January 1, 2014
Some writers can do a couple of novels, edits two or three anthologies, and turn out six short stories during the course of a year. I've never been able to manage anything approaching that kind of production. I turned in Coming Home a few weeks ago, and submitted a story, "Enjoy the Moment," to John Joseph Adams for The End is Nigh, which will be the first volume in his trilogy focusing on Armageddon. I then went back and made some corrections to Coming Home. Now, for the first time in years –or at least it seems that way--, I can catch up on some leisure reading.
I should confess first that I've given up on The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon writes what I can only describe as dense prose. I need a scorebook to stay with him. I've gotten halfway through, which is to say the first three volumes. And while there is much to recommend, I'm simply not enjoying it. And there are other books piling up that I've been trying to finish.
My son Chris gave me the two Library of America volumes of H. L. Mencken's Prejudices in 2011. Mencken, writing during the first half of the 20th century, can be something of a crank. But he is brilliant, and I know of no one who is more sheer pleasure to read.
I've also started Starlight, an Alfred Bester collection. I picked this one up back in the seventies during my customs inspector days on the northern border. I desperately needed good writers at that time to keep me awake between 3:00 and 6:00 a.m. at a station where traffic was, to say the least, sparse. But shortly after I got the book, I was promoted to Regional Training Officer and transferred to Chicago. I've been trying ever since to catch up with Bester. Other writers who were good at clearing the mind at midnight were Ray Bradbury, Gregory Benford, Mike Bishop, and James Thurber. That of course is the same Thurber who created Walter Mitty. I needed something to fill the gap that Gibbon left, and Maureen supplied The History of the Medieval World, by Susan Wise Bauer. Bauer gives me the sense of actually being present on the ground during those dark early centuries. E.g., when a major earthquake hit the Roman world on July 21, 365, I lived through it. I watched buildings collapsing and people trying to put out the fires and rescue victims. And I also watched the water get sucked away from the coast a few hours later while people went down to the shore to see what was going on. Thousands died in the tsunami. And I understood without any need for explanation why everybody in that bleak world assumed they were experiencing an event driven by an angry divinity. But was it Poseidon? Or the Christian God? And in either case, why?
I'm also about halfway through Henry James's first novel, Watch and Ward, which has been on my to-do list since 1957. The guy's good.
Jeremy Scahill's Dirty Wars showed up in an airport bookstore during a trip home from a con last spring. It tracks the assorted elite units that are waging the anti-terror wars in the Middle East. Easiest way to summarize: There's a lot more happening than I'd realized.
My son Scotty gave me Thomas Bogar's Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination, which is an account of the event itself, and its effect on the cast and stage crew. I never realized I knew so little about the event. E.g., John Wilkes Booth possessed extraordinary acting skills, and numbered the President among his admirers. On one occasion, Lincoln sent him a note suggesting that they get together. For lunch at the White House, I presume. Booth returned an obscene response.
Also, I'd assumed that Lincoln's appearance at Ford's Theatre on April 14, 1865, had been happenstance. Our American Cousin was a comedy, Lincoln liked comedies, so he suggested to Mary that they pop over for an evening. In fact, though, they'd been there on nineteen previous occasions. In addition, it was advertised that the President would be attending, along with General Grant. Another factor: It was no secret that the cast and stage crew included some very angry secessionists.
I hate to think what the world must have been like before we had books.