Monday, June 28, 2010

Believing the hype in the Penny Press!

The Penny Press bounced around quite a bit last week on the profundity scale (or rather I did the bouncing, by reading all kinds of stuff), and of course near the low end of that scale is where you’ll always find anything connected with the latest Hollywood micro-phenomenon, pint-sized himbo Taylor Lautner.

In the latest GQ, Mickey Rapkin is given the thankless task of sleepwalking through yet another high-profile interview with this kid, who’s clearly been given a somber talking-to since he nearly outed himself under Neil Strauss’ careful supervision in Rolling Stone. As a result, Rapkin gets absolutely nothing for his trouble except the standard entirely hypocritical “I’m just amazed to be here!” line. At one point Lautner self-servingly exclaims, “Is this really happening? Am I really here?” In response (to us, not to Lautner, who would have burst into tears), Rapkin gets in a good observation:
Those are pretty good questions. He might also ask: What on earth did I do to deserve that $7.5 million contract and the adoration of millions? He’s handsome, yes. But in two Twilight films, Lautner has logged fifty minutes of screen time. Total. In the first movie, he spoke 239 words.

In other words, the hype associated with this tiny little packet of muscle and mindless ambition far, far exceeds any thespian payoff that’s yet happened or is ever likely to happen. Apart from the Twilight saga, Lautner’s next movie is a special effects extravaganza called Stretch Armstrong – but then, Tom Cruise did Legend and still ended up being a gigantic pain in the ass.

And we’re not free of hype even at the opposite end of the profundity scale! In last week’s TLS, Iain McGilchrist turns in a witty, wonderful review of Raymond Tallis’ Michelangelo’s Finger, a popular science book touching on many subjects, mostly related to the particularly human capacity to charge a pointing gesture with meaning. McGilchrist is chugging along just fine until he gets to the subject of non-human animals – one species especially:
Dogs are particularly sensitive to human attention, to the direction of our gaze, and, for example, whether we will be able to see them stealing meat. They make use of a very human feature, the whites of the eyes, thought to have developed precisely because of our sensitivity to gaze direction, a remarkable turn of events that Tallis oddly does not mention. Tallis says dogs don’t – can’t on principle – understand “meant meaning” associated with a sign, the basis of human communication. But the evidence suggests they almost certainly do just that. Without any training, they will fetch things if merely shown a photograph, or presented with a replica, and, of course, they understand the intentional nature of words and commands. Walkies, anyone?

I don’t know what canines McGilchrist has been hanging out with, but if any dog in the history of the world has ever, “without any training,” gone and fetched an item after being shown a photograph of that item, I’ve never met that dog. I doubt even Taylor Lautner could do that, although he probably understands what ‘walkies’ means.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Soft Porn in the Book Review!

As anyone involved in the thankless task will tell you, there are several kinds of book reviews. There shouldn’t be; they should all be voiced with and motivated by the exact same tone and tenor of honest inquiry, regardless of their subject matter or their author’s fame. But that would only happen in a dream-world where, say, the fiction editor of a literary journal wrote his own reviews – otherwise, all book reviewers have to deal with editors, and whereas the ideal book reviewer has only one motivation for writing a review (I read this book, here’s what I think is important about it), an editor can have several kinds of motivations for running one. Is the author a big name, making the book something your journal can’t simply ignore without looking foolishly provincial? Is the author a friendly person (or even a friend) whose therapy bills will skyrocket if some earnest tyro parses his every typo? Is the author’s publishing house one from which the editor in question wants a long and fruitful relationship (perhaps for future publication of the editor’s own book? Who knows – the poor schmuck writer certainly doesn’t)? Will a savaging of some new book get you dropped from that publisher’s list of future books (a calamity, since if an editor had to buy even a single book, ever, the world would come screeching to a halt)?

Editors tend to accommodate these various intervening factors by developing several kinds of book reviews. There’s the standard straight-up rave, where the only real challenge is to clutch some small strand of dignity to the dancing and cheering of the piece; there’s the roundhouse slam of a once-popular author’s latest, usually done when a) the publisher in question is too big to stop all its galley copies, and b) the author is somehow perceived has having it coming (we don’t beat up on saintly elderly Japanese writers, for instance, even though they’re all completely untalented, but a snotty young white American is fair game – Nick McDonnell won’t be able to breathe easy until he’s collecting Social Security); there’s the undisguised placeholder review, where the book in question is too ‘big’ or ‘buzzworthy’ to ignore but the only reviewer who could deliver a piece in time was an incompetent nincompoop who does nothing more than summarize the plot; and then there’s the ever-popular ‘soft pan’ review, in which the reviewer seems to have mightily disliked the book but is being charmingly coy about it.

