Monday, May 26, 2014

Teapots and Travel

So, Saturday I wrapped up things on my trip and headed back home. Since I had the morning free, I took a walk off the beaten track and discovered, as I'd rather suspected, that walking a block or two north of Hollywood Blvd got me in a pleasant residential area, completely unlike the commercial strip crowded with sight-seers and hawkers and people dressed in costumes. I got a good view of the Hollywood sign from street level, watched a crow watching me, and got a closeup look at some of the local trees --palms and others, including a white-trunked green-leaved tree that seems to be this area's default urban tree (like maples are in these parts) and also (my favorite) blooming wysteria-like trees.

Then made my way back to the mall where picked up a few postcards and had breakfast at a Starbucks (eclipsed in these parts, it seems, by the local brand of coffee/tea shop, The Coffee Bean), which I shared with a sparrow. The view (of the Ninevah gates) made me wonder what movie another prop up there, a huge clock-dial, might have come from --Harold Lloyd's SAFETY FIRST, perhaps?

From there I walked over to CHADO's, a tea house I'd had my eye on since Thursday night but not been able to try before because of their late opening/early closing times (eleven to five, respectively). I skipped their high tea (with sandwiches and tea-cakes and what all) in favor of just a pot of fine tea. And it was fine indeed: a Keemun Hao-Ya B so flavorful it made me wonder what their Hao-Ya A must be like. Unfortunately, to my chagrin, I realized I hadn't allowed enough time -- Chado's didn't open until eleven, and I had to be checked out of my hotel by noon. As befitted a fine tea, they didn't rush things, with the unfortunate result that by the time the tea came it was getting near the time I had to leave. I was faced with the prospect of having to walk away and leave tea in the pot (a thing unheard of, and beneath the dignity of a dedicated tea-drinker). Instead I set to and drank tea at a rate to make my eyes water, but I got through the entire (generously proportioned) pot. Next time I'll plan that better.

After that it was dash back to the room, finish packing, check out, sit in their historical lobby for an hour and a half reading Lovecraft's critique of Leiber (and feeling rather sorry for young Fritz L.), the ride to the airport, security, waiting for the plane, the flight home and -- voila!

So, all in all a great trip, though I regret not having been able to plan it out far enough ahead of time for Janice to go with; she'd have enjoyed it, and I'd have enjoyed being there with her. We'll have to see if we can manage that next time.

And thus endeth my first visit to America's second largest city.

One of my best memories from the trip: making the acquaintance of a new kind of tree I'd not seen before, called a jacaranda tree. I found myself thinking of it as the wisteria tree, given its graceful appearance and all the purple blossoms. And of course it was fun to bring back that little spot of tar, preserved in my pocket notebook.

And now, back to proofing.

current reading: ADEPT'S GAMBIT by Fritz Leiber, w. commentary by H. P. Lovecraft, ed. S. T. Joshi [May 2014] (finished: #II.3160), TOLKIEN'S BEOWULF, ed. Christopher Tolkien [May 2014]

today's songs: Los Angelenos (by Billy Joel); Coming Home (by Lynyrd Skynyrd)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Tar Pits and Chinese Theatres

So, I wrapped up my business early on Friday, which left me on my own in a strange city with an afternoon and evening free.  Having earlier realized this might be the case, I'd wondered what to do in L.A. -- a place a-swim with possibilities but which there was only time to do one to two properly without having to rush through things. I decided to be true to my inner paleontologist: the seven-year-old me, faced with such an opportunity, wd not have hesitated to plumb for the La Brea Tar Pits.

