Monday, November 15, 2021

"Try to Keep the Ball Low..."

There is quite a bit of wisdom to be gleaned from this exchange between Charlie Brown and Lucy (from March 19, 1969), but I don't think the real takeaway here is "try to keep the ball low." (I think it's something about how often the better choice is to just shrug and say, "It's a mystery to me, too," because, really, the Lucy Van Pelts of the world don't want to hear your answers.)

Friday, October 15, 2021

My Default Chekhov

Up until I was nineteen or twenty, if you had said "Chekhov" to me, I would have immediately thought of Ensign Pavel Chekov, the navigator of the U.S.S. Enterprise, played by Walter Koenig on the original "Star Trek" series and in a number of theatrically-released movies. He was my default Chekov. (Didn't know there was such a thing, did you?)

Sometime around 1986, though, my default Chekhov changed (both in the person it referred to and in the number of H's in the spelling, as you can see.) I was very interested in short stories then (still am, though back then I actually wrote them; now I don't), and I was reading a book I'd bought used somewhere or other called The Short Story. (It's actually an old college textbook for a literature class in short stories; it was published in 1967, the year I was born.) One night I read a Chekhov story in that book called "The Lament," about Iona, the cab driver in late-nineteenth century Russia, who is so overcome with grief at the loss of his son, and so unable to express his grief to any of the uncaring people he encounters through the course of the story, that at the end of the story he tells all his problems to the little horse who pulls his cab.

It's a stunning little story--only about four pages long, probably no more than 2,000 words, but heartbreaking. That's when my default Chekhov switched from the fictional twenty-second century starship navigator to the real nineteenth century Russian author.

I didn't actually read that much more Chekhov then, though, although I probably did sometimes tell people he was one of my favorite writers. Mostly I was reading the works of people who were American and still living and writing (Raymond Carver, who was still alive and working then, Bobbie Ann Mason, David Leavitt, Peter Cameron, Lorrie Moore, and a whole host of others, all of whom are still working as I write this) and dreaming about taking my place among them (which I never did--but that's okay; I gradually came to recognize that I didn't necessarily belong among them).

These days I do read a good deal more Chekhov, and I love his stories. But what I also love is the alienness of the people and places he describes--there's something immediately intriguing to me about being told that a character's name is Dmitri Illyich, and that he is sleeping on a haystack near an old barn in Vladivostok. Those exotic names (or exotic-sounding, to my American ear) get me every time.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Buford Highway Recollections

Book Nook as it appears now, in its current location on North Druid Hills road

In the early 1980s, my cousin and friend Scott and I would go on book-buying trips down Buford Highway once a month or so. (At least I remember it as being that often and that regular. Maybe it's something we only did three or four times…but I remember it as being every month or so for a period of a year or so. Also, for me they were book-buying trips, but I think Scott was actually more interested in looking for records.) Sometimes we'd go on a Saturday, sometimes on a weekday afternoon after school—most of the time when this was a regular event for us, we were both still in high school at Berkmar, me in ninth or tenth grade and him in eleventh or twelfth.

The high spot of these trips was Book Nook. Back then it used to be where Clairmont intersects Buford Highway. (Some years ago, it moved to—and still occupies—a building on North Druid Hills, which is fine, and I still go there two or three times a year, but I liked the old location better.) Book Nook was a large used bookstore with a great SF/fantasy section, and probably quite a lot of other types of books, too, but I don't remember because I never looked anywhere else. I do remember, though, that you had to go by—or was it through?—the comic books to get to the SF bookcases. (Book Nook is still a large used bookstore, and it still has a pretty good SF/fantasy section, but now when I go there I also go to several other sections, and also in their current location you don't have to go through the comic books to get to the science fiction shelves.)

