Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Waves of Rage in the Penny Press!

The April 27 issue of the New Yorker features an intensely infuriating article by Margaret Talbot called "Brain Gain," about the wide variety of so-called "neuroenhancers" being taken in record numbers by college students (among others) in order to boost their mental faculties and concentration. And the article is infuriating on both levels, the factual and the reportorial: the facts are as bottomlessly angering as are ALL facts connected with college students, and the reporting is neutral-bordering-on-approving of a phenomenon it should be roundly condemning.

The college students in Talbot's article, it turns out, are swallowing milligram after milligram of amphetamine salts with manufacturer names like Ritalin or Adderall. The students Talbot interviews make many claims for these drugs - that they increase powers of perception, strength of retention, potency of concentration ... but all they really seem to do is temporarily banish your brain's need for rest (at what is almost certainly a ruinous long-term physical cost, but since no reliable testing data exists - the drug companies own both the data studies and the data-studiers - we'll have to wait for each of these little synaptic time-bombs to explode before we know the extent). As all these self-medicating morons point out, eliminating their need for sleep allows them to cram in all the many and varied college activities they deem essential: schoolwork, socializing, extra-curricular activities, jobs, and titanic amounts of drinking.

But there's really only one thing all these alleged students want to protect at all costs: their own laziness. Because even with the most hectic social schedule imaginable, no drug-taking would be necessary to get accomplish everything if these young people actually worked at anything, ever. Get a paper assignment, due in fifteen days? If you start work on the paper immediately - say, by reading something and then by writing something - you'll only need to work a little bit a day to finish it well before its deadline, while still having plenty of time to do everything else you want. But college-style laziness looks at it quite differently, because almost all of these kids were big fish in the small ponds of their high schools, so they're already accustomed to being able to bullshit their deadlines. So instead of starting work on that paper the day its assigned, they start work on it the day its due - which of course means two things: 1) an enormous amount of work, really an impossible amount, and 2) a great steaming load of crap as the inevitable result.

Even Talbot's interviewed idiots are sometimes honest about this. One of them starts off with the usual bullshit:

"I don't think people who take Adderall are aiming to be the top person in the class. I think they're aiming to be among the best."

But then he wanders a little closer to the truth:

"Or maybe not even among the best. At the most basic level, they aim to do better than they would have otherwise. Everyone is aware of the fact that if you were up at 3 a.m. writing this paper it isn't going to be as good as it could have been. The fact that you were partying all weekend, or spent the last week being high, watching 'Lost' - that's going to take a toll."

Of course reading Talbot's article raised my competitive hackles, especially when there was talk of how much sharper these mystery drugs make the poor old ordinary brain. I myself possess one of those poor old ordinary brains - but I've worked hard to make get it in fairly decent shape and keep it in fairly decent shape, and I'd match it in a heartbeat against the most enhanced person in Talbot's essay.

But feistiness aside, my main reaction was sadness, because there's nothing, no external force and certainly no internal one, that will succeed in making these college students see what they're doing wrong. I know from bitter experience that the horrible patterns they're learning and reinforcing are all but unbreakable, and what's the result? An endless sea of potentially talented people never, never fully using that talent. An endless sea of people never taking the risk to learn what actual work feels like, how good it feels to look at something you've created and honestly be able to say, "That's the best I can do" ... instead of pausing briefly to sigh over missed opportunities before dutifully returning to time-wasting.

And of course time-wasting bothers me in its own right, since none of these people are ever getting a second of that wasted time back. Bothersome indeed to reach the end of a decade, or the aftermath of a heart attack, or the last week of life itself and only be able to say, "Yeah, I half-assed a bunch of shit, and now I wish I hadn't."

But hey, it's not all rage-inducing missed opportunities, now is it? After all, Talbot actually wrote this article, on deadline, and well! Probably she'll be exposed in the next issue as a Ritalin-freak ...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Casey at the Bat!

The outlook wasn't brilliant for the Mudville nine that day;
The score stood four to two with but one inning more to play.
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A sickly silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to that hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought if only Casey could but get a whack at that -
We'd put up even money now with Casey at the bat.

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a lulu, and the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey's getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despised, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and the men saw what had occurred,
There was Johnnie safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from 5,000 throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It knocked upon the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey's manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey's bearing and a smile on Casey's face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt 'twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt.
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance gleamed in Casey's eye, a sneer curled Casey's lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped -
"That ain't my style," said Casey. "Strike one," the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm waves on a stern and distant shore.
"Kill him! Kill the umpire!" shouted someone in the stand;
And it's likely they'd have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey's visage shown,
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the spheroid flew;
But Casey still ignored it, and the umpire said, "Strike two."

"Fraud!" cried the maddened thousands, and the echo answered "Fraud!"
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn't let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey's lip, his teeth are clenched in hate;
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate.
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go.
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
But there is no joy in Mudville - mighty Casey has struck out.

- words by Ernest Thayer; pictures by the great C. F. Payne

Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Silmarillion!

Our book today is The Silmarillion, compiled in 1977 by Christopher Tolkien from the copious miscellaneous writings his father J. R. R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, left behind when he died, writings that tell in more or less coherent narrative form the vast mytho-history of Middle Earth that's hinted at repeatedly in the two famous fantasy novels. Of all Christopher Tolkien's various necrotic vampings on his father's legacy, The Silmarillion comes to the closest to being something the father might actually have published himself had he lived.

It's a deeply, almost unfathomably strange book.

