Sunday Links, June 22, 2014


Sunburst AwardSalman Rushdie has won the PEN Pinter Prize.

The shortlists for the Sunburst Awards have been announced.  These awards are for excellence in Canadian literature of the fantastic, and yield some excellent reading suggestions.


Daniel KeyesWe’ve lost Daniel Keyes, the author of Flowers for Algernon.  In addition to having written one of the most moving works of science fiction ever, Keyes was an exceptionally delightful person to spend time with.  My husband and I used to see him at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, and he was always approachable — or approaching, for that matter! — and full of good cheer and compliments on our scholarship.  He will be sadly missed.

What to Read Next

All Day and All NightAlafair Burke insists that lawyers are people, too, which is a nice thing to hear when one is a lawyer.  Here are her favorite books that prove her point.  I’ve read several of them and think her judgment about books is on target (I remember staying up until 4:00 a.m. to finish Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent many years ago, and I really enjoyed Stephen Carter’s The Emperor of Ocean Park), so I’ll be investing in a few new legal thrillers based on this list.

Patrick Ness, last year’s winner of the Carnegie Medal, suggests young adult fiction for the “typically atypical teen.”


The Grace of KingsSimon & Schuster has announced a new fantasy and science fiction imprint called SAGA, and it is highly anticipated by fans in the know.  The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, who has won numerous awards for his short fiction, is one I am especially eager to read.  I’m also particularly anticipating Genevieve Valentine’s novel, Persona.  So much great reading coming down the pike!

The SilkwormThe fight between Hachette and Amazon continues.  The most recent victim of the dispute is J.K. Rowling, whose second mystery novel under the pen name Robert Galbraith, The Silkworm, won’t be shipped by Amazon to a buyer for one to two months after purchase.  I’m starting to think that Amazon is shooting itself in the foot with this gambit; sales at Barnes & Noble and Walmart, as well as at independent bookstores, have soared since Amazon started this battle.  Perhaps people are going to start to realize they don’t really need Amazon.

The Guardian talks about the role of Digital Rights Management (DRM) in Amazon’s ability to hold publishers and authors hostage to its demands.

Salon posits that authors lost the book wars a very long time before Amazon came on the scene.

Fun Stuff

Pablo NerudaMore than 20 new Pablo Neruda poems “of extraordinary quality,” according to his publisher, have been discovered.  No word yet on when we’ll have English translations of the poems to read for ourselves, but keep an eye out.

You might recall that there’s a dispute tearing up the internet as to whether adults should read young adult fiction.  Book Riot tells us what we should really be embarrassed to read.

As one of the lucky human beings who has had books dedicated to her, I found this list of 27 great book dedications absolutely hilarious.


Color Picker, Circa 1692

It’s always fun to pull rank on the whippersnappers: Back when there was no cut-and-paste, back when there was no Undo command, back in the days of 3×5 notecards and rubber cement and Wite-Out—you kids don’t even know how to spell Wite-Out anymore, do you? But then there are those who, in turn, put me in my place, and thank goodness for that.

I’m thinking, particularly, of A. Boogert. Boogert—no known first name—was a late 17th-century Dutchman; perhaps a painter, or a scientist, or maybe just a layman interested in color. In 1692 he completed a book, handwritten and illustrated, on mixing watercolors, nearly 800 pages of painstakingly mixed colors labeled with formulas for mixing and diluting. Only one known copy of the book, translated into French as Traité des couleurs servant à la peinture à l’eau, has survived. It’s held at the Bibliothèque Méjanes in Aix-en-Provence, France, and—ironically, I suppose—has been digitized so that, in an age of Pantone color matching and hexadecimal color converters, it can finally reach a far wider audience than the original ever did.

Just to skim through reveals what an enormous amount of work and time it must have encompassed, what a labor of love A. Boogert’s book was. And it’s almost ridiculously soothing to look at—rather than eye candy, this is like eye Xanax. If you wanted to get a little crazy, you could move on from there to something like this recipe book for decorated paper, compiled in Germany in the late 19th century and held by the National Library of the Netherlands. I think I’ll stay awhile with Boogert’s work, though, and imagine him with his sable hair brushes and mixing trays, carefully filling in rectangle after rectangle and keeping careful notes on each. Back when there was no eyedropper tool, kids, you measured out your colors in grains of pigment and drops of water, and if you wanted to write a book about it, you did so one perfect swatch at a time.


Sunday Links, June 15, 2014


The Nebula Award winners have been announced. Ann Leckie is cutting quite a swathe with her first novel, Ancillary Justice, which has now won the Nebula, the British Science Fiction Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. It’s also up for a Hugo.

Fragments of a Broken LandThe winners of the Ditmar Awards have been announced. The Ditmar Awards are given by the Australian National Science Fiction Convention for professional and fan works by Australians.

The winners of the 2014 Campbell and Sturgeon Awards have been announced.

The winners of the Gemmell Awards have been announced.

The winners of the Spectrum Award have been announced.

The nominees for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award have been announced.

IncandescenceThe nominees for the 2014 Seiun Awards have been announced. These awards go to the best original and translated works of science fiction published in Japan.

The nominees for the British Fantasy Award have been announced.

The nominees for the Sidewise Award for alternate history have been announced.

The Ghost BrideThe finalists for the Mythopoeic Awards have been announced.

The Locus Award finalists have been announced.

The finalists for the Prometheus Award have been announced. These awards are awarded by the Libertarian Futurist Society, and go to books that are “pro-freedom,” whatever that means.

Baen Books has announced a new fantasy adventure award. The award is focused on short fiction, and it looks like anyone can enter. The inaugural award will be honored at this year’s Gen Con, to be held in August in Indiana.

