Sunday, November 19, 2017

World Fantasy Convention, 2017, Part III: Day 2

World Fantasy Convention, 2017, Part III: Day 2

For breakfast on Friday we had the brunch buffet at the hotel restaurant. Waffles, bacon, omelettes, all the usual stuff. It was OK, nothing all that special. But convenient.

I was particularly interested in Friday's "Engaging Our Theme" panel, entitled "What is Alternate History?". This mainly because one of the panelists was Damien Broderick (who lives in San Antonio). I've known Damien online for quite some time, and I've really enjoyed his fiction (and I've reprinted a few of his stories, and even wrote the introduction to one of his collections), but I'd never met him in in person. The other panelists were Fred Lerner, Daryl Gregory, and S. M. Stirling. The discussion was stimulating. The panelists considered things like overfamiliar jonbar points; the notion that in reality even small changes would likely mean that there would be no common people -- that is, that most people would even be born in alternate histories, due to their parents' not meeting (Stirling described in this context the very unlikely events leading to his parents and grandparents all meeting each other), or even if their parents met, changes in, oh, when they happened to conceive their children; favorite Alternate Histories, etc. Damien mentioned Vladimir Nabokov's Ada, one of the most interesting and different (and problematic!) literary alternate histories. Afterward, I did get a chance to meet Damien, and he gave me a copy of his latest novel, his revision of one of John Brunner's more ambitious 1950s novels, Threshold of Eternity (a novel which I read and reviewed in its Ace Double edition a few months ago). He also introduced me to another Australian writer, Russell Blackford (and later I met Russell's wife Jenny, whose work I had read and reviewed previously, which she remembered).

Our Noon panel was "My 12 Favorite Works by Karen Joy Fowler". Brian Attebery moderated the panel, and the other participants were Eileen Gunn, Elizabeth Engstrom, Rachel Neumeier, and Gordon van Gelder. As you might have guessed, the discussion centered around a whole bunch of Fowler's works. There wasn't any real consensus on the "best" (nor did I expect one!) -- though a fair amount of people seemed to pick We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves as a favorite. Rachel Neumeier's approach was interesting, and, it seems to me, a good reaction to being placed on a panel for non-obvious reasons. For, she confessed, she had not previously read Fowler. (I don't actually know if Rachel requested this panel or just got stuck there.) So she read a whole bunch of Fowler's work in the past couple of months, which gave her a pretty fresh perspective.

I did introduce myself to Brian Attebery after the panel, and we discussed -- at this time and on a couple further occasions where we could talk at greater length -- a variety of things, including Brian's major current project, curating the Library of America editions of Ursula Le Guin's work.

Next was a reading by John Crowley, from his new novel Ka. The reading was certainly interesting, though really I'm just waiting to get the novel (which I already have). John went over time a bit, because he had assumed that he had an hour, but readings at this con were only 30 minutes. I introduced myself to John afterwards -- I've known him for a while on Facebook, but this was the first time we'd met in person. Crowley is absolutely one of my favorite writers, but I restrained myself from gushing (I assume writers get tired of that, as it doesn't seem to me to lead to actual conversation). Instead I mentioned my friend Will Waller, who was one of John's students, and Will's admission that John found his work frustrating. John laughed a bit ruefully, and agreed that he had found Will a bit frustrating as a student, but said that his more recent work has gotten a great deal better.

I skipped the David Mitchell reading at 1:00. Which leads to one of my real regrets -- this convention featured three of my absolute favorite writers: Crowley (as noted), Fowler, and David Mitchell. I had no problem introducing myself to Crowley and Fowler. But I never did speak to Mitchell. Partly, no doubt, that's because I have corresponded with both Crowley and Fowler, and bought stories from them for reprint. But partly I think that's because I know they are both embedded in our field -- in a sense, they are "one of us". That said, they straddle the genre lines quite the same as Mitchell does. (On reflection, that may be a reason I like all three!) Really, that's on me. I did hang around the dealer room by the Small Beer table on Sunday, as we were about to leave, because Mitchell was there. But he was in what looked like an absorbing conversation with Ted Chiang, and I felt like it would have been terribly rude to butt in.

There was one more panel, "History: Secret, Hidden, or Otherwise", featuring Fran Wilde, Ian Drury, J. L. Doty, John Crowley, and Mary Anne Mohanraj. I will confess I don't remember the panel well, but I did take the time to introduce myself to Fran Wilde, whom I had missed at Boskone earlier this year.

Mary Ann and I went to a nearby Mexican restaurant, the original Blanco, for lunch. It was OK, but didn't really strike me as special. I have two favorite Mexican restaurants in St. Louis -- when I want Americanized Mexican food, I like Chevy's, which advertises itself as Tex Mex. This was for a while the most popular Mexican chain in St. Louis, but they are down to perhaps two stores now. When I want more authentic Mexican food, I go to Pueblo Nuevo, which was opened by a couple from Guadalajara in 1982, shortly after I came to St. Louis. I first went there that year, I think, for lunch (it's fairly close to where I work). For many many years, a group of us went every Thursday for lunch, and we got to know the owners -- the husband has died, alas, but his son took over -- I remember him as a child, sitting at one of the tables and doing his schoolwork. That stopped a few years ago when the day job got too intense to take long lunch breaks, plus a couple of our regulars retired. And on another visit just recently, one of the regular waiters greeted me by wondering where I'd been -- it had been three or four years, and I had a beard I hadn't had back them. Which is just to say, sometimes places become like home.

