Friday, August 30, 2013

Book Review: No Blade of Grass by John Christopher

There’s more than one way to get to the post in post-apocalyptic fiction. While a third world war/nuclear explosion is one of the most used, there are also plenty of meteorological catastrophes, flu pandemics, technological failures, and even aliens or zombies as plot catalysts for post-apocalyptic scenarios.

John Christopher’s No Blade of Grass (1956) starts with a virus, but not just any virus. Rather than people, this virus kills all grasses quite quickly, mutating faster than scientists can find a counter-virus. That means no rice and no wheat --the basis of most of the world’s food supply. Without grass, cattle have nothing to graze upon, either, so the meat supply is also endangered.

The result is almost the opposite of the standard post-apocalyptic scenario, which usually concerns a decimated population of humans. In this novel, the population is plentiful; it’s the food that’s scarce.

When rumors leak that the British government plans to deal with the problem by swiftly reducing the population (i.e., atom-bombing major city centers), panicked families flee London and literally head for the hills. The ensuing chaos spreads even more rapidly than the grass virus.

The family at the center of No Blade of Grass has insider information via a government-employed friend, so they have a bit of a head start. Their plan is to reach a relative’s farm, which, situated in a deep valley bordered by a treacherous river and steep mountains, will allow them to survive while shutting the gate behind them (also literally).

John Custance is determined that his family reach the farm so they can grow up in a civilized manner, no matter what the cost along the way. John’s choices are hard ones, and the every-man-for-himself mentality he encounters on the road leads him to making decisions (on a smaller scale) of the type he previously condemned the government for.

When he confronts a band of thieves --men who would have been ordinary working men just weeks ago-- they accuse him outright. If he’s made it this far, one suggests, he must have more than theft to his name. His accusation is so true it stings.

It becomes clear that in his quest to get his family to civilization, he’s losing civility along the way.

No Blade of Grass is frightening because people can be frightening, and when they’re placed in extreme situations, it’s almost impossible to predict exactly what even the most well-meaning person will do.

A bit of a difficulty in reading the book is in the names. Whether it’s because plain names were popular in the ‘50s, or perhaps because Christopher was attempting an Everyfamily, the characters are a nightmare to keep straight: John, Roger, Mary, Anne, David and Jane. It’s cause for rejoicing when a boy named Spooks joins the ensemble.

First published in England as The Death of Grass, the book’s American publishers thought the title “sounded like something out of a gardening catalogue.” It was made into a film in 1970, and BBC Radio 4 broadcast a five-part radio drama in 2009, narrated by Peep Show’s David Mitchell.

Author John Christopher (the pseudonym for Sam Youd) probably first came to a lot of readers’ attention as the writer of the young adult series The Tripods.

If you've read any post-apocalyptic fiction (or seen any films), what was the catalyst for the collapse of civilization? Do you prefer realistic or supernatural events as causes for a fictitious apocalypse?

Note: This previously-published post was updated for Friday's Forgotten Books, as I'm still finishing up Richard Matheson's Someone Is Bleeding. Look for the review next Friday.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

All Roads Lead to Book Dirt: Nude Owls Edition

I can’t get enough of checking my blog stats to see which search terms people entered into
Nude owl lovers: get the uncensored version for a buck.
Google that ultimately led them here. While it’s heartening to see readers find things I’ve actually written about (creepy nursery rhymes, literary cocktails, and limericks remain popularly-searched items), I can’t help but think some web surfers are looking for that
other internet.

Needless to say, I don’t think the Googlers who found Book Dirt via these search terms are going to stick around for my book reviews. 

Some recent searches that made me arch an eyebrow include:

Rhymes about man sluts - If I were familiar with any heroic couplets about hustlers or rent boy rondels, believe me, I’d link them. Alas, my knowledge of gigolo poetry is nil.

Nude owls calendar - My yearly roundups of weird calendars have featured both nude archaeologists and hungover owls. Maybe for 2014 someone will publish mash-up calendars of previous entries. I’m hoping for Nice Jewish Boys in Trees and Bare Naked Moog Pioneers.

