he excavates every corner of Hamilton's life (Gouverneur Morris, as usual, gets all the best quips), the successes, the failures, the public and private scandals, the point-by-point creation of all the famous writings and opinions. But Hendrickson's main focus never turns far from Hamilton and the crucial role he played in the formation of a new nation. Hamilton was the foremost architect of the Constitution of that new nation, and Hendrickson pauses mid-point in his story to dwell on that for a moment:

There is nothing especially unique about a written constitution. In itself it is nothing more than a skeletal outline of old ideas. Since 1787 innumerable fine-sounding constitutions have been composed; Soviet Russia has a find-sounding one. When the Constitutional Convention adjourned that September 17, 1787, there was a Holy Roman Emperor; Venice was a republic; France was ruled by a king; China, by an emperor; Japan, by a shogun; Russia, by a czar. Great Britain was a monarchy tempered by the barest beginnings of democracy, in which less than 2 percent of the population enjoyed voting representation. All these proud regimes - and scores of others - have passed into history. Among the leading nations of the world, the only government that stands essentially unchanged is the Federal Union put together in 1787 by thirteen states on the East Coast of North America. It has survived foreign wars, a civil war, panics, depressions and recessions, Teapot Dome, Bobby Baker, Watergate, impeachment, and pardons.

Hendrickson's underlying thesis is that "the unique strength, character, and freedom of the nation that has lived under this one momentous Constitution owes more to Hamilton for what it is, as we see it plain after almost 200 years, than it does to any other man, of his own time or since ...

Of course Hendrickson's two-volume biography comes to the same final destination as even the shortest pamphlet on Hamilton must: a wooded ledge at what is now Weehawken, on the west bank of the Hudson, where Hamilton fought a duel with reprobate and scoundrel Aaron Burr. This ending of Hamilton's life is more famous than anything in the living of it, and Hendrickson does his duty to the end, carefully examining the many controversies and conspiracy theories that have sprung up about who fired when, and why, and where. But the end result is the same: Burr was unhurt and fled, and Hamilton was shot in the torso and lay propped up in his second's arms when the doctor hurried over. "This is a mortal wound, doctor," Hamilton told him.

He was right about that too.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Rumpole Misbehaves!

Our book today is Rumpole Misbehaves, the newest paperback title in the ongoing legal adventures of that Old Bailey hack, barrister-at-law Horace Rumpole.

Rumpole, writer John Mortimer's great and immortal fictional creation, is in fine form in Rumpole Misbehaves, here facing off not only against various villains and opinionated judges (in the Rumpole worldview, there's very little difference between the two) but also a foe seemingly tailor-made for his fiercely individual, perennially disheveled ways: ASBOs - Anti-Social Behavior Orders, writs against the rude issued in increasingly numbers in the UK as the 21st century commences, instruments of the so-called "nanny state" designed to tell people how they may not behave.

As Rumpole Misbehaves opens, one such ASBO has been issued against young Peter Timson for kicking a ball down a street in an upscale neighborhood. Peter is the latest scion of the infamous Timson clan, a family of London petty thieves whose inept and byzantine misdeeds have kept Rumpole in legal fees for decades. Their loyalty to him as a "first-rate brief" may not have endeared them to his imperious wife Hilda ("She Who Must Be Obeyed"), but their Legal Aid proceeds have over the years furnished Rumpole with the bare necessities of life: steak-and-kidney pudding, boiled potatoes, nasty little cheroots, and the occasional glass of Chateau Thames Embankment from Pomeroy's Wine Bar.

Rumpole has no sooner taken young Peter's case, however, than he's hit with an ASBO of his own, duly voted on and approved by the members of his own chambers at Number 3 Equity Court (whose oily ringleader, "Soapy" Sam Ballard, naturally came up with the idea). The list of particulars runs like this:

1. Bringing various items of food into Chambers such as portions of cold steak and kidney pie, various cheeses, cooked sausages and chipped potatoes. On several occasions a shepherd's pie would be imported from a public house and gradually consumed over a period of days. On several occasions uneaten portions of this pie were discovered left in a filing cabinet in the said Rumpole's room expressly provided for the storage of legal documents.

2. Bringing intoxicating drinks into the said Chambers such as bottles of wine and consuming them on the premises.

3. On several occasions singing in his room in the said Chambers, thereby causing embarrassment to the members and the clerical staff.

4. Smoking small cigars causing a health hazard in Chambers and further polluting the atmosphere and thereby increasing the risk of global warming.

Long-time readers of Rumpole's adventures won't need to be told how such flimsy stuff fares against our indefatigable hero, who finds it all a distraction from the dark forces swirling around the prosecution of young Pete Timson and what was really going on down that posh street. Another distraction is Hilda's ongoing effort to maneuver Rumpole into the silk gown of a QC (Queen's Counsel), which proceeds a little further in this outing than ever before, to the point where Rumpole is called upon to defend his court record before a QC examination board. The board has a letter of recommendation for Rumpole from Dennis Timson, leader of the wayward Timson family, and when they question Rumpole about it, they get a pure dose of the Rumpole philosophy:

'So you defend people you know to be guilty?'

'I don't know. It's not my business to decide that. That's for the judge and jury. But if Mr Timson, or anyone else, tells me a story that's consistent with his innocence, it's my duty to defend him.'

'Even if you don't believe it?'

'I suspend my disbelief. My disbelief has been left hanging up in the robing room for years. My job is to put my client's case as well as it could be put. The prosecutor does the same and then the jury chooses to believe one of us. It's called our judicial system. It seems to work more fairly than any other form of criminal trial, if you want my opinion.'

'So it means that you have appeared for some pretty terrible people?'

'The more terrible they are, the more they need defending.'

''So morality doesn't enter into it?'

'Yes, it does. The morality of making our great system of justice work. Of protecting the presumption of innocence.'

'So you never judge your clients?'

'Of course not. I told you, judging isn't my job. I'm like a doctor - people come to me in trouble and I'm here to get them out of it as painlessly as possible. And it would be a peculiar sort of doctor who only cured healthy people.'

There was a silence. Barnes [who resembles 'a particularly unfriendly camel'] seemed to have run out of ammunition. Then Madam Chair spoke. 'Mr Rumpole, you have defended yourself expertly.'

'I wasn't defending myself,' I told her. 'I was defending the British Constitution.'

And, as trite as it sounds, long may he continue to do so. Rumpole Misbehaves is a treat.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Star Wars: Outbound Flight!

