April Books

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I made a couple of bookstore visits this week, both of them regular stops on my book-buying rounds. First up was my buddy Nissley’s bookstore in Greenwood, where I came upon all unexpected-like the cosmic nexus of my Penguin and SF loves: a box set of 100 Penguin science fiction postcards. For a look at what it contains, check out the indispensible Art of Penguin Science Fiction site. I tend to a more restrained aesthetic with these, and would have liked to see more covers from the 50s and 60s, and fewer of David Pelham’s and Adrian Chesterman’s garish 70s pop-art monstrosities. But there’s still plenty here to love, and the cardstock feels nice and sturdy. Some of the Wyndhams and Stapledons will end up framed on the wall.

Next up was a visit to Magus Books in the U District, my favorite used bookstore anywhere. I’ve been collecting the Penguin Critical Anthologies series, though only for writers and poets I’m actively interested in reading criticism about. So far I have Spenser and Dickens; and just last week I was reading Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” and thinking I’d like to get my hands on the Marvell edition of the series. (Make mine Marvell! as Stan Lee or someone used to say…) This one’s in great shape — it feels like the spine has barely been cracked — and edited by John Carey, a really sharp critic of 17th-century poets especially.

Another find at Magus was Fancy and Imagination, which caught my eye because the terms represent an essential dichotomy in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poetic theory that I don’t feel confident I totally understand, even after reading Volume 2 of Holmes’s fantastic Coleridge biography last month. Speaking of Coleridge, I’m also (finally!) finishing John Livingston Lowes’s charming and comprehensive Coleridge study The Road to Xanadu, almost certainly one of my ten favorite books although I haven’t finished it yet — I read the first three parts about “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” a few years back, but never got to Part Four, which deals with “Kubla Khan.” Lowes’s investigation into the sources of Coleridge’s poetry, sometimes acknowledged and sometimes utterly obscure, is an amazing piece of literary detective work.

Did I get off topic? I got off topic. The last book I picked up at Magus was a beautiful 1963 Penguin Modern Classics edition of Lord of the Flies, which I haven’t read since high school but have been eager to look into again after reading The Inheritors, Golding’s haunting portrayal of Neanderthal man at his apocalypse, a few years back. This one came with an unexpected bonus: inside the back cover there’s a smart little caricature, obviously drawn from life during a rail journey, of napping passengers.

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The notation reads Julian Hall / 5 Bateman St. / Cambridgepretty swank digs judging from the internet.

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A Pair of SF Penguins

I stopped into Twice Sold Tales today to check up on their excellent SF collection. Strangely, while I was there I cracked open Greg Bear’s book Darwin’s Radio (I was thinking of re-reading it) and the page I turned to described the characters getting off I-5 at Denny Way and heading up to Capitol Hill. Weird, because Twice Sold Tales is at the corner of Denny and Harvard on Capitol Hill.

I didn’t buy that one but I did pick up a couple of Penguin Science Fiction titles, neither of which I’m hugely interested in. But they’re Penguins, and they’re in great shape, so I was more or less unable to resist. The only Penguin SF I own otherwise is the batch of Olaf Stapledons (Last and First Man & Last Man in London, Star Maker and Sirius). Blish-tdajIn Germany I had five or six others that I found at the marvelous Open Door Bookshop in Rome — the best non-UK cache of Penguins I’ve ever found, hidden away in a little side street in Trastevere — but those books didn’t survive the cull for our move back to the States, unfortunately.

First up in today’s haul was James Blish’s The Day After Judgement. I’ve read A Case of Conscience and Fallen Star, and I like Blish’s work well enough. This one seems a bit more magicky than sciency, which isn’t normally my thing — but it’s short, and for all I know I’ll love it.

Next was Deathworld, by Harry Harrison. Not sure what to make of this one — I’ve never been too interested in Harrison’s books, but I’ll give it a try. In any case what really seals the deal here is the author photo, which should by all rights be a classic:

Deathworld-back

He looks like Cory Doctorow at the proctologist’s office, or at an NSA convention, or something. Right? How was that author photo a good idea?

Browsing used bookstores is making me realize the one reason I really miss having a smartphone. (I had one for about two years, Deathworldbut gave it to my son a few months ago because I sort of prefer a dumbphone instead. I felt a little too plugged in, a little too internetted — though two hundred years from now when we’re all posthuman with embedded neural-comm interfaces I’ll gladly hop on.) It would be super-useful to be able to check the Seattle Public Library’s online catalog when I’m browsing for used books. I was choosing between Damien Broderick’s nonfiction compilation of writers’ speculations on the far future Year Million, and Greg Egan’s Quarantine; and I figured the library would carry the second but not the first. So I bought Year Million, which of course the library carries, and left behind Quarantine, which of course they don’t. I don’t regret getting Year Million — it looks fascinating, with contributions from Rudy Rucker, Gregory Benford, George Zebrowski, and a bunch of other interesting folks on how things will shake out in AD 1,000,000. But Quarantine seemed intriguing enough that I hope it’s still there on the shelves the next time I go.

