Six (More) Full of Picks!

The Silent Majority has spoken (not in the Comments field, mind you – how gauche would that be?)(Sigh), and so we hurry slightly our time-table in order to produce another quick list of top-notch anthologies. Once again, the utmost care has been taken to provide a list that’s a) full of winners, b) full of variety, and c) not full of Oxford University Press volumes, the show-hogs.

English Country House Murders – Otto Penzler’s The Mysterious Press put out a veritable fusillade of books in its 30-something years of existence, and a good number of them have been fine, fannish productions. But only one has become a must-have-it classic – only one is something I’ve found treasured in personal libraries on four different continents: 1989′s English Country House Murders, featuring 22 “tales of perfidious Albion.” As you can tell from the title, all the stories have a particular setting in common: the ivy-coated many-roomed long-storied English country house, where a number of guests arrive for the weekend and, in most of these stories, that number minus one leave again on Monday morning. Editor Thomas Godfrey opens proceedings with an urbane and hilarious essay attempting to lay out the rules of a true English Country House Murder (including a prohibition on characters named “Lefty”), and that’s followed by such great stories as Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of Abbey Grange,” Baroness Orczy’s “The Fordwych Castle Mystery,” Dorothy Sayers’ “The Queen’s Square,” Ngaio Marsh’s “Death on the Air,” and Ruth Rendell’s “Fen Hall.” Godfrey even throws in a bit of Jeeves & Wooster. And since I’ve spent weekends at a few actual English country houses (never featuring homicide, but still), I can attest: no such familiarity is required to enjoy the hell of out this book.

The Science Fiction Century, edited by David Hartwell – This huge 1997 volume might just be the single greatest sci-fi anthology ever created, and that’s saying quite a bit, since the genre has produced some enormously talented (and prolific) editors in its century of life. Hartwell himself edits anthologies like he was on a stop-watch, and an astonishing number of them are good, fully conveying his own bottomless enthusiasm for the genre he’s done so much to shape. This book is a thousand pages long and reads at a sprint, mainly thanks to the discriminating but often surprising choices. Any anthology that bucks chronology in order to start with James Tiptree’s “Beam Us Home” is doing something not only right but wonderful, and the volume goes on to include a bizarrely thought-provoking collection of classics like “Fire Watch” by Connie Willis, or “Drunkboat” by Cordwainer Smith, or “Beggars in Spain” by Nancy Kress, or “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” by Harlan Ellison … but also such unusual items as “The Machine Stops” by E.M. Forster, “2066: Election Day” by Michael Shaara, and “The Scarlet Plague” by Jack London. For me, a great anthology is one I can argue with but also respect, and this is a quintessential version of that.

The Art Book - this incredible 1994 Phaidon volume is avisual anthology, and it does more good, thought-provoking work in its 500 pages than many a more verbal book could do in twice the length. It accomplishes this little miracle through the simplest means possible: it’s arranged in strict alphabetical order! No schools, no time periods, no movements – just A to Z. This causes countless downright thrilling juxtapositions – the great William Dobson is nestled right next to the talentless Theo Van Doesburg; the sublime Frans Snyders is opposite the gimmicky David Smith; gloriously, those two great Victorians, William Holman Hunt and Jean Ingres, are facing – confronting! – each other. Each featured artwork is accompanied by a very good overview and description, plus the relevant dates and present location, and thanks to the careful selection of artists, the over-all effect is as exciting and instructional as a walk through any art museum in the world. This is a firm entry on that short list: a book every single thinking person should own and frequently consult.

American Sea Writing, edited by Peter Neill – The Library of America produced this gorgeous little hardcover in 2000 with a brittle, almost transparent dust-jacket and deckle edge pages, a pretty, handy look that perfectly matches the inviting elegance of the selections inside. As you’d expect from a volume dedicated to regarding the sea, all the great early New Englanders are here: William Bradford, Roger Williams, Cotton Mather, etc. We also get such welcome predictables as Owen Chase, James Fenimore Cooper, and Richard Henry Dana (as well as Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “Old Ironsides” and a bit from the Lewis & Clark journals). Crevecoeur’s “Peculiar Customs at Nantucket” is here in full, as is Poe’s “MS. Found in a Bottle” and Longfellow’s “The Wreck of the Hesperus.” There’s Melville, Thoreau, Whitman, and Hawthorne, but there’s also Lafcadio Hearn, and Mark Twain’s “About All Kinds of Ships.” The modern pieces are equally well-chosen, from Peter Matthiessen’s “Under Montauk Light” to bits from Samuel Eliot Morison and Barry Lopez and John McPhee. One egregious omission: Peter Benchley – but for a collection this strong, I can overlook it.

Katharine Graham’s Washington – It’s hard to re-read this volume (as I do, often) without a lump in the throat, since in many ways it’s more of a living record of Kay Graham than her justly-lauded autobiography Personal History. Graham was a member in good standing of that powerful and exclusive genus, the Washington Society Matron (Americanus dominatrix), but unlike a great many of those behind-the-scenes power brokers, she also knew and doted on her city’s history and culture, and all of that is reflected in this big book, which was left unfinished at the time of her death and completed by her long-time assistant, Evelyn Small. The various sections reflect whole sub-genres of Capital writing: “President-Watching,” “Visitors to Washington,” “Wartime Washington,” “How Washington Works,” for instance (and of course “Washington Women”) – and there’s a wonderful amount of Graham’s own original prose throughout, introducing sections and pieces. As with English Country Houses (and the sea, now that I think of it), so too here: I’ve had some little experience with the book’s subject – enough, at any rate, to know that the subject is given a wonderful, nearly perfect portrait in these pages.

World Poetry, edited by Katharine Washburn and John S. Major – There’s not much I could say about this magnificent 1998 volume that I haven’t said many times before here at Stevereads (and elsewhere), so I’ll close this little celebration by quoting one of its many fantastic selections, this one from the poet who used to be called Li Po, here translated by Elling Eide:

Beneath the blossoms with a pot of wine,
No friends at hand, so I poured alone;
I raised my cup to invite the moon,
Turned to my shadow, and we became three.
Now the moon had never learned about drinking,
And my shadow had merely followed my form,
But I quickly made friends with the moon and my shadow;
To find pleasure in life, make the most of the spring.

Whenever I sang, the moon swayed with me;
Whenever I danced, my shadow went wild.
Drinking, we shared our enjoyment together;
Drunk, then each went off on his own.
But forever agreed on dispassionate revels,
We promised to meet in the far Milky Way.

2 Comments to Six (More) Full of Picks!

  1. JC's Gravatar JC
    August 19, 2012 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    These are great books! I read English Country House Murders when I was an unpleasant 13 year old and loved them all, even faked a British accent for awhile. And of course that poetry anthology is one I have even fonder memories of. I used to read that Li Po poem to a friend on the phone when he was in his cups and in mind of the moon.

    If you ever come across a spare copy of The Science Fiction Century, feel free to send it along! I’ve been looking for a really good SF anthology to get me a little deeper into the genre. I’ll pay you back with some Saturday Reviews!

  2. August 19, 2012 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    …and this semester I’m forced to teach “Li Bo.” Worse yet, next semester for American Lit. I have to teach Edgar Allan Bo’s “The Burloined Letter.” Murder!

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