Recommended Reading List: June 2015
I’m behind in posting on my June reading. Worse, I got behind writing much of it up. So I simply put titles in my file and moved along. The problem was when I finally got to this, I couldn’t remember those pieces from their titles. When I looked them up, I barely remembered them.
Ooops. Delete. If they’re not memorable, they’re not worth recommending. The three big ones were bestsellers by favorite authors. Not that they wrote bad books. They entertained me. But the books didn’t stick with me, so I’m not mentioning them here.
I also read three Shakespeare plays and a lot of analysis in prep for a trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon. Fascinating stuff, but not worth recommending. I’d rather recommend that you see their production of Pericles. If you can’t make it to Ashland Oregon before the end of October, then see the production in D.C. in November or at the Guthrie in Minneapolis in early 2016. You won’t regret it.
Otherwise, I did a lot of reading for the upcoming Baen anthology. If you also follow the women in sf site, you’ll see some crossover on what I’ve written. Not everything here is there or there is here. (I love that sentence.)
So, without further ado, here’s what I enjoyed (and remembered!) in June.
Brackett, Leigh, The Best of Leigh Brackett, edited by Edmond Hamilton, Nelson Doubleday, 1977. I read every story in the volume, even though I shouldn’t have. I was trying to plow through so that I could find “the best” Leigh Brackett story for my Baen anthology. Let me tell you now: there is no “best” Leigh Brackett story. There are some I don’t like as much as others, but my, oh, my, I like her work.
This collection has fun pieces, some of which I’ve listed below, like the Edmond Hamilton introduction. The afterword by Brackett herself is also wonderful for some of the writing tidbits. Nice collection. I’d love to see it back in print.
Brackett, Leigh, “The Halfling,” The Halfling and Other Stories, Ace, 1973.
Okay, anyone who has come to the anthology workshop that Dean and I hold in the early part of the year knows that I don’t like carnival stories. I fell in love with Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and nothing compared after that. (Plus, I’m not a big fan of carnivals, anyway. I loathe a circus. And I hate zoos as well.)
I ended up liking Stephen King’s Joyland because it’s not really about a carnival or, rather, a theme park. It’s about life. So I nearly skipped Leigh Brackett’s “The Halfling” when I realized it was set at a carnival. Not to mention the fact that the story was published in 1943, and all of the details about Mars, Venus, etc., are wrong. Yes, yes, that means I was looking for a reason not to read it. But I made myself. Or rather, I gave it another paragraph, and then got lost.
The story’s a pure sf horror story, with a lot of setting and atmosphere, and a rather creepy alien stuff, mostly based on cats, which of course, Brackett got right. I couldn’t put this story down. My heart was pounding as I raced toward the end, which was satisfying.
Brackett, Leigh, The Halfling and Other Stories, Ace, 1973. I admit: I haven’t read enough Leigh Brackett. I fell in love with her stories as I read for the women in sf anthology. I’m beginning to believe that all sf roads ride through Leigh Brackett.
Heck, maybe most genre roads. She wrote so many westerns and mysteries as well. She’s a marvelous writer, and her work is so very vibrant. She is a woman of her time, so there is some casual racism in the stories. Most of the stories don’t have that flaw, however, so they’re definitely worth reading.
If you haven’t picked up any Brackett, you need to do so.
Brackett, Leigh, “The Queer Ones,” The Best of Leigh Brackett, edited by Edmond Hamilton, Nelson Doubleday, 1977. “The Queer Ones” reminds me more of stories by Stephen King or Zenna Henderson or Sharyn McCrumb, stories set in a rural America that makes its own rules. Hank Temple and his friends run into a badly beaten child who heals well and has a blood type that’s not found anywhere. I mean, anywhere. How he came about is the plot of the story; why he gets beaten is the meat of the story. What they decide to do about it is the heart of the story.
I won’t spoil it for any of you. Brackett relies on her strong characterization, her Western and Mystery backgrounds, and her sense of place to make this story feel original and somewhat chilling.
In the notes about The Halfling and Other Stories above, I mentioned the casual racism in Brackett’s work. That shows up here, in “The Queer Ones,” not because of the title, which is the old usage of the word “queer” (meaning “weird” or “uncanny”), but because of other terms, properly used, and no longer said in polite company.
Brackett’s point with the terms, though, is to look at the other and to see it as valued and worthwhile. She just couches it in language that’s difficult to stomach these days.
Brackett, Leigh, “Shannach—The Last,” The Best of Leigh Brackett, edited by Edmond Hamilton, Nelson Doubleday, 1977. Honestly, I shouldn’t have read “Shannach—The Last.” I didn’t have time, and it was clearly too long for the anthology I was editing.
But that opening paragraph—
It was dark in the caves under Mercury. It was hot, and there was no sound in them but the slow plodding of Trevor’s heavy boots.
—grabbed me, and suddenly I was all the way through the story.
“Shannach—The Last” is a bracing adventure story. It deals with Brackett’s favorite themes of lost races and dying peoples and shady characters.
