literature

The Defining Moment of Modernist Literature

There are certain literary works about which it is universally agreed that everyone should read them once in their lives.  The traditional classics, of course: Homer, the other Greeks, Virgil and certain other Romans.  Dante and Beowulf.  Then there are the more modern works such as Cervantes and Chaucer and Shakespeare.  Voltaire.  There are books among the Romantics and Victorians that are considered mandatory: Austen, two of the Brontë sisters (probably the wrong ones, but that’s a post for another day), Dickens and Thackaray.  Melville.  After that, perhaps Hemingway and Fitzgerald, maybe interspersed with some Salinger and Woolf to keep people honest.  The list above does not attempt to be comprehensive, it’s just off the top of my head… but most people know which classics they should have read by now.

Ulysses by James Joyce - First edition

There are some gaps in my own reading, even of the limited list above.  I haven’t read enough of the non-Homer and Virgil classics.  And I’m missing a boatload of poets and dramatists, mainly because I prefer prose (which made reading Chapman’s Homer and Longfellow’s Dante a chore).

But I can finally hold my head up high despite all of this.  You see, I read James Joyce’s Ulysses from cover to cover.  In fact, I enjoyed it much more than I thought I would.

Why, I can hear people asking as they scratch their heads, is Ulysses so significant?  It won’t change the fact that I’m woefully lacking in Yeats and Cicero, after all.

Well there are a couple of answers to that one.  The first is perhaps more banal: even among people who self-describe as extremely well-read, there are many who only pretend to have read the thing.  No one likes to admit that they haven’t cracked a significant volume open, but unless it was specifically mandated in college, most won’t have.  That, alone, makes me happy to have taken the effort.

The second reason is because Joyce was anointed as the absolute master of modernist literature and, since the Modernists (note capital M), like all -ists believed that their movement was the be-all and end-all of artistic relevance, he was therefore the greatest writer to ever live.

I wouldn’t go as far as that, but it’s fair to say that, by  adopting a number of then-revolutionary techniques, modernism (unlike its successor, post-modernism, which has contributed little to anything but irrelevant and impractical political stances) did help to mold what we consider contemporary prose.  If nothing else, stream-of-consciousness has become a perfectly valid modern-day tool.

And which book is the standard-bearer for stream-of-consciousness?  Well, it has to be Ulysses, doesn’t it?  An argument might be made for Woolf, but it would be a short one, mainly because most people agree that Joyce was the writer who epitomizes this technique, and Ulysses is the novel where he shows it off.

Joyce Ulysses Period REview Clipping

OK.  So the book is relevant.  But how is it to read?

That answer also has two facets.  The first is that of a reader approaching it for the first time.  The amount of ink dedicated to explaining how to go about that is astounding (it’s a good thing we don’t get our ink from squids, or mass extinctions would have ensued).  They tell you to first familiarize yourself with homer, then read the manuals and commentaries and then…

No.

If you’re a reader of this blog, then you are likely to be pretty well-read and of above-average intelligence and culture.  In fact, the mere fact that you’ve heard of Ulysses and are thinking of picking it up probably means that you don’t need to do all that to read a mere novel.  No matter if that book is the vaunted champion of the modernist world.

Pick it up.  Turn to the first page.  Read to the end.  You will catch some of the allusions.  You will miss others.  But, crucially, you will have formed your own opinion about it.  The book will have a shape inside your head unaffected by what others have said or thought.  It will be your reading.  And that is priceless.

Only afterwards does the second facet of the answer come into play.  Only once read and digested should you go back through it and understand its relationship with the classic material and the underlying irony of the comparative faithfulness of the two Penelopes, as well as the differing attitudes of the parallel Odysseuses.  And all the rest of what is hidden below the surface.

But whether that effort is worth your time must come from your first reading.  Does your mind get pulled in by the dangerous undertows of the underlying narrative?  If so, it is a book worth studying.  If not, onto the next.  Ultimately, the book needs to stand on its own.

Does it?  Well, I’m not going to answer that.  If you want to find out, you’ll have to take join the honorable ranks of those who have finished Ulysses.

As for me, I’ve read the supposed bugaboo of the twentieth century.  But we all know that this one is just the famous sibling.  The true elephant in the room is Finnegan’s Wake.  Kind of like Ulysses, but at night, while in a fever dream.

