Clay’s Ark by Octavia E. Butler: This was the first book I read by Butler years ago. I remember finding this exact edition at the library and reading it over the course of one summer afternoon. This is a weird book. A sort of cyberpunk Hills Have Eyes except the cannibals are the good guys. At some point five years in the future, the USA is a hellscape of misery and violence – and somewhere in the desert something from another world is breeding, reshaping humanity in an isolated settlement. A lone doctor and his two daughters get captured by the settlement’s altered inhabitants and violence ensues. This is part of Butler’s Patternmaster series but can easily be read as a stand alone novel.
Fifty Shades of Louisa May by L.M. Anonymous: This is a porn novel purporting to be a recently discovered manuscript by Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women and other such books you probably should have read but didn’t. It’s funny, silly, and treats its subjects with appropriate irreverence whether it’s Emerson’s morphine habit, Thoreau’s BO, or Herman Melville playing Peeping Tom to Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife.
A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson: Wilson’s A Sorcerer of the Wilddeeps was likely my favorite fantasy novel in recent years and A Taste of Honey is a decent follow-up. Again we have a love story between two gifted men, only here that love story is in the foreground as the story centers the struggle of one of the men to choose a life that fulfills himself or that satisfies his family’s expectations for him. And it does that while still kind of being a Sword & Sorcery story.
How to Cook A Wolf by MFK Fisher: I first heard of this book from the Apocalypse World RPG’s suggested reading list. It’s a cookbook written during World War Two, a time of shortages and rationing, and as such it’s a fascinating peek into that era. Fisher’s intention is to provide a means to confront hunger, the wolf of the title, head on without losing one’s dignity or enjoyment for food. Lots of soup and stew recipes and tips on how to stretch a meal, and lots of weird asides like how hard it is to get fish now that a) the coast is mined, and b) the population that fished, Japanese-Americans, have been interred. Worth tracking down. (Fisher updated the book nine years later and these bits are in parenthesis and at times this is distracting like you’re invited over to watch her argue with herself.)
One of the results of the English Civil War was the rise of cookbooks as a distinct genre. It makes sense if you think about it. You had former servants out of work, one-time nobles stuck in exile and/or broke, and a public nostalgic and eager to see how those nobles lived. As this was an era where “physick” and alchemy weren’t too far apart from each other you’d have a lot of cross over between the two: a recipe for bacon and eggs a few pages away from a recipe for a healing draught. Here’s a few interesting characters that worked early on in writing cookbooks.
Lady Ann Fanshawe: Memoirist. Possible first English language recorder of a recipe for ice cream. Lady Fanshawe wrote her memoir for private circulation as a guide to her son on how to live a proper life and do honor to her late husband and the son’s father. But she also kept a book of receipts and recipes. Amid the food recipes, Lady Fanshawe’s book had recipes for cooking up common remedies to various ailments and tidbits of herblore. It was likely common practice at the time for a noblewoman to pass down such a book full of common wisdom, recipes, and remedies to a daughter upon the occasion of her marriage.
Sir Kenelm Digby*: English Catholic noble, privateer, amateur scientist, and alchemist, Sir Kenelm Digby had a bit of it all going for him. He seemed like a bit of kook too, but that’s okay. He was the guy who suggested we all eat bacon and eggs for breakfast with the “juyce of an Orange”, and suggesting that when cooking venison it should be so well cooked that it can be carved from the bone with a spoon. Sir Digby spent years roaming Europe traveling from court to court and his book reflects that. The Closet of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight Opened was published after his death and has over a hundred recipes for mead.
Hannah Wolley: Her mother and sisters were skilled at “physick and chiurgy”, and she learned the trade from them. Her husband was a school teacher, and she herself was a teacher. Her books weren’t simply about cooking, but household management. And like Lady Fanshawe’s book, Wolley’s featured remedies for ailments amid all the recipes. Yet unlike the other two she wasn’t of the nobility, but common (if upper class) birth. Hannah’s likely the first person to make a living writing cookbooks in the English language.
A couple of other things: This article on cookbooks as literature is kind of neat. Especially as it delves into the cookbooks of Dumas who wrote like the Anthony Bourdain of his time.
Also since I’m talking cookbooks I have to mention this youtube series on 18th century cooking that I’m completely hooked on from J. Townsend and Son. I recommend the switchel!
* Not to be confused with Sir Digby Chicken Caesar.
