Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Name of the Rose!

Our book today is Umberto Eco's massive 1980 bestselling historical-fiction pot-boiler The Name of the Rose (to give it its English title from the 1983 William Weaver translation that sold like gangbusters for over a year in America). I read it back in the early 80s and liked it despite what I referred to at the time (in a published review, of course, since only NASA had blogs back then) as "its aggressive longueurs." The other day I found a 5 cent copy of the book and devoted a long, hot afternoon to re-reading it.

The book tells the story of young 14th century Benedictine Brother Adso of Melk, who comes under the tutelage of Eco's nod to Sherlock Holmes, the ascetic super-sleuth Brother William of Baskerville, just in time for the two of them to become embroiled in a series of mysterious and gruesome deaths at a French abbey. There's a colorful cast of clerics, naturally, and Eco throws in several library-trips full of research into things like architecture and medieval book-culture (indeed, the whole plot of the novel revolves around the mania created in certain religious minds by the very existence of a certain book - Erasmus would have loved that touch, although he'd have had quite a bit to say about some of the execrable Latin found in The Name of the Rose). I recalled being swept away by the sheer garrulous earnestness of the narrative, the first time I read it.

Likewise the second time (in both instances, I read it during the course of a very hot day, so some elements of my judgement will have to stand suspect): this is ultimately an absorbing book, and I was absorbed all over again, even though I recalled clearly how the plot advanced and what was behind each twist and turn.

But this second time around, I was much better able to see the book's flaws - and it's odd I didn't see them as clearly the first time, since they're virtually innumerable. Eco achieved a vast commercial and popular success with this book, and so he became a prime target for jealous, nit-picking academics, experts on 14th century minutiae who can't even get each other to listen to their own papers at their own conventions, much less command the attention of nearly 8 million people in 20 countries and five continents. The Name of the Rose was therefore nit-picked to a fare-thee-well in various literary and learned journals (there being no Internet at the time, although gawd knows you can find plenty of that same nit-picking carefully transcribed online, if you care to look). I knew all that the second time I was reading it.

It didn't matter, though, because the book's least avoidable failures don't have anything to do with how long exactly Savonarola's nose was. Mostly, this book is flawed by the fact that it won't shut up. Facts are piled on facts with the careless abandon of students flinging looted furniture onto a street barricade, and all of it's done with such frenzied abandon that it's little wonder so many readers simply surrendered themselves to the hypnotic pull of it all. What in Heaven's name can you do with passages like this:

I lay, how long I do not know, the girl at my side. With a light motion her hand continued to touch my body, now damp with sweat. I felt an inner exultation, which was not peace, but like the last subdued flicker of a fire taking time to die beneath the embers, when the flame is already dead. I would not hesitate to call blessed a man to whom it was granted to experience something similar in this life (I murmured as if in my sleep), even rarely (and, in fact, I experienced it only at that time), and very rapidly, for the space of a single moment. As if one no longer existed, not feeling one's identity at all, or feeling lowered, almost annihilated: if some mortal (I said to myself) could for a single moment and most rapidly enjoy what I have enjoyed, he would immediately look with a baleful eye at this perverse world, would be upset by the bane of daily life, would feel the weight of the body of death ... Was not not what I had been taught? That invitation of my whole spirit to lose all memory in bliss was surely (now I understood it) the radiance of the eternal sun; and the joy that it produces opens, extends, enlarges man, and the gaping chasm man bears within himself is no longer sealed so easily, for it is the wound cut by the blow of love's sword, nor is there anything else here below more sweet and terrible. But such is the right of the sun: it riddles the wounded man with its rays and all the wounds widen, the man uncloses and extends, his very veins are laid open, his strength is now incapable of obeying the orders it receives and is moved solely by desire, the spirit burns, sunk into the abyss of what it is now touching, seeing its own desire and its own truth out-stripped by the reality it has lived and is living. And one witnesses, dumbfounded, one's own raving.

Raving - check!

This type of editorless bombast is a well-known literary gambit employed by mediocre typers to ward off inspection (because it's nowadays considered bad taste to speak ill of the recently dead, we'll resist calling this the Foster Wallace Gambit and instead call it the Joyce Gambit). "I am clearly insane," it dead-facedly tells would-be critics, "and so I am by all rights outside your jurisdiction." It's a good gambit - it often works (at a Barnes & Noble near you, somebody is right this moment spending $20 on a copy of House of Leaves), but it isn't often associated with this, the most rigorously plotted and real-world grounded of Eco's novels. And yet, the book is full of passages just like this one, where our author is basically just letting his fingers fly across the typewriter keys, pouring our page after page of willfully obscure anachronisms couched in flowery-archaic verbosities. No human editor could be expected to wade through this stuff with a red pen, marking two-thirds of it for deletion (the above quotation says, "Religiously-indoctrinated virgin though I was, I found sex quite enjoyable"). William Weaver deserves a Bronze Star for managing to translate it. And very few readers, I suspect now even more than I did thirty years ago, likely got through it all to the end.

Which is sad, because the book's plot - and its ending - snaps with invention. Trapped inside the bloated flea market of Name of the Rose is a rock-solid murder mystery of around 200 pages. Fortunately for readers who might find this frustrating, Ellis Peters wrote twenty or thirty such mysteries, all starring another Benedictine altogether.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

In the Penny Press! New Yorker, 31 August 2009

There's a fact about magazine-reading that you rarely hear, mainly because its conditions are so incredibly rare: when it's good, The New Yorker is better than any other periodical in the world.

The reason you rarely hear that fact is because The New Yorker these days is, alas, almost never good. Oh, there are some reliable sources of quality - Anthony Lane seldom misfires, and other usual suspects - but far, far too often the magazine is a long, gray soup-line of broken-down shabby pieces of heavily-bestubbled pieces nobody gives a damn about. Week after week after week, The New Yorker seems determined to punish those of us who ever once upon a time liked it, or those of us who have the temerity to remember the days when it was sold in a brown paper wrapper - the days when every issue was a virtual song of perfection, when a critic could call it perhaps the greatest magazine in the history of magazines and not sound foolish or over-reaching.

In the post-Tina Brown era? Not hardly. The political reporting is too often choked with hyperbole and buzzwords (if I read another sentence in a national periodical that's followed by the single word "Really?" as though the author were a friggin teenage girl - or thought friggin teenage girls were something worth emulating - I'm going to cancel a whole LOT of subscriptions), the short satire pieces have everything going for them except the smallest shred of humor, the various 'quirky' profiles go on at lengths utterly unsupported by their idiotic, self-serving subjects, and their longer features soar to new heights of tedium (a recent two-part piece on Siberia was more torturous than actual exile to Siberia would have been). And that's not even taking into account the state of that New Yorker staple, the cartoon ...

But every once in a great while, all the tumblers will fall into place and The New Yorker will once again do that particular thing that was once its reliable specialty: it will fill you up. The great issues of this magazine used to tell you things you never knew, fascinate you about subjects you hadn't even heard about until you opened the issue, and show you old familiar topics in new and interesting lights (in addition to making you laugh, with the aforementioned cartoons) - it was like being a listening guest at some great salon of a party, and no matter where you turned or which room you entered, there was a fascinating conversation taking place, and when you left your head was buzzing with ideas.

The 31 August (oh, how wonderful to type that date!) New Yorker is just such an issue. From the wonderful, wistful "No Trespassing" cover by Istvan Banyai (which manages to be romantically touching despite the fact that it automatically summons to mind the open scene of Jaws) to the fascinating - if repellent - 'Talk of the Town' piece by Laura Secor on Iran's political show-trials (and a heartbreaking notice by Ian Frazier on the devastation done to Central Park's trees by a recent "microburst" storm), to the hilarious "Shouts & Murmurs" piece "For Immediate Release" by Paul Simms.

