The Occult Philosophy in the Elizabethan Age by Frances A. Yates: Fascinating bits, even if I suspect a lot of Yates’s scholarship might now be outdated, especially where concerned with the Rosicrucians. But otherwise the book shines in so many other ways: the popularization and influence of kabbalah and alchemy on Catholic reformers and Shakespeare, the Arthurian cult and how that got applied to Queen Elizabeth (makes me want to read Spencer’s The Fairy Queen), and the weird history of early Protestantism makes this worth tracking down.
The Hospital Ship by Martin Bax: The crew of the hospital ship travels from port to port tending to victims of unknown civil disturbances. No one knows what’s happening, because the radio operator is slightly mad. And then the ship enters the Mediterranean and finds nothing but crucified bodies waiting for them on the piers. A 70s brit-lit novel curiosity, a bit apocalyptic new wave SF and a bit Graham Greene – all shuffled together with pages from a medical textbook. I liked it but it’s not a book I can really recommend, unless any of the above sounds neat. Where I think it ends is in showing two ways humanity can go forward: a mechanistic way and a compassionate way.
Godmother Night by Rachel Pollack: Imagine Neil Gaiman’s American Gods except as a lesbian love story that riffs more on fairy tales than mythology. This was the first fiction book in a while I had to set aside for a week because the events in the plot started to get too intense. Pollack’s three for three with everything I’ve read by her being really, really good. I downloaded her latest and hope to read it in the next few months.
Look at that cover though! It’s so much a Sandman cover you can almost pinpoint the month in the 1990s when the book hit. Not to say Pollack’s ripping off Gaiman, I just think both came to the same place independently of each other.
Kill the Boss Good-by by Peter Rabe: Syndicate boss Tom Fell cracked up and went to a sanitarium leaving his lieutenant Pander in charge. Now Fell’s back and wants to get back in charge, but Pander has other ideas. A simple straightforward crime novel, but an enjoyable ride all the same. Rabe was one of the steady producers of Gold Medal novels, the same paperback original line that published Jim Thompson and David Goodis and others. Rabe also was a psychiatrist by trade and this makes the bits when Fell’s having a manic episode read as observed details. There’s a Black Lizard reprint that might be possible to find or the Starkhouse reprint I read.
Ever notice how you never see what people read in the month of December because they’re always posting Year’s Best lists and stuff like that? Yeah, me too. So there will be none of that here. Instead you just have the same old end of the month review. Enjoy!
The Dark Domain by Stefan Grabinski: Read this! If you at all like dark, weird, and old fiction it’s well worth your while to track this down. Grabinski’s sort of considered Poland’s Poe, and his work certainly has the old horror vibe, but he wrote in the earlier part of the 20th century and Grabinski’s obsession are all his own. Demon-haunted trains, dueling your own doppelganger, coal smoke elementals, undead gravediggers, sex with ghosts – if any of that sounds cool, read this book. You’ll not be disappointed.
The Quiet Woman by Christopher Priest: I blathered about this book two posts ago.
The Fortress at the End of Time: I’ll likely blather more about this book later this week. I liked it quite a bit. It’s military SF, as long as you realize for a lot of people being in the military means being extremely bored extremely far from home.
Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction by Annalee Newitz: A fun, fascinating book about mass extinction that makes you feel hopeful that humanity might manage to adapt to most apocalyptic scenarios and manage to bounce back against a hostile universe. Newitz’s approach is to look across species boundaries to see what strategies have worked for animals along with looking at those used by human populations to survive. To this she also adds the “remember” part and tries to capture ways fiction, and in particular, science-fiction can point a way forward. A neat book.
Drinking Sapphire Wine by Tanith Lee: I did not read this version. I wish I had, because who doesn’t love 70s cleavage… I mean, the e-book was full of horrible typos. Anyway this is the second book in a series I haven’t read any other book in and despite that I quite liked it. It’s SF of the gender-swapping far future society that’s all David Bowie//Studio 54 scenesters all the time variety and it embraces that notion absolutely and completely, but the real story happens when the narrator gets exiled from that society and takes up gardening outside in the desert. Somethings you could only get away with in the days of cheap paperback novels. But I really should read more Tanith Lee, because this was fun.
