Archive for February, 2012

The good stuff is rarely on the shelves at the front of the store

February 19, 2012 4 comments

Occasionally in my book-hunting adventures, I come across a cache of old copies of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. If they’re in decent shape, I almost always sift through them for a copy or two that might be worth taking home and holding on to. Used, they typically go for three or four dollars, sometimes less.

The format is appealing — roughly the same as Reader’s Digest, but with a lower grade of paper, both for the cover and inside pages. It’s basically a flimsy cardboard for the cover and slightly better than newsprint inside. Also, the text is divided into two columns on each page, for ease of reading. Art and graphics are minimal. It’s a tidy little package, easy to handle, cart around, store, etc.

Looking through the old copies, it’s interesting to find all the prominent authors from the fantasy and science fiction genres. Nobody, it seemed, was too good to appear in F&SF or one of the other very similar magazines with the same format that were so popular in the ’60s and ’70s. Even the top writers couldn’t have gotten much money for their contributions, but they wrote for the magazine anyway. It was the place to see and be seen.

Today, in an antiques mall, I picked up the October 1968 issue, which contains writings by Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Harlan Ellison, Robert Silverberg, Gahan Wilson, Larry Niven, D.F. Jones and Ron Goulart. These were/are prominent names in fantasy and science fiction. I was especially drawn to the Ellison short story, “Try a Dull Knife.” Besides being a longtime fan of Ellison, I was fascinated by the fact that he submitted this piece to the magazine at a time when he was at or near the peak of his career. In fact, the editor’s note introducing the story indicates how busy Ellison was at that time:

“Harlan Ellison’s current projects include the following: scripting an sf film, Esper, for Universal Pictures (it is projected as a film-for-TV and later a series); putting together a second volume of Dangerous Visions; completing two novels, Demon with a Glass Hand (based on his award-winning ‘Outer Limits’ television script, and Dial 9 to Get Out, a contemporary novel ‘more than slightly autobiographical.’ Ellison is presently crossing the country making TV and radio appearances to promote his new collection Love Ain’t Nothing But Sex Misspelled. . . .”

I checked my shelf of Ellison books, and the story in the magazine later appeared in his collection The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World. I just read the story, and it’s pretty good, an allegory about the vampiric codependence between celebrities and their fans. Classic Ellison, in that he no doubt was thinking autobiographically as he conceived this story.

Another fun piece is a column called “The Dark Corner” by the cartoonist Gahan Wilson in which he reviews new horror releases. He has an interesting take on a new edition of an Arthur Machen novel, arguing that the young people experimenting with psychedelic drugs would be wise to read the old British horror master.

“The more naive among the psychedelic set and the pot lot appear to believe that they have stumbled on a New Thing,” Wilson writes. “They style themselves Columbuses, treading an undiscovered continent, making first contact with the angels and demons which dwell therein. They are, of course, quite wrong. Those lands have been explored by previous voyagers, and we have the maps and logs of their journeys. Some of these bold cartographers left encouraging reports, others did not. Among those with less happy news stood — we can say towered — the figure of Arthur Machen. His cautionary essays on what may happen to those who meddle with that which we laughingly call reality should be required reading for those who are tempted to dip their toe into the acid pool or go out with Mary Jane.”

I haven’t read Machen, but my interest surely is piqued now. (Taking a quick look at the Wikipedia entry for Machen, I note that Stephen King, no slouch in the horror field, believes Machen’s novella The Great God Pan may be the best horror story ever.)

The October 1968 issue also includes Clarke’s response to a nonfiction piece by Asimov from a previous issue. Clarke and Asimov apparently were old friends, or at least very respectful colleagues, but the Clarke piece offers a strong disagreement with Asimov about an arcane aspect of science: whether anything is impossible. The dialogue between Asimov and Clarke happened many moons before the advent of the Internet, but F&SF at times had the feel of being an interactive experience within the tight-knit community of writers who contributed to it. It was something like a blog in which a handful of people are contributing and playing off one another’s posts.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction is still publishing, bimonthly these days, in roughly the same format. I haven’t been inclined to pick up the more recent issues, in part because I don’t recognize most of the contributors. But I think I’ll get a new one sometime soon and see what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. The compact and unpretentious format is hard to resist.

Skywalks: The winter beaters of Des Moines

Des Moines, about 30 miles south of Ames, has an impressive downtown business district. A bunch of tall buildings packed together. It’s not Manhattan, okay, but for the middle of Iowa, it’s significant.

