Thursday, July 31, 2008
Our book today is The Panda's Thumb, the 1980 collection of natural history essays by Stephen Jay Gould, who published them all originally in his "This View of Life" column for Natural History magazine, back when that publication was (largely due to his presence month after month) still worth reading.
Gould was an evolutionary biologist, an entomologist, an anthropological theorist, and, more than any of those things (and the half-dozen or so other interdisciplinary hats he wore from time to time), a natural-born teacher, able to summarize and jazzercise virtually any subject, no matter how abstruse, into eight or ten jaunty, inviting pages anybody on Earth would enjoy reading. This is not a trait often found in scientists, and it is not to be scorned (the ones who do scorn it, both inside and outside the scientific world, are invariably the ones who can't do it, or who are too lily-livered to try). Given a small lead-time and no more reference-works than could be found in his overstuffed personal library, Gould could write an essay on, say, neotony, that you could not only hand to your fundamentalist grandmother but that would leave her wanting more. And he did it all amiably, without ever striking a strident note.
This last is all the more remarkable when viewed alongside his peers, some of whom could be very strident indeed. The mind naturally turns to Richard Dawkins, who shared an intellectually heated - and temporarily famous - exchange of letters with Gould in the pages of The New York Review of Books years ago - letters in which Gould comes off the better. Dawkins' 'selfish gene' idea of gene-dominated evolutionary drives never met with much enthusiasm from Gould, as he writes at one point in The Panda's Thumb:
Still, I find a fatal flaw in Dakwins's attack from below. No matter how much power Dawkins wishes to assign to genes, there is one thing that he cannot give them - direct visibility to natural selection. Selection simply cannot see genes and pick among them directly. It must use bodies as an intermediary. A gene is a bit of DNA hidden within a cell. Selection views bodies. It favors some bodies because they are stronger, better insulated, earlier in their sexual maturation, fiercer in combat, or more beautiful to behold.
If, in favoring a stronger body, selection acted directly upon a gene for strength, then Dawkins might be vindicated. If bodies were unambiguous maps of their genes, then battling bits of DNA would display their color externally and selection might act upon them directly. But bodies are no such thing.
Gould will be known in the science-history books mainly as the co-creator (along with Niles Eldredge)(who, with a colleague like Gould, ought to legally change his first name to "along with") of the idea of punctuated equilibrium: the concept that the process of evolution by natural selection is far from the stately, Lyellian progression tradition had made it out to be:
A new species can arise when a small segment of the ancestral population is isolated at the periphery of the ancestral range. Large, stable central populations exert a strong homogenizing influence. New and favorable mutations are diluted by the sheer bulk of the population through which they must spread. They must build slowly in frequency, but changing environments usually cancel their selective value long before they reach fixation. Thus, phyletic transformation in large populations should be very rare - as the fossil record proclaims.
Gradualism, the belief that all change must be smooth, slow, and steady, was never read from the rocks. It represented a common cultural bias, in part a response of nineteenth-century liberalism to a world in revolution. But it continues to color our supposedly objective reading of life's history.
But the history of life, as I read it, is a series of stable states, punctuated at rare intervals by major events that occur with great rapidity and help to establish the next stable era. Prokaryotes ruled the earth for three billion years until the Cambrian explosion, when most major designs of multicellular life appeared within ten million years. Some 375 million years later, about half the families of invertebrates became extinct within a few million years. The earth's history may be modelled as a series of occasional pulses, driving recalcitrant systems from one stable state to the next.
Gould's essays (The Panda's Thumb contains such classics as "Piltdown Revisited," "Were Dinosaurs dumb?" and the glowingly inimitable "A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse") dance happily from one subject to the next, as Gould's own interests did (baseball and Gilbert & Sullivan get equal - and equally loving - attention). And always he returns to the big picture, the broader canvas on which the forces of evolution work and one which he tried to think (and succeeded more often than most mortals ever come close):
The best illustration of dinosaurian capability may well be the fact most often cited against them - their demise. Extinction, for most people, carries many of the connotations attributed to sex not so long ago - a rather disreputable business, frequent in occurence, but not to anyone's credit, and certainly not to be discussed in proper circles. But, like sex, extinction is an ineluctable part of life. It is the ultimate fate of all species, not the lot of unfortunate and ill-designed creatures. It is no sign of failure.
The remarkable thing about dinosaurs is not that they became extinct but that they dominated the earth for so long. Dinosaurs held sway for 100 million years while mammals, all the while, lived as small animals in the interstices of their world. After 70 millions years on top, we mammals have an excellent track record and good prospects for the future, but we have yet to display the staying power of dinosaurs.
It's not given to science-writers like Gould to have much staying power at all, and slowly, one by one, his many delightful titles will proceed out of print. But the books themselves will always lurk in the interstices, available for your curious mind. The man himself died in 2002, far too early, but echo of his many enthusiasms can be found in books like The Panda's Thumb, from Marathon to Waterloo in order categorical.
Monday, July 28, 2008
Our book today is Carl Sagan's wise and witty little 1977 masterpiece, The Dragons of Eden, which spent a gratifying number of weeks on the bestseller lists and delighted a very large number of readers who might otherwise have considered themselves the furthest thing in the world from being science readers.
The reason for the appeal is that Sagan was a masterful popularizer (the late 60s and 70s were a golden age for such popularizers, for reasons that remain slightly obscure), and in none of his books is this more evident than in The Dragons of Eden, whose nine chapters cover in enthusiastic and illuminating detail many of the highways and byways of what it means to be human. When we here at Stevereads read it (an advance copy was sent to us by Asimov, as always craving our attention), we felt as if we were once again in the presence of Pliny the Elder, hearing of marvels, seeing everything entirely anew.
