Women’s History

March is Women’s History Month.  My reading of actual history as of late has focused on the ancient Celts, so I confess to falling behind on modern women’s history.  Nevertheless, I came across an often forgotten piece in an unexpected way.  For quite some time I’ve wanted to read some work of Charlotte Perkins Gilman.  Her story “The Yellow Wallpaper” is known as a gothic classic.  Since a short story isn’t enough to make up an entire book, publishers have arranged different combinations of her tales into thin books that can be sold as a unit.  I purchased the Dover Thrift Editions’ version of The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories.  It was there that I learned Gilman was an early feminist who seems to have become unsung in more recent times.  Her fiction, at least as reflected in this particular edition, demonstrates the truth of the assertion.

Most of the tales in this little book require only a few minutes to read.  Although written around the turn of the nineteenth century, her stories anticipated many modern developments for women.  Her protagonists see the inequalities between the genders and work to overcome them.  They prove themselves successful at business and setting up their own houses.  There’s a gentleness to these stories that suggests quiet confidence may eventually wear down the often inflated male ego.  I found myself captivated even after finishing “The Yellow Wallpaper” itself.  Gilman isn’t judgmental, but she does note how unfairly the system operates.  She also offers solutions.

In this month of women’s history, it seems appropriate to rediscover one of the female writers who personally worked for women’s rights and expressed herself so fluently in fiction.  Her “If I Were a Man,” although clearly a period piece, takes a woman into her husband’s body.  She walks in his shoes, literally, and sees what “the world of men” is like.  This leads to both understanding and, above all, learning.  This would seem to be the very heart of history.  We read to learn both from what we did correctly to what we did wrong.  We have done so terribly much wrong.  The historical oppression of women is one of the greatest examples of our inability to catch up with our own ideals of justice and fairness.  There were historical reasons for this, yes, but we have moved beyond those times.  If only we’d act like it.  Although my reading doesn’t always keep in sync with the seasons, discovering Charlotte Perkins Gilman at this point in time was somehow more appropriate than anticipated.


Still Standing

Investment.  Time is an investment, and I recently invested in Stephen King’s The Stand.  You have to realize that I made this decision sight-unseen.  More than one person whose opinions I value told me I should read it.  I had no idea it would be 1,400 pages and would dominate my life for a solid month.  Still, I’m glad I read it.  In case you haven’t, and intend to, there may be some spoilers below.  This is one of the King books I read without knowing the plot or the ending, so if you’re in that boat, skip a paragraph or two.

I hadn’t intended The Stand to be plague reading.  It just turned out that way.  The book is about a variety of flu that kills nearly the entire population of the world.  It’s only at the very end that you learn it’s a parable.  The ending also explains some of the apparently unrelated filler that makes the book so terribly long.  In any case, after wiping out much of the world, the story narrows down to several of the survivors and how they end up dividing into two camps: those who want to cause misery (think Republicans), and those who want to reestablish civilization.  Of course there are several unpleasant instances along the way.  The camp of violent ne’er-do-wells settles in Las Vegas under the demonic leadership of Randall Flagg—his identity only becomes clear at the end—while the good guys, under Mother Abagail, choose Boulder.  A confrontation is inevitable and when the smoke clears we learn that Randall Flagg is, essentially, civilization itself.  Perhaps Christianity.

Of all of the Stephen King novels I’ve read, this one has the most overt Christian imagery.  In fact, in his introduction to the expanded edition he refers to it as a “long tale of dark Christianity.”  There’s quite a lot of theological dialogue along with gruesome deaths.  The pacing often makes the story seem quite long.  Well, it actually is.  I suspect it was this Christian imagery that had friends recommending it to me.  The idea that evil is essentially our culture that comes around and kills us is both profound and paradoxical.  As well as “Christian.”  All along the good guys want to reestablish the cooperation and comforts of civilized life.  It was “civilization” that unleashed the killer virus, however, and herein hangs the tale.  I’m glad to have read it, and I have to confess that I miss the bleak world King created, after living with it for so long.  And it turns out to have been plague reading both literally and symbolically.


