Friday, November 27, 2009

mistakes, exaggerations, and outright lies in the Penny Press!

A particular contentious day in the Penny Press today, as the cold rain drizzled down outside my favorite little Chinese food restaurant! For ever stretch in which I was just enjoying what I was reading, there was a stretch of rumpled macadam, attracting muttered grumbling and aggravated underlining with my trusty ever-present pen. Of course, it's usually that way when I engage with the Penny Press (or anything else, for that matter - I'm an immoderately involved reader ... as all of you must know, else why would you be here in the first place?), but today felt extra irritating, and I don't think it was the food.

Speaking of food! Surely that's the topic that tops the snit parade! Last week, the New Yorker ran a review of Jonathan Safran Foer's new book Eating Animals (they largely gave the ridiculous little confessional a free pass, but then, almost everybody's given it a pass - except for my good friends over at The Second Pass, ironically enough - John Williams' review, "The Oy of Cooking," is not to be missed), and this week the magazine runs some letters from readers. One of those letters was from Kevin Jablonski, and he writes:

First, environmental degradation and cruelty to sentient beings are not unique to industrial animal agriculture; rather, they are characteristic of industrial agriculture as a whole. I wonder if Foer has ever visited, or considered the impact of, a thousand-acre soybean monoculture. We have demanded cheap food, and so we have received cheap, destructive food production. Second, vegetarian moralism denies an essential fact of living: death. Everything dies, and not always in its due time.

This is really bad stuff, but at least it's stupid rather than anything worse. Far be it for me to defend a pretentious little putz like Foer, but his book wasn't only - or even mainly - about environmental damage; it was about the mind-staggering cruelty that accompanies large-scale meat production. Hauling in soy beans isn't any way to refute anything, it's just nonsensical clouding of the issue. And so is that windy claptrap about death being an essential part of life - again, Foer isn't railing (in his precious, nit-picking way) about creatures dying, he's railing about creatures being bred in their hundreds of thousands for the sole purpose of not only dying but dying horribly, in systematic and wild-eyed terror, often after prolonged torture. "Not always in its due time" falls just a bit shy of that mark.

But Jablonski's letter wasn't the worst of it, hoo-no! The worst of it came from Paul Gahlinger, who compounds Jablonski's sophistry with genuine evil:

There is only one good reason not to eat meat: because you don't like it. If vegetarians think they consume less by eating lower on the food chain, they should keep in mind that humans, whether they eat meat or not, use the vast majority of the earth's resources. Their most effective contribution to global well-being would be to simply not exist. Is it better for aging animals to suffer, blind, arthritic, starving, or cancerous, until merciful death? I grew up on a farm and can say with certainty that our animals gave their bodies in gratitude for a well-cared-for life.

At first I kept thinking this had to be some kind of joke; the animals you raised in captivity for food were grateful for your care? "Hey, you know what? Since you were kind enough to house me and forty of my closest friends from the rain (not the cold, but hey, you're not made of money!) these past two years, we've got an idea: why don't you eat us? Really, it's the least we can do." The mind staggers, trying to figure out how this Gahlinger person could resist adding the line, "A cow would eat you - if he could!" It's almost enough to make me feel sorry for Foer, who must be encountering evil little loonies like this guy at every whistle-stop along his book's publicity tour.

There were other things in this New Yorker, mind you - it's another fantastic issue, from a funny Roz Chast cartoon to a fascinating article about abortion and the so-called 'right to die' to a piece on world champion runner from Limpopo who appears to have some people (including Ariel Levy, the piece's author, who keeps using the wrong pronoun) convinced he's a woman, despite the fact that every photo purporting to be this person, Caster Semenya, are all clearly photos of a muscular young man. You read the oddest things these days in the Penny Press.

(Pop culture fans such as myself also couldn't help but be intrigued by the fact that the adorable little Zac Efron from "High School Musical" manages to get the ultimate high-culture thumbs up - David Denby caught his performance in "Me and Orson Welles" and liked it: "Efron draws on his confident good looks (from certain angles, this Jewish hoofer from California looks like, of all people, Tyrone Power) without being smug. He's an actor, after all - maybe even a genuine star")

But the good things weren't enough to counterbalance those horrible, evasive, the-Jews-like-their-ghettos letters, and the same tension was on display in the TLS as well. Here, again, there were very good things in abundance - including Daniel Karlin's review of Georges Connes prose translation (into French, that is) of Robert Browning's "The Ring and the Book," which manages to be both hard on Connes and refreshingly benign to Browning, who tends to take it in the teeth from critics these days. "The Ring and the Book" is a long, absolutely wonderful poem (I literally cannot conceive of a reason to offer a prose translation of it in any language), so it was all the more ruefully that I was forced to agree when Karlin writes, "I doubt there are 6,000 English readers of The Ring and the Book alive today." More's the pity, he's probably off by about 5,600 readers.

But not all the Browning in the world can compensate for what the normally-sensible Sylvia Brownrigg writes about the insufferable Dave Eggers in her review of Eggers' screenplay for the new movie-travesty of Where the Wild Things Are and his new collection of short stories, The Wild Things, that purports to flesh out the world Maurice Sendak created in 1971. It's going to be physically painful to copy this stuff out, but I'll endure it for my readers:

Dave Eggers is the self-anointed king of the influential empire that is McSweeney's: begun as a wittily designed literary journal, it subsequently became an "Internet Tendency" (ie, website), a publishing house and the purveyor of an all-round sensibility and style, in which high irony is laid over a base of sincerity and optimism. The co-founder of 826 Valencia, a non-profit writing centre for youth, Eggers this month received the Literarian Award for "outstanding service to the American literary community". Reading The Wild Things, I could picture the multi-faceted Eggers as Max, governor of an unruly but lovable group of creatures, and wishing from time to time that he could run away from them all and enjoy a calm, hot dinner. With all that he does and presides over, it is possible to forget that Eggers is also a very good, very daring writer of prose, who can produce images and characters of complexity, empathy, and humour.

Yeesh. I hope Brownrigg gets the job/endorsement/date for which she's so heinously fishing, but still - this the TLS! Surely some editor somewhere along the line should have stopped her from sullying the reputation of the finest review organ in the world by this shameless cozying with an overreaching fraud of such vast proportions as Eggers? If he can produce very good, very daring prose - characters of complexity, empathy, and humor - he's done a damn good job keeping those talents to himself. Instead, he's shared with the world only flat, boring prose and one-note allegories so heavy-handed they make John Bunyan look like P. J. O'Rourke. His books are boring in exactly the same way over and over again; they all reek of the class clown who has yet to learn that being merely clever is no sign of deep intelligence (insects do it, when they disguise themselves as something they're not). And since Eggers runs his own publishing house (whose smarmy condescension continues the lampoon the very sincerity and optimism Brownrigg says it champions), he gets to do all this without the slightest hint of editorial interference - not that running his own publishing house seems to be necessary. Your power as a literary name-dropper and taste-maker is absolute, if the TLS can so sing your praises without a trace of irony. As if that Literarian of the Year crap weren't bad enough.

On slightly less elevated levels of outrage (although hey, if you're lower down, you've got a shorter space to fall, right?), there's the cover interview with Twilight: New Moon boy-toy Taylor Lautner in the latest Rolling Stone. The interview, such as it is, is by Neil Strauss, and after only a couple of paragraphs, I was feeling sorry for every participant. I mean, here you have one enormous conglomerate, the publicity machine behind New Moon, instructing its newly bepected thespian to submit to an interview and photo shoot, and you have another enormous conglomerate, the media company of which Rolling Stone is but one outlet, instructing its obviously talented interviewer to turn out juicy copy despite the fact that it's obvious from the start the first conglomerate has instructed its star to say virtually nothing at all. What follows is pretty much mathematically destined to be a complete waste of everybody's time, and apart from the enjoyment to be had from Strauss' snappy prose, it is.