Every separate chapter in The Dragons of Eden is a self-contained masterpiece (honed to perfection by test-runs on countless student audiences throughout the years), an essay of nearly incantatory elegance and power. "The Brain and the Chariot" and especially "Tales of Dim Eden" are marvelous probings of the soft workings of the human brain, where many of the mysteries Sagan confronts are still mysteries today. In the chapter "Genes and Brains," the digression on hybrids affords our author an irresistible chance for some fun:
In earlier times it was widely held that offspring could be produced by crosses between extremely different organisms. The Minotaur whom Theseus slew was said to be the result of a mating between a bull and a woman. And the Roman historian Pliny suggested that the ostrich, then newly discovered, was the result of a cross between a giraffe and a gnat. (It would, I suppose, have to be a female giraffe and a male gnat.) In practice there must be many such crosses which have not been attempted because of a certain understandable lack of motivation.
Our nominee for single best chapter is "The Abstraction of Beasts," in which Sagan explores the subject of animal cognition with a sensitivity both rare and pleasing to find. Here he deals with Washoe the chimp learning sign language and opening up to scientist an entire new world, in which mankind's nearest genetic relative could directly express sadness, joy, creativity, grief, embarrassment, and linguistic creativity:
Washoe was observed "reading" a magazine - i.e. slowly turning the pages, peering intently at the pictures, and making, to no one in particular, an appropriate sign, such as "cat" when viewing a photograph of a tiger, and "drink" when examining a Vermouth advertisement.
Sagan wrote his book when the Western world was on the cusp of enormous technological change, far greater change than even science's most talented visionaries (and he was science's most talented visionary) could guess. As he correctly intuited, such change can be frightening (The Dragons of Eden is rife with great quotations from other writers, and one of the best deals with the very subject - Alfred North Whitehead: "It is the business of the future to be dangerous ... the major advances in civilization are processes that all but wreck the societies in which they occur"), but likewise these changes - and the fascinating forces behind them - could have no better, no more welcoming emissary than Carl Sagan.
His secret was wonder, and despite the generous lampooning he received when American television audience's got a glimpse of that trait in Sagan's mini-series Cosmos, it was real; he never stopped feeling the thrill of being a free mind in a world of wonders.
Perfect case in point: years ago he and I were leaving the same lecture (James Van Allen, as always ending his talk with a quick fusillade of dazzling ideas), emerging into a crossroads crammed with cars and trucks, all honking their horns in a heavy downpour. We shared a rough geographical proximity, so we agreed to split a cab. Moments later we were logjammed, rain pouring down, horns honking everywhere, and the cab driver made some grousing remark about the traffic jam.
Sagan immediately started talking about the beauty of it all, about the sheer statistical rarity of pure drinking water falling free out of the sky, about the tremendously complex harmonics the falling rain made on the various car and truck roofs, how the wind and the thickness of the roof metals and the horns and the echoes bouncing back and forth were nothing less than an acoustic miracle, a fantastic riff-session that was totally unique to this moment and would never come again.
Impulsively, he rolled down his window (this was back when you could still do that in a cab, at least in the trusting Midwest), letting in gusts of water. Turning his face up into the rain, smiling that weird, beatific smile of his, he said, "This isn't a traffic jam; it's a symphony."
Perhaps neither I nor that cab driver could quite access the sheer wonder he was feeling at that moment, but we knew enough to shut our mouths while we were seeing it.
The Dragons of Eden is completely filled with that same wonder, here preserved for all of you to read anytime you like, without your copy of the TLS getting soaked. The book's print run was enormous; you'll find a copy in every thrift shop and library sale in the country, so don't cheat yourself of an opportunity to be science reader!
Sunday, July 27, 2008
Our book today is After Shakespeare, subtitled "Writing Inspired by the World's Greatest Author" and edited by that greatest of 20th century editors, John Gross. It's a huge and bursting compendium of things written about Shakespeare, and we here at Stevereads can confidently tell you one amazing truth: of all the countless thousands of books written about Shakespeare, this is the first one to have, the one to buy and thumb through and lose yourself in even before you acquire Bradley or Burgess or some collected Coleridge. Gross has done his usual herculean best and brought together such a staggering variety of fun stuff that you'll be happily lost for hours and days before you even think about wandering elsewhere.
Gross is right, in his preface, to say that no author has inspired more writing than Shakespeare (no discernible author, he points out, which is his neat way of not giving Homer the top spot), and the goal of this anthology is to sample from as much of that writing as possible. A million anecdotes are here, and diary excerpts, and poems galore, and even chunks from fictions written about the Bard, all of it presented with a minimal whisking of clarifying footnotes and introductory matter.
Gross laments that only one thing is missing, because he couldn't find it: the reactions to Shakespeare of the so-called Common Reader, although Gross isn't sure this is a bad thing: "The Common Reader is an admirable and indispensable thing, but I suspect that when he picks up his pen or sits down at his word processor, he has a way of turning into the Commonplace Critic." But this confession itself is a little odd, since as readers of Stevereads will know, there exists at least one Common Reader who never hesitated to share his thoughts on the Swan of Avon, as for instance:
September 29 - to the King's Theatre, where we saw "Midsummer Night's Dream", which I had never seen before, nor shall ever again, for it is the most insipid ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life.
Yes, of course, it's Samuel Pepys, and he's liberally quoted in After Shakespeare, despite being denied his Common Reader (and Commonplace Critic) status.