What am I playing?
I ran a game for a bit until two TPKs got me a reputation in town as a killer DM. This made me sad, but my buddy took over the gaming duties. Now, I’m playing in his game and being the yahoo running amok. For laughs I’m a playing a goody two shoes who makes everyone’s life miserable.
I like 5e, but it takes forever to make a character and all the crunch gets to me.
(I’m also playing a f**kton of board games but that’s a subject for another post.)
What am I running?
The Stars Without Number game stalled out, then I killed a few parties with 5e, and ran a Numenera one-shot that never really became more than that because two of the players left town (although I wouldn’t have minded if it had become a longer running game).
Apocalypse World has been fun, but it certainly takes more reading the table, than D&D ever did. Also, D&D has very clear role demarcations whereas Apocalypse World doesn’t, so if you have a player who wants to do everything and control every other player, they will try to. Generally, this same person outside of the game is a bit of a bore.
What do I wish I was running?
Beyond the Wall.
The more 5e I play, the more I fall in love with this retroclone. Yeah, the YA protag thing could be a bit annoying – but as a system this might be my favorite iteration of D&D.
Who does it suck to game with?
Two kinds of people:
The never played D&D before but loves Wil Wheaton nerd who sees D&D as a signifier of their nerd status. It’s not just a game, it’s a pop culture reference! If there are no Cheetos and Mountain Dew on the table they feel slighted.
Chess players. Chess players are the worst.
I’m reading CV Wedgwood’s The Thirty Years War. I’m near the start of year three of the war. This is what has happened so far:
Bohemia needed a king but couldn’t decide on one because electoral college/religion. It didn’t help that the two potential kings were more or less identical taciturn, easily manipulated young inbred aristocrats with the names Fred and Ferdinand. No one cared who sat on the throne except some asshole Catholics and some asshole Protestants. What mattered was that Bohemia was in Germany, and Germany was the highway between North Europe and South Europe.
If you wanted to sell British linens in Venice and North Africa, you marched them through Germany and Germans made a lot of money being a superhighway full of beer and inns. So many people wanted to control Germany that it was overseen by something like 2000 minor princes, families, and church holdings. And not just because of beers and inns and linens and markets but to control the road so when the time came, and everyone knew it was coming, and the shit finally hit the fan in Europe, that Austro-Spanish Superpower couldn’t march their soldiers out of Italy (breeding place of strapping young lads with low job prospects and mercenary captains eager to bulk up their CVs) along the German superhighway to Northern Europe where someone else’s Sister’s Father-in-law-Uncle-Cousin has his kingdom and he’s rich/also happens to be their cousin!
Everyone expects the fan shit hit to happen in a few years when a treaty runs out in Flanders, but surprise surprise a bunch of asshole Catholics got thrown out a window in Prague by a bunch of asshole Protestants because they had an electoral college/religious freedom (which totally only applied to Protestants and Catholics anyways*).
So two years ahead of schedule it’s time for proxy war in Germany, and Fred or Ferdinand is like Hey Uncle/Cousin/Father-in-Law can you help me out? And that Uncle-Cousin-Father-in-Law is like okay, and his enemies (the Uncle-Cousin-Father-in-law’s) are like No Fucking Way you Austro-Spanish asshole, you ain’t getting anywhere near that sweet German Superhighway. And they go to Not-Fred nor-Ferdinand and are like, let me help you out, because
no way that asshole gets access to that superhighway religious freedom!
One faction sends an army, the other faction goes to Italy and buys an army, and march march march, let’s have a fight. And if we can’t have a fight let’s just burn and loot shit. And at some point the Hungarians are like Man – we need to get in on all that looting, so here’s an army because Sister-Uncle-Brother-in-law-Treaty and Fred Ferdinand is like “Gee, thanks?” as his own kingdom is looted by his own allies.
And it’s more marching, more looting, and more fighting and then there’s a big fight outside Prague on a white mountain and the rebellious Bohemian side (Fred’s) loses, and Ferdinand’s like that’s all sorted out – by which I mean he has a bunch of protestants executed and their heads put on spikes and cuts up their paper telling them they have religious freedom, and he felt really awful doing it because he’s really just a shy, misunderstood privileged bro aristocrat manipulated by everyone around him but he totally went to confession before signing the death warrants so it’s all good.