I had no idea how the story would all end up, and there were moments where I was reading with one eye open, and my face averted. I had to keep reading, but I didn’t want the characters to go through what they were going through, and oh, wow. Wonderful stuff.
Brackett, Leigh, “The Tweener,” The Best of Leigh Brackett, edited by Edmond Hamilton, Nelson Doubleday, 1977. Boy, when Leigh Brackett wrote horror, she wrote horror. This story, set in 1950s suburbia, is just chilling. Uncle Fred, the astronaut, brought a “neat little furry thing” back from Mars for his nieces and nephews. The “neat little furry thing” which might very well be the last of its kind has a profound impact on everyone it encounters.
Brackett pulls off an odd empathy for the creature, and at the same time, a low-level terror over what the creature is doing to the family and the neighborhood. Highly recommended. (Read in broad daylight.)
Camozzi, Rosemary Howe, “It’s on Us,” Oregon Quarterly, Spring, 2015. As I mention below in the notes about the Jon Krakauer book, sexual assault on campus has become a big topic this year. This well done piece examines how the University of Oregon is dealing with its various issues. (And the U of O had some high profile ones.) A well done, well balanced and fascinating piece.
Etulain, Richard, “Imagining Calamity,” Oregon Quarterly, Spring, 2015. I have fallen in love with the University of Oregon’s alumni magazine—and I’m not an alum. I just inherited the magazine from an alum. My own alma mater, the University of Wisconsin, also has a great alumni magazine.
This article is an excerpt from Etulain’s book on Calamity Jane. It gives her history, and even more importantly, the history of her legend. I love the photos of her at the top—one in a dress and one in buckskins. (You can see them if you follow the link above.) I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know about her. The piece does what all good excerpts do: it made me want to read the book.
Hamilton, Edmond “Story-teller of Many Worlds,” The Best of Leigh Brackett, edited by Edmond Hamilton, Nelson Doubleday, 1977. This started as a pretty standard introduction to a collection of short stories, and then it became something else. For those of you who don’t know, Ed Hamilton and Leigh Brackett were married, so he saw her career up close and personal.
Even though Brackett was one of the most important writers in sf, and even though dozens of later writers stated that she influenced their work, she had encountered difficulty and criticism about her stories toward the end of her life. Hamilton addresses this thusly:
Those were the days when we were all writing, in accordance with the latest guesses of astronomers and scientists, about a Mercury that kept one face always to the sun and the other to space and had a Twilight Belt between those extremes of savage heat and bitter cold, where there were alternate sunsets and sunrises due to the rocking of the planet, and where life might conceivably exist. Today those concepts have been shot down by better data from probes and more advanced scientific methods. But in those days they were valid….
He was defending her work (and the work of others), just a little jab at the critics, but a necessary one. Because her stories hold up. Yeah, they might not be hard science fiction any longer, but they’re great science fantasy, and should be read for the wonderful adventures that they are. That she chose to name the planets she deals with Mars and Mercury should be irrelevant.
The introduction also touches on how-to-write and collaboration themes as well. It’s a great way to enter a collection of Brackett’s work.
Krakauer, Jon, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town, Doubleday, 2015. I wish I could say this book surprised me. What surprises me is the fact that the reviewers are surprised by its contents. Krakauer has raised awareness on an issue that’s been much in the news of late, and he did it with extensive research.
He was shocked, people who are unfamiliar with the statistics were shocked, but I’m not because I used to work with rape survivors (and am one myself). The stories in this book, personal all, are also very every-survivor, and quite sad.
The book is compelling. Krakauer is a hell of a writer, and he’ll make you feel the families’ pain, the frustration against the justice system, the frustration of those inside the system, and the difficulties faced by everyone.
This is one book everyone should read—especially parents whose kids are in college.
Moore, C.L., “Footnote to ‘Shambleau’…and Others,” The Best of C.L. Moore, edited by Lester Del Rey, Ballantine, 1976. In this delightful essay, Moore describes her writing process. She also tells the tale of writing “Shambleau.” Most interesting to me is the way she describes writing, and the importance she gives to reading for enjoyment. Much of what she writes here is exactly what I teach my students. (See my lecture “Read Like A Writer.”)
I had no idea she wrote like this, and I found the essay to be lovely validation. Not that I would have changed my process anyway, but still.
For example, she writes, “Here we return to my conviction you must read enough, enjoy it enough, to absorb unconsciously the structure of the fiction you like the best.”
She compares her unconscious to a black cat, and she adds, “The unconscious more than anything hates being dragged into public. He can’t work under the inspection of the conscious mind.”
Yep. I agree. And I haven’t seen it written about as well or as succinctly. Wonderful little essay.
Moore, C.L., “No Woman Born,” The Best of C.L. Moore, edited by Lester Del Rey, Ballantine, 1976. Titles are such important things. I had never read this story because of its title. It just didn’t interest me. But I’m being a completest these days, and reading what’s before me, or at least trying.
