Monthly Archives: November 2006

Late for the canonization

The Library of America’s descent into disreputable literary genres continues, I’m happy to say, with news that an edition devoted to Philip K. Dick will be released next year. Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn, The Fortress of Solitude) disclosed at the end of this interview in The Elegant Variation that he will edit the volume.

First H.P. Lovecraft gets to enter the Black Jacket Society, now PKD gets to join! Horror fiction has long been at least semi-respectable to mainstream critics, but science fiction remains the most cootie-laden genre in American literature. I’d love to think that this LoA move shows that snobbery is a diminishing force among the literati — who have yet to come to terms with the grubby mass-market roots of American literature — but in PKD’s case it probably represents two decades of counterculture recognition and growing academic respectability. Though there’s no denying that PKD’s preoccupations — the shaky foundations of identity, distorted perceptions of reality, totalitarian abuses of power — give his work continuing relevance where so many other SF writers seem quaint and mired in their times.

Lethem says the LoA book will feature “four of his novels from the sixties,” which rules out A Scanner Darkly, PKD’s mid-1970s masterpiece, and fan favorites likes VALIS and The Divine Invasion. Though Lethem doesn’t let on which novel’s he’ll choose, I predict we’ll see The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, UbikThe Man in the High Castle, and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep — the last not simply because it’s a superb book, but because of the critical cachet from Ridley Scott’s hugely overrated film version, Blade Runner.

All of this credibility comes a bit late for the writer — PKD’s been dead for two decades. It also opens up a universe of possibilities for editions of other underrecognized authors in the field of imaginative literature.

If you refurbish it, they will come

When the film A Christmas Story came out in the early 1980s, I was already a veteran Jean Shepherd fan. I’d read In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and the other examples of Shepherd in nostalgia mode, and seen the Shepherd-based film The Phantom of the Open Hearth, but A Christmas Story was the most perfectly realized visualization of Shepherd’s world that I’d ever seen, and it’s been fun to watch the film slowly assume its position as an immovable Yuletide classic along the lines of It’s A Wonderful Life. It’s also fun to introduce fans of the film to Shepherd’s other modes: the radio hipster and king of the “night people,” and the jazz improviser whose work on The Clown gave Charles Mingus his long-sought merger of words and music.

Even so, I’m not about to buy the leg lamp featured in the film, nor do I plan to visit the Christmas Story House that some entrepreneurial fan is refurbishing back to its original state from the movie. Like that guy with his Field of Dreams cornfield, the SHep fan in question has decided that if you refurbish it (or, in this case, retrofit it), they will come.  I am going to finish Excelsior, You Fathead, which may not turn out to be the best biography of Shepherd (what I’ve read so far is pretty erratic) but will probably be the only one.           

Robert Altman

Just like his fellow maverick John Huston, Robert Altman got to make his own valedictory shortly before his death. A Prairie Home Companion, just now hitting the DVD shelves, may be Altman’s collaboration with radio auteur Garrison Keillor, but it is also a death-haunted movie about valuing the good things in life, even when you know they are coming to an end:

“What if you die some day?”

“I will die.”

“Don’t you want people to remember you?”

“I don’t want them to be told to remember me.”

It’s a sign of Altman’s sheer cussed independence that the film that made his career, M*A*S*H, was all but forced on him. He fought with the studio, Twentieth-Century Fox, and with the screenwriter, Ring Lardner Jr., and even managed to alienate his two leads, Donald Sutherland and Elliot Gould, who complained to the studio behind his back. (Gould later confessed to Altman, which is why he went on to make several more pictures with Altman while Sutherland did not.) And when it became apparent that he would never replicate the film’s commercial success, he took to disparaging it whenever possible, even though its daring structure and style — big ensemble cast, absence of big names in the cast, naturalistic acting, overlapping dialogue and heavy reliance on improvisation — serve as a template for his subsequent work.

Altman’s innovations, like those of Jean-Luc Godard, have been so thoroughly absorbed by succeeding generations of filmmakers that people who have only recently seen an Altman film might wonder what the fuss is all about. And, as with Godard, much of the time they’d be right. Altman peaked early with that initial run of 1970s films, culminating in Nashville, which masterfully orchestrated something like two dozen characters and plotlines against the setting of the country music industry and a political primary. Even after the belly-flop of Popeye, Altman stayed busy in large part because actors loved him — a feeling he reciprocated. His signature method was to set a large cast in motion along a very loose storyline and then work to capture moments of inspired spontaneity. When it worked, as in Nashville, it paid off handsomely; when it didn’t, as in Ready to Wear, the viewer was left feeling that the director was more interested in playing with his actors than engaging an audience.