Diversion over. Back at the hotel, after some time in the Dealers' room (I'll discuss the Dealers' room in a later post), we ran into John Joseph Adams, the chief editor at Lightspeed (where I am the reprint editor). John was meeting his sister Becky, a teacher now living in North Carolina, who was coming to her first World Fantasy. Becky's daughter lives in San Antonio, and she was providing a convenient base of operations for both of them. They were heading to dinner soon, and we went along with them. To another Mexican place, as it happens -- Acenar. Actually, it was just fine to go to another Mexican place -- Acenar had more of an upscale vibe, with some interesting takes on "Street Tacos", for example. (Reminds me a bit of a visit to Chicago several years ago, when Mary Ann and I met up with my brother Pat, who lives in the city. He took us to a fancy Mexican place, and when we blanched at the notion of paying $25 for an enchilada, he said that's fine, I made a couple of different reservations, and we left and went to the other place ... Acenar wasn't as expensive as that! (And John actually picked up the tab -- thanks again!)) And, I should say, the food was really nice. Probably stands as the best food we had in San Antonio. The conversation was good as well, with some family stuff -- comparing Becky's teaching experience with our daughter Melissa's, for example; and some discussion of things like John's publishing ventures include the Best Amerian SF anthologies he does.

Back at the con, it was time for the signing session, which at World Fantasy is a mass event, with everyone lined up at tables in a big event space (that turned out to be beneath the hotel's parking garage, so a bit of a walk). I thought that really worked out nicely. I didn't realize that I could have grabbed a name "tent" and sat down myself -- I thought it was by invitation only. No matter -- I don't think I'm a particularly hot name for signatures, and I was glad to wander around meeting people. I got just one thing signed, a chapbook of "An Earthly Mother Sits and Sings" by John Crowley. I talked to quite a few folks, though, including James Alan Gardner (who finally has a new novel out); Darrell Schweitzer, whom I had not previously met; Alex Irvine; Bill Crider; Christopher Brown, whom I bumped into a few more times -- I have been familiar with his interesting fiction for a while, but I was intrigued to realize he's a lawyer who spent some time working with Congress (for example, as one of the "behind the scenes" guys at the hearings you see on CSPAN); Joe McDermott, whom I had met at Boskone, and who, as he's local, gave us a good recommendation for an ice cream place on the Riverwalk; Kij Johnson, whom I've known for a little while now (I had bought her novel The River Bank at the Small Beer Press table but was too clueless to remember to bring it to the signing session); and Steve Rasnic Tem.

After that was over, it was back to the bar, which meant quite a few more stimulating conversations. Keeping in mind that my memory will confuse which night a particular conversation took place -- I remember meeting Sarah Pinsker, and we had a really good talk about music, particularly as I recall Tom Petty, and how fortunate Mary Ann and I feel that we got to see him on his last tour. I had just read Sarah's very strong novelette "Wind Will Rove" in Asimov's, which is about music (and a generation ship!), and a sort of music I like a great deal (old-timey folk, basically). That conversation was with other people, and I'm being an idiot by not remembering who -- was it Scott Andrews? Or Derek Künsken? And somebody else too? I know I did spend some time talking to both Scott and Derek.

I also ran into Arin Komin, whom I had met (along with Richard Warren) at a previous Windycon. Arin and Rich were at that time winding up their bookselling business, so I was surprised to see them in the Dealers' room -- but they were helping out another Chicago bookseller, Dave Willoughby, from whom I have bought a number of books over the years. I did discuss with Richard the fact that his name is the same as that of my ancestor who came over on the Mayflower. With Arin we recalled our dinner at Windycon at an Indian restaurant, which everyone enjoyed except Mary Ann (she hates Indian food!)

I spent considerable time talking to F. Brett Cox too, whom I had known online back in the days. We talked about Maine, and about Joy Division -- Brett had a Joy Division t-shirt on, and they are a band I have liked since my college years -- among numerous other subjects.

And I recall talking a bit to Peter Halasz as well, and reminding him to keep an eye out for a new novel next year from a new Canadian writer -- Todd McAulty. I really liked Todd's stories for Black Gate back in the day, and I got a chance to read an advance copy of his first novel, The Robots of Gotham, which is due from John Joseph Adams' imprint next June. (Check out advance notice about it here.)

More on next rock ...

