Sunday, August 18, 2019

My Reading List

So, on this day in 1975 I started my reading list. The most recent entry thereto (Thursday the 15th)  was book #II.3522  -- and that doesn't include the 536 books I read between August 1975 and April 1981, whereupon my list-keeping was disrupted, causing me to start over with a new numeration that August (August 15th 1981, to be exact. It was a Saturday).

When I started my list I was just about to begin my second year of High School (eleventh grade). My motivation was that I'd read a book and then later forget the author or title. Or I might read one work of a series (say, a mystery novel) and not be sure afterwards which books in that series I had and hadn't read.  By writing down the title, author, and date I read it I was much likelier to be able to find a book again shd I need to.

Not everything I read goes onto the list. Things I left out include books I don't read all the way through, which are many, and audiobooks (despite several efforts to maintain a second list for audiobooks unfortunately it's never really taken). Short pieces are taken on a case-by-case basis, sometimes linked together as a single entry. The list doesn't include rpgs or magazines or correspondence or anything posted online (except for e-books of course, which are included in the main list).

Just for fun, here's a cross-section of books I've read.

#I. 1.  
The first book, forty-four years ago this week: Nicholas Meyer's THE SEVEN PERCENT SOLUTION, the first of what wd prove a wave of new Sherlock Holmes novels not by Conan Doyle.
The next book that followed was THE SAGA OF KING HEIDREK THE WISE, tr. Christopher Tolkien, the first saga I ever read and still my favorite.

#I. 340.  
Forty years ago this week (August 18th 1979):  EARTH AND SKY by The Writers' Guild -- the first (and only) release by a writers group I helped organize while in college, an anthology of student-written poetry and prose.
The previous book before this was G. A. L. Burgeon's THIS EVER DIVERSE PAIR (which I later got autographed by the author, both under that name and his real one, Owen Barfield).
The following book was THE TOLKIEN SCRAPBOOK, ed. Alida Becker.

#II. 1175 & 1176 . 
Thirty years ago this week (Fri Aug 18th 1989): I finished up SOURCERY by Terry Pratchett (Discworld V, not one of his best) and continued on to read that same day the whole of WYRD SISTERS (Discworld VI, my second reading of this much better book). I spent the next few weeks and again in December slogging through David Edding's utterly generic double quintology, finally giving it up after the eighth book in the ten-book series (and I've never been able to make myself go back and force my way through the last two books).

#II. 2167.
Twenty years ago this week (Sun 8/15 - W 8/18 1999): the SORCERER'S SHIP by Hannes Bok (awful! just goes to show not every oldie is a goodie). Far more interesting were the books before and after it: a prose translation of Chretien's PERCIVAL (with the first two Continuations) and Stephen Jay Gould's QUESTIONING THE MILLENNIUM.

#II. 2797.
Ten years ago this week (in three spurts: M 8.17 - Fr 8/21, Sun 8/23-M 8/24, & Sat Sept 6-Sun 6th 2009): THE PLEASURES OF A FUTUROSCOPE by Lord Dunsany (A posthumous publication of his last novel some fifty years after his death. Pity it's so very bad.).

#II. 3522. 
Finished up three days ago (7/10, 7/19, 7/22, Sun 8/11 thr Th 8/15-19):  Jeffro Johnson's APPENDIX N.

Between the 500+ books on the First List and the 3522 books on the Second List, that's well over four thousand books. So far.

--Current reading: starting back on the third of four books that have been left hanging with on-and-off again reading the last two months or so -- two down (#II.3521 & II.3522), two to go.

The Late Great Barry Hughart

Sad news reached me yesterday (thanks to Doug A. for sharing)  that Barry Hughart had died. I would have ranked him as the greatest living writer of fantasy, and I stand by my evaluation in CLASSICS OF FANTASY that his BRIDGE OF BIRDS is "among the ten best fantasies ever published".  I particularly admire the book's conclusion, which I described there as "the purest eucatastrophe known to me in fantasy, where all the threads come together and every single plot point is resolved. There's really nothing quite like it in all of fantasy literature".

Here's a link to the too-brief announcement in LOCUS. Note however that this brief obit gets his date of birth wrong: being eighty-five, his birth-date must have been 1934, not 1924, and wikipedia confirms this.

I'm reminded of Dunsany's words about Sime: "We have lost, in a time of losses . . . a genius
whose . . . imagination has passed across our time little more noticed by most people than the shadow of a bird passing over a lawn"

--John R.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Is Sword & Sorcery 'trashy romance novels for guys'?