Hmmm…

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Millennium and the Weirdness of Other Cultures – Especially Ones We Think We Know

 

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson Cover

A lot of people on the planet have read the late Stieg Larsson’s Millennium books so I won’t do a blow-by-blow report regarding my thoughts on the first two books in the series, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played with Fire.

Suffice to say that they both center around a young woman named Lisbeth Salander who has enjoyed a truly messed up childhood and emerged scarred and socially inept but brilliant from her trial by fire.  Despite being unable to trust anyone, she manages to team up with the editor of an activist magazine and make life miserable for any number of bad guys.  Her lack of compassion for people she hates makes everything all the more compelling.

The stories themselves are well-paced and good enough to stand on their own (as attested to by their sales numbers), but the truly fascinating stuff is on the fringes.

As I read, I found myself stopping at small, unimportant points in the narrative to shake my head and say “oh, those crazy Swedes.”  In everything from the way people view property, to the way the police act, to the sexual mores of some of the characters (what is considered perfectly normal vs. what causes outrage is interesting), you are reminded that this is not an Anglo-centric worldview, despite being from a Western country not so different from most other Western countries.

There are no truly exotic behaviors in this one, and that’s the fun of the whole thing: the sense that something is just slightly askew from one’s own everyday experience is much richer, in my opinion, than simply reading about the customs of the population of eighteenth century Shanghai (or anywhere else in the eighteenth century, come to think of it!).

The Girl Who Played With Fire Stieg Larsson Cover

We all know that Scandinavian socialism permeates every aspect of life, but perhaps we don’t understand just how deep it runs until you see someone thinking about buying a house or interacting with the police in a Larsson novel–at least I didn’t.

Another interesting thing is that the very center of the series, Millennium magazine, could only really be relevant in a place like Sweden.  Other countries have activist magazines… and they run exposés.  The hard truth of it, however, is that except for the editorial staff and the writers and perhaps their couple of dozen readers (all of whom earnestly believe that what they are doing is both important and relevant), no one cares.  An exposé like the ones Millennium is so good at would basically be shrugged at by the population at large.

It makes for a fun ride, even though, at times, one finds oneself saying “man, am I glad I don’t live in Sweden.”  But then, If you’re honest with yourself, you probably wouldn’t want to live in most fictional worlds (especially Westeros.  That’s just plain unhealthy).

The kicker, though is that the translators seem to have toned down a bunch of things (as I can’t read Swedish, I can’t attest to that except by secondhand reporting). They definitely changed the titles (the title of the first book was Men Who Hate Women) and also made the dragon tattoo much smaller (in the original it covered Lisbeth’s entire back as opposed to a small item on a shoulder) in order to make it more palatable to Anglicized taste.  I wonder what other fascinating small things they also left out.

So I’d recommend this to Classically Educated readers.  Most of you won’t find yourselves able to generate the moral indignation that someone from Larsson’s background might over the central issues (one of the pillars on which Larsson builds his stories is that corporate greed is something that we should spend all our days in horror of, and that the men behind it are the true monsters of our age…  which seems an odd and trivial thing to get worked up about) but you will still be able to enjoy the stories generated in this world and enjoy the slight moments of “what?  Why?” that pop up out of the blue.

But unless someone can tell me otherwise, I’d recommend against the continuation books.  Those were probably written with the English-speaking population in mind (even though their author is a Swede with a similar background to Larsson), and probably have the quirks dialed back to nearly nothing… killing a good chunk of the fun.

 

A Mad Scientist Primer

The Island of Dr Moreau

Well before the pulp era, the giants of the science fiction genre were writers of novels such as Verne and Wells (Mary Shelley, as well, of course, but it seems she was inserted into the SF canon years later, when the true significance of Frankenstein was understood).

Of these, Verne clearly wasn’t concerned with any of the bad things that progress might bring.  He seemed more of the kind of man who delighted in imagining what the future was going to look like.  The conflict in his novels is either man against man or man against the elements.  Man against progress didn’t seem to be his thing.

Wells,on the other hand, always gave his speculations a much sharper edge.  He had a brilliant imagination, more than capable of asking what if? but he was also willing to go that extra step and say… what if we took it too far?  And then answer the question to the best of his ability.