I knew that “No Woman Born” was an sf classic. I also knew it was probably too long for the Tough Mothers anthology, but I read it anyway, partly for some of the future projects I’m doing.
First, you need to know that this story was written in the mid-1940s, but much of what Moore describes about television and its effect on the world is quite accurate. Get rid of a few phrases here and there, and the story could be set now.
“No Woman Born” tells the story of Deirdre, the most beautiful woman in the world and an entertainer (dancer, singer, actress), who nearly died in a fire. A man named Maltzer manages to save her before it’s too late, and places her body in the body of a metal creature. (To call this metal creation a robot is wrong.)
The story begins a year later, when Deirdre is going to return to public life—reintroduce herself, more or less. The story is told by her manager, John Harris, a curious choice as the teller of the tale. Nonetheless, he provides the perfect bridge between the new and old Deirdre, and our understanding of her.
Essentially, this story is a conscious retelling of Frankenstein, upgraded for the modern era. It’s not about birth or death, though. Instead, it’s about being human. And dammit, it deserves its status as a classic in the field.
Moore, C.L. “Shambleau,” The Best of C.L. Moore, edited by Lester Del Rey, Ballantine, 1976. Oh, my. I read this story with one eye closed, and my face turned as far away from it as I possibly could. I was still compelled to finish. Ick and yuck and oh, wow, is this story well done.
The first published story of C.L. Moore, in 1933, apparently turned the sf world on its head—at least, according to the introduction Lester del Rey wrote for The Best of C.L. Moore, published by Ballantine in 1976 (well, in a book club edition in 1973. I read the Ballantine edition). He mentions in his introduction how the story’s emotions and sexual content changed sf forever—that fans who had read the pulps remember this story for its vibrancy and life. Since I’ve read some of the older sf, and found most of it turgid at best, I can see what Lester meant.
This story is an sf horror story of the Alien variety, with an alien creature that’s both familiar and unfamiliar, a hero who can’t save himself, and a world that’s not our own. One of Moore’s most well known characters, Northwest Smith (who shows up on other stories), rescues a woman from a mob. The mob calls her Shambleau, and turns away when he claims she’s “his.”
He doesn’t speak to anyone after that, but goes about his business, protecting the girl (as he calls her—”girl” is 1933 for any female, young or old), and half expecting her to leave before he gets back from whatever he’s doing.
She doesn’t leave and then, in a time-honored fiction tradition, things get worse. Very creepy story, which will probably give me nightmares. And I mean that as a compliment…
Norton, Andre, “All Cats Are Gray,” A Norton Book, 2012. Full disclosure. I read this in another anthology entirely, but I couldn’t find a link to it (and I’m not sure I want to link to it—it’s weird). So the link here is to the standalone version of the story.
I spent an evening binging on James Tiptree, Jr, who is, I’ve decided, not a writer to binge on. Wonderful stories, but dark and often depressing. Breathtaking, suspenseful, and down.
So I took a break and read an Andre Norton story I’d been meaning to read.
Steena of the Spaceways and her cat Bat explore a ghost ship called Empress of Mars. The story’s memorable, but more important than that, it has that Norton sensawunder feel. I loved it.
O’Donnell, Lawrence, “The Vintage Season,” The Best of C.L. Moore, edited by Lester Del Rey, Ballantine, 1976. Lawrence O’Donnell is one of the many pen names that C.L. Moore used when she collaborated with her husband, Henry Kuttner. Credit for this story has often gone entirely to Moore, but no one knows for sure how much Kuttner had to do with it. They did choose to publish the story initially under a joint byline. However, I read the story in The Best of C.L. Moore, edited by Lester Del Rey, which is included under Moore’s byline alone. Since she wrote the afterword and doesn’t mention her collaboration with Kuttner except vaguely, she seems to suggest the story is hers alone.
The story feels quite modern, even though it’s over seventy years old. It’s beautifully done, set in an unnamed future in an unnamed city, but it feels like the past. Oliver, the main character, is a bit hapless and passive, but that works for the story, and for what the story holds, in its ending.
Another classic of the field, deservedly so. It’s been reprinted many times, most recently (as far as I can tell), in 2006 in a collection of Kuttner and Moore’s works. You can find the story, and if you’re a time travel fan or a classic sf fan, I suggest that you do.
Tiptree, Jr., James, “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain,” Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, Tachyon Press, 2004. I’ve read a handful of Tiptree—mostly the required classics (as judged by others)—but I haven’t read the bulk of her work. I know I’m going to include a Tiptree. I’m just not sure which one. So I’m getting completest and reading as much as I can.
I started the volume Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, and it begins with “The Last Flight of Doctor Ain,” a very short story told in a reported style about an act committed by a lone terrorist. It feels so modern, so 2015, that it’s breathtaking.
The story was published in 1969 and was a Nebula finalist, for good reason. Scary, and good, and very slipstream—at least, nowadays.