Saturday, October 29, 2011

Comics! Legion Secret Origin #1!

I know I mentioned concentrating on Marvel comics for a while in the deeply depressing aftermath of DC's "new 52" offensive (out of which I declare "Batman" and "Aquaman" the winners - which leaves 50 losers), but then last week DC came out with the first issue of a new 6-issue mini-series that either doesn't conform to its new continuity or does without caring - and either way, I'm fine with the results. It's "Legion of Super-Heroes: Secret Origin," and it's written by one of the two greatest living Legion writers, Paul Levitz (hint as to the other one: he's really tall), and drawn by another Legion vet in good standing, Chris Batista, and it offers a long, leisurely look at "the real beginnings" of the Legion.

Naturally, when I read that, I clenched up a little. No comic book franchise in history has been ret-conned and re-imagined more often - and often more disastrously - than my beloved Legion, and to make matters worse, I've been fond of their 'traditional' origin story for a long, long time.

That origin story has been re-worked many times over the decades, but its core narrative always goes something like this: some time in the 30th century, RJ Brande, the galaxy's richest man, is a passenger on a spaceship. One of the other passengers, a teenage girl named Irma Ardeen from Saturn's moon Titan, is a highly proficient telepath, and she suddenly blurts out that two of the other passengers are intending to kill Brande. In immediate response, two other teenagers on the flight spring into action to defend the old man: Rokk Krinn from the planet Braal uses his race's magnetic abilities to seize the would-be assassins' weapons, and Garth Ranzz of the planet Winath uses his electrical powers (acquired in a freak accident) to blast the assassins themselves. Brande is saved, and in that moment he sees something the galaxy needs: a new band of young heroes to inspire people, much like the legendary Justice League did a thousand years before. With his financial backing, the Legion of Super-Heroes is born and quickly begins recruiting super-powered teens from every planet in the United Federation and beyond. It's a goofy origin story, but as origin stories go, it's got a certain charming mixture of fate and serendipity.

The fate part comes from the underlying idea that the world - the galaxy - has waited a long time to get this kind of unselfish heroism back. And the serendipity comes from the fact that all three of those heroic teens were on that spaceship for refreshingly utilitarian reasons: Irma Ardeen - now code-named Saturn Girl - to take up a Police posting, Rokk Krinn - now code-named Cosmic Boy - to escape the planetary depression afflicting his homeworld and find a job, and Garth Ranzz - now codenamed Lightning Lad - to find his long-lost brother. None of them is even dreaming of becoming any kind of superhero.

In this new mini-series, Levitz obviously intends to beef up that origin story and perhaps some of its many unanswered questions, like why the galaxy's richest man wouldn't have bodyguards (or for that matter a spaceship) of his own, or how the new Legion could suddenly acquire the approval of the United Federation to act in a peremptorily law-enforcement role, etc. In the course of just this single issue, we get a great many new and much-needed layers to the old Legion mythos - we meet captains and admirals of the UFP's star-fleets, we need the three members of Earth's shadowy security directorate, and we get glimpses of an RJ Brande who very much has a private agenda of his own. I was entertained and intrigued throughout, except for the very first instant,, since the issue sports the ugliest cover of any mainstream comic in the year 2011: in the background, Phantom Girl is for some reason falling down through a whole in the air, and in the foreground, there's a picture of a pouty Justin Bieber dressed like Cosmic Boy.

But one really, really bad cover can't spoil rich pickings like this - especially when the issue came with the single greatest promotional gimmick of all time: a Legion flight-ring! Now that I finally have one, my only remaining task is to pick a Legion code-name. Some of you may know the, er, code-name I've had for most of my life (it even already ends in 'boy'), but now that I actually have a flight-ring, I'm hoping to upscale to something snazzier. Perhaps Super-Buff Enormous Brain Lad? I'll keep you posted.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Androids from the Future in the Penny Press!

Apparently, my bittersweet relationship with New York magazine will now be permanent (perhaps I should save time and just apply to work there?), so every week I'll be thrilled by great writing even while I'm appalled at dismaying subjects. First it was an extremely well-written Evan Hughes piece on how the literary world once had the temerity to ignore the Lucretius-Cicero-Catullus troika in its midst, and then it was Noreen Malone's equally extremely well-written piece on the "occupation" of Wall Street by the skinny-jeaned tobacco-addicted hordes of slackerdom, and now it's a piece in this current issue, a look at candidate Mitt Romney's past written with fantastic energy and intelligence by Ben Wallace-Wells. If writing for New York involved the privilege of working with such glowingly talented young people, it might be worth the agitation of the subjects they go after (and as an old friend of mine reminded me the other day, "they can't all be book reviewers")

But oh, sometimes that agitation is very agitating! Take this October 31 issue, for instance. Ordinarily, I try to leave worrying about the 2012 presidential election to my Open Letters colleague Greg Waldmann, but it's impossible for any resident of Boston to ignore a story like this about the financial background of Mitt (short for 'mitten'?) Romney, who briefly paused as governor of Massachusetts before he launched himself into national politics (I realize its an unpopular stance, but I miss Governor Weld precisely because Massachusetts wasn't some sort of cheap consolation prize to him - it was more along the lines of a family heirloom, to be lovingly cared for and justifiably bragged about). I've been looking at his 2012 candidacy as something of a joke, I admit. Not only has he flip-flopped on virtually every major 'official' position he's ever held (which once upon a time was the kiss of death for a candidate), but (don't tell my young Facebook friends!) I've been tremendously impressed by President Obama in the last three years and was sort of hoping the 2012 election would be a simple walk to his re-election.

That's clearly not going to happen, alas (I have abyssmal luck with '12 presidential elections, I guess) - the American voting public is still largely stupid (blaming President Obama for a recession created by his predecessor) and largely racist (blaming President Obama just for being), so 2012 will be a hotly-contested race that the incumbent stands every chance of losing. So serious attention has to be paid to his front-running possible opponents in the general election, and the aforementioned Greg Waldmann tells me with complete confidence that the foremost of these will be Mitt Romney. Sigh.

Wallace-Wells obviously believes it too. This piece, "The Romney Economy" has nothing of the jaunty tone you'd find in a profile of, say, Michele Bachmann or any of the other large number of obviously insane hopefuls spewing hate in Iowa these days. Wallace-Wells clearly thinks Romney is as serious as a heart attack, and the article's digging into his past with the financial consulting firm Bain Capital ought to get readers thinking. Reading this piece, with its pitch-perfect evocations of Romney's world ("Romney's father had been the head of American Motors Corporation, the governor of Michigan, and a member of Nixon's cabinet; the is no credible way to describe the American elite that excludes Romney"), you come away with one certainty beyond all others: if the "1%" being decried by the smelly, iPad-using occupiers of Wall Street really exists, Mitt Romney is its living embodiment. His career of raping companies, impatiently waiting nine months, then selling the babies to the highest bidder before dashing off to his next rape is clearly detailed by Wallace-Wells, who brings up a few of the many malpractice lawsuits brought against Bain but stops short - as he has to, as his editors at New York would certainly told him to - of drawing the obvious conclusions about them.

