Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Under the Covers with Paul Marron: Scarlet!

Just when we might have been fearing for Paul – just when we might have been wondering (and perhaps he wondered too? Do pouty super-models wonder about the future, or do they live in the perpetual present?) if our hero was fated to helm multi-national corporations and woo unconvincingly unwilling secretaries for the rest of his shelf-life – along came just the change he was waiting for, and all it took was the Apocalypse.

Well, not the Apocalypse exactly – but close to it. In Jordan Summers' 2008 “Dead World” novels Red and Scarlet (and the later sequel Crimson), the near future setting looks fairly grim: war is brewing between the forces of corrupt government (here embodied in the slimy, ruthless politician Roark Montgomery – think Malcolm McDowell in his hammiest late period and you'll have it perfectly) and the hidden society of the Others, humans with seemingly supernatural abilities derived from long-forgotten scientific experiments (like the ones that gave rise to male models in our own world? Summers is wisely silent on the issue...).

In the first book, Gina “Red” Santiago is a member of an elite tactical squad – she's a dab hand at unarmed combat and a crack shot with her laser pistol – sent to a small town to root out possible Others-related trouble. There she encounters Sheriff Morgan Hunter, but one glance at the cover of Red will alert readers that she only maybe also encounters Paul. In that first book, a terrific little adveture story told in Summers' winningly hard-boiled way, not only does “Red” learn something amazing about herself, she also falls in love with hunky Sheriff Hunter, who's hiding a fairly big secret of his own.

Which is to say, they're both werewolves. Morgan's been doing it a long time, and eventually he starts tutoring “Red,” whose transition from 'us' to 'them' is predictably bumpy. But it's only in the series' second volume, Scarlet, that we start to view a new and exciting reality of our own: it's only in Scarlet that we begin at last the journey to Planet Paul.

The first step in that journey is right on the cover. Instead of neatly-pressed linen or (gawd help us) turtleneck sweaters, we see a dirty tank-top stretched taut over Paul's chest, we see his gorgeous face looking straight at us and tilted slightly down for maximum brooding impact, and most importantly, we see the glint of near-future semi-apocalyptic light glinting off the bare, sweaty flesh of his throat and shoulder. This is no memo-dictating business tycoon.

The actual text of Scarlet follows suit. In the narrative, “Red”s former employers – and the insidious Roark – are after both her and Paul, and it seems like they've enlisted the entire world to help out. Our heroes are almost alone (there are two heroic supporting characters, but, hilariously, they spent most of the book humping like bunnies rather than helping out) against impossible odds. But that doesn't stop Summers from doing what so many of our previous writers have hesitated to do: releasing her inner Paul-lust. On the surface, passages like this one might be intended to represent “Red”s point of view – but it's pretty obviously the author herself – and by extension the rest of us – who's getting swept away:
The wind picked up. Morgan had his dark head thrown back, letting the desert breeze caress his skin. Wildness surrounded him, oozing out of his pores like the sweet musk that covered his body. The man was magnificent in his rugged beauty. His wolf brushed his flesh in a primitive caress. Despite his civilized reserve, it always lurked just beneath the surface, a barely leashed sexual being that was impossible to ignore. Even now he drew her to him without trying, the aura of dominant power second nature.

But as gratifying as it is for it to finally make its appearance, naked Paul-lust isn't the only crucial element that's been missing so far. The full glory of Velvet Haven has many components – one of them is Paul in full 'rugged beauty' display (in reality, one couldn't really call Paul's fine, miniature features rugged – but in fiction, the translation works), yes, but another is taking that beauty and beating the stuffing out of it. We must not just have Paul's masculinity unbound – we must have it then promptly bound up again.

So it is in Scarlet, where the forces of the evil Roark capture Paul, rough him up, and chain him to a wall for weeks. This is certainly a good start. When “Red” is captured and thrown in his cell with him, she's appalled by the shape he's in and, werewolf to werewolf, asks the natural question:
“Why didn't you shift? You could at least have healed your wounds so you could escape.”

“He [Roark] has the place under electronic surveillance. He vowed to broadcast the vid-clip if I shifted. It would play right into his plans to expose the Others. I couldn't do that. The whole world is worth more than a single individual.”

Red swallowed hard as the full import of their situation hit her. “Not to me,” she whispered.

(That “Not to me” is quintessential Summers – there are neat little lines like that one scattered throughout all three of these books)

Summers has often commented that the genesis of the “Dead World” novels was a simple question: what if Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf were the same person? She meant the question to get at the heart of the 'tough girl' sub-genre of urban fantasy that's now dominated by the Sookie Stackhouse novels of Charlaine Harris, but it serves equally well to bring us closer to the heart of Planet Paul. Little Red Riding Hood is small, shapely, visually arresting, and readily victimized; the Big Bad Wolf is brawny, brooding, strangely magnetic, and easily drafted as an anti-hero. The two halves of Paul, in other words – but what if they were the same person? Novels that have seized on only one half or the other have failed to achieve maximum Paulification.

Scarlet and Crimson share the distinction of being among the first books to show us the path to that goal, but they won't be the last! Now that we've had a taste of that potential, how can we be satisfied with less?

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Ape Who Guards the Balance!

Our book today is Elizabeth Peters' 1998 novel The Ape Who Guards the Balance, the tenth adventure of her intrepid Egyptologist Amelia Peabody and her ever-expanding circle of family and cohorts in the Edwardian Middle East.

This particular book opens in London, however, where the headstrong and intrepid Amelia is determined to join Mrs. Pankhurst and a crowd of suffragettes in yet another demonstration for the vote. Amelia's super-manly husband Radcliffe Emerson thinks the whole business is a bit unseemly; their dreamboat son Walter – nicknamed Ramses – attends the rally mainly because he's attracted to one of Mrs. Pankhurt's daughters; he's teased about that fact by his half-sister Nefret, whom Amelia and Emerson adopted in an oasis several years/adventures ago. And the whole business is merely a distraction – ordinarily the family would be in Egypt doing research, but Emerson's blunt and outspoken behavior toward the archeological powers that be hasn't done him any favors, and what research projects are eventually awarded him don't at first seem all that exciting.

The 'at first' hints, of course, at the fact that Amelia Peabody isn't an ordinary person – she's the main character in an ongoing mystery novel series. And as all devotees of the genre know well, such main characters can find something exciting in a dish of dry oatmeal. That's one of the many problems with such serials: after two or three adventures, things stop being even remotely believable and the protagonists might as well have laser-vision and bright yellow lycra costumes. This is the paradox of popularity that the father of the mystery genre, Arthur Conan Doyle, understood thoroughly: the public's clamor for more adventures of a favorite cast of characters can quickly warp the ensuing novels out of all semblance of reality. Doyle most famously sought a way out of this paradox by killing off his celebrated detective, although the public wouldn't hear of it being permanent. But he also tried to side-step the trap of unbelievability by making it irrelevant – he made his detective what we might call pre-emptively unbelievable, a super-rational problem-solver with proficiencies in everything from music to jiu-jitsu and a profession that was unique.

Ever since, that paradox has haunted all popular mystery series, and authors have been more or drastically less successful in thwarting it. The easiest method is to make endless adventures a kind of job description – hence the popularity of police procedurals and private eye novels, where new adventures literally keep walking into the room. And by association the most difficult method is to make the detective a complete outsider to any such mechanism – a busybody, in other words, whose insights are either sought by the constabulary or unwillingly thrust upon it. But no matter what the method, the jumping-off point into the realms of fantasy tends to happen at around the third or fourth book in the series.

In a perfect reading world, mystery authors would be stronger than this problem! In such a world, Thomas Harris would not be lured (or browbeaten) by enormous sales to keep revisiting his rather boring signature serial killer Hannibal Lecter, Dr. Watson would not appear often enough for his war-wound to wander around his body, Travis McGee would not have taken enough socks to the jaw to powderize his entire pretty head, and poor Spenser would not have become the gray and amorphous whatever he was at the end of his run. In a perfect reading world, the public would heap their book-buying praise on a mystery author, not a set of fictional characters. They'd say, “We want more Nancy Atherton!” not “We want more Aunt Dimity!” (Of course, in a perfect reading world, authors would have the resolve to say, “I don't care how much you pay me – you're not getting another adventure of the Toff, and that's final”)

But most lazy or self-indulgent readers don't say that – when they find something that pleases them, they want more of it, ad infinitum. Writers who strike such a chord in the reading public can count their blessings – it's a steady paycheck, after all – and many of them end up embracing their luck.

