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July 2018 Archives

The Book Meme: Day 25

Day 25 - Any five books from your "to be read" stack

Every year I make up a list of 40 books I'd like to read. I don't force myself to read any of them, but the act of creating the list makes it easier for me to remember the titles I'd like to look for if I'm wandering a library or a bookstore. I also get a little satisfaction when I finish a book and get to mark it off the list. 

I mention all of this not because I'm going to subject you to all 40 of the books on my current TBR list, but so you'll know I take the list seriously. When I tell you about books that I'm looking forward to reading, I'm really looking forward to reading them. I will note that I've finished only two of 2018's titles so far (Joe Hill's often creepy and always imaginative four-novella volume Strange Weather and T. Kingfisher's delightful and satisfying fantasy The Wonder Engine) and am in the middle of a third (Ta-Nehisi Coates' terrific essay collection We Were Eight Years in Power). With that said, here are five books and a little about why they're on my list.

*Brave Deeds by David Abrams
I've known David for some years now, thanks to our time at the late, lamented, and we've tried to hard to encourage each other's writing careers. We don't get to meet that often, since he lives in Montana, but I did spend the night at his place back in 2013, and he grilled me a terrific steak and cheese-stuffed peppers and we talked, appropriately enough, about the tops of our TBR lists. (The book I wanted to read was Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, while David's was Lolita. Since we'd each read and loved the other's selection, we spent a lot of time encouraging each other to jump on it ASAP.) We also took a birding trip the next morning, visiting the Warm Springs State Wildlife Management Area and logging a mother and two immature Great Horned Owls. In short, even if I hadn't loved his first novel, the tragicomic Fobbit, I'd want to read his second.

*The Boy on the Bridge by M.R. Carey
I first encountered Mike Carey's work when he was writing DC Comics' Lucifer. Since it was a spin-off of the highly successful Sandman, I was dubious about the book at first, but before long, I was completely hooked. (Peter Gross's artwork didn't hurt, either.) From there I moved to Carey's series of fantasy/horror books about exorcist Felix Castor, which were enormously entertaining. And when I mentioned on Twitter that I was letting a group of my students read the first, The Devil You Know, Carey volunteered to help them out by sitting for an interview on Skype. (He claimed he did this because he's a former teacher, but I think he's just an incredibly nice guy.) Still, none of this prepared me for The Girl with All the Gifts, which took the somewhat moribund genre of the Zombie Apocalypse and gave it a stunning new spin. TBotB is its sequel, so I'm regulating my expectations, but I figure Carey has already proven me wrong on that score once.

*Next by James Hynes
Speaking of Readerville (and Twitter, for that matter), here's a writer I discovered because of my time there. Hynes is unique in that he's a writer who combines a keen eye for the details of mundane life (particularly the workplace) with a commitment to his flights of fancy. I've already mentioned his first book, The Lecturer's Tale, which has several brilliant scenes that stand alone, but the novel as a whole has something I don't always see: a point of view that the novelist is unashamed of exploring all the way to its conclusion. It's also the first book I can recall that examined the idea of privilege, and did so in a way that was memorable and satisfying. My second Hynes, Kings of Infinite Space, had that same delightful blend of absurdity and realism, as well as something that far too few novels have these days: a punch line. Given all this, I think you can see why I'm looking forward to my third Hynes.

*The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
Last summer Kelly and I traveled to Alabama in late July, which was, as a matter of pure timing, a mistake. Luckily, I was prepared to deal with the excess heat that kept us indoors at our Air BnB for much of the week, because I had brought along Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, which was that most startling of things: a fantasy whose dimensions were not familiar. The empire, the magicians, the gods, the family betrayals, all of these were old tropes, but they were employed in startling new ways. I couldn't be sure where the story was headed, and there was true excitement in that uncertainty. A few days back I called THTK one of the best books I read over the last 12 months, and that's why I'm so eager to read this one.

*The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson
This is the only book on the list that I've already read--kinda. Back in ninth grade, Ms. Zora Rashkis guided me through Homer's epic and helped solidify my love of Greek mythology forever. Then, as a sophomore at UNC, I had it assigned as part of Dr. Ken Reckford's course on the Heroic Journey, but I didn't have time to linger over it. (We also had to read the Aeneid and The Lord of the Rings that semester, after all.) But I haven't gone back to read it since then, and now I suddenly I have a reason: Wilson's highly praised English translation is apparently the first published by a woman. Since I've spent the last two years pushing myself to read more work by people who aren't white guys, this struck me as a chance to remind myself why that matters--to get a perspective on a familiar story that I might not otherwise get. Plus, Wilson has rendered it in iambic pentameter, and I'm a sucker for blank verse.

That's what I'm looking forward to. And with luck, next year's list will have five open slots.

7:24 AM

The Book Meme: Day 24

Day 24 - Best quote from a novel

Another fine mess. Given the ridiculous number of novels I love, and the fact that I could probably find multiple beloved quotes from many of them, this entry could be longer than all the others combined. I mean, lord, I could start picking Catch-22 quotes on page one and run them pretty much until Yossarian dodges the knife and runs off.

Also, it unfairly assumes that there aren't worthy quotes from nonfiction books, which is just total nonsense. So I'm going to dodge the question entirely by posting my favorite quote from a work of nonfiction. In The Song of the Dodo, which remains the best science book I've ever read, David Quammen's breathtaking recreation of the last hours of the only remaining dodo is a standout, and a passage worthy of inclusion on any list of great writing:

"Imagine a single survivor, a lonely fugitive at large on mainland Mauritius at the end of the seventeenth century. Imagine this fugitive as a female. She would have been bulky and flightless and befuddled--but resourceful enough to have escaped and endured when the other birds didn't. Or else she was lucky.

Maybe she had spent all her years in the Bambous Mountains along the southeastern coast, where the various forms of human-brought menace were slow to penetrate. Or she might have lurked in a creek drainage of the Black River Gorges. Time and trouble had finally caught up with her. Imagine that her last hatchling had been snarfed by a feral pig. That her last fertile egg had been eaten by a monkey. That her mate was dead, clubbed by a hungry Dutch sailor, and that she had no hope of finding another. During the past halfdozen years, longer than a bird could remember, she had not even set eyes on a member of her own species.

Raphus cucullatus had become rare unto death. But this one flesh-and-blood individual still lived. Imagine that she was thirty years old, or thirty-five, an ancient age for most sorts of bird but not impossible for a member of such a large-bodied species. She no longer ran, she waddled. Lately she was going blind. Her digestive system was balky. In the dark of an early morning in 1667, say, during a rainstorm, she took cover beneath a cold stone ledge at the base of one of the Black River cliffs. She drew her head down against her body, fluffed her feathers for warmth, squinted in patient misery. She waited. She didn't know it, nor did anyone else, but she was the only dodo on Earth. When the storm passed, she never opened her eyes. This is extinction." 

That one still gets me.

7:43 AM

We Interrupt This Meme

Hi. Just wanted to share a strange little moment with you. Let me tell you about the pieces that built this moment.

1) In the course of writing this set of literary entries to my blog, I was reminded of a wonderful little bit where C.S. Lewis describes the way a mirror on a wall can unexpectedly look like a window into some fantastic place--one that seems somehow deeper and richer than the real world, even though it's just the real world reversed:

You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a looking-glass. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different - deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know.

t's not a great alteration in the way the thing looks, but the reversal transforms it purely because it alters our viewpoint slightly. Anyway, the idea has certainly stuck with me.

2) I recently watched the trailer of the upcoming movie SHAZAM!, and that got me wandering down the rabbit hole of the comics universe, surfing from site to site and studying up on how a character named Captain Marvel got published by Fawcett Comics, purchased by DC Comics after they won a lawsuit against Fawcett, and replaced with at least three different characters (one alien guy and two terrestrial women) of the same name by Marvel Comics. Moreover, the original Captain Marvel spawned the British rip-off superhero Marvelman, who would later be brought into the modern world by Alan Moore and have his name changed to the legally-more-acceptable Miracleman when his story got published in the U.S. I was a big fan of Miracleman, and I remember well how Moore set up his return after decades of inaction: reporter Michael Moran, who doesn't even remember being MM, is reporting from a nuclear power plant and sees a vaguely familiar-looking word painted on an office's glass door... from the wrong side. The word is "ATOMIC," which Mike reads aloud backwards as "KIMOTA," which just happens to be the magic word that transforms him into a superhuman.

3) This morning, heading to the upstairs bathroom, which is right next to my study, I grabbed something to read from the mass-market paperback SF/fantasy shelf. In this case, the book was The Tolkien Reader, a compendium of short works composed by JRRT, one of which is his masterful essay "On Fairy-Stories." This is a work I have read before, and which I even taught as part of the curriculum on the Woodberry in Oxford program in 1999. When I cracked it open to read Tolkien's thoughts on the different varieties of fairy-story, however, I was surprised to see him mention this kind:
[T]here is (especially for the humble) Mooreeffoc, or Chestertonian Fantasy. Mooreeffoc is a fantastic word, but it could be seen written up in every town in this land. It is Coffee-room, viewed from the inside throught a glass door, as it was seen by Dickens on a dark London day; and it was used by Chesterton to denote the queerness of things that have become trite, when they are seen suddenly from a new angle.

That was the moment when all these things clicked together. What Lewis was talking about (and had almost certainly read about in Chesterton) was a form of Mooreeffoc. Michael Moran is transformed, physically and mentally by spotting a literal Mooreeffoc. And the writer who transformed him (and for that matter saw how he might transform Moran's alter ego from a stodgy Captain Marvel ripoff to a postmodern Nietzschean example of the Superman) was named Moore.

It's possible that I read too much.

7:03 PM

The Book Meme: Day 23

Day 23 - Most annoying character ever

The tricky bit here is taking the reader's view rather than the writer's view. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle might well wish to create a character whom Watson finds extremely annoying. However, should he succeed in doing so, it's not necessarily the case that the reader will be annoyed. Indeed, the reader might actually enjoy the interaction of Watson and this other character. Thus, we have to be clear that the author should be blamed for such a character, not praised.

That being said, it's somewhat difficult for me to find a case where a character is annoying but the story is otherwise unobjectionable. Usually when I dislike a character, it's part of a general dislike for what's going on, either because the plot isn't working, or the setting is unconvincing, or something else is out of whack. I mean, I don't like Billy Budd, but that's mostly because I don't like Billy Budd

I'm also annoyed by one character not so much because of her character but because of how the author uses her. In the Chronicles of Narnia, Susan is bothersome in a number of ways, admittedly, but I'm far more bothered by C.S. Lewis. In the first Narnia book--which is The Lion, the Witch and the Wardbrobe, yeah, you heard me--Susan isn't especially interesting, particularly compared to the brother who's selling the family out to the White Witch. She's mostly there for Lucy to talk to as they're watching the sacrifice at the Stone Table. In Prince Caspian, the second book (publication order or GTFO), there's a nice scene where she out-arches the skeptical Trumpkin, but then Lewis does an odd thing: he allows Trumpkin to become a true believer while turning Susan into the group skeptic. Somehow, despite the fact that she's been magically returned to the enchanted kingdom where she ruled as queen for decades, she suddenly has trouble believing Aslan is guiding them on their travels. (This lack of faith is akin to how comics artist George Perez once pointed out the flaw in Glinda's claim that she couldn't tell Dorothy to just click her heels together, because "you wouldn't have believed me." As Perez put it, Dorothy should have told her, "I'M TALKIN' TO A DAMN SCARECROW.")

Susan makes a third appearance in Book 5, The Horse and His Boy, this time in her guise as the adult queen of Narnia. She's there mostly to be pretty and graceful so that the prince of Calormen can attempt to marry her and then get angry when she escapes his clutches--a princess for a rather uncouth Mario. But of course none of that prepares us for what we learn in Book 7, The Last Battle, when it is revealed that Susan has turned away from Narnia altogether; unlike her siblings and mentors, she now denies the very existence of Narnia, claiming it was all a youthful delusion. And what led her down this path of denial?

"Oh, Susan!" said Jill. "She's interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations. She always was a jolly sight too keen on being grown-up."

Yes, there it is, folks. Susan has turned her back on her family and her experiences because of puberty. The ever-virginal Lucy has no such problems, but her sister is lost and quite possibly damned because she's interested in all that stuff that might lead to adulthood and possibly even sex. But I can't really blame Susan for this sudden betrayal of everyone and everything in her life, because it is patently obvious that Lewis is simply using her to make a point; I suspect he's directing that point at Christians who might grow too confident in their salvation, but he's also showing an obvious distaste for conventional femininity, not to mention a rather disturbing (albeit religiously accurate) association of sex with sin. Basically, he orchestrates Susan's fall in order to motivate the reader; in the modern parlance, he fridges her. What Lewis does here is much, much more annoying than what Susan does.

But I happen to know a character who annoys in equal measure with his author: the aptly named John Marcher, protagonist of Henry James's novella "The Beast in the Jungle." Marcher's singular, almost solipsistic belief is that his life will be defined by some enormous event; whether it will be a grand tragedy or triumph is uncertain, but he is nonetheless sure that he has been singled out by fate. His old acquaintance May Bartram is in on his secret, and when she chooses to move to town to be near him, he becomes a tentative social companion to her--but never anything more than that, because, you see, his Special Fate awaits him, and he dare not subject a wife to such a thing. He keeps her at bay for some years, until finally--look, you've already seen how this is going to end, haven't you? I sure did. No, Marcher never considers May's feelings or allows himself to reciprocate them, but instead wastes most of his life awaiting the sudden pounce of the Beast only to discover at the end that he has been in its jaws all along.

