Friday, January 27, 2023

Michael Andre-Driussi's Chapter Guides to Gene Wolfe


Look what came in the mail! Michael Andre-Driussi's series of chapter guides to the works of Gene Wolfe. 

 Michael Andre-Driussi is easily one of the best scholars of Gene's works. And the chapter guides are a particularly interesting critical form because they do not tell you what to think about any particular work. Rather, they guide you through the work, chapter by chapter, drawing your attention to things that should be noticed. Thus they allow you to make up your own mind about what is going on in a particular work.

This is a fruitful way to approach Wolfe's oeuvre because so much of its intent is conveyed by hints and suggestions. He apparently thought that any reasonably attentive reader could pick up on all of them. In this, as in so few other matters, however, he was wrong.

Yesterday, I took a quick tour of The Fifth Head of Cerberus. Today, when my work is done, I hope to begin a much slower amble through Peace. These were, respectively, Gene's second and third novels. The man was an early bloomer!


And did I come up with a new crackpot theory about The Fifth Head of Cerberus . . . ?

Why, yes, I did. Thank you for asking. 

Veil's Hypothesis, introduced in the first third of the novel, is that the abos native to the planet Sainte Anne are shape-shifters who may have replaced the human settlers, rather than being exterminated long ago. Most readers accept this hypothesis because the anthropologist who is the ostensible author of the second novella, "A Story," by John V. Marsch, has clearly been replaced by Victor, a boy who has been identified as a possible abo, in the final novella, V. R. T.

There are problems with this. The hearsay sightings of abos collected by Marsch are contradictory and unconvincing. Nor is a physical mechanism for the shape-changing ever presented, though Wolfe was clearly able to come up with one, had he needed it. And in V. R. T., it is clear that while Marsch has to some degree become Victor, he retains memories of his life as an anthropologist.

Andre-Driussi's helpful guide draws attention to something I had overlooked on previous readings--a recurrent theme in the second and third novellas of germophobia. The chief evidence that Marsch has become (or is becoming) Victor is the sudden deterioration of his handwriting, which he attributes to being bitten in the hand by a wild cat. 

When these facts are put together with strong indications that the supposed shape-shifters can become animals (including cats), it seems much more likely that the abos are viral in nature: intelligent creatures that survive by infecting host animals and humans.

And is this theory original to me . . .?

No, it is not. A quick Web search reveals that Marc Aramini has come up with a far superior and more detailed explanation of the life cycles of the abos and marsh babies--two native species, rather than one, in a paper titled Proving Veil's Hypothesis: Variance Reduction Techniques, Larval Life Cycles on an East Wind, and Shadow Children Riding Mars(c)hmen in The Fifth Head of Cerberus.

I admire Aramini's paper and find it completely convincing. You can find it here.

But it was fun figuring out some small part of it out for myself.


Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Galactic Philadelphia's Grand Night at the Rosenbach


The Galactic Philadelphia Literary Salon, our fair city's longest-running and most respected fantasy & SF reading series makes a big leap forward tomorrow/today (Wednesday, January 18) when they hold their first reading in the Rosenbach Museum, 2008-2010 Delancey Place.

For this event, they have brought out the heavy hitters Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki and C.S.E. Cooney

C. S. E Cooney is a World Fantasy Award-winning author (and I'm here to tell you that the WFA is hard to win), as well as being a poet, playwright, and voice actor. 

Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki is a Nigerian speculative fiction writer, and publisher. He has taken a leading role in introducing African science fiction and fantasy to the rest of the world. Recently, he was co-editor of Africa Risen, an anthology of some of the best of African speculative fiction. And since he lives in Africa, right now is your best chance to get his autograph. Ask him to date it, and you'll be able to brag that you knew him back when African spec lit was just dawning on the world.

And the catch . . . ?

The bad news is that the event is ticketed. The good news is that the ticket is only $15. For which you get:

Schedule of Festivities

5:30 pm ~ Wine & Cheese reception, Tour Dr. Rosenbach's private library and Explore an exhibit of The Rosenbach's recent additions to their speculative fiction rare book collection.

6:00 pm ~ C.S.E. Cooney's and Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki's readings, with a break in between for announcements and a raffle drawing of books.