The Amelia Peabody mysteries, certainly by volume ten, have done a yeoman's amount of embracing. The time-honored device of the writer presenting himself as merely the curator of remarkable original documents got its mystery-novel start with Arthur Conan Doyle and Watson's battered tin dispatch-box containing who knows how many previously unrevealed Sherlock Holmes cases (although, as we all saw when reading recently about Geoffrey of Monmouth, the actual device is much, much older than the murder mystery genre), and Elizabeth Peters uses it here with a broad, grinning gusto:
Students of the life and works of Mrs. Amelia P. Emerson will be pleased to learn that the present Editor's tireless research on the recently discovered collection of Emerson's papers has yielded additional fruit. Certain excerpts from Manuscript H were included in the most recent volume of Mrs. Emerson's memoirs, and other excerpts appear here.

This is good grace indeed, and many thousands of readers have fallen in love with the infectious happiness that shimmers on every page of Peters' books. Her Amelia is as far away from Sherlock Holmes as you could imagine: she's not all that analytically adept, she's very intelligent but a far cry from intellectually rigorous, and she's a rotten shot with a pistol (in our present book, she very nearly shoots her own son while attempting to rescue him). She and her brawny husband (in something of a record, the always-disrobing Emerson manages to be becomingly undraped on the very first page of The Ape Who Guards the Balance) and their gorgeous, lively children (who are all in their twenties by the time of this book, ready to take over for their parents and begin having adventures of their own that presumably won't involve dying of influenza or getting machine-gunned at the Marne) are constantly quarreling and sporting with each other – so much so that you often feel sorry for the novels' various bad guys, who can hardly get a nefarious deed in sideways.

The books are vivacious, and this one is no exception: the skullduggery that first involves Amelia & Co. in London soon follows them to the Valley of the Kings, and for the first time in the series, the young people are given a separate plot as developed and page-turning as anything else in the book (of course it weaves itself into the rest of the book – Peters is quietly very, very adept at plotting). This latter point is important and can often curdle a long-running mystery series: since the main detectives aren't really 'allowed' to change all that much (the readers want terse people to stay terse, helpful people to be always helpful, etc), writers often seek to exercise their actual novelist skills on the secondary characters – usually to the benefit of the series in general. If her fans let her (and if she wants to), Peters should send Amelia and Emerson off into permanent retirement and let Ramses and Nefret have the run of the newborn 20th century.

Before they get even less believable, that is. Already Amelia has a super-villain of her very own – his name is Sethos, and her descriptions of him will remind every reader of Professor Moriarty. That's good heady stuff, to be sure, but it's also an excellent barometer of a series' critical pressure. Normal people don't attract super-villains: super-heroes do. And there's the unmissable note of rote that's already crept into the series by this point, visible even in tossed-off lines:
I will not bore the Reader with descriptions of the sights of Luxor. They can be found, not only in my earlier volumes, but in Baedeker. To say that we had become blasé about them would not be entirely accurate, for I will never tire of any monument in Egypt; but …

There's no real good way to end that thought except 'but I really, really need a rest,' and even the most devout readers might find themselves thinking the mighty Amelia has earned one. The pleasure of a long-running mystery series like this one are enormous (lest any fans think the point of this whole digression of a post is to say otherwise!) - the allure of going home again is nothing cheap and nothing to be ashamed of – but its pitfalls are as deadly as the tomb-traps that await our intrepid archeologists. Even while I'm whole-heartedly recommending The Ape Who Guards the Balance (the one or two instances in which a first-time reader will feel left out of a running gag are minor and spaced far apart), I'm wondering if perhaps those pitfalls don't merit the use of my favorite investigative tool: the regular series! Shall I go through the world of murder mysteries, discussing the various long-running series? Why, perhaps I shall.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Boy at the Hogarth Press!

Our book today is The Boy at the Hogarth Press, the jaunty little squib Richard Kennedy wrote in 1972 about his time working as a sixteen-year-old factotum ('more totum than fact,' as one wag puts it) in 1928 at the famous small publishing operation set up by Leonard and Virginia Woolf, frequented by other luminaries from the Bloomsbury set, and staffed by two much older, harried women and Kennedy himself, who writes up his reminiscences in the form of a contemporaneous diary and fills the slim volume with his own sketches, which have the wavering lines and immediate emotional honesty of pure memories.

Perhaps the whole thing is made of pure memories, but one is allowed to doubt. The joy of reading this volume is almost certainly the joy of writing it: gently skewering the haze of veneration that's settled about Bloomsbury despite near-constant attempts to puncture it – after all, what would a callow 16-year-old know of that? No, Kennedy is having his little joke (and very consciously adding to the long and storied British genre of workplace-memoirs) by letting our hindsight work wonders on the literary legends his younger self comes to know.

He gets a job at Hogarth Press at the very bottom of the publishing ladder – twining packages and running them to the post office, etc. - but he's treated extremely decently by his illustrious bosses: he's frequently invited to take long walks with Leonard, and he's often encouraged to attend the Woolfs' parties (they also introduce the lad to the other two besetting features of Bloomsbury: pretension and non-stop smoking).

But the decency isn't constant – the guilty little thrill of reading this book (it takes 15 minutes to finish the thing) is getting glimpses of the Woolfs as absent-minded, cranky, or downright abusive bosses, as when one of the office women runs afoul of Leonard's weirdly inconsistent and spiky wrath:
Leonard Woolf obviously does not think her [Mrs. Cartwright] at all efficient. In fact he was bloody awful to her in front of Miss Belcher and myself because she tried to cover up some trivial mistake. When he's annoyed, his voice goes up into a sort of exasperated wail, especially when he's saying words like 'Why???' and 'Absurd!!!' which he drags out to show how unreasonable something is. He does have a special way of talking which I think comes of the care he takes to say exactly what he means. It's kind of a drawl.

On the whole, Virginia is a gentler presence (although Kennedy at one point allows that a very sharp 'meanness' might lie just beneath the surface of how she deals with people, a point enlarged most wonderfully in Alison Light's Mrs Woolf and the Servants), although even her calmest moments have their barbs just under the surface:
In the printing room when Mrs W is setting type and I am machining we work in silence, unless, of course, she is in one of her happy moods – if she's going to a party or been talking round London, which she often does.

Today I interrupted her to ask her what Proust was like, as a reviewer had called her the 'English Proust'. At first she did not understand because I had pronounced Proust to rhyme with Faust and not boost. But she laughed and said she couldn't do French cooking, but it was very delicious.

And Kennedy the adult takes great delight at winking in the direction of Kennedy the boy's puckish observations, as on one of the day's most controversial painters (would to God that's all he'd remained):
LW sent me with a letter to a gallery which the police have closed down and I saw some of D. H. Lawrence's paintings. They all seemed to be pictures of himself in the nude, and were done pretty crudely. It looked as if he had taken off his clothes and then sat down and painted himself: working in the nude at the nude. They made me think of a coal miner after his bath.

Despite the fact that the young Kennedy eventually screws up and gets angrily dismissed by Leonard Woolf, this is very much an affectionate snapshot of the slightly seedy side of Parnassus. Certainly there are worse ways to spend your fifteen minutes.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Nature of Massachusetts!

Our book today is the gorgeous 1996 volume The Nature of Massachusetts, written by Christopher Leahy, John Hanson Mitchell, and Thomas Conuel to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Massachusetts Audobon Society, and given that the volume is lavishly illustrated with the wistful, evocative artwork of Lars Jonsson, it's hard to imagine a better tribute-volume.

Conuel's precision and Leahy's all-encomassing passion drive the book, but it's the quirky, passionate prose of Mitchell (author of the immortal nature classic Ceremonial Time, which we'll get to one of these days here at Stevereads) that lifts the volume to the status of a classic – one that all nature-lovers should own whether they've set foot in Massachusetts or not.

The book starts off exactly as it should: with a lengthy tribute to the indomitable Boston women who got the whole business of wildlife preservation started, properly organized, and properly funded. The essays is called “Founding Mothers” and pays heartfelt tribute to such pioneers as Olga Owens Huckins, Rachel Carson, and most of all Harriet Hemenway, and the playful perception the reader encounters here stays the same throughout the book:
Proper Boston women, it used to be said, liked getting old. They could wear their hair in the Queen Mother style with impunity, ignore fashion altogether, and say what they wanted. The Boston abolitionist Julia Ward Howe, who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and lived to be ninety-one, confided in her diary at the age of eighty-seven that she hoped the coming year would bring her useful work. Aging was like a cup of tea, she believed. The sugar was at the bottom.