Appendix N: The Book -- a mixed bag  [see first post on 7/14-19]

So, I've now had time to read through all forty-three essays, plus the introduction, three game reviews, and an interview that make up Jeffro Johnson's APPENDIX N book, and my overall impression is that it's decidedly a mixed bag. On the one hand, it's an interesting project that he sees through to the end, and the book gets better as it goes along, as he builds up a kind of critical mass along the way. On the other, he doesn't have much to say on some of these pieces and quite a few times the essay takes a sharp turn midway through and drifts off into some other topic that has little to do with the book he's supposed to be discussing. Thus his discussion of Burrough's A PRINCESS OF MARS (essay V) focuses its attention on critiquing the poster for the original STAR WARS movie (he feels the movie doesn't deliver on the promise implicit in Princess Leia's cleavage in the film's iconic poster). His discussion of Zelazny's NINE PRINCES IN AMBER (essay IX) wanders off into a discussion of 1st edition AD&D's druids and monks. One of his Poul Anderson pieces (essay XXV) devotes two and a half pages to THE BROKEN SWORD and then spends the rest of its time,  four and a half pages, on 1st ed. AD&D's DEITIES & DEMIGODS. 

His comments are also occasionally weird, most notably in the entry on Howard's CONAN (essay X), where he argues first that Conan has a code of conduct (which I don't think anyone ever doubted) and then suggests that it's explicitly Xian (really? I must have missed the stories in which Conan professes 'blessed are the meek' and 'turn the other cheek'). An author need not share his or her character's beliefs, but anyone advancing this argument really shd address the fact that R.E.H. was himself a stone cold atheist.

Jeffro J.'s does strike gold at least once: the whole book is worth his moment of self-reflection where he confesses that he enjoys the sleazy side of books like Merritt's DWELLERS IN THE MIRAGE (essay XVI), and muses that perhaps the book can be thought of as "a trashy romance novel for guys (p. 110). Expanding that thought out to consider sword & sorcery as a whole, and I think he may be on to something.  He also has a great line worth remembering when he describes a passage as "written entirely in High Gygaxian" (p.179)

In the end it's this book's thesis that Gygax's original Appendix N offers proof that we've been disinherited from our legacy: the great books and authors who wrote sword & sorcery (aka 'heroic fantasy') in the half-century or so before D&D debuted. Johnson concludes that these books are not just of historical interest for what they contributed to D&D but are worth reading in their own right. I on the other hand think that's only true of some of them. Some of these books and authors are great (e.g., Tolkien), some are terrible (Lin Carter, Gardner Fox), and many are in-between: an enjoyable read if you have a taste for the popular fiction of decades past (I do), a reminder of how bad bad fantasy can get if you don't.

So if the pulp fiction of a bygone era is your cup of tea, you might find this book worth your while. But be warned that if you've already read a book he covers you'll probably find yourself not learning much from his corresponding essay: his method is not to research an author or his or her works but to share his experience of reading them, to jot down thoughts that occur to him as he's reading the book in question. 

Where I think he goes wholly off the tracks is, not surprisingly, Tolkien. After having cited Tolkien repeatedly throughout the book, when it comes to the essay specifically devoted to JRRT (essay XXXXIII, the last in the book), he reverses himself and spends the whole piece arguing that Tolkien had no significance to the creation of D&D, serving only as the source of a few negligible borrowings. He even asserts that Tolkien didn't dominate fantasy in the 1970s, where he was one fantasy writer among many, but only came to dominate the field in the 1980s (p. 296). This is pretty much the reverse of historical fact.* 

The book ends with an interesting oddity: an interview with Ken St. Andre, creator of TUNNELS AND TROLLS, an early imitator of D&D. Closing a book on Gygax's inspirations by an interview with St Andre is like being unable to interview John Lennon and so deciding to interview Peter Tork instead.

--John R.
--current reading: APPENDIX N (just finished).

*for a corrective, read any good account of the Tolkien craze of the 1960s and also the role played by Ballantine's Adult Fantasy series in the late sixties through the mid-seventies.

Tarkus in the catbird seat

So, sometimes we walk the cats, and sometimes the cats walk us.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Spooky Van Gogh

So, I just finished reading an interesting book, VINCENT'S TREES (ed. Ralph Skea, Thames & Hudson), which I got at the Clark during our visit to Williamstown back in June. Van Gogh has long been one of my favorite artists, and I've loved trees for as long as I can remember.* A favorite artist tackling a favorite subject: seemed like a natural fit as something I'd like.

I did, though it's been a book I've nibbled at rather than plunged in and read straight through. There's a lot to go back and forth over, to look at time and agaia. I knew he painted a great many outdoors scenes in addition to the bright sunflowers he's so famous for, but until this book pointed it out I hadn't noticed how many of them feature trees. I also hadn't known his artistic career was so short (about a decade), nor how prolific he was during that time (about nine hundred pictures).

I've long considered Van Gogh a good test of Ian Richard's theory** that what you know about an author (or in this case artist) influences what you see when you experience their work.  For example, looking at one of Van Gogh's landscape at first you might notice the bright colors, swirling energy, and sheer exuberance. Being told that, a year or so later, Van Gogh walked into one of those fields and shot himself, most of us now find sinister elements on a second look. The picture itself hasn't changed, but what we see when we look at it might.

