Friday, July 31, 2009

August 2009 in Open Letters!

It's 1 August people, and you know what that means! Yes indeed, it's another cram-packed issue of Open Letters Monthly! This time around, we've got great articles on boxing, the whole Christopher Hitchens/Richard Dawkins "God Debates," a posy of contemporary fiction, our crack sleuth Irma Heldman holding court on the perils of Brooklyn, our gaming savant Phillip Lobo writing about The Sims, our movie maven Sarah Hudson firing a warning shot across Oscar's bow, our zombie queen Deirdre Crimmins writing about really angry people who aren't bloggers, and Brad Jones writing about the Hollywood magic of Vincente Minnelli. I do my duty by the Romans and the Tudors, and we've got new poem and an eye-opening cover photo. And of course you all already know that Open Letters is very active all month long - especially on the OLM blog, where you'll find lots of fascinating stuff, including quite a few book-reviews by yours truly that you won't find here at Stevereads. So click on over there and read to your heart's content! You'll be glad you did!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Bunny Redux!

Our books today take a second buck-toothed bite at the subject of bunny-centric kids books. In response to a deluge of emails (well, eight - but still....) from the silent majority, I've belatedly realized that what bunny books lack in zoological verisimilitude, they make up for in the near-psychotic enthusiasm they inspire in their fans, and I've been informed by a number of those fans (well, eight ...) that although I might have covered the three biggest, most popular, most influential bunny books here on Stevereads recently, I didn't do the subject full justice. So we're back for a quick P.S. before hopping on to other subjects.

I was sent many suggestions! Of the many bunny-books I cruelly neglected, however, three titles seemed to crop up on most of the lists I was sent, and that helps to narrow the field.

The earliest of these three titles is 1979's Bunnicula by Deborah and James Howe (with oddly appealing scratchy-line illustrations by Alan Daniel), the psychologically fraught story of what happens when the unsuspecting Monroe family brings home a bunny to keep as a pet. This ill-omened homecoming takes place on a dark and stormy night, and naturally the Monroe's two other pets - large, good-natured dog Harold and nervous, slightly spastic cat Chester - are curious. Harold, in his doglike way, placidly accepts the newcomer (at least, we're told this is doglike - having had a platoon of anal-retentive beagles in my life ... and now having a hyper-excitable pointer and a basset hound who is legally, medically certifiable, I wouldn't know first-hand), but Chester becomes convinced the bunny is in fact a vampire who intends to do in first
the Monroes - and then the world.

As all fans of Bunnicula will know - and as anybody who's ever met a cat will guess - it turns out the bunny is fairly harmless and that the real focus of the drama is how insane Chester is.

The bunny is also innocent in Mo Willems' great 1974 classic Knuffle Bunny, and how could it not be so, since the bunny in question is a stuffed animal? And not a Velveteen Rabbit-style stuffed animal that thinks and feels, but a just-ordinary stuffed animal (like my Barnesy the Noble Bear, for instance) that gets carted around from place to place.

The person doing the carting in Willems' funny little 'cautionary tale' is young Trixie, who takes her beloved Knuffle Bunny along when she accompanies her father to the laundromat. Trixie and her young parents live in New York City, and the lazy genius of Willems' story is to make the backgrounds of her pages actual photos, with the cartoon characters drawn onto them (this has also facilitated the Knuffle Bunny 'tours' that have sprung up in the city, since it's possible, 'Seinfeld'-style, to identify landmarks)(this is much the same reason why Japanese tourists who love Make Way for Ducklings always take pictures of real-life enormous Irish beat cops in Boston).

As Trixie and her dad are leaving the laundromat, Trixie has a horrifying realization: they've left her beloved Knuffle Bunny behind - in a washing machine. Hilarity ensues, and a heartwarming little happy ending is served up. The book is delightful and eminently re-readable, despite having only 30 words.

The third most popularly-suggested bunny-centric title will not, alas, be discussed here on Stevereads. It's something called Guess How Much I Love You, and it stars not only bunnies but jack-rabbits, and it's just too unbearably, mindlessly saccharine for inclusion here (ditto Pat the Bunny, for you handful of over-zealous advocates out there). No, these two late-breaking additions will have to do for now - but who knows what species we'll cover next, when we eventually return to the always-delightful world of kids books? Dogs would be too predictable coming from me, but there's always birds - and dinosaurs - and believe it or not, another round of BEARS wouldn't even come close to exhausting the treasures that are out there. We shall see!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Geographica: Venice and BOOM!

It''s bad news and much, much worse news in this month's National Geographic. Don't get me wrong: the magazine itself is still fantastic, fascinating, and grippingly beautiful. But sometimes the balance of its tidings is decidedly tipped toward the glass-half-empty side of the wet bar.

Under the 'bad news' heading: Venice is still sinking, and Venetians are still being mulish assholes about it. Sigh. Some things never change. Although to be fair, Cathy Newman's article is so heavy on Venice-cliches ("What is Venice - so seductive, so lethally attractive - except the most sublime setting for the thrilling of the heart?" And so on) that it doesn't help things any.

The problem is the same one that's plagued Venice for its entire history: the incoming tides are swamping the city. When we're talking about tides of water, from the lagoon, the wrangle revolves around Venice's celebrated MOSE project, which would erect man-made walls across the mouth of the lagoon. The gates would rise into place when dangerously high tides are predicted, and the thinking is that this would save the city from any more excessive erosion. The MOSE gates will allegedly be finished around 2014, but the Venetians have been arguing about it for more than a decade now, and it's unlikely they'll stop any time soon - starting with the city's mayor, who often and publicly sneers at the idea of gates doing any good for his city.

And when we're talking about human tides, the problem takes on an even bigger scope. Venice is visited by roughly 2 billion fat people every day, each and every one of whom a) complains about how crowded it is, b) complains about how hot it is, c) complains about how everybody's talking I-talian, d) complains about how much stuff there is to see, e) complains about how narrow a lot of the streets are, f) complains about how expensive everything is, g) complains about the flooding, h) complains about the plumbing, i) complains about the long waits for all the famous restaurants and bars, j) complains about the smell of the water, k) complains about the Lido (its size, the quality of its sands, etc), l) complains about the dog-poop on the sidewalks, m) complains about how every living Venetian seems to expect a generous tip for every single thing they do within sight of even one tourist, n) complains about the fact that the houses and gardens of real Venetians seem permanently closed to them, o) complains about the differences between the real city and the one they've read about in Donna Leon (this complaint is most often heard during the many 'Donna Leon' tours that wind through the city every day), p) complains about how many churches are in their guidebooks, q) complains about how much of the artwork in those churches is so religious in nature, r) complains about the prevalence of typical American food in restaurants ("we came all this way for this?" etc), s) complains about the native food (too spicy, not spicy enough, too 'watery,' and the perennial #1: portions too small), t) complains about the noise during the day ("I can't hear myself think!" brayed by Methodists who haven't engaged in that particular activity since grade school), u) complains about the sounds at night (favorite American complaint among Venetian hotel staff: "There's a dripping sound"), v) complains about the fact that even restaurants, churches, and islands their guidebook assures them are "seldom visited" are, in fact, crammed to the rafters with people from Spokane, w) complains about how tiring it is to walk around the city (Venice is, roughly speaking, the size of your average K-Mart), x) complains about how rude the Venetians can be (on your average 1-week vacation, every single Venetian you talk to will be in the process of being evicted from their apartment because they can no longer afford the rent, but still ...), y) complains about how all these people are ruining Venice for the rest of us, z) complains about, for the love of God in Heaven, all the canals, then tosses all their plastic bags off their hotel room porch and gets back on their plane for home.

One sensible solution to this human inundation is floated briefly and sarcastically in the article then seemingly dismissed: charge people a lot of money to visit the city. I'm thinking 60 euros per adult, 20 per child, with a significant chunk of the proceeds going to subsidizing the rents of Venetian citizens.

But then, Venetian citizens might have worse things to worry about than long lines for coffee in the morning - and those things would fall under the 'much much worse' news: we're all gonna die.

Apparently, lurking underneath Yellowstone National Park (which, we're informed, contains half the geysers located on the entire planet) is a massive super-volcano that has erupted three times in the very distant past - each time with results several orders of magnitude worse than anything the living memory of the world has ever seen. Vesuvius? An after-dinner belch. Mount St. Helens? A minor night of food poisoning. We're talking about sooper-dooper eruptions that leave holes in the Earth big enough to be seen from Mars.

As Joel Achenbach writes:

Volcanoes form mountains; supervolcanoes erase them. Volcanoes kill plants and animals for miles around; supervolcanoes threaten whole species with extinction by changing the climate across the entire planet.

