Friday, August 23, 2019

Quote of the Week: Believe What They Tell You

"They told you it was a war for the soul of America, but you didn't believe them. They kept saying you were the Enemy, but you wouldn't accept that, because you didn't feel like an enemy. Now you know they meant every word, and more."
 -- the opening lines of Steve Erickson's 1997 book American Nomad

Thursday, August 22, 2019

The Not-So-Nude Ride of Lady Godiva & Other Morsels of Misinformation from the History Books by David Haviland

Now, that is a title. I was worried that I couldn't fit it into the little box provided in Blogger: that's how long it is. And it will probably look gigantic at the top of this post.

This is yet another "odd fact" book: I read them pretty regularly, in the obvious household location for books that you can pick up and read for a few minutes and put down again for a day or two.

The Not-So-Nude Ride of Lady Godiva & Other Morsels of Misinformation from the History Books purports to be a "you think X is true? well, let me tell you about Y!" book, but it's not actually written that way. Instead, each mini-essay just tells the story of that historical thing -- Lady Godiva's ride or Joan of Arc's crimes, the Indian Mutiny and the Children's Crusade, the Great Leap Forward and Jack Ketch -- under a headline written as a question. I have no idea why: it's not quite a bait-and-switch, since the book is about quirky historical information that the average reader will not know, but the positioning is pretty weird.

One thing I can say: this is in a loose series, which may have influenced that positioning. First was Why You Shouldn't Eat Your Boogers & Other Useless or Gross Information About Your Body, by Francesca Gould, and it was followed by Gould's Why Fish Fart (long descriptive subtitles silently suppressed from this point) and Why Dogs Eat Poop and Why You Should Store Your Farts in a Jar, both by Gould and Haviland together.

So it looks like Gould wrote one book, it was popular, she continued, she got tired of doing it all herself and then got tired of doing it at all. (This is assuming I have the sequence right: Lady Godiva is from 2012, so I might be mixing things up temporally.) Once Haviland took it all over, the focus shifted from "gross and useless" (possibly because that vein was exhausted) to "quirky and unusual."

Frankly, I don't care all that deeply, but I used to do this for a living -- reading books, positioning them, arguing about titles, trying to hook reader interest -- so the inside-baseball questions are often more interesting to me than writing about the book itself.

I mean, the book is fine: it's got a lot of stories, all of which are true as far as I know, about interesting historical events that mostly didn't go the way Joe Average thinks they did or would think they did if Joe thought about it much. It's divided into ten vague thematic chapters, each one arranged chronologically, and it's a fun, zippy read.

It was eminently suited for the use I put it to: that's what I'm saying. It does the job, and might even have shoved a few sticky facts into my brain. So good for it!

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Rubicon Beach by Steve Erickson

I've written about Steve Erickson before -- hit this link for more details.

But the short form is this: he's been writing imaginative, powerful novels since the mid-80s, books that orbit fantastika elliptically, books that are about things rather than telling stories, books that are unabashedly literary and thoughtful, books that are sometimes (like Leap Year) called nonfiction even when they centrally figure historical figures living in the modern world. His books are weird, quirky, unique -- whatever adjective you want that means "radically different" or "not for a lot of people" or "way out there."

And he's not Steven Erikson: that guy's real name is Steve Rune Lundin, and he started writing more than a decade after Erickson.

Rubicon Beach was his second novel, originally published in 1986 and reprinted by Vintage Contemporaries a year later. I found it, for the first time, then or in 1988, along with Erickson's first novel, Days Between Stations.

I've been reading him ever since. I think his books are some of the most important American literature of our time.

But I still struggle to write about them in any coherent way. His books -- Rubicon Beach strongly follows this pattern -- fall into long sections that each follow seemingly separate characters, in different time periods, doing different things. The obsessions are similar, and the visions of ruin and sadness are common. His main characters are driven by things they don't understand: sometimes internal demons, sometimes events in the world, often both. There are events, but, like our own lives, those events don't tend to be nearly organized into a temporal sequence to generate excitement and adventure.

