Three cheers: my novel Student Body made the 2014 Independent Authors Honors List of Australian writer and reviewer Tabitha Ormiston-Smith:
From comments she made in the review of my book, and those of others, on Amazon and Goodreads, Ormiston-Smith seems to be a fine and eclectic readers, and a good sport as well, and I am both honored and touched.
At the same time that I have been working on other projects, I also have been reading the two-volume biography of Robert A. Heinlein by the late William H. Patterson, Jr.—absolutely fascinating, and so worth acquiring for anyone really interested in Heinlein.
Below is the review I did of the first volume on Goodreads:
The first volume of William H. Patterson's Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century is a fascinating read for anyone interested in perhaps the most famous and influential name in modern science fiction. Based upon wide research in Heinlein's personal correspondence, and also upon seemingly countless interviews and e-mails with Ginny Heinlein and others, the text is engagingly written, and backed up with copious footnotes well worth examining. After giving a useful little history of the family into which Heinlein was to be born, Patterson takes us from the birth of the author-to-be in 1907 through 1947, his breakout from the "pulps" like Astounding Science-Fiction and into prestigious "slicks" such as The Saturday Evening Post.
The beginnings of Heinlein's career are interesting, of course, and yet so, too, are the details of the boy's relentless self-education, the youth's career in the Navy before being invalided out due to tuberculosis, and--though, at least for myself, to a lesser extent--his early Leftist political activity. Patterson reveals Heinlein's 1929 marriage to Eleanor Curry, a year-long union that was lost to history until the twenty-first century, but it is the story of his 1932-1947 marriage to Leslyn MacDonald that is particularly eye-opening. Heinlein's second marriage--which for decades was called his first--is something about which most fans knew only vaguely, as his marriage to Virginia Gerstenfeld from 1948 onward always loomed largest. Robert and Leslyn were, however, married for fifteen years, and it is quite touching to see, not just from Patterson's evaluation but also even from Robert's letters to Ginny after the breakup, how truly devoted they were for so long. It is interesting as well--though not surprising, perhaps, to anyone who has read Heinlein's fiction from the 1960s onward--to learn that Robert and Leslyn occasionally visited nudist resorts, and that his first two marriages were open, or "swinging," relationships. Most likely Heinlein was a fairly private person in any event, but such details help explain his drive to bury so thoroughly the history of his life with Leslyn. These were things that a children's author of the late 1940s and 1950s simply could not afford to have noised about.
Patterson's book follows the Heinleins' work as civilian employees for the Naval Air Experimental Station during the Second World War, Robert's momentous move into the "slicks" and the beginning of what was to be a twelve-year association with Scribner's for a series of "juvenile" novels, and Leslyn's decline into alcoholism and the simultaneous growth of the relationship between Robert and Ginny. The ultimate failure of Heinlein's second marriage is surprisingly bittersweet after reading of the long years of such companionship and support, but of course we, the readers of half a century later, knew it was coming. The rise of Heinlein's final love, however, is perhaps even more reassuring, and thus a fine place for this first volume to end.
31 January 2015
A couple of weeks ago I found a lovely old 1948 Signet edition of Charles Jackson’s 1944 The Lost Weekend for $4—a terrific buy. The cover is one of those colorful paintings bootstrapped from the film version, so just as my similar copy of Treasure of the Sierra Madre features Bogart, this one features Ray Milland. After seeing the film so many times, though, it is a surprise to discover that the protagonist actually has a mustache... In any event, the novel is an exquisite 5-star read.
Below is the review I did on Goodreads:
Charles Jackson's 1944 The Lost Weekend is a gripping probe into the mind of an alcoholic--the euphoria and the terror, the self-congratulation and the remorse, the understanding and the turning away. Really, as long as the term probe is used, one might reach next for lancet or scalpel, but of course such would not be fitting. These tools, after all, slice straight and clean, yet Jackson's artful third-person-limited prose and the artfully tipsy stagger of his plotting that hints, reveals, withholds, reveals in bits again is like a corkscrew, or perhaps some piece of fractal geometry that slithers into the corrugations of the brain, and somehow opens the gray matter up for inspection.
Many are familiar with the film adaptation starring Ray Milland, which of course is superb for its day, but of course Jackson's original novel is better. Avoiding spoilers, let us just say...well, that the book may not be quite as cheery as the film, perhaps. Many memorable images and scenes from the movie indeed do come straight out of the text: the bottle on the string--but, oh, how long we will wait for this in the book!--the planned trip to the country with brother Wick, the disappointing of bar "hostess" Gloria, the endless sweating stagger to pawnshops closed for Yom Kippur, the woozily confident purse caper in the restaurant, the fall down the stairs and the meeting of the creepy, faintly predatory male nurse Bim, the delirum tremens-induced vision of squeaking, bleeding mouse devoured by carnivorous bat.
