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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

McSweeney's

The other night, Mrs. Gruff said to me, "Would you like a subscription to McSweeney's?" In our darkened room, her face glowed from laptop light.

"McWhat?" I said, patting Baby Gruff's back. He burped.

"McSweeney's. It's a quarterly magazine. Some guy online was looking for a gift for his writer friend, and some other people recommended it," she said.

A few minutes later, after I had Baby Gruff settled down to sleep, I laid down on the bed with her and began reading about McSweeney's Quarterly Concern.

The descriptions of the quarterly's contents were strange and compelling. Each issue had its own unique design and format, as illustrated by the McSweeney's website: "One issue came in a box, one was Icelandic, and one looks like a pile of mail." They touted their content, from "experimental" stories, to stories by famous authors, as well as journalism and art. I felt compelled to click the "subscribe" button, but Mrs. Gruff, ever the pragmatic one, said, "Let's browse around a little more first."

I'd been in a bit of a funk about writing lately, but this little event snapped me out of it. Browsing the website and reading about the mix of the odd and experimental excited me. Part of it was the thrill of the purchase (ah, the high of spending money). However, the larger part of my excitement was seeing new, fresh, different ideas. It was the thrill of exploration. New environments of the mind opened before me when I glimpsed inside these covers, even though I viewed them with my imaginary eye, peering through a distance of internet and summary.

Well, as my internal narrator composed the flowery prose above, we settled on a purchase. We decided to buy McSweeney's latest four issues in a bundle, their "Instant Gratification Subscription." They're selling it at a deeply discounted $25, a nice cheap way to "try before we buy" the $55 annual subscription. The bundle is in the mail now. I'll let you know what I think of it soon.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

American Gods (Neil Gaiman)

(With apologies, dear readers, for the lack of posts. Spare time has become less common these days, at least over at Chez Casa Troll. Still, a few brief paragraphs on a recently-read novel. It turns out this is even an Easter post -- though you'll have to read the book to understand the several connections.)

If I could offer only one sentence to describe American Gods: this is a slow--but very intriguing--novel.

Shadow is released from prison only to learn his wife has been killed. The emotionally-dulled Shadow is hardly affected. (Odd, no? But the reader will slowly realize the depth of Shadow's loss.) A certain Mr. Wednesday offers Shadow a job as errand-boy and bodyguard. Under Wednesday's guidance and, sometimes, protection, Shadow drifts across the American landscape, always plodding behind his employer -- who is leader of a nascent rebellion of the old and weak immigrant gods against the new American gods.

The setting is one that is familiar to anyone who has taken long drives -- caffeine hazes and cramping legs -- along the backroads of the midwest US of A. I've driven into many dusty towns no longer on the highway, dingy and faded places that seem to have barely-heard echoes of memories drifting down empty streets. These places are romantic only in literature, but if you find yourself stepping into a cafe along some former main street, screen door clattering behind you, perhaps you too could envision a country in which gods and folk heroes might sit at nicked-up formica tables -- in plaid shirts, faded jeans, worrying at soggy hash-browns -- complaining of better times when people remembered them, and what can you do about it anyways?

I thought this was quite a remarkable book -- quite slow, however, so perhaps not a novel for the impatient. I look forward to reading more Neil Gaiman in the future. (And of course, I would be remiss in not mentioning the Sandman graphic novels. I believe Billy Goat is a fan of these; perhaps we can convince him to offer a post?)

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Recommended: SHE (H. Rider Haggard)

Somehow, with a new Indiana Jones movie on the way, it's fitting to bring up Mr. H. Rider Haggard. A prolific author, Mr. Haggard more or less single-handedly spawned the adventure story genre of which Indiana Jones (today) reigns supreme. Mr. Haggard's stories are pulpy, and torturously Victorian, but at his best... wow.