The guiding idea here is that Middle Earth isn't just a slight variation on, say, rural England of the 1890s but rather an entirely separate world with its own history, its own mythology, its own cosmology, and its own theology. In his preface to The Silmarillion, Christopher Tolkien claims that the story as he sets it out existed long, long before The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, contained in hastily-hotted old notebooks (the similarity here to Watson's battered tin dispatch-box is irresistible, and I'm betting those notebooks prove just as inexhaustible) dating back to the earliest years of the 20th century. If this is true, then Tolkien was indeed a trailblazer, since comprehensive ground-up ideological constructions of alternate realities had at that point been almost the sole preserve of science fiction, not fantasy. Certainly even Tolkien couldn't have known the tsunami his new approach would unleash; fantasy novels by far outsell science fiction novels these days, and their most common staple is the sporting of this kind of enormous undergrowth of hyper-detailed background reality. And if you detect a weary note in that, you're right: it seems to me that a very, very large percentage of the fantasy novels written in the last thirty years are a lot prouder of their meticulously-tended background reality than they are of the actual foreground-story they're supposed to be telling. Slavish imitators of Tolkien always see what he was doing, but they almost never see how well he was doing it, and the result is like sitting through somebody's extremely protracted description of a dream they just had.

Not with The Silmarillion, though: it's very, very good reading. And this is perhaps it's strangest quality, because there's no earthly reason it should be good reading. We've talked about the art of pastiche fiction here many times over the years, and we've seen it done on all kinds of templates, from Sherlock Holmes to Star Trek to Buffy the Vampire-Slayer. But The Silmarillion takes the humble art of pastiche fiction to undreamt-of levels, because the book is one long pastiche of nothing less than the King James Bible. Say what you want about Tolkien, but one thing is clear: he had a brass pair of palantir.

As such, it should be as silly and unreadable as the Book of Mormon, but J. R. R. Tolkien is a much better story-teller than Joseph Smith's garrulous angel. The Silmarillion has dull patches (Tolkien is very faithful in his pastiche, and so we learn that a fantasy-version of Deuteronomy isn't any more gripping than the original), as any long book will, but in all it's a fantastic book, populated by characters of such consistent realization that you quickly become grateful that most of Tolkien's major characters are Elves and so functionally immortal - the names gain a weird resonance as page after page - and age after age - go by in hearing them again and again.

But before the Elves, there are the gods: Tolkien (father and then son) begin the book with an account of the creation. There's a pretty little fusion of Christian and pagan right from the start, since there's both a Supreme Being whose the font of everything and a slightly lesser council of divinities who still wield enormous power. And one of those lesser divinities is evil, of course. This Satan is cast out into the realm that will one day be Middle Earth, and over the next several thousand years, this evil one is a recurrent plague to the newborn races of beings - Elves, Men, and Dwarves - who are created by the gods and come to inhabit Middle Earth.

All this mythologizing is grand and done grandly (I know it doesn't sound interesting, but trust me: you won't put the book down), but it's backdrop for the main stories Tolkien wants to tell. The foremost of these is the story of a proud, mighty Elf called Feanor and his proud, violent, fractious, and notorious sons - and the marvellous gems, the silmarils, they forge and hoard - but the real theme of the entire work is almost Homeric: that everything wanes with time. The wars between the evil god and the mightiest of Elves and Men in the first two Ages of Middle Earth are far bigger and more serious than that in the Third Age, between one of the god's lowly lieutenants and the few scattered remnants of Elves and Men still powerful enough to contest his will (only a handful of the Elves are the same in each case - Middle Earth is hazardous to your health). The simarils are far more compelling and beautiful than the Rings of Power in the book readers all know. Elves are more powerful, Men live much longer, even the stars in the sky are brighter.

When you notice this theme and read The Silmarillion with it in mind, the gorgeous melancholy of The Lord of the Rings becomes so clear as to almost break your heart, because it's the story of the end of everything great in the world. After it, there will be good in the world - and perhaps there will be bad - but nothing of either will be great.

Greatness abounds in The Silmarillion, punctuated by giant battle set-pieces that read like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle on mushrooms:

Now the phalanx of the Guard of the King broke through the ranks of the Orcs, and Turgon hewed his way to the side of his brother; and it is told that the meeting of Turgon with Hurin, who stood beside Fingon, was glad in the midst of battle. Then hope was renewed in the hearts of the Elves; and at that very time, in the third hour of morning, the trumpets of Maedhros were heard at last coming up from the east, and the banners of the sons of Feanor assailed the enemy in the rear. Some have said that even then the Eldar might have won the day, had all their hosts proved faithful; for the Orcs wavered, and their onslaught was stayed, and already some were turning to flight. But even as the vanguard of Maedhros came upon the Orcs, Morgoth loosed his last strength, and Angband was emptied. There came wolves, and wolfriders, and there came Balrogs, and dragons, and Glaurung father of dragons. The strength and terror of the Great Worm were now great indeed, and Elves and Men withered before him; and he came between the hosts of Maedhros and Fingon and swept them apart.

There is more, of course, to the Silmarillion than epic battles (although those sequences draw very visible enthusiasm from Tolkien) - there's also adventure, betrayal, internecine strife, cultural folklore, and at least one attempt on Tolkien's part at crafting something largely absent from The Lord of the Rings: an epic love story. This last, the tale of Beren and Luthien, is given its own fair-sized chapter and makes for memorable reading, but Lord of the Rings fans will find it hard not to skip ahead to book's concluding chapter, "On the Rings of Power and the Third Age," in which Tolkien manages a feat unprecedented in fantasy literature: he tells in brief, annalistic form the same story he elsewhere tells in lengthy, narrative form. It's fascinating to read about Halflings and such from a different viewpoint, to read about Curunir and Mithrandir and need to remind yourself that they're Saruman and Gandalf - in short, to find yourself wondering what "There and Back Again" would have read like if it had been written by Elrond.

Not much good can be said of Christopher Tolkien's many, many subsequent dippings into his father's literary notes and jottings, even though 2007's The Children of Hurin was a runaway bestseller. But in fashioning the Silmarillion from those notes and jottings, Christopher Tolkien has given fans of The Lord of the Rings their inestimable second epic, and he's to be thanked for that.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Literary hacks in the Penny Press!

