Thursday, October 18, 2018

Photographing Alice

Simon Winchester's small book, The Alice Behind Wonderland (2011), is deceptively titled and presented.  With the famous 1858 photograph by Lewis Carroll of six-year-old Alice Liddell (who was the inspiration of Carroll's famous Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) gracing the cover, and with the title as it is, one suspects a book more about the real Alice than anything else.  Yet this book turns out to be a potted biography of Lewis Carroll, emphasizing his hobby of photography, with only a short chapter at the end recounting the life of Alice Liddell Hargreaves when she visited America in 1932 at age eighty and was overrun by news reporters and photographers. Which wouldn't be a bad thing (there is a good chapter describing how the camera Carroll used worked), but even this coverage is hampered by the fact that there are no other photographs in the book, despite numerous descriptions and analyses of them. It left me resorting to the internet to find the examples that Winchester describes in order for his argument to register.  As an introductory biography of Lewis Carroll, this book seems okay, but if one wants something more thorough and rigorous (as I wanted) this book doesn't meet those larger expectations. 

Saturday, October 6, 2018

The Other Side of Green Hills

The Other Side of Green Hills (1947) is a children's book by John Keir Cross.  It concerned five children who are staying at a house called Green Hills in Berkshire over a Christmas holiday. They discover that there is another dimension, an Other Side, to the house where things are very different. On the Other Side they encounter a strange pair, an old man and a young girl, who are called the Owl and the Pussycat after the famous nonsense poem by Edward Lear. (The British edition of this book is titled The Owl and the Pussycat. The title was changed presumably because American children wouldn't understand the reference.)  Owl has the very annoying tendency to burst into song. Later in the book things take a darker turn, as the children find out that an evil sorcerer, who controls the creepy Moon Folk,  is seeking to open further pages of the Book of All Wisdom, by which he can rule the universe. The Owl and the Pussycat and the children must find a way to stop him. 

This is an odd book, and the initial whimsicality doesn't mix well with the more serious later parts. Even the whole set-up doesn't seem very well thought-out, and the resultant story doesn't really engage the reader. And the illustrations by Robin Jacques are alternatively interesting or off-putting. The whole book is a misfire.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Paperbacks from Hell

There was a horror boom in mass market paperbacks that ran from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s.  The origins of the boom can be seen in the mainstream success of Rosemary's Baby (1967) by Ira Levin, The Other (1971) by Thomas Tryon, and The Exorcist (1971) by William Peter Blatty. These books were filmed in 1968, 1972, and 1973 respectively. Stephen King came along with Carrie in 1974 (paperbacked in 1975), but it wasn't until The Shining (1977), The Stand (1978) and The Dead Zone (1979) were becoming bestsellers that the floodgates really opened. For the next decade or so, horror as a publishing category was in boom. 

Paperbacks from Hell by Grady Hendrix chronicles those years, and is profusely illustrated with covers from the books published during that period.  Most of the cover art is decidedly cheesy, and Hendrix's text is often snarky, and one wishes he wrote more about the literary merit (or lack thereof) of more of these books, for among the cheesiest of covers there hides a number of worthy books that didn't deserve to be marketed the way they were.

But the comments and descriptions are still often helpful, especially when it spells out for me the quality and content of certain authors and books that, for whatever reason, I decided not to read in those years. Though tempted by some of the titles back then, in virtually every instance I find from Hendrix's comments that I'm better off not having read those books. This is a matter of interests and aesthetics, not of quality.  Occasionally Hendrix's commentary borders on too glib, but there is a lot to think about while reading this book, and I'm glad to have done so.

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Buffalo Gals, etc.

Buffalo Gals and Other Animal Presences (1987) is a mixed collection of stories and poems by Ursula K. Le Guin, including reprints together with one new story ("Buffalo Gals Won't You Come Out Tonight"). All concern some aspects, usually mythic, of animals  or other sentient presences, and their interaction with humanity.  In the new story, a young girl spends time with an older woman who is the trickster Coyote.  The best story in the book is science fiction, part of Le Guin's Hainish tales, "Vaster Than Empires and More Slow," from 1971.  Some stories read like writing-class exercises, like the extracts from the purported Journal of the Association of Therolinguistics, which includes a discussion of the poetry written by ants, and how to approach the sea-literature of the penguin. Another story, "May's Lion" tells the same story twice, from a realist perspective, and from a fabulist one. The volume as a whole is not Le Guin at her very best, but even middle-of-the-road Le Guin is rewarding and well worth reading.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Alberto Manguel's Many Libraries

Alberto Manguel's new short book is called Packing My Library. The subtitle, "An Elegy and Ten Digressions," hints at the quirky formlessness of the book.  It could as easily have been subtitled merely "An Elegy" or "Twenty-one Digressions." These meditations are bookended at the beginning of the book by Manguel packing up his personal library of some 35,000 volumes in rural France before a move to small apartment in Manhattan, and to Manguel at the end having become director of the National Library of Argentina, thus responsible for another library on an even larger scale. In between these endposts are Manguel's reflections on a lifetime of reading, and on his own relationship with books. He notes at one early point that “my libraries are each a sort of multi-layered autobiographies," and later wonders:
“What quirk made me cluster these volumes into something like the colored countries on my globe? What brought on these associations that seemed to owe their meaning to the faded emotions and a logic whose rules I can now no longer remember? And does my present self reflect that distant haunting? Because if every library is autobiographical, its packing up seems to have something of a self-obituary. Perhaps these questions are the true subject of this elegy."
Further on he notes:  “The books in my library promised me comfort, and also the possibility of enlightening conversations." And occasionally he turns wistful:  “The constancy we seek in life, the repetition of stories that seems to assure us that everything will remain as it was then and is now, is, as we know, illusory. Our fate (Ovid has been telling us this for centuries) is change, our nature is to change.”

Overall this is a fine introspective book about reading and books, and their value not merely to one man but to humanity.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Sins of Jack Saul

Jack Saul (1857-1904) was a male prostitute in Dublin and London. He was famously involved in the Cleveland Street Scandal of 1889, in which the involvement of highly-positioned society figures was covered-up during criminal prosecutions related to a London homosexual brothel located on Cleveland Street. Saul was also the central character and contributor to an infamous volume of pornography, The Sins of the Cities of the Plain (1881). The Sins of Jack Saul tells Jack's story, and provides a detailed look at the Dublin and London gay underworlds of the mid-Victorian era, based on archival documents. I could wish that the sources were better detailed, but the narrative itself is well-written and the subject covers in detail aspects of the Victorian underworld that are usually glanced over if discussed at all. I found the book fascinating. The copy I read of The Sins of Jack Saul is labelled the "Second Edition" and was published in 2016.  It doesn't say when the first edition appeared. (The cover photograph is not of Jack Saul—no photographs of him are known to exist).

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Totalitopia Plus ...

PM Press has a series of small books on "Outspoken Authors." They are a mix of short fiction (usually at least one previously unpublished story), perhaps some essays, a lengthy interview, and a more than decent bibliography. This time I've read the John Crowley one, as I've read a number of his previous books with considerable pleasure.  For me, the interview was revelatory, and the overview of Paul Park's books made up by far the most interesting items in the volume.  Oddly, the fiction just seemed to me too diffuse--well-written but without real heart.  The new story ("This Is Our Town") which opens the book is sets the tone for all that follows, and later stories like "Gone" (a curiously passive account of aliens) and "And Go Like This" (headed by a Buckminster Fuller quote which was clearly the springboard for the story) seem pointless exercises. Crowley can be excellent, but this volume is neither representative of his work, nor a good starting point, despite its undeniable literary qualities.