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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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 #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.

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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:

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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.

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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