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Old Bestseller Review: That Girl From New York, by Allene Corliss

Old Bestseller Review: That Girl From New York, by Allene Corliss

a review by Rich Horton

This was not a major bestseller, but one of a number of novels -- at least 15 -- by a writer who seemed a fairly successful producer of reasonably sophisticated romance novels between about 1930 and the early '60s. Allene Corliss was born Senath Allene Soule in Vermont in 1899 (though some sources say 1898), and seems to have lived there her whole life. She married Bruce Corliss, a businessman originally from Kansas, and they had three children (her daughter Jane died as recently as 2016, still in Vermont). She published regularly in magazines such as the American Magazine and Women's Home Companion. Her 1936 novel Summer Lightning became a movie in 1938: I Met My Love Again, starring Joan Bennet and Henry Fonda. (Despite that star power, it does not seem to have been a success.) She died in 1979.

She is all but forgotten now, but I found a few contemporary reviews from Kirkus, and they were generally positive, if in a slightly condescending way: "Ardent, amatory amusement in the best manner", "A complex plot fairly well manoeuvred, with facile dialogue of the smart type. Allene Corliss is building a good rental library following, of the Faith Baldwin type of reader. This won't disappoint them.", "Allene Corliss has a facile style and a pleasant gift of story telling. She's not important, but she is a safe circulating library bet for women readers." Condescending those may be, but they are probably pretty much correct.

That Girl From New York was her second novel, after Marry for Love. It was published in 1932 by Farrar and Rinehart. My edition is the A. L. Burt reprint. I believe it was published in the UK under the title Eden. The novel opens in New York, as Jerry Evans meets Eden Lane at a slow party. Jerry is from Vermont, the son of a banker, and he is working at a bank in New York. Eden is in advertising. The two are quickly in love, Eden more desperately so, despite that she is the stronger character: extremely beautiful, more intelligent than Jerry, more honest and straightforward. This section comes off a bit flat -- there is little tension. Eden does have a friend, Jake, with whom she had been involved a few years previously. He's still in love with her, but he has married unhappily, and now his wife is dying. Eden had one previous indiscretion, with, coincidentally, a college roommate of Jerry's. All this, though is setup.

For, it turns out, Jerry's mother is a rather evil woman, and she has plans for Jerry. She is quite upset at his quick marriage to Eden -- she senses that Eden could remove Jerry from her influence. She wanted him to marry a local girl, Elizabeth, who is plain and a bit dull, and who is desperately in love with him. So she arranges for Jerry to be fired (her husband is dead and she controls the local bank, and so she has a relationship with Jerry's boss). Jerry and Eden have been spending a bit beyond their means (mostly Jerry's fault), and Jerry does not want to live on his wife's earnings. So they are forced to move to Vermont, and to Jerry's rather ugly childhood home.

Jerry takes a position at his mother's bank, but she doesn't pay him a salary, to prevent him moving out. She is coldly vile to Eden, objecting to her smoking, her makeup, and any attempts by her to decorate, even such things as putting flowers in the living room. Her plan, quite obviously, is to drive Eden to leave him -- he can't initiate a divorce, because his mother wants him to become Senator eventually. Eden begins to decline, and then becomes pregnant, but loses the baby after a particularly bad fight. Jerry, a very weak man, cannot see how badly his mother is behaving. And he begins to see Elizabeth innocently, while Eden associates with some of the more intelligent and independent local wives. All comes to a head, though, when Jerry's old roommate visits, and they go out drinking (to Canada, as this is during Prohibition), and it comes out that Eden and he had, er, misbehaved. Jerry is hypocritically furious, and before long the marriage seems over, and Eden returns to New York.

Meanwhile, Jake's wife has died, and so in New York he and Eden begin to see each other, but he is noble enough to realize that she will never love him, so he takes no steps to get truly closer to her. Meanwhile, Elizabeth and Jerry are seeing each other -- but, again, good girl Elizabeth, after a close call, realizes as well that much as she would love to be with Jerry, that would be wrong. But Eden and Jerry are both convinced the other wants a divorce, so ...

Well, of course you know how this will end. The novel is indeed, as Kirkus says, "not important". And its flaws are many. For one thing, the Depression is barely acknowledged. You would think that might have impacted the banking business. For another, Jerry is so weak compared to Eden that their romance doesn't always really convince -- though Corliss is well aware of this, and papers it over fairly well. (Though, really, the two differently strong women lead -- Eden, and Jerry's mother -- are less convincing characters -- Mrs. Evans is a bit cartoonishly evil, and Eden in some ways too perfect -- than Jerry and some of the other lesser character.) The opening chapters, as I suggested, drag somewhat, but the novel does find some momentum. Some of the descriptions of Vermont society are pretty convincing, and the characters of Eden's friends among the wives are pretty well depicted. The ending is just a tad contrived. This novel indeed is what it is, and while I have no particular reason to seek out more novels by Allene Corliss, nor to think she needs revival, I enjoyed it enough on its own terms, and she surely deserved the apparent modest success she enjoyed.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

World Fantasy Convention, 2017, Part II: Day 1

World Fantasy Convention, 2017, Part II: Day 1

The convention didn't really start until the afternoon on Thursday. Thus we had the morning free. One thing we like to do when traveling is find local breakfast places. You can usually find a good breakfast at hole in the wall joints most anywhere. We settle on Pancake Joe's, a ways northwest of downtown, in a typical looking residential neighborhood, near Thomas Jefferson High School. It was quite satisfactory.