The book takes us on a leisurely tour of all the various “rooms” to be found in the Bay State's “House of Nature” - streams and floodplains, grasslands, red maple swamps, oak-conifer forests, coastal heathlands, and many others. Each of these very different ecological niches is examined in vigorous detail, and each chapter comes with its own mini-bibliography. When our writers tells us that “The peaceful grandeur of the large estuarine salt marsh masks the orgy of biological activity taking place in and around it,” they're not pandering to sensationalism – their enthusiasm is as genuine as it is infectious. To them, the most commonplace physical setting invariably hides great riches:
Despite the characteristically depauperate plant and animal communities, a good bog is a naturalist's dreamland: often secluded by a surrounding wall of forest; the vegetation, water, and reflections laid out in a pleasing arrangement of planes and horizons; an unparalleled assortment of greens spotted with orchid pink in spring and splotched with moorland crimson in the fall; an assemblage of strange plants such as sundews and pitcher plants that must catch and digest insect food to survive; great multicolored dragonflies patrolling the water's edge; perhaps the ethereal piping of a hermit thrush floating on the spice-scented air; and of course the magic of walking on waves as you cross the undulating mossy mat.

And there's an appealing immediacy to all of it that seems to put the reader right into the imagined location – with our authors standing nearby, equally spellbound:
If you have never stood by a marsh before dawn during the breeding season and listened to the wails, moans, cackles, and lunatic laughter with which rails, bitterns, gallinules, and other marsh birds express their territorial jealousies and sexual longings, you have missed one of nature's strangest performances.

Of course, everybody has their own favorite ecological setting (those who favor a nice sinus-clearing desert will be out of luck in this volume), and I've surely made no secret of my own throughout the years. Yes, I'm fond of the ocean and its tidal pools, and of course I've poured affection on ponds right here at Stevereads, and I very much enjoy a patch of old-growth forest, but my heart will always belong to salt marshes, so I was particularly pleased by prose poetry they invoke here :
Anyone who lives near these sea-drowned prairies has internalized a host of indelible impressions: canoeing into the silent heart of the marsh via a meandering creek; squadrons of tree swallows hawking for mosquitoes in August; a snowy owl perched on a hay straddle in January; an unmistakable sweet tang in the nostrils; the dawn song of the seaside sparrow; the surprisingly painful bite of the greenhead fly; catching mummichogs with a dip net; watching a merlin plunge into a mixed flock of shorebirds; the mechanical jousting of fiddler crabs; the October scarlet of samphire ...

[caption id="attachment_1532" align="aligncenter" width="269" caption="northern harrier over miacomet plains, nantucket"][/caption]

Of course, content is the twin of context; you could hardly open this book knowing it's an Audobon Society production and not expect one of its strongest themes to be wildlife preservation and conservation, and that's certainly the case here – but not intrusively so. The volume was written ten years ago, at the very cusp of the modern 'green' movement that has seen such huge strides in Massachusetts since then (despite wide-scale Bush-era depredations elsewhere in the country) – the dark tidings our authors have to impart – about the fishability and swimmability of Massachusetts lakes and streams, among other things – have in many cases actually improved in the ensuing decade.

So when our authors geekishly inform us “River fishes are neurologically equipped to maintain a constant position in relation to the current without (so to speak) thinking about it – a trick called rheotaxis,” they're perhaps unaware of the neat little feat of rheotaxis they're documenting with their own efforts. Would that all upstream-swimming had monuments as nifty as this book.


Friday, September 24, 2010

Comics! Thor relaunches!

Well, here the issue itself is, the capstone on our aforementioned glut of Thor-comics, so I could hardly refrain from mentioning it. It's Thor #615 (flat-out amazing that Marvel didn't relaunch the whole thing with a spurious first issue – an adult must temporarily be in charge at the House of Ideas), featuring writing by Matt Fraction and typically gorgeous artwork by fan favorite Pasqual Ferry.

Those two names – especially the latter – will give any alert reader the tip-off why more hasn't been made of this change in creative team: neither Fraction nor Ferry will be sticking around. My guess is that they were both contracted for six issues – the length of a graphic novel – and that Fraction will write all six and Ferry will draw four before bailing (if reneging on work-contracts were a super-crime, every single creator in comics today would have to start wearing iron face-masks and calling themselves “Doctor”).

In the meantime, the two are faced with the same old problem that's always confronted writer and artist teams working on Thor: how do you handle his dual heritage as a character? Tough enough to write a super-hero who's as powerful as a god and keep things dramatically interesting (ask any Superman writer), but what do you do when your character is a god?

Naturally, us long-time Thor fans can't help but hark back to Stan Lee, who knew perfectly well that this would be the central dramatic hurdle of the character. And he was typically canny about it: not only did he saddle Thor with a fairly draconian weakness (if he lets go of his hammer for longer than a minute, he reverts not just to the powerless mortal Don Blake but to the crippled powerless mortal Don Blake – sheer Lee over-the-top genius), and not only did he periodically have Thor get banished to Earth by his tubby nutso father Odin, but he was careful to switch up the nature of the character's adventures. For three months, he'd be fighting the Absorbing Man or androids on Earth, and for the next three months he'd be off in space saving the Colonizers of Rigel from Ego the Living Planet.

(Lee and Jack Kirby also had the inspired idea of cutting Thor's actual adventures in half and putting a back-up feature in almost every issue, “Tales of Asgard,” where they could give readers their fill of the cosmic Wagnerian side of the character, thus freeing the front half of the book for often more mundane adventures)

The old challenges with the character are still here in this effective relaunch: Thor is still the most powerful Marvel character (able to lift well over 100 tons, able to fly, invulnerable, able to control the weather, and possessing roughly 2000 years of combat experience), effectively ruling out the viability of nine-tenths of the potential villains you might run against him. And in response to this challenge, Matt Fraction does indeed hark back – but only about ten years, to the character relaunch done by Dan Jurgens and John Romita Jr. in 1998. Then, as now, Asgard is attacked by a new group of immensely-powerful super-baddies we've never heard of, setting the stage for some of the epic action sequences Ferry does so well.

The main difference here is that Asgard isn't attacked directly – it's in ruins on Earth, after all, in the wake of the “Siege” storyline. Instead, the extra-dimensional void left by Asgard's absence is attacked by the aforementioned super-baddies, who are trying to take advantage of the fact that the universe is out of joint to score a little quick real estate.

The issue itself is just dandy, with only a couple of reservations. Ferry's artwork is eye-popping as usual, and there's a quite good little moment where Thor reminisces about his evil half-brother Loki, conceding that he was evil but admitting that he misses his brother just the same. Don Blake is still here as Thor's alter-ego, but it's the least well thought-out aspect of this current incarnation of the character (and the new wrinkle that Thor and Blake aren't the same person, that they can have cute little internal bickering sessions, needs to die a speedy death). And Odin is still technically dead, off in the realm of death fighting eternal battles to protect the home dimension. So Fraction has some junk to clear away.

Because as is so often the case, the basic Stan Lee template for this character is the best one – not for sentimental reasons but because it works better than any other. Before Fraction departs for the next project he's always 'dreamed' of doing, he needs to fix three things: a) he needs to get Asgard off Earth and back into its normal place in the cosmos, b) he needs to return Odin to life and the kingship of Asgard, and c) he of course needs to return Loki to the ranks of the living, since you can't have Thor without his best villain.

Fortunately, the kind of big cosmic story Fraction has chosen to kick things off here can easily accomplish all three of these well before the Thor movie opens, and then all will be right again with my favorite Marvel character.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Journal of Kitty Adair!

Our book today is R. T. Lawrence's 1963 historical-fiction romp, The Journal of Kitty Adair, and the instant you read the front cover copy, “the lusty adventures of an Elizabethan wanton and her lovers, told by the wench herself,” you'll not only get a fair idea of the book's parameters but also start to wonder if you haven't heard this one before.

In confirmation of that suspicion, you need look no further than the book's back cover, on which is scrawled (in lettering designed to look like red lipstick): “Another Forever Amber!”

By 1963, Kathleen Winsor's monumental historical novel Forever Amber – the lusty adventures of a Restoration wanton and her lovers, told by the wench herself – had been a bestseller for twenty years and spawned an entire mini-library of imitators (including, prior to Lawrence, the indomitable “Angelique” series that we'll get around to here at Stevereads, one of these fine days). Only a curiously naive academic would cite Moll Flanders as the ultimate genesis of these books. No, the read spur of invention here was the advent of the women's rights movement at the forefront of the American social scene. During the Second World War, far more women than ever before in American history were given a taste of a working world previously known only to men – many of those women liked that world and worked well in it (better than most of their male counterparts, as both they and the poor drafted counterparts knew quite well). The modern women's rights movement in America was born of such humble beginnings – it's only when we get an actual taste of what we've been missing that we become insatiable for it.