Can we pause from profundity long enough to cheer a little cheer for the best hacks in the world of hackery, the literary journalists?

They don't have a beat, these particular hacks; they aren't obsessed with cutting-edge goth-fusion, or Buffy, or the United States torturing people. They aren't advocating safer parenting, or pond-lining techniques, or same-sex marriage. They don't keep up with the Palins.

Instead, they roam over the whole of the pop culture/literary landscape in search of ... well, I'm not sure what. I'm not sure they're sure what, from day to day. A steady paycheck, yes, but once you've got some momentum going, that can be obtained by writing medical safety compliance pamphlets, or vinyl siding repair manuals, or fifth grade science histories - and yet, the hacks I'm talking about here, the literary journalists, don't write about these things (or maybe they do, but it's done quietly, late at night, with much wine and much shame, solely in order to pay persistent creditors). Instead, they're constantly groping along the contours of the landscape, feelers swaying in the breeze, hunting for something they either know enough to write about or have always wanted to know enough to write about. They aren't specialists, but neither are they quite amateurs. They aren't philosophers, even though they're often pursuing a fairly consistent ideology. And they aren't experts, even though the best of them are rarely caught in open error.

That last point is explained by their peculiar work habits. Once they settle on something, some person or book or movie or school of thought or general topic, the literary journalist will do far more than simply take in the specific artistic item in question - no, in addition to that, they'll take armloads of related books out of the library, or track down endless supplementary items online. In one very concentrated amount of time, they'll allow that subject to utterly consume their lives - and at the end of that very concentrated amount of time, they'll know their subject.

It's a weird kind of knowledge, however: it's often acquired so fast - and often, truth be told, with such a lack of deeply personal reasons - that the literary journalist finds himself aesthetically bifurcated: one the one hand, he's now something of an expert on his new subject (he can tell you the relevant books, he can rattle off the extant controversies and has pet theories about all of them, etc.), but on the other hand, he's still an outsider to it all (he's only been steeped in it for a month at the most, after all).

The result can be incredibly valuable. It's as if you went to the world's leading authority on some subject (World War One? Boer society? Viking ship-building?) and gave him a month's vacation, all expenses paid, in some tropical getaway where the only thing he wouldn't do is give even one thought to his specialty - then you bring him back and ask him to write an article about something in his bailiwick. The articles that would result from such an unlikely procedure - freed for once of academic insularity and infighting, geared for once to a jocular, populist accessibility - would be wondrous invitations to all manner of subjects.

Specialists almost never write such articles, but literary journalists write them for a living - and we're all the richer for it. And the Penny Press is where you go to find such articles, and such writers.

Long-time readers of Stevereads will already be familiar with some of the people I mean. There was, once upon a time, the likes of Gore Vidal and Wilfrid Sheed and Mary McCarthy. And today, there's Christopher Hitchens and Gordon Wood and Jill Lepore and James Atlas and a baker's dozen more.

And in the Atlantic, there's Ben Schwarz, who in the latest issue reviews several books touching on what the average German citizen during the Second World War knew of the campaign of extermination being carried out by the Nazis toward the Jews of Europe. And perhaps even more so, there's the great Caitlin Flanagan, a literary journalist who possesses the quintessential gift of all first-rate hacks: she can take any subject and make her readers interested in it.

Even if the subject is Alec Baldwin.

In the latest Atlantic, she finds herself in the unlikely position of reviewing Baldwin's account of his divorce and single-fatherhood, A Promise to Ourselves. It's not anything she could have predicted:

'I never wanted to write this book,' he tells us at the outset, in a hangdog advisory that we shouldn't expect too much. It was also a book I never wanted to read, but here we are, Alec and I, making the best of a bad situation.

The focal point of that bad situation is of course the leaked cell phone rant Baldwin yelled at his daughter, castigating her for her rude behavior and calling her a "pig." The transcript of that call is, I suppose, appalling (although in all fairness, I myself have never met a teenage girl who wasn't a self-absorbed little A-hole ... my only qualm would be in using the term "pig," since I happen to know pigs are very outgoing, giving individuals); certainly Flanagan opens that it is:

his [Baldwin's] real purpose [in the book] is to exonerate himself from an incident so grotesque that it's hard to imagine any piece of written communication short of a suicide note changing our opinion of it.

Flanagan takes this unpromising material and crafts out of it a review/meditation that will keep you feverishly reading, one delicious paragraph after another (for instance, on the indifferent intimacy of families: "Dad doesn't get too excited by the sight of Mom in her shimmy anymore, for the same reason Buddy's never taken a hankering to Sissy: they've seen too much. It's not community censure that has kept incest in check all these centuries; it's stomach flu"). The piece is easily the best thing in a typically strong issue of the Atlantic, and it keeps returning to that one catastrophic phone call, which Baldwin took outside a restaurant:

Standing on the street, once again confronted by life's inability to meet him halfway with his simple desire to be the center of the universe, he snapped. He raved at the child in the ugliest language imaginable, threatening her and calling her terrible names. Shortly thereafter, the message was leaked to an Internet scandal site (By whom? Cherchez la femme.) And the incident became infamous.

Of course I urge you to read the whole of this issue - of every issue, even in these slightly dumbed-down days of the Atlantic. But even if you skip around and pick and choose, you should make sure not to miss this piece. Back in the pre-Internet days, I used to photocopy (Google it; it was cumbersome) articles like this and make little packets of them to hand to uncaring friends, because these pieces are just that good.