When I was in high school, I used to go to the library during my study hall period and look at the original 1977 Science Fiction Encyclopedia—still my favorite edition, primarily because of the illustrations, which were omitted from the mid-90s update. I loved that book; I read more about science fiction than I actually read science fiction. Sometime in the mid-80s, a year or two after Scott and I had pretty much stopped going on our Buford Highway excursions, on a Book Nook visit with my first girlfriend, Laura, I found a copy of the Encyclopedia, and I pounced on it, though I was (and still am) a little disappointed that it didn't have the dust jacket. I can't remember how much it cost, or whether I was able to buy it right away or if I had to go back later (hoping all the while that no one else had gotten to it before me, I'm sure) with the right amount of money. More than thirty years later, I still love that book.

Besides Book Nook, there were at least two other places Scott and I would go regularly. One of them was also a used bookstore; I remember going there one afternoon and finding a copy of Harlan Ellison's landmark anthology Dangerous Visions and thinking I'd found a real prize. I realized years later that it was just a cheap and fairly common book club edition, but I still have that copy, and have read…oh, maybe a fourth of it in the thirty-five years since I bought it. (I've always been guilty of spending more money buying books than time reading them.)

Three books I still have that I know I bought at bookstores along Buford Highway in the 1980s

The other store I remember Scott and me going to on Buford Highway was primarily a used record store—I remember Scott buying an ABBA record there once—but they might have had used books too. I can vaguely picture the inside of the store, but not its location along Buford Highway. I can also remember the owner of the store, as he rang up Scott's ABBA record, telling him about how the members of ABBA spoke no English and learned all their songs phonetically but didn't know what they were singing. Scott just nodded and said, "Oh, really, that's interesting," but as soon as we left the store he told me that was a load of crap (which I'm pretty sure I already knew).

I recall one time on a Saturday Scott and I had lunch at the McDonald's that was near Book Nook, and as we ate, Mike Beaty and Toni Pecoraro, two guys we knew from Berkmar, came in. Mike had a huge afro—look at Neal Schon on the back of a late 70s Journey album—and Tony had shoulder length hair. The both played guitar and were in a band together. I know now that they were just a couple of teenagers, not very different from any other teenagers, but at the time I thought they were rock stars. I don't remember if we talked to them, or if they even acknowledged our presence.

I still occasionally drive down Buford Highway, usually just for nostalgia's sake, since all the book stores and used record stores are now long gone (or, thankfully, moved elsewhere in the case of Book Nook). Sometimes it makes me happy just to be there, since I have so many great memories of that time in my life, and of those book-buying trips with Scott. Sometimes it makes me sad that the area has changed so much, and sadder still that I can't be fifteen again, heading out with Scott to drive down Buford Highway.

Thursday, May 6, 2021

Audio Books

There are some books I claim to have read—several by Bill Bryson; pretty much everything I say I've read by David Sedaris; Daniel Pinkwater's brilliant The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death—but really haven't, at least not strictly speaking. Because I listened to them as audio books.

Chances are I've listened to them several times, in fact. I'm sure I've heard Bryson's A Walk in the Woods and Sedaris's Me Talk Pretty One Day five or six times each. Charles Kuralt's Charles Kuralt's America is one of my favorite books; I've listened to it several times, and I've also actually read the printed book—the audio version is abridged, and I wanted to see what I was missing—but I prefer the audio version. It's not that I'm too lazy to read and would rather have Kuralt read his own book to me, it's just that he does it so well.

Many years ago, when I had a regular corporate job and a daily commute, I listened to a lot more audio books than I do these days. There were a lot of really good productions of middle-reader and young adult novels of the kind I then aspired to write, some of which I still have. Because they are mostly on cassettes, it's a lot harder to listen to them now, but someday when I have more time and more energy, I'm going to digitize them to make it easy to hear them whenever I want.

