Friday, September 30, 2011

Comics! A Tale of Two Heroes!

This week concludes the initial spread of DC Comics' "New 52" relaunch, and I guess the idea was to finish things off with a bang: the new first issue of "Superman," written and drawn by comics-demigod George Perez. But the issue itself only underscores everything that's wrong with the "New 52" - not only is it a disappointment, it's the single worst  issue of the month. The besetting worry about this whole reboot was fairly straightforward: fans were concerned that the whole thing hadn't really been thought out carefully (this concern wasn't exactly allayed by DC writers telling everybody that the whole reboot came about by chance, while they were at a story conference riffing ideas about a possible love-triangle involving Superman ... "So who should he fall in love with? I don't know (*pauses to chug Red Bull*)... what if we just scrapped everything?"). These are some of the most iconic comics characters in the world, after all - and Superman and Batman are two of the very rare comics characters that have become cultural icons even outside the comics world. Revamping such icons should be the careful work of long preparation, not a quick gimmick done to goose sales for a month. DC editors have been assuring worried fans for months now that they're perfectly aware of the importance of what they're doing, and that they and all the creators involved are completely dedicated to making this relaunch one for the ages. So regarding the first issue of the new "Superman" title, the relaunch of the flagship character not only of the company but of the industry, I have one question:

Why does it stink?

I could handle it being simply different from what I myself would have wanted (in fact, since DC has decided to change Superman's costume, I was resigned to it being different from what I myself would have wanted), but this isn't that. This is a bad comic book, in every detail. Not only are fans handed the mother of all insults the minute they open the thing (George Perez does the scripting and the ... breakdowns? His work is finished and inked by somebody else? So Perez had a more pressing commitment than Superman #1?), but nothing improves from there on out. There's a ridiculous "newsprint is dying" plot, there's an amorphous fireball-villain, there's Justin Bieber (calling himself Jimmy Olsen), and there's the new Superman in his new supervillain costume - he looks exactly like some alternate-universe evil-Superman John Byrne would design in about fifteen minutes after too many jagermeisters. This new Superman spends most of the issue pouting, and when he does try to pull off a fairly simple helicopter rescue, he fails - Superman fails, in the middle of his very first issue.

The whole issue fails. It's cluttered, murky (the whole thing is set at night, for Rao's sake), talky, and completely undramatic. Its Superman is a bragging, ineffectual prick, and it's Clark Kent is even worse - a sanctimonious, unlikeable loser who mopes because he isn't sleeping with Lois Lane (that's another huge twist in continuity - no more married Kents; instead, we're back to the days of Lois saying, "Hey, where was Clark the whole time?" - because those days never got repetitive or, you know, insulting). DC's most conspicuous character is its most conspicuous "new 52" failure - so I have to do without Superman in my diet until this whole idiot mess gets re-revamped a few years down the line.

The failure of "Superman" #1 is only further underscored by the stunning success of "Aquaman" #1, also released this week. The issue is written by fan favorite Geoff Johns and drawn sumptuously by Ivan Reis, and the whole thing is exactly what a relaunch first issue should be (nevermind that it's received way more attention than it deserves - Johns is unhealthily fascinated with this Golden Age gold-and-green version of Aquaman; he masterminded an entire company-wide mini-series solely in order to resurrect the character from the dead and make him iconic again, and now there's this series, the end result of a decade of obsession)(I'm not complaining, mind you - Aquaman's a neat character who's always deserved and almost never received first-class treatment - but I could wish all this energy were being expended on making Wonder Woman the character she should be): it's fast-paced, it introduces us to the main character (something "Superman" #1 is both arrogant enough and stupid enough to think it doesn't need to do), and it sets the first plot in motion. It's all addictively good.

There are changes here too, of course - but they're for the better: this version of Aquaman is physically more powerful than any previous version we've seen, and that's good - and something I've been advocating for years (including many times right here on Stevereads). This Aquaman is super-strong, super-resilient (Reis re-uses a panel sequence from that resurrection mini-series, showing our hero get shot in the head by machine-gun fire and suffer no more than a cut and some irritation), super-fast ... and Johns writes him with a curious mixture of innocence and vulnerability that certainly sets him apart from all the other strutting, posturing "New 52" heroes. This series will be a pleasure to follow, unlike virtually all of the other "New 52" attempts I've seen this month. The two "Legion" titles were merely acceptable; "Justice League" was a pandering mess; "Wonder Woman" suffered yet another complete overhaul; "Superboy" has been ret-conned out of all personality; "Teen Titans" became "X-Men," fully half the first issues felt like completely unsustainable fill-in stuff, and worst of all, my favorite DC character, Superman, has been transformed into a Mattel-costumed Doctor Manhattan rip-off nobody in their right mind would ever cheer as he flew past. Out of the whole misbegotten mess, only a few bright spots: the Batman-family of books fared remarkably well, Green Lantern & co came out without a scratch ... and we have a new Aquaman to follow with interest.

In the meantime, I think I'll post about good ol' Marvel Comics for a while now ...


Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Persian Boy!

Our book today is Mary Renault's 1972 novel The Persian Boy, perhaps her masterpiece and certainly one of the greatest historical novels ever written. At its heart is the story of the young Persian eunuch Bagoas, who features as the briefest footnote in the actual historical accounts we have of Alexander (many of which qualify as historical fiction themselves, but never mind ...). Quintus Curtius Rufus mentions that Bagoas, owing to his exceptional beauty, was first the bed-toy of the Persian King Darius and then the bed-toy of Alexander himself, but we don't hear much more of this boy. There's mention that Alexander's Macedonian troops approved of their leader's choice in teenage boys, and there's a story indicating that preference might have made Bagoas arrogant and pettily vengeful toward Persians who had once offended him. Alexander was not besotted with the boy, despite many latter characterizations to that effect (Oliver Stone's ill-starred recent movie, in which the director's biggest mistake was casting Colin Farrell instead of Tom Hardy, being only the most visible) - indeed, both here and in her excellent The Nature of Alexander, Renault makes a strong case that Alexander was only besotted with two living beings in his entire life, and one of them was a horse (the story of his taming of his dangerous mount Bucephalus is lovingly retold, both in The Persian Boy and in Fire From Heaven):
The old beast threw up its head and whinnied loudly; you could see, then, it had been a good horse once. Suddenly Ptolemy, running like a boy, took its bridle from the Mardian, and loosed it. It broke into a stiff-legged canter, all its foolish fripperies jingling; made straight for the King, and nuzzled against his shoulder.

The King stroked its nose a time or two. He had been standing, it seemed, all this time grasping an apple, and with this he fed it. Then he turned round with his face pressed to its neck. I saw that he was crying.

There seemed nothing, now, with which he could still astonish me. I looked around at the soldiers, to see how they would take it. Beside me, two weathered Macedonians were blinking and wiping their noses.

Through Bagoas' eyes, Renault tells the story of Alexander's march ever eastward, of the hard-fought campaigns and perilous desert-crossings, and of the increasing tensions among Alexander's own men, many of whom had signed on to plunder Persia but were less keen about trying to subdue the entire known world. The horrible culmination of those tensions was Alexander's impulsive murder of his life-long friend and general Kleitos on a night when both of them had typically had too much to drink. It's a dramatic moment worthy of a Jonson or a Dryden, and Renault portrays it gripplingly:
"Here's Kleitos!" he shouted. "Here I am!"

He had come back for the last word. He had thought of it too late, and would not forgo it. It was his fate to be given his wish.

From the doors behind him, a guard came in doubtfully, like a muddy dog. He'd had no orders to keep out the Commander; but he did not like it. He stood spear in hand, looking dutiful and ready. Alexander, checking his stride, stared unbelievingly.

"Listen, Alexander. Alas, ill rule in Hellas ..."

Even Macedonians knew their Euripides. I daresay everyone there but I could have completed these famous lines. The gist of them is that the soldiers do it all, the general gets it all. I don't know if he meant to go on.

A flash of white went to the door, and turned again. There was a bellow like a slaughtered bull's. Kleitos clutched with both hands at the spear stuck in his breast; fell and writhed grunting; jerked in the death-spasms. His mouth and eyes fixed, wide open.

It had been so quick, for a moment I thought the guard had done it. The spear was his.

It was the silence, all down the hall, that told me.

Alexander stood over the body, staring down. Presently he said, "Kleitos." The corpse glared back at him. He took the spear by the haft. When it would not come, I saw him begin the soldier's movement to brace his foot on the body; then flinch and pull again. It jerked out, a handspan deep in blood, splashing down his clean white robe. Slowly he turned it round, the butt on the ground, the point towards him.

Ptolemy has always maintained that it meant nothing. I only know I cried "No, my lord!" and got it away. I took him unready, as he had done the guard. Someone reached over and carried it out of sight. Alexander sank on his knees by the body, and felt over its breast; then covered his face with his bloody hands.

"Oh God," he said slowly. "God, God, God, God."