And they're crafted by literary journalists, those most despised of writers, those Parnassian guns for hire - so let's all raise a glass of the cheap stuff to those working professionals! May they all be as magisterial as Helen Vendler, as thrilling as William Langeweische, as well-read as Ben Schwarz, as funny as Anthony Lane, and as damn good as Caitlin Flanagan!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

All the Beautiful Sinners

Our book today is All the Beautiful Sinners by Stephen Graham Jones; it's a burnt-western crime thriller written in 2003 and set in 1999 on the lonely roads, reservations, and badlands of Texas and the Panhandle. The sheriff in the tiny town of Nazareth is gunned down by a vagrant American Indian with the rotting bodies of two little children in the trunk of his car, and young Jim Doe, Nazareth's deputy sheriff, sets himself the task of tracking down the killer. This task is complicated by a couple of things: first, Jim Doe is part Blackfoot Indian and looks exactly like the killer, and second, the dead lawman and the dead kids are only part of the killer's swath, so the FBI is involved, sending three star profilers from Quantico to catch a bad guy who's a dead ringer for one of the good guys.

The curse of books like this one is that the bare outlines of their plots all sound wearyingly similar. Psycho, By Reason of Insanity, Silence of the Lambs - an endless stream of novels has poured from the presses in the last forty years, presenting us with an ever more lurid panoply of serial killers and crazed sociopaths, plus the slightly-quirky, always-slightly-unprepared lawmen who try to stop them. There are only so many variations you can make on this theme - serial killer following the lunar cycle? Check. Serial killer imitating a Monopoly board? Check. Profiler who's afraid to leave her house? Check. Profiler who can't move his body? Check. Serial killer who only kills other serial killers? Unbelievably, check. There's nothing new under the microscope at Quantico.

The key is - and always has been - the quality of the prose. There's a reason Jim Thompson and James M. Cain keep getting reprinted for every new generation of crime-thriller readers, whereas Boaz Moreston and Mildred Agrew and the like do not, and that reason is their prose. On this account alone Stephen Graham Jones' book deserves a longer life than the innumerable clones of its competition.The writing in All the Beautiful Sinners is as insistent and spare and hypnotic as a rhythmic beat on a snare drum. The book is impossible to put down, and the grisly fun of it all is only enhanced by the unapologetic intelligence Jones brings to every aspect of his creation (right down to the clever little wink at the concept of anonymity itself, in the hero's name). His good characters are never entirely good, and his bad characters are never entirely bad. Even his serial killer is so frantically, mesmerizingly realized that the chapters spent inside his point of view will leave you breathlessly grateful for your own sanity.

Every scene of this novel is quotable, but I'll settle for one that happens early on: some of Nazareth's fine upstanding citizens, aggrieved at the death of their sheriff, are angry at Jim Doe because at the time of the shooting he was sitting nearby in his patrol car with a young girl he's been flirting with. After the killing, Jim Doe goes to pay his respects to Agnes, the sheriff's widow, and while he's doing that, some of those citizens come to the house. Jim Doe is confronted by Benjamin Donner, the father of the girl he was with when Sheriff Gentry was killed, and he takes a punch to the face because that's the sort of thing you do to keep the peace, but it looks to be getting out of control:

And then Jim Doe saw it, over the padded shoulder of Benjamin's coveralls: the dome light of Benjamin's truck glowing on. The cab was milling with people, three at least. And there were more shapes muttering in the bed. In Texas. Where they'd chased all the Indians out a century ago, and killed all their horses just to make it stick, then sent the sons of the cavalrymen out a century later, to collect the bones on the weekends, sell them in town by the truckload, for soap to wash themselves with.

'... Ben,' Jim Doe said, no breath. 'You don't - Terra. It's not what you thi-'

Benjamin pushed forward though, choking off the rest.

'Don't you goddam tell me what I think,' he said, his lips not involved at all.

Jim Doe made himself breathe, breathe, but still: his hand found the butt of his gun.

'You're assaulting a -' he started, then Agnes cut him off.

She was standing beside Benjamin Donner, holding the screen door open with her hip. Gentry's quail gun was nestled behind Benjamin's ear. A Browning 16 gauge.

'Ben,' she said. 'Go home.'

Benjamin stared at Jim Doe for long moments, the finally let him slide down the wall.

'Agnes,' he said. 'You of all people -'

'Ben,' Agnes said, 'I'm saving your worthless life here. For Magritte.'

She hadn't taken the gun off him yet.

'You too,' she said. 'Inside.'

Jim Doe looked out into the darkness, at the truck, the men waiting for him, all the dry, abandoned places they knew where nobody would ever look, and then he backed inside.

Agnes came in when Ben's truck was gone.

I stumbled upon All the Beautiful Sinners entirely by accident at a yard sale and bought it because a) I liked the cover design and b) I thought it would be a pretty easy book to give to somebody who likes crime-thrillers. I opened it only with the thought of giving myself a little sample before putting it on the 'to be given' pile. A rapturous hour later, I was finishing it and wishing I had copies to give to every reader I know. This is the terrifying serendipity of books - but for happenstance, I would never have found this gritty, absorbing read, which always keeps me wondering how many other such reads are out there.

I'm glad I found this copy, and I whole-heartedly recommend All the Beautiful Sinners. But you can't have my copy.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Great fiction in the Penny Press!

There are as many ways of reading The New Yorker as there are readers, I think. There are the readers how turn first to the humorous pieces by such writers as David Sedaris; there are readers who seek out the movie criticism of David Denby or Anthony Lane; there were even a few misguided souls who intentionally looked for something by John Updike. And of course there's the vast majority of New Yorker readers who follow the time-honored strategy that goes something like this: buy every issue, agonize over reading it, put it in a gigantic, teetering mulch-pile of previous issues dating back to 1841, and never, in fact, read it at all. The New Yorker has got to be the only major periodical in history who's subscribers continuously abstain from actually reading it.