Gothic Dreams

There’s something that compels a large number of people to consume material in the horror genre.  Whether it takes the form of movies, books, or music, it is a genre widely spread.  The gateway to adult likes seems to be in childhood.  As a young person I read about how many adults wanted to “re-live their childhood” and at the time I wondered why.  Now, as an adult of long standing, I think I can begin to see the answer.  In any case, my gateway into appreciating horror was the Gothic.  But what is gothic?  Like many abstract concepts I know it when I see it, but what exactly is it?  I’m not sure Nick Groom has fully answered that in The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction, but then the reason may well be in the “very short” part.  Nevertheless, this is a remarkably broad treatment of the subject in not so many pages.  It also helped me to understand my own fascination a bit better.

Groom begins with the historical Goths.  Like the Celts, they are a people without a prodigious written record, so the imagination takes over.  They valued freedom above all else, and that, it seems to me, is the beating heart of the Gothic.  Recognized through its architecture, especially in notable cathedrals, the incipient Romanticism in the style made its way into works of fiction.  In that realm it is remarkably widespread.  Shakespeare participates in it.  It becomes more fixed in later generations, but it still returns in popular format even today.  At several points in this brief treatment I found myself wondering at the connections.  Gothic is so huge and sprawling that it informs quite a lot of literature that isn’t even categorized with that title.

The story Groom sketches takes the Goths from their Germanic roots to their Anglo-Saxon influence in England.  For English readers, the genre really takes shape in Britain before spreading out into the many forms in which it exists today, including several species of American Gothic.  While the modern mind tends to turn toward the dark and melancholy aspects—and they are clearly there—the underlying theme of freedom comes through.  Thus the separation of ways between “Classical” culture with its rules and strictures and symmetry and the Gothic with its mystery, wonder, and romance.  By the end we’ve passed through Poe and on to modern horror.  And through it all I catch glimpses of what drew me to all this in a childhood of longing for freedom.


Taste of Gilgamesh

The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered a world classic.  Some would designate it the first novel written and others an example of how basic human concerns haven’t changed for thousands of years.  The ancient scribes and story-tellers, I suspect, anticipated none of this for their tale.  It was a religious story, perhaps taken as literally as some now take the Bible.  However you understand it, the Epic is part of the foundation of civilization itself.  I have to admit my Akkadian is rusty—I never had the opportunity to teach anywhere that I could regularly exercise it.  Still, I’m pretty certain that no one involved in one of the many versions of the tale that have survived would’ve expected it might end up on a rolling pin.

Back in December I wrote about Farrell Monaco’s Gilgamesh Epic column 5 rolling pin.  Her blog, Tavola Mediterranea features culinary archaeology—a good fit for these foodie times.  Having somehow found my blog, she kindly sent me a Gilgamesh rolling pin.  It was, in fact, one of the packages I wrote about a few days ago that was tracked as delivered but never arrived.  There’s no telling how long it will take to sort the Post Office out after Trump tried to destroy it so he could start the steal.  I was told it had been delivered in early January—not in time for Christmas itself, but still in the gingerbread season.  I called our local PO with the tracking number and was told it had been delivered.  If sent to the wrong house I’d have to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Last week, after I’d completely given up hope, it arrived.  Since, like many overfed Americans, I’m trying to wean myself off holiday excess back to my usual austere diet, it may be the next Christmas season before I get a chance to use it.  Still, the thoughtfulness of the gesture is deeply appreciated.  Anything that connects us so palpably to our ancient forebears is truly a gift.  If my career (if that’s what you call it) had gone a slightly different way, I might’ve ended up spending it with Gilgamesh.  As it is, I still turn to the Epic for inspiration now and again.  I wrote a couple of articles in the last couple of years where Gilgamesh makes part of the argument.  Now I’ve got something tangible to prove it!  Take a trip over to Tavola Mediterranea and see what wonders edible history holds.


Sea Romance

Sea shanties seem to be one of the early rages of 2021.  I’ll likely address this as a separate topic soon, but today I would note their appropriateness for discussing Melissa Broder’s The Pieces.  Despite my earlier concern about the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge for this year, my family helped me put one together.  You see, January has become a bookish month for us.  Not only are books frequent holiday gifts, they are also a great way to anticipate a year of reading.  One of my categories was a book that makes you laugh out loud.  For help in selecting such a book I consulted some websites and found The Pieces so listed a few times.  The tie-in for sea shanties?  It’s the story of a woman’s love affair with a merman.