Today, mad scientists (and Bond villains) are expected to have their lairs hidden on isolated tropical islands, but when Wells wrote The Island of Dr Moreau, he was breaking new ground: creating a place isolated from society where that society’s nightmares and anxieties could be given palpable shape.

So Moreau, though less well-known than much of Wells output such as The Time Machine and War of the Worlds, is equally influential.  Perhaps more than the other two in many senses.

And it’s definitely this one that really shows Wells’ true colors.  Was he enthusiastic about science?  Probably.  But he was also deeply concerned about the possibility of abuse, and this novel is perhaps the most palpable expression of that fear.  If only for that reason, it’s a must-read.

Easton Press Island of Dr Moreau

A word about the edition that I read: it’s an Easton Press edition which is just as pretty as the ones we spoke of a couple of months ago.  We probably should have added this one into that post, but I already had an Easton book there, and it would have seemed like shilling.  Still, most used bookstores have these for sale at reasonable prices, so might not hurt to ask!

Three Unconventional Roads To Wodehouse

Mention PG Wodehouse in a conversation and most people will immediately think of Jeeves and Wooster.  That’s partly due to the success of the books and stories, but, I suspect, mostly because of the various film and TV adaptations.  Of course, the one with Hugh Laurie as Wooster utterly deserves to have that notoriety.

But there is more to Wodehouse than the butler and his hapless gentleman.  No less a writer (and polymath) than Isaac Asimov said that Wodehouse, on a sentence level, is one of the three greatest writers in the English language (the other two, if memory serves, being Austen and Dickens).

People often scoff at that, of course.  A mere humorist upstaging countless numbers of earnest, serious writers, some of whom are even politically committed?  Blasphemy.  My answer to that is simple: pick up any of Wodehouse’s books, turn to a random page, and read any sentence that is more than five or six words long.  If you know anything about literature or writing, the odds are that you will have to concede the point.  He is consistently that good.

The above means that it’s a bit of a tragedy that casual readers don’t always go beyond Jeeves and Wooster so, in order to address that failing, we present three other good Wodehouse books (and discuss the three very different editions we read).  Think of it as a Classically Educated public service (you can thank us by buying our mug)!

The Girl in Blue.  PG Wodehouse.  Paperback

The first is The Girl in Blue.  This is a fairly typical standalone Wodehouse novel, and is a good non-Jeeves primer.  As you can see from the cover illustration of the version we read, a policeman ends up in a pond.  This is a recurring theme in Wodehouse, and upon reflection, we feel that if it were only a recurring theme in other types of literature as well, the world would be a better place.  Of course, star-crossed lovers feature as well, another central tenet of the canon.  If you’re going to start, and have already read the Jeeves books, this is a good place to begin.

Mr Mulliiner Speaking PG Wodehouse

Unlike the above novel, which is unrelated to other Wodehouse tales the Mr Mulliner stories are linked together in various books.  The one we’ll be discussing here is entitled Mr. Mulliner Speaking, and is sheer happiness.  Mr. Mulliner is an older and wiser character, so he is usually above Wodehousian shenanigans but, to the eternal entertainment of his drinking buddies, he has a number of young, nearly brain-dead, relations who get themselves into ridiculous situations.  They always work out for the best, of course, but the way they do reminds us that in Wodehouse, as in life, it’s about the journey, not the destination.  And few journeys are more rewarding.

We read this one in the original hardcover from 1929 (pictured above), and it was fun to experience it as pre-war readers would have.  But even though these are plentiful and affordable, there’s no real need to track one down, as 1929 is reasonably modern, so the book is just a book, not some artifact.

 

Utterly Uncle Fred PG Wodehouse

Finally, we reach the main course, a volume entitled Utterly Uncle Fred, which is quite possibly, the perfect Wodehouse.  The reason is that Uncle Fred is, perhaps, the most demented character in his oeuvre.  Age has not made this one wise, not in the least.  Instead, it sharpened his sense of chaos.  Of course, he is a kindly old man despite the propensity for landing his nephew in the soup, and his ability to get everyone in trouble is matched only by his knack for pulling them back out.  Once again, it’s the journey, not the destination that makes this book.

The book above is an omnibus edition (one of the nicest things about Wodehouse is the number of collections you can buy) containing three novels and one story, so it’s a meaty proposition.  We’d recommend buying it even if you’ve never read a line of Wodehouse in your life… but most people are too cautious with their money to do so, perhaps start with one of the other two.