Next on the agenda was antique malls. We found one not too far from Pancake Joe's, Ironside Antique Mall. It was an odd sort of place -- it seemed that many of the booths were operated independently from the mall itself, and several of them were closed. In the end, not terribly satsifying. The other one was downtown, Alamo Antique Mall, only a couple of blocks from the Alamo. This was convenient, because a visit to the Alamo was another objective. We were able to park in front of the Mall, and we went through it -- a fine three story antique mall, fairly typical, worth visiting. We decided to walk to the Alamo  from there, reasoning (correctly) that parking would be dicier close to it. We walked through the Alamo -- which was a bit smaller than in my mind. We watched the short film they have on the history of the place, done in collaboration with the History Channel, and done fairly well (though they did kind of skate over the fact that a major motivation for the then Texans do want independence from Mexico was that they owned slaves and Mexico might have outlawed that practice). The site itself is interesting too. We also of course visited the gift store and bought a couple of souvenirs.

Back to the hotel. We had picked up our registration materials that morning when I just wandered up to the area and found that they were happy to give me our folders. The first panel we attended was the Introducing Our Guests forum, at 2:00 PM. The guests were, I should mention, Toastmaster Martha Wells, writers Tananarive Due, Karen Joy Fowler, and David Mitchell, artist Gregory Manchess, and editor Gordon van Gelder. A pretty distinguished guest list, I thought. The intros including some discussion of what the Convention's theme meant: Secret Histories and Alternate Histories. The most noticeable theme, that kept popping up in panel after panel, was the sort of meta version of Secret History -- the history of people who have been either ignored or forgotten in the official historical accounts. Another subtheme is histories -- especially personal or family histories -- that our sort of suppressed, even by the people most involved (like the gay uncle, or the embarrassing family problems such as perhaps abusive behavior). These are important threads, and very much worth discussing, but I kind of felt that the more traditional "Secret History" got short shrift -- that is, stories that try to offer complete alternate (often bonkers, often conspiracy-oriented) explanations for acknowledged historical events.

Next up was a panel designed to directly "Engage our Theme": "Is Our History True?", with Jack Dann, Greg Bear, Joe Haldeman, and Karen Joy Fowler, which continued to some of the same central ideas, not surprisingly I suppose: What lies do well tell about our own family histories? And what do we suppress about our true national or world history? Not at all uninteresting, I suppose, and perhaps the best way to deal with the specific question raised.

Our final panel for the day was "Exceptional Characters in Horrible Times", in essence about how to create characters that are believable but still sympathetic, when they hold views that were essentially universal to their time but which we disapprove of now. The panelists were David Mitchell, David B. Coe, Christopher Brown, and Howard Waldrop. I will say that I personally think some (a lot) of the burden here is on the reader: if you can't sympathize with a character with some unpleasant views, you have a personal problem, I'd say -- and you should shudder to think what future people will think of some of your views. That said, there are some views that are really hard to stomach. Still, I recall for example stories about characters in the Aztec Empire who unhesitatingly supported human sacrifice, and writers of sufficient skill still made them sympathetic and indeed heroic. The panelists suggested things like giving the characters particular personal burdens so we'd sympathize anyway, which seems like a) a copout; and b) the sort of thing you do to your main characters anyway. But there was universal disdain for the all too common practice of giving one's historical character convenient 21st Century attitudes.

Three panels in a row is a lot, and we actually ducked out early on this one. And here's where I confess that I was wrong in my part I report -- we didn't eat at Waxy O'Connor's on Wednesday night. Instead we ate there Thursday night, with the unfortunate wrong turn on the Riverwalk I had mentioned.

On Wednesday we actually weren't that hungry -- the barbeque in Waco had been in the middle of the afternoon, so we just snacked -- and, of course, watched Game 7 of the World Series. San Antonio, of course, is not terribly far from Houston, so we can assume a lot of locals were quite thrilled with the Astros' victory, but in reality no such partisanship was obvious at the Con, of course because the guests came from everywhere. Mary Ann and I were both mostly agnostic, but slightly in favor of the Astros, perhaps mostly because they had never previously won a World Series. For my part, I'm a big fan of Jose Altuve, and also of Justin Verlander, so on those grounds alone I'd cheer for the Astros. (That said, I think Clayton Kershaw easily the greatest pitcher of our time, and I'd like to see him win a championship some time, though of course not at the expense of the Cardinals.)

I'm going to mention various people I met and talked to over the weekend, but I will admit up front that I'll probably totally mess up the chronology. I spent significant time in the bar (mostly that!), and  a couple of room parties, and the con suite, and the autograph session, each of Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. And I met a whole lot of people, not to mention saw a lot of people I already know. I'm certain I'll forget to mention some folks.

