Recent Reading: Old and New

There’s been no pattern to my reading lately–maybe it’s too early in the year for patterns.  Not that I’ve found much time for reading, but I keep trying. 

One night when I found myself staring in semi-panic at the proliferation of unread books in my bedroom, I snatched up something close at hand:  The Chrysalids, by John Wyndham.  First published in 1955, and known in the US as Rebirth, this copy was a replacement for the worn and yellowed 1969 paperback on my shelf.  Wyndham is largely out of print in the US, but his books are available through The Book Depository.

Told in Wyndham’s favorite first-person narrative, The Chrysalids is set in an unspecified future, long after The Tribulation, a mystery to the book’s characters, but clearly a nuclear holocaust of some sort.  In the 1950s that meant radiation and genetic mutation, and the central conflict in the book involves the fanatical efforts of the local leadership to maintain mankind, as well as the animals and crops, in pure form.  David, the protagonist, is a telepath.  He and the handful of others with the same gift appear to be perfectly normal, but in time it becomes clear they are not.  When others reach the same conclusion, the telepaths run for their lives.  Always the philosopher, Wyndham wonders which is more valuable, stability or change, regimentation or chaos?

Margaret Maron’s Three-Day Town is the latest in her Judge Deborah Knott mystery series.  Deborah and her husband venture away from their home in North Carolina to visit New York City, where they cross paths with Sigrid Harald, the NYC detective protagonist of Maron’s earlier series.  I enjoyed another visit with Deborah, but I didn’t find Sigrid particularly compelling (I haven’t read her earlier stories), and I missed Deborah’s enormous family and the often hilarious cases that pass through her courtroom.  I trust she and Dwight will be back home when we meet them again in Maron’s next mystery.

Meanwhile on my Kindle, I was reading Three Days at Wrigley Field, by K.P. Gresham.  Disclaimer here:  Kathy Gresham is an old friend and one-time critique partner of mine who decamped a few years ago to Austin.  When I heard that she had independently published this novel, which I had heard about but never read, I jumped at the chance.  I’m not much of a sports fan, but Kathy is, and her love and knowledge of baseball permeate this story of the first woman to try out for a major league team.  The book is about much more than baseball, of course, and well worth reading.

I half-read, half-skimmed my way through The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Facebook a couple of weeks ago, and frankly, I still don’t understand.  Why would I want to keep the friends of the friends of my friends posted on my activities?  Why would I want to follow theirs?  I have friends (actual in-the-flesh friends) who practically live on Facebook, and others who have pages there but only look at them every few weeks.  Just the other day my dental technician told me about someone who found her through Facebook–and she really wishes he hadn’t.  I guess I’m just not ready to join the party, spend the time, or invest that much effort in keeping up with the ever-changing privacy settings.  I feel a whole lot more secure here on my blog.

 

Thursday thoughts

Nothing special to write about tonight, but I thought I’d post a few random bits and pieces.  I’m on Day 117 (once I write at least one hundred words tonight) of my current writing challenge, trying to finish my work in progress by the end of the month.  My deadline has nothing to do with NaNoWriMo, and I don’t have a whole novel to write in that time, but the idea is the same.

I’m reading a new book by my friend Cheryl Bolen, With His Lady’s Assistance, the first in a planned series of Regency-set mysteries.  It’s a delightful book, and should be available shortly on Amazon and other reputable ebook shops.  I’ll post a review and a link when it’s up.  [Here’s the link, review coming soon.]

I’ve now read three of the six John Wyndham books I ordered a couple of months ago.  The Midwich Cuckoos was filmed (twice) as Village of the Damned, but Cuckoos is much the better title.  Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes (Out of the Deeps in U.S. editions) included a lot of action, but Cuckoos is a philosophical book for the most part, with a great deal of rather academic dialog and a first person narrator who warns the reader from the beginning that he will be telling the story as it happened, not as he learned of it.  I enjoyed the book, remembered most of it from long-ago readings, but I was struck by what now seems a very old-fashioned style and pace.  One of those classic books that makes one wonder if it would ever be published today.

The lastest version (3.4) of Action Outline has added graphic support.  Now you can tuck pictures into the text portion of your outline, which should be useful for research notes.

A friend (Hi, Margie!) sent me this picture in one of those email collections that circulates endlessly around the universe.  I hadn’t seen this little guy before.  I would happily give credit where credit is due, but I have no idea where the photo came from.

Reading and writing and never enough time!

Between a couple of busy weeks at the Scorekeeper and an equally busy social weekend last week, I’m further behind than ever with reading, although I’m trying very hard to keep my head above water on writing.  In spite of my general need for more sleep, I stayed up late Thursday night to finish reading Colleen Thompson’s Phantom of the French Quarter, a nifty romantic suspense tale from Harlequin Intrigue.

When I finished Colleen’s book, I looked around at the shelves of unread books in my bedroom and went into my usual short-term mental paralysis.  Like the proverbial kid in the candy store, I find myself with too much to choose from.  I settled on John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos, at least in part because it was close at hand.