There's a fantastic, extremely alarming article by Steven Brill on the failed teachers in the New York public school system, people who've been taken out of their classes for one reason or another (drunkenness, it seems, or plain old incompetence) but, thanks to their union, still get paid, usually while sitting in a place they've dubbed "The Rubber Room." The fact that these people are getting paid not to teach instead of getting fired is bad enough, but toward the end of the article we get to the really scary part:

The Rubber Rooms house only a fraction of the 1.8 per cent who have been rated unsatisfactory. The rest still teach.


Then there's Burkhard Bilger's fun piece on Bob and Mike Bryan, twins who are also luminaries in the doubles-tennis circuit. Of course any piece on twins promises good old-fashioned freakshow fun, but in this case that payoff is overshadowed by the sad truth of Bilger's opening:

Few sports have evolved so dramatically in the past forty years, or been so utterly transformed by technology. Drop a young Pele onto a modern soccer field and he would still dribble circles around most players. A DiMaggio in his twenties could go on a hitting spree in the major leagues tomorrow. But even Rod Laver in his prime, when he twice won all four grand-slam tournaments in a calendar year, would be flummoxed by today's game: the giant carbon-fibre racquets, the synthetic strings that send every shot spinning and dipping over the court, and Andy Roddick at the baseline, blasting serves at one hundred and fifty miles per hour. It would seem less like tennis than like target practice.

Naturally, this is as true as it is tragic, and anybody who ever sat through the ode to boredom that was a Stefan Edberg match could have seen it coming. The problem isn't the racquets or the strings - the problem is that evil, money-grubbing parents have figured out that if they treat their promising children like livestock - get them up at dawn, give them the right feed, keep them focused 24 hours a day on their purpose on this Earth, and most of all work them, train them, practice them during every waking minute - they stand to cash in on some rather lucrative endorsement deals when their animal starts paying off. There are two inevitable results of this new program: first, the resulting creatures, although only able to perform one small fraction of the actual game of tennis (100 percent entirely power-games from the backcourt), are able to perform that fraction at superhuman, eugenically engineered levels. Roger Federer can hit a penny one inch from the baseline with a 120-mph shot, and he can do it over and over again, without ever missing, without ever pausing, for upwards of twenty straight hours, if his father/manager tells him he should. The noises that Rafael Nadal makes on the court (which would have got him peremptorily disqualified in Laver's day) can be heard a city block outside the arena, because what he's doing isn't tennis, it's weight-lifting. And second, the resulting creatures are entirely vacant animals which have no intellect, no ability to reflect or learn, and not even a small amount of self-control (their controls have, literally since birth, always been imposed on them by their manager/parents). When somebody asks Michael Phelps or Sidney Crosby a question about their sport, the usual pre-learned patter snaps automatically into place, "We were really looking forward to this game/match, it was really challenging, we gave it our all, it was a learning experience," etc. But if they're left alone and unsupervised at, say, a restaurant or party, they stare blankly, mouth slightly ajar, as clueless and overstimulated as a five-year-old. If a young woman walks by, they blurt out, "ME WANT RAPE!" - and somebody quickly cell-phones their manager/parents for a quick retrieval.

Fortunately, the article is redeemed throughout by Brill's great skill as a writer, and that skill is abundantly on hand elsewhere in the issue. In that rarest of rarities these days, the issue's short story is excellent: it's called "The Fountain House," and it's by an author I've never heard of (I'm pretty sure I would have remembered): Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. It's about a man who loses his daughter in a bus-bomb explosion - only maybe he doesn't - and it's wonderfully sparse and strong, even in its English translation.

James Wood turns in an unusually meaty review of Terry Eagleton's new attack on the "New Atheists" like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, and Wood's piece is good right from the start:

Nothing more clearly shows that atheism belongs to religious belief, as the candlesnuffer does to the candle, than the rise of the so-called "new atheism.

Of course, Wood still manages to write a few boneheaded things, as when he refers to A Brief Inquiry Into the Meaning of Sin & Faith "a posthumous publication" of the late, great John Rawls (it was nothing of the kind, being rather a particularly bothersome case of literary grave-robbing), or when he uncorks this little beauty:

The Christian God is personal - that is precisely the stumbling block for many of us who cannot persist in belief. And how does one go from the idolatry-hating God of the Old Testament to the fleshily incarnated God who died on the Cross? The bridge between the two seems not to stretch all the way across the river.

(Any intelligent Christian - not a heavily-populated subset, I admit - would tell Wood that he himself has supplied the answer to his own confusion: Jesus. The compassion, the frailty, the humanity of Jesus ... these things are the bridge across that river, and if your faith is true, they do indeed stretch the whole way).

The back of the issue is held down by two of The New Yorker's trustiest standbys: Alex Ross and Anthony Lane (although David Denby's magisterial take down of "Inglorious Basterds" last week was a tough act to follow). Ross writes an extremely interesting piece on the almost-lost art of classical improvisation:

Beethoven carried on the tradition - the darkly rumbling cadenza that he devised for Mozart's D-minor Piano Concerto is a fascinating case of one composer meditating on another - but he also helped to kill it. In the first movement of the "Emperor" Concerto, the soloist is told not to make a cadenza but to play "the following" - a fully notated solo. Performers gradually stopped working out their own cadenzas, instead turning to a repertory of written-out versions.

The issue features three poems by Richard Wilbur, and two of them I actually liked:

Sometimes, on waking, she would close her eyes
For a last look at that white house she knew
In sleep alone, and held no title to,
And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.

What did she tell me of that house of hers?
White gatepost; terrace; fanlight of the door;
A widow's walk above a bouldered shore;
Salt winds that ruffle the surrounding firs.

Is she now there, wherever there may be?
Only a foolish man would hope to find
That haven fashioned by her dreaming mind.
Night after night, my love, I put to sea.

- The House


Treetops are not so high,
Nor I so low
That I don't instinctively know
How it would be to fly.

Through gaps that the wind makes, when
The leaves arouse
And there is a lifting of boughs
That settle and lift again.

Whatever my kind may be,
It is not absurd
To confuse myself with a bird
For the space of a reverie:

My species never flew,
But I somehow know
It is something that long ago
I almost adapted to.

- Flying

Of course, liking an issue of The New Yorker this much will make next week's inevitably crappy issue all the more bitterly disappointing. But for now, I can savor it all again here in the writing about it and imagine that the whole thing still cost $1.50 and came wrapped in brown paper to protect the front cover from wear and tear - and to make unveiling that cover all the more happy.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Comics! Captain America Reborn!

In Marvel Comics, the resurrection of Captain America proceeds apace. The second Ed Brubaker/Bryan Hitch issue of the mini-series that will bring back the Star-Spangled Avenger is out, and it's got enough thought-provoking oddities to warrant a quick second comics-entry so soon after our last one. Because, as you all know, I thought the death of Captain America was a stupid plot-afterthought to the overall poorly-conceived 'Civil War' storyline, I'm naturally interested in seeing it fixed. Cap is Marvel's third-oldest continuing character (70 years still seems impossible to believe), and he's also their third most-recognizable character (after Spider-Man and Wolverine) - his absence from the Marvel Universe is the black hole at the center of so many of the problems confronting Marvel's continuity right now, that a well-done resurrection tale could undo a lot of bad karma.

And I do so love a well-done resurrection tale! Comic books are rife with them, of course, and some are done much better than others. The dumbest, sloppiest, most protracted and lackluster of such resurrections was sure Marvel's revival of Captain America's WWII sidekick Bucky (who was good and properly dead for so long that the fact had become axiomatic in the comics world - "nobody dies, but Bucky"), who's returned as some sort of half-cyborg cold warrior named, appropriately enough, Winter Soldier. After the death of Captain America, Winter Soldier donned his uniform and his famous shield - to give solace to a grieving country, and all that. Naturally, he features prominently in the story Brubaker and company have to tell here.

