We read to each other, at first constantly, then sputteringly, and then, with my stroke, it ended. I'm trying to assemble which fictions that I read to her. (For some reason, it's much easier to remember the ones I read to her than the ones Velma read to me.)
So, at random, probably added to later:
Joanna Russ, Picnic on Paradise
→ "Nobody's Home"
→ "My Boat"
Barry Hughart, Bridge of Birds
Flann O'Brien, The Third Policeman
J.G. Ballard, "Billenium"
Algis Budrys, Be Merry
Gene Wolfe, The Eyeflash Miracles
→ The Death of Doctor Island
R.A. Lafferty, "Continued On Next Rock"
→ "Nine Hundred Grandmothers"
→ "Slow Tuesday Night"
→ "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne"
Avram Davidson, "Take Wooden Indians"
→ "The House the Blakeneys Built"
Neal Barrett, Jr, Skinny Annie Blues
→ "Perpetuity Blues"
→ " 'A Day at the Fair' "
Jonathan Carroll, The Land of Laughs
Alasdair Gray, Five Letters from an Eastern Empire
→ "The Great Bear Cult"
→ "Homeward Bound"
Michael Bishop, "The Quickening"
Pamela Dean, The Dubious Hills
M. John Harrison, "Egnaro"
Francesca Lia Block, Weetzie Bat
Greg Egan, "Learning To Be Me"
Kate Wilhelm, "Baby, You Were Great"
Damon Knight, "Semper Fi"
→ "The Handler"
G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday
→ The Napoleon of Notting Hill
Howard Waldrop, "God's Hooks!"
→ "Horror, We Got"
Leigh Kennedy, "Her Furry Face"
C.M. Kornbluth, "The Last Man Left in the Bar"
→ "The Advent on Channel Twelve"
Jim Thompson, Pop. 1280
I forgot one thing in my "review"! I couldn't understand half of the Scots lingo. It was funny, but sometimes I was very lost, and MacNeill's commentary didn't clear it up at all. I'll bet that in America it was never published. (My editions are Pan.) Fraser in the introduction to the second book he says diffidently that lots of people begged for a glossary, so he provides a skimpy one. I think it helped in two or three places. Oh well.
I'm slowly enjoying reading again, at least sometimes. Complicated reads are still frustrated for me at the sentence level. And I can't delve into why I'm enjoying anything*, let alone analyze anything. But I'm going to report what I'm reading, because.**
The last two books I've read in the previous year were The General Danced at Dawn and McAuslan in the Rough, two books of short stories somewhat based on true events of George MacDonald Fraser's life as a lieutenant in the Gordon Highlanders after World War II, mostly in North Africa. I bought them used at St Vincent de Paul; I didn't know they existed, but I read (a long time ago) almost all the Flashman books.
They're mostly good. Fraser is funny, of course. The viewpoint character, MacNeill (presumably Fraser), is complicated and he looks back on himself with kindness but sometimes of course he's wrong. Mostly he's good, trying to lead, eventually learning. He's very much the opposite of Flashman. Sometimes that's embarrassing. With Flashman you know he's a cad and a coward. With MacNeill, his views of Arabs, in passing but everywhere, is uncomfortable-making. There is a story that is about a black man who wants to play with the band, and the author is at pains to point out this was in the forties. The dialogue in which the black man gets in is fascinating, one of the the best in the book, diving into the heads of several of the men, and you can see how very carefully Fraser gets dialog. But Arabs? Apparently Fraser hasn't seen the necessity of treating Arabs as people. (The two books were written in the early seventies.) I'm not treating Fraser severely, I think; I think he's a good guy, etc. (Anyway, he's a good writer.) But I wouldn't recommend these two books to Arabs***.
(Another thing that bemused me. I'll just quote:
This was in the days when the British Army was still spread all round the globe, acting as sentry, policeman, teacher, nurse, and diplomat in the wake of the Second World War, and getting no thanks for it at all.
No irony, if you're wondering.)
But another good thing or two. There are several long paragraphs, usually setting up the story, economical and pleasing, lots of them with long sentences linked with several semi-colons. It looks easy, but. Eventually I started looking for them, because it was pleasing. And the characterization was fleshed out immediately, even though they were mostly comic characters.
I bought them thinking that these were comic novels (or linked short story collections), like the Flashman books, and the publishers sold them that way. But they were not really; comic-tinged, but human, lived-through books.
