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From Head to Toe: An Anatomical Anthology
Mark Steyn's beautiful body
By Steven Martinovich
These days it almost seems superfluous for an anthology of commentator Mark Steyn's work. The Canadian living in New Hampshire appears on almost a daily basis in a remarkable number of magazines and newspapers around the world. He could very well be the pundit world's version of television's Law and Order, wherever you look there he is. Unlike the television show, however, it may very well be impossible for Steyn to wear out his welcome.
That's ably proven by From Head to Toe: An Anatomical Anthology, the second anthology of Steyn's work. Unlike Steyn's previous collection The Face of the Tiger, which focused its attention on the world after September 11, 2001, From Head to Toe uses the framework of the human body to organize columns going back to 1989 that tackle everything from Jenna Bush's drinking to the validity of Perry Como's career.
From Head to Toe shows that Steyn's modus operendi hasn't changed much through his career. Those he deems worthy of less than kind treatment -- and it's a lengthy list of people who've faced his literary guns -- bare the brunt of an eviscerating assault of clever word play, humor and cutting analysis. Writing on Al Gore's brief flirtation with a beard he proclaimed "the man I mocked as a wierdsmobile as become a beardsmobile; Mister Squaresville is Mister Hairsville. After last November, Al has decided he doesn't need any more close shaves."
Steyn would, of course, be a one-note writer if he were only capable of attacking. From Head to Toe also shows his ability of handing out well-deserved praise. His 1998 profile of Sinatra proclaimed that the crooner -- the only 82-year old pop singer with a record contract with a major label -- "did it his way, and he did it longer and better than anyone else in popular music." In a 2001 essay on George W. Bush he argues that the current president is "a rebuke to the Clintonian notion that the role of the American people is to be the studio audience on 'The I'm The President! Show'."
Along with personalities Steyn also explores issues that continue to resonate today including the jihad against smoking, the war in Iraq and the wider battle against terrorism or lighter topics like 'erotic' piercings or the role of critics in art. At the risk of gushing, each essay is a delight thanks to an effective blend of satire and intelligence. The strength of the collection is such that even if you aren't interested in the topic or were never aware of its existence, Steyn still manages to make it entertaining by the sheer level of his talent.
Among the highlights is Steyn's July 2001 tribute to the late Mordechai Richler that manages to illuminate both the novelist and the nation of his birth. "Richler liked to say that he emerged from two ghettos -- one Jewish, one Canadian -- or to put it another way: one highly marketable, one of little interest. I would rank him above Phillip Roth et al, if only because the Canadian qualification of his Jewishness gave him an insight into the points where identities intersect, where the perspective shifts." Richler wasn't, argues Steyn, a Canadian novelist, but rather a novelist who happened to be Canadian, an assertion that eternally rankles the CanLit industry yet is impossible to argue.
From Head to Toe is the best argument that Steyn is an exceptional writer who is able to effectively marry incisive observations and effective humor, a writer -- to risk hyperbole -- who is a modern day H.L. Mencken. Though a cursory glance might fool the reader into thinking that this is a collection of essays that bear little relevance to each other, a common current of humor, insight and attention to detail unites them. From Head to Toe is a sterling collection of Steyn's body of work.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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