Was it a bear or a Russian or what?

Inspired by a recent review by Calmgrove, I dug around in the archives of one of my retired blogs to find what I wrote. Here’s my take, with only a couple of minor revisions.

The Circus of Dr. Lao, Charles G. Finney (1935), Viking Compass, 159 pp.

Happy as I am to hail from the same home town as Tony Randall, I warn you at all costs to avoid the film in which he plays Dr. Lao (the blogger behind the Great Science-Fiction and Fantasy website suggests that “if ever you are faced with possible exposure to the thing, run away screaming”).

I so loved this book that, while in college, I adapted it for the stage, and a good friend offered to direct. It ran for two performances. Six months later, I received a letter from a publisher who wanted to see my adaptation, with the possibility of publishing it. In the end, they decided that producing the play would be prohibitively expensive, so they weren’t interested. My first rejection letter.

Two things fascinate me about this novel. One is the odd character of Dr. Lao himself, switching between the worst parody of Chinese-influenced pidgin and perfect English throughout the book, sometimes within the same scene. He challenges everyone he meets to re-evaluate their assumptions about him and the world, and to distrust the evidence of their own senses.

The other thing is the subtle humor. The novel takes place in a small town in Arizona, near the Mexican border (Finney lived in Tucson after leaving the army, where he served in China). Cultures collide, as European meets Asian meets Latinx. For instance, two men who have just struck up an acquaintance enter a bar. One orders “two cervezas,” and the other says, “Naw, naw, I just want beer.” Oh, the layers under that last line!

In another scene, Mr. Etaoin, the newspaper editor (printers will get the joke) describes in great detail the life of a Duroc Jersey pig, from birth to slaughter, and ends with

Some months later I went into a restaurant and ordered pork chops. And the chops they served me–may I die this instant if I lie–were from that very pig of which I have been talking. And the moral of this story is that the whole, sole, one and only and entire purpose of that pig’s life, and the lives of its ancestors, and the lives of the things upon which pig and ancestors fed … the sole purpose of all that intermixed mass of threads and careers, I say–was to provide for me in that restaurant, at the moment I wanted them, a pair of savory pork chops.

Etaoin is talking to a caged sea-serpent in this scene, who has just described eating a few Polynesians. Their conversation reveals an egocentric view of one’s purpose in life, something of which we’re all, at times, guilty.

Appolonius of Tyana tells dismal fortunes, Medusa petrifies a cynical woman, a satyr nearly seduces a staid English teacher, some unidentifiable beings appear here and there, and the Grand Finale includes a scene of utter annihilation.

As Calmgrove points out, Finney created scenes of racism and bigotry, not to mention misogynistic objectification of women. The Great Depression, though in full-swing by the publication date, gets no attention at all.

The issue of what to make of books and authors whose sensibilities don’t match 21st century social justice ideals is one I’m not prepared to address in this post. For now I’ll just say that, however imperfect this fantasy is, it’s still a perceptive tale of human foibles and well worth reading.

Posted in Fantasy, Favorite books | 8 Comments

Book gluttony

I have a note in my calendar that I’m supposed to be prepping for the Wales Readathon that starts next month. Paula Bardell-Hedley is hosting this event at her blog, Book Jotter, (check here for an extensive list of recommended books).

I vaguely remember promising to consider taking part. I should be done with my Tolkienerdity (© Lizzie Ross 2019) by March 1st, so why not?

I’m still thinking about which book/s, in addition to Paula’s read-along — W. H. Davies’ The Autobiography of a Super-Tramp — to feature on my blog. I’m leaning towards Anthony Bailey’s travelog A Walk Through Wales, but other possibilities tempt me: Richard Llewellyn’s How Green Was My Valley, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, or perhaps even T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. I’ve a hunger for fat novels this year, so I may just pile all of them on my plate.

Posted in Am reading, Dewithon | 10 Comments

A slow month …

… but I’m not complaining.

Despite binge watching Netflix programs (I keep threatening to cancel my subscription, but then I don’t, because another series grabs me — I blame Titus Andromedon), in January I still managed to finish several books, abandon a few others, and even revise 50+ pages on my current WIP.