So we've got that to look forward to. Naturally, the various geologists interviewed in the article are cagey with their comments - nobody's willing to come right out and say when this sooper-dooper eruption will likely take place. Instead, like earthquake experts, they obscure things in the cant of probability - the odds are that, the likelihood is that, etc. But a caldera building towards a major eruption has many very specific signs, and the Hayden Valley in Yellowstone is showing all of those signs. You'd think at least one of Achenbach's specialists would say, "well, nobody can predict the future, but this sure looks like an area that's going to erupt in a big way, certainly in our lifetime." But noooooo ... the bastards.

By now you're all probably asking if there's any good news in this issue of National Geographic. Well, not much: life is still hell for refugees, policing efforts are still failing against fish-poachers in Kamchatka, and the issue still ends with that idiotic crossword puzzle instead of one last glorious photo.

Actually, there's your tiny bit of good news right there: the photos throughout are, as usual, excellent. I know that's not much to counter-balance stupid tourists and killer volcanoes, but hey, there's always next month.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Bunnies! Bunnies! Bunnies!

Our books today are three kids books starring bunnies, in response to the surprising number of you (almost all card-carrying members of the silent majority, alas - so many people reading and, presumably, enjoying Stevereads, so few people bothering to tell Steve that!) who reacted to my bear-themed kids books posting with what could only be called ursophobic levels of species-baiting. This was hardly a personal affront: I dislike bunnies every bit as much as I dislike bears. But it's true that bunny-themed kids books number among my favorites, so a sequel of sorts seemed called for.

Naturally, the place to start is the one that started it all: Beatrix Potter's 1902 story The Tale of Peter Rabbit. With their big eyes and preternatural air of innocence, bunnies are the kids storybook equivalent of Jesus (almost all of their stories are about redemption and reconfiguration)(whereas in the actual animal kingdom, almost all of their stories are about violent sex and eating their own poo), but Peter Rabbit is pure Old Testament. Peter is a nattily-dressed little rapscallion, not a picture-perfect child like his siblings Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail. The minute his long-suffering mother leaves for the bakery, Peter sneaks onto the property of Mr. McGregor, the gigantic, bearded figure who killed and ate Peter's father in a pie. Is it any wonder Peter turned out to be a trespasser, a thief, and quite probably gay?

Mr. McGregor chases Peter all over the property. Peter has several close calls, then manages to find his way back to the cozy den he shares with his mother and his sisters. He's exhausted from his raucous extracurricular activities, and as he lays there semi-conscious, his womenfolk brew him some tea. It's like something out of Trollope, only everybody has pug noses and buck teeth. Come to think of it, it's exactly like something out of Trollope.

Twenty years after The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Margery Williams wrote The Velveteen Rabbit, another genuine bunny-blockbuster. It's the story of a brand-new velveteen rabbit toy who's given to a young boy one Christmas (ding ding). The boy and the rabbit are inseparable, and the boy loves his rabbit dearly. The rabbit yearns to be Real, and an ancient toy from the house's collection, the Skin Horse, assures him it can happen:

"Real isn't how you are made," said the Skin Horse. "It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real."

"Does it hurt?" asked the Rabbit.

"Sometimes," said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. "When you are Real you don't mind being hurt."

"Does it happen all at once, like being wound up," he asked. "or bit by bit?"

"It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."

(Needless to say, none of that is written for children ... Margery Williams was a wise woman)

As everyone knows, the Velveteen Rabbit goes through one horrible near-tribulation and is then reborn (ding ding) as a real rabbit, to live in Rabbitland forever and ever. This is sugary glop, it's true, but the final coda of The Velveteen Rabbit is worth swallowing a little glop.

Twenty years after The Velveteen Rabbit, another bunny blockbuster hip-hopped down the garden path: Margaret Wise Brown's The Runaway Bunny. The earlier theme of a rebellious rapscallion rabbit is resumed - the little bunny who wants to run away spins one scenario after another to his mother (again, the long-suffering kind ... a virtual maternal requirement, when you pop out sixty kids a year): he'll become a fish in a stream, he'll become a rock on a mountain, he'll become a crocus in the garden, he'll even become a boy and run inside, etc.

To each of these scenarios, the mother bunny has an unperturbed answer - she deftly inserts herself into her child's fantasies, always there to chase him, find him, catch him, love him.

"Shucks," said the bunny, "I might just as well stay where I am and be your little bunny."

And so he did.

"Have a carrot," said the mother bunny.

The book's Christian allegories have been noted before (most poignantly - and devastatingly - at the conclusion of Margaret Edson's brilliant play Wit)(watch the film version of that final scene, and see if you don't bawl your eyes out), but its real staying power lies in how effortlessly enjoyable it is to read slowly, out loud, page by page, to an audience of children. Because in this as in so much else, timing is everything. Jesus would have understood.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Comics! Long Live the Legion!

Well, the celebrated and much-anticipated "Legion of Three Worlds" storyline is now concluded, and if DC's own gossip is to be believed, the Legion timeline is now fixed and canonical again. "No more Legion reboots" was the editorial refrain - star writer Geoff Johns was entrusted with creating the 'real,' final version of the venerable Legion of Super-Heroes and nailing that version to the mast once and for all.

A brief big picture recap:

In the 31st century, three alien teenagers - who'll later be known throughout the galaxy as Saturn Girl, Lightning Lad, and Cosmic Boy - use their combined superpowers to save the life of mega-zillionaire R. J. Brande, who in gratitude (and perhaps out of nostalgia) finances the creation of a super-team just like the legendary ones from the 20th century (The Justice League, the Teen Titans, etc). This team - the Legion of Super-Heroes - soon boasts teenage members from many planets throughout the United Federation of Planets, plus one spectacular guest-star: using time-travel technology, the Legion recruits Superboy, Clark Kent before he grew up to be Superman. For thirty blissful years, DC Comics published the adventures of Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, and the team developed a rather intensely devoted fan base. The team's enormous roster changed from time to time (members died, members were added, etc), but the basic concept of the team itself - future teenage superheroes living, loving, and fighting evil in the far future - stayed the same. And I loved it, as I loved no other comic book in the world (not even Superman).

Then DC Comics ran the Crisis on Infinite Earths mini-series that changed the very nature of all its continuity. In the new clean-slate comics world that resulted, Clark Kent had only adopted a superhero identity as an adult - he'd never been Superboy, so he obviously couldn't have shared adventures with the Legion. Which threw the Legion into creative limbo. First one set of writers and editors rescued it from that limbo, re-creating the Legion from the ground up, then later a different set of writers and editors used a reality-altering plot gimmick to re-create the Legion again, differently ... and so on. By the time all these successive reboots were done, nobody - and I mean nobody - could tell what the 'real' Legion was, what had and hadn't 'happened' in its past.

In the decades since Crisis on Infinite Earths, DC writers have been slowly, systematically dismantling the changes it implemented, and one of the last to go was that no-Superboy change (the reason it was so slow to change was entirely corporate: the whole while, Paramount was making money off its successful TV series "Smallville," which featured a young Clark Kent who most certainly never puts on a costume and calls himself Superboy). And as that no-Superboy stance started to crumble, writers and editors naturally started thinking of ways to re-integrate some kind of Superboy into the Legion again. A couple of recent storylines came right out and said Superman did indeed have a career as Superboy (the exact parameters of it are still very vague), during which he shared many adventures with the Legion of Super-Heroes.

A brief small picture recap:

In this current plot, the Legion who shared those adventures with young Superboy has grown up, just as Superman has. They're seedy, unkempt adults now, with lots of burned-out cynicism where their hope and optimism used to be, and the United Federation of Planets has grown distinctly disenchanted with them. Into this charged relationship comes an insane, alternate-reality Superboy who's dumb as a post and homicidally inclined. He assembles pretty much every 31st century super-villain the Legion has ever faced and attacks the team with the rather uncomplicated goal of killing them all. Superman comes to help from the 20th century, and the Legion also manages to summon two of those other-incarnation versions of the Legion to help out in the epic battle that follows.

While that epic battle is raging, Superman, Lightning Lad, Saturn Girl, and Cosmic Boy are off in another dimension, fighting the long-time Legion adversary the Time Trapper, who has opened up portals to a gazillion other dimensions and times - thus creating the narrative potential for Johns to use "Legion of 3 Worlds" to reboot Legion history one last time. I could almost picture it happening - big climactic fight, gigantic time-space explosion, Time Trapper defeated and destroyed, and from the wreckage, a new Legion, teenagers full of hope and happiness, who thank Superman for all his help and send him off to the 20th century so they can go back to having adventures with his teenage self from a bit earlier in the 20th century.