* I wrote this before writing what came after. I, uh, will still defend that "can't delve into why" thing... my thoughts around my thinking is always scattered, and I still, looking back on what I've immediately written, is how I didn't express most of my thoughts clearly through my brain-fog.
** "because" is the word of the year according to the American Dialect Society. I approve.
*** I know late in life Fraser took shots at "political correctness". If you want to point this out, and j'accuse! me: yawn.
Yesterday we went to St. Vincent de Paul thrift store again. We're making it a habit; it's only half a block away. We got clothes, glassware, etc. I like best the one small room that's devoted to books. I almost always find at least one. This time I found four:
The Country of the Pointed Firs and other stories by Sarah Orne Jewett (Doubleday Anchor paperback, 1956). Selected and with a preface by Willa Cather (1925).
A Vintage (1968) collection by Paul Goodman: People or Personnel and Like a Conquered Province in one. I've never read either of them, and I'm salivating just reading the title of the first one.
Writing Home by Alan Bennett, a 634-page Faber paperback that collects essays and diaries.
And: a 1907 hardcover (Doubleday, Page & Company) edited by Hamilton Wright Mabie called Famous Stories Every Child Should Know. It's a series; the spine and the cover says The What Every Child Should Know Library. It's published by -- ready? -- Keep-Worthy Books. (It's a subsidiary of The Parents' Institute, apparently, publishers of The Parents' Magazine.)
A good haul. (cost: $5.06)
Two days ago: finished Baum's The Sea Fairies. It ended better than it began. The first half of it was Baum's patented punning travelogue, only duller than usual. I had to look up "codfish aristocrat", for instance, and while I appreciate the education, having to look up a simple pun detracts from my enjoyment. On the other hand, the curiously philosophical happy slave, Sacho, is the best boy character apart from Button Bright in Baum.
Now I'm reading Franklin P. Adams's Tobogganing Down Parnassus. I've never read any Adams, and I collect humorists.
I'm three-fourths of the way through I Capture the Castle. It really isn't that much like Cold Comfort Farm, in my view, except for the charm of the narrative voice; it's not at all a farce, mainly. It's a romance, a good one, and right now it's awfully sad, though I trust it doesn't remain so.
(. . .)
Just finished I Capture the Castle. It's heartbreaking. I didn't expect that. It's a marvelous book, but I'm not sure I'm ever going to want to reread it.
(Note: It's eleven years. I remember it as a marvelous book, but indeed I haven't reread it. Maybe I will; I'm very forgetful now.)
I've noticed this in myself and others: We can forgive the things we liked as children, and maybe even still enjoy them, because we didn't know any better and there's an innocent joy in returning to that total open-mindedness. But we can't forgive the things we enjoyed as adolescents, because we were beginning to try to be adults, often self-importantly, and it can be excruciatingly embarrassing to be reminded of what we thought was deep and mature then.
The Genocides is an underrated book. It was a paperback original, his first novel before he had acquired much reputation (it was published in 1965), and his next two novels were undistinguished (I think Camp Concentration is the fourth, not counting work-for-hire stuff). The Genocides was also vilified by a couple of reviewers, including Algis Budrys, who dismissed it as a J.G. Ballard imitation (and we were all supposed to know how we felt about that back then; the war between the traditionalists and the radicals was already beginning to heat up). But it's a compact and neat story of collapse, and the character delineation is superb. Disch has said that to his mind, the appeal of the disaster novel was the implacability, and his disaster wasn't going to be diluted by any kind of rescue or redemption. Even so, it isn't bleak, exactly; the narrative follows the characters and their emotions and tribulations like a camera, but there is something about it that feels disengaged, so the story isn't sad or tragic or even bracing; it's just there. In that sense it is like Ballard, except Ballard's disaster novels tended to suck all human emotion out of everything except one character's interaction with his disaster.
I can't remember why Gavin loaned me Donald Westlake's Jimmy the Kid. He probably thought I would find it funny, but there may have been more detailed reasons. Anyway, it was hilarious, and though it's taken me a couple years to get round to reading more of the Dortmunder novels, I am now obsessive about having all of them (there are thirteen so far, plus a novella), and, ideally, reading them in order.
Unfortunately, several of the early ones are incomprehensibly out of print (including Jimmy the Kid, the third one). I gather they're popular books; five of them have been made into movies, although only one of them appears to be good (The Hot Rock, made in 1972 from the first Dortmunder novel and starring Robert Redford. Among the apparently bad ones, alas, is Jimmy the Kid, which starred Gary Coleman).
