Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Necromancy Never Pays has moved!

After five months of playing around with it and a few days of asking readers' opinions--in the wake of the big Blogger fail of last week--I've decided to take the rest of this blog over to Wordpress.  You can find it there under the same name, and certainly I hope you will.  Here's the link:


and here's the first post over there, that tries to say something about how strange it is to be abandoning all these words over here:


Monday, May 16, 2011

The White Devil

When I saw The White Devil, by Justin Evans, on a list of books that Harper was willing to send me for review, I couldn't resist--even though it's a ghost story and I usually shy away from anything scary. But it's about Byron...

And it turned out to be one of those mysteries where what happens is driven by a character finding out more about Byron's life.  Mmm, total catnip for an English major.  If I could have, I'd have read the whole thing in one pleasant afternoon.  But deadlines and kids' awards ceremonies intervened, and I ended up having to put it down twice, which was two more times than I would have otherwise.

As Jenny observes, this novel has a lot of plot elements, and I think that's what kept me reading. If I got a little tired of one story line, maybe the teenage boy's puerile meanderings about his relationship with his father, there would soon be another one along to keep me going down the track toward finding out more about Byron's relationship with the ghost.

He's a malevolent ghost, and it's not until a scene at the very end that you find out a little bit about why Byron could have loved him.  In the meantime, though, you get some impressions of life in a British boarding school, the realism of which may be due to the author's own year at Harrow.  I like the comparison of the attitude of students to their British teachers and their American ones--at Harrow,
"the banter was larded with respectful Sirs, seasoned with eager, show-offy anecdotes from the newly risen Sixth Formers. All this was friendly, even affectionate..."
while at the American school,
"the baby boomer faculty who had chosen such a low-paying career as teaching were treated with suppressed contempt by the students, children of Wall Streeters, who knew that grades didn't matter, didn't help you make millions; that these teachers, then, must be little better than servants."

When Andrew, the American, comes to Harrow, he is told that he looks like Lord Byron and should therefore act his part in the play that a poet and housemaster is writing, about which of Byron's many sexual partners could be shown to be the love of his life.  The ghost wants that distinction, and he wants Andrew.

So Andrew has to find out what part this ghost might have played in Byron's life, and who he might have wanted to kill, in order to keep his friends alive.

I particularly enjoy the poet's reply to one of Andrew's questions:
"Ah, children, who want to know what poems mean.  They don't mean. They express. They are songs. When you sympathize, you make them mean something...."

I have to admit that I read up until the last few chapters and then put the book aside to finish in the morning, as is my habit if I read anything that might be scary. But I could have gone ahead and read it; it wraps things up nicely without adding anything too horrific.

This was a nice little piece of fiction-candy, suitable for popping all in your mouth at once; one of those attractive, light-colored candies with a dark, chewy center.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Blogger, do I know how to quit you?

I'm thinking about it. There's a Wordpress version of this blog (thanks to Lass and Amanda and most especially Anna from Diary of an Eccentric), and I'm going to run both concurrently for a little while and see which one wins.  If you have an opinion, let me know.  If I switch to Wordpress, I'll let you know.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Trivial Pursuit for Book-Lovers

Note:  Due to Blogger fail, the edition of Trivial Pursuit for Booklovers that I scheduled for today didn't post as scheduled. So I'm posting it again. If you see it twice, you'll know that my cry of "Blogger, I wish I knew how to quit you" is diminishing in volume.

Children's: What book by Lois Lowry finds 12-year-old Jonas rebelling against a futuristic society that has decided he is to become a Receiver of Memories?

Classics: What was Scarlett's original name, in the first drafts of Gone With The Wind--Iris, Pansy or Rose?

Non-Fiction: What famed work of art, unearthed on a Greek island in 1820, had its subsequent history revealed in Gregory Curtis' Disarmed?

Book Club: What inventive Robert Coover novella explores the bond between an errant maid and her master?

Authors: What best-selling British author, convicted of perjury, penned the thriller Sons of Fortune and the memoir A Prison Diary while behind bars?

Book Bag: What character was said to resemble Hoagy Carmichael, in Casino Royale?

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Lucky Jim

When someone in the Imaginary Friends Book Club proposed reading Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis, I went downstairs to find my copy, and came back up having found only Lord Jim, by Joseph Conrad. The paperback I was remembering must have been from my college-professor-parents' house.  So on a subsequent visit to a used book store whose shelves struck me as an oddly exact recreation of my parents', I picked up a copy of Lucky Jim, a spoof of British academic life in the 1950s.