Our book today is the Star Wars novel Outbound Flight by Timothy Zahn, who won so many fans and kick-started the whole Star Wars fiction franchise with his so-called 'Thrawn Trilogy,' Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, and The Last Command.

Outbound Flight
brings back two of his most popular characters, seen here years earlier (in fact, as the ever-present Chronology at the beginning of every Star Wars book informs me, 27 years earlier) than the events in his famous trilogy: there's long-bearded, imperious Jedi Master Jorus C'baoth, and there's blue-skinned, glowing-eyed Imperial military genius Admiral Thrawn. C'baoth wants Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (whom we all know is secretly the Sith Lord Darth Sidious, although of course at this point in the Star Wars saga, none of the good guys - or bad guys, for that matter - know it) to approve Outbound Flight, a mission of space vessels with colonists and armed escort-ships, the goal of which sounds suspiciously Star Trek-ish: to seek out new life and new civilizations (as well as to look for somebody named Vergere, but since the book doesn't tell its readers much about her, I'm guessing she was the plot focus of some other Star Wars novel).

C'baoth isn't a pleasant character - he's brusque and overbearing, as curt and insufferable to his poor Jedi apprentice as he is to politicians, provincial governors, and his fellow Jedi Masters (Obi Wan Kenobi and his young Jedi apprentice Anakin Skywalker have substantial parts in this book and are well characterized by Zahn). Thrawn, on the other hand, is both pleasant and easy to empathize with - and Zahn seems to revel in that dialectic, a hero we don't like and a villain we do. Zahn has always been the best Star Wars writer in what is, admittedly, a limited stable, and Outbound Flight is consistently fun to read. Of course, it helps that when he's writing such characters as Kenobi or Anakin, we can't help but mentally picture the actors from the movies, in this case the underrated Ewan McGregor and the vilified Hayden Christensen:

With a sigh, Obi-Wan shut off his comlink and slipped it back into his belt.

"Still nothing?" Anakin asked.
"No," Obi-Wan said ...

Anakin muttered something under his breath. "We should have tried calling her earlier."

"We did try calling her earlier," Obi-Wan told him. "You were just too busy playing with Duefgrin's swoop to notice."

"Excuse me, Master, but I was working, not playing," Anakin said stiffly. "The Brolf we're looking for is named Jhompfi, he lives in the Covered Brush house ring, and he's supposedly using the burst thrusters on a speeder he uses to smuggled rissle sticks out to the Karfs."

Obi-Wan stared as his Padawan. "When did you get all that?"

"When you were wandering around the neighborhood looking for clues," Anakin said. It was hard to sound hurt and smug at the same time, but the boy managed to pull it off.

There's a large cast of characters in Outbound Flight, from our familiar Jedi to their Padawans (C'baoth's hapless apprentice Lorana Jinzler is particularly well realized) to nefarious agents of Chancellor Palpatine to Thrawn and his allies (who want both Outbound Flight and C'baoth destroyed) to the ordinary men and women who agree to leave behind everything they've ever known and travel outside their galaxy in order to colonize the unknown. Early on in that voyage, it becomes obvious that C'baoth is Zahn's Ahab; he starts claiming more and more authority for himself, including taking children from their parents to train them as Jedi, a decision those ordinary men and women accept with revealing resignation:

"They took the boy away three hours later," Uliar said, scowling across the table at his friends.

"What do you expect?" Tarkosa asked reasonably from across the table. "Jedi are as rare as dewback feathers. I can understand why they wouldn't want anyone with the talent to slip through their fingers."

"But before it was always just infants," Jobe Keely reminded him, his face puckered with uncertainty. "Kids who don't even know they're alive yet, much less knowing who Mom and Dad are. These kids have all been much older."

"But they've all been willing to go, haven't they?" Tarkosa countered. "Even the boy this morning. He was scared, sure, but he was also pretty excited. Face it, Jobe: most kids think it would be really cool to be a Jedi."

Naturally, as long-time Zahn readers could guess, the confrontation at the climax of Outbound Flight can only be between C'baoth and Thrawn, and as fans of the "Thrawn trilogy" will be able to guess, such a confrontation can only end one way, although even there Zahn is full of surprises, including this tantalizing little scene:

"I have indeed won," [Thrawn] told C'baoth. "I have only to give a single order -" His hand shifted slightly on his control board, his fingertips coming to rest on a covered switch edged in red. " - and you and all your people will die. Is your pride worth so much to you?"

"A Jedi does not yield to pride," C'baoth spat. "Nor does he yield to empty threats. He follows only the dictates of his own destiny."

"Then choose your destiny," [Thrawn] said. "I'm told the role of the Jedi is to serve and defend."

"You were told wrongly," C'baoth countered. "The role of the Jedi is to lead and guide, and to destroy all threats." The unburned corner of his lip twisted upward in a bitter smile.

Without warning, Thrawn's head jerked back, his whole body pressing back against his seat. His hand darted to his throat, clutching uselessly at it.

Outbound Flight is that rarest of Star Wars novels: one that entertains independently of its franchise. Slobbering completists will find enough timeline tidbits to satisfy them, but general science fiction readers will thoroughly enjoy it as well. Zahn has carved out a niche for himself writing adventures in the world of mad genius George Lucas, and that world is the better for it.

My only real frustration with the book? Everybody in it is so caught up in their own machinations (be it C'baoth's burgeoning madness, Obi-Wan Kenobi's desire to save him from it, or Thrawn's desire to use it against him) that the central idea of Outbound Flight is largely overlooked. After all, the very first thing any of us learned about Star Wars is that the entire story takes place "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." When somebody from that galaxy far, far away takes it into their head to build a fleet of ships and go in search of life in other galaxies, it's us they're looking for - and if not us, then what about the Colony Worlds of 'Battlestar Galactica'? Or the galaxy-spanning empire of the God Emperor of Dune? Or, for that matter, Star Trek's Federation? The urge to explore is absent from this book even though it's nominally about exploring.

But that's a minor point, one Zahn could well have addressed if it'd been part of the story he set out to tell. As it is, that story's plenty good enough.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Men of the Year in the Penny Press!