The overstock never stops me for long, at either reading or collecting more books.  Last Saturday Jo Anne and I went to a reception and booksigning for Haywood Smith (small world story here:  Haywood’s sister Elise, hostess and provider of truly lovely food, is the head office nurse for Jo Anne’s physician.  I find it extremely difficult to resist anyone who says, “Please, let me feed you.”).  I had met Haywood several years ago when she was guest speaker at a West Houston RWA meeting, shortly after the release of Queen Bee of Mimosa Branch, and I have enjoyed her books ever since.  The opportunity to chat with Haywood over chicken salad for an hour or so was a real treat; she is as charming and funny as her books.  I came away with signed copies of her new release, Wife-in-Law, and one that I had missed, Wedding Belles.

I also discovered that I had missed two of Haywood’s books along the way, so this morning I stopped at Half-Price Books and found a copy of The Red Hat Club.  Two or three books over I spotted a copy of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.  Dodie Smith was a British playwright and novelist who is best remembered as the author of The Hundred and One Dalmations, a book I read and loved when I was a kid.  I don’t remember reading I Capture the Castle, but apparently it has quite a following and comes highly recommended by J.K. Rowling.  So I brought that home–how far wrong can I go for seven dollars?–along with a copy of Ann Patchett’s State of Wonder, another book I’ve heard discussed on NPR.

Meanwhile, on the writing front, I’m on day 98 of my current streak, planning to finish Bathtub Jinn in time for this year’s Golden Heart deadline.  This evening I hung a new corkboard in my writing nook (replacing the giant three-dimensional macrame elephant’s head engineered and constructed years ago by my late father) and decided that the empty space above it was the perfect spot for my Golden Heart Finalist certificate, which has languished since July 1 in a manila envelope. 

Just to prove that writing contests are pretty much unpredictable, this week I received scores from one that Bathtub Jinn did not final in.  Translating the scores into percentages (to protect the innocent, as they used to say on Dragnet):  two judges published in romance gave the entry scores of 95 and 92 percent.  The third judge, published in some other genre, gave it 53 percent.  This was not a drop-the-lowest-score contest, so the coordinators sent it to a discrepancy judge (unpublished), who gave it a cautious 77 percent score.  I’m sure those results demonstrate something, but I’m never sure what. 

Nobody’s going to come knocking at my door, or even my email inbox, looking for a manuscript to buy, so this afternoon I sent Bathtub Jinn off to another contest.  If I throw the bait out often enough, maybe I’ll get a bite.  If I keep it in my computer, that’s where it will stay.

And I’ll only make day 98 if I do some writing tonight.

Life’s Minor Mysteries.

My phone has been out for a week, since we had an unexpected (but very welcome) two-and-a-half-inch rain last Thursday.  About 95% of the calls I get are from “Out of Area” or “Unavailable,” neither of which I bother to answer.  Tomorrow morning I have to stay home to wait for the repair tech, who will fix something in my backyard and restore the dial tone to the system.

The mystery isn’t why I have to be here.  I’m sure the phone repair people get tired of trying to get into fenced backyards, and they probably like having someone around who can go inside and check to see if the phone is really working.  The mystery is:  Why does the DSL line to my computer work when the phone doesn’t?  Same cable, same wall jack.  I’m not complaining, I’d rather have the Internet than sales calls from Unavailable, but it’s a mystery to me.

About a month ago I ordered six books through Alibris.  I wanted to replace my disintegrating copies of John Wyndham’s novels, largely out of print in this country but available in Britain.  Mindful of postage and shipping, I carefully ordered them all from one dealer, the Book Depository in the U.K. because (a) they HAD them all, and (b) they had them ALL.  I figured I’d get a neat package of six paperback books, and Alibris promised me a very reasonable arrival date.

Several days before the predicted date, the first book arrived, in a small padded envelope.  Two more arrived, individually packaged and mailed, on different days later in the week.  On the following Monday, the other three books were in my mailbox, in their separate padded envelopes, rubber-banded together by my mail carrier.  What’s up with the British postal system?  How could six packages possibly be more practical or less expensive than one package?  Another mystery.

Several months ago, TxDOT (the Texas Department of Transportation, which handles road signs among many other highway concerns) erected several of their giant electronic road signs along NASA Parkway, the main drag in my area, which I travel every morning and evening.  Signs of this type carry traffic advisories, travel time predictions, Amber Alerts and occasional Zombie Warnings throughout the highway system.

The signs along NASA Parkway sat unlit for months.  When some of them finally came on a few weeks ago, they said “Hurricane Season Is Here — Be Prepared.”  Trust me, people in southeast Harris County don’t need the highway department to tell us that.  Currently they say “Drink  Drive  Go To Jail.”  Good advice, but worth the cost of those signs?

   And how does Sam Spade, one of our office cats at the Scorekeeper, sleep like this? 

 (photo by Jo Anne Banker)

More Software, More Books.