(Why the four books in the picture, you may be wondering, when I didn't name any of them specifically in this post? Well, for one thing they are all books I remember enjoying very much. The Madeleine L'Engle book, A Wind In The Door, which came second in the sequence that began with A Wrinkle in Time, is perhaps my favorite of her books (though I would actually rather read it than listen to it; I think I only listened to this audio book once). The Neil Shusterman book, The Dark Side of Nowhere, is one of the things Anna and I listened to on the drive home from our honeymoon, so I have very fond memories of it. But most importantly, they were in a cabinet in my office and were easily accessible; I didn't have to root around in the garage or that funky storage space under the stairs to find them.)

Thursday, April 22, 2021

My Anxieties Have Anxieties

I don't know how old I was when I first read Peanuts. I'm pretty sure it was sometime back in fourth grade, maybe even third, when I started my relationship with these books.

And for me, Peanuts was always about books. I'm sure that for years I was not even aware it was a daily comic strip, probably didn't even know what that meant—but I knew the books. "A Charlie Brown Christmas" was on TV for the first time two years before I was born and had become a seasonal staple by the time I was in fourth grade, but I don't remember seeing it when I was a kid, or seeing any of the other Peanuts TV specials that had been produced by the time I was in fourth grade—but I knew the books.

I've been collecting them, the books, for more than forty-five years. I don't actually have that many—forty-two: I just turned around and counted them—but they are precious to me.

Not everyone cared for Peanuts as much as I do, of course. Al Capp, creator of the "Li'l Abner" comic strip and a generation older than Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, once famously characterized the kids in Peanuts as "...mean little b*stards. Eager to hurt each other." Maybe Capp had a point, but he didn't seem to appreciate the fact that this made them all the more real as kids and as human beings, and that it made the moments of truth and beauty they revealed, either by transcending the inherent melancholy of life or by accepting it, all the more beautiful.

"Life is rarely one way, Charlie Brown," Linus says to his friend as the two lean against the brick wall where they do all their philosophizing, "You win a few, and you lose a few."

"Really?" says Charlie Brown, who—at least in his own perception—has never won a thing in his life, and—again, at least in his own perception—probably never will. "Gee," he says in the last panel, his mouth in the beginnings of a hopeful smile, "that'd be neat!!"

That hopeful smile makes Peanuts wonderful.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Books I Have Lost

Not everyone who loves to read values books as physical objects; plenty of people love reading but don't need, or even want, to be surrounded by bookcases filled with books.

But I do. I value books as physical objects, and I want, maybe even need, to be surrounded by bookcases filled with books. It makes me happy.

And it really bothers me when I lose a book. Three years ago when we moved into our current house, I had boxes and boxes of books to move and unpack, and at some point--several months, actually--after I was done, I realized there were some books I couldn't find. It's possible I got rid of those books in a fit of downsizing, but I doubt it--the books in question I don’t think I would ever have wanted to get rid of, and one of them, Thomas Merton's The Seven Storey Mountain, is a book I did get rid of once, and then bought another copy of some months later when I found that I wanted it back. I'm afraid that somehow amidst all the hubbub of our move I lost or misplaced a whole box. (And what else may have been in that box that I haven't missed yet?)

Whenever I get rid of books I regret it. Oh, I don't miss every single book I've ever gotten rid of, but I'm never sure which books I'll miss and want back. About twenty-five years ago I read The Magus by John Fowles; it was brilliant and compelling, but also long and challenging, so at some point I got rid of it. I wish I hadn't. I doubt I'd re-read the whole thing again--though I might--but it would mean something to me to have it on my shelves. I also used to have a great hardback Modern Library edition of Emerson's essays, but I got rid of it because Emerson's work has long been in the public domain and is readily available online if I want to read it on my tablet, and the book was taking up valuable shelf space...

The next time I get the idea to purge some of my books, I'm going to box them up and put them in the attic instead of getting rid of them. That will make it easier to get them back three months later when I decide I do want them after all, and will give me the pleasure of going through the box and finding some things I'd forgotten about.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Lots of Short Stories

I love short stories. As I've written before, it's my favorite literary form, and there are Great and Important writers--Anton Chekhov, Raymond Carver, Grace Paley--whose published prose writing consists entirely of short stories (though Chekhov also wrote plays, of course, and Carver and Paley both wrote poetry), and other writers who did write novels but are remembered primarily for their short fiction: Eudora Welty, Isaac Bashevis Singer, John Cheever.

