Thursday, March 15, 2018

Shelf of Abandoned Books Revisited

A long, long time ago, I wrote up a list of abandoned books on my bedside bookshelf. I had a growing pile of stuff "I was reading" and the Lovely Bride got me bookshelf to reduce the clutter. Now I have a bookshelf of stuff I've been meaning to get back to AND a pile of books by the bedside.

But over a dozen years later, what IS on the bookshelf? Why are they still there? Where did they come from? Why did I stop reading them?

Here's the current list (not counting RPG books, which drift in and out much faster).

The Riverside Shakespeare - This one is always on my shelf, though it did not get a mention last time on my write-up. Purchased for a college class back in the 70s, it is a heavy volume of onion-skin paper, and is my go-to for Shakespeare references. Last went to it for the origin of "Too Soon The Lightning".

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver -  This replaced The Poisonwood Bible as the Kingsolver I keep on the shelf (the PB went to the Lovely Bride's sister). Dealing with pre-war Mexican art and politics, it should be a book I'm reading. It isn't.

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell-  A tough read, an underground classic in SF, ignored by a lot of fans despite its SFian tropes (rockets! cybernetics! first contact!). It contains two narratives - one of the preparation to get there, and one, where the sole surviving member of the team (a priest) comes back broken and in disgrace. Oddly, I set it aside right after the first crewman dies on planet, and never came back.

Prologue to War - 1805-1812 by Bradford Perkins - Mostly first person accounts of the War of 1812 (which is one more area of history I pay attention to). Has a complete signature of the book missing, and remains on the shelf as a reminder to me to find another copy.

Alpha Beta by John Man - A short book on the history of the alphabet. I love the subject, but never deeply engaged with it.

Littlest Shoggoth by STAN! - This is from the illustrious STAN! It is not abandoned, it merely found this place to rest of the moment. Check it out here.

Shakespeare of London by Machette Chute - A thick paperback that I tend to bring with me on long trips or going to Ashland Oregon, then ignoring for a while and bringing it back. When I'm reading it, I find it interesting, but then it slides down to be my third-choice book.

Brotherhood of the Road by Michael Chabon - Historic swashbuckling adventure novel from the author who did Wonder Boys and The Sitka Detective Agency. Two Jewish bandits from different backgrounds act as bodyguards for the outcast heir to the Khazar throne. Set it down over a discussion about elephants and left it there. Strong Fafhrd and Grey Mouser overtones.

This Side of Paradise/ The Beautiful and the Damned by F Scott Fitzgerald. Picked it up in the wake of The Great Gatsby. Found it to be a bit more of a challenge.

Anything Goes by Luc McGee
Only Yesterday by Fredereick Lewis Allen
Babbits & Bohemians by Elizabeth Stevenson
1920: the Year of Six Presidents by David Pietrusza
Time Capsule - 1923, 1925 from Time Magazine
American Shelter by Lester Walker
The Twenties - Fords, Flappers, & Fanatics edited by George E. Mowry
- This entire collection is part of my "Appendix N for the 1920s". Books I use when I'm thinking about Call of Cthulhu campaigns. Of the lot, Only Yesterday is by far the best, and highly recommended, while the Year of Six Presidents is a bit of a letdown, not the least of which because one of the presidents involved (Teddy Roosevelt) died in 1919. American Shelter is a collection of house plans, which includes the eras I'm looking at, and the Time Capsules are summaries of those years from Time Magazine.Most recent addition is the Fords, Flappers, and Fanatics, a collection of first-person reports presented to me by a friend who knows I collect this stuff (Thanks, Steve!)

MFA vs NYC, edited by Chad Harbach. This is an interesting one. Chad Harbach wrote an essay in which he separates American Literary Tradition into an academic (Masters of Fine Arts) and a commercial (based out of New York City publishing) camps. An interesting idea, and he collected a bunch of other essays discussing it. Purchased the book at a Writer's Conference here in Seattle, but have not finished it (stopped early at the essay describing the first Writer's Retreats as CIA conspiracies).

Nostromo by Joseph Conrad - The oldest book in my shelf of abandonables. I've been reading it for 20 years, yet I don't think I've gotten past the fourth chapter. Have taken it on numerous trips, including to Europe, with no success. Picked it up shortly after the BBC adaptation of the book in 1996, and now cannot remember how THAT ended either. Part of my challenge is that the book is filled with informative footnotes/end notes, which I am continually referring to, which breaks up any head of steam I've made.