Well, the battle does rage, although it shouldn't at all. The single biggest flaw of this imperfect mini-series is the way Superboy-Prime (the crazy alternate Superboy) is presented as virtually unstoppable. He manages to kill several Legionaires without really trying all that hard, and they don't manage to do more than slow him down, which is absurd. For the course of three entire issues, Superboy Prime is engaged in one long fist-fight with, by my count, seven individuals who are as strong or stronger than he is - such fist-fights, when conducted by nutso teenagers with no combat experience, end in said nutso teenagers getting pounded into tapioca in about ten minutes. In addition, this Superboy Prime is fighting several opponents who can a) blind him, b) freeze him, c) render him completely immobile, d) turn his blood into daffodils, or lead, or kryptonite, and e) make him think he's won and so convince him to just stand there while he gets his lights put out. None of that happens. One of his opponents is an adult Daxamite (i.e. already more than his physical match) wearing ten Green Lantern rings. That's as close to God as you get in a secular world, and yet Superboy Prime is still going strong at the climax of this issue.

But it doesn't matter. The important thing is, there is a climax, and the bad guy is defeated (in fact, he becomes what I can safely refer to as the most reviled figure of evil in the world of comics, in a turn of events that's actually flat-out hilarious - no matter what I was expecting to feel about the long-delayed ending of this series, I certainly wasn't expecting to laugh out loud), and for about half a page, I eagerly wondered if any of my expectations would come true - I wondered exactly what kind of new Legion Johns would create.

Needless to tell any of you who've already gobbled up this issue, I was disappointed - and not in the way I was worried about. Johns didn't create a new, definitive Legion I didn't like - he spent the issue's last ten pages telling readers we already have a definitive Legion: the skeevy, downtrodden adult version, low on manpower, embittered by losses, and at odds with the United Federation of Planets. The other two alternate versions of the Legion (either of which I prefer) are sent packing back to alternate dimensions, and the remaining incarnation - the disgruntled adults - settles down to what I presume will be a series of stories starting in the upcoming revival of Adventure Comics.

One of the issue's epilogues tells us that years ago, Clark Kent as Superboy went to Smallville High School and joined a team of super-heroes - and we're shown a skinny Superboy flying through the sky with members of that original, youthful Legion of Super-Heroes. And when I saw that panel, my first reaction, thinking about this upcoming Adventure Comics, was "Yes! Show us those adventures!"

Then I realized we've already had those adventures, for all those years and all those wonderful issues in the old Adventure Comics, and in Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, and in The Legion of Super-Heroes. What DC has managed to do, at last, is bring its continuity back around to a point where at least we can say those adventures 'really' happened. Hundreds of Legion back-issues are now DC continuity again, instead of being the weirdly dislocated oddities they've been since Crisis on Infinite Earths. I should call that a win and count my blessings.

But it wouldn't be Stevereads if I did that, now would it?

Because dammit, I wanted more. I wanted more of those adventures. I wanted the Legion to stay uncontaminated by the gritty realism that infuses the rest of superhero comics. I wanted them to stay heroes, appreciated by the people they protect and serve. I wanted Superboy on the team, somehow.

Whatever I get in the upcoming run of Adventure Comics, it's unlikely to be that. Apparently, the "no more Legion reboots" roulette wheel has stopped on an adult Legion of grizzled souls in a world that hates and fears them. The definitive Legion is here, and probably most fans are happy about that. And hell, if that happiness translates to keeping the Legion in some kind of regular publication, then to that limited extent I'm happy about it too.

But I've got my fingers crossed for a reboot ....

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

In the Penny Press! The 2009 Atlantic Fiction Issue!

The annual Atlantic Fiction Issue is here, and the bullshit starts before you even turn to Page 1.

Right there on the cover of this special issue dedicated, according to the opening statement by the Editors, to the contention that "imaginative literature matters," there's a drawing of man standing by a fireside reading his Kindle. His bookshelves are empty, and strewn about the floor are tattered books, albums, toys - and actually in the fire? Books! The message artist Istvan Banyai might have intended? That the love of literature - and the absorption in it - goes on, despite changes in the 'delivery device' (this on the day that Barnes & Noble rolled out its e-reading feature). The message any actual reader is going to receive? That books are garbage, impediments on the Path to Cool. A bald, epicene guy who can toss Gogol onto the floor the minute he gets a new toy will be deleting Gogol before sunrise. But the whole image looks cool, so who cares, right?

Presumably The Atlantic would care, since a) they've been publishing great fiction for a century and a half, and b) they re-affirm their commitment to doing just that, in the aforementioned Editors' Note. Except that Editors' Note suffers from the same disease infecting both retail bookstores and the publishing world as a whole: business-speak bullshit. In the past, it was possible for normal people to ignore the pathological, wall-to-wall lying and assholery of business-speak bullshit, because it was confined to the business world. If you didn't occupy a cubicle at Lomax, Wellman & Turner, you never came in contact with 'effort' as a verb or the title "Chief Wisdom Officer" said in earnest.

But since the business world has taken over both retail bookstores (where nowadays a long-time employee wanting to go into the stockroom on his day off, perhaps to deliver documents to a friend, or collect some, can be smilingly barred by a manager and told "it's a loss prevention issue" - where the exact same manager would find it utterly unthinkable to say "I'm afraid you'll steal something")(and this state of affairs has grown so entrenched, so accepted, that the long-time employee is expected to react differently than if he'd heard the latter, even though the latter is exactly what the manager was actually saying) and publishing, business-speak bullshit has crept into virtually every nook and cranny of public intellectualism's world. Including The Atlantic and its reprehensible Editors' Note, where we're told:

That The Atlantic has continued to publish a special fiction issue each year despite a challenging economic environment for print publications reflects not only our belief that a large audience remains hungry for short stories but also our conviction that imaginative literature matters. And the issue you are holding in your hands, or are reading on your computer monitor, is an early fruit of our new partnership with an organization that shares our convictions. Luminato, the Toronto Festival of Arts and Creativity, has for the past three years presented an annual celebration on the streets and stages of Toronto that brings together artists and audiences from all over the world ...

As with all business-speak bullshit, this passage requires actual translation into English. And the translation here is so depressing it's almost more merciful not to do it.

First, there's the bullshit red herring of that invocation of "challenging economic environment for print publications." If you browse the magazine section of your local Barnes & Noble, you'll find full-color glossy magazines devoted to hand-stamping, crappy old boats, plastic superhero modeling kits, the TV show "Smallville," and parakeets - among many other topics that could only be called "of limited general interest." All these magazines come out every month despite the current challenging economic environment, and many of them put out special issues. They're able to do this because they shill really well for advertising, which brings us to the second part of that business-speak bullshit Editors' Note, the part about the spiritual marriage with Luminato. Luminato cares nothing whatsoever about books or literature, much less the current state of the American short story - and The Atlantic knows that. What both these champions of imaginative literature care about is money. What The Atlantic said was, "we hate publishing fiction - we removed it from our monthly issues, back when we had monthly issues, but our crap-ass readers still want to see it, so we have to produce this annual issue ... but we'd really rather not waste money on it." And what Luminato said was, "We don't care about your fiction either, but we'll underwrite your issue if you fill it with Canadian tourism ads."

And voila! For its 2009 Fiction Issue, The Atlantic welcomes you to Montreal! Bienvenue!

But as irritating as all that is, it's not the most irritating part of this Editors' Note. No, that's reserved for the paragraphs devoted to C. Michael Curtis, the magazine's long-time story editor, who estimates the magazine considered some 5,000 stories for publication in this special issue - and who quite predictably bloviates on what he looks for in such stories:

I looked for stories with narrative ambition, complex characters, and imaginative use of language, the familiar staples of good storytelling. I prefer, on the whole, stories that present readers with situations requiring resolution, inviting moral choices, finding ambiguity in life experiences we are tempted to simplify. I resist looking for 'an Atlantic story,' fearing formulas that might turn us away from eye-opening experimentation or stylistic breakthroughs.

In just a moment, we'll see whether or not Curtis found what he was looking for in the seven stories he chose, but first we should hear his answer when asked about the state of short fiction today:

Measured by the number and quality of stories we consider for publication each year, it's as strong as ever. If measured by consistency of technique or narrative intention, the 'state of fiction' is very much in flux. No single view of the short-story form has won a critical consensus. Exceptionalism rules the day, and a writer of short stories can do pretty much what he or she pleases without fear of critical repudiation. And while this is good news for experimentalists, it leaves critics and readers with only the vaguest standard for 'excellence' or even competence.

Again with the business-speak bullshit, only this time it's truly appalling: the guy who chooses the short stories that go into The Atlantic Fiction Issue is openly admitting that he (as a reader and presumably as a critic) doesn't have any idea what the hell constitutes even basic competence in the form anymore. Great. That should make for a grand issue.