What defines a book as laugh-out-loud funny is largely the reader.  Yes, this is an amusing story with several parts that make the reader smile (or blush), but it seems to this reader a much more serious story than many reviewers suggest.  Yes, the idea of a merman makes it less reality based that much straightforward literary fiction, but the protagonist is portrayed as dealing with very real human relationship issues.  These made my reading of the book a pretty serious one.  When a person feels inadequately loved, it’s no laughing matter.  Sometimes such people (as the protagonist is portrayed as being) are driven to desperate measures, as the book suggests.  Perhaps some people find this funny, but others of us see a serious message dressed up in fiction.

Part of the draw here is clearly the romance of the sea.  Lucy (the narrator/protagonist) begins her relationship with Theo (the merman) because of the abusive kinds of relationships men have presented her with.  It’s a sign of Broder’s writing ability that she can make this kind of story lighthearted enough that some would call it hilarious or laugh-out-loud funny.  For me, however, when the issues raised are serious, even when couched in humor, there are underlying issues of sober import.  Relationships are complex.  Since the speculative element of a merman is thrown into the mix, it seems, many readers think the story is funny.  This despite the suicide attempts of one of Lucy’s friends and the death of the dog she’s watching for her sister.  For me laugh-out-loud books either have no serious consequences or dismiss such consequences as laughable in themselves.  The Pieces, however, made me think and, ironically, take a renewed interest in sea shanties.


Early Literature

In a recent discussion I was asked what piece of literature that I first recollected as being superior.  A couple of provisos here: I’ve got a few decades to reach back and memory may not be as sharp as it once was, and as a child I didn’t have a ton of reading choices.  (There were no local bookstores, for which we didn’t have money anyway, and I had to be driven to get to a library.)  The first piece of writing that, apart from the Bible, I came up with was Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.”  It’s still my favorite short story.  Today is Poe’s birthday.  While not a national holiday, it is a literary one.  Poe was one of the early experimenters in trying to make a living from his pen alone.  His fame was primarily posthumous.

I don’t recall how I learned about Poe.  I know that I picked up a book of his stories at Woolworth’s in Oil City (you see what I mean by no bookstores) for something like a quarter.  It was a cheap, large-print edition with a strange selection of stories, but the first one was Usher.  Such an impact was rare in my young literary experience.  Many years later, riding a horse as a counselor at horse camp, the initial scene of Usher was the one that kept coming to my mind although I hadn’t read the story for a very long time.  I ended up writing one of my first high school English papers on Poe.  By this time I had a good library I could access, even if I couldn’t drive myself there.  While sometimes submerged for years at a time, my appreciation for Poe always eventually resurfaces.

For anyone who’s read Nightmares with the Bible the appreciation of Poe should be obvious.  One of the peer reviewers suggested I should remove the Poe references since he didn’t write about demons.  Struggling against demons, to my way of thinking, counts.  In fact, Poe is largely the thread that holds the book together.  I’m aware that at its price point the book will be little read.  Still, having a literary tribute must be a form of consolation.  Mine is but one of many, I know.  As we stand on the cusp of an unknown future, hoping the maelstrom is truly behind us, I gladly acknowledge that Poe has helped me get this far.  And like the Raven, let us hope it is truly nevermore.


In Praise of Brevity

I recently read an article in praise of short books.  Marina van Zuylen, whose response led to the article by Steven Weiland, praises not only brevity, but also print.  There is a difference between reading an actual book and reading something on a screen, even if an actual book of it exists somewhere.  I don’t buy the argument that books are clutter.  Books are my life, and if you start tossing them out you might as well start chopping bits off my body.  But it’s her thoughts on short books that really caught my attention.  Not that there’s anything wrong with long books.  Good ones are like getting lost in a pleasant mind-forest.  But I miss short books and the sense of accomplishment they engender.