It’s possible to acknowledge Altman’s stature and influence without particularly liking many of his films. His work had a caustic viewpoint that often tipped over into sour misanthropy. I despised Short Cuts not just for the way it made a hash out of Raymond Carver’s short stories, but for the wormy cynicism of the situations, which denied any possibility of humans interacting on any but the most coarse and abusive levels. Other films were simply wasted oportunities: Kansas City neglected its intriguing music background to focus on a dim crime story. And an idea man Altman was not — fashion models stepping in dog poop was his big satiric brainstorm for Ready to Wear.

It’s pretty ironic that his late-period career resuscitation was spurred by The Player, a black comedy about Hollywood’s need for and hatred of screenwriters. Altman may have been beloved by actors, but writers had every reason to dislike him: he was a notorious credit hog, and in films like Beyond Therapy his juvenile approach wrecked a Christopher Durang play that, up until then, I had considered foolproof comedy material.

And yet without Altman it is impossible to imagine a Paul Thomas Anderson, whose Magnolia plays like a humane version of Short Cuts, or the improvisational character comedies directed by Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, A Mighty Wind, For Your Consideration), or independent filmmaking itself. Altman is as important for the people he influenced as for the work he finished. That’s no small thing.

The third best swordfight movie of all time

Yes, I know my legions of readers are anxious to see the next installment of my series on My Favorite Books, but I need to take time off for a moment to share something important with everyone:   

There simply aren’t enough great swordfights in movies.

This is an unacceptable situation. There are loads of movies with gunfights, but what is cinematic about people shooting at each other? People slashing and thrusting at each other with rapiers, sabers and broadswords — that’s cinematic.

There are plenty of pretty-good and good swordfight movies. Errol Flynn movies fall squarely into this category. The duels in The Adventures of Robin Hood are great fun to watch, but they fail the most important test of a great swordfight sequence: they don’t advance the story by revealing character through styles of swordplay. For my money the endless flailing around, while visually exciting, is interchangeable from film to film. (I once heard Basil Rathbone, who was classically trained and a good hand with a blade, complain that he constantly had to work to keep from injuring the untutored Flynn during their fight scenes.) In an action film, fighting style defines a character far more clearly than dialogue.

Cleverness isn’t enough, either. The strenuous stunt-fights in The Mask of Zorro (1998) are fun and ingeniously laid out, but with the exception of the duel in which Antonio Banderas systematically disrobes Catherine Zeta-Jones with deft strokes of his blade (wish I’d thought of that when I was single), they’re pretty much standard-issue action fodder.

Fighting styles are a big part of the appeal of The Three Musketeers (1973) and The Four Musketeers (1974), which were shot as a single film and released in two parts, which allows me to class both of them as my choice for third-best swordfight movie.

This is one of the most buoyantly entertaining movies ever made, certainly director Richard Lester’s best work apart from A Hard Day’s Night. (I’m no fan of his two cloddish Superman films.) It is also gorgeous to the eye, thanks to cinematography by David Watkins that makes almost every frame look like an Old Masters painting, and playful to the ear, thanks to a screenplay by George MacDonald Fraser (author of the Flashman series) that sparkles with wit as it stays as close as filmicly possible to the original Alexandre Dumas novel. In fact, The Three/Four Musketeers has one of the qualities that makes the Flashman series so good — it manages the difficult trick of saluting and lampooning heroism at the same time.

The Dumas novel (which tells the wonderfully, needlessly complicated story of how the Gascon bumpkin D’Artagnan joins the King’s Musketeers and helps foil Cardinal Richelieu’s plot against the Queen of France) had already been filmed a few times before Lester took his stab at it. The debunking spirit of the late 1960s and early 1970s had already produced revisionist Westerns like McCabe and Mrs. Miller, revisionist crime dramas like The Long Goodbye and revisionist historical dramas like The Charge of the Light Bridgade. Who better than Richard Lester to direct a revisionist swashbuckler? 