But even more unsettling than the prospect of Americans electing as President a junk-bond huckster is the prospect of that junk-bond huckster not even believing in junk bonds - or anything else. Wallace-Wells eventually confronts the subject of all that flip-flopping when he comes to the subject that'll be hardest for Romney to weasel out of in the general election: the fact that when he was governor, he passed a version of universal health-care that's extremely similar to the 'Obamacare' the President's opponents hate because he's black. Here Wallace-Wells is both instructive and insightful:
But what separates Romney's plan from Obama's - and gives some clues about his potential presidency - is its almost-accidental origin. Romney did not begin with a philosophical quest to improve American health care. He began with the idea of himself as a problem solver and asked those around him for a problem that he might usefully solve. I remembered, when I was told this story, an anecdote I'd heard from a former political staffer of Romney's. On even basic philosophical questions like abortion, the staffer said, Romney did not try to resolve the question in the abstract, as a matter of principle, and would consider instead various hypothetical cases - for instance, a late-term abortion - and build from them a politics. The line that Romney is a flip-flopper may vastly understate the depth of the condition.

That's great stuff, though terrifying, and it proves that I should never assume I've seen the worst that U.S. presidential politics can deliver. Wallace-Wells calls Romney a "perfectly objective efficiency machine," but such a thing can't be: the very nature of efficiency involves a goal, and goals preclude objectivity. More accurate to say Romney is "a perfectly efficient Romney machine" whose goal is the presidency, regardless of what he has to say or unsay, believe or unbelieve. It's the close reflection of his days at Bain: personal profit over not only ethics but everything. After eight long years of the nation and the world suffering because Americans elected a man who cared about nothing more than just being president, the country came a whisker away from doing it again by electing John McCain ("We're gonna drill right now, my friends! We're gonna drill right in the middle of Yellowstone! Drill! Drill! Drill!"). Sanity prevailed ("that one" got elected), but in America, sanity has to re-fight its title bout every four years - and, Gawd help us all, Mitten Romney is a contender.

My only consolation would be if Wallace-Wells opts to chronicle the whole sorry spectacle. But who'd want to wish that on anybody?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Insults Large and Small in the Penny Press!

It's been a rough couple of weeks for New York magazine here at Stevereads. Last week there was that noxious, fawning travesty of a piece by Evan Hughes titled "Just Kids," a gushing piece of hagiography that tried to get its readers to shudder with veneration for those literary titans, Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Mary Karr, and Jeffrey Eugenides. The article tries over and over to elicit frissons of retroactive horror that once upon a time, bookstore clerks and reading audiences didn't recognize the greatness in their midst, these scruffy, unassuming kids who were, unbeknownst to all, the greatest writers to ever walk the Earth. I read the thing with white knuckles, trying hard not to bunch it up and hurl it at the nearest basset hound - my nerves no doubt strained by the fact that I only just read the exact same article in Vanity Fair - only that article was written by one of the literary titans, and it was a different group of demigods, the group right after the one Hughes writes about.

I'd no sooner calmed down from reading Hughes' piece than I saw the cover article of the following week's issue, "The Kids are Actually Sort of Alright" written by Noreen Malone. The piece springboards from the ongoing "Occupy Wall Street" farce to an analysis - such as it is - of the second-half of the "Millennial" sub-generation, the kids the issue's cover claims are 'coming of age in post-hope America.' The article itself makes for fantastic reading (Malone is one hell of a writer, if this is any indication), but it's hard to care about that when the subject is such an inherent waste of time. The young people profiled by Malone (she repeatedly characterizes herself as one of them, but I'm free to doubt it - if she's not making very good money freelancing features for Vanity Fair inside of three years, I'm the Shah of Persia) have been let down by a cratered economy, yes - but they're also, quite apart from any economy - insufferably feckless, pampered, arrogant, and brainless. And like their smelly compatriots in Zuccotti Park, each and every one of them is a walking talking chunk of pure hypocrisy. When unwashed young people marched and sat in and protested in the 1960s, they were marching and protesting and sitting in against actual things - mainly an obscene, illegal war in Southeast Asia, but also vicious, backward racial policies at home. And although those unwashed young people were every bit as insufferable as their modern-day counterparts, they at least weren't big fat liars: there certainly wasn't anything anybody could do to make them suddenly embrace the war in Vietnam, or fire-hoses in Alabama.

Nothing could be further from the truth about Occupy Wall Street and the zombie-liars effecting it today. These young people drone about the radical distribution of wealth in this country, about the evils of greed and the miseries of poverty. But not only are they not poor (every occupier I've seen on the news has in his hands a nicer computer than mine - I've lost count of how many iPads I've spotted ... I don't have an iPad)(and the iconic cover photo of this issue features a 'street performer' named Kalan Sherrand, 24, who looks to be a two-pack-a-day tobacco addict - that's hundreds of dollars a month in New York, which is certainly more extra cash than I have), but they're not sincere - if you walked up to any one of these kids when they weren't grand-standing for Youtube and offered them $4 million, they'd promptly take it. They aren't angry with the so-called 1% for their rampant, unseemly greed - they're angry at the 1% for sucking up all the money before they themselves got out of high school and had a fair chance to suck it up themselves.

I turned to a jam-packed issue of the New York Review of Books in search of a little relief, and of course in that issue I turned first to Daniel Mendelsohn, since in this issue he reviews Alan Hollinghurst's fantastic new novel The Stranger's Child. One of our very best literary journalists - who just happens to be gay - reviewing one of our very best novelists - who just happens to be gay - a perfect match, I thought, and perhaps a perfect anecdote to the rather disappointing reviews of this book I've been reading all over the place since it reached this country. The grumpy part of me has been overheard saying the reason for this is as simple as it is deplorable: that the critical community has been so ravaged by the mental scurvy of post-modern crapola that it's no longer inclined to lay out the effort to grapple with an honest-to-gosh real adult novel. Surely, I thought, that won't be the case with Mendelsohn, who, in addition to his extreme stylistic finesse, is also (along with Anthony Lane) one of our smartest working critics.

And I wasn't wrong - about that part of the review, anyway. Mendelsohn is very observant and very funny, and although he manufactures reasons to rein in his praise of the book (like lots of critics, he ends up faulting it for the very central thing Hollinghurst is intentionally doing in the book, which is a lot like having critics fault Ulysses for being "ulimately non-traditional" or Brideshead Revisited for being "a bit elegiac"), he treats it with very becoming intelligence.

Until I got to his footnote. Here it is:
I may as well mention here, not without dismay, another lapse into an old British literary habit. Daphne's marital history seems intended to suggest a descending arc: her second, untitled husband is a bisexual painter who is killed in World War II, and her third and final spouse is a certain "Mr. Jacobs," a small-time manufacturer who did not, apparently, fight in the war. This seems to be a marker of the "plain Sharon Feingold" sort. In this context it's worth mentioning that in the 1920s section of the book, the irritating photographer who plagues the Valances - he represents the distressingly crass "modern" world of publicity and celebrity - is called Jerry Goldblatt.

Naturally, I was horrified at the suggestion, and in this one case, I hope the lie authors always tell about never reading their own reviews is true, otherwise Hollinghurst has by now read himself called an anti-Semite in the New York Review of Books. It's absolutely no mitigation whatsoever to try gentrifying this kind of thing by putting it in a footnote, and it helps not at all to couch that footnote in the kind of semi-involuntary rhetoric Mendelsohn uses - it's an odious thing to suggest no matter how you do it. The names are utterly immaterial here (as a critic so expert at seeing beneath surfaces should bloody well have known) - it's the sentiment that's important, and the sentiment being imputed to Hollinghurst here is entirely absent not only from this book but from all his others. In other words, it's a cheap shot. Not the sort of thing to pick up my mood at all, especially since it was done by a writer I like to a writer I like. Talk about a no-win situation.