The young star is in pure LautnerBot mode, responding in noncommittal monosyllables to all but the most innocuous questions (and lying outright, telling Strauss he's never so much as smoked a cigarette or had a beer, despite the fact that he just got done shooting a movie on location for months with a cast that party like Fellini extras). In this he's much the same as Zac Efron when he's in Efronocon mode, and Strauss is quick to pick up on it and speculate: "With such polite, and seemingly oblivious, responses, it sometimes appears as if Lautner has taken a press-training course in evading answers." The best part of this puff piece is Strauss' deconstruction of the whole genre of young stardom:

There are two kinds of child stars: the Lindsay Lohans and the Zac Efrons. The Lohans are from broken homes, were abandoned in some way and witnessed or were victims of some form of abuse. The Efrons are raised by two parents who love them and support them, and are brought up in some sort of religious faith. The Lohans end up in the tabloids for doing stupid, destructive things to themselves and others, usually fueled by drugs, alcohol and self-esteem issues; the Efrons tend to work hard, discourage any attention paid to their personal lives and stay away from clubs, drugs, and the back seat of police cars. Lohans are interesting but unstable and depressed, while Efrons are boring but grounded and happy.

Needless to say, Strauss concludes that the LautnerBot is an Efron.

So if the writing is snappy and the piece itself is fluff, you might be asking what could possibly cause irritation! Well, it's this: at the beginning of the article, Strauss is trying to find some "dirt" on Lautner (that's when the lying about tobacco and alcohol happens, as well as some probably true denials of doing coke or getting arrested) - trying and failing. You almost forget about that angle of the piece until you reach the very end, when Strauss, obviously irked by his star's teflon question-deflecting all throughout their interviews, starts to ask leading questions:

Strauss: Like you said on "Valentine's Day" you and Taylor [Swift] got along really well. My guess is there is something romantic going on, and you're seeing how it developes.

LautnerBot: You're pretty good with the analysis. So I don't know. I guess I'm going to trust you.

Strauss: Of course, there are other possibilities.

LautnerBot: Yeah, what other possibilities?

Struass: Another possibility is that you're just sort of discovering yourself ...

LautnerBot: OK.

Struass: ... as a young person trying to figure out his sexual identity in the world ...

LautnerBot: OK. I see where you're going. Interesting choice.

Strauss: It is a possibility.

LautnerBot: There are lots of rumors out there.

Reading that, the small naive part of me irritatedly asked, "So being gay is the equivalent of having a drug problem?" Of course I instantly recalled the conglomerates involved; the LautnerBot has obviously been programmed not to alienate any of New Moon's gazillion potential ticket-buyers - most certainly including the vast undulating sea of gay men (of all ages) who won't exactly be sighing over Lautner's acting abilities. Lautner has said in half a dozen interviews that he isn't gay, but now the stakes are higher, and ambiguity sells, and the vortex of all that lying and manipulating is enough to irritate me regardless of my food's quality.

Fortunately, there'll be other weeks in the Penny Press! Even though it's always nice to read good press for Robert Browning, I'm calling this one a rain day.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Earth, Sea, and Sky!

Our book today is Earth, Sea, and Sky by Henry Davenport Northrup, and it's a compendium of "the Marvels of the Universe" published by L. P. Miller & Co. in 1887 - or, as its own advertisement puts it:



of all that is wonderful in every continent of the globe, in the world of waters and the starry heavens



Renowned discoveries of the world's greatest explorers in all ages, and remarkable phenomena in every realm of nature



The peculiar characteristics of the human race, of animals, birds, insects, etc., including a vivid description of the


And of the polar seas, the monsters of the deep, beautiful sea-shells and plants, singular fishes and dwellers in the world of waters, remarkable ocean currents, etc.

together with the:


the whole comprising a:


in earth, sea, air, and skies.

(and lest any of you think that's laying things on a bit thick, keep in mind this book was printed long before the idea of dust jackets on which could be printed catchy advertising copy designed to give prospective buys a quick, enticing idea of what the volume contains - those first fifteen browsing seconds are absolutely crucial to snaring a potential buyer, a fact publishers understood better 150 years ago than they do today, I assure you)

Not that Earth, Sea, and Sky didn't have ample charms to recommend it quite apart from whatever breathless copy some publisher's clerk could dream up - if only my pitiful scanning technology allowed you to see even the glories of the thing's cover, before age and mold and dirt got to it. Even now, you can vaguely see in the upper right hand corner a perched peacock whose tail drapes down the right-hand side of the cover. Now, in 2009, it's all faded into a muddy sea-green, but back then, the bird, the branch, and especially the tail were emblazoned with color, and the "eyes" of the peacock's tail were inset deep into the cover itself, glazed with glitter that once looked like it would never fade (the designers reckoned without the dedicated licking of roughly fourteen generations of beagles, I'm guessing).

Information was a lure, too, and by the standards of the time, this book was positively loaded with it. Every family and phylum of animal is represented not only with factual summaries but with plenty of anecdotes and thrilling stories. Primitive and aboriginal peoples, alas, are also featured - the book's generally excellent engravings aren't particularly flattering here, and the sub-headings are discouraging: "Savage Treachery," "Frightful Savage Ferocity," "Hideous War Dances," "Curious Belief in Witchcraft," "A Barbarous Dagger," and, at the appropriate latitudes, "Remarkable Female Beauty" ... the idea here is definitely that the white nations of Northern Europe and America represent something distinctly separate from "every realm of nature" - and that nobody else does.

Of course half the allure of re-visiting such a book as this nowadays is the fun of encountering the limits of scientific knowledge at the time. Northrup is fascinated by the world of microscopic and almost-microscopic life, for instance, and he keeps returning to the wonders of "animacules" found in profusion in a single drop of water:

Some of the animacules are visible to the naked eye as moving points, though the smallest are not more than the 24,000th of an inch in diameter, a single drop of water having been estimated to contain many thousands of them. They were formerly supposed to be little more than mere particles of matter endowed with vitality; but Ehrenberg has discovered in them an apparatus of muscles, intestines, teeth, different kinds of glands, eyes, nerves, and organs of reproduction. They not only propagate by eggs, but by self-division; and are the most reproductive of all organized bodies. They possess a comparatively long life, and in general maintain themselves pretty uniformly against all external influence, as do larger animals. As far as is yet known, they appear to be sleepless.

We who regularly hear new wonder-tales about the sub-atomic world can think ourselves well-stocked on animacules,and we no doubt crack a similar kind of smile when Northrup concludes an account of a man bitten by a poisonous snake by saying, "Galvanism was tried, but it had no effect."

But the sheer sense of wonder here isn't contemptible - this is a long book that never ceases to be amazed by the "marvels" it's describing, starting with those that are no longer among us ... for a book published in 1887, there's quite a bit of excellent stuff here on dinosaurs and prehistoric mammals, and all of it wonderfully animated:

In those ages so long passed away, when such monstrous creatures lurked among the reed-like plants of the rivers, and the forests of strange trees were haunted by reptiles of still more vast dimensions, how different must the aspect of the country been from what it is now!

And the world of purebred dogs isn't neglected, as this description makes clear:

Its body, like an enormous barrel supported on four thick pillars, almost touches the ground; the head is ponderous; the muzzle swollen; and the great, thick lips studded with wire-like bristles ...

(ooops ... that's actually a description of a hippo, not a ... well, anyway, my apologies ...)

Naturally, the book is at its most speculative when dealing with other worlds. As little as Northrup's sources knew about the ocean's depths or the beasts of the Pliocene, they knew quite a bit less about extraterrestrial matters - although again, the accounts given here are shot though with exactly the same kind of burning curiosity that would quickly advance the sciences necessary to reveal more answers. Northrup writes that Jupiter and Saturn have "four to eight" satellites where Earth has only one, and he sees the story of the moon in far more dramatic terms than we currently allow (mainly because he sees the craters on that body as extinct volcanoes rather than the remnants of meteor impacts):

Whilst gravitation was regulating its form and path, the moon, in the course of thousands of years, exhausted its fires and began to show us at last its pale and silvery face, the sad luminary of our nights, the splendid nocturnal mirror which reflects to us, pale and cold, the divergent rays of the sun.

And the relative proximity of the moon puts the same kinds of thoughts in Northrup's head as it would put in the heads of much later generations of engineers and physicists, although those thoughts are inevitably couched in late 19th century terms:

The distance from the earth to the moon is about 237,000 miles. If it were possible to get there by means of steam, it would require one year and about three hundred and twenty-two days for a locomotive starting from our globe and traveling at a high rate of speed to reach the moon and land its passengers ...

