Monday, May 09, 2022

Reading Into the Past: Week of May 9, 1997

When I get books in the mail, I write about them here. When I don't, I write about stuff I read years ago, daring my memory to work.

This time out, it's 1997. What were we all doing and thinking and reading twenty-five years ago? Well, here's from me:

Daniel Pool, Dickens' Fur Coat and Charlotte's Unanswered Letters (5/2)

I'm pretty sure this was a nonfiction book of quirky facts about 19th century writers, probably centered on their stuff. But that's about all that comes to mind from the title. Let's see if a search will jog my memory.

OK, this is more specifically a book about publishing, which explains why I read it. (We all love the secret minutia of our own worlds.) Pool had previously written What Charles Dickens Ate and Jane Austen Knew, so he was the go-to guy for random facts about Victorian novelists in the mid-90s. I still don't remember much about the book itself, though.

Harry Turtledove, How Few Remain (typescript, 5/4)

Turtledove has specialized in long books (often in long series) of alternate history, minutely detailed and well-researched, moving forward slowly in time from a hinge-point. I read a lot of them during my time at the SFBC, and generally enjoyed them, though I cursed long books floridly in those days, since I had a never-ending editorial maw to feed and the books in the field just kept getting longer and longer for the same quantity of plot.

This book is the beginning of what I think is his longest series - this book, then two trilogies and a tetralogy - starting from that durable old saw, "what if the South won the Civil War?" It has lots and lots and lots of stuff happening, over the course of eleven books, most involving famous people you will have heard of (even in the later books, when one might assume the winds of fate would have blown elsewise). I'm not always as thrilled with Turtledove's people as his extrapolation, and there does sometimes seem to be a grinding element in his books, as if he is milling them out of refined history, and there's only so much personality he can manage to get into them. But, especially if you really like alternate history, hit this one, and know you have ten more coming.

Christopher Finch, The Art of Walt Disney (5/4)

Some kind of art book; my main memory is that the cover was a bluish-purple. Let me search and see how wrong I am.

Well the current edition is from 2011, and the hegemonic Internet retailer lists earlier editions in 1973 and 1988, but not one in 97-98. I'm pretty sure there was a new edition then, but I cannot find proof of it, or the color of its cover. In any case, this was a book about Walt the man and Disney the company, in a hagiographic mode, with lots and lots of art and even more gushing about how wonderful every last bit of that art was. I enjoyed it, but you may faintly detect that I did not entirely drink the Kool-Aid.

Various, The Amalgam Age of Comics: The Marvel Comics Collection (5/4)

This was a goofy thing, which seems to be half-forgotten now. Marvel and DC had a big weird crossover event in the mid-90s - subtext: the direct market was imploding and sales were plummeting, so everyone was throwing every last idea at the wall to see if anything would stick - in which there were a whole bunch of one-shots with "Amalgam" characters who were all one DC hero + one Marvel hero in the same person.

It was massively gimmicky, hugely inside baseball, and only within waving distance of seriousness - I thought it was fun at the time, but it was very much for people who knew all the details on both sides and wanted to see talented creators ring changes on those details.

The stories were collected into two trade paperbacks, one each from the two companies: this was the Marvel book. Both are deeply out of print, probably for we-don't-work-together-anymore reasons, and almost certainly not worth what you would have to pay for them. Someday some giant conglomerate will buy both companies and this will be in print again (in a lousy edition missing important sections and with an introduction from someone currently hot and twenty years too young to have any useful things to say); wait to get it at that point.

Matt Groening, The Huge Book of Hell (5/5)

I think this was the massive omnibus of Life In Hell, which came out after Groening admitted that the strip was dead and Simpsons would be the entirety of his life until the sweet release of death. (Or something like that.)

And it's another book that seems to be deeply out of print, oddly. It also does not seem to be as comprehensive as I was thinking: it may have just been the new Life In Hell book, or a mixed old/new collection, or something like that. I tend to want to say that you should go to the original books - Love Is Hell, Work Is Hell, School Is Hell - and leave it at that if you want to read Groening. In fact, yes. I do still say that. Go there instead.

Tim Cahill, Pass the Butterworms (5/6)

Cahill was - probably still is; it wasn't that long ago - a travel writer with a vaguely gonzo reputation; I remember reading a bunch of his books in the '90s. I believe this was his new book at the time, and it may have been the last book of his I read. (I don't think those two facts are connected.)

I see that Cahill only had one more book of travel essays after this one - 2002's Hold the Enlightenment - and that he's in his upper seventies now; he was older than I thought. (Another one of those Boomers who were so ubiquitous in everything when I was younger.) I may have actually kept up with his books, then, he just didn't have as many as I thought. (He was an editor for Outside for ages, so he had a day-job besides running off to odd corners of the world and writing about it.)

My memory is that Cahill is always entertaining, and that his books can be roughly ranked by how outrageous their titles are - so Jaguars Ripped My Flesh is at the top, then A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg, then Pecked to Death By Ducks, and so on.

Ian McEwan, First Love, Last Rites (5/7)

Did I read this book that late? My memory is that I caught up with McEwan much earlier in the '90s than this, but I guess not. This was, I think, his first short-story collection, way back at the beginning of his career, so my guess is that I was working backwards, and finished here.

McEwan became a better writer, technically, from this point. But I don't know if he has ever been a stronger writer: these are dark, harrowing, compelling stories, with the fierceness and power that only a young man can muster.

Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean, The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish (5/7)

I see I was reading picture books even a year before my first son was born; this would have been well before we had any idea Thing 1 was coming. This was the first of two picture books from Gaiman and McKean, following various other collaborations from the Sandman covers to Violent Cases and Mr. Punch. (Did they ever work on a movie together? I don't think so.)

I still think The Wolves in the Walls is a better book in all ways, but this is a lot of fun, and I recall it being a hoot to read aloud, which is a huge bonus in a picture book.

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