Kirkus Media is also inaugurating a new award in three categories: fiction, nonfiction and children’s literature. The award is hefty: $50,000 in each category. Books receiving a starred award in the venerable review publication will automatically be nominated. The first award will cover the period from October 1, 2013 to September 30, 2014.

What to Read Now

An Untamed StateKirkus suggests nine writers at the top of their game.

Amazon offers the ten best summer beach reads, as does Kirkus. The New York Post is more ambitious for your summer reading, offering 29 of the best of the summer crop. The Los Angeles Times highlights 143 books coming out in June, July and August, the most ambitious of them all. And The New Republic’s summer reading list is out. Ooh, look, the third book in Lev Grossman’s trilogy, The Magician’s Land, is coming soon. And a new book by David Guterson. And Haruki Murakami has a new book coming out! Let’s all take the summer off and just read, shall we?

Stories Not for the NervousIf you love Alfred Hitchcock’s movies, BookRiot has some suggestions for books you might enjoy.

Toovia suggests six of the best fantasy comics around. I’ve read five volumes of LOCKE & KEY, and they’re great (the whole series went on vacation with me; some of the best vacation reading I’ve ever done). I really enjoy FABLES, too; and I’ve got three volumes of SAGA patiently waiting on my shelf for me to get to them. Looks like I’ll be picking up an additional three series as well; if three of their recommendations are series I love, chances are good the other three will be equally as good, right?

The Atlantic lists and links more than 100 of the best articles from 2013.

The Unquiet HouseAlice Littlewood talks about her favorite female horror writers.

You’ll notice from this list of 37 children’s books that changed your life that a fair proportion of them fall into the fantasy category. I didn’t read Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth until long after I’d grown up, but I still loved it. I read Black Beauty by Anna Sewell over and over when I was a kid. And Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time really did change my life; I think it was my first science fiction novel, and I was utterly enraptured by it. And just this morning, I pulled Little Women by Louisa May Alcott off my shelf for a reread, green plums, writing in the garret, falling through the ice, Pilgrim’s Progress and all. Which ones captured your imagination?

Paper TownsAnd while we’re on the subject of children’s books: John Green’s Mental Floss has 47 charming facts about children’s books. Be careful; if you’re not already a subscriber to Mental Floss, you could easily get sucked in to watching a great many more episodes. I’m just back after about 45 minutes of one after the other. Yep, now I’m a subscriber.

Canny readers will have figured out by now that I like short fiction. Powell’s has a strong “short list” of excellent short fiction it recommends, some of which falls under the speculative fiction umbrella. I strongly recommend Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life: and Others, which is simply extraordinary. So is Joe Hill’s Twentieth Century Ghosts, which bowled me over when I first read it (and still does today, truth be known). And Maureen McHugh’s collection, After the Apocalypse, contains the amazing story “Useless Things,” which is worth the cost of the book all by itself. (I reviewed the collection here.) In fact, I’m having trouble finding anything on this list that I don’t want to read. I do think they missed a bet in not including Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, though I suppose they didn’t want to include more than one collection by any one writer (except: two books by George Saunders). And why isn’t there any Jeffrey Ford? Oh, and I see they’ve got one of David Foster Wallace’s books, but really, you need to read his essays as much as his fiction; Consider the Lobster is brilliant. Oops, I think my enthusiasm for short form writing is a bit too much on display; I should just go off and read.

Akata WitchFor the youngster in your house (or the young one still inside you): five books for the kid who loves Harry Potter.

Helen Lowe lists the best fairy tale retellings. There are a few of my favorites here, but also some that are entirely new to me. I guess the “to be read” pile just got a few books higher.

If you’d like to make a study of speculative fiction, really delve into it, The Coursera course entitled Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World, looks like great fun. The texts for the course are good for both beginners and those who are long-time readers and want to revisit the classics. I notice they’re including some Nathaniel Hawthorne — “Rapaccini’s Daughter,” I’ll bet, one of my favorites since I first read it in college.

Fool's AssassinKill Your Darlings has a short list of high epic fantasies that are — prepare yourself for a shock — written by women. Some great stuff here; Robin Hobb, for instance, is pretty darned amazing.

Reading and Writing

The scandal du jour is whether adults ought to be reading young adult fiction. As one who sees little to distinguish YA and adult fiction beyond the labels slapped on them and the ages of the protagonists, I’m a little surprised by the vehemence with which Ruth Graham scolds adults who read YA. The counter comes from Julie Beck, who notes that YA fiction teaches adult lessons.

Twenty-one writers offer their harsh but eye-opening writing tips.

Black Gate praises the paperback.

The Millions interviews agent Erin Hosier about being an agent, and how it differs from being a writer. The key to writing: don’t do it for the money, she says; do it for the experience of writing in and of itself.

Bleeding EdgeIf you’re a book collector, this article about an inscribed collection of Thomas Pynchon’s work will have you salivating. But read the article more for the story of a friendship between a man who just happens to write novels and the folks he met at a party. makes the case that horror is good for you — and even better for your kids. But be careful: Salon points out that the horror genre is particularly horrible for women.

It’s an old argument, and it never goes away. When will people realize that genre fiction can be just as good as literary fiction?


You probably already know this if you’re at all bookish: Amazon and Hachette, one of the big New York publishers (and which includes the science fiction and fantasy imprint Orbit), are feuding. This means that when you try to buy an Orbit book on Amazon, it’s likely to cost more than some other books, may not be available for immediate shipment, and Amazon may try to steer you to a “similar” book by a different writer. And you can’t preorder Hachette books, but only get signed up for a notification when the book is available. TeleRead has a good summary of the whole affair.