There was a small glimmer of hope, however, as there usually is in the Penny Press. In the 24 October New Yorker  (the second one in a row featuring a sublime cover by Barry Blitt), there's a winningly odd piece by Elif Batuman about birding in Turkey - yes, birding in Turkey - that's just bound to end up in all of those 'Best Magazine Writing of the Year' volumes in due time. The piece is classic New Yorker, everything we long-time readers come to the magazine hoping to find: an irresistibly told tale of something odd and semi-poetic. And it featured a quick, classic exchange that shows perfectly why the rest of the world finds Americans so inexplicable. At one point Batuman is being told about bird-watching contest held in Turkish wilderness, in which contestants drove around like mad and made lists of all the birds they saw. They weren't required to take pictures:
When I asked what prevented people from cheating, Cagan stared at me with ravaged eyes. "Who would cheat at a bird-watching contest?"

The answer, of course, is "your average American," but Batuman is too kind to offer it.

In the Year of the Jubilee!

Our book today is George Gissing's 1894 novel In the Year of the Jubilee (referring of course to the Golden Jubilee in 1887, marking Queen Victoria's 50th year on the throne), a lesser-known effort by the man who gave the reading world The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft and The Odd Women.

This novel was written in Gissing's best, strongest period, the decade or so immediately following the battery-charging winter trip he made to Italy, which acted on him the way it always does on writers, by igniting hidden layers of talent he didn't even realize he possessed. Prior to that 1888-89 trip, he'd written novels so turgid and craftless even he couldn't stand to read them. The rejuvenating atmosphere of Italy (and the attentions of several comely Italian women - at the time, Gissing was still extremely good-looking) not only filled him with new ideas but - far more importantly - helped him to discover that most elusive of all a writer's tools: his voice. He came back to England knowing not only what kinds of things he wanted to say but also how he wanted to say them.

In the Year of the Jubilee is fairly typical of this period. It's a multi-faceted satire exhibiting passion, intelligence, and long patches of imperfect control. The center of the book is the courtship and disastrous marriage of Lionel Tarrant and Nancy Lord, each of whom in their separate way has bought into some impossible version of the social optimism that afflicted the aspirations of the middle class at the height of Victoria's reign. Their marriage was never a good idea (Gissing rather ham-handedly makes sure we know that), and it inevitably shatters under the weight of their expectations. More than any of his contemporaries, Gissing was the laureate of dysfunction (the more you know about his lamentable personal life, the easier this is to understand), and In the Year of the Jubliee, like its more famous cousin New Grub Street, is full of unsavory characters striving in vain to stave off calamity.

Gissing was by this point in his career a thorough professional about his craft. He took copious writing notes, wrote copious drafts, and like all literary pack-rats, he found a way to use just about everything good that came from his pen. Lyrical scene-settings are plopped into the sordid events of this novel not only because Gissing wanted them to ironically offset the darkness of his plots but also because they came out well, and he couldn't bear to set them aside:
But inland these discontents are soon forgotten; there amid tilth and pasture, gentle hills and leafy hollows of rural Devon, the eye rests and the mind is soothed. By lanes innumerable, deep between banks of fern and flower; by paths along the bramble-edge of scented meadows; by the secret windings of copse and brake and stream-worn valley - a way lies upward to the long ridge of Haldon, where breezes sing among the pines, or sweep rustling through gorse and bracken. Mile after mile of rustic loveliness, ever and anon the sea-limits blue beyond grassy slopes. White farms dozing beneath their thatch in harvest sunshine; hamlets forsaken save by women and children, by dogs and cats and poultry, the labourers afield. Here grown the tall foxgloves bending a purple head in the heat of noon; here the great bells of the convolvulus hang thick from lofty hedges, massing their pink and white against the dark green leafage; here amid shadowed undergrowth trail the long fronds of lustrous hartsglory. Here, in many a nook carpeted with softest turf, canopied with tangle of leaf and bloom, solitude is safe from all intrusion - unless it be that of a flitting bird, or of some timid wild thing that rustles for a moment and is gone. From dawn till midnight, as from midnight till dawn, one who would be alone with nature might count upon the severity of these bosks and dells.

Even at his best (and this novel has some of his best published stuff, lean and often daringly elliptical), Gissing never displays the tight-fisted narrative control possessed by so many of his writing contemporaries. He can get carried away. He can get sloppy. At one point he has whining, self-pitying Nancy pause from her busy day of woe-is-me-ing:
Fatigued into listlessness, she went to the lending-library, and chose a novel for an hour's amusement. It happened that this story was concerned with the fortunes of a young woman who, after many an affliction sore discovered with notable suddenness the path to fame, lucre, and the husband of her heart: she became at a bound a famous novelist. Nancy's cheek flushed with a splendid thought. Why should she not do likewise? At all events - why should she not earn a little money by writing stories? Number of women took to it; not a few succeeded. It was a pursuit that demanded no apprenticeship, that could be followed in the privacy of home, a pursuit wherein her education would be of service. With imagination already fired by the optimistic author, she began to walk about the room and devise romantic incidents. A love story, of course - and why not one very like her own? The characters were ready to her hands. She would begin this very evening.

Gissing has her reflect that this story-writing could be done from the comfort of home - and then, clearly, in Gissing's mind she is home. She begins to pace and immediately tells her house-mate that she's got a wonderful new idea for self-employment; both she and Gissing have forgotten that she's supposed to be in a lending-library. When reading Gissing, this is the price you pay for his impetuous, often scathing vision.

And in In the Year of the Jubilee, the reader also gets all those lyrical bits! They continue to crop up right to the end of the book, Gissing simply expanding on whatever reflection his own writing has prompted in him. As is perhaps fitting in a novel whose title is a prepositional phrase, the scene-setting in these pages is quite often the most memorable part of the book:
It was one of those cold, dry, clouded evenings of autumn, when London streets affect the imagination with a peculiar suggestiveness. New-lit lamps, sickly yellow under the dying day, stretch in immense vistas, unobscured by fog, but exhibit no detail of the track they will presently illumine; one by one the shop-fronts grow radiant on deepening gloom, and show in silhouette the figures numberless that are hurrying past. By accentuating a pause between the life of daytime and that which will begin after dark, this grey hour excites to an unwonted perception of the city's vastness and of its multifarious labour; melancholy, yet not dismal, the brooding twilight seems to betoken Nature's compassion for myriad mortals exiled form her beauty and her solace.

Readers new to Gissing shouldn't start here. He didn't write enough truly first-rate stuff to justify starting anywhere except with his first-rate stuff - so off to The Odd Women you all go, and lucky you are, too! But for those few of you who take a liking to this author's peculiar ways and means, In the Year of the Jubilee will bring an hour of great delight - and maybe a little insight into an age eerily like our own.

Comics! Superboy's Legion!

Given my strong disappointment with most of DC Comics' "New 52" re-launch, I'm mighty happy the company seems intent on continuing their "DC Comics Presents" line of reprints. As I've mentioned before here, these reprints take little issue-runs or noteworthy special issues from DC's recent past and reprints them in square-bound 'mini-graphic novels' for $8 (as opposed to the glossier, thicker actual paperback graphic novels that cost twice or three times as much). It's a nifty and inexpensive way to re-visit some great stuff from the last two decades, and in many cases it's giving a new format - and new exposure - to stuff that very much deserves it. I was worried DC would discontinue these things for the obvious reason: they highlight a continuity the company has very publicly abandoned. There's something vaguely fascistic about the "New 52" (the military-style costume redesigns don't help), and these "DC Comics Presents" reprints certainly don't play ball - but happily, they appear to have been spared the axe. So those of us who don't particularly like 99 % of the new continuity (I'm allowing for the possibility that some of these new titles might grow on me - both the new "Legion of Super-Heroes" and "Legion Lost" aren't actively bad, after all, and although "Justice League" might just be the worst treatment of the team since the Age of Vibe, "Batman" is already phenomenal) might still have these lovingly-chosen reprints to remind us of the enormous heritage DC has abandoned for some quick cash.