I've never managed to finish Moby-Dick, though I've started it several times and gotten about half-way through, but I've read "Bartelby" more than once and I love it. (I think I may have written a paper on it when I was an undergraduate, but I have no idea what I said; probably a bunch of that annoying claptrap that I was so full of in my late teens and early twenties. If you knew me back then: Man, I'm really sorry. I'm better now. I really hope so, anyway.)

Don't get me wrong: I do like novels. I used to read a lot of them. I often wish I read more of them these days. I really wish I could read more novels--but I'm kind of a slow reader, and frankly I can't often sustain interest for that long anymore in one story, in one plot. Usually after half an hour or forty-five minutes, maybe an hour, I'm ready to move on to something else.

Which is why the short story is perfect for me.

Thursday, March 18, 2021

Not Fiction

When I was a kid, reading to me meant specifically fiction. If it wasn't a novel, I didn't really think of it as "reading."

But I realize now that I read a lot of non-fiction back then. The earliest non-fiction memory that I can hang a book title on, and which is also one of my most pleasant library memories, is of Edward Edelson's Great Monsters of the Movies, which came out in 1973 but which the Bethesda library didn't get until I was in third grade in 1975. The librarian--whose name I wish I could remember--set it aside for me when it arrived and gave me the honor of being first to check it out. She knew I would love it. She was so right!

The Bethesda library also had this great book about reptiles that I kept checked out nearly constantly in fourth and fifth grade, and I read books about dinosaurs, and the Loch Ness monster and Bigfoot (some books about one or the other, some books that included both), and various supernatural goings-on (C.B. Colby's Strangely Enough! being one I remember well; I have two copies of it now). When I got older, I read books about lasers and music and other things that interested me, and when I began to get seriously involved in science fiction, I read through the Berkmar library's copy of Peter Nicholls's The Science Fiction Encyclopedia (the original edition, from 1979) every chance I got. I eventually found my own copy of it at Book Nook, but it’s missing that cool dust jacket.

For the last decade or so, I haven't read many novels, but I've read a lot of non-fiction, especially short works, mostly feature stories and personal essays; I'd now say it's my second favorite literary form (after the short story). Gay Talese, Gene Weingarten, Michael Paterniti, Malcolm Gladwell, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and Hampton Sides have all published fantastic collections of their magazine pieces, and there are also personal essays I love by the likes of Bailey White and the great E.B. White (no relation to Bailey White that I'm aware of; in fact, I just realized in typing this that they have the same last name!).

I now most definitely think of non-fiction as reading.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

The Weekly Reader Book Club

Back in fourth grade I was a member of the Weekly Reader Book Club.

Man, it was the best getting books in the mail! And I read every one of them, always finishing one week's book before the next week's arrived. Over the course of the next couple of years I read them all again, getting through some of them three or four times while I was still in elementary school. (This was, of course, in addition to re-reading Harriet The Spy and The Witch of Blackbird Pond every couple of months, and reading other books from the school library as well, like The Ghost Belonged to Me and Tuck Everlasting. I was constantly reading back then. It's a wonder I managed to fit in any of my actual school work!) I still have all of those Weekly Reader Book Club editions, on a bookshelf in my bedroom.

But it's not that many, really: only seven--all of the ones I own are shown in the photograph--so if it really was "weekly," then I wasn't even in it for two full months. I'm not sure why it was such a short time; maybe it was even my choice. Maybe I begged my parents to let me divert the money towards the ever-growing Micronauts and Shogun Warriors collection my brother and I were intent on amassing. (Hmmm...Micronauts vs. books? That's a hard call. Today, I'd probably pick books--probably--but I'm not so sure about 1978 Chris.) It was a long time ago, and I don't remember. I know that the Weekly Reader Book Club started many years before they ever sent me a book, and I also know it doesn't exist any more. But then, neither do Micronauts or Shogun Warriors.