2013 Reading Review — debacles and farragos and cock-ups

I read fewer books this year than usual; we had a logistically complicated move back to the States after two years in Munich, followed by the need to refurnish our home in Seattle from scratch. Nevertheless, I got some good reading in because otherwise I’d have to jump off a bridge.

I’ve written about some of my favorite novels from this year already (links are to my reviews for these):

Light – M. John Harrison
Turtle Diary – Russell Hoban
The Player of Games – Iain M. Banks
The Goshawk – T.H. White
Blindsight – Peter Watts
Leviathan Wakes – James S.A. Corey

And here are a few other (non-SF) novels I especially liked:

Unconditional Surrender, by Evelyn Waugh — this is the last book in Waugh’s “Sword of Honour” trilogy (I read the first two books at the end of 2012). I’d tried Waugh before, but couldn’t finish Brideshead Revisited; it was just too obnoxious. But his World War II trilogy is richly satisfying, without the painfully arch tone of Brideshead — or of Decline and Fall, which I read later in the year. Waugh follows the passive, depressive Guy Crouchback through debacles and farragos and cock-ups, then expands his view to take in a whole assortment of deftly drawn characters going about their bizarre wartime business. Great stuff.

mystery-edwin-drood-charles-dickens-paperback-cover-artThe Pickwick Papers and The Mystery of Edwin Drood, by Charles Dickens — I’m not as big of a Dickens fan as some folks, e.g. my mom, who has read all of his books several times over. But both of these were great and I think this Dickens kid may have a bright future if he keeps it up. Pickwick has a great larkish feel to it, while Drood has a wonderfully obsessive atmosphere. Edwin Drood’s uncle John Jasper is a superb portrait of darkly obsessive, inappropriate, unrequited love; and I would’ve happily read a much longer novel just about the young retired sailor Mr. Tartar with his pleasant disposition and tidy lodgings. Really the phrase “pleasant disposition and tidy lodgings” perfectly describes the sort of rocket-fueled, tension-sprung engine that could drive any novel.

Anna of the Five Towns, by Arnold Bennett — speaking of tension, this 1902 novel was one of my most suspenseful reads of the year. Good old Victorian craftsmanship at its most heartbreaking, it tells the story of Anna Tellwright’s navigation amid the demands of her station in life and her miserly father. Definitely a read that snuck up on me — I really wasn’t expecting the narrative power Bennett brings to bear on what feels like it would have been a common scenario in industrially expanding Victorian England.

Also, my favorite non-fiction reads of the year:

Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence, by Geoff Dyer — this was a re-read of one of my all-time favorites. Dyer procrastinates and prevaricates as his intention to write a scholarly study of D.H. Lawrence is undermined by his own fecklessness and endlessly charming self-loathing. The opening lines dive right in:

Looking back it seems, on the one hand, hard to believe that I could have wasted so much time, could have exhausted myself so utterly, wondering when I was going to begin my study of D.H. Lawrence; on the other, it seems equally hard to believe that I ever started it, for the prospect of embarking on this study of Lawrence accelerated and intensified the psychological disarray it was meant to delay and alleviate. Conceived as a distraction, it immediately took on the distracted character of that from which it was intended to be a distraction, namely myself. If, I said to myself, if I can apply myself to a sober — I can remember saying that word ‘sober’ to myself, over and over, until it acquired a hysterical, near-demented ring — if I can apply myself to a sober, academic study of D.H. Lawrence then that will force me to pull myself together.

9780312429461Dyer spends more time on his own travels and neuroses than he does on Lawrence, yet somehow manages to illuminate something essential in Lawrence’s difficult, mercurial identity as well.

Fun coincidence here: While we were living in Munich I read a New York Times article by Dyer that mentioned in passing an Atkinson Grimshaw exhibition at London’s Guildhall Museum; it was mentioned in the context of the use of Grimshaw’s paintings on Penguin Classics covers, including The Mystery of Edwin Drood (“To reread any of them with different cover art is inconceivable: ‘Edwin Drood’ is Grimshaw’s painting.” — see above for the image). I had always loved Penguin covers using Grimshaw’s art, and I never pass up an excuse to go to London, so my son and I made a quick jaunt over to visit my dad (who was living out near Greenwich at the time for a consulting job). The exhibition was well worth the trip — thanks Dyer and Grimshaw!