One way of reading the magazine that was once, in decades past, far more popular than it is today is to concentrate on the fiction. This is, alas, understandable: despite the vociferous objections of various editors over the years, New Yorker short stories really do tend to conform to a certain outline, tend to convey a certain attitude - tend, in other words, to resemble each other quite a bit. Oh, there's some variety in the settings of the stories, but their hearts are almost always identical, and their gist can usually be summed up fairly easily: somebody with an ample amount of money in the bank overreacts to one of the mountains they've made out of the molehills in their life, has that overreaction pointed out to them, and a) stops overreacting and b) irrationally resents the person who pointed it out. I believe this is known on the map as "Cheever country."

This isn't to say stories of genuine worth can't be eked out of that outline, and of course there have been the occasional New Yorker stories that stepped outside it altogether, for good or ill. The outline itself is not surprising - The New Yorker has settled into a very comfortable dowager era in its lifespan, after all, and isn't really enthused about upsetting or unsettling its subscribers.

Every so often, something truly remarkable slips through the gilt-and-doily comfort and manages to make its way into an issue. The 20 April issue of The New Yorker contains just such a story.

It's "A Tiny Feast" by Chris Adrian, and it's about a tossed-off line from A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which we're told Oberon, the King of the Fairies, gave his Queen Titania a human baby as a kind of pet, to soothe her temper after one of their married spats. In "A Tiny Feast," Adrian imagines what that reality would be like - how the fierce and rough-magicked Titania especially would be changed against her will by the boy:

The child grew, and changed, and became even more delightful to her, and she imagined that they could go on forever like that, that he would always be her favorite thing. Maybe it would have been better if he had stayed her favorite thing - a toy and not a son - because now he would just be a broken toy. She ought to have had the foresight to make him dumb, or Oberon ought to have, since the boy had been his terrible gift to her. But one evening the boy ran to her and climbed upon her throne, and giggled at the dancing faerie bodies leaping and jumping all around them, and put his face to her breast, and sighed a word at her, "molly" or "moony" or "middlebury" - she still didn't know what it was exactly. But it was close enough to "Mommy" to ruin everything.

As you can guess from that excerpt, the little changeling child becomes sick, "broken," and what follows will wring your heart.

There are other things to recommend this issue, of course. Burkhard Bilger writes a fascinating piece on all the various ways exotic predator species can be let loose into the suburbanized comforts of residential Florida, and Hlton Als writes one of his strongest essays in years on the magnificent recent Library of America collection of Katherine Anne Porter. But this time around, it's the fiction that hits the high note in The New Yorker. I can't recommend "A Tiny Feast" strongly enough; those of you who want a lightning-bolt of a 15-minute read should buy the issue even if you read nothing else in it.

Poetry Class!

When trees toss in high wind and a suspicion
of rain travels across their dark faces,
I long for the old summers under smoky oaks.
Whoever I am, it's not who I thought.

Who is it the rain and wind wake with their sigh?
That tree-lover, summer-lover - try and find him,
was he ever there? Did he love? Was he love?
Shh, say the trees, listen closer, listen closer.

"Wind in Trees" by Henry Shukman

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book!

Our book today is Bill Watterson's 1989 compilation, The Calvin and Hobbes Lazy Sunday Book, but really it could be any collection of the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips that ran for far too short a time - one brief decade of inspired artwork, pure whimsy, and a deep, cleansing breath from the grinding insanity of the real world. The adventures of Watterson's psychotic little 6-year-old and his sagacious stuffed tiger had the wry humor of Bloom County, the social commentary of Doonesbury, and the zaniness of The Far Side, but it was also brimming with something none of those strips could manage: innocence. You could briefly breathe in that innocence, just by reading one of Watterson's full-color Sunday spreads.

John Mortimer's immortal Old Bailey barrister Rumpole once opined that long after empires had fallen to ooze, England would be known for three things: The British breakfast, the Oxford Book of English Verse, and the presumption of innocence. We might likewise say of the American newspaper strip medium that if for nothing else, it will one day be known for three things: Pogo, Lil' Abner, and Calvin and Hobbes.

I'm assuming all of you have already long since made the acquaintance of this little miracle of a comic strip - whose life is so barren that it contains no Calvin and Hobbes? But if by chance there's somebody out there who's missed these books, run to your nearest library and absorb them all. It's a sad probability that there'll be no more, but the ones we have will make you smile.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Hilarity in the Penny Press!

The single funniest sentence-opening of 2009 so far (and easy odds-on favorite for the whole year), from Leslie Bennetts' profile of brainless trophy-fuck Gisele Bundchen-Brady, from the latest issue of Vanity Fair:

"An avid reader, Gisele ..."

Hee. Too precious.

Man's Men in the Penny Press!

The latest issue of Esquire features a six-page article on 26 skills every man should have, and I ask you: how could Stevereads be expected to ignore such a thing? Here's the list:

1. How to skin a moose (or any slaughtered game animal)
2. How to bet the horses (or any animal tortured into running around a track)
3. How to get a busy bartender's attention
4. How to give a good massage (to a woman, of course)
5. How to fell a tree
6. How to fillet a fish
7. How to buy a woman clothing (their suggestion: don't even try)
8. How to make eggs four ways (scrambled, baked, poached, and sunny side up)
9. How to Google efficiently
10. How to sew a button
11. How to console a crying woman (LOTS of wordage about handkerchiefs)
12. How to look good in a picture
13. How to calm a crying baby
14. How to curse well
15. How to parallel park (they specify 'like a man')
16. How to wire a ceiling fixture
17. How to make pancakes from scratch
18. How to stop a running toilet ("trip it"? Hee. Snort)
19. How to rock the man in the boat (hint: it's not about boating, although you can do it in a boat)
20. How to make a drink, "just for her"
21. How to carve a turkey
22. How to pick a ripe one
23. How to jump-start a car
24. How to get a table in a restaurant
25. How to kill an injured animal
26. How to shine a shoe

And there you have it, according to Esquire! Naturally, the list gave me some grave misgivings, and you can probably see why, right? There's the bigotry involved, of course: the implication couldn't be stronger that the one thing you've got to be first, in order to have ANY skills as a man, is heterosexual - if you're gay, the list implies, you really shouldn't even bother (except maybe for #7). This is annoying, certainly, and counter-factual: two of the seven most famous male TV chefs are gay ... they can probably handle # 1, 6, 8, 17, 21, 22, and 24 better than any Esquire reader; I'm pretty sure the fashion industry sports a couple of the gays - so # 7, 10, and 26 are probably co-opted; if I had to guess, I'd say more gay men than straight men can handle # 3, 4, 11, 12, 20, and 24 than straight men can; and # 19 comprises a full 75 % of any gay man's waking life (as opposed to 56 % among straight men).