That story is almost as old as the character of Cap itself. A key thing to remember about the Marvel Universe is that everybody in it has already had to deal with the death of Captain America once before: at the end of WWII, Cap and Bucky were lost and presumed killed in an explosion - the world didn't know that the super-soldier serum flowing through Cap's body preserved his life and put him in suspended animation, from which the Sub-Mariner and the Avengers accidentally revived him decades after the world thought him lost. So a second return from the dead isn't really pushing things for the character, provided it's handled well (note to the Marvel bullpen: kindly don't kill this character off again).

This particular resurrection story is, so far, being handled well. Brubaker is capable of some taut plotting, and he's settled on a classic mechanism of rebirth for his character: that old standby, the time-travel story. The two issues of "Captain America Reborn" that have appeared so far (the first one with a nifty cover, the second with a crap-assy cover)(which makes the third anybody's guess) have two parallel plots: the efforts of the new Bucky/Captain America and his allies to infiltrate the lair of the government bad guys they suspect had a hand in killing the 'real' Cap, and the 'real' Cap narrating long vignettes from his life - which he's mysteriously re-living from beyond the grave. In this issue, he wonders what's going on - he's inside his own memories, unable to alter them but not simply re-experiencing them; he's thinking for himself, about himself, as the reels of his life unspool.

But is it his life? This second issue opens with a scene from 1944, where Cap and a bunch of grunts are storming a fortress somewhere in Europe. The grunts are under heavy fire, and Cap is there to save the day - and also to fight the Nazi super-villain Master Man, which he does in one beautifully drawn and choreographed fight-sequence of some six or seven panels. If some of you are thinking that's a bit quick, you're not alone - I thought the same thing. Master Man, after all, is an invulnerable super-villain strong enough to take on the whole of Captain America's WWII super-team the Invaders, including the Human Torch and the aforementioned Sub-Mariner. In the current Marvel continuity, Captain America could no more take on Master Man alone - and beat him - than he could beat the Hulk without help. So let's go to the tape, shall we?

Cap launches himself up at the descending Master Man, slams him against the fortress wall, plants his boots against his enemy, spring-boards backwards, and lets the two of them plummet to the ground, with Master Man absorbing the impact and Cap pile-driving down right on top of him, leaving Master Man unconscious. Boom. Fight over. But in current Marvel continuity, Cap couldn't make such a catapulting leap, and Master Man could easily shrug off such an impact. So what's going on?

The narrative shifts to Bucky/Captain America getting his ass kicked by the bad guys, and when it shifts back to the 'real' Cap, we're seeing a scene very familiar to comics fans: skinny little Steve Rogers volunteering to be experimented upon by kindly, brilliant Professor Erskine, in an attempt to create the world's greatest super-soldier. Steve drinks the super-soldier serum, undergoes the radiation-bath, and quintuples in body-mass, suddenly bristling with muscles. And as all fans know, that's when tragedy strikes: a Nazi saboteur lurking in the watching crowd shoots and kills Erskine, thereby insuring that Steve Rogers will be the only person to receive that precise super-soldier treatment. And in the instant of Erskine's death, an enraged Steve Rogers smashes through the plate glass and hurls the Nazi to his death against the energy-combines in Erskine's lab.

Except in this version, this 'memory' our narrating Cap is re-living, he doesn't just kill the Nazi saboteur - he leaps up forty feet to do it. Even spurred by grief and rage, the Captain America of the current Marvel continuity could no more do that than he could flap his wings and fly to the moon.

But there is a Captain America who can do these kinds of things. He's the Captain America from the 'Ultimate' universe Marvel created some years ago in order to tell more updated, bad-ass versions of the origins of some of their oldest characters. As I've mentioned here before, the Captain America who debuted in Ultimates was in many ways a preferable version of the character: more of a soldier, and much, much more than a superb athlete dressed in a flag - that Cap was a genuine super-being, indefinably tougher, stronger, and faster than even a perfectly-conditioned normal man. The Ultimates Captain America very probably could defeat Master Man in six panels (if memory serves, he defeated the Hulk in about the same amount of space, albeit temporarily), and he could certainly clear forty feet in a rage-fueled leap.

So I'm starting to wonder.

I'm starting to wonder if Marvel hasn't given Brubaker and company permission to tweak their Star-Spangled property just a bit. I'm wondering if one of the most successful and well-conceived creations of the 'Ultimates' universe is simply being moved over to normal Marvel continuity.

In short, I think the Cap I've been reading for lo, these many decades really is dead and gone. So ... long live Captain America?

Friday, August 14, 2009

Alligators and Music!

Our book today is the delightful Alligators and Music, published in Boston in 1976, written by Donald Elliott and filled with the captivating illustrations of Clinton Arrowood. The book is another perfect example of that wonderful middle-ground I often write about, a presentation that is so simple, so playful, so thoughtful, that it can instantly be enjoyed by adults and children alike.

Elliott and Arrowood take us on a brief, decidedly up-tempo tour of the personnel behind any symphony orchestra. We get emotional first-hand (first-claw?) impressions of what it's like to be a member of the various constituent groups of any orchestra.

There are the strings, like the 'cello:

I'm so grateful to be a string instrument that doesn't need to be blown upon or struck, and I'm particularly grateful that I am neither one of those tiny, high-pitched violins nor one of those huge double basses. My sounds, like my size, are right in between, not frivolous and not ridiculously serious, but warm, full, and - well - just right.

And there are the brass, like the French horn:

I know what you want to ask: why must I have all those curvy tubes like noodles on a dish? I need them, that's why, to produce my music, and I'm proud to be so complicated. Life isn't simple, you know, and if you want to make a real contribution to it, you must do and be many things.

There's the percussion section, whose timpani player manages to look just as harried and ill-tempered as timpani players everywhere:

The only thing really important in life is rhythm; rhythm, beat, and timing; everything depends on these. It's all well and good to bring forth grand melodies, and I must admit that they often entrance me, but when it comes down to basics, where would anything be if it weren't for my rhythm-keeping and my booming voice.

And there are those instruments that exist apart from the crowd, foremost of which is, of course, the piano:

I stand alone. I am the prince! I am the prince of instruments, the prince of music-makers. Loud, soft, fast, slow, happy, sad - I can be and I am all of these things and more. I can produce sounds that are just like the soft sighs of lovers, the thunderings of storms, the jokes of clowns, the joys of life, the pains of death. I can be shallow, I can be deep, I can be like nature, or I can be as precise and careful as arithmetic.

And when all the pieces come together, something far, far more magical than the sum of their parts is created. Anyone who's ever appreciated a live symphony performance will agree:

I am the symphony orchestra, and through the guidance of the conductor and under his firm control, I unite all my separate elements into a creation far greater than wood, brass, silver, or gold, greater than sounds, greater than the people who compose, the people who play, than the conductor himself. And although I know that I can never completely escape my earthly limitations and that in the midst of the serious there always lurks a touch of the ridiculous, I know, too, that I can create a sublime kind of beauty unsurpassed by anything in this world.

And in case you're wondering "Why alligators?" - our collaborating creators have the perfect riposte in mind: "Why not alligators?"

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Comics! Adventure Comics #1!

Well naturally, I read DC Comics' new relaunch of Adventure Comics - how could I not? After all, Adventure Comics and I go back a long way, and the two DC creations here - Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes - well, I go back a long way with them too.