A perfect case-in-point would be this week's reprint of the Paul Farmer/Alan Davis "Elseworlds" two-parter from 2001, "Superboy's Legion" - and it's an ironic choice, since "Elseworlds" was an imprint DC designed specifically for 'what if' type re-thinkings of their core characters. If the "new 52" titles were being marketed as "Elseworld" concepts, I'd have no problem with them at all - in "Elseworld" stories, the whole fun of the enterprise comes from the fact that no damage is being done to the standard continuity I've known and loved.

Farmer and Davis are old hands at this sort of 'what if' story, and hoo boy, there's scarcely any Legion detail they don't tinker with in the course of this story (the editors of this edition have done exactly the right thing: they've gone back to those original two issues and seamlessly melded them into one continuous book - this is the enormous, continuous adventure that original two-parter was meant to be)! Here, little baby Kal-El of Krypton gets discovered in his gestation-chamber not in the 20th century but in the 30th - by R. J. Brande, the richest man in the galaxy, who raises the boy as his own son. By the time Superboy reaches his early teens, he's an impetuous, happy-go-lucky kid with the power of a demigod (Farmer unapologetically harks back to pre-Crisis levels of power for the character - one of many retro touches that will tug at the heartstrings of long-time DC fans). His adoptive father doesn't quite know what to do with him, and Earth's Science Police are convinced he's a juvenile super-delinquent.

This Superboy yearns to form a team of teens as special as he is, a team featuring ample nods to the classic Curt Swan era of the Legion but with the numerous tweaks Farmer seems to love (Lightning Lad and Light Lass being effete aristocrats, for instance, or Brainiac 5 being from the 'near-mythical' race of Coluans). Davis' artwork is vivid and kinetic (he's responsible for the second-best Legion cover of all time, after all), and because this whole thing was an "Elseworlds" title, he was able to draw things the DC brass would never allow in normal continuity. One of the many guilty pleasures of "Elseworlds" stories was writers indulging in the freedom to kill, cross-breed, or maim any of the main characters without fear of fan uproar. As a result, when this story features the team's first confrontation with the Fatal Five, Farmer is able to generate not only extra tension but an actual body-count.

The whole story works to give readers an imaginary reworking of one of DC's most obsessively beloved (and oft-reworked) creations - a graphic novel that offers a fun, thought-provoking revamp of a classic, a revamp no more yielding but a dream. No company fortunes are hanging on the proceedings, and we're all better off because of it.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Grossly False Advertising in the Penny Press!

Obviously, Dogfancy magazine thought it might be a hoot to go all counter-intuitive for their November issue's cover story about basset hounds. So the actual article by Cherie Langlois invokes the stereotypical image of bassets as lazy, sedentary couch dwellers - only to dispel it! Turns out, say top basset hound breeders, these dogs love nothing more than full-throttle action! The article is called "Hidden Talents" and revolves around the fact that back in the mists of medieval France, bassets were originally bred for hunting game over rough country.

This may be true, but I can personally attest that a bit of time has passed since medieval France. Not only might there exist the faint possibility that basset breeders aren't dealing with true representatives of the breed, but there's also the chance the the breeders themselves have a little too much kibble mixed with their bits. It would be a perfectly natural failing, considering what they have to put up with every day. Due to its basset hound cover, this issue has several ads for basset breeders, and your heart can't help but be touched when you see these hapless individuals surrounded by the misshapen progeny they're paid to produce. Looking at those progeny, the very last word that comes to mind is 'athletic.'

Possibly true, some weirdo breeders might claim - but that's only because we're familiar with bassets who've been living their whole lives in a state of pampered over-eating! These breeders would argue that the dog itself, if encouraged to lead a healthy life right from puppyhood, will turn out a champion, a marvel of canine coordination and endurance, not a sodden lump of tri-color flab who has to be shaken awake in the morning in order to lumber outside for her morning waddle. No, these breeders will maintain, basset puppies are models of lean, muscular grace - it's only our subsequent spoiling of them that impedes their taste for triathlons! For those Stevereads readers who may not be familiar with the breed and may therefore never have seen one of these puppy-paragons, here's a picture helpfully supplied by this very issue of Dogfancy:

Yes indeed, and with lots of careful weight-training and diet-monitoring, this champion puppy will be only too happy to grow into the lean and leaping go-getters we all know adult basset hounds to be.


Monday, October 17, 2011

Eight for the Birds!

I've noted before how this time of year always makes me think of birds. By 'this time of year' I mean late autumn, and I mean that mainly because that's what it says on the calendar here in Boston, not because that any longer coincides with actual lived reality. It's been in the high-70s with saturation-point humidity all week here, shorts-and-sandals weather in late October in New England, so that even though the trees are turning colors, I'm still arriving at the subway station drenched in sweat and panting like a circus bear. Once upon a time, before the George W. Bush administration, the world still had frogs and glaciers and, in New England anyway, four distinct seasons. This is no longer true - the last 27 weeks of crushing, stultifying summer heat and humidity commenced exactly 4 hours after the last snowstorm of last winter, and the freezing cold and blowing snow of this coming winter will descend somewhere around 9 pm on a day in late November that will hit 70 at 1 pm.

God only knows what this kind of thing will do to the birds of the world, but they'll stay preserved in books regardless, and although the heat and humidity these days in Boston presents no actual physical reason for many of our seasonal species to migrate to warmer climates, they'll no doubt migrate anyway, driven by instinct. Soon, the path around Jamaica Pond will be much quieter; soon, the optimistically orderly streets of Forest Hills Cemetery will be comparatively bare of the raucous multitude of species that filled the greenery during our incredibly long, unbelievably pestilential over-summer. That fact naturally gets me thinking about bird books for beginner and expert alike, for people who've never set foot in a meadow at sunset and those who have to be dragged out of their nearby hills and marshes by their long-suffering loved ones. Here are eight such books that merit your attention:

Peterson's First Guides: Birds (1986)

The First Guides are slim and short and as basic as a stubbed toe: in the case of Birds (which has lots of illustrations reprinted from Roger Tory Peterson's 1980 A Field Guide to Birds), these extremely portable 128 pages take the user straight into the rudiments of what they need to start birding out in field and stream. The guide covers 188 of the most common species of North American birds, with quick paragraph-long descriptions on facing pages with color illustrations. The descriptions identify things like yellow beaks with italics, and the corresponding picture will have a black arrow pointing straight at that feature - like having a somewhat didactic guide along, only without the temptation to kick him into a culvert. There are of course squintillions of basic guidebooks out there, but this one is the best combination of convenient and informative, and it fits into just about any convenient space you have left over from all your other gear.

The Golden Guide: Birds (1949)

We've covered this marvellous volume here on Stevereads before, but even so, I couldn't let a list like this one go by without including it again. For all that the Golden Guides have been surpassed as practical identification guides, they still retain the ample charm and assurance of the 1940s, and none of these little books is more charming than Birds. Here we have Arctic terns wheeling over the cold ocean with a freighter on the distant horizon; here we have tree sparrows singing lustily as the trees bud out all around them; here we have the bobolink serenading the sunrise in a northern marsh; here we have an osprey carrying a captured fish above a mist-blurred line of channel-markers; here we have a barn owl perched within view of a sleeping farmhouse at night - and many more, a small but choice slice of the bird-life of North America, and a must-have for any bird enthusiast.

