Witch Week 2019 Begins

Witch Week — 7 days inspired by the writings of Diana Wynne Jones and dedicated to the appreciation of fantastical books — is here at last.

This is the second year that Chris at Calmgrove and I have co-hosted the event. Head on over to Chris’s on-line home to find out what villainous creatures we’ll be letting loose over the next few days. And we hope you’ll join us for a discussion of Diana Wynne Jones’ Cart & Cwidder.

Sign outside Sugar Hill Cafe, Harlem

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The dark sea beckons

The Blue Whale of Catoosa, Route 66, Oklahoma. Please note that Moby-Dick never smiled.

Chris at Calmgrove has announced this on his blog, so I guess I can’t back out now: He and I are going to spend the November days after the end of Witch Week reading and blogging about Melville’s monster-book, Moby-Dick, appropriate for this year of Herman Melville’s 200th birthday.

My faithful readers will know that I’ve spent a good part of the year reading around Melville, letting others take on the task of writing their thoughts on the big book itself. But those other bloggers have tempted me with their posts, and when Chris hinted this might be his year to read all of Moby-Dick, I decided to join him.

We haven’t made any plans yet about how this will happen as a joint project, but I know we’ll come up with something to keep our readers hoping for more. So, as the year moves deeper into autumn, let me give you this quote from Andrew Delbanco’s 2001 essay, on why “Melville has never looked better”:

In our own moment of horror and heroism, it is a book more salient than ever — unflinchingly honest about the human capacity for hate and brutality, yet filled with an undiscourageable love of humanity.

Yep, I could use a bit of that right now.

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Fortean doings

A bonus post for R.I.P. XIV (Readers Imbibing Peril) — what more could anyone ask of this week before Halloween?

Today, a YA trilogy drawn from Edison’s and Tesla’s rivalry that raises important questions about morality, mixed in with some scientific paradoxes:

The Accelerati Trilogy (Tesla’s Attic, 2014; Edison’s Alley, 2015; Hawking’s Hallway, 2016), Neal Shusterman and Eric Elfman).

Nick Slate, haunted by his mother’s death, discovers some odd items in the attic of his new home in Colorado Springs. Nick gets rid of most of them at a garage sale, but then realizes they’re Nicola Tesla’s inventions and tries to reclaim them — blender, fan, globe, bat, mitt, floor lamp, tape recorder, and so on — each seemingly harmless, until you hit the ON button. Nick’s efforts pit him against The Accelerati, a group of ruthless scientists who want to put Tesla’s inventions to “better” use (i.e., making money for them). Through the three books, Nick and his friends are involved in increasingly complicated and life-threatening scientific puzzles, barely managing to stay one step ahead of the scientists.

No spoilers here, so I will only say that Shusterman and Elfman have created a funny, frightening world full of imminent disasters, set in motion by a floor lamp. How does this series qualify as an entry for RIP? Well, for one thing, innocent adults and children meet some gruesome ends, but even more critical is the rising tension as Nick and his middle-school buddies search for and reclaim each “Teslanoid Object”. In Edison’s Alley, one chapter, involving the rescue of a musical instrument, left me shaking (yes, I succumb to suspenseful writing all the time, even when I know it’s “just a story”; that’s why I try to avoid certain books and films — I can’t take the racing heart and fear — yes, FEAR — that something bad will happen — and I’m NEVER WRONG — something bad ALWAYS HAPPENS).

These books are hilarious. The fates awaiting certain characters (good and bad) are perfect, and I couldn’t get enough of one student’s strangely apt malapropisms (“Every clown has a silver lining” and “Jealousy is a green-eyed mobster”, for instance).

Shusterman and Elfman often drop into a philosophical mood while Nick and the other students wrestle with seemingly random facts or deep moral issues. When one student starts to put two and two together in Edison’s Alley, the authors pull away from the story a moment to give us something to consider:

Humans have the uncanny ability to distance themselves from anything real. Sometimes, for their own protection, they create stories that pass for history because creating meaning is so much easier than searching for it.

In Hawking’s Hallway, a servant argues that she doesn’t work for an “evil genius” — she says that he’s “morally ambiguous”. This moral ambiguity is critical to the story, forcing us to decide how we would behave under similar circumstances. Does working for the enemy make you like that enemy? What if you’re blackmailed into doing it? Can we live with moral ambiguity? Or do we always expect clear demarcations between good and bad?

But some evil is unquestionably 100% evil, which the authors make clear in this aside:

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention, but, sadly, she is often a mother who dies in childbirth. Instead, invention is usually raised by its wicked stepmother: greed.

And, later in the same chapter: “Human nature is a dance between self-interest and generosity of spirit.”

Greedy self-interest vs generosity: Where do your dancing shoes take you?