The sheer confidence embodied in that single word 'presently' is amazing to me. Not one author in a hundred would even see that dramatic opening, much less have the wisdom to so perfectly understate it.

Of course, the novel's also noteworthy for its anxiety-free portrayal of homosexual sex and love, something it shares in common with all the rest of Renault's historical fiction set in the ancient world (or even in the present: her novel The Friendly Young Ladies is a remarkably clear-headed portrait of a contemporary lesbian couple - only The Charioteer dabbles heavily in self-loathing and persecution). In this case we're presented with a muted version of that kind of love - since Bagoas is telling the story, we're never directly privy to Alexander's love, physical or otherwise, for his best friend Hephaistion, although we get plenty of deft and even funny sex-interludes between conqueror and war-trophy:
Alexander took a fancy for me that night. The wound [A. had recently received] opened and I was covered in blood; he just laughed, and made me wash in case the guard thought I'd murdered him. The wound felt easier, he said; no physician like love. It is true that when dry they often fester.

Every single page of The Persian Boy shines with accomplishment and crackles with near-perfect storytelling, and I can attest to the fact that it's just as thrilling on the fiftieth reading as it is on the first. Virtually everything this author wrote is fantastic (for the explicit 'theme' of male love, I think The Last of the Wine is more tender and more true than this present book, but it also lacks the epic resonance), they each deserve their own entry here at Stevereads, but this one stands out even in such distinguished company. I can't urge you strongly enough to take it down from your shelf and finally give it that long-intended read. You'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Eight Good Reads!

According to the calendar, at least, autumn  approaches (in Boston in the last week of September, it's 85 degrees with the humidity hovering somewhere around 95 % - in other words, very uncomfortably hot, with absolutely no sign of a more merciful season coming), and autumn traditionally means a crush of prestigious new titles crowding bookstore shelves and tables in anticipation of the major literary awards - and the holiday book-buying season.

The autumn is also often characterized as the time when readers come back from their ramshackle beach-houses and buckle back down to work and 'serious' reading - and this characterization has persisted even though there hasn't been a shred of truth to it in thirty years. It goes hand-in-hand with the very idea of 'serious' versus 'light' reads - a distinction I've never really understood in any but personal terms. The labels certainly can't be referring to the work necessary to generate them - it takes far more work to whittle a Jeeves & Wooster novel into perfect shape than it does to maunder around for 200 pages about suburban angst. I think the distinction itself is so much bunk and does a great deal of harm to the republic of letters, but if there's any truth to it (even artificial truth), surely it comes from the handling of plot more than anything else? Surely we've come to think of 'light' reads are more formally observant of plot - Thing X builds, Thing X happens, Thing X happened - whereas 'serious' reads can let even major story-lines just sort of drift off into clouds of precious prose.

I'm recommending eight contemporary novels today, and all eight of them quietly defy the whole concept of 'serious' and 'light' fiction. None of them is long, none of them boasts the tangled, verbose prose style currently considered 'genius,' and almost all of them are written by authors who once upon a time would have fallen comfortably into that disturbing old catch-all, midlist. I recommend them mainly because they're all really enjoyable - the perfect things to cleanse your mental palate before the autumn publisher lists force you to read whoever's Jonathan Franzen this year. So consider this post the two of us walking through a bookstore's fiction section and me pointing out some things that are worth your time.

Diamond Dogs by Alan Watt (2000) - the story of handsome young star quarterback Neil Garvin, whose brutish father is the town's autocratic sheriff. The book is an insistent (almost tiresomely so) Oedipal conflict between the two - a conflict that scorches everybody else who comes in contact with it, including Neil's best friend and teammate (the book's homoerotic elements are handled so delicately the reader almost doesn't notice them at all):
"He's been pushing me my whole life and I'm sick of it. I'm sick of doing whatever he tells me to do. I just don't want to play anymore. I just want to be left alone." I couldn't understand why it sounded empty. All of it was true but when I heard the words come out of my mouth they just sounded silly. I didn't know what it was but I knew that he didn't believe me.

When a crime-plot enmeshes Neil, it brings every single issue of power and complicity between him and his father to the forefront, and you can't resist getting caught up in it all.

Mr Darwin's Shooter by Roger McDonald (1998) - Speaking of brutish - McDonald's main character Syms Covington leads a brutish, almost sub-human life from his earliest childhood, and yet he stubbornly developes - or refuses to yield - a tender sensibility and a sharp eye for the natural world. These things do him no good landing a berth on the Beagle at the commencement of its legendary voyage, but they come in very handy once he meets that vessel's oddly curate-like special guest of the captain:
That was when their gent grunted up the side and for the first time in all creation met Covington's eye - the boy registering a round coppery face and lubberly sea legs - one, two, and a clumsy haul, and Covington had his man to observe, all the height of him uncoiling shy. All he knew of him at present was that he liked to go out with his gun and his dog in the rain. He was, some said, a young squire of the sort who passed time with philosophers discoursing on whether Greeks ate melon seeds, or if they had privies in their gardens. He came from dockside in a cutter near sinking under the weight of extra goods that he wanted this late, everything awkward-shaped and dripping in the December mist as it was hoisted: a bundle of guns, a crate of jars, a sack of books, a rectangular basket lined with paper that was meant for dead birds. As he wondered, 'Might he trouble them with his extras?' Covington held his gaze and heard the words, but the gent's brown eyes still looked through him. 'I am ashamed,' thought Covington, 'to be who I am.'

An oddly touching relationship develops, and a really good historical novel is born.

Lit Life by Kurt Wenzel (2002) - In this hilarious satirical romp through the literary world of Manhattan and the Hamptons, Wenzel is able to let a whole brace of personal demons off their leashes, and he centers most of them on the formerly hot not deeply blocked youngish writer Kyel Clayton, who's such a lazy waster he actually floats to his cutthroat agent the possibility that he just won't write his next book. The response is not particularly passive:
"If you say no?" Trevor answered, his tone now quietly ferocious. "If you say no, I bury any book you submit after six months; it does me no good after that, and by contract I've got your next one by the balls. If you say no, I tell all future houses what an unproductive pain in the ass you've been - a real chop job, so that by the time I'm done, Kinko's will view you as a publishing risk. If you say no, I'll have my lawyers pull a gang bang on your ass that'll have you howling like a banshee, not to mention in paralyzing debt until the third millennium. If you say no, Kyle, you drunken bastard, I will personally dedicate my life to tracking you down - even if I have to visit every bar in the city - and sink my shoe into your rotted cantaloupe of a head and laugh as you shit bicuspids and sip single-village mescal through a straw for the next fifty years. If you say no."

This is by far the funniest book on our little list today (although there's one moment in Mr Darwin's Shooter that will make you laugh mighty damn loud despite your finer instincts), and it hits a number of fairly sensitive home-spots for any reader involved in 'the scene.'

Raymond + Hannah by Stephen Marche (2005) - This is the love story of Hannah, who's leaving to study the Torah for nine months in Jerusalem, and Raymond, who's doing his doctoral dissertation on Robert Burton's The Anatomy of Melancholy. The two of them meet and say some cute/clever things and then end up having sex, and the whole encounter - the whole book - is accompanied by printed marginalia glossing the action of the narrative. It's a gimmick that should get old in about fifteen seconds, but through the heartfelt poetry of Marche's prose, it doesn't. Instead, we get passage after passage like the one the marginalia terms "Toronto aubade":
Transport trucks, go slowly. Pull yourself over on the side of the road. Bring the night with you into your bunks. Let Raymond and Hannah anticipate endlessly on the stairs up to attics. Nights in August in Toronto are too short besides. And go slowly, street-washing men. Just let the dirt by dirty for now. Let the streets seize with filth. Let your engines stall, and stop the morning from coming. And more slowly, smokestacks; in fact, completely shut yourselves down. Nights in August in Toronto are too full of light besides. For once let all the power in you not flow, and leave Raymond and Hannah asleep in bed alone.

Dedication by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus (2007) - These two authors shot to super mega-stardom with their nondescript little book The Nanny Diaries, but readers shouldn't hold that against them. This book is entirely more genuine and eventually heartwarming, and it centers on the character of Kate Hollis, who's spent every year since high school listening to the world sing the songs of her life: because her former almost-boyfriend Jake Sharpe went on to become a Justin Timberlake-type international sensation who's based all of his hit songs on their time together. When they finally confront each other, the encounters will remind readers of the witty, fizzy big screen romantic comedy this book has somehow managed not to become:

Flailing the blankets off, I pull back and stare at his sheepish expression, determined. "If you don't do right by my friends, there is no 'you' I want to know. Are we clear?"

He sits up, flirtatious boy energy suddenly dissipated. He looks me in the eye. "Clear."

"Really? You'll tell Jocelyn and your lawyers? You'll sign the papers?"

"Yes." An unfettered lightness floods through me as he takes my face in his hands. "I need you - Kate," he emphasizes my adult name. "I think I keep writing songs about you just to keep your voice in my head."

"I'm your Jiminy Cricket?"