And by the way, Harriet the Spy (by Louise Fitzhugh), The Witch of Blackbird Pond (by Elizabeth George Speare), The Ghost Belonged to Me (by Richard Peck), and Tuck Everlasting (by Natalie Babbitt) are still great books--I've re-read them all in the past few years, and they hold up well. If you haven't read them and you're interested in children's literature, I recommend them. You might enjoy them.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

My Phone Wants to go to the Zoo!

My phone wants me to take it someplace fun again.

I used to joke to Anna, back in the pre-pandemic days, that my phone wants to go somewhere interesting--Rock City, Book Nook, the zoo.

See, when I drive (with my phone securely in a phone holder attached to the dashboard, of course) I use Android Auto, which, among other things, displays Navigate guesses/suggestions for places it thinks you might be going, based, I suppose, on where you are, where you often go, your recent Google Maps activity, and (I'm going to say but don't actually believe) where it wants to go. (If you tap on one of these guesses/suggestions, Android Auto gives you step-by-step directions to that place...but you probably figured that out already, didn't you?)

It used to regularly include in its Navigate guesses/suggestions some of the cool places I have saved in my Google Maps profile--bookstores, parks, various kinds of attractions; it was like my phone was saying, "Hey, I know...let's go to Rock City! Wouldn't that be fun?" (Even when I was only going the three miles to the grocery store it would make these suggestions. It was kind of sad, really.)

But a while back it stopped. My phone, apparently, was resigned to sheltering-in-place/quarantining/staying close to home for a while. For a long time, its Navigate guesses/suggestions included only the mundane places I routinely go: Work, Kroger, Home.

But now my phone apparently wants to go out to fun places again. Several times in the last month it has included Zoo Atlanta in its list of Navigate guesses/suggestions.

It's a good idea. Maybe I'll take it there soon.

Thursday, March 4, 2021

What I Haven't Read

I still haven't read The Moviegoer or The Brothers Karamazov or White Noise or The Sound and the Fury or Mickelsson's Ghosts or any of those other books that, back around 1985 or 1986, I decided--was told, got the impression--that I ought to read. I still feel, all these years later, a little guilty, a little embarrassed, for never having read them--though I've started all of them more than once, and I still have copies of some of them.

Why should I feel guilty? Whose condescension and judgement makes me feel embarrassed?

(The correct answers, I know, are "I shouldn't" and "Nobody's." Knowing the correct answers doesn't help.)

For some people--people like me, at least--this is one of the downsides of being a book-loving person and going to college and majoring in English, and especially of going to graduate school in English: the feeling of not having read the right things, of not having read what your professors, your colleagues, the writers you admire, the people who work at Barnes and Noble, all think you should have read.

I've read a dozen of Vonnegut's novels and several by Nabakov. I've read The World According to Garp, and The Ballad of the Sad CafĂ©, and Wise Blood and all of O'Connor's short stories. Most of John Cheever's stories, and lots of Eudora Welty's stories (but none of Cheever's or Welty's novels). For a while I had both "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and "The Second Coming" memorized (but at this point I've probably forgotten as much as I remember). I've read If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and I've read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance five or six times.

But it's the books I haven't read that I think about the most. I know that's a defect in my thinking. I'm trying to get over it.

I know there are book-type people, people with degrees in English and even with jobs teaching English in colleges, who don't have this feeling of embarrassment, of anxiety about what they think they ought to have read but haven't. I envy them; I want to know what their secret is. I also rather suspect they're lying.