“Fortean” = full of paranormal phenomena, from Charles Fort, who collected news reports of paranormal events (raining frogs, disappearances, etc) and who is briefly mentioned in Edison’s Alley. Shusterman and Elfman cram these books with all kinds of paranormal phenomena, none of which involve beings from other planets.

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Just one week until …


The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Hallowe’en.”


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R.I.P. XIV, part 2

As promised, a second post for R(eaders) I(mbibing) P(eril) XIV, a celebration of any genre that raises the hairs on the back of your neck. Four books, 2 of which also fit into my celebration of Herman Melville’s 200th birthday (double-dipping allowed here). I’m all about Edgar Allan Poe in this post (appropriate for this 170th year and month of his death), so get ready for some perilous and blood-curdling tales.

The Man Who Was Poe, Avi (1989), is a murder mystery set in Providence, Rhode Island, 1848. (It’s known that Poe was there in 1848, wooing a wealthy widow.) In Avi’s fictionalized Poe, we find a brooding, haunted, desperate man drawn unwillingly into solving the mysteries of a girl’s disappearance and her aunt’s murder. With images and imaginings of death piling up around him, Poe teeters on the edge of madness  It is, perhaps, only the parallels between his own life and that of the orphaned Edmund, the boy he’s helping, that keep Poe on the case.

To hide his identity, Poe calls himself Auguste Dupin, and uses Dupin’s methods of careful observation, ruling out nothing as possible clues. Moving between tenements, saloons, the seaport and a cemetery, the book takes us through the seamy side of 19th century Providence, providing only a few moments’ relief in the widow’s well-furnished home. Throughout, everywhere he goes, Poe is continually reminded of his losses, which inexorably connect beauty, love, and death in horrifying cycles that can only be broken by alcohol. Poe and Edmund find themselves going deeper into danger, as they close in on the solution. Poe makes a good traditional detective (i.e., quirky, flawed, and difficult to like), in whom we see Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, and Jane Tennison. We expect him to help Edmund, even as we know he can’t help himself.

Poe: A Life Cut Short (Peter Ackroyd 2008) gives us an excellent overview of Poe’s life, one filled with tragedy (the premature deaths of so many friends and relations) and genius (those haunted tales). Ackroyd deals as best he can with the unknowns (“Poe might have said …” “He was probably thinking …” etc.), especially in describing those last few days of his life — his death the consequence of life-long poverty as much as alcoholism and tuberculosis. Ackroyd is honest about Poe’s character — proud, clever, deceitful, selfish, weak, entertaining — he could make friends when he wanted, but he couldn’t hold them. Yet he loved his bride and evidently lived happily with her and her mother for the few years they were married. Of all the people he cherished, only his mother-in-law outlived him.

Like a heavy cloak, the specter of death hung about him throughout his life, pushing his imagination in directions rarely seen before. Marilynne Robinson, in the New York Review of Books (05 Feb 2015), called Poe “a turbulence,” a perfect word for understanding his effect on the world. He disturbed everyone — still does.

Especially in The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1837). I’ve reviewed Poe’s only novel before, and I have little to add. Yet to understand Mat Johnson’s novel (the 4th book discussed in this post), you need to know Poe’s basic plot. Arthur Pym sets out from Nantucket on what begins as a sea-going adventure story (young boy stows away, pirates take over the ship, wise sailor Dirk Peters saves him from certain death), but disaster follows disaster, and Pym discovers only horrors and undeniable evidence that humans are worse than animals.

In brief — Pym survives 3 shipwrecks, each wreck dropping him further and further south until he ends up with Dirk Peters on a tiny boat in the Antarctic Ocean, sailing due south towards Tsalal, an unknown island inhabited by people whose black skin contrasts with the whiteness of the snow-covered landscape. The final scene, a vision-nightmare as Pym and his companion sail further and further south, concludes with this diary entry:

The darkness had materially increased, relieved only by the glare of the water thrown back from the white curtain before us. Many gigantic and pallidly white birds flew continuously now from beyond the veil, and their scream was the eternal Tekeli-li! as they retreated from our vision. Hereupon Nu-Nu stirred in the bottom of the boat; but upon touching him we found his spirit departed. And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us. But there arose in our pathway a shrouded human figure, very far larger in its proportions than any dweller among men. And the hue of the skin of the figure was of the perfect whiteness of the snow.

That’s it. We know that somehow Pym survived and returned to civilization, because the Preface starts thusly: “UPON my return to the United States a few months ago, after the extraordinary series of adventure in the South Seas and elsewhere, of which an account is given in the following pages ….” HOW he got back, Pym (and Poe) doesn’t say.