Once again, Superboy is the star of Adventure Comics - only it isn't young super-powered Clark Kent, sole survivor of the planet Krypton ... it's a vat-grown clone created in a lab using DNA from both Superman and Lex Luthor, a clone now called Conner Kent, since he's been quasi-adopted by saintly Ma Kent in Smallville, Clark Kent's rural hometown. This character already has a long and eventful history in DC Comics (had Stevereads existed back when he had his first series, with fantastic artwork by Tom Grummett, I'd have praised it then), including dying in some mega-crisis or other.

He's back now, and this first issue has the languid pacing and extensive backgrounding that's actually a canny way to kick off a series obviously meant to re-introduce the character to readers. In this issue, he respects Ma Kent, plays with Krypto the super-dog, has a long heart-to-heart with Superman, and secretly agonizes over the fact that one of his two daddies is the most evil man in the world. Geoff Johns does a good job drawing readers into what feels like a longer, more careful story than the usual first issue these days, and the coloring job Brian Buccellato does over Francis Manapul's oddly stiff artwork is nothing less than breathtaking.

And it was tough for me to notice those things, because the issue's back-up feature, "Long Live the Legion" (also by Johns, with artwork by Clayton Henry), is why I paid attention in the first place. Here were all the marbles in one inertron basket: the dust had settled from the Legion of Three Worlds, a couple of weeks had passed, and all I wanted was the answer to one question: is the Legion, the real Legion, back at last?

It is indeed. Right there on page 23, I get literally everything I've wanted from Legion creators for what? About six or seven years now? I'll quote:

It all began when Jor-el and Lara sent their only son to Earth to escape the destruction of the planet Krypton. Kal-el became the first documented alien immigrant to Earth [picture here of Clark Kent flying, where his Superboy costume]. A thousand years later, Kal-el's legend paved the way for extraterrestrials from across the universe to venture to Earth. That included three teenagers who saved the life of the 31st century's greatest entrepreneur, R. J. Brande, from a mysterious assassin. Inspired by their unity, Brande funded the Legion of Super-Heroes - an organization made up of representatives from across the universe. Eventually, the three founding Legionaires even traveled back in time and recruited their inspiration, Kal-el, a.ka. Superboy. And the rest, as they say, is history.

So there it is, and thank you, DC Comics. Just leave it like that and tell stories, and I'll stay happy.

Well, almost. This issue contained an embarrassing little mistake in the two-page spread of the adult Legion. The spread was meant to be impressive (although Henry hasn't yet fully crafted his own sense of what the Legionaires look like ... I trust that'll come with time), but no geekoid Legion fan is going to notice that, since right there on the left hand side, the identifying boxes for Shadow Lass and Night Night Girl have been transposed (these things are moved around the finished art by computer? Are such things possible?). The blue-skinned young lady in the black bikini is actually Shadow Lass, Tasmia Mallor, the planetary champion of Talok VIII, who can generate vast fields of impenetrable darkness. The beehive-haired young woman in the black leotards is actually Night Girl of Kathoon, whose father - in the time-honored tradition of comics - experimented on her to give her super-powers. Just to head off the geeks who'll no doubt be talking of little else for the next week.

I liked this relaunch of Adventure Comics, despite my slightly wistful tone here. The format itself - a comic split between a main story and a Legion back-up story - has never worked, not once in the entire long history of its use at DC or Marvel; one of the two features always, always ends up being the readers' clamored-for favorite and taking over the title. I'm betting the winner here will be Superboy, and that the Legion will have to do more wandering in the desert of book-less creations before getting a nice new #1 of its own.

I'm just hoping when that nice new #1 comes, it won't contain a retooled origin story! Let's just make that sweet, perfect template on page 23 THE origin of the Legion, shall we?

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Some Good Open Letters - Part 1!

Our books today comprise a quick tour through that most maligned and rewarding corner of the Kingdom of Good Letters: book criticism.

On one easy level, book criticism has the rare distinction of being one of the only types of writing every single literate person has done at one point or other. We do it first as children - the most honest and most brutal of literary critics - because on its simplest level, book criticism is simply a matter of telling another person whether or not you liked a book in question.

Further refinements accrue. From saying whether or not you liked a book, it's short step to saying why either way. And saying why necessarily entails saying whether or not the stuff the author tries succeeds, and to what extent. And if it doesn't succeed, why doesn't it? Before you know it, you've launched upon that much--vexed subject, the writer's craft. That ultimate refinement might look forbiddingly rarefied, but the best literary critics never forget its incredibly simple origins.

'The best literary critics' covers more territory than this single entry can encompass, of course. I've got no Addison for you this time around, no Johnson, no Coleridge or Arnold or Macaulay, no Lamb - even though they're all great and will all have their entries in due course (we've been on this little literary excursion for roughly 500 entries, so by now I assume you'll all trust me when I say: sooner or later, I'll get around to everything).

No, this time around we'll just dip in quickly to some juicy, delightful passages from some of my personal favorites in the genre - and some of the greatest exponents of the genre that all of us over at Open Letters strive to continue every month. These are writers I return to over and over again - and they're certainly among the literary figures who taught me how to read in the first place, how to think about reading, eventually how to write about books. The furthest back we'll go this time around is Walter Bagehot, who began his 1869 review of the poetry of Henry Crabb Robinson in this irresistible way:

Perhaps I should be ashamed to confess it, but I own I opened the three large volumes of Mr. Robinson's memoirs with much anxiety. Their bulk, in the first place, appalled me; but that was by no means my greatest apprehension. I knew I had a hundred times heard Mr. Robinson say that he hoped something he would leave behind 'would be published and be worth publishing.' I was aware too - for it was no deep secret - that for half a century or more he had kept a diary, and that he had been preserving correspondence besides; and I was dubious what sort of things these would be, and what - to use Carlyle's words - any human editor could make of them. Even when Mr. Robinson used to talk so I used to shudder; for the men who have tried to me memoir-writers and failed, are as numerous, or nearly so, as those who have tried to be poets and failed. A specific talent is as necessary for the one as for the other.

There's a perfect combination there of the pose of humility and the careful seeding of its opposites, and the combination has the effect of placing all your confidence in the reviewer, come what may. Very, very smart writers (and they didn't come much smarter than Bagehot, despite a certain inclination toward tub-thumping) can use this facile admission of fallibility in just this way to attest to their aesthetic purity, although another of my favorite writers on books (also a passably talented writer of books) actually meant his such protestations seriously:

For my part, I have a small idea of the degree of accuracy possible to man, and I feel sure these studies teem with error. One and all were written with genuine interest in the subject; many, however, have been conceived and finished with imperfect knowledge; and all have lain, from beginning to end, under the disadvantages inherent in this style of writing.

That's Robert Louis Stevenson, and those 'disadvantages' he's referring to are a part of the writing school I'm celebrating today: pressing deadlines, deadpan unfamiliarity with your putative subject, obdurate editors - in short, the pitfalls of literary journalism. The best writers who indulge in this kind of writing find ways to get around these pitfalls, ways to turn them into strengths (not to mention how good such writers get at researching their subjects with incredible speed and depth), and Stevenson was one of those writers, half-apologetic, half-defiant of his own results:

Short studies are, or should be, things woven like a carpet, from which it is impossible to detach a strand. What is perverted has its place there for ever, as a part of the technical means by which what is right has been presented. ... But this must not be taken as a propitiatory offering to the gods of shipwreck; I trust my cargo unreservedly to the chances of the sea ...