As unlikely as it seems, steamy bodice-rippers like Forever Amber, To Dance with Kings, and The Journal of Kitty Adair were born not of literature (although Gone with the Wind certainly didn't hurt) but of widgets – of punching in and out of the local manufacturing plant or writing up a storm at your local newspaper (even if it happened to be The New York Times) while all the go-getting male writers were drafted away.

And it isn't that women took these opportunities and through them gained the confidence to write the blockbusters in question (R.T. Lawrence was, after all, a man – and he had lots of company) – it's that all this female empowerment in the workplace created a market in the publishing trade … for novels in which pretty women succeeded or failed entirely on the strength of their looks and sexual appeal. These novels, most of them, may have been written by women, but they were most certainly written for men – nervous men, vaguely emasculated men who wanted to escape into a fantasy-literature in which “the wench herself” narrates her life story. That story invariably involves the wench being born to poverty and raising herself to the glittering world of high-class solely by sleeping with increasingly more powerful men. To some benighted male readers (like, for instance, the manufacturing plant's ad-copy writer, whose job had been taken over in 1942 by a woman who did it faster and better than he did and wasn't an unremitting A-hole to her co-workers the whole time), this stuff must have seemed like a return to Eden.

Not that it couldn't also be lots of fun. The Journal of Kitty Adair is lots of fun, in its earnest, overheated way. Two pages haven't gone by before young orphaned Kitty is peeling off her clothes for a little pubescent romp with the local hostler's boy, and the boys – and men – keep, as it were, coming: Kitty soon learns that she has a knack for pleasing, and this propels the book along.

But it isn't the only thing that does. Lawrence's single greatest skill as a writer luckily appears at the single weakest spot of most historical romances: he's very good at dialogue – when his characters are talking, you can't stop reading. As an example, look at this snippet from almost half-way into the book – Kitty has been brought to the attention of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's sepulchral spymaster, and he's examining her in his fire-stoked study. When he asks her if she feels any love for England, she boldly tells him no, that she'd only be undertaking his services as a business arrangement. His answer startles her:
“Without love?” He pulled himself up and walked closer to the fire. “I don't want just another spy. I have dozens of them in every important city, in every important country. Few of them have any love for England. They take English money, yes, but they will also take French, Spanish and Papal coin. We pay them for information about France; Spain pays them for information about England; the Pope pays them for information about every country. Spying, my young lady, is a lucrative business. Money comes from all sides., Sell secrets as you would mussels and cockles in the marketplace.”

Walsingham started into the fire for a long time.

“Would you like to see England invaded?” he asked, his back still turned.

“No, sir.”

“Would you like to have Spanish soldiers marching up and down the streets of London, killing everyone who looks disloyal to King Philip? You say you are not a Catholic. Would you like to face the Inquisition and say that? England, my dear, is in danger of becoming another Spanish colony ...”

“Impossible!” I cried. “We have Sir Francis Drake … we have ships … soldiers ...”

He turned and snapped his fingers.

“We have nothing powerful enough to stop the Spanish except love for England. Ships? A heap of floating timbers compared to the Spanish fleet – and Philip is now building more and more men-of-war. Every prow is pointed in but one direction: England.”

To indulge the conceit of his novel (Lawrence follows the 'battered tin dispatch-box' idea of having only found the journal of Kitty Adair), the author adds a curiously charming footnote at the bottom of the page:
Walsingham was violently anti-Catholic. Much of his feeling stemmed from the fact that he was English ambassador to the French court when the Huguenots were slaughtered on St. Barholomew's Eve, Aug. 24, 1572, and narrowly escaped serious injury. It is strange he did not lecture Kitty on this point.

Kitty finds a perilous future in espionage – and a veritable parade of famous Elizabethan personages make their appearances. It's a quick, eminently satisfying read, as so many of your better historical romances tend to be. Kitty does indeed come a cropper of the Inquisition and comes a whisker away from being killed – she also finds her true love (and the almost-true love who's always waiting in the wings in books like this), although Lawrence very cannily leaves the whole business hanging in mid-air, ready for sequels should Angelique-style sales warrant it.

They did not, and for all we know Kitty spent the rest of her days as an insurance underwriter – happy to be out of the house and earning an honest (though not yet equitable) paycheck.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Geographica: The Toll of Man!

Another classic issue of National Geographic slaps on the doorstep this week, 'classic' both in the sense of 'great' and in the sense of 'typical.' The 'great' part has been sung here at Stevereads before: great writing, great breadth of coverage, most of all great artwork. The 'typical' part is also a frequent component of my regular conversation: that when reporting on mankind's interaction with the rest of the planet, the news is mostly bad.

Bless them, the folks at National Geographic never let an entire issue go by without some good news, and the good news in this issue is pretty damn good: Jane Goodall. Just the two words of that name ought to be enough to bring a smile to the face of every right-thinking human on the planet. The mighty David Quammen gives us a spirited overview of her groundbreaking career and some great Quammen prose along the way (“everyone calls her Jane; there is no sensible way not to call her Jane”). Those of you who know me already know how thoroughly I tend to despise the human race, but for somebody like Goodall – sorry, Jane – I'll gladly make an exception. This Quammen piece was an obituary if ever I read one, and on the day the good lady of Gombe actually does die, I shall mourn.

But elsewhere in the issue, the despising is in full bloom. The cover story explains in mind-numbing, hope-extinguishing detail just how bad the Gulf oil spill really is, how extensive the toll there will be in terms of dead wildlife and wrecked ecosystems. And as bad as all that is, it's nothing compared to the issue's most memorable story.

It's by Joel Achenbach, and it's called “Lost Giants,” and it's about the vast array of prehistoric megafauna that inhabited Australia until about 50,000 years ago. In gorgeous drawing after drawing by Adrie and Alfons Kennis, we see these great creatures as they might have looked in life: a 350-pound marsupial lion, a seven-foot-tall kangaroo, a fifteen-foot-long variation on the komodo dragon, a ten-foot-tall 1000-pound flightless 'thunderbird,' a wombat the size of a rhino, marsupial tapirs the size of cows, etc.

In the accompanying article, Achenbach faithfully reports on the usual conflict between the two warring camps of scientists who have position on why, exactly, none of these fabulous creatures is with us today – on why, in fact, virtually non of the Pleistocene's true giants survived into historical times. The saber-toothed tiger, the wooly mammoth, the giant ground sloth, the flat-faced cave bear, giant rocs and emus – all these creatures and hundreds of others once flourished in the forests and marshlands of Australia, North and South America, and New Zealand and now exist no longer.

Which would hardly be grounds for despising anybody, you might reasonably point out. After all, species die out all the time – as one famous natural history writer put it, 99.9 % of all species that have ever lived on Earth went extinct.

And yet, the despite is there, in bucketloads, because in the case of all those Pleistocene extinctions, the megafauna had a little help. Achenbach is very scrupulous – he quotes from both sides of the issue and gives everybody equal time at the podium. But the fact remains that the megafauna of the Americas died out precipitously (in evolutionary terms, virtually overnight) around 13,000 years ago – right around the time humans arrived over the Bering Strait. The subject of this article, the megafauna of Australia, died out around 50,000 years ago – right around the time humans arrived there. The megafauna of New Zealand died out around 700 years ago – right around the time humans first settled there. And so on. And so on.

Some scientists say this is purely circumstantial evidence – they site the fact that there are no archeological signs of butchering and rendering on a large scale, no chipped bison bones, no caches of ground sloth femurs. Other scientists point out (some more gently than others) that absence of evidence can hardly be construed in this case as evidence of innocence. To which I might add: take a look at the rest of this issue. Everywhere mankind goes, wide-scale destruction and despoilation occurs. Scientists who want to make a case that mankind is not to blame – that climate change and shifts in rainfall patterns account for all these extinctions – don't need to convince me. They should talk to the American bison. They should talk to the dodo. They should talk to the passenger pigeon. Hell, they should talk to the Gulf of Mexico. Scientists are reputed to be intelligent people, but it's not very intelligent to quibble causations in the middle of a cancer ward – especially if you're the cancer.

The article had only one little respite from despair: those drawings by Adrie and Alfons Kennis make it clear that at least one Australian megafauna survived, as I can personally testify:

Then again, maybe despair is called for after all. Sigh.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Comics! Crisis Revisited!

