Hadley Full of Hate

My story “Hadley Full of Hate” is up at Sockdolager, a really snazzy magazine edited by the talented and enthusiastic duo of Paul Tuttle Starr and my CW classmate Alison Wilgus. If you like Beowulf, baristas, and post-invasion mop-up of alien forces in the woods of Washington state, you should read it — along with Sockdolager’s other great, funny, moving stories that are worth your time.

Quote #23

peng_eliz_verseTHOMAS BASTARD (1566-1618)

“A country clergyman who made pitiably small headway in life, Bastard published his book, Chrestoleros, in 1598. It was much ridiculed, but [Sir John] Harington defended it. Bastard died, touched in his wits, in a debtors’ prison in Dorchester.”

— the biographical sketch for Thomas Bastard‘s poems in The Penguin Book of Elizabethan Verse (1965). Can’t help but suspect his surname didn’t ease his way in the world.

Quote #22

“I learned later that Rhody always automatically remembered her place in a book. She was not good with phone numbers, and even her Social Security number gave her trouble occasionally, but the page number of her current book would just come to her without effort as soon as she held it and saw the cover. the-fermataSometimes, she told me, the number would even occur to her at odd times during the day, and she would think, Two hundred fifty-four, what a mysterious and suggestive number! It would take her a second to realize that the number seemed unusually fine simply because it was where she was going to resume her reading. Nineteenth-century novels were all-important to her. It wasn’t a question of her liking them; they were a neurological necessity, like sleep. One Mrs. Humphry Ward, or a Reade, or a Trollope per week supplied her with some kind of critical co-enzyme, she said, that allowed her to organize social sense experience. It was nice if the novel was good, but even a very mediocre one would do; without a daily shot of Victorian fiction she couldn’t quite remember how to talk to people and to understand what they said. I miss her.” – Nicholson Baker, The Fermata

E is for English eeriness, WTF is for Hawk

For me there’s probably no more alluring title for a longform article than “The Eeriness of the English Countryside.” Robert Macfarlane’s on a tear recently, between this and his other recent Guardian article about older landscape terminology in Britain. That one was right up my alley — it’s probably obvious that I dig esoteric landscape wordlore, given the name of this blog (“the Brake,” as described on that “About” page, is a major feature of the novel I plan to revise soon). Meanwhile I’d like to read/listen to/watch pretty much everything he name-checks in that article about English eeriness — including his own books, which I haven’t gotten around to yet.

Also this weekend, in the New York Times, Helen Macdonald has a lovely meditation on Wicken Fen, the Cambridgeshire nature reserve. Though I have to confess I got a little peeved with Macdonald when I read the opening of her recent bestseller H Is for Hawk — namely this passage:

I’ve had people rush up to me in the supermarket, or in the library, and say, eyes huge, I saw a hawk catch a bird in my back garden this morning! And I’m just about to open my mouth and say, Sparrowhawk! and they say, ‘I looked in the bird book. It was a goshawk.’ But it never is; the books don’t work.

Ugh, man. Second paragraph of the book and Macdonald gives my own back garden goshawk sighting the smackdown — the bird’s too small, and goshawks don’t visit back gardens in the middle of Munich. (I still think the bushy thigh-feathers look more goshawksome, but probably that’s just the bird hunching down in the cold.)

On the other hand, it was still an amazing and moving birder experience, and a sparrowhawk is a gnarly beast in its own right, and I’m always happy to soak up some more bridlore. So I’ll be reading H Is for Hawk at some point, but not yet — the pain of losing the goshawk is still a bit too raw.

Not a goshawk, apparently

Not a goshawk, apparently, but still awesome

Quote #21

terminal-beach“Having surrendered his initiative to the dynamics of the city he was reluctant to try to win it back merely for a better cup of coffee.” – J. G. Ballard, “Billennium” — Currently I’m really digging Ballard’s collection The Terminal Beach in the ’66 Penguin edition. (Cover image here courtesy of one of my favorite websites ever, The Art of Penguin Science Fiction).

Penguin Tracks

Some day everything will be redesigned as a Penguin cover and I won’t mind a bit. Today’s entry: track listings from classic albums.


February Reading

The goal this year (well one of the goals, it’s not like it’s my only aim in life) is to reduce the number of books on my shelves that I haven’t read. Clearly this means I have to read more books than I buy, and so far I’m on the credit side. This year I’ve only bought three books, all at my buddy Tom’s independent bookstore Phinney Books: Nicola Griffith’s Hild, Andy Weir’s The Martian, and Neuromancer (which I already read twenty years ago, so it doesn’t count against me).

This all applies only to physical books. I’ve bought six e-books in 2015:

(It only just occurred to me now that, since Priest and Allan are partners, two of these purchases contribute to their household income.) E-books don’t stare at me accusingly from the bookshelves, so no matter how eager I am to get to some of these they might have to wait a while.

I did read a different Christopher Priest novel this month though: The Prestige. As a longtime fan of both Priest and the film version of the book, I suspected that I would find a way to be disappointed by this one, and I was right. prestigeTold mostly through the journals of two dueling magicians in the late Victorian age, with a framing device of a meeting between two of their descendents, the novel feels strangely arid. Priest’s books always have a certain reserve, but in the Dream Archipelago books that reserve reacts against the lush setting and passionate characters to create a powerful tension. In The Prestige the reserve feels sterile — the Victorian age is barely evoked and the relationships as portrayed feel arbitrary. It doesn’t help that it was the source material for a truly compelling film, with vivid performances and some of the best pacing I’ve ever seen.