But the problems with the list go deeper than this, because as bigoted as it is, it's one thing even more: stupid. Nowhere on this list is there even the faintest hint, the most distant suggestion, that a man, in order to BE a man, should be able to think. Hell, even feeling is absent (you merely have to simulate it for # 4, 11, 13, & 14). I know I should count my blessings that "How to smoke" and "How to fire a gun" weren't on the list, but still - surely an outline of manly criteria 99 % of which could be accomplished by a well-trained chimpanzee is off the mark? The country just elected a talented writer and genuine intellectual as president, and it doesn't look like Esquire even noticed: their list is situated squarely in the "from the gut" W. years, now hugely and damningly discredited.

So, without further ado, Stevereads presents an alternate list of 26 skills every person should have!

1. How to talk on a cell phone in public (hint: don't, ever, even in emergencies)
2. How to read a book (honestly, open-mindedly)
3. How to ask for directions
4. How to admit an honest mistake
5. How to embrace new things
6. How to uproot and discard old routines when they're no longer working
7. How to pay attention
8. How to CARE about things, rather than just riffing on them, douchebag-style
9. How to cultivate potted plants (NOT marijuana, dude!)
10. How to embrace a male friend (full-on clavicle-to-crotch! Bro-braces are for WIMPS)
11. How to listen to classical music
12. How to hate (virulently, with your balls, like you'll never need to take it back)
13. How to write (the REAL manly thing Hemingway did, dude)
14. How to threaten an SOB (calmly, matter-of-factly, and only once)
15. How to love (race, gender, age, species ... immaterial; completely blind)
16. How to be silly
17. How to needle and insult your friends (daily, lest they get ideas)
18. How to give a present (freely, with no thought of receipt)
19. How to give thanks for a present (verbally and audibly, not telepathically or mumbled)
20. How to board a subway car (AFTER the passengers get off, dammit)
21. How to respond when a car almost hits you (the finger, given slowly and solemnly)
22. How to respond when a car almost hits a friend of yours (kick the car. hard.)
23. How to eat meat (don't)(it had to suffer, a LOT, to become meat)
24. How to be a friend (go ask a dog)
25. How to help a friend move (the whole day, dammit - 3 hours is a gesture of contempt)
26. How to give a compliment (never hold one back, and always mean it)

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Domitian and the Senatorial Order!

Our book today is Domitian and the Senatorial Order, a Prosographical Study of Domitian's Relationship with the Senate, A.D. 81-96, which was written in 1979 by Brian Jones for the American Philosophical Society and reprinted in 1993 by UMI Books on Demand, an outfit that used to make xerographic reprints of worthy academic treatises, back before Google Books was even a synaptic twinkle in some programmer's head. Before interlinked Internet databases - and before cheap, high-quality scanners - services like UMI were a great boon to scholars, since ten years ago Jones' study would have been exceedingly difficult to obtain except perhaps through a series of interlibrary loans slightly less complicated than re-threading somebody's lymphatic system.

A great boon but not a free one - Domitian and the Senatorial Order cost me $57 back when I bought it in 1995 - that's the equivalent of roughly $4,500 in today's money! At the time, I was writing a novel on one of Domitian's five-star generals (the future emperor and all-around nice guy Trajan), so the cost seemed justifiable. All I was expecting was a highly detailed account of just what the book's title describes: the nuts and bolts of Domitian's reign, as opposed to the scandal-and-tyranny tabloid accounts that have been popular ever since Suetonius.

Domitian has consistently received a bad rap from historians. Even less than a full generation after his death, he was already getting the full Kitty Kelly treatment from Suetonius for being evil, conniving, grandiose, and insane ... and later historians almost uniformly followed suit. Domitian's father, the emperor Vespasian, was a rock-solid plainspoken country bumpkin who managed to come out on top after the notorious "Year of the Emperors" that followed the assassination of Nero. Otho, Galba, and Vitellius all made a play for the purple, and all failed - leaving Vespasian and his two sons - handsome, vain, stupid Titus and dour, vain, intelligent Domitian - in charge of Rome.

Eventually Vespasian died, of natural causes (during which time he famously quipped, "Oh fuck - I think I'm becoming a god"), and Titus succeeded him. Titus, although rather fonder of his own face than is becoming, was a good egg with rotten luck - during his two brief years as emperor, half of Rome burned down and Vesuvius erupted, not to mention the fact that even though his father was one of the healthiest human beings in history, Titus himself died of a fever.

Or diiiiiiiiiiid he? Cue the rumor-mill about Domitian, who a) took over the empire and b) immediately became suspected in certain quarters of having poisoned his older brother. The typical summary of Domitian is Nixonian: beetle-browed, essentially dark-hearted, corrupted by power, eventually heading for downfall while suspecting everybody around him of wishing him ill.

I bought Domitian and the Senatorial Order hoping for nothing more than a clear laying-out of the facts involved in such a summary. So imagine my pleasant surprise when I found the book to be sharply wonderful - not content to summarize at all but rather intent on stripping away every layer of suspicion and innuendo connected with Domitian and basing all inquiry on the relatively ample array of early sources and on a dash of common sense, rather than a bucket of insinuation. Domitian and the Senatorial Order is a marvelous work of extended historical research, grounded on a huge amount of study and presented with a clarity that almost amounts at times to panache.