Virtually everybody else is in here too, from the Edwardian actor who sniffingly said, "My Rosencrantz was not up to much, but my Guildenstern was tremendous" to this immortal exchange between P. G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster and his man Jeeves:
"Remember what the poet Shakespeare said, Jeeves."
"What was that, sir?"
" 'Exit hurriedly, pursued by bear.' You'll find it in one of his plays. I remember drawing a picture of it on the side of the page, when I was at school."
There's Victor Grey's vicious parody of the 'Seven Ages of Man':
Seven ages, first puking and mewling,
Then very pissed off with one's schooling,
Then fucks, and then fights,
Then judging chap's rights;
Then sitting in slippers, then drooling.
Of course, as is only fitting, there's a long passage from Anthony Burgess' great Shakespeare novel Nothing Like the Sun, in which a blithe and slightly stupid Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, cannot see how much Shakespeare, WS, is in love with him:
'Will,' said Harry, 'I am in love.'
WS put down his pen carefully. He stared for full five seconds. 'In love? In love?'
Harry giggled. 'Oh, it is not marriage love, it is no great lady. It is a country Lucrece in Islington. She is the wife of the keeper of the Three Tuns.'
'In love. In love. Oh, God save us.'
'She knows not who I am. I have been with Chapman. She believes I too am a poet. She will have none of me.' He giggled again.
'So the seed stirs at last. Well. He is in love.' Then WS began to laugh. 'And what thinks the husband of all this?'
'Oh, he is away. His father is dying in Norfolk, and yet he will not die. It is a slow quietus. I must have her, Will, before he returns. How shall I have her?'
'I should think,' WS said slowly, 'that your new friends will help you there. The Sussex men are, I hear, a wenching crowd.'
'They are not. They are all for boys. There is a house in Islington.'
'Well. Well, well. In love.' He picked up his pen, sighing. 'I have a poem to write, a commission of your lordship's. My mind is wholly taken up with the harm that comes to those who force the chastity of noble matrons. I should think like harm will come to the author of lowlier essays.'
'You mock me now. Write me a poem I can give to her. You have written sonnets enjoining me to love a woman, now write one that shall persuade a woman to love me.'
'Your friend Master Chapman is perhaps less busy than I that he can take you drinking to Islington. Ask him, my noble lord.'
'Will, I have no taste for this mockery. George cannot write that sort of verse. She would never understand any poem of his.'
The transcribing of Burgess makes us sorry for one exclusion After Shakespeare, one book missing that should have been excerpted: John Mortimer, he of Rumpole fame, wrote the novel that accompanied his BBC mini-series "Shakespeare" many years ago (the mini-series is well worth your time, if you should ever come across it, with Tim Curry like you've never seen him act before, in the title role), and for our money here at Stevereads, his Shakespeare is in many ways the single best Shakespeare novel ever written.
But such lapses are almost unknown in After Shakespeare, which features heaping helpings of just about everybody else, from Frank Harris to Duke Ellington to Herman Melville to Cole Porter to Virginia Woolf, who wrestles with the author in her journal as mightily as Jacob with the angel:
I read Shakespeare directly after I have finished writing, when my mind is agape & red & hot. Then it is astonishing. I never yet know how amazing his stretch & speed & word coining power is, until I felt it utterly outpace & outrace my own, seeming to start equal & then I see him draw ahead & do things I could not in my wildest tumult & utmost press of mind imagine. Even the less & worser plays are written at a speed that is quicker than anybody else's quickest; & the words drop so fast one can't pick them up. Look at this, Upon a gather'd lily almost wither'd (that is a pure accident: I happened to light on it.) Evidently the pliancy of his mind was so complete that he could furbish out any train of thought; &, relaxing lets fall a shower of such unregarded flowers. Why then should anyone else attempt to write. This is not 'writing' at all. Indeed, I could say that Shre surpasses literature altogether, if I knew what I meant.
And of course where would any anthology of Shakespeare writing be without that sprightliest of intellects, John Jay Chapman, writing with his customary verve:
Parts of Shakespeare are ugly, and much of him is whimsical, and some of him is perverted. But his work is all a natural product, like the silk worm's thread. One can never be quite sure that even Thersites may not show under the microscope some beautiful patterns on his back, as Caliban does.
Make no mistake: you should all pull down your Shakespeare and read him first, for pleasure, for education, for the sheer goose-pimply thrill of his brilliance. But if you're in a mood for something connected but different from that great treasure-trove, another such trove awaits you. After Shakespeare will keep you reading, enthralled, until way past your bedtime.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Our book today is Charles Simmons' delicious little satire The Belles-Lettres Papers, in which he uses the eponymous fictitious literary review to skewer the book world in general and the world of book-reviewing in particular. Simmons is a former New York Times Book Review editor, and for a while in the late '80s when this book first appeared, the main cocktail-party game was trying to decipher which real-life literary figure corresponded to which satirical prop in the book (in which characters are given names like 'Buckram' 'Page' 'Overleaf' and 'Margin' specifically to signal their stand-in status), sort of like trying to find yourself in the Warhol Diaries, or Madonna's Sex (we here at Stevereads are on page 16 of both, coincidentally enough).
We can only hope that this parlor-game aspect of the book has permanently faded away, so that the many winning qualities of the book can stand in the spotlight they deserve. This is a short book and by all indicators an angry book, so it was in all likelihood written quickly, at white heat. But it sparkles with wit and malice all the same, in the grand tradition of white-heat satire and invective (see here the famous story of how quickly Erasmus' The Praise of Folly was written).