Sexy Russian gipsy - I don’t know about the sexy part, but if there’s enough interest in gypsies, perhaps I’ll review the two gypsy-themed mystery novels I’ve read: Martin Cruz Smith’s Gypsy in Amber and Phil Rickman’s The Cure of Souls.

Kinky alcoholic beverage - Thanks to my Kinky Friedman mystery phase, I will forever get web hits associated with his first name from people who probably don’t have library cards.

Growing viruses on chicken eggs - This is one of the most bewildering search terms that’s come up in the stats, because I can’t for the life of me figure out how it led here. It could make for a good beginning to a Michael Crichton-esque novel.

If you’re actually here for books, check my tags by scrolling all the way down in the sidebar. You might find something you like.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Does Your Bikini Match Your Book?

When I was young and dumb, I went through a phase where I would order a beer to match whatever I was wearing. (I said I was dumb.) Because I wore black almost exclusively, it was pretty much always the same beer. I can’t for the life of me think of what it was -- I could swear it was the dark version of something common in the U.S. in the 1980s -- but I do know it was a dark bottle with a distinctly black label.

While I ultimately abandoned matching triple bocks to frocks, I’m still smitten with the ridiculous genius of Matchbook. The brainchild of Kate Imbach, a documentary filmmaker and former marketing exec, the site features literary book covers juxtaposed with carefully-chosen swimwear in a complementary design.

Matchbook hasn’t had an update in awhile, but I don’t mind. The archive that’s there is practically an art piece in itself. Check out some of my favorites below, and if you like what you see, peruse the whole archive.

A stunningly perfect book cover/swimwear match. What would Vonnegut say?

Black and gold art deco design for a flapper turned beach bum.

I think the real punishment is trying to get into this swimsuit.

It may not be literature, but the match is worthy of one of Collins' fictional Hollywood wives.

"Girls. Jesus Christ. They can drive you crazy. They really can." -- Holden Caulfield

Oh, the irony.

Such a good match, it's startling. I think I like the swimsuit better than I liked the book, though.

Op art for the beach and the brain.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Book Review: Carmilla by J. S. Le Fanu

My relationship with Carmilla is almost lifelong. A homoerotic horror novella from 1872 isn’t typical reading fare for an elementary school-aged kid, but you can blame Scholastic. I have no idea why the children’s publishing company put out an edition of the book, but the copy of J. S. Le Fanu’s Carmilla that I encountered as a young girl looked typical of popular novels of the time. The mention of vampires excited me, as I already had well-thumbed copies of both Vampires and Werewolves from Bantam’s Weird and Horrible Library. Filled with creepy medieval woodcuts and stories from folklore, I read those books as history. (Something going back that far had to be real, didn’t it?) I’m sure the language and vocabulary of Carmilla were far over my head, but before I picked it back up as an adult, I still retained an impression of both somnambulism and anagrams -- things that still interest me today.
The Scholastic version of Carmilla.

Years later, I rediscovered Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu when I became interested in Victorian-era mystery and horror. I read the Dover editions of both Uncle Silas, a locked room mystery with occult undertones, and In a Glass Darkly, a collection of short stories and novellas, including “Green Tea,” a bizarre tale of a man terrorized by an invisible monkey demon. It was in In a Glass Darkly that I encountered Carmilla a second time. My most recent (and third) reading coincided with a trip to Ireland. One of the hotels where I stayed was around the corner from Le Fanu’s home (I blogged about it here), so it was a stroke of serendipity that I was offered an advance copy of Syracuse University Press’ new edition of Carmilla just before I left for its author’s stomping grounds.

Carmilla predates Stoker’s Dracula by twenty-five years, and its influence on the more popular vampire book is noticeable. In his original manuscript, Stoker even placed Dracula in a castle in Styria -- the same setting as Carmilla -- before ultimately changing it to Transylvania. Stoker’s Dr. Van Helsing is deeply indebted to Le Fanu’s Baron Vordenburg, the first vampire expert in fiction. It’s Lucy Westenra that owes the most to Carmilla, though. The women are strikingly similar in description: both are beautiful and languid, large-eyed and slender. More notably, both are sleepwalking seductresses. In many ways, the character Carmilla is the vampire Lucy Westenra would have become if Dracula ended differently. Although Carmilla came first, with name changes, it could almost be read as an alternate ending to Dracula.

