Upcoming

  1. There’s a postcard show at Skewer Gallery (located inside Kebab at 2315 St. Claude) which opens this Saturday, 9 September 2017. My daughter and I will have several postcards on display. (Mine all have an autumnal equinox theme.) All postcard art will be on sale for $5 with proceeds going to support L’eau Est La Vie Camp and efforts to stop the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. Make it a part of your second Saturday art stroll. Have some dinner too.
  2. I’m honored to be reading my work at Antenna Gallery at 3718 St. Claude on Wednesday, 13 September 2017, for Letters Read: Regrets. This series focuses on “current and historically interesting letters written by culturally vital individuals.” If I am known for anything, surely it is my cultural vitality. Free and open to the public.
  3. Come out to Banks Street Bar on the autumnal equinox to catch the debut of Half Pagan — my musical collaboration with Michael Homan. That’s Friday, 22 September 2017 at 8pm. Come early, we’re playing a short set.

Speaking of the autumnal equinox, if you are in Bloomington be sure to snag a copy of the current issue of The Ryder magazine. I’ve got an article in there on the subject. The rest of you can read see it online or better yet buy my book — it will be at a reduced price (Kindle only) until the equinox.

Here’s a review of the essay from one reader, who happens to be my father-in-law:

Loved “The Other Equinox.”  Truly entertaining and well-written, and of much interest indeed!  I love the weave of the themes of metaphor and gratitude, and the notion of how a certain childlike innocence (trees as entities, etc.) might actually involve a higher truth. Most of all, I loved the way it came off as highly intelligent yet down to earth. Done your pappy-in-law proud, son!!!

Reading Frenzy

Absalom, Absalom!The Claw of the Conciliator (The Book of the New Sun, #2)The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution & Future of the Human AnimalMidnight Robber


I seem to be reading more these days. I’m a slow reader, but nevertheless I persevere. I’m simultaneously working my way through no less than four books right now.

  • Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. I’m reading this for the aptly-named Difficult Book Club, which was formed here at the University as part of our Read Today, Lead Tomorrow program. We are only reading one chapter a month, then meeting to discuss it, so it’s slow going.
  • The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe. This might be the fifteenth time I’ve read through the four volumes of the Book of the New Sun, which is my favorite novel of all time. I’m reading this aloud to Xy, for the second time, so one chapter every few nights.
  • The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond. I got this on loan from Brother O’Mara. It’s been on my to-read list for ages, actually a part of my top secret research agenda. Sorry, can’t tell say anything more at this juncture, except that I’m digging the book so far.
  • Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson. Wow, a book not written by a white male. I took a break from the previous book to read this one for the Octavia SF Club. It is set on a Caribbean-colonized planet during Carnival, so it’s perfect thing to read right now in New Orleans. Hustle on over to Octavia Books, score a copy, and join us for our next meeting. Great fun.

Now if you’ll excuse me I have some more reading to do.

We’re Number 15

My friend Anne, with whom I’ve been in a book club for nearly ten years now, alerted me to the fact that Central Connecticut State University has released their annual rankings of America’s Most Literate Cities. What especially intrigued Anne, and me, is that New Orleans is ranked #15 (out of 75). We were #17 last year. There’s no ranking for New Orleans in 2008, 2007, or 2006 because of you-know-what. But in 2005, New Orleans was ranked (drum roll) #42.

That’s quite a come-up, and I’m trying to figure what to make of it. There seems to be a clear “Katrina effect.”

The overall rankings were determined by the rankings of each city in each of the six subcategories: bookstores, educational attainment, internet resources, library resources, newspaper circulation, and periodical publication.

Poking around in the subcategories, I see that New Orleans doesn’t rank higher in most of them. Educational attainment, not so much. Libraries? No, that’s our worst showing: We’re #40. For internet resources we’re #13. But when it comes to booksellers, we are #12. This would seem to be our main strength.

These three variables were used to determine a total score and consequent ranking:
1. Number of retail bookstores per 10,000 population
2. Number of rare and used bookstores per 10,000 population
3. Number of members of the American Booksellers Association per 10,000 population

Where did the data come from?