Maybe like me you see a book online and get excited.  You really want to read it and then you click on its landing page and learn it’s over 300 pages long.  Or 400.  Or more.  You stop to think; do I really want to invest that much time on a single book?  As van Zuylen explains, some tenure committees don’t take short books seriously.  They want heft.  This blog should stand as proof that anyone can multiply words.  There are well over a million words on this blog alone.  As a book this blog would be about 3,650 pages.  Without footnotes.  But it’s not a book, and that’s the point.  Your time is valuable.  You’re choosing to spend a little of it with me (Thank you!).  I keep my posts around 400 words.  A five-minute read.  And I like books that I can finish in a week or two, along with my full-time job and other life responsibilities.

The electronic revolution—as good as it’s been—distorts things.  Even the very definition of “book” is up for grabs.  My mind always goes back to the scriptoria with weak-eyed monks rubbing aching backs as they laboriously copied books out by hand.  Today we don’t even wait for the paperback, but download it instantly.  How is this the same?  And yet we have less time than ever.  That’s why I enjoy short books.  Some of the most impactful (oh, that word!) books I’ve read have been brief.  As Pascal long ago noted, it’s more difficult to write a short piece than a long one.  So I join Dr. van Zuylen in her praise of the short book.  Long may they live!

At least it’s real…


Slow Jinn

You can sort of tell when an author has a background in religion.  Early on in my blog writing, I made note when novels had religious elements.  It’s so common that I seldom do that anymore.  Matt Ruff’s father was a minister.  His understanding of the religious landscape comes through in The Mirage.  It wasn’t on my reading list, but someone gave me a copy and the story drew me in.  In case, like me, you only know Ruff from Lovecraft Country, this tale’s quite different.  There may be some spoilers here, so if you’re thinking of reading it fresh, you’ve been warned!

Set in an alternate reality in which the superpower in the world is the United Arab States, the story follows three police agents of Homeland Security as they uncover a perhaps unwelcome truth: the world they know is a mirage.  It is, in fact, the work of a jinn.  Before commenting on that, I would say that you don’t learn about the jinn until a good way into the story.  Up to that point I’d call this simply literary fiction.  The jinn adds a speculative element to it, and also explains, mostly, how things ended up the way they did.  Jinns, by the way, are often considered demons in Arabic culture.  They are quite different from Christian demons, and that point makes itself clear as the story unfolds.  Our three protagonists begin to uncover hints that the twin towers didn’t actually stand in Baghdad, and that Christian terrorists didn’t fly planes into them on November 9 (11/9).  They have run-ins with Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden as warring factions vie for power in the UAS.

This is a great story for trying to understand the world from the point of view of a different religion (unless you’re Muslim).  This is a world where Christians are terrorists (you get to meet David Koresh as well) and the United States is a backward country divided over religion.  Reading this as events unfolded in Washington, DC last week was a little bit disconcerting.  Alternative realities are often just a heartbeat away.  The plot is a bit complex at points, but it’s a fairly quick, if profound read.  Religion is the heart and soul of this book.  That religion could be either Islam or Christianity.  Perhaps even something different.  The way it plays out is very much like real life, dividing people against each other until reality becomes difficult to bear.  For anyone interested in what a Muslim-run world might have looked like, this is a good starting place.


2020 in Books

As has become traditional on this blog, I like to revisit my reading for the year before the next one begins.  No matter what else goes wrong, we have books.  As I noted yesterday, I’ll be devising my own reading challenge for the coming year and if nothing else, it’ll be diverse.  For 2020, according to Goodreads, I finished 78 books.  Since I was in the final stages of getting Nightmares with the Bible to the publisher, several books early on were about demons, and many of them were quite good.  The nonfiction that really stick out in my mind, however, includes D. W. Pasulka’s American Cosmic, Richard King’s Ahab’s Rolling Sea, Gary D. Rhodes’ The Birth of the American Horror Film, Jeffrey J. Kripal’s Secret Body, Barbara Ehrenreich’s Living with a Wild God, and Ernestine Hayes’ The Tao of Raven.  If anything ties these books together it is likely their honesty when it comes to the spiritual quest.  It can legitimately take many directions.

Fiction has, at least for much of the year, been driven by a few factors: books I have on hand during a pandemic, The Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge, and books on my reading wishlist.  That list is constantly growing and the books that stand out particularly are again diverse.  Especially memorable were Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Hank Green’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, Scott Shibuya Brown’s The Traders, Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic.  Apart from their diversity these books have little in common.  I suppose that’s a testament to the importance of reading widely.  On that list there are only two “white” men but a lot of great books.