While you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who never heard of Dracula, Carmilla hasn’t fared quite as well in popular culture. It’s still on the radar, though, far more than many other gothic horror books of the 19th century. Persistent interest in vampires is one reason the book sticks around, but I don’t think vampires alone keep interest in Carmilla alive. Erotic lesbian vampires, on the other hand … now that’s something to keep filmmakers and academics interested for decades and decades, and both continue to remake and re-analyze Carmilla from time to time.

Illustration from the original Carmilla.
Carmilla isn’t very long, and it isn’t very complex, which may be another reason filmmakers like it -- it’s a template. The story’s ingenue is Laura, who longs for companionship in a secluded castle with her father. When the young and beautiful Carmilla ends up in the family’s care, the two feel an immediate bond. While obsessed with Carmilla, Laura also notices strange things about her: mood changes, secrecy, and, of course, the previously-mentioned somnambulism. Laura has nightmares of a creature biting her in her sleep, and over time she becomes listless and pale, her life seeming to drain out of her. The rest of the story is a vampire-hunting adventure, and while it delivers on the creep factor, the highlights of the book are in Carmilla’s steady and sinister seduction of Laura:

"Sometimes after an hour of apathy, my strange and beautiful companion would take my hand and hold it with a fond pressure, renewed again and again; blushing softly, gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover; it embarrassed me; it was hateful and yet overpowering; and with gloating eyes she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, "You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever.”"

At times, though, it’s unclear just who is seducing whom. Laura’s obsession with her friend  is hardly hidden. She says of Carmilla’s hair:

"I have often placed my hands under it, and laughed with wonder at its weight. It was exquisitely fine and soft, and in colour a rich very dark brown, with something of gold. I loved to let it down, tumbling with its own weight, as, in her room, she lay back in her chair talking in her sweet low voice, I used to fold and braid it, and spread it out and play with it."

Laura’s desire, though, is mixed up with fear:

"In these mysterious moods I did not like her. I experienced a strange tumultuous excitement that was pleasurable, ever and anon, mingled with a vague sense of fear and disgust. I had no distinct thoughts about her while such scenes lasted, but I was conscious of a love growing into adoration, and also of abhorrence. This I know is paradox, but I can make no other attempt to explain the feeling."

The mixture of lesbian sexual obsession and vampirism has attracted filmmakers since 1932, starting with Carl Dreyer’s stylized and atmospheric German film Vampyr. Dreyer played down the lesbianism and upped the horror, going to extreme lengths to capture the right look. (It is said that
Still from Dreyer's The Vampyr.
the filthy look of the doctor's surgery was the result of the director breaking jars of jam on the floor, then shutting off the room for a month to let mold and insects accumulate.) The first film to adhere

to Carmilla’s homoeroticism was in 1960, with Roger Vadim’s Blood and Roses, titled Et Mourir de Plaisir in French (literally: To Die of Pleasure). The story has been adapted several times since, both faithfully and with only the most tenuous of connections, from Hammer’s The Vampire Lovers to the 1989 film with Meg Tilly as Carmilla.

You can see that Blood and Roses follows parts of Carmilla closely in the clip below. From Carmilla:

I saw Carmilla, standing near the foot of my bed, in her white night-dress, bathed, from her chin to her feet, in one great stain of blood.

The Syracuse University Press edition of Carmilla is decidedly a definitive one, and I recommend it for both academics and those reading it for kicks. The text itself is the result of a comparison of the first publication, as serialized in the journal The Dark Blue, with Carmilla’s subsequent publication in the collection In a Glass Darkly. Extensive notes indicate differences in the text, which is helpful for those doing serious study (or even just for word nerds like me). The essays following this edition range in subject from Carmilla as an Irish novel to the vampire aesthetic. Particularly of interest to me is is Nancy West’s “On Celluloid Carmillas,” which examines the
Syracuse University Press' critical edition of Carmilla
many film versions of Le Fanu’s story, as well as films it has directly influenced.