So in place of the stagey classical fencing techniques, perfect stances and Queensberry rules of the Errol Flynn movies, Lester and his fight choreographer William Hobbs turned the swordfights into brawls closer to the gang rumble in A Clockwork Orange than anything seen in The Sea Hawk or Captain Blood. Swords go clattering across floors, men trip over each other, and kicks in the crotch settle matters as often as crossed swords. These are fights involving professional men of action who use the means at hand to beat their opponents, and if the means at hand involve chairs, fists, knee and even wet laundry, so much the better. Whatever works.

The bruising practice bout between D’Artagnan and his father, shown beneath the opening credits, gives us a taste of what’s to come after D’Artagnan (Michael York) enters Paris and, seemingly within a five-minute period, is challenged to duels by three of the King’s Musketeers: Athos (Oliver Reed), Porthos (Frank Finlay) and Aramis (Richard Chamberlain). The arrival of the Cardinal’s guards at the duelling spot leads to a melee that makes D’Artagnan one of the boys, and lets us see the Musketeers in action.

Aramis appears to be the finest swordsman: he brushes aside sword thrusts with a mocking smile that hardly ever wavers. Porthos is fond of elaborate gimmicks: he cold-cocks his first opponent by tossing his blade in the air and smashing the distracted man across the jaw with a rock. (He then finds himself without a sword — a frequent problem with his tricky moves.) Athos uses his cloak as a flail to tangle the opponent’s blade or blind him before a rush. D’Artagnan is all youthful athleticism, playing cat and mouse between lines of drying laundry, then hoisting himself around a clothesline to knock an attacker flat.

Part of the charm is that even when the fighting turns serious and murderous, as it does whenever the lethal Rochefort (Christopher Lee) turns up, there is still a code of honor at work. Rochefort twice has the opportunity to kill D’Artagnan while he is unconscious, but he disdains to do so; likewise D’Artagnan, after besting Rochefort in a brilliantly staged battle in a night-shrouded forest, lets him lie rather than finish him off. In the DVD commentary, Lee is careful to note that he was the best swordsman in the cast, and he certainly handles his blade with an authority that makes him stand out amid the flying furniture and bodies. When he and Oliver Reed lock eyes amid the chaotic fight at the nunnery in The Four Musketeers, it’s one of the great badass moments in cinema, and their prolonged duel is a standout in a film loaded with great swordplay.                             

Hobbs himself appears as an apparent drunkard who transforms into a very sober and implacable assassin as soon as he draws Porthos into a duel. Reading his resume on the Internet Movie Database and taking in the range of styles used in each film, it’s clear that here is a man who understands film almost as well as he understands weapons, and is comfortable in many different modes: the laborious hacking and slashing of Excalibur, the crisply executed clashes in The Duellists and Dangerous Liaisons, the Errol Flynn parodies of Royal Flash.

It was no surprise to learn that Hobbs also choreographed the duels in my choice for the greatest swordfight film of all time, but before I get to that I have to talk about the second place film — a movie that couldn’t have less in common with The Three Musketeers, and which technically doesn’t even use swords, but is nevertheless a model of how to do it right.    

List, list, O list!

Strictly for research purposes, you understand, I’m including this link to a list of the best live rock records from 1969 to 1979, which Eric Alterman spotlighted on his blog.

I have no problem with C. Michael Bailey putting the Allman Brothers at the top of his live-records list, but personally, I would push sixth-place Neil Young’s Live Rust to the second spot, in place of the tasty-licks lite funk band Little Feat.

I would also delete fourth-place Four Way Street entirely and substitute It’s Alive, recorded in those halcyon early years when the Ramones were a light-on-their-feet punk band, instead of the heavy metal group they morphed into when success failed to come a’knockin’ for End of the Century.

I don’t know the Joe Cocker record (No. 8) or the J. Geils Band live set (No. 9), but I doubt either of them could go toe-to-toe with the Who’s Live at Leeds, which shouldn’t be that far down the list.

Get Yer Ya Yas Out and Before the Flood are strictly pro forma inclusions: they don’t belong anywhere on this list for the simple fact that neither the Rolling Stones nor Bob Dylan released a great live album during this period. Ya Yas was a contract-killer released to undercut a successful bootleg version of the same show, LIVEr Than You’ll Ever Be, which the Stones openly praised at the expense of the official release.

Before the Flood, recorded during Dylan’s blowhard 1974 arena tour with the Band, was a profit-making consolation prize for David Geffen, whose Asylum Records had taken a bath on Planet Waves, and who was beginning to wonder why he’d laid out so much money to steal Dylan away from Columbia in the first place. Except for the too-brief acoustic set, Before the Flood consists of Dylan bellowing like an elephant seal through selections from his back catalogue, with the Band playing competently but rather listlessly behind him, then stepping forward to prove they could be just as uninspired with their own material.