Whereas Milland's character in his youth actually had been a promising writer, however, with a story published in the Atlantic Monthly, here Don Birnam is a nothing and a nobody. Oh, he had potential, certainly--everyone could see it. His second-grade teacher even wrote a gushing letter to Don's mother, saying that he was the brightest and most promising pupil she had ever had. At age ten the sensitive lad studied his face in the mirror as he cried at the realization that his father truly had abandoned the family and would never come back, and as a teenager he made it a point to write a poem every night, no matter how late he had to stay up. He knows his "Poe and Keats, Byron, Dawson, Chatterton--all the gifted miserable and reckless men who had burned themselves out in tragic brilliance early and with finality"--and this brand of genius of course has an allure to "[t]he romantic boy."
Don did not have even a year in college--that little incident with an upperclassman in his fraternity, wherein seemingly natural hero-worship led to a letter rather too warm not to lead to scandal and disgrace with fortune and men's eyes. Nevertheless, he is well traveled and beautifully well read. Switzerland, France, England, Greenwich Village--been there. Shakespeare, Byron, Chekov, Joyce, Fitzgerald--read 'em. But he can imagine being a writer, and writing the great novel of drunkenness and promise and self-deception and revelation, only when half-soused...just as he imagines being a master concert pianist despite not yet having learned to play, or being a great actor despite never having performed, or professing to a class on F. Scott Fitzgerald despite not even having earned a B.A. degree. Many a film makes such alcoholic pretension seem humorous, but just as the Milland version does not, neither has the source novel. The ironies are sad and grim, the situation frustratingly inescapable.
Jackson, then, is the great literary revealer that Don Birnam, regardless of his French and his German and his jaunty allusions to works up and down the canon, cannot be. How can a single drink just to start the fun lead to another of seemingly benign effect, then to a larger one, another taken in a gulp, and a few more no longer counted, as reason jumps by flea-hops from topic to topic, grows elliptical, finally sinks into the mire of a blackout? Jackson shows us, in a deeply introspective style that deftly pulls to the surface his central character's submerged motivations, his strengths, and his weaknesses with the same eye for detail that gives us an irresistible seven-page travelogue of the 65-block stagger lower, ever lower, through the socioeconomic strata of New York City. In the end it is Charles Jackson's gritty, forthright, and yet delicately rendered novel itself, not the actions of Don Birnam, that give any hope for the future.
30 December 2014
At long last I took the plunge and got the Virginia Edition: the complete Heinlein—all of his fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting, and even 450,000 words of letters—in a beautiful leather-bound set on acid-free paper. All-up, this 46-volume set weighs 72 pounds, so when those four boxes arrive on the porch, they are quite noticeable indeed. They take up about 49 linear inches on the shelf, by the way. Mm...and then that shelf should be pretty sturdy, too, shouldn’t it?
In any event, each volume features an introduction by the late William H. Patterson, a major Heinlein scholar, along with a different photo of Heinlein and Ginny, plus occasionally other apparatus. The texts themselves, selected by Mrs. Heinlein before her death, are Heinlein’s preferred versions rather than those tweaked by other editors. Everything is here, from the most familiar to the most obscure—everything!
On general principle, therefore, although the covers are illustrated only minimally, I have scanned ’em all, and now they are included in the appropriate places in my Heinlein cover art galleries.
I happened to read Jonathan R. Eller’s two-volume of Ray Bradbury out of order, but of course the first half is as solid and entertaining as the second.
Below is the little review I did on Goodreads yesterday:
Jonathan R. Eller's Becoming Ray Bradbury a very fine literary biography that focuses not on picayune personal matters--issue such as those sniffed at by the Russian Formalist critics of the 1930s, like whether Pushkin smoked--but instead on how a once-unknown, bookish mama's boy evolved into a writer whose work millions love and whose very name even more millions at least recognize.
Eller is a top-notch scholar of Bradbury's work, and as he delineates the events and relationships that shaped the development of this author's distinctive craft, he is able to bring in useful bits and pieces formerly lost to history. Who but Eller, for example, can refer casually to the "[m]ore than 200 known pages of discards moving forward from 'The Fireman' toward Fahrenheit 451..." (277-78), or can show us the first page of the story draft, composed back in 1943, of the tale that eventually became the final chapter of the 1950 The Martian Chronicles? At the same time, though, Eller illuminates the broad trends as well: the sometimes-fractious multiculturalism of Bradbury's prewar Los Angeles, the evolution of the pulp-magazine science fiction and fantasy genres of the 1930s and '40s, the mechanics of postwar book publishing...and of course the McCarthyism of the 1950s that made Fahrenheit 451 so timely.