Those chances can be harsh - most of the best book-writing is resoundingly out of print today. Usually, the occasional essays authors write for cash and recognition (and free review copies) are collected, dolled up with a new Introduction, printed in low numbers, and remaindered almost instantly. We've seen some critics like that, here at Stevereads, and the reverse is also true: famous authors of other kinds of stuff get their book-writings bound and publicized even if those writings are worthless. Luckily, one of the greatest novelists of the last century was also one of the greatest book-critics, so we'll always have the pure, cool pools of Virginia Woolf's Common Reader series to dive into, always sucking in a sharp breath at the clarity of it all, always emerging refreshed:

In her [Jane Austen's] masterpieces, the same gift is brought to perfection. Here is nothing out of the way; it is midday in Northamptonshire; a dull young man is talking to rather a weakly young woman on the stairs as they go up to dress for dinner, with housemaids passing. But, from triviality, from commonplace, their words become suddenly full of meaning, and the moment for both one of the most memorable of their lives. It fills itself; it shines; it glows; it hangs before us, deep, trembling, serene for a second; next, the housemaid passes, and this drop in which all the happiness of life has collected gently subsides again to become part of the ebb and flow of ordinary existence.

That of course is genius writing about genius, a rare and stunning combination - but I submit that it happens more often in book-criticism than any other field of writing, for reasons that are pretty obvious once you start thinking of them. Reading is one of the most personal things anyone, including writers, can do - even on deadline and badly hung over, that's a deep well to tap. There are charlatans aplenty, of course, stupid, mulish faux-readers who scan pages for a living only in order to find the shopworn little collection of literary prejudices they haven't changed since high school (the mind recoils in horror at the prospect of a Collected Michiko Kakutani). But there are also entirely wonderful times where even the bagatelle indisciplines of an inveterate autodidact can be brought to a perfect pitch by the fires of reading passion. The best example of this in the 20th century was Randall Jarrell's Poetry and the Age, in which our singingly honest critic tackles the very question of what it is to be a critic - at times obliquely, as in his shouted exhortations to young critics:

Write so as to be of some use to a reader - a reader, that is, of poems and stories, not of criticism. Vary a little, vary a little! Admit what you can't conceal, that criticism is no more than (and no less than) the helpful remarks and the thoughtful and disinterested judgment of a reader, a loving and experienced and able reader, but only a reader. And remember that works of art are never data, raw material, the crude facts that you critics explain and explain away. Remember that you can never be more than the staircase to the monument, the guide to the gallery, the telescope through which the children see the stars. At your best you make people see what they might never have seen without you; but they must always forget you in what they see.

And at other times directly, seeking classification:

What is a critic, anyway? So far as I can see, he is an extremely good reader - one who has learned to show others what he saw in what he read. He is always many other things too, but these belong to his accident, not his essence. Of course, it is often the accident and not the essence that we read a critic for: pieces of criticism are frequently, though not necessarily, works of art of an odd anomalous kind, and we can sympathize with someone when he says lovingly about a critic, as Empson says about I. A. Richards, that we get more from him when he's wrong than we do from other people when they're right.

In that first duty of the book-critic, the duty to be out there reading and reporting back, Jarrell is always nothing less than superb - reading him on the heart-breakingly few authors he ever bothered to write about always throws a new and blinding light on those authors and on the process of reading itself.

That process gets its most sensitive, probing, intelligent evaluation from a writer we don't fist think of in this metier: in 1961 C. S. Lewis published An Experiment in Criticism, and it's an astonishing, humblingly brilliant prolonged meditation on the nature of both reading and writing about reading. I could fill an entry this long simply by quoting the best of Lewis' virtually limitless store of great lines: "We are so busy doing things with the work that we give it too little chance to work on us. Thus increasingly we meet only ourselves." "Forced to talk incessantly about books, what can they [critics] do but try to make books into the sort of things they can talk about?" "I would say that every book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; it must not be less. Entertainment, in this sense, is like a qualifying examination. If a fiction can't provide even that, we may be excused from inquiry into its higher qualities." "The best safeguard against bad literature is a full experience of good." "The ideally bad book is the one of which a good reading is impossible." "If we have to choose, it is always better to read Chaucer again than to read a new criticism of him." And so on, smiling the whole time.

The 'experiment' in Lewis' book is tongue-in-cheek daring: to read books, to return to a more honest reading of them, to give to each of them that "inner silence" that, Lewis maintains, is the only path to any book's heart. "The first demand any work of art makes upon us is surrender," Lewis writes, and he's alive to the differences between people who read and people who don't:

In that way, the judgement that someone is unliterary is like the judgement that 'This man is not in love', whereas the judgement that my taste is bad is more like 'This man is in love, but with a frightful woman.'

But his own allegiances couldn't be more clear:

Those of us who have been true readers all of our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated.

And he reserves his closest approximation of scorn not for the unliterary but for bad critics, who would have no place in the world that resulted from his novel 'experiment':

Thus one result of m system would be to silence the type of critic for whom all the great names in English literature - except for the half dozen protected by the momentary critical 'establishment' - are as so many lamp-posts for a dog. And this I consider a good thing. These dethronements are a great waste of energy. Their acrimony produces heat at the expense of light. They do not improve anyone's capacity for good reading. The real way of mending a man's taste is not to denigrate his present favourites but to teach him how to enjoy something better.

Most book-critics - even the best ones (some of whom I've had the privilege to work with) - never achieve this kind of elevation; Lewis did perfectly what they must often do quickly and as best they can. But there's a real art to be found in those fast-honest appraisals and condemnations, especially if they, too adhere to Lewis' call that they be entertaining. And if you get some insight, a good line or two, and maybe a new discovery in the bargain, well then the gods of shipwreck have been kind.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

This Duchess of Mine!

Our book today is This Duchess of Mine, a 2009 entry in Eloisa James' ongoing series of Romance novels featuring Georgian duchesses with various kinds of marital dilemmas. Which, as a one-sentence overview, doesn't distinguish these books much from hundreds of other Romance novels published every year - it often seems like the half that don't feature the sultry undead feature the idle landed gentry.

The important difference - in these as in all books, in all genres, at all times - is the tenor of the prose. Clever plotting helps, and a sturdy premise is quite useful (and neither of those things is ever as common as I'd like), but the basic math of fiction still applies: the more energy and wit the author pours into their work, the more enjoyment you'll get out of it.

In this respect, the genre of Romance virtually belongs to Eloisa James. It's a given in this series of hers that her love-plagued duchesses are always smarter and quicker-witted than everybody around them (including, with satisfying regularity, their husbands), but the same could be said of James herself - her prose sparkles with lively dialogue, tastefully understated descriptions (over-elaborate descriptions being the bane of period Romances), an easy assurance (including - and extreme rarity here - action sequences, which James handles with exciting ease), and a continuing awareness of 'the Big Picture,' a broader perspective than you usually find in genre novels.

The problem faced by Jemma, the beautiful and slightly imperious Duchess of Beaumont in This Duchess of Mine, is mischievously simple: she's in love with her husband. Which sounds simple enough in 2009 (or, considering the divorce rates in America, maybe it doesn't), but in 1784 London's smart set, it's positively gauche. Neither the Duke nor the Duchess has a spotless romantic history (he has a mistress, she dabbles in naughty affairs)(although never, she somewhat limply asserts, with a married man), and when the book opens he's hardly thinking of passionate affairs with his wife - he's far too absorbed in helping William Pitt run England. His wife isn't the only character to refer to Elijah, the Duke, as 'puritanical,' but she's determined to add some actual passion to their arranged marriage. It's a serious mission and she's serious about it, despite being surrounded by fawning fops who advise against seriousness of any kind:

"Are we allowed to be serious only about stockings?" she asked.

He thought about it longer than she thought necessary. "I am quite serious about scandal," he offered.

"But never about passion itself?"

He wrinkled his nose but his eyes were sympathetic. "Thank God, infatuation has never forced me into seriousness. A beautiful woman should never be serious, Duchess."

"Why not?"

"It implies that there is something you cannot have. And we who are not as beautiful prefer to believe that you have everything you wish for in life. That is the essence of beauty, after all."