It’s not clear who is at fault here, but it is clear who gets hurt: the writers. Gizmodo says Amazon is playing dirty, and that the reader loses, too. Damien Walter notes that Amazon is an “everything” seller, not a bookseller, and that that matters for writers. Charlie Stross thinks it’s pretty clear Amazon is to blame, and adds a footnote about the publishing industry in a separate post.

On the other side of the fence, Let’s Get Visible suggests that we all keep an open mind when it comes to pointing fingers, suggesting that Hachette may not be blameless in this debacle. Martin Shepard, co-publisher of The Permanent Press, is on Amazon’s side, finding that it levels the playing field between the Big Five publishers and smaller presses.  David Gaughran thinks Hachette is really the bad guy in this dispute, as does Paul Levinson. J.A. Konrath thinks Hachette authors have no one to blame but themselves; they’re the ones who signed up with the big publisher in the first place. Hugh Howey thinks it’s the publishers who have gotten too big — and too out of touch — not Amazon. Slate blames the publishers, too, arguing that they could have thwarted Amazon before this particular dispute ever arose by sharing profits from ebooks with their authors. (And as one who has looked over book contracts, I’ve always been bemused — more, annoyed — at the fact that authors don’t get a bigger share from the sales of ebooks than from the sales of physical books. After all, the cost to produce an ebook is substantially less, even after considering editing, proofreading, and other soft costs.)

In the meantime, it’s authors who suffer. Amazon has characterized the dispute as a typical dispute between a regular old retailer and a regular old manufacturer, calling its tactics normal. But in so doing it has also offered to fund 50% of an author pool to mitigate the impact on authors. Hachette responded to Amazon’s broadside with a mirror image of its language; but notably, it offered to compensate authors for their losses only after its dispute with Amazon is resolved. Tor Books, in the meantime, has undertaken to publicize books by Hachette authors, even though they compete with Tor’s own authors. That’s a classy thing to do.

I frankly don’t know how best to help authors in this mess; I hope it gets settled soon.

Want to support your favorite author? Here’s how.

If the books you read seem to be filled with nothing but white people, that’s not your imagination; diversity is sadly lacking in our fiction. Why is that, exactly? Roni Loren, a romance writer, suggests it’s because writers are afraid to try writing more diverse characters, for fear that they’ll be called out for getting it wrong. But the fear is misplaced, Loren says; authors can write all sorts of characters if they do their homework and avoid stereotypes.

imprint_logo_option1a has announced its own imprint dedicated to publishing “novellas, novellas, shorter novels, serializations, and any other pieces of fiction that exceed the traditional novelette length.” The imprint will be primarily directed toward e-publication, but a limited number of titles will be published in hard copy each year. Three new positions have opened up at Tor as a result, and boy, do I wish I had the qualifications to apply to be a senior editor! That would be one fun job.

Peter Berkrot talks about making a living in the audiobook industry.

What happens when you plant your self-published book on Barnes & Noble’s shelves? People buy it. And you don’t get any royalty. And you’re out what you paid for that particular copy, or at least one of the copies you got for free from the publisher. Oops, was that a spoiler?

AThose who read or watch — or both! — George R.R. Martin’s A GAME OF THRONES (known to those of us who read and don’t watch as A SONG OF ICE AND FIRE) will be moved to either shouts of joy or tears of sorrow and anger at the news that Martin is thinking of extending the series to eight books instead of delivering the previously promised conclusion in a mere seven novels averaging about 800 pages each. Don’t worry, though: Martin says his musing about an eighth book was merely a means of giving himself some wiggle room. He still intends to finish the series in seven books.

 Interesting Things

Writer of the Weird Mark Samuels talks about atheism, Christianity and more in this fascinating interview.

Many of my favorite fantasies have endpapers with maps, or show maps in the first few pages — maps of places that never were, maps of the imagination. Casey N. Cep, writing in The New Yorker, talks about the allure of the map. It’s a delightful essay, the very stuff that creative nonfiction should be made of. Read it if only for the perfect final sentence.

Book cushionsFlavorwire suggests some very bookish ways to cuddle up with a book. I want those sheets, myself!

The death of the independent bookstore has been exaggerated. Foyles has just opened a new store on Charing Cross Road in London, and it looks magnificent, with 37,000 square feet of space for more than 20,000 titles. Wow! Seems almost worth a trip to London all by itself!

Videogames for book lovers sounds oxymoronic, but this article suggests a few games that readers will love. They look pretty good to me, even if most of them seem fairly dated. But as I don’t play games much — I use that time to read books! — I don’t really need the most up-to-date technology in any event. Maybe I’ll try one or two.

These ten words are perfect for book lovers. I’m glad to know that what I really am is book-bosomed. That explains a lot.


“Six Weeks On the Loose in N.Y.”: Eudora Welty Pitches the New Yorker

welty_in_lrWho doesn’t love looking for work? Summoning your brio, shining your shoes, lying awake in bed trying to come up with a better answer to “Why would you be a good fit for this job?” than “I’d be really good at it and I’ll bring cookies to office meetings”—it’s all character-building stuff, right?

Yeah, no. I don’t like it much either. But that’s OK; remember Newton’s first law of motion: An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion with the same speed and in the same direction unless acted upon by an unbalanced force. Sometimes one has to be one’s own unbalanced force in the world in order to make things happen. And sometimes it helps to get a little inspiration from the unbalanced forces of others.