The Water Knife by  Paolo Bacigalupi - The Windup Girl was an awesome book, and I recommend it. I am waiting to be in so good and hopeful a mood that I feel like I need a depressing environmental disaster (in this case the death of the Colorado River) to bring me back to earth.

American Visions by Robert Hughes - Another regular on my shelf - actually finished but remains as a reference (most often in connection with the art of the 20s (like the Appendix N books above)). By the guy that wrote The Farthest Shore about the founding of Australia. This one is a history of American art.

1493 by Charles C Mann - Picked it up at a Half-Price on a whim. Deals with the Columbian Exchange (all the species that jumped continents after the opening of the New World). Deals with Pacific Trade as well. Got two chapters in, questioned a statement presented as fact, and put it down.

Vanished Kingdoms by Norman Davies - By the author of Europe (Another comprehensive doorstop of a book that I have yet to finish, having bailed around the time of Carthage), this book I saw in a British edition when I was in Paris (at Shakespeare's), but did not purchase, thinking I could get it in the states. Discovered I was wrong. The LB ordered it from Amazon.UK. It talks about the plasticity of nations, and how they tend to ebb, flow, and disappear entirely. Stuff you don't think about like the Two Burgundies, now buried under a sediment of France, Germany, and the Low Countries. Interesting presentation with an anecdote, a meaty chunk of history, and a personal travelogue. Stopped around the disintegration of the former Soviet Union.

The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume 1 by Fernand Braudel - This would be my desert island book (with its Volume 2, which I also have downstairs). A fan recommended it when I was on vacation in Ashland, and I found both copies at a used bookstore there. Braudel starts with the question "why did Spain, which owned half the world, go broke?" In the process, Braudel encompasses the entire Mediterranean as a series of small seas guided by the same overarching forces. Sort of like reading Harry Seldon's papers on his galactic empire in the Foundation series. Whenever I engage with it, I feel richer. And yet, it remains unfinished. I guess I need a desert island.

The Ghost Pirates and Other Stories by William Hope Hodgson. - A friend recommended the author, and I picked it up at Half-Price. Hodgson is a very, very slow burn. His Ghost Pirates is a tale of a sailing ship where people die in gruesome fashions, and after the initial shock, the crewmen return to (almost) normal. Still have to finish that one.

The Illiad by Homer - A friend was getting rid of his, and I picked it up. Read it in bits and pieces.

Songs of the Dying Earth edited by GRR Martin and Gardner Dozois - I came late to Jack Vance's Dying Earth series and enjoyed it, and Martin/Dozois's heavy collection of short stories is an apt paean to the earlier material. The fact that Vance's stories had three different types (more traditional-but -still weird Turjan stories), more humorous Cugel and all-powerful but generally useless Rhialto. The short stories, from a variety of talented authors, also run the gammut. Bogged down in the middle of a Tanith Lee story, to my surprise, and have yet to pick it back up.

The Chomsky Reader by Noam Chomsky - Like his counter-intuitive analysis and incendiary wordplay, but read it when I am over-anxious and need to sleep.

The Castle Explorer's Guide by Frank Bottomley - Inherited it from someone. It is just there from some point where I needed to reference a castle mentioned in another book, and never left.

In the Beginning by Allister McGrath - Book on the writing of the King James version of the Bible. Never begun.

Fevre Dream by George R R Martin - Picked up from a friend. Vampires and riverboats. About five chapters in, set it aside for other works, have not yet come back. Actually one of the more recent additions to the shelf. Mighty fine writing, just have not yet returned.

The Sea and Civilization by Lincoln Paine - An overview of history with the sea. Got it after a glowing recommendation in the Seattle Times. Should be like the Branaul but is not. Part of my trouble is that Paine briefly glances off a subject before plowing onto the next one (wait, this one-paragraph discussion of pre-Columbian West Coast sea peoples - please tell me more!). So I usually get two pages before pulling out the iPad to access the Wikipedia.

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiel Hammet. - Recently watched both the 1931 and 1941 movie versions (which rate their own discussion). Tried to round out the trifecta by reading the original text again. Can't do it without hearing Bogart's voice.

Will any of these be finished? Will they still be her in 13 years? Come back 2031 and find out!