I admit, that last kind really bothers me – because the only possible motivation for such a reviewer to obscure what he thinks is naked self-interest: I can’t bash this book because I might meet its author at an Upper West Side literary soiree, or I might want to sleep with its author, or I might want a favor from its author for my own forthcoming collection of elegiac interconnected short stories. It’s perfectly fine to watch out for such eventualities, but not in a full-length essay that’s supposed to be a review of a book. Facebook instead, I always want to shout.

In any given week, you’ll find good examples of all of these various book review types in that bête noir of all serious readers, the New York Times Book Review. That’s why I love it so: every issue gives you a little survey course in the natural history of book reviewing.

Take today’s issue, for example. You can see the political statement right away: the cover is given to a debut novel by Adam Ross rather than to Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis (and if you don’t think the cover spot is a coveted status symbol, you’ve been listening to too many lyingly self-deprecating authors). The review is by a woolgathering Scott Turow, and it’s mostly plot summary and vapid boilerplate (“Mr. Peanut is most harrowing in its bleakly convincing portrayal of the eternal contest that often passes for a marriage”), with a few nonsense-mysticisms thrown in (“The novel is shape-shifting, inhabiting several planes of reality”). The point of the piece isn’t to review the book (I’ve read Mr. Peanut, and trust me: it only inhabits the reality-plane of puerile crapola) but to anoint the author, a benediction the Book Review is better situated than anybody to bestow.

(By contrast, the Ellis review was handed to the literary editor of the OTHER Times, Erica Wagner, who pays proper acknoweldgement to the cultural landmark-status of Less Than Zero and then proceeds to pulverize its new sequel, Imperial Bedrooms, ending with a school-mistress admonition of a type only the Brits can pull off: “’History repeats the old conceits, the glib replies, the same defeats,’ runs one of this novel’s epigraphs, a line from Elvis Costello. So it may, but fiction doesn’t have to: that’s the point. Let’s hope Ellis figures that out.” Hee.)

But the type of review most prominently on display this time around is the aforementioned ‘soft pan.’ This would be annoying enough in the Book Review under any circumstances, but two of the times it happens today really irk. First, David Carr turns in a full-length review of Bill Clegg’s new memoir Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man and resolutely stops short of slamming a book he obviously disliked. Clegg’s memoir details his descent from cutie-patootie hotshot literary agent to slightly unkempt crack addict, and you might think the reason Carr goes soft on it is because he has high hopes for a similar book of his own – but no: he already wrote that book, Night of the Gun, and it’s considerably, comfortably better than Clegg’s book. And yet, everywhere in his review he stops just short of calling Clegg narcissist pedaling a third-rate survivor’s tale, and it becomes so noticeable it starts to beg for explanation. My best guess is that Carr is a nice guy who didn’t want to beat up on a fellow recovering drug addict. For which, if true, I say again: Facebook, not the New York Times Book Review.

The second ‘soft pan’ is mercifully shorter – Mike Peed’s seven-paragraph notice of Justin Cronin’s 700-page new novel The Passage. For the privilege of getting to watch an author sell his soul in public, the entertainment industry has showered The Passage with the kind of adoration usually reserved for incarnations of the Buddha (although I’m going to hope there was an element of irony in Stephen King’s “The best book EVER WRITTEN! The best book that ever CAN be written!”), and Peed clearly knows this (“If there’s a class at Iowa on exploiting publishing crazes, Cronin surely aced it”). And yet, his seven paragraphs condemn nothing about the book. Instead, all is gentle plot summary (no spoilers!) and guarded pretension (“The Passage, then, is fundamentally an investigation into the creation and destruction of a flawed race”). To put it mildly, a book that was written for the sole purpose of getting its author piles of money deserves rougher handling. And the reason it doesn’t get such handling here is likely connected to the ad revenues generated for the Times by Ballantine Books in promoting The Passage. Plus, you don’t want to be the only person who didn’t like such a hot, hot book, do you? You won’t get invited to any of its parties!