This certainly isn't the comics entry I thought I'd make this week. In the saturation-bombing leading up to the release of its next mega-movie, Marvel Comics has been dusting off and rolling out every old Thor-related project they've been sitting on, and they've been commissioning every new Thor-related thing they can. The Thor movie – directed by Kenneth Branagh and starring Anthony Hopkins as Odin – will doubtless be a wowsy experience (I'm hoping against hope that it isn't done in 3-D; I don't know how many times I'm going to have to survive that intensely idiotic fad before it's gone for good), and since Thor is my favorite Marvel character, I'll not only be seeing it in the theater but I'm as happy as anybody for the glut of Thor-titles on the comic shop shelves these days. I love what's out, and I'm hoping for more (starting with bringing the black-and-white 'Essential' reprints of the character down to the great Walter Simonson era) – so you'd naturally expect that any week featuring not one, not two, but three new Thor titles would generate a Thor-entry here at Stevereads, where we've had Thor entries before.

But no! The single most remarkable thing on the comics shelves this week (purchased in this case not from my beloved Comicopia but from the unreconstructed nerds at JP Comics & Games, who've managed to assemble a first-rate little shop of comics and games at a time when brick-and-mortar stores are disappearing about as fast as vegans in Iowa; if you're in scenic Jamaica Plain, by all means stop in and give those virgins your business!) isn't Thor-related at all: it's the fifth issue of DC Comics' “Legacies” mini-series.

This series ought to be attracting a lot more attention than it is. DC decided to draw on some of the top creative talents in the superhero comics industry and re-tell the history of its imaginative universe, from its beginnings with the cloaked and cowled mystery men of the 30s, to the Nazi-smashing heyday of the Second World War, and then on through the seminal events of the DC continuity. Each chapter so far has been superb – I'm enjoying the series immensely and will certainly spring for the collected edition when all the chapter are done – but nothing prepared me for the artistic or emotional wallop of this fifth issue.

In terms of 'seminal events,' few things in DC's history compare with 1985's “Crisis on Infinite Earths,” a twelve-issue mini-series in which the company sought to streamline its problematically profuse continuity by means of a storyline in which an unstoppable wall of anti-energy sweeps through the multi-verse of alternate dimensions (see? Confusing, and that's just the summary), eliminating and consolidating all the hundreds of various alternate-Earths and variation-superheroes into one smooth backstory. Of course, comics beings comics, the plot was more complicated than that, involving one of the lamest super-villains in DC's history – which is saying a lot, considering that this is the company that thought a guy with eyeballs on the ends of his fingers would make a terror-inducing enemy for Batman (instead, he ended up with twelve black eyes). But the main import of the story was its epic scope – all the heroes of all the various worlds of the DC universe, desperately fighting to stave off what looks like completely annihilation.

And aside from the epic scale, there was one other stand-out thing in “Crisis”: the amazing artwork of George Perez. He'd been pleasing fans long before this mini-series came along, but it was only in these pages that he first demonstrated just how sprawling and mind-bogglingly detailed his pencils could get. His work on “Crisis” raised the 'epic mini-series' art-bar so high that for years, he himself was the only one who could reach it.

So it made perfect sense for DC to want Perez to be the artist for the issue of “Legacies” that recaps “Crisis” for a new audience. But that's easier said than done these days: Perez does no regular series work anymore and has 'retired' from comics about as often as Stephen King has retired from writing bad novels. Booking Perez was by no means a given – but here he is, in this issue, drawing 18 utterly glorious pages of re-tread DC history. It's a visual feast, made all the more memorable by the fact that it was Perez himself who provided the original milestone artwork for most of the events retold in this issue: not only “Crisis” itself but the mega-successful re-launch of the Teen Titans in their own book.

So the issue was like a homecoming (must have seemed like one for writer Len Wein as well), and maybe any other artist would have used such an occasion to coast on nostalgia. Instead, Perez page after page of his top-form pencils, including both the epic and the particular.

On the epic side, there are the issue's two show-stoppers, which are really just the same enormous scene drawn from two different angles. The first is the cover itself, showing the assembled heroes of the DC universe scrambling to save as many civilians as possible from the wave of brilliant anti-energy that's consuming a city street. The shot is from 'superhero level' (we're dead even with Superman himself), and its level of detail is really amazing. Perez makes the wise decision here to give us symbolic rather than literal action – obviously, if you need 30 superheroes to evacuate one city street, you'd be talking about some pretty shoddy superheroes; Superman and the various Flash's could evacuate an entire city in mere minutes, after all, as could any of the various Green Lanterns. Instead, what we get is a great illustration of heroes helping people in the face of disaster.

Then 18 pages in, we get the same scene (with one or two minor details mysteriously changed) from the ground-level viewpoint of the ordinary cop who narrates the series. The elements are all in their same places, but the composition has an entirely different impact, here stressing the desperation and confusion somebody without super-powers might feel in such a desperate situation. The two scenes side-by-side are a masterful performance.

No less masterful are the little pauses Perez takes, the priceless visual flourishes he puts in that most comic book artists either leave out or botch. He's always done this: “Crisis on Infinite Earths” is loaded with such little moments, including my favorite (I actually wrote about it when “Crisis” first came out, under a pseudonym, for a dear publication that's long gone, so it's oddly gratifying to be able to mention it again in the alleged permanence of the Internet), when Wonder Girl fails to see the wall falling toward her and is only saved at the last minute by a super-speeding Superman – a neat little reminder that even to other super-heroes, the Man of Steel is a life-saver:

In this issue of “Legacies,” there's a wonderful sequence where our ordinary heroes – two cops who've responded to the blazing red skies that presage the catastrophe – suddenly realize they're not the only heroes to respond to the emergency:

Of course, savoring stuff like this makes me wish DC had somehow convinced Perez to draw the whole mini-series. It would have made sense; Perez drew the two-issue “History of the DC Universe” that was the obvious progenitor of this series. But that's just more nostalgia talking: I'm enjoying the rotating roster of artists for this project. It's just tough not to think the remaining issues won't look slightly anti-climactic, after this unexpected little feast.

Penguins on Parade: Geoffrey of Monmouth!

Some Penguin Classics perform a much-needed service, and that certainly applies to Lewis Thorpe's 1966 translation of Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century barn-burner, The History of the Kings of Britain.

This book was immensely popular in its own time – unlike the great bulk of stuff written in and around the 1130s, of which we have today, um, nothing at all, there are manuscripts of Geoffrey's work everywhere; if you stop reading, get up and check your kitchen drawers, chances are you'll find a battered old vellum manuscript of the Historia right next to your worn-out Jeremy Jordan CDs. Time has not been kind to Jeremy Jordan – but The History of the Kings of Britain is just as lively and engaging now as it was 900 years ago. And it casts a long shadow: it was hugely influential on Marie de France, Chretien de Troyes, Heldris de Cornualle, and Wolfram von Eschenbach. Without it, Malory's Morte d'Arthur and the anonymous Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in their present forms would have been unthinkable, as would Holinshed, whose chronicles had rather a large effect on a certain English playwright. And every knights-errant pastiche that followed (surely knights will be the new vampires, in 2011? Who knows what mopey armored dreamboat is even now slouching toward completion on somebody's iPhone?) is forever in debt to Geoffrey's book. Of course, such popularity will have its detractors … in Geoffrey's own day, his work was slapped all over the Times literary pages by none other than Gerald of Wales, another best-selling author who told anybody who would listen that Geoffrey was a fraud, a charlatan, and perhaps a bigamist.

Gerald of Wales wasn't the only person to make such accusations against Geoffrey, and the bone of contention was always the same: that the mysterious ancient Welsh text “The Prophecies of Merlin” - a book Geoffrey claimed to have borrowed from a friend and used as the basis for much of what is most famous in his own work – was entirely bogus, and that Geoffrey had tarted up quasi-chronicle half-sources, mixed in a liberal amount of lurid fantasizing, and produced a book that was a disgrace to every genre it touched. According to these critics, The History of the Kings of Britain was not just a bad but a dangerous one, because its prattlings could be mistaken for the truth by the semi-literate groundlings who were its most eager consumers. In other words, Geoffrey of Monmouth was the Dan Brown of the 12th century.

Only Dan Brown never gifted to the world creations quite so durable as the main two Geoffrey gave us (at least, Brown hasn't done it yet – perhaps one gains new spurts of creativity after the $1 billion mark; I'll let you know, if it ever happens to me): it's from The History of the Kings of Britain that we get noble King Arthur and his wizardly adviser Merlin. True, Geoffrey either invents or seductively popularizes a host of other recognizable names, from King Lear to Old King Cole to Cymbeline – but it's his gripping, funny, psychologically acute narrative of King Arthur and his Knights, the battles, the adventures, and Arthur's final wounding at the battle of Camlann (and his voyage to the Isle of Avalon, perhaps to return one day) … it's that stuff that makes him and his book immortal, while the works of Gerald of Wales have fallen into an obscurity so deep only a hopeless crank would know them today.