And that’s all.
This year I was toying with the idea of writing about the books I don’t finish and talking about those, but really I haven’t found anything in a book I didn’t like that wasn’t covered in this post here.
I guess one reason I’d add to the list of why I might stop reading a book is a personal one regarding subject matter: I find losers and dirt-bags of most varieties far more interesting to read about than good students no matter how corrupt the system those students struggle against. It’s a shame, but that’s the truth. And it’s also number one on that list.
It’s the end of the year and everyone is posting their best-of-the-year list and I thought I would do mine a little bit different. These aren’t so much my favorite reads but books that for one reason or another have stuck with me and I’m still thinking about days/weeks/months after I read them. And as always these aren’t books published this year, but read this year.
The Blackbirder by Dorothy B. Hughes: A pulp novel written in the early 1940s about a European refugee on the run in wartime USA. Julie Guilles the daughter of American expatriates in France flees to the USA where she’s not a legal citizen and hopes to keep a low profile fearing both the FBI and the Gestapo. Things don’t go as planned and when a former associate gets murdered on her door step, Julie takes off across country because she can’t trust anyone and has learned of the existence of a human trafficker in New Mexico that may know the whereabouts of her cousin. It’s pretty simple hard-boiled stuff, but it’s the wartime details that stuck with me because they were fresh and a bit startling. Like right now when we talk about WW2 it’s over and done, it can be reduced to a narrative, and it’s talked about in certain ways. This book was written while the end was yet to be determined, and Julie’s as afraid of ending up in a US concentration camp as a German one. There’s likely an education to be had in reading hard-boiled pulp written during and set in WW2.
Bleak Warrior by Alistair Rennie: Hey did you know I like to write fiction and sometimes it even gets published? Did you also know that Bleak Warrior has a guy in it with a dick-shaped club who ejaculates semen cold enough to kill the people he rapes by frostbite and another guy that eats pickled intestines like they’re spaghetti? What do these things have to do with each other? Well, let’s just say that sometimes when I’m working on a thing and tying myself up in knots to make it all make sense knowing there’s a book like Bleak Warrior out there fills me with hope, kind of the same way reading The Blackbirder gets me over the hump when it comes to thinking about “plot”. Both books are pulpy and trashy, but smart about it, and what they riff on is other prose not just some TV show, which is a bit of a pet peeve of mine. Rennie’s internalized Michael Moorcock here, twisted all the dials to 11, and then smashed the control board just to see what would happen. Bleak Warrior’s a weird awful book, and while that doesn’t mean more ice-dick, it’s liberating in its embrace of all that it is.
City of Bohane by Kevin Barry: I described this to friends as a post-apocalyptic version of The Wire. Set sometime in the latter half of the 21st century after various calamities have brought much of the world to its knees and thrown technology back nearly two centuries, City of Bohane deals with the gang war between factions attempting to control the titular Irish city. It’s a jargon-rich slangy violent book (which is why it’s on this list) that took a while for me to get into but when I did I found myself caught up in all the squalid dealing, back-stabbing, and betrayals set amid the occasional weirdness and flourishes. And all at half the length of a Song of Fire & Ice novel...
Definitely not for everyone, maybe even less so than Bleak Warrior, but if you think it might be up your alley, hell friend, you’re already doomed.
The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter: I hold with the notion that society is a sea of often unexamined ideas and we’re all swimming in it largely unaware of the historical context of a lot of the mental landscape around us. Painter picks apart more than a few of those ideas in this book. Whether it’s addressing the institution of white slavery and the abuses rendered upon the Irish, or the weird fascination much of Europe had with Nordic purity and skull shape, or the way German nationalism is based on a chapter from Tacitus’s Histories, or really dozens of other things, Painter dives right in and writes about them all in an engaging and accessible style. This is a history of ideas and concepts that are largely accepted without question, and by shining a light on them and showing their seams and connections shows how much they’re a creation and not some universal truth.