In Rubicon Beach, we open with the first-person story of Cale, just released from prison in a dystopian, falling-apart America some indeterminate time in the near future. We don't know what happened to this America. There's talk of American One and America Two, of annexes and territories, but no explanations. Cale is dropped of in a flooded Los Angeles, full of canals and ruined buildings and discrete islands. We don't know how that happened, either. He was a political prisoner, arrested for belonging to an organization whose name we never learn and whose goals aren't clear. Maybe to overthrow the government? (But, then, the government of America One or of America Two?) And he was released for an indiscreet moment: he accidentally told a joke in prison that got someone else executed.

And he keeps seeing a young barefoot Latina woman on the edge of the water, here and there in LA at night, with a man kneeling in front of her as she cuts his head off.

He's pretty sure the man is him. Every time.

The second section begins years earlier, and follows a young woman named Catherine, growing up somewhere unspecified in South America. (Yes, she is. Well, maybe she is. Erickson's like that.)

She's alone in life, friendless except for her father, but has a near-supernatural beauty, a face that sometimes transfixes everyone who sees it and sometimes disappears entirely, seeming to be other things so that Catherine herself can't be seen. She's torn from that world. kidnapped, set on a rambling path northward. She makes it to LA, in what seems to be the late '80s, in a world just like the one this novel was published into. She thinks, or is told, that crossing a specific street in LA marks her real entry to America.

That may even be true.

Her mere presence -- she doesn't even speak English; like so many women in Erickson, things happen to and around and because of her but not due to her agency -- wrecks the life of a screenwriter and his family. It destroys more than that, actually. None of that is her fault, or her action.

Her understanding of the world does not match our own. It's difficult to say which of us is correct, in the world of Rubicon Beach.

The third section of the novel dives further back in time. Its central character is Jack Mick Lake, born about 1914 and possessed of an amazing mathematical mind. He comes to believe that he's discovered a new number -- between nine and ten -- and that this number, which could have only been discovered in America, implies a whole new landscape of life. He has a complicated, tragic family. He falls in love with a young radical woman and loses her horribly while in college.

Many quiet, spent years later, he moves to Penzance in England in 1951, for no obvious reason. There he meets an old man who may be Cale and a woman who may be Catherine. And, in the end, he has to return to America, to take another long journey to that final beach.

What these three sections have to do with each other is never cleanly evident. It's nothing simple. In one sense, Rubicon Beach is a novel all about the assassination of Robert Kennedy, even though his name appears nowhere in the book. (Erickson, again, is that kind of writer: his most direct line is elliptical.)

Reading a Steve Erickson book is a distinctive experience. (This isn't even the weirdest one.) Rubicon Beach is actually relatively straightforward for Erickson, with each section telling its story cleanly, always moving forward in time.

If you read books to think deeply, to immerse yourself in new ideas and unexpected constellations of words, to wonder at amazing phrases and be surprised by endless inventiveness, you should try Erickson.

This book isn't a bad place to start, in 2019 -- it shows us a world flooded in the near future, an America broken in two for reasons it won't tell us, secret police and radical cells, women treated as objects, and the yearning for something better and truer. Sound familiar?

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

No Fair! No Fair! and Other Jolly Poems of Childhood by Calvin Trillin and Roz Chast

I should be honest, up front: this is a book for kids. In fact, it combines some of the worst genres of the kids-book world: the first book for children by someone famous for something else, a collection of humorous verse, a book for kids by someone whose grandchildren seem to have grown up quite a bit.

(There can be good things in the worst genres, of course. And I mean "worst" partly aesthetically and partly commercially: these are genres that exist to move product and usually have all of the flaws that aim delivers.)

I read it because I'm a long-time Calvin Trillin fan, even as I think his verse is doggy at best and occasionally cringe-inducing. Sometimes you just have to look because you think the car has crashed.

So, then: No Fair! No Fair! and Other Jolly Poems of Childhood. Written by Trillin with pictures by the great cartoonist Roz Chast. There are about fifteen selections of verse here -- I'm not going to call them "poetry" in anything but the tags -- though three of those are themselves collections of four shorter related pieces.

It's all intended to be funny, and it's all mildly amusing. And it's about the things you'd expect: protecting your side of the back seat, not wanting a new sibling, stuffed animals, eating habits, shoe-tying, how the older sibling is in charge [1], the "Grandpa rule," school troubles, bedtime troubles, demands for pets.