He laughs. "You are the best thing that ever happened to me."

"Can your lawyers draw up something to that effect as well?" I laugh with him, finally able to let myself feel the elation of being right where I am.

Popular Music from Vittula by Mikael Niemi (2003, translated from the Swedish by Laurie Thompson) - music also threads its way throughout Niemi's grotesquely grim and buffoonish story of the coming-of-age of young Matti in the isolated wastes of Northern Sweden. Whether it's Niemi or his translator, there's quite a bit of rather ham-handed satire in this utterly absorbing novel, and several bits of that satire are aimed squarely at the book's audience, as when the boy gets some sage warnings from his father:
The most dangerous thing of all, and something he wanted to warn me about above all else, the one thing that had consigned whole regiments of unfortunate young people to the twilight world of insanity, was reading books. This objectionable practice had increased among the younger generation, and Dad was more pleased than he could say to note that I had not yet displayed any such tendencies. Lunatic asylums were overflowing with folk who'd been reading too much. Once upon a time they'd been just like you and me, physically strong, straightforward, cheerful, and well balanced. Then they'd started reading. Most often by chance. A bout of flu, perhaps, with a few days in bed. An attractive book cover that had aroused some curiosity. And suddenly the bad habit had taken hold. The first book had let to another. Then another, and another, all links in a chain that led straight down into the eternal night of mental illness. It was impossible to stop. It was worse than drugs.


Away by Amy Bloom (2008) - It's difficult for me to tell with any accuracy (I'm not really aware of the careers - before or since - of most of our authors today), but it get the distinct impression Bloom isn't usually 'my kind of author.' Something in the tint of her sentimentality, perhaps, or maybe it's just this book's fairly gender-specific cover. But however that may be, this book - the story of plain-spoken heroine Lillian Leyb, whose search for her daughter takes her across the breadth of mid-20th century America and brings her into contact with all variety of people and their prejudices:
He had thought she might be a Jew, not that he's known many - one good boxer and his pretty, wild sister had said they were Jews, but they had also said they were the illegitimate children of Harry Houdini and he had not pursued it with them.

"Jewish. You're far from home."

Lillian opens her mouth to say that, on the contrary, Jews are found from China to everywhere else, but really, she is far from home.

"You people sure do land in the skillet."

This is either the kind of not-unfriendly remark Lillian has gotten used to in the West (in its darker versions, You people sure do have all the money; You people sure do stick together) or just a statement of fact and so observably true in this world that no Jew anywhere would dream of arguing the point.

"Yes, we do," Lillian says and she does not say, And just what do you make of those skillets, mister?

The Night Villa by Carol Goodman (2008) - Unlike with most of our authors today, I was already familiar with at least something Goodman wrote, the fantastic novel The Lake of Dead Languages. Our current book is equally classically oriented: classics professor Sophie Chase is recovering from a violent episode that happens at the beginning of the novel, and like all good classicists, she chooses to do her recovering on the island of Capri, uncovering the secrets of the long-buried Villa della Notte - which not only allows for a parallel narrative set in AD 79 on the eve of the eruption of Vesuvius but also facilitates her meetings with mysterious businessman Paul Lyros:
We walk slowly and Lyros stops often at water fountains to drink and at benches to retie his sneakers, or at tempting vistas to point out the Marina Grande below us and Monte Solaro towering behind us, or to point past a gate at some villa that lies drowsing in a lemon grove behind mounds of fuschia and azalea, geraniums and jasmine. He always picks a spot well shaded by an umbrella pine or cypress to regale me with a piece of Caprese history and give me a chance to catch my breath. "And this," he says at one gate, "is the Villa Lysis, once home to Count Jacques d'Adelsward Fersen, who so scandalized the Caprese that he had to leave the island. He did return eventually and lived here until he died of an opium overdoes at forty-five."

"What was the scandal about?"

"Oh, just another one of those old Caprese stories of degenerate foreigners made up of gossip and lies," he says, turning back up the path.

"You sound like you don't approve of the locals."

"I guess I'm afraid of what they say about me - that I'm just anther in a long line of eccentric foreigners come to live out his fantasies - or to escape the demands of Empire like our friend Tiberius." He points upward and I see the ruins of Tiberius's villa have come into view - a mass of sun-struck brick and limestone crowning a high peak above us.

No particular dominant theme governing these eight choices, mind you - just eight very good reads for your consideration on a very hot, very humid fall day.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Comics: Star Trek!

Scrappy upstart comics publisher IDW this week began a new "Star Trek" series based on the 2009 Hollywood reboot of the original TV series. It's not the first IDW "Star Trek" title I've read, but it's the first new adventure of any kind I've read that's set in the brand-new continuity created by that long-ago 2009 movie (why on Earth it's taking this long for a single sequel is utterly beyond me - perhaps we could speed things up if all the actors sychronized their rehab stints), so of course I was interested. As I've mentioned here before, Paramount's curious reluctance to 'expand their brand' into the fictional world of this new "Star Trek" continuity is puzzling, especially since nothing that happens in spin-off books or comics can affect the 'canon' of the movies. Perhaps the studio is worried any such adaptation might accidentally stumble upon the plot of the next movie, since the free-range of your average screenwriter's imagination has in recent years become so degraded that Aaron Sorkin's Dada-esque turn in "The Social Network" can be held up as genius. Perhaps that worry is present in the launching of these new comic-book stories set in the reboot Trek-verse.

Except that 'new' is a bit of an exaggeration. True, the issue opens with Scotty down in the engine room tinkering with the machines while the creepy gnome-like creature he brought on board in the movie just sits around and watches (somewhere along the coked-up scripting process of that movie, somebody thought it would be clever if the U.S.S. Enterprise's Chief Engineer came with his own gremlin, and somehow, nobody at any subsequent point noticed what a flamingly dumb idea that is, so now we have a mute and hostile unvetted alien masquerading as a Star Fleet officer engineer, and I guess we're supposed to believe nobody on the command crew has had a minute to notice. Sigh.). But then the action shifts to the young Captain Kirk (the visual template here is obviously pint-sized tobacco addict Chris Pine, from the movie) getting checkmated in three-dimensional chess ... by his best friend Gary Mitchell.

And every long-time "Star Trek" fan in the galaxy suddenly starts paying attention.

Gary Mitchell! The cocksure, swaggering Enterprise helmsman who appeared in the show's first real episode, "Where No Man Has Gone Before," way back in 1966 was characterized - there and here - as Captain Kirk's best friend. In that original TV episode, the Enterprise is on a mission to leave the Milky Way galaxy when a battered space-recorder is located adrift. It belonged to the SS Valiant, which disappeared with all hands some 200 years previous, and when our crew analyzes its data, they learn that at some point that earlier ship's crew grew frantic, and their captain ordered his ship to self-destruct. Shortly after uncovering these unsettling facts, the crew is jolted when the Enterprise encounters a massive 'energy barrier' at the edge of the galaxy. Passing through it causes massive electrical malfunctions throughout the ship - and also causes both Gary Mitchell and psychologist Elizabeth Dehner (one of Gene Roddenberry's classic 'remote' women, described as "a walking freezer unit") to begin developing exraordinary powers of telekinesis and telepathy. They start to lose their humanity as well, and Kirk is eventually forced to kill his old friend rather than loose him on the galaxy. The episode is the first time we see Captain Kirk, the first time we watch him favor passion over logic in a debate with Mr. Spock, the first time we hear the note of personal tragedy that will mark so many of his adventures, and the first time we see him display a willingness to go toe-to-toe with just about any adversary and win (sadly, this last trait would not be passed on to future Enterprise captains).

It's effective stuff, but still: why on Earth would IDW and writer Mike Johnson choose to overlay the events of that episode onto the new "Star Trek" continuity? Wasn't the whole idea of the reboot to free the franchise from the gigantic continuity it had built up over forty years? To create the possibility that Kirk & Co. didn't have those same adventures we all know by heart? In the movie, young James T. Kirk (in "Where No Man Has Gone Before" he infamously has a different middle initial, quickly fixed) doesn't seem to graduate Starfleet Academy with any close friends other than Doctor McCoy - yet here's Gary Mitchell. And although the idea of mapping our new crew and sensibilities onto those old episodes is interesting, why this episode? It's in many ways a clunker - the 'energy barrier' at the edge of the galaxy is never explained (the real explanation would be lack of knowledge on the part of episode writer Samuel Peeples), for instance, nor is the ridiculous idea that the flagship of the Federation would be sent outside the galaxy in the first place. When modern-day viewers watching the episode for the first time learn that exposure to the barrier causes massive extra-sensory powers to develop in those crew members who have high "ESP quotients," they naturally wonder why Mr. Spock isn't affected, given that he's the only actual telepath on board. The answer is simple: when the episode was originally written, Mr. Spock was a work in progress - nobody had thought yet to make him a telepath. Those are the kinds of gaffes that Star Trek fiction (and later episodes) expend lots of work explaining away - why invite them, when you've got a clean slate and all the galaxy to choose from?