What I really need is a good blizzard, but that doesn’t look like happening this month, as per last fall’s predictions from The Old Farmer’s Almanac. Meanwhile, here’s where I am:

Books read: Sara Pennypacker, Pax (about a pet fox released into the wild — lovely, read it if you haven’t already done so). Julian Barnes, Sense of an Ending. Helene Tursten, An Elderly Lady Is Up to No Good (how often does a reader root for the murderer?). Cynthia Rylant, I Had Seen Castles. E.B. White, Here Is New York. Debbie Macomber, Trading Christmas (set in Leavenworth, Washington, near where I spent December 2016 — my only reason for getting through this Harlequin Romance — but if this were the only type of book I liked, I could finish one a day). John le Carré, A Legacy of Spies (another George Smiley book). J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring (prepping for big exhibit at Morgan Library, more on that at a later date). Julia Child, My Life in France.

Books abandoned: Tolkien, Kullervo (I may give this another try, but not soon). Carrie Fisher, Princess Diarist (during which I discovered I’m not interested in Hollywood tell-alls — yay me!). Marlon James, A Brief History of Seven Killings (set in Jamaica in the 1970s, this requires more intestinal fortitude than I can muster right now — I’ll give it another try, during happier times, if we ever find them again). Meg Cabot, The Princess Diaries (if I hadn’t just read that Harlequin Romance, I might have been able to finish this — sorry, Meg Cabot fans, but I couldn’t handle Mia’s voice — more evidence that I’m no longer a teenager). Julia Child, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julie Powell, Julie and Julia (really, how much Julia Child does a reader need?).

My current WIP: 5 chapters revised (that’s a bit over 50 pages). At this rate, I’ll be done with the revision in (quick finger-math) about 3 years. I know what’s happening here: I get all excited about the discoveries of the first draft — characters revealing their secrets, plot twists appearing out of thin air, etc. — but too little of that happens during revision, so I really have to drag myself to the computer to do this work. Chocolate helps. Right now there are still some huge holes that offer the possibility of new discoveries (for instance, what is my villain’s motivation? and why does the protagonist’s boss assign her the job that gets her into so much trouble?), but discoveries at this point can be dangerous, requiring massive rethinking of everything. Also, I keep wavering about which story this could be a retelling of (Alban Berg’s Lulu? or Graham Green’s The Third Man? or Eric Ambler’s A Coffin for Dimitrios?).

And now that I’ve made that list, I’m starting to wonder if this WIP is actually about the villain and not the heroine.

See, that’s the kind of discovery that makes this writer want to quit.

But I won’t. The good news is that I love my MC, and she’s staying as the center of this story. Now I’m off to look at some Dutch masterpieces at the Met.

Posted in Am reading, Am revising | 3 Comments

The Last Ten Books Tag

APOD 2018 Oct 24: Light Pillars over Whitefish Bay

This post is inspired by one from Calmgrove, who was himself inspired by one at AnnaBookBel, who borrowed the idea from someone else, and so on and so on. I’m at least 5th generation on this thing, and I hope further readers decide to tag-on to this topic.

1. The last book I gave up on. Nicholas Gannon’s The Doldrums and the Helmsley Curse. I’d just finished the first book in this series (The Doldrums) and found it enjoyable enough to try the second, but I lost interest about 30 pages in. Gannon’s illustrations are wonderful, but the dense plot was more than I wanted — I could ignore the similarities to Harry Potter in the first book, but not in the second. Still, perhaps someday. (Both books borrowed from NYPL’s e-reader service.)

2. Last book I re-read. Eric Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios, one of my favorite thrillers. This is a case of saw-the-movie-and-had-to-read-the-book. First saw the movie in the 1960s, first read the book in the 1990s (yes, it took me 30 years to find a copy). This duo is top on my list of great book-to-film adaptations.

3. Last book I bought. For about 2 years now, I’ve been trying not to bring more books into my apartment, but I couldn’t resist preordering Bookforms: A complete guide to designing and crafting hand-bound books, a new publication from NYC’s Center for Book Arts, where I’ve been taking classes in bookbinding and letterpress. The authors are the Center’s book binding instructors, some of whom I’ve worked with. Buying this from the Center (and not from any on-line retailer) supports the Center. My copy will be available at the end of this month, and I rub my hands in gleeful anticipation.

4. Last book I said I read but actually didn’t. Is this something people do? Am I being an insufferable snob by asking that question?

5. Last book I wrote in the margins of. Ambler’s Mask of Dimitrios makes its second appearance on the list here. I’m always writing in margins, even if just to bracket a passage I really like, but also whenever I find quotes that might work as epigrams for my novels (yes, I found one in Ambler that perfectly fit my current WIP). One of the frustrations of reading library books — whether analog or digital — is that I can’t write in them! Waaaa! Another first world problem!