I highly recommend that you get to know Carmilla, because chances are, you’ll run into her somewhere, whether in fiction or film. Just like in the novel, she’s going to be pretty hard to get rid of. 

Download the public domain edition of Carmilla at Project Gutenberg 

This post was written as part of the Friday’s Forgotten Books blog event hosted by Patti Abbott. You can always find the full list of this week’s entries at her site. You can find my previous forgotten book reviews here.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Learning How to Write by Breaking Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules

Elmore Leonard died Tuesday, and most of the book bloggers I read are reeling from the news. The Rap Sheet has collected several links that give a good and diverse overview of what he meant to the reading and writing community. Nick Jones at Existential Ennui was right in the middle of a string of Leonard reviews the last few weeks, and he’s been giving me advice on where to start in tackling the pile of his books I have accumulated. I regret that I didn’t read more while he was around for me to appreciate.
Elmore Leonard's best advice. (Poster via Graeme Shimmin)

Satirical news outlet The Onion reported Leonard’s death with this headline: 

Elmore Leonard, Modern Prose Master, Noted For His Terse Prose Style And For Writing About Things Perfectly And Succinctly With A Remarkable Economy Of Words, Unfortunately And Sadly Expired This Gloomy Tuesday At The Age Of 87 Years Old

I was a little shocked at first, but I think the headline is a good tribute to Leonard in the only way a humor site could create one. The excessive prose illuminates just what was so great about his writing, by doing its opposite.

Leonard’s ten rules for writing appeared in The New York Times more than a decade ago, and they’re being highly circulated again. They’re worth a read for any writer, and as The Onion has figured out, they’re more a list of what not to do than what to do. (For more on what to do, read some of Elmore Leonard’s novels.)

I once used Leonard’s rules as a writing exercise, though I didn’t know I was doing it at the time. I thought I was just entering an offbeat contest (the type of which I am so fond). The contest, posted in a Canadian newspaper, asked for readers to submit a single sentence that broke as many of Leonard’s rules as possible. I never saw a list of finalists, so I don’t know if the contest ever resolved itself, but I entered, with this:

Prologue: “Rain shore is a-comin’ down,” the flaxen-haired and freckle-nosed outlaw cowgirl exhorted breathlessly, when suddenly her tempestuous eyes spotted the rain-soaked but square-jawed and handsome sheriff in well-fitting leather chaps riding his chestnut horse up the wet, grassy, rock-strewn hill with his brightly polished badge gleaming through the drizzle, and a soggy warrant in his calloused, manly hands!!!

That should be all ten rules, fudging a little on number ten, though I strongly believe no one would want to read any of what I wrote, so I think it counts. Here’s a broken down version, with Leonard’s rules spliced in:

Prologue: [2. Avoid prologues.] “Rain [1. Never open a book with weather.] shore is a-comin’ down,” [7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.] the flaxen-haired and freckle-nosed outlaw cowgirl exhorted [3. Never use a verb other than ''said'' to carry dialogue.] breathlessly [4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ''said'], when suddenly 6. Never use the words ''suddenly'' or ''all hell broke loose.''] her tempestuous eyes spotted the rain-soaked but square-jawed and handsome sheriff in well-fitting leather chaps [8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.] riding his chestnut horse up the wet, grassy, rock-strewn hill [9. Don't go into great detail describing places and things.] with his brightly polished badge gleaming through the drizzle, and a soggy warrant in his calloused, manly hands!!! [5. Keep your exclamation points under control.]

[10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.]

I think it’s interesting to note that some of the phrases I came up with while trying to write poorly on purpose are similar to the style I’ve actually seen in some terrible romance novels. There’s a lot to be learned from intentionally breaking the rules and seeing what a mess the results are.