But before Curtis even gets to apply his sketchy knowledge of what constitutes good short fiction, we get three essays - three occasional pieces taking up space that could otherwise have gone to three other short stories from those 5000 candidates. This would be well-nigh intolerable even if the essays were good, but they're not. They're gawd-awful.

And one of them isn't even an essay - it's a collection of mini-responses to a question The Atlantic (and Luminato, don't forget) sent around to various authors, a question about whether or not in this day and age "a national literature" is still a concept with any validity. First up is Margaret Atwood (a Canadian, surprise surprise), who finishes up her wandering, idiotic response with a little dollop of sophistry:

"Do you identify as a woman, or as a writer?" I've been asked. "A North American? A Torontonian? An environmentalist? A poet, or a novelist?" As if we were so divisible.

"All, all," I say. And so much more besides.

Joseph O'Neill, author of the hideously overpraised novel Netherland, opts for bald-faced lying:

Writers, in order to produce something truly worthwhile, must be ruled only by their deepest impulses, which can come from anywhere and lead in a million valuable directions.

And while we're re-calibrating from an author telling us his deepest impulses prompted him to write a cricket/9-11 novel, Monica Ali adds insult to injury by praising not only Netherland but Tom Piazza's City of Refuge, which a considerably higher authority on fiction than she is roundly dinged to the rubbish heap. The quartet closes with comments by Anne Michaels, and by the time you're realizing she's Canadian, you're realizing what I realized at about this point: The Atlantic has sold its artistic integrity. To Canada, of all goddam places.

Alice Sebold writes an insufferably self-absorbed piece about how she's come to value those little gold stickers on book covers denoting the winning of some kind of literary prize. She starts off disdaining literary prizes (as an exercise in self-praise that's meant at once to seem like self-mockery and also to be obvious as self-praise, her opening anecdote could scarcely be improved upon), then gets picked to judge one and has a change of heart. It's sickening, but it's not the most sickening of the three essays.

That distinction goes to the talented novelist Tim O'Brien, who, when sought out to write a piece about writing, opts to tell a story about how his sons Timmy and Tad have lately taken to wearing tails everywhere - I'm not kidding: this guy, this talented writer, actually builds a whole essay on the homynimity of 'tail' and 'tale.' Because in his aw-shucks, unassuming way, those kids' tails not only get him thinking about tales, they get him talking about them to his boys, in invented kids-speak as bad as anything since Louisa May Alcott, if not Euripides:

"Pretending can be a good thing," I told the boys at bedtime, "but sometimes it can get you in trouble. It can be dangerous."

Tad had already drifted off, but Timmy looked up at me with suspicion. "Is this one of your silly stories?"

"Not silly at all," I said, and then I launched into a hastily-improvised tale about a little boy who couldn't stop pretending - always talking to a make-believe dog, eating make-believe pancakes. After a while, I said, the little boy couldn't separate what was real from what wasn't. it landed him in all kinds of trouble.

"But I thought make-believe was supposed to be fun," Timmy said.

"Yes, of course it is," I told him, and then a crucial question occurred to me. "Do you know what pretending is?"

Again, the levels on which this piece of tripe is self-serving, the depth of its buried, shifty egotism, is simply staggering. "Silly stories!" the anecdote is meant to elicit, in shocked cries from cozy rooms of adoring graduate students. "Oh, if only those kids knew the Sage sitting there by their bedside, offering to tell them a story! Would they have called Homer silly? Defoe? Carver? Oh, how I wish the Sage would tuck me in! Then as soon as he left the room, I could take out my Blackberry and scribble notes!"

Considering the fact that these makeweight essays shouldn't be here at all in an issue that had 5000 people clamoring for a spot, you'd hope you could turn to the actual fiction in the Fiction Issue for relief. Shall we?

Take for instance the story "Least Resistance" by Wayne Harrison. It's about young car mechanic Justin, who worships legendary engine man Nick Campbell, learns his craft from him, and sleeps with his wife when Nick's away. Or the - whatever it is - by Paul Theroux, called "Voices of Love" and consisting, as far as I can tell, of transcriptions of interviews Theroux did with various people about various love affairs they've had. Each of the fourteen segments is simply five or six paragraphs of utterly unadorned first person narration (the piece is not a short story in any definition of the term, and "experimentalism" by damned). Here's Curtis' imaginative use of language:

Years ago, I was a waiter in Provincetown. My life changed when I met Ken and we moved to the far north of Vermont. People in the village accepted us as a gay couple. Twenty happy years passed. Ken died suddenly of heart failure. I spent two years being lonely. Then I decided to go back to Provincetown, just to see.

Real edge-of-your-seat stuff! "The butch gays had muscles. The lesbians looked pretty to me. I was happy, but those years in Vermont had made me an unsocial type. I am shy in large groups. And I don't drink alcohol." Quick! Give me more of this!

(In ten out of the fourteen segments, somebody sleeps with somebody else's spouse)

From Rick Bass I, at least, expect more - but I don't get it, at least not in this issue. His short story, "Fish Story," is about a boy who's given by his father the melancholy task of keeping a hose running on the enormous catfish that's just been caught, to keep it alive until the dinner festival can be assembled at which it'll be killed and eaten. As the boy keeps sluicing the fish, his thoughts start to wander:

Do you ever think that those days were different- that we had more time for such thoughts, that time had not yet been corrupted? I am speaking less of childhood than of the general nature of the world we are living in. If you are the age I am now - mid-50s - then maybe you know what I mean.

And if you're not - or even if you are but have no idea what the Hell point Bass is trying to make about the world we are living in, well, the hell with you. You'll take your unabashed authorial interruption in obedient silence, as generations of grad students have done before you.

In "PS" Jill McCorkle turns in the worst of the issue's short stories, a tale told as a letter a disgruntled woman writes to her marriage counselor, whose name is Dr. Love - which causes McCorkle to have her character indulge in a gruesomely pro forma meditation on the coincidence that somebody in marriage counseling would have the name Dr. Love (it's not quite as bad as 'tail/tale,' but it's close). The woman confessed to Dr. Love that she once "fucked the plumber" - then reveals that her confession was fake, and that she felt insulted that he believed it. "I may be a lot of things but cliche is not one of them." You can draw your own conclusions about that.

"Furlough" is Alexi Zentner (a Canadian)'s story about high school teacher Henry, who sleeps with his wife's sister while she (the wife, not the sister) is deployed in Iraq. The story's actually fairly competently told - Zentner most certainly has some talent, especially for the way people actually talk to each other (not a hint of "but I thought make-believe was s'posed to be fun" to be found). But his story is about marital infidelity.

More than two thirds of the fucking stories in this fucking issue are about marital infidelity.

5000 potential picks, an editor looking for, what was it, narrative ambition, and somebody fucks with somebody's wife/husband in virtually every story. A bored, texting teenager, putting in one hour as this disgrace's ombudsman, would have spotted this and, like whatever, corrected it. But The Atlantic, formerly The Atlantic Monthly, formerly the most prestigious literary arts magazine in American history, either doesn't catch it or wants us to believe this represents the very best stuff in that 5000-deep pile?

There are two short stories in this Fiction Issue that are actually good, actually worth your time. One if by Kent Nelson (no sniggering from you comic book fans about how he was fated to be one of the two) called "Alba" about Ultimo Vargas, a hard-working and virtuous immigrant from Mexico who perseveres through industry and hope, always with the goal of making something of himself. Nelson's descriptions are often memorable, and although his straightforward narrative is as far away from a 'stylistic breakthrough' as you could get, the story is still involving, and its ending will make you smile a little.

And the other good story - a really good story, by a wide margin the best thing in this, the 2009 Fiction Issue of The Atlantic, is "The Laugh" by Tea Obreht. If that name seems familiar to some of you, it's because when the New Yorker put out a Fiction Issue a few months ago, a short story by this same Tea Obreht was by a wide margin the best thing in that issue too. For those of you who may be wondering, I have no personal connection with Obreht at all - she's not related to me, she's never been a student of mine, and we've never had marital infidelity together (two out of three of those things just happen to be true about another writer in this Atlantic issue, but that's a story for another time) - no, the only connection we share is the only one that should matter in this topic: she write stories, and I read them.