Johnson and artist Stephen Molnar do a clean, professional job here - this is an entertaining comic, and it's a series I'll certainly follow to the bitter end. But there are distinctly uneven bits: Molnar, for example, decides to anchor his depictions of the crew on actual photographic likenesses of the supernaturally attractive young cast of the reboot movie, rather than on idealized forms that would be just as recognizable and not have the tendency to look like, well, awkward drawings of real-life people (his Kirk fluctuates in age from roughly 15 to roughly 20). And Johnson's changes to the script of the original episode are sometimes bizarrely counter-productive. For instance, we're told that Elizabeth Dehner won't be joining us this time around ... because she's still upset about a nasty breakup she had with Doctor McCoy! And worse, at the climax of the issue Mr. Spock makes the astonishing admission to Captain Kirk that while the mutating Gary Mitchell was sedated, Spock mind-melded with him and discovered that "no one is there," that whatever's inhabiting Gary Mitchell is completely alien.

First: mind-melding with a sedated sickbay patient, without their permission? So is anybody on the Enterprise safe, then? And second: a good deal of the drama of the original episode derived from the fact that the super-powers he acquired only enhanced Gary Mitchell's megalomania - not that some alien entity replaced his entire personality. Where's the tragedy in that?

Re-doing some of those original-run episodes must have been one of the pitches for this new series, and perhaps the dramatic impairments inherent in that approach can be overcome with some imaginative storytelling. I'd have chosen the first issue of the series to actually show some of that imaginative storytelling (quite a bit of the scripting of this issue consists of virtually line-by-line transfers from the original episode), but that's just me. We'll see what happens in the next issue.


Friday, September 23, 2011

Desolation (and small consolation) in the Penny Press!

I made my faithful way through the main attractions of the latest Harper's in order to reach the end. I read about evil Mormons, and I read some bombastic editorializing, and I read an entertaining little squib of a story by Justin Torres (clearly a young author to watch - still prone to gimmicks, still not quite seeing that they are gimmicks, but with a very alluring confidence in his own prose), but the whole time I was holding my mental breath, waiting to get to Zadie Smith's "New Books" column.

As I've mentioned here before, I consider (somewhat to my surprise, having been underwhelmed by her fiction) Smith one of the best fiction reviewers working today (my Open Letters Monthly colleague Sam Sacks would also be on that short list), and it was an amazing, unlooked-for little gift when she suddenly started writing her detailed, lively pieces regularly for Harper's. She's one of the only literary journalists who can so naturally meld the personal with the professional that her pieces always feel like sparkling, invigorating talk about books, rather than the considered and reworked essays they are. She differs from Sacks in this way; his own reviews are almost awe-inspiringly removed from the purely personal - they read like scripture: "And Jereboam begat Gath, and Gath begat Askelon, and Askelon thought the metaphorical underpinning of the latest Julian Barnes was splenetic at best," etc. Smith will sometimes swoop in mid-review from a stunning textual survey to a childhood vignette on her mother's porch, then back again, whereas watching Sacks attempt such a thing would be as painful as watching William James try out his signature fox-trot on "America's Got Talent!" ... each to their own strengths: neither can Smith match Sacks' gravitas. An author reading a pan of his work by Smith can put the magazine down and say, "Well, that's just your opinion." The same author reading a pan of his work by Sacks (at a surgical 200 words, in the Wall Street Journal) is likely to say, "Well, I think they're still hiring down at the sawmill."

I celebrate all these first-rate critics for their differences (except when they differ from ME, as each and every one of the scamps has been known to do at one time or another), and I eagerly look forward to reading their latest thoughts in the venues lucky enough to have them. Sometimes, this can be distressing - in the latest Harper's, Smith begins by singing the praises of the great science fiction author Ursula Le Guin, and that immediately set off alarm bells. First-rate critics of science fiction are extremely rare, and Smith certainly doesn't qualify (nor does Sacks - "Due to the number of moons in the night sky, the reader must surmise that Equinox of the Lobster-Men does not, in fact, take place on Earth at all ..."). But all begins well enough - she heaps much-deserved superlatives on Le Guin's two masterpieces, The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, and only occasionally does she inadvertently reveal her underlying discomfort with the genre. Whenever her snobbish instincts begin to bubble too near the surface, she taps them off by tossing in a term in German - we get Verfremdungseffekt and Jus for no conceivable reason other than Smith wanting to avoid having her fellow Po-Mo lit-snobs pull her hair in the hallway after class. What remains is a solid, inviting appreciation of Le Guin's work and attitude, which is always welcome.

Smith follows the Le Guin foray up with something in many ways even less comfortable: the latest book by the fantastic Magnus Mills. An author (and, one suspects, a reader) like Smith has absolutely zero chance of ever fully getting an author like Mills, but she's game to try. It isn't a pretty attempt - at one point she starts just jerkily reciting the names of Shakespeare plays in order to regain her balance (call it the book-nerd's "Serenity Now!"), and it's clear the whole encounter has shaken her a bit. She finishes up by wholesale retreating - she runs to the comforting arms of Rimbaud.

And then she drops her bombshell!
I have to fess up to my own irrational fantasy - the one where it's possible to write a novel, teach class, bring up a kid, and produce a regular column: at the moment a speculative fiction for me. With regret I must say good-bye to New Books - at least for a while - and welcome my brilliant successor, Larry McMurtry.

I moaned aloud over my zuurkoolstamppot: No! Perhaps the most important thing Smith shares in common with Sacks - and Clive James, and Ferdinand Mount, and Michael Dirda, and Sam Anderson, and Anthony Lane, and even Christopher Hitchens - is perhaps the one essential trait all first-rate literary journalists must have: humility in the presence of the written word. The author under review might screw up, he might misfire, he might be an idiot - but he's engaged in a holy task, and it trails a holy solemnity behind it. The author might make the biggest mess since God created basset hounds, but the best literary critics take that mess seriously because the act of creation is holy to them (which is why they can get so all-fired angry when a thing is done poorly, or lazily, or insultingly).

Larry McMurtry is 80 years old. He's the author of two very, very good novels (The Last Picture Show and Buffalo Girls) and two great ones (Lonesome Dove and Moving On) - think about that for a minute: two very, very good novels, and two great ones - that's more than almost all authors can do, or even approach. This is not a man who can be humble in the presence of the written word, and with good reason: this is a man in whose presence the written word is humble. Which makes him a great choice to write book-commentary for Harper's or anybody else on Earth - wherever it happens, I'll buy it. But it makes him a lousy choice to write a regular column dutifully reviewing new books. What's he supposed to say, about any of them? Larry McMurtry is supposed to set aside time to make notes on a jaggedly-written coming-of-age story set in contemporary Iceland? Larry McMurtry is supposed to patiently deconstruct the way a precocious author's circus-metaphor goes astray? Larry McMurtry is supposed to be doing this? What's next, making Herman Melville clerk in a customs house?

It won't work. McMurtry will stay on-target for one paragraph, perhaps two, and then the book will be forgotten and the rest of the column will be "and then Renny Price and Wally Stegner and I - all three of us drunk as newts - snuck into Katy Anne Porter's kitchen late at night and commenced a grand attempt to bake her a cake. She flicked the light on and covered us all with a sawed-off shotgun, and it was only a call from Bunny Wilson that saved our hides ..." And that will be undeniable fun to read, but the world of serious fiction-criticism will lose a very high-profile venue until such time as McMurtry sees fit to vacate it.

Don't mistake me: it'll be great to have more McMurtry prose in the world, in any venue, at any time. But I'm nevertheless wondering if Zadie Smith might respond to a good old-fashioned letter-writing campaign ...


Our book today is Telford Taylor's monumental 1979 work of history, Munich: The Price of Peace, with its damningly familiar black-and-white cover photo of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain vigorously shaking hands with Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler. Taylor provides deep background to the tumultuous summer of 1938, when the world tottered on the brink of war and the future seemed to depend entirely on the ability of these two men to come to some kind of agreement. That was an illusion, of course: the whole time Neville Chamberlain was scheming and feverishly losing sleep over how to accommodate Hitler's vociferous, belligerent nationalism with the treaty boundaries and stipulations that had been in place since the end of the First World War, Hitler was lying about his motivations and industriously planning for the invasion of Czechoslovakia and war. Everything he did and said with Chamberlain - all those diplomatic smiles and hours-long meetings - was only a cynical ploy to give his armed forces time to ready themselves. Early on in the series of meetings that culminated in Munich, Chamberlain infamously told his colleagues that Hitler was the sort of man who would keep his word if he looked you in the face and gave it solemnly. He held to this belief longer than anybody, longer even than his inestimable Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax, but he was entirely wrong. Hitler was a faithless.