And I still think I ought to read The Brothers Karamazov.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Alfred Hitchcock Mystery/Horror Anthologies

Last week I wrote about the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series, but there were some other books, released around the same time, that were also important to me, and which had a lot in common with the Three Investigators books. These also had Alfred Hitchcock's name on them and his likeness on the cover (and in some of the internal illustrations), though Hitchcock actually had nothing to do with them; many of them were edited by Robert Arthur, creator of the Three Investigators and author of the first nine books in the series; and they were published by Random House for the young reading audience.

Alfred Hitchcock's Ghostly Gallery and Alfred Hitchcock's Haunted Houseful (and several others, including Sinister Spies, Daring Detectives, and Monster Museum--all with Alfred Hitchcock's before the title proper) weren't novels, they were short story collections, and included stories by many of the greats of the mystery and horror fields, such as Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury, Manly Wade Wellman, and many others. As I've already said, many of them were edited by Robert Arthur ("The editor [presumably a reference to Hitchcock] gratefully acknowledges the invaluable assistance of Robert Arthur in the preparation of this volume" says Alfred Hitchcock's Ghostly Gallery at the beginning of the copyright section, though Alfred Hitchcock's Haunted Houseful acknowledges Muriel Fuller), and Arthur often included a story of his own in the Table of Contents--and his stories were very good; Random House also published an excellent collections of Arthur's stories(Mystery and More Mystery, which has no mention of Alfred Hitchcock on it, but is otherwise much like the above mentioned anthologies).

These are really great books, and I'm glad I had them when I was a kid--though, honestly, the cover (actually more the back cover than the front) of Alfred Hitchcock's Ghostly Gallery (which I got as a birthday or Christmas present when I was about eight; I got the whole book as a present, I mean, not just the cover) scared the bejeebers out of me when I was young. Many of the stories are great, but so are the illustrations.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

The Three Investigators

These are the books that made me fall in love with reading and books, forty-five years ago.

When I say that, I mean that these are literally the books--these actual copies--that I started reading in 1975, thanks to my cousin Sharon (who, I am very sorry to say, is no longer here with us for me to thank for starting me off in this direction), and which I collected and read and re-read voraciously for several years, and which I've had as an important part of my personal library for nearly half a century.

The series--Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators--was created by Robert Arthur in 1964; he wrote the first nine books, and also the eleventh, and when he died in 1969, the series was continued by various other writers for almost two decades more, ultimately reaching forty-three volumes. (It's actually a little more complicated than that, but that's enough of an explanation for this post.) Alfred Hitchcock didn't really have anything to do with the series, he just allowed his name and likeness to be used in the books. The Hitchcock introductions to the books were in truth written by the books' authors, and when Hitchcock died in 1980, the series switched from the real (but no longer living) Hitchcock to the fictional mystery novelist Hector Sebastian. Gradually, all of the original series was revised and republished to feature Sebastian instead of Hitchcock.

The first sixteen books included great illustrations by Harry Kane; those illustrations are an important part of what made me love the books. I'm still disappointed that more novels don't feature illustrations every thirty or forty pages to show you what everything looks like. (Frankly, The Brothers Karamazov could do with a few. If it had some illustrations, maybe I could actually finish the darn thing. Or at least get past page 75. But I digress...)

I've re-read these books--especially the ones by Robert Arthur--a number of times over the years. They hold up pretty well. Nothing's as mind-blowing as being an eight-year-old and discovering them for the first time, but they're still pretty fun.

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Anxiety Dreams

In Cynthia Rylant's wonderful picture book Motor Mouse--illustrated by Arthur Howard, whose work on Rylant's Mister Putter and Tabby series I love--Motor Mouse has a pocket watch that tells, not only the time and if it's sunny or rainy, but also whether you are dreaming or you are experiencing something that is really happening.

I need such a watch.

