Monday, April 20, 2015

A New Batch of Reads

Undiluted Hocus-Pocus: The Autobiography of Martin Gardner (2013).  Written not long before his death in 2010 at the age of ninety-five, this autobiography of the legendary writer on pseudoscience is a mixed bag.  Personally, I’ve preferred Martin Gardner writings on literary subjects like Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum above most of his other writings.  But to get an overview of his life and works, as is found in his autobiographical reflections, is good too.  Yet along with such clear-headed insights like this:  “Not only is there no evidence for God or another life, but the evidence strongly suggests the nonexistence of both. The enormity of irrational evil implies the absence of a just God;” there comes the contradictory revelation “I managed to retain faith in a personal God and a hope for an afterlife,  I’m what is called a ‘philosophical theist’.”  Why?  Gardner admits:  “Shortly before he died, Carl Sagan wrote to tell me he had just reread my Whys, and was it fair to say I believed in God only because it made me happier? I responded by saying, in effect, ‘You’ve got it!’ My faith rests entirely on desire.”  Sadly, this admission leads one to place Gardner--at least with regard to his faith--among the uncritical cranks (whose wackiness was equally rooted in their personal desires) he so easily and thoroughly dissected. 

Beyond Binary: Genderqueer and Sexually Fluid Speculative Fiction (2012), edited by Brit Mandelo, is a reprint anthology of seventeen stories, originally published between 1996 and 2011.  Most of the stories are interesting and readable (there are a few duds), but overall I found the collection as a whole to be rather tame. I expected much more boundary-stretching, but it just isn’t to be found here.  Also, there seems to be an imbalance in that only two of the seventeen stories are by men. The best story, handsdown, is “Fisherman” by Nalo Hopkinson.

Letters to Arkham: The Letters of Ramsey Campbell and August Derleth, 1961-1971 (2014), edited by S.T. Joshi.  Here is the extensive correspondence between an old pro and editor at Arkham House, August Derleth, with young writer-to-be Ramsey Campbell, beginning at a time when Campbell was aged fifteen.  Kudos to Campbell for allowing this interesting correspondence to be published, despite any potential embarrassment in the exposure of his much younger self. Many topics are covered in these letters between two people who never met:  H.P. Lovecraft, prominently; and weird fiction, also prominently; but also films (a growing topic as the time progressed), and sexuality, including discussions of banned literary works (often via copies traded).  There are extensive notes by editor Joshi, with a number of errors and a few howlers (e.g., the well-known bibliophile and writer Timothy d’Arch Smith is said to have died in 1997—he is still happily with us, and has produced a number of new books since his presumed death).  Despite such problems (surely a good copyeditor could have caught these mistakes and the typos), this is still an interesting read. 

Literary Rogues: A Scandalous History of Wayward Authors (2013), by Andrew Shaffer.  This book sounded like a good idea, and I was expecting to enjoy it a lot.  Alas, the end-result is so snarky and smarmy that in this instance I would relax my disgust at the idea of book-burning to see this paper turd go up in smoke. If you have any respect for authors and their actual history and context, avoid this book.  (If you like listening to inebriated dim-witted know-it-alls pontificate in a bar, this book might be for you.) The style is glib and exaggerated.  On Lord Byron, Shaffer writes: “Unsurprisingly, Byron’s lifestyle of ‘bling, booze, and groupie sex’ proved to be incompatible with married life…. His wife may have preferred eternal damnation.”  Of Poe he tells us, “He was fiercely opinionated, a trait that would come back to bite him on the ass. He was also an alcoholic who drank for the same reasons he wrote: to push back the depression that he was constantly waging a war against.” Such pearls of cliche appear regularly. The main thing I learned from this book is to avoid any future writings by this author. 

Pybrac, by Pierre Louys, comes from a mass of erotic manuscripts left behind at the author’s death in 1925.  Here, newly translated by Geoffrey Longnecker, are over three hundred quatrains that all begin “I do not like . . .” and pass through a litany of encouraged various sexual acts, though predominantly of heterosexual anal sex. The form is limiting, and the reading becomes monotonous rather quickly.  This is the kind of book one supports because it will outrage small-minded moralists, and for that reason it must be applauded.

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