(I'm not mathematically inclined, but what I wouldn't give to do the math on that paragraph and figure out what Northrup considered a "high rate of speed" - no more than 40 m.p.h., I'd guess)

This great big book ultimately acts as a thin, quick snapshot of its era - as all such books inevitably are. Re-reading it, I couldn't help but wonder what boneheaded miscomprehensions the gentle folk of 2145 will chuckle over in our very latest DK and Princeton guides to the world around us. I think we'll be lucky if we, too, are excused by a genuine and overpowering sense of wonder in all our questions, regardless of our answers.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Anne Boleyn!

Our book today is Marie Louise Bruce's remarkable 1972 biography Anne Boleyn, and it's remarkable for two noteworthy reasons, the second more noteworthy than the first. The one reason is that this was Marie Louise Bruce's first work of serious history, yet it's extremely readable and very well researched. And the other reason is that the thing is an extended defense of its subject. Bruce sees Anne Boleyn in the round - she's never shy of citing a fault or flaw - but she ultimately likes Henry VIII's bewitching wife and dislikes how historians from Anne's day to this have piled opprobrium on the poor girl's pretty head.

You don't see much of that in modern scholarship. Anne Boleyn is usually good and properly hated - for her ambition, for her coquettish ways, for her willingness to see Henry discard his lawfully wedded wife Katherine in order to take up with her, and for lots of other reasons besides. In the cold winter light of historical hindsight, she seems to stand on a small stage with the handful of other figures whom it's acceptable to condemn whole-heartedly.

Not so Bruce, who's done a great deal of research but isn't wary of tweaking it here and there to suit her main purpose, which is to present as favorable a portrait of Anne as that research will allow. Take for instance a tiny incident in days when she was just a courtesan and not yet a queen:

By the autumn of 1528 Lutheran books, printed in Antwerp, Mechlin and Brussels and hidden in cargoes smuggled in from the Low Countries, were secretly and avidly being read at Court. Anne carelessly left her copy of William Tyndale's Obedience of a Christian Man lying about in the recess of one of her windows. Here it was seen and borrowed by the suitor of her lady-in-waiting, Anne Gainsford. Dr Sampson, the Dean of the King's Chapel, removed it from the young man and, doubtless with a look of horror, gave it to [Cardinal] Wolsey, who took it to the King. King Henry, the Cardinal knew, equated heretics with rebels, and hated both equally.

This is true partisanship massaging the facts. The real Anne Boleyn never did a careless thing in her life, including this time: she left that book in plain sight hoping it would be brought to the King - she never for an instant doubted her power over him, and she used this incident to gain the whip-hand over Wolsey. When Anne learned of what Wolsey had done, she famously snarled "Well, it shall the dearest book that ever Dean or Cardinal took away,"and even Bruce admits that she never forgot a slight and was invariably ruthless to those she perceived as her enemies:

To those who worked in her interests, Anne was generous; remorseless to those who worked against her. Henceforward [after July 1529] she would not rest until she had persuaded Henry to wreak vengeance upon the Cardinal. And though Henry, remembering Wolsey's long efficient service,had earlier in the year been inclined to disregard Anne's suspicions, after the disastrous end to the trial he too was ready enough to find a scapegoat.

But despite all this, when Bruce's narrative comes to the tawdry drama that terminated Anne Boleyn's reign and life - her trial for adultery and treason, in which she was accused of sleeping with a baker's dozen men, including her own brother - the ersatz queen finds no more staunch defender than her biographer, who ends her account with this little declaration:

To believe in the innocence of the woman who catapulted England into the Reformation became part of the Protestant credo. Was she innocent? I believe she was. But proof, of course, there is none. The evidence remains circumstantial. In the end we are left with Anne's own cryptic plea to posterity as she stood on the scaffold: 'If any man will meddle with my cause, I pray you to judge the best.'

Hard to know what to make of that problematic word 'innocent.' Was Anne innocent of the trumped-up charges Henry's minions used to get her head on the chopping block? We hardly need Bruce's elusive proof to exonerate Anne of incest - the hideous exaggeration of it bespeaks the typical overreach of tyranny. But reading this very entertaining book gives you the distinct impression Bruce is hinting at a much larger kind of innocence, and there's just no possibility of that. This is the Anne Boleyn, after all, who once said that being England's queen was 'the greatest wealth that is possible to come to any creature living' - and England already had a rightful, beloved queen when she said it. She was adamant selfishness incarnate, willing to let the kingdom, the people, the Church - literally the whole world - blast into flying shards if only she could get what she herself wanted. You can't make heroes out of such stuff, no matter how hard you try. Mary Louise Bruce tries harder than any other biographer I've read, and you should find her book and read it on that account ... but keep and eye on your crown while you're at it.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Dastardly Double Disappointment in the Penny Press!

In the course of 2009, I've learned an entirely new and unwanted habit when it comes to the Penny Press: I've learned to approach each new issue of The Atlantic not with suffusing, eager joy but with snakebit wariness. And I've learned this for the simplest, ugliest reason imaginable: the magazine - once the hands-down best in American publishing - has become a faint echo of its former self. Whole issues will unspool now with virtually nothing in them worth reading, let alone saving.

Since I was as devoted to that former glorious self as anybody (in fact, perhaps a bit more so, since I've had a couple of good friends who've worked for the venerable magazine, in one capacity or another), I've naturally cast around for reasons why it's declined. Was it the move of the editorial offices from Boston to Washington D.C.? Was it the slimming down of article-length, in an attempt to cater to the X-Box generation? No single explanation seemed sufficient, but at least, I told myself, there were still bastions on any typical Atlantic table of contents - as derivative as he can often be, Christopher Hitchens can still knock an essay out of the park when he bestirs himself to do so, and the lingering prestige of the magazine can attract some of the best freelancers in the business, sometimes with stimulating results.

And of course there's Benjamin Schwarz, The Atlantic's resident book-critic. He's been called - by me and others - one of the best book reviewers working today, but these last couple of years have tried my patience with my own accolade. I've lost count of how many times in the last few months I've turned to the back of a new issue in the hopes of reading one of his fantastic, meaty ramblings on some hefty tome (that was one of the things that first enamored me of him as a writer - like me, he fancies hefty tomes) - only to find 4000 words on the latest handbag line from Prada, or what hemlines were like in the 1950s (as described by the book under review, a 100 page $1500 coffee table book called What Hemlines Were Like In The 1950s). Months and months would go by without him talking substantively about anything substantial, and of course I asked myself why.

So you can imagine some of the thoughts that went through my head when I saw the cover of the latest Atlantic - in addition to all the other content being advertised, there it was, right at the top left: "The Best Books of 2009 by Benjamin Schwarz." Maybe this, I thought, is the reason, as far-fetched as it seems - maybe he's been saving his energies for a long, engrossing round-up of the incredibly crowded 2009 book season. I squirreled the issue into my shoulder bag and set aside time to curl up with it - not only personally curious, but of course also professionally, as it were, curious, since I myself am preparing my annual Best and Worst Books of 2009 extravaganza here at Stevereads.

When I turned to the page listed on the table of contents, that's exactly what I found: one page. Under a cliche banner (and spot-illustrated with ineptly drawn hands, for reasons eluding understanding), there were six books listed:

Abraham Lincoln: A Life by Michael Burlingame
The Children's Book by A. S. Byatt
The Third Reich Trilogy (concluding with The Third Reich At War) by Richard Evans
It's Beginning to Hurt by James Lasdun
Mrs. Woolf and the Servants by Alison Light
Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro

Each book is accompanied by a single-sentence summary (and a hand), and heading the whole thing is this line: "For full reviews, see

I just sat there looking at the crappy design, the inept hands, and the single sentences - it took me a minute or two to realize that I was being directed to the website ... not for a couple of additional paragraphs of outtakes, not for an interview or slideshow with the author, but for the article itself. The blurb on the issue's cover had been true only in the barest, most Clintonian sense of 'by' Benjamin Schwarz.