Last night I had an anxiety dream, one of those ultra-realistic ones that you think is reality, about my old job in the corporate world. In this dream I had a Big and Important project due very soon, but not only had I not started the project, I felt totally unqualified to do it at all--and powerless (in that dream-like way of being literally unable to do something) to tell my bosses--who were busy telling me how important the project was, and how they just knew that I would do a great job--that I couldn't do it and hadn't even started. It would have been a great comfort to me to have been able to whip out my pocket watch and see the little hand pointing to "dreaming," instead of thinking it was really happening and waking up at 5:15 a.m. in a panic.

(And if you're thinking, "But in the dream, the watch would have said 'really happening'"--No, if the watch really worked, it would have to say "dreaming" if I was dreaming. The watch is greater than any anxiety dream.) (Except that, yes, the watch is not real and anxiety dreams are. Dangit!)

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Animal Stories: Another Book Post

I love animal stories—the children's literature kind—so I'm going to write a little bit about them.

Children's picture books are filled with animal stories; I suspect that talking, clothes-wearing furry creatures outnumber talking, clothes-wearing human beings in the picture books at most libraries and bookstores. Many of these books are great, but what I'm thinking about here are longer, more prose-heavy books—chapter books and novels. Among those, there are at least three kinds of animal stories (and probably a lot more than that):

1. Completely realistic (and sometimes even true) stories about people and animals, where the people behave like people and the animals behave like animals: The Black Stallion, My Friend Flicka, Old Yeller, Sounder, Gentle Ben, and that one about the racoon, the name of which I can't remember now, and many more. The animals are essential to these stories, but it is really the people who are center stage.

2. Somewhat realistic but mostly fantastical stories about people and animals, where the people behave like people and the animals behave like animals, except for when people aren't around, at which time the animals behave like animals who are fully sentient and can speak English: Charlotte's Web is the best example of this, and also one of the most wonderful books ever written, and also the only example of this kind of book I can think of right now. In Charlotte's Web, the animals don't wear clothes or drive cars or hold down jobs, but they do, when the people aren't around, talk to each other and plot to save Wilbur's life. The sheep and the geese and the pigs and the rat and even the spider—especially the spider—all speak the same language, and remember too that Fern (the human little girl) can understand them, though her mother doesn't pay any attention when Fern tries to tell her about it. The people are essential to these stories (or at least to Charlotte's Web), but it is really the animals who are center stage.

(Charlotte's Web is a great book. If you haven't read it, go read it right now.)

3. Entirely fantastical stories in which people—human beings, that is—don't play an especially large part, and animals are mostly or completely anthropomorphized and talk to each other (even among very different species) and wear cloths and have jobs and houses and use dishes and teacups and cutlery and are all, apparently, for some reason about the same size. This is my favorite category, and the one into which perhaps my favorite novel, The Wind in the Willows, fits. I would also include A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh stories (published in Winnie-The-Pooh and The House At Pooh Corner) in this category; yes, I know, it's made clear in the first book that the stories of Pooh, Piglet, Owl, et al., are stories the Father is telling his Son about the Son's stuffed animals, but that frame isn't consistently applied, and in fact is pretty much abandoned in the second book. So mostly Pooh and his friends are anthropomorphic animals rather than stuffed ones, and Christopher Robin, while occasionally being called upon to Save the Day, is not the central character. The animals are very much center stage. The Wind in the Willows includes only a couple of human characters, who are minor characters; they are barely on the stage at all.

Last year, my favorite of the new books I read (admittedly a fairly short list) was a new category 3 animal story: Skunk and Badger by Amy Timberlake. I really loved this book. One reviewer described it as a sort of cross between "Frog and Toad" and "The Odd Couple," and that seems pretty fair, though I think there's just as much The Wind in the Willows as Frog and Toad Are Friends in Skunk and Badger.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Vol. I: Another Book Post