Still, the Book Review this time around ends with a fun piece about how boring, watery Borges loved fantastic, vital Robert Louis Stevenson – if that piece prompts even one of Borges’ pretentious name-dropping fans to try Stevenson, some good will come out of this issue after all.

Friday, June 25, 2010


Another amazing issue of National Geographic hitting stands this week, and it starts off in true mind-expanding Geographica fashion with three little pieces on three different kinds of contamination.

First is the evil, lunatic idea being pursued by Project Tauros, a European scientific consortium currently dedicating their efforts towards using existing Limiana and Maremmana cattle-stock to bring an extinct form of cattle back into the world. The dead animal in question is the auroch, a massive bovine that once roamed Europe’s forests – the last remnants of its population died out many centuries ago, but Project Tauros wants to use bits of the animal’s DNA ginned up from miscellaneous auroch teeth, combined with the random auroch genes still carried by the aforementioned cattle-breeds, to breed the species again. Juli Berwald, the little article’s author, tries to put a positive ecological spin on things:
Aurochs were herbivorous behemoths, and in the past they browed on beech, a type of tree now choking Europe’s woods. Today such housecleaning would help regrow native flora – as one resurrected species gives other, threatened ones a chance at survival.

But you’d have to have the brain of an auroch to buy that for a moment. None of these Frankensteined creatures will ever come within ten miles of unrestricted European woodland – aurochs averaged half a ton heavier than modern cattle: these poor magnificent creatures are obviously being brought back from extinction in order to be crammed into slaughter pens and carved up alive to satisfy mankind’s endless appetite for cheap meat. And even if some ‘wild’ aurochs were released into those European forests, what they’d eat would be anybody’s guess – they fed primarily on beech centuries and millennia ago because it was natural for them to do so, in their natural environment. Maybe they hated it but had no choice because the enormous woolly rhinoceros of the time ate all the really good stuff. And even if they do somehow target beech, what happens when they do their job? Europe no longer boasts saber-toothed tigers or dire wolves capable of taking down a bull the size of an SUV - so we get just another hapless animal to cull whenever they decide to live in a way mankind finds untidy.

The second kind of contamination in this issue was certainly meant in a much lighter tone, although its implications are just as sickening – literally. National Geographic takes on the infamous “five-second rule” that states if you drop a piece of food onto the floor and immediately scoop it up, you can still safely eat it.

Not so, says Catherine Barker, this delightful piece’s author. It turns out “salmonella and other bacteria can survive up to four weeks on dry surfaces and transfer to food immediately upon contact.” The lip of a shared cup of water (or any other beverage – like all the cheap beer found in those innumerable red plastic cups going into use by the thousands in Allston and Brighton as we speak, it being a Friday night) can have more than 10,000 bacteria; even chopsticks can be swimming in germs (they don’t come in cellophane wrappers, after all). Barker doesn’t mention the risks you’d be running with your first auroch burger, but I wouldn’t be hopeful.

The third kind of contamination is of a decidedly bigger scale than the bacteriological. Michael Lemonick turns in a fascinating, disturbing piece on the vast shroud of man-made, man-launched, man-forgotten space junk currently orbiting the planet (and Sean McNaughton provides a fantastic graphic that will stop you dead in your tracks – it’s exactly the kind of weird, instinctively-effective visual at which National Geographic excels). The numbers are staggering: 11,000 objects in low orbit, and another 10,000 further out, all of them flying around at thousands of miles an hour, some of them slamming into each other harmlessly, but still … it’s only a matter of time until, say, five of them smash together simultaneously and give everybody a bigger problem to worry about than chopsticks.

Of course the rest of the issue is marvelous as well (National Geographic being, as I’ve said before, the world’s only actually perfect magazine)(sorry Open Letters! I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em!), including a very funny little essay by Virginia Morrell (with arresting photos by Tim Laman) about the male bowerbirds of New Guinea, who frantically, obsessively, and masterfully create elaborate nest-decorations in the hopes of attracting females willing to settle down and start laying eggs. The bowerbirds will use anything shiny to further their home-decorating efforts, including discarded CDs and, um, glistening caterpillar feces (the things you learn …), and reading about them is always a treat. And they aren’t even remotely endangered … which helps, in this day and age.

Comics! Superman #700!

Well, I could hardly let this one go, could I?

This week in comics, Superman turns a whopping 700, numbered with pretty much nebulous continuity since the title premiered around A.D. 645, and DC Comics gave the occasion an oddly appealing low-key commemoration.