One of the little hallmarks of a good Romance novel is audience participation - if the author knows her business, she'll have her readers so frustrated with her main characters that they won't know whether to cheer for them or strangle them. This is certainly the case with Elijah and Jemma, both extremely intelligent, willful chess players, and - it turns out - both wanting the same thing: the complete devotion of the other. As each proceeds through a series of harmless flirtations and stumbled-into misunderstandings, they alternately infuriate and exasperate each other, as in a tense scene where the Duchess shows the Duke an expensive new chess set:

"Where did you acquire this?" he inquired.

"Oh, it was a gift," Jemma said. "Look, Elijah, the rook has a tiny person inside the window."

"Would you say that I am a restrained person?"

Jemma looked up. Her husband sounded as if he were speaking through clenched teeth. "Yes, of course I would, Elijah."

"In short, my face never takes on a seething expression like that on the face of this king."

She was starting to wish she had just gone to bed.

"This is a gift from a man, isn't it?" Elijah said, still with that curiously flat intonation.

"If you are planning to boil with rage over that fact," she said. "I believe we should cancel our game until tomorrow."

"This chess set is worth a small fortune."

Jemma put down the piece she was holding and rose to her feet.

"I know exactly who sent it to you. And I won't have it."

This Duchess of Mine is pure, vivacious fun, with two central characters who are compulsively interesting. James' writing rewards readers with a smile or a surprise on every page. This last week saw the publication of her next Duchess book, A Duke of Her Own - I haven't read it yet, but I'm betting I'll like it.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

The Flesh and the Spirit!

Our book today is The Flesh and the Spirit, the best-selling 1952 WWII novel by Charles Shaw that was later adapted into the hit 1957 movie starring Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr. That movie was called Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, which is a long mile better title than The Flesh and the Spirit, but then, movie producers know catchy.

The book is excellent from start to finish (that isn't a journey - the thing's not even 200 pages), and it shouldn't be. Dramatically speaking, it does virtually everything wrong. First there's the set-up, as trite and hackneyed as any could be: it's wartime, and Hank Allison, a grunt of an unlearned marine, has been stranded on a South Sea island after a Japanese attack on his ship. On the island he finds a pretty young woman who's also stranded there - and she's a Roman Catholic nun! D'oh!

Mr. Allison and Sister Angela are trapped on the island behind enemy lines - Japanese planes continually site and strafe the place, and Japanese soldiers eventually take up residence, forcing our pair into hiding in the jungle hills. And that's it as far as the gross tonnage of plot goes: the pair hide from the Japanese until they're eventually rescued by the Allies. The situation should be lethal to drama, even on top of the cliches (there aren't one or two other stranded survivors? Allison isn't just a bit more educated or self-controlled? Sister Angela isn't - as Allison himself bewails on more than one occasion - old and ugly?).

But there are other dramas going on in this book, and they're absorbing, almost against the reader's wishes. Because despite being hungry, exhausted, disoriented, and in mortal danger, Allison is also horny, and Sister Angela has a pretty face and a winning smile (and freckles, he's later disconcerted to notice). He resists his urges as long as he can (if Sister Angela were a typist, you immediately suspect, she'd have been nailed as often and as vigorously as a piece of plywood), and that adds an underlying current of tension to the story.

There are underlying rewards as well. The Flesh and the Spirit is deceptively well-written, with a lean, confident prose style that relies on silences far more often than any contemporary author would dare. Shaw uses a very understated brand of narrative omniscience, gently and quickly telling us of things his characters can't see, very deftly letting us know the thoughts they don't share. Take for instance a scene early in the book where the two refugees watch from the hillside as passing Japanese warplanes bomb the little settlement where Sister Angela had just been:

All the jungle was silent, appalled by the fury that had fallen upon it. The marine and the nun, partly dazed and feeling the deadly weakness of reaction, stood on shaky legs, not knowing quite what to do. It was as though their will had been shocked out of them. Both of them were conscious of the frightening implication behind the bombing, the implication that they were not unknown to the enemy. They could not escape the feeling that the enemy knew they were there, that the bombing was a personal attack. They felt that the night and the sky were peopled with the enemy, leering at them, waiting to strike them down.

Allison recovered himself somewhat, and heard his companion murmuring.

"What did you say?"

"I am praying."

"Pray harder," he said a little brutal because he thought praying was a silly thing to do. "They'll be back. They'll sure be back."

They came back twice that night, the last time in greater force and with heavier bombs.

Shaw was an Australian hack journalist, and in some ways it's obvious from this novel (it's completely obvious from the detective novels he wrote under a pen name - they're all unspeakably dreadful) - and not only bad ways. There's a clarity in the narrative line, for instance, an surely something of the novel's leanness can be attributed to journalistic habits. And then there's the dialogue, which is the strongest thing about the book; it's meticulously shaped and rigidly controlled - this whole thing could be adapted for the stage in about fifteen minutes. One example: Allison has just learned that the Japanese soldiers have women along with them (he's attempted the unenviable task of trying to tell Sister Angela what exact purpose those women serve on the island - he's assured her they aren't nurses), and this fact makes Sister Angela feel oddly better:

"Strangely enough," said Sister Angela pensively, "it gives me some small comfort to think about other women near me, even though I can't speak with them."

"Look," he said, startled, "don't you get no ideas them women could do anything for you if you got nabbed. Them Japs don't give their women no say at all. Don't never forget they're enemies, all of them!"

She sighed. "Enemies? Yes. Made so by men who have forgotten God. But we are not enemies in His sight, only weak, foolish, quarreling, sinful children. Only because somebody has ordered it so are those women and I enemies. In our hearts we aren't enemies. We -"

He interrupted her. "Don't you fall for that stuff. If you'd seen what my outfit seen, after we got cut off in the Philippines, you wouldn't talk like that. Give that stuff away, Sister, it don't make no sense, no sense at all."

(a bit later she chastises him coldly, "Mr. Allison, I'll obey you in most things, because you are a soldier and we are in peril. But you cannot give me orders about my religion, or my thoughts or opinions. Let us not talk like this again. I don't like it.")

The Flesh and the Spirit isn't without flaws - like I mentioned, the setup is too pat, and the fact that Allison can't go a few weeks without sex, the fact that after such a small interval he'd be so crazed he'd violently consider deflowering a nun, for cripes sake, is just too easy, a cheap way of pushing forward the drama. But overall Shaw's performance here is marvelous: there's an elementary simplicity to the tale, and the story benefits enormously from the fact that Shaw is smart enough neither to have Allison be a complete brute nor to have Sister Angela be a world-class theologian. Despite the cardboard cut-out nature of the book's central contrivance, the two people at the heart of it are undeniably, winningly human.

An anonymous book-critic for the long-defunct Boston Traveler made the same points half a century ago (with lots of extraneous references to Dryden and Wordsworth), and it's still true today: The Flesh and the Spirit is considerably better than it has any right to be, and it's well worth your time, should you ever run across a copy at library or yard sale.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Frustration and Relief in the Penny Press!

Since I'm fairly prompt and fairly consistent with my icy glares, most of my friends have stopped asking me if I've yet acquired a Kindle from Amazon. Those friends have now moved on to a question almost as annoying and no less illogical: have I yet read Nicholson Baker's New Yorker article on how he acquired a Kindle from Amazon?

Well, since reading that article a) doesn't cost me the price of a month's rent, and b) doesn't involve a basic betrayal of everything I've stood for since 1520, I can actually get around to answering the second question. After all, I read The New Yorker virtually every week (it used to be 'religiously' every week, but ever since major non-industry magazines started indulging in 'Fashion Issues,' I've stopped indulging in blind loyalty - virtually nothing will elicit an icy glare from me faster than a gallumping old dowager like The New Yorker springing for a Fashion Issue) anyway, so Baker's article would have come across my path eventually (it's late crossing my path this week only because I was waiting for a certain young acquaintance to finish reading the issue so I could 'borrow' it - but since he's only just finished lip-moving his way through Talk of the Town, I went ahead and sprang for the issue myself).