Or just read some Jeeves and Wooster.  I’ve never heard of anyone going wrong with that!

BTW, apart from mugs, we also have a Facebook page.  You can like it if you like it!

Beyond a Few Statues

Statue of Lenin Dropped

If you were alive in 1989, then you remember the end of socialism.  Millions of people decided that individual freedoms were more important than collective security and, defying humorless men with guns, brought down nearly every government in Eastern Europe.

One of the lasting images burned into the retinas of those of us glued to CNN was that of statues of socialist leaders being pulled down all across the region.

Of course, it wasn’t that simple.  The destruction of a few statues was not enough to destroy the idea of socialism, and, twenty years later, the world is awash with left-leaning ideas that cover the spectrum from slight sacrifices in personal freedom in the name of more equality for vulnerable populations to full-blown communism.  Socialism clearly isn’t dead.

Why?  Well, because the statues weren’t socialism, and neither was the Berlin Wall.  Socialism is a collection of ideas about how society should be structured in order to achieve a certain number of goals.  These ideas range from making capitalism a little more “fair” to doing away with the capitalist system altogether.

And these ideas don’t live in statues.  Statues are about power, but ideas live in books.  That’s why socialism didn’t die when everyone thought it had: those books stayed on the shelves and eventually a new generation of activists and scholars rediscovered them.

The above seemed a timely reminiscence, as today’s review is about Gone with the Wind.  The book, not the movie.

Why timely?  Because, as I write, there has been a very recent series of high-profile removals of Confederate statues from public spaces in the US, mainly of General Lee.  These removals took place in a highly polarized climate, but were undeniably driven by a large number of people (although they were probably also opposed by an equal number… as one can imagine, reliable numbers in today’s media climate are hard to come by).  Protesters and counter-protesters clashed, with violent and even tragic results.

Perhaps the problem is that both sides seem to have forgotten the lessons of 1989.  No one cared about the statues until they became front page news; they were just part of the urban landscape, and I’d have been willing to bet that most could not have told you who the guy on the horse was until everything hit the fan.

But the ideas?  They exist.  In the case of the Confederacy there is a structured case for why it existed: broadsides, pamphlets, letters and even the constitution are in university archives.  But these documents are not the ones that keep the idea of the Old South alive for its proponents.  Popular media does that job.

Perhaps the most virulent example of propaganda in that respect is a film: Birth of a Nation.  It tells the story from the Southern side, and no matter where your sympathies lie, you end up feeling strongly for the characters.  Yes, time has passed it by and the premise of the “Ride of the Klan” is cartoonish and grotesque, but the film is very well done all the same.  In fact, it is considered one of the true greats of early film.

More subtle is Judge Priest, where folksy Will Rogers shows us how it’s done without beating anyone over the head with it.

Gone with the Wind Paperback

There are countless other examples, mainly from the twenties and thirties when mass media was working up some serious steam, but the biggest seller of the idea of the Old South was clearly Gone with the Wind.

The film… was just a Hollywood blockbuster, and not really a propaganda piece (despite never questioning the nobility of the Confederate cause), but I’d argue that the book is the Old South’s Communist Manifesto.  It’s impossible to read this brick and not feel truly moved by the plight of every single Southern character (except Scarlett–she’s unbearable), and feel a deep sense of loss for a way of life that ended in blood and fire.

I don’t read books with an eye to the politics, which meant that I approached this simply as a book (and a romance at that), which meant that, until I sat down to write this review, was only concerned with the story itself and the plight of the characters.  The fact that it also contains a good blow-by-blow account of what was happening in the war made it doubly interesting for anyone who enjoys history (and if you’ve read our manifesto, you know we do).

By the end of the book, I felt truly sorry for what the characters had to live through… and also pined for the society that existed at the beginning of the book.  Granted, it only takes a little bit of analysis to recall that the gentrified lifestyle existed on the back of a slave economy but I postulate that most casual readers will not do the exercise of analyzing this and will walk away with a deep sense of loss.

I’ll go one step further: I will categorically bet that no one who picks up this book purely for pleasure will do this analysis.  The people who are sensitive to the issues it raises will either avoid it or read it for study purposes, not for fun.