One striking feature of downtown Des Moines is the vast matrix of skywalks connecting the high-rise buildings and parking garages. It’s not just a couple of them: Altogether, there are about four miles’ worth of skywalks. The first stretch of skywalk opened in 1969 but it’s not part of the four-mile system that got under way in 1982.

The skywalks have two obvious reasons to exist: 1) to allow workers to walk from one building to another with the greatest of ease and 2) to do so without having to suffer the discomforts of winter and, I suppose, the more modest discomforts of summer. It’s a cool thing. It’s new to me, but I realize it’s not unique to Des Moines.

It’s not all good news. Apparently things once were more vibrant in parts of the skywalks than they are today. The big insurance companies Wellmark and Aviva left the downtown area in 2010, dramatically cutting pedestrian traffic in parts of the skywalk system. Some skywalk-level restaurants closed.

“Instead of the skywalks teeming with activity, parts of the system had begun to look like a rundown shopping mall with empty store fronts,” wrote David Elbert for the Des Moines Register, which, by the way, is located in a downtown high-rise and is served by the skywalk system.

Elbert wrote about the skywalks this week because they recently benefited from a $15,000 makeover in advance of the Iowa caucus.

Being a ‘blogger’ means posting more often than I’ve been doing lately, so here’s an attempt to rectify this problem

February 8, 2012 6 comments

It has been brought to my attention that I haven’t been blogging very much lately. This, I must admit, is true. But I believe I can do better, and I will try, starting with this post.

My main problem, I think, is that I’m a journalist — have been for many years — and so I’m not accustomed to the idea of sitting down and cranking out something if I don’t have a “news peg” — something newsworthy, such as an event or a pressing issue, on which to base a piece of writing. But a person can blog successfully without knowing exactly what the news peg is when he sits down in front of the computer. Blogging is more like thinking out loud, like the first draft of a personal essay rather than the end product. Gotta get used to that.

I read several books at once. I’m not proud of this, but it’s how I roll, as the young people say. I’ll tell you about some of them.

The book sitting next to my bed is, typically, a work of fiction. The one sitting there now is Under the Dome by Stephen King. I recently finished his latest novel, 11/22/63, and liked it. It’s a long book, a little longer than it needed to be, frankly, but still pretty good. But when I finished it, I realized I had not yet read his other recent long book, Under the Dome, which got good reviews. So I started reading it right away, and I’m enjoying it. I’m about a quarter of the way through it, which means I’ve read 250 pages! When I’m done in a couple of weeks, probably, I’ll have had my Stephen King fix for a while, probably a year at least.

The book that I take with me to work, which is the one I read over breakfast and/or lunch, is God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World by Cullen Murphy. Just published. For the most part, it’s a history of the three Inquisitions that menaced non-Christians for hundreds of years. But it also looks at how the Inquisition mindset has continued to be part of history to the present day. Interesting book so far. I really like picking up the history of the Inquisitions. We should learn more about this as part of our basic history education.

Another book I’m working my way through is Iowa Boy: Ten Years of Columns by Chuck Offenburger. This is the first collection of Offenburger’s columns for the Des Moines Register. It was published by Iowa State University Press in 1987. I also have the second collection and will get to it soon. Offenburger was a fine columnist whose specialty was small-town Iowa. He would travel all over the state to find offbeat and quirky people and situations to write about. I’ve learned a lot about Iowa from reading his columns. Offenburger left the Register several years ago. He taught journalism for a while, I understand, but then settled in the country outside Jefferson, Iowa, about 40 miles west of Ames, where he continues to write, particularly for his popular website, I know someone who knows him, and I’m hoping to get a chance to meet him sometime soon.

Here are some of the other books on the shelf where the “currently reading” books are kept: Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from The New Yorker, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson, Alfred Kazin’s Journals, Deadline Artists: America’s Greatest Newspaper Columns, A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles and Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson. There are more.

The irony of this shelf is that, on the shelf below it, there are certainly some better books than I am excited to dive into as soon as possible, such as Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, 1934-61 by Paul Hendrickson, Sweet Heaven When I Die: Faith, Faithlessness, and the Country in Between by Jeff Sharlet, Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever by Will Hermes, and The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc. by Jonathan Lethem. These, along with many others, all hold major promise, but I can’t bring myself to start them when I have more than a dozen books that already contain bookmarks.

Time flies

February 5, 2012 4 comments
Sara and Erin

This is a picture of our daughters, Sara and Erin, probably taken in 1996. They are 21 and 17 today, and doing great.

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