Why those friends of mine were so eager for me to read this particular piece on the Kindle, as opposed to any of the other gazillion that have appeared, is a bit of a mystery to me. From the tone of their questions, I got the impression they somehow think I like Nicholson Baker, that he and I are simpatico somehow, that there'll be a fun and intimate correlation between his reactions to exploring the world of the Kindle and my own reactions. I'm not sure where this imagined correspondence comes from; to the best of my knowledge, Baker has never written a single book, fiction or nonfiction, that I even remotely liked - even merrily drunk, I've never expressed a sneaking admiration for his prose style or command of subject. Maybe it's just as simple as that he professes to care about books, and so do I.

Anyway, I finally read his article - and it was dismaying as all Hell. He starts out with the usual fey pose of wary detachment ("this object arrived today in the parcel post" .... etc.), talks a lot about the design flaws and aesthetic shortcomings of the Kindle and other devices designed to simulate the experience of reading a book, and in the end champions a twist in the tale I, for one, didn't see coming (I won't spoil it, since that aforementioned acquaintance will be getting to the end of this article sometime in 2010, and I wouldn't want to ruin it for him). Electronic reading receives no blanket condemnation in Baker's article - indeed, although he never comes right out and says it, he makes it pretty clear he views electronic reading as the inevitable fate of all reading. Which is a thought (expressed in a blog, yes, I'm aware of the irony) I abhor, of course.

But it was one glancing paragraph that really stopped me, a point where Baker is discussing some of the limitations of the Kindle:

Here's what you buy when you buy a Kindle book. You buy the right to display a grouping of words in front of your eyes for your private use with the aid of an electronic display device approved by Amazon ... Kindle books aren't transferrable. You can't give them away or lend them or sell them. You can't print them. They are closed clumps of digital code that only one purchaser can own. A copy of a Kindle book dies with its possessor.

Doesn't really invoke the communal, infectious glory of the world of books, does it? Half an hour after reading Baker's article, I was happily sorting through used books I intended to buy at dirt-cheap prices, all books previously owned and perhaps loved by somebody else, and half an hour after that, I was either handing some of those books to new owners or mailing them to prospective new owners - and to put it mildly, I was having a great time. The Kindle and devices like it reduce books to mere text, to raw data - and the dismaying thing about these devices is how popular they are (the sales figures Baker quotes are staggering). It turns out that books have very likely always been raw data to most of the people who read them, and that's a sad and sobering thing to think about.

Not that I can't imagine an electronic book that I'd personally like - far from it, a version of that ideal alternative is briefly alluded to in Baker's article. My ideal electronic book would be a book, first of all: it would have a spine, a flexible front and back cover, and pages (at least four, anyway). Its power source would be a battery-stick that slides unobtrusively up into its spine, and that power source would last a very, very long time (in fact, I'm sure there's a way to link it to micro-photovoltaic panels embedded in those flexible covers, thus recharging the thing whenever it's exposed to light). The contents would be delivered to the book electronically (through a quick download at the library, I'd prefer), but once they were delivered, they'd be cut off from the outside world, manipulable only by me (stories of Amazon being able to reach into every Kindle on Earth and summarily remove an edition of a book whenever they choose ... well, such stories hardly make for comfortable reading, do they?). And I'd be able to manipulate the hell out of that text - underline, make margin notes, move footnotes from one edition of 'The Tempest' to another, cut and paste my own preferred illustrations, etc. And unlike with the Kindle, nobody would be able watch me do any of those things - the changes would be happening in my electronic book and nowhere else.

I'm not so much of a Luddite I don't drool at the prospect of such a device. An object that preserves the spine-handling and page-turning of paper-pulp books, but that has infinite options? So I could build my absolute ideal, say, "Paradise Lost" from a) the best text, b) the best annotations, and c) the best illustrations (right now, each of those things is attached to a separate edition)? The book equivalent of a mix CD - or even better, the book-equivalent of a blog? That would be wonderful beyond description. Having my entire library in that one sturdy, intuitive device (even if I kept a hundred actual physical books around, for old time's sake)? That would be wonderful. But that's not the Kindle, and the fact that so many thousands of consumers think what the Kindle is works just fine is dismaying.

When I turned to the latest issue of Men's Journal, I expected a certain undercurrent of dismay to follow with me. After all, although Men's Journal very often publishes fantastic, thoughtful articles, they're also a magazine that panders to a particular stratum of stupid young white American men - a stratum I absolutely hate, since they're not honestly dumb ... these are young men making a lot more money than they need who consider themselves intelligent, even clever, and who make that consideration explicitly and exclusively on competitive grounds.

In other words, it's a magazine for douchebags.

(The fact that every issue is absolutely LADEN with adds for cigars and cigarettes doesn't help any, either - although there IS something faintly comforting about the thought of so many douchebags acquiring unquittable wastingly fatal addictions)

And I was right: this issue contains its usual quota of really good writing, and it also contains an incredibly frustrating article on what a kick-ass awesome guy accessory a dog is. Sigh.

Bill Gifford writes the main little piece, called "Your Dog: A User's Manual" even though it covers virtually no aspect of living with a dog (and deepens the dismay by referring to these living beings as though they were items of gear like the stuff that fills the ad-space of the issue). One aspect that's given lots of attention is where you get your dog (magazines like Men's Journal always do this - they know their target audience is almost entirely concerned with the acquisition part of any new experience ... after which, boredom almost immediately sets in) - pet stores can be nefarious, we're told, and the Internet is rife with scams - so you'd better line up with a reputable breeder and put your name on a 2012 litter of puggles! Yeesh.

Animal shelters all across this country are killing record numbers of abandoned dogs every month (in shelters in the South, they're often stuffed into gas chambers 15 at a time - but for cost-cutting reasons, the amount of gas pumped in at each killing would only be quickly lethal to 5 or 6 dogs - thus guaranteeing all of those dogs a protracted, agonized death), but what are we told about the prospect of adopting one of those abandoned dogs? "Adopting a pre-owned pup from a shelter is a great option, but finding the right match can be tricky." Translation: Dude, it'll take, like, mad amounts of time! You wanna be shreddin' it with your dog, like, today!

And of course, wherever two or more of you are gathered in the name of speaking nonsense about dogs, there too shall Cesar Milan be: he's referred to as "the Dr. Phil for dog owners" (I'd actually agree with that entirely), and he gives five tips for prospective dog owners. True to form, the tips are either self-evident (walk your dog, we're helpfully told) or ridiculous ("reward the good, ignore the bad," we're told - if your dog does something wrong, just ignore it, don't acknowledge it at all ... just reward the good behavior, and you'll be fine. Yeesh. A word to all you prospective dog-owners out there: if you do this, your dog will learn one message and one message only from it: that he'll be praised for the good things he does - and that he can get away scott-free with all the bad stuff he feels like doing. If that sounds ideal to you, let Cesar show you the way ...)

I had to get all the way to the very end of this issue of Men's Journal - to the very last page - to have my spirits lifted, but it happened! The last page features a 'Survival Skills' interview they do with a different celebrity each month, and this time around it's aging tough-guy actor James Caan, and his answers are sheer delight. I'll quote two choice ones:

Q: What should every man know about women?

A: They're fucking nuts.

Q: What article of clothing should every man own?

A: What kind of fucking question is that?

Ah ... sweet, sweet relief ....

Monday, August 03, 2009

Poetry Class!