The Quiet Woman by Christopher Priest: This book is a mess, but a fascinating mess. Imagine a mash-up between JG Ballard, Phillip K Dick, and Patricia Highsmith and you might get an idea of the mood of this book. Alice Stockton is a recently divorced writer who’s moved to the south of England to start her life over, only to have a nuclear reactor in France meltdown and start dropping radioactive fall out all over her region. While officials say everything is fine, Alice’s latest manuscript has been confiscated by the government and her one friend in town has been murdered by persons unknown. As she adjusts to her friend’s death, the woman’s son appears and starts taking an interest in Alice’s life.
The overall mood of this book is paranoid and sitting right on the edge of something awful, that ends up being not quite the apocalypse you thought you’d get. Yet… yet… even if it doesn’t all fit together and make sense, there’s a lot of bits of this that get under your skin, or at least my skin, as it’s a snapshot of the emergent surveillance state and maybe a commentary on 80s excess.
The Vegetarian by Han Kang: I’ve only read one other contemporary Korean novel, Kim Young-Ha’s I Have the Right to Destroy Myself, and based on that book and this one I’m starting to suspect Milan Kundera was something of a huge deal in contemporary Korean Lit. HUGE. With Han Kang’s The Vegetarian I didn’t much like it on initial read, especially the early two-thirds of the book as I could only feel contempt for all the characters, but the last third remedied that and now after a few months I’m thinking back on the earlier two-thirds and seeing them in possibly a better light. The plot of The Vegetarian is a young Korean woman decides to become a vegetarian and by doing so she throws her whole world into turmoil. The first two-thirds of the book are narrated largely from the POV of her husband and brother-in-law, and they’re both awful people, but awful in different ways (that I’ll call Right Wing/Left Wing South Korean male styles). The last third is narrated from the woman’s sister, and that’s where the heart of the book was for me and its most damning elements. Ultimately at the end the moral is South Korean culture, especially for women, is so awful that the living envy the dead and the sane envy the insane.
But, the more fascinating thing was how I heard this book talked about, because no one in Korea talked about the message of the book or what it might be saying. All the commentary was on how beautiful the writing was. It was one of the weirdest silencing techniques I’d ever witnessed, like praising a N.K. Jemisin novel for the quality of its prose while centering all discussion on “prose quality” and adamantly ignoring any discussion of race suggested by her books. And this wasn’t simply that I couldn’t follow discussions on this book. My wife said the same: all public commentary on the book praised the quality of the writing and ignored anything it might have been saying. Weird.
And there you go.
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.
“The problem with conducting your own reality testing is that sometimes the people you’re surrounded with are not all right in the head either.”
STAY CRAZY’s a book in the vein of those Philip K. Dick novels written when PKD believed an alien satellite orbiting around the Earth was beaming thoughts into his head and telling him the truth he needed to hear. But instead of being about burnt-out science fiction writers, Gnosticism, and the evils of Richard Nixon, Stay Crazy’s about schizophrenic teens, interdimensional entities, and the evils of big box superstores.
Emmeline “Em” Kalberg is a nineteen-year-old living in Clear Falls Pennsylvania, a former mill town trying to survive by pretending to be a remote Pittsburgh suburb. Em’s just being released from a mental institution when the novel starts, a hospital where she’s been since her nervous breakdown during her freshman year at college. Once home she takes a job at the only remaining store in town, Savertown USA, a place part cult, part Walmart, and ostensibly all American if you overlook the fact that everything in it is made overseas (but they do make their employees wear red, white, and blue uniforms).
Soon the frozen foods and other merchandise begin broadcasting to Em, all the transmissions claiming to be from Escodex, an interdimensional investigator inhabiting a higher level of reality. Escodex needs help. An evil entity seeks to destroy our dimension and it plans on using a dimensional nexus point inside Savertown to do it. Em’s the only one willing to listen to Escodex, although she’s not quite sure if this is simply another schizophrenic episode. Soon the only thing standing between our universe and annihilation are the minimum wage earning and battered-down by life stockroom staff at that one shitty retail store.
