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Fri, 2 Jan 2009

The Miracle Mongers and their Methods: a Complete Exposé

— SjG @ 1:37 pm

Harry Houdini, 1920, read as an etext published at manybooks.net

Houdini reveals to us his encyclopedic knowledge of the history of certain magic tricks, who performed them, where they did it, and what variations they used. He also tells us how they actually did it. You’d think it would make more compelling reading than it does, but it’s actually fairly dry.

Still, it was interesting to learn the secrets behind some of the tricks I’ve seen, such as firewalking.

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Tue, 30 Dec 2008

Ann Veronica: a Modern Love

— SjG @ 4:15 pm

by H. G. Wells, 1909, read as an ebook from manybooks.net

This is an interesting piece, that captures the changing social structures of London at the turn of the last century. Wells’ protagonist, the eponymous Ann Veronica, is bright, ambitious, naive, and, in many ways, a typical rebellious teenager.

Through Ann Veronica’s experiences, we’re exposed to enthusiastic utopianists of several flavors, including Socialists, Feminists, and advocates of Free Love (not coincidentally, also interests of Wells). But Wells happily points out that many of these radicals are painfully human. They have petty egos, their personal agendas drive their idealism, and many are simply using their causes as an excuse for distraction from a tedious or unpleasant situation. In fact, the depiction of the idealists (and the more cynical traditionalists) is more interesting than the plot, which falls back on a traditional happy ending of sorts.

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Sun, 30 Nov 2008

Viriconium Nights

— SjG @ 9:26 pm

By M. John Harrison, Ace Books, 1984

As Peter documents, this has a certain amount of overlap with the short stories included in 2005’s Viriconium, but there are some interesting differences; for example, Viriconium Nights’ story “The Lamia and Lord Cromis” and Viriconium‘s “The Lamia & Lord Cromis” are related yet different stories. It’s an interesting exercise reading both of them and seeing how the vision changed — or contemplating that perhaps the vision didn’t change at all. With so much in Viriconium, similar places or events may really be parallels in place or the cycles of history, or contrariwise, the differences may be entirely illusory.

What else can I say except that this is more Viriconium, which is a weak, pathetic summation of something very complex and subtle!

(Just catching up here… It’s been nine months since I read this).

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Mon, 1 Sep 2008

Baltasar and Blimunda

— SjG @ 3:56 pm

A translation of Memorial do Convento, written by José Saramago, translated by Giovanni Pontiero, Harcourt Brace & Co, 1987.

I don’t really understand why Saramago’s work is so compelling. And I can’t give a pithy summary as to what this book was about. I could, perhaps, follow the example of countless others and say this book is a love story set in the still-mostly-medieval Portugal of the 18th century, but this would be inaccurate. Yes, there’s the romance between the titular characters, but one that we see as distant outsiders. We know more about the quarrying, transporting, and history of the portico-stone of the Basilica at Mofra or of the peccadillos of the Portuguese royal family than we really do of Balthasar and Blimunda’s love.

If anything, this book is less a romance than a musing on the fundamental inequities of life, a rambling explication of the abuse of power, or a celebration of the lives of simple country folk. Yet these descriptions too do poor service to the book; they leave out the fire, the lyricism, the anger and passion. It’s a powerful monument to the downtrodden and forgotten; a sneer at the Church; an idyll; a history; a tall-tale of music, second-sight, and alchemy.

And, like The Cave (the only other Saramago I’ve read), the language is challenging, funny, brilliant, and the book is hard to stop thinking about.

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Thu, 7 Aug 2008

Complete Tales of Washington Irving

— SjG @ 10:23 pm

Edited with an introduction by Charles Neider, Da Capo Press, 1998.

(This book is only 798 pages, but I’ve been reading it for over a year. And you thought I’d just given up on posting about books.)

Washington Irving is known for a number of things: being the first professional literary writer of North America, creating of the character Diedrich Knickerbocker (for whom New York is called the Knickerbocker State), originating numerous popular legends (e.g., people though the earth flat until Columbus), and, of course, authoring a few famous stories such as The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Rip van Winkel, and The Devil and Tom Walker. According to Neider, there was an anti-Irving backlash in the 1930s, which is probably why I was only familiar with the three tales mentioned above.

Irving is an amazing storyteller. Even given nearly two hundred years’ gap, his writing is still crystal clear and humorous and evocative and beautiful. He sketches out the Kentucky frontier, ghost-plagued swamps of New England, pre-Revolutionary War Dutch settlements in New York, medieval Spain, the mountains of Italy, and more with equal skill, each believable and very visually rendered. He tells rip-roaring adventures, satires, or fairy tales in those contexts. Some are simple — predictable, even, twee or corny to the modern reader — and yet the enthusiasm and charm with which he writes them makes it easy to forgive.

What really shines through in this collection of sixty some-odd tales, however, is how much Irving loves storytelling. He likes it so much that many of them are really framing stories, wherein the narrator meets up with some other character who tells a story — which may well itself be a framing story. Sometimes, I found myself popping out of a story-stack five or six deep.

Don’t let Hollywood’s pathetic interpretations sell Irving short. These are a lot of fun to read.

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