I first read this letter that a job-hunting Eudora Welty wrote to the editors of the New Yorker when I was firmly employed. It was part of the first batch of letters leading off What There Is to Say We Have Said, the collected correspondence of Welty and William Maxwell. I remember thinking it was a nice note but didn’t pay it much mind otherwise; I was all hot to get to the really good stuff, which turned out to be mainly about planting roses and editing. (I’m not being sarcastic here—planting roses and editing are both big in my corner of the world.) But I ran into it again last month at Brain Pickings, and it just charmed me to pieces:

March 15, 1933


I suppose you’d be more interested in even a sleight-o’-hand trick than you’d be in an application for a position with your magazine, but as usual you can’t have the thing you want most.

I am 23 years old, six weeks on the loose in N.Y. However, I was a New Yorker for a whole year in 1930–31 while attending advertising classes in Columbia’s School of Business. Actually I am a southerner, from Mississippi, the nation’s most backward state. Ramifications include Walter H. Page, who, unluckily for me, is no longer connected with Doubleday-Page, which is no longer Doubleday-Page, even. I have a B.A.(’29) from the University of Wisconsin, where I majored in English without a care in the world. For the last eighteen months I was languishing in my own office in a radio station in Jackson, Miss., writing continuities, dramas, mule feed advertisements, santa claus talks, and life insurance playlets; now I have given that up.

As to what I might do for you — I have seen an untoward amount of picture galleries and 15¢ movies lately, and could review them with my old prosperous detachment, I think; in fact, I recently coined a general word for Matisse’s pictures after seeing his latest at the Marie Harriman: concubineapple. That shows you how my mind works — quick, and away from the point. I read simply voraciously, and can drum up an opinion afterwards.

Since I have bought an India print, and a large number of phonograph records from a Mr. Nussbaum who picks them up, and a Cezanne Bathers one inch long (that shows you I read e. e. cummings I hope), I am anxious to have an apartment, not to mention a small portable phonograph. How I would like to work for you! A little paragraph each morning — a little paragraph each night, if you can’t hire me from daylight to dark, although I would work like a slave. I can also draw like Mr. Thurber, in case he goes off the deep end. I have studied flower painting.

There is no telling where I may apply, if you turn me down; I realize this will not phase you, but consider my other alternative: the U of N.C. offers for $12.00 to let me dance in Vachel Lindsay’s Congo. I congo on. I rest my case, repeating that I am a hard worker.

Truly yours,

Eudora Welty

Welty didn’t get the job, or any response from her letter at all. On the other hand, she was eventually published in the New Yorker, which is probably better. But her upbeat cheer is contagious, even 80 years later, and I appreciate that. It’s not easy to tap into that particular kind of esprit on command, especially when you’ve already written a collected correspondence’s worth of cover letters in the past month. But Eudora’s got it right there. And it’s exactly what I want to have on hand when I desperately need to summon my own inner concubineapple.

(Photo courtesy of Eudora Welty House.)


Tom Tryniski’s DIY Digitization

Some years ago, I worked at a small journal under an executive editor who was, to put it kindly, very old-school. Curmudgeonly might be another word you would use. Cranky might be a third. Along with the standard editorial duties, a fair amount of my time was spent trying to convince him that the move to digital was not a terrible, horrible mistake. This wasn’t easy; although the journal’s reach and influence had probably peaked in the late 1960s, he was deeply invested in hanging onto the status quo, not to mention the fact that this was someone who couldn’t send an email with an attachment without help.

Because there had been reach and influence once upon a time, one of the big pushes was to digitize all the journal’s back issues, dating to 1924. This was before I went back to school to learn about this kind of thing, and at any rate I wasn’t part of the decision chain, so who knows if I would have convinced him to go with someone other than the digitizer he eventually hired—a guy whose main credentials turned out to be pending contracts that never came through, who went a year and a half over his projected timeline, and who managed to lose an entire bound volume of the year 1936—certainly the company’s workflow didn’t help, wherein the original had to be couriered to New Jersey, where they were scanned, and then the scans emailed to the Philippines to be uploaded and metadata-ed up and… who knows what else. As I said, I didn’t know much about this kind of thing at the time. What I did was spend a lot of energy keeping the executive editor from melting down over how badly it was going. “The guy’s a professional—he knows what he’s doing,” I told him, and “It’s not as simple as it looks.”

Which, in retrospect, is roughly the same logic that kept physicians in the business of cupping people and applying leeches for so long.

Granted, it’s never a good idea to minimize the work people do professionally, no matter how easy it looks. It’s a whole lot harder to lay a tile floor than it looks from the Home Depot aisle, and no, your five-year-old cannot paint a Mark Rothko. But sometimes it’s not quite as complex as you think, either. Take the case of Tom Tryniski, a retired engineer in upstate New York who turned an interest in historic postcards into a one-man digital archive—all processed on his own time, in his living room.

Tryniski originally caught the scanning bug 14 years ago, when a friend lent him a collection of postcards featuring his hometown of Fulton, New York, in Oswego County. He set up a website to share them,, and then went on to digitize his local paper, the Oswego Valley News, from its first edition in 1946 to the present. That project took him roughly a year, at which point Tryniski decided it was time to get serious. In 2003 he bought a used microfilm scanner for $3,500 in a fire sale and set up a network of PCs, using a keyword recognition program, to automate the work. He maintains his database on a server that lives in a cheerfully-lit gazebo on his front deck.

According to Jim Epstein at,

Tryniski pays all expenses for the site himself. The only significant costs are bandwidth, for which he pays $630 per month, and hard drives, which run him about $200 per month. He gets his microfilm at no cost from small libraries and historical societies. In exchange, he gives them a copy of all the scanned images analyzed for keyword recognition. Most of the papers Tryniski has digitized are from New York, but he’s rapidly expanding his coverage to other states as well. He is adding new content at a rate of about a quarter-million pages per month with no plans to slow down.