If you want to hear how loud Dylan could bawl back then, get Hard Rain. If you want to hear how good the Band could be in concert, get Rock of Ages, which deserves its spot at the top of the list, rather than Before the Flood, in which thoroughbred songs sound like a bunch of nags getting flogged around the track one last time.      

As for Europe ’72 — well, I liked everything about the Grateful Dead except their music. I liked the non-exploitative relationship between the band its Deadheads; I liked the idea of hippies supporting obscure artists through their Rex fund; I particularly liked the idea of a band allowing bootleggers to operate openly during its shows.

But the music just ain’t there for me. I find American Beauty to be all the Dead anyone needs for normal purposes, though I occasionally listen to Workingman’s Dead if I’ve just had a good night’s sleep and a nice cup of coffee. When both Tipper Gore and Ann Coulter can claim Europe ’72 as their favorite rock album, you have to wonder if there’s a bit less there than meets the ears.

My favorite books, part two

About a week ago I published the first installment of my annotated list of Steven’s Favorite Books, compiled at the behest of poet and editor Nick DiGiovanni. That’s “favorite” books, not “best” or “most important,” but the books that I return to most often, whether for information or for pleasure, or for both.

There are at least two more installment’s worth left to go. You’ll find the master list at the end of the first installment. And so . . .

FLASH FOR FREEDOM! George MacDonald Fraser

I’m a sucker for good historical fiction, and Fraser’s books are some of the best. Harry Flashman, lifted whole from Tom Brown’s School Days and given a commission in Queen Victoria’s army, is one of the great antiheroes in literature: bluff and hearty looking but a coward at heart; a backstabbing poltroon who wins military honors and a heroic reputation through blind luck and chance; an endlessly cynical joker who runs from fights but is ready to acknowledge real heroism when he sees it. Through deft plotting, Fraser has thus far managed to tangle Flashman in just about every one of Queen Victoria’s “little wars” and then some: the first Afghan campaign, the revolutions of 1848, the Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebelllion in China, the India Mutiny, and the Crimean War. Though he has dropped plenty of hints that Flashman was involved in the Civil War on both sides, Fraser has yet to publish that installment of the saga, though Flashman and the Angel of the Lord puts Harry in the middle of the standoff at Harper’s Ferry. Unfortunately, Angel of the Lord and the last two Flashman titles have been pretty weak tea — if Fraser has taken too many trips to the well, maybe we’d all be better off if the Civil War novel goes unrealized.

Angel of the Lord was the third book to bring Flashman to America. For my money, the first two American books — Flash for Freedom! and Flashman and the Redskins — are the twin peaks of the series. Flash for Freedom! gets off to a relatively slow start for the series: a cameo appearance by the Chartist Rebellion, followed by a card game with Disraeli that turns into an incident of near-manslaughter. Ready to skip the country until things cool down, Flashman is gulled into shipping out on one of his father-in-law’s merchant ships: only after the ship sets sail does Flashman realize he’s signed aboard a slave ship bound for the Guinea coast. What follows is a tour de force: a panoramic view of the mid-nineteenth century slave trade that takes a clear-eyed look at every side, from the African potentates who eagerly sold off their brethren, to the merchants whose finery cannot quite conceal the moral degeneracy that comes with the buying and selling of human beings. Marooned in New Orleans with stolen identity papers, Flashman assumes various roles at every level of society in the pre-bellum South as a slave owner, a slave overseer, an operative for the Underground Railroad and finally as a slave himself, sold into bondage by a plantation owner Flashman has cuckolded. The sequence in which Flashman escapes and flees north with a fellow captive is bravura action, full of twists and close calls, climaxing with a chase across a frozen river and a stand-down between some brutal slave-catchers and a young Congressman named Abraham Lincoln.

The book also offers some of Fraser’s most finely drawn characters, the most inspired being John Charity Spring, a homicidal Latin scholar and defrocked Oxford don who captains the slave ship Balliol College and crops up as a recurring nemesis in other Flashman books. The Flashman books are often referred to as comic novels, but Flash for Freedom! goes well beyond laughs with the character Cassy, a slave woman who burns with hatred for all whites but finds an unlikely savior in the gutless, womanizing Flashman. Magnificent stuff.

FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS/ George MacDonald Fraser

The second American novel in the Flashman series picks up right where Flash for Freedom left off, with Flashman once more on the lam, signing on as a bodyguard for a New Orleans brothel that’s relocating to San Francisco via wagon train. The narrative carries Flashman through the thick of the Indian wars, with circumstances once again landing him in various roles: bounty hunter, Indian fighter, Apache captive, and lover of an Apache chief’s daughter. The second half brings Flashman back to the West years later, and by various twists and turns puts him alongside George Armstrong Custer just as he takes it into his head to go after a bunch of Indians at the Little Bighorn. Every once in a while Frader senses that Flashman is about to become too loveable a rogue, a problem he remedies by making Flashman do something bone-jellying callous and brutal. That’s what happens here, and it paves the way for a dynamite plot twist that neatly yanks the rug out from under the reader’s expectations.

TALES OF SOLDIERS AND CIVILIANS/ Ambrose Bierce

Ernest Hemingway said a great many foolish things, none more ridiculous than: “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since.” What utter balls. Modern American literature was created by Twain’s contemporary, Ambrose Bierce, a San Francisco newspaperman whose penchant for viciously funny satire earned him the nickname “Bitter Bierce.” Born in Ohio and raised in Indiana, the young Bierce served on the Union side during the Civil War and fought in some of its most appalling battles, namely Shiloh and Kennesaw Mountain. The experiences he endured during the war cast long shadows through his life and work. Those shadows gather here in “Chickamauga” and “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” the former a hallucinatory vignette that reads like something from Goya’s Disasters of War; the latter a tale ending in a twist so brilliantly brutal that successive generations of writers have copped from it. (Check out the Sopranos episode in which Adrianna is murdered, and tell me the writers weren’t paying tribute.) Bierce scorned novels as overly padded stories; to prove his point, he made his short stories into marvels of compression and forceful writing, and his depictions of mind-altering twists of fate in the midst of battle (“One of the Missing”) could have been written last week. This collection also includes some of his horror stories, which pale in comparison with the war stories – after seeing what the little boy encounters in the woods in “Chickamauga,” a Lovecraftian trifle like “The Damned Thing” seems downright comforting. There are also a couple of “Parenticide Club” stories that showcase Bierce’s utterly pitch-black sense of humor. Bierce was a man of the nineteenth century, but his work forecast what was to come, and showed everyone how to write about it.

BEHIND THE SHADES REVISITED/ Clinton Heylin

As I’ve written before, Bob Dylan stands with Duke Ellington and Aaron Copeland as a crucial figure in any appreciation of twentieth century American music, and this is the most up to date, comprehensive and critically informed biography of him that money can buy. Alone of all Dylan’s chroniclers, Heylin has come to grips not only with Dylan’s huge body of officially recorded works, but also with the immense corpus of bootleg recordings that allows one to trace virtually every phase of Dylan’s artistic development, from those first strummed songs in Bonnie Beecher’s apartment to the last outtakes from Time Out of Mind. And for all his appreciation of Dylan’s artistry, Heylin is no dazzled fanboy: he can be brutally dismissive of sacred cows like Dylan’s early ‘90s return to folk music, or the blowhard arena shows from his 1974 “comeback” tour. Too much writing about Dylan veers between the embarrassingly worshipful gushing of Paul Williams and the deep-dish arcana of Greil Marcus, whose musings are often as puzzling, and much less rewarding, than some of the trickier verses on Highway 61 Revisited. This book stands with Michael Gray’s Song and Dance Man (and his recent Bob Dylan Encyclopedia) as one of the very few essential books written about a most essential American artist. Of all the books I own, this may be the one I return to most often, for its depth of detail, its critical shrewdness and its flavorful style.

AGAINST THE AMERICAN GRAIN/ Dwight Macdonald

I came to this book for “By Cozzens Possessed,” the long, witheringly funny essay that effectively ended the career of pretentious middlebrow writer James Gould Cozzens – to paraphrase Martin Amis, when Macdonald reviewed Cozzens, he stayed reviewed. But I kept it because Macdonald, like all the best critics, brought so much wit, learning, and observation to his task that the essay grew beyond one bad writer to become a merry hunting trip to bag and tag all the blowhard authors who are hailed as saviors of literature one week and forgotten beyond all recall the next. There is a fine appreciation of James Joyce, an equally fine evisceration of Ernest Hemingway, and a long polemic about the purpose of dictionaries that needs to be dealt with by anyone who sides with “descriptive” over the “proscriptive” approach. For all his political radicalism, Macdonald was culturally rather conservative – a “rebel in defense of tradition,” as his biographer called him. He appreciated the innovations of a James Joyce all the more because he also continued to treasure the more earthbound predecessors that Joyce soared past. The wit and economy of his writing are so bracing that the subjects of his essays: like George Orwell, whom he writes about here, Macdonald mastered the art of artlessness, and it makes these pieces irresistably readable.   