Had this tale been the length of the above paragraph, I might have been able to tolerate Marcher, but alas, James was never terse. Instead, he allows us multiple-page glimpses into the self-centered maelstrom that is Marcher's mind, all while letting him plod relentlessly (the name is "Marcher" for a reason) toward the fate we have seen coming since the beginning. I think James wants us to see Marcher as tragic, but the end result is to make him look utterly foolish. There he is! And there's May, right there! She's moved to town! But he ignores that, because it would mean thinking about someone other than himself for a few moments. Even the name "May" is a pretty strong symbol of possibilities, of capability, even, but Marcher doesn't think about that, either. Basically, James has a point to make, and it's an obvious one, but he's going to force us to examine his protagonist in minute and tedious detail until that point has been honed all the way down to a nub that won't even break the skin. Here, at last, is a pairing of annoyance where both character and author poke at the reader in parallel, not as though he had a stone in his shoe, but rather as though he had a stone in each shoe, and a long, long way to walk.

9:40 AM

The Book Meme: Day 22

Day 22 - Favorite non-sexual relationship (including asexual romantic relationships)

A thorny one, this. For one thing, some really interesting literary relationships don't start as romantic, but they eventually end up that way. (And as a result of this, there are going to be spoilers below, so read on at your own risk.) One of my very favorite relationships in a book involves a favorite character (Owen Griffiths of Le Guin's Very Far Away from Anywhere Else) and the thoughtful, dedicated, multi-talented Natalie Field. But I'm not sure it counts here, because it moves into romantic/sexual territory at one point. Except that it doesn't, entirely, and that's kind of the point of the book, but it makes me hesitate to write about it for this particular prompt.

I could say the same about another relationship, one from a favorite comics series, Y: The Last Man: the complicated interplay between the titular last man on Earth, Yorick Brown, and his bodyguard/companion Agent 355. As depicted by writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Pia Guerra, Three-Fifty is a wonderful character in her own right, a kickass black woman who's equally adept with firearms or knitting needles, but she's even better when she's forced to put up with Yorick's neurotic white-guy survivor's guilt and nonstop banter. But yeah, still not sure it quite counts for this prompt, because spoilers. One thing I do love about this duo is that both of them change hairstyles and clothing styles from time to time over the course of the years-long narrative, basically because I think they get bored (or maybe because Guerra did.) I also like how each has skills that complement the other's, though 355's are frequently the more useful of the two (unless lock-picking or sleight-of-hand is called for.)

In fact, comics are generally where a lot of my favorite relationships come from. Transmetropolitan's Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson make the relationship between outlaw journalist Spider Jerusalem and his Filthy Assistants, Channon and Yelena, hilarious fun. At times he's a mentor, at times a tormentor, at times a complete shitheel, and at times a genuine inspiration to them, and Channon and Yelena have their own delightful interactions as well.

Mike Carey has written a lot of wonderful stuff (and in my own occasional interactions with him, he's been a mensch), but my favorite may still be Lucifer. The thing Carey always remembers about his protagonist is that his main sin is pride, and that puts him into some interesting situations, particularly with the supernaturally gifted schoolgirl Elaine Belloc. Over the course of the series, Elaine grows in a variety of ways, learning more about the fallen angel and the dangers that come with being in his orbit, but at the same time she seems to understand him and even trust him more than anyone else--and more than she can really afford to. It's not even a remotely romantic or sexual relationship, but man, is it complex and fascinating.

Neil Gaiman's Sandman is rife with enjoyable non-sexual relationships. Dream's siblings offer a wealth of opportunities to provoke their brother in different ways, but it's hard not to love the way he gets along with Delirium (basically as a straight man) and Death (often as a straight man, but in many cases as a guy who genuinely needs his sister's insight). Rose Walker gets to know a whole houseful of folks in the book's second arc, The Doll's House, but I'm especially fond of the way she relates to Gilbert, who's sort of a demented uncle, or possibly a Georgian version of a knight errant. Barbie's friendships, especially with Wanda, in the fourth arc, A Game of You, make her a more complete character than many in the book, but I think my favorite of the bunch may be the relationship between Dream and his raven, Matthew, whose stubborn refusal to abandon his boss is sometimes funny, but often poignant.

My favorite relationship, though, is from a different comic altogether: Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon's Preacher. There are dozens of characters in this sprawling narrative of a preacher who is granted the unwanted power of commanding others with Divine authority, but the the main trio of characters are complicated, vivid, emotionally engaging and believably dependent on one another. Jesse Custer, the title character, is burdened with a need to get answers from God and a seemingly unbreakable standard for masculine behavior; the former comes from his possession of the Voice of God, the latter from his Green Beret father and his twisted upbringing by his grandmother. Tulip O'Hare is an independent woman with an extensive knowledge of firearms and a low tolerance for bullshit, which makes her passionate love for Jesse more than a little strained at times. And then there's Cassidy, a hard-drinking century-old Irish vampire who becomes Jesse's best mate. The relationship between these three shifts drastically over time, taking individuals or pairs through companionship, intimacy, trust, betrayal, disappointment, heartbreak, vengeance, despair, and redemption. They laugh, they cry, they fight. There's hilarity, and horror, and yes, there's some sex, but that's not really why the three of them are so fascinating.

There's more violence in Preacher than many readers will like, and there's no question that Ennis and Dillon bring a streak of harshness in the story, not to mention humor black enough to reach the infrared spectrum. If you enjoy seeing bad guys suffer for their badness, you'll get plenty of that, though of course they often make the good guys suffer first. But it's the richness of those relationships between and among Jesse, Tulip, and Cassidy that makes the book stand out in my estimation. 

1:04 PM

The Book Meme: Day 21

Day 21 - Favorite romantic/sexual relationship

Given yesterday's discussion of kisses, it's probably not a shock to learn that I find a lot of literary romances less than satisfying. Many of them, by design, are there to provide conflict, which is generally good for the plot, but not necessarily for the romance. Others are a maguffin: Character A pursues Character B so that she will have something to motivate her. And since, as I've indicated, I don't read much from the romance genre, I don't read that many books where the romantic relationship is the main point of the story.

That said, there is one way to get a romance to work for me: put it on stage. (Film or TV works as well.) Perhaps I'm less removed from the romance when it's divorced from a narrator and simply laid out for me where I can see the characters' interactions. Benedick and Beatrice (especially when portrayed by Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, though Alexis Denisof and Amy Acker are also pretty damn good) are a delight to watch; I don't mind reading Much Ado About Nothing on the page, either, but drama is meant to be played out in front of you. I'll also throw out a nod toward the relationship of George and Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It's often terrifying, brutal, and dysfunctional, but by god it's a marriage, one where the emotions are deep, and it's absolutely riveting to watch.

I can think of a few other relationships that seemed real, or at least emotionally engaging (Vince and Beth in Jess Walter's Citizen Vince is one I remember as satisfying), but the two I think I enjoyed reading about most were drastically different.

In Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, protagonist/thief Peter Lake falls in love with Beverly, the sickly daughter of the wealthy Isaac Penn, and the resulting romance is passionate, fantastical, and completely engrossing. The heat of the desire the characters feel for each other is sometimes literal, taking place in the cold expanses of upstate New York (or a magical-realist version of upstate New York, at least), and you can't help but wish for a happier resolution than circumstances seem able to provide. It's a beautifully written book and a beautifully depicted romance.

My favorite relationship, though, is one that I love partly because it is so incredibly messy. When John Varley's Gaea Trilogy kicks off with the first volume, Titan (which was nominated for both a Hugo and a Nebula), Gaby Plauget is the astronomer of the NASA ship Ringmaster, exploring Saturn under the command of Captain Cirocco "Rocky" Jones. By the end of the book, they are no longer commander and subordinate, but friends, companions in adventure, and lovers, brought together by the strange, astonishing, and sometimes horrifying elements of the new world in which they find themselves. And in the next two volumes, the relationship gets really bizarre. 

I first read Titan when was 19, and if it wasn't the first book I'd read where the central relationship was lesbian, it had to be close to the first. Cirocco is the protagonist, and a rich, complex character indeed, but Varley works hard to give Gaby a depth and complexity of her own. The two are not idealized lovers, nor is their relationship presented as either uplifting proof that Gay People Are People Too or as some kind of exercise in pornography. As I said, their relationship is a mess. They're tied down by responsibilities to others (not least the vast intelligence that rules their new world) and shaped by their individual backgrounds in ways that make their romance rocky (heh) at best and all but impossible at worst. It's a wonderful relationship because the characters are wonderful, and even in an environment full of hermaphroditic centaurs and sapient blimps, their love feels like the real thing.

Tom Clancy once called John Varley "the best writer in America." The relationship between Cirocco and Gaby is just one more piece of evidence that he was right.

8:59 AM

The Book Meme: Day 20

Day 20 - Favorite kiss

I am not a reader of romances, generally speaking, so I don't think of kisses as necessarily important moments in a narrative. That's not to say they can't be, but in general, I remember that two characters formed a relationship, not necessarily that it was launched by a kiss. In some ways, I think this question may, for me, deal more with the moments of tenderness and communion that are shared between characters, or at least that's how I'm going to interpret it, because that kind of moment, when it's truly memorable, is often decidedly unromantic.

One such moment came in a short story I really should have mentioned in Day 17's post. A lot of these posts tend to wallow in nostalgia, so things I read in my youth often drive out things I've come across more recently, even when those new works are more deserving. Forgive me, then, for failing to mention Joe Hill's brilliant "Pop Art," which is, as far as I'm concerned, the best short story of the 21st century. Originally published in 2001 (and available in Hill's 2005 collection 20th Century Ghosts), it's the story of two boys, one with a home life filled with neglect and cruelty (the nameless narrator) and one with an improbable medical condition: he's inflatable. The inflatable boy, Art Roth, is basically a living blow-up doll, with plastic skin and no voice (he communicates exclusively by writing with a grease pencil--no sharp objects allowed). This patently absurd situation should not work at all, but Hill manages to sell it and sell it completely. As ridiculous as the premise is, the story is sorrowful, inspiring, and real. It's the best kind of fantasy, one that shows a perfect reflection of the world, but it seems deeper and more magical because it's a reversal of that world. And yes, it contains a moment of true communion, where the two friends are locked in an embrace. I won't tell you why, but I will tell you that when you read the story for yourself, you'll understand why I still remember that embrace years after first seeing it.

I can point to another non-kiss example of tenderness in a book I mentioned earlier in this exercise: Jim Crace's remarkable Being Dead. This is a book about a pair of murder victims, Joseph and Celice, and the narrative's two threads take us both forward in time (as their bodies lie in the dunes where they were slain) and backward in time (to show us the lives that brought them to this beach). It is an unflinching look at death, and it does not pretend to say anything about any afterlife. At times its honesty can feel almost like cruelty, yet there is something lovely and human about one moment: the dying Joseph, seeing his wife lying in the sand near him, not knowing if she still lives, reaches out to her and lays his hand on her ankle. And there it stays:

The corpses were surrendered to the weather and the earth, but here were still a man and wife, quietly resting; flesh on flesh; dead, but not departed yet.

It was as if they had been struck by lightning but the thunder, separated from its faster twin, had yet to come with its complaints to shake and terminate the bodies lying in the grass. Time was divided into light and sound. There was a sanctuary for Joseph and Celice between the lightning and the thunderclap. Such were their six days in the dunes, stretched out, these two unlucky lovers on the coast.

This is our only prayer: May no one come to lift his hand from her leg. Let thunder never find its voice. Hold sound and light, those battling twins, apart. There is a meadow that separates death's chilly gate and the tumbling nothingness beyond, in which our Joseph and Celice are lying, cushioned by the sunlight and the grass, and held in place by nothing firmer than his fingertip.

A beautiful passage, to be sure. And a depiction of love as well. But no, not romantic. And not a kiss. 

There is one literary kiss I remember above them all, however, and it is if anything from a scene even less romantic than Crace's. It comes from the end of one of my all-time favorite books, and I still remember the first time I read it, eyes tearing up all the while, one afternoon in about 1975. My brother was somewhere else, and for some reason I was lying on his bed to finish the long task of reading The Lord of the Rings. And there, in his room, with the royal blue walls and a window on the woody banks of Battle Creek, I turned to the last pages of The Return of the King and came to Gandalf's last speech, there at the Grey Havens:

"...Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil."

Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost.

I am a firm believer in romantic kisses, and I have participated in more than a few in my day. But somehow the romantic kisses I've read about never quite live up to the real thing, nor do they pack as much meaning as the moments included here. Some might argue that this makes me unromantic. I prefer to think of myself as a connoisseur of kisses.

10:27 AM

The Book Meme: Day 19

Day 19 - Favorite book cover

I don't judge books by their covers, generally, but I'm sure as hell judging those covers. A cover can draw you in, or push you away, or just hold the pages together, but there are certainly some I've found satisfying or even exciting, and some that have left me completely cold.