So. I did spend some time at the bar Thursday night, as well as at the Con suite, and maybe in a room party or two -- things have gotten blurred. I spent some time talking to the very impressive Canadian writer Derek Künsken, whose work I have reprinted. He's just finished his first novel, and he told me it was soon to be serialized in Analog (and on coming home, the new issue of Analog announced the serialization in its forthcoming issue preview). Derek also mentioned a forthcoming trip to China, and, if I recall, his novel is also being published quite soon in China.

I also talked to another Canadian writer, Alexandra Renwick, who thanked me for reviewing one of her early stories in Locus. I was briefly puzzled, until she revealed that her early stories were published as by "Camille Alexa". I do remember those stories well, mostly in some of Eric Reynolds' fine anthologies for his Hadley Rille imprint. Alexandra is also married to an old online friend of mine, Claude Lalumiere. Alexandra has roots in Austin, in California, and in Canada, if I recall, and she and Claude live in Ottawa, very close to another brilliant young Canadian writer, Rich Larson. I got an invite to CanCon, and to their apparent mansion (grin) ... which I would be delighted to accept, but now it looks like my most likely convention in Canada next year will be Jo Walton's Scintillation, in Montreal next October. (My birthday weekend, actually, which means I'd miss Archon.)

I also talked to Gavin Grant, of Small Beer Press, on a variety of topics, most notably, to my memory, the closeness of my Dad's hometown of Hadley, MA, to Northampton, where Gavin (and Kelly Link) live. Gavin noted that Hadley happily hosts the big box stores such as Walmart that Northampton (and also Amherst) are too snooty to allow.

I ran into Ellen Datlow, whom I've known, it seems, forever, and we discussed among other things the Omni relaunch, which features a really impressive set of authors. I also met Jenn Reese for the first time, though we really had no chance to talk. Likewise Caroline Yoachim. I did get to talk to Daryl Gregory for a while -- we discussed his wonderful new novel Spoonbenders, and also my unfortunate failure to get to his signing of that book in St. Louis a few months ago. Liza Groen Trombi (Locus editor) was there as well. Jim Minz. Mary Anne Mohanraj. David Levine.

That's enough for now, I hope. Much more to come in future installments!

Sunday, November 12, 2017

World Fantasy Convention, 2017, Part I: Before the convention

World Fantasy Convention, 2017, Part I: Before the convention

This year I could not afford the trip to Helsinki for the World Science Fiction Convention, so I decided to go to World Fantasy instead. I've been told for years that World Fantasy is a lovely convention -- smaller, more literary in focus, more professional in tone. Many people say it's their favorite. And, indeed, I thought about going last year to Columbus, but two things intervened -- 1) I thought about it rather late and I think it was already full; but, anyway -- 2) my day job was incredibly busy at that time and I ended up spending much of the last quarter of 2016 traveling for business. (Why that is no longer an issue is a rather bitter story that I can't really address in a public forum.) All that said, I signed up me and Mary Ann for World Fantasy in San Antonio in plenty of time.

Things were simplified to an extent because my brother Paul lives just north of Dallas. It's a longish ride, but not undoable, from our house in St. Louis to Paul's house. We left on Halloween, with our daughter Melissa staying over with her dog to keep our dog company. We chose a slightly slower route, for a change from our usual Dallas trip -- this time we went through Arkansas, mostly US 67, then I-30 over to Dallas. This was pretty worthwhile, though it did, in the end, take about an hour extra. For one thing, Arkansas is basically prettier than Oklahoma -- at least, the parts we went through. For another thing, we spent some time on the "Rock and Roll Highway", which was supposed to be called the "Rockabilly Highway", except that the politicians didn't want the implied "hillbilly" association. That was in commemoration of some of the early rockabilly stars -- Arkansas native Johnny Cash being the most obvious -- who played in that area. Most interesting, actually, was Walnut Ridge, AR, where we found a sculpture inspired by the brief visit of the Beatles to the local airport -- on the way to a vacation in Missouri. A local sculptor created a version of the Abbey Road cover in steel, with lots of Easter eggs referring to Beatles songs.

Anyway, we did finally make our way to Dallas, and to Paul and Diane's house. They treated us to a nice dinner at a local upscale burger joint (name alas forgotten). We saw their son David as well, and his twin Christopher a couple of days later. Benjamin and Thomas are away at college (SMU and Georgia Tech respectively), so we missed them. Diane served us (as she does!) a spectacular breakfast the next day, and then we headed for San Antonio. On the way we stopped at Waco, to visit Magnolia at the Silos, the little shopping/food area that Chip and Joanna Gaines have. Mary Ann bought stuff. Then we drove through the campus of Baylor, just to say we saw it, and we found a place to eat, a barbeque place called Coach's XXX Smoke. We thought it no better than ordinary.