Anyway, I've now read The Hot Rock, and it was nearly as funny as Jimmy the Kid. Like many first novels in series, it deviates a bit from the model that would later be established. For one thing, Dortmunder more or less wins in the end (by implication, anyway) -- though for all I know that's turned around at the beginning of the second book, Bank Shot (which was made into a movie starring George C. Scott). I may have to skip directly to the fifth book, Why Me? (made into a movie starring Christopher Lambert and Christopher Lloyd), because at least I've been able to find that one.
They're everything-falls-apart capers, a genre I love, and the plots are funny, but the best part is the dialogue. Westlake has perfect rhythm, perfect timing. The action is funny, but the scenes between the action are funnier. Westlake even uses a narrative device I dislike, changing points of view whenever it's convenient for him, and gets away with it because each point of view is eccentric and amusing and still human.
I know a few people here have read Barry Hughart's Bridge of Birds, with varying reactions (hi Gavin, Ellie, Debbie). It won a World Fantasy Award when it was originally published (in the late 70s, I think), so it's not exactly obscure; but Hughart's career never progressed beyond that success, and these days I rarely hear it mentioned. It is in print (in mass market paperback).
So many modern fantasies are bloated epics. Bridge of Birds is the opposite: a compact, self-contained, perfect little gem, like Peter S. Beagle's The Last Unicorn, Ellen Kushner's Swordspoint, Pamela Dean's The Dubious Hills, Thorne Smith's Night Life of the Gods. (Sorry, lists always start to get out of hand with me.)
Bridge of Birds has a farcical comic tone and plot, but begins with tragedy and ends with sublime transendence, and somehow makes the whole mix work. When I was reading it to Velma a few years ago, she discovered that Hughart allowed the first draft to be published on the web. I don't recommend it unless you've read the book; for one thing, the farcical tone of the book is not under control in this early draft. It's far cruder and louder and not really funny. But if you've read the book, it's fascinating to see that it grew from this. There are plot elements that never made it into Bridge of Birds that turn up in the two (sadly inferior*) sequels.
More importantly, Hughart clearly made a huge jump in his writing between this draft and the final version, and the heart of the book was completely reconstructed. In the first draft, the narrator and hero is the brilliant Li Kao, who is 19 years old, while Number Ten Ox is an incidental character, the village idiot. In the final version, Li Kao is still brilliant, still the focus of the book, but he is ancient; Number Ten Ox is the narrator, a humble young man of virtue and strength and unextraordinary brain, and the perfect Watson for Li Kao. This change, I think, allowed the book to happen as it did: a character like Li Kao needs to be presented from outside, like Jeeves.
* The first time I wrote about this, I got a comment from someone who read one of the sequels first, and prefers it to the first book. So maybe it's just the order one reads them in. It's hard for me to credit, though.
We picked up Tragically I Was an Only Twin: The Complete Peter Cook from the library, a marvelous collection that deserves a better post than it's going to get right now. Right now I'm just going to complain about the subtitle. "Complete" is an unambiguous word. "Collected" often gets used with deliberate ambiguity by the publishing industry -- to my mind "Collected" ought to be a definitive edition, either complete or as close to complete as the author wanted it to be, and anything less ought to be called "Selected" -- but at least when a far-from-definitive collection is called "Collected", the publisher can say that there's no lie in the word. Not so with "Complete". To begin with, this collection doesn't include Bedazzled. Okay, a whole movie script would perhaps make the book unwieldy. It must at least be a complete collection of his shorter pieces, right?
No, not close. The introductions make it clear that this is a selection: "It's a collection of Cook's finest writing . . . Of course* it's not a compendium of everything he did . . . Cook produced far more comedy than you could fit into one book. But it is a pretty comprehensive summary..." That's fine, except for the word "Complete" on the cover and spine. I don't think a blatant lie should be excused with a shrug just because it's marketing and we all know what marketing's like.
I have always kept one book unread by my favorite authors, for some time in the future when I really need it (and in some stressful times I have read a few of those saved books). I have done this since childhood; to this day I have never read one of the eight books in Enid Blyton's Adventure series (The Ship of Adventure), even though I read all the others obsessively (especially Valley and Circus and Sea). Several years back I bought the complete set for myself as a sentimental indulgence, but I've still not read Ship (and probably can't, at this point, since I can't re-read the Blyton I once enjoyed without wincing).
Some single books by authors that are saved for when I need them:
And many others that will come to mind later. I'm such a slow reader that with most authors it really isn't necessary to do this, because I will never catch up with their output, but if the author is a favorite I will reserve one anyway that won't be read.