Sunday, January 09, 2011

Pomes, Proems, and Porkers in the Penny Press!

In the waning months of 2010, I got quite a few comments from the Silent Majority asking me whatever became of regular In the Penny Press updates. And it's true: I neglected writing about my vast magazine-reading, mainly because the year's impending end had me thinking more and more about all the books I still wanted to write about.

But as the American magazine industry is forever reminding us these days, despite the Internet and the decline of literacy, magazine-reading is as healthy as its been in decades. And I certainly contribute my share to that! I read every issue of National Geographic, Esquire, GQ, Vanity Fair, Men's Journal, Outside, The American Scholar, Royalty, Majesty, Natural History, Harper's, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, New York, Rolling Stone, Asimov's, the TLS, The New Yorker, The London Review of Books, Publisher's Weekly, The Romantic Times Book Club, The Boston Review, and the New York Review of Books, and I usually find something noteworthy about every single issue of every single one of those ... so it's a tad laggardly if I stop blogging about them here. If Stevereads is the autobiography of my reading, scanting on magazines would be like skipping a chapter.

Hence, I started off the year with a Penny Post entry, and I'll keep it up - starting now, with a very strong little pod of titles consumed at my usual table at my little hole-in-the-wall Chinese food place in Chinatown (not the same hole-in-the-wall place that served me for a whopping 30 years - it closed! - but a newer, even smaller place that's unknown both to stupid American customers and, I suspect, to the Boston Board of Health... I get a HUGE plate of food for a pittance, and I'm left alone to read in sweet peace for as long as I want, because the staff is wonderful and also because there are never any other customers). The opening dish, as it were, was The New Yorker, which featured, among other things, a poem I rather liked and which I include here in place of my late, apparently unlamented 'Poetry Class' feature:


In the little house filled with dogs and resilient plants

She left only a glass and a blank sheet of paper.

The stadium up the road like a siren called with silent applause

To climb up, climb beyond the seats and the grass

Where a team of young girls kicked a white ball.

Maybe she knew they were there, maybe she was calling back

A line a male poet committed to the page a decade ago,

About time made simple by the loss of detail.

Maybe she then cast out every detail but the unencumbered air

To keep it simple. And then fluttered away from us.

That's called "Air" by Daniel Halpern, and I like it quite a bit.

Amazingly, I also liked the beginning of this issue's short story - and the reason it's amazing is because the story, called "The Years of My Birth," is by the dreaded Louise Erdrich, whose work I've hated since the Great Depression. And keep in mind, I still hate her work - this story is slightly less wretched than her usual blather, it's true, but it still falls apart almost completely on both a plot and an execution level. But the opening is, against all odds, first-rate:


The nurse had wrapped my brother in a blue flannel blanket and was just about to hand him to his mother when she whispered, "Oh, God, there's another one," and out I slid, half dead. I then proceeded to die in earnest, going from slightly pink to a dull gray-blue, at which point the nurse tried to scoop me into a bed warmed by lights. She was stopped by the doctor, who pointed out my head and legs. Stepping between me and the mother, the doctor addressed her.

"Mrs. Lasher, I have something important to say. Your other child has a congenital deformity and may die. Shall we use extraordinary means to salvage it?"

She looked at the doctor with utter incomprehension at first, then cried, "No!"

While the doctor's back was turned, the nurse cleared my mouth with her finger, shook me upside down, and swaddled me tightly in another blanket, pink. I took a blazing breath.

"Nurse," the doctor said.

"Too late," she answered.

Any story that begins with that kind of crackle just naturally compels you to keep reading - which I unfortunately did, but still.

(The issue also features a droll, enjoyable essay by Joan Acocella about the popularity of the Stieg Larsson novels. She makes a few good stabs, but ultimately she can't figure it out either)

And as enjoyable as I find practically every issue of The New Yorker, I turned with special eagerness - I always do - to my own metier,  book-criticism. And boy, what a great double-barrelled blast of book-criticism you get when you read The London Review of Books and the TLS back-to-back! In the London Review this time around there's an absolutely howlingly great take-down of George W. Bush's Decision Points, which is sly and vicious and fleet-footed and would be sufficient to induce authorly catatonia, if the former president ever actually read it. Which seems, all in all, unlikely. The piece is by Eliot Weinberger, and surely its most glorious paragraph is this one:


This is a chronicle of the Bush Era with no colour-coded Terror Alerts; no Freedom Fries; no Halliburton; no Healthy Forests Initiative (which opened up wilderness areas to logging); no Clear Skies Act (which reduced air pollution standards); no New Freedom Initiative (which proposed testing all Americans, beginning with schoolchildren, for mental illness)l no pamphlets sold by the National Parks Service explaining that the Grand Canyon was created by the Flood; no research by the National Institutes of Health on whether prayer can cure cancer ('imperative' because poor people have limited access to healthcare); no cover-up of the death of football star Pat Tillman by 'friendly fire' in Afghanistan; no 'Total Information Awareness' from the Information Awareness Office; no Project for the New American Century; no invented heroic rescue of Private Jessica Lynch; no Fox News; no hundreds of millions spent on 'abstinence education'.