Lots of disappointments in GQ's latest "Men of the Year" issue, with only a few pleasant surprises sprinkled in between. Of course they named president-elect Barack Obama (they were given about forty seconds of his time, and considering that either he or his wife seem to be on the cover of every single magazine in the Western world this month, even that much time is surprising), as how could they not? And once again, roasting tobacco addict Leonardo DiCaprio comes across in his interview as a genuinely intelligent and enthusiastic young man (when he says about the paparazzi who swarm around his life "I do not like the way they conduct themselves," you have to just nod your head). And Wil S. Hylton's tribute to Senator Ted Kennedy deserves quoting:

There is today no American who does not owe him a debt. For civil rights and voting rights. For privacy and choice. For clean air and fresh water. In an era of partisan gridlock, he forged alliances and straddled parties, aligning himself with his political nemeses - Hatch, Thurmond, Bush. ... He is a cornerstone of the country we love, a founding father of the nation as we know it. His time draws close, and the gift more precious daily.

But alas, such high point are rare. The bulk of the choices leave the reader confused and frustrated. General Petraeus? Touted as a tactical genius when he's only barely managing to occupy a Fourth World craphole of a country despite being given one of the biggest military tidal waves of reinforcements any modern general has ever received? Aaron Eckhart and Jon Hamm? Touted as era-defining actors because they've played a series (or in Hamm's case just one) chin-cleft nonentities? Gordon Ramsay, touted as a 'man's man' in the kitchen because he atrociously bullies his staff into producing bland, overpriced dishes? To say the least, one looks for more in emblems of a year.

The worst offender among the Men of the Year is probably Olympic wunderkind Michael Phelps, who comes across in Michael Paterniti's profile as a spoiled, pea-brained, douchebag who values all the wrong things, trusts all the wrong things, and prioritizes all the wrong things (in this he's undoubtedly no different from any other twenty-something guy, except his new $100 million dollar price-tag makes it just slightly more noticeable). Paterniti wants to paint a friendly, admiring picture of his subject (as far as I know, GQ doesn't do a 'Douchebags of the Year' issue), wants to tell his readers that Michael Phelps is still the same aw-shucks all-American young guy whose teammates used to call him 'Gomer' for his lack of guile. But an awful, creepy alternative to this person peeks through every vignette:

He just seems normal, except for the furtive glances of strangers and the stalkerish approach of one waiter who hides behind a tree before squeakily asking for an autograph, one Phelps signs without making eye contact, without pausing in his sentence, the diamonds of his watch sparkling as he tells of how, after leaving Beijing, he went to Portugal, where he met up with a group of friends, just to hide out for a while, and there were paparazzi literally hanging in the trees.

Bet you think I'm going to jump on that bit about the diamond watch, don't you? Nope! All young people are idiots, and all fashion is idiotic, so it's a natural extrapolation that a fantastically wealthy young man would think it was stylin' to wear a $100,000 watch to an hour-long interview at a Tex-Mex place. No, the detail that hints not only at Phelps being an asshole but at Phelps always having been an asshole (Paterniti nowhere relates any of the many stories that've cropped up about his aw-shucks paragon since his rise to fame - suffice it to say, he disliked by more people at his alma mater, especially more women, than he was liked) is that bit about signing the autograph without stopping to speak to or even look at the person asking for it. Done in a crowd of imploring note-pads, that's excusable. Done in private, one-on-one? No amount of fame or money teaches you to have that inside you - it has to be there already.

And if Phelps is the biggest disappointment among the Men of the Year, the biggest disappointment among the interviewers of those men is certainly Andrew Corsello, whose profile of morose, talentless American literary lion Philip Roth reads like a sado-masochist's love-letter to the prig who treats him like dirt all during their chat. This is how the piece opens:

Is it disdain? Not quite. Disdain requires more energy, more investment. What Philip Roth is giving me is thinner, a mix of four parts boredom and one part irritation. Here's the word that comes closest: disregard.

In case you're wondering, Corsello's attitude toward such treatment is sincere admiration - for him, Roth is the man, the world's greatest living writer, a literary figure Corsello has read and re-read so many times that Roth's various novels have become personal touchstones for him:

I myself often return to Roth not only for his words but for my own - the fervent conversations I've carried on with him in the margins that, when reread, offer clues to my past selves. When I need to consult the X-rays, I reread The Ghost Writer (the X-ray of my writing soul) and Sabbath's Theater (of my ravening male soul). When I need to reach my dad and can't get him on the phone, I sometimes hook up with Swede Levov, American Pastoral's protagonist, who's got my old man's gentle temperament (if not his savvy and smarts). When I consider the dark scenario of a Sarah Palin presidency, I return to The Plot Against America to see what would become of the country were an evangelical even more dim and anti-other than W. to begin culling the 'real' patriots from those who didn't see "America the way you and I see America."

This is nothing if not personal, and it gets more so:

Here it is: I go to Roth for that thrilling voice in my head that responds first with How dare he! then revels in the undeniable proof that Ha! It can be done! and finally arrives at Goddamn! Why can't I take a stab at thinking and writing and living like that?

And the problem with all this earnest if slightly slobbering hero-worship? It's entirely, 100 percent misplaced. In a career that now spans quite a few decades, Philip Roth has never written a single book that was worth reading, not one single work that had more than an accumulated total of three or four semi-good sentences in it. These books haven't affected Corsello because of their literary merits (his own prose is effortlessly better than anything Roth has ever condescended to put on paper), because they don't have any literary merits; they've worked whatever magic they've worked on him in the same way they've managed to win Roth so many male fans who read very few other authors: the books have lots of smutty bits, and they allow misogyny to be draped in writerly affectation. If Roth is a literary lion, he's also a literal one, mirroring the reality of the male African lion: lazy, complacent, sexist, and fond of hogging the kill. Reading Corsello's piece made me want nothing more than to email him with lots and lots of book-recommendations.

But disheartened readers can buck themselves up by remembering one great, glowing detail about this issue, a detail we started with: president-elect Obama gave them about forty seconds of his time - not because he, too, is a prig, a douchebag, or an overrated hack, but because he's just become the busiest man in the world, which is a very, very good thing. That one Man of the Year, smiling courteously at the GQ photographers but really, really needing to dash, is so optimism-affirming he makes up for all the disappointments in the world.

And there's always next year.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Lend an Ear!

Listen up, all you Silent Majority who read this blog o' mine: recall that Open Letters Monthly is having it second-ever public reading tonight, and you're all invited!

The line-up will include a poet, a history professor, and a windbag - so there's something for everybody! It's also a rare chance to catch OLM editors away from their writing-desks and ready to mingle their fool heads off, and who would want to miss that?