Booksellers and Stores Data

For this database, information was gathered from Yellow Pages, Inc. (http://www.yellowpagesinc.com) for information on retail, rare, and used booksellers as of November, 2010. Also, the American Booksellers Association site (http://www.bookweb.org) was used for independent bookseller information. Please note that for figures reported for “retail”, these did not include any “specialty”, “adult”, or “religious” bookstores, and the stores were those listed at these database sites in November of 2010.

Could it be that our bookstores all came back even though our population shrank?

Well, all I can say is I patronize my favorite bookstore, Octavia Books, whenever I can. I no longer purchase books through Amazon. Octavia special orders anything I want. They’ve nurtured my intellectual life substantially over the years, most notably by playing host to the aforementioned book club. (We’re reading Mysterium right now; grab a copy and join us Feb. 12th.) So my loyalty is unflagging.

Maybe other New Orleanians feel the same way about their bookstores?

In any event, I’ve derived so much pleasure through the reading of books over the years that I would classify myself as an unabashed fan of literacy. Therefore I welcome any positive news on this front, and I hope this ranking serves to generate a little excitement in the culture of our city about the joys of reading.

Perils of Reading

I wanted to write something here about how to enjoy a book, novels in particular. I’ve touched on this before, but I wanted to expand on that theme.

It’s not enough to read for an hour or so before you go to bed. Read when you first wake up in the morning. Read at lunch time. Read when you get home from work or school. Intertwine your reading with your daily activities, until you are thoroughly immersed. Soon you will be living in two worlds, thinking of that fictional world constantly even as you navigate the real one.

I was going to write something like that. I was thinking about this as I rode my bike to work the other morning — when what to my wondering eyes should appear but a man walking down the bike path and reading a book.

Reader

I was so stunned I had to take a picture. I really couldn’t believe what I was seeing. What was going on here? Was this some sort of gag? Was I a victim of some kind of psychic-powered hidden camera TV show?

No. This guy was just really into his book. He was so immersed in what he was reading, that he couldn’t put the book down even as he walked through the neighborhood.

And that’s kind of cool…

Reader

…but perhaps this guy was taking it to far.

I gawked in amazement as he walked across Tulane Avenue. Barely a glance at the oncoming traffic.

Reader

As you can see, he survived. But yeah. Definitely too far.

When I related this encounter to my boss, she told me Stephen King was struck by a car while walking and reading a book at the same time.

I think the moral is clear.

Reading and walking don’t mix.

Actually, according to an interview in the Bangor News, King wasn’t reading the book when he was struck. But I still don’t think it’s a good idea. Personally I am way too much of a klutz to walk and read at the same time. I would surely trip and crack a tooth.

And what have I been reading lately that got me thinking about this in the first place? I got finished with When Gravity Fails earlier than expected, so I had some extra reading time. I decided to tackle The Book of the Short Sun at long last. Took me about a month and a half, and I’m still digesting it. After that, I read Blindsight which served as a sort of bracer, and I finished it just in time for today’s book club discussion. Now I’m partway through Meditation as Contemplative Inquiry by Arthur Zajonc, which is providing a fantastic counterargument to some of the anti-consciousness arguments of Blindsight. Some Borges is up next. It’s interesting to me how each book we read informs those before and after it.

The Long Hard Summer

I’ve been in a book club for eight years now. We read science fiction and meet on the second Saturday of each month at Octavia Books. It’s a lot of fun. We select our books by a simple method which was established by our club’s founder, the late Scott Speake. Each person takes a turn selecting three books on a theme. Given the current size of our group, two years or more may elapse between turns. But at last my time has come again.

For my theme, I chose hard sf. This is often labeled a subgenre but might best be understood as a tendency or continuum within speculative fiction. A lot of people don’t like the term for a variety of reasons, many of which I consider legitimate. The label conjures up a kind of macho mystique which isn’t very helpful. But I do think the concept has some value in understanding the history and breadth of “our special literature,” as Poul Anderson calls it.

The “hardness” of any given fiction can be understood in two different ways: 1) how seriously the story takes its science, or 2) just how “hard” that science is, physics being “harder” than psychology, for example. Thus hard sf will rarely feature people zipping around the universe at speeds faster than light.