Accordingly, that's where I spent the afternoon. Despite a little trouble getting there (my cab driver having first taken me by what seemed an oddly circuitous route to a Target store on La Brea Street), it was worth it. I had plenty of time and the place wasn't crowded, so I got to set my own pace and spend as long as I liked looking at each exhibit, from the La Brea stork and a small condor whose skeletal beak strongly reminded me of Tenniel's dodo (a more recently extinct bird), to the Saber-toothed Tigers. The camels, western horses, and ancient buffalo were all interesting, but I found particularly striking the juxtaposition of a woolly mammoth ('Zed') -- not much bigger than an oversized bear -- nearby a massive Columbian mammoth, the latter a true Mumakil which the other mammoth could have walked under.  It was stunning just how many bones they've dug up here: one wall had a display of 404 dire wolf skulls ( less than half of the total they've unearthed here). They have so many preserved bones that one docent actually has a Saber-toothed Tiger skull you can touch (which, of course, I did) for an upclose and personal look, as opposed to the replica most museums wd use.

And yes, they do still have tar pits -- in front of the museum is a natural pond about three blocks long and maybe a block wide with tar bubbling up at a good rate here and there, just like water in a spring (looking at it made me hear "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" playing in my head). And this is merely the largest of several tar seeps on the grounds, some of them active excavation sites and others small tar-springs (if that's the right word) in the grass, surrounded by what are clearly new and temporary barriers. I put my finger in the tar from one, so I came away with a tarry fingerprint in my pocket notebook as a souvenir of the occasional.

So I've now seen Saber-toothed tigers. It was just as good as I thought it would be. I'm sorry not to be able to see one in the flesh, and I hope the present-day real tigers don't follow it into extinction. I'm one of those who think the megafauna of North America were hunted into extinction by the PaleoIndians; it'd be a pity to repeat their mistake.

Many thanks to Lori for setting up the taxi service to get me there and back again, as well as all the other help expediting things during this trip, and to JC for helping me make back-up plans that it turned out I didn't have to use but which I was happy to have to fall back on if need be.

As for the evening, after an uneventful cab ride back to the Roosevelt (the hotel where I was staying turns out to be where they held the first Academy Awards ceremony back in the day), I got a ticket to go see Godzilla in Grauman's Chinese Theatre (the one with all the footprints, handprints, and signatures in concrete in the courtyard in front of the theatre), had supper at a place I'd scoped out the night before in the tiered mall next door (right under the huge replica of the gates of Ninevah, featuring Pazuzu), and showed up for the show in good time. I'd assumed I'd be watching the movie in the six-screen multiplex next door to the original theatre, but to my surprise by chance I'd gotten a ticket to the actual original building, so I got to see a bad movie in one of the world's great original theatre palaces.

After that it was back to the hotel to wind down, which I did by reading more of Leiber's ADEPT'S GAMBIT, then (for me) a relatively early night -- what with tomorrow being a travel day, and a mound of pages needing proofreading awaiting my return.

current reading: ADEPT'S GAMBIT by Fritz Leiber, w. commentary by H. P. Lovecraft (ed. S. T. Joshi)
today's song: The Garden of Allah by Don Henley

Thursday, May 22, 2014

New Tolkien Audio? (Rotterdam speech)

So, imagine my surprise when tonight I checked out headlines on Huffington Post and found a piece about a new Tolkien release. And not THE BEOWULF, as it turns out, but his 1958 Rotterdam speech. Here's the link.

More on this once I've had a chance to find out details.

--John R.
today's song: "Hotel California"
today's reading: DARKER THAN YOU THINK (just finished), WHO FEARS THE DEVIL? (just finished), ADEPT'S GAMBIT (just started)

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Tolkien's BEOWULF is Out!

Thanks to Janice for the tip-off, but the Kindle edition of Tolkien's new BEOWULF translation is now available for download, at least among those of us who pre-ordered it (and I assume anyone else who orders it now).

 Let the people rejoice!

--John R.
current reading: BEOWULF

THE WIFE SAYS: short version: it's after midnight on the east coast. Do you know where your Beowulf translation is?

Books from Kalamazoo

So, one of the great things about Kalamazoo is always the book room. The first few years I attended, I tried to make time to look at everything. In subsequent years I slacked off some by realizing that each year there were certain booths -- e.g. Univ. of Chicago Press, David Brown Books, Medieval Institute, Palgrave, et al -- at which I pretty much always find something of interest, whereas there were others (e.g., the various Medieval Catholic presses) which lay outside my fields of interest.