One of my favorite covers is this one, the Avon Books paperback edition of Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber. The actual image isn't especially important to me, though the colors are attractive, and it does a nice enough job of showing the book's mixture of fantasy and SF elements, I suppose. No, what I love is what surrounds that little inset image: the bold lettering and the high-contrast white-on-black. It simply doesn't look like anything else on the shelf:

Cover Zelazny.jpg
Occasionally the cover is enough to make me want to buy the book just to be able to look at it. I have not always been the most enlightened consumer in these instances, especially not when I was an impressionable teenager, but sometimes the books turn out to be pretty good anyway, as in the case of Beyond Rejection, Justin Leiber's tale of body-snatching, gender, and identity. But yeah, honesty compels me to admit that I bought it largely because of the barenaked lady on the cover:

Cover Leiber.jpgSometimes the cover catches my eye and lures me into looking over the blurbs and cover copy, which may lead to opening the book and opting to make a purchase. That happened in the Woodberry Forest School student store some years back, and boy am I glad; without that initial visual grabber--the lighting, the striking "crown of thorns" reference, the placement of the text as a blindfold--I never would have read Ralph Wiley's Dark Witness, and without Wiley, I wouldn't have found Ta-Nehisi Coates so compelling, and yeah, I'd be a pretty different person without that:

Cover Wiley.jpgOn occasion, I have had to be dragged to the book kicking and screaming because the cover is so bad. I heard about the wonderful prose and mind-boggling SF/fantasy concepts arising in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series, but whenever I was in the late, lamented Second Foundation bookstore, looking at The Shadow of the Torturer, the first book in the series, I kept confronting this image and just being completely turned off. What the hell is all that fanciful Roger Dean-style metalwork? What the hell is that Bozo-haired skull doing there? And why does the lining of Severian's cloak make him look so much like a bondage clown?

Cover Wolfe.jpgMy advice: find another edition. Or if you can't, keep your eyes closed until you've turned to the first page.

Obviously, then, a cover can belie a book's contents. At other times, however, you can't really appreciate a cover, even a good one, until after you've read the book and seen how perfectly it fits. I'm a huge fan of Philp Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, particularly the first two volumes, but I didn't know that (obviously) when I picked up the first book, The Golden Compass. At the time the cover seemed perfectly nice, but not meaningful; after reading it, though,I couldn't imagine a better summary of the aesthetic than Eric Rohmann's cover image. 

Cover Pullman.jpg
Since then, of course, the books have come out in numerous other editions whose covers bear no similarity to Rohmann's, but now they just look wrong to me. Lyra, Pan, Iorek, and a deep blue Arctic sky: that's the spare, cold imagery the book deserves.

I must also give a shout-out to the only book I own specifically because of its cover: my trade paperback edition of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. I bought the hardback and loved it--how am I not going to enjoy a novel based on Siegel & Shuster's creation of Superman?--but the cover didn't move me all that much. It's functional, but nothing special:

Cover Chabon HB.jpgBut then I saw the trade paperback edition and fell in love. This was a book I had to own. I was't going to throw away my hardback, but to this day it sits beside its softback companion. Why? Just look:

Cover Chabon PB.jpgNot only do you get that arresting image of the Empire State Building, you get that classic Golden Age-style lettering for the title, and the deliberate distressing of the "cover's" corners, all intended to make it look like a well-thumbed comic book. The back cover is laid out like a page of comics advertising, and the spine--this is the bit where it becomes genius--looks like a pile of old funnybooks. You can see the staples. It's just gorgeous, and utterly perfect for a book centered around the world of comics. Brilliant.

That said, my two favorite covers come from very different places. One is a recent work, one very old. One has a beautiful and arresting visual that immediately links you to the story; the other has a much more oblique image, one that does not say anything direct about the book, but instead creates a mood that enhances the reading experience. 

What I love about this cover for Lev Grossman's The Magicians is that it seems at first to ignore the novel's contents entirely. This is, after all, a fantasy about college students learning to be wizards; it's a darker take on Harry Potter with sex and drugs and booze. But look at the cover:

Cover Grossman.jpgNot a wand or a dragon or a Quidditch player in sight. All we get are trees, seemingly ordinary trees, standing in the rain in a flooded meadow. It's a beautiful, puzzling, and somewhat melancholy image that specifically denies any easy connection to the story. "You must figure this story out for yourself," it seems to say. "You won't have it handed to you on the cover." It's a deft bit of psychology, both attractive and a bit unsettling--a perfect cover for this story of an attractive but unsettling situation in an attractive but unsettling world.

But then there's this: the oldest narrative in English gets a fantastic new translation into modern parlance by a Nobel winner--and one who gives Tolkien his props as a scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature in the introduction, at that--and the cover art is breathtaking. Simple, stark, completely fitting, but unlike any other cover you've seen. It's poetry in an image. It's Seamus Heaney's Beowulf:

Cover Heaney.jpg
It's not as sophisticated or oblique as the cover for The Magicians; it's just bold and powerful, as subtle as a flying mallet, and absolutely breathtaking. And yeah, the bold white type against the black background doesn't hurt. In short, I could argue that The Magicians has a better cover, but Beowulf has my favorite.

10:28 AM

The Book Meme: Day 18

Day 18 - Favorite beginning scene in a book

As is expected at this point, I have some issues with the prompt. I have already discussed my favorite scene ever, as seen if you scroll down to Day 9 of this exercise, and it happens to be an opening scene--the life-or-death pizza delivery that kicks off Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. Am I therefore required to repeat myself?

I sure hope not. But rather than spend a lot of time on explanation, let me just present to you the brilliant opening paragraph of Jim Crace's Quarantine. This was all I had to read to know I'd be reading the book. Enjoy:

Miri's husband was shouting in his sleep, not words that she could recognize but simple, blurting fanfares of distress. When, at last, she lit a lamp to discover what was tormenting him, she saw his tongue was black--scored and sooty. Miri smelled the devil's eggy dinner roasting on his breath; she heard the snapping of the devil's kindling in his cough. She put her hand on to his chest; it was soft, damp and hot, like fresh bread. Her husband, Musa, was being baked alive. Good news.

That cascading catalog of woe, tied off suddenly with that neat and unexpected knot... ah, that's Crace at his best. And that's why you need to read Quarantine.

1:55 PM

The Book Meme: Day 17

Day 17 - Favorite story or collection of stories (short stories, novellas, novelettes, etc.)

Another prompt that kind of explodes like a shaken-up Coke when you crack the cap open.

Short stories are something I used to read by the ton, particularly in the Golden Age of Science Fiction (i.e. when I was thirteen or fourteen). It was around then that our next-door neighbor, Richard, decided to get rid of a bunch of hardback SF book he'd collected over the years, at least some of them through a book club. At my age, that was basically an invitation to take every one of them out of the discard pile and bring them home. Almost all were short story anthologies, though I snagged a novel or two as well. I still have many of them, though I haven't cracked most of them open in many years, but they explain why I have a fondness for a lot of writers who peaked well before my time--not just big names like Heinlein and Asimov, but folks less well-known outside SF fandom: R.A. Lafferty, Alan Nourse, James Blish, L. Sprague de Camp, and dozens more.

I also read a fair number of contemporary short stories, typically in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine and occasionally in Analog or Omni, and I was thereby introduced to newer writers such as Barry B. Longyear, Ted Reynolds, Spider Robinson, and Orson Scott Card. And yes, I was given the usual grounding in short fiction by my English teachers, who gave me tales by Poe, Irving, Hawthorne, Hemingway, etc. Mind you, some of them snuck in some new stuff. In 9th grade, Ms. Rashkis had us read "She Fell Among Thieves" by Robert Edmond Alter, and we actually had a mock trial in Ms. Carter's 10th-grade English class to settle the issues raised by Howard Fast's "The Cold, Cold Box." In college, I was assigned everything from Kafka's "In the PenalColony" to Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O." The most memorable book from that period, however, was Charles Johnson's 1986 collection The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which contained the excellent "Exchange Value" and "The Education of Mingo," among others.

When we whittle things down, however, we're looking at only a handful of candidates for favorite story, and no real question about my favorite collection. Yes, I greatly enjoyed George R.R. Martin's Wild Cards books, in which various authors (Roger Zelazny, Howard Waldrop, Melinda Snodgrass, and others) created a shared world filled with superheroes created by an alien virus. That said, some of the books were novels or "mosaic novels," rather than short story collections (though Walter Jon Williams' "Witness" and Martin's own "Shell Games" remain standout stories), and the books were sometimes wildly uneven. Fun, yes, but not my favorites.

No, my favorite collections would be the two (and only two) extant volumes of Harlan Ellison's most legendary editorial project, Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions. More than almost any anthology I can recall, the DV books show writers straining, pushing themselves to do something different, something daring, something better than they've done before. There are excellent tales by some of my favorites--Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. Le Guin, Larry Niven--but also some superb stories from writers I like less. Theodore Sturgeon's taboo-confronting "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?" is only one such story. Piers Anthony, of all people, asks some provocative questions about human and animal rights in "In the Barn." And Philip Jose Farmer outdid himself to produce the astonishing Joycean novella "Riders of the Purple Wage," which is arguably his best work ever.

But with individual short stories, we've got a few more options. I am still unsettled, years later, by Greg Bear's "Blood Music," a short story about the nanotech landscape that ends in a way you won't expect. (I couldn't get through the novel version he wrote a few years later, alas.) The legendary story by Tom Godwin, "The Cold Equations," has to be high on the list, but I'm not going to spoil it by saying more. Ellison's own "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream" deserves mention, too. 

But when you get right down to it, we're looking at only two possible answers. I can point to plenty of stories by Le Guin that I love unreservedly, including the melancholy "The Word of Unbinding," but every one of them ultimately pales before her astonishing "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas." As a work of narrative, it's an odd duck, almost devoid of characters or plot, but as an examination of human behavior, it's simply stunning. And you Will. Never. Forget It. You will carry it with you for the rest of your life. It may disturb you. It may help you appreciate your life. It may move you to change that life. But once you read it, it's part of you. 

For all that, however, I can't consider "Omelas" my favorite short story. It's too hard to read more than once in a great while. Instead, I must turn to my favorite short story writer: Ray Bradbury.

Bradbury's stories have been praised, showered with awards, and anthologized repeatedly, so I can't add much to their celebration, but I can say this (and have said it before): what sets Bradbury stories apart from anyone else's is that I remember them by title. I've had to look up several titles and/or authors while writing this entry--but that's not remotely necessary for the author of "The Veldt," "There Will Come Soft Rains," or "Way in the Middle of the Air." There is something about the link Bradbury creates between title and story that stands out, and it helps a reader remember not only what the story is called, but what it is. It may be chilling ("Fever Dream," "Skeleton," "The Scythe") or mind-blowing ("The Golden Apples of the Sun," "Frost and Fire") or melancholy ("And the Moon Be Still as Bright"), and its title somehow enhances that.

I mention this because it also applies to my favorite of Bradbury's stories, "Kaleidoscope." It's a story that could well be a thriller, or even a horror story--a rocket ship explodes and the crew is scattered, drifting in space--but instead it's a strange and beautiful musing on mortality. Remarkably, it's told almost entirely through dialogue and internal monologue. Very little actually happens, but what does happen feels extraordinarily important. It's a story with a melancholy power, and its ending is simultaneously sad and uplifting. 

All that in less than eight pages of text. Thanks, Ray.

8:15 AM

The Book Meme: Day 16

Day 16 - Favorite poem or collection of poetry


Another big, broad prompt that's almost impossible to wrangle. I mean, not only are there are a LOT of really great poems out there, but within the realm of poetry, the range is... well, you've got something like Paradise Lost on the one hand, and the miniaturized perfection of Basho's haiku on the other. Those two things are so dissimilar than even making the comparison in the first place feels ludicrous. And there's a lot of stuff between them that doesn't much resemble either of those extremes.

So let's whittle it down, shall we? The Matsuo Basho poems in question include many of my favorites within the haiku form, though Buson and Issa have also written some gorgeous examples. My favorite haiku is probably this little Basho gem, which I love at least partly because it inspired a wonderful Ted Reynolds novella titled "Ker-Plop." The version Reynolds used was this:

Old pond
Frog jumps

Of course, one issue with poetry is that of translation. I've read a lot of poems originally composed in other languages, and the choices made by the translator have a profound effect on how much I've enjoyed them. Consider, for example, James Kirkup's translation of the Basho poem above,which is even more minimalist:


But Curtis Hidden Page gets all iambic pentameter up in here:

A lonely pond in age-old stillness sleeps...
Apart, unstirred by sound of motion... till
Suddenly into it a lithe frog leaps.

Or you could look at the other versions transformed into English here. That, my friends, is what translation is about.

But that variability is one reason I feel a bit wary of choosing a translated work. In a poem ("the best words in the best order," as Coleridge defined it) any individual word is doing so much work that a slightly different one has an outsize effect on the poem as a whole. A prose translation, populated by so many more words, will not be much altered by these minor changes.

I saw this for myself when Wislawa Szymborska won the Nobel Prize in 1996. The news story I saw about her victory included a sample poem, and I was utterly unmoved by it. How could THIS earn such a literary plum? But in hopes that it was an atypical bit of verse, I picked up a Szymborska collection titled View with a Grain of Sand... and was blown away. Even the same poem I'd read in the news story was transformed into something vivid and gorgeous. So in a sense, what I was reading wasn't Szymborska's work, but that of translators Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh (who deservedly won a PEN prize for their efforts.) 