But immortality can be tricky (don't get me started), and although his reputation and influence were enormous, Geoffrey's actual book went begging for a popular paperback edition until this one by Thorpe came along, and the whole endeavor of it perfectly captures the ethos that has always made Penguin Classics such great and sunny things. Take a strong and important text from the past, put it in the hands of a first-rate scholar/translator whose main goal is for lots of ordinary people to read that text, let him work, and price the end result within the book-buying budget of the poorest college student. Penguin has done this countless times, and it's exactly what happened with this handy little paperback of the Historia. In his Introduction, Thorpe is blessedly no-nonsense about his work:
There has been much debate about the division of the Historia into twelve, eleven, or nine books, and then the breaking down of each book into chapters. Whatever devices the various scribes and editiors have adopted here, it seems reasonably clear that these subdivisions were not made by Geoffrey himself. I have divided my translation into eight main parts, according to the subject-matter, and given a clear title to each part. These titles are repeated as a running-head at the top of my verso pages; and at the top of my recto pages there is a printed indication of the point reached in the narrative; a really full index raissone, the first ever printed of Geoffrey's book, is given at the end of the volume.

And there you have it – a back-breaking amount of work, done expertly and unassumingly, then handed over to a public that ought to be grateful. Probably Gerald of Wales would have called it blasphemous – but then, there's no pleasing some people.

[caption id="attachment_1492" align="aligncenter" width="220" caption="Geoffrey of Monmouth, in happier days"][/caption]

Friday, September 17, 2010

Under the Covers with Paul Marron: Playboy Boss, Live-In Mistress!

A glance – a lingering, smoldering glance – at the cover of Kelly Hunter's 2008 “Harlequin Presents” romance Playboy Boss, Live-In Mistress will be enough to tip off expert Paul-watchers that our broodingly sexy hero is still learning the ropes in this volume (not literally, the tease, but we can always hope): he's still fully clothed.

True, it's snug clothing in sleek whites and grays, suitable for highlighting his muscular little body. And true, the young business woman (equally sleekly outfitted) on the cover is doing what any sensible person would do in such a situation: she's holding Paul's discreetly feathered mullet firmly with one hand while she starts to unbutton him with the other. By contrast, he seems almost shy: his left hand (the one with the expensive watch) is merely touching her thigh, and his right hand (where all the action is, as it were) is MIA. In terms of a Paul Marron cover, it's virtually chaste. Yes, we're still in apprenticeship days here.

Some other things haven't changed either: Paul – this time he's Alexander Wentworth, ruthless young corporate takeover expert – is still filthy rich as well as being menacingly good-looking, and he's still characterized, at least in the story's beginning, as, well, a bit materialistic:
If an eight-knot wind was blowing north-north-east off the Cornwall coast, and he had no place to be but on his yacht and nothing to do but set a course and peel a diamond-encrusted bikini off a beautiful woman, Lex could be very patient indeed. Journeys of seduction were meant to be savoured and savour them he did. Frequently.

The object of his desire in this book is his personal assistant Sienna Raleigh, who's no slouch in the looks department herself and has known Paul his entire life. She's only filling in for the PA job, really: Paul lost his last one (something about motherhood), and since nobody knows him better than Sienna, she's keeping his life in order until a proper search can be conducted. She's also the voice of the conscience she knows he has, reminding him that instead of stepping in at the last minute to gut failing companies, he could try to save them instead.

But the shift in their relationship – from long-time friends and virtual siblings to boss and biddable underling – acts tectonically, allowing pent-up magma to boil to the surface. Suddenly all that comfort and security between them turns to white-hot desire. Suddenly for Sienna, anyway – in this book as in all books, white-hot desire seems to be Paul's default setting. He must have the metabolism of a bunny rabbit.

Soon, the passionate love-making starts, and some of it – well, let's just say Paul's technique sometimes seems to have wandered in from another kind of romance altogether:
Lex shot out from beneath her, cursing, half laughing, as he rolled her over and pinned her face down against the bed, one hand on the small of her back as he half straddled her to stop her from turning over and reaching for him again. Better, much better, as he slid her silky hair to one side and nipped the back of her neck. Sienna moaned and tried to turn around but he wasn't having that. There was the small matter of control. Lex had it. He was keeping it.

What ensues is a battle of wills on many levels: will Sienna surrender to passions she didn't even know she felt? Will Paul allow her to awaken the good-guy buried deep in his corporate shark heart (some ill-timed mentions of the “sub-prime housing market” might make some readers want to rip that heart right out of his pillowy chest and put it in a blender)?

Readers will keep turning pages to find out – Kelly Hunter is a bit of a sleek professional herself: there's not an ounce of fat anywhere in this novel. She wrote it in 2008 (originally for the apparently burgeoning Australian romance market? Who would have guessed Australian men, of all people, were leaving their women-folk with enough extra energy to read romantic fantasies? What international stereotype will be the next to fall? An Irishman saying, “well, you know me – one drink's my limit!”? A Frenchman saying, “Without my warm, soapy morning's shower, I just don't feel clean!”?), and when it was brought out by Harlequin in 2009 it was festooned with provocative banners - “Kept For His Pleassure” and “She's his mistress on demand!” - which is a bit of a shame, since whoever tacked on those labels didn't read the book. We're not talking Proust here, granted, but still: Sienna is hardly kept for Paul's pleasure or his mistress on demand – there's more, yes, subtlety here than that.

More subtlety, but decidedly not more of Paul's bare torso! Back in 2008 he was still a shy, journeyman cover-model wearing button-down shirts and pants and everything. But will he always remain so? Tune in next time and find out!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Eight Great Dicks!

Like all great epics but one, Moby Dick is really a library of interconnected stories. It's not just that the doomed Pequod hears stories from every vessel she encounters in her captain's mad search for the white whale, and it's not just that we the readers hear extended stories about those and other vessels from Ishmael our narrator, and it's not just that Ishmael is telling us the Pequod's story and, by extension, the whole story of whales and whaling; what we tend to forget in the immediacy of Melville's tale is that the whole narrative is a story, told to us about events that happened a long time ago (“never mind how long precisely”) - and the teller himself is a made-up character, an invention of himself who won't even tell us his real name (“Ishmael” being a puckish Biblical choice designed to play off the name of the Pequod's captain). Stories and digressions open up off the main current of the book in almost endless variety, until they're finally paired away to one slender narrative of survival – Ishmael, clinging to a floating coffin. And even then, he doesn't tell us he survived in order to reach his dear home again, or to seek revenge on Moby Dick; he survives to tell the tale.

Given this kind of multiplicity – and the tiny, related fact that the book is the greatest American novel of the 19th century – it's not surprising that Moby Dick has had as many editions as there are grains of sand on the shore. I dearly love the book and have read it more times than I could readily count (and in more places, including on the open water of all of the world's seas and once, in its entirety, in New Bedford), but even I couldn't even begin to guess at all the various paperbacks and hardcovers that exist out there in the wilds of the used-book world. I've seen perhaps two or three hundred such, but that's a drop in the proverbial bucket.

And naturally, I've developed favorites. Considering how often I've read the book – and more importantly, how often I've recommended it to others and urged them to read it – I could scarcely help it. There's an aura about Moby Dick, I sometimes think; like War & Peace, it's one of those overwhelming books that even faint-hearted readers somehow want to tackle (I've recently had it proven to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that Murasaki Shikibu's Tale of Genji does not have that aura, which is a pity, since it's really quite good too). Some of this might derive from its primary colors – a man's tale (no female characters at all, unless some of the more scurrilous postmodern theories about the whale itself are to be believed), full of adventure and yet delving into deeper meanings, and easily summarized: everybody knows the basic outline of what happens in Moby Dick, whereas not even Proust had the faintest idea how his own narcoleptic prose-epic ended.

When you're in the business of handing people books you want them to read, it behooves you to give some thought to your editions; a careless match could cost Moby Dick a reader, after all, and I want it to have as many readers as possible. And it's not just new readers: at different times of the day or seasons of the year, I myself will want a slightly different Moby Dick. So I've picked my eight favorites (in deference to John Parke's wonderful 1955 essay “Seven Moby Dicks”) to illustrate the gamut.