The rest of the drive was uneventful enough, though we did take the lesson that traffic through Austin is insufferable. (On the way back, with the help of the GPS, we took a loop around Austin and saved 10 or 15 minutes.) The convention was at the Wyndham Riverwalk Hotel, which is on the one had right on the San Antonio river, on the Riverwalk, but on the other hand on the unoccupied end of the Riverwalk -- all the restaurant action is a good hike away. We got parked and situated, up in our room. We couldn't find the closet. There was a door with a handle that wouldn't move. We figured it was a connecting door to the next room. Only later did somebody tell me that they had the same problem, until they yanked on the handle, and found that it opened to a typical hotel closet. Ah well.

A number of people were already at the Con, but it didn't officially start until Thursday. We decided to walk to the part of the Riverwalk where all the restaurants are. It looked like the quickest way was overland, and it probably is, but I mishandled the map of downtown we found and managed to get us rather lost. Eventually we corrected the wrong turn I'd made, but that turned a merely "good hike" into something of a trek, and we kind of settled for the first restaurant we encountered. This was Waxy O'Connor's, which, not surprisingly, turned out to be a standard issue touristy fake-"Irish Pub". I had the lamb stew, which was, at any rate, decent.

On getting back to the hotel, Mary Ann, feeling rather tired, opted for the room and some TV, and I went to the bar, and sat down at a table in the restaurant area, with Ellen Klages, Karen Joy Fowler, Walter Jon Williams, Peter Halasz, Jack Dann, Janeen Webb, and several other people that I feel foolish for not remembering offhand. They strongly recommended against having the ribs at the restaurant. This was only a continuation of a theme about Texas barbeque that I feel horribly misrepresents the state in that area.

To wit: the first time I ever had barbeque in Texas was when we were driving Melissa to her first post-college job in Phoenix. We drove a long way that day, eventually staying the night in Tucumcari, NM (which I thought was cool because it's mentioned in Lowell George's great song "Willin'"). We had had a late dinner in a small town in the Texas panhandle. (I honestly can't figure out which town -- Adrian? Boise? I just don't know.) It was a barbeque joint, looked liked it was in an old gas station. I remember the food being just fine, and that we had to wait for our waitress to finish singing karaoke before she served us. But, the next day, as we continued across New Mexico, Melissa got violently sick. We had to take her to the emergency room in a hospital in Grants, NM. Turns out it was appendicitis, and I'm sure it had nothing to do with the previous night's barbeque, but it's stuck with us. And since then, despite Texas' reputation, we have yet to have really good BBQ in that state!

Speaking of Tucumcari and "Willin'", I spent some time on our trip thinking about geographical songs to play that had to do with our itinerary. For example, "Choctaw Bingo", by James McMurtry (as he puts it, "about the crystal meth business of southern Oklahoma and northern Texas" (granting that we came through Arkansas on the way there), and the song is originally by Ray Wylie Hubbard); "Dallas", by the Flatlanders; "Cross the Brazos at Waco", by Billy Walker; and, of course, "Is Anybody Going to San Antone?", by Charlie Pride. (Fortuitously, the Texas Tornados' version of "Is Anybody Going to San Antone?" popped up on my Pandora station on the way down there.)

And, finally, a place not on our itinerary: Lake Charles, LA. "Lake Charles" is the title of a Lucinda Williams song, one of her most heartbreaking pieces. (She has a habit of writing songs about people close to her who died.) (The song does mention a town in Texas, Nagacdoches.) Anyway, the key lyric in that song goes: "Did an angel whisper in your ear/And hold you close and take away your fear/In those long last moments." I wanted to figure out who the song was about, so I used Google, and found an article by Margaret Moser, an Austin based music writer. The person in the song is Clyde Woodward, once Lucinda's boyfriend and manager. The kicker is that Margaret Moser herself seems to have perhaps been the angel in the song (though she doesn't actually make that claim). I don't know why, but I just found that really moving. Listening to the song can do that, though.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

A Lesser-known Novel by a Great Writer: The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, by Evelyn Waugh

A Lesser-known Novel by a Great Writer: The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, by Evelyn Waugh

a review by Rich Horton

As I have mentioned before, I sometimes dip a toe into the work of a major writer, trying something shorter than their most significant works. And here I am again, with Evelyn Waugh. The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is quite short, something shy of 50,000 words. I have read one other Waugh "novel", and it is even shorter: The Loved One.

Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) came from a literary family -- his father Arthur was a critic and biographer, his brother Alec was a writer, and his son Auberon wrote five novels himself, though he was best known for his journalism. Evelyn was one of a cluster of major English novelists born around the same time -- Anthony Powell and Henry Green are two others. Evelyn Waugh was educated at Lancing College and at Oxford, though he failed to take a degree. After a couple of false starts at other careers, Waugh published a book on Dante Gabriel Rossetti and then his first novel, Decline and Fall. This novel and the rest of his early work (Vile Bodies, Black Mischief, A Handful of Dust, Scoop) was fiercely satirical; but beginning with his 1945 novel Brideshead Revisited, and especially in his later Sword of Honour trilogy his novels turned more traditional, less comic.

Anong his work, then, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is a bit of an outlier, a lightish short novel, somewhat comic but not satirical, published in 1957 in the midst of his writing of the Sword of Honour books. My edition seems perhaps the first, from Chapman and Hall.