A Reader’s Book of Days, by Tom Nissley — I wrote about this earlier, it’s crammed with good stuff. Reading it through, rather than just browsing by day, it starts to feel like a bizarrely skewed yet consummate history of world literature.

allroadsNow All Roads Lead to France: The Last Years of Edward Thomas, by Matthew Hollis — Thomas has always been one of my favorite poets. I think like a lot of his fans, I felt like he was a secret discovery back when I first came upon “Adlestrop” and “Rain” (in my Norton’s Anthology of English Literature, back in college). He was actually more well-known and influential than I realized at the time, though; and in the twenty years since then his renown has only grown. Hollis does an excellent job of exploring his influence on other writers, in addition to his life and untimely death in World War I. I also ordered a Penguin selection of his poems and prose — I already had his collected poems in a Faber edition but it was great to dig into some of the fine journalism and travel writing he resented as so much hackwork.

Arabian Sands, by Wilfred Thesiger — Thesiger was one of the last Westerners to explore the Arabian peninsula’s murkier reaches before oil money poured in to develop, and corrupt, the region. His exploits are harrowing but he always presents them in an off-hand, understated style. This reminded me quite a bit of Fitzroy Maclean’s equally excellent memoir Eastern Approaches — British explorers and soldiers in the post-Burton mold, making their last crazy-brave forays into the world’s darkest, most dangerous corners as their empire collapses around them.

All in all a good reading year — looking forward to 2014.

Capitol Hill Book Buying, December 2013

Yesterday afternoon I drove up to Capitol Hill in the damn freezing cold to take a look at science books at Ada’s Technical Books. It’s been a while since I’ve been up on 15th Avenue — in the late 90s my wife and I lived on 18th (around the corner from the Singles apartment building) and 15th was our main drag. We’d eat at Coastal Kitchen and Hopscotch (where I first tried spaetzle, igniting a powerful love affair that later carried me through many a winter night in Germany) and rent VHS movies at On 15th Video, and browse used books at Horizon Books. But once our son was born — at Group Health on 15th Ave, right down the street — we moved to Queen Anne and we’ve been here ever since.

9781848310872-532x760Sadly, Hopscotch has been gone for years now; meanwhile, Ada’s just recently moved into the spot where Horizon Books used to be. It’s pretty swank — they replaced the charming but rickety old house that Horizon was in with a fancy, white, high-ceilinged building that includes a cafe in addition to the bookstore. They don’t have a huge selection but I did find Introducting Fractals, which is in the same series as the book on quantum theory that I read last month. It looks like it’s right up my son’s alley, since he digs learning about hidden mathematical patterns in the world around us. So a good find for Christmas.

I also stopped at Twice Sold Tales — the commentor MKUltra over at Science Fiction Ruminations mentioned it — and made a few good finds.

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I read Galaxies Like Grains of Sand back in college — it was my first Aldiss, and I’ve been a fan ever since. TheGreenManLooking forward to a re-read there. The Green Man is described on the back cover as “a violent, fast-paced novel of ancient Britain — a brutal land steeped in wizardry, revenge and sinister superstitions” (but apparently not steeped in the Oxford comma). I read Treece’s Viking saga a few years ago and enjoyed it without actually retaining a single detail of it, which I would argue is probably the purest sort of reading experience. In the moment! This one has a cover of unsurpassed awesomeness — if I were the big green guy I wouldn’t be turning my back to that sultry half-dressed lady with the shiv. Treece wrote a ton of historical Britain-based fiction that skirted the divide between kids’ fiction and adults’, which is a sub-sub-sub-genre I have a real weakness for (another writer in that sub-sub-sub-genre is the magnificent Rosemary Sutcliff).

pavaneKeith Roberts is criminally under-appreciated. Most folks know Pavane, which got a re-release last year bearing the classic Leo and Diane Dillon cover from the original Ace Science Fiction Specials edition. But for my money The Chalk Giants is a better book, or at least a more vital one. It’s easy to see why Pavane is held in such high esteem: it’s decorous and stately, like its title dance, and it shows a classic “literariness” in its restraint and careful structure. But The Chalk Giants is an ambitious, shamanistic mess — or at least appears to be a mess, until at the end it resolves perfectly into a survey of human culture at its roots. Pavane is Tolstoy and The Chalk Giants is Dostoevsky.