(A brief digression. Explicating the above concept has led to some interesting conversations. When we took my boss out to Drago’s for her birthday, we talked about this in the context of two very popular and iconic franchises. I opined that Star Trek is an example of “soft” sf, while Star Wars is not sf at all, but a fairy tale with sf trappings. That’s not a dis to either, but I’m willing to defend this distinction extensively over beers to anyone who cares to foot the tab.)

After making my choices, I was surprised to discover an entry in an old journal of mine, from ’85 or ’86. I was living in Sweden at the time, and my parents had sent me a care package containing the novel Sentenced to Prism by Allen Dean Foster. “Hard sf,” I complained. “It figures.” I preferred New Wave stuff then; I still do, but I’m at a point now where I take a bit more interest in hard sf, as I discovered when we read Blood Music.

Which leads me to the following three selections. We already discussed the first book in June, but please feel free to join us for books two and three as the summer gets hotter.

Title: Mission of Gravity
Author: Hal Clement
Published: 1953

The only way you can get Mission of Gravity is in the anthology Heavy Planet, a print-on-demand book which is only available thanks to the efforts of the New England Science Fiction Association.

I chose this book because it’s an undisputed hard sf classic. The story concerns a huge planet which spins very fast on its axis; gravity is three times Earth normal at the equator but something like 700 times at the poles. There are some humans visiting, but they are offstage or peripheral for the most part, with the main players being the small centipede-like natives who are perfectly at home in gravity that would crush us. One might assume such creatures would be very strange and alien, but in Clement’s story they play out like humans in disguise. That seemed rather unlikely to me, but this is not a work of great psychological depth. Indeed, many traditional literary elements such as character and style are somewhat underdeveloped; the plot chugs along and unfolds at a steady pace, but it’s all in service to something else, namely, speculation on high-gravity physics. Clement’s reverence for the scientific method is palpable.

This is one of the geekiest books I’ve ever read. (Slide rules are deployed with reckless abandon.) It’s somewhat quaint, rather strange, even charming in its way. While I can’t recommend the novel solely on its merits, I have no reservations recommending it to anyone interested in the history of science fiction. It’s a seminal work. It represents an early effort to distinguish science fiction as something more than adventure fiction with ray guns, something more than space opera. Clement injects a healthy dose of intellectual rigor into the genre. I especially enjoyed his essay “Whirligig World” (included in this volume) which is about the process of writing Mission of Gravity and reveals some of his underlying motives.

Title: Beggars in Spain
Author: Nancy Kress
Published: 1993

By way of contrast, I chose Beggars in Spain for the book we’ll discuss in July. It’s set in the near future, on Earth, and revolves around genetic engineering rather than planetary physics. It’s also of considerably more recent vintage and written by a woman, both of which might serve to counter Clement’s perspective (masculine, 50s). I am only a few chapters in, so I can’t comment on the book as a whole, but so far it is engaging and nicely paced. Indeed, she wastes no time in unfolding the main premise: What if we could flip a few genetic switches and make babies who don’t need to sleep? From such simple speculations can great sf grow. There are less-than-subtle hints of Randian philosophy, which could grow tiresome, but this story won both a Nebula and a Hugo, so I figure it’s gotta be at least a decent read. My advice: Buy it, read it, and join us to talk about it on July 11th. You could do worse.

Title: Revelation Space
Author: Alastair Reynolds
Published: 2000

Our August selection brings us into the new millennium. I haven’t even cracked the cover yet, and I’m not sure what it’s about. I actually wanted something by Greg Egan, who is probably the primary exponent of hard sf writing today, but his most recent novel seems to have underwhelmed reviewers, and his better recent work is out of print already, sad to say. But Alastair Reynolds is supposed to be pretty good, pretty hard, and a scientist to boot.


It’s my hope that by reading these three books I’ll not only visit some strange and interesting imaginary futures, but that I will broaden and deepen my appreciation for speculative fiction. It’s my belief that sf is simply the most interesting and relevant literature of our day, and understanding hard sf is key to understanding the genre as a whole. Let the hard times roll!

