A Budget of Book Reviews: H.G. Wells and Frank Baker

A rundown on my Thanksgiving reading.

We spent a few extra days with my parents for Thanksgiving this year, as much to escape the choking smoke of the Northern California Camp Fire as anything else. In between cooking, eating, sleeping off all the yummy food, and teaching my mother how to use the Kindle that I bought her for her birthday, I found time for some reading, too. Two quite different books, as you will see.

The Croquet Player, H.G. Wells.
University of Nebraska Press. With afterword by John Huntington.

CroquetPlayer Wells

I picked this one up in the used section of Green Apple Books a while ago, but didn’t get to it until now. It’s a short novella—less than 100 pages—originally published in 1936, on the cusp of World War II.

The book opens with the narrator, the titular Croquet Player, introducing himself. He is an idly rich man who doesn’t have to work, but instead has spent his life becoming “one of the best croquet players alive.” He’s also pretty good at archery and bridge. He’s a bit of a Mamma’s boy (it’s his aunt, rather than his mother); and he’s just a bit too young to have served in World War I. Generally, his life is trouble-free and easy. I wondered why Wells spent so much time setting up this person as the narrator, but it makes more sense as the novel progresses.

The narrator and his aunt go to a resort in Normandy to “recuperate” from an exhausting conference of the Woman’s World Humanity Movement (an organization the narrator’s aunt is heavily involved in). There, the narrator meets a fellow Englishman, Dr. Finchatton, who tells the narrator the main story.

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Solar Pons, Sherlock Holmes, and Me

The Chronicles of Solar Pons

I stumbled upon The Chronicles of Solar Pons—the original 1972 Mycroft & Moran edition, in nearly new condition—on one of the “Used Books” shelves of Borderland’s Books. Not even in the Mystery section of the store, but in the Horror section, which tells you which section of August Derleth’s wide range of works may be most remembered today. I knew who Solar Pons was, but I wasn’t familiar with the stories. Still, I knew that true Holmes aficionados considered the Pons stories to be the best pastiches of the Canon out there, and the book was quite reasonably priced. So I bought it.

According to the front leaf of the book’s dust jacket, Derleth passed away not too long after finishing the final draft of the manuscript. So Chronicles is the last volume of the Derleth-authored Pons stories, and I began my journey at the end, so to speak. I had vague memories of running into a Pons story before, in some anthology or other, a long time ago; I think it was one of the stories Basil Copper wrote. I was not so into Sherlock Holmes back then, so the story made little impression.

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Reading Anthony Bourdain’s Hungry Ghosts

The subtitle of this comic is “Tales of Fear and Food from Around the World,” but the stories are all from Japan.

I didn’t know this, but apparently Anthony Bourdain was really into Japanese yokai and yurei lore. He and his Get Jiro! collaborator, novelist Joel Rose, along with several acclaimed comics artists (Sebastian Cabrol, Alberto Ponticelli, Vanesa Del Rey, Mateus Santolouco, Leonardo Manco, Irene Koh, Paul Pope, and Francesco Francavilla) got together to create this collection of yokai and food-themed tales, adaptations of some popular Japanese folk stories. This seems to have been one of Bourdain’s last projects before his passing.

Anthony Bourdain's Hungry Ghosts

The framing story of the collection is that an obscenely wealthy Russian businessman has “won” the services of eight famous international chefs in some sort of charity auction. After a lavish banquet, the oligarch invites the chefs to join him and his guests in a game of Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (A Gathering of 100 Weird Tales). To play the game, the participants sit in a room lit only by 100 candles. Everyone takes turns telling a spooky tale, then blowing out a candle. As the room slowly darkens, the game is said to summon spirits and ghosts. When the final candle is extinguished — look out! Something horrible may be waiting in the dark.

The pieces in Hungry Ghosts relate the stories told by each of the eight chefs.

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Invasion of the Grey Ones

I recently saw the 1956 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers for the first time. It’s much better than I thought it would be. My husband loves cheesy 1950’s sci-fi B-movies, and that was what I expected Body Snatchers to be. But it’s really not that cheesy at all. It’s fairly suspenseful, and its moody cinematography makes the film feel more noir than sci-fi. The inevitable romantic relationship between the male and female leads felt refreshingly adult, and quite relevant to the story. Drop the “happy ending” frame story (which both the producer and director objected to), and make the alien pods look a bit less like giant Belgian endive, and the film would be even closer to perfect.

Pod vs Endive
Left: A pod. Right: A Belgian Endive. I rest my case. Screenshot: moviescreenshots.blogspot.com. Endive: Wikimedia

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On the Obligations of the Reader

Adapted from some ramblings of mine on Twitter.

I recently came across the essay “Let Me Tell You,” by author Cecilia Tan. It’s a response to the old writing dictum “show, don’t tell,” and in the process of arguing against it (specifically in the SF/Fantasy genres), the essay also takes a shot at the myth of “universality” that underlies the dictums of writing “quality” (read: literary) fiction.