The picture that emerges from Jones' account is radically different from the one most histories show: here is a Domitian who's stiff and prickly, yes, but not the embodiment of pure evil. Here's a Domitian who's got a healthy sense of his own entitlement, yes (his father and brother had both been emperors, after all), but not somebody intent on ignoring the Senate (when he wasn't capriciously murdering its members). And most importantly, here's a Domitian who for the most part was a conscientious domestic and imperial architect and bureaucrat, not a frothing-at-the-mouth lunatic ala Caligula.

Jones marshals his facts with consummate skill, but it's the opinions he bases on those facts that make the book so fascinating. Take for instance an event that happened in the middle of Domitian's reign that could have been real trouble: in 89, Lucius Antonius Saturninus, commander of the two legions stationed in Upper Germany, seized the legion treasuries and revolted against Domitian. This was as serious as a heart attack: Saturninus had a well-financed command of two legions of frontier-hardened veteran troops poised within striking distance of Rome - Domitian's own father had taken the empire from Vitellius with less. The commander of Lower Germany rushed to the scene of the revolt (in modern-day Mainz, which I can never visit without thinking of it as Moguntiacum) and quelled it - with Domitian's other star general, the aforementioned Trajan, rushing north to join in the quelling. Historians have traditionally asserted two things about the revolt of Saturninus: that the Senate secretly organized it, and that it therefore marked a turning point in Domitian's relations with the Senate - for the worse, since legend has always had it that Domitian had several Senators connected with the revolt executed.

Jones finds no actual evidence for either of those assertions, and in addition to all the considerable textual evidence he assembles to undermine them, he also has his own brain and a working knowledge of how human beings behave. When Trajan later became emperor, the supercilious Pliny the Younger composed a long address of praise - the Panegyric - which he addressed to Trajan in full audience of the Senate. Jones doesn't need to look much further than this carefully-preserved work to find some inadvertent vindication of Domitian:

One of Pliny's statements is of particular interest in assessing the extent of senatorial influence in the revolt. In his account of Trajan's military prowess, he alludes to his hero's role in suppressing the uprising, yet neglects to avail himself of the opportunity to accuse Domitian of a widespread massacre of senators, even though the Domitianic "wave of terror" is one of the regular themes of the Panegyricus. Perhaps Trajan's readiness to come to Domitian's aid prompted Pliny's reticence. But, if any senators had been involved in the conspiracy against the emperor or had been executed as a result of their participation in it, Pliny would not have made the slightest reference to Trajan's part in the suppression of the revolt, and, in front of the emperor himself and a senatorial audience, would have been more discreet.

Against the familiar charge that Domitian often dilly-dallied on important military matters (bolstered, no doubt, by the fact that he didn't go charging off to squash Saturninus himself), Jones again brings to bear that same powerful combination of masterly research and plain common sense, as in the question of how agile Domitian was in responding to military reverses in Germany. Jones concentrates on the decision to evacuate the great fortress-complex at Inchtuthil and has this to say:

Situated at the mouth of Dunkeld gorge some eleven miles to the north of Perth, this fortress extended over a fifty-acre site, and contained, inter alia, sixty-four large barracks and 180 storerooms, but it was never completed. The evacuation took place soon after 86, since no later coins have been uncovered, and must have been sudden, for in a single pit alone, over a million unused nails have been found. It is difficult to imagine more vivid evidence of Domitian's ability to take decisive action rapidly.

Of course, unlike his father and his brother, Domitian was assassinated - and the same quasi-historical tradition that so easily supposes Senatorial conniving in the revolt of Saturninus has always made the same suppositions of Senatorial involvement in the assassination plot. With calm, methodical precision, Jones dismantles this tradition as well, and by that point in Domitian and the Senatorial Order I was half-way wanting to write a novel about Domitian himself instead of Trajan. Jones' book is a perfect example of what great historical writing should be - it has a place in my library on the same shelf as The Last Generation of the Roman Republic, The Senate of Imperial Rome, The Emperor in the Roman World, and of course The Roman Revolution.

I'd urge you all to go right out and buy yourselves a copy, but for three considerations: 1) it should be stressed that this isn't beginner or even intermediate-level history - it never crosses Jones' mind to translate his Latin, and there are no helpful factual glosses anywhere, 2) the thing is, as hinted, a trifle difficult to find, and 3) in another ten years, you'll be able to have it - and all the secondary material you need (including a fluency in Latin) - directly burned into your forebrain, so why waste the effort now?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

One Man's Owl

Our book today is Bernd Heinrich's 1987 One Man's Owl, his attempt to make a scientific record of the years he spent first rearing then weaning and finally parting ways with a great horned owl he named Bubo (and designated a "he" without ever finding out for sure). In the small and fiercely moving sub-genre of animal books that are specifically about the odd bond that can develop between humans and owls, this book is entirely a classic.

And it's a classic that came about despite its all its author's viewpoints on such classics. In 1987 he could write:

Owlhood is not likely to be served by ministering to an owl. Helping an owl affects one owl, and that is all. One can help more owls by buying an acre of forest and keeping it wild than by preserving all of those who run afoul of fate, or with civilization. But you do not see the former, or at least you cannot touch them and point your finger and say, "Yes, I helped this owl." The unseen, statistical owls are all too easily neglected.

I believe that the accelerating erosion of our natural world can be ultimately traced to our inability to see statistical owls. We are mesmerized only by the real ones. In this book I necessarily focus on one of the latter, but I hope it will not be at the expense of the former.

