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Thursday, April 1, 2010

When all else is going wrong, what can you read? Suggestions from my misspent youth...

by Jamie Lutton

When I was fourteen, and I was thrown out of school for the second time (and for 18 months,as it turned out), looking for good escape fiction became a high priority. What with hiding from my parents scrutiny on one side, and really hiding from my peer group, I had developed my first list of trash, or escape fiction, that I have been building on ever since.

When the days are really black, you don't have to be a fourteen year old with a d- average and a bad attitude to need escape fiction (and nonfiction)like I was. I am a re-reader of books: books have been my solace since I was seven, and began to figure out that my value system was not in line with my peers, to say the least.

Some of my favorites from those very dark days - days that included hiding inside all day, and memorizing all the lyrics of Tom Leher - I developed a fondness for Robert Heinlein's books.

A Robert Heinlein title directly led me become a bookseller. I saved my paltry allowance for three weeks to buy I Will Fear No Evil by him, in 1974, when it was a new release. I think it cost about $1.50, which was a vast sum to me at the time. It fell apart in my hands the first time I read it. I was infuriated at the shoddy quality of both the book's construction, and the book's writing. I had encountered the dread Late Heinlein Phenomenon, when he was just reading the newspaper and phoning in his novels. No, not newspapers. Playboy or Penthouse.

So, started to ride my bike to yard sales, looking for books. Any good books, not just the ones I wanted to read myself, but ones I could trade in at the local used bookstore. I was also experimenting with capitalism, too, playing the local bookstore to get my fix of piles of books by bringing her trade-in I had found at yard sales.

But, I digress here - Here is a weird first choice, that I still reread, about once every five years, to put myself to sleep -

Edgar Rice Burrough's attempt to write a feminist anti-religion adventure story in Darkest Africa. Tarzan Triumphant. This is truly a weird little book for a author who was as racist and sexist (read his first Tarzan book, and tell me he is not racist) and conventional to write. He must have been inspired by the female aviators of the 1930's. Read this one, which is totally odd, yet fun. It has a few great characters that will surprise you. And if you want something totally mind-blowingly silly, read his Pellucidar novels. You can tell that Robert E. Howard was a fan, who must have read these