For the first and only time here at Stevereads, I actually went to the website (after first rescuing my curled-up reading time by pouring over the latest GQ, about which perhaps more later, when I'm not so steamed). By that point my curiosity had taken on a slightly garish hue - I'm certain somebody somewhere at The Atlantic thought this was a good idea, or at least a revenue-enhancing one. As distasteful as I found it, I thought: A Benjamin Schwarz "Best Books of 2009" will be worth the digital debasement."

But the debasement wasn't over yet. When I got to the online feature, I found - the exact same virtually nonexistent crap I found in the magazine itself: the same 'top five' entries (the Alice Munro seems to get a free pass by being included in the issue's graphic despite not actually being in the 'top five'), the same one-sentence summaries, and precious little else. The Burlingame Lincoln biography had a link to Christopher Hitchens' review of the book, and the Byatt and the Lasdun each had links to The Atlantic's "Cover to Cover" feature, in which each book got a paragraph of anonymous plot summary. The Evans book doesn't even have a link to Schwarz's own review of the thing from last spring, let alone anything new from our esteemed book critic. "Read the full review" I was urged to do - but except for the Hitchens piece, there were no full - or even partial - reviews to be found, and none by Schwarz himself, the guy I came to read.

And it gets worse. Those titles were followed by a longer list of 'runners up' - here it is:

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
Dominion from Sea to Sea by Bruce Cumings
The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton
The Hundred Years War vol . 3 by Jonathan Sumption
The Hindus by Wendt Doniger
Empire of Liberty by Gordon Wood
The Thirty Years War by Peter Wilson
This Time is Different by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff
Florence Nightingale: A Life by Mark Bostridge
Flannery: A Life by Brad Gooch
Samuel Johson: A Biography by Peter Martin
In the Kitchen by Monica Ali
Reading Dance, edited by Robert Gottlieb
Words in the Air (the Robert Lowell/Elizabeth Bishop correspondence)
Charles Dickens by Michael Slater
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The Arabs by Eugene Rogan
Northern Arts by Arnold Weinstein
The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth by Frances Wilson
Three Victories and a Defeat by Brendan Simms
Collected Stories by Lydia Davis

Of the books on that longer list, only the first one, the Munro, has a link - to a "Cover to Cover" one-paragraph plot summary. All the others have no editorial commentary at all - just hyperlinks to This "Best Books" list bears not one ridge of a fingerprint by Benjamin Schwarz - given sufficient time and Milkbone snacks, I could teach my basset hound how to cut-and-paste something like this. It's all the more tantalizing that fully half the titles listed as 'runners up' are, in fact, hefty tomes - exactly the sort of dense, in-depth stuff Schwarz used to show a marked predilection for both reading and reviewing. Although I have absolutely no prose to back up my assertion, I'm fairly certain this list does indeed represent Scwarz's favorite new reading of 2009.

But geez, what a crappy, half-assed job it does representing that! There almost no list to speak of in the actual Atlantic issue itself; I set aside both time and myself, opened the issue, and found stuff missing - surely not the shock the magazine's powers that be wish to deliver to the hundreds of readers just like me who must have felt the same thing. And when I followed instructions and went in search of that missing stuff - went in search of Benjamin Schwarz reflecting on, writing about, telling us about his Best Books picks, I found a skeletal list with no accompanying writing at all. Just titles and authors, like the whole thing was generated by a 'Star Trek' style computer algorithm, rather than a dedicated lifelong reader.

Which raises two intertwined questions: First, why couldn't such an insultingly minimal Maxim-style list have been simply printed in the magazine (instead of making readers go hunting online for it), and second, what's gone so badly wrong with The Atlantic that such a lazy travesty could happen at all? Why the primacy given to driving 'traffic' to the website? Why the bait-and-switch in which the actual physical magazine is treated like a chintzy little calling card? Why the barbaric assumption that 20 lines would be more attractive to your readers than 20 paragraphs?

I think the answer to the first question is that The Atlantic wanted every single reader to go to the website out of curiosity to read Benjamin Schwarz's book-picks for the year. And as to why that would be so hugely important to them - well, perhaps it's not the X-box generation or the move to D.C. at all: perhaps the reason for The Atlantic's recent dummification can be summed up in two words: Andrew Sullivan.

And as to why a book critic of Benjamin Scwarz's immense gifts would put his name to something this threadbare - well, I have no answer for that at all.

No need to worry about monkey-see monkey-do, however! My own Stevereads Best and Worst of 2009 won't be skimpy! You'll get your money's worth!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Dune Messiah

Our book today is Frank Herbert's 1969 Dune Messiah, the much-despised sequel to his towering 1965 science fiction classic Dune, and I recently returned to it because received opinions are always to be tested, and the received opinion on Herbert's Dune books can be overheard in the Science Fiction aisle of virtually every retail bookstore in the country, at least once a day: "The first one is great, but the sequels just keep getting worse and worse."


Three things make this received opinion virtually inevitable: first, the sheer magnitude of Herbert's Dune achievement is so great, so stunning, that any sequel - especially the first one - is naturally going to look a little anemic; second, there's no discounting the deleterious effect all those truly-ghastly Dune-lite ripoff books written by Herbert's son Brian (with ample assistance from Kevin Anderson) might have had on the Dune-reading public (if you follow the subject-labels to the very earliest days of Stevereads, you can refresh your memory on at least one of those books); and third and most important, the first sequel in question here is Dune Messiah - which, I'm curiously saddened to note after all this time, is indeed bad enough to taint the objectivity of a saint.

The story opens twelve years after the events that climaxed Dune. Young Paul Atreides, heir to the House Atreides, has harnessed the giant sandworms and barbaric Fremen warriors of the planet nicknamed Dune and used them to wrest control of the Empire from its corrupt emperor and his shadow-counselors, the all-female super-society called the Bene Gesserit. In order to foster a peaceful transfer of power, Paul agrees to marry the former emperor's daughter Irulan, even though he's actually in love with the Fremen woman Chani. Paul is aided in all of this by the fact that the life-extending spice found only on Dune - melange - has given him vast powers of prescience, allowing him to see into every corner of the future. As a result, he knows where to send his faithful legions in order to win victory after victory and subjugate star system after star system (Paul's younger sister Alia also possesses this spice-awareness - by the time of Dune Messiah, she's grown into a beautiful and fierce warrior-priestess, feared and revered by the simple folk on Dune). When the sequel opens, Paul is bored with his absolute power - and the problem is, Herbert has no experience capturing that on the page; in Dune, absolutely nobody is bored with the power they have, so we don't get scenes as Hollywood-arch as this one:

"You've allowed the weather to fall into a very primitive pattern," she [Irulan] said, rubbing her arms through her robe. "It was dry and there was a sandstorm today. Are you never going to let it rain here?"

"You didn't come here to talk about the weather," Paul said. He felt that he had been submerged in double meanings. Was Irulan trying to tell him something which her training would not permit her to say openly? It seemed that way. He felt that he had been cast adrift suddenly and now must thrash his way back to some steady place.

"I must have a child," she said.

He shook his head from side to side.

"I must have my way!" she snapped. "If need be, I'll find another father for my child. I'll cuckold you and dare you to expose me."

"Cuckold me all you wish," he said, "but no child."

"How can you stop me?"

With a smile of utmost kindness, he said: "I'd have you garrotted, if it came to that."

Unfortunately, that distinct note of bloat is present throughout this book (which is, ironically, the shortest Dune novel of them all). Characters - especially Paul - are forever doing much more thinking, pondering, and musing for their own (or our) good. Even when a ghola (as close as Herbert - in 1969 - could come to envisioning a clone) of a beloved old friend of Paul's is sent to his court by a dangerous faction who claim they mean the act as a gift, the book's dormant tensions refuse to waken. Exchanges like this don't help:

Paul found himself fascinated by a well-remembered mole on the ghola's chin.

"Trying to live in this future," the ghola said, "do you give substance to such a future? Do you make it real?"

"If I go the way of my vision-future, I'll be alive then," Paul muttered. "What makes you think I want to live there?"

The ghola shrugged. "You asked me for a substantial answer."

"Where is there substance in a universe composed of events?" Paul asked. "Is there a final answer? Doesn't each solution produce new questions?"