This year brought a smaller haul than usual (by design), but made up for it in the quality of some of the books:

I. THE SAGA OF HROLF KRAKI by Stella Mills (tr.) -- the original hardcover, which I've never seen offered for sale before; water-damaged but perfectly readable. I have the Nodens Books reprint (in fact, it's my favorite release from Nodens Books so far) but it's nice to have the original; not only is Tolkien one of the people it's dedicated to, but this saga is almost certainly his source for the story of Bothvar Bjarki, the likely inspiration for Medwed/Beorn.

II. THE WELL OF THE UNICORN by Fletcher Pratt (hardcover, 1948). I've been meaning to read this for years, not only to see what Pratt sans de Camp sounds like but because there's a Dunsany tie to this one as well (it's set in the same world as one of Lord D's fantasy plays). Having this much more readable copy than my old paperback, plus my lately being on something of an UNKNOWN authors binge,  shd help me finally get around to reading this one.

III. J. R. R. TOLKIEN: THE FOREST AND THE CITY, ed. Helen Conrad-O'Brian & Gerald Hynes. This one bought on the first day of the conf. but cdn't collect until the book room closed at noon on the fourth day, so I went by and visited it each day to make sure it was still there. I found out about this one when Hynes presented a piece himself at Kalamazoo last year (or was it the year before?) and spread news of the then-upcoming Dublin conference from which these are the proceedings. I hadn't realized, though, that they had such a stellar line-up of contributors: Tom Shippey, Verlyn Fleiger, Dimitra Fimi, Drout, et al. Really looking forward to reading this one.

IV. LYBEAUS DESCONUS, ed Salisbury & Weldon [TEAMS Middle English Texts Series]. This is one of those tail-rhyme romances that I've never gotten around to reading before, but recently reading a short excerpt from this one in another book I bought at a previous Kalamazoo (NINE MEDIEVAL ROMANCES OF MAGIC, ed Marijane Osborn) I thought to myself Ah! So that's where Andrew Lang got that bit in PRINCE PRIGIO from! Now I'll have the chance to read the whole thing, in good time. Next time I read a new Arthurian romance I've never read before, this'll be the one.

V. FROM HOBBITS TO HOLLYWOOD: ESSAYS ON PETER JACKSON'S LORD OF THE RINGS, ed. Ernest Mathijs and Murray Pomerance [2006]. This is one of several volumes that came out after Jackson's LotR films that I didn't pick up at the time because they were hugely expensive and, I thought, exclusively focused on the films. Now that I've seen this one and had a chance to look at the Table of Contents I see its essays look as if they have a wider impact beyond the films and considering the books as well. At any rate, it's nice to have this one; wish I'd picked up the other one they had too but someone else got it while I was dithering.

VI. THE PASTEL CITY by M. John Harrison [1971]. I've never read anything by Harrison or Ballard, and after having heard them praised so much by Moorcock in WIZARDRY AND WILD ROMANCE it seemed due diligence to try at least one -- and, since this was sitting on a $2 shelf, it seemed like a good place to take the plunge. We'll see if I live to regret it.

VII. PARA-DOXA: STUDIES IN WORLD LITERARY GENRES, Vol. I No 3 [1995]. A digest-sized literary magazine, this particular issue being devoted to fantasy/horror. I picked it up mainly for a memoir of Leiber by Moorcock, which included an interesting line crediting Wollheim's Ace paperbacks of LotR with playing a major role in the launch of "Modern American heroic fantasy".

VIII. TALES BEFORE TOLKIEN (paperback edition), with the following cover blurb by Moorcock that's absent from the edition I had: "A superb collection, a splendid and much-needed book. [Douglas] Anderson has cleared away the dross and shown us the golden roots of fantasy before it became a genre". So it turns out Moorcock and I can agree on more than one thing.