She writes really, really good stories. Her New Yorker piece, "The Tiger's Wife," was superb, and her current Atlantic piece, "The Laugh," is equally superb and in some ways similar (she has a flair for writing about humans and wild animals interacting). The proprietor of an African safari business has recently lost his wife in a horrific incident that's gradually, masterfully revealed in the course of the story (the story itself is put together with the precision of a Swiss watch - this must have baffled Curtis and his hazy-wazy standards of what constitutes competence), and the loss has partially unhinged him. Witness to that unhinging is the proprietor's best friend, who briefly almost pursued an affair with the woman on the day of her death. In what a cynical soul could see as deeper gesture, the wife rejects that plot, as it were, although the grieving husband has his suspicions - which are conveyed to the reader with subtle, intelligent implication, rather than overt declarations. Lurking in the back of the story, its inhuman Greek chorus, is a group of hyena, with their aggressive Pleistocene faces and their weird ways and most of all their laugh:

What he noticed most was not the eyes or the hunch-backed lope, not even the smell: it was the sound they made, that whining yelp, like a child's voice rising. It was the laugh that made his stomach turn, and they laughed all the time, every night they were there, as if they knew their laugh made him wonder, made him want to come outside to them in the dark, or, otherwise, put a gun in his mouth. Whenever he heard it he remembered those stories Roland had told him about ancient travelers huddling in their camps while the wailing night rose around them, until they folded to the sound and drifted from the fire, one by one, into the rage of the stilling gaze.

There's a lot going on in a paragraph like that, and all if it would be impressive in a writer three times Obreht's age (she's very young, but at least not Canadian). "The Laugh" and "The Tiger's Wife" make me immoderately eager to read her short story collection when it's finally published. Although after that point, I shudder to think what everybody's annual Fiction Issues will do for quality work.

But then, The Atlantic could have published a 2009 Fiction Issue that was full of work as good as this. For starters, this issue could have had ten short stories instead of seven, but the problem goes a lot deeper than that. Business-speak bullshit aside ("every effort was made to" etc), it's impossible not to damn The Atlantic out of hand for the fact that the first issue in which they publish not one, not two, but three pieces by Canadians is also the first issue where they're receiving a truckload of advertising money from the Canadian Arts Council. This immediately and incontrovertibly brands every Atlantic editor a whore, and it makes trusting them in matters of literary judgement absolutely impossible. You can't be believed when you talk about choosing seven stories out of 5000 on the basis of literary merit if you're seen in broad daylight fulfilling a goddam quota.

All of this is deplorable, and we can only hope this is as low as it goes. If The Atlantic had the courage of its former convictions, if it still cared about carrying such an august name in American letters, it would use this wretched showing of an issue as a kind of AA wake-up call, take a fearless moral inventory of the many and grievous ways it's failed the art of writing in the last five years, and immediately proceed to make amends. Here's a starting list:

1. Abolish the Fiction Issue and resume publishing one short story in every monthly issue. Have faith that your readers won't bolt at the sight of such a thing as a short story in amongst their other subject matter. That way, twelve people out of 5000 get a shot at publication, instead of seven.

2. If you're going to have a Fiction Issue, close it to non-American writers, no matter how famous they are. Despite the 'cosmopolitan nature of today's' blah blah blah, remember your roots and do right by them once a year.

3. If you're going to have a Fiction Issue, don't make it a 'newsstand only' oddity like this one (a decision made out of fear that if regular subscribers got such a thing in the mail, they'd once again bolt to cancel their subscriptions) - include it in people's subscriptions, on the assumption that your readers care as much as you do about "imaginative literature."

4. Don't blame the marketplace! Periodicals a hell of a lot more expensive than The Atlantic manage to survive in this current economic climate, and at least some of them do it by producing content readers want to pay for. Finding that material is relatively easy, provided you don't abandon all standards and call such abandonment cool and modern. So:

5. Pick better stuff. Forget you ever said any of that nonsense about today's short stories being so all over the map in experimentation that who can tell anymore what's good and what's bad. I can tell. Most of my colleagues at Open Letters can tell. It's not that hard to tell: a good short story will tell the story of something actually happening, and the story will have a beginning, middle, and end (though they needn't be presented to the reader in that order), and in the course of the story, something, no matter how small or fugitive or temporary, will be resolved. In other words, Raymond Carver never wrote a good short story in his life, and Eudora Welty never wrote a bad one.

Get that bored, texting teenager to help, if that's what it takes. He's got, like, nothing better to do.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Separate Country!

Our book today is Robert Hicks' forthcoming A Separate Country, which turns on the literary conceit of a secret second memoir written by ill-starred Confederate general John Bell Hood.

If you'd have asked me last week to name the least promising American Civil War figure to act as the dramatic fulcrum for a work of historical fiction, John Bell Hood would have been at or near the top of such a list. The man was a morose, egotistical wet blanket at the best of times - Robert E. Lee once wrote that he was courageous on the battlefield and careless off it, and as usual with that old Sphinx, what he doesn't say is as resonant as what he does, namely that Hood was also courageous off the battlefield and careless on it. Leave it to one traitor to fully understand another.

Only if anything, Hood was more of a traitor than Lee. Lee at least could style himself a patriot to his home 'country' of Virginia - Hood didn't like the fact that his native Kentucky wasn't in armed rebellion against the Union, so he went shopping around for a rebel state that would adopt him. And his career in the Civil War was a long litany of blunders and vicious, callous mishandling of the men under his command, most famously at the Battle of Franklin, where he sent his troops out marching into enemy fire with no protection at all and reaped the inevitable wholesale slaughter with what could only be interpreted as grim satisfaction.

Such creatures don't exactly lend themselves to the central heroic role of a historical romance, and Hicks (author of the very, very good Widow of the South) surely knows that better than anybody, which is where the second book by Hood comes in - that's a great little idea, familiar from countless other historical novels, but no less serviceable for all that. In the second memoir's pages, Hicks gets to craft a Hood who's every bit as prickly, self-righteous, and dim as the historical Hood, but then charge that historical template with all sorts of sympathetic strata. It's blatantly manipulative, and it shouldn't work.

But it does. It really works. A Separate Country isn't just Hicks' best book to date - it's also one of the best historical novels I've read so far in 2009 and one of the best American historical novels ever written.

The book opens after the war, with a sick Hood (he died of yellow fever in New Orleans, after first watching his beloved wife Anna Marie die of the same disease) summoning our narrator Eli Griffin to his bedside and charging him to find this secret memoir, have it assessed, and see to its fate. Griffin is a marvelously drawn character from the very first page, and he's no friend of Hood's, having once tried to kill him. Hood, Griffin remarks, is "the first man I had ever seen a mockingbird actually mock," but he's under obligation to the old soldier, not to mention being touched by the tragic, tender family life he sees in disarray all around the man. Hood confesses to a deep, blinding love for his wife and his family (he refers to them as "a separate country," hence the book's title - although the phrase also acquires a second meaning as the book goes on, a devastating one), and his second, secret book is full of that love disingenuously described, a fact caustically brought to Griffin's attention once he allows the manuscript to be read by others:

"Why, Mr. Eli Griffin, why would Hood think anyone would be interested in reading this thing?" He let it flap over in his hand, and some of the pages wavered in the heat coming up out of the cookstove. Of course he would burn it, I thought.


"He writes as if he was the first man to love a woman."


"But perhaps that is true. We are always the first men to fall in love, no? No one else knows how it feels, not like we do. And when you have lived most of your life hard and grim and merciless, when you have finally fallen in love it must, must, be unlike anything else on this earth, unlike anything anyone else knows. Otherwise love carries the despair of all that you have misunderstood in the world and all that you have failed to see. Too painful, it's much better to think that it is one of a kind."

The most amazing thing about A Separate Country is the way Hicks mixes this unabashedly open, romantic side of Hood with the callous butcher of the historical record. In a less skilled writer's hands, the Hood who narrates his own story in the memoirs that constitute the bulk of this book would stand revealed as secretly compassionate, but no! No, this is the Hood all Civil War buffs know quite well:

There was a hospital at Franklin, where the hundreds died. Several of them, actually. They hadn't been hospitals before I rode my army up into that town, but for weeks afterward those houses and mansions and churches were the refuge of the maimed and the hopeless, my casualties, the men who's names we'd have to strike from the rolls. Their absence would be my handicap, my burden. When I walked through the Methodist church that cold day in November 1864, I was angry. Not at myself, never that, but at them. Them in their neat rows of improvised cots. Blood and piss ran between the floorboards, there were men who would never wake up from their slack-jawed sleep, there was a man missing his tongue and bottom jaw who flapped the sagging skin of his bottom lip at me.

I studied their faces for signs of malingering. I poked men at their wounds to ascertain the degree of their pain. The church-women gaped at me and finally, tired of my harassment of their charges, took to rattling the bedpans against the bed frames in protest. Had they been my troops I would have had them locked up. Instead I left, disgusted. How had they let this happen to them, I remember thinking of the men in that hospital room. Why did they let it happen?