The Life of Birds by David Attenborough (1998)

Speaking of bird enthusiasts - I sincerely believe that Attenborough may just be the most passionate such enthusiast on Earth. Certainly he's the most well-known, being the front-man for a dozen epic nature documentaries, including the simply life-changing Planet Earth. One of the most heartfelt and personal-feeling of all those documentaries was 1998's resplendent Life of Birds, and its attendant book, although best read in conjunction with that documentary, can certainly be adored on its own. I've sung its praises here before, but like the Golden Guide, I couldn't resist putting it on this list, because everybody who's interested in birds should find it here in addition to rooting around in the back-stacks for it! In the book, Attenborough examines all the different aspects of bird life, from what they eat to where they live (and how they live there) to how they find their mates to the great chapter titled "The Demands of the Egg," and the whole thing is rendered in the written equivalent of Attenborough's genial, avuncular omniscience. There are dozens and dozens of gorgeous photos too - again, not a rarity in the bird-book world, but never done more winningly than here.

The Wind Birds by Peter Matthiessen (1967)

Like Attenborough, Matthiessen is one of our great naturalists (in addition to being a great novelist, of course), and the fact that he's a bird enthusiast couldn't be more obviously displayed than in this wonderful book about the many kinds of birds who make their homes along those blessed strips of America where the oceans meet the land. This is a book full of bird lore and anecdote, full of digressions, and full of sandpipers (the only bird other than wood warblers that's always struck me as being almost entirely composed of pure enchantment), and all of it is beautifully illustrated by Robert Gillmor. People lucky enough to live near North American shorelines (especially along the eastern seacoast of the country, naturally) have the pick of the very best the bird-world has to offer: they have forests, mountains, ponds, dunes, the active tidal zone, and that most sublime of all natural habitats, the salt water marsh - and in all of those habitats, birds run riot in all their diversity and ingenuity. Matthiessen captures all that diversity and ingenuity in his prose, that nimble, gorgeous prose that always strikes a reader as so much better than they remembered it. Matthiessen's body of work is enormous, and the list of nature books is long and full of famous titles. This book isn't one of those famous titles, and I think that's a shame - there's some sparkling prose here, much of it disarmingly confessional. Like Attenborough's boo, The Wind Birds is no kind of practical guide - but it should be on the bird-shelf of any self-respecting library just the same.

That Quail, Robert by Margaret Stanger (1966)

I've certainly praised this little classic many times before in my life (although memory fails if I've ever praised it here at Stevereads), and I've given copies of it in all its many editions to everybody I even half-suspect might enjoy it and pass it along themselves. It's the story of a brainy Cape Cod family who find a quail egg and decided to try to save and raise the chick inside. That miserable little speck hatches and grows up to be Robert, the quail of the title and star of the brief spring and summer of fame that publication brought to the lives of the humans involved. Robert imprinted to his humans and adapted immediately to life far away from his wild kindred, and the book's main source of comedy and insight is its account of the many pitfalls Robert endures as he tries to understand the weird bipedal creatures with whom his lot's been cast. This is a bird-book classic on the same level as my beloved Owl, and it has the same immediate, universal appeal.

A Pocket Guide to Birds and How to Identify and Enjoy Them by Allan Cruickshank (1953)

This sturdy staple has been reprinted a bunch of times and even superseded in some respects by other books over the years, but it still wins a place on this list because it's far more ample than the First Guide and yet still a handy paperback that can fit in pocket or pack. Cruickshank was an absolutely captivating lecturer for the National Audubon Society, and he distilled a lifetime of introducing people to the joys of birding into this volume, which also features over 70 color photos by the author's wife Helen and 78 vivid, marvellous line-drawings by Don Eckelberry. The combination of photos and drawings is a fortunate one - it allows both a greater certainty of identification and a more intimate awareness of why anybody would bother to identify birds in the first place; the photos are accurate, and the drawings are charming. The book also makes the requisite utterly hopeless attempts to describe what bird-calls actually sound like, but readers familiar with bird-books can see that train-wreck coming and even take pleasure from it.

Birds Through an Opera Glass by Florence Merriam (1889)

Speaking of that hopeless endeavor, it's a big part of this extremely popular and enduring (for a while, anyway) birding-introduction from a century ago. Merriam originally wrote most of the material for her chapters for the old Audubon magazine, and when the success of those articles gave rise to a book, she borrowed the black-and-white illustrations from The History of North American Birds by Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway and commissioned a small handful of color plates to be 'tipped in,' which was a process by which the card-sized illustrations were shuffled into the pages of the book - at a time when working actual color plates into a mass-printed book was either impossible or ruinously expensive, 'tipping in' photos was a popular alternative (the first edition of Hawthorne's The Marble Faun illustrated in this way was a runaway best-seller, for instance). The only problem now, over 100 years later, is that pictures capable of being tipped in can be tipped out again - it's virtually impossible to find an ordinary second-hand copy of this book (which was originally made as part of the "Riverside Library for Young People") that retains all its color illustrations. Collectors sift through them like garden snakes, and even packing and unpacking from apartment to apartment over the course of 28 years can send pictures into oblivion. My own copy, for instance (which isn't second-hand), still has only the lonely full-color picture of an Indigo Bird. But the real draw, of course, is Merriam's plummy prose, complete with easily-parodied bits like "When the oriole comes to build his nest and you compare his work with that of the robin, you feel that you have an artistic Queen Anne beside a rude mud hovel."

The Book of North American Birds (1990)

This sturdy, oversized Reader's Digest production is positively lavish with color illustrations that are bound right into the book - no tipping-out here! Instead, for over 500 glorious though impractical pages (any birder who could take this volume along on his hikes would be a birder I wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley), we get the bursting panoply of birds in all their glory, brought to readers through the delicate work of some of the best bird artists of the 20th century, all gathered together here and doing humble, collaborative wonders. Raymond Harris Ching, John P. O'Neill, H. Jon Janosik, Cynthia House, Walter Ferguson, the great Hans Peeters, and even somebody who rejoices in the name of Julie Zickefoose - all these and many more fill this book with color illustrations that are at once accurate and idealized. These oversized Reader's Digest editions are all marvels (we'll get to all of them eventually here at Stevereads), and the generous size of the pages is particularly advantageous to the subject of birds (several of the smaller song birds here are represented at almost life-size). This is a book to explore lovingly only after the day's wanderings outside are done and the supper is put away.



Under the Covers with Paul Marron: Handling Scandal!

When last we checked in on our chisel-cheeked hero Paul Marron, he'd done the seemingly impossible: he'd bounced back completely - and quickly! - from what my dear old friends "The Guys Next Door" would have called a "Bad Hair Day" (links to either of those quoted terms would be too cruel even for me - let's just say there were dark by-waters of the '90s where only the foolhardy went, and from which few returned unchanged). Paulie had regained his mojo by returning to his roots: brooding, brooding, and more brooding! Sometimes, you just have to get out of your own way and let your perky pecs and perfect puss do what they were made to do - this is the essential life-wisdom of the male model. Our boy has let his body lead him into the strangest places: extraterrestrial paramilitary outfits, corporate boardrooms, post-apocalyptic wastelands, the shackles of ravenous vampire queens; he's seen Fortune's Wheel turn, and at times perhaps he's questioned whether or not he had what it takes to smolder for a living.