The story - such as it is - centers on Frank Page, who comes to work for the venerable literary review The Belle-Lettres Papers and quickly becomes acquainted with its wide variety of kooks and eccentrics. These kooks and eccentrics are drawn with such miniaturist skill that readers are tempted to do some sort of cross-referencing with Brendan Gill's Here at the New Yorker, and that's harmless enough, as long as those readers are also paying attention to the scintillating give-and-take of the writing and the dialogue, some of the latter of which is worthy of Neil Simon:
"For instance," [said Mr. Margin, Page's editor] "what do you think happens when two members of the staff disagree about a book?"
"Don't you leave that to the reviewer?" I said.
"Ah!" He was pleased by my question. "But which reviewer do I send it to, the hard reviewer or the soft reviewer, the John Simon or the Anthony Burgess?"
"I've seen soft reviews by John Simon," I said.
"Ah! But let's say this book is not by a dead European. Rather by a living American, moreover by an American who for years has been getting away with murder ..."
"Heller?" I said.
Mr. Margin blanched. "I was thinking more of ..."
"Styron?" I said.
He didn't blanch, but he did clear his throat. "Let's just say an overrated writer. In fact, you have illustrated my point. I say 'overrated writer,' but what do I mean but overrated in my opinion? So let's say there's another member of the staff who doesn't think the writer is overrated at all, and he thinks this new book is a masterpiece. Whom do we send it to, John Simon or Anthony Burgess?"
"John Simon," I said.
"All right, why?"
"He's good at masterpieces, real and fake."
"And Anthony Burgess?" Mr. Margin said.
"He's good at real masterpieces but not fake ones."
"He doesn't say they're fake, he just uses his fake voice."
Mr. Margin's eyes narrowed. "I can see you're a clever young man," he said.
Simmons can be as mean as he likes (and he's so good at it, readers will like it too), but lurking behind the various jaded shenanigans in The Belles-Lettres Papers (the book and the fictional review) is a bruised heart that still believes in the potential worth of criticism done right. This is something of a godsend for those of us currently engaged in book-criticism, since we'd otherwise hate to think of it as a duplicitous waste of time. Criticism can be done right, without cemented cynicism or pasty parochialism. Books can be judged on their merits, with candor and humor, under the abiding assumption that while the subjective experience of reading might not admit dissection, the objective result of writing can be scrutinized for fun and profit (although not material profit, as the old saying had it, the best way to make a small fortune in publishing is ... to start with a large fortune).
So when Simmons puts an entirely worthy work-premise into the pompous mouth of Mr. Margin for the purpose of mocking it, we can chuckle right along with the rest of the readers, but we also feel a little pang:
"We have an odd and, I might add, attractive gathering of tempers and temperaments at Belles Lettres. Our sensibilities range from the vigorously vulgar to the exquisite and even effete. I like to think we represent a critical construct of the American readership. So that when we say yes to a book we say yes within the confines of the book's intentions. We do not say no to mysteries, we say no to bad mysteries. We do not say yes to poetry, we say yes to good poetry. And if a book maintains an opinion, nay a bias, nay a prejudice, we try to state who we are and what we stand for, and then judge the book on the quality of its argument. What I'm saying is that at Belles Lettres we are interested in the how, the means, the process ... "
That may be purblind bombast when it's uttered (and the book's plot-explosions just get funnier and shriller as that bombast is shredded in every possible way), but it nevertheless has a grace to it. We like to think Simmons never lost the hope that a review organ could be run that way, although it's certainly to be wondered how much success such a doctrine would enjoy at the Times. And who knows? Human nature being what it is, maybe all literary reviews are destined to fail of such high ideals. Who knows what rough freelancer is even now slouching toward Bethlehem to write The Open Letters Papers?
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Our book today is Leon Wolff's 1959 classic of military history, In Flanders Fields, which concentrates on the 1917 debacle known as Passchendaele, in which 140,000 men lost their lives for no reason whatsoever other than the feeding of war itself. Wolff's subject is really two subjects, as anybody familiar with World War I will recall: the first part in the spring, the second in the summer and fall - the whole of which comprises the Third Battle of Ypres, or Passchendaele, in which a little over four miles of ground was gained by the Allies from the Imperial German army, only to be surrendered again in four month's time. A great military historian has referred to the First World War as one of the enduring "myths" of the 20th century, and in the sense that this is true, it's true largely because of such unbelievable epics of waste and frustration as Passchendaele.
Wolff is its great Bulfinch, and his book is a gruesomely readable masterpiece. All the usual characters of the drama - Haig, Foch, and the rest - are brought to gritty, immediate life by Wolff's narrative skill, but he really excels in painting on a larger canvas, as in this passage where he shows his readers the sickly after-phase of a major 'push':
As the fighting simmered down, the waste products of the battle, like the precipitate in a cloudy glass, moved rearward - the walking wounded and the stretcher-borne wounded ('very cheery indeed,' according to Haig's diary), soaked, bloody, haggard with pain; the shrouded dead; the vague and stumbling shell-shocked. One artillery lieutenant had been struck in the throat by a bit of shrapnel. As the blood gushed, he walked 100 yards to a dressing station near Zillebeke, gasped to a doctor, 'My God, I'm going to die!' and immediately did so. The stretcher-bearers worked all day and night, helped by German prisoners, who had also begun to filter back early in the day - surprisingly young boys and older, grimmer veterans - all with sunken eyes, sodden clothing, boots full of water that squished at every step.