The fun starts at 7 this evening at the Brookline Booksmith in Coolidge Corner, so clear your evening and come one, come all to celebrate Open Letters and have a happy, chatty evening with lots of happy, chatty people before your grim, grudge-fest Thanksgiving descends upon you!

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Bible Study: The Book of Judith!

Our text today is from the Book of Judith:

I will sing a new song to my God.
Lord, you are great, you are glorious,
wonderfully strong, unconquerable.
May your whole creation serve you!
For you spoke and things came into being,
you sent your breath and they were put together,
and no one can resist your voice.

Should mountains topple
and mingle with the waves,
should rocks melt
like wax before your face,
to those who fear you,
you would still be merciful.

This is part the song Judith sings in celebration at the climax of her story, and she has every reason to celebrate, having single-handedly saved her city of Bethulia from the ravaging hordes of the invader.

The invader in this case is the mighty King Nebuchanezzar, lord of the Assyrian empire and self-styled king of all the world, who has sent his vast army under the command of General Holofernes into Israel and swept all opposition before him. The King did this despite the warning of Achior the Ammonite that it would be best not to disturb the Israelites, because you might thereby incur the wrath of their particularly nasty deity. Nebuchadnezzar doesn't take kindly to dissenting voices and banishes Achior to Israel, to suffer their fate right along with everybody else.

At first, the King seems to be right. The Israelites lament that their God isn't protecting them from the invading armies, and soon Bethulia is besieged. That brings Judith into the story: she's a beautiful young widow whose (henpecked, one suspects) husband died of heatstroke during a barley harvest, leaving her with property, servants, a nice house, and a spotless reputation. When Holofernes invades, she puts off her widow's weeds, dresses herself to perfection, and goes to his camp, telling him she's betraying her own people because they're wicked and obstreperous.
He'd have believed anything she said, of course, because he's jaw-droppingly besotted with her beauty from the first moment he sees her. This completely human trait is one of many Holofernes has; for a story's villain, he's surprisingly affable, as when he responds to Judith's comments about her own people:

"Courage, woman," Holofernes said, "do not be afraid. I have never hurt anyone who chose to serve Nebuchadnezzar, king of the whole world. Even now, if your nation of mountain dwellers had not insulted me, I would not have raised a spear against them. This was their fault, not mine. ... Courage! You will live through this night, and many after. No one shall hurt you."

Poor sap - too bad the same can't be said for him. Because of course Judith never intended to betray her own people, quite the opposite. After a brief enough stay in Holofernes' camp to cause everyone to let their guard down (including the eunuch Bagoas, whose job it is to watch over Judith while she's there) - the general even lets her eat her own specially-brought food, which she carries in - spoiler alert! - a big canvas sack - Judith lies in wait one night when Holofernes has had more wine than usual (he's working up his nerve to rape her, though she doesn't know that). With an imperiousness that comes through even the story's sparse narrative, she gets Bagoas to dismiss all the general's servants and take the night off himself, and she enters the tent of the passed-out Holofernes.

She takes his scimitar from his bedstead and with two mighty whacks cuts his head off. She then puts the head in her trusty canvas sack, stuffs the bed canopy in there too (no use leaving it, soaked with arterial spray to a height of nine feet, broadcasting to even the most casual onlooker what happened), and calmly makes her exit from the Assyrian camp.

When she shows the severed head to her people back in Bethulia, they fall on their knees with joy (well, except for wimpy Achior, who faints) (when he revives, he agrees to convert to the Israelite religion and is promptly circumcised, probably wishing he'd stayed fainted) - she predicts, correctly, that the Assyrians will fall to pieces when they find out what's happened to their mighty general, and when that happens, the Israelites drive the invaders from their land. We're told they knew peace for a long time afterwards.

And Judith? She was honored by her people and grew old in peace and prosperity. She lived to 105 and died in her bed (just like Holofernes, but you know what I mean).

And the lesson? To me it seems obvious: agnosticism is best. Despite Judith's elaborate praise to God in her "new song" (the first parts of which also slip in a lot of praise to herself), one of the most prominent features of her story is that God isn't in it; Judith doesn't get commanded by Him to kill Holofernes, and although she prays to Him for strength, the fact that she needs two whacks to decapitate her victim implies she had to rely on her own two arms, as the reader suspects all along. And really - given the rest of the Old Testament, can you imagine how much different the story would have unfolded, if God had been involved? In its present form, the Book of Judith is a tidy little story about one woman's plucky nationalism; Books where God takes an active hand are never neat. Had He been involved, Judith probably wouldn't have survived her own story - and if she had, she'd have been punished something awful for her success.

Nope, she did it all on her own: she reasoned, correctly, that the invading army would dissolve into chaos if it's head, so to speak, were cut off, and she resolved to do just that. And everything worked out fine, for her and the Israelites. All well and good to praise God after the fact, but the Book of Judith shows clearly that you really don't want Him involved while you're trying to get things done.

Norton Critical Editions!

Our ongoing feature of highlighting certain series of books must surely include Norton Critical Editions published for lo, these many decades by W.W. Norton. These books, as many of you will know, revolve around an idea of inspired simplicity: why not bring out editions of classic works that present those works in context? Not just a windy, aphoristic Introduction, but actual give-and-take, the specific details of a book's original setting, and some indication of its continued place in the stream of ideas.

In other words (even repulsive, industry-jargon words), it's reception.

In the long decades before the Norton Critical Editions showed up, eager readers (and mournful students) seeking to know such contextual details had to spend hours in the library, swinging from one secondary reference to the next like gibbons, always wondering if they were seeing everything - or even a fair representation of everything. Annotated editions of key texts were commercially available, and sometimes so were author- or book-specific collections of essays, but never the two in the place (yours truly well remembers the headache of hunting for those two separate things regarding Milton, one bitterly cold winter in Providence, many moons ago).

The Norton Critical Editions, largely filling that void, are therefore something like a shelf-full of miracles. Here you get a good solid edition of whatever primary-source work of literature you want (a huge variety is spanned, from Homer to Shakespeare to Wordsworth), plus a painstaking selection of contemporary responses to that work (where they're available), generous footnotes, and best of all, a collection of modern essays responding to the work.

