The Endless Bookshelf : simply messing about in books








July 2007

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

29 July 07

Another peculiar autobiography : The Life of My Choice  by Wilfred Thesiger (1987).

Thesiger (1910-2003) was one of the great explorer authors of the twentieth century, who walked and photographed and wrote about "adventure among untamed tribes in unknown lands" of the middle east and Africa. The autobiography records a remarkable story and expresses Thesiger’s fascination with the land of his birth, Abyssinia (now Ethiopia).

Journeying at a walking pace under conditions of some hardship, I was perhaps the last explorer in the tradition of the past. I was happiest when I had no communication with the outside world, when I was utterly dependent upon my tribal companions. My achievement was to win their confidence . . . and in so many of my travels, to have been there just in time.

Thesiger’s account is beautifully written, full of event and savage color, and demonstrates amply that the author of Arabian Sands  and The Marsh Arabs  was a distinguished member of a prominent British military family and one of the more remarkable figures of the twentieth century. Among British explorers of Arabia, Thesiger is without peer : Philby’s account of his crossing of the Empty Quarter is compelling reading, but Philby also helped bring the automobile to Arabia and, to his horror, lived to see the desert court of Ibn Saud transformed into an entirely different political structure. Thesiger knew himself to be an outsider and who nonetheless persuaded his superior officers to allow him to wander in remote areas. Again and again : in the Sudan, the Tibesti, Syria, Ethiopia ; and later, after he left the military, in Iraq, Oman, and Kenya.
I have mentioned the evasive character of the autobiographies of Paul Bowles and Arthur Upfield, the latter so slippery it was published as a biography. The Life of My Choice  is quite as remarkable for the way Thesiger records the facts and landscapes of his travels and yet seems to erase his personality from the events. There are a few instances where the mask slips, and the reader can sense Thesiger’s revulsion for the twentieth century and his identification with the pre-modern world. An interesting book.

An afterthought : Thesiger’s attitude to the violence through which he moved in the early part of his career is frankly uncritical : the voice of the jubilant survivor ; Thesiger joined the Sudan defence force and served with Orde Wingate during the Abyssinian campaign in 1941 which restored the exiled Haile Selassie to his throne. He was awarded a DSO for capturing the fort of Agibar and a garrison of 2500 Italian troops. "[T]his  . . . for a subaltern, was far beyond my expectations." Something about the account of his experience of irregular warfare in Abyssinia reminded me of the narrative tone of Ernst Jünger’s Auf den Marmorklippen , where a clarity of style builds to a cumulative intoxication of bloodthirstiness. Thesiger would likely have found these remarks incomprehensible.
An interesting book.

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What Can Be Saved from the Wreckage? James Branch Cabell in the Twenty-first Century by Michael Swanwick (Temporary Culture 2007)

What Can Be Saved from the Wreckage ?
James Branch Cabell in the Twenty-first Century

Forthcoming 1 November 2007 from Temporary Culture, Michael Swanwick’s monograph on the celebrated Virginia fantasist James Branch Cabell (author of Jurgen ), with a preface, "Jurgen  Down Under", by Barry Humphries.

What Can Be Saved from the Wreckage ?  will be published in an edition of 17 hand bound copies, signed by the authors and with a leaf signed by James Branch Cabell inserted in each copy. Price to subscribers upon request from wessells [at] aol [dot] com .

A trade issue of 200 copies in paper covers will be available at World Fantasy Convention ; advance orders accepted. Details here.

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20 July 07
Shining at the Bottom of the Sea  by Stephen Marche (Riverhead Books, forthcoming in August 2007)
Very interesting and accomplished collection of short stories, ostensibly an anthology and guide to the literature of the north Atlantic island republic of Sanjania. In fact Marche creates the history and literary culture of the island with two dozen stories and critical essays in a variety of modes and styles, each with a distinct nominal author (with biographical notes). No pictorial map of Sanjania is given, but it can almost be envisioned : as if Bermuda, with its mild climate, were the size of Newfoundland, and if all the expressive varieties of English creoles of the West Indies had developed in the island’s many remote coves.
The second half of the book, approaching the modernist and post-colonial period, is decidely more successful than the early portions of the national literature, where the stories fail to rise above the level of pastiche. But in stories such as "The Master’s Dog", "The Ultimate Testament", and "Flotsam and Jetsam", Marche evokes a cohesive culture in opposition to British colonial rule. Stories such as "Histories of Aenea by Various Things", "A Wedding in Restitution", and "The Man Friday’s Review of Robinson Crusoe ", offer glimpses of a heterogeneous contemporary society. There are some Borgesian moments, and the inevitable bibulous appearance of Hemingway and other ghosts from world literature, but Marche is at his best in the subtle play of language in the individual stories.
If Sanjania is not as deftly and completely realized as the Mediterranean enclave of Hav, narrated in the skilful voice of "Dirleddy" Jan Morris in the 1985 and 2006 novels, Marche demonstrates a remarkable diversity of styles that, equally remarkably, shape a cohesive picture of the island.