Passchendaele was of course a colossal failure in its ostensible aim to punch a corridor through the German defenses in Flanders, and although Wolff devotes great care and attention to every aspect of his subject, his angry-yet-dispassionate post mortem in the chapter "War and Peace" is his sharpest sustained writing. Wolff himself was an American (and a veteran of the next world war), but the icily suppressed indignation in his summary would have heads nodding in London in 1919:
There has never been any argument about the worthlessness of the few miles of muddy ground captured. Nine thousand yards was the largest gain. The average was about four miles of terrain which was to have been occupied three or four days after the main attack started on 31 July. The Channel ports were out of sight and out of mind. Less than half the Ridge was in British hands - not even enough to make Passchendaele's heights defensible, and this by Haig's own admission. The northern end of the Messines-Passchendaele ridge, eastern wall of the Ypres bastion, was still in German hands. The line of the Yser, flooded from Ypres to Nieuport, had been captured, but by the enemy and if there had ever been any possibility of a turning movement, it had ended long ago.
Excluding the dubious achievement at Passchendaele, we find no gains of value on the flanks. To the south there had been small and meaningless advances around Gheluvelt. On the north, most divisions wound up crouching and drenched in or near the icy mud of Houthulst Forest, shelled night and day throughout 600 acres of broken tree stumps, wreckage and swamps - 'the acme of hideousness, a Calvary of misery.'
Of course, the added futility of disasters like Passchendaele arose from the fact that its principal lessons had been learned a full half-century earlier in the American Civil War, in which both sides were forced to realize one essential military truth: fixed and fortified artillery positions cannot be taken by ground assaults, no matter how large or determined those assaults are. As long as bullets outnumber bodies, trenches and barbed wire will win (at least until decisive air power is called in). Gettysburg should have been the final graveyard of battles like Third Ypres, but then, military lessons have a way of getting forgotten. How many invading armies throughout history, for instance, have assumed they'd be greeted as liberators by their victims, and yet how seldom has it actually happened that way?
But great military history always carries this dichotomy. On the one hand, it's often the most thrilling, best-written school of history available (readers seeking really good prose will have at least one shelf full of exemplary titles, starting with Arrian). But on the other hand, its subject is universally deplorable, the blowing up of peoples' houses, the flattening of fields, the slaughter of young men before they even have a chance to give themselves lung cancer. Reading about events like the 1917 Flanders campaign is indeed frustrating - but if you're going to do it (and you should), you can't do much better for an extended treatment than In Flanders Fields.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
In a famous recent editorial decision, the venerable Atlantic magazine stopped publishing a new short story every month. At the time, the usual blather was floated as justification, but even so, it was impossible not to read in the decision some kind of comment on the state of the American short story - either the supply of its validity or the reach of its commerce. Fans of the short story form had to look elsewhere; the Atlantic, in so many ways the founding home of the American short story, was no longer in the game.
But not quite. In a sop to the howls of outrage those fans did not, in fact, raise, the Atlantic sets aside one annual issue and therein presents a nosegay of short stories, a special 'Fiction Issue' that is likewise a bulls-eye for unavoidable inference: that this handful of stories aren't just the last few samples to come over the transom, that they are, at least in some way, the best of the best. If there was an implication that the state of story submissions at the magazine was too pitiful to warrant monthly publication, the same implication must regard the 'Fiction Issue' stories as the cream of the crop.
This issue's table of contents is about as stark an affair as the Atlantic has ever sported: no letters, no editorials, no book reviews, no feature articles - no nonfiction at all except for one pompous and self-serving little piece by novelist Anne Patchett (at the climax of which she says her most prized possession is a signed collection of Eudora Welty stories then relates how at one of her own book signings, she imparted words of wisdom to a little girl who'd waited for her signature; "I know better than anyone I am no Eudora Welty," she faux-humbly asserts, which tells us one thing only: she thinks she's better than Eudora Welty). Instead, there are eight short stories and nine poems. The poems were so uniformly wretched even I wasn't tempted to like any of them.
That leaves the stories. We'll take them in order of appearance, and we'll see what we can learn about the state of the art today, at least according to the Atlantic.
The first is "Nine" by Aryn Kyle. It's the story of little Tess (who's about to turn nine), her father, her absent mother, her father's tobacco-addict ballet dancer girlfriend, and the unending stream of lies Tess tells for no discernible reason to every single person in her life. Tess's father is concerned about the lies she tells:
"Some things are real and some things aren't," he says. "Part of getting older is learning to understand the difference. OK?" Tess's head feels heavy on top of her neck. Her brain is smooth and shiny like plastic. Her blood is ketchup. She could hold her own hand against a hot stove and not feel a thing. "OK," she says.
From which we're supposed to glean that Tess is unhappy. The reader is given no hint as to who thinks Tess' blood is ketchup - it sounds like something a kid might think, but, in a sloppy manner that's typical of the story as a whole, we're left to assume on our own. The bulk of the prose is likewise lazy. Take a for instance chosen at random:
When Miss Morris calls from school to say that Tess has said her father is dying of lung cancer, he laughs. He assures Miss Morris that he isn't even a smoker (well, hardly), that he is as right as rain.
Unbelievably, those italics aren't mine: the author herself has called attention to her use of a cliche, and that smarmy-cutesy "well, hardly" doesn't help matters. The climax of the story revolves around a little incident so trite and predictable the reader will at first suspect a practical joke has been played by the author, but no: that's all there is. Tess and her father start the story unhappy and uncommunicative, and they end it that way, and there's no indication whatsoever that Tess' ninth year will be any different from any other. Nothing changes in the story - except that the story itself went from 'unpublished' to 'published in the Atlantic's annual fiction issue.'