And that's it so far as book I brought home, though I shd probably mention the three I ordered that have not yet arrived: a duplicate copy of CELTIC FROM THE WEST (I'm still reading this one but wanted to pick up a copy for a friend who I think'll find it interesting), the follow-up volume of more essays further exploring the same thesis (which I think is just called CELTIC FROM THE WEST 2), and one of those little British Museum books devoted to a single artifact, this one being The Franks Casket.

All in all, a splendid haul, which (mostly) avoided breaking the bank.

--John R.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The New Arrival: ADEPT'S GAMBIT

So, between preparations for Kalamazoo, being at Kalamazoo (w. its spotty internet access), catching a cold on my way back from Kalamazoo, being hit with 500+ pages needing proofing, and preparations for another (short) trip later this week, I've not been posting much lately -- not for lack of things to say but sheer mental exhaustion. Time for that to change.

Before embarking on the write-up of the Medieval Congress, wh. was v. good this year, thought I'd just make a brief posting about the arrival today (Monday) of a book I found out about while in Michigan (thanks, Doug), ordered after I got back, and yet has already arrived already, even before the three books I bought at the conference itself that were to be shipped to me.

ADEPT'S GAMBIT marks the first major story* in the FAFHRD & THE GRAY MOUSER series by Fritz Leiber, the finest author to ever write sword-and-sorcery (hey, he's even the one who so named the subgenre). Written so long ago that it was actually shown to H. P. Lovecraft before his death in early 1937, it was rejected by WEIRD TALES and didn't see print until it was included in Leiber's first book, NIGHT'S BLACK AGENTS [1947, Arkham House], along with one other F&GM story ("The Sunken Land") -- a book I'm proud to own a copy of, along with the Gnome Press volume TWO SOUGHT ADVENTURE [1957], much the best collection in the entire series, which with a few extra stories became the much later Ace paperback SWORDS AGAINST DEATH [Ace, 1970].

This new publication, from Arcane Wisdom press (which sounds more like a theosophical association than a weird tales publisher) prints for the first time the original version of the story, along with Lovecraft's extensive notes written in response. Since this tale is unusual among the F&GM stories for taking place not in Leiber's invented world but in the historical past of our own world (specifically, the Near East during the Hellenic period), and for including brief allusions to Lovecraft's Elder Gods, I'll be interested in seeing whether more of these elements appear in the earlier version.

I myself first read "Adept's Gambit" it in fall 1980, when my friend Franklin recommended the Fafhrd & Gray Mouser series during a period when I was deliberately reading as much non-Tolkienian fantasy as possible to better educate myself as to what all was out there. I remembered going down to Dickson Street Books in Fayetteville and picked up the Ace paperbacks in which Leiber had collected together all the stories featuring the characters, arranged them in sequence of their internal chronology, and published the results in a six-book series.** It's been a long time since I've re-read the series (having reread my favorite book in it when doing my 'Classics of Fantasy' piece on Leiber, and even that's a good decade ago now.

All of which makes this newest publication sound ideal reading for a long plane ride . . .

--John R.
current reading:
WHO FEARS THE DEVIL? by Manley Wade Wellman (short stories [1946-1963] in the 'Silver John' series; a gift from Dave Sutherland; much better than the extremely mediocre novel in the same series OLD GODS WAKEN [1979]***). Nicely illustrated by Tim Kirk.
DARKER THAN YOU THINK [1940, 1948] by Jack Williamson, a god-awful mess of a novel, a sort of werewolf story told from the point of view of the Renfield, if that makes sense. Not worth reading.

*at about the same time (1936) Leiber's partner in creating the F&GM characters, Harry O. Fischer, the model for the Mouser (as Leiber was the model for Fafhrd), wrote a long story featuring the two, THE LORDS OF QUARMALL, but failed to finish it; it did not see publication until Leiber reworked it more than thirty year later for inclusion in SWORDS AGAINST WIZARDRY [Ace, 1968]. So far as I know, the only purely Fischer story in the series is "The Childhood of the Gray Mouser", which appeared in an early issue of THE DUNGEON magazine.