Another couple of categories might apply: big books and short story collections.  Big books intimidate me, but I read five of over 500 pages: Ellison’s Invisible Man again, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad, George Eliot’s Middlemarch (my longest book for the year), and Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho.  These books are all in the “classics” category, I see.  Short story collections are more edible, and I read nine of them, including four “by” Rod Serling.  The first was an edited collection of his works, and the other three were his own Twilight Zone adaptations.  I read a few plague books because of the pandemic, but they weren’t really among my favorites.  Perhaps they were a little too close to reality.  Nevertheless 2020 was a good year of reading, overall.  I’m looking ahead to what gems 2021 might hold.


Reading Ahead

One of the highlights of the changing year, for the past five years of my life, has been the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge.  My wife pointed this out to me at the start of 2016 and I’ve used it to guide some of my reading for each year since then.  The idea is fairly simple: many of us get set in our reading habits.  The reading challenge listed categories of books, with a total of twelve volumes, that often forced you to read things you normally wouldn’t.  In pre-pandemic Januaries we’d go to a local independent bookstore and pick out some of our chosen books to fit the various categories.  It became kind of an extended holiday ritual.

It must be tricky to come up with new categories all the time.  Therefore it’s understandable that the Modern Mrs. Darcy has decided to shake things up a bit for 2021 with a somewhat more complex scheme of determining what to read.  Unfortunately for me, I have about enough complexity in my life right now.  For a reading challenge what I crave is simple-minded direction: read a book in (blank) category.  So now I’ll be left to my own imagination for 2021.  Not that that’s ever a problem.  My reading wishlist is enormous and, like the universe, expanding rapidly.  Every year new books of great interest appear.  Every year I learn of books I should’ve read long before now.  I also do research, in my own way, and these books can be rather insistent regarding one’s time.

Goodreads also has a reading challenge (which I also started taking in 2016), but it’s based purely on the number of books you pledge.  There’s a sense of accomplishment when you can tick off that final pledged book (hopefully in September or October), and still have a few months of bonus reading left.  Each year becomes a year in books.  Like many people, I’ve survived the pandemic so far by spending lots of time with books.  For my last post of the year tomorrow I’ll do my traditional summary of the year’s reading.  I began the year thinking of Sea Lab 2020, a formative, optimistic Saturday morning cartoon from my childhood.  We were then hearing rumors of a new disease in China, not anticipating that 45 would decide to sacrifice over 300,000 Americans on the altar of his personal disinterest and pride.  Through it all, however, there have been books.  Reading improves intelligence.  Let’s all hope, then, for a much more intelligent 2021 ahead.


Yankee Doodle

Some books stay with you in a way that hits very close to the nerve.  Since I read Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court many years ago, memories of how it left me feeling prevented me from re-reading it.  That’s pretty unusual for Twain, in my experience.  I’ve read some of his other novels and there’s not a similar feeling toward them.  The racist elements are disturbing, but overall the stories manage to overcome some of the darkness with either levity or sarcasm.  The scenes that scared me off from re-reading Connecticut Yankee were the two episodes in which young women were murdered.  I realize Twain was simply being honest here regarding the cheapness of life in medieval times, but I found both these instances so saddening that I had a difficult time coming back to it.

Now, some two or three decades later the book speaks to me in a new way.  Something else I recently read reminded me of it, and I was struck at just how much Twain’s Arthurian peasants resemble the unthinking crowds of Americans who simply accept what people like Trump say.  One of Hank Morgan’s banes is how the uneducated refuse to question what they’re told.  In many ways this is humorously narrated but a dark undercurrent remains behind.  Twain had clearly supposed that nineteenth-century America had overcome this brainless gullibility.  A century and a half after Twain’s Connecticut Yankee we’ve clearly been involved in retrograde motion.  Twain levels much of the blame on the church.  His choice comments in this regard also still apply.