At this point he’s digitized nearly 30 million historic newspaper pages, including all 115 years of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, as well as photos, postcards, and old yearbooks. While the metadata doesn’t meet professional cataloging standards, and the interface is—let’s just say it—pretty ugly, Tryniski’s work is still a terrific resource for anyone interested in New York state history. Even more to the point, he’s done it himself, for fun, and as a result enriched the reference universe in a big way. Though Epstein points up how Tryniski’s project has outstripped the Library of Congress’ historic newspaper site, Chronicling America, let’s not forget that LoC has been encouraging people to create their own archives for a while now, and it’s cheering to imagine that with a little extra push in the direction of discoverability and interoperability we could see some seriously fascinating collections become available. As it turns out, there is a place in history for the hobbyist, for the DIY dabbler. As Tryniski says, “You can come to my site and say this is gaudy, this is crazy, I’m never coming back here. That’s not the point of it. The point is the newspapers I have available.”

(Video courtesy of


Pocket Review: Limber by Angela Pelster

Angela Pelster
Sarabande Books, 2014

“To the great tree-loving fraternity we belong. We love trees with universal and unfeigned love, and all things that do grow under them or around them – the whole leaf and root tribe.”
― Henry Ward Beecher

When it comes to wide-ranging framing devices, it’s always practical to look to the building blocks of the natural world: elements, weather, the birds of the air and the beasts of the field; all things spring wherefrom and such. And along those lines you can’t go too wrong with trees—“trees of life” having been relational allegories of choice throughout most cultures’ mythology, the Bible, and Charles Darwin, to name just a few sources. Trees as metaphors, trees as real objects, trees as ideal states of being—they’re pretty unobjectionable. So the question becomes, how do you use the fact of them in a dynamic way?

Angela Pelster has put together a series of essays, loosely grouped around the subject of trees, in her recent collection, Limber. It’s a fine idea, essays that relate to each other from a central concept much in the same way that trees branch up and out from a root system, and in the way that we are connected to nature—and nature is connected to us—in forms both massive and tenuous. Pelster’s essays range from tales of actual trees—“The Loneliest Tree in the World,” austere in the Sahara; the tremendous Moreton Bay figs of Australia; or the limber pines of the book’s title, which grip rock faces by slotting their roots into cracks—to highly personal essays in which people take center stage, and the trees are incidental, such as “Portrait of a Mango,” a meditation that encompasses Vermeer, the color yellow, and her connection to her mother.

Nature, predictably, has a starring role in many pieces, and these are some of the book’s strongest. Pelster knows how to showcase the natural world in all its hot and heavy glory:

It was the kind of place with redwoods large enough to drive a van through, and where families of six would try to hold hands around a trunk but couldn’t. Everything smelled of rotting plants, of bursting spores and red dirt and moss. Mushrooms, big enough to sit on, bloomed from the sides of trees and the air was so wet you could suck the rain from it with your lips.

In fact, Limber is strongest when it’s engaging straight on with the forces of the world, spores and wind and heartwood—the strangely alchemical substance at the core of a tree. Decay, as it should, has a certain pride of place in the collection, and as she points out, “Sometimes rot is gracious.”

As soon as an animal’s heart stops beating, the chemicals in its body change and so its pH levels change and so its cells lose their structural integrity. They sway and crash like an old house in the wind. Cellular enzymes spill free from the wreckage and begin to eat away at the other cells and tissues, releasing more enzymes, more crashing, more destruction. Scientists call this autolysis: self-digestion.

There are engaging meditations on mining, evolution, Bartholomäus Traubeck’s tree ring music, and a wonderfully unexpected turn on nuclear fallout in Russia; also some pieces that make you wonder why, exactly, they were included. An essay about a boy in a group home, presumably where Pelster once worked, is moving but doesn’t seem to quite fit, and another, “Inosculation,” feels like a stand-along short story. She covers a lot of ground here—a lot of forest. And while there are some compelling overriding themes, such as her interrogation of the religion she was raised with, which she clearly both values and questions, and her shifting thoughts on fate, the center doesn’t always hold. If we’re going to keep on with the metaphor, the book is all branches and no trunk; it’s often a struggle to keep in mind that this is a themed set of essays.

At the same time, the strongest pieces resonate. And if a reader is obliging enough to look at the collection as an ongoing inquiry into the constantly shifting places that nature, man, and God occupy, the book takes on a certain curious breadth. Pelster explains:

I collect the signs like a doctor tapping on a patient’s body, looking into ears, pressing on a spine, drawing blood from the unseen places. It is difficult to know when one of these will come to something, when some bit of evidence will be made luminous in the beautiful light, when the world will bend and let slide a little secret from its corner.

Not all the signs reveal what she’s aiming for. But many of the essays are quite beautiful, and spark some interesting trains of thought. Pelster is a fine writer, and a tighter collection might have thrown her thoughts into sharper relief.

pakenham_remarkabletreesSome books, like wines, want pairing, and I’d love to see Limber—with its lovely rorschach-y tree drawings that separate each chapter—matched up with Thomas Pakenham’s Meetings with Remarkable Trees, a marvelous photo-illustration-essay collection that celebrates the things themselves, and their ineffable personalities. Even on its own, though, Limber is an often quirky, sometimes profound ramble through some interesting and diverse woods. Not to drag out the metaphor too far, that is. As Pelster notes,

[…] but who needs another tree metaphor about change and weathering the storms and remaining beautiful through it all? A tree is not a metaphor. A tree is a tree, and we are both only one strong wind away from falling.