Three Books

These are not reviews — more like reading notes.

Title: Gods Behaving Badly
Author: Marie Phillips
Published: 2007

When I heard of this book, featuring the gods of ancient Greece living in modern day London, I knew I had to read it, mainly because Persephone has a key role.

Promising premise. Alas, I just wasn’t feeling Ms. Phillips’ take on the concept. It’s mighty silly, and I was hoping for something slightly more serious. I have to agree with a reviewer on GoodReads, this is “Fluff with a capital F.” Possibly a good beach book, especially if vacationing in the Greek isles. But like American Gods, this novel treads in a realm where I have my own fictive imaginings, and nothing I read in this regard seems to please me. I suppose I need to shut up and write my own novel.

Title: Wizards
Author: Gardner R. Dozois (Editor)
Published: 2007

This is an anthology of stories aimed at the young adult market, on the theme of wizards. I was a little disappointed that the notion of wizards was not more broadly conceived. Most of the interpretations seemed to fit into the traditional European folk archetype. There’s a story here by Gene Wolfe, who is surely a great author, but I found his contribution underwhelming.

Title: Escape from Earth
Author: Gardner R. Dozois (Editor)
Published: 2006

Another young adult anthology, edited by the same folks, only with a broad theme of travel in space. (I don’t ordinarily read “young adult” fiction, nor was I aware of how well-defined this category has become, but these two books were selected by my club.) Of the two I thought this one was superior. The stories are longer, fewer, and better. They are written in frank imitation of the old science fiction “juveniles” by authors such as Heinlein. As such, they’re fun, but definitely aimed at the adolescent reader.

Bookbook

A friend of mine quit Facebook earlier this week. Said he wanted to spend more time reading. Someone else suggested he needed a Bookbook application, which I thought was pretty funny. (But, come to think of it, maybe that’s a better name than GoodReads or LibraryThing.) (Though I don’t think Facebook is dominating my mental panorama so completely, I have to admit it’s been worming its way into more aspects of my life. In fact, I’m doing a presentation on Facebook next month.) While Facebook may not be putting a dent in my reading time, this did get me to thinking about what it means to really enjoy a book. You can rake your eyes across the pages but not really get much out of the text. To really immerse yourself in a novel is something different. You walk around for days only half there, because the fiction transports you to another time and place. It’s slower but more powerful than the more immediate experiences of cinema or television. It’s been a while since I’ve felt that.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

Title: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Author: Michael Chabon
Published: 2007

Here’s a rare book that I’ve enjoyed (so far) but probably won’t finish.

Today, my book club is discussing the book. I’m missing the meeting because I’m staying home to take care of the girl while Xy is at work (a professional development day).

And so, a dilemma. If I take the time to finish the book now, I will fall behind and not finish next month’s book in time.

The premise of this novel is that a Jewish homeland is established on American soil, in the territory of Alaska, back in 1948. It’s set in our day, as the homeland is set to be dissolved and the future of the Jewish people living there is very much in question. And to give it a pop twist, it’s also a murder mystery, a hard-boiled detective story. Or maybe soft-boiled. I didn’t get far enough to know.

Despite being generally impressed by the quality of the writing, my bookmark is only at page 83. I just haven’t found it a quick read, and life’s been keeping me busy. Looks like I’ll just have to wait for the Coen brothers’ film adaptation.

Since I can’t really comment on the story, I should at least make mention of the physical design of the book. It rocks. Will Staehle’s work is absolutely gorgeous. And apparently it has attracted some attention. It’s not just a good-looking book, it’s a pleasure to hold and read.

Maybe if I’d spent less time admiring the book and more time reading it…

The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon

Title: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
Author: Julie Phillips
Published: 2006

If you go to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, you can see a huge gorilla beating its breast. It’s stuffed of course. It was shot on Mount Karisimbi in the Belgian Congo in November of 1921.

Alice B. Sheldon was on that expedition. She was six years old at the time. In fact she was the first white child many people in the Congo had ever seen.