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17 July 07

The Naked Bookshelf

The Naked Bookshelf
[courtesy of JR]

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15 July 07 (now slightly revised and expanded)

Dagger Key and Other Stories  by Lucius Shepard. (PS Publishing, 2007). Special Readercon 2007 Edition, limited to 50 copies signed by the author (wraps).
Great new collection of current work, most at longer story or novella length, by the master of gritty magical realism ; “ Dagger Key ”, a tale of pirates, ghostly hauntings across the centuries, and post-colonial Belize, is original to this volume ; and “ Stars Seen through Stone ”, a rock and roll tale set in rural western Pennsylvania, I had read just the previous week in its appearance in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction . In “ Dagger Key ”, Shepard’s picture of modern Belize contrasts sharply with Avram Davidson’s British Hidalgo ; and the rich historical allusions of Shepard’s revenant are employed to different ends than Davidson’s summoning of the restless corpse of Captain Cook in “ Bloody Man ”.
“ Dead Money ” conflates the New Orleans mob, poker playing, and zombies, with an interlude in an exotic private island setting as fine as that of The Hazards of Smith  by H. Bedford-Jones (Hurst & Blackett, n.d. [1924]) ; and where Shepard takes this mix is provocative and rewarding. If his protagonists tend to be large, heavy-set competent men of a certain age, just when the reader suspects the text might sink into Dischism, Shepard launches his narrative into new territory — again and again.
In addition to the intrinsic interest of such a rich sampling of Shepard’s work, this book reminded me of an article, “ New ‘ Taste and Technique ’ in Science-Fiction ” by Barry R. Levin (AB Bookman’s Weekly , 21 October 1996), in which Levin discusses the distinction between uncorrected proofs or advance proofs (part of the pre-publication editorial process) and the varieties of Advance Readers Copies or Special Editions, etc., formally issued by publishers :

The modern science-fiction collector is interested in acquiring the ‘ true first edition ’ no matter what form the book may take. [. . .] The irony of the modern advance editions is the fact that most of their publishers have no idea that, in the most modern bibliographic sense of the term, they have inadvertently published the ‘ true ’ first editions of their books (with all that implies) in a form not intended. They have in effect preempted their own first editions.

This is indeed the case with Dagger Key , which PS Publishing still list as forthcoming in two larger limitations in hardcover.

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11 July 07

The Dog Said Bow-Wow  by Michael Swanwick (Tachyon, forthcoming in Fall 2007).
Excellent new collection from a favorite writer who proceeds from strength to strength. I especially enjoyed “ The Skysailor’s Tale ”, a wide-ranging story (new to this collection) with a foot in Philadelphia circa 1820 amid the rivalries of Biddles and Stephen Girard. The Empire  and its calculus of navigation seem new to fantastical literature ; certainly where Swanwick takes this superb piece is innovative and compelling. The story is evocative, the weave of alternate histories rich and sparkly, the explorations of uncertainty and memory are part of the fabric of the tale, and how touching on the emotional level as well. The banquet for the officers of the Empire  is not to be missed.
And then there are the other tales in the collection, adventures of Darger and Surplus, Swanwick’s wry and often bawdy take on Faërie or Elfland, and “ Slow Life ”. In addition to the science fiction thought experiment of this tale (think first contact and Blish’s “ How Beautiful with Banners ” [1966] and a protagonist who survives), there is a brilliant coinage : “ ‘Look, I don’t buy into any of that touchy-feely Newage ’ — she deliberately mispronounced the word to rhyme with sewage — ‘stuff.’ ”

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recent reading

Things Will Never Be the Same. A Howard Waldrop Reader. Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005  (Old Earth Books, 2007). What a collection, what a writer !

The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines  by John Crowley (Subterranean Press, 2005). A deft and complex novella invoking midwestern yearnings in the 1950s, the secret history of free spirits, and the identity of Shakespeare. A milepost in Crowley’s continued preoccupation with American themes  his current work in progress, from which I have now heard two readings, is set during the 1940s. This book went o.p. before I heard about it ; I am pleased now to have a copy.

In Other Words  by John Crowley (Subterranean Press, 2006). Collection of literary essays, including extended pieces on Thomas M. Disch and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Diamond Dust  by Peter Lovesey (Soho, 2002). Police procedural set in Bristol, Bath, and London, inventive plot but the writing and sense of place are not quite up to the level of Ian Rankin’s novels of Edinburgh.

He Who Whispers. A Dr. Fell Mystery Story  by John Dickson Carr (Harper & Brothers, 1946).

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The Public Transport Reading Project is on vacation until September.

8 July 07

Books, Books, Books
I spent Friday at Readercon 18  in Burlington, Massachusetts, where I saw old friends, new faces, and also met some folks with whom I have corresponded. A real pleasure to talk about reading and writing. I came away with a stack of books and a list of titles to seek out. I will be posting comments on books as I read them, together with other notes made during the past few weeks.

The Yiddish Policemen’s League  by Michael Chabon (Harpercollins, 2007).
Language, chess, and the integrity of a flawed, persistent man. The experience of reading Meyer Landsman’s attempts to solve a murder in the Federal District of Sitka is not unlike first encountering the Los Angeles of Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels ; Chabon has created an imagined past and present for his novel that are rooted in the forking paths of our own histories. In addition to its own considerable merits, the novel, as David Streitfeld suggests, feels like a book by Avram Davidson : the play of language is subtle and dazzling, as in, for example, the casual reference to the law firm of Foehn, Harmattan & Buran (with its allusions Alpine, Saharan, and Siberian). The book’s complexities and ornaments are in utter contrast to the understatement and elusiveness of Chabon’s The Final Solution. A Story  (2004).

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This creaking and constantly evolving blog of the endless bookshelf : I expect that some entries will be brief, others will take the form of more elaborate essays, and eventually I will become adept at incorporating photos or comments and interactivity. Right now you’ll have to send links to me, dear readers. [HW]

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Copyright © 2007 Henry Wessells and individual contributors.

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