That ramrod, repellent Hood is humanized somewhat by the end of his book and Hicks', but not as much as you'd expect, and the reason is the same saving grace that animated Widow of the South: Hicks has a fundamental respect for his readers' intelligence. That kind of respect - the trust it implies - is extremely rare in writers of historical fiction; they've done all the research, after all, and they severely doubt you can follow along unless they spell it all out for you. The triumph of A Separate Country is that Hicks trusts you to follow along on your own, without him hovering over your every reaction. He even dares to trust that most of you have at one point or another in your life fallen hopelessly in love - and if you have, that plot-strand of this book will have you nodding in fervent agreement. So: not only a winning historical novel starring, of all people, John Bell Hood, but a touching love story starring John Bell Hood. Can a J. Edgar Hoover cookbook be far behind?

A Separate Country comes out in hardcover in September. I don't usually advocate the purchase of such murderously expensive books, but two months is time enough to save up, and this is an author who actually deserves your money. Alternately, you could go to your local library, create a waiting list for the book, and put your name at the top of that list. And of course there's the tried-and-true Stevereads approach: if my review here intrigues you, I'd be happy to acquire a copy of the book for you myself and send it along.

The important thing is that Hicks has written a quiet little masterpiece (I've only scratched its surface here), a fictive highlight of 2009, and you shouldn't miss it. In two or three years, I predict, this author is going to write a massive Civil War epic and gain wide-stage immortality for it (there'll be comparisons with War and Peace, mark my words) - but he's doing deeply invigorating work right now, and his best stuff yet comes out in September.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

He-Meat in the Penny Press!

GQ is a magazine perennially underestimated by my more bookish friends. People who pretend to read The New York Review of Books always make a point of their discrimination; GQ and other 'men's magazines' are sniffed at and deemed beyond the pale of serious readers. For such people, 'serious reader' always equates to 'reader of serious stuff,' but for me it means something very different: a 'serious reader' is somebody who reads anything - but who takes that reading seriously. An enormous amount of work goes into getting a monthly periodical out on time and keeping its editorial standards respectable - and like I've pointed out here before, magazines like GQ and Esquire pay some good money for the freelance pieces they accept ... which means some of those freelance pieces will be quite good.

Take this month's GQ, for instance. There's an article on the victims of the Khmer Rouge, our old friend Alex Pappademas writing about Quentin Tarantino, and a smart, off-kilter guide to travelling in Europe.

But we won't be talking about any of those today at Stevereads. Instead: bring on the he-meat!

Well, OK, it's not quite as bad as that. But still, one of the pleasures of GQ is watching its ongoing relationship with young Hollywood. The editors and photographers gravitate toward the almost-breakouts and give them lavish treatment just prior to their receiving said treatment from the rest of the world. No doubt this is all orchestrated by movie studio publicity departments, but it can still make for interesting star-spotting, and sometimes the accompanying articles can be fascinating glimpses into the lives of these plastoid beings, at a stage in their careers before they learn to completely bullshit every answer in absolutely every interview and withdraw into that fully-gated community from which true big-name Hollywood stars never thereafter venture. It's in the pages of GQ that some cheekboned young thing will blurt out 'shit' for the last time on the record - the last legitimate time, after which every blurting of 'shit' will be carefully choreographed to feed into the buzz surrounding that young thing's upcoming movie "Shit," in theaters July 11.

Of course, movie studio bullshitting classes start earlier and earlier these days, and even somebody like this month's cover boy, Channing Tatum, somebody who's still very much in the 'Channing Who?' range of the general public's knowledge, has no doubt already been sat down and given some fairly comprehensive seminar-work on What Not To Say when some perky lady-reporter from GQ comes looking for an interview. This is certainly the case if said young thing is about to star in a summer blockbuster that cost said studio gazillions of dollars (which it absolutely has to make back in the first fifteen minutes of the movie's opening weekend, or three thousand people will lose their jobs and none of them will ever work in this town again) - which describes Tatum, who stars in July's G.I. Joe mega-whatsis.

This goes both ways, naturally: that perky reporter - in this case Lisa DePaulo - has no doubt been given her own corporate playcard. After all, can't have her breaking any scoops or doing any damage to Tatum's budding career now, can we, not if GQ wants him to return for a photo-spread six years from now, after he's won an Oscar for his starring role in the critically-acclaimed remake of Rocky (with Stallone in the Burgess Meredith role). So DePaulo has to play along - no mention of recreational drugs, no mention of smoking, drinking described in settings that would please a pair of Mormon parents (in the article, once young "Chan" has had 1.5 beers, he conscientiously refuses to drive DePaulo back to her hotel), no mention of ogling, leering, or groping. Readers are prospective ticket-buyers, after all: they have to come away liking Channing Tatum.

And they do. The star comes across as endearingly genuine, somebody who regularly returns to his roots (in East Bumbfuck Alabama, to a family of rednecks who themselves worry that they'll look like the Clampetts to Tatum's more sophisticated Hollywood friends) to get away from the phoniness of the West Coast. There's the usual pussyfooting about craft - a painful thing to watch when Tatum's G. I. Joe co-star Joseph Gordon-Levitt tries to spin Godard out of an action blockbuster, but almost as painful here, with all the aw-shucks admissions that G.I. Joe doesn't really afford its young stars any chance to do any serious acting. In Tatum's case, the thing could be G. I. Hamlet and still not do so, since he has no serious acting anywhere inside him - he's just really pleasing to look at (DePaulo also faithfully relays the usual crapola about our young star suffering from dyslexia and ADD, because simply calling him stupid would sound harsh)(even though it's not - I've spent lots and lots of great time with some stupid people and been the better off for it ... no, it's dumb people who are life's chief irritant, and that's a very different thing, bespeaking willful ignorance and loud over-talking; even in as carefully-scripted a profile as this one, it's completely obvious that although Tatum is stupid, he's nowhere near dumb).

His family, not so much so. It will come as no surprise that rural East Bumbfuck Alabama is no more ready for its close-up now than it ever has been. Tatum's kinfolk disdainfully refer to President O-bam-a (DePaulo's discretion is marvelous to behold here - she never comes anywhere near saying or transcribing it, but you hear the word "nigger" clear as a bell), and at one point one of the women, talking about the stern paterfamilias, says "my daddy never even seen a homosexual before," to which this reader wanted to respond: "Oh yes he has - but you can be damn sure that 'homosexual' didn't identify himself, because he knew if he did, your daddy - and a buncha his good ol' boy friends (because bigots never act alone) - would have beaten him just plain dead.

Tatum tells DePaulo that he's currently studying for his upcoming role in Eagle of the Ninth - so our poor dyslexic ADD-riddled pretty boy has two Roman history books on his Kindle, and somewhere a Hollywood handler is hoping Eagle of the Ninth will be Tatum's Gladiator. It could very well be, if G. I. Joe isn't - time will tell, but whether it's burnout or coronation, GQ was there nice and early.

Same thing with the issue's other piece of he-meat, the ethereally beautiful Hunter Parrish, who stars in Weeds and did a memorable turn in Spring Awakening (he has a lovely if predictable singing voice and the requisite poreless porcelain skin, although a burgeoning tobacco habit will take care of both those things pretty quickly). Unlike Tatum, Parrish is already a complete creature of sound-bite publicity hacks; if you look at six or seven Youtube clips of his various interviews, you'll see a script performed with myna-bird precision every time. To its credit, GQ doesn't bother actually talking with this kid - they just dress him up in various "college"-inspired outfits in order to give their readers, the great majority of whom are young cubicle-dwellers pining for their great old collegiate years, some sartorial inspiration. The copy is hilarious, as all fashion copy is: "When we say collegiate-inspired gear, we don't mean a USC sweatshirt and a pair of Adidas slides. Think about the kind of East Coast classics that a Kennedy might have worn back in the day."


Parrish's career has yet to map the kind of inevitable-feeling trajectory that Tatum's has, despite the fact that Parrish is considerably prettier and every bit as willing to hit the weights. There's a big-cast romantic comedy on the horizon for him to get lost in, but apart from that, only the barren wasteland of Weeds stretching until contract's end. If Parrish is smart (sentences have had stronger beginnings), he'll soak up as much craft as he can in that time; a gorgeous young man who learned acting from Justin Kirk and comedic timing from Kevin Nealon could come to rule Hollywood, if he played his cards right. No doubt GQ will be right there on the spot when and if that happens.

P.S. OK, OK - as shamelessly eye-candy as this post is, it's still Stevereads! I can't leave a discussion of this issue of GQ without mentioning that at least one thing in it will thoroughly engage your brain, not your, er, other parts! Michael Joseph Gross turns in an absolutely fascinating article, "Sextortion at Eisenhower High," about that kid in Wisconsin who tricked lots of his male classmates into emailing him naked pictures of themselves (they thought they were sending them to a hot female classmate) and then extorting sex out of those poor saps or else the pictures would go all over the Internet. Gross does first-rate work, and this piece deserves to be anthologized somewhere far away from profiles of Channing Tatum. Writing about the kid whose Internet machinations will likely land him in prison for the rest of his life, Gross smartly hits a bigger note:

He rode the wave that more and more kids ride, out to a place where every flesh-and-blood kid is also a phantom, where adolescence isn't so lonely, where you don't have to wonder, isn't there anybody who wants what I want? In this world, no IM goes unanswered - and for every teenager who types the question will u send it? there is another typing, Yes.

