The Endless Bookshelf : simply messing about in books

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Books are what I do : Write (very slowly), Read (rapidly or at leisure), Re-read (for pleasure or reference), Buy and Sell (my livelihood), Catalogue and Describe (ditto), Edit, Publish, Review (for The New York Review of Science Fiction and others), Recommend or Give away, Receive, and — unavoidably and repeatedly  — Lift (whether singly or in boxes). I concede a fondness for private eye novels, equalled by my interest in the quirky, erudite, or obscure, and surpassed only by my love of the literature of the fantastic.

— Henry Wessells

Buchnarr, 1494. Ware! Ware! Ware the Book-Fool!

 

29 November & 23 December 2018

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‘ the admirable work of Nature ’

— Thomas Browne. Pseudodoxia Epidemica: Or, Enquiries into very many Received Tenents and commonly presumed Truths, Together with the Religio Medici . . . the Sixth and Last edition. London: J.R. for Nath. Ekins, 1672.

I am at work on a couple of books (a volume of selected letters of Avram Davidson for The Nutmeg Point District Mail; and a work of fiction) and an article or two, and will not be reading much current writing in the next several months. Instead, I will be reading Browne’s VULGAR ERRORS in a good edition published during the author’s lifetime (detail of the spine below). This copy comes from the library of the late Robert S. Pirie, a friend and a great collector. Reading is remembering as much as it is discovery and experiencing the present.

Practical considerations have never been the highest imperative in the your correspondent’s reading choices (readers will recall that I had the pleasure of reading Tristram Shandy in the original nine volumes), but I draw the line at carrying a red morocco quarto on the daily commute. And so I have a box of Agatha Christie paperbacks (also from the library of Bob Pirie) that had been sitting in the attic for three years; now I have opened it and will be reading or re-reading some of these mysteries.

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Best Book of 2018

— Ng Yi-Sheng. Lion City. Stories. Epigram, [2018]. Remarkable collection of short fantastical tales of a world city from a young Singapore author: remarkable for the transgressive and transformative use of folklore and history; and for making new stories from old tropes and conceits. Within the span of a few pages, the title story plays with phildickian anxieties about simulation, the place of wildlife in the built environment, and makes the shape-changing story display some new dance steps. “A Day at Terminal Aleph” is a superior airport story and its chronicle of VIP travellers is anchored in observing people at work. Singapore gastronomy and local history are at the heart of such tales as “Food Paradise” and “The Crocodile Prince”; “Sin” is a dark, funny collision of demons and industrial pollution. For your correspondent, the other gem is “The Boy, the Swordfish, the Bleeding Island”, which demonstrates the range of Ng Yi-Sheng’s wit and imagination and innovation. Five hundred years of history, folklore, and literature are re-written in a bold anti-colonial counterfactual so persuasive I was ready to seek library holdings of the novels of Iris Fonseka, in which (among many delights) “Dr. Mary Godwin, a noted prodigy in the field of experimental surgery,” is brought by hovercraft to the court of Sultan Nadim, emperor of China and the Malay archipelago. The tale concludes with another useful shift of perspective. The author is adventurous with form : the core of “The Boy &c.” appears as an engaging scholarly article, while “Garden” is a concise adventure along multiple forking paths and recursive outcomes.
The best book I read in 2018.

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other notable titles

— Andy Duncan. An Agent of Utopia. New & Selected Stories. Small Beer Press, [2018].
Great stories by a great American writer. Duncan is a national treasure and an acute reader: his reading of More’s Utopia and its Tudor context is sharper than you know. He is also a fine reader and performer of his work : I had the pleasure of seeing Andy read portions of the title story as a work in progress.

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— Maria Dahvana Headley. The Mere Wife. MCD Farrar, Straus & Giroux, [2018].
Make it new : this is a re-invention of an old story, the oldest (Beowulf) ; and an assault on literary tradition. This is a transgressive book in which the prose sings itself to the reader, and a savage satire on the hollowness. American suburbia is built on buried bones. The evolution of the collective voice is nothing less than spectacular.

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— Lavie Tidhar. Unholy Land. Tachyon, [2018].
Science fiction is that mode of literature in which the metaphor is to be taken literally. Lavie Tidhar’s gripping thriller follows writer Lior Tirosh on a return visit to his native land, Palestina, a Jewish state established in east Africa at the turn of the twentieth century. All the writings by Tidhar that I have read are deeply intertextual, playing with the ideas of literature, science fiction tropes, and the identity of the writer. Unholy Land is explicitly Clutean in its intertextuality, employing terms and conceits introduced by John Clute in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997). It is great fun, very tricky : a smile painted upon a skull. Tidhar’s other characteristic is fearlessness and Unholy Land is a look into the dark heart of a nation founded upon exclusions and barriers.

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This portrait of Quixote as the great reader, from the 1780 Ibarra edition, is always a source of delight. Happy New Year from the Endless Bookshelf!

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recent reading

. . .  They are all around me. During the sleepless nights in the hours of sickness when my mind is consumed with fever and has lost control over my thoughts, they crowd around me and timidly press closer. I seem to hear low rustling voices:
     ‘You have not forgotten us?’