If you’re the type who likes writing exercises, try it yourself. Break Leonard’s rules. It’s the best way to learn just how right he was.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Authors as Cover Models on Their Own Novels

Publisher’s Weekly recently interviewed young adult author Lois Duncan about the reissue of her long out-of-print young adult title Debutante Hill. I took particular notice, because I read several of Duncan’s books as a youngster. She’s known best for I Know What You Did Last Summer, but her supernatural books appealed most to me. I rapidly tore through A Gift of Magic and The Third Eye. (As an adult, I translated her Hotel for Dogs into French, but that’s a tale for another time.)

While the story of Debutante Hill and its history since 1957 is interesting (she originally submitted it to Seventeen as a short story), what really got my attention was a revelation about the cover of the new edition. That’s a young Lois Duncan herself, pouting petulantly in the passenger seat of the blue Jeep. The photo was taken by her father, pro photographer Joseph Janney Steinmetz, at a local drive-thru. 

That's Lois Duncan, sulking in the foreground.

“All the cars are jammed together,” Duncan said, “and I’m in the picture at age 16, sitting in my blue Jeep sulking because I let some creepy boy drive my beautiful blue Jeep.” PW asked if “the creepy boy” knows he’s on a book cover, but the author hasn’t a clue: “I have no idea who he even is! I can’t remember. I had a car. It was easy to attract boys back then if you had your own car.”

Lois Duncan’s appearance as a cover model on her own book got me to wondering if other authors have appeared on their novels. Sure, lots of writers appear on their own non-fiction works, but what about fiction? Anybody else using themselves to represent a character?

The first person I thought of was Kinky Friedman, who’s in the unique position of being both the author and the main character of his mystery novels. The Kinky Friedman in the novels is a whiskey-swilling, cigar-smoking Texan who pals around with people like Willie Nelson, and wrote a song called “They Don’t Make Jews Like Jesus Anymore” with Kinky Friedman and The Texas Jewboys. The real-life Kinky Friedman is a whiskey-swilling, cigar-smoking Texan who pals around with people like Willie Nelson, and wrote a song called … well, you get the idea. (He’s worth a read, if you haven’t read him. He’s a pretty entertaining narcissist. Elvis, Jesus & Coca-Cola is a hoot-and-a-half.)

The Kinkster, as both author and main character.

And then there’s Stephen King, who, while not quite on the cover of Misery, appears inside the paperback edition on a faux cover for Misery’s Return, the book Annie Wilkes forces Paul Sheldon to write while captive. King is depicted in full-blown Fabio mode, tongue firmly in cheek.

Stephen King, ripper of bodices.

Speaking of Fabio, as a cover-model-turned author, it only makes sense that he appeared on the covers when he started writing his own books. While his titles are said to be “collaborations” with more experienced authors, I’m guessing that he contributed about as many words as he contributed to his I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! commercials. 

The pen may be mightier, but (ahem) author Fabio is more comfortable with a sword.

If we’re going to talk about ghostwriting, then there are a whole pile of celebrities with novels that bear their name, if not their actual writing. Because the books’ publishers know that the only reason the books will be bought in the first place is because of the celebrity name on the cover, the cover model is always the star-turned-fake-writer, whether it's Snooki or Nicole Richie. In the case of Pamela Anderson, her debut novel Star (about a men’s mag model who lands a role on a TV show in a segment called Hammer Time) has a cover that unfolds to reveal a splayed and nearly-naked Anderson printed on the reverse. 

To see more of Pamela Anderson's work, read the book -- or just unfold the cover.

Maybe every author should follow suit. Perhaps Philip Roth should publish his next hardcover novel with a fold-out centerfold. Joyce Carol Oates could don a wig and a white halter dress for a new edition of Blonde. It would be interesting to see if George R. R. Martin could sell another gazillion books by appearing on his fantasy covers in leather armor. He’s already got the beard. I’ve always believed we should treat writers more like rock stars (which is why I got such a big kick out of Jeffrey Eugenides’ billboard). Bring it on, I say.

Can you think of any other authors who appear on his or her fiction covers? Are there any authors you picture as the characters in their books?