In her article about Poe, Robinson writes that “the extermination of the native people” was “a major business of Europeans, or whites, virtually everywhere in the world at the time Poe wrote”, and as a southerner, Poe should have valued whiteness over blackness. But Robinson argues otherwise. More importantly, she suggests that Pym’s Narrative was a turning point in his writing, because we find in his subsequent tales something that was never present in the writing that preceded it:

the inescapable confrontation of the self by a perfect justice, the exposure of a guilty act in a form that makes its revelation a recoil of the mind against itself.

In other words, in Poe’s tales, “reality is of a kind to break through the enthralling dream of innocence or of effective concealment and confront us—horrify us—with truth.”

That’s shattering view of reality is what we find in Mat Johnson’s Pym (2011), his sequel to Poe’s novel, set 180 years later. In it, failed academic Chris Jaynes believes Narrative of Arthur Pym is where America’s “pathology of Whiteness” began, and when he accidentally inherits Dirk Peters’ remains, he’s convinced that Poe’s tale was NOT fiction — and Jaynes’ journey south, on Pym’s trail, begins. His ship’s crew, 6 men and 1 woman, all African Americans, each with different reasons for sailing with Jaynes, are searching for Tsalal, the island whose inhabitants are so black that not even their teeth are white. What they find instead is a frozen land inhabited by what can best be described as a race of white-furred yetis who live in a huge complex of ice-caves, and who quickly enslave the entire crew of Jaynes’ ship. And it’s within the ice-caves that Jaynes discovers Arthur Gordon Pym, still alive 180 years later.

Johnson’s satire skewers assumptions about race and racism, art (including a hilarious parody of artist Thomas Kinkaid) and academia, yet still can be painfully blunt about racism’s insidious workings. At one point, Jaynes reminds himself that when Pym’s ship arrived at Tsalal, the ultra-black natives killed all but 2 of the ship’s crew (Pym and Peters were the exceptions), and then wonders why every people, upon meeting a shipload of white sailors, didn’t do the same. They probably often wish they had, he muses.

Much later, Jaynes escapes the furry white race with his friend Garth, dragging Pym along as a guide to the island of Tsalal. Pym, typical of an antebellum Southern gentleman, refuses to “hear anything negative about the race from the caves”.

That is it, [writes Jaynes,] that’s the trick … I saw it all become clear to me. That is how they stay so white: by refusing to accept blemish or history. Whiteness isn’t about being something, it is about being no thing, nothing, an erasure. Covering over the truth with layers of blank reality just as the snowstorm was now covering our tent….

Johnson ends this tale as Poe ended Arthur Pym, with two survivors, starved and lost, sailing towards an unknown fate. What Jaynes and Garth eventually find is an island inhabited by “a collection of brown people, and this, of course, is a planet on which such are the majority.” Their fate looks to be much happier than Pym’s — and Poe’s.

*If I’ve inspired you to read Poe’s weird novel, you can find it, entire, here.

Posted in Adventure, Am reading, Biography, Fantasy, Gothic, Mystery, RIP, Seafaring | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Open locks, whoever knocks

Getting closer and closer!


By the pricking of my thumbs,
Something wicked this way comes.


Open locks,
Whoever knocks!

—Macbeth, Act IV Scene 1

Thus speaks the Second Witch to her sisters, who have sensed the arrival of a certain ne’er-do-well. Macbeth swaggers into their cave: “How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags!
What is’t you do?” he declares. Dramatic irony, of course, for he is guilty of what he accuses them of being. (We know a few politicians who do this, don’t we?)

Running from Halloween to Bonfire Night, Witch Week 2019 is imminent. You may still have time to acquire and read Diana Wynne Jones’ fantasy Cart and Cwidder, our featured book for discussion, but if that doesn’t appeal then do sit back and enjoy the guest posts to come. Our focus is on villains, and fellow bloggers will be discussing them in

  • graphic novels
  • plays…

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Seven Bookish Virtues/Sins Tag

Pete Hornberger facing temptation, 30 Rock, Season 1, Episode 12, “Black Tie” (2007)

Looks like all my blogging friends are playing this game of tag, and it’s my turn to be IT.

Ola G at Re-enchantment of the World, Lory at Emerald City Book Review, Chris at Calmgrove, and I-can’t-remember-who-else (sorry, blogger buddies, but if I take the time to find all those fascinating posts, I’ll never write this one!) — well, you get the point. Everyone likes themed book lists, especially ones with limited slots — Who made the cut? Who got snubbed? And what does the list reveal about the reader who created it? So it’s no surprise that this game is working its way across the land of blogs.

I’m IT, so let’s see how my answers turn out.* I give you advance warning, however, that my Virtues list features just 2 authors. See if you can figure out whose books I couldn’t live without.


Chastity: Which book or author am I saving for the perfect moment?*

This would be Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which first came to my attention at least 20 years ago, and I’ve had a copy on my TBR shelf for perhaps 18 years. Why am I waiting? I don’t know, but each time I reach for it something else catches my eye. But I think 2020 is my year for Bulgakov.