Calling all bootleggers

One of the most ungodly dull records in the Bob Dylan catalogue really can’t be blamed on Dylan: the show his record label organized to mark the 30th anniversary of Dylan’s signing to Columbia Records. The live record culled from the show rivals the Woodstock soundtrack as an anthology of forgettable moments from budding nobodies and career-awful moments from somebodies who decided to sleepwalk through the show. There are occasional lively moments, such as when Lou Reed made a point of performing “Foot of Pride” (an Infidels outtake at that time available only as a bootleg), but the record does nobody any credit. Maybe Dylan can’t be blamed for the lackluster lineup, but he can certainly be thumped for his show-ending performance, featuring a version of “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” delivered in a buzzing nasal monotone that’s only barely inflected a regular intervals — think of a sluggish bumblebee slowly circling your head for 10 minutes and you’ll get the mood of this particular song.

Ah, but this tribute show featuring 22 Dylan songs performed by 21 Dylan admirers sounds like the kind of celebration they should have been able to pul off back in the 1990s. Having The Roots perform “Masters of War” was an idea that must have made the price of admission worthwhile all by itself. It was cheeky of Ryan Adams to insert “Love Sick,” a song about abandonment, into “Isis,” a song about rescuing a marriage. I want to hear all of it, even Sandra Bernhard performing “Like a Rolling Stone” as though she wanted to displace Liza Minnelli’s version of “We Will Rock You” as the single most embarrassing cover version ever sung. Bootleggers! I know — I just know — that somebody was at this show with a tape recorder! I want a copy!            

I wanna get quizzical, quizzical, I wanna get quizzical — let’s get into quizzical

Back in the day, when the radio was a fiendish instrument of torture that drilled “Physical” and “I Honestly Love You” into our heads on an hourly basis, we referred to Olivia Newton-John as Olivia Neutron Bomb.

Now I learn from Andrew Sullivan’s site that Olivia Neutron Bomb’s grandfather was a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist.

Cue Twilight Zone music.

Weird, huh?

My favorite books, part one

Last week my friend Nick DiGiovanni called on various people to e-mail lists of their favorite books. My own list runs at the end of this post, which is the first installment of my series of explanations for why these books are the ones I love best in the world.

THE ASCENT OF MAN/Jacob Bronowski

Bronowski was more than a science writer — he was a philosopher, and his deeply humane, endlessly questing view of life has had (I like to think) more influence on my worldview than any other philosopher. This book and its accompanying miniseries (available on DVD through Ambrose Video) are a fine introduction to Bronowski’s wit and deep-seated decency. From here, I would recommend Science and Human Values as the next step.

THE CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY/ Boethius

In his work and his life, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was a bridge between pagan Rome and its Christianized successor. Though the empire has been Christianized for about a century before his birth, Boethius harkened back to Plato and Aristotle, whose works he was still translating into Latin when his life was cut short. Though he was a formidable scholar and quite possibly the single most learned man in the Empire, Boethius took public service as a calling, and he threw himself into politics with great vigor — too much, it seems, since he found himself on the wrong side of a controversy and was sentenced to death in 524 CE by the Ostrogothic king Theoderic. Awaiting his fate in prison, Boethius produced this gorgeous, paradoxical meditation on the workings of fate and justice — a Christian work that avoids mentioning Christ and instead uses the workings of logic to support its arguments. I have yet to encounter a work of theology that has its intended impact on me, but I found (and find) Boethius’ view of evil as an absence rather than a generative force in its own right to be very powerful and clarifying. When I was covering crime and courts during my newspaper days, I sat in one a number of horrifying murder trials, and in every case the accused murderers did not show Satanic cunning along the lines of Hannibal Lecter, but rather damage begun by others in childhood and continued in later life, as though the victims wanted to justify and complete the terrible things that had been done to them. Their evil deeds had been formed by emptiness, an emptiness Boethius had seen and described even as it came to claim his life.

