Monday, April 19, 2021

Reading Into the Past: Week of April 19, 2003

No new books in the mail (or otherwise) this past week, so instead I fired up the old RNG to pick a random year when I was keeping track of what I read but not yet writing about every last thing here. The first time the RNG first gave me 2009, when I was keeping track of everything. So I tried again, and ended up in 2003.

(After wasting close to an hour reading my own archives, which sounds naughtier and more productive than it actually is. Does anyone else do that? Looking at what I wrote a decade ago always fascinates me, even when I think that guy was totally wrong.)

Joe Sacco, Palestine (4/12)

This was Sacco's first big book, in 1996 -- he won an American Book Award for it, and it launched the career he's had since then, where he goes somewhere where something is going wrong (generally not as horribly now as it was back in his early days), spends a long time there, and then puts out a big book of comics trying to make sense of that thing going wrong. By 2003, he'd done the same thing again with Safe Area Gorazde and (on a smaller scale) with The Fixer -- so I think I probably came to one of those books first, and was catching up on Sacco's backlist here.

I think this is still relevant, unfortunately. His Balkan books probably less so, but Palestine has been stuck in the same horrible rut for about three generations now - I'm not going to try to characterize that rut, or claim that one side is responsible, but I hope we can all admit it is horrible and shows no sign of getting any better.

Charles de Lint, Spirits in the Wires (typescript, 4/13)

I read this for work: it was de Lint's new novel for 2003, coming out that summer and set in his usual fictional city of Newford. Even at the time, all of de Lint's books tended to blur together in the mind, and I definitely can't separate them now. The Newford books were not overly plotty: they were books about people and places, and their relationships, in that vaguely countercultural way that was feeling more and more quaint by the early Aughts. I see from online reviews that this is the one with two new female characters who may or may not be "real," interacting with a whole passel of established de Lint folks. And I'm afraid I have no opinion at all eighteen years later on its literary merits: until I started typing this, I'd entirely forgotten that I ever read it.

Peter David, One Knight Only (bound galleys, quit unfinished, 4/14)

I probably shouldn't say anything here: it's not fair to write about something I didn't finish two decades ago. But I liked David's writing - most obviously in comics, with his long run on Incredible Hulk around that time and on other titles as well, plus his writing about comics in places like CBG, and his generally light and fun fantasy novels - so I'm going to at least say that, and then try to figure out what this book was. Aha! This was the sequel to Knight Life, with King Arthur appearing in the modern USA and the hijinks that ensued. I know I read and liked that one, but I'm not clear at this late date whether I was reading the sequel thinking about doing it as a single book (because the SFBC had an edition of Life) or if it was a potential 2-in-1. For whatever reason, I stopped partway through: something (sales, or the book itself, or maybe something more important to read quickly for work) stopped me, and that was that. But David's novels from around this time are light and fun, for those looking for books like that.

Simon Winchester, The Map That Changed the World (4/15)

Winchester, of course, is of The Professor and the Madman fame; this, I think was his follow-up book, taking another obscure British eccentric who did something useful (William Smith, the first major geological map) and building a big edifice around that and allowing millions of book-readers to feel educated and cultured and smart. I'm pretty sure I grabbed this free from work - I can't imagine a world in which the BOMC of circa 2003 would not have had this book available - and read it on my commute because I, also, wanted to feel educated and cultured and smart.

And I do. I do.

Robert B. Parker, Back Story (4/16)

This was the thirtieth of the forty novels about the Boston PI Spenser that Parker wrote during his life; other people have written more since, proving my theory that people are stupid and easily led. (Do I mean the readers or the writers? Why not both!) The Spenser books were once excellent mysteries, but by this era had been stripped down to the tightest possible essentials: laconic dialogue, enough description so the reader knew these people exited in places, and events that basically followed from each other and added up to a story. A couple of years later, I described a book from this period as "Parker whittled his prose down to the absolute minimum number of words necessary to tell his stories; there's not an ounce of fat anywhere in these books."

I'm not sure now, a decade after Parker died, if that was necessarily a good thing, but it was a thing, and it was a thing for roughly the last twenty years of his career. So if you want to experience that thing, there are a lot of options. And the first half-dozen or so Spenser books are more conventional, well-regarded PI novels, too.

Robert Byrne, compiler, The 2,458 Best Things Anybody Ever Said (4/17)

Not just a big quote book: an omnibus of several big quote books, shoved together between two covers in a cheaper package for people like me who wanted their witty sayings sold by volume. I had a small notebook of quotes I liked - started it in college, had it in my desk when the 2011 flood destroyed all paper in my basement - and I read quote books on and off for twenty-some years finding things to add there and to post here as "Quotes of the Week." This was a good 'un.

Tom Hiney and Frank MacShane, The Raymond Chandler Papers: Selected Letters and Nonfiction, 1909-1959 (4/18)

I'm assuming this is exactly what it says it is: I don't remember it well, and I don't think I still have it, post-flood. I always liked Chandler: he was a tricky, meaty writer whose work rewarded careful reading, and I gather that his ephemera (like this) was also worth reading.

Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson, Dune: The Machine Crusade (4/19)

The second book in an unnecessary - but very popular! - historical trilogy set in the universe of Frank Herbert's Dune novels, written by his son with long-time pro Anderson. Herbert and Anderson did three trilogies over about a decade, if I remember correctly, all of which were genre bestsellers and probably real-world bestsellers as well. They belong to a category of book that I like to call "things that paid my salary for years," and I try not to criticize them unduly, because I am not ungrateful. A lot of people read this and thought the time was well-spent; I was happy to provide it to them through the SFBC. It was not then and is not now my thing, and I've always thought Herbert and Anderson could have spent their time writing books that were much better than their Dune trilogies.

But those nonexistent books would never have sold anything like the Dune books they did write, which is the real point. Consumers want more of the same, over and over again - and, in a consumer society, they will get it. Might as well let people like Herbert and Anderson make good livings out of it along the way.

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