Hee. Of course, many of the items on that list are very nearly as fraudulent in their glancing mention here as their omission from Bush's book is (Open Letters' own Greg Waldmann, taking the less fun but more measured tone here, no doubt renders things more correctly, even at the cost of pyrotechnics), but the spittle flying off the piece was hugely enjoyable just the same.

(And while we're on the subject of OLM-echoes, Peter Campbell turns in a piece in this same issue in which he takes in the Thomas Lawrence exhibit now at the National Portrait Gallery and appreciates Lawrence's work as much as I did here. He writes: "There are some tremendous pictures among the things gathered here. Pictures of 'real genius'? Well, 'genius' is not an easy word, but certainly vivid, appealing and, sometimes, as in the case of the military or of fashionable ladies, necessarily tawdry")

If I had to pick one highlight of the issue, however, it would be the utterly sui generis meditation on wild boars (and Paul Celan? I still haven't figured that part out yet) by the great novelist Lawrence Norfolk (whose greatest novel, In the Shape of a Boar, almost certainly generated this piece by accident years ago), including this little gem: "In the late 1980s, two young boars attacked an F16 fighter plane attempting to land at Jacksonville International Airport in Florida, causing its destruciton." (The anecdote is no more true than some of Weinberger's slung-around accusations, but it's just as much fun)

And the riches on hand in the TLS were, if anything, greater - starting with a wonderful extended explanation for the dismayingly phoned-in little squib I took Adam Hirsch to task for in the Book Review here. In this issue of the TLS, he delivers a long and gloriously intelligent review of a thoroughly unworthy subject, the letters of Saul Bellow, and the piece is every bit as smart as his Book Review piece was vapid, every bit as detailed as his Book Review piece was vague. Virtually every paragraph of this spectacular review sparkles with nerve and insight:


The soul makes the flesh, which is why it can't survive the flesh. And this insight is guaranteed, for Bellow, by the very vividness with which the physical world appeals to him - an intensity so powerful that he could not believe it was merely subjective. This very early intuition is what led Bellow to his late enthusiasm for Rudolf Steiner, whose books are so dreadfully written that only a deep spiritual aspiration could have led a reader of Bellow's sensitivity to tolerate them.

I find I can forgive any number of fatuous essays on the Role of the Book-Critic Today if the essayist in question is still capable of knocking reviews like this one out of the ballpark. If a tongue-lashing from Stevereads was all it took to get Kirsch back in line, I'm happy to serve.

And speaking of tongue-lashings! Some of you may have noticed the pan I gave to Ron Chernow's new hagiography of George Washington, so of course I read Mark Spencer's review of the same book with great interest. Alas, he decides mostly to praise the thing despite the fact that its manifold deficiencies are in full display on every page. This is as close as Spencer comes to invective: "Convincing us to trade in our "frosty respect for Washington" for a "visceral appreciation of this foremost American" sometimes leads Chernow beyond the evidence of the historical record."

Needless to say, I disagree with such a positively Jeevesian level of restraint. Maybe Spencer would profit from a tongue-lashing ...


A Reader said...

Andrew O'Hagan wrote the admirable LRB review of Bellow's letters, not Kirsch. It was not only a great read, but stands out from all the other slavering reviews of the book, with exception of Vivian Gornick's similarly unimpressed take in Bookforum.

Steve Donoghue said...

Why yes indeed, Andrew O'Hagan wrote a good Bellow review for the LRB - but I already knew that: I was talking about the review Adam Kirsch did for the TLS, But I agree that the press has been entirely too kind to the horrific Bellow's horrific letters.

Lawrence Norfolk said...

Actually, the anecdote of the boars' downing of an F16 is true. Forgive me if I don't give references... Best wishes, Mr Donoghue, and happy reading.

Eliot Weinberger said...

As a postscript to Lawrence Norfolk, whose essay I also loved, and with whom I am linked as a fabulist:

Why do you assume my list of Bush-era excesses is "fraudulent"? They're all true.

Anne Paolucci said...

Steve: After Peter Campion's piece in the TIMES, your review of "Canti" was a breath of fresh air. In 2004 I published with a small press, SELECTED POEMS OF GIACOMO LEOPARDI, which won recognition from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a cash prize of $6,000. I agree with your reservations about Galassi's translation; and since I'm bilingual (was born in Rome), I found that he often misread the original. (If you give me a mailing address, I'll send you a copy of my book.)

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