The combination of all these things serves to situate the book in its own traditions better than anything short of a university lecture-course. Here you get not only War and Peace (in George Gibian's remarkably good revision of the classic Maude translation), which is all that most other editions even attempt, but you also get a helpful smattering of Russian critics from Tolstoy's era on, as when Tolstoy's correspondent Nikolai Strakhov wrote:

The picture of human life is complete.
The picture of the Russian of those days is complete.
The picture of what we call history an the struggle of nations is complete.
The picture of everything that people consider to be their happiness and greatness, their sorrow and their humiliation, is complete. This is what War and Peace is.

And can anybody doubt which killjoy wrote this?

Tolstoy is ridiculous as a prophet who has discovered new recipes for the salvation of mankind - and therefore the foreign and Russian "Tolstoyans" who desire to transform what is actually the weakest aspect of his teaching into a dogma are absolutely contemptible.

Yep - V.I. Lenin, take a bow!

Of course, it's possible to predict that the gathering of later scholarly reactions to any work would be unimaginably tedious, literary scholars being perpetrators of some of the densest, least-rewarding prose in the history of mankind. And lawd knows, sometimes this prediction is spot-on, such as when David Spitz gets going about John Stuart Mill's ultra-cerebral On Liberty:

Mill does not say that freedom of expression is of the same importance as freedom of thought; he says it is almost as important. He does not rest its defense on the same reasons; he would defend it in great part on the same reasons. He does not say that freedom of expression is identical to or inseparable from freedom of thought; he says only that it is practically inseparable from it.

Yeesh. Nobody's saying that Spitz is a hair-splitting old windbag; only that he's almost certainly a hair-splitting old windbag.

But all is not obfuscation! Academic discourse can be scintillating (it should always be so, but then, what school of writing has only worthies in its ranks?), and when the editor of a particular Norton Critical volume picks the right modern academics - and the right parts of their works - the result can often be a collection of writing that's just plain exciting.

'Exciting' isn't a word most of you would associate with Tennyson, for instance, but read a little of the great Arthur Carr on that Victorian master-poet, about whom Auden famously said, "there was little about melancholia that he didn't know; there was little else that he did":

In the presence of such a figure it is no wonder that critics who are also poets grow nervous and exasperated. They see in Tennyson not an open but a covert capitulation, perhaps involuntary though not altogether unconscious. Yet he is our true precursor. He shows and hides, as if in embryo, a master theme of Joyce's Ulysses - the accentuated and moody self-consciousness and the sense of loss that mark Stephen Dedalus. He forecasts Yeats' interest in the private myth. He apprehended in advance of Aldous Huxley the uses of mysticism to castigate materialistic culture. And in Maud, at least, he prepared the way for the verse of Eliot's 'Preludes' and 'Prufrock.'

If a pronouncement like that doesn't make even the most complacent poetry faddist rethink Tennyson a little, nothing will. The chief glory of the Norton Critical Editions is that so many of them contain so many such revelations, all gathered together for your convenience. Take Edmund Spenser, for example: he's unknown outside of academia today, his great works unread by the general public and only very reluctantly read by yoked and grudging students - and yet he's leapingly great, lightning flashing in a clear sky, and Hugh Maclean, in his Norton edition of Spenser, pulls together a collection of scholars of such easy learning and clear readability that even faddists might be in danger of having their minds opened a little, as when Douglas Bush says:

The Elizabethans, despite their generally superior knowledge of Latin and sometimes Greek authors, were very often content, like their medieval predecessors, to gather their mythological nosegays from the nearest conservatory.

Or when the great academic Northrop Frye gives a characteristic twist to interpreting Spenser's greatest work:

Private and public education, then, are the central themes of The Faerie Queene. If we had to find a single word for the virtue underlying all private education, the best word would perhaps be fidelity: that unswerving loyalty to an ideal which is virtue, to a single lady which is love, and to the demands of one's calling which is courage.

The collected Norton Critical Editions form a very large and varied library: there are great volumes on Darwin, Newton, Erasmus, Chaucer, Ben Jonson, Lord Byron, the pig Martin Luther, Oedipus Rex, Hamlet, Boccaccio, on myths and currents of philosophy, and even on little-known and rightly-ignored minor female authors. And the series is ongoing, constantly refining, supplementing, and enlarging a catalog that's already a wonder of the literary world. Nobody needs to have all of these volumes, but everybody with a favorite author or time period from the Western Canon should have the pertinent volumes, because every specialization has to have a starting-point, and there's no better starting-point for a work of literature than a Norton Critical Edition devoted to it.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Freedom at Midnight!

Our book today is the thrilling history Freedom at Midnight, Larry Collins' and Dominique LaPierre's 1975 account of the transfer India underwent in 1947 from being the jewel in the crown of the British Empire to taking its first steps toward functioning independence. As usual with a Collins & LaPierre production, the book is both impeccably well-researched and rippingly readable.

The British Raj had ruled India in one way or another for three centuries by the time Prime Minister Clement Attlee sent dashing Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten (a genuine Royal, great-grandson of India's erstwhile empress, Queen Victoria) there as Viceroy with the specific mission of surrendering that much-storied possession. Like all Englishmen, both Attlee and Lord Mountbatten had grown up listening to stories of imperialism's grand adventure and all its gaudy spectacle - and the spectacle didn't get any grander than India, as Collins and LaPierre put it:

India with its Bengal Lancers and its silk-robed maharajas, its tiger hunts and its polo maidans, its puggree helmets, and its chota pegs of whiskey, its tea plantations and its District Commissioner's Bungalows, its royal elephants caparisoned in gold and its starving sadhus, its mulligatawny soups and haughty memsahibs had incarnated the imperial dream.

Our authors have a walloping great story to tell, and they tell it with showman flair and, it must be said, a palpable affection - but still, they remain clear-eyed about the mechanisms by which that imperial dream was administered. They draw a picture of the rulers:

... the offspring of good Anglican country churchmen; talented second sons of the landed aristocracy destined to be deprived of a heritage by primogeniture; the sons of schoolmasters, classic professors and minor aristocrats who had managed to squander their family fortune. They mastered on the playing fields and in the classrooms of Eton, Harrow, Rugby, Winchester, Charterhouse, Haileybury, the disciplines that would fit them to rule an empire: excellence at games, a delight in "manly pursuits," the ability to absorb the whack of a headmaster's cane or declaim the Odes of Horace and the verses of Homer ...

that's just exactly as tilted toward romance as their portrait of the ruled is tilted toward realism:

Pious or atheist, Hindu or Moslem, rich or poor, decadent or saintly, the maharajas had been for almost two centuries the surest pillar of British rule in India. It was in their relations with the state that the British had applied to the greatest effect the "Divide and Rule" doctrine with which they were accused of governing India. In theory, the British could remove a ruler from his throne for misrule. In fact, a ruler could get away with almost any kind of outrageous behavior down to and including a few discreet murders without the British disturbing him - provided that his loyalty remained intact.