Pentheus - man of sorrows, king
of Thebes - despised the gods, and had no time
for blind old men or their prophecies.
'You're a fool, Tiresias, and you belong
in the darkness. Now leave me be!'
'You might wish, sire, for my afflictions soon enough,
if only to save you from witnessing
the rites of Dionysus.
He is near at hand, I feel it now,
and if you fail to honour him - your cousin
the god - you will be torn to a thousand ribbons
left hanging in the trees, your blood
fouling your mother and her sisters.
Your eyes have sight but you are blind.
My eyes are blind but I see the truth ...'

But before Tiresias had finished with his warning,
even as the king pushed him away,
it had already begun.

He was walking on the earth,
and you could hear the shrieks
of the dancers in the fields, see the people
streaming out of the city, men and women,
young and old, nobles and commoners, climbing
to Cithaeron and the god
who was now made manifest.

Pentheus stared out in disbelief.
'What lunacy is this? You people
bewitched by cymbals, pipes and trickery -
you who have stood with swords drawn
in the din of battle on the fields of war -
now dance with a gaggle of wailing women
waving tambourines? You wear garlands
instead of helmets, hold fennel wands
instead of spears, and all for some boy!
If the walls of Thebes were to fall
- which they will not - it will be
at the hands of soldiers and their engines of war,
not by the flowers, the embroidered robes
and scented hair of this weaponless pretty-boy.
Find him! Bring him here, where he'll
confess that he's no son of Zeus and these
sacred rites are just a shaman's lie.
Bring him here to me now, in chains!'

His counsellors gathered, muttering restraint,
which just inflamed the king who
like a river in spate
boiled and foamed
at any hindrance in the way.

His men returned, stained in blood
and claiming they saw no sign
of Dionysus, just this priest of his
- a comrade and an acolyte - and they
pushed forward the man, an foreigner,
hands tied behind his back.
Eyes bright with rage, Pentheus
spoke slowly:
'Before you die, I want your name,
your country, and why you came here with this
fraud and his filthy cult.'
Unblinking, the prisoner replied:
'I am Acoetes, from Lydia,
son of a humble fisherman,
now a fisherman myself.
I learnt how to steer, set a course,
to read the wind and stars,
so I left the rocks of home and went to sea.
I'd raised a crew, and on our way to Delos
a storm forced a landfall
on the shores of Chios. The next morning
I sent the men to fetch fresh water
and they came back with a child.
The bosun pulled him up on board, saying
they'd found him in a field, this prize,
this boy as beautiful as a girl, stumbling
slightly from sleep, or wine.
I knew, by the face, by every movement,
that this was no mortal, that I was looking at a god.
"Honour this child," I said to the crew,
"for he is not of us." And to the boy:
"Show us grace and bless our labours
and grant these men forgiveness,
for they know not what they do."
One slid down the rigging, calling
"Don't bother with your prayers on our account,"
and the others circled, nodding and shouting,
their voices fat with greed.
"I am the captain, and I'll have no
sacrilege aboard this ship, and no
harm to our fellow traveller."
"Our plunder," said the worst of them
taking me by the throat
to the cheers and yelps of the rest.
And their noise woke Dionysus for it was him
who opened his eyes -
"Tell me sailors: what's happening?
How did I get here and where am I going?"
One told him not to worry, asked him
to name his port of call.
"Naxos. Turn your course for Naxos,
my home, and you'll find a welcome there."
And so the mutinous crew
swore by all the gods of the sea they would do
just that and told me to set sail.
Naxos lay to starboard but
winking and laughing
they made me steer to port.
"I'll have no part of this," I said,
and was shouldered from the helm.
"No one is indispensable, captain.
Our safety does not lie with you alone."
And the painted prow was turned
away from Naxos, out to the open sea.

Then the god began to toy with them.
Gazing out from the curving deck
across the ocean, feigning tears, he cried:
"These are not the shores you promised me,
these shores are not my home.
What glory is there when men
deceive a boy: so many against one?"
My tears were real, but the mutineers
just laughed at both of us and kept rowing.

Now I swear to you by that god himself
- and there is no god nearer than him -
that this is true: that the ship just stopped.
It stood still on the sea as if in dry dock.
The panicked men pulled harder,
letting out sail to try and find the wind,
but ivy was swarming up the oars
twining tendrils round the blades,
whipping along the decks and up the mast,
dragging at the encumbered sails
till they sagged in heavy-berried clusters.
And now the god revealed himself at last.
Around his brow a garland of grapes;
in his hand a wand, tight-twisted with vine;
and at his feet, the slinking
phantom shapes of wild beasts:
tigers, lynxes, panthers.

Illusions, perhaps, but the crew began to leap
overboard, in terror or madness or both.
One body darkened and went black,
back arcing in a curve; another started to call out
just as his jaws spread wide, his nose hooked over,
his skin hardened into scales. Another, still
fumbling with an oar, looked down
and saw his hands shrinking till they were
hands no more, just fins.
And I watched one, reaching up for a rope, finding
he had no arms
and as he toppled over,
finding he had no legs either:
all torso, he back-flipped into the sea,
tail horned like a crescent moon.
They leapt on every side in a shower of spray:
bursting free of the water, plunging down again
like dancers or tumblers at play.

The only human left of twenty
I stood there shaking
till I heard the god speak out:
"Hold your nerve
and this empty ship
and track us down the coast to home!"
And so I did. And there I joined
his rites and sacrifices, and now I follow him:
Iacchus, Bromius, Liber, Dionysus.'

'Well,' said Pentheus, 'I have listened patiently
to this long, rambling fantasy of yours:
an attempt, no doubt, to diminish my anger
and delay your punishment. Well, it didn't work.
Take him, men, and break him on the rack.
Send him down to Hell.'
And so Acoetes was dragged away
to the cells; but while the fire, the steel,
the instruments of pain, were being prepared
the doors flew open of their own accord
and the chains feel from his hands.

Hearing this - not trusting anyone now -
Pentheus stood and went
to settle things, once and for all.
Alone, he clambered up Cithaeron, the mountain
chosen for these rites, now ringing
with the songs and chants of the maenads,
the celebrants of the god.
And he was stirred by them, roused like a warhorse
at the sound of battle trumpets, their
shiver in the air. The long cries
thrilling through him
he pressed on:
skittish, fevered, feeling again
some passion in him flare.

Halfway up the mountainside,
surrounded by woods, was an open clearing.
Here he stood, in full view. Here he looked
upon the naked mysteries with uninitiated eyes.
The first to see him, the first
to rush at him, the first
to hurl her sharpened wand into his side,
was Agave, his mother,
screaming: 'Come, my sisters, quick!
There is a wild boar here we must kill!'
And the three sisters led the rest
and fell on him in a frenzy,
and Pentheus the king was terrified, crying out,
confessing all his sins. Blood
streaming from a hundred wounds
he called to Autonone: 'I am Pentheus!
Don't you know your own nephew?
Would you do to me
what was done to Acteon, your son?'
But the names meant nothing to her,
and she simply
tore his right arm out of its shoulder.
Her sister, Ino, wrenched off the other
like a chicken's wing.
With no hands left to pray, no arms
to reach for his mother, he just said,
'Mother, look at me.'
And Agave looked, and howled, and shook
the hair from her face, and went to him
and took his head in her hands
and in a throb of rapture
twisted it, clean off.
In her bloody grip, the head swung
with its red strings: 'See,
my sisters: victory!'
And quicker than a winter wind strips
the last leaves from a tree,
so all the others ripped Pentheus to pieces
with their own bare hands.

By this lesson piety was learned,
and due reverence for the great god Dionysus,
for his rites and for this holy mountain shrine.

Pentheus and Dionysus by Robin Robertson ("after Ovid")