The Great Debate: Should We Let Poirot Rest in Peace?

poirotFor those of you who haven’t heard, the Agatha Christie estate is commissioning Sophie Hannah to write a new novel featuring the Queen of Crime’s master Belgian sleuth, Hercule Poirot. Among many other qualifications, Hannah’s most recent novel, The Carrier, won the Crime Thriller of the Year award at the 2013 Specsavers National Book Awards. The news of a new Poirot has sparked some controversy, manifesting itself in true understated fashion as pieces in The Guardian and other publications. Having grown up on these books and their movie adaptations, I was intrigued.

Many have speculated as to what Christie herself would have thought of this revival. The Guardian itself seems to be divided into two camps: one celebrating the new life given to one of British crime’s best characters and the other going so far as to say that “exhuming Poirot is disrespectful to Christie’s careful burial.” The argument against it rests on the fact that Christie wrote the final Poirot book, Curtain, during the blitz of London in 1939. She did not expect to survive, and therefore wrote out the manuscript—by hand, of course—and placed it in a bomb-proof bunker until she was safely out of harm’s way. Being a smart businesswoman as well as a prolific writer, she then went on to publish many more Poirot books in the interim before bringing out Curtain in 1975. So the argument is that Christie definitely wanted Poirot’s journey to come to a definitive end. However, those in favor of the book, including Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard, say that she wanted her books and her characters to be read by as many people in as many countries as possible.

But what would Poirot think? Avid fans will understand that this question conjures up an image of Poirot at his breakfast table, tisane in hand, while Arthur Hastings reads the day’s headlines aloud to him. Poirot would listen respectfully while lightly buttering his toast until he heard his own name, at which point he would perk up significantly and say something like, “Well, of course they want me back—I am the best detective in England,” once again proving that humility was not one of the great sleuth’s downfalls. This scene, of course will not be taking place in Hannah’s new book; the beloved Hastings will not be making an appearance.

No matter what the outcome of this debate, the book will make its appearance in September 2014. I, for one, am happily resigned to the fact that Hannah’s Poirot will not be Christie’s Poirot. I do not envy her this task. No matter how well she writes or how closely she sticks to the character’s original likeness (she mentioned that he won’t be learning how to roller skate, for example), her work will be measured against an unattainable ideal. I hope she takes this opportunity to breathe new life into these well-loved characters, but I hope she makes them her own as well. I just wish Hastings was going along for the ride.


Don’t Mess with Patience or Fortitude: The Demise of the Central Library Plan

library_lionIn an interesting and surprising turnaround last week, the New York Public Library decided to scrap its controversial Central Library Plan. The proposed renovation, originally presented in 2008, would have sold off two of NYPL’s properties and opened up space in its iconic central building by relocating three million of the books in its stacks—half to a storage space to be built out underneath the existing building, and the other half sent to an offsite shelving facility in New Jersey, to be accessed via online request.

The 1910 Beaux-Arts Schwarzman Building on 42nd Street—that’s the one with the lions—has always been NYPL’s centerpiece. With 75 miles of shelves and an enormous public reading room set over seven floors of stacks, it served as a circulating library until 1981, when circulation services were moved to the Mid-Manhattan Library across the street. In 2008, Wall Street financier Stephen A. Schwarzman donated $100 million to NYPL, and the landmark building was given his name. Schwarzman’s gift, however, was earmarked specifically for a series of proposed changes to the building. The Central Library Plan, put together by library trustees with a notable lack of transparency, municipal oversight, or public involvement, was met with a wide range of criticism from writers, researchers, and patrons of all stripes—mainly concern that moving so many of the library’s holdings offsite would mean difficulties for researchers, long wait times for requested books, and a general decline of the egalitarianism NYPL is famous for. The plan was also seen as diverting much-needed funds from smaller branch libraries in need of repair—NYPL has 87, in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island—and there was serious doubt as to the wisdom of deaccessioning two well-used branches, the Science, Industry, and Business Library and the above-mentioned Mid-Manhattan.

This last soon turned out to be something of a non-issue because NYPL couldn’t sell either space. And in addition to prominent criticism from all corners, including New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman and the Wall Street Journal‘s Ada Louise Huxtable, recently-elected Mayor Bill DeBlasio has been unenthusiastic about the idea since his campaign days. According to NYPL president Anthony Marx, the combination of general condemnation and lack of support from the new administration proved to be too much tide—and too much City Hall—to fight.

As chivalrous as that all sounds, I don’t doubt for a minute that public opinion counted for a whole lot less in the decision than financial constraints. But as a card-carrying member of that public, and a library card-carrying one at that, I’m happy with the outcome no matter what. I think every NYPL patron had something personal they disliked about the plan; in my case, I couldn’t shake the feeling that selling the Mid-Manhattan branch was like sending an old dog to the shelter. In the heady days of pre-Google visual research, I spent many earnest hours shuffling through big brown folders in the Picture Collection—nothing I’m actually nostalgic for, but it’s hard for me not to feel at least a little sentimental for the entire ungainly, slightly dingy building. Mid-Manhattan has none of the Schwartzman building’s vaulted archways, ceiling murals, or parquet flooring. But it was a good place to take out books—which is, of course, the whole point. I hope NYPL can find a way to spread their funds around a bit more evenly. And while I’m the last person to balk at the idea of progress, this is one instance where I’m glad to see things stay a little closer to the way they already are.

(Photograph is Fashion shot featuring a Library lion, published in Seventeen Magazine, Aug. 1952, courtesy of NYPL Digital Gallery.)