— I. Y. Kratchkovsky. Among Arabic Manuscripts. Memories of Libraries and Men. Translated from the Russian by Tatiana Minorsky. [1953]. With an introduction by Michael Kemper. Brill Classics in Islam, 8. Brill [Printed by Bookmasters], [2016].
Your correspondent was fascinated and appalled by this book —  fascinated by the contents, appalled by the container. Among Arabic Manuscripts is a clear and enticing account of scholarship and intellectual inquiry by one of the great Russian Arabists. Kratchkovsky (whose surname is rendered as Krachkovskii in the introduction) describes the accretive process of working “without haste”:

Systematic research usually produced only small particles of the mosaic picture, but lucky discoveries and strange accidents often shed a bright light on the road already covered or still lying ahead, and this reminded me of the Russian saying that “the game comes running up to the hunter”. [. . .] My work was verily a mosaic, very slow and minute, but it was the only means of gaining a solid groundwork which would repay my labour by factual results and by a sense of inner satisfaction.
This new edition is textually accurate and legible but the production is wretched: it essentially a photocopy output on the cheapest paper, with a bad camera phone picture of the frontispiece portrait of the author from an earlier edition, the whole stuck into a coated paperboard case. What were they thinking when they designed this book? Did anyone in the publishing company look at the finished “product”? Reno Odlin coined the phrase “paperback in drag” but he was describing a printed book glued into a hardcover case.
I am awaiting a copy of the 1954 French edition: a drowning reader looking for a life preserver.

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— Clive Sinclair. Bibliosexuality. A Novel. Alison & Busby, [1973].
“a disorder of the senses in which an unnatural relationship with a book is either strongly desired or obtained” : reader, this one didn’t quite work.

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— Nona Caspers. The Fifth Woman. Sarabande, [2018].
Collection of linked stories and vignettes. Mourning and the continuity of daily life. This feels like it will linger in the head. I read her earlier collection, Heavier than Air (2006), which had a similar effect. [Gift of the author, via RB].

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— Henry D. Thoreau. Walden; or, Life in the Woods. Ticknor & Fields, 1854.

— Anne Waldman. Trickster Feminism. Penguin Poets, [2018].

— Simon Hewett. A.J.A. Symons. A Bibliomane, His Books, and His Clubs. The Grolier Club, 2018.
A concise and well balanced account of A.J.A. Symons (1900-1941), bon vivant, book collector, and pioneering author of The Quest for Corvo. His brother, novelist Julian Symons, wrote an excellent biography, A.J.A. Symons. His Life and Speculations (1950). The exhibition, well worth seeing, is on view at the Grolier Club through 5 January 2019.

— John Crowley. Little, Big. [1981]. Re-reading.

— Jo Walton. An Informal History of the Hugos. A Personal Look back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000. Tor, [2018].
Snappy and opinionated essays by a smart reader ; lots of room for agreement and disagreement, and great reading lists, too! The essay on Tom Disch’s On Wings of Song (1979) is exemplary.

— Warren Ellis. Normal. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [2016].

— Michael Swanwick. The Third Frankenstein. Dragonstairs, 2018. Edition of 100 copies.

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— Rebecca Baumann. Frankenstein 200. The Birth, Life, and Resurrection of Mary Shelley’s Monster. Indiana University Press, The Lilly Library, [2018].
Illustrated catalogue of the Lilly Library exhibition, covering familiar ground in new ways, and with some great material on related topics, such as More Monsters, Outsiders and Others, and Weird Women. The chapter on Frankenstein in popular culture highlights Dick Gregory’s Frankenstein (1970), largely unmentioned in other discussions of Frankenstein as post-colonial literature.

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In Memoriam : Ricky Jay

— Ricky Jay. Dice. Perception, Fate & Rotten Luck. Photography by Rosamond Purcell. Quantuck Lane, [2003].

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Don’t just look at Fuseli’s Nightmare on your screen. Go see the painting at It’s Alive! Frankenstein at 200, the Mary Shelley/Frankenstein exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum, on view through 27 January 2019.

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In Memoriam : Gardner Dozois

Kevin J. Maroney put together a Special Gardner Dozois Memorial Issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction, with fine tributes and reminiscences from George R. R. Martin, Michael Swanwick, Eileen Gunn, and many others. Your correspondent contributed a short reminiscence of working with Gardner on his archive (now at Special Collections & University Archives, University of California, Riverside).

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A Conversation larger than the Universe

A Conversation larger than the Universe. Readings in Science Fiction and the Fantastic 1762-2017.
By Henry Wessells
Illustrated collection of essays on science fiction and the fantastic, and the catalogue of the 2018 Grolier Club exhibition.
Copies of the hand bound issue, signed by the authors, are still available from Temporary Culture. The issue in paper covers is distributed by Oak Knoll. Single copies are available from the author.

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The Private Life of Books

The Private Life of Books, poems by H. Wessells, duotone photographs by Paul Schütze.
Copies still available from Temporary Culture.

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Hope & Wreckage

New editions of Michael Swanwick’s legendary monographs Hope-in-the Mist.  The Extraordinary Career & Mysterious Life of Hope Mirrlees (2009) and What Can Be Saved From the Wreckage  (2007) are available in all the usual e-booke formats through Weightless Books.

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Wander in the Archives

The Archives of the Endless Bookshelf have been swept and tidied and a guide has been prepared to assist wanderers. Index would be too strong a term : the headwords tend to be suggestive rather than directive. Start here. Have fun.

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This creaking and slowly evolving website of the endless bookshelf : updated more or less quarterly (don’t I wish it occurred more often), with regular marginal glosses ; some entries are brief mentions, others take the form of more elaborate essays, commentaries, or reviews. Someday, not soon : comments or interactivity. Right now you’ll have to send links and news to me, dear readers. [HWW]

electronym : wessells at aol dot com

Copyright © 2007-2018 Henry Wessells and individual contributors.

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