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One

This picture shows three different editions of the same book; they are all mine and I took them down from the shelf to take this picture, but none of them is the actual copy I owned and read and loved as a teenager, back around 1985 or so (however, the copy I had was the same as the smallest one shown here, the Avon paperback). And man, did I love this book! It has some fantastic stories in it, including all of the early stars of SF: Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke, of course, but also Simak, Sturgeon, Leiber, Bester, Boucher, and many others. There are twenty-six stories in all, one of which was adapted into a famous episode of "The Twilight Zone" (Jerome Bixby’s "It’s a GOOD Life"), and two of which were made into "Star Trek" episodes ("Arena" by Frederic Brown and "The Little Black Bag" by C.M. Kornbluth). (However, as I’ve said before, the mark of a great story or book is not whether somebody made it into a TV show or movie, which most of the time just results in a mediocre or bad TV show or movie anyway, but whether it’s enjoyable to read as a story or book. But that "Twilight Zone" episode is pretty great.)

The blurb on the front and spine of the 2005 ORB edition says, "The greatest science fiction stories of all time, chosen by the members of the Science Fiction Writers of America," though "of all time" is actually limited to the thirty-five-year span of 1929 – 1964, and technically the contents only cover 1934 - 1963: 1929 was the first year the SFWA considered a published story to be eligible for inclusion and 1964 was the last (because the SFWA was founded in 1965, and immediately started handing out awards for contemporaneous stories), but nothing earlier than 1934 was voted into this collection, and nothing from 1964 made it in either.

The final story in the collection, Roger Zelazny’s "A Rose for Ecclesiastes," is pretty great. I’ve never read any of Zelazny’s novels (almost a crime on my part, I know), but I’ve read quite a few of his short stories, and this might be the best.

Saturday, January 30, 2021

Reading Log: A Book Post

I've been thinking about books and reading a lot lately. I mean, even more than usual.

The writer whose work I've read the most of—I admit this with a little bit of embarrassment—is Piers Anthony. It's been nearly thirty years since I read anything by him, but between 1981 and 1993 I read twenty-seven of his novels. Twenty-seven! There's no other writer I've read that much of, even if it has been decades since I read him. I loved his books when I was a teenager, and I had actually more than twenty-seven of them on my shelf (obviously there were a few I never actually read); for a while, I called him my favorite writer.

As I said, there are no other authors whose work I've read that much of, but there are a few writers from whom I've read around a dozen books, and none of those are embarrassing to me: Robert A. Heinlein, Clifford D. Simak (who I also considered my favorite writer for a while when I was teenager), Madeleine L'Engle (also my favorite writer for a while; I really loved her work), Lloyd Alexander, James P. Blaylock.

And I've read more than two hundred of Ray Bradbury's short stories, but that's about the equivalent of ten Piers Anthony novels, and I haven't ready any of Bradbury's true novels (he didn't actually write that many—The Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine, for example, are both related groups of short stories published under one title—and no, I haven't read Fahrenheit 451). I've read 70 or 80 of Gene Wolfe's short stories but none of his novels, and 60 or 70 of Isaac Bashevis Singer's short stories (I might even say that for the last couple of years he's been my favorite writer), but also none of his novels.

When I was nineteen my favorite writer was Bobbie Ann Mason, but that was solely on the strength of one short story collection (Shiloh and Other Stories, still, I think, a great book) and her first novel (In Country, which had just come out when I started reading her). I also really loved Lorrie Moore, but that too was based only on a couple of books. I haven't read anything by either of them since the early 1990s, though both are still writing.

These days I spend a lot more time thinking about reading than actually reading. I don't read that many novels these days (and when I do, there's a good chance I'm just reading The Wind in the Willows again), but I read lots of short stories—it's my favorite literary form, and last year I read over 200 of them, including all of Flannery O'Connor's stories, most of John Cheever's, and a number by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (many of which I wasn't crazy about, but "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" is a remarkable story), Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, and other "literary" writers. I also read a number fantasy, science fiction, horror, and mystery stories from various magazines and "Year's Best" collections (i.e., The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2019, Best New Horror 23, etc.). And I re-read Joe Hill's collection 20th Century Ghosts, which I think is a wonderful book. "Pop Art" is a great story; if you haven't read it, you should.