But the same pendulum-swing that brought him down so low he was toying with his hair color and considering going back to school (economics or environmental studies? Hmmm) has now begun its upward arc at last, and suddenly the feral confidence we all saw many months ago on the cover of our very first entry in this epic series. Suddenly, the Romance world knows that Paul Marron is synonymous with scandal, and it can't get enough.

A fairly sedate start to this up-tick, then, in the decorous confines of Julia London's A Courtesan's Scandal, in which Paul goes by the name of Grayson Christopher, the Duke of Darlington. In London's fast-paced story, the Prince of Wales wants his good friend Paul to act as a kind of decoy, pretending to squire and conquer the beautiful Kate Bergeron so that polite society doesn't realize the Prince himself is visiting her in the off-hours. Even here, in 1806, Paul is that classic male model combination of haughty and naughty as he accepts the arrangement and begins to lock horns - and other applicable parts - with the lady in question. Kate prides herself on her self-control, but which of us could count on much self-control around our boy Paul in a snug silk vest? Pretty soon, they're both fogging up the windows:
Kate had never felt anything more than tolerance at the prospect of physical relations with a man, but tonight ... tonight she felt urgency, a strong and natural flow of desire for Grayson. She sought his body, her hands beneath his shirt, raking down his chest and back. Her mouth was open beneath his, her tongue twirling around his. She pressed her breasts against him, and when he pushed her hands away to unbutton his shirt, she boldly moved her hand to the front of his trousers and slid her palm down his erection.

Grayson lifted his head as if he meant to say something, but he didn't speak at first. He could only look at her with eyes darkened by his longing. She cupped him, rubbed her hand against him.

"Kate," he said hoarsely.

Fans of well-done romance can't go wrong with London, but fans of Paul will know that an arrangement such as the one cooked up here by the Prince of Wales is simply impossible - our molten little model masquerading as somebody else's love-dupe? Hardly! Paul doesn't feather his hair in the morning in order to have it tousled as some kind of consolation prize. There can only be one cock of this walk.

Paulie moves forward a generation - to 1848 - but appears to change very little in Liz Carlyle's A Touch of Scandal, where he calls himself Adrian Forsythe, Lord Ruthveyn, he of the 'impossibly' black hair and eyebrows, a stern and sultry man very much in the Duke of Darlington mode, a hard, private man who's spent a good deal of his life "Haring about Hindustan risking life and limb in the service of Her Majesty's government and its well-shod bootheel, the East India Company." Carlyle's distressed heroine Grace Gauthier (whose shipping-magnate employer has just been brutally murdered, a crime of which the police believe she might not be entirely innocent) has a decidedly mixed first impression of our brooding hero:
The man - Ruthveyn - seemed disinclined to say more, and Grace resisted the impulse to ask anything. Save for his thick raven hair, sun-bronzed skin, and a nose that was perhaps a tad too strong, he could perhaps have been an Englishman - or Satan in a pair of Bond Street boots.

Naturally, that first impression isn't quite mixed enough to stop them from flinging each other's clothes off, but to her credit, Carlyle serves up a more complicated story than the simple fireball of lust we've all experienced with Paul so many times by now. Nothing is quite what it seems in One Touch of Scandal, and beneath his rough exterior, our hero is a haunted man:
"Do you see those shadows, Grace?" He was staring at the row of houses beyond the glass. "They come creeping relentlessly across the street, every day, without fail, ever destined to shroud us as the sun sets. That is what fate is like to me. Like an impending shadow that cannot be evaded. And we know that it is coming. Sometimes, just before the veil falls, we can even glimpse what lies within. And sometimes what we see is but a chimera - or the reflection of our fears."

Since Barbara Cartland first put quill to parchment, the crux of all romance novels has been a fairly simple trade-off: the hero saves the heroine from some incipient danger (brigands, blackmailers, bad husbands, or all three), and in exchange, the heroine saves the hero from just that kind of creeping darkness. Carlyle stays true to this pattern, but she stocks her novel full of twists and turns - and even a slight element of the supernatural - so that the reader can't comfortably predict where the happy ending will come from.

One thing readers can certainly predict - especially if they're loyal Stevereads fans! - is that the pattern shown on One Touch of Scandal's covers is the one that will win the day. In the book's inset, we see our boy sprawled on a red velvet couch, frilly shirt parted to reveal his V-neck and collarbone - an almost monkish arrangement that feels like a throwback to the timidity we know Paul has discarded like some clinging turtleneck. And so it is - on the book's front cover, we see two of the essential Paul Marron elements on full display: nakedness, and indifference to whatever female happens to be sharing the frame. Those elements have never let our hero down, and they're now carrying him to greatness.

They carry him one crucial step further, in our next chapter!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Penguins on Parade: King Harald's Saga!

Some Penguin Classics, however great, are mere facets of larger gems, and so it is with the slim 1966 volume titled King Harald's Saga.

The Saga in question is here wonderfully translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson, and in its actual setting, it forms part of that vast and endlessly fascinating work, the Heimskringla of the Icelandic historian and mythologist Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241). Snorri was a towering figure in his country's literary history, and he gets generous and detailed attention in this volume's superb Introduction:
Snorri Sturluson was essentially an explorer of the past. He did not allow himself to be deterred by the fact that the landmarks in the remotest area of history were so few and far between; where his information failed, he rationalized and deduced. When he emerged into the more familiar landscape of the late ninth century, he could build on the work of earlier historians, he could accept and reject, and add from sources of his own. But his primary purpose was not so much to correct earlier works of history as to cultivate history for its own sake, to improve the writing of history; he wanted to illuminate the past, not merely to record it.

The story he tells in this saga is so remarkable it could only have been based in reality: it's the story of Harald Sigurdsson, who fled his native Norway at age 15 to escape the rampaging enemies of his half-brother King Olaf. Like a real-life Conan the Barbarian, Harald wandered the world, a reaver and freebooter, selling his prodigious physical might and keen tactical mind to the highest bidder everywhere from Kiev to Sicily to the heart of Byzantium. Eventually Harald returned to Norway and reclaimed his half-brother's crown, and in September of 1066 he took a fleet of 300 warships - 9000 fighting men - across the North Sea to attempt an armed conquest of England. At first, his fierce forces swept aside all armed resistance, but at the Battle of Stamford Bridge he lost the initiative, the battle, and his life, the last of the great and terrible Vikings.

Snorri's account of this incredible life makes it even more incredible - timelines are brushed up, gaps in the record are filled with prodigies, and virtually every character is given at least one or two great lines (probably the most delightful hallmark of this author), as when Harald raids his hapless neighbor Denmark:
They burned down the farm of a great chieftain called Thorkel Geysa, and carried off his daughters in chains to the ships because they had made derisory remarks the previous winter about King Harald's plan to invade Denmark; they had carved anchors out of cheese, and said that these could easily hold all the king of Norway's ships. This was what was composed about it:

The mocking Danish maidens

Carved useless anchors

Out of their crumbling cheeses;

Norway's king was angry.

Today these very maidens

Can see the iron anchors

Holding his eager warships;

And none is laughing now.

It is reported that he watchman who first caught sight of King Harald's fleet said to Thorkel Geysa's daughters, 'I thought you said that Harald would never come to Denmark.'

'That was yesterday,' replied Dotta.

Forty years ago, Penguin Classics produced a small shelf's-worth of slivers from Snorri's gigantic masterpiece, each with family trees and glossaries and maps, each tending to its own garden, and that's wonderful: reading all those composite volumes is endlessly entertaining and challenging, like communing with a snowy Homer. King Harald's Saga is one of the best of those volumes, but they're all worth finding and reading in the middle of a winter's week.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Penguins on Parade: The Shorter Pepys!