One thing I had not appreciated is how spooky I found some of the pictures. There were some that I though wd do v. nicely to illustrate M. R. James or serve as the cover for one of his books: figures standing in the middle distance looking at us but too far away to see their features, or indeed whether they even have any. Here are a few examples:

There's even a mild hint of Lovecraft in one piece: I thought the following wd make a pretty good representation of a Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath while quiescent. 

Finally, so long as we're on the subject, here are my two favorite Van Goghs, both of which I used to have posters of that I hung in many an apartment and office over the years.

--John R.
--current reading: TOUCH NOT THE CAT by Mary Stewart (to see what her non-Arthurian, non-fantasy work is like).
--current viewing; an online watch-as-they-play CALL OF CTHULHU scenario set in the Crystal Palace.

*I must be one of three people who still remember the little cherry tree we had in our backyard at Monticello, or the sprawling mimosa in a neighbor's yard.

**a core element of the so-called New Criticism.

Friday, August 9, 2019

An End to the Penny

--Please put a penny in the old man's hat

--Ain't got a penny
--A halfpenny will do
--Ain't got a halfpenny
--God bless you!

So, here's a piece of English news with applicability for us over here in the States: the Royal Mint has stopped making pennies. Not that they've abolished them --there was too much of an outcry when they suggested that-- they're just not making any more. Too many already in circulation, too few actually in use, especially with people shifting to electronic transactions via their smartphones and other devices. They'll make more if and when they're needed, assuming that time ever comes, but this clearly marks a milestone.

The piece includes the astonishing statistic that sixty percent of all pennies only get used once, presumably before vanishing into a drawer or change jar.

Something of the same thing can be seen happening over here, where the cent* is now worth so little that most make their way into tip jars and I've even seen people who don't even bother to pick one up when it drops to the floor. And so far as I can tell belief in the 'lucky penny' is dying out. In practical terms, they cd simplify our coinage by dropping the cent and nickel together and let us get by with just the dime and quarter.

The coin collector in me is sad, considering how the cent and half-cent were among the first and most important US coinage (along with the dime and half-dime). The half-dime and half-cent vanished long ago. Despite the Lincoln lobby it's time for the cent and nickel to follow, perhaps into commemorative status or an array of ever-changing limited run designs, like they did with the quarters.

Here's the link:

--John R.

*we call them 'penny' and 'cent' interchangeably but they're really cents, not pennies.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Some Solo Gaming

So, I've been wanting to brush up my 1st edition AD&D knowledge, which I find has gotten overlaid with bits and pieces from other iterations of the game during all those years I spent working on 2nd edition (over forty modules, books, and boxed sets) and editing 3rd edition (about another twenty works, including co-editing two of its three core rulebooks).

My solution is to play a short solo adventure using 1st edition rules. Choose a suitable adventure, generate a party of adventurers, and run them through it. If it goes well I might resume solo gaming as a regular thing, the way I use to in the old days.

After some mulling over likely options, I narrowed down the choice of adventure to one of three:

U1. THE SINISTER SECRET OF SALTMARSH. This wd have been my choice, except that I'm hoping I can play through the recent expanded version with our regular Monday Night Game once we've finished our current adventure and don't want to spoil it by rereading the original after all these years.

I1. DWELLERS OF THE FORBIDDEN CITY by Zeb Cook. This is one of the few B/X/I series adventures I never played through back in the old days. I have a high opinion of Zeb's early work,* but I wanted to start with 1st-level characters, since I think the game is at its best (certainly its most challenging) at low levels. Thus his 4th to 7th level Forbidden City would have created unnecessary complications. Accordingly, I've tentatively lined up this as the next adventure if I continue the game on into higher levels. Either this or X2. CASTLE AMBER (a long-standing favorite of mine).

B2.5 CAVES OF THE UNKNOWN. The adventure I settled on is the one I think, of all the modules and mini-modules I picked up at last year's NTRPGcon, best captured old-style AD&D the way I used to play it. Plus it did pitch itself as an expansion of the classic B2. KEEP ON THE BORDERLAND, and thus an easy segue if needed to draw on RETURN TO THE KEEP ON THE BORDERLANDS as well.

To save time, I took characters I'd come up with years ago for RETURN TO THE KEEP  and reverse engineered their stat blocks from late second edition back to 1st edition.

lesson number one: I'd forgotten how simple 1st edition character's stats were, before all the complications with skills worked its way in. Two or three lines is about all it takes to get down the essentials.

It took v. little time to form a party, selected the right rumor for them to hear, and send them off on a mission: recover a dead adventurer's body and gear from the bottom of the sinkhole in which he fell to his death. Well, it's a start . . .

More later.

--John R.

*esp. the two Master of the Desert Nomads adventures, my favorites of all his works. Its monsters were for me its strong points, as also seems to be the case with FORBIDDEN CITY (which introduces the Aboleth and yuan-ti, among others). The aboleth had to wait more than a decade to come into their own, with the Underdark-themed campaign adventure NIGHT BELOW (1995), one of the best things I've had the pleasure of editing during my rpg career.