It’s odd: Batman turned 700 last week with an issue that couldn’t have been more generic and scatterbrained if it wanted to – an incredible milestone (what American comics ever reach 700, for the love of Mike?) treated almost entirely negligently. In Batman’s case, the cause was easy enough to see: missed deadlines and work delays (read: pampered, spoiled writers and artists) made it impossible for Bruce Wayne to show up for his own mega-anniversary: he’s still trapped back in time, struggling to endure his way back to the cape and cowl in the 21st century. The perfect culmination of that story line would have been for it to move right into issue 700, starting things fresh for the post-700 future. But instead, Bruce Wayne won’t return to his own comic until probably issue 704 or 705 – an odd anticlimax, that.

The same thing very nearly happens in Superman 700 – the whole thing feels like a string of epilogues, because that’s exactly what it is. In the recent big Superman story line, the lost Kryptonian city of Kandor was found and restored to health and well-being – along with its thousands and thousands of Kryptonian inhabitants, who all instantly gained Superman-level powers. Kandor and all its Supermen-in-waiting was one of the dumbest ideas legendary Superman editor Mort Weisinger ever had; it pretty much totally undercuts the point, drama, and interest of Superman himself. When the Superman mythos underwent its drastic pruning back in the 1980s, I was glad to see the whole idea get quietly dropped (the loss of Superboy, a dreamy Midwestern team flying around in skintight lycra? Not so much. The loss of Krypto, the Super-Dog? Let’s not even talk about it)(fortunately, as you can see on this issue’s cover, Krypto is back)(and as you can tell from this recent cover of Adventure Comics, Superboy is back in the continuity of Superman’s past … and, shall we say, dramatically improved). I don’t know what possessed the current DC editorial board to resurrect it.

But they did, and suddenly the DC universe was flooded with superpowered Kryptonians, not all of whom were as altruistic as Superman. Tensions arose, naturally, since Earth would be pretty much defenseless against even a small fraction of such a population turned bad (and the current DC lineup of super-heroes features exactly six characters who can go toe-to-toe with even one such rogue Kryptonian, let alone hundreds of them). A new planet was found on which the Kandorians could settle, and Superman decided to go with them and help them do that – with the result that Superman himself has been missing from his regular comic titles. Superman 700 marks his big return.

So I guess I was expecting more high drama. Instead, Superman saves Lois Lane from the Parasite and the Prankster (although note to this issue’s many writers: Superman punching the Parasite, even in a triumphant 700th issue, should only make the villain stronger … the whole ‘absorbs superpowers’ thing, remember? Hence the guy’s name?), takes her home and pretty much immediately beds her, then complains for the rest of the issue about how hard the conflicts were that he had with his fellow Kryptonians. The issue featured a very pretty full-page panel of Superman hovering over Metropolis with Lois Lane in his arms, a very nice Ulysses-home-at-last feel to it. But there was no sense of introduction, no attempt to plant the character squarely center stage, and certainly no feeling of optimism for the next 700 issues. Don’t let the issue’s cover fool you: Superman spends most of the issue moping (and what’s with that cover, anyway? Why does artist Gary Frank have the two of them doing the Mashed Potato? Or is it the Shurg?).

I’m keeping my fingers crossed for the upcoming third mega-milestone in DC’s summer, Wonder Woman 600. Hope she doesn’t cry in her Amazon beer the whole issue.

A Room of One's Own!

Ah,  the two faces of home!

Now,  let the posting resume!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

With a Little Help From My Friends!


After a nearly-terminal interruptus, Stevereads has returned!

Many people (two of them canine) helped to sustain me during said interruptus, and of course they deserve their thanks, but Stevereads being Stevereads, it seems only fitting that I pause here to thank those other invaluable old friends, who provided - as they always do - havens and safe harbors during 90-plus days and nights of worry and strain. As much to these old friends as to anybody else,  I owe my sanity and survival throughout this horrible, horrible spring.

So let's have a round of applause, and regular posting will resume here forthwith!

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

The Golden City!

Our book today is Henry Hope Read’s wonderful, prickly 1959 classic The Golden City, one long screed against the drift of architecture in his day away from the glories of classicism and into the uncharted function-driven wastelands of Modernism. Read fussed over this book for most of his life (our picture here is of a revised edition issued in 1970), but his main jeremiad was always the same: that modern architecture, forgetting the theatrical (“nay, operatic”) role of all art, has abandoned its own traditions in favor of ridiculous fads or barren utilitarianism.