7:10 pm (approximately) A Q&A session with our authors.

7:30 pm (approximately) Chat, buy books, and have books autographed.

7:45 pm ~ We'll adjourn to a nearby pub for more book talk and schmoozing.

 To which I will only add that if you're a bookish person and have never been to the Rosenbach, you want want want to see it. It has all the books and most of the manuscripts that the perfect library of your dreams possesses.

Seriously. I recommend this. You'll like it.


Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Henry Wessells' Wonderful January Sale



Over at Temporary Culture, my friend Henry Wessells is having a book sale of some 112 items marked down 25% from their usual prices. Two items caught my attention.

The first is my own Blue As the Moon. As fans of Dragonstairs Press (Marianne Porter, prop.) know, once in a blue moon--in fact, literally on the day of a blue moon--Marianne prints a limited edition of 69 copies of a chapbook created for the occasion up for sale. Then, at midnight, any unsold copies are burned in the wood stove. 

This is Marianne's way of celebrating the transience of the printed word, of art, and of life itself.

Dragonstairs Press doesn't have much of a secondary market. Marianne makes the chapbooks and other items, they sell out, and people tend to hold onto them. So when an out-of-print item comes available, it's an occasion.

Blue As the Moon is being offered at $32, down from $40.

The other item is a hardcover copy of Hope Mirrlees' "lost masterpiece of modernism," Paris, a Poem, beautifully designed and letterset-printed by Pegana Press.

 By my reckoning, this is the fourth time this poem has ever been printed. The first was as a chapbook that Virginia Wool printed on her tabletop press, back in the 1920s. The second was a bowdlerized (by Mirrlees herself) version in a mimeographed academic zine dedicated to Woolf. The third time, restored and explicated by Julia Briggs was in Bonnie Kime Scott's Gender in Modernism. So this is the second stand-alone version of the poem ever, and the first in hardcover.

Also, as I said, a beautiful book.

This item is being offered at $750, marked down from $1,000. Which at first blush looks expensive. But in fact it's a bargain. There are only two copies still available from Pegana and they cost $2,200 each. (Hand-crafted books of this caliber ain't cheap.)

You can find the entire catalog here. It's a fun thing to browse.



Monday, January 9, 2023

DUCKS by Kate Beaton



It's hard to sum up this book, but I'll begin by saying that along with Maus by Art Spiegelman, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, and Watchmen by Alan Moore, it is quite possibly one of the four best graphic novels ever. This despite the fact that unlike the others it lacks a high concept.

Ducks is about the two years Kate Beaton spent in the oil sands of Alberta. The pay is good, particularly for a young woman from Cape Breton with college debts to pay off. But the conditions are dreadful, the work is draining, and as is inevitable where the male-to-female ratio is fifty to one, the misogyny is so thick you could cut it with a knife.

So it's strange that these situations produced a work so delicately nuanced, so observant of human behavior, and so generous in its characterizations (of men in particular) as this one.

Kate Benton is--or, very soon now, I must say was--best known for Hark! A Vagrant, whimsical Web cartoons that were usually based on history or literature, cheerfully skewed, and almost always Canadian-centric. One of my friends from North of the Border referred to her as "Canada's cultural secret weapon." When she gave up on producing free cartoons in order to create children's books, her freeloading readers, myself included, mourned.

And then came Ducks

Beaton never mentions the word "capitalism," but in its straightforward portrayal of what it's like to perform demanding work that is simultaneously boring and dangerous simply because one has family to support, it's obviously the villain here. The book does not present itself as a coming of age narrative, yet young Kate starts out perfectly likeable and grows to be rather more admirable by the end. The loneliness, isolation, and suffering of those forced to work far from the comforts the rest of us enjoy are presented by Beaton not only without self-pity but with an explicit awareness that many of those around her had it even worse. Her judgements are all even-handed. This book has a large cast of characters and the same insight into its times and the lives of its people as your favorite nineteenth century novel.

And, just as I warned you at the beginning, I've failed to give you the last glimmer of its virtues. Buy it anyway.

You'll thank me.

And since you wonder . . .

