April Books

Apr2016books

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.

lord-flies-sketch

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

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Alethea Hayter’s Romantic Imagination

I almost didn’t look at this weirdly short article from the NYT’s Sunday Book Review, but it was a slow moment at work so I glanced through it. There isn’t a lot there I’ve read, though it’s always great to see Patrick Hamilton’s fantastic, darkly funny The Slaves of Solitude get a mention. What really caught my eye, though, was James Parker’s endorsement of a book by Alethea Hayter.

hayterFor years I kept an eye out in used bookstores for Hayter’s Opium and the Romantic Imagination. It’s just the perfect title — the only way I could find it more alluring is if it were called Opium, Pumpkin Pie, and the Romantic Imagination. I finally found it at Magus Books here in Seattle over the summer, in near perfect condition despite its 1970 printing. So far I’ve only read random passages but just having it on the shelf is a thrill.

The only other book of Hayter’s I’d heard of before today is The Wreck of the Abergavenny, about the death of William Wordsworth’s sea-captain brother in the title tragedy. Again, perfect: I’ve been completely intrigued by this incident ever since I first saw a mention of it in college, but I’ve never seen more than a sentence or two about it.

I’m not sure I’ll ever read the book Parker calls out, Voyage in Vain: Coleridge’s Journey to Malta in 1804 — Vol. 1 of Richard Holmes’s Coleridge biography (which I just finished last month) ends with Coleridge boarding the ship that will take him to Malta, so presumably Vol. 2 will cover the whole jaunt pretty well. We’ll see — maybe Holmes will pique my interest. Parker makes a pretty good case for it:

Over 40 years old, this book; but very contemporary in its speculations and zoomings-in. Disheartened, opium-entangled, the great poet suffered terrible shipboard constipations while brooding beautifully in his notebook on the shapes of waves and sails and clouds.

November Reading

A pretty typical reading month here, with some SF and some English Lit.

Some months seem like they go on forever — it feels like several months ago that I read Acceptance, the third and final book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. It’s a solid ending to the series. VanderMeer maintains the story’s integrity throughout, providing enough sense of the source and scope of the Area X anomaly to satisfy the reader without waving his authorial arms around.

The trilogy could be about anything — write an intelligent-sounding sentence and it would probably sound like a viable thematic statement. acceptance“The unknowable future and the way it transforms how we see the past” — I just made that up on the fly but it seems credible and I could probably back it up with something from the text. This is not me faulting the trilogy for thematic nebulousness. A really good novel, a novel with depth, should be “about” a lot of things. VanderMeer touches on the shortcomings of the scientific method, the chasm between modern masculine vs. feminine approaches to the world, the limits of knowability, and human dissociation from nature. It’s possible I’m just riffing here but honestly all of this gets a look-in at some point.

The story itself loses some of its horror and intensity, however. Annihilation was a fleet, terrifying beast of a book, a truly unsettling reading experience. The second book, Authority, was different, a portrayal of men and women trying to get a handle on horror using the frankly inadequate tools of systems analysis and project management; and the streak of satire served as a really effective counterpoint to the disorienting immediacy of the first book. Acceptance, though, suffers a bit from loose-end-itis; its strongest line is the story of Saul Evans, the lighthouse keeper in pre-anomaly Area X who had previously been a minor off-stage character. The material about previously-explored characters — the psychologist/director, the biologist/Ghost Bird, Control — occasionally feels like it’s marking time. And VanderMeer’s style, crisp and evocative in the first two books, has started to calcify a bit by the time we reach Acceptance. What was vivid and haunting in Annihilation has hardened into mannerism; but VanderMeer is testing the limits of his talent here, almost certainly growing it in the process. No shame in that.

From the unsettling shores of Area X to some unsettling islands: I read a few stories from a collection of Christopher Priest’s “Dream Archipelago” stories. dream-archipelagoOf the six stories, I’d read three of them previously in the collection An Infinite Summer. The three new ones were all strong entries. The shortest and least satisfying was “The Equatorial Moment,” a vignette of military jet crews experiencing the time vortex that looms over the islands. The other two revisited two horror-infused elements of Priest’s The Islanders, with the return of the repulsive insect species known as the thryme in “The Cremation” and a journey back to the tower-haunted island of Seevl in “The Miraculous Cairn.” In each tale, the horror element serves to charge an intriguing story of sexual misunderstanding. Great, great additions to Priest’s ongoing project.

Next was the first volume of Richard Holmes’s biography of Coleridge, Early Visions: 1772-1804. coleridgeColeridge has long been one of my cultural heroes, a troubled visionary whose poetic gifts were betrayed by his own internal weather. I would have liked a deeper dive into the fantasy/supernatural poetry here (most of Coleridge’s signature poems were written in the years covered by this volume, before he turned to criticism and the Biographia Literaria). Really only the conversational poems such as “Frost at Midnight” and “Dejection: An Ode” get what feels like a thorough treatment, while the more outré stuff like “Kubla Khan” and the Ancient Mariner get slighted — along with the incredibly influential “Christabel,” though possibly that will get more space in the second volume once it’s finally published in 1820.

In any case, I reckon Kubla Khan and the Ancient Mariner get plenty of attention elsewhere — John Livingston Lowes’s 1927 study The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination is a maniacally comprehensive and entertaining investigation into the reading and experiences that influenced those two poems. Holmes, meanwhile, does a fine job of portraying Coleridge the man in all his dreamy, mercurial imperfections.

Titus Andronicus is considered the least of Shakespeare’s plays, tituswidely derided for the almost Grand Guignol graphic violence: amid the rape and the murder and feeding of kids to their parents there are at least three hands chopped off (the image here is of Livinia, post-handectomy and -tonguectomy, from a 2006 production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre). I read it because I flipped open my Oxford Shakespeare and came across the “Oft have I digged up dead men from their graves/And set them upright at their dear friends’ door” speech from Aaron, the moor who serves as the villain. Nothing else in the play really matches that speech’s outlandish malevolence, but it’s still a fun read. Incidentally, the Wikipedia entry for Titus Andronicus mentions a 1970 Finnish TV adaptation:

In 1970, Finnish TV channel Yle TV1 screened an adaptation of the play written and directed by Jukka Sipilä, starring Leo Lastumäki as Titus, Iris-Lilja Lassila as Tamora, Eugene Holman as Aaron and Maija Leino as Lavinia.

Eugene Holman! I’m assuming there weren’t two black Eugene Holmans in Finland in 1970, so presumably this is the same Eugene Holman who spent a few days introducing us American students to the Finnish language back in 1987. It’s hard to imagine the mild-mannered linguist taking on the role. Anyway, small world.

I read a few entries from a Penguin collection of Borges essays orlando(“Literary Pleasure” in particular was good) and the first fifty pages of Jim Crace’s The Gift of Stones (which I lost interest in — I didn’t buy the Stone Age setting at all). And I finally got around to reading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. I’ve been meaning to read it for years; I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of a sort of Bloomsbury/Highlander mash-up. So I was surprised to find it disappointing — the tone is too arch and the style too clotty for real pleasure in reading, at least until it reaches Woolf’s own era when her natural fluency of perception and detail returns. There’s a great moment of cognitive dissonance in this section:

Then she got into the lift, for the good reason that the door stood open; and was shot smoothly upwards. The very fabric of life now, she thought as she rose, is magic. In the eighteenth century, we knew how everything was done; but here I rise through the air; I listen to voices in America; I see men flying — but how it’s done, I can’t even begin to wonder. So my belief in magic returns.

What a lovely description of the SFnal impulse, and a great way to end the month’s reading.