Perfect propaganda.

So what to do with it?  It’s still selling very well, so it’s not going to go out of print anytime soon (and the Kindle is bringing it to a completely new audience).

So, ban it?  Burn it?  Try to pressure the publisher into canceling the next huge print run?

Or perhaps just accept that ideas can’t–and shouldn’t–be killed?

Whatever happens, it should be an interesting battle to watch.

 

 

MR James’ Ghosts: Building on the Victorians

I first heard of MR James in a completely unexpected place.  It happened a few years ago while reading a Martin H. Greenberg anthology called My Favorite Fantasy Story*.  This is a book from the early oughts in which modern writers (including George RR Martin for those of you who must have every printed mention of the man in your collections) chose ONE fantasy story from all of the history of writing and gave their reasons for calling it the best ever.

My Favorits Fantasy Story Cover

As you can imagine, this produced an eclectic mix, with everything from Mopsa the Fairy, a novella from 1869 which was, quite frankly, the strangest selection of the book as well as, in my opinion, the weakest, to a Terry Pratchett tale.  Also in the mix were not one but two of Vance’s Dying Earth stories (Martin chose the best of these) which one is never certain whether to classify as SF or Fantasy.

Finally, there was this weird little ghost story by some guy named MR James, Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad”, chosen by Morgan Llywelyn, which, though a change of pace from most, was one I remembered years later (all right, I’ll admit there were a couple that I still recall, particularly the Zelazny and the two by Vance, but the ghost story was in there).

It was completely different from what I was expecting, but not in a bad way like Mopsa the Fairy.  It was a creepy ghost story of an unseen spirit messing with the protagonist at a pleasant seaside resort.  No gore, no dismemberment, just the much more relatable experience of being alone and certain there was something watching you, and that that something was an evil something.

James Ghost Stories of an Antiquary Illustration

Years later, I took out a subscription to Easton Press’ Horror Classics lineup (I do this for two reasons: the first is that they are very pretty books, and the second is that they often select books that I would never have chosen for myself).  One of the books they sent me was a volume by MR James entitled Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, and it turns out that it’s full of tales philosophically similar to this one.  All of them have barely seen, sometimes imaginary spirits stalking the main character without ever really becoming explicit.  James always leaves the question of whether they are real or product of madness hanging in the air–though the stories, if taken at face value, demand for the explanation to be the former.

These are extremely different from what Le Fanu was creating a few years earlier (despite James familiarity with Le Fanu’s work).  They are much less sexual–not sexual at all, in fact–and they don’t give the reader an explanation about what was happening.  While Carmilla is revealed to be a vampire, James’ haunts remain mysterious.

The best story in the collection, describing what literary experts would refer to as “some seriously bad ju-ju”, was likely “The Ash Tree”, but each will find his or her own favorite among the tales.

More interesting than a review here (there are dozens available), is to talk about MR James himself.  He is a man that one thinks would have enjoyed Classically Educated.  Not just a writer, but a scholar and an administrator, he was a polymath indeed. The fact that his ghost stories have eclipsed the rest of his reputation is almost sad.

One can imagine him sitting in his wood-paneled study or University rooms and exhaustively studying the writers of the supernatural that paved the way for him.  I can especially see him as an expert on many obscure Victorian writers of ghost stories that history has forgotten… because, though written in the 20th century, Ghost Stories of an Antiquary is definitely a Victorian book.  It deals with Victorian preoccupations with a Victorian structure and informed by Victorian mores.

Though he is credited with creating the “antiquary ghost story” subgenre, it seems to me that James was not looking to innovate.  Quite the opposite, in face: the never-changing world of academia (Cambridge and Eton in his case), inspired him to look to the past and refine it.

In doing so, he did something new**, but only by chance.

 

*Though Gardner Dozois had a habit of dismissing Greenberg anthos as “pleasant but minor” in his Year’s Best books for ages, I’ve always found his collections to be pleasant and to contain at least a few memorable stories.  Not to try to contradict Dozois, who is a notable student of the SFF field, but sometimes a lack of readability is celebrated as creating “better” fiction, which seems unfortunate.

**I always think that the 80’s film Gremlins had to take at least some inspiration from this book.

Reading vs. Writing: A Reflection

A contributor’s copy* I read recently made me stop and think.  This is a rare enough occurrence that I thought I’d immortalize it here.