THE PASTURES OF HEAVEN/John Steinbeck

Not one of the officially approved Great Steinbeck Novels, but the one in which the California master found his voice after flailing around with Cup of Gold and To A God Unknown. It’s not even really a novel — more a collection of linked short stories set in the ironically named valley where Bert Monroe brings his family, hoping to break a lifelong streak of bad luck. As we see in each finely crafted story, Monroe doesn’t so much break his bad luck as spread it around, with consequences that range from benign and ironic to enraging and tragic.

CANNERY ROW/John Steinbeck

Steinbeck called this slim, effortlessly readable book a poisoned cream puff, and it takes a few readings to see what he meant: while many people are content to view the book as nothing more than a collection of vignettes about loveable rogues and scamps in a rough section of Monterey, there’s a great deal of toughness and flint-eyed observation at work here. There’s also a lovingly drawn portrait of Doc, a marine biologist closely modeled on Steinbeck’s close friend Ed Ricketts, who serves as the axis around which the novel’s events turn. At its simplest, the novel is a study of the difference betweena good party and a bad party. At its most complex, it presents a human community as intricate and fragile (and as beautiful and stunningly violent) as the tidal pool habitats where Doc searches for his specimens. It also has some 0f most glowingly beautiful passages Steinbeck ever wrote. The burghers of Monterey never forgave Steinbeck for this or Tortilla Flat, which chronicled the paisanos living in the hills above the town — they damned the books as celebrations of lowlifes, and they all but ran Steinbeck out of town on a rail when he tried to return with his second wife. Their descendants, of course, have since turned the Steinbeck connection into a small tourist industry. Cannery Row no longer exists in Monterey, but it will always exist in this book.

FOR THE UNION DEAD/Robert Lowell

The title poem is Lowell’s tribute to “The Fighting Fifty-Fourth,” the black infantry unit that tried to storm Fort Wagner during the Civil War, and it remains my favorite poem decades after my first reading. The other poems are nothing to sneeze at, either.

THE HAWK IN THE RAIN/Ted Hughes

My second favorite poem of all time, “The Thought-Fox,” uses vivid imagery drawn from nature to convey the mystery of literary creation. It is one of the standouts in the first collection published by one of the towering figures of twentieth-century verse.

THE OCTOBER COUNTRY/ Ray Bradbury

Bradbury at his most concise, most evocative and — quite often — most frightening. Most of the stories are rewritten versions of tales from his first book, Dark Carnival (published by Arkham House, and now a collector’s item commanding prices in the thousands of dollars), but the after-the-fact polishing has done nothing to diminish the menace of “The Man Upstairs,” “The Next in Line” or “The Small Assassin.” The emphasis on the macabre gives this collection a unity lacking in, say, The Illustrated Man or The Golden Apples of the Sun, to say nothing of additional kick. With later Bradbury, the richly flavored style tends to overwhelm the finished product; here is where you’ll find him at his most accessible and compelling.

SLOUCHING TOWARD BETHLEHEM/Joan Didion

This book and George Orwell’s A Collection of Essays belong in the working library of anyone writing nonfiction. Like a great many Californians in the 1960s, Didion saw California in general (and Los Angeles in particular) as a tainted paradise overdue for some kind of annihilating judgment, and in the long title essay she tried to figure out the nature and the extent of the deserved punishment. It’s true that Didion sometimes mistakes her moods and fixations for reports from the Zeitgeist, but I love her gift for winding sharp judgments and observations into long, elaborately crafted sentences that lead the reader in unexpected directions. I also like her flinty streak: it makes “On Self Respect” a bracing read

JULIAN/Gore Vidal

Like Joan Didion, Vidal gets more attention for his bitingly witty and combative essays than his novels; unlike Joan Didion, Vidal has produced novels that are worth reading in their own right, and this is the best of them. The story of Julian, the Byzantine-era Roman emperor who tried to hold back the Christianization of the empire that began under Constantine, allows Vidal to display his formidable research skills while slashing away at contemporary pieties. The fact that Julian’s own attacks on the developing Christian church remain powerful to this day are part of the fun, and the ending turns out to be deeply moving — surprisingly so for a writer whose work tends to be a bit chilly.

PATRIOTIC GORE/Edmund Wilson

All of Wilson’s strengths as a critic, essayist and historian are on display in this survey of the literature of the Civil War. He’s generous almost to a fault with Harriett Beecher Stowe, amusingly dismissive of Carl Sandburg’s attempts to embalm Abraham Lincoln in folksy pickle juice, sharp-eyed and to the point with Mary Chestnut, William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant. (Or is that Mark Twain?)