With one or two major hiccups, this system of imperial rule in India had managed to work, but the early years of the 20th century saw the rebirth and enormous strengthening of nationalist forces all throughout the subcontinent. And in response to those forces, Great Britain did with India what it never did with Ireland: it let go. After centuries of ruled childhood, India was propped on its feet and told to walk.

It stumbled, naturally, and Freedom at Midnight is the story of those stumbles. All the familiar faces - the Mountbattens, Winston Churchill, Nehru, and of course Gandhi - are here fleshed out with great anecdote after great anecdote, and all of it is grounded on a thick sheaf of endnotes. It's hard to find similar journalistic endeavors in today's literary landscape; they exist (Robert Fisk's magnificent The Great War for Civilisation comes to mind), but they're rare. Maybe they've always been rare, but either way, Collins and LaPierre managed to produce half a dozen such great books, from Is Paris Burning? to The Fifth Horseman to this present work, my personal favorite. All are worth your time, although almost all are - you guessed it! - out of print. It's times like this I think the Brattle should pay me a commission ...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A Comics Shocker!

We interrupt our regularly scheduled entry today to do something I never thought I'd have occasion to do again: praise the daylights out of an issue of Spider-Man.

The issue in question was recently bought by Elmo: it's Part 1 of "Unscheduled Stop," written by Mark Waid and drawn by Marcos Martin, and it's as good an issue of Spider-Man (which is, mind-bogglingly, up to #578, even though it feels like five minutes ago it was hitting #100) as we've seen in probably a good ten years, maybe longer.

The story starts simply enough, even charmingly: a rain-soaked Spider-Man is perched on a rooftop, not very well sheltered by the impromptu webbing-umbrella he's made, eating some Chinese take-out and wishing he had carfare to get out of the weather and take the subway to meet his Aunt May in Brooklyn. When a subway card with fare still on it comes his way, he considers it his lucky day and (after switching to his Peter Parker clothes, naturally) sprints down to catch the next train.

As bad luck would have it, that train is attacked while it's traveling under the East River - by a super-powered hitman who's intent on killing the entire jury of an ongoing mob-trial. The jury is taking the train to view a crime scene, and when the subway car they're in is separated from the rest of the train by the attack, the jurors find themselves in the subterranean company - and of course under the well-meaning protection of - Spider-Man. Which is a good thing, since the villain who stopped the train is still in the tunnel, intent on finishing the job.

The whole thing is handled perfectly. Waid writes a quirky, believable, entirely urban Spider-Man, and his dialog for everybody else is just the combination of urgent and breezy that used to make the book such a joy way back when Stan Lee was writing it. His Spider-Man is level-headed and opinionated, very much a person and not a paragon, and all the other characters trapped in that subway tunnel are equally distinct, including one whose identity is only revealed on the issue's last page, and it's a revelation absolutely nobody - and I mean nobody - will see coming. Not in forty years of reading Spider-Man did I ever even think to question the significance of two little letters...

And what to say about Marcos Martin? If I've ever seen his artwork before, I ignored it (if that happened, it's almost certainly because it was poorly inked - you can tell at a glance that his penciling style is slangy and loose enough so that a lazy inker would make it look like crap despite its great structural strength), but boy, he's great in this issue. His street-scenes are detailed like Norman Rockwell, as is the wonderfully personalized panel where Peter Parker is hurrying to catch the train. And his action-sequences (including the moment where Spider-Man confronts the issue's villain, a tableau lifted with obvious affection from the great Steve Ditko, and a joy to all us long-time readers) are fantastic, which not every comic artist working on a flagship title today can say.

So what's the problem, you ask? I loved the issue, and yet you're sensing my reluctance, the grudging nature of all this praise?

I know it'll sound funny considering that this is a comic book we're talking about, but the problem with this issue is that it isn't real.

As comics fans will know, last year Peter Parker's dear old Aunt May was brutally gunned down in the aftermath of the whole 'Civil War' storyline (during which, to comply with the fascist Superhero Registration Act, Peter Parker unmasked on live TV). As she hovered on death's doorstep, Peter literally made a deal with the devil to save her life: in exchange for malevolent supernatural being Mephisto reviving Aunt May, Peter had to agree to give up Mary Jane, his wife - not her life, but their life, the whole reality of their love. Peter agreed, and Mephisto reworked reality - no shooting, no Mary Jane, no public unmasking, plus lots of other tweakings here and there. Suddenly, the 'reality' of all the Spider-Man books was re-set, like a clock at Daylight Spending Time.

It was very weak dealing, a silly, lazy hail-mary move on the part of Marvel Comics - they had a successful movie franchise boiling along, and they needed a comics version of their character who was more reader-friendly, less encumbered by 'Civil War' baggage - more like he was in the '60s. The ridiculous fiat of it made me so frustrated I was certain the issues that resulted would be garbage from wall to wall. And I was resigned to that, since I didn't like the premise underlying those issues at all.

I still hate that premise (it's so going to be overturned, vitiated, invalidated, the next time Spider-sales need a little goosing - and then where will all these issues be? Stuck in Spider-clone-land, I'm guessing), but regardless, it's long since time I admitted it's starting to produce some really good issues. I'll definitely be bugging Elmo for the second installment of "Unscheduled Stop," and that feeling - actually looking forward to an issue of Spider-Man - is so strange and comfortable to have back again that I can almost overlook the price that was paid to get us all here. Almost.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bloodsuckers in the Penny Press!

The latest issue of Vanity Fair, in addition to featuring the great Kate Winslet (who used to be quite pretty, until she stopped eating) on the cover, has a funny, playful article by culture maven James Wolcott on the publishing phenomenon that is Twilight and the Twilight movie that will open soon in theaters nationwide and become, by spring, the highest-grossing movie of all time, outstripping even Winslet's own Titanic.

Wolcott's the perfect choice on the magazine's part: he's rotund and orotund, laser-smart and reliably funny, and obviously, unapologetically adult - hence, in all respects the opposite of this book (and movie)'s target demographic.