Nevertheless, once an observer as intelligent and sensitive as Heinrich starts paying attention to this alien creature he's taken into his world, he begins to encounter mysteries, and to ask questions, as in the case of the day Bubo acts petulant after an unexpected guest visits the author:

This morning Bubo is a different creature from the playful owl of yesterday, when he was on my lap and allowed himself to be stroked. Could he indeed be upset about yesterday's visitor? Ken is of approximately my size and build, except he has red hair and I have brown. Bubo can apparently tell people apart, but it is not only by their exterior appearance. His reactions to me are the same regardless of what clothes I wear. Just to test him again I now put a pillow case over my head to hide my face, and I notice no change in his behavior. There are mysteries here, and I do not yet have the answers.

Even a naturalist of Heinrich's powers seems reluctant in this book to make the obvious (though anthropomorphic) conclusion from incidents like this: that owls are just plain smart enough to recognize somebody they know well even if that somebody is wearing a pillow case over his head. To give Heinrich his due credit, any unwillingness he may have felt about thinking this way in 1987 rapidly dwindled in the years to come, as he did more and more close observations of a couple of key bird species.

But in One Man's Owl that particular species-obtuseness crops up from time to time, as in this beautifully worded bit of musing on owl eating-habits:

I gave him a jumping mouse. I know he cannot resist it, but he does not swallow it immediately. Instead, he spends a lot of time crunching its skull and other bones. Then he perches on my arm, mouse in bill, procrastinating. A jet passes over so high that it is barely visible to me. But he watches it the entire time it takes to cross the horizon, the mouse all the while dangling limply from his bill. He makes some muffled croaking noises from deep within his throat, and then, when the aircraft is gone, he returns his attention to the mouse.

It's neatly observed, but it leaves out one possible element, just outright appears not to see it through all the munching and perching: that Bubo might have been fascinated by the sight of that distant airplane - that he might even have daydreamed about it and become distracted. But what Heinrich, being, alas, human, misses is more than compensated by all the things he sees. My favorite element in One Man's Owl is the acute investigative streak the author can't suppress in himself. There are dozens of passages where he doesn't merely report what he's seen but goes one step further, drawing strong conclusions from some of it:

His urge to attack could be triggered even when he was not hungry, and when triggered it was energetic and persistent. With little or no apparent prior coaching, he attacked crows only after watching them intently as if to determine whether or not they were watching him. When they were watching him or looked at him, he did not attack, nor did he continue an attack when his potential victim, such as a crow, looked up, indicating that it had seen him approaching. Nevertheless, he vigorously pursued fully feathered young blue jays and white-throated sparrows that were aware of him and trying to escape, although their flight was clumsy. Without obvious prior experience, he instantly attacked the very first injured squirrel that he saw, whereas healthy noisy ones were only watched and never attacked. Although I often saw birds noisily mobbing directly in front of him (within one-half to one meter) I did not see him make a single attempt to capture any of them. It was not lack of hunger that kept him from trying to catch these birds because he spent several days trying to catch (non-mobbing) crows even after he was fully fed. In summary, what Bubo apparently could not do, or did not even attempt to do, was to capture a healthy adult bird or squirrel that was aware of him and let him know this by its display to him. He seemed to be acutely aware of whether or not he had the advantage in an attack, and that advantage, against healthy adult birds, might only be at night. An owl's hearing and vision are keener than that of most other birds, enabling them to strike in semi-darkness - and some can even do it in total darkness.

Like all great natural history writing, the passage gets you thinking and extrapolating and forming your own theories. Half of One Man's Owl does that kind of thought-stirring over and over (not to mention filling you in on more owl-facts than you can shake a stick at, like the high ick-factor detail that an owl's digestive juices can liquefy a mouse in under five minutes), and the other half pays objective and yet loving attention to this one real owl, even at the cost of all those neglected statistical ones.

As noted, Heinrich and Bubo eventually part ways when Bubo is released into the wild and steadily gains the ability to live there without support or even the occasional hand-out from his human friend. That they are friends, even long after this return to the wild, is completely beyond question: Bubo remembers Heinrich and greets him fondly whenever they later encounter each other. It's the perfect quiet note with which to end this wonderful book - an ongoing note, a thread of continuity silently winging its way from a well-lit cabin in Maine to the pitch-black pine forests of that other world.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

April 2009 in Open Letters!

April is here, and although it's bitterly, remorselessly freezing in Boston, the skies are clear, the birds are chirping, the crocuses are poking up all along Jamaica Pond, and best of all (well, OK - second best, since nothing really beats the dawn chorus), a new issue of Open Letters is ready for your examination!

It's a big, healthy issue this time around (15 pieces a month is not an unrealistic goal, methinks)(although forever banishing 'methinks' from my vocabulary might well be), so no matter what you're interested in, there'll be something you'll want to read. We've got essays on literary frauds, the Columbine shootings (both fiction and history), and Grand Theft Auto - we've got an item of new poetry and an item of very old poetry. We have no quiz to bedevil you.

And like all the great review periodicals, Open Letters serves a function many habitual readers are reluctant to admit they need: we're your advance scout. The crop of bright young things, new young authors who all have novels out? The novels you've been wondering about, whether or not to sink your time into them? We've got smart, funny, capable reviewers to sort them out for you - American Rust, The Way through Doors, The Song is You ... read about them all here before you attempt them on your own! Likewise that new 800-page doorstop about the Nazis at war: our review will help you decide if you want to invest the time.

Two last things: for April we welcome Bryn Haworth to our merry gang - he's writes from London, so his contributions will be better-pronounced than any others, but they'll drive on the wrong side of the road; and our issue's stunning, evocative photo (if it isn't perfect visual shorthand for the slightly wistful daydreaming April inspires, I don't know what is) was created by Jonas Sacks.

So make yourself comfy on your favorite reading couch, pour yourself a nice warm cup of coffee (or, for all you B&N folk out there, your morning shot of bourbon), and settle in for some wonderful reading! And, as always, feel free to leave copious comments!