“I was afraid of a united Church; it makes a mighty power, the mightiest conceivable, and then when it by and by gets into selfish hands, as it is always bound to do, it means death to human liberty and paralysis to human thought.”  So Morgan states in chapter 10, and indeed, in the novel it is the church that largely leads to the downfall of the civilization Morgan had built.  Or again, in chapter 17: “I will say this much for the nobility:  that, tyrannical, murderous, rapacious, and morally rotten as they were, they were deeply and enthusiastically religious.  Nothing could divert them from the regular and faithful performance of the pieties enjoined by the Church.”  Twain couldn’t admit in public,  even in his own nineteenth-century life, what he really thought about organized religion.  It’s pretty plain in his fiction, but disguising fact as fantasy is a tried and true method of getting at the truth.  If I weren’t so sensitive to the human plight, I might read it more often.


Udolpho’s Mysteries

The carousels on Google can provide a great deal of information.  Looking at them, along with trusted lists of gothic novels, it became clear that one of the few classics I’d not read was Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho.  It’s been on my shelf for many years, it’s shear bulk staring me down each time I turned in its direction.  Long books are, of course, fine if they keep you going.  Knowing this was published in 1794 (in four volumes) cast some doubt on the narrative earning the sobriquet of “page turner,” and thus it proved not to be.  I’m afraid my disposition meant that the gothicness of the novel (and it’s certainly there) didn’t speak to me as I hoped it might.  There are creepy castles and rumors of hauntings.  Lots of stormy nights and damsels in distress.  Still, it comes across as the problems of the wealthy and that has to be handled well in order to not turn off this poor reader.

Still, a novel of such fame being written by a woman in the eighteenth century is worthy of note.  More than that, Radcliffe was the most successful (in financial terms) professional writer in the decade that produced The Mysteries of Udolpho.  Her literary influence is undisputed.  The novel is, however, excessively long.  Descriptive prose style was common at the time and may seem excessive to modern readers.  This is, however, impressive for an author who never traveled to the regions about which she wrote.

About 600 pages in, in the edition I read, something caught my eye.  Much of the novel consists of descriptions of mountain ranges in France and Italy.  As one party is on its way up one of the inclines, one of the gentlemen mansplains some of the geological features.  Noting that sea shells are found at such elevations, and so far from any body of water, it is noted that this is evidence of the deluge.  What’s so astonishing about this is that even in the twenty-first century that explanation still has currency among biblical literalists.  The novel appeared before Charles Lyell, who would explain the ancient ages of rocks, was even born.  We have centuries of knowledge at our disposal that we still have a tendency to dismiss.  Interestingly, Radcliffe was famous for reviving gothic literature partially by explaining away any supernatural elements.  Of course, accepting standard religious teaching of the day would pretty much have been expected.  And yet the mysteries continue even over two centuries later.


Wooden Translation?

The summer got away from me, as it always seems to, leaving several boxes of things yet to be sorted.  Since these boxes are in the garage where there’s no heat, doing it during winter isn’t really feasible.  Still, I found myself in the garage storage area the other day and quickly tipped open a box or two to remind myself of what might be inside.  One of the treasures I found is actually from my wife’s family memorabilia.  Not exactly a family Bible, it’s a New Testament one of her grandfathers gave one of her grandmothers as a gift.  It’s a red-letter edition, but what makes it unusual is the binding.  It has olive wood covers from Jerusalem.  The front cover is embossed with a Jerusalem cross.

Bookbinding has long been an area of personal fascination.  Growing up when and how I did, most of my books are paperbacks.  The paperback was initially one of the responses to shortages introduced by wars.  Since they were cheaper to produce they could be priced down.  I have a few academic paperbacks from the twenties (I can’t make myself acknowledge that 1920 was a century ago) whose paper bindings are literally paper.  I fear to take them off the shelf, given the fragile nature of their bindings.  Prior to that books tended to be “hardbacks.”  A piece of cloth-covered cardboard was the preferred means of protecting the vulnerable leaves inside.  Before that leather was routinely used.  Those were the days when books were properly thought of as an investment.

I often think of how little I will leave behind, at least in terms of items of monetary value.  Books seldom maintain their cover price for long.  As someone who lurks on used book websites, however, I do know that the choice tome of either quirky fiction or nonfiction under-appreciated at the time can easily jump market values with predatory sellers.  Even for a paperback.  I am loath to confess how much I’ve paid for a book I really needed for research that mere public libraries simply can’t access.  (The university library is a place of wonder, and one of the resources I most often miss in having become secular.)  Just this past week I saw a sci-fi book from the sixties I wanted to read priced at over $500 on Amazon (used).  When I went to check on it this morning all copies were gone.  And to think the world considers books a poor investment.  The real key is to be obscure, no matter your binding material.