He wrote, of course, during a heyday of so-called ‘urban renewal’ that cost American cities a great many beautiful streets and buildings, and the delightful fire of outrage kindles every page of his book. He looked at all the shapeless, unfinished monstrosities going up all around him in New York City (although it needn’t have been only there – in Boston, we’ve got a ‘new’ Public Library extension that manages to have four walls, a ceiling, and a skylight and absolutely nothing else … for the purpose of housing great works of literature and sheltering scholars, a less inspiring building would be hard to imagine), and he pined not only for the misguidedness of it all but also for the actual property loss necessary to bring it about:
The saddest consequence of originality is the element of destruction. Visual disorder, too much with us under any circumstance, has been compounded. Chaos reigns supreme as the drive to be original destroys the harmony we have inherited, not only in individual buildings but also in the urban scene and in the landscape. Today, not content with excusing the past, we must strike out at the work of our predecessors and try to crush it. “In order to get organize architecture born,” Frank Lloyd Wright, the architect of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, has told us, “intelligent architects will be forced to turn their backs on antique rubbish heaps with which classic eclecticism has encumbered our new ground.”

The greatest strength of The Golden City (and the book abounds in strengths) is the author’s perception that philosophy must lie at the heart of any change as sweeping as Modernism – well, that and his willingness to chase down and belabor some of the most sacred cows producing those philosophies:
William James is the probably source of the fallacy that busyness with its acceptance of disorder is reality. In defining the nature of his philosophy, pragmatism, he compares it with “the world of concrete personal experiences,” that is, the life “in the street”; the traditional philosophical approach, termed “transcendental idealism,” he likens to “a kind of marble temple shining on a hill.” William James notwithstanding, the marble temple on the hill is as much a part of concrete personal experience as is the life of the street. To destroy the temple is to rob us of aim, and to take away aim is to deny reality with its attendant, mortality.

This isn’t meant to be a fun book, but even so – watching someone with Read’s intellect and passion take a sledge hammer to so many fraudulent institutions does end up being very amusing. Despite the fact that he often drew uproarious laughs at his lectures, Read viewed the process he was charting as a purely tragic one – as he was right to do, since the impoverishment of modern architecture in turn impoverishes everybody who uses it. So there’s heartache, yes, but also smiles when Read offers a kind of pictorial ‘before’ and ‘after’ segment, expanded for the 1970 edition.  There’s Port Authority, for instance:

One of the largest bus terminals in the world and the entrance to a great city, it offers a large front of brick and stone trim. There is no sculpture, no sculptural detail, and no ornament of any kind outside and none inside.

Which is naturally compared with Grand Central Station:

An elaborate entablature has as its central feature a broken round pediment, with a clock insert, which supports a colossal Mercury and two reclining figures. Swags and garlands of fruit, laurel wreaths, and voluted keystones decorate various parts of the façade.

And there’s the Great Hall of the Cunard Building:

The decoration is in a variety of classical detail mainly in cream, red, and blue, while placed in the ceiling at regular intervals are murals, with nudes and marine symbols in relief framed by lozenges.

Which is compared with the main lobby of the Secretariat Building at the U.N.:

No comment.

Hee. Sorry Henry, but I'm chuckling just a bit. You fought the good fight, but fads are stronger still.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

June 2010 in Open Letters!

Morning has broken on a new month, and you know what that means! There in the comfort of your own legally-rented apartment or lawfully-bought house, you get to fire up your Tandy5000 and click on over to a new issue of Open Letters Monthly! Our June issue is huge, just perfect for a nice long intellectual wallow in the summertime. We have a batch of pieces on topics from history (Napoleon, World War I, World War II, the current war in Afghanistan) and biography (the Queen Mother at one end of the spectrum and Artie Shaw at the other!), in addition to which two genres get their biographical due: the novel, and the posthumous fame of Jane Austen.  There are regular features on new mystery novels, new developments in the world of perfume, new movies about video game characters and zombies, and a new look at another short novel. And there’s lots more, all capped with a poem by Tomas Transtromer and a striking ‘cover’ photo. So take advantage of the privacy guaranteed you by Magna Carta (and heavily implied in your Constitutional protection against illegal search and seizure) to snuggle up in the privacy of your own personal space and have a nice long read with us!