The book’s last scenes are creepy and unsettling in a very satisfying way, though. In keeping with the structure of a magic trick (I can’t count the number of times my son and I have quoted the movie’s “Every magic trick consists of three parts…” speech at each other, pronouncing three as free in our crappiest Michael Caine impersonations) both book and film lead you to believe you’re experiencing one sort of story only to reveal a sort of surprise genre-shift in the last act. What’s interesting is that the book turns towards horror while the film swerves into science fiction.

Next up are a pair of books with a common subject but diverging approaches: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars and Andy Weir’s The Martian. red_marsI enjoyed Red Mars. Some of the characterization feels old-fashioned and maybe even a bit square (along with the names — Americans born in the 1990s with names like Frank, Phyllis and Gene? Really?) but the intrigues and challenges the colonists face are involving, and the intent to portray as realistically as possible humanity’s first interplanetary colonization is necessary and noble. Robinson really commits to his project here, and there’s enough narrative force to keep me interested in the prospect of reading the later two books of the trilogy.

The Martian succeeds in spite of itself. The characters are bland, the dialogue juvenile, and the protrayal of the Martian setting almost entirely non-existent. Really the story of how it got published (blog posts to e-book to national bestseller to upcoming film) feels like a major part of its charm. But I will say the climax is marvelous, a seat-of-the-pants can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong rescue attempt that’s compelling even though you’re pretty sure the guy’s going to get out all right. Also in its favor: my son, who’s more of a hard-science enthusiast than me, really loved it. But I don’t have a lot more to say about it.

I started David Grann’s The Lost City of Z but found it a bit thin, surprising given a) all the positive reviews it received, and b) the subject matter of lost civilizations and disappeared explorers. Grann’s weirdly dismissive summary of the Victorian Age was what finally led me to put the book down for good — I guess between this and The Prestige, poor depictions of the Victorian Age had me in a bit of a huff this month.

I burned through Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. This was a breakout novel in 2013 about a woman who continually relives her life — honestly you’ve probably read about it everywhere else. life_after_lifeAgain and again while reading it I was reminded, in tone and feel, of William Boyd’s 2002 book Any Human Heart; and like that book it’s full of novelistic pleasures. The variations on Ursula’s early life are fluently done — they never feel onerously repetitive, and Atkinson finds ways to deepen our familiarity with the characters on each run-through, each time observing different events in Ursula’s life, or following events from a different character’s point of view. In particular the portrayal of Ursula’s marriage to Derek Oliphant, in one of her more harrowing lives, is fantastic. Derek-as-sudden-monster maybe feels a bit overdone — do we have to have him dump the poorly poached egg on Ursula’s head? — but the marriage is quickly, skillfully sketched and feels like a whole novel’s worth of story.

In the afterword, Atkinson states that “if pressed, I think I would say Life After Life is about being English…not just the reality of being English but also what we are in our own imaginations.” It’s a telling statement — the book is laced with clichés of Englishness, bluebells and buttercups and the Blitz, etc. Often it feels a bit derivative, as if Ursula were reliving scenes not from her own life but from various English novels. Here, for instance, is a minor pre-WWI character seen briefly on the beach:

Mr. Winton — Archibald — had set up his easel on the sand and was attempting to render a seascape in watery marine smears of blue and green…He thought he might try to put some figures in his painting, it would give a bit of life and “movement,” something his night-school teacher (he took an art class) had encouraged him to introduce into his work.

And here’s a minor pre-WWI character seen briefly on the beach in Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room:

Charles Steele in the Panama hat suspended his paint-brush…He struck the canvas a hasty violet-black dab. For the landscape needed it. It was too pale — greys flowing into lavenders, and one star or a white gull suspended just so — too pale as usual. The critics would say it was too pale, for he was an unknown man exhibiting obscurely, a favourite with his landladies’ children, wearing a cross on his watch chain, and much gratified if his landladies liked his pictures — which they often did.

The echoes begin to haunt the reader the way Ursula’s past lives haunt her, a literary déja vu. There’s also a bit of business about killing-Hitler-before-it’s-too-late that feels like a distraction — though it’s lovely to read that Ursula lives on Elisabethstrasse when she’s in Munich, a rather short street in the Schwabing neighborhood that we crossed all the time when we lived there.

Last was M. John Harrison’s The Course of the Heart. Like a lot of Harrison’s work, it’s a little opaque and obsessed with the fallenness of the world around us, its disrepair and dismal scuzz. course_of_the_heartHere, though, that fallenness serves the purpose of highlighting the Gnostic impulse at the heart of the story. The characters, having briefly accessed a higher (or at any rate, other) realm in a brief rite in their college days, suffer from the echoes of this act through the rest of their lives — echoes both supernatural and psychological. The narrator’s friends Lucas and Pam remain haunted, uncertain people, adrift amid the squalor of 1980s Northern England, while the narrator himself seems to escape the consequences until, well, he doesn’t.

I’d been eager to read this novel ever since I first encountered excerpts of it in Harrison’s story collection Things That Never Happen, and it didn’t disappoint. Harrison’s books have been a consistent joy in my reading life for the past two years — and I still have Viriconium out there waiting for me, equally promising and threatening, like the Pleroma in The Course of the Heart. Wonderful.


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