Sunday Links, May 11, 2014

As usual when I’ve been away for a week, the links are many. Grab a cup of coffee and enjoy!


American ElsewhereThe nominees for the Shirley Jackson Awards have been announced. This is one of my favorite awards, and I’ve gleaned a lot of very good reading from the lists of nominees. The award is for outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror and the dark fantastic, which covers a lot of ground. The award is juried, which tends to make the list stronger than many. And yes, I have copies of all the nominated novels and most of the collections and anthologies.

HeartwoodThe winners of the Sir Julius Vogel Awards have been announced. I didn’t know that such an award existed, but I’m glad to know of it now: they are for excellence in science fiction, fantasy or horror works created by New Zealanders and New Zealand residents.

The finalists for the 2014 Aurora Awards have been announced. These awards celebrate Canadian fiction.

River of StarsThe finalists for the 2014 Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award have been announced. This award is for the best science fiction short story of the year.

The Locus Award finalists have been announced.

The 2014 Arthur C. Clarke Award has been awarded to Ann Leckie for her first novel, Ancillary Justice. The book has already won the British Science Fiction Association’s award for best novel, and has been nominated for the Hugo and the Nebula as well. I think it’s time I read it.

History Present IllnessThe long list for the PEN Literary Awards has been announced. I’m intrigued by these selections, most of which are unknown to me. As I have a special love for debut novels, I may read widely from that particular list of nominees.

The winners of the Agatha Awards have been announced. These awards are for “traditional” mysteries — those that are focused on the puzzle and not on the gore, essentially.

Ordinary GraceThe winners of the 2014 Edgar Awards have been announced.

A new award has been inaugurated: The James Herbert Award for Horror. The award “aims to discovery and publicise a new generation of horror authors working today and celebrate the boldest and most exciting talent in the genre.” It’s a welcome addition to the genre. F.R. Tallis hopes that women, in particular, will gain new recognition through this award.

What to Read Next

Brave New WorldThe Telegraph lists the best science fiction and fantasy of all time. There are some surprising omissions and surprising inclusions, and the comments remark on all of them and offer a considerable number of very good suggestions.

BuzzFeed suggests 20 May reads. The selections are from all genres, and there should be something here for just about every taste.

A Garden of MarvelsThe year may yet be relatively young, but Kirkus thinks some books are already being overlooked. I hadn’t heard of any of these, so perhaps they’re right.

Rolling Stone lists the 50 best non-superhero graphic novels. There is enough great stuff on this list to keep you enthralled for a very long time.

An Untamed StateThe Huffington Post lists nine contemporary authors you should be reading. Since I love two of the authors they mention (VanderMeer and Oyeyemi), I figure I should give the others a look. Roxane Gay’s first novel, An Untamed State, is reviewed in this week’s New York Times Book Review, and sounds wonderful.

The issue of Lightspeed devoted to science fiction by female authors (dubbed “Women Destroy Science Fiction!”) will be out soon. Here’s the table of contents, which includes some of the strongest writers in SF today.

Sparrow Hill does this cool thing every month in which they list the exciting books coming out in various subgenres for that month. For May, you’ll find the urban fantasy releases here; the new paranormal romances here; the science fiction releases here; the fantasy releases here; and the genre-benders here. It can come as no surprise whatsoever that I’d like one of each, please.

io9 lists the summer’s most exciting science fiction and fantasy books. As I said above: one of each, please. (In fact, I already own or have ordered a surprising number of them. Now all I need is the time in which to read them.)

Star WarsA librarian takes a look at YA horror.

News about Books and Reading

You know all those Star Wars books and comics? They are no longer part of the Star Wars canon. Apparently they were most inconvenient to the making of Chapter VII through IX.

Apparently everything about a book (or a screen, for that matter) affects how you feel and perceive when you read. The science of reading is fascinating, and we seem to be learning more all the time. Did you know, for instance, that your reading speed increases if you are exposed to images of fast food restaurants on a subliminal level?

BatmanBatman’s origin story has implications for psychotherapy. A child psychiatrist talks about how traumatized children act and play in the latest issue of The Atlantic, and particularly about how attracted they are to Batman’s story.

Does how you read — the rules you have for yourself about reading — reveal your personality? What does it mean if you always stop at the end of a chapter and never in the middle of one? If you scribble in your books, are you a messier person than the one who leaves the pages pristine? There’s no science to this article in Book Riot, just some interesting musing.

The Violent CenturyNo longer are they limited to the pages of comics; superheroes have conquered serious fiction, it seems.

There appears to be a mounting controversy in Goodreads about whether giving books bad reviews is the equivalent of bullying. I’d say it depends on whether the reviews are actually reviews of the works instead of the authors themselves — but if a large community of readers wants to stand up and say that Anne Rice writes purple prose, they are entitled to do that.

Publishing and Selling Books

Alex Dellamonica asks whether editors are still necessary. Hint: yes.

This will come as a shock, I know: women and people of color are still not equally represented among those who write and review science fiction, fantasy and horror.

ColbertAmazon is attempting to extract concessions from Hachette through such tactics as announcing that its books are out of stock (even though Hachette is making timely shipments), recommending other books on its website when a reader seeks out a Hachette book, and otherwise messing around with its books. It’s authors who suffer, as always, while the two leviathans take swipes at one another. I can’t figure out why Amazon hasn’t been prosecuted under the antitrust laws for this sort of tactic. And sometimes I really wonder whether I should continue to buy books from the e-tailer.

Is the “young adult” label a myth? Samantha Joseph says the label is irrelevant; a good book is a good book.

Censorship in China is extreme, and extremely interesting. Can that country maintain its stranglehold on information in the age of technology?