Believing Beyond

The closing line “I’ll come back to you—in the sunlight” is all I remembered from this little book.  Perhaps I hadn’t read it all the way through, but likely I did.  An unapologetic fan of science fiction as a kid, I must’ve picked up Beyond Belief at a fairly young age.  Although it’s a Scholastic book, it is appropriate for older readers as well.  I picked it up again because I start to get anxious when I can’t post about a book for a while.  My current reading projects are either very long or somewhat technical, meaning they take time to finish.  I’m running out of my ready stock of shorter books (mostly collections of stories from the time before book prices were hiked up and publishers felt the need to make them thicker so consumers wouldn’t feel so cheated.

I had put off reading this collection edited by Richard J. Hurley because of that one story I remembered.  As a kid I recognized the name of Isaac Asimov, but probably not that of Theodore Sturgeon, Richard Willey, or Richard Matheson.  These stories were masterpieces of sci-fi in its golden era.  Although they seem antiquated—perhaps even quaint—now, they are the kinds of stories that inspired young pioneers of space travel and may have contributed in some measure to this strange world in which we live.”Phoenix” by Clark Ashton Smith, has stayed with me for decades.  This tiny tome is old enough that I’m not going to worry about spoilers.  I’m only grasping for an emotional thread with childhood.

The sun has gone out.  Two young lovers talk on the eve of the earth mission to reignite the sun by a series of thermonuclear reactions.  The male, of course, is on the mission, but he assures his love that he will return to her in the sunshine.  Something goes wrong, of course.  The ship crashes into the sun, reigniting it, but annihilating the ship and crew.  As the future lady looks out on the newly illuminated world, she knows her love cannot have survived, yet he has returned to her in the sunlight.  That powerful story of self-sacrifice and love left unfulfilled stung my young psyche.  So much so that reading the other seven stories in this book was like reading tales I’d never heard before.  Beyond Belief was a quick read interjected in much more  complicated literary endeavors.  Like childhood, it didn’t fail to bring a warm glow after far too many years.


Preserving Culture

When I travel (remember travel?) I try to visit the places of famous writers.  It doesn’t matter much whether I’ve read a lot of their material; I know kindred spirits when I feel them.  Last summer—the one before the pandemic—I had to make a business trip to Oxford.  Now Oxford has a long, long list of literary illuminati, and I didn’t have much free time.  My hotel, however, turned out to be just a couple of blocks from the house of J. R. R. Tolkien.  One patch between meetings, I wandered over to the house.  It’s behind a high wall, so you can’t see much.  Like most European private homes, it isn’t ostentatious—over here we like to make it obvious when we’re wealthy.  In any case, I stood as long as a stranger can comfortably stand outside someone else’s house and tried to commune with the spirit of the former occupant.

Just the other day I noticed a New York Times headline that stated a movement is afoot in merry old England to purchase Tolkien’s house to make it a museum.  Although there’s no scientific way to prove it, people are somehow connected to the places they live.  There’s no other sensation like returning to your home town.  If, for some strange reason, anyone wishes to recall me after I’m gone (perhaps my pen name will take off someday), they’ll find precious little.  Not one of my pre-college homes still stands.  Not that that’s that unusual in the low rent district.  Still, when I visit my hometown, small as it is, almost nothing of me remains but it still feels like I belong.

I can’t say that I felt much other than my own awe at standing outside Tolkien’s house.  It’s on a residential street, and people were driving and walking by.  I was the only one who seemed to be hanging about.  Probably a bit suspicious-looking wearing a tweed jacket and in general appearing like a displaced academic.  Much of the tourism industry, however, is based on the draw of certain locations because someone famous lived there.  We want to be in touch with them.  Show our respects, perhaps.  If visiting Oxford weren’t always a work occasion for me, I could quite enjoy wandering its literary haunts and ending up for a leisurely afternoon spent in Blackwells.  We congregate in such places for a reason.  I’ve lost track of all the authors’ homes I’ve visited over the years.  Each time, I’m compelled to say, I’m glad someone thought to preserve them.