And he doesn't disappoint: his take on both is wonderful and thought-provoking and wry. In the October 2008 issue of Open Letters, Sharon Fulton also has some funny and wry things to say about the Twilight books (among many other vampire-themed novels ... you should click on over and read it!), but Wolcott is only concerned with the first book, and with the movie it spawned.

I finally got around to reading that book (after having been urged to ceaselessly by all my tween girlfriends, who told me it was "like, soooo good"), and my feelings weren't as mixed as I thought they'd be. Of course the writing is no Turgenev - but it's not technically bad either. And quite apart from prose style, the book has another, far more prominent quality: it's monstrously, hypnotically, yes even vampirically irresistible. The pages are addictively readable. High brow literary critics (as impossible as it is to believe on circumstantial evidence, neither I nor Wolcott is one - we're steadfast literary omnivores who'll try anything in search of something good, but since I've just recently posted entries about Charles Lamb and the Earl of Clarendon, I'm not expecting a lot of you to believe me here ... perhaps those of you who've known me the longest, but nobody else) might scoff at this, to which I have my usual response: try doing it yourself. It's fiendishly difficult to pull off. In my youth, I could do it only when writing action sequences, and none of the five young people I know who are currently writing novels can do it at all - as good or interesting as you may find their books, you could set them aside to walk your dogs or watch an episode of Deadwood without a moment's hesitation.

Not so Twilight: once you're in, you're hooked. The book's author, Stephenie Meyer, tells the story of young Bella (who's clumsy but beautiful, thus an appealing fictional stand-in for every girl in high school)(except, ironically enough, the die-hard readers, who will spot the device in an instant), who moves to the rainy Pacific Northwest to live with her father. Her father is the Chief of Police of a small town where the sun hardly ever shines, and in Bella's new high school, there's a clique of drop-dead gorgeous adoptive siblings - the Cullens - who very much like the gloomy weather, because they're vampires (in Meyer's conception of vampires, they don't burst into flames in direct sunlight - but they do glisten, which is just as bad from the whole wanting-to-be-inconspicuous standpoint).

In the movie, Bella is played by gorgeous tobacco addict Kristen Stewart, and the young actress must be happy about that, because Bella, as a part, has some genuinely interesting potential. Much less so her vampire crush and then boyfriend, Edward Cullen - throughout the first book, he's written for one purpose only: to make young readers (female and, as Wolcott is the first to my knowledge to point out, male) swoon. Meyer literally never mentions him without reminding her readers that he's physically gorgeous - "godlike" and even "beyond godlike," and with a body as perfect as his face (all the Cullens - including their ageless vampire 'dad,' played in the movie by tobacco addict Peter Facinelli, who once had a great career ahead of him - are described as perfect, although Meyer doesn't explicitly link this to their bloodsucking status). And he broods quite a bit - mainly because a) although he's a telepath, he can't read Bella's thoughts (this isn't explained, at least in the first book), and b) he'd very much like to drink Bella's blood, but he doesn't want to be responsible for turning her into a vampire (even when she explicitly asks him to). In the movie, Edward is played by six-pack-a-day tobacco addict Robert Pattinson, who's a strange choice for movie executives who are obviously dreaming of spinning this movie into a Harry Potteresque line of sequels because a) he's only 4 foot 9, which is kind of a handicap for a romantic lead (although Zac Efron's only one inch taller, and it hasn't stopped him), b) he's almost certainly not going to be around for many sequels, since he literally smokes nonstop except when he's ordered, by someone who's paying him, to stop momentarily (for photo shoots and the like), and c) he's woefully ugly, which might not age well in any case.

Wolcott feels the addictive vibe of the book right off, and according to him, it's fully conveyed to the big screen:

Twilight is engulfed in sidelong looks and tentative touches, leaving the rough sex and parody of identity politics to True Blood (where vampires "come out of the coffin" to demand citizenship rights) and going for the full unabashed primal romanticism of first love. Watching the footage made me feel like a 14-year-old girl again. Let me rephrase that. Oh, forget it.

And he's equally acute, naturally enough, on the conflicted nature of the book's sexism:

Here it is not a haughty man with a secret hurt that makes him vulnerable and attainable, but a beautiful boy at the peak of his slender translucence, which gives "The Twilight Saga" a gay crossover appeal. Everything a girl could want in one dreamy envelope, Edward is the answer to a princess's prayers - doting, fiercely protective, carrying his beloved great distances in his arms like a groom forever crossing the honeymoon threshold.

In this sense, Twilight is nothing new - teen-fiction readers (of which I proudly admit I am one) have seen this exact same formula before (probably most closely in Tuck, Everlasting, especially in the sense of the heroine being accepted not only by her gorgeous, immortal boyfriend but his dynamic, welcoming, immortal family as well). It's Meyer's conviction in telling her story - and her ability to keep those pages turning - that sets her work apart.

There's only one nagging problem, and Wolcott puts his finger on it immediately: these are the bad guys we're talking about:

It's as if Buffy the Vampire Slayer's valiant after-school activities went for naught. For seven seasons (1997-2003), Sarah Michelle Gellar's girl-power prodidgy "Buffy Summers" stalked and staked nearly every bulbous head with bared incisors menacing the graveyard mists and nightclub shadows of Sunnydale, a mission climaxing in the series finale with an Armageddon showdown where the outnumbered forces of light faced off against the pale legions of darkness and emerged torn and scraped, but victorious. Yet here we are, only a few years after Buffy retired her pointy stick, up to our glazed eyeballs with the children of Dracula.

Naturally, I get a little misty-eyed at the mere mention of Buffy the Vampire-Slayer (especially that series finale, which was pound-for-pound just about as good as series finales get), and Wolcott has a point here: vampires have traditionally been monsters. Anne Rice figured out a way around this by having her 'good' vampires only drink the blood of 'bad' people (child molesters, drug addicts, the obese), but it felt like an ethical dodge - murder is still murder. likewise Buffy figured out a way to accommodate the presence of not one but two 'good' vampires by having them sustain themselves mainly on supplies from blood-bank donations (this has its own ethical limitations, as anybody who's ever had a loved one in need of massive transfusions can attest). Meyer's way of excusing the Cullens is much less excusable - they feast on large animals, which they hunt and kill in the wild (Edward is partial to mountain lion - a fact that's offered in Twilight without the slightest awareness of how horrible it is - Bella accepts it about Edward without a peep of outrage). The point is, they don't treat humans as prey.