Some Penguin Classics are necessary compromises, and Robert Latham's fantastic The Shorter Pepys is a perfect case-in-point. The diary that Samuel Pepys kept from 1660 to 1669 is a great unruly sprawl, a mix of purely utilitarian jottings, longer and more personal entries, and set-pieces describing great events, so despite the genial and engaging voice Pepys brings to the written page, the unedited Diary makes for some very uneven reading. Latham's reduced version - comprising about a third of the original - was first published 1985 and first brought out as a Penguin Classic in 1993. With all due respect to my beloved Everybody's Pepys, this is certainly the best one-volume edition of the Diaries - it's only serious competition is in-house: Latham's The Illustrated Pepys from 1978.

Latham loads the volume with Pepys scholarship, of course, so the Introduction and the Notes are both interesting and extremely helpful for newcomers to the period - but as with any edition of the Diaries, it's the man at center stage who'll keep those newcomers reading. Pepys was a rising man in government work when he started his diary - he continuously mentions his net worth, and he's clearly proud of his new connections with powerful men at the court of Charles II. But the Diary's personal sagas upstage its political content every time, as when Pepys discovers a cache of letters in which his brother John uses the most foul and hilarious language to describe him. Pepys broods over his discovery, and when he's next in the same room with John and their peacemaking father, the brooding erupts into a frightful row:
 21 March 1664

Up; and it snowing this morning a little, which from the mildness of the winter and the weather beginning to be hot and the summer to come on apace is a little strange to us - I did not go abroad, because of my tumour, for fear it shall rise again; but stayed within and by and by my father came, poor man, to me, and my brother John; after much talk and taking them up to my chamber, I did there after some discourse bring in my business of anger with John and did before my father read all his roguish letters; which troubled my father mightily, especially to hear me say what I did, against my allowing anything for the time to come to him out of my own purse, and other words very severe - while he, like a simple rogue, made very silly and churlish answers to me, not like a man of any goodness or wit - at which I was as much disturbed as the other.

The unconscious genius of Pepys is that it never occurs to him not to include such scenes - virtually any other diarist would succumb to the urge to censor themselves. Instead of doing that, Pepys always just writes himself, in the round, as the beguiling combination of high-minded motives and trivial daily realities that most brisk, engaged humans are (though they seldom want to admit it). And our author is never aware of the weird dichotomies he's forever preserving on the page, as when he and his colleagues face international threat:
8 June 1667

Up and to the office, where all the news this morning is that the Dutch are come with a fleet of 80 sail to Harwich, and that guns were heard plain by Sir W. Rider's people at Bednall Greene all yesterday noon. So to the office we all, and sat all the morning; and then home to dinner - where our dinner, a ham of French Bacon boiled with pigeons - an excellent dish. Here dined with us only W. Hewers and his mother. After dinner to the office again, where busy till night; and then home to read a little and then to bed.

The threat of invasion, and a delicious dish of French Bacon - and no hint from the entry itself as to which one loomed the larger in the author's recall when he sat down to make this entry. Little details like supper and dinner and road conditions and weather crop up constantly in the Diary - they're a very large part of its charm, even when some of those details foreshadow disappointment for the knowing reader:
24 December 1668

A cold day. Up and to the office, where all the morning alone at the office, nobody meeting, being the Eve of Christmas. At noon home to dinner and then to the office, busy all the afternoon, and at night home to supper; and it being now very cold, and in hopes of a frost, I begin this night to put on a Wastecoate, it being the first winter in my whole memory that I ever stayed till this day before I did so. So to bed, in mighty good humour with my wife, but sad in one thing, and that is for my poor eyes.

That 'my poor eyes would be gloomily prophetic, of course. After a decade of keeping his diary and quite obviously enjoying it, Pepys came to the conclusion that he was in danger of losing his eyesight from constant scribbling, scribbling, scribbling. He decided to dictate all his future writing (a decision immeasurably helped by being able to afford an amanuensis) - which meant, obviously, that his diary, with its brutally honest assessments of some of the most powerful men in the country, and with its sexual irresponsibility and openness, would have to come to an end. Pepys was sad about that - he refers to it almost as seeing his own self laid in the grave - and perhaps wrong as well: I'm thinking he could have kept generating his diary without hurting his eyes at all. If true, that's a bitter thing for any Pepysian to contemplate, since we'd all very much like another decade of entries.

Still, we can be grateful for what we have, and grateful that Penguin Classics corrected as long-standing oversight by introducing Pepys to the Classics line in this nifty abridgement. If you're already a Pepys fan, this will be the volume you end up carrying around with you - and if you're just discovering Pepys, this volume is pretty much the perfect vessel of that discovery - like Pepys himself, The Shorter Pepys is bright, accessible, and fat - but not too fat.

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Eight Great Kids Books!

Almost immediately (and usually well before - or flat-out in place of - any expressions of sympathy!) the other day, several of you emailed spotting the Achilles Heel of my heartfelt sickbed posting about darling little Stellaluna: you pointed out that I mentioned being sick in bed with a stack of kids books - i.e. not just the one.

This is absolutely true (and a bit whiplashy! I remember when there were only four readers of this site - and none of them was exactly at his sharpest at 8 in the morning on a Friday) - when I'm in particular need of some mental ice cream, I reach for my select shelf of favorite kids books, not just Stellaluna. Like all adult readers with a healthy, flexible imagination, I read kids books for pleasure quite without the encumbrance of having actual children anywhere nearby to spoil things. And whether I'm feeling sludgy or just fine, here are some of my perennial favorites:

People by Peter Spier (1980)

I've praised Spier here at Stevereads before, and this book may be his most epic achievement: nothing less than a hugely detailed, lavishly illustrated letter of love to the entire human race. All kinds of people are represented, all manner of dress, food, religion, pets, language (including sign!), occupation, habitat, hairstyle, even eye-shape - all are clearly and respectfully drawn, without any of the regional bias (conscious or un) that always seem to infect similar books. Every rank and station of person is here, from kings to commoners, and all the rich and varied iterations of mankind are on display in Spier's signature clean, quirky line-work.  There aren't many books I'd advocate should be given to every single living person on Earth, but this is certainly one of them. This is the first of them.


Dinosaur Bob and His Adventures with the Family Lazardo by William Joyce (1988)

While the Lazardo family is on African safari one year (they go on safari every year, right before the start of baseball season), young Scotty comes back to camp with an enormous dinosaur in tow and asks if he can keep it. Doctor Lazardo gives what has to be the perfect parental response to such a question: "I don't see why not." And so the family name their dinosaur Bob and pack him up for their return trip to Pimlico Hills. Bob adapts quickly to suburban family life, particularly enjoying his stint playing baseball for the Pimlico Pirates (he joins the team in a last-ditch effort to avoid trouble with the police, but it all turns out OK in the end), and everybody sings and dances until "late into the summer."

Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey (1941)

Can there be a list like this one that doesn't feature this marvellous book? Can there by a heart so cold that it doesn't warm to the adventures of Mrs. Mallard (Mr. Mallard is a bit of a good-time charlie and isn't around for most of the book's action) and her chicks Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Quack, Pack, and Quack as they negotiate their way from their home on Boston's Charles River to the pond in the Public Garden? The book features ducks'-eye views of the State House and Beacon Hill and Louisburg Square; it features the Old Corner Bookshop where certain book-worms used to spend oceans of time; it even features an enormous Irish beat-cop, once as steady a fixture of Boston as the river or the State House itself. Boston has embraced the book as its civil sacred text, and readers the world over continue to find it charming enough to buy and then lug back to whatever godforsaken country they're from.

