A couple of recent additions to Project Gutenberg that look like they might be worth a further look simply on account of their illustrations alone.
“In every manor there was held annually the assize of bread and ale, the two staple articles of diet which it was essential should be pure and of good quality. “Bread, the staff of life, and beer life itself,” not unknown as a motto on the signboards, is a saying that[Pg 97] has come down to us from a prehistoric period. And modern science, as it seems, is inclined to endorse the maxim. Good old-fashioned wheaten and rye bread, made from the whole flour from which only the coarser brans had been sifted, built up the stamina of our forefathers. Their chief drink was ale brewed from barley or oaten malt. The small proportion of alcohol served as a vehicle for the organic phosphates necessary for the sustenance of strong nerves, while the ferment of the malt helped to digest the starch granules in the bread. Bread and ale are still the main diet of our labouring classes—but alas! stale, finely-sifted flour contains a very poor allowance of gluten, and chemically produced saccharine is destitute of phosphates. O, that our modern legislators would revive the assize of bread and ale!”
And from The History of Mourning:
“The Italians, and especially the Venetians, spent enormous sums upon their funeral services, which were exceedingly picturesque; but as the members of the brotherhoods who walked in the procession wore pointed hoods and masks, so that, by the glare of the torches, only their eyes could be seen glittering, and as it was the custom, also, for the funeral to take place at night, the body being exposed upon an open bier, in full dress, the scene was sufficiently weird to attract the attention of travellers.”
Small follow-up on Law & Order: Elementary School. Three of the four kids have been removed from their class and switched into other classes. (There are four 6th grades at my school, all these kids were in one, now they’re spread amongst the four.) I’m not sure what affect this will have. Maybe it will make a difference. Possibly apart they’ll be less trouble. Or possibly they’ll spread their influence to all the other classes and I’ll end up with three more fuxxored classes.
I suspect it will be some alternating combination of the two.
Here are my ten favorite reads for the past year.
Yes, this list ignores publication dates, and the numbers are arbitrary.
1. A Pretty Mouth by Molly Tanzer
2. Memory by Linda Nagata
3. Snitch World by Jim Nisbet
4. A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
5. Dagon by Fred Chappell
6. Temporary Agency by Rachel Pollack
7. Engine Summer by John Crowley
8. Fair Play by Tove Jansson
9. Linger Awhile by Russell Hoban
10. The Trouble With Testosterone by Robert M. Sapolsky
Strange things are going on in the 6th grade.
For the past two days now, the half dozen lousy* students, an assortment of mean girls, bully boys, and their sycophants, are getting pulled out of classes and taken off to separate rooms where they’re being “interrogated” by the teacher in charge of our school’s anti-bullying program**. Granted it’s the end of the year and it would have been great if these interventions had occurred earlier, but in this world I’ll take what I can get.
* Lousy in the horrible person way, not the poorly performing student way. If you’re a crappy student, but a decent person, you’re okay in my class.
** There’s been a push to get anti-bullying programs in schools here, so that’s great – but in a lot of ways it’s completely at odds with the overall culture outside school (though is this much different than back in the States?), and it’s kind of toothless, which might also be the same as in the States.
A slow month for reading since I’ve gotten involved with Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. Here are the books I managed to finish:
1. At Amberleaf Fair – Phyllis Ann Karr
A mid-80s fantasy novel set at a seasonal fair and featuring miss-matched lovers, petty theft, and magic. It’s a bit of a curiosity: a secondary world fantasy crime novel where much of the world building and conflict deals with a barter economy and the small ways magic is integrated into everyday existence. At times the styles of the crime genre and the fantasy genre clash, and too often the novel sits heavily on the fantasy side and suffers for it. Still, I enjoyed it because it’s a small scale secondary world fantasy and I’m a sucker for those.
2. A House in Naples – Peter Rabe
A 50s pulp crime novel about two American criminals in post-War Naples. It’s a quick read, full of unlikable characters, and very ugly, but it’s better than most. If you have any desire to read pulp crime, Peter Rabe should be on your list of authors to check out.
3. The Digger’s Game – George V. Higgins
Crime circa-1970s Boston, I liked it but not as much as Cogan’s Trade or The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Still, when it’s good, it’s good and sections of the novel leap off the page. I should also thank Rick Bowes for making me read Higgins in the first place.
4. How To Make Friends With Demons – Graham Joyce
I could see a person hating this book. It meanders, withholds information, and for much of it you’re wondering when Joyce is going to a) get on with it, b) tell you what it’s all about. But if you accept those things and admire how he’s doing it all, then you’ll find much to enjoy here.
5. Storm of Steel – Ernst Junger
War is good! War is great! War! War! War! Junger was a German storm trooper during World War One. He enjoyed the war on the occasions when it wasn’t making him breakdown into fits of sobbing, and this book is his memoir of his experiences. There’s a part early on where Junger enters a field hospital after a battle and he describes the doctor as having a “cold, antlike efficiency in the middle of the carnage”. The book is full of a lot of that.
Every now and then the debate over reading genre classics pops up and rears its ugly head. On the one hand you have folks who feel we’re losing a literary heritage and forgetting too many old great books as new great books get published. Mike Swanwick had a recent blog post to that effect. The genre was once smaller, you could read everything in it, and stay on top of it. It was easier not only to find the firsts in a genre, but also the outliers. Having a hungry curiosity for this stuff is good.
On the other hand you have the opposite position of just knowing what’s current, which in its extreme form might resemble this five year old blog post from Karen Traviss about not needing to read to be a writer. (I don’t know if Traviss still agrees with that blog post, but I’ll keep it until I learn otherwise because it’s useful.) In its milder form, it’s not needing to read every alien invasion story ever, but just those in recent years in order to see how alien invasion stories are being told now in this era.
There’s also a third hand, which shows up in the comments of Swanwick’s post, stating that the “classics” might not be so classic and why navigate through books dripping with the prejudices of their eras. This too is a valuable point, but my reading of Swanwick’s post is one not so much telling writers to know their history and cling to it, but to sift that history and find the gems in it, the outliers as he dubs them, or the books lost in genre’s shadow like the ones I mention here and here.
However there are ways to reconcile these three arguments when you keep these guidelines in mind:
1. Read only what you enjoy, but cultivate a curious and complex palette that enjoys challenges.
2. Make your own genre history. Lots of stuff gets lost in the margins or ignored because it doesn’t tidily fit in with someone’s imposed narrative. Bring these works to light.
3. The early work in a genre has more immediacy than subsequent iterations. It can sometimes be as fresh as more recent works.
4. As far as knowing your genre goes, once you’ve read the initial spark, focus on what’s been done with it in the past decade. But…
5. Always remember there are likely more amazing books that you haven’t heard of than ones you have.