Books from the attic: “TOM SWIFT in The Race to the Moon”

We were looking for something in the attic and came upon a stash of books from long ago. Tom Swift Jr., Chip Hilton, the Hardy Boys… This one is from 1958.

Tom Swift is in a race to the moon against his rivals, the evil Brungarians. “We’re not going to let any hostile country like Brungaria beat us to the moon!” Tom’s buddy Bud Barclay remarks grimly.

But Bud is worried. “How are you going to beat ’em in this space jalopy?” he wants to know.

Bud, who is kind of an idiot, is unaware of Tom’s Swift repelatron, which will drive his space ship forward by pushing back against the Earth or the sun or what have you.

Needless to say, the Brungarians have many dirty tricks up their sleeves, but I’m pleased to say they’re no match for young Tom, with his blond crew-cut hair. Genius boy is how Bud often refers to him. If my pal called me “genius boy” I’d sock him right in the jaw. But Tom doesn’t let anything bother him, even when the Brungarians drug him and steal his secret plans or he’s running out of oxygen in outer space.

Comic relief is provided by the cook, Chow Winkler, who says stuff like “Brand my skillet, I don’t savvy a word you’re sayin’, but it sure sounds bad!”

Two girls show up, Sandy and Phyl. Phyl has long dark hair and laughing brown eyes and is Tom’s favorite date. Sandy is Tom’s sister and is paired off with Bud. They are there to remind the boys of the big party that evening. Of course, Tom had forgot, what with the Brungarians and the repelatron and all, but they forgive him. Needless to say, there are many crises that night and he never does make it to the party.

Of course I have left out a lot that happens in the book’s 180 action-packed pages. Every chapter ends with some amazing crisis that genius boy is going to have to meet. And meet them he does.

One strange detail: halfway through the book Tom’s space jalopy is christened. It’s name: Challenger. Not sure what to make of that coincidence. Anyway, stay tuned for more great adventures from my attic.

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Killing Commendatore

This is Haruki Murakami’s latest novel. I’ve liked Murakami’s work in the past, but not this one. Am I tired of him and the weird worlds he creates, or is this really a bad novel? It’s got something to do with the artistic process and the power of metaphors and such. A bell rings in a hole where no one can be ringing it. A character in a painting comes alive. A painter saves a girl by going on a journey to a strange underworld.

Well, that all sounds promising, doesn’t it? But none of it worked. I kept waiting for explanations, even dream-logic explanations, but they never came. Why did the painter have to go to the underworld? Don’t know. The girl was hiding in a neighbor’s house the whole time, and she snuck out when the cleaning people left the gate unlocked.

And the author leaves no stone unturned when it comes to using cliches. Did Murakami use them in the original Japanese, or was this the fault of the translators? I don’t really care. The novel was painful to listen to, although the narrator was great.

Of serial killers and grammar

I recently listened to the audio book Evil Has a Name about the Golden State Killer, the guy whose rapes and murders terrorized California in the 1970s and 1980s. The book is essentially an audio documentary, featuring interviews with investigators, victims, and others.

Here’s the grammar issue: Not one person in the book gets the lie/lay distinction correct. And this comes up a lot: The victim was laying in bed, She went to lay down next to her husband, etc. I’m beginning to think this is a lost cause.

OK, I’ve got that off my chest. Now, about the serial killer: the suspect’s name is Joseph James DeAngelo. They interviewed a few of the guy’s neighbors and co-workers. And none of them said anything like: “Oh yeah, I could totally see him being a serial killer.” He didn’t sound like the nicest guy in the world–just an old guy with a temper. So what’s going on? One would have expected the serial killer to be a loner, a drifter, in and out of jail, an obvious creep. Maybe his crime spree ended because he was murdered or committed suicide.

But no. He was married all through the crime spree. He had three kids. He paid for their education. He had a steady job as a mechanic for Save Mart supermarkets from 1990 until his retirement. He owned a home. He took care of his lawn. Apparently he had no criminal record. The book, alas, doesn’t get anywhere close to making sense of this particular set of facts. As far as I know, the ex-wife and children haven’t said anything publicly. Did they know anything? Suspect anything? If not, how did he manage to compartmentalize this aspect of his life?

We’ll know more eventually, I suppose. But right now it’s pretty darn puzzling.