XICCARPH/Clark Ashton Smith

Smith was a young California poet, briefly part of Ambrose Bierce’s literary circle, who survived the Depression by writing baroquely imaginative fantasy and science fiction stories for the pulp magazines, notably Weird Tales, where he became the third part of the unlikely trimuvirate formed by H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Smith was the finest writer of the group: a stylist whose interests lay not in narrative (his plots ranged from rudimentary to nonexistent) but in evoking strange moods and environments. Smith wrote only poems and short stories, which have been republished in various configurations. This particular book is one of four issued by Ballantine Books in the early 1970s under its Adult Fantasy imprint, which was one of the touchstones of my youth. For a long span of my adolescence, simply looking at this paperback with its exotic cover painting (by Gervasio Gallardo, a mainstay of the series) was enough to transport me to strange and beautiful places.

THE DYING EARTH/Jack Vance

Sorry, lit-snobs, but an appreciation for imaginative writing is a necessary part of any reading diet, and with the death of Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance inherited the title of great underappreciated American fantasy writer. Like Leiber and his stylistic precursor Clark Ashton Smith, Vance is an underappreciated American master overdue for discovery by the wider world; unlike them, he has achieved a measure of recognition and finanical success as a science fiction grandmaster. These stories are set on an Earth lost in perpetual twilight under a fading sun, where learning has become a blend of magic and science, and the shadowy forests teem with bizarre monsters — many of which use the same elegantly epigrammatic speech used by the human characters. Vance’s trick of evoking the far future by using antique and obsolete words like “deodand” was a big influence on Gene Wolfe, whose Book of the New Sun cycle is partly a tribute to Vance’s Dying Earth. “Real fantasy” may seem like a contradiction in terms, but at a time when bookstores are loaded with dreary fifth-generation imitators of J.R.R. Tolkien, this book is the real stuff.

THE EYES OF THE OVERWORLD/Jack Vance

The Dying Earth again, but this time our guide is a picaro named Cugel the Clever, a thief and vagabond whose attempt to burglarize a magician’s residence earns him a very long journey through a world of wonders and dangers. Each chapter is a fireworks display of imagination in which Cugel, who is not nearly as clever as he thinks, enters a situation and becomes an unwitting agent of moral redress, bringing unintended punishment on malefactors as well as unanticipated rewards to the virtuous — or, more often, the merely harmless. Imagine a world in which the grotesquerie of Aubrey Beardsley and Hieronymous Bosch are wedded to the elegant dialogue of a Restoration comedy and you’ll get an idea of the peculiar, heady flavor of Vance’s work.

To be continued.

THE MASTER LIST

Julian: Gore Vidal,

The Ascent of Man: Jacob Bronowski

The Consolation of Philosophy: Boethius

The Pastures of Heaven: John Steinbeck

Cannery Row: John Steinbeck

For the Union Dead: Robert Lowell

The October Country: Ray Bradbury

U.S.A.: John Dos Passos

Tales of Soldiers and Civilians: Ambrose Bierce

Slouching Toward Bethlehem: Joan Didion

The Dying Earth: Jack Vance

The Eyes of the Overworld: Jack Vance

History of My Life: Giacomo Casanova

Patriotic Gore: Edmund Wilson

A Canticle for Leibowitz: Walter Miller Jr.

The Hawk in the Rain: Ted Hughes

Xiccarph: Clark Ashton Smith

The Nehwon Books: Fritz Leiber

Life of Johnson: James Boswell

Lonesome Dove: Larry McMurtry

A Heart at Fire’s Center: Steven C. Smith

Behind the Shades Revisited: Clinton Heylin

The Power Broker: Robert Caro

Up In the Old Hotel: Joseph Mitchell

The Titus Novels: Mervyn Peake

Flash for Freedom! George Macdonald Fraser

Flashman and the Redskins: George Macdonald Fraser

A House for Mr. Biswas: V.S. Naipaul

Laxdaela Saga: Unknown

Egil’s Saga: Snorri Sturluson

This Wheel’s On Fire: Levon Helm

The Children of Llyr: Evangeline Walton

In Patagonia: Bruce Chatwin

Against the American Grain: Dwight Macdonald

Prejudices: H.L. Mencken