First, some background.  As a reader, the best description for me is omnivorous.  From Tolkien to Dostoyevsky to Joyce, I’ve read a little bit of everything (yes, I finished Ulysses, no, I haven’t yet dared take on Finnegan’s Wake) but if you told me that my memory of a single book would be erased so I could enjoy it again, I’d choose Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Admitting to lowest-common-denominator tastes–not just science fiction but science fiction and humor–instead of citing Pliny the Elder might get me tossed off the Classically Educated editorial board** but I stand by the choice.  It’s probably the book I love most in the world.

Of course, looking at a good portion of my writing, this doesn’t shine through.  It can very often be dark and grim.  Sometimes it takes itself very seriously.

I also like happy endings… but most of my characters, at least in my short fiction, come to endings that are anything but joyous.  In fact, they are often messy, painful and protracted endings which are also untimely in the extreme.  And they often don’t enjoy what comes before.

Finally, I don’t care if the fiction I read is particularly inclusive or politically activist.  In fact, stories that get preachy tend to get a thumbs-down from me even if I agree with the politics.  Which is why I will equally cheerfully demolish the writing of Ayn Rand or the writing of most of the current left-leaning SF genre.  Both are crap, and the only people not admitting it are Rand’s fans and the people in the SF echo chamber.

Which brings me to my own writing and the book I was reading.

Apex Book of World SF Volume 2

First, the book.  It was while reading the Apex Book of World SF Volume 2 that I asked myself how I ended up participating in a project that has a very specific and very political objective: to encourage greater diversity in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genres by bringing in writers from countries not usually represented in the genre. I came in as both an Argentine and a Latin American (which is weird, because at the rate I sell stories, I would have thought that Argentina was way over-represented, at least in the short fiction world, but there you have it).  My story in the book is called “Eyes in the Vastness of Forever”.

It’s very definitely not the kind of book I would have picked up of my own volition.  And many of the stories are clearly aimed at making the world a better, more inclusive place (not something I like to be able to identify in the fiction I read – if there’s a message, make it sneaky, not overt).

But then I realized that, far from standing out (or even just standing apart), my story fit in perfectly.  Without spoiling it for anyone wishing to read it, my tale has the following in common with the rest:

  • It’s written in a style that would have made the Golden Age writers denounce me as some kind of literary elitist (and my writing style is pretty straightforward compared to some in the genre).  Some might simply say well-written (every single tale in this book is well-written) but my definition of well-written is more based on writing for your audience, which means that, to me, Golden Age and Pulp Fiction was perfectly well written.
  • It focuses on a not-so-often seen culture.
  • It respects that culture’s beliefs and shows how valuable that respect can be… or else (my stories always have an “or else” factor some of the others in the book, not so much).
  • It’s strongest character is a woman.

I didn’t set out to do any of these things, of course.  I just set out to write a story about Portuguese explorers in Tierra del Fuego inspired by the reports that the natives built dozens of campfires that could be seen from  the sea, hence the island’s name.  If you think about it, fires burning in the darkness of an unexplored land is a powerful image.

But any reader whose political or social justice leanings is specifically looking for those elements will see them and nod approvingly.  They aren’t what the story is about, and they aren’t (in my opinion) an important part of the story’s message.  I don’t care about those things except as far as to treat everyone decently.  I’m definitely not an activist of any sort.

But what happens when a reader who HATES the modern trends in SF sees some of these same elements in a novel?  This review is what happens.

Interestingly, I am about as left-leaning as, say, Genghis Khan, which means that my friends on both sides of the political spectrum have ribbed me ceaselessly for this review.  But you have to respect it: it talks about what the reader SAW in the book.  Not what I tried to put in there (for the record, it’s a military SF novel chock full of action and things that go boom… that just happens to have two female protagonists who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, hence making them main characters).

Isaac Asimov told a story that illuminated this phenomenon (and I paraphrase because I don’t remember it word for word): It seems he was at a talk where a critic discussed one of his books and the motivations and themes that were present.  After the presentation, Asimov, it seems, went up to the critic and told him that he, the critic, had misread the work.  The critic said: “What do you base your opinion on?”  Asimov pulled himself up to his full height and said: “I wrote the thing.”  To which the critic responded: “Oh, that doesn’t mean anything.”