As has been argued elsewhere, Chamberlain couldn't have acted differently even if he'd known his actions were futile: the way he saw things, peace for the entire West was worth throwing Czechoslovakia into the maw of German expansion. There was a good deal of old-fashioned British imperial racism involved in this (there's likewise no evidence that Hitler's treatment of Germany's Jews weighed on Chamberlain at all), but it shouldn't be entirely dismissed even so. Among the many magisterial aspects of Taylor's account his willingness to draw conclusions from all his research - including conclusions that were as unpopular in 1979 as they are today:
The character and motives of Neville Chamberlain, I believe, have been much distorted in the mirror of historical literature, in which his image is that of a timorous, bumbling, and naive old gentleman, waving an umbrella as a signal of cringing subservience to a bully. Nothing could be further from the truth. Chamberlain did what he did at Munich not because he thought he had to, but because he thought it right. For him, appeasement was a policy not of fear but of common and moral sense. In public life he was a dominant and often domineering man, profoundly convinced of the rightness of his own judgments, and skilled in bending others to his will. Sadly mistaken he may have been; cowardly or indecisive he was not, and for him Munich was no surrender, but a passionate moral act.

The key to Chamberlain's failure was Hitler himself; here at last was a man Chamberlain simply, tragically, couldn't understand. Throughout this big book, Taylor is at his best assessing this dark central figure of the drama - his Hitler is never just a one-dimensional ranter, and that adds greatly to the complexity of the story Taylor's telling:
 But it is quite wrong to regard Hitler as the creation of the magnates and generals. They supported him not because they were in all respects pleased by his methods, but because his program, vague as it was, had ingredients of persuasive appeal to them and to Germans of every station; because of his demagogic skill and remarkable ability to lead and inspire; because, to use an expression borrowed from quite another time and place, he and he alone showed the ability to get the country moving again.

Chamberlain's political enemies were quick to disparage his efforts in September of 1938, Churchill foremost among them:
This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless, by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in olden times.

And his characterization of events - his invoking of the curse of the Danegeld - was certainly justified by later events. Churchill went on to write his own enormous history of those events, and many, many other enormous books have appeared in their turn. On used bookshop shelves, they begin to look like amassed armies, implacable, interchangeable. But readers shouldn't miss Taylor's book. Munich: The Price of Peace is not only absorbing (it's the fastest 1000 pages you'll read all week!), it's also, almost accidentally, an unsurpassed examination of character, good and bad. Highly recommended.


Wednesday, September 21, 2011

It's Like This, Cat!

Our book today is Emily Neville's 1963 Newbery Medal winner, It's Like This, Cat, the lean and quirky and utterly touching story of a fourteen-year-old boy, David Mitchell, living "right in the middle of New York City" with his blustering, sharp-tongued father and his worrying, long-suffering mother. One of David's neighbors - one of his few sanctuaries from the drudgery of school and the tension of home - is an elderly woman named Kate, who, of course, keeps a small herd (gaggle? crash? who knows? It should be a 'disdain' - a disdain of cats) of cats in her apartment. It's from Kate that David adopts the Cat of the book's title, and from that point on, Cat serves as an entirely silent Greek chorus and a consistent touchstone for almost all the action of the novel. There are long stretches where the reader forgets Cat is even around, but Neville has an easy, natural way of bringing the action back to him at regular intervals.

The main stories of the book are intensely human, however. There's the tension between David and his father (Neville does a perfect job of neither softening nor vilifying David's father - and she never makes David himself a little plaster saint, either), the growing friendship between David and Tom, an older boy who's frustrated at his life's lack of direction, and most of all the sweet, budding romance between David and Mary, a girl from Coney Island who takes an interest in Cat, and then in David himself. And as with so many quintessentially New York novels, the city itself is a character - a rude, elbowy character who's constantly looking to upstage everybody else. Descriptions of New York - Coney Island, the Fulton Fish Market, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Macy's - spool lovingly through every page of this book, and readers less than half a century old will find quite a few of those descriptions as antiquated as tintypes from the Old West, even while they're registering the eternal parts:
The regular park man got sunstroke or something, so I earned fourteen dollars raking and mowing in Gramercy Park in the middle of August. Gramercy Park is a private park. You have to own a key to get in, so the city doesn't take care of it.

Real paper money, at this time of year especially, is very cheering. I head up to Sam Goody's to see what records he's got on sale and what characters are buying them. Maybe I'll buy something, maybe not, but as long as I've got money in my pocket, I don't feel like the guy is glaring at me for taking up floor space.

Along the way I walk through the library, the big one on Forty-second Street. You go in by the lions on Fight Avenue, and there's all kinds of pictures and books on exhibit in the halls, and you walk through to the back, where you can take out the books. It's nice and cool, and nobody glares at you unless you make a lot of noise or go to sleep. I can take books out of here and return them at the Twenty-third Street branch, which is handy.

The shops might change, but the sprawling inner geography of childhood never does, and it's captured with loving precision in this book (and in the delightful line-drawings by Emil Weiss, who also drew the original cover). David's adventures take him all over the landscape of a city that's radically changed since 1963 - his lawyer father and non-working mother couldn't possibly afford their West Side apartment these days, for instance, and young adult fiction has changed too. Violence, abuse, abandonment - these are standard things in our current fiction. Readers of The Hunger Games will find it difficult to believe the rather tame arguments between David and his father could once have been considered a daring step in fiction - and yet it was such a step, and Emily Neville was bravely championed in taking it by her fearless editor, the mighty Ursula Nordstrom, who brought this and so many other books into existence.

So a stinging, smart-aleck coming-of-age novel has been greened and softened by time into something that will strike most New York readers as wistfully sentimental. That certainly happens in fiction, but the power of the story has remained undimmed all these years. It'll move you and make you smile - and draw you back to periodic re-readings. If it can do that to a card-carrying dog-person, it can do that to anybody.

Comics! New 52 - Week 3!

This was the first week I actually found myself enjoying "the New 52," DC Comics' month-long barrage of first issues designed to relaunch its entire line of comics and re-invent its 80-year-old continuity for the 21st century. And I can't be precisely sure of the reason why this week sat so much better with me than the previous two did, although I can hazard a few guesses.

Guess number one would be personal investment - as in 'lack of.' Virtually all the titles re-launching this week (with one enormous exception we'll get to shortly) star characters who've never really triggered that much interest for me - standard, sometimes iconic DC characters, yes, but still: nothing I really care about, and so nothing whose desecration would bother me all that much. There have always been such characters for me at DC - one-note superheroes like the Flash, Green Lantern, the Atom, etc - and one of those characters has always been (and this amazes me too) Batman. Don't get me wrong: I love it when the character is done right and hate it when the character is done wrong - but neither the central guy nor any of his multitude of spin-off characters has ever really spoken to me on the particular carrier-hum accessible only to true fans. I realize this puts me in a tiny minority, since the entire breadth of the known universe considers Batman to be the coolest super-hero of them all. But there it is.

This week's re-launches feature a large swath of the Bat-line of comics - there's the first issue of "Batman" itself, the first issue of "Nightwing" (about Dick Grayson, Batman's first Robin, all grown up and fighting crime on his own), and the first issue of "Catwoman" (this week DC launched its three marquee-recognition female characters - Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Catwoman, and good for them - marquee-recognition female characters are mighty rare in the comics world, and all three of these characters deserve their own titles). This is comforting: DC's out-of-control slapdash creators could do pretty much anything to these characters and I wouldn't have that lump in my throat of caring too much. Which brings me to:

Guess #2 why this week pleased me so much revolves around the aforementioned new continuity - probably one of the reasons I found this week so enjoyable was because it was also recognizable: as far as I can tell, DC has tinkered almost not at all with the general currents of Batman continuity from pre-52. Bruce Wayne is still Batman. Dick Grayson was still his first Robin, Tim Drake his second, and Damian his third and current. Batman still has an quasi-amorous danger-fascination with Catwoman. Dick Grayson still spent a year filling Batman's cape and cowl while Bruce Wayne was otherwise occupied. These three titles (and "Detective" and "Batman and Robin" before them) read like nothing so much as high-octane straight-up continuations of the storylines that were percolating all summer long in the Bat-books. And that 'high-octane' brings me to:

Guess #3: These as fantastic productions. Judd Winick writes "Catwoman" with a novelist's assurance, and Guillem March's artwork is unabashedly sensuous (the, er, climax of this first issue made me hope there was one specific item in Batman's utility belt that I've never before actually hoped was there). Kyle Higgins' main character in "Nightwing" is a perfect combination of boyish and battle-hardened, and Eddy Barrows' artwork (and great cover) is absorbing. And what to say about "Batman"? The superb writing is by Scott Snyder, and the incredible artwork is by Greg Capullo, here excelling even his customary high standards. The Bat-titles have always attracted top-notch talent, but these three issues stand out even by those measurements. I was hugely entertained, even while I was acknowledging that it didn't make a whole lot of difference - these titles, these characters, have just never moved me, no matter how well-done they are. As marvellous as these issues are, the real acid-test is always how you feel about that particular character or title that feels personal to you. Which brings me to:

Guess #4 why this week's "new 52" crop pleased me: this is the week "The Legion of Super-Heroes" debuts at #1, and I read it, and it was sigh-of-relief good. I ordinarily wouldn't have doubted that, since writer Paul Levitz is a Legion legend in his own right and can be counted upon to do everything right (and artist Francis Portela is no slouch himself - this is some fine pencilling on a pretty tough book to draw) - but how was I to know what kinds of pressures had been brought to bear on him by the DC Powers that Be? How was I to know he hadn't been ordered to create another Juvenile Delinquent Legion? (Legion fans will catch the reference to the team's darkest, dumbest hour, now hopefully comprising the only fragment of Legion history we've all agreed to forget)

Fortunately, such is not the case - like the Bat-titles, this issue makes several references to the summer's story-lines and shows a clear line of development from them - the footprint of the "new 52" reboot (hee - pun only belatedly discovered) is soft here, this is more or less the huge, noble, squabbling Legion I know and love, with classic Levitz moments of perfectly in-character barbs and reflections. This week, at least, I can breathe a huge sigh of relief: one of my favorite comics was left virtually unchanged by this company-wide revamp.