Stay Crazy’s a weird and fun little novel. Em’s engaging as a mess of a character and her arc from miserable, arrogant, self-centered teen to slightly less miserable and less arrogantly self-centered teen is enjoyable. It’s not a perfect novel. There are some rough bits, not in the content sense, but more mechanical stuff, and once or twice I wished things were tighter. Some character interactions could have been expanded, and there were a few moments where events happened between scenes that I wish had been depicted for the reader.
But overall it’s that mix of the weird and the downtrodden that makes Stay Crazy fun – maybe not ha-ha fun, but fun of a kind all the same. It would be a slipstream novel, except no one knows what Slipstream is. It could be science fiction or horror, except it’s not. It’s one of those weird novels that sits oddly in the joints between categories. Resume With Monsters mixed with Bubba Ho-Tep with some Kurt Vonnegut by way of Nick Mamatas added in. And that’s all great stuff. So if any of that sounds interesting to you, don’t hesitate to check it out, you’ll enjoy the trip.
Favorite reads for June. I put down more books than I finished… or am still stuck in the middle of them. Of the few I finished here are the highlights:
A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh: Probably the book I liked the least here. That’s not to say it’s bad, but it’s a mix of neat/cool facts and un-neat/un-cool rhapsodically waxing architectural that had not enough of one and too much of the other. But as a quick read, skimming to the neat bits such as monastic book thieves, tunneling bank robbers, and the guy they dubbed Spiderman who lived in a secret apartment he built in a Toys R Us, it’s a lot of fun. Added bonus feature! If you read it before bed it might give you home invasion nightmares!
The Looking Glass War by John LeCarre: A sad spy novel that the former CIA head Allen Dulles believed depicted what spy work actually was like. If you’ve read the George Smiley/Circus books you might like this one, because here they’re the villains standing aside as another British intelligence agency attempts to field a mission a bit too far beyond their capabilities.
Company Town by Madeline Ashby: A cyberpunk novel set on a city-sized oil rig about a body guard and her new assignment looking after the heir apparent to the corporation that bought the rig. It’s cyberpunk in the good way, focusing on those undermined or otherwise on the bad side of progress. I’ll warn you that I don’t think Ashby quite sticks the landing, but she’s close enough that I can appreciate the ride and the ambition she had attempting to pull it off.
Black Wine by Candas Jane Dorsey: I grew up reading a lot of fantasy, but have come around to not standing it in 99% of its modern forms (Epic, Grim, Sword & Sorcery, it’s all *blerg*). But when I find a book that sits in that 1%? Holy shit! I’m in love. This is one of those books. It’s brutal, but from the first sentence I was hooked.
There is a scarred, twisted old madwoman in a cage in the court yard.
It’s rare that a book I’m reading flat out and out sucks. So what makes me quit reading a book? Read on and find out!
- It’s Not You. It’s Me: That thing your book does is a fine and good thing, it just doesn’t happen to be my thing. So you do you. I’ll do me, and move on without any ill feelings.
- That Window of Opportunity Has Closed: I subscribe to the view that we have a finite number of slots for certain stories, and once you fill up those slots you’re less likely to respond to new stories drawing from the same well. This is a normal thing and not something to be lamented, as long as you’re not a shitheel about it and crap on other people’s books for not being those same books you’re crazy about.
- The Ham Sandwich Problem: While that plot thing your characters are tracking down might be vitally important to them, I, the reader, am not quite convinced why it is. It may as well be a ham sandwich for all it matters to me.
- Your Plot Only Works Because You Have Shitheels in It: This is akin to that frustration you feel when you watch a movie where the plot centers around miscommunication, and you want to scream, “Holy Hell, people! Can you all stop and just call each other for two seconds and clear up this mess?!?” It’s a fine line, because some shitheels in a book might be necessary, but not so many that they strain plausibility.
- Your Book Actually Sucks: Somehow it happened. A book with all the thrills and charisma of a plank of particle board got published and ended up in my hands. Meanwhile, someone somewhere said it’s not so bad, so I gave it a shot. AND IT WAS AWFUL. But even now I’m less angry at the book, than at all the folks that said it was good. What were they thinking those awful wrong people?