With eminently readable prose, and using easily digestible 6- or 8-page chapters, Eller takes us from the aspiring high school author to the young man who, still in his early 30s, finally is growing beyond genre restrictions and into recognition by the wider literary world. Becoming Ray Bradbury then culminates with the publication of the man's most famous and enduring novel--and from there, the second of the two-volume biography,Ray Bradbury Unbound, ably takes over.
26 December 2014
Two days ago, Salem Press gave me the green light on to do a collection of new scholarly essays on Robert A. Heinlein...and within 30 hours of my first solicitations, all 15 chapters had been assigned! Critical Insights: Robert A. Heinlein, part of the wide-ranging Critical Insights Series of Salem Press, will be written by a crew of scholars from all over world, arranged and edited and whatnot by this most humble editor, and released in late 2015. I suspect it is going to be very, very good...
I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to read Jonathan R. Eller’s Ray Bradbury Unbound in preparation for a review for the journal Extrapolation—loved it.
The review itself will have to wait for late 2015, but below is the brief note I did on Goodreads:
For right now, I will simply comment that Jonathan R. Eller'sRay Bradbury Unbound is a top-notch conclusion to the two-volume biography of perhaps the most famous name on modern speculative fiction, by perhaps the top scholar of Bradbury textual criticism. While the book of course discusses the author's life after Fahrenheit 451, it is not simply a chronology of personal matters but an explanation and analysis of Bradbury's development as an artist. As such, this study will be enjoyed by scholars and non-academic readers alike.
A fuller 1400-word review will be forthcoming in the academic journal Extrapolation in late 2015.
6 October 2014
Mark Twain's 1906 Diaries of Adam and Eve, with original early twentieth-century illustrations by F. Strothmann and Lester Ralph, is exquisitely witty, visually appealing, and even, by the end, touching.
The extracts from Adam's diary, which has each page of brief text paired with a gently humorous Strothmann illustration of a sometimes-broken tablet of a cartoon in rather Sumerian style, is sure to make many a beleaguered husband smile. Apparently jokes on the talkativeness of wives, the desirability of loafing on the weekend, and similar matters began around 4004 B.C. Really, though, it is all in good fun. And after the Fall, when Adam comes back from a trapping expedition on the north shore of the Erie, it is amusing indeed to see the clueless man's attempts at puzzling out exactly what is this strange little human-like creature that Eve claims to have found. Perhaps it is a fish, thinks he, and thus naturally he chucks it in the water to check--and yet for some reason Eve snatches the thing out most indignantly. From there on, it is a long, sleepless series of months...
Following Adam's diary extracts are Eve's, illustrated page by page with straightforward but charming woodcuts or engravings by Lester Ralph. In a nice twist, rather than remaining something of the butt of the joke, the former rib of the first diarist now comes into her own. Whereas in Adam's account she can come off as a pesky, unreasonable nuisance, Eve shows herself to be, although occasionally distracted, the emotional yin to Adam's unimaginative intellectual yang. In Adam's account, for example, when he tries to escape from "the new creature" and then, when found, simply leaves it out in the rain with water coming out of the holes it sees with rather than let it into his new shelter, the incident is presented as a minor though somewhat perplexing annoyance. In Eve's account, however, we now see actual human emotion rather than mere slapstick, and we begin to notice that simple male self-centeredness may not always be the most hilarious thing in the world.
Indeed, the growing maturation of the characters, deftly handled by the wry Twain, is an unexpected pleasure of this brief, easily read volume. Eve's musings on the nature of love, for example, are homely and touching, as is her final prayer that when death comes, it come first for her instead of Adam, "for he is strong, I am weak, I am not so necessary to him as he is to me--life without him would not be life; how could I endure it?" And yet just when we think the husband rather an unworthy clod, the final pair of pages, with an achingly solemn Lester Ralph illustration and a single heartfelt line from Adam, poignantly show that he has learned what it means to be human, too...
5 October 2014
I happened to run across a Heinlein cover I hadn’t seen before, a Bean combo of The Green Hills of Earth and The Menace from Earth, with a cover by Bob Eggleton. Now ’tis duly scanned, therefore, and put in the “Collections” page of my Heinlein cover art galleries.