Kyle's biographical blurb says she's currently working on her first collection of short stories, in which "Nine" will no doubt appear. My friend John Cotter is currently shopping around his first short story collection, from which a story as flat and unyielding as "Nine" would have been culled before it was shown to even one potential publisher. The injustices of the print world can sometimes be quite bitter on the tongue.
Next is "Stand By Me," by Wendell Berry who, I'm assuming, is on hand to do the 'old publishing figure we couldn't refuse' duties usually reserved for John Updike (who, amazingly, is not represented in this issue). His piece isn't a short story in any functional sense of the term - I think 145 paragraphs go by before there's any dialog exchanged - instead, it's a fragmentary story-premise dashed off and sent to the magazine under the serene assumption that there are no circumstances under which it would be examined, much less rejected.
The story premise involves a bunch of simple country folk and the various roles grief and loss and loneliness play in their lives, but throughout the prose is muddied with repetitions and needless circumlocutions, until even the most avid Berry fan must be able to sense the master twiddling his thumbs, just doodling until the next real piece of prose comes to mind. Even the best bit manages to sound like an unsuccessful first draft for Our Town:
What gets you is the knowledge, that sometimes can fall on you in a clap, that the dead are gone absolutely from this world. As has been said around here over and over again, you are not going to see them here anymore, ever. Whatever was done or said before is done or said for good. Any questions you think you ought to've asked while you had a chance are never going to be answered. The dead know, and you don't.
After Berry comes "Patient, Female" by Julie Schumacher, who, we're told, directs the creative writing program at the University of Minnesota (as has been noted by various pundits, creative writing programs have sprouted like toadstools throughout the land). In the story, the female narrator spends her days working as a so-called "professional patient," giving doctors-in-training some hands-on experience in clinics (one of those picaresque "jobs" that are so odd they carry their own trenchant metaphors around with them like Marley's chains; creative writing types love those kinds of jobs because real life is, you know, so boring), and she spends her nights arguing with her ailing father, who, like Tess, lies a lot for no discernible reason.
The narrator is selfish without being interesting, bitter without being virtuous, and thus repellent without being in any way redeeming to read about. The hermeneutics of this piece mark it a mile off as being 'workshop fiction,' which, for the uninitiated, means it was never meant to make sense or engage the reader; no, it's meant for rarer atmospheres than those available to the Petey Punch-Clocks and Judy Lunch-Pails who might encounter this issue at the newsstand and actually try to read it. As in "Tess," nothing happens in "Patient, Female," nothing changes, and nobody learns anything. In case you didn't get enough of all three of those things in the other parts of your life.
Fortunately, our losing streak ends next, with a fast-paced, sweet, and moving short story by Carter Simms Benton called "The Second Coming of Gray Badger." This story concerns two young brothers who're racing a stolen horse in a string of fifth-rate matches in an attempt to raise enough prize money to bail their father out of jail. Walter is the thinker behind the scheme, and bantam-weight Oscar is the rider of the horse, and in no time they fall in with Edith the waitress, who's a good deal smarter than either of them and no fool about what they're doing. Her presence throws their plans a-kilter, of course, but it's Benton's spare, lovely prose that's the point:
"You talk to Dad again?" he [Oscar] asked. "He's happy," I said. "He's real proud of you. Said it's too bad you're a thief, though. You could have done something good." I lied about calling the jail. I had decided not to call Dad until we'd settled on what to do. My head was telling me some things, like what handcuffs felt like, and I felt mean about it. "Oh, I'm a thief and you're a horse trainer," Oscar wiped his lips and looked up at me. "He didn't say that." "We're all thieves," I said and looked at Edith. "You too." "Maybe if I got some money I would be." She answered sharply. "You-all are a couple of daddy's boys, anyway. Thieves don't call their daddy every day." "Took you about two days to start whining." Oscar had his shoulder square to Edith on his stool. "Let's play some pool so Miss Dodge City can have some fun." Edith smiled and got up. We followed her to a table in the middle of the bar. She racked the table for Nine-Ball, pushing hair behind her ears. At that point, I was sure she knew everything.
Benton won the Atlantic's Student Fiction contest a while back, and his biographical note says he's working on a novel, and those are two hopeful notes for the future of fiction, in my opinion.
The next story is "Carmen Elcira: A (Love) Story" by Cristina Henriquez, and if you think that parenthetical (love) is just about as annoying an orthographical trick as our author (who's been published extensively and is working on her first novel) can devise, hoo-boy, have you got another think coming! The plot is the love life of the title character, from her fiery first love Diego (you can tell the author likes the two of them together because she has them meet cute and supplies them with snappy patter) to sad-sack Joseph, with whom she settles for the spending of her life, with occasional regrets:
For the rest of her life, Carmen Elcira lived with Joseph in the house where she had grown up and where she would grow old. Every so often, because there are tender spots in every human heart that never disappear, no matter if the tenderness is caused by bruising or by love or if, as is often the case, the two are indistinguishable, she would wonder about Diego.
That bit about the bruises of the heart is pretty good and augurs good things for Henriquez' upcoming debut novel, but all its worth is subsumed by the freakish, MOLTENLY annoying fact that our author has chosen to refer to Carmen, whose name is Carmen Elcira Salazar, as "Carmen Elcira" every single time she's mentioned. No matter that the name "Carmen" is, thanks to Bizet, known to all; no matter that even other characters in the story point out how damn odd it is - doesn't matter! Carmen Elcira goes to market; Carmen Elcira falls in and out of love; Carmen Elcira thinks to herself, "Carmen Elcira, if you do this, you'll never be able to look at Carmen Elcira in the mirror again." It sinks the story and leaves not a bubble on the surface to mark its passing. By the time the tale is done, the poor reader has that name indelibly tattoo'd on his brain and can't wait to flee to the next story.