The relief can't last, however. "Superman" #1 comes out next week.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Ogre!

Our book today is Michel Tournier's great, grim 1970 masterpiece, Le roi des Aulnes, translated into English in 1972 by Barbara Bray with the title The Ogre. It was Tournier's second novel, and it won him the Prix Goncourt and sold with fervor throughout France (even the paperback of the English translation sold well in America). The whole generation of Western writers born around the '20s (Tournier was born in 1924 and is still alive, composed almost entirely of tobacco and merlot) visited the Second World War when they reached middle age, and the works they produced are generally first rate, rich with mythic overtones. The Ogre is a magnificent example of this sub-set, a deceptively simple tale of a gigantic man-boy named Abel Tiffaugues who's portrayed as something insightful and quasi-human - with an innocence ripe for warping by the Nazis. Tiffauges has a fascination with children and a reflexive (ironically invoked) desire to protect them, even from such rarefied dangers as literary condescension, as when he finds a co-worker reading Pinnochio:
 I picked it up and looked through it, shrinking in advance from the atrocities children's stories are full of. As if children were dull brutes, dim and insensitive, who can be moved only be fearsome tales, real literary rotgut! Perrault, Lewis Carroll, Busch - sadists with nothing to learn from the divine Marquis.

Tournier's sharp commentary is buried at varying depths everywhere in the novel, often cloaked in folkloric colors, as when the populace is warned by posters that would have looked natural nailed to trees in the Middle Ages:

He is after your children. He roves through our country stealing children. If you have any, never forget the Ogre - he never forgets them! Don't let them go out alone. Teach them to run away and hide if they see a giant on a blue horse with a pack of black hounds. If he comes to see you, don't yield to his threats, don't be taken in by his promises. All mothers should be guided by one certainty: if the Ogre takes your child, you will NEVER see him again!

Tiffauges for a long time is suborned into helping the Nazis (the scenes where he realizes his mistake are absolutely shattering, even in English), and he himself can be oddly, unconsciously brutal. But readers are never in any doubt who the real monster in these pages is:
"But why April 19?" asked Tiffauges.

The man looked at him incredulously.

"Don't you know April 20 is our Fuehrer's birthday? And every year the German people give him a whole generation of children as a birthday present!" He pointed proudly at the big colored photograph of Hitler scowling down from the wall behind him.

When Tiffauges took the road back again to Rominten the Master of the Hunt, with his shoots and trophies, his feasts of venison and his coprological and phallological science, had dwindled to the rank of a little, imaginary, picturesque ogre out of an old wives' tale. He was eclipsed now by the other, the ogre of Rastenburg, who demanded of his subjects the exhaustive birthday present of five hundred thousand little girls and five hundred thousand little boys, ten years old, dressed for sacrifice, or in other words naked, out of whose flesh he kneaded his cannon fodder.

Despite its initial burst of popularity and acclaim, The Ogre hasn't become quite the modern-day classic I've always thought it should be considered. Reprints of the Bray translation have been few and far between (there was a recent one I vaguely recall, but nothing in bookstores now), and the book is neither read nor taught today. That's a shame; as a portrait of monsterhood in all its contradictions, it's more honest and ultimately far more effective than something like The Kindly Ones from a couple of years ago. Maybe it's time for a new translation and a bit of hoopla.

Shame and Acclaim in the Penny Press!

Naturally, I was as outraged as anybody else by the long litany of greed and corruption detailed in Taylor Branch's Atlantic cover story "The Shame of College Sports," but I was equally irritated by the never-pretty sight of a heavyweight professional historian getting carried away with himself in the bright spotlight of one of the nation's greatest magazines.

The problem isn't Branch's writing, which is top-notch as always, nor his research, which is depressingly thorough and damning. The problem is the central conceit he appears gravitationally drawn to:
Slavery analogies should be used carefully. College athletes are not slaves. Yet to survey the scene - corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as "student-athletes" deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution - is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation.

Yes indeed, slavery analogies should be used carefully - and Branch doesn't do that. The first step to 'carefully' would be 'sparingly,' but the whole college-athlete-as-slave motif shows up six times in this article. And even the repetition would be excusable if the idea itself were warranted, but it's not. What it is, of course, is a gross historical insult.

Coaches may be oblivious or worse (and I know from worse; I had an up-close ring-side seat for the height of Hayden Fry's reign over the University of Iowa); recruiters may be unscrupulous; school administrators may be complicit and greedy ... but college athletes are still there voluntarily, and the last time I checked, the most central defining aspect of slavery is that it's involuntary. And the slaves who are there involuntarily dream of their freedom - not of eventually owning the plantation: Branch's simplistic moral geometry omits one of the central forces driving the whole shoddy, money-grubbing apparatus that is college sports today - the players themselves.

Those players - the stars among them most of all - aren't bought in Ghana and shipped to East Lansing. Their parents and coaches and recruiters might dream of endorsements and trophies and money, but the players themselves have dreams too - of endorsements and trophies and just mountains and mountains of money. Branch comes to what he styles as an inevitable moral conclusion - that these college players should be paid something for playing, especially considering how much the colleges are gaining from having them around. But colleges make money from all their students, and the bespectacled kid in the computer science lab who's going to leave college and make $4 billion doesn't expect to be paid while he's on campus. Star college players in football and basketball and baseball can expect to make millions from professional franchises when they graduate - franchises that would never have had a chance to see what they could do post-high school if not for all those expensive new college sports arenas. Calling those athletes slaves when so many of them will go on to lives of ridiculous wealth (or even when so many of them have the chance for such ridiculous wealth) is the kind of grotesque blunder only an impassioned historian could commit.

Fortunately, as always with The Atlantic there are compensations. There's the mighty Ben Schwarz, for instance, this time writing a perfectly-constructed brief appreciation of the problematically unfriendly American writer Ambrose Bierce, or the always-great B. R. Myers, this time writing about, of all things, Australian crime-fiction and getting in several shots at the often distressingly minimal writing of the modern murder-thriller:
"I'll bet you don't skip dialogue," Elmore Leonard says. I'll bet you don't buy books for it, either. If the novel is to survive in this distracted digital age, it must do more, not less, of what only the novel can do.

That (plus his priceless quip that crime fiction is "largely a matter of people answering doorbells") can restore so much of what the put-upon reader needs - especially after that cover, showing an athletic black arm branded by the NCAAP. I realize cover-designers are trying to get people talking, but still ...

Friday, September 16, 2011

Italian Days!

Our book today is Barbara Grizzuti Harrison's magnificent 1989 masterpiece, Italian Days, a reliable entrant on my list of Top 50 Nonfiction Works of the 20th Century (I realize Modern Library also compiled such a list, but much as I love them, we don't always agree). There is an alchemy that transforms the best 'travel writing' into something more than the usual 'if it's Tuesday, this must be Waziristan' rigmarole the afflicts the genre, and that alchemy is everywhere in evidence in this big, wonderful volume. Harrison toured Rome, Venice, Florence, Milan, Naples, the Amalfi Coast, and of course Calabria, and she wrote pieces on each location for whoever was paying - Harper's, Lear's, the Iowa Review, etc. But she was one of those mysterious writers whose every published utterance is actually a fragment of one enormous ongoing narrative, so they all fell together into a remarkably cohesive whole when the possibility arose of welding them into a book. The central unifying factor is not tone or word-count but Harrison herself, the bruised and wise and beautiful tone she maintains through every word and phrase.

She tips her hat to all the great writers who've gone to Italy and partaken of its inspirations. She mentions Goethe and Stendahl and Henry James and Hawthorne and all the rest of the usual subjects, but she comes closer to the mark when she acknowledges the great H. V. Morton, whose massive volumes of travel-writing ought to be perpetually in print, and whose A Traveller in Italy and A Traveller in Southern Italy were clearly templates for Harrison's own work.