Barn Dance! by Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault (1986)

This is quite possibly my single favorite kids book of them all. It's the story of a "skinny kid" (every family's ever-present dreamer) who responds to the enchantment of the night as it spreads over American farm country. He slips out of the house, past the sleeping hound-dog, down to the barn, where the scarecrow and the animals are having a spirited barn-dance, which he joins. Artist Ted Rand outdoes himself in the exuberance of those panels, but the really memorable thing about Barn Dance!'s art is Rand's incomparable ability to draw moonlight - he gives it a cold kind of warmth that fills the book with enchantment. But the enchantment lasts only as long as the night: when the horizon begins to turn purple, the owl says "Mornin's comin' closer/Mornin's comin' closer/The magic time is over.../Night'll soon be gone ..."

Paddle-to-the-Sea by Holling Clancy Holling (1941)

Readers of a certain age will remember the fad that sparked this cherished book (people once mailed things, sometimes just for the fun of it!), and readers of a certain sentimentality will recall its most effective evocation in pop culture - of course I refer to the character Chris Stevens' brief readings from the book at the end of "Final Frontier," quite possibly the single best episode of the TV series "Northern Exposure." The book recounts the epic journey made by a small carved canoe as it winds its way through water-courses far away from the little boy who carved Paddle-to-the-Sea in the first place. Eventually, miraculously, the circle is completed, and the little boy rejoices: "You, Little Traveler! You made the journey, the Long Journey. You now know the things I have yet to know. You, Little Traveler! You were given a name, a true name in my father's lodge. Good Medicine, Little Traveler! You are truly a Paddle Person, a Paddle-to-the-Sea!" (Some of us will also note the obvious influence of Longfellow on those words, and we'll silently gloat to ourselves).

Knuffle Bunny by Mo Willems (2005)

I think the inspiration behind this classic was purely trivial: I think Mo Willems thought it might be fun to use actual photos of New York City locales as backgrounds for his drawings about Trixie, whose loathesome hipster parents accidentally leave her beloved Knuffle Bunny behind at the laundromat, causing Trixie to panic and protest - ineffectively, it turns out, since she can't yet talk. Eventually the error is spotted and the family races back to the laundry. They search and search, and soon Trixie's dad finds Knuffle Bunny - at which point Trixie is so happy she actually says her first words: "Knuffle Bunny." But quick gimmick-inspiration or not, the book is instantly magical.

Sheep in a Shop by Nancy Shaw (1991)

Nancy Shaw's wonderful "Sheep" series (the sheep end up in many other places, including "In a Jeep") here perhaps touches on a sardonic nerve in somebody who's spend his entire life in retail; far too often (and without the saving humor), actual human customers behave just as destructively, cluelessly, and impulsively as the sheep do in this volume. "Sheep decide to buy a beach ball, Sheep prefer an out-of-reach ball" can provoke a wry grin in just about anybody who's manned a sales counter anywhere in the world, and "Sheep climb. Sheep grumble. Sheep reach. Sheep fumble" is likely to send some of those poor counter-helpers straight to the therapist they can't afford. The all-too-accurate illustrations are by Margot Apple.

Birdsong by Audrey Wood  (1997)

This is a strange book to end our rambles today, a book that feels a great deal older than 1997. It's an odd thing: writer Audrey Wood and great illustrator Robert Florczak take us through a tour of the United States bird-by-bird - and season by season. They show us kids (typically two, although young Yoshiko is alone and seems quite contented in the company of her hummingbirds) playing or working but usually ignoring the birds all around them, and the birds usually ignore them as well. Instead, in one beautiful full-page illustration after another, an extremely soothing laid-back natural world is evoked, a world that perhaps has never existed outside the confines of a kids book.

And there you have it! Eight perfect tonics for a slurpy day - or any kind of day, really.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Some High Notes in the Penny Press!

I've fallen frightfully behind - not in my Penny Press reading (as so many slackers might) but in my Penny Press reporting: issue after issue cascades by, and I read and absorb them all, but then I get caught up in making lists or fighting pointless gender battles (not to mention fighting my own phlegm and mucus, which may be more than you wanted to hear), and the analysis doesn't happen. And the unforgiving thing about the Penny Press is its relentless timeliness - it just doesn't feel right to be chronicling my reactions to something that's three weeks old.

Nevertheless, I myself am a literary journalist, so I can't let some great bits go by unpraised! Just a quick few, to bring us at least partially up to speed:

From the 26 September issue of The New Yorker (an otherwise entirely pointless "Style" issue), the great Peter Schjeldahl (by a wide margin our best working writer about art, and in my opinion the finest such that America has ever produced) writing about the decidedly un-great Willem de Kooning:
The show [at MOMA, of course] demolishes a canard that the artist's work declined after the nineteen-fifties. Only his fame did. Out of fashion, and almost to the last, de Kooning made extraordinary art.

From the 3 October New Yorker (an issue which also features a long article trying - and failing, of course - to account for the deeply confounding appeal of IKEA), David Denby writing about "Moneyball" and making a point I'd never considered before:
He [Brad Pitt in most of his roles] simply couldn't convey thinking, which is not a sign of stupidity, just a failure of technique.

From Mark Danner's quietly shattering essay on the current torture-enabling American "state of exception" in the 13 October New York Review of Books, talking here specifically about how the torturers contracted by the CIA used Cold War scenarios crafted to help captured US pilots deal with being tortured by the Soviets:

We see here perhaps the prime example of the improvisation inherent in the state of exception. First, the critical security bureaucracies in the US government - the CIA and the military - derived their "enhanced interrogation procedures" from a cold war-era pilot training program that had been intentionally designed to reproduce illegal techniques. They then placed before government attorneys the through-the-looking-glass task of proving that those interrogation techniques are perfectly permissible under the tenets of international and domestic law that they were expressly designed to violate.

From the 30 September letters page of the TLS (the same issue that features a duly terrifying long literary profile of Alice Munro, about which said, the less the better), this tart response from one Gregory Currie of the University of Nottingham:
Constantine Sandis argues that we do better to rely on Henry James for insights into the mind than on brother William and the other academic psychologists, for "many competing psychological theories have come and gone" since their time. I believe he has hit on a powerful form of argument. Here's another application of it: Newton thought space infinite, but Einstein disagreed. Far better we rely on the cosmology of Genesis.

Anthony Lane's great, insightful line from his review of "The Ides of March" in the otherwise-useless 10 October "Money" issue of The New Yorker:
This film is full of great actors, but not enough people.

And finally, from Daniel Soar's anxiety-inducing great piece on Google from the 6 October London Review of Books:
Google knows or has sought to know, and may increasingly seek to know, your credit card numbers, your purchasing history, your date of birth, your medical history, your reading habits, your taste in music, your interest or otherwise (thanks to your searching habits) in the First Intifada or the career of Audrey Hepburn or flights to Mexico or interest-free loans, or whatever you idly speculate about at 3:45 on a Wednesday afternoon. Here's something: if you have an Android phone, Google can guess your home address, since that's where you phone tends to be at night. I don't mean that in theory some rogue Google employee could hack into your phone to find out where you sleep; I mean that Google, as a system, explicitly deduces where you live and openly logs it as 'home address' in its location service, to put beside the 'work address' where you spend the majority of your daytime hours.

Lots more besides, but those little quotes will have to serve - they'll sketch an attempt to bring us up to speed, so that next week's Penny Press can be represented in what the kids these days call "real time."