Luckily, that next story, "We are all Businessmen" by Mark Fabiano, is one of the strongest in the issue. Fabiano has had his fiction published in Green Hills Literary Lantern, The Long Story, and something called German Village After Dark (proof positive that Fabiano himself wrote his author-bio, and that he's possessed of a puckish sense of humor), and more to the point, he's spent time in Sri Lanka, which he captures beautifully in this tale of a good-natured hard-working Sri Lankan man Ranil who is working hard as the guide and entertainer for a crass, boorish visiting American named "Mr. Richard" whose firm, Ranil hopes, will provide a scholarship for his son Arjuna. Fabiano makes sure the reader knows that for all Ranil's hopes for his son, they both come from a place the story's harried Western readers will think sounds a lot like paradise:
But I don't like to live in towns. They are impure. The people are sad. Out here the sun ripens our crops, and welcomes the spirits of our ancestors. The shade of our trees comforts us, and it is known that the water from our well is cool and clear.
When Ranil and the boorish Mr. Richard arrived at a closed bank, "Mr. Richard swears. He says some bad things about the bank and my country: "Damned Lankans. Only good for fucking coconuts and bananas."
But what about our tea? I think. Our beaches? Our mountains? The gems? But I know it is in anger. He is from Christian and doesn't know about the Buddha and how to calm himself. When my boy has gone and become a rich engineer, and then sends for his parents, I will say, "What was listening to a few bad words then, for my son is now an important man?"
As all but small children will by now have guessed, things do not go well for Ranil's hopes. But such is Fabiano's understated skill that the reader will be kept tense and delighted right to the end, as predictable as that end is. And really, all colonial fiction is intensely predictable, which is hardly Fabiano's fault. He's a very, very talented young writer; the 21st century's A Passage to India may very well come from his pen.
The next story in this Fiction Issue is the most perplexing. It's called "Obituary," and it's by Jessica Murphy Moo (who has the greatest writer-name in the long history of all literature, so on that basis alone she deserves to enjoy a long career, at least until Finch Bronstein-Rasmussen hits her stride!) who, we're told, is the communications editor for the Seattle Opera, a post one would think would leave little spare time for pecking away at short stories, but then, some young people manage their time better than others.
The story is perplexing for a number of reasons. The main character, Gus, lives on his boat in a tony marina with his diabetic dog. He's a seedy old fellow (that's perplexing thing #1: Murphy Moo writes him perfectly, even though she herself is not, in fact, a seedy old fellow)(presumably) whose departure would please the marina association. The head of the association, an officious older woman Gus refers to as the Commodore, makes it plain to him:
"I have a proposition for you, and if you'll listen for a second, it might be of some interest. We know you have a lifetime deed, but as you well know, we'd like you to leave, and the board has decided that we're willing to pay you to do it." "You had a board meeting today? Already?" She raises an eyebrow above the frame of her sunglasses, as if daring him to question him further, and she continues. "You can tell us where you'd like to go. Any marina on the eastern seaboard, and we'll find a way to get you there. If you don't remember how to drive your boat, we can arrange for a refresher, maybe even a crew, if it comes to that."
This is perplexing thing #2: although copious allusions are made, we never really get the details of why the marina folk hate Gus so much (nor why the Commodore herself seems to have a softer streak toward him, something Gus himself comments on), nor why (#3) his straightlaced son Bradley (and his wife) hate him so much. Murphy Moo is content in this story merely to hint that Gus has been in his life what one genteel soul once referred to as "a real shitbag." Gus has lots of regrets about this general impression, but not enough of them to do anything about it, and that's perplexing thing #4.
But maybe all these perplexing things are just facets of the one central flaw with "Obituary": it's not a short story, it's a novel. Here's hoping Murphy Moo knows this herself, and that the first novel we're told she's working on will be called "Obituary" and will feature the rest of this entertaining story.
Alas, the final story in this Atlantic is anything but entertaining. It's an intensely boring little piece called "Amritsar" by Jess Row, an otherwise accomplished young writer who's here turned in a turgid misfire about India that couldn't be any less involving for Western readers if it were chipped out on stone in Sanskrit. Like Henriquez' story, it's almost certainly here to fill out some 'exotic' quotient - which is odd, because the issue's two best stories, by Benton and Fabiano, are clear examples of how to put stories in exotic locations and still make them work as entertainments.
But then, the editorial decisions that went into creating this Fiction Issue are impenetrable. There is no Editor's Note to talk about the selections, no piece reflecting on the process of picking these stories from what must have been many hundreds of candidates. Instead, the issue and its contents are offered up as a flat enigma, without comment or secondary material of any kind. This is interpretable either as some kind of oracular opacity or as a child's petulant bare-minimum approach to a chore he doesn't want to perform at all, but in either case, one thing is beyond argument: short fiction deserves better from the Atlantic.