But the cut and lyricism of her prose makes Morton seem like a plodder. Harrison's book is as rife with apophthegms as a Montaigne essay- if you underline them as you go along, you end up with an entire commonplace book. We're told "You pay a double tariff for great hotels: Hauteur goes with the cosseting."

"I have sometimes been ungenerous in my mind to expatriates," we're told, "and that is because I love another country better than my own."

"A group of giggly Italian schoolchildren pass the relics, pausing no longer than a minute," we're told, "it is as difficult for the young to believe that they will someday be old as it is for the old to believe that they were one day young."

Sometimes, her exquisite summaries are blinkered, other times biased. For all her ferocious study (this is one of the most literate, allusive books ever written for a wide audience), she can be wrong and not even guess it. "After the third or fourth day in Venice," she tells us, for example, "small pools of light in the side canals - lights filtered through shuttered windows - are ineffably sad. The magic of Venice contends with the accumulated sadness of centuries." Something of that is undeniably true, but it only activates when you know you're leaving Venice soon; tourists feel this way about the light all around them after three or four days, not longer-term residents. In this instance (and it happens again in her pages on Florence, and in her separate book on Sicily), Venice is paying an unfair price for the date stamped on Harrison's return ticket.

But it scarcely matters - the book is so gracefully powerful in all its descriptions that the reader doesn't care how long Harrison stayed wherever she went - there's just the happiness that she went at all ... and came back to share her often odd, tangential observations. Innumerable travellers have described these same works of art and architecture, but there's no mistaking Harrison's particular twist:
Michelangelo's David, washed in lovely light at the Accademia, is a different matter from the hefty women resting on the Medici sarcophagi. His youth and slim, tensile beauty are so much more than the sum of his parts - pendulous testicles, scrolled pubic hair, supple wrists, purposeful hands, curiously small ears, the tender line of his jaw, the very nearly coy tilt of one hip, the look of blank inward concentration ... Sublime, but not necessarily lovable. And one does wish one didn't know that Martha Graham once told her male dancers, "Now, dears, I know you've all just come back from Florence, but I want you to forget that ..." because one does know exactly what she means.

"This is how memory works," she tells us. "It curls, it is baroque." And she practices what she asserts - in the strange loops and adagios of Italian Days, we follow Harrison's often labyrinthine mental wanderings. It can be disorienting, but it is always, always a stunning, memorable experience. You'll be reading along as she deadpans on bad bathrooms or rickety elevators, and then suddenly you'll drift into a passage of startling beauty where you least expect it, as in this, what I consider the finest written evocation of Rome ever written in English:
... swallows wheel against the lantern of St. Peter's at dusk; cascades of green and star jasmine on ocher buildings, a flight of warm and curving shallow steps; unexpected, unexplained fragments of white statuary, marble busts, in bowers of oleander (apricot, rose, lavender) on terraced rooftops on the leafy Lungotevere as I drive by on a moonlit night, the Tiber smelling green; a small burnt-sienna house, green shutters, a cozy flight of outside stairs cluttered with the impedimenta of daily living - a broom, a mat, empty tins - and home to pots of straggling basil, thyme, geraniums, an umbrella turned inside out; fountains: water patiently following orders for a thousand years; a wheelbarrow in an ancient square piled high with new fruit ... the grand and the domestic present to the senses, at ease with each other and at once, as they are in dreams; the wild and comfortable logic of belfries and multilevel roofs; a blanket of rosemary in a ruin; ... honeysuckle, clumps of weeds growing from the Pincian wall, anointed by moonlight; and none of these things alone but all of them together, each separate part declaring the permanence of beauty ...

The light ravishes.

The light isn't the only thing that ravishes here. Whether you know Italy with long familiarity or have only been there in your dreams, you should find this book.


Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Penguins on Parade: Victorian Verse!

Some Penguin Classics aren't really classics, no matter how attractively Penguin packages them. This is true of Western canon works mistakenly venerated (Joseph Conrad springs to mind, but oh, there are others), and it's also true of excellent modern volumes prematurely elevated. One such volume is The Penguin Book of Victorian Verse from 1997, edited and introduced by Daniel Karlin. It's an excellent anthology, perhaps even better than the last Victorian verse anthology we discussed here, but as an anthology, it's virtually newborn - it certainly hasn't withstood the tests of time long enough to claim the 'classic' distinction. Whereas there are plenty of poetry anthologies out there that have proven their 'classic' status but still haven't been given (or bought) a spot in the Penguin Classics lineup.

One of those - the first of those? - would surely be The Oxford Book of English Verse in the original Arthur Quiller-Couch edition, and that's actually relevant to our proceedings today, since the Quiller-Couch has got to rank as one of the all-time best Victorian verse anthologies (even though it was intending to be much more than that). Neither the Quiller-Couch nor the far more magisterial Helen Gardner edition of The Oxford Book of English Verse has been honored with a Penguin Classic (understandably enough, since it's a dog-eat-dog world out there in the land of publishing, and I'm the only one daft enough to think being a Penguin Classic should be a privilege other publishers would surrender copyrights to achieve), but here this Karlin concoction has my second-favorite colophon.

He's certainly done everything he can to earn it. His Introduction is a gem of learning and wit, and the highlight of it is his offer of a mock-amalgam of all Victorian verse and its typical crutches. This is hilarious stuff:
The purple shades of evening

Flit o'er the Angel child

Whose woeful mother's weeping

Resounds across the wild.

He joined the gallant Navy

And found a watery grave.

Ah, better far than being

An orphan factory slave!

Or worse, in evil city

A village lass to sink

And fall a prey to Mammon

And bestial vice, and drink.

She hears the thrush's singing

And cooing of the dove

And blesses the dispenser

Of goodness, peace, and love.

So back she goes contented

Towards her humble home

And curtseys to the Parson

Who's on his way to Rome.

And as the Squire passes

Like Lancelot of yore

She shrieks, swoons and expires

And is never heard of more.

And one of the strangest and most daring noteworthy things about his anthology is how much room he gives not to the expected greats of the period but to much lesser-known (today, anyway) poets who come perilously close to echoing that deadly parody - like Eugene Lee-Hamilton and "A Snail's Derby":
 Once, in this Tuscan garden, Noon's huge ball

So slowly crossed the sky above my head,

As I lay idle on my dull wheeled bed,

That, sick of Day's inexorable crawl,

I set some snails a-racing on the wall -

With their striped shells upon their backs, instead

Of motley jackets - black, white, yellow, red;

And watched them till the twilight's tardy fall.

And such my life, as years go one by one:

A garden where I lie beyond the flowers,

And where the snails outrace the creeping sun.

For me there are no pinions to the hours;

Compared with them, the snails like racers run:

Wait but Death's night; and, lo, the great ball lowers.

Of course, the bulk of the book is indeed commandeered by those great expected names. There's plenty here from Wordsworth, the Brownings, the Brontes, and Christina Rossetti, as well as generous selections from the greatest of all Victorian poets, Lord Tennyson, almost always pitched at his most fervid:

She left the web, she left the loom,

She made three paces thro' the room,

She saw the water-lily bloom,

She saw the helmet and the plume,

She look'd down to Camelot.

Out flew the web and floated wide;

The mirror crack'd from side to side;

'The curse is come upon me,' cried

The Lady of Shalott

Keen-eyed readers will know at once why I chose that particular verse - yes, because "The Lady of Shalott" is the subject of this anthology's opulent cover-illustration, a painting of the same name by the great William Holman Hunt, whose "The Awakening Conscience" may be the single dumbest pre-modern painting ever created (for sheer stupidity, it can't compete with blank white canvases hung in galleries and called art, but then, what can?). "The Lady of Shalott" gives a much more accurate demonstration of this artist's wonderful talent, even if you might not be able to make that out from the battered, much-reinforced cover of my paperback.

If you're at all a fan of poetry, your own copy of The Penguin Book of Victorian Verse will quickly become equally dog-eared. It's that good.


Monday, September 12, 2011

A Return to Form in the Penny Press!

Well, having felt like I'd been suckled in a creed outworn, it certainly came as a relief - and didn't take long - to have glimpses that would make me less forlorn in the Penny Press, and that relief came from the same source it so often does: The New York Review of Books.

It didn't immediately feel so, as I opened the latest issue over a steaming platter of food this afternoon. There were many stumbles out of the gate, from Claire Tomalin's astonishing declaration "[H. G.] Wells's name is probably less well known among readers today than Henry James's" (more people read The War of the Worlds in one year than have read all of James' works combined in the last hundred years) to the pissy-contentious tone Eric Segall takes in his interview with Judge Richard Posner to the groan-inducing typo that kicks off the very first paragraph of Colin Thubron's appreciation of Patrick Leigh Fermor, in which we're told that "he was sometimes fancifully compared to Lord Byron or Sir Philip Sydney" (as long as we're in the land down under, maybe Fermor's paintings should be compared to those of William Hobart?).