We start off with paperbacks, because Moby Dick is a big book, and squat, hand-friendly paperbacks are the best, most inviting way to grapple with it (well, the second most inviting way – the most inviting way would be to carry around an abridged edition, like the type that flourished in the 1930s and '40s, but our modern publishing world, getting so many of its sales from academia, has largely done away with abridgments, and rightly so; I myself have often urged people to read an abridged version of the book – but one of my own devising, consisting of check-marked chapters in the un-abridged version, so the reader is always free to go back and explore – an abridgment that actually has chunks cut out removes that option). And we start off with the most superficial reason to pick a book: its cover. In this case it's the somber, oddly threatening dark green seascape of the 1967 Bantam Classic edition (the paperback makes no cover-attribution, so to this day I still have no idea whose painting I've been admiring all these decades).

But the old Bantam Classics weren't manufactured to last even twenty years, much less half a century, and often when you encounter that 1967 volume, it's falling to pieces. Not so our next paperback choice, the old 1961 Signet Classic! These volumes were put together with rock-solid workmanship and on higher than average quality paper, and the results are visible even in this unthinkable year of 2010: this Moby Dick is a survivor – and if the movies are to be believed, it'll out-last us all, since it's this old Signet paperback that's on the bookshelf of the evil Khan's makeshift bookshelf in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And the volume boasts more than superior spine-glue! It's also got a feisty afterword by Denham Sutcliffe, then of Kenyon College, that includes this passage:
Everybody knows before he opens it that Moby Dick is a symbolical book, loaded with “hidden meanings.” Before he has read fifty pages he begins asking, “What does this bench stand for? Could it be Calvinism?” Or, “What does the chowder stand for?” Such an approach does violence both to the book and to the technique of symbolism. It translates a great story into a parlor-game cryptogram and it makes a trivial mystery out of one of the basic operations of the human imagination.

Neither the Bantam nor the Signet sports much in the way of critical apparatus (although the Bantam does include the aforementioned John Parke essay). For that, we have to turn to those twin titans of popular-run critical editions, Penguin Classics and Oxford World's Classics. The latter is edited by Tony Tanner with fearful miscomprehension (sample gibberish: “Given the radically orphaned condition of modern man, a danger that Melville could see was the accelerating drift into disconnectedness of the non-affiliated contemporary individual”), but it includes fascinating correspondence between Melville and his book's dedicatee, Nathaniel Hawthorne, including this typically fascinating aside:
Lord [wrote Melville], when shall we be done growing? As long as we have anything more to do, we have done nothing. So, now, let us add Moby Dick to our blessing, and step from that. Leviathan is not the biggest fish; - I have heard of Krakens.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the Penguin editor – waggishly called Harold Beaver – who appends to his own edition hundreds of pages of end-notes. It's the work of a madman, and it makes the Penguin hands down the most critically overloaded edition ever nominally intended for a mass-market audience. If you're a reader who likes this kind of herbaceous annotation (I sure as Hell am), this is the edition for you.

But all mass-market paperbacks of Moby Dick share at least one limitation, and in the case of this particular book, it's a crippling one: their size and price prohibit illustrations. All epics invite illustrated editions (poor aforementioned Genji has an absolutely gorgeous one, also from Penguin), but few do so more readily than Moby Dick, mainly because Melville is such a visual writer and renders this book is such childishly primary colors: Ahab has a peg-leg, and sperm whales are all head and tail – a child could draw either one and elicit recognition from the literati. So the other half of our eight choices today will be illustrated versions.

And we'll start with what was once the best-known (and still holds the records for the best-selling) such edition: the old Modern Library edition illustrated by Rockwell Kent. Kent originally did his work for R. R. Donnelley and Sons in 1930, and the edition quickly went through a boat-load of reprints – not only because then, as now, Modern Library made some of the best-designed and most reasonably-priced classics, but also because Kent's style of illustration was enjoying a vogue at the time (readers of Edith Hamilton's Mythology will recognize that style, with varying degrees of affection) – heavy black lines, straightforward, usually eye-level compositions designed to be self-consciously nostalgic for woodcuts of the previous century. Kent's work on Moby Dick went far beyond the standard commissioned seven-picture deal: his illustrations positively fill the book, and he balances full-page set-pieces with dozens of spot-illustrations. Melville's book frequently calls for such aids to the reader; who in this day and age will be able to picture a case-bucket, or a monkey-rope? Virtually every time such a term appears, a dutiful Kent rendering of it won't be far behind. It might not be our current notion of art, but it's oddly comforting.

Moby Dick has always been popular with various 'illustrated classics' done for children over the years, and you'd think one of the goals of any such series would be to produce just that sense of comfort. But in 1990 Berkley Publishing Group enlisted fan-favorite comic book artist Bill Sienkiewicz to do a fully-illustrated graphic novel of the book, and the results are anything but comforting. With its garishly varying colors and its great heaping helpings of the book's text (unlike most other illustrated classics, this is an abridgment, not a bowdlerized retelling), this Sienkiewicz Moby Dick, despite its provenance, is one of the finest and most spellbinding editions of Melville ever produced.

The prize of actual finest edition, however, goes to the 1979 Arion Press edition that was later brought out by the University of California. The paperback edition is, fittingly, white and oversized, and the whole thing is profusely illustrated by Barry Moser, who clearly has Rockwell Kent peering over his shoulder throughout. Moser provides several full-page dramatic drawings, but like Kent, he also gives us dozens of spot-illustrations of everything from a mast-head to a quarterdeck to a great squid like the one that gets Ahab's murderous hopes up at one point in the book. This gorgeous edition is proudly, defiantly just the book – no Introduction or Afterword, no essays or end-notes: just Melville's strange, rolling prose and Moser's clear, evocative black-and-white engravings. It might not be the most handy version to pack in the bottom of a footlocker, but it belongs on a high shelf with some of the prettiest editions ever made.

And my personal favorite, out of all the candidates? Oddly enough, it would be the 1994 specially-commissioned remainder edition put out by Barnes & Noble as part of a short-lived stab at making a distinctive shelf of 'classics' (the Dracula and the Gulliver's Travels are also worth finding, but the Moby Dick is the best). B&N brought together the text, some letters, some reviews, a dictionary of terms, a whiny-pants introduction by Mark Helprin, and twelve gorgeous full-color page-sized illustrations by Mark Summers, and they topped the whole thing off with Hart Crane's haunting poem “At Melville's Tomb”:
Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge

The dice of drowned men's bones he saw bequeath

An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,

Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,

The calyx of death's bounty giving back

A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,

The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,

Its lashing charmed and malice reconciled,

Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;

And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive

No farther tides … High in the azure steeps

Monody shall not wake the mariner.

This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

Summers' drawings are as stark as Kent's and as vibrant as Moser's, and their relative infrequency (no spot-illustrations here) gives them a distinct power all their own. This is the edition of Moby Dick that forms my own Ahab-like obsession whenever I'm book-hunting, since B&N only did a limited run and it's consequently somewhat hard to find. I've never, in fact, come across it randomly – when it first came to the downtown Boston Barnes & Noble, I, bowled over by its beauty, bought all the copies in the shipment, and those are the only ones I've ever seen. If I were at all comfortable finding used books online, this is one of the only ones I'd seek.

There are countless other editions, of course, spurred not only by creativity (there was recently a childrens pop-up version) but by cupidity (for good or ill – mostly ill – the book is always assigned in schools, so every publisher in the world has a financial motive for bringing out a slightly more expensive paperback every two or three years), but these eight form the nucleus of my own appreciation, and the first two have been tried and treasured traveling companions and, when opened, bear still the salt-sea tangs of places long ago. Countless editions, yes, but I feel certain one of these eight will serve just about any reader still willing to commit themselves to the deep.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Sympathetic Vibrations!

Our book today is K.C. Cole's invigorating 1984 book Sympathetic Vibrations: Reflections on Physics as a Way of Life, and reading it will make you wish it had been assigned to you in school – and that you'd been lucky enough to have Cole as a teacher. Her book investigates the many interlinked worlds that underlie the modern understanding of physics – everything from waves and particles to styles of measurements to quantum mechanics is covered here, all of it done in a lively, colloquial style that loses none of its authority for being approachable. And all of it abides by her underpinning idea that “science is inseparable from philosophy” - an assertion I'd ordinarily take issue with, except that Cole makes a really strong case, and it's so enjoyable to watch her do it.