Meanwhile Fred’s run off to the King of Sweden and is like Wah wah, my kingdom, and right behind Fred is this Manfred Max mercenary captain character like Wah wah where’s my f—ing money. And Fred’s like I ain’t got it, and the King of Sweden is like Let me help you because
German superhighway RELIGIOUS FREEDOM!, and Manfred Max mercenary captain is like, I’ll stick with you guys because war=money and maybe this time I’ll f—ing make some.**
And that brings us to the end of year two. Not confusing at all, right?
* The book makes no reference to what Germany’s Jewish community thought about all this high-falutin religious freedom talk. It’s accepted as a given that religious freedom was meant only to mean Calvinists and Jesuits shouldn’t be assholes to Lutherans and old fashioned folk Catholics. But the book’s not a series of cross-sections like Purkiss’s The English Civil War. It’s much more straightforward and chronological. From a folklore prospective this would be the eras of the the European witch-hunts, the Golem of Prague, the events depicted in Simplicus Simplicissimus, and the fairy tales the Grimms and Von Schwonwerth would write down two centuries later. Wanting to know how all that mixed into this brew of events is likely another book entirely.
** All every mercenary captain wanted to do was make enough money to retire to some nice quiet out of the way principality somewhere – and by that I don’t mean as like some dowdy bourgeois merchant, but as The Prince of the place. These guys seem like they come right out of a Jim Thompson crime novel like The Getaway. “Just one more war, baby, then I promise I’ll retire to that valley outside Genoa.”
“If you ask, she must answer. A steerswoman’s knowledge is shared with any who request it; no steerswoman may refuse a question, and no steerswoman may answer with anything but the truth.”
So last month I breezed through all the books in Rosemary Kirstein’s The Steerswoman series. And now I want to tell you all about them because they’re smart and fun.
The Good… They’re limited in setting, POV, and scope. This is definitely a pet peeve of mine, but I much prefer stories set against a local area than one that sprawls. These books don’t sprawl. They’re smart in their presentation of their world and philosophy. I can’t say enough about how great it is to read a speculative fiction novel that digs deep into a place and way of life and not send its characters careening across the landscape like tourists or anthropologists for hundreds of pages. And this is even though the Steerswomen do approach their work like anthropologists would, studying their society and the world they live in – but it’s presented as part and parcel of a developed milieu.
These are very much books about people in places and not about broad political movements or the internecine strife between nations or kingdoms. Those things are present as are elements of the sword & sorcery genre, only their brought down to the level of neighborhood politics and local actions. Their perspective is not the Epic but the Realist. Rowan the Steerswoman is on a journey of discovery and we learn as she explores different places and communities. Even the map in the front of the book is an artifact of her journey towards a greater understanding of her world, as each book opens with a different map encompassing her explorations up until that book.
The Bad… It’s a series and it’s not done yet. The first book was written in 1989 and the fourth in 2004. The author has said there are likely two more books to go. So coming into the series now, you need to know ahead of time that while each book is self-contained and short, the main story-line is yet to be fulfilled. All those plots and adventures and slow reveals of wider world details have yet to pay off. That’s a drag. But to let that stop you would be to miss out on some very good and very smart adventure fiction.
The Ugly… There’s a reveal. It’s not well hidden. Look at the covers to the first two books, The Steerswoman and The Outskirter’s Secret, you don’t even need the author to tell you she’s writing science-fiction not fantasy. (But if so, it’s the science fiction of Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia and not so much Non-Stop.) The fact that there is a reveal isn’t such a bad thing, but don’t get hung up on it. Really, it’s not a secret. It’s on the covers after all. The rest of it is all good, so check’em out!
This was a great month for books. I read a ton of fun stuff. Here are some highlights:
The English Civil War: Papists, Gentlewomen, Soldiers, and Witchfinders in the Birth of Modern Britain by Diane Purkiss: I’ve been slogging through this for months, reading a chapter here and there and then putting it aside for weeks on end, but you shouldn’t take my slow progress as a judgment. It’s a thick history book and I can’t be blamed for wanting some occasional zap/pow/boom along the way. The weirdness of the time comes through, but I’m sure it could be even more deeply explored (if you know of a book that does, I’d love to hear of it). But yeah, this is one of those people’s histories so draws on a lot of first hand accounts from various outsider sources such as kitchen servants, pamphleteers, and soldier-preachers.
Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy Hughes: Weird pulp crime novel that reminded me of Nightmare Alley while managing to be even pulpier. Sailor is a Chicago gangster who works as the personal secretary to a corrupt senator. When a deal goes bad and the senator cuts ties with Sailor, Sailor tracks him to New Mexico where they play cat and mouse in the midst of a fiesta. Meanwhile McIntyre, a Chicago cop, is trying to get the goods on the senator and hopes he can convince Sailor to do something good with his life for once. I will probably do a “One Book Four Covers” for this book, but I absolutely loved it.
Silently and Very Fast by Catherynne M. Valente: An AI/human hybrid teaching itself how to love by listening to stories? Maybe. I was along for the gorgeous prose and imagery. The story unfolds at its own pace, so you need to give this time as it puzzles itself apart and reveals its workings to you. I’d say the journey is worth it.
Bleakwarrior by Alistair Rennie: This is a bad book for bad people and as good as they say. It’s the grim dark genre pushed to absurd lengths and a long form riff on Elric and his like. Imagine Elric by way of GWAR by way of the WWF if Jodorowsky were in charge of the script. If you can imagine it and can stomach copious amount of violence, more violence, and genital violence, then get your hands on this book. It’s something.
The Language of Power by Rosemary Kirstein: This is the fourth book in Kirstein’s Steerswoman series, and the most recent. I plowed through all four this month and will do a longer post on the series some time this month. Safe to say I adored them and they did so much right that most speculative fiction gets wrong in regards to pace and plotting. This book has Rowan the Steerswoman still on the trail of the wizard Slado and the mystery of “routine bioform clearance”, but has her staying in a small town as she tries to uncover more of Slado’s history. The thing I loved was how the entire book stayed focus on one locale and situation, and didn’t do the standard spec-fiction thing of sending people running all over the world to discover plot tokens. The downside is that there are still two more books to go in the series.
I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas: An enjoyable book that satirizes fandom or at least the areas of it I’m partially familiar with. The Summer Tentacular is an annual HP Lovecraft convention that draws a host of weirdos to Providence, RI. Only this year a notoriously disliked author has been murdered in the hotel and his room mate decides to play detective and tries to find out why no one cares that a murder has happened among their members. A fun read that at its worst becomes a Lovecraft sitcom or riff on Bimbos of the Death Sun, but at its best is funny, sad, and a little bit terrifying.
And there we go…
I made slow progress on a few books but didn’t finish them, put down others, read some short fiction, and so here we are.
I went on a binge of old school space opera. “A Planet Named Shayol” by Cordwainer Smith is some seriously gross, bizarre stuff about a man convicted to live on a horrifying prison planet. It’s a crazy ride and well worth reading if you like weird, SF, or weird SF. The picture above is the Virgil Finlay illustration for it. Smith has some notoriety for being an early CIA agent and writing a manual on Psychological Warfare. An interesting guy and his stories are always interesting.
Second short fiction binge: James H. Schmitz. Have I blathered about the Witches of Karres? That’s a fun space opera and Schmitz by and large delivers fun space opera. Agent of Vega offers more of the same. Intergalactic secret agents foil various threats from hostile alien invasions to crimelords that are nothing more than the puppets of telepathic alien parasites. Stuff like that. I’m have a fun time working my way through Agent of Vega and Other Stories. One thing I really like is Schmitz’s a much more compassionate and a lot less hard-edged than his peers without coming across as being naive or sentimental.
Third short fiction binge: Elmore Leonard’s When the Women Come Out To Dance. Mostly crime short stories with some more literary and a few westerns pitched in. This book made me understand why people love Leonard’s stuff. His range from short and clipped to long and dense is amazing. I plan on getting a copy of his collection of Western stories, cause the ones in here were pretty great.
On to a novel:
The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by DG Compton: A 70s SF novel about a world where most illnesses have been cured and people mostly only die from old age. This has led to a sort of despair in the society that’s being countered by reality TV shows centered on the rare young and middle-aged individuals who suffer from terminal diseases. Katherine Mortenhoe is one such individual, and the novel centers on her coming to terms with her mortality while a media empire tries to maximize her suffering to their profit. And I would probably go on about that and mention how much I love NYRB’s stuff… except over the weekend NYRB doxxed an author who has gone to great lengths to maintain their anonymity and even said they’d likely quit writing if their identity was revealed. So I don’t know what to think except fuck NYRB.