So we're going with English only, not that a single language is going to narrow things down that much. I mean, if I were to start listing poets I've enjoyed, the list gets long very quickly: John Donne, W.D. Snodgrass, Emily Dickinson, Sharon Olds, Langston Hughes, John Keats, Lucille Clifton, Arna Bontemps, Galway Kinnell, Billy Collins, William Shakespeare, Allen Ginsburg, Dorothy Parker, Jean Toomer, Edna St. Vincent Millay, William Cowper, Percy Shelley, Robert Frost, Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, A.D. Hope, William Cullen Bryant, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Kenneth Koch, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens (whom I often confuse), Edgar Lee Masters and Edward Arlington Robinson (whom I ALWAYS confuse), and Robert Bly, among others.

But if pressed, I have to pick one American poet missing from the list above, and one work I've found great joy in reading and teaching many times: Walt Whitman's "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry." The magic trick that Whitman pulls off here is that of telling us exactly how his magic trick works. In the course of building his catalog of images (his favorite poetic technique by far), Whitman then goes back to explain why a catalog of images is so engaging to an audience--that these tiny bits of shared sensation are in fact what link poet and reader. Through the sight of sun on the water, banners flapping, and gulls wheeling over the ferry in the yellow light--what Whitman calls "dumb, beautiful ministers"--the reader gets a glimpse into the mind of the poet, and the poet thereby shares an awareness of the reader: "You've noticed the same things I have." It's a communion accomplished through nothing more complex than a list, but that list unites everyone who considers its items, nodding and saying to the universe, "Yes, I know what that's like." It is in itself a connection between two shores, one that transcends time and space.

You have waited, you always wait, you dumb, beautiful ministers, 
We receive you with free sense at last, and are insatiate henceforward, 
Not you any more shall be able to foil us, or withhold yourselves from us, 
We use you, and do not cast you aside--we plant you permanently within us, 
We fathom you not--we love you--there is perfection in you also, 
You furnish your parts toward eternity, 
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.

"Crossing Brooklyn Ferry" is a magnificent work of art. It may not be the poem I want to read at any given moment, but I don't need to read it all the time. I just need to know that Walt's still out there, ready to share it with me whenever I want.

6:17 AM

The Book Meme: Day 15

Day 15 - Your "comfort" book

Some of these entries require me to think while I'm writing, on the off chance that I'll remember a better choice than the one I initially made. That's not going to happen today. Comfort books are certainly something I go to frequently, and I do have more than one, but there's one at the top of the list, and I'm unlikely to change my mind about it.

When I went to Manchester for my junior year of college, I had to whittle down my library to a few choice items. I thus have a fairly good idea of what books I felt I really *needed* to have on hand. I ended up taking three different novels, plus my dictionary and my thesaurus.

The first, as you'll be unsurprised to learn, was The Lord of the Rings, which remains a story I return to when I'm feeling down or uncertain, but even a guy who has re-read it as often as I have knows that it's a serious time commitment. In recent years, however, I have made Peter Jackson's movie adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring into a miniature version of re-reading the whole trilogy. Instead of diving in for a week or two, I just pop in our DVD of the extended edition and lose myself for a few hours. It remains my favorite of the three films, even though much of the early action is minimized or ignored (e.g. Tom Bombadil) in order to get the hobbits to Rivendell in a hurry. Still, there was no question that I would make room for all three volumes on my shelf in my room at Grosvenor Place.

The book that sat beside Tolkien's was Richard Adams' Watership Down, which remains one of the great stories I've ever read. Its depiction of lapine culture is lovely and rich, but the detailed description of the world the rabbits inhabit is perhaps its greatest strength; it is so specific and vivid that the fantasies of rabbit sentience, let alone language and folklore, seem utterly plausible. It's a gorgeous place to visit, and standing in the beeches on top of the Down remains something for my bucket list.

But it was the third book on my Grosvenor shelf that I consider my true comfort book, for all that I've re-read it far less than the first two. I save it for the moments when I truly need comfort, because it offers exactly that, and in several ways. The book is Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows. Many people who read it seem primarily interested in the improbable adventures of Mr. Toad, but I am not one of them. For me, there are three key portions of the book, and each one offers comfort of a different sort.

The section where Mole goes into the Wild Wood remains one of the most blood-chilling things I've ever read. Grahame builds the tension perfectly, raising the stakes from small sounds to louder sounds to brief glimpses of danger, and the helplessness and uncertainty Mole feels are echoed in the reader's mind. As a result, his unexpected rescue and removal to safety offers a huge dose of relief--a sense that the anxiety is gone. Sometimes this is the most important kind of comfort, though it's really more that discomfort has ended.

The second crucial section is the chapter entitled "Dulce Domum." I did not know what that Latin motto meant when I first read the book, but its context was absolutely clear. Mole has been staying in Rat's riverside abode for some months when suddenly he is electrified by the distant scent of his own home. His loyalty to Ratty keeps him marching away from it, but his misery is palpable, and his misery's effect on the Rat is important. This is where I learned the power of two things: trying to see another's point of view, and apologizing for one's misdeeds. Ratty is never more heroic than when he is calling himself names and turning Mole back, unless it's when he enters Mole's home for the first time and can't stop saying good things about it. And when the scene settles into a vision of Christmas plenty, it's simply gorgeous. This is where I learned about the comfort to be found in empathy--a kind that we can so easily offer one another, and so often don't.

Finally, there is "The Piper at the Gates of Dawn," which remains such a beautiful piece of work that I can barely talk about it coherently. In it, the animals search for a child gone missing, and when they stumble upon him at last, they encounter the Divine. I refuse to spoil it more than that, except to say that this is where the book offers a vision of universal order, a sense that we and everything around us form part of a grand design. Even more remarkable for a book written in Edwardian England, that Divinity and design are not portrayed as specifically Christian. The didacticism of C.S. Lewis is nowhere to be found. This is instead something universal, pure and ecstatic. It is a comfort extended to everyone and everything. It is joy.

Sometimes I need relief, sometimes empathy. And on occasion, I may have a moment of joy. But if I need a moment of any of them, I always know where to look.

12:49 PM

The Book Meme: Day 14

(My apologies for the missed day; we've got family in town.)

Day 14 - Favorite character in a book 

Here's a tough one. It's certainly the case that a book can put you in someone else's head in a way that nothing else can. Movies and TV can put you inside an experience, and an extremely intense experience in a lot of cases, but their dependence on the visible doesn't really let you see what's going on in a character's mind. Books, by contrast, can help you share someone else's interior monologue, and such a communion can be more powerful than that shared by real people.

A lot of my favorite books have enormous casts, which can make it harder to connect in depth with just one character, but sometimes you find a connection anyway. I have always loved Corwin, the narrator of Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber series, and a big part of that fondness is that he's an amnesiac; he doesn't know what's going on, so we share his bewilderment about what he's experiencing and sympathize completely. Instead of forcing the reader through page after page of exposition, the narrative exposes the facts as Corwin learns them. It's a brilliant piece of work on Zelazny's part.

Similarly, the gigantic sprawl of John Varley's Gaean Trilogy gives us plenty of characters in whose heads we can rest for a while, and Varley gets us inside everyone from the pseudo-schizophrenic Chris Minor to Robin the Nine-fingered of the Coven to the comic-book-inspired Conal Ray, but the primary about which all these people orbit is Captain Cirocco "Rocky" Jones, one of the first and still possibly the best of SF's Tough Female Characters. Smart, caring, manipulative, bold, responsible, pragmatic--Cirocco walks through the most improbable of adventures and remains throughout a rich... contradictory... human character. And her best pal Gaby Plauget? Almost as good. Maybe just as good. Maybe better.

Douglas Adams' hapless Arthur Dent... Joseph Heller's gnomish Orr... Terry Pratchett's weary Sam Vimes... Edith Wharton's tragic Lily Bart... and G.B. Edwards' magnificent Ebenezer Le Page... all of these are characters I remember with joy and often revisit. But if there's one character whose head seems tailor-made for me, it's Owen Griffiths.

Owen is the narrator of Very Far Away from Anywhere Else, probably my favorite book by one of my favorite writers, Ursula K. Le Guin. Having discovered the Earthsea Trilogy (as it was then called, accurately) in my early teens, I was ideally suited to be a 15-year-old reader of a Le Guin book about an academically talented and socially incompetent high-school student who imagined and mapped out his own windswept island nation. I mean, I already had page after page of Tolkienesque maps among my own papers. But Owen didn't simply echo my own thoughts and beliefs; he helped shape them. It was Owen who first put into words the crucial difference between being in love and deciding to be in love. He was also instrumental in helping me see what I'd long committed myself to doing without realizing it: performing, typically as a clown, in order to avoid direct human interaction--as he put it, doing the ape act, rather than the human act. As framed by Le Guin, he was clearly sympathetic and clearly not a role model. Owen may not be my "favorite" character in terms of my wanting to read books about him over and over and over, but his claim on my mind and my life goes well beyond the mere hundred-odd pages of his book.

1:16 PM

The Book Meme: Day 13

Day 13 - Favorite childhood book OR current favorite YA book (or both!)

The first book I ever read was a battered red hardback edition of L. Leslie Brooke's Johnny Crow's New Garden, first published in 1935. Mom and Dad had read it to me aloud scores of times, and I knew it pretty well. We were in Beaufort, SC, visiting Mom's parents when, the story goes, I began flipping through the pages and reading aloud. I was, apparently, able to link the words on the page to the way they sounded, so I guess that counts as reading. If pressed, I will admit that I hope the first lines I ever read were:

"And the rhinoceros
Said 'Puffickly preposserous.'"

From there I graduated to more contemporary picture books, and by far my favorite was The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats. There is something remarkable about Keats' collage work, though I couldn't tell you just what. I suspect the real reason I became so fascinated by the book is the fact that the main character is named Peter. As I've mentioned here before, one reason I find the idea of minority representation in media so important is that I have always been powerfully drawn to stories about people with my name or my coloration; as a brunette, I have always considered Ultra Boy and Timber Wolf my favorite members of the Legion of Super-Heroes, as opposed to blue-haired heroes like Superboy. Perhaps for similar reasons, I always considered the brown-haired Peter Parker way cooler than that crowd of identical blonde guys in the Avengers. I mean, honestly, who could tell Hank Pym from Steve Rogers from Clint Barton from Don Blake? The fact that Keats' character shared my name helped me identify with him; how frustrating must it be to have no one on the page or on the screen who shares something with you? 

But as my tastes grew more sophisticated, I started picking up new favorites: Donald Sobol's Encyclopedia Brown books were a highly enjoyable way for a kid whose head was full of trivia to imagine himself a hero. I was also fond of Beverly Cleary's tales of Henry Huggins and the Quimby sisters, Beezus and Ramona. In fact, Cleary's Beezus and Ramona was perhaps the first book with a female protagonist that I really identified with, primarily because of Beezus' frustrations and eventual fulfillment in her art class. I too took an out-of-school art class and found it enormously important to my creativity and my confidence. And like every kid my age, I delighted in the works of Roald Dahl. The improbable events of James and the Giant Peach made it my favorite of his books, but it was only a hair ahead of Fantastic Mr. Fox; there was something about the way Dahl described the foods the starving animals stole--particularly the plenty looted from the Bunce farm--that made me salivate. I was also disturbed by the ironic body horror of The Magic Finger and deeply, deeply creeped out by the Vermicious Knids (mentioned in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory but not actually seen until Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.)

Late in my elementary school career I started pick up biographies of various figures from American history, particularly the Bobbs-Merrill series Childhood of Famous Americans, originally written by Augusta Stevenson, but continued by others. These reddish-orange hardbacks were, I now know, kind of sneaky, as they ostensibly told of these figures' childhoods with only a relatively short discussion of their adult accomplishments. And since those childhoods were not always well-documented, I suspect a good deal of what I read was either apocryphal or purely fictitious. Still, books like Abraham Lincoln: Frontier Boy, Sitting Bull: Dakota Boy, and George (Washington) Carver: Boy Scientist helped instill a lifelong love of history in me.

But if I had to point to one book--okay, two--that fired my imagination and influence me to this day, I would have to point to a pair of creators who first came to my awareness as the illustrators of a completely different Lincoln biography, called simply Abraham Lincoln: Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire. The lithographs created for the book are remarkable, particularly the striking image of the rangy Lincoln standing up in a carriage and blocking out the sun in order to gain right of way. The tales of Abe's youth were certainly memorable, but they pale compared to the artwork.

At some point in my elementary school days--I don't know when, I don't know where, though Glenwood School's library is a pretty likely candidate--I stumbled across another book by them. I suspect I was drawn in by the beautiful lithographic illustrations, but there's no question that the subject matter would appeal to me as well. It was D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths, my introduction to the underpinnings of much of our culture, and I devoured it. Repeatedly. To this day, when I hear of a figure from Greek mythology, the image I have is the version from the d'Aulaires' book. I soon stumbled across a second volume of theirs, this one illustrating the mythology of Ingri's birthplace, Norway. The book was then called Norse Gods and Giants, and I dove into it with gusto. Having first come across mention of Thor and the other Asgardians in Marvel Comics, I didn't find the images of the Norsemen's tales burning themselves into my skull quite as firmly as those of the Greeks, but I still loved the book, and like its predecessor it came home with me as often as I could check it out.