The Furies, meanwhile, is about giant insects swarming over Britain after a nuclear holocaust, so I’m not sure where that’d slot in with the Russian writers analogy. Gogol, probably.

mervyn-peakeThe last two are, hopefully, a treat. I haven’t yet read Mervyn Peake and didn’t even know until a few weeks ago that his Gormenghast trilogy was published in a set of Penguin Modern Classics. So it was a real treat to look up at the new arrivals shelf and see these two sitting there. Unfortunately, they only had the first and third books of the set, Titus Groan and Titus Alone. so I’ll have to keep looking for the second volume, Gormenghast proper.

Of all the Penguins, the Modern Classics from the ’60s and ’70s are my absolute favorites, with their sea-green spines (though as I mentioned before, I prefer the pre-Facetti era) and it’s hard to resist buying them no matter the title.

I passed on buying a few books, carrying them around the store until the end before replacing them on the shelves: Geoffrey Household’s freaky Dance of the Dwarfs (which I’ve read already but no longer own, and would like to) and a pair of Horatio Hornblower novels in the orange-spined Penguin editions from the 70s. I read the first Hornblower book a few years back and enjoyed it, as well as Forester’s Death to the French and his cannon-as-protagonist novel The Gun. So at some point I’d like to read more Hornblower, but I couldn’t quite pull the trigger on these two.

“Unfortunate, dark, and immoral goshawk…”

But what on earth was the book to be about? It would be about the efforts of a second-rate philosopher who lived alone in a wood, being tired of most humans in any case, to train a person who was not human, but a bird. These efforts might have some value because they were continuously faced with those difficulties which the mind has to circumvent, because falconry was an historic though dying sport, because the faculties exercised were those which throve among trees rather than houses, and because the whole thing was inexpressibly difficult.

This is T.H. White’s own appraisal of his book The Goshawk, and it’s an apt one — aside from the last phrase. White actually does a damn fine job of expressing how very difficult a task he has undertaken, a task that is exhausting, demoralizing, exhilarating, and at last heartbreaking.

9781590172490The author of The Once and Future King, White was a deeply conflicted man who craved difficult tasks, and now he was “trying to conquer a territory over which the contemporaries of Chaucer had rambled free” with nothing more than a 17th-century falconry guide and his own solitary, changeable soul as resources. The training regimen is brutal: first up, keeping the goshawk Gos (and himself) awake for at least three days in order to weaken the bird’s resistance and accustom it to his fist as perch. The book is really a litany of odd hours — some mornings 4 a.m. is when White gets up, some mornings it’s when he goes to bed. And the hours in between are full of endless watches and wanderings: looking for prey, hunting food to hand-feed Gos, searching for Gos when he strays, getting Gos used to other people or just to White himself on long walks.

From the start, the relationship is troubled. White has little idea what he’s doing and Gos knows it. They injure each other, usually unintentionally, with jess and claw. At the solitary cottage that serves as White’s retreat from the world, they each become the other’s only companion, and the vicissitudes of their romance are extravagant: “A homicidal maniac: but now he was enjoying to be stroked. We were again in love.”

There’s some comedy in this, of course, and White sees it. No thoughtful man could enter into such a savage relationship with an animal and not see it:

It was six weeks since I had averted my eyes from the hag-ridden pupils of this lunatic, half a week since he had come on a creance quite perfectly a hundred yards. I had lived with this hawk, its slave, butcher, nursemaid and flunkey. What clothes it wore were made by me, what house it had was swept out and kept sweet by me, what food it ate was killed and eviscerated and hacked into pieces and served by me, what excursions it made were taken on my fist. For six weeks I had thought about it long into the night and risen early to execute my thoughts. I had never raised my voice to it, nor hurt it, nor subjected it to the extreme torture which it deserved.

It’s this dark comic vein that gives the book its melancholy joy.

The Goshawk was published in 1951 but composed in 1939 from notes written at the time of the events two years earlier — notes written by candlelight, in a barn, on a notebook balanced on one knee with Gos perched on the other fist. As described by Marie Winn in her excellent introduction, White had to be pushed into publishing the book; he was embarrassed by his youthful incompetence, and as a more experienced austringer in later life he was painfully aware, he wrote, “just how bad the falconry in that book is, if I recollect it. It is like asking a grown-up to sanction the publication of his adolescent diaries…”

What is an austringer, you ask? As White says, “A keeper of long-winged hawks used to be called a falconer, of short winged hawks an austringer.” The book is full of fascinating falconry jargon: bate (“a word that had been used since falcons were first flown in England, since England was first a country therefore”), jesses, mews, eyas, mute. Mute is especially fine, being the noun and verb for birdshit. White describes the barn floor, “streaked outwards round the perch with white squirts of mutes, so that it looked like a sundial.”