There are plot developments in Dune Messiah, although far too few. An attack robs Paul of his eyesight (he's not really inconvenienced - Herbert tells us it's because his powers of prescience give him a map of everything as it unfolds, although a moment's thought shows how screamingly illogical that is), and even from the beginning of the book, it's clear that Alia harbors an instability could become dangerous. She longs for the simple days before the complaisance of power:

The departing swarm [of pilgrims] had stirred up dust. The flinty odor came to Alia's nostrils, ignited a pang of longing for the open bled. Her sense of the past, she realized, had been sharpened by the coming of the ghola. There'd been much pleasure in those untrammeled days before her brother had mounted the throne - time for joking, time for small things, time to enjoy a cool morning or a sunset, time ... time ... time. Even danger had been good in those days - clean danger from known sources. No need then to strain the limits of prescience, to peer through the murky veils for frustrating glimpses of the future.

Wild Fremen said it well: "Four things cannot be hidden - love, smoke, a pillar of fire, and a man striding across the open bled."

But the most important plot-event in Dune Messiah is the birth of Paul's twin children, Leto and Ghanima - and the reason it's so important is because it sets up this book's own sequel, Children of Dune, which is a massive, glorious return to form for Herbert, a fast-paced, incredibly intelligent, exhilarating science fiction novel. And Herbert's three Dune novels after that, God Emperor of Dune, Heretics of Dune, and Chapterhouse: Dune are similarly fantastic (in my opinion, God Emperor is fully the equal in quality to Dune itself).

For decades, I've been thinking - and telling people who asked - that Dune Messiah was an odd aberration in Frank Herbert's writing career, and especially in his Dune series. The received opinion I'd long ago devised here was that all the other Dune books were entirely wonderful, well worthy of being the jewels in Herbert's reputation, and that only Dune Messiah lets the side down.

And just this once (!), it turns out received opinion was right on the money - at least as far as this one book goes. Those of you who're contemplating taking on these books are well advised to simply skip Dune Messiah - its skimpy important contents are effectively reprised in a page or two of Children of Dune, so go right on to that one and enjoy yourselves!

Friday, November 13, 2009

Quotable Bits in the Penny Press!

A laurel and hardy handshake to the London Review of Books, which turned thirty years old this month with a lavishly overstocked issue of reviews and commentary, including a surprisingly enjoyable review by Colm Toibin of the new John Cheever biography. Not surprising because it deals with Cheever (whose work I mostly dislike), but surprising because it's written by Toibin (whose novels I entirely dislike) - providing yet more evidence of a literary phenomenon I'm tempted to dub the Zadie Smith Syndrome, in which a generally overpraised, talentless novelist shows first-rate skills as a book reviewer. I keep reading Toibin's deplorably lazy novels based entirely on the strength of the non-fiction stuff he's done that pleased me (including the epic, indispensable Penguin Book of Irish Fiction, which I'll get to one of these fine days here at Stevereads), so 2009's been the old one-two punch: a wretched novel, and this delightful Cheever piece.

The review is of the book by Blake Bailey, and it's a classic 'fulcrum' work - not well-written or otherwise intrinsically worthwhile, but irresistible to a wide swath of reviewers who don't want to review the book so much as use it to talk about the book's subject (not at all a despicable aim, although the shadow-ground it occupies between essay and review has never been fully charted). The LRB gives Toibin a nice generous amount of space, and his article is never less than fascinating. Here are some of the highlights, like this bit about Cheever's male lovers - and his weird belief that sexual activity sharpened his eyesight:

Since Cheever took the view that sexual stimulation could improve his eyesight, part of Max's function, once their affair began, was to offer the same comfort as a good pair of spectacles might have.

Or, after discussing Cheever's intensely strange novel Falconer ("The sense of violence, hatred, pain and deep alienation is offered raw; beside this, love, or something like love, comes as dark redemption or another form of power. In the middle of somewhere are the grim ordinariness of prison life and some brilliant sex scenes") this great little tossed-off line:

If you ignore the upbeat, cheesy ending, Falconer is the best Russian novel in the English language.


Or this, culled from Cheever's journals (which Knopf paid a whopping 1.2 million dollars for the right to publish):

In the next entry, he ends with a remark which is one of the few endearing remarks in his journals and should be the motto of every writer alive: "All right, I want something beautiful, and it will be done by June."

Now I'm not saying we've got the Miracle of Lourdes going on here - Toibin's singularly un-Irish tin ear for prose is still occasionally on display (that weak ending "might have," for instance, or those ploddingly repeated "remark"s) - but this is generally excellent stuff, as have been all of Zadie Smith's literary essays in the last year. A piece like this makes me eager to see more of Toibin's work - which is certainly an odd feeling.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Noah's Ark!

Our book today is from 1977: Peter Spier's incredible Caldecott Medal-winning picture book Noah's Ark. Since we've already covered at great length (indeed, is there any other kind of length?) here at Stevereads all the ways in which the very best so-called children's literature stands exactly equal with all other kinds of literature (and therefore needs no specialized pleading in order to appear here at all), we can skip right ahead to the book itself, which will almost certainly go down in Stevereads history as the least text ever to get reviewed here. Noah's Ark starts off (oddly - very, very oddly) with a fun little ditty about the ark written by the intensely hateful Dutch God-botherer Jacobus Revius ("Climb on board,/Said the Lord" etc.), but after that single page, the entire book has only two lines in it, one at the very beginning and one at the very end.

The one at the beginning is "...But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord" and comes before everything else in the book - before the title page, before the copyright information- a two-page spread juxtaposing the peace and bounty of Noah's home and farm with the warfare and bloodshed into which the rest of the world has descended.

After that, it's just page after page of Spier's incredibly detailed, deceptively brilliant pictures. We see the great ark being built (with a steadily-growing crowd of curious onlookers in the background), we see Noah and his simple, toiling family, and of course we see great crowds of animals, animals of every size and shape and description. Noah invites on board pigs and mice and bees and snails and butterflies. Sloths cling to the bellies of elephants, possums hang upside-down from the fur of camels, inchworms inch along (there's even a hopeful pair of dodos).

This isn't all a peaceful folk song, either: Spier gently but firmly reminds us that in addition to all the wicked humans in the world who perished when God's flood came, there were also countless other animal species, by definition innocent, who very much wanted a place on that ark and didn't get it:

The waters quickly and entirely cover the old man-dominated features of the landscape:

and then there's only the ark, in a vast expanse of water:

Spier delights in showing us the endless variety of chores and surprises on board during those forty days and forty nights. There's swabbing and cleaning and feeding and caring to be done, and the kindly Noah of these pictures also spares time to study and even to simply contemplate. Of course my favorite single panel in the book shows a late-night scene after one such busy, stressful day, when Noah rests at the candlelit table - in the company of the two species of animal who don't care about the flood and who would be on the ark with the man even if not a single drop of rain had fallen:

Eventually, the rains stop, the sun is seen again, and Noah sends out his famous dove to find flowering land. When the dove brings back its famous olive branch, it's cause for jubilation - Noah runs through the ark's various enclosures, waving the branch at his animal charges in happy triumph before feeding it to one of the cows (who've had, after all, no fresh grazing for forty days) - but before we see all that, Spier gives us a big quiet panel between husband and wife, as it dawns on them that their ordeal at sea might be coming to a close:

Only Christians could possibly be daft enough to view the story of Noah's ark as a parable about hope (the Jews rightly saw it for the catastrophic and probably useless cautionary tale that it is)(but then, the Jews see pretty much everything as a catastrophic and probably useless cautionary tale ... it's one of their many mordant charms) - they focus on that dove returning with its olive branch, rather than on the fact that God commits planetocide in a fit of pique. Noah finds favor in the eyes of the Lord, yes, but his experience clearly gives him Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, as his later behavior in Genesis clearly indicates. But that story has no place in Spier's colorful little book - except perhaps in his choice of that book's final line: "... and he planted a vineyard."

Monday, November 09, 2009

The End of Civilization in the Penny Press?

By now I'm sure you've all seen the New York Times Book Review from Sunday, and I swear by Crom and Mitra, I originally intended simply to ignore it here at Stevereads. But you know what? The more of these little things we ignore, the more we give these little things not only power but legitimacy, and then forty years from now we look around at a world both mad and stupid and dare to ask "How on Earth did this happen?"