That's good stuff, and a normal Stevereads entry would have started with it and only latterly got around to mentioning the fluff and hypocrisy of photo-features on the likes of Hunter Parrish. But it's a bright sunny summer morning, and youth, too, has its allures!

Back to books next time, I promise.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Comics! The dawn of Blackest Night!

Well, DC Comics' mega-event of the summer is launched at last: "Blackest Night" has begun. The series revolves around the superhero Green Lantern and the Green Lantern Corps (think intergalactic policemen, armed with energy-wielding rings) to which he belongs, and it features a brand new super-menace: Black Lanterns.

Some basic recapping, for those of you perhaps not up to speed:

The supremely powerful Guardians of Oa (little blue-skinned guys in robes, able to harness vast amounts of energy) created a vast energy battery and a large collection of green rings to tap into that battery's power. The wearers of these rings are chosen for their basic courage and strength of will - they come from all worlds, and the greatest of them all, cocky test pilot Hal Jordan, comes from Earth (three other Lanterns also come from Earth - it's a little unbalanced, cosmically speaking, but at least two of those other three - reliable, jackass Guy Gardner and stalwart, stoic John Stewart - are worth keeping just the same).

Naturally, being a police force, the Green Lantern Corps has had its share of on-the-job fatalities - there are plenty of dead Green Lanterns. And thanks to a lamentably lazy plot-device that's been copied and re-copied by so many DC writers in the last fifteen years that it's impossible to feel anything but bored by it, those dead Green Lanterns have lots of company: every time a big-name cokehead DC writer is imported to an ongoing title in order to boost its sales, he nowadays invariably decides that actually creating a plot or two would be, like, boring - so he threatens the DC brass that if he'll break his contract and walk to the competition if he isn't allowed to friggin kill somebody. No story worth talking about if you don't friggin kill somebody.

And since the DC brass has consistently caved in, we've had a rash of super-homicides over the years. Superman died and came back. Green Arrow died and came back. Guy Gardner and Hal Jordan died and came back. Three Flashes died and came back. Kid Flash died and came back. Superboy died and came back. Wonder Woman's mother died and came back. A lame-ass Robin died and came back. It's absurd, and it reached its peak (I can only hope) this last year, when the Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, and friggin Batman died. Three super-heroes, each with roughly seventy years of character history, all killed in order to boost some paltry temporary sales.

The worst part of this gimmick by far is that if you think about it for even a second, it makes every single hero in the DC universe look like the world's biggest idiot. Why would these people even care anymore if one of their colleagues and teammates appears to get blown up, shredded, stabbed, or incinerated? Why would they bother to set up memorials like the ones pictured in the first issue of DC's Blackest Night? Why would they go through even the pretense of mourning, when they all know the hero in the coffin will be back real soon? These frequent death-arcs have produced some great comics and some great moments (I'm thinking particularly here of the moment where the World War Two teammates of Wonder Woman's mother toast her memory, but there are lots of others), but those moments stand in ludicrous isolation from the actual characters, since none of the survivors ever becomes the least bit cynical over this constant cycle of predictable rebirths. They just keep yelling "Turquoise Avenger! Noooooooooooo!" and then, a few months later, gasping, "Turquoise Avenger! Can it be you?"

So Blackest Night comes at what could be an opportune time, if writer Geoff Johns is thinking what he bloody well ought to be thinking: that at the end of this mini-series, a whole bunch of characters who should never have been killed off will be brought back to life. My worry is that he isn't thinking anything of the kind, and that a perfect opportunity to return the Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, and Batman to life will be squandered. My worry is that Johns doesn't see anything wrong with that stupid torrent of character deaths choking DC comics.

And the first issue of Blackest Night certainly does nothing to allay such worries. In fact, it deepens them, in the only way it could: you guessed it, more characters die! Not only do the all-powerful Guardians of Oa appear to bite the dust in this issue, but also two DC superheroes of extremely rich and long histories - and in all these cases, the deaths we're talking about aren't the typical lost-in-a-vague-explosion kind they dish out over at Marvel. No, these characters have their chests ripped open and their still-beating hearts ripped out. Tough to finesse that; it's usually fatal.

It turns out the Black Lanterns have a perverted Guardian of their own, and they have a twisted Hal Jordan leader-figure, and they have admittedly cool-looking black rings that seek out and create what can only be described as Zombie Lanterns - the rings animate the dead bodies of all the heroes (and villains) who've croaked in the last few years. In a dramatic page in issue #1, Hal Jordan and the Flash are confronted by the Zombie Lantern Martian Manhunter, and Hawkman gets the pulp pounded out of him by the re-animated corpse of the Elongated Man (Ivan Reis' artwork throughout is utterly superb - this sequence with Hawkman is positively drenched in blood, and yet it's as clear an action-sequence as DC has fielded all month). And there are many, many more such partial resurrections coming in future issues.

I don't want to be a nay-sayer. The first issue of Blackest Night is every bit as thrillingly paced, intelligently written, and amazingly drawn as all its advance billing claimed - this will certainly be the standout DC Comics story-arc of the year and a must-own hardcover graphic novel when it's collected.

I'm just hoping it's also a conclusion of sorts. It would be great if, in addition to restoring such time-honored characters as Aquaman and the Martian Manhunter (and Batman, geez) to life and health, Blackest Night also established an ironclad moratorium on the trick of killing major characters. DC has recently indulged in it way, way too often - to the great detriment of its continuity and characters. So let's have all the bloody death and mayhem Johns can dream up, for the rest of this series - and then no more, eh? Then the heroes go back to defeating the bad guys, instead of being easily duped by and then friggin killed by the bad guys. I realize we live in a harsh world in which good doesn't always triumph over evil (recent presidential elections notwithstanding), but surely good should always triumph over evil in comic books? Superhero comic books?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Great Explainers!

Our books today all hail from the same turbulent, amazing decade, the 1970s, when (believe it or not, you headstrong young things of today) it seemed to every intelligent person that some version of 'the future' was suddenly here among us, suddenly happening. The first hints of hi-tech automation, the first inklings that complex machines might actually be miniaturized sufficiently to be useful in daily life (my first calculator was very nearly the size of the laptop I'm typing this on - it was considerably heavier, and even the this text-creating program has more calculating capacity), the sinking into the collective mindset that such things as remote-controlled satellites were hovering over our heads - and most of all, the moon landings, with television footage of men actually walking on the surface of the moon ... all these things combined to give the average inhabitant of the industrialized West the real impression that for the first time technological innovations were happening faster than society was developing to handle them.

It's almost impossible in mid-2009 to convey the simultaneous combination of wonder and trepidation that impression caused in, say, 1969. In 2009, what's percolated into the collective mindset is precisely the speed, the unthinking incomprehensibility of technological change. One of the surest ways to tell that a civilization is entering its own equivalent of Byzantine decadence is this communal acceptance of incomprehension: when the average 20-something American is informed today that next year's i-phone will have 300 times the power of the one they bought last year - that it'll be able to access radio, TV, the Internet, every private database on Earth, and privately encrypted personal medical records for everyone who's ever lived, the ominous, dark response is likely to be "Wow! That's great!" (or worse, "It better, for what I'm paying"). That's one of the best ways you can tell that a civilization is overripe and ready to fall from the branch (or, more likely from a historical point of view, to be plucked): when the very last thing that average 20-something American would ever ask in such a circumstance is "How? How is that even remotely possible?"

But half a century ago, such decay had only just barely begun - the citizenry was still robust, still directly engaged in their own forward invincibility, and plenty of its members were indeed asking "How? How are these new things possible? What will they mean to my life?"

I think that, as much as anything, explains the incredible crop of great, extremely rewarding books from this period whose aim is to explain things, to lay out the history of various branches of knowledge, carefully illustrate the trends and thought-currents, and put it all in perspective. These books are all, at heart, responses - responses to the feelings of upheavals rocking Western society during their decade.

The first and most influential of them all kicked things off in 1969: Sir Kenneth Clark's Civilisation, which sold gazillions of copies for over a year. Clark's book - magnificently illustrated, as are all these books - grapples with what 'civilization' actually means, what brings it into existence, what occludes it, what characterizes it, how it grows. This broad framework gives Clark a perfect vehicle to wander around all of Western civilization from the Middle Ages to the present day, and that's just what he does - literally. He wanders into churches, museums, historical sites, always engagingly synopsizing and illustrating his points. And his points boil down to one main point, although he's characteristically unassuming about it:

At this point I reveal myself in my true colours, as a stick-in-the-mud. I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellectuals of our time. I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction, I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven't changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must still try to learn from history.