The book, subtitle "A Conversation Piece", is explicitly based on a scary event in Waugh's life, in which he experienced a series of hallucinations. Gilbert Pinfold is a reasonably successful novelist, about 50, happily married and living in a secluded provincial village. The Pinfolds are Catholic, Gilbert having converted, much as Waugh did. Pinfold has trouble sleeping and takes a disconcerting variety of drugs to combat this condition. At loose ends on his latest novel, he decides to take a trip to Ceylon. (Many of these details are entirely consistent with Waugh's own life.)

The rest of the novel concerns the trip. First there are some mild misadventures on his way to boarding. Once on board things get very strange. Pinfold is convinced there is a church group holding services on board; or a band; or that he can hear some sort of radio communications from the officers of the ship. Some of this convinces him that a sailor has been murdered and thrown into the sea, Then he decides that the Captain and some of the others have determined that Pinfold himself is a spy. The radio or intercom is full of diatribes or jokes about him. A woman seems to come on to him ... and so on.

This is very odd, and sometimes quite funny. The prose is clear and elegant. Some of what happens is really quite scary, mainly because Pinfold's mental state is obviously thoroughly messed up. But, really, though I'm glad enough to have read the book, it seems in the end rather a trivial thing. Not to say there's anything wrong with that. But I do come away feeling that sooner or later I've got to read Decline and Fall or Vile Bodies or something to really engage with Evelyn Waugh.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Old Bestseller: Under the Red Robe, by Stanley J. Weyman

Old Bestseller Review: Under the Red Robe, by Stanley J. Weyman

a review by Rich Horton

One of those Old Bestseller writers I fully expected to get to in the course of this series of reviews was Stanley J. Weyman, because his was a name I knew. I had heard of him, as a very successful British writer of popular historical fiction. That's perhaps my favorite category of "Old Bestseller" -- throw in enough derring-do and enough nods at actual true historical details, and I'm usually pretty happy. So I'm glad I finally ran across a Weyman novel at a good price. And I'm glad that it pretty much met my expectations

Stanley John Weyman was born in 1855. His father was a solicitor, and Stanley was expected to follow in the family footsteps, so indeed he read for the Bar after taking a Second in History at Oxford. In 1881 he joined the family firm (Weyman, Weyman, and Weyman!). And his performance was at best lackluster. His lack of success left him sufficient spare time to try writing, and he began publishing short fiction, followed by a serial, The House of the Wolf, in 1888-1889. He became a full-time writer in 1891. Early in his career, his prime interest was France in the 16th and 17th Centuries, and he wrote 15 novels between 1890 and 1904 set in that place and period. Later novels were often set in contemporary England. He died in 1928. (For most of this information I am indebted to a website devoted to Weyman, maintained by Donna Dightman Rubin.)

Under the Red Robe was first published in 1894. My copy is from the sixth printing of the American edition, from Longmans, Green. It is illustrated copiously by R. Caton Woodville, a British artist (and close contemporary of Weyman's) best known for his paintings of battle scenes.

The story opens with Gil de Berault gambling at a tavern in Paris. A young Englishman accuses him of marking the cards -- I'm sure Berault was guilty, but he challenges the young man to a duel and severely wounds him. But Cardinal Richelieu is trying to stamp out dueling, so it is a capitol crime, and Berault is arrested. Richelieu, however, owes him a favor, and instead of having him hanged, he offers an out: if he will undertake a dangerous mission and arrest the Hugueonot rebel Cocheforêt in the South of France, Berault's crimes will be pardoned.

Thus Gil heads to Cocheforêt. He quickly finds (as he expects) that the locals are very protective of their lord, even though Gil has pretended to be a partisan of the rebel cause. So he decides to go directly to Cocheforêt's chateau. There he does not find his quarry, but he is taken in by a woman he had seen in the town, who he is sure is Madame de Cocheforêt, and another woman who must be Cocheforêt's sister. Berault spends some days there, and he finds himself, to his distress, falling for Madame. He knows this is impossible -- not simply because she is married, though indeed that is a serious problem, but because he knows himself to be unworthy of any good woman.

So the story continues. Berault's quest is complicated by the arrival of a Commandant and a group of soldiers, who wish to make a more forceful attack on Cocheforêt. Berault also discovers a lost set of diamonds meant to help finance the rebels. And he discovers that he has mistaken the two women -- the woman he has fallen for is in fact Mademoiselle Cocheforêt, his quarry's sister.

What will he do? How can he retain his honor -- either he betrays his oath to Richelieu, or he betrays the cause of the woman he now loves. Indeed, any step he takes must increase Mademoiselle de Cocheforêt's contempt for him ... And too he must deal with the interfering group of soldiers.