6. Last book I had signed. Gene Luen Yang’s Shadow Hero, a graphic YA novel about a Chinese superhero. Yang spoke at a conference in NYC in 2015, explaining the literary value of graphic novels (his audience were already believers). I’d brought Shadow Hero to show I’d read something besides his biggest hit, American Born Chinese (another excellent graphic novel, but he must be tired of signing its title page). When he signed my book, he drew a turtle above his signature. He and I also spoke briefly about books by Maxine Hong Kingston and Frank Chin, and about the Chinese workers who built much of the western end of the Trans-American Railroad.

7. Last book I lost. I don’t lose books, but I do give them away occasionally, and sometimes I lend them, but I keep a list of the latter. A neighbor currently has Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale — which reminds me, I need to see if she has finished it so that I can reclaim it.

8. Last book I had to replace. See above, numbers 7 and 3.

9. Last book I argued over. More like forced friends — and even slight acquaintances — to read: George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo, which everyone really ought to read. (See, I’m doing it again.)

10. Last book I couldn’t find. Couldn’t find where? on my own shelves? Keep looking — it’s there somewhere. At the library or bookstore? If that’s the case, it’s usually something by Beryl Bainbridge. If I find one of her books that I don’t have, I will buy it. But as I have a nearly complete BB collection, I think I’m good. And please, I really do have enough books.

And there you have it. Have I got you thinking about your own answers? If so, tag on!

Posted in Am reading, Last Ten Books, Lists | Tagged , , , | 9 Comments


New year, new aims, to include writing and reading but (sorry) a bit less blogging. Short posts, for a while at any rate.

The holidays put a dent in my revising energy (in this case, “dent” = chasm too wide to get across), but this post is proof that the dent has been repaired (bridged) and I’m back at work. I’m still uncovering the plot, but I know how it all ends. I just need to shepherd the characters along the way.

I was keeping a list of books completed in December, and then lost it, so this is only a partial list: About Time (Jack Finney), The Doldrums (Nicholas Gannon), Proust Was a Neuroscientist (Jonah Lehrer), Whose Body? (Dorothy Sayers), The Best Man (Richard Peck), and The Hired Girl (Laura Amy Schlitz).

Happy New Year to all my readers.

Posted in Am reading, Am revising | 4 Comments

A fountain of youth

One of my favorite bloggers reviews one of my favorite books.


Natalie Babbitt: Tuck Everlasting
Bloomsbury 2003 (1975)

Who wouldn’t want to live forever? To extend one’s life so that one could savour life to the full, have new experiences, perhaps even be invulnerable to injury? There are no downsides, surely?

But a moment or two’s thought will soon reveal the drawbacks. Losing one’s friends as they grow old and die; witnessing perpetual change and not only for the better; being feared by other humans, becoming paranoid, lacking a sense of purpose or a reason for continuing. As many a fine mind has pointed out, death gives meaning to life.

This is the dilemma Winnie Foster faces when, constrained and restricted by her family, she determines to escape her bounds and go into the nearby woodland. This one act, determined on at the height of an oppressive summer, combines with two other coincidences to put Winnie in danger, the Tuck family…

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Jumping right in

Edward Gorey, “The Unstrung Harp; or, Mr Earbrass Writes a Novel” (1953)

Not “weeks”, but “one day” later (and minus the sherry), I’ve begun the revision which, truth be told, is every bit as “loathsome” as described in TUH. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be crankier than usual as I try to excavate a plot and some interesting characters from my 180-page MS.

Started today: a re-read, with notes of who’s who. Prognosis: there just might be something there.

For those who wish to know, my WIP’s title is Split Ballot, and it’s a dystopian sci-fi thriller (too many genres? you think?), set in 2024. I’ll reveal no more for now. But I will say that a friend who writes thrillers has offered her 15-year-old daughter as a beta reader (I politely ignore the implications of her proposal), which makes me want to get on with the revision in order to send the daughter something by March or April.

It’s going to be a busy winter.

PS: What I’ve been reading lately — Jonathan Auxier’s Peter Nimble and his Fantastic Eyes and Sweep: The Story of a Girl and her Monster, along with the next books in Eric Kraft’s Peter Leroy saga. Pratchett’s and Gaiman’s Good Omens is working its way up my TBR stack.

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