There's no reason to read this unless you're reading it out loud to very small persons. And, even there, I have to think making up your own jokes, songs and rituals based on your own family will be better and funnier...and will probably happen anyway, in any family that might be inclined to read a book like this. But if you are a grandparent, particularly one who likes Trillin, you are the core audience for this book, and you may find that you have bought it without thinking deeply on the matter.

[1] Wasn't true in my childhood -- my younger brother was the most stubborn person alive at the age of seven, and would do the opposite of anything I told him to, or alternatively would do whatever would most annoy me in that moment -- or with my own sons.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 8/17/19

I've been reading a little more recently, and, as surely as night follows day, if I read two books a week for two weeks in a row, some part of my brain turns on the BUY BOOKS switch, and I end up with about a dozen more in the house suddenly.

It does mean that I'll never run out of books, which is comforting. But I'm not sure it's a reasonable response.

I bought these four books used from ABEbooks about a week ago, and they came in during this week. It was one of those usual things -- I was thinking about one book, it was out of print and my old copy was destroyed in the 2011 flood, so in getting a new copy I somehow bought three other things.

Algis Budrys SF Gateway Omnibus collects the three novels The Iron Throne (which I'd never heard of before), Michaelmas (which has been on my "read it someday" list for probably twenty-five years without my ever owning a copy), and Hard Landing (which I thought I didn't have, but, after buying this, I saw that I do have the SFBC hardcover I did on the shelf). I like the idea of the Gateway omnibuses, and, if this were twenty years ago, would probably be trying to collect as many of them as I could.

Leap Year by Steve Erickson -- this was the book that triggered the whole thing. I've been reading Erickson a lot recently: rereading his first two novels Days Between Stations and Rubicon Beach (post goes live on Wednesday) and catching up with his most recent novel Shadowbahn a couple of years late. You know how for a while it felt like the world was a P.K. Dick novel? Well, the world has been feeling like a Steve Erickson book to me for a couple of years now, so I wanted to get back to this, his first "non-fiction" book. Erickson traveled the country during the 1988 election, accompanied -- as he claims -- by the ghost of Sally Hemings.

American Nomad by Steve Erickson -- his other "non-fiction" book, which I don't remember as clearly. Erickson did somewhat the same thing during the 1996 election.

Trillin on Texas by Calvin Trillin -- I've wondered about this book since I learned it existed. I believe it's a small-press thing, from (obviously) a press in Texas, and probably one more academic than popular. Trillin grew up in Missouri and has spent most of his adult life working in New York City, so I don't get the Texas connection. But this book has a bunch of writing by him about stuff and people in Texas, and Texas always has to make everything about it, so I guess that's the point.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

A Note About Something No One Is Likely To Notice

So my new PC is right now busy chugging away, trying to repair the internal HD that I know is dying slowly and which I've backed up already three ways from Sunday. [1] (Two external HDs that I already had, plus a spiffy new internal 6TB that I just installed.) It did this for sixteen hours Friday night into Saturday, and it's been running for about twelve hours this time.

I don't want to force it to stop, since that doesn't help and could damage things. But it does mean that I'm not on my primary machine over the weekend, when I want to be typing blog posts and playing video games and (most at the moment) figuring out how to actually get the list of mods I want actually recognized and live in Oblivion.

So I'm typing this on the really unpleasant keyboard of my Macbook Pro -- seriously, it's like punching a piece of aluminum over and over again with your fingertips -- and I'm not expecting to be typing any other blog posts later today because of how annoying that is.

Which is sad, because I have five books I've read that I want to write about, and the last couple of weekends I've managed to write two or three posts each day. (See: now I'm talking about the process, which means it will get smashed immediately.)

Anyway, you won't notice this because I do have posts scheduled for this week, and I expect next weekend will be back to normal. (At worst, because I will shut down the damn thing, open up the case, and just disconnect the stupid drive that I'm not actually using.)

[1] It has been reporting SMART events for nearly two months now. It's definitely on its way out.

Friday, August 16, 2019

Quote of the Week: Totally True Facts

"Florida also got a big economic boost when the federal government decided to locate the space program in Cape Canaveral, which was an ideal location for launching rockets because over the centuries hurricanes had blown away most of the gravity."
 - Dave Barry, Best. State. Ever., p. 41