Naturally, in Twilight not all vampires feel this way. The Cullens are the exception, and the drama of the first book comes from the introduction of a small clan of outsider-vampires who view humans as dining a la carte (the leader of this clan, in a nice touch, is genuinely puzzled that the Cullens would think any other way). Although the movie looks to be very different, readers should be warned about that word 'drama' when applied to Twilight the book: this is very much the first chapter in a long, multi-volume drama - this particular book, read in isolation, is a technical, plotting disaster ... it practically ends in mid-sentence, and the bad guys are not confronted until later in the series.

But Wolcott's point about Buffy is well taken, and it raises a larger point about animals in general. Meyer has one of her virtuous vampires point out to Bella how over-equipped they are as predators: not only are they much stronger and faster than their prey, not only do they have sharp fangs (and their bites are poisonous), but they're also alluring ... all of which is very interesting, but it raises a gigantic question Meyer (at least in her first book) doesn't address: why, then, aren't her vampires running the world?

In the Buffy-verse (as in virtually all vampire-verses since Bram Stoker started all this nonsense), it's because vampires have one crippling weakness: sunlight destroys them. Without a weakness just that profound and all-encompassing, a totally superior species (super-strong and immortal, no less) would rule the world. Take away that weakness (and substitute ... what? Glistening? What difference does it make to the dairy farmer if his cattle see him glitter?), and you take away any plausible reason why your vampires are secretive nomads. Meyer even takes Buffy out of the equation: in her universe, there's no way for humans to kill vampires - they have to be physically torn apart by other vampires to be killed.

The only mitigating factor Meyer offers is still and all pretty clever: apparently, in the world of Twilight, the act of making somebody a vampire is so close to the act of killing them outright that almost no vampires can manage it - and so there are very few in the world.

I'll settle for that, for now. But I suspect Wolcott would much, much prefer it if instead we were all enjoying Season Thirteen of Buffy. So would I, dammit.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Young Charles Lamb!

Our book today is Young Charles Lamb, 1775-1802 by Winifred Courtney (a lucky break for Lamb, obviously: a biographer named Winifred will invariably be not only trustworthy but discreet).

One writer on Lamb summed him up accurately - at the same time throwing a spotlight on what's so different about this book:

Had it not been for Mary [his sister], age would not have fallen so suddenly and engulfingly upon him. Without her, we might be able to imagine Lamb as a young man rather than always picturing him as a smoky and eccentric oldish fellow, settled in both his habits and his singleness, whose youth had come to an abrupt end with his childhood.

That's the natural view of Lamb, the established East India clerk and revered author of the 'Elia' essays that brought him fame and income in the 1820s, and the aim of Courtney's biographical study is to blow some of the dust off that legendary figure by taking a close look at Lamb's early life, before and immediately after the signal event that blasted it apart.

A 21-year-old Lamb walked in on that event one evening when he came home from his job at the East India Company to find his older sister Mary standing over the dead body of his mother with a carving knife in her hand. The family - Lamb's old and senile father, his mother, his sister Mary and his aunt - had gathered at the table for supper, and something set Mary (who had often shown signs of insanity and even violence in the past) off. By the time Lamb walked innocently into the room, his mother was dead, stabbed through the heart, and his father was wounded, and his aunt was insensate with shock. It was Lamb who gently took the knife out of Mary's hands.

He swore that his sister would never go to one of the state-run mental hospitals that would certainly have been her fate without him. Instead, for the rest of his life he devoted himself to providing her with private care, even for the years when there was no money, when there was no help (when a 'bad time' would come upon her, the two would hurriedly pack her things - and her straight jacket - and go to whichever private care facility Charles could manage; the arrangement horrified his friends even while it also filled them with a kind of involuntary wonder at his steadfastness). The two had been friends before Mary killed their mother; after, they fell into the deepest of sibling bonds, sitting together on countless nights at the same work-table, Charles writing whichever piece was paying that week and Mary doing her best to help him. In all of English literature, it's easily the weirdest, most unaccountable authorial relationship of them all.

Courtney explores the roots of that relationship - she digs around all of Lamb's relationships, including the large correspondence he conducted with his best friend Coleridge ... indeed, one of the best pleasures of her very enjoyable book is the trove of letters to and fro she so liberally quotes; they give a feel for Lamb and everybody else that's a fascinating counterpart to the famous essays.

Since she's dealing with Lamb's unsettled youth, she's had to master a mountain of financial and clerical details, and she presents everything with a clear, weighing mind - she doesn't even succumb to the typical biographer's vice of universally praising her subject. Although Lamb dearly loved poetry and tried his hand at it for most of his life, Courtney is under no illusions as to the merits of the result:

After the period covered by this book Lamb gave up trying to be a serious poet, though (with Mary) he later wrote children's verse for money and would now and then drop into rhyme for comic or political or friendly purposes to the end of his life, even publishing more of it than was strictly wise (it is hard to give up an old love).

Despite this, the book is full of poets: obscure, owlish Wordsworth, beautiful, passionate Coleridge, stately, meticulous Southey ... and moving amongst them, storing up the voracious and eclectic reading that would later come to such glorious flower, was tiny little tobacco-addict Lamb, always listening patiently, always ready with that deceptively winning self-deprecation that would in later years make all his essays such endlessly charming and endearing little masterpieces:

My reading has been lamentably desultory and immethodical. Odd, out of the way, old English plays, and treatises, have supplied me with most of my notions, and ways of feeling. In everything that relates to science, I am a whole Encyclopedia behind the rest of the world. I should have scarcely cut a figure among the franklins, or country gentlemen, in King John's days. I know less geography than a schoolboy of six weeks' standing.

Courtney follows the young Lamb through all his various forays into journalism and the formative writing of literary essays; she follows him through the ever-expanding circle of friendships for which he always showed a singular appetite; and most of all she follows him through the ups and downs of his troubled guardianship of Mary's best interests. The result is a familiar portrait (less so the actual portrait on the book's cover, done of Lamb in 1804 by none other than William Hazlitt, before he abandoned painting in favor of writing): Lamb the rock, Lamb the ever-affable friend to all, Lamb the voice of sanity and balance.

But a portrait may be familiar and still be wonderfully done, and Young Charles Lamb is certainly that. It's not only a fascinating book in its own right - it's also a virtually indispensable companion to the 'Elia' essays and the other famous writings of Lamb's much later life. It's here you see the forces that shaped those later writings, and it's a great feat Courtney has done, explicating those forces so exhaustively, and so well.