I read the whole thing because it was mildly funny in a low-key, David Lodge kind of way.  But I have to wonder about the point of digging this one up. Didn't we get over the 1950's already?  Wasn't all of Jim's sort of fumbling about with women addressed by the "summer of love"?  And if he didn't want to be a history professor, then surely the lesson of the hippies was that he didn't have to be.  So why reread this book?

It's very British; I was continually irritated by the reiterations of Jim's feeling that "nice things are nicer than nasty things."  Duh!  Only the British eat seed cake when there's gateaux to be had.

Jim, whose last name is Dixon, is very irritating. He rarely does anything nice for anyone; in fact, he specializes in making other peoples' lives more difficult.  That can be funny, but at--what is, for me at least--a very low level, as in this passage:
"when publicly disagreeing with her husband for example, she was the only living being capable of making Dixon sympathize with him. It was rather annoying to hear how kind she'd been; it entailed putting tiresome qualifications on his dislike for her."

When another character finally asks Jim why he wants to teach medieval history in a college, he reveals himself to be the 1950's version of a slacker, one who had some choices but didn't care enough to make them:
"the reason why I'm a medievalist, as you call it, is that the medieval papers were a soft option in the Leicester course, so I specialized in them. Then when I applied for the job here, I naturally made a big point of that, because it looked better to seem interested in something specific. It's why I got the job instead of that clever boy from Oxford who mucked himself up at the interview by chewing the fat about modern theories of interpretation. But I never guessed I'd be landed with all the medieval stuff and nothing but medieval stuff."

Amis' comic genius, if you think he has any, lies in his ability to capture the small details of conversation that can make it so awkward and wearing, like when someone says a word wrong because he's thinking of another word and you start thinking about that instead of what he's said:
"'And I happen to like the arts, you sam.'
The last word, a version of 'see', was Bertrand's own coinage. It arose as follows: the vowel sound became distorted into a short 'a', as if he were going to say 'sat'. This brought his lips some way apart, and the effect of their rapid closure was to end the syllable with a light but audible 'm'. After working this out, Dixon could think of little to say, and contented himself with 'You do', which he tried to make knowing and sceptical."

Every time Jim said something awkward in a conversation, I was torn between laughing at him and identifying with him, which disturbed me because I didn't like him!  And yet I often say things like he does out of nervousness when I'm at an academic gathering:
"'Well, it's an unexpected pleasure to be drinking pints at a do like this.'
'You're in luck, Dixon,' Gore-Urquhart said sharply, handing around cigarettes.
Dixon felt himself blushing slightly, and resolved to say no more for a time. None the less he was pleased that Gore-Urquhart had caught his name."

At one point when they're sitting at a table and Jim Dixon is observing a conversation, his thoughts are petty and mean in almost the exact same way mine would be in a similar situation, which made me grin and cringe at the same time:
"Gore-Urquhart had tilted his large dark head over towards Bertrand; his face, half-averted, eyes on the ground, wore a small intent frown, as if he were hard of hearing and couldn't bear to miss a word. Dixon couldn't bear not missing any more of it--Bertrand was now using the phrase 'contrapuntal tone-values'--and switched to his right, where for some moments he'd been half-conscious of a silence."

The high point of the novel is when Jim finally says to his annoying and manipulative friend Margaret what readers have been longing for him to say for pages and pages:
"Don't be fantastic, Margaret. Come off the stage for a moment, do."
And then she has a page and a half of hysterics, ending with having her face slapped and being given a glass of whiskey, which she takes and "with eerie predictability she choked and coughed, swallowed some, coughed again, swallowed some more." 
If there's any satisfaction in the ending, it's that Margaret is revealed as a fraud and Jim gets free of her.

Overall, though, I'd take rereading Lodge's Nice Work over plowing through this old-fashioned relic, if I felt the need for British academic humor.  The uncomfortable pleasure of reading the quite awkward bits of conversation is the only reason this particular novel should still be read at all.  Have you ever had a conversation at an academic gathering that made you feel you had just said something monumentally stupid?  And did you cringe for days afterwords?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Mysterious Human Heart in New York

What with awards ceremonies and other end-of-the-school year events, we've been up early and to bed late and I've been seeing all sorts of people I rarely see in between. One of them told me he's trying to "cut through the Gordian knot" of kid sports and school schedules so he can come with us to take a road trip through the inevitably predicted rain to the most crowded part of a nearby city tomorrow night.  As my friends used to say about spending too much money getting to the beach, it is a highly inadvisable thing.  And yet, well nigh irresistible.