More later,

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Book: Men Between the Wars

Why yes, they do dig up a body.
The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers, 1987 Perennial Library edition, Harper & Row, originally published 1928

Provenance: A long plane flight is, even under the best circumstances, a trial. Having re-enjoyed Murder Must Advertise, I brought along Unpleasantness along with some Nero Wolfe short stories on a recent trip to London, but the Nero Wolfe did not hold my attention nearly as well on the long passage over the Canadian Shield. On the flight back, I cracked open the Sayers, and then finished it up after my return when I was too exhausted to do anything else but have a lie down.

The Review: I've mentioned the Raymond Chandler/Dorothy Sayers split before, but I I think the American detective writer in Simple Art of Murder has missed his mark. He goes after Sayers and the rest of her British ilk for plots that have to work like clockwork, as dependable as the old-time British Rail time-tables, and stretch the incredulous. American detective fiction, of the Hammet/Chandler ilk, are heavy on accidental discoveries, mooks with guns, professional detectives, and babes with shady histories.

But there's another thing as well. The Chandler/Hammett branch of the genre is extremely light on protagonist background and motivation. Their leads are vessels that one can pour oneself into to. Sam Spade works as a the Hammett-described blonde devil and equally well as moivi-version Humphrey Bogart. The Thin Man describes the victim, not the detective. The Continental Op stories don't even give the detective a name. This isn't a universal trait of American Mysteries (Rex Stout comes immediately to mind, and Chandler probably would not approve either of Wolfe and Goodwin's eternal bro-mance, either), but it is a component part.

Sayers, instead, is writing stories of which the murder is a central but supporting component. It follows the tropes, but it also provides a doorway into what Sayers wants to explore. Murder Must Advertise is very much about modern business, promotion and the professional class. Gawdy Night takes us into a woman's college. And with the Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, we are dealing with the plight of the postwar male - the effects of the Great War and the community of club life.

The Unpleasantness of the title is the death of old General Fentiman, found propped up in his favorite chair at the club on Remembrance Day (Veteran's day to us Yanks). Fentiman has two grandsons, the Colonel and the Major, both veterans of the Great War, who stand to get a piece of his inheritance. However, the same morning, the General's estranged sister pops off from pneumonia. She has a lot of money, which would go to the General if he was still alive (and therefore to the grandkids on HIS death) or to a distant relative if the General had predeceased her. So the initial mystery is - when did the General really die? Before or after his sister?

That is the (relatively bloodless) mystery that Lord Peter Wimsey is tasked with. And Sayers uses the case to wander through the wreckage of maleness in the wake of the war. There are those physically affected by the conflict  (mentions of "Tin-tummy" Challoner), those who seem unchanged (The bluff, hale Captain), and those who have been mentally and emotionally shattered (the Major, nerves wrecked). Sayers takes us into Major Fentemin's household, where his wife works and he feels worthless, and lashes out. Whimsey forgives Major Fentiman his faults, but I don't think Sayers does.

Wimsey himself served as an officer in the war, and it left him with a bellyfull of sadness and a strong sense of responsibility, both for the men who served and the cause of justice. He's not a hero of the hard-boiled type, balancing virtue with paycheck, but a dilettante pushing his way forward through a puzzle, trying to find the right response that fits both the facts and propriety.

The mystery unwinds with red herrings and secrets popping up, but it starts wrapping up with a good chunk of text still in the reader's right hand. So things don't wrap up as tightly as one would suspect at first blush. Instead an entirely new, related mystery evolves out of the first, with some of the same players, but some new characters that have been kept at the fringes for the initial part of the book. And again, male roles are examined in the expectations of the "modern" men and how they interact with their changed world.

The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club sits on one cliff of a great chasm between it and the Americanized detective story. Wimsey is has more personality that the hard-boiled cousins, and greater interaction as well, and Sayers digs in deeper as well, dealing with the challenges of men in society once the guns are silenced.

More later,

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Theatre: Putting on the Ritz

Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin, Music and lyrics by Irving Berlin, Book by Hershey Felder. Seattle Rep through 3/18.

One of the advantages of season tickets (I may have mentioned before) is that it will get you to things that you might otherwise pass on. I mean, you've already paid for the seat, and even if the concept seems like something you would not normally be interested in (One guy with a piano talking and singing Irving Berlin songs?), you might as well show up.

And in this case, you'd be glad you did.