In other words, Sir Kenneth is a humanist, in the finest tradition of humanists since the breed was born. But in 1969 there was one ghastly extra dimension to humanism that Colet, More, and Erasmus never faced:

Our other speciality is our urge to destruction. With the help of machines we did our best to destroy ourselves in two wars, and in doing so we released a flood of evil, which intelligent people have tried to justify with praise of violence, 'theatres of cruelty' and so forth. Add to this the memory of that shadowy companion who is always with us, like an inverted guardian angel, silent, invisible, almost incredible - and yet unquestionably there and ready to assert itself at the touch of a button; and one must concede that the future of civilisation does not look very bright.

Clark is talking here about the prospect of nuclear war that overshadowed everything for the whole of the 50s, 60s, and 70s - and future historians will have a tangled task on their hands, trying to chart the extent to which that prospect penetrated into every aspect of the social and intellectual life of those decades. It was different from the terrorism-inspired anxieties of the present day (inaccurately so, since the real chances of a hostile nuclear detonation in 2009 are about a hundred times greater than those in 1969) - it was the threat of the world ending, and it created a tension that certainly played its part in generating these books. Every age has its own doomsday scenarios, but unlike the present day's fear of uncontrolled global warming, the fear of nuclear war was a fear of what technology could do - cutting-edge technology that virtually nobody could understand.

Civilisation was an enormous success and found its way into countless homes. The next great-explainer phenomenon that came close to matching its success was J. Bronowski's 1973 The Ascent of Man, a massive and again generously illustrated tour of the author's idiosyncratic and highly personal look at what could be called the spiritual anthropology of the human race. Bronowski knew many of the great physicists who helped to make that overlooming threat of nuclear war possible, and he everywhere in his book cautions against surrendering to just the kind of complacency we now take for granted. In one of the book's most affecting passages (whose words will be familiar to all you West Wing fans), he visits the remains of the ash-pit at Auschwitz and strikes his own version of a defiantly humanist position:

It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods...

I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.

"Knowledge is not a loose-leaf notebook of facts," Bronowski insists. "You cannot possibly maintain that informed integrity if you let other people run the world for you while you yourself continue to live out of a ragbag of morals that come from past beliefs."

That note of irritation is important; it's sparked by the tendency - already beginning to be visible in the early '70s - of many people to pull inward and throw up their hands when confronted with what looks like too much complexity. Firmly situated in an era primed on international competition, our combative author naturally pictures this complacency as a fatal misstep in a race that's a long way from being finished:

The ascent of man will go on. But do not assume that it will go on carried by western civilization as we know it. We are being weighed in the balance at this moment. If we give up, the next step will be taken - but not by us. We have not been given any guarantee that Assyria and Egypt and Rome were not given. We are waiting to be somebody's past too, and not necessarily that of our future.

I shouldn't let all this talk of technology and art obscure the fact that this wave of great explaining volumes also encompassed other disciplines. By far the most studious and technical of our volumes today is Jonathan Miller's 1978 The Body in Question, in which he surveys the history of medicine and medical knowledge. Miller is considerably more acerbic than the rest of our authors, and often his prose is the most arresting:

To sum up, then. At one time or another we have all been irked by aches and pains. We have probably noticed alterations in weight, complexion and bodily function, changes in power, capability and will, unaccountable shifts of mood. But on the whole we treat these changes like changes in the weather: as part and parcel of living in an imperfect world. The changes they cause in our behaviour are rarely noticeable - not inconvenient enough to interfere with our routine. We retreat a little, fall silent, sigh, rub our heads, retire early, drink glasses of water, eat less, walk more, miss a meal here and there, avoid fried foods, and so on and so on. But sometimes the discomfort, alarm, embarrassment or inconvenience begin to obstruct the flow of ordinary life; in place of modest well-being, life becomes so intolerably awkward, strenuous or frightening that we fall ill.

Falling ill is not something that happens to us, it is a choice we make as a result of things happening to us. It is an action we take when we feel unacceptably odd.

Miller's dispassionate precision makes his book challenging and fascinating reading even now, when medical science has progressed as far beyond that of 1978 as 1978 was beyond 1078. You'd think another branch of learning that's undergone a similar morphing would be natural history, since the last forty years have seen a devastation of the natural world not equaled since the Cretaceous. An estimated 30,000 species are rendered extinct every year in our modern era, and the end of such a process is as certain as if it were written in stone. But the certainty of such a future actually serves to highlight both the bravery and the genius of the greatest of our explainers today: Sir David Attenborough, whose 1979 Life on Earth is one in a long line of similar volumes he's produced in his long career of acquainting the busy humans of this planet with the mind-staggering splendor and complexity of all the other living things who live here. Attenborough is the only one of our present writers who has continued to produce an unbroken string of fascinating, stimulating volumes, and Life on Earth is no exception. It traces all the forms and families of living things, although it all inevitably comes down to the human race:

This last chapter has been devoted to only one species, ourselves. This may have given the impression that somehow man is the ultimate triumph of evolution, that all these millions of years of development have had no purpose other than to put him on earth. There is no scientific evidence whatever to support such a view and no reason to suppose that our stay here will be any more permanent than that of the dinosaur ...

But although denying that we have a special position in the natural world might seem becomingly modest in the eye of eternity, it might also be used as an excuse for evading our responsibilities. The fact is that no species has ever had such wholesale control over everything on earth, living or dead, as we now have. That lays upon us, whether we like it or not, an awesome responsibility. In our hands now lies not only our own future, but that of all other living creatures with whom we share the earth.

But as entertaining as Miller or Attenborough (and there are other such specialists, plenty of them) are, the main thrust of these great explainers is that great burgeoning thing first coming into clear view in the 1970s: the plastic world of technology, growing and building on its own complexity in ways even its own architects couldn't predict. Since the avatar of that technology was the space program, it's no surprise that the best of our explaining texts today comes from James Burke, who was the BBC's chief reporter on the Apollo missions. His 1978 book Connections traces the sometimes torturous genealogy of a handful of the modern world's most crucial inventions, such as telecommunications, nuclear power, plastics, and transistors.

Burke makes the genealogies fun, and his book is so lively and light-touched that it makes delightful reading even when treading in the deepest waters. And perhaps as a direct result of Burke searching out so many trends as they wind their way toward the present, he sees some of the forces bubbling underneath his own time more clearly than our other authors. Reading Burke's book, especially its concluding chapter, you're struck by how eerie it is: here's this extremely intelligent and imaginative man, in possession of all the facts currently available, groping blindly toward a something he can just barely see coming, a something that represents the next step in so many of the technological evolutions he's been exploring:

Now that computer systems are within the price range of most organizations, and indeed of many individuals, an avalanche of data is about to be released on the man in the street. But what use are data if they cannot be understood?

We all know what that something is: the Internet revolution, the massive, world-straddling, utterly unforeseen interconnectedness of software technology that shrinks, expands, fuels and shapes our world - a revolution virtually none of its beneficiaries understand anymore or care to. Burke was (and still is, thank goodness) the quintessential questioner, and even forty years ago, he could see the possibility of that technological indifference well enough to lament it:

The high rate of change to which we have become accustomed affects the manner in which information is presented: when the viewer is deemed to be bored after only a few minutes of air time, or the reader after a few paragraphs, content is sacrificed for stimulus, and the problem is reinforced. The fundamental task of technology is to find a means to end this vicious cycle, and to bring us all to a fuller comprehension of the technological system which governs and supports our lives.

That vicious cycle hasn't been ended, and I sometimes wonder if it even could be anymore - and whether or not anybody under the age of 60 would even want it to be. Earnest, unabashedly believing humanists like Clark, Bronowski, and Burke seem antiquated today not merely or even mostly by their inquisitiveness but by their enthusiasm. In 2009, swamped to its eyeballs in the irony epidemic born of the late '80s, caring about anything more substantial than 'skinny' jeans and X-Box is socially appalling. Recently in a gathering of young people in their late teens and early 20s (dancers mostly, but still, not actually lobotomized), I started talking about the fact that North Korea is controlled by a madman in possession of nuclear missiles. The whole living room responded virtually in unison with a "Dude, chill" that would have made Bronowski weep.

But whether this is Byzantium come 'round again or just the darkness before dawn, it's still intensely comforting to go back and re-read these massively engaged and learned volumes. They pulled together all the vast achievements of the past, hammered them into spirited and often quite lovely prose, and then looked forward - sometimes with alarm, sometimes with excitement, but always with a sense of engagement. There's something hugely refreshing in that.