For those of you who perhaps don't take in the Book Review, a quick recap: James Parker (a Boston resident! How mortifying!) turned in a 1500-word review of the new Stephen King doorstop, Under the Dome, and the Book Review editors decided to run the thing on the cover. The New York Times Book Review is the single most influential yardstick and tastemaker in the book-selling world, of course; not only does 'New York Times bestseller' do wonders for the sale of any book from here to Lahore, but the Book Review actually determines the buying habits of countless thousands of over-moneyed middle-aged people all across the country, people who'll hand over their credit cards for anything between hard covers as long as it carries the Times seal of approval. Authors are paid bonuses entirely dependent on whether or not - and for how long - their book shows up on the Times list, because publishers know there's no advertising like it anywhere on the planet.

And as a great philosopher once said, with great power comes great responsibility.

James Parker confesses to be a lifelong fan of King's work, and that's fine. And millions of people read King's books, which is also fine (some reading being better than none at all). But Parker's piece isn't a book review - it's a barely-coherent fan letter, and it's the lead-off piece in the New York Times Book Review. Genuine, serious authors have new books out, and yet some Times editor decided the most coveted spot in book-press should go to an 1,100-page pulp novel Stephen King wrote in 480 days - and the book is given no legitimate criticism in that lead-off piece. And all of that is really, really bad.

King's novel is as tedious as a reformed drunk. An impenetrable dome suddenly appears over a small town in (yawn) Maine, and suddenly the local bullies are taking over, the local nutjobs are getting nuttier, and King has about a dozen dystopian tropes he can swat around for however the hell long he feels like it. There is nothing whatsoever noteworthy in this enormous book (the author so arrogantly flaunting how little time it took him to produce it looks downright dimwitted when set against the backdrop of how aggressively ordinary a book it is) - all the characters are stock characters, all the subplot outcomes can be predicted on page 2, all the dumb plot-contrivances are simply presented to the reader, linearly and in a sleepwalker's monotone.

And if Parker wants to like this crap, that's fine by me. But he does more than that - it's not that he praises it, it's that he writes his piece under the assumption that its worth as a book is immaterial, as if the mere fact that it was written by Stephen King not only warrants it our attention but exempts it from scrutiny. Parker was somehow allowed to write dark, malevolent nonsense like this:

As for the prose, it's not all smooth sailing. Given King's extraordinary career-long dominance, we might expect him at this point to be stylistically complete, turning perfect sentences, as breezily at home in his idiom as P. G. Wodehouse. But he isn't, quite. "Then it came down on her again, like unpleasant presents raining from a poison pinata: the realization that Howie was dead." (it's the accidental rhyme of "unpleasant" and "presents" that makes that one such a stinker.)

Where to start with this garbage? First, I guarantee Parker that rhyme wasn't accidental - I guarantee King intended it and sat back from 'unpleasant,' 'presents,' 'poison,' and 'pinata' with a proud little smile on his face. He's that far away from having any idea what good writing looks like. He isn't quite Wodehouse? Outhouse is more like it, and it's always been that way - the moronic shift Parker makes here from 'dominance' (which is a question of sales) to 'stylistically complete' (which isn't) is done with a fluidity only given to somebody who hasn't done fifteen minutes of genuine thinking about what he's typing - it's a sure sign that Parker couldn't have disliked this book, regardless of its contents. In fact, its contents get a complete pass:

We shouldn't be too squeamish about the odd half-baked simile or lapse into B-movie dialogue, is my point. Writing flat-out keeps him close to his story, close to his source.

I was going to ignore this whole thing, I swear. But when the front-page essay of the New York Times Book Review slavishly praises Stephen King and mocks with words like "squeamish" those of us who dislike bad, lazy, cliched writing, something serious is going on - something perhaps worthy of comment, and something surely that should shame the Times. The Book Review has praised unworthy authors in the past, Gawd knows - but this is the first time they've allowed a reviewer to admit an author is unworthy and then praise him anyway, working on the assumption that all this hoity-toity palaver about bad writing is just so much squeamishness. It's quite literally the worst precedent any review journal could possibly set. Regardless of how many books Stephen King sells, his first drafts (what you get when you write 'flat-out' and then don't revise) are no more worth reading than anybody else's. James Parker is perfectly free to disagree - but he doesn't disagree. He admits the book is rushed and shoddy, then he tells us those things don't really matter.

That kind of sophomoric idiocy walks a quick path to intellectual irrelevance, and the fact that the Times either doesn't know that or knows it and is willing to risk it in order to win a few populist votes of sympathy ... well, that's the real horror story here.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Poetry Class!

Beautiful Evelyn Hope is dead!
Sit and watch by her side an hour.
That is her book-shelf, this is her bed;
She plucked that piece of geranium-flower,
Beginning to die too, in the glass;
Little has yet been changed, I think:
The shutters are shut, no light may pass
Save two long rays through the hinge's chink.

Sixteen years old when she died!
Perhaps she had scarcely heard my name;
It was not her time to love; beside,
Her life had many a hope and aim,
Duties enough and little cares,
And now was quiet, now astir,
Till God's hand beckoned unawares, -
And the sweet white brow is all of her.

Is it too late then, Evelyn Hope?
What, your soul was pure and true,
The good stars met in your horoscope,
Made you of spirit, fire and dew -
And, just because I was thrice as old
And our paths in the world diverged so wide,
Each was naught to each, must I be told?
We were fellow mortals, naught beside?

No, indeed! for God above
Is great to grant, as mighty to make,
And creates the love to reward the love:
I claim you still, for my own love's sake!
Delayed it may be for more lives yet,
Through worlds I shall traverse, not a few:
Much is to learn, much to forget
Ere the time be come for taking you.

But the time will come, - at last it will,
When, Evelyn Hope, what meant (I shall say)
In the lower earth, in the years long still,
That body and soul so pure and gay?
Why your hair was amber, I shall divine,
And your mouth to your own geranium's red -
And what you would do with me, in fine,
In the new life come in the old one's stead.

I have lived (I shall say) so much since then,
Given up myself so many times,
Gained me the gains of various men,
Ransacked the ages, spoiled the climes;
Yet one thing, one in my soul's full scope,
Either I missed or itself missed me:
And I want and find you, Evelyn Hope!
What is the issue? let us see!

I loved you, Evelyn, all the while!
My heart seemed full as it could hold;
There was place and to spare for the frank young smile,
And the red young mouth, and the hair's young gold.
So, hush, - I will give you this leaf to keep;
See, I shut it inside the sweet cold hand!
There, that is our secret; go to sleep!
You will wake, and remember, and understand.

"Evelyn Hope" - Robert Browning

Friday, November 06, 2009

tuck everlasting

Our book today is Natalie Babbitt's perfect little gem of a story, her 1975 novel Tuck Everlasting (with apologies for the movie-cover featuring the brainless Alexis Bledel and the tobacco-wasted Jonathan Jackson)(although if it's any consolation, the movie itself is quite good, with an especially brisk, reptilian performance by Ben Kingsley), which is just about as sweet and simple and penetrating a dramatization as I've ever read of what immortality might be like for a group of ordinary people who happened to stumble into it.

That group is the Tucks: father Angus, mother Mae, and their two sons, beautiful Jesse and brooding Miles, and Babbitt's story finds them all gathering together in the woods outside the village of Treegap. The Tucks make a point of coming together once every ten years or so, to spend some time as a family, and the locus they choose is the hidden spring in the center of the wood where, as thirsty prospective settlers eighty years ago, they paused to take a drink and found the water had made them immortal. They didn't realize what had happened to them at first - they moved on, Miles got married and had children - but eventually it became clear that everyone around them was aging while they stayed exactly the same. This has forced them to live a kind of gypsy life, never staying in any one place for more than about twenty years, lest the local inhabitants start to grow suspicious. Our story just happens to find them all gathered together for the first time in ten years, and on the cusp of that meeting, our ten-year-old heroine Winnie Foster, out wandering in the woods, spots Jesse sipping from the hidden spring and falls instantly in love (the book stresses repeatedly how beautiful he is, "even up close" - add that to the fact that he possesses a dark secret he's ambivalent about sharing with Winnie and you see just how close this book might have come to Twilight territory).