This was an incredible performance, a real highlight of the season. Mr. Felder combines engaging storytelling with his brilliant work on the keys (I was fortunate to get a good view of his hands dancing at the the piano). He has the ability to play complex music and lock the audience into his words at the same time (a talent which he describes as "schizophrenic" is the after-show Q&A - if he offers that session, stay for it). And he embodies the character and brings it to life.

The set-up is basic - Irving Berlin, over a hundred years old and bitter about being passed by on the public stage, looks back at Christmas time on his life. Linear history. Family fleeing Russia for New York City. Job as singing waiter, translating into composer. No formal training, can't read music, just narrates his songs to assistants. Big success. Heartbreak in the loss of his first wife and his son. Becomes the songwriter of the middle of the American Century. Fading with the advent of Rock and Roll and Elvis (though I would pedantically add that the transistor freeing radio from the front parlor had a bit to do with the popularity of both).

But this is a memoir, not an autobiography, so I will park my fact-checker at the door. Berlin was incredibly prolific, so there are a lot of songs you recognize. The themes that swirl around Berlin are both a key eye towards the popular pulse of public, and that all his songs are written with someone in mind. They may go out there, and be attached to a particular singer or movie or play, but the are very personal to their creator. But the emotion that creates them is not always shared with the listener, as they are changed and re-purposed as they move through the population.

Should this be considered a play, or a performance? Doesn't matter. The music is brilliant. The stories are brilliant. Hershey Felder is brilliant. This is one worth seeing, even if you don't have season tickets.

More later,

Monday, March 05, 2018

Book: Existential Horror

Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer  Farrar, Straus and Giroux (a division of McMillan) c 2014

Provenance (where I got that book): Elliot Bay Book Company, sometime last year. I really miss the old location near Pioneer Square, so I don't make the new place up on Cap Hill a destination trip, but if I am up there, I drop in, find something interesting, and then buy horribly expensive and bad-for-you ice cream at the nearby Molly Moon's. In this case, the something interesting was this book, in the SF section but presented in a more literary format. I mean, look at the cover. Dominated by the title, tan, heavier stock, embossing, big block letters, the strange alien GREEN plant thing is only really noticeable after you realize you've been looking at the big block letters for fifteen seconds already.

Despite its look (and its text-heavy, bright green back cover), the novel came home and sat on my shelf of abandoned books (more on that somtime later) for a while, until the Lovely B and I went to the movies, where a trailer for the film of the same name (and same concept, but different resolution, I understand). And I said, Yeah, I have that at home. So I took it down and read it.

Review: Annihilation is a very good book about the eradication of self and identity. It has that mounting horror of slowly being swallowed by python, and being conscious of it the entire time. Deep and descriptive, yet enigmatic and questioning, It is one of those book that you realize quite early on will not end well, but you are still drawn through it. From the first line you know that something is off, and as things progress, they will get worse.

Here's the precis: Our protagonist is a member of an all-female team assigned to investigate an anomaly. This anomaly is Area X, a shimmering curtain along a tidal zone, in which the life has ... mutated? transformed? been replaced by? integrated with? ...  alien life. Previous teams into the zone have not come back, save for the protagonist's husband's, and they were deeply altered.

And the send of self-destruction comes from before they even move into the Area X. The team members are not known by name, only by position  - psychologist, surveyor, anthropologist  (our protagonist is the biologist). None get capital letters to their titles. They have old weapons and strange devices on their belts. Only the surveyor gets an assault rifle. Their training was odd and off-base for the mission. Information has been withheld. Hypnotism was involved. Even before they saw the strange plants and creatures of Area X, the erosion of who they were had begun.

And it accelerates quickly. An underground complex that the protagonist cannot help but describe as a tower shows the their reality is quickly shedding its skin around them, leaving behind structures that may be flesh or only the memory of flesh. The sense of creeping dread, slowly swallowing them but not to the point of creating despair, is evident in the pages and masterfully pulled off. It is the calm analysis of the dying which underlies the otherworldly nature of Area X with its vibrant, unexplained alien life. Is what is there being eliminated, or transformed? Does that apply to the protagonist as well?

Annihilation is extremely well-written, evocative, and downright creepy. Not, there are not happy endings, or even much in the way of explanations. No one pops out and says "Well, you see, it is all because of this." And that's OK, but much of the trip of internal, as are the changes. There are two more books in the series, but I don't feel overwhelmed to get to them immediately. The book ends with enough for me to think about, and that's OK.

More later,