The resolution depends in part on a key historical event: the Day of the Dupes, in which the Queen, who hates Richelieu, gains enough influence to threaten Richelieu's position. This, I gather, was one of Weyman's specialties, to have his books turn on significant but perhaps not overwhelmingly famous situations. Nothing here really surprises, but it's an enjoyable book, a fun read, nicely plotted, with a worthwhile solid finish.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

An Obscure Ace Double: Times Without Number, by John Brunner/Destiny's Orbit, by David Grinnell

Ace Double Reviews, 108: Times Without Number, by John Brunner/Destiny's Orbit, by David Grinnell (#F-161, 1962, 40 cents)

a review by Rich Horton

This isn't entirely a new review -- I covered the 1969 edition of John Brunner's Times Without Number some time ago here. But I felt like it was time for another Ace Double review, and I had just found this book.

Both writers are actually major figures in SF, though many people won't recognize the name David Grinnell. "David Grinnell" was in fact a pseudonym used by Donald A. Wollheim for most of his later fiction. Wollheim of course was the science fiction editor at Ace Books for nearly two decades, and perhaps he felt that when he published his own fiction the fig leaf of a pseudonym was prudent.

(Cover by Jack Gaughan)
Both these books were originally published in magazines as a series of stories. Times Without Number comprises three novellas about the Society of Time, specifically Don Miguel Navarro. They appeared in issues 25, 26, and 27 of the UK magazine Science Fiction Adventures (a sort of descendant of the American magazine of the same name) in 1962. This Ace edition appeared the same year, and seems to have been close to the same text. The 1969 edition, which I previously covered, was somewhat revised -- some slight expansions and a fair amount of smoothing of the prose.

Destiny's Orbit comprises four novelettes from the magazine Future Combined with Science Fiction Stories, October 1942 ("Pogo Planet"), December 1941 ("Destiny World"), April 1942 ("Mye Day"), and August 1942 ("Ajax of Ajax"). I haven't seen those stories, so I'm not sure if they were revised for the novel, which was originally published by Thomas Bouregy in 1961. The original novelettes were published as by "Martin Pearson".

As noted, I've already discussed Times Without Number. I think it's a very good book, perhaps the best of Brunner's early novels. The final section in particular, "The Fullness of Time", is one of the great time travel novellas ever. The general story concerns an alternate history in which the Spanish Armada prevailed, and the world of 1988 is still Catholic dominated. (The same idea, pretty much, is at the center of two other great alternate histories, Keith Roberts' Pavane and Kingsley Amis' The Alteration.) Times Without Number adds time travel, with the goal (as in Asimov's The End of Eternity and Anderson's Time Patrol stories) of preserving their timeline.

As for Destiny's Orbit, it's a considerably lesser novel. And its 1940s pulp origins show. In particular, the science is beyond laughable. That said, it is, on the whole, tolerably enjoyable, at least in spurts, though Wollheim really wasn't much of a writer.
(Cover by Ed Valigursky)

Ajax Calkins is a rich young man, heir to his father's fortune, which is based on inventing a system of compressing stores to make them easier to ship through space. (Don't ask -- it's scientifically too stupid for words.) But his character was formed by his mother, a night club singer and an aficionado of adventure stories. Ajax wants to explore new worlds, plant his flag, and be King of his own domain. And, alas, the Solar System is too constrained for him -- Earth, Mars, and the asteroids are under strict EU -- er, EMSA (Earth Mars Space Administration) -- control, and Saturn is ruled by the native Saturnians.

But how about Jupiter? Or, more specifically, the asteroids in the Trojan orbits. Ajax is contacted by a group of miners of the Fore-Trojan asteroids, who want his help (i.e., his money), and in exchange, will let him be their King. Ajax is ready to go, but there is one problem -- a distractingly pretty young woman, Emily Hackenschmidt, a new recruit of the EMSA, who is using the legal powers of the EMSA to try to stop him.

This whole section is presented in fairly amusing satirical terms. And it works OK that way. But from then on, the satire is pretty much abandoned, and the cliches increase. Ajax escapes Emily, and heads to Mars, where he gets attached to a spider-like Martian, the Third Least Wuj, who becomes his loyal sidekick. They head off, with the miners' representative, Anton Smallways, to the Fore-Trojans, particularly the asteroid conveniently named Ajax. They are pursued by the pesky Emily Hackenschmidt ... but Ajax manages to plant his flag (literally) on Ajax.

Complications ensue, particularly involving the Saturnian threat. In addition, Emily continues to try to establish EMSA control. And Ajax the asteroid seems very strange indeed. Could it be a special construct of the inhabitants of the fifth planet, the one that exploded to create the asteroid belt? For that matter, could Ajax' inconvenient attraction to Emily be significant? And why does Anton Smallways look and act so strangely? Could he be a Saturnian plant?

Well, you know all the answers to those questions. Not surprisingly, Ajax turns out to be key to Earth's resistance to the Saturnian threat. And of course the Third Least Wuj -- and Emily Hackenschmidt -- are important as well. There are no real surprises remaining. But, as I said, the book does entertain, in a minor way. I've read worse, at any rate -- a lot worse.

There was, oddly, a sequel, Destination Saturn, written in collaboration with Lin Carter, and published by low end house Avalon in 1967. I have not seen that book, and I must say I don't think the original needed a sequel.