I'm a sucker for this kind of popular science volume specifically because I tend not to believe that science and philosophy have anything meaningful to do with each other. Philosophy, after all, deals in hard, tangible realities – who is free, who is happy, and why, stuff like that – whereas science deals almost exclusively with unobservable matters of faith. Scientists tell you that the sun doesn't, in fact, revolve around Earth – and you believe them even though your own eyes tell you every day that it does. Scientists tell you that their world is bounded on all sides by immutable laws, unthinking principles that guarantee uniformity. And yet, every single day each and every one of us tells a computer/cash register/ATM/parking meter to do something utterly routine – tells it in exactly the same manner we've told it thousands of times before – and had it simply refuse to work. We laugh and soften the moment with comments like “Oh, it's feeling cranky,” but the truth is, nobody's ever seen anything even remotely resembling an immutable law connected with any kind of technology – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, and nobody can say why. A philosopher caught in that kind of ignorance would be drummed out of the Academy.

And that's precisely why I'm a sucker for Cole's kind of book: because underneath the marketing facade of popularizing science, these types of books are really simple Middle Ages miracle plays with updated vocabulary. Their purpose isn't really to simplify the workings of advanced science to the point where the non-specialist layman can grasp them (although Cole is very, very good at such reductions, making them completely painless) – it's to reconcile readers to the dark, supernatural, utterly unpredictable forces all around them every day.

Cole does this in an appealingly old-fashioned way: she resurrects the old viewpoint in which the world is just too terrifying to be fully comprehended, and she does it in language that, with a few minor tweaks here or there, would have sat quite well with Cotton Mather:
The abstractions of science are stereotypes – as two-dimensional and as potentially misleading as everyday stereotypes. And yet they are as necessary to the progress of understanding as filtering is to the process of perception. Science would be impossible without them – if only because the real world of nature is much too complicated to deal with in its natural form. Abstractions are a way to distill the essence from an otherwise unfathomable situation … Raw reality is much too rich even to consider most of the time – too various, too exceptional, to many-hued.

This is a neat dodge, since it excuses her ahead of time for what she's going to do, which is talk about the universe and everything in it in deistic and animist terms. As you can tell from the above rationalization, she's going to maintain that the reason why she talks about things this way is because the full complexity of their real natures won't allow anything else. The real reason – because they actually are deistic and animist – will be silently glided over, lest it upset any typically narrow-minded and reactionary atheists in the audience.

Of course, that isn't all she does! Her book is marvellous precisely because she's such good company, diving right into her explanations and clarifications with the gusto of a born teacher, as when, in her signpost chapter on harmonics, she talks about the concept of resonance:
The power of resonance comes literally from being in the right place at the right time. For it to work, there has to be a harmony between what you're doing and the way something (or someone) wants to go. The almost eerie purity of laser light comes from the fact that all the atoms in the excited gas are posed just so that a gentle nudge of energy will cause them to give off light in patterns exactly aligned with each other … Resonance, in other words, allows a lot of little pushes in the right place to add up to big results. Particle accelerators use this principle of “a well-time kick in the pants,” as one physicist put it, to nudge electrons and protons almost to the speed of light.

(It doesn't take her long to get from 'right place at right time' to the hula hoop – this was 1984, after all, practically the '70s – but such references are never just gimmicks with her, so you forgive it)

But ultimately, she's interested in the same thing all ecclesiastical writers are: the role of order in the visible world. In deference to the current mind frame, she refers to 'evil' as 'entropy' and quantifies 'good' right out of the picture, but the investigations are nonetheless familiar and most certainly ongoing:
entropy wins not because order is impossible, but because there are always so many more paths toward disorder than toward order. There are so many more different ways to do a sloppy job than a good one, so many more ways to make a mess than to clean it up. If I put a baby in front of a typewriter, the odds are roughly one in forty-three that she will type the letter a. There is less than a chance in a million, however, that she could consecutively strike the letters that would spell out Shakespeare. And the chance is so infinitesimal that she would type the complete works of Shakespeare that we call it impossible.

I always end up recommending books like Sympathetic Vibrations (and I do, most heartily, recommend Sympathetic Vibrations) using some variation on the refrain of, “if this book could make a scientific dummy like me understand its basic concepts – without doing damage to those concepts – then it's well worth the time of every other scientific dummy out there, and probably the attention of better-informed people too.” This also is comforting, since it implies a spectrum, and those are always reassuring. Sure beats “no man knows whence it comes or wither it goes,” so I'll stick with it this time too.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Life of Birds!

Our book today is David Attenborough's masterpiece, The Life of Birds, and for many readers the temptation here will be to conflate the book with the absolutely heartbreakingly good BBC television mini-series, also by Attenborough, to which this book is the companion. A certain amount of this conflation is unavoidable – the book was written in conjunction with the series, after all. But the book is able to go into far more detail, and reading it is a very different experience than watching the TV show. Both experiences are utterly enchanting, but each has its own distinct enchantment.

To put it mildly, there are lots of bird books out there. There are volumes on bird evolution, history, physiology, cognition, and ecological survival. The Life of Birds touches on all of those things, but if it's the single greatest bird book ever written (I contend it is), that's not the reason. Rather, the reason is the entirely unselfconscious way it exults in birds, in the whole world of them. Attenborough has always had a soft spot for birds as a subject matter, and he's famously trekked all over the world to look at, whisper to, and marvel about virtually every kind of bird on the planet. His most charming habit is his immediate identification with his charges in all their infinite variety:
The sun bittern uses visual signals. It builds its nest in swampy regions of the South American rain forest. When it is sitting, it is difficult to detect for its brown plumage, barred with thin wavy stripes of grey, white, and olive, blends in closely with its background. But if you do see it and walk slowly towards it, the bird, most unexpectedly, will fan its tail and spread its wings, revealing on each a bright chestnut patch, edged on the upper side with black and heightened by a surround of glowing gold. The two patches glare at you like a pair of huge eyes. If you stand your ground, the bird will rise and stalk towards you with such confidence that anyone unfamiliar with it might be forgiven for thinking that the creature in front of them was actually dangerous. That, doubtless, is the intended message. It is not, of course, true. The bird is telling a lie.

Readers who come to this book from the mini-series – indeed, from any David Attenborough nature series – will know to expect another aspect too, and they won't be disappointed: in the mini-series and in much greater detail in the book, our author has a penchant for telling us amazing natural history stories we never quite knew before, like the unbelievable birth of the humble megapode:
Of all the ground-nesting birds, the most swiftly independent is the infant megapode. Its incubation period is particularly long – sixty to eighty days. The egg, being buried in a mound, does not have to withstand being rolled around and sat on, as eggs in nests must be able to do. Accordingly, it has one of the thinnest of shells and the chick is able to break its way without much effort. Indeed, although some three weeks before it hatches, the little egg tooth begins to develop on its beak, this come to nothin and soon disappears unused. The megapode chick is the only bird that manages to break out of its shell without the assistance of such a tool. But the task that it next faces is a very exhausting one. Above it lies a foot or so of earth. Lying on its back, it kicks out with its feet which, like those of its parents, are disproportionately large. As it loosens the earth, it humps its back and wriggles so that dislodged soil is pushed beneath it and it slowly moves upward. All this activity is fuelled entirely by the remains of the huge yolk which lies in its infant stomach. It will take several days to dig its way up to the surface, but by the time it does arrive there, it is a totally independent individual with a full complement of feathers that are so well developed that it is able to fly immediately.

And The Life of Birds, like all Attenborough's marvellous books (cynicism would guess that they're all factory-written by interns and assistants and then polished by the man himself, but since such cynicism makes the same claim about the speeches and histories of Winston Churchill, I'm content no matter what the truth of it may end up being), has something often sorely lacking from other fact-filled works of natural history: sweep. His books take on big subjects and never let us forget how big they are. The many amazing species of birds in these pages are living in some of the most dramatic ways of any life-form on Earth, and all of that drama is captured perfectly here, as in this passage about the great crowds of emperor penguins incubating their eggs while their females are off in the northern oceans feeding:
As the winter winds begin to blow, the days darken, the temperatures fall, and the emperors huddle closer and closer together. The blizzards increase in severity, the wind screams across the ice at 100 miles an hour and the males huddle still closer, their beaks drawn down to their chests so that the napes of their necks, pressed tightly together, form a feathered roof with scarcely a gap between them. They have nothing to eat. Mid-winter comes and for a month there is total darkness, except for the shifting veils and curtains of the Southern Lights playing overhead.

I can't recommend The Life of Birds highly enough, whether you've seen the mini-series of the same name or not (of course, I can't recommend the mini-series highly enough either, but that would be a different blog altogether). The world's most remarkable animal is not man (nor, alas, is it dog), and that most remarkable kind has its greatest portrait here.