When my own kids were born, I was surprised and delighted to stumble across a big paperback edition of the Greek myths. I immediately purchased it and was quite satisfied to see how well-worn and foxed the pages became. I was frustrated, though, to learn that Norse Gods and Giants was out of print. Thankfully, Kelly was not as easily defeated as I, and she kept digging until finally, on Valentine's Day, 2010, this happened:

PC Norse Myths.jpgThe book had been republished in 2005 under the title D'Aulaires' Book of Norse Myths, with a new preface by Michael Chabon, and I happily dove right back into it. Recapturing a piece of your childhood is enormously satisfying however it occurs, but it's especially sweet to have it laid in your hands by someone you love in your adulthood.

9:37 AM

The Book Meme: Day 12

Day 12 - A book or series of books you've read more than five times

I am an unapologetic re-reader. Sure, I love discovering new and startling and exciting books, but I also believe--firmly--that revisiting a book can offer much that is new and startling and exciting. Instead of being propelled along by the narrative, you can take your time, less concerned with what happens next and able to appreciate the way the author is making it happen. Nuances of style and structure that escaped you the first time can reveal themselves. And since you are older and possessed of a different perspective when you pick up a book again, you may find it speaking to you in different ways than it did before. I unquestionably read a very different novel when I cracked open The Great Gatsby in my thirties--not at all the one I'd read in high school.

All that said, my re-reading is often based on another important thing a book can offer the next time around: comfort. It's odd to me that people will feel free to criticize you for reading a book more than once, but no one gets irritated if you want to listen to OK Computer or My Aim Is True or Innervisions again. I mean, I already have a pretty good idea what my friends are like, but having gotten to know them, I can still enjoy spending time with them again.

Naturally, any English teacher is called upon to re-read books constantly. I will confess that I didn't completely re-read the books I taught every year--but I always re-read them the first time I taught them, and I always re-read important sequences before teaching them. I figured I might well notice something I'd missed the last time, and often I did. But for this prompt, it seems unfair to count Gatsby, or Huck Finn, or Douglass's Narrative, or A Streetcar Named Desire, because I re-read them as part of my job.

I can easily point to books I've read five times or more. In fact, since I started keeping track of what I read back on March 1, 1996, I can see what I've re-read in black and white. Since that day I've read The Lord of the Rings three times, not counting when I read it to the kids in 2001. (In advance of the movie, I wanted them to have their own mental images of Middle-Earth, not ones that were dependent on what the film version showed.) Since I had already read it at least five times before that, it would certainly qualify. (Heck, I read it for a college class, too.) Despite its length, it is arguably the work I've re-read most often.

Like LOTR, the books I've re-read five times or more tend to be those I first read when I was pretty young: the Chonicles of Narnia, the Earthsea Cycle, Watership Down, The Wind in the Willows, and so on. If I consider books for children, there are even more titles to consider: both the Greek and Norse mythology books by Ingri and Edgar Parin d'Aulaire have been in my hands probably dozens of times, as have books like The Snowy Day and Maurice Sendak's four-volume Nutshell Library. And once I had kids of my own, I can assure you that five is a laughably low figure for all the times I had to read Hop on Pop or Ride a Purple Pelican to the boys.

By contrast, I haven't voluntarily revisited that many of the books I discovered after college, even the ones I've loved, and I certainly haven't revisited them five times or more. Terry Pratchett's Small Gods, for example, is one I first read in 1999; I re-read it in 2001 and again in 2004. As much as I love it, I just haven't had the opportunities to revisit it that I had with Tolkien, Lewis, Le Guin et al. 

I also tend to re-read nonfiction less than I re-read novels. Vincent Bugliosi's Helter Skelter (which I first read in my teens) is probably the one I've re-read the most, but other than that, David Quammen's brilliant The Song of the Dodo, Stephen Jay Gould's astonishing Wonderful Life, and Tom Standage's breezy History of the World in Six Glasses may be the only nonfiction books I've chosen to read more than once. Okay, my own books, sure.

But there's one category I haven't mentioned yet: graphic novels. Because they're relatively quick reads, and because the artwork gives you a whole new set of nuances to re-examine, graphic novels (or comics collections) can be extremely rewarding options for re-reading. Unfortunately, I often tend to forget to log them on my readign list, so a lot of my re-readings have gone unrecorded. I am quite sure, however, that I've read Neil Gaiman's Sandman series at least four times, Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis & Darick Robertson at least three times, and Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon's Preacher at least twice.

But if I had to pick one book to point to as a constant in my adult life, it's got to be Watchmen. I've taken long dives into Alan Moore's oeuvre, particularly Swamp Thing, V for Vendetta, and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and I've reread his America's Best Comics titles (Promethea, Tom Strong, Tomorrow Stories, and Top 10) on a number of occasions. But with Watchmen, we're talking about a series I read when it came out in serial form, re-read multiple times in the original trade paperback collection (with the cover below), and after we had to replace our collection with the new one (with the more familiar smiley-face cover), re-read multiple times as well.

watchmen trade.jpgWatchmen is a particularly rich trove for re-reading, not just because of the incredible detail Dave Gibbons gives to the artwork, but because of Moore's script. He's a a writer who revels in the idea of correlations, so almost every bit of dialogue is intended to refer to something else; often it's a comment on what we're seeing in the panel (literally or ironically), but it can be a direct reference to an outside source (lines from Dylan or Shelley, historical references to Oppenheimer or Kitty Genovese) or an oblique play on superhero archetypes. There are appendices full of material to give context to the main narrative, and there's the extraordinary level of self-reference that makes every re-read something of a treasure hunt. (For example, if you try to find all the references to the Doomsday Clock, you'll quickly discover that nearly every circular shape shown in the book imitates the near-midnight hands in some way.) Finally, there is the remarkable structure of the work, one whose intricacies reveal themselves in new ways with every re-reading. Sure, you might notice from the first that Chapter 5, "Fearful Symmetry," is itself symmetrical, but you're a lot more likely to notice it after additional examination. And that might help you notice the symmetry of the series: a chapter of plot, a chapter of background, plot, background, all the way through Chapter 6. At that point it reverses to run background-plot, background-plot all the way to the end.

It's a remarkable work of imagination and craft. I thought so the first time I read it, and every time since.

9:31 AM

The Book Meme: Day 11

Day 11 - A book that disappointed you

Some books pleasantly surprise you (as seen on Day 10) but some, inevitably, will disappoint you. The situations in which you experience disappointment are often much like those that create the pleasant surprise. You may be assigned such a book, or agree to read it for a club, or accept a recommendation.

There is, however, one category of book that is much more likely to result in disappointment than delight: the sequel. If you disliked a book, you are unlikely to pick up the next volume, even if the second is an improvement on the first. By contrast, if you really liked a book, there's a good chance you'll want to read another in the series, and that may very well end up disappointing you. 

I can point to Larry Niven's Ringworld as a favorite SF novel, and when I read its follow-up, The Ringworld Engineers, I was still fairly happy, though it wasn't quite up to the original. Nonetheless, when The Ringworld Throne appeared a few years later, I found it a real chore to read. The basic ideas Niven had brought up in the first volumes--variously evolved hominids, stepping disks for teleporting, and six-syllable names like Halrloprillalar and Kawaresksenjajok, to name a few--were explored in excruciating detail, rather than incorporated into an exciting narrative. 

I was similarly hopeful when I found a paperback of a book called Tales from Watership Down, in which Richard Adams offered stories about the rabbits who had so captivated me in the original Watership Down (not to mention a couple of tales of El-Ahrairah). I'd consider WD just about perfect, a book whose details still seem fresh in my mind forty-odd years later, but Tales was an utter disappointment. I read it only twenty years ago, and nothing about it has stuck with me except a vague wish that I hadn't read it.

When a writer sets the bar high with the first book, it's much easier to come up short on the next. That's one reason why I find Terry Pratchett's Discworld books so remarkable: they actually got better as he went along. Small Gods and Feet of Clay (the 13th and 19th novels in the series, respectively) are far superior to The Colour of Magic (the first).

The "high bar" idea also works for writers even when no sequel is involved. After you've read a few books and come to trust a writer, you're going to expect everything that writer puts out to be at least as good as the last one. And it may well fall short. After Jim Crace's Quarantine was fired across my bow by my wife, who made me read the first paragraph and hooked me, I dove into everything Crace had published and gorged myself. Being Dead was simply brilliant, Arcadia fascinating, The Gift of Stones startling and original, etc. When I picked up Genesis, his tale of a man who impregnates any woman he sleeps with, I had high hopes. But I couldn't finish the book. Ordinarily I would feel no guilt about that at all, but this was Jim Crace, dammit. He's a good writer--a trustworthy writer. He wouldn't leave me unfulfilled this way!

But he had.

This is why I am almost certainly never going to read Joseph Heller's Closing Time.

I can't really consider most of required reading I disliked to be disappointing. For one thing, though I trusted my teachers to assign us worthwhile reading, I never expected to like any assignment intensely; it was schoolwork, after all. (This may be due to the old "Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do" principle.) As I mentioned before, I've only belonged to one book club, and I had no expectations attached to any of Ms. Rashkis's selections for it, so nothing could fall short. I suppose I could point to my days contributing to, where I read a few books that didn't excite me as much as I'd hoped based on others' opinions.

Oddly, though, the only one that bothered me was A Dead Man in Deptford by Anthony Burgess, his novel of Christopher Marlowe, and even that wasn't because it was a bad book. I had been in a lengthy argument with an anti-Stratfordian on the site, and she had offered Burgess's book as one I should read if I wanted to understand why she thought Marlowe had written Shakespeare's works. Being open to evidence and favoring reasoned debate, I read it--and discovered it to be a perfectly serviceable novelization of Marlowe's life that makes no mention of writing under Shakespeare's name. It doesn't even theorize that Marlowe survived the 1693 tavern brawl that killed him and kept writing for another two decades. When I confronted my Marlovian acquaintance about the book, she simply said that it had somehow been instrumental in her coming around on the authorship issue and offered no further evidence. In that regard, I was disappointed by the novel, and I remain a Stratfordian.

But recommendations by random strangers on the internet are very different from recommendations by people you know and trust, and a number of those over the years pointed me toward a particular book. They included Bland Simpson, author, playwright, performer, and longtime director of UNC's Creative Writing Program. Back when I was taking his English 35 class in 1983 or so, Bland had suggested that I really ought to read a novel by Walker Percy called The Moviegoer. I'd heard of it, as pretty much anyone on a college campus in the South had heard of it, but I was tied up with other schoolwork and did not track down a copy. It took me some years to find the time and the proper mood to give the book a try, but in early 2006, with a few days of Christmas break still left, I decided it was time to read Percy. And I did. And nothing. Happened.

The tale of Binx Bolling is one I should relate to. I, too, have been an educated young Southern man without a clear direction in life, one searching for meaning and a way to connect with the greater universe. But for whatever reason, I could find nothing in Binx's tale but an increasingly strong desire to smack him. A passive protagonist can make for compelling reading--Stevens in The Remains of the Day comes to mind--but there was nothing compelling here. I had come to the book expecting a transformative experience, and what I got was a pleasantly well-written account of traveling aimlessly around the Gulf Coast. I was, in the words of Otto, from A Fish Called Wanda, "Okay... okay... disapPOINTed!"

7:30 AM

The Book Meme: Day 10

Day 10 - A book you thought you wouldn't like but ended up loving

There are books one reads from a sense of obligation. Sometimes the obligation is literal--you have signed up for a class, or perhaps joined a book club. Most often, however, the duty is self-imposed, placed on you by you because you respect someone else's taste, or perhaps you just want to get them off your back.

Of the many, many things I've been assigned to read for class, I can point to quite a few that I enjoyed: The Odyssey, To Kill a Mockingbird, Romeo and Juliet, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Scarlet Letter (except for the opening "Custom House" section), Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, The Return of the Native, Hamlet, Waiting for Godot, L'Etranger, The Iliad, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Marat/Sade, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Dr. Faustus, Henry IV (both parts), Beowulf, Cane, Invisible Man, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Gulliver's Travels... dozens of titles. Ad that's not even considering the poetry, the short stories, or the books I'd already read before they were assigned (like The Lord of the Rings, which I gleefully re-read for Ken Reckford's course on the Heroic Journey.)

I've really belonged to a book club only once: after my ninth-grade English teacher, Zora Rashkis, had been told by the administration of Grey Culbreth Junior High that she could no longer teach the popular Great Books elective she had taught for years, she chose to recast the course as a book club. My mom had heard about the course and very much wanted me in it, so she dutifully drove me to the Rashkis residence on Sunday afternoons to sit with Ms. R and a half-dozen other students (all girls) to sit and discuss books. The titles chosen were mostly 20th-century American works, but they exposed us to a variety of writers and ideas I'd not encountered before, and some I recall liking very much. I don't remember much about Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet, but I definitely liked When the Legends Die and The Ox-Bow Incident. I never completed A Death in the Family, but I have never forgotten the gorgeous section of the book where Agee paints a vivid word picture of a child's summer evenings in Knoxville. I sometimes worry that if I ever pick up the book and re-read it, I will find that part less beautiful than I recall. But perhaps it will be worth it.

Unfortunately, none of these works quite fit the category established above, because these were not books I expected to hate. Some were certainly far more enjoyable than I'd expected--The Return of the Native comes to mind--but in every case, some authority or other had viewed the book as worthwhile. And me? I was a doe-eyed innocent who had no idea whether it would be any good or not. I didn't have the kind of wide experience with literature that would lead me to make presumptions about a work in advance of reading it. Generally, then, I gave every book a good-faith effort, and on occasion I was horribly, horribly disappointed.