This was just one of many extraordinary experiences in the life of Alice Sheldon. Besides exploring Africa, she was a debutante, a chicken farmer, a WAC, a CIA agent, a psychologist and of course a writer. (Her mother, Mary Hastings Bradley, was also a writer of some renown. I just discovered that she’s still in print, believe it or not.) Sheldon was ferociously intelligent, stunningly beautiful, deeply conflicted and often very depressed.

I have not read many biographies. In fact, I can’t remember reading a single one. This may well be the first. I mention that because I don’t have much to compare this with, but it seems to me a tremendous book. It’s well-written and impeccably researched, but most of all it tells a fascinating story.

The first half is enormously engrossing, but it kicks into a higher level when James Tiptree, Jr. is “born” in 1967. As ingenious as many of Tiptree’s stories are, I’m convinced that Tiptree himself was Sheldon’s greatest invention. His persona is remarkably compelling, and he allowed her to write some astonishing stuff. He carried on a voluminous correspondence with lots of contemporary authors, always under the guise of being Tiptree. Everybody wondered who this mysterious guy was.

Eventually, of course, he was exposed as a she, and minds were blown. Alas, we can’t have that experience now, but the tale is still fascinating and more than a little disturbing. That befits the Tiptree/Sheldon worldview.

We come trailing not clouds of glory, but shreds of placenta on which are written pain, suffering, and death.

Verdict: Best book I’ve read in a couple years, and definitely deserving of the many awards it’s accumulated. Check it out.

The Octavia Science Fiction Book Club will discuss this book Saturday, February 9, 2008 10:30 a.m. at Octavia Books. The club meets on the 2nd Saturday of each month.

Her Smoke Rose Up Forever

Title: Her Smoke Rose Up Forever
Author: James Tiptree, Jr.
Published: 1969-1981

He wails voicelessly as conviction invades him, he who had believed in nothing before. All the agonies of Earth, uncanceled? Are broken ghosts limping forever from Stalingrad and Salamis, from Gettysburg and Thebes and Dunkirk and Khartoum? Do the butchers’ blows still fall at Ravensbruck and Wounded Knee? Are the dead of Carthage and Hiroshima and Cuzco burning yet? Have ghostly women waked again only to resuffer violation, only to watch again their babies slain? Is every nameless slave still feeling the iron bite, is every bomb, every bullet and arrow and stone that ever flew, still finding its screaming mark — atrocity without end of comfort, forever?

The writings of James Tiptree Jr. are a revelation of pain. The above passage reflects the thoughts of a long-dead protagonist at some indeterminate time in the far future when the human race itself is extinct. He has been resurrected briefly by alien intelligences, and is reliving his life — but only the most painful moments. That’s all that’s left of us: our pain. “Was pain indeed the fiercest fire in our nerves, alone able to sustain its flame through death?” Tiptree’s answer was unequivocal.

He had a peculiar genius for bleak tales laced with emotional violence and sexuality and death. He wrote with an especially masculine voice and did a great job getting inside the male mindset. Yet he was also hailed as a feminist, a sensitive man who understood women, writing in a genre where that was rare.

How ironic, then, that he turned out to be a woman. James Tiptree Jr. was actually Alice Sheldon, and she appears to have been an extraordinary person. I expect to learn more about Tiptree/Sheldon in her biography which I’m reading next.

Each story in this collection is strong stuff. The extinction of the humanity occurs in roughly a quarter of the tales. Yet through all the misanthropy, there is also a keen sensitivity to that thing we call the human condition.

My favorite story in this anthology is “A Momentary Taste of Being.” In fact, it’s one of my favorite stories of all time. I encountered it years ago in a collection titled The New Atlantis. It’s really more of a novella than a short story, and it’s a tour de force of cosmic proportions. I defy anyone to read it and not have their mind blown.

I must add that I’m a little disappointed with the way the stories are presented in this edition. They are not in chronological order, and indeed I could find no logic at all to their sequence. Apparently in a previous edition they were grouped into thematic sections. This edition maintains that sequence, but without the sections I couldn’t make sense of it. A minor quibble.