I highly recommend the essay to you. But in addition to what it says to writers/readers of SF/Fantasy, it crystallized some other thoughts of my own – a reader, not a writer, and not generally an SF/Fantasy reader either – about the obligations of the reader.

NewImage

Clumsy exposition (“as you know…”) is one of my pet peeves. And I’ve noticed that I sometimes prefer reading works from an X writer to those of an X-American or otherwise hyphenated writer (X-British, X-Canadian, etc.), and this is kinda why: X-Americans often feel an obligation to write to “Americans”. That is, they feel the need to explain bits of X culture or history to the mainstream “American” reader.  X writers write only to X-ians.

A Filipinx author can leave the fraught relationship/history between the Philippines and US unsaid, even when that relationship is central to their themes or to their characters, because readers in the Philippines know. But not all Americans do, so a Fil-American author might feel the need to somehow work a little history lesson into their narrative.

But is it always necessary?

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Something

“I’m going to be something!” said the eldest of five brothers. “I’m going to be useful in the world, however humble a position I hold; if that which I’m doing is useful, that will be Something. I’ll make bricks; people can’t do without bricks, so at least I’ll do Something.”

— “Something” by Hans Christian Andersen. Translator Jean Hersholt

They say Hans Christian Andersen wrote fairy tales, but so many of them are really more like parables. And not necessarily for kids, either.  I like “Something,” because it speaks to an urge so many of us have: to make some sort of difference in the world.

Bricklayers, Childe Hassam

In the story, the brickmaker’s brothers laughed at him, because his ambition was so humble. Better to be a bricklayer, who makes houses; or an architect, who designs them. Better yet to be a “genius,” who breaks new ground and creates original things — or a critic, who tells everyone else what they could have done better.

The brickmaker didn’t become as rich or as respected and admired as his more ambitious brothers, but in the end, he accomplished Something. On the way, he did a good deed by giving his broken bricks (and a few whole ones) to a poor woman so she could build herself a house. She in turn eventually sacrificed her life to save a group of merrymakers from a terrible disaster. And so the brickmaker and the old woman got into heaven, because they did Something.

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Birthmarks and Invisible Clothes

In which I search out the folktale inspirations for Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Swineherd”.

HansAndersen40Stories

I’ve been reading M.R. James’ 1930 translation of Hans Christian Andersen, Forty-two Stories, which is a delight. I’ve realized that, while I’m familiar with Andersen’s most famous tales, I’ve mostly only read retellings of them, rather than reading them in Andersen’s own (translated) words. It makes such a difference! Andersen’s prose (as channeled through James, at least) is so beautifully clean and unadorned; more modern than I would have expected.

Many (though not all) of Andersen’s tales are direct retellings of folktales, albeit with his own unique voice and special details. Other tales borrow from traditional stories to a greater or lesser degree. In the preface to his translation, James gives a bit of information about the folk origins of several tales, based both on what Andersen himself said, and on James’ personal research.

Let’s explore “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Swineherd.”

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The Bouquet Makers, Part II

In which Giulla and Feristemo find each other, and take a little revenge. From the Peregrinaggio.

When last we saw them, Feristemo and Giassamen had finally learned Giulla’s whereabouts, and were making plans to rescue her.

Giassamen happened to know that quite near Giullistano, where Giulla was held, there was a grand palace whose owner was greatly in debt to the king (ah, back taxes). So the palace was up for public auction. With Feristemo’s approval, Giassamen took a large sum from the money that Feristemo’s father had given to them, and, while posing as a foreign merchant, bought the palace. He and Feristemo furnished the palace luxuriously, then set up residence there.

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The Bouquet Makers, Part I

Another tale from the Peregrinaggio

Once upon a time in the land of Serger, in the city of Letzer, there ruled a wise and just king. He was good to his subjects and welcoming of foreigners. When the king died, his eldest son inherited the throne.

Sadly, the new king was the exact opposite of the old king. He was malicious and greedy, and sowed discord and suspicion where before there was none. In fact, after the old king died, the new king had his own younger brother executed, and threw his brother’s son — and his own daughter — into prison. Because of the new king and his corruption, Letzer became such an unhappy place that people left, in droves.

Among the people who stayed were two old men, lifelong friends, wealthy and respectable. One had a daughter named Giulla, the other a son named Feristemo, both about the same age. The two fathers’ dearest wish was that their children would fall in love and get married.

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The Emperor who Turned into a Parrot

A tale from the Peregrinaggio. WARNING: lots of dead animals.

The land of Becher was once ruled by an Emperor who had four wives. His favorite wife, the Empress, was his uncle’s daughter; the other three wives were daughters of great princes. This Emperor was a wise man of great learning, and he enjoyed the company of other learned and artistic minds. As a result, his court was always full of scientists and philosophers and poets and artists and other brilliant, cultured people.

Alfonso el Sabio

One day the Emperor sat conversing with an aged philosopher who had traveled widely and seen many things. This philosopher told the Emperor that in the far western lands, he once met a man who knew how to transfer his life spirit and soul into the body of a dead animal, and then back again. This man had taught the philosopher the secret.

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