Temperance: Which book or series did I find so good that I didn’t want to read it all at once, so I read it in doses just to make the pleasure last longer?

Are you kidding me? Who does that? Sign me up as a charter member of Over-readers Anonymous, because if I like a book, I devour it. Always have, always will. Never come between me and my book. I bite!

Charity: Which book, series or author do I tirelessly push to others, telling them about it or even giving away spare copies bought for that reason?

Eric Kraft’s The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences and Observations of Peter Leroy, always and forever. I love authors who can make me laugh out loud, even while commuting on the NYC subway, and Kraft is one of those. Peter Leroy writes his autobiography, starting before his birth, and explains as he goes along what he’s changed to strengthen each episode’s plot (life is absolutely NOT like a novel). Kraft is playing with story, memory (he’s a big fan of Proust), and how we build ourselves up in our own minds, but he also gives us one view of life in a small Long Island bayside town in the mid- to late-20th century, with a wide cast of characters. Over the course of the series, Peter ages into his sixties, accompanied by Albertine, the love of his life. Perfect.

Diligence: Which series or author do I follow no matter what happens and how long I have to wait?

Eric Kraft. But I have to say that discovering this author after he’d published about 8 of the books in this unending series made the wait easier. By the time I’d acquired and read the first 8, 2 more had been published. A bit like Zeno’s Achilles paradox — if Kraft keeps writing as I read, how will I ever pass him? Ok, reality check, I have passed Kraft’s last book and must now satisfy my craving by jumping into the black hole of his website, not to mention rereading the series (to date, 23 novels/novellas) innumerable times.

Patience: Is there an author, book or series I’ve read that improved with time, starting out unpromising but ultimately proving rewarding?


Kindness: Which fictitious character would I consider my role model in the hassle of everyday life?

Eric Kraft’s Peter Leroy, no contest. He’s observant, clever, brave, loyal, curious, honest, and so so so funny. Plus he taught me the concept of cumulative error (look it up). I blame cumulative error for the fine mess we’re all in right now.

Humility: Which book, series or author do I find most under-rated?

Drumroll … build the suspense … wait for it …    :          Eric Kraft’s The Personal History, Adventures, Experiences and Observations of Peter Leroy. By now, you should know why.

That takes care of the Virtues. Next up:


Lust: Which new book can I barely wait to get my hands on?*

This would be the next book in Pullman’s new Lyra Bellacqua series, The Secret Commonwealth, recently released. I’m 81st in line for 11 copies on the NYPL e-book reservation list. I should get it in less than 6 months — as if! I may have to actually fork over the dough for a copy, which means I might as well buy The Book of Dust while I’m at it. And I’m trying not to spend money on books! Ack!

Gluttony: What are the books I can’t stop reading and reading .. and reading?

Kraft (see the Virtues above), but also E F Benson’s Lucia series, Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, Tolkien, Jane Austen, Middlemarch, Swallows and Amazons, Neil Gaiman.

Greed: What are the most and least expensive books I own?

I have a few valuable old books variously acquired over the years, but the book I paid the most for is a 1925 original edition of Hendrik Van Loon’s The Story of Wilbur the Hat. The least expensive books are ones I grabbed from my local Little Free Library (George Saunders Lincoln in the Bardo is one) — and before you yell at me, I placed other books into the LFL in exchange.

Sloth: What books am I too lazy to read?*

Conrad’s Lord Jim, a copy of which I’ve had for at least 50 years. It’s on my desk now, because I was hoping to finally get to it as part of my Reading the Sea project for Melville’s 200th anniversary. There’s still time, but I have a feeling life will be easier if I pretend I never saw it.

Wrath: Which books make me angry, and for what reasons?*

Most non-fiction these days, and only because they’re just too damn depressing. Either they’re full of lies, or they make me feel like the world is coming to an end. In both cases, I always want to toss these books into the gutter, which is a waste of good paper, so I offer them to my local Little Free Library (see above, under Greed).

Envy:  Which books do I wish I’d written?*

Just about every book I have ever read.

Pride: What book or books do I bring up when I want to sound like an intellectual reader?

Oooh, thanks for giving me yet ANOTHER opportunity to show off! Moby-Dick, Proust, Roland Huntford’s The Last Place on Earth (about the 1910-11 race to the South Pole, the TV series based on the book is on YouTube), Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire, and lots more, but no need to knock you out.

7 virtues, 7 sins. I hope I’ve kept you entertained, inspired you to check out Eric Kraft’s website, and not given away too many of my secrets. And if you remember nothing else of this post, I hope you hold on to the concept of cumulative error. It explains a lot.

Happy reading to all!

*I’ve replaced a few of the questions with new ones I was happier answering. These are marked with an asterisk.

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