Anyone who’s read The Once and Future King knows that White can write like a bandit. On the birds he trained in later life: “Each one of these assassins had his or her own character: they were as individual and different from each other as eight separate anarchists.” On the weather: “Last night the clouds had been curdled high over heaven, and now they had come down to earth. The mist was stratus at ground level and the moon hid her haunted face in diminished power.” And on himself: “One had to find out what things were not necessary, what things one really needed. A little music and liquor, still less food, a warm and beautiful but not too big roof of one’s own, a channel for one’s creative energy and love, the sun and the moon.”

White’s marvelous creative energy captivates the reader as always, but it is his love for the “unfortunate, dark, and immoral” Gos that makes The Goshawk, in the end, such a heartbreaker.

Stray observations:

  • If you mispronounce goshawk as gaw-shock it sounds like a creature from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Mars books instead of a bird — bang, you got a totally different book right there. Changes the whole undertaking.
  • I love the Penguin Modern Classics covers designed by Hans Schmoller with the Joanna typeface (before that devil Facetti switched the series to Helvetica in the late 60s to match the rest of Penguin’s lineup). I had no idea The Goshawk had been part of the Modern Classics series until doing an image search for the cover — may have to get a copy of this one at some point.
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pre-Facetti – lovely

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post-Facetti – not as lovely

  • I grumbled about the NYRB Classics cover for Russell Hoban’s Turtle Diary, but they really redeemed themselves with this one (see above). It has butterscotch-and-pumpkin text on a gorgeous grayish-green matte background that perfectly matches the cover painting by Bruno Liljefors. Just a pleasure to hold in your hand and stare at.
  • The Harry Ransom Center at UT Austin displays some fascinating pages from White’s original journal of his time with Gos (along with the truly jarring original cover) — pictures of Gos, feathers taped to the page like a lover’s mementos.
  • White obtained Gos from a falconer in Germany. Last February, when we were still living in Munich, I looked out at our garden one day to see a goshawk munching on a blackbird [Edit: Apparently this is more likely to be a sparrowhawk]. We got to watch him go at it for at least an hour — one of my best bird experiences ever (click to enlarge):

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Penguin Horror

9780143122326HAs I’ve mentioned before, I’m a true Penguin fanatic, as much for their cover designs over the years as for their editorial sensibility. So the covers for the new Penguin Horror series (via Boingboing) are right up my alley. I’m a little disappointed that the Frankenstein cover uses the Boris Karloff “square-head” design from the 1931 film — granted it’s iconic, but it’s not Mary Shelley’s depiction of the creature at all. (Incidentally, Chris Priestley’s Mister Creecher is a fantastic meta-fiction on the creature, unsurprisingly dark and sophisticated given Priestley’s other super-creepy books for kids.)

But the other covers are all dynamite. Especially horrifying is Lovecraft’s Thing on the Doorstep, emerging from the muck in all its crusty carp-man malevolence.

Bob Pepper and the Dark Tower

As a kid I wasn’t much into electronics or anything remotely resembling video games — it wasn’t until my son pulled me into Minecraft and WoW a few years back that I spent more than a few minutes on one, and in fact just had my ass handed to me in Halo for the very first time last week. But back in 1981, Milton Bradley’s Dark Tower game really had my number.

Sure I loved Orson Welles in the  iconic commercial because what kid doesn’t enjoy watching a massive bearded thespian taking such deep-voiced delight in an electronic board game? But what 10-year-old me really adored about Dark Tower was the stylized, vaguely psychedelic art:

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As a pre-adolescent AD&D fan (albeit one who enjoyed character creation a lot more than the actual gameplay), I loved this stuff. I had always assumed that these were by some unappreciated house artist at Milton Bradley painting in a moment of shroomy inspiration. So I was pretty thrilled to find a site a while back with the name of the artist — Bob Pepper — and even more thrilled to find that he was a well-known SF cover artist in the 70’s and 80’s. A Google image search on his name returns what are quite possibly the coolest search results ever. There’s a whole lot of Philip K. Dick (at first glance more or less Dick’s greatest hits), some Bester and Moorcock and Ellison, a smattering of early high fantasy like Eddison and Peake, as well as a few I’ve never heard of and can’t help but now find intriguing:

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Great stuff. According to Wikipedia, the game was the subject of a lawsuit and disappeared from shelves soon after release. I’m not sure what I did with mine, but I assume it met its fate in an adolescent toy purge. Maybe it stopped working — I really have no memory of getting rid of it. Shame, though.

I hadn’t heard of the card game Dragonmaster that Pepper also did the art for, but the warriors, druids, and nomads featured on the cards are just as gorgeous as the rest of his work.