Technology, Science and Science Fiction

After partyWhat makes us human? When I was in school, we were told that we were human because we made tools. Since then, we’ve discovered that chimpanzees and even crows make tools, so that’s out. Perhaps it’s because we explore, because we’re seekers? Because we imagine? A fair number of books are taking up this question lately, and they’re both good books and good sources of inspiration for philosophizing.

How will libraries change as the digital age rapidly takes hold? An attempt to take the hard-copy books (there’s a retronym for you!) out of the library in New York was overturned by an indignant public. On the other hand, 200 libraries closed their doors in 2012. Will today’s libraries become mere server farms, loaning out electronic copies of books on e-readers? Will they become mere sources of computer time for those unable to afford the technology for themselves? One thing is certain: changes are coming.

Path of the DeadScience fiction has a tendency to become science fact. However, I am still waiting for my flying car.

Science plays a significant role in horror as well as in science fiction. The difference is that historically science has been a bad thing in horror, while in science fiction it was always the savior of humankind. But things are changing of late, and scientists are emerging as heroes in horror. After all, how do you do away with vampires and zombies except with the use of science?

The Political Schism in the Science Fiction and Fantasy Community

It makes me sad that the science fiction and fantasy worlds have recently been roiled by the angry denunciations of those who see no real place in the genre for women and people of color, and are willing to state why in some pretty coarse language (though some resort to some pretty fancy footwork with words as well).

I wrote last time about the Hugo Awards and the controversy surrounding them. For a refresher, here’s a post from Amazing Stories — a forum you’d expect to be discussing the issue — and one from the Volokh Conspiracy, a Washington Post forum written by and about lawyers, which is a pretty surprising place to find the subject. Things have gotten more heated since then.

Teleread wants to blame the Science Fiction and Fantasy Authors (SFWA) for the ruckus, even though it has nothing to do with the Nebula Awards.

Perhaps encouraged by the Teleread article to take things further afield and stir up even more shit, John C. Wright has claimed that Robert A. Heinlein isn’t sufficiently politically correct to win a Hugo today. This comes shortly after Wright left SFWA in a huff, claiming that it has somehow harmed sales of his books (though declining to present any evidence to support this claim, or even any detail of how this was accomplished).

Wright’s claim is the subject of a long and eloquent discussion at Metafilter. One excellent contribution to the discussion comes from John Scalzi, who notes that we can’t assume Heinlein would write the exact same novels today that he wrote in more than half a century ago. In fact, he says, “That’s a fat lot of nonsense.” Yes. Yes, it is.

Amazing Stories has a direct response to Wright’s article. Wright couldn’t let it go, and wrote a lengthy response. File 770 followed up, making File 770the cogent argument that Heinlein in fact HAS won Hugos as recently as 2001, when the Retro Hugos for 1951 were awarded to Heinlein for best novel, best novella and best dramatic presentation. Shattersnipe also has a good response to Wright.

Daniel Abraham writes about the whole notion of controversy, the difference between anger and violence, and the possibility that maybe we really do need to look at all this stuff more closely, and really listen to one another. Certainly he comes down on the side of civility, which seems like a good place to be.

Damien Walter explains that we do need diversity in writing, and provides links to a campaign on the issue.

CastleFun Stuff

After all that, we need some unicorns and rainbows.

A new science fiction museum will open in Washington, D.C., next year. That’s worth a trip to the capitol all by itself. It’s billed as “the world’s first comprehensive science fiction museum,” but that seems a bit of a swipe at the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle. Still, I’m looking forward to it, especially when it’s fully up to speed in 2017.

MoscowAuthors sometimes disown their own books. io9 gives us the rundown on 10 great authors who wished everyone would just forget at least one of their works.

BuzzFeed looks at real places that look like they come from fairy tales. There is such beauty in this world!

Imaginary books by fictional authors: which ones would you read?

Los Angeles is hosting a science fiction theater festival throughout the month of May.

Libraries make you happy — as happy as a pay raise, even!


“Gray Matter” at Apogee

apogee-logoI didn’t set out to be a spokesman for the Graying of American Arts and Letters. I imagine my experience is the same as that of most former bright young things: for years I was always the youngest person in the room, until one day I looked up and noticed that everybody else seemed to have gotten younger. There didn’t seem to have been any noticeable transition from one extreme to the other, either, though that was surely more a case of not paying attention than any strange demographic swing in my life. At the same time that I first began to have opinions about getting older in the creative sphere, the opportunity to expand on them arose totally organically—first writing essays for Sonya Chung’s Post-40 Bloomers series at The Millions, and then collaborating with her on Bloom. So it’s not surprising, I guess, that I find myself riffing on the subject in other places as well.

Part of what keeps the topic interesting, for me, is my lingering surprise at being as old as I am. Which is, let’s face it, the result of a lot of privilege on my end: that I live in a large urban center and spend regular time with a lot of vibrantly creative people of all ages, and that my parts all work pretty much as well as they ever have, thanks to luck, maintenance, and good peasant stock. I don’t think about my age until I’m reminded.

What’s reminding me, these days, is the dubious pleasure of being what I think of as a New York Times statistic—middle-aged and on the job market. Certainly my skills, work habits, and body of knowledge are the best they’ve ever been. But I also have moments of self-consciousness, wondering whether a potential employer is picturing me in a client-facing, little-black-dress-wearing situation, and thinking, Nah, too old. So yes, this is a subject I’ve given some thought to lately, and therefore something I’m perfectly happy to expound on. Fortunately the good folks over at Apogee have a place for this kind of musing, and I’m pleased to be featured on their blog: Gray Matter: Reading into Ageism.