Outside the classroom and the club, however, I was a lot more willing to presume, and my presumptions were usually based on what I knew about the person recommending the book. When my friend Kenney told me about Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber, I trusted him; he'd already introduced me to everything from Asterix comics to Spike Jones records to the hilarious 1066 and All That (which taught me a startlingly large amount of what I know about British history.) I was thus completely unsurprised to find Zelazny very much my cup of tea. But there was one source of recommendations I felt extremely conflicted about: my mother.

I hasten to note that this is not an issue of trusting my mother. My mother is ridiculously trustworthy--abnormally so. She is so completely lacking in guile that she felt guilty about setting up a private email account for herself in order to plan my father's surprise 70th birthday party.

But Mom is particular about her tastes. Very particular. There are singers she does not like because they don't breathe right. There are actors she hates so much she will not watch their work--Steve Martin being prominent among them, for some reason. And she has no patience--none--with the trappings of science fiction or fantasy. She has never even attempted Tolkien, and she has spent over 40 years refusing to watch Star Wars. For years, when Kelly and the kids and I would visit my folks over Christmas break, we would make a special trip to the theater so that my father could watch a Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or Star Trek movie, knowing he wouldn't get to do so without us. (I did get Mom to come with me to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which she claimed to enjoy, but that is literally the last SF-related movie she has voluntarily seen.)

Our tastes, in short, do not always overlap. And knowing this, I have often dawdled a bit when it comes to taking Mom's recommendations about books. For example, one of her very favorite authors is Australian novelist Nevil Shute. Growing up, I had seen dozens of his books around the house, but it wasn't until I hit my teen years that I opted to crack open On the Beach. I found it quite wonderful, not least because it was clearly science fiction, and Mom was delighted by the fact that I'd read and enjoyed it. She immediately recommended that I read her favorite Shute novel, A Town Like Alice... and I didn't. From what she told me, the book had no SF tropes, and with my tastes at the time leaning firmly toward the fantastic, I dragged my feet until she'd forgotten about it. (When I did finally read it in my forties, I found it enjoyable in many ways, but I had definite issues with it in others.)

She did not, however, forget to point me toward another of her favorites, a guy named John McPhee. Sometimes she would launch into praise of a McPhee book called A Sense of Where You Are, which discussed the college basketball career of Bill Bradley. Both she and I were hoops fans, so she probably thought it was a topic I'd be likely to enjoy, but she was also highly vocal about another book: one called simply Oranges.

This was, I must admit, a little off-putting. I have never been especially interested in botany, or horticulture, or even in oranges. Over the years I've come to appreciate them more as a foodstuff, but in my youth I would consume only their juice. The idea that this guy would write an entire book about a topic as dull as a citrus fruit actually made his basketball book sound less appealing. So I didn't read either one. But Mom never stopped recommending them, either.

Eventually I was out of school, wandering some used bookstore, looking for something short and punchy to read, and I stumbled across a paperback copy of Oranges. I'd gotten more into creative nonfiction over the years, and this thing clocked in at under 180 pages, and after all, it had been recommended by my mother, and it would get her to stop recommending it to me, and she did give birth to me and all... so I spent a couple of bucks on it, took it home, and cracked it open.

It's wonderful.

It's the purest example I know of this dictum: "There are no dull subjects. There are only dull writers." (The remark is usually attributed to H.L. Mencken, but it appears to have originated with British author Richard Le Gallienne.) Without sacrificing an iota of clarity--perhaps because he insists on clarity--McPhee manages to make the struggle to grow the proper orange (and to get a satisfying juice from it) into one that any reader can appreciate. He does the same with Bill Bradley's story, as I was soon to learn. He can make shad fishing or levee construction engaging to those who don't fish or move earth. He can turn a stop at a highway cutting in the Rockies into an adventure in geology. The man made a single tennis match worth reading about for 150 pages, for crying out loud. And I know all of this because my mom insisted I would like him.

In this, as in so many other instances, mother really does know best.

7:35 AM

The Book Meme: Day 9

Day 09 - Best scene ever

Before I reveal my choice, I'm gonna throw a bone to the Dan Simmons fans out there who are annoyed by my running down Darwin's Blade the other day. That bone comes from The Terror, a genuinely thrilling and horrifying historical novel with a nasty supernatural twist. In it there is a sequence where a man is pursued by a horrible thing all over the deck and rigging of a ship. (The ship, the titular Terror, is frozen in the polar ice, so drowning is at least removed from the list of awful things that could happen.) I read it in a state of nervous excitement, feverishly turning pages from the first moment of the pursuit to the last, and when I got to the end, I thought, "Damn! That's how you write a sustained action sequence!" Curious as to just how long Simmons had sustained it, I flipped back six pages, looking for the start. Then two more. Then two more...

Eventually I realized that what I thought had lasted six pages had lasted twenty-five.

That really is how you write a sustained action sequence.

I love the fight scene in Nine Princes in Amber where Zelazny sets Random and the amnesiac Corwin against the bad guys invading Flora's library, but not all the scenes I love are thrillers. The scene where Gatsby's final fate is revealed is a gorgeous and melancholy few pages, and the revelation of Snowden's secret in Catch-22 has haunted me for decades. And as a writer of nonfiction, I must acknowledge that nonfiction scenes can also be wonderful, whether they're gripping (Jon Krakauer's recounting of Joseph Smith's murder in Under the Banner of Heaven), inspiring (Frederick Douglass's knockdown battle with his overseer in the Narrative) or heartbreaking (David Quammen's account of the last dodo meeting extinction in The Song of the Dodo.)

One of my favorite contemporary novelists, James Hynes, includes not one but two fantastic scenes in his academic satire The Lecturer's Tale. In one, the candidate for a professorship is giving a lecture on Elvis, and the protagonist uses his magical power to control others, preventing the lecturer from leaving the podium for a bathroom break. The lecture turns increasingly to metaphors involving water, and the inevitable climax of the sequence is just as hilarious as you might expect. The second is a brilliantly conceived fight scene between a post-modernist professor and his rival, one where the fight actually spills over into the book's footnotes in a flurry of Joycean language. It's a book I highly recommend, and not just for those two scenes, but those two scenes are amazing.

For my all-time favorite scene, though, I have to go to one that grabbed me so thoroughly that I have on several occasions read it (or parts of it) aloud to my wife and friends: the opening section of Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash. In the opening chapters, we meet pizza delivery driver Hiro Protagonist, who is sent on a life-or-death delivery run. The life (or death) is his own, as the Mafia has taken over pizza delivery in Los Angeles, and when they say 30 minutes or less, they really mean it. Unfortunately, a technical error results in Hiro taking on a delivery for a pie made 20 minutes ago. Stephenson's account of Hiro's desperate crosstown dash is a terrific six-page sequence, combining long complex sentences and short explosive bursts of prose, and it succeeds in launching you into the book like a harpoon:

If there was trouble on this road, they'd be babbling about it in Taxilinga, give him some warning, let him take an alternate route so he wouldn't get
he grips the wheel
stuck in traffic
his eyes get big, he can feel the pressure driving
them back
into his skull
or caught behind a mobile home
his bladder is very full
and deliver the pizza
Oh, God oh, God
22:06 hangs on the windshield; all he can see, all he can think about is 30:01.

Like many of Stephenson's books, Snow Crash has an opening that's stronger than its conclusion, but no matter what I think of the rest of the book, I will point to this scene as pure brilliance. And let's face it, I look for every possible opportunity to say "life-or-death pizza delivery."

10:00 AM

The Book Meme: Day 8

Day 08 - A book everyone should read at least once

I know, I know, it seems like the first thing I do in every one of these entries is take issue with the prompt, but today there's no way around it. I have a few incontrovertible beliefs about literature, and one of them is this: there is no Canon. No divine force has decreed that any book (or any list of books) is required reading. Indeed, the whole idea of "required reading" is one that immediately leads me to ask the question "Required by whom, exactly?" As a teacher I have certainly required my students to read certain books, and the same thing occurred to me when I was a student. That said, outside of a classroom or similar setting, any book will be chosen on a voluntary basis--and consequently, any book may be refused.

This is kind of like my usual grousing about Best Of lists, or lists that Everyone Must Follow Before They Die, which offend me because they're so ridiculously presumptive. Who made YOU the arbiter of what is Best, oh internet listicle creator? I didn't vote for you. And I didn't vote for Harold Bloom, either. When the urge to list your favorite books strikes, accept that as an opportunity to list YOUR favorite books. No more, no less. If you're widely read and thoroughly trained in the assessment of literature, there's a chance that many people will find your list useful, but that's no guarantee. The high list positions commonly granted to the works of Herman Melville and Henry James haven't made one bit of difference in my ability to enjoy either.

In short, when I recommend a book to you--and I am going to get around to that, I promise--I want you to understand that there is no obligation to read it, nor any obligation to agree with me after you've read it. De gustibus non est disputandum and all that.

But there's still more to unpack here. Why should everyone read this book? Am I looking for a book that will improve the world? A book that will give everyone a few hours of pleasure in a world that's often harsh? A book that will teach an important lesson? A book that's just so beautiful I want everyone to marvel at it like the Grand Canyon? A book that will benefit me in some way?

If the latter, great: I recommend both The Verb 'To Bird' and Along Those Lines, available online and at better bookstores everywhere.

But let's assume it's some other reason--one I'm choosing rather arbitrarily. There are many books I've finished with a feeling of pure satisfaction, but there are only a few that have left me with the powerful desire to begin reading again as soon as I've finished. It wasn't exactly an "I didn't want it to end" feeling--more that I wanted it to begin again, and continue again, and end again, over and over and over.

I remember this feeling most powerfully with A.S. Byatt's Possession, which was a rich garden of literary delights, and anyone with any love of poetry (and the poetry of love in particular) is likely to find it a worthwhile experience.

The complex fairy-tale designs of John Crowley's Little, Big left me in a similar state, almost unable to believe that what I'd read was a single story composed by a single individual; I wanted to go back over it and trace through all the intricacies.

The prose of Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale almost pulses with light and heat in places, and its fantastical cityscapes and countrysides are worth exploring in depth; I frequently found myself compelled to stop and read passages aloud to Kelly.

I've been a comics fan longer than I can remember, but I was still absolutely astonished by Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, which balanced interiority and interpersonal relationships more beautifully than I could have imagined. It also made for a truly wonderful and inspiring evening of theater in its musical incarnation. Read it, see it.

And most recently, G.B. Edwards' The Book of Ebenezer Le Page wrapped me up and hauled me away to Guernsey; I could not have imagined that a book set entirely on a small island could contain so much of the world--a true microcosm.

You may not like any or all of the above, but I honestly feel they're extraordinary, showing something about humanity and the world we inhabit in a unique way. And if everyone had read at least one of them, I feel as though the world would be a better place. I definitely think the reader would be a better person.

9:28 AM

The Book Meme: Day 7

Day 07 - Least favorite plot device employed by way too many books you actually enjoyed otherwise

Analyzing plot can be a tricky thing, because some devices work pretty well in the hands of one writer and not in those of another. Basically, any given plot device is like an accordion; some people know how to play it well enough to get away with using it, but some people don't really play it very well, and some people aren't unskilled players, but they use it without any regard to what else is going on. John Linnell of They Might Be Giants knows exactly when the song calls for it, but you shouldn't really use an accordion to play a heavy metal song unless you're Weird Al Yankovic.

One irritating cliche is the Hero Is Motivated By Losing His Wife/ Child/ Dog. Cultural critic Ian Shoales used to call this one "That Dog's Gonna Die," positing that the only reason to give a hero a dog was to spur him to action by killing it. It's a quick and simple way to provide motive, and it has the added advantage of quickly establishing who the bad guys are (e.g. Whoever Killed That Dog.) Problem is, because it's so easy to use, it gets used A LOT. Comics critic Heidi McDonald once dryly observed that "Those evilbadguys killed my wife!" is to the modern comic book what "Zeus has a yen for a mortal maid" was to Greek mythology. Batman and Spider-Man get away with their motivations because they were young people who lost parental figures (and Spidey's associated feelings of guilt), but man, the number of heroes motivated by the loss of their loved ones is astonishing. In comics you've got the Punisher, the Saint of Killers, and Jon Sable. In movies you've got Gladiator, Kill Bill (where it's at least gender-flipped), and the original Mad Max. And in books, dead loved ones serve to motivate everyone from Victor Frankenstein to seemingly the entire cast of A Song of Ice and Fire.

Mind you, it is possible to use this trope well, if you give time to establish the hero's bond with said wife/child/dog. This is handled well in John Wick, since the character is established as having been devastated by the death of his wife, and then receives a posthumous gift from her, only to lose it through the motivating incident. I'd also have to say that, as much as I hated this trope in the Punisher comics, a combination of good writing and acting makes it effective in the Netflix TV version of the character. I know, I'm as surprised as you.

There are plenty of cliches out there, but there are even tropes that are not especially cliched that do rub me the wrong way. I recently read a Mira Grant novel where the Big Reveal made itself clear to me in the opening pages, but it was another 500 pages before that Reveal was revealed, and because it was set up as the big shocking cliffhanger moment, I felt unsatisfied. (Honestly, it wasn't OMG IT'S THE SLED! or OMG HE'S LUKE'S FATHER! so much as it was OMG THE ICEBERG SANK IT!) At the same time, I have to admit that this twist was not a cliche, or at least not one that I recognized from other sources, so I give Grant credit for that, at least.