Saying good-bye to my friend’s novel

Along with my novel, this week I said good-bye (I think) to my friend Jeff Carver’s novel (now split in two), which he’s been working on (and we in his writing group have been critiquing) since 2006 or so. That’s a lot of critiquing. And writing–I can’t imagine spending 12 years on a novel. But the result is really good–probably because I made a couple of pretty good suggestions over the years, along with a lot of dopey ones Jeff wisely ignored.

Now he needs to start the next novel in his Chaos Chronicles series. And he needs to finish it in 2019, dammit.

“A Christmas Carol” turns 175

Lots of people took notice. 

Dickens, of course, wrote it to make money. He was in debt to his publisher and needed a hit. That’s how life works.

Here’s the beginning of A Christmas Carol. Was there anyone as good at beginning a novel as Dickens?

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge’s name was good upon ’Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Here’s a nice article about its covers through the years. The original cover was pretty meh:

Two books to avoid

I used to read a lot; now I don’t. Writing gets in the way. (Also working for a living.) And when I read nowadays, I often get cranky. Here are two very different books that made me cranky recently.

The Outsider is the first Stephen King book I’ve read in decades. He just wrote too damn much, and I couldn’t keep up, so I stopped trying. King has his strengths and his weaknesses, but I always thought the strengths outweighed the weaknesses. But I didn’t enjoy The Outsider. The setup annoyed me: It’s structured as a police procedural, but the police procedures don’t work because the actual perp happens to be some kind of shape-shifting life-force-sucking evil monster, not the poor suspect whose body and DNA he replicated. So all the police work falls apart. Then everyone goes into monster-hunting mode, and King expends a lot of effort setting up the ground-rules about what powers the monster has. These ground-rules seemed utterly arbitrary to me–put in place so he could give us a thrilling climax. I wasn’t thrilled. Meh.

On the other end of the spectrum is Wuthering Heights, which is one of those novels that any self-respecting English major should have read before graduating from college. But I didn’t get around to it till last month. Here’s a list of the 100 greatest novels of all time where it shows up at #46; this seems pretty typical. If I’d been younger when I read it, I probably would have contemplated Bronte’s depth of characterization and reinvention of the novel’s form and maybe ignored the fact that everyone in this novel is freaking insane. The me who read the book on his well-earned vacation got increasingly annoyed at this fact.

Maybe it’s just me.

This Living Hand

When we think of Rome, the first thing that comes to mind, of course, is the English poet John Keats, who died there in 1821 of tuberculosis at the age of 25. Here is his grave in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, with the epitaph he wrote for himself:

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Odd that the gravestone doesn’t even mention his name. On a wall next to the grave we see this:

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Next to Keats’s grave is that of his friend Joseph Severn, who accompanied him to Rome, since Keats was too sick to travel by himself:

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There are worse things to be remembered for, I suppose, than being the friend of John Keats.

A couple hundred yards away from Keats are interred the ashes of Percy Bysshe Shelley, who died in a boating accident in Italy at the age of 29:

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The quotation is from The Tempest.

Here is a painting of Shelley’s funeral pyre:

Many of the details of the painting are apparently made up. For one thing, Shelley’s body was in bad shape by the time he washed up on shore. (The only way they recognized him was his clothing and the copy of Keats’s poems in his back pocket.)

Keats died in a tiny apartment at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome. This is now the site of the Keats-Shelley Memorial House, which contains letters, books, and other memorabilia of English poets. Via Wikipedia, here’s what happened to the contents of the House during World War 2:

During World War II, the Keats–Shelley House went “underground”, especially after 1943, in order to preserve its invaluable contents from falling into the hands of, and most likely being deliberately destroyed by, Nazi Germany. External markings relating to the museum were removed from the building. Although the library’s 10,000 volumes were not removed, two boxes of artifacts were sent to the Abbey of Monte Cassino in December 1942 for safekeeping. In October 1943, the abbey’s archivist placed the two unlabelled boxes of Keats–Shelley memorabilia with his personal possessions so that they could be removed during the abbey’s evacuation and not fall into the hands of the Germans. The items were reclaimed by the museum’s curator and returned to the Keats–Shelley House, where the boxes were reopened in June 1944 upon the arrival of the Allied forces in Rome.

I didn’t have time to visit the Keats-Shelley House, but here’s what it looked like at 23:00 on a Roman night:

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And this gives me a chance to reprint this final fragment by Keats, written as he confronted the certainty of his coming death.

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d–see here it is–
I hold it towards you.
I find these eight short lines utterly terrifying.