More Software: I’ve been plotting out the second half of Bathtub Jinn, and by Sunday I had several pages of hand-written notes, scene sketches, etc.  I was thinking it was time to type it all into the computer so I could print it out, add to it, move bits around, and so forth, when what should show up in my email but a notice that the latest version of Action Outline was on sale for less than half price.  I used an early version of Action Outline years ago, and it may even be on the old computer gathering dust in the corner room with all the other stuff I don’t use much.  But it’s not on my current computer, and the new version, all tuned up for Windows 7, looked like just what I needed.  So I pulled out my only-for-writing-expenses credit card, and ten minutes later (oh, the instant gratification!) I was typing up my notes in outline form.

More Books: By the time I finished reading The Day of the Triffids, I was so nostalgic I wanted to read more Wyndham.  But the paperback copies on my keeper shelf are pretty much past reading, with brittle yellow pages coming away from the covers.  The oldest was printed in 1961.

Most of Wyndham’s novels are out of print, so I headed over to Alibris.com to see what I could find.  John Wyndham may be largely out of print, if not actually forgotten, in this country, but not in Great Britain, where Penguin UK has reprinted them (with odd, rather animé-looking covers) in paperback over the past few years.  By the time I hit the button to submit my order, I had racked up six books, all from a dealer called the Book Depository, and spent $75, but the order included the five books I wanted to replace and one, published posthumously, that I had never heard of (Plan for Chaos).  According to an email from Alibris, the books shipped yesterday (from the UK) and should be here next week.

I have other books around the house as old or older, in good shape, printed on better quality (perhaps acid-free) paper.  I don’t really expect a thirty-five-cent paperback, printed in 1961, to last forever.  But it’s made me think about the fragility of books, subject as they are to the effects of fire, water, insects and age.  As much as I enjoy my Kindle, though, I don’t think electronic storage is the answer.  I have cartons of old paper in my attic, and whatever the mice haven’t eaten is probably readable, although I have no intention of testing that theory.  I know I can’t read anything stored on five-inch floppy disks, and there are boxes of those up there, too.

Archeologists of the past cracked the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics and learned to read Sumerian grocery lists written on clay tablets.  Will archeologists of the future be able to decipher the contents of a well-preserved iPad?

The Day of the Triffids

by John Wyndham has been a favorite book of mine for decades.  I have no idea how many times I’ve read it.  A week or so ago when I was browsing through an ebook sale at Amazon, I came across a version of the book for the Kindle and added it to my list (I think I bought five that day, for a total expenditure of about seven bucks).  I’m in the middle of reading, and enjoying, it for the umpteenth time.  From time to time I have reread a book I remembered loving years ago and thought “Why?”  Not in this case.  The triffids are as scary, and the characters as human (and British), as ever.

Most of Wyndham’s work is out of print today.  He is best remembered (he died in 1969) for a handful of novels published in the 1950s, although he had published short stories and pulp novels under a variety of pen names before World War II, and continued to write short stories through the 1950s and 60s.

I have been a science fiction reader since childhood, and I think my parents introduced me to Wyndham’s books; I know they were both great fans of his.  Most of his novels fell into the post-catastrophe genre popular in the decades after the war, and most were first-person narratives of survival and human response to the incomprehensible.  In The Day of the Triffids, most of humanity is struck blind and the survivors find themselves competing with mobile, carnivorous plants.  In Out of the Deeps (aka The Kraken Wakes), civilization is threatened by rising sea level, caused not by the Greenhouse Effect or Global Warming, but by aliens living in the depths of the oceans.  In The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed at least twice as The Village of the Damned), aliens invade through procreation, planting their strange, and eventually very frightening, children in an English country town.  Re-Birth (aka The Chrysalids) takes place well into the future, long after some catastrophe has left humanity subject to random mutations, with all the fear and bigotry such differences might produce.

The Day of the Triffids was published in 1951; my copy, an old Science Fiction Book Club edition, was probably printed in the 1970s.  I’m sure it replaced a battered old paperback.  My battered, yellowed copy of Out of the Deeps cost 35 cents; that may well be the oldest paperback on my shelves.  Re-Birth cost me 75 cents, The Midwich Cuckoos $1.25.  I found them on my science fiction keeper shelf next to a couple of books I have no memory of at all.

But Wyndham’s books I do remember.  The hardcover copy of Triffids is in reasonably good shape, but the paperbacks, with tiny print and yellowed paper, beg to be replaced.  Time to visit Half-Price Books, or Alibris.  One of the joys of the Internet is the availability of used books.

The Day of the Triffids has been filmed at least three times.  The first, a movie made in 1963, starring Howard Keel, is dreadful.  Avoid it.  It takes its title from Wyndham and its ending from The Wizard of Oz.  I have not seen the British movie version made in 2010.  I recommend the British TV version made in 1981.  I have an ancient videotape of this faithful, well cast and well acted adaptation, and when I discovered that it is now available on DVD, I snatched it up.  It doesn’t have fancy CGI effects, but it does have Wyndham’s story.

For many years my father, who was an accomplished gardener, kept a plant on the patio with a nursery tag reading triffidus americanus sticking slyly out of its pot.  Not many people got the joke, but we loved it.