“Professor Mannhardt relates a strange legend current in Mecklenburg to the effect that in a certain secluded and barren spot, where a murder had been committed, there grows up every day at noon a peculiarly-shaped thistle, unlike any other of its kind. On inspection there are to be seen human arms, hands, and heads, and as soon as twelve heads have appeared, the weird plant vanishes. It is further added that on one occasion a shepherd happened to pass the mysterious spot where the thistle was growing, when instantly his arms were paralysed and his staff became tinder.”
From “The Folk-Lore of Plants“, by T. F. Thiselton-Dyer
This one got passed to me by someone in Korea. My wife is a fan of Kundera. Or was, before I ruined her taste with comic books and Fritz Leiber.
The Joke details several “jokes”, none of which are the haha kind. The first one is a postcard written by Ludvik Jahn when he was a student that caused him to be sentenced to the coal mines. This event propels the plot in so much as the plot is about Ludvik’s quest for revenge fifteen years later. In the ways his plan gets fulfilled and in the ways others react to it provides the rest of the “jokes”.
“When it is postponed, vengeance is transformed into something deceptive, into a personal religion, into a myth that recedes day by day from the people involved, who remain the same in the myth though in reality (the walkway is in constant motion) they long ago became different people: today another Jahn stands before another Zemanek, and the blow that I still owe him can be neither revived nor reconstructed, it is definitely lost.”
Ludvik’s a rather unpleasant and bitter guy, but in him we can see a thwarted hero. His path suggests an anti-bildungsroman where the youth does not mature by overcoming adversity but instead grows cynical when he encounters the injustices of the world. For awhile I was at a bit of a remove while reading it, waiting for it to transcend its “Soviet-style bureaucracies are never good” message. But by its end The Joke is less about any particular course of action or desire the characters have and more about the way history (and historic events) undermines all our expectations — and discovering redemption despite this. It’s a great book as long as you don’t mind your existentialism mixed with a blend of male chauvinism.
My vacation’s about over. I’m in Boston until Thursday when I’ll once more enter the air travel relay race and fly back to Korea. It’s been a great trip. I’ve had time to catch up with family and friends, and in between all the running around and socializing I got to be pretty damn lazy. No complaints there. Now to figure out how to fit that pile of books above into my suitcases.
All of which is to say things are still on hiatus here.
There’s likely to be a lack of posts while I’m visiting the USA.
My flight was more or less fine. The whole thing “door to door” took close to 30 hours. I think only 15 of those hours involved being on an airplane. The rest was spent in transit or sitting around. No highlights, except for the leg early on between Korea and Japan where the woman seated beside me burst into tears halfway through the flight. Yeah… fun times.
All right, this book is one of those I wish I had read as a fifteen year old. At fifteen I would have gobbled this up as I did Moorcock’s Eternal Champion. A Mohawk-sporting, telepathic juvenile delinquent hops through time and dimensions to raise an army to do battle with mind parasites?
Yes. Sign me up.
Now sometimes this is a mixed bag. Often encountering something that speaks to our teen-self only increases our awareness of time’s passing, and you either succumb to wistful nostalgia or get grumpy because you got older. Other times by some quirk in the work or possibly within ourselves, the magic’s still there waiting for us to open the pages and discover it. Warchild was one of those other times.
If you have SFnal fifteen year olds in your life, find them a copy of this book and give it to them.
“There is no better way of obtaining useful information than by mixing with people. According to a wise saying of the ancients: “The eye never tires from seeing, nor the ear from hearing.”
Therefore, I decided with the help of God to blacken these pages with what I saw and heard during this voyage, be it clear or obscure. For I am but a woodgatherer of the night, the one who lags behind, a horse who is out of the race.”
– Disorienting Encounters: Travels of a Moroccan Scholar in France in 1845 – 1846. The Voyage of Muhammad As-Saffar
It’s time for another edition of one book, four covers. This time Lolly Willowes.
Once again I read the NYRB edition. That’s the one all the way over on the left. I think it’s a bit lousy–misleading and unappealing. It calls to mind folk artwork and certainly doesn’t tell you what the book’s likely to be about. The second one… umm.. yeah… First I guess it was published during the 60s/70s Gothic boom where a cover required an old house, a young woman, and some stuffy disapproving mysterious dudes. I’m surprised she’s not wearing a nightgown. Second, the ad-copy:
A charming woman–a midnight meeting–the scent of witchcraft “remarkable… pungent and satisfying”.
From now on I am going to say “remarkable… pungent and satisfying” whenever I smell anything.
The third cover is great. It screams THIS BOOK IS ABOUT WITCHES DEAL WITH IT! while also suggesting a playful irreverence. The fourth cover is a bit too much. Again it’s misleading and takes itself too seriously. It’s much too dark and brooding. As with the second cover it plays up the Old House aspect of the story, which is really a negligible part of the whole story.
Here’s the first read for 2012: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Lolly Willowes. Yup, it’s another New York Review Book and it hasn’t shaken my conviction that all of their books are great. Warner combines the perceptiveness of Jane Austen with the supernatural touch of Shirley Jackson.
Laura “Lolly” Willowes is a single woman in the early 20th century, and the novel concerns her spiritual renewal late in life (well after she has been consigned to the role of spinster aunt by her family) when she becomes a witch of the Margaret Murray type. It’s a slow but fascinating novel, off-kilter in its meandering, but focused in its observations even though the plot really never strays too far from “spinster aunt sells her soul to the devil and lives happily ever after”.
By its end the ground is so well laid that when Warner kicks off the braces and lets fly with some social critique it’s honed to needle sharp perfection.
“’They say: ‘Dear Lolly! What shall we give her for her birthday this year? Perhaps a hot-water bottle. Or what about a nice black lace scarf? Or a new workbox? Her old one is nearly worn out.’ But you say: ‘Come here, my bird! I will give you the dangerous black night to stretch your wings in, and poisonous berries to feed on, and a nest of bones and thorns, perched high up in danger where no one can climb to it.’ That’s why we become witches: to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure.”
Also as a slight aside since I read a lot of weird late Victorian horror fiction, this book’s the perfect antidote to the veiled puritanism in Machen’s work. His women characters are so often “corrupted”, either inherently or by circumstance, that it’s fun to read Lolly Willowes and have that paradigm thrown on its ear. The bachelor nephew, Titus, who would be the hero in a Machen novel, here gets consigned to the role of villain and fool, and the “corruption” Lolly experiences is her hard-earned right to live as she pleases and be respected for it. Bravo for her!
A last point, save the introduction until after you finish the book since it’s one of those that lays out the entire story and, you know, SPOILERS.
Writing-wise I’m pretty happy with this year. Here are the highlights:
– My Lovecraftian, sex tourism gone awry story, “Go Home Stranger”, was published in the anthology Bewere the Night.
– Space Squid reprinted my story “Your Mother” in their Best of Space Squid anthology.
– Shimmer Magazine interviewed me in their Five Authors, Five Questions series. That was cool.
– I sold my Joe Mitchel meets Fritz Leiber story, “Shadows Under Hexmouth Street”, to Beneath Ceaseless Skies. So I should have at least one story coming out in 2012.
– Started two novels (though at the time I believed I was starting one), and will likely finish the first draft of one of them within the next two months. The other one will get written later next year.
– Four new stories went out into the world, and I have another three that need polishing. My goal was to have six in the slush by year’s end. Didn’t quite get that. Next year. I did retire a few stories this year too. Always a sad occassion, but they’re back in the leafmold now awaiting possible hyrbridization.
That’s it. I am where I am, and the view’s not half bad.