I assume that pretty much ended the conversation, but the point is made.  A writer’s control over the meaning of what he writes is essentially zero.  Readers (and critics, unfortunately) will find that for you, and they will always find stuff that you didn’t mean to put there.

And yes… you will find yourself writing fiction that you might not have thought to read, and appearing in anthologies you would never have picked up if the publisher hadn’t sent you a copy.

Life is a funny old thing.

 

*For those who are unaware of what a contributor’s copy is, it’s a copy that an author receives of his work.  Often, this is a periodical or book in which a story by the author is included.

**they can’t, I’m the boss.  Besides, the manifesto specifically states that we’re supposed to talk about a bunch of different stuff.

Today’s post was written by Editor-in-Chief Gustavo Bondoni.

 

The Classics Made Pretty

What is a book lover?

There are probably as many answers to that question as there are people who enjoy books. For some, the love of books has to do with their collectibility: tracking down an inscribed first edition of a forgotten work is more of a rush than winning the lottery (although winning the lottery might allow larger purchases of collectible books).  Condition is paramount with this kind of book lover, and they probably will never read their new acquisition.

On the other end of the spectrum are people who only care about what a book actually says.  They’re fine with reading on their kindle or, if they utterly hate screen reading, a used-bookstore-bargain-bin paperback.

Most of us lie somewhere in the middle.  Physical books have an appeal that transcends mere content.  The edition, and yes, even the cover illustration, is often interwoven with the image that the book conjures in our mind years after the fact.

Also, there are some books that we just know we’ll read again and again, and that having a decent copy will make our lives easier in the long run.  Anyone who’s ever read the densely-packed type of a 1970s paperback will likely understand why I’m looking for a decent edition of Rebecca to replace the one I bought in a used bookstore bargain bin.

So today, I wanted to do a roundup of three books that I reread recently because I purchased new, better editions of them.  All three of the new editions are of that type that look impressive on a shelf but, more importantly, all three will last much longer than the cheap mass market paperbacks they supplanted.

On this occasion, I will be talking about the edition and not the content; they are three well-documented classics which need no further critical examination from me (not that that’s ever stopped me before…).

These three books represent three very different approaches to premium bookmaking (note that none of them costs more than about $40, so “premium” is a relative term).

The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov

The first, The Foundation Trilogy, by Isaac Asimov is one of the B&N leatherbound classics series, although I have serious doubts about whether that is real leather on the covers.  Looks more like plastic to me, although it does a decent impression of it on the shelf.

The main pro to this one is clearly the price and easy availability.  I picked it up off of a shelf at a B&N in the US.  No mail, no hassle.  The cons are that, though much sturdier than your average hardcover, and containing a ribbon bookmark, it pales a bit beside the more beautiful options around.  Still, I’m delighted to have this one in my collection.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Loius Stevenson

Our next volume is Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Though the Easton Press seems to have discontinued the edition I have and replaced it with an even better (albeit much, much more expensive) one, you can still buy copies of the one I refer to very easily online.

Now this one is definitely leather-bound, and the edition looks handmade.  It has illustrations, and the paper seems to be something created for connoisseurs (in fact, it is archival-quality paper, so there may be something in that).  It is a truly beautiful book meant to last and to look classy on a bookshelf.  The wide spacing of the type also makes it a pleasure to read, so double goodness.

Cons?  Well, from a practical point of view, you don’t really need a big hardback of this book.  A 25,000 word novella is essentially fine in paperback form, and the large format of this one does seem like overkill.  If you’re buying books only for the content,  you will want to give this one a miss.

Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose.

The last one we’re looking at today is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose in the beautiful Folio Society Edition.  It seems to have gone out of print, but here’s a nice one for a good price.

If anything – and despite the lack of leather – this edition is even more lush than the Easton Press book above.  The paper is of a beautiful light cream, and the title page tells you everything you might need to know:  the type of font, kind of paper, materials and even where the paper was milled.  It has a slipcase as well.

And if you’re looking for content?  Well, in this case, the edition is justified as well.  There’s no justification for reading The Name of the Rose in a cheap paperback edition.  This is a book to be savored, enjoyed, and reflected upon, no one that should leave ink marks from cheap printing on your hands.