You'll probably recognize King Solomon's Mines, Mr. Haggard's best-known work -- though it hasn't been adapted lately (I think the last movie was in the early 90s?). SHE is a little less well known, a little less adventurous, a little less Indiana but darker and more intense. Like any good work of literature, there are some intellectual and ethical themes that run through the novel, and like any good reader, I couldn't care less: this is an adventurous tale of Victorian explorers swept up in the aftermath of an ancient love triangle. The sober Horace Holly and his manful young ward, Leo Vincey, follow an ancient inscription into the wilderness of Africa, pushed by fate to meet.... SHE.

The title character steals the show. Picture a woman so beautiful that she wraps her body entirely in gauze, for no man's heart can resist the merest glimpse of her. For two thousand years, this shrouded queen has ruled a petty African tribe amidst the ruins -- and corpses -- of a long-dead civilization, waiting patiently, terribly, for the rebirth of her ancient lover.

This is Ayesha, a dread and unforgiving ruler who can strike death with a simple gesture: She-who-must-be-obeyed.

Try whispering her name out loud: She-who-must-be-obeyed.

Shivers.

Mr. Haggard's command of language is marvelous. Ayesha's speeches must be read aloud. True, for the modern reader, the descriptions and conversations can be frighteningly dense, but I would argue the novel is well worth the effort it takes to untangle the Victorian prose. (Keep in mind, of course, that some words -- pitiful and awful, for example -- may have an archaic meaning; SHE was published in 1887.)

Mr. Haggard specialized in these types of novels; the white explorer trekking deep into the Dark Continent. Today, perhaps, it would seem corny. (Thankfully, the novels are not racist even if the Noble Savage stereotype does get tiresome.) His influence on modern literature is quite impressive: I feel that Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness) and H.P. Lovecraft (At the Mountains of Madness) both built upon the brooding adventures typical of Mr. Haggard's novels. And as long as I'm dropping names, why not throw out Edgar Rice Burroughs and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle?

I recently started thinking about this novel again because I came across the name "Ayesha" in a book of names. (Which I was reading for, um, no reason.) I was startled to see the definition as "feminine" - if true, this would lend a perhaps sinister tinge of misogyny to the novel. The Infallible Source of All Knowledge also gives the meaning as "life" or "she who lives", in Arabic, which is more suited to her character. But which did Mr. Haggard intend?

Finally, I must indicate that the novel does have some sequels. Ayesha: we meet Ayesha again. In Tibet. ... right. Moving on: She and Allan. Because the main character of the wildly popular Allan Quatermain series has to have somehow run into Ayesha. ... right. (Alas, I haven't read it yet.) Next! Wisdom's Daughter: the story of Ayesha's youth. It should have been interesting to a die-hard fan (yours truly!), but alas, it was so incredibly boring that even I couldn't finish it.

Well, that's the way it goes with sequels. H. Rider Haggard wrote something like a hundred novels. You know -- you know -- that most will be bad. But some few are so incredibly wonderful, and She is most certainly one of these.

Your library will carry SHE, as well as all the major booksellers.

(Note: this article was originally posted Feb. 15, 2002 at The Crossroads. It has been edited and expanded.)

Monday, March 3, 2008

Music & Fantasy

I am a person who generally surrounds myself with music - even when I want to really, really concentrate at work, I have music in the background or on the headphones.

So naturally, when I curl up on the couch with a good book, I try to put on some nice music.

I was thinking about this recently - there are some pieces of music that I really strongly associate with fantasy novels. For example, Brahm's Hungarian Dances is just fantastic background music for fantasy stories. (I still remember playing this on the record player when I was first reading Sword of Shannara.) Winter stories are well-accompanied by December (George Winston): perfect for The Dark Is Rising. And the soundtrack to Kenneth Brannagh's Henry V is great for any kind of medieval setting.

I have other favourites as well, but that's enough to show you what I mean. Please share what you listen to in the comments.

(Let's save sci-fi for another post, shall we?)