Monday, July 07, 2008
Our book today is Gustave Flaubert's Carthaginian historical novel Salammbo, which intertwines the story of a naive and seductive priestess with a tale straight out of our old friend Polybius: the revolt of Carthage's heterogeneous mob of mercenaries against the army under the command of Hamilcar, just after the close of the First Punic War. Flaubert's novel appalled those of his friends who heard passages during its composition, and it called down a storm of factual criticism from authorities of every stripe after its publication on 24 November 1862 (readers of a certain age will recall that Robert Graves faced a similar storm upon the publication of I, Claudius - both he and Flaubert responded with lengthy, testy, source-citing defenses of their work, for all the world as though they'd written works of history).
Flaubert visited Carthaginian locations several times, and he claimed to have read over 200 books on the Punic War period, but since virtually everything Flaubert claimed was a bald-faced lie (if he mentioned in a letter to you that he'd been inspired to write by the stunning sunrise, you knew with 100 percent certainty that he'd slept in), we needn't worry too much about that - especially since Salammbo, despite what some of its critics have maintained, is the furthest thing in the world from a stuffy, over-researched book. In fact, it's unabashedly, relentlessly passionate, a tightly-controlled little whirlwind of historical fiction. Flaubert takes the basic facts of the events about which he writes - most of which are right there in Polybius - and imbues them with a miracle of life-breath, as in one of his signature battle scenes (with grudging apologies for our somewhat reluctant command of French):
Above and beyond the officers' commands, the trumpets' call and the screaming of the lyres, lead and clay pellets whistled through the air, tore swords out of men's hands or the brains out of their skulls. The wounded, crouching under their shields, held out their swords by resting the hilts against the ground, and others, in pools of their own blood, turned round to bite at enemy heels. The crowd was so compact, the dust so thick, the roar so loud, that nothing was clear; the cowards who offered to surrender were not even heard. When there were no weapons left to hold they wrestled bodily with each other; chests cracked against breast-plates and corpses hung with heads thrown back between stiffening arms.
Critics at first had no idea what to make of Salammbo, and although readers have always loved it, critics still find themselves a bit confused, calling it a flawed masterpiece and the like. And they tend to pounce on the almost psychedelic fervor with which Flaubert writes his battle scenes. But in our author's defense, there might have been something in the air. Only a couple of weeks after the publication of his book, the Battle of Fredericksburg took place in the American Civil War, and its carnage and confusion, as related by its greatest historian, wouldn't have seemed out of place in the Punic Wars:
The fighting was sheer murder. Coming out of the town, Burnside's men crashed into the stone wall and were broken. Division after division moved up the attack, marching out of the plain in faultless alignment, to be cut and broken and driven back by a storm of fire; for hour after hour they attacked, until all the plain was stained with the blue bodies that had been thrown on it, and not one armed Yankee ever reached even the foot of the hill. The plain was filled with smoke, shot through with unceasing flashes of fire, and the wild, rolling crash of battle went on and on through all the afternoon and there seemed to be no end to it. Burnside was east of the river, encased in the ignorance that besets headquarters, sending over order to carry on with the attack. His men obeyed every order, until whole divisions had been cut to pieces and the town and the sheltered banks by the river with clogged with men who had been knocked loose from their commands, but from first to last it was completely hopeless. Never, at any time, was there the remotest chance that this attack could succeed.
The ecstasies of religion - at least, as Flaubert conveys them - might creak here and there in Salammbo, but all the rest of it is entirely first-rate and worth your attention in the nearest halfway competent English translation.
Saturday, July 05, 2008
Our book today is Gayle Callen's 2007 romance novel The Viscount in Her Bedroom, the third volume in her saga of the marital adventures of the high-spirited Shelby girls, Louisa, Meriel, and Victoria, as they seek to mend their family's fortunes - and find true love - in 1840's London and surrounding country houses.
When our story opens, kind, empathizing Louisa is growing bored and frustrated when she receives a message from the Dowager Viscountess Wade, offering her employment as companion to her grandson, Simon (the Viscount of the title), a dashing, sociable young man who's been blinded in a riding accident and retired from society. Louisa remembers young Viscount Wade vividly, and her generous heart is immediately struck by all the changes his affliction must have wrought in his life.
With quick, deft strokes, Callen thus sets her stage for the inevitable romance that will blossom between Viscount Wade (Callen calls him 'Lord' interchangeably, which is incorrect and therefore odd, since her entire series - The Duke in Disguise, The Lord Next Door, and this volume - is based on titles, which you'd think she'd have sorted out before she embarked on the task) and Louisa. Callen has a sure sense of the shifting vulnerabilities between the two ... shifts made all the more precarious by the burgeoning desire that tips even innocuous encounters into greater significance, as when Louisa offers a such a simple thing as guiding Simon by the arm:
She paused. "May I escort you?"
"I enjoy being displayed on the arm of a beautiful woman."
He felt her arm tighten in his, but all she did was laugh, that husky laugh that made him yearn to hear it in private.
She was patient and cautious as they walked, speaking softly of every obstacle in the way. He was the one who couldn't concentrate, with her soft breast pressed into his upper arm. He stumbled once when they reached the terrace, and she hugged his arm even tighter. He could have groaned.
Naturally, there are complications that crop up in the course of their true love, but they are swept away as the novel hums along. Callen's prose sparkles with her evident delight in the act of writing itself, and that makes her a wonderful companion. The romance genre, despite being far and away the best-selling school of fiction currently being published, is habitually looked upon with disdain by readers of more 'serious' types of fiction. But we here at Stevereads aren't 100 percent sure Jane Austen, were she alive today, would share that disdain.
In any case, we doubt she'd wring her hands worrying about the distinction, and Gayle Callen certainly doesn't; she has dancing, delightful stories to tell, and The Viscount in Her Bedroom is a very enjoyable example, worth your attention for an idle hour.