My top irritation, however, is one I've mentioned in part already: when an author stacks the deck in favor of his characters. Sometimes this is done to make a political or philosophical point, as in Piers Anthony's Xanth and Apprentice Adept series, where every character who hews closely to the rules is always rewarded for it. Maybe not immediately, but consistently. If you obey the law and stick by your word, Anthony will make sure things turn out well for you, even if you're a clueless misogynist.

Robert A. Heinlein sometimes stacks the deck in a similar way. If one of his heroes is faced with opposition from a bureaucrat or minor official who cannot see that the hero's pure heroism demands cooperation, that hero will immediately rise up indignantly and fire back at said official with threats, blackmail, or pure, sweet reason. And that official will, without exception, cave. Every one of them is a complete invertebrate when faced with the Randian fury of a Lazarus Long or a Joan Eunice Smith, because RAH will have it no other way.

The most egregious deck-stacking I've come across, however, comes from a writer whose work I ordinarily love. I've enjoyed almost every Dan Simmons novel I've picked up, with my highest praise going to The Terror, but with Drood, The Abominable, Black Hills, and his Hyperion series all providing thorough satisfaction. With all that said, the deck-stacking in his 2000 novel Darwin's Blade (which I'd bet was written long before) is enough to alarm a Las Vegas blackjack dealer from across the state line. The titular Darwin is an accident reconstructor, called upon to investigate various wrecks which Simmons obviously swiped from the urban legend emails that were spread all over the nascent internet in the 1990s, starting with this classic of a car with a JATO attachment. That's pretty lazy, but it's not the most irritating card placement. No, that has to be the fact that all Darwin's peculiar skills are established early in the book so that they can save his life later. He's an accomplished sailplane pilot... and guess what skills he must rely on to escape the bad guys? He's an expert in constructing Ghillie suits... and guess what he has to make in order to protect himself from the bad guys? He's a guy who likes strong women... and guess what kind of woman becomes his love interest? (I should emphasize that this woman is not actually a strong female character, but she's presented as the kind of woman Darwin likes.)

A lot of people apparently enjoyed Darwin's Blade (its rating at Goodreads is 3.32 stars out of 5), but I note that a lot of other folks disliked it strongly. Unique among the Simmons books I've read, it has more 1- and 2-star reviews than 5-star reviews. And I'm afraid I'd have to include myself in the latter group of reviewers. I'm a Simmons fan, but I know when a writer's cheating, or at the very least when he doesn't mind creating the appearance that he's cheating. All in all, I recommend giving "Particle Man" a listen, re-reading The Terror and pretending this never happened.

10:29 AM

The Book Meme: Day 6

Day 06 - Favorite book of your favorite series OR your favorite book of all time

The latter option here is territory we've already wandered through, so let's head into the former: my favorite book in my favorite series, eh?

Determining my favorite series is the real challenge here. In terms of re-reading, The Lord of the Rings is far ahead of any competitor. I haven't re-read it annually or anything--in fact, my records indicate that I've re-read it only twice in the 21st century, in 2006 and 2016--but I've been re-reading regularly it since I turned 12. In terms of my personal and literary development, it's had by far the greatest influence of any series I've read. Toss in its impact on all the other fantasy series I've read, not to mention the movie adaptation, and you're looking at a series that simply can't be ignored.

If you count it as a series.

The Wikipedia article on LOTR lays out the case pretty clearly: "The Lord of the Rings is an epic high fantasy novel..." Novel, singular. It's one book. Tolkien wrote it as one book. Dividing it into three volumes was the publisher's idea. In other words, it's not really a series, unless you count it as the third element of the series that begins with The Silmarillion (an enormous compendium of mythology that reads like the Old Testament, and one published after Tolkien's 1973 death), then goes through The Hobbit (his first publishing success, a children's story from 1937) before concluding at the end of The Return of the King (published in 1955.) If that's a series, it involves retconning of a sort that even George Lucas would consider questionable.

Moreover, no individual LOTR book stands on its own. Both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers end with enormous cliffhangers, and the overall narratives of both TT and ROTK begin in the middle of the action (Boromir's departure and Pippin's ride to Minas Tirith, respectively.) In short, this is not a series any more than releasing Huckleberry Finn as three separate books (The Fellowship of the River, The Two Rogues, and The Return of Tom Sawyer) would make Twain's opus a series, though admittedly Twain and his publishers might enjoy the idea, especially since it would make them more money.

All this means we'll need another series, meaning a sequence of self-contained books published one by one, each with its own narrative arc, even as the setting, characters and history are shared. The Chronicles of Narnia ("a series of seven fantasy novels by C.S. Lewis," says Wikipedia) would qualify as a series, and one I've read repeatedly, but it's so problematic in so many ways that I can't really call it my favorite. (Within its seven books, I'd call The Voyage of the Dawn Treader my favorite. And I ride for reading the books in publication order, so don't be trying to call The Magician's Nephew "Book One" or anything.) I've enjoyed series as various as Kenneth Robeson's Doc Savage adventures, Larry Niven's Known Space books and stories, John Varley's Eight Worlds tales, and Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea Cycle, but the best of the lot, top to bottom, start to finish, has got to be Discworld.

In forty-plus books, not to mention short stories, appendices, and various addenda, Terry Pratchett's saucer-shaped playground has delighted me almost completely. Characters like Sam Vimes, Granny Weatherwax, Carrot Ironfoundersson, Tiffany Aching, the Librarian, Nobby, and of course Death give the book a rich set of viewpoints, complications, and interactions for readers. I have enjoyed pretty much every Discworld tale I have read, and I've read almost all of them, from The Colour of Magic to The Shepherd's Crown.

My favorite Discworld book, however, and the only one I've ever taught in class, does not really involve any of the characters above (with the exception of Death, who is, after all, even in Arcadia). It's the tale of a simple, melon-loving novice in the Temple of Om, and how his sincere belief, good heart, and excellent memory help upend the entire power structure of his church and his state. It's hilarious, like all Discworld books, but it's also the book that gives Pratchett the greatest room to expand on his ideas about how the universe works, or at least how it ought to work. It opens with a fanciful musing on Darwin and ends with a moment of quiet and unlikely heroism. In its way, it's the most fanciful volume of the series, even as it's the most closely connected to our own world. And it's also the most free-standing of the series, a book you can recommend to friends who haven't visited Discworld so that they can gauge their appreciation for it without getting entangled in the continuity. It's Small Gods, and it's one of my very favorite books.


8:57 AM

The Book Meme: Day 5

My apologies for taking a day off, but frankly, after spending the last month prepping to move, moving to the new house, and cleaning/organizing the new house, all with a self-imposed deadline of Saturday night, when we hosted some friends for dinner... let's just say I needed a day off. But here it is, Monday, with the house still clean and a good deal more unpacked, so let's get back to the meme, shall we? 

Day 05 - A book or series you hate

The interesting aspects to this prompt are numerous. For one, there's the important question of whether you can truly hate a book you haven't finished. If you absolutely couldn't make yourself read the whole thing, that's certainly a sign that you hate the writing and/or the author, but you can't really say you've engaged with every aspect of the book. An example from my own experience would be Henry James' The Portrait of a Lady. I spent something close to six weeks, including my spring break, trying to read this novel for my Victorian Literature class at the University of Manchester in early 1984. Over and over again I would crack it open, and over and over I would put it down, unable to continue. I never got past page 50.

Some might suggest that I was just too young to appreciate the density of James, or the depth of his thinking, or the advanced techniques of his fiction, but I have doubts about these theories. For one thing, by that time in my life, I had already read and enjoyed works by Hardy, Camus, Beckett, and Donne, among others. For another, when I had call to read James again, in grad school, after having completed works by Garcia Marquez, Toomer, and Swift, I found "The Beast in the Jungle" to be every bit as objectionable as those first parts of James's novel. Oh, I finished the story, make no mistake. I even earned honors for the scathing criticism I wrote about it. But though I felt certain about my dislike for James's writing, I can't say that I truly hated The Portrait of a Lady.

Another issue about hating books is that tastes change. It's certainly true of music. For a good deal of my high-school career and part of my college days, I really hated the Ramones. Their three-chord/all-rhythm approach to rock and roll rubbed me the wrong way, enamored as I was of complex musical and lyrical ideas like those found on Close to the Edge or Quadrophenia. There just didn't seem to be a lot of talent on display. 

My opinion began to change around the time I found a Ramones single in the playbox at WXYC. The A-side was a political screed called "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg," which castigated Reagan for visiting a cemetery full of SS troops on a 1985 trip to Germany. It didn't do that much for me, though I did approve of the political sentiment. What caught my ear was the B-side, "Daytime Dilemma." Not only did it feature a good half-dozen chords, it had a varied and syncopated chorus, background harmonies, and the kind of melodic qualities that I find irresistible, especially when those sweet elements are combined with the raw, salty power of punk. That was the camel's nose for me, and soon I began admitting other Ramones songs into my tent. I knew "I Wanna Be Sedated," of course, but now when I listened to it I could hear the creative pop song under the posturing; there was even a key change, for god's sake. And soon I began to appreciate the band's humor and snarky aesthetic in a way I hadn't before. Eventually I gave up the pretense that I hated the Ramones and bought my own copy of Rocket to Russia.

But there is one book where my tastes haven't changed. It's also a book that I completed. Twice. I had to, as it was assigned to me in 11th grade English with Ms. St. John and again in grad school with Dr. Emerson. I've also seen the stage adaptation. In short, I know it pretty well. And it is not good. It is Billy Budd, Herman Melville's allegorical tale of the beautiful innocent boy whom fate leads to an inevitable bad ending after he is impressed to serve aboard a British warship and runs afoul of the laws of the sea. It is, as you might expect, Not Subtle. (Billy is impressed from a ship called The Rights of Man by a ship called the Bellipotent, for crying out loud.) I loathed it in high school, finding it the only objectionable book we read all year (and yes, that year I read and enjoyed The Scarlet Letter and Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, if you were wondering.) Still, when I picked Billy Budd up the second time, I reasoned that nearly a decade had passed since my first go-round, and that my skills as a reader and interpreter of literature had been considerably enhanced by that stretch of high-intensity study. I had a bachelor's degree now. Perhaps this time I would find something in Billy's story that I had missed as a callow youth.

I did not. The story still struck me as clumsy and obvious, the prose offered me no delight, and the best thing I could say about the book as a whole was that it was at least short. 

Since then I have read and been delighted by Edith Wharton's work, which some have suggested is a sign that I might appreciate James now. I have also had a number of colleagues try to turn me around on Melville, offering me shorter works to try and hook me. But so far, nothing has worked. As I get older, I have to weigh the possibility that my tastes have changed against the certainty that there are only so many books left for me to read. Given that limited selection, I am reluctant to take up a book by a writer whose work has proven to be distasteful to me when there are so many out there whose work I haven't had a chance to examine yet.

And also, I remember the handout Dr. Emerson gave to us as we were reading Billy Budd. It was a guide to Melville's more famous novel, Moby-Dick, listing which chapters the reader might want to skip while working through the novel. If a tenured professor feels a work of fiction should be traversed with the care one usually takes when crossing a mine field, I think I can afford to give it a miss. I don't need another book to hate.

9:15 AM

The Book Meme: Day 4

The problem with using writing prompts is that every so often you get one that can't be answered:

Day 04 - Your favorite book or series ever

I'm sorry, anonymous meme maker, but this prompt is not merely unanswerable, but in my opinion actively stupid.

I've been reading for a little over half a century now, and even with all the re-reading I do, the number of books I've completed is somewhere in the thousands. Each book I complete is one more straw in an enormous, teetering haystack, and here I am, being asked to look through that haystack and find not a needle, but the Very Bestest Straw of All.

"Mr. McCartney, you've been a musician for more than fifty years. Of all the notes you've played and sung, which would you say is your favorite?"

It's not happening. Why not? Because I AM AN ENGLISH MAJOR, dammit, and my job is to celebrate the book. I analyze what I read, sure, trying to find what worked well and what didn't, but that's not so I can weigh each book against every one of the individual books I've read before and see which comes out on top. I analyze what I read so that I can understand more about myself, and about what writers do, and about the world they examine. Each book is a complicated and discrete thing, yes, but what is important to me is my interaction with that thing.

And let's face it, my interactions with a thing will not be constant, any more than a sailor's interactions with the sea will be constant. Some days the weather is rough, some days it's fine; sometimes you want to get quickly over the water in order to reach a destination, sometimes you want to take a slow cruise; maybe you want to fish, maybe you don't. The sea is permanent, but the waves are not, and I for one cannot pick a favorite wave.

But to satisfy the demands of this prompt, here: it's a list of 26 books I love, arranged alphabetically by author. Please note that I love these books, but that I am not in any way suggesting that they are my favorites, or even that any given book is my favorite written by an author whose last name begins with that letter. Just read them and enjoy them; don't worry about ranking them.