But the consolations, when they came, came aplenty. There was Frederick Crews' wonderful piece on the great American doctor (and utterly lamentable dog-torturer) William Stewart Halsted and his pioneering use of  - and ensnarement by - powerful drugs like cocaine and morphine. As is true in the best reviewers, Crews writes as well (or, the reader suspects, better) as his authors about their own subjects, as in the drugs at hand here:
... when cocaine lies within reach of its daily users, no drug produces more reckless craving or more irrational behavior. Occasional recreational users, however, can get by without it when it is unavailable. Moreover, its withdrawal symptoms are much less severe than those of morphine. Thus we see why the partially reformed Halsted, while capable of postponing his cocaine holidays until he was away from Baltimore, needed to inject morphine every single day.

And Crews displays another trait of a really good reviewer - he's willing to call out the experts on their own oversights:
Oddly, however, both Imber and Markel grant only slight attention to an intriguing and possibly important topic: Halsted's sexuality. On the evidence they supply in isolated passages, there can be little doubt that the great surgeon was homosexual.

Elsewhere in the issue, David Cole's piece on the political aftermaths of 9-11 is equally sharp, although mighty damn depressing. But the standout joy of this issue comes toward the end: it's Daniel Mendelsohn's review of two new books on his current definitive subject, the great Greek poet C. P. Cavafy, in this case a collection of the correspondence between Cavafy and E. M. Forster and a selection of Cavafy's prose works - both volumes made by Peter Jeffreys.

To say that Mendelsohn demolishes both the volumes and Jeffreys' professional reputation is to considerably understate the air-raid devastation the piece wreaks. But although that savaging certainly made me smile from ear to ear (so few mainstream critics really let rip anymore), the real pleasure came from Mendelsohn's prose itself. He's one of our most insightful working critical reviewers, and he's our most elegant. The steadfast Michael Dirda plops down across the dining hall table from you, piles his notes and source-books in front of him, and proceeds with an utterly unpretentious and winningly earnest discussion - he is our perpetual undergraduate, always searching for connections, always underestimating how much he can teach us. Reading the literary journalism of Clive James is completely different: he brushes aside the books and notes (no need for them now that he's here!), pours a tall pint for you and a couple for himself, and proceeds to hold forth - he's as wide-ranging as a bespectacled polymath and as erudite as an Oxford don, but what you remember most is his beefy arm around your shoulder and his hearty laugh in your ear. And there are many others - perhaps a dozen more of these titans working among us, this snickering, bawling, jobbing crowd of pilgrims accompanying us to that literary Canterbury that's always just around the next bend in the road. In this company Mendelsohn has always presented his own tone - sharp and bright with learning, but somehow still nerve-open to both disappointment and wonder. There are only a couple of working critics who'd be confident enough to let an opening paragraph carefully descend like this one, octave by octave, from facts to speculation to questions even the critic himself can't answer:
When E.M. Forster sailed to Alexandria in the autumn of 1915 to take up a post as something called a "searcher" - a Red Cross functionary whose job it was to interview wounded soldiers about those still missing - he cannot have guessed at the magnitude of what he ended up finding. It certainly wasn't what he was looking for officially; nor was it quite what he may have been seeking privately, even subconsciously.

I read something like that, and I'm completely restored to my poor estranged Penny Press. A piece like this is utterly faith-rejuvenating - unless you're Peter Jeffreys.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Pope Patrick!

Our book today is Pope Patrick, a thoroughly delightful 1995 novel by ebullient former Catholic priest Peter de Rosa, and it tells the story of kindly Irish cardinal Father Brian O'Flynn, who, at the Papal conclave assembled to elect a new pontiff, is serenely convinced, as he puts it, that popes, like pineapples, don't grow in Ireland. But he's reckoned without the twisted politics of the Curia - some of his fellow cardinals like the fact that he's a nonentity in their behind-the-scenes power struggles, and others imagine the ease with which he could be manipulated once he's installed. When they finally do elect him pope, all parties expect the smooth continuation of business as usual. But when Patrick awakens after a heavy bit of pillar falls on his head, he's not the same back-bencher he was before. Suddenly, the new Pope (without hesitation, he chooses the name Pope Patrick) is interested in change, in accountability - in bringing a simple sense of Christianity to a conclave that's forgotten the very concept.

What follows from such a corny premise could have been a syrupy disaster, but in De Rosa's hands, it's a witty and ultimately winning meditation on virtually every aspect of being a Catholic in the modern era (the book's era is slightly more modern than the mid-90s we all remember: in a prescient move, De Rosa invents a vast and quite militant Federation of Islamic Republics that stretches from Morocco to Pakistan). Pope Patrick is a kind and humble man, but he has very clear opinions on a whole range of subjects most popes treat with diplomatic silence, as in the extended and fantastic scene in which the new Pope draws the hard-line British Prime Minister Denise Weaver a hypothetical she finds quite startling:
"Would you indulge an old man in a bit of make-believe?"

She positively gushed. "Of course, Holiness."

"Well, just suppose that from the sixteenth century, Ireland was the imperial power and Ireland had colonized England."

Weave swallowed a grin. "It's hard to imagine."

"Try. Imagine Irish invaders closing all English churches  and hunting down clergy and laity like dogs. These brutal Irish refused to tolerate Protestants in Britain, even though they made up ninety-nine percent of the population. From Dublin, they sent over an Irish Cromwell, if anything so appalling can be imagined. This Paddy O'Cromwell put the English to the sword, forbade them to worship according to their consciences. The natives who survived were forced west to the mountains. It was Hell or Wales for them."

"But -"

"Worse, my dear, imagine towns like Durham, ports like Southampton and Liverpool, being handed over to Irish traders. Whereas Protestants - Britons, that is - had once own all of England, by 1759, they owned but five percent of it, the least productive parts. Ah," Patrick sighed, taking her hand as if in sympathy, "then came the Penal laws. Protestants excluded from government, the professions, the army and navy. No rights of inheritance. The British even had to pay ten percent of their incomes to the Catholic priest who might not even have a single parishioner."

It was only her misplaced pledge of loyalty that kept Denise Weaver in the room.

"In the 1840s, a dreadful famine followed in Britain. Well, not exactly a famine. There was enough produce to feed twice the population, but the British could only grow potatoes on their little patches of land. Alas, the spuds were ruined by blight. Yet still the Irish invaders exported British grain and livestock to Ireland. Irish priests started promising starving Protestants bread and soup if only they become Catholics. British tenants were evicted by Irish landlords as soon as they failed to pay rent on what was really, you'll recall, their own land. The Irish wanted to replace the British with cattle, which fitted the landscape better."

By time time he's reached the present day in his hypothetical, Weaver has stormed out of the room, calling him insane.

Naturally, it isn't too long before Pope Patrick begins to feel "the long pain for which there is but one remedy: home" - and so he makes a tour of Ireland, and De Rosa's prose becomes appropriately lyrical as Patrick remembers with freshened clarity his long-ago childhood:
In a moment of mountain magic, time's broken tablets were mended. Long-closed doors sprang open; the cuckoo clocks of memory burst forth into song.

He who had never fathered a child was his own son. In the intricate corals of his brain this ghost-son saw peat fires red as cherries, the particular peculiar shapes of potatoes picked from the ridge. He heard again the roar of the old, white, almost human ass, counted the safety pins, her "medals," on his mother's apron, knew even the precise angles of them. Oh, Mother, Mother, you who put out saucers of milk for the hedgehogs and cracked nuts for squirrels and were so neat you peeled and eyed the seed potatoes before you let Father sow them.

The years, Lord, where have they all gone?

In this drowning recollective moment he saw forgotten faces, heard lost conversations, watched little, probably long-dead children, their pet names and surnames linked indivisibly like summer-and-winter, day-and-night, their features, even in hand-me-down clothes, as clear and detailed as when he saw them, sixty years before, laughing, riding bicycles or sneezing as they jumped on hay carts piled higher than a house. Suddenly, everything mortal seemed deathless and deserving.

Through most of his pontificate, Patrick enjoys the company of his dog Charley, and this not only leads to some of the book's funniest moments but also to a quick exchange that is, quite predictably, my own personal favorite, when a bishop makes a theological point:
"I thought dogs had no souls, Holiness."

"Maybe not like ours." Under his breath: Maybe better.

De Rosa is an old showman, so Pope Patrick brims with plot-twists and humor, and there are scenes that will make all but the coldest atheist heart tremble with sympathy. This is grand, assured, and very sentimental writing, but precisely controlled. Readers familiar with the Papacy might detect some echoes of Pope Adrian VI in the story of Patrick's outsider appeal (readers not so familiar are urged to read De Rosa's book on the subject, Vicars of Christ, or watch this wonderful video review of it), but there are twists and turns aplenty here for readers of all convictions. My Catholic readers are urged to find a copy right away - not only will you laugh like you haven't since the last time you read J. F. Powers, but you'll also think a great deal about things you might have previously taken for granted. My non-Catholic readers will dawdle along behind as is their wont, but they should read it too. This is joyous stuff.