The Tucks bring her into their home in order to figure out what to do about the fact that she now knows about the secret spring, and when Winnie - who's been bossed and cosseted her whole life in her parents' tidy, expensive home - sees the lived-in ramshackle house of the Tuck family, she's right away likes it:

And still this was not all. For, on the old beamed ceiling of the parlor, streaks of light swam and danced and wavered like a bright mirage, reflected through the windows from the sunlit surface of the pond. There were bowls of daisies everywhere, gay white and yellow. And over everything was the clean, sweet smell of the water and its weeds, the chatter of a swooping kingfisher, the carol and trill of a dozen other kinds of bird, and occasionally the thrilling bass note of an unastonished bullfrog at ease somewhere along the muddy banks.

Into it all came Winnie, eyes wide, and very much amazed. It was a whole new idea to her that people could live in such disarray, but at the same time she was charmed. It was ... comfortable. Climbing behind Mae up the stairs to see the loft, she thought to herself: "Maybe it's because they think they have forever to clean it up." And this was followed by another thought, far more revolutionary: "Maybe they just don't care!"

The Tucks' main goal in showing her their home is to sit her down and try to convince her that telling anybody about the hidden spring would be a terrible idea - that it's not only natural but desirable that all things age and die and make room for new things. It's a lot to ask a ten-year-old to take in, but in Winnie is a wonderful character, wise beyond her years, and she's largely certain even before her talks with the family that she won't tell anybody. Angus Tuck takes her out on the pond for a heartfelt talk about how he and his family aren't really part of life anymore - and how distressing he finds that. And Miles takes her fishing on the pond and talks a little about that same distress, about knowing his own family grew up and grew old while he didn't change at all. Their talk is interrupted by a tug on the line:

And then Miles caught a fish. There it flopped, in the bottom of the boat, its jaws working, its gills fanning rapidly. Winnie drew up her knees and stared at it. It was beautiful, and horrible too, with gleaming, rainbow-colored scales, and an eye like marble beginning to dim even as she watched it. The hook was caught in its upper lip, and suddenly Winnie wanted to weep. "Put it back, Miles," she said, her voice dry and harsh. "Put it back right away."

Miles started to protest, and then, looking at her face, he picked up the trout and gently worked the barbed hook free. "All right, Winnie," he said. He dropped the fish over the edge of the boat. It flipped its tail and disappeared under the lily pads.

The plot thickens when a man comes to Treegap intent on finding the Tucks and their miraculous spring, and the last 50 pages of the book blur by, but for my money, it's these gentle ruminations on the nature of mortality that make Tuck Everlasting such a marvelous book (and such a perfect example of the phenomenon I've mentioned here at Stevereads often enough, how the best so-called "children's" and "young adult" fiction is really "everybody" fiction). The choice that Winnie makes at the novel's close is both predictable and stunning, and it will send the reader (perhaps especially the young reader) away with a head full of questions about what really matters in life. Excellent questions for anybody to ask, and a fine book to do the prompting.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Grizzly Bear!

Our book today is Thomas McNamee's 1982 natural history masterpiece, The Grizzly Bear, the best, most poetic, most memorable book ever written about one of the world's most famous oversized Pleistocene holdovers. This is higher praise than it sounds, since the grizzly bear has inspired quite a few really good pieces of writing in the last hundred and fifty years. These animals have been hunted mercilessly, trapped, tormented, eradicated from over 90 percent of their old North American ranges, but they've also always held a particular fascination for human beings, and the reason is twofold. First and most obvious, grizzlies are spectacularly dangerous animals - the true size and heft of an adult male has to be seen up in person to be believed, and although the females are smaller, their legendary ferocity in defense of their cubs has been the well-known (and in once case, even, in the last artistic activity of the man's life, well-photographed) cause of many bear attacks. And second, grizzlies are oddly, very noticeably like human beings in many ways. As McNamee points out in his book, these bears are highly individualistic - they do things their own way, figure out problems with disarming speed, and are seldom too busy to stop and amuse themselves once in a while.

If you happen to do any back-country hiking in norther and western Canada, it's probably the first of these two things that'll be on your mind. It's a land-equivalent to the experience of swimming in the ocean with the possibility of sharks: there's something incredibly unnerving about knowing there's a larger-than-negligible chance you could run into a smart, irritable animal powerful enough to kill or maim you without even really trying. If you're hiking with a group of true and valiant dogs (basset hounds need not apply), you probably don't have to worry about the killing or maiming (even a full-grown grizzly is unlikely to attack a well-coordinated dog pack), but if you're without such company (McNamee has a hilarious, withering section about a whining young hiking couple coming witlessly close to encountering some bears) and you meet a bear in the wild, you're about as helpless as you can be. It can put a damper on even the prettiest walk.

McNamee knows his animal well. His book follows a fictional, slightly idealized trio of bears - a mother and her two cubs - for a year of seasons and problems and challenges. By taking his readers this way through the cubs' experience of learning how to be a bear (including "the three fundamental rules of grizzly bear cubhood: follow mother, obey mother, have, within those constraints, as good a time as possible"), he's hit on the perfect means to teach his readers the same things. The best parts of his book are the many places where he shows us just how much there is to learn:

A well-educated and experienced grizzly bear's knowledge of his home range is astoundingly comprehensive and precise. Our mother bear remembers not only where she found good things to eat last year but also where, six years ago, in a summer of drought, a low moist spot in an otherwise sere expanse of sun-parched timothy still held a pocket of lush bluegrass.She remembers which slopes and ridgetops are the first to be blown free of snow in spring. She remembers, even before their aerial parts appear, where the richest starchy roots and tubers may be dug. She knows the buried whereabouts of pocket gopher populations. She remember where, each fall, the squirrels have harvested and hidden their hoards of pine nuts. She knows the locations of all the avalanche chutes in her range, where the frequent snowslides have limited the vegetation to that which can withstand all that cascading snow - the grasses, supple-stemmed shrubs, and forbs (soft-stemmed plants that die down to the ground in winter, most of which are familiar as wildflowers) - and she remembers which of those avalanche chutes, facing south, are first to catch the sun and therefore first to green up. Even now, as they learn to grasp the blades of sedge in their back molars and roll their heads to snap it off, the cubs are storing up essential memories.

And that mention of squirrel pine nut hoards comes back later to demonstrate another of McNamee's strengths - his droll sense of humor. You very much want that in a natural history writer, but you don't often get it:

the bear is superbly adept at gobbling them [the hoards] up: she smashes the cones with her teeth or paws, spreads the debris out on the ground, and delicately licks up only the nuts. The few pine cone scales that find their way in with the nuts, she spits out the side of her mouth. With singularly ursine fair-mindedness, she will often also smash and eat the squirrels themselves.

I can't recommend coming anywhere near a wild grizzly (even the dog-company option runs the unfortunate risk of costing you a dog or two), but I recommend The Grizzly Bear whole-heartedly. It should be on every bookshelf of truly great works of natural history.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Deep!

Our book today is the 1976 novel The Deep, and it's the answer to a question several of you have emailed me (because Gawd forbid any of you shy little buggers should, you know, post a comment or anything)(this has got to be the strangest blogger/reader relationship I know of - par for the course in my life, actually): did Peter Benchley ever write anything worth reading other than Jaws?

The answer is problematic, and it connects with a long-held belief of mine, which is that novelists very, very often write more than is good for them. I firmly believe that virtually everybody has one genuinely good book inside them, and I love the fact that typing, editing, and even publishing technology has become so easy and ubiquitous that hundreds of thousands more people than in, say, the 1960s can go a lot further toward actually writing that book than they could at any other time in history. Writing schools abound, writing groups populate the back booths of every Bickford's and Denny's from here to Costa Mesa, and of course the entire Internet is one gigantic, horrifyingly diverse exercise in writing. The making of many books has never been easier, and that's a good thing.

The problem is - and always has been, even before FicPro 2000 and the like - that once somebody actually writes a book, two powerful factors often propel them to write another. The first of these factors is inborn and intangible, but that doesn't necessarily make it right: it's intoxicating. Creating a fictional world, shaping it, populating it, driving that population - it's hard to explain to somebody who hasn't done it, but everybody who has done it will understand immediately. Crafting that creation, going inside it day after day, gradually orchestrating it to tell the stories you want it to tell, and then, when you're finished, writing 'the end' ... well, as difficult as it'll be for you non-writers to believe, there's really no feeling in the world that's sweeter. Once you do it, you very much want to do it again - whether you have the inspiration, industry, or information to make it work a second (or twenty-second) time.