Adams, Richard/ Watership Down
Bechdel, Alison/ Fun Home
Coates, Ta-Nehisi/ Between the World and Me
Darwin, Charles/ The Origin of Species
Edwards, G.B./ The Book of Ebenezer Le Page
Fitzgerald, F. Scott/ The Great Gatsby
Gould, Stephen Jay/ Wonderful Life
Helprin, Mark/ Winter's Tale
Ishiguro, Kazuo/ The Remains of the Day
Juster, Norton/ The Phantom Tollbooth
Keats, Ezra Jack/ The Snowy Day
Le Guin, Ursula K./ Very Far Away from Anywhere Else
Moore, Alan, with David Lloyd/ V for Vendetta 
Nabokov, Vladimir/ Pale Fire
Okorafor, Nnedi/ Lagoon
Pratchett, Terry/ Nation
Quammen, David/ The Song of the Dodo
Rushdie, Salman/ Midnight's Children
Stoppard, Tom/ Arcadia
Tolkien, J.R.R./ The Lord of the Rings
Ursu, Anne/ Breadcrumbs
Varley, John/ The Gaea Trilogy
Wharton, Edith/ The Age of Innocence
X, Malcolm, with Alex Haley/ The Autobiography of Malcolm X
Yeats, W.B./ Collected Poems
Zelazny, Roger/ Lord of Light

8:29 AM

The Book Meme: Day 3

Day 03 - The best book you've read in the last 12 months

As you may know, since January of 2017, I've been making a concerted effort to read more works by writers who are not white guys, and I'd have to say that effort has paid off quite well. Trying to pick a single book from that period (and specifically the last twelve months of that period) puts me in kind of a bind. I know that the best book I've read was written by a woman of color, but WHICH book by WHICH woman of color?

The first candidate is a 2010 fantasy novel whose worldbuilding pretty much blew open the gates of the genre in ways I haven't seen since I picked up Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun series. N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is simultaneously romantic, political, mythological, and personal. It has trappings that might seem familiar, but the book is a complete original. Nominated for both the Hugo and the Nebula, it won the Locus award for Best First Novel, and it absorbed me almost completely during last July's trip to Alabama, where I stayed up late into the night reading it. It's the first volume of a trilogy, and I have yet to pick up the second book, but I have every intention of doing so.

The other candidate is a rediscovered American classic. Though it languished in obscurity for decades, by the time I got to UNC I was hearing people discuss Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and their opinions seemed universally positive. The other book I first heard about at that time was Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I finally picked up after graduation, and which justified every bit of praise I'd heard. So why didn't I try the Hurston? I wish I could tell you how I was misled, but I would have sworn someone in  English 99, my senior writing seminar, was discussing the book and mentioning a section where the narration came from the point of view of the birds in the town. Apparently they were discussing some other book entirely, but overhearing that conversation left me with the impression that Hurston had written a piece of experimental fiction in line with Faulkner's As I Lay Dying or something. I really liked As I Lay Dying and have re-read it several times, but it's a book that demands your full attention, and I guess I wasn't in the mood to apply that kind of focus to Hurston for a long time.

Luckily, I eventually created a tool to provide that focus: my stated goal of reading more nonwhiteguy books. Back in late December, on vacation and able to focus on something other than school, I decided I'd read enough whiteguy books for the moment and needed an alternative. My eyes fell on the gently used copy of TEWWG which we'd owned for some years. Reasoning that I could probably handle something challenging and experimental at the moment, I pulled it from the shelf. I was immediately drawn into the text by the combination of Hurston's prose and the character of Janie, who seemed as though she might have wandered over from a Wharton novel. I kept reading, waiting for the weird experimental part, and rapidly realizing that any such part would not stop me from finishing. And when I reached the end, having encountered no narrating birds at any point, I was kicking myself for not reading the book earlier.

Having been turned on to Hurston, I went on to obtain an ARC of Barracoon, her newly-published account of her 1927 interviews with Cudjo Lewis, the last survivor of the African slave trade. It's stunning to realize that the lives of people seized from Africa overlapped with those of people I knew myself, and Lewis' tale is one that I think every American should read. Though Hurston's decision to render the story in dialect may turn some readers off, I think I understand it. If you were speaking to a man who remembered the Middle Passage first-hand, how would you dare try to alter his words to fit your own standards of language?

If nothing else, reading these books has more than justified my choice to employ affirmative action in my book selection. By reading more work from women and people of color, I have definitely enriched myself. You may wish to give it a try yourself.

8:28 AM

The Book Meme: Day 2

Day 02 - A book or series you wish more people were reading and talking about

Why, yes, I can think of an item or two in response to this prompt.

Kelly and I have long kept what we call our Evangelical Shelf for our guests. When they hear us discussing some book we especially love, they often wish to borrow a copy--completely reasonable of them. But of course, we do not really want to lend out our favorite books because, duh, they're our favorites and we want them with us and we're scared of losing them. The Evangelical Shelf is how we deal with this issue: whenever we stumble across used copies of our favorites, we buy them specifically so we can hand them out.

The shelf is temporarily on hiatus, thanks to our recent move, but we have plans to establish it again once we have the necessary books. But what are those books, you ask. Here are some:

The Girl in a Swing by Richard Adams
Yes, the guy who wrote Watership Down. We learned of this novel through our friend Kathe, who nicknamed herself in honor of the book's heroine. Given the sweeping romance of the story, that choice of name seems entirely appropriate, but you may second-guess our friend when you realize that the romance is accompanied by an unnerving sense of dread. A terrific exercise in creating mood, this book proves rabbits were not the only thing in Mr. Adams' hat.

The Folk of the Air by Peter S. Beagle
Beagle is a gifted fantasist, but it's rare to hear people praising this particular volume, and it's terrific. Combining deadpan absurdity with well-researched adventures in the role-playing community, this yarn about a thinly-disguised Society for Creative Anachronism is a complete delight. WARNING: if you get a paperback copy, DO NOT READ THE BACK COVER COPY, as it provides a major spoiler.

Quarantine and Being Dead by Jim Crace
I love both of these books enough to make choosing between them an impossibility. Crace's prose is elegant, seemingly effortless, and his worldbuilding is both plausible and playful. Quarantine is the tale of a group of pilgrims in the deserts of Judea circa 33 A.D., and the improbabilities they encounter there. The first paragraph is enough to hook you. Being Dead is a complex spiral of two stories: one, the forward-moving account of what happens to the bodies of a murdered couple left in the dunes near a beach, and two, the backward-moving account of how the couple came to that beach and that end. It's a gorgeous piece of work. And heck, if you see a copy of Crace's Arcadia, or The Gift of Stones, or The Devil's Larder, you might as well pick that up, too.

Very Far Away from Anywhere Else by Ursula K. Le Guin
The only book on this shelf that I've actually taught to my students. Very Far Away... is ostensibly a YA book, but its young characters will seem familiar to any adult reader who ever felt alienated from the social mainstream at school. Owen and Natalie are hopelessly far from that stream, but the connection they forge is deep and complicated and real. And at 130 pages, it won't take you long. This book was out of print for a number of years. That will not happen again on my watch.

Night of the Avenging Blowfish by John Welter
I don't promote this one purely because Welter is a fellow Tar Heel, but our shared UNC education does perhaps make me a better audience for this improbable novel about a lovelorn Secret Service agent. Aside from the central search for love, our hero encounters a variety of semi-governmental problems, including a state dinner that goes awry when he manages to get Spam on the menu, and a covert baseball game against the CIA that is so secret the players have to choose pseudonyms from literature in order to conceal their identities. Hilarious and occasionally touching, it's well worth your time.

Alas, there's not really room on the Evangelical Shelf for complete series, but there are two series that I find so satisfying, so engaging, that I cannot resist re-reading them, nor can I believe that they are not more celebrated, not even among the SF communities that would love them most.

The Saga of Pliocene Exile by Julian May
Along with the Galactic Milieu Trilogy and the two-volume Intervention, this four-volume series (starting with The Many-Colored Land) is part of one of the largest, most sprawling, and most enjoyable tapestries of fiction you'll ever see. With the possible exception of Anne McCaffrey's Pern, it's the SF setting I'd most like to live in, but May doesn't make living in it easy. Those who are too anti-social or idiosyncratic for the peaceful galactic civilization of the future have an out, though: a one-way hole in time that goes back six million years to Earth's Pliocene Epoch, the age of weird mammals like smilodons and bear-dogs and hoe-tusker elephants. But the exiles find something there that they never expected. You won't find a better combination of hard SF and mythology anywhere, and May is adept both at juggling archetypes and at keeping you guessing about who'll survive and who'll triumph. Better still: if you like the first book, you have eight more to enjoy!

The Gaea Trilogy by John Varley
A trilogy that doesn't work the way most do. Usually the first volume is the startling one, and the second and third volumes settle into the established groove and take you to the destination as predictably as British Rail. Varley, by contrast, starts you on a train, then suddenly drags you into a subway, and ends up flipping you over and over on a roller coaster. Titan begins as an almost straightforward hard-SF space travel novel, then becomes a wilderness survival saga, and ends up as a first-contact tale. Volume two, Wizard, introduces new characters, unexpected plot developments, and an increasingly heroic and increasingly flawed heroine in Cirocco "Rocky" Jones. And volume three, Demon, goes completely nuts. It's an over-the-top fantasy in a threadbare suit of science fiction, and it's fantastic. Add fantastic worldbuilding, creative and bizarre aliens, and one of the great female-female couples in SF. Why this isn't near the top of every Best-Of list of science fiction series is a complete mystery to me. It's fantastic.

You may find any of the above on our Evangelical Shelf if you come by. Feel free to take a volume home. Just ask nicely first.

7:15 PM

The Book Meme: Day 1

It's summertime AND I'm currently unemployed, so it's the perfect time for me to get back to some hardcore blogging. Not only does it give me a reason to activate a blog that has been sadly dormant on many occasions, but it always helps me loosen up my writing muscles. Since I'm hoping to use those muscles this summer, the whole idea seems like a win-win thing. (Yes, I suppose it's not technically the kind of "morning pages" that Julia Cameron demands in her book The Artist's Way, but I long ago discovered that writing out three pages of longhand every morning just plain hurts my hands.)

So, with that, let's dive into the Q&A, shall we?

Day 1 - A book series you wish had gone on longer OR a book series you wish would just freaking end already (or both!)

The first thing to do, I suppose, is decide which direction to go with this one. There have certainly been series that have gone on without me, which isn't quite wishing they would just end already. I'm perfectly capable of ending my own participation in a writer's overextension of an idea. Piers Anthony's deeply problematic Xanth series is likely the most prominent of these overextensions. After picking up the first two books (A Spell for Chameleon and The Source of Magic) at the Little Professor Bookshop in University Square, I was diverted by the puns and absurdity of Anthony's magical world, but even in my teens, I sensed some as-yet-unnameable issues with the characters' behavior. The women were barely there, except to produce reactions from the men, but I wasn't quite ready to deal with the concept of systemic misogyny. What I mainly noticed was that the heroes were always reflexively obedient to any law or rule--what D&D players would call Lawful Good--and that they were unfailingly rewarded for that obedience. It's a worldview, I suppose, but the lesson that sticking to the rules will never cause you pain seemed, even then, both simplistic and inaccurate. (I mean, I was young, but I'd read "On Civil Disobedience.") After finishing the fourth book in the series, or possibly after beginning the fifth book, I set Xanth aside.

By contrast, I was happy to follow Terry Pratchett's Discworld books indefinitely. That rare series where the books got better after the first few, Discworld had the same kind of absurd world-building and pun-filled names that Xanth did, but Pratchett was both a far deeper thinker and a far funnier writer than Anthony. It's perhaps telling that the latter says of his Xanth books that they're all publishers want from him, while in the last decade of Pratchett's life, he often left the Disc behind and went in all kinds of directions--the brilliant alternate history Nation, the parallel-worlds collaboration The Long Earth with Stephen Baxter, the Dickens-based Victorian adventure Dodger, among others. Still, as of this writing, both Xanth and Discworld number exactly 41 books. I have read all 41 of the latter, and I'm sad that there will be no more. At the same time, I don't feel the series is incomplete--it doesn't need to go on longer.

I think, if we get down to the root, that this question is about frustration, and there are many series that have frustrated me for varying reasons. Kage Baker's wonderful Novels of the Company sprawled across multiple formats and publishers and it has never been assembled in a coherent sequence by a single editor, which is one reason it took me so long to finish reading. Octavia Butler's planned trilogy of Parable books ended with her death, and only two volumes were completed--a huge loss. A collaboration whose potential was barely scratched was that of writer Alan Moore and artist Bill Sienkiewicz, whose comic Big Numbers ended after only two issues, leaving fans of both creators baffled and frustrated.

But I think if I had to point to one frustration above all others, I'd point to a series that spiraled out of control in a way I can't quite fathom: Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld books. The concept was brilliant and audacious: on a world where a giant river flows over the entire surface, every single human being who has ever lived is suddenly resurrected. Not only were there burning and obvious questions--How did the resurrection occur? Who did it, and why?--but the planet was a historical playground, where anyone from history could meet anyone else. Sir Richard Francis Burton could fall in love with the woman who inspired Lewis Carroll to write Alice in Wonderland; Mark Twain could hire Mozart, and later fire him; Tom Mix could be mistaken for Jesus. The possibilities seemed endless, and for two slim volumes (To Your Scattered Bodies Go and The Fabulous Riverboat) Farmer kept those possibilities whirling. Alas, by the third volume (The Dark Design), it became clear he was struggling to move the plot along, and by number four (The Magic Labyrinth) the complications seemed to have multiplied to a point where they could never be resolved. I suppose it's possible they WERE resolved, but though I dutifully read the final volume (Gods of Riverworld), I cannot for the life of me recall HOW they were resolved. In other words, this isn't a series I wanted to end. It did so. I just wish like hell it had ended in some other way.

7:51 AM


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