And if you’re reading a book whose introduction says “Naturally, a manuscript” on a Kindle… well, then you are just a philistine and have obviously reached Classically Educated by mistake while searching for pictures of Etruscans having sex.

For the rest of you, the best of the three is the Eco… but those Easton Press editions sure look nice… and for $20, the three Asimov books in paperback would cost you more than the nice edition.  So pick your poison.

Book Recommendation – Siege by Gustavo Bondoni

So, for those of you who’ve been enjoying our content over the past few years, we wanted to drop you a line to let you know that our Editor-In-Chief has published a new novel and he’ll fire us if we don’t plug it here!

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Siege is a far-future SF piece in which humanity is fighting for its very survival.  From the book description at the publisher’s page, we get the following:

Threatened on all sides by enemies they can’t fight and often can’t even comprehend, the human race has taken refuge in an inhospitable corner of the galaxy. A tiny pocket of habitable space concealed by black holes and dust clouds, hiding a cluster of colonies where the last humans in the galaxy reside, preparing themselves for a war of annihilation against all comers.
Crystallia is a hidden military base that guards the access route to the colonies. The main mission of the soldiers there is to remain undetected for as long as possible, to spot any incursions from the outside and to hit them with everything in humanity’s arsenal.

No one is quite convinced that this strategy will be enough to save the colonies or even to create enough of a delay for some of the colonists to escape. The best bet for the human race is to remain concealed.

Unfortunately, something has found them.

Siege can be purchased from Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

 

If you do happen to read it, drop us a line and let us know what you thought.  You might make an editor’s day!

 

Cristopher Tolkien Makes an Appearance

I’m always a bit leery but also drawn in when a famous writer’s offspring attempts to ride a progenitor’s coattails to fame, fortune and probably an enlarged bank account.

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Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson expand Frank Herbert’s Dune Universe.

Brian Herbert’s attempts to expand his father’s Dune universe are a typical case in point.  They are interesting science fiction books in a familiar universe but… but they break no new ground.  This is probably the biggest attack on his father’s legacy that was committed here because the original Dune books were beloved precisely because they were new and fresh. Core fans will read them, of course, bit I doubt they’ll be considered part of the canon anytime soon (at least not by me).

But Herbert’s books (with an assist from Anderson, clearly) aren’t bad.  If it wasn’t for the legacy, we’d all have liked them without further comment.  Much worse was the disastrous attempt at authoring an epic Fantasy by Nicolai Tolstoy (grandson of Leo), which resulted in the only time I have ever voluntarily abandoned a book in the middle of it in the last 30 years.

So it was with mixed feelings that I picked up the Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth series some years ago.  That first book was a difficult read, but I was fascinated by the textual history that Tolkien Jr had managed to piece together from his fathers papers.  It is a stunning piece of academic research taken on by probably the only person with both the access and motivation to succeed in it.

I’ve since read the six books that followed which brings us all the way through the history of the writing of the tales that eventually became the Silmarillion to the text of the Lord of the Rings.  The book which prompted this post, and which I’ll be concentrating on here, is the seventh, The Treason of Isengard.

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The Treason of Isengard, Book 7 of the History of Middle Earth and Book 2 of the History of the Lord of the Rings

Like its predecessors, this volume presents older drafts of the material with commentary on when changes were likely made, and when names evolved into the current versions that everyone knows and loves.

As a writer, I find JRR Tolkien’s process mesmerizing and terrifying.  Mesmerizing because watching text evolve so methodically is an education in and of itself and Terrifying because the man spent his entire adult life continuously tweaking his text.  Were it not for editorial pressure and deadlines, he probably would have kept toying with the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings until the day he died, much like he did with Silmarillion.

The reason to read this series isn’t because it will bring you a new appreciation of LotR – we all know it and love it (or despise it) for our own reasons, and this won’t change it, but it will bring you a type of writing process that will feel very alien to nearly every one of us.

If I wrote my books like that, I’d simply go insane, but it’s undeniably effective.  The layers of myth upon myth back through the ages that shine through in the Lord of the Rings are there because Tolkien actually wrote them, and rewrote them and wrote them yet again as he composed the Silmarillion and the associated poems.

In this particular case, I don’t begrudge the son a single cent, and actually prefer that his series exists instead of having original writing from Christopher.