My recommendation: Check it out. You can get it from Octavia Books right now. Read a story, then put it on the shelf, and maybe read another one next month. Tiptree’s nihilism is best enjoyed in small doses. Reading it through from cover to cover as I did (aloud at bedtime for Xy’s benefit) can be a bit overwhelming. Further, some of the stories have resolutions which are quite subtle and deserve to be savored. That kind of gets lost when you just turn the page and start the next story.

Update: One month later, I find that a couple other stories bear mentioning because they left a particularly strong impression. They linger in my memory more than the others. “The Screwfly Solution” is short but horrific. “Your Faces, O My Sisters! Your Faces Filled of Light!” is lyrical and disturbing; although it contains science fiction themes, I wouldn’t classify it as a science fiction story in the strictest sense. Interestingly, both these stories were published under Alice Sheldon’s other pen name: Racoona Sheldon.

I should also note that the original 1990 edition of this anthology had classy illustrations by Andrew Smith and an introduction by John Clute. (He has the good taste to cite “A Momentary Taste of Being” as “the finest densest most driven novella yet published in the field.”) The 2004 reprint I got has a cheesy cover, no illustrations, and a perfectly serviceable introduction by Michael Swanwick. Considering the above-noted arrangement of stories into thematic sections, I believe the original edition is superior, so get it if you can. If not, you can at least read Clute’s intro here.

You can read another review of this anthology here (second half).

Also, there’s a cookbook entitled Her Smoke Rose Up from Supper.

Spin

Title: Spin
Author: Robert Charles Wilson
Published: 2005

Imagine you’re a kid looking up at the night sky and all of a sudden the stars vanish. All of them, instantly, gone in the blink of an eye. That’s the opening gambit for Spin by Robert Charles Wilson, and I was hooked. Imagine growing up in a world with no stars, no moon, and a fake sun. What the hell is going on here?

I’m not a fast reader, but I devoured this book in record time (less than a week). Something about this author’s style clicks with the way I think. But moreover, the mystery of the novel kept me turning pages. What possible explanation could the author provide?

By the time I got to page four hundred or so, I started to suspect that he couldn’t do it, that the mystery would be left unresolved.

I’m happy to say I was wrong. I won’t spoil the resolution for you. In fact, I couldn’t, because it’s so subtle you really have to read the book to understand it.

This is a hardcore science fiction novel, and one of the best I’ve read in a while. I can see why it won a Hugo award. (My friend Rebecca participated in the voting that year and actually agreed with the results for once.) It’s full of big science ideas and technology and interesting speculation. But at the same time, it’s a very human story about people living through difficult (even apocalyptic) times. Best of all, it’s a perfectly paced cosmic mystery.

Spin is the December selection of the Octavia Science Fiction Club. We’ll be discussing the book at Octavia Books, 10:30 AM, Saturday, December 8th. Please feel free to join us. Of course, you can buy the book from Octavia and help support a small independent bookseller.

Mixed-Up Files

Title: From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankwiler
Author: E. L. Konigsburg
Published: 1967

This book was published the year I was born. I figure I was around ten or so when I read it on a trip to the Field Museum in Chicago with my father. The story of two young kids about my age running away from home and hiding in a museum caught my imagination. I think I left the book at the hotel by accident, and we had to reimburse the library.

So here it is three decades later, and this book has come back into my life because it’s part of Xy’s curriculum. We added it to the stack of bedtime reading (I often read to Xy before we go to sleep) and recently finished the book.

As is typical when revisiting places from childhood, I was surprised by how small this book was. I remembered it being longer.

I’m not sure the book has aged very well. Or maybe I’ve aged too much.

One recurrent theme is Claudia chiding her younger brother Jamie for his grammar. Mostly his grammatical sins consist of ending sentences with prepositions. This grammatical “rule” is widely discredited, and I don’t think most kids today would understand what they’re talking about. It’s nice character development, though.

But hiding out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a week is still a pretty cool idea.

I wonder how kids from New Orleans will relate to the travails of Claudia and Jamie?

Update: Just talked to Dad on the phone and he reminded me that our trip was to the Museum of Science and Industry, not the field museum. He also expressed regret that we didn’t do more things like that as I was growing up. Words to ponder as fatherhood impends upon me…