**later expanded to seven by some further adventures that brought the characters up to middle age and more or less settling down, but I no longer have this seventh volume (THE KNIGHT AND KNAVE OF SWORDS), having loaned it out to someone (probably a member of one of various bookgroups) who never brought it back.

***hard to respect a story that asserts that the Druids worshipped LOS and VALA (who were invented by Wm Blake) as well as BAL (who was a Phoenician, not a Celtic, deity). I'd guess it to have been the source for AD&D's wall of fog, wall of fire, and wall of thorns spells, except that the timing's wrong, the 1st edition   PLAYER'S HANDBOOK having beaten it out by a year.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Off to Kalamazoo!

So, I'm off, having safely arrived in Michigan and gotten registered and all for the Medieval Congress. Tomorrow I deliver my piece on Tolkien's THE FALL OF ARTHUR and attend a bunch of other presentations that I'm really looking forward to.  I've already run into a good assortment of Tolk Folk, had some interesting conversation, and learned a lot. Looks like it's going to be a great weekend.

More tomorrow.

--John R., three time zones from home.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

I Become a Drone

So, as I've already posted, weekend before last I went to NorWesCon, the primary draw being a panel celebrating the works of the great, inimitable  P. G. Wodehouse, which turned out to be great fun: A Good Time Was Had By All.

Earlier in the day, I'd been approached and honored by an invitation to join the DRONES MODERNE, a group assembled by Pierce Watters in homage to Wodehouse's famous Drones Club, home away from home to such fictional luminaries as Bingo Little, Gussie Fink-nottle, Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright, and of course Bertie Wooster. This new Drones club is mostly comprised of literary types who cdn't throw a roll if a deadline extension depended upon it, so I hope to fit in nicely. Plus of course it gave me an idea for a fun little project, about which I'll write more if anything comes of it.

It being a done thing to pick a persona upon becoming a Drone, I settled on Capn. Mercer ('Mercy') Worplesdon, of the Worcestershire Worplesdons, the famed balloonist. Having spent the entire War being shot at, he has since devoted his time to overseeing the construction of mini-zeppelins on his country estate, convinced that what the world needs and wants is two- or four-seater personalized airships. And tigers, of course.

Being in a Wodehouse mood, since that con I've read both the locked-door mystery by Wodehouse I first learned about from the panel ("Murder at the Excelsior") as well as the recent new Bertie & Jeeves novel by Sebastian Faulks, JEEVES AND THE WEDDING BELLS [2013], which I also learned about there.  I'm sorry to say that while quite readable Faulks' effort is unfaithful to the original books in major ways -- for example, if having Bertie be truly in love, to have that love reciprocated, and to treat with entire seriousness that developing relationship.   So, enjoyable as light reading, but unacceptable as an official part of the series.

Which is too bad, because I've seen other works that do a great job of writing more Bertie and Jeeves stories, mostly in the form of affectionate parodies. For example, there's John Ellison's STIFF UPPER LIP, BILBO (a.k.a. THE ALTERNATIVE HOBBIT [1987]), which retells the story of THE HOBBIT as if Bilbo were Bertie Wooster; great fun. And then there's P. H. Cannon's SCREAM FOR JEEVES, which brings Bertie into the world of H. P. Lovecraft, the first (and by far the best) of the three stories in this slim collection, "Cats, Rats, and Bertie Wooster" being a hilarious take on "The Rats in the Walls".*

So it's possible to capture Wodehouse's distinct style, and make effective use of his iconic characters. It's just a pity that Faulks hasn't quite done so. Although I did consider it a warning sign that the back dust-jacket of JEEVES AND THE WEDDING BELLS contained half a dozen blurbs which, upon closer inspection, were decidedly problematic: two of the authors of said blubs being dead (once dead almost fifty years) -- it turning out that they were blurbs praising Wodehouse, not the actual book they accompanied. But at least reading this faux-Wodehouse inspired me to go back and read some of the real thing, which is always a pleasure.

--John R.
a.k.a. Captain Mercy

*although it's hard to resist a title like "The Rummy Affair of Young Charlie", Cannon's version of THE CASE OF CHARLES DEXTER WARD