The inimitable poet Dorianne Laux says it best, in her poem "The Mysterious Human Heart in New York," which is from her new volume that I've already touted here once, The Book of Men:

Streetwise but foolish, the heart
knows what's good for it but goes
for the dark bar, the beer before noon,
the doughy pretzel hot and salty, tied up
in a Gordian knot. It takes a walk
through Tompkins Square where
the homeless sleep it off on stone benches,
one shrouded body to each gritty sarcophagus.
The streets fill with taxis and trucks,
pinstripes and briefcases, and the subways
spark and sway underground. The sun
is snagged on the Empire State, performing
its one-note song, the citizens below
dragging their shadows down the sidewalk
like sidekicks, spitting into the gutter
as if on cue, as if in a musical,
as if there's no association between the trash
flapping against the chain link and the girl
with her skirt up in the alley. When the traffic
jams on 110th--a local pain, a family affair--
the Starbucks junkie leans against the glass
and laughs into his hand, a cabbie
sits on his hood and smokes, cops
on skates weave through the exhaust,
billy club blunts bumping against their
dark blue thighs. Everyone's on a cell phone,
the air a-buzz with yammer and electricity
as the heart of the city pounds like a man
caught in the crosswalk holding his shoulder,
going down on one knee, then blundering
into Central Park to lean over the addled bridge,
the sooty swans floating under him, grown fat
on cheap white bread. Oh heart, with your
empty pockets and your hat on backwards,
stop looking at yourself in the placid waters.
Someone is sneaking up behind you
in an overcoat lined with watches,
and someone else is holding a cardboard sign
that says: The End Is Here.

Sometimes your heart feels better when you do what you know is not good for it. As the parent of a high school senior, I would desperately like to tell my heart to go ahead, spend more time "looking at yourself" instead of having to pay attention to the way the doomsday sign is "sneaking up behind."

Monday, May 9, 2011

Fuzzy Nation

When I read that John Scalzi's Fuzzy Nation was coming out, I had to find our copy of H. Beam Piper's The Fuzzy Papers so I could reread the original of the story that Scalzi has enlarged and updated.  Then the Piper book sat on my shelf until last week, when Cassandra Ammerman at Tor sent me a shiny, new hardback copy of Fuzzy Nation, and I had to hurry up and read one book right after the other, which turned out to be a fine thing to do, as Scalzi's story is an agreeable addition to Piper's, much more than just a re-hashing of some of the old issues.

The human meets alien story has so many conventions, at this point, that it's hard for an experienced reader of science fiction to go into any story about aliens without suspecting them of sentience. Heinlein's story The Star Beast was one of my formative experiences with this genre, so the phrase "raising John Thomases" always goes through my mind when a strange alien is introduced (the "star beast" was kept as a pet until its human owner, John Thomas, discovers it has been studying them for generations).  There's not much suspense at all about the sapience of these smart little "fuzzies," and Scalzi copes with that by having his narrator, Holloway, say things to them like "your evil mystic cuteness has no effect on me" when it obviously does, and by the humor in such things as the way the fuzzies interact with Holloway's dog.

Besides humor, though, the other way Scalzi copes with the lack of suspense about sapience is by making Holloway a clever lawyer and much of the second half of the novel some pretty riveting courtroom drama.  There will be surprises even for the person who has recently reread the Piper story--you may know the secret of how the fuzzies communicate, but the way it is revealed in Scalzi's fictional courtroom will still be delightful, partly due to Scalzi's inventiveness and partly due to the possibilities offered by updating the technology (Piper's humans had "vocowriters" and video phones, while Scalzi's are equipped with security cameras and ipads).

Even though Holloway claims, at the end of the novel, that "building a nation is not all parties and fireworks," he belies his own claim even as he says it, and the author belies it by making the building of this fictional nation so much fun.

Fuzzy Nation comes out tomorrow, and you don't have to have read any previous science fiction to enjoy it, although if you want to, that will add another dimension.  I like being reminded that in the 1950's, writers thought that "cocktail hour" was an immutable human custom and would be carried out to all the planets. It makes me wonder if the environmental concerns of our generation, reflected on Scalzi's fictional planet, will seem similarly transitory sixty years from now.