The second factor is crass and therefore well-known: if you make money writing a novel, chances are very good you'll want to make even more money writing a second, and a third. Writers have often been contractually obligated to keep writing, even though, in my opinion, 99 percent of writers don't have much more than one worthwhile book inside them. Generally, that's the fiction math: one book that's wholly yours, irresistibly burning inside you to get out, to be expressed, and then maybe 20 percent material overspill that can, if stretched and fluffed, be made into a second novel that will more or less stand upright. Usually, everything else is dry humping.

There are exceptions, of course - probably you're thinking of the same exceptions I am. But keep in mind, if you can (and let's be honest here: I'm probably in a better position to do that than most of you are), the absolutely VAST amount of novels that have been published in the last 200 years. The number beggars description; trust me, the exceptions we're thinking of sink into that sea without even the smallest ripple. For every Tolstoy writing both War and Peace and Anna Karenina, there are, without exaggeration, 4 or 5 million one-hit wonders grinding out their fifteenth soulless book.

Benchley's fiction-writing career is a pretty close example of what I'm talking about. In Jaws he found his one perfect idea and knocked it out of the park - a giant killer shark preys on a popular beachfront community, thereby unleashing all kinds of predation between the humans involved. Almost everything he wrote after that book feels grasping, attenuated, and incomplete.

Almost everything. He, too, had that roughly 20 percent overspill, and he used it to craft an older manuscript into the adventure novel called The Deep, which is the only one of his novels other than Jaws that's worth reading. It's the story of a honeymooning couple in Bermuda - David Sanders and his much younger wife Gail, who while scuba-diving come across the wreck of a reef-torn ship and find not only WWII-era ampules of some sort of drug but also much, much older artifacts. Wondering what exactly it is they've found, they're directed by helpful locals to crusty old lighthouse keeper Romer Treece, who comes off as a slightly more eloquent version of Captain Quint:

The bottom of the sea is a living creature. She's whimsical, the sea, a tease. She loves to fool you. She changes all the time. A storm can alter her face; a change in current can cause her to heave her insides out. You can dive on a wreck one day and find nothing. The wind blows that night, and the next day, in the same spot, you find a carpet of gold coins. That's happened. And we've had four juicy blowups in the past six weeks.

But whatever native strength Benchley had as a storyteller is already beginning to weaken in this book, and the narrative quickly crowds up with predictability, including a slick villain - Henri Cloche - who sounds like he's reading his dialogue straight out of an old MGM handbook:

"They [the couple's motorbikes] will be returned in the morning. A final word: Make no mistake about it - should you still be inclined to be ... hasty ... and go to the authorities, you will find that, officially, I do not exist. And should you try to get out of this by leaving Bermuda, you will also discover that, in reality, I exist everywhere." His back stiffened. "There will be no haven."

What he wants Sanders and his wife to do, Mr. Bond, is dive ... dive the wreck and recover as much of its cargo as possible, for which service he will pay them one million dollars (which was a lot of money back then, as they say). You can probably guess the rest yourself, but the key here is to remember that all the movies and TV shows and Scott Smith novels this plot reminds you of came from this book, not the other way around. The plot itself - innocents find something deadly in a shipwreck and become morally compromised by it - is rock-solid. It's only Benchley's ability to fully exploit it as a writer that's flagging just a bit.

Just a bit. The Deep will still work on you - it's sharply, leanly told, and it will pull you in, and you'll be glad you gave it the lazy afternoon it takes to read it (like Jaws, it's very much a book you should read in one sitting). It's fathoms and fathoms better than all of Benchley's later books (they at best have only scattered worthwhile scenes, and sometimes only scattered worthwhile moments) - but it's no Anna Karenina, alas.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

A Tale of Two (insert adjective) Writers in the Penny Press!

Lots of great stuff in the New Yorker this week, starting with a classic, gorgeous cover by Eric Drooker (and interspersed with a strong selection of cartoons this time around, quite a few of which strike exactly the right clever, citified tone for a New Yorker cartoon) and moving on to a funny "Talk of the Town" piece by Nick Paumgarten on those two Northwest pilots who overshot their runway by a hundred and fifty miles because they were absorbed on their laptops. Of course lots of commentary's been spilled on this, but Paumgarten is worth quoting at length:

Afterward, they explained that they'd logged onto their personal laptop computers and become so engrossed - not in Farm Ville or porn, or even good old off-line activity, such as a fistfight or a nap, but, rather, if you believe them, in the nuances of the airline's new crew flight-scheduling procedure - that they'd essentially forgotten where they were or what they were supposed to be doing. Which was landing a plane. The equivalent for a text-messaging driver might be for him to veer off a turnpike into a cornfield and drive twenty miles through the corn rows - stalks thumping the hood, G.P.S. lady losing her mind - without once looking up from the task of typing a heartfelt response to a wireless provider's auto-generated telemarketing text. That is, it's almost unimaginable.

Not sure what it'll take for states to enact the very, very obvious legislation needed to ban using cellphones and especially visual media like texting or laptops while operating heavy machinery at high speeds - it can't be deaths, since lots of people have already been killed through just such negligence - maybe notoriety? Maybe somebody texting-while-driving plows straight into the White House street barrier and dies in a hail of automatic weapons fire? Maybe an elementary school bus driver takes himself and his forty little charges off an overpass while texting? It's the dumbest thing in the world that the legislation hasn't happened yet, so I'm increasingly curious to know what the triggering event will eventually be.

But the main attractions of this issue, for me, were two pieces on authors with whom I have, shall we say, problematic reader relationships. Thomas Mallon turns in a long and wonderful synopsis of the literary and sociological phenomenon that is Ayn Rand. At first, I was worried that Mallon himself is one of her legion of mindless worshipers, but I was quickly reassured by some of his great quips about her unendurable books, like these two gems about The Fountainhead: "It is, in fact, badly executed on every level of language, plot, and characterization," and "The novel's dialogue is never even accidentally plausible." Hee.

The other author is Jonathan Safran Foer, whose latest book Eating Animals is reviewed at length in a smart, argumentative piece by Elizabeth Kolbert. Foer's book is also damn near unbearable, but not, as in Rand's case, because it's poorly written - in fact, it - and Foer in general - would be far less irritating if it were possible to simply dismiss it as bad writing. No, Foer can definitely craft sound prose - but what he's done with that ability since he first easily, effortlessly gimmicked his way into public view with Everything Is Illuminated has been nothing but frustrating, and this book is no exception. In it, he hyperventilates about how the prospect of fatherhood forced him to re-evaluate his eating habits ... for every page of the book, he bounces between sounding like he's the first person ever to learn that meat consumption is wasteful and cruel and the first person ever to become a father. The end result is wearyingly narcissistic, despite the large amount of gruesomely fascinating data lucidly presented.

Kolbert soft-pedals a lot more than Mallon ("Some may object" and "others will argue" ... but not much more than a peep or two what she may object or will argue), which may arise from greater politeness or a sense of fellow-feeling (she is, it turns out, a bit insufferable herself, being one of those hobbyist chicken-raisers the entire rest of the country - for various and equally valid reasons - so rightly detests). But you have to give her credit for her well-written not-entirely-hypothetical defense of eating animals, on two grounds: people are, after all, still animals - geared by millions of years of evolution to eat meat, and animals are, in fact, not people - so they don't deserve the full panoply of rights and protections people extend to themselves. She acknowledges that Foer disagrees with both these points, and she goes on from them to make some serious body-blows against some of his book's points (like his wishy-washiness on calling factory farmers evil, or his apparent willingness to continue drinking milk and eating eggs). It ends up being every bit as satisfying as Mallon's piece.

There's other good stuff too in this issue - Jill Lepore writes about the staggering amounts of violence in American society, and Anthony Lane is his usual peppy, quotable self reviewing two movies nobody will remember next week. But for my money (which reminds me: really need to start subscribing to the New Yorker), it's the two literary pieces that sell the issue - just wish they were about less (insert adjective) writers ...