 The best-known Hark! A Vagrant cartoon (though not, oddly, about Canada) is Dude Watching With the Brontes. You can find it here.

Above: Yes, the cover makes it look boring. It's nothing of the sort.  


Friday, January 6, 2023

A Young Photographer at the Mummers Parade


Marianne and I rented a room at the Bellevue last weekend so we could spend New Year's Eve at the Pen & Pencil Club with our cronies and New Year's Day watching the Mummers Parade. Staying in a hotel on Broad Street meant that we could watch the parade until we were cold and weary, then go inside to watch the parade on TV until we were warm and rested and then go out again. Repeating as often as necessary. (The Mummers Parade is over eight hours long.)

Partway through the day, we were watching the Mummers when a young photographer with one of those little cameras that take small Polaroid photographs asked Marianne, "May I take your picture?"

"Sure," Marianne said, so the girl did. Then she asked, "May I take another?"

This time I posed with Marianne. To our surprise, the young photographer then gave Marianne the photo. That's it up above.

It's a good photograph--well composed and visually interesting. Which is not a surprise, because her mother, who was there with her, was also a photographer and to judge from the camera she was carrying a serious one.

That's all. It's a small incident but for us a pleasant one. And a reminder of how pleasant it can be to encounter strangers out on the street


Wednesday, January 4, 2023

Suzy McKee Charnas Meets Her Ideal Reader



Word is out on social media that Suzy McKee Charnas is no longer with us. She was 83 years old, which is a good run, but it still feels like she died too young. She is possibly best known for Walk to the End of the World and its sequels, but my own personal favorite of her works is The Vampire Tapestry, a novel made up of a series of stories illuminating the inner life of Dr. Edward Weyland, vampire and professor of anthropology.

This is an elegant work, tough and sinewy, beautifully written, and marvelously well thought out. I would go into this in more detail but it's been years since I last reread it, and if I opened the book now I would fall into it, not to reappear for a week. It really is that good.

I met Ms. Charnas only once, back in the eighties, and I doubt I made much of an impression on her. But it's worth recounting because that was the time she first met Judith Moffett.

Judy Moffett began as a serious poet (I greatly admire her collection Whinny Moor Crossing, the title poem in particular), fell into science fiction almost by accident, and quickly became an intensely admired novelist and short fiction writer. She was and is one of those tough-minded, tolerate-no-nonsense, totally admirable women who find in genre a place where they can think and do exactly as they like. And she admired the hell out of Suzy McKee Charnas. Most particularly, as with me, for The Vampire Tapestry.

Judy's day job was as an academic at the University of  Pennsylvania, where she taught, among other things, a science fiction class. As part of which, that year, the class did a reading of a script--written by Charnas, as it turns out--of one of the component stories of the Tapestry. The protagonist was female but the student reading her lines was male.

Judy wrote to Suzy McKee Charnas telling her about the project and inviting her to come and witness an encore performance. An invitation which was readily accepted. Gregory Frost and I, being friends and local writers, were also invited.

Charnas was one of the people she most admired. And her appreciation of The Vampire Tapestry went beyond granular. I remember that she particularly appreciated the presentation of psychological analysis, how it's done and what it can and cannot achieve. As I recall it, she could easily have written a book extolling that novel's virtues. And every word of it would have been deserved. In many ways, Judy was its ideal reader.

So you can imagine how nervous she was at the prospect of meeting her hero. Judith Moffett was not the kind of woman who gets nervous. But this time she was.

And how did work out?

It was a beautiful day with fleecy clouds in a blue sky and sunshine everywhere when I strode across the Penn campus toward the rendezvous point. And there, walking toward me, came Judy and her good friend Suzy, engrossed in conversation and as thick as thieves.

"Judy!" I shouted and "Michael!" she cried, and we hugged (we were neither of us very huggy people but at that moment it seemed right) while Suzy McKee Charnas beamed at us.

It was a lovely moment and a perfect day and the memories of the rest of it are private to Judith Moffett. But, clearly, Suzy McKee Charnas thought almost as highly of Judy as Judy did of her.

And that's all. I just thought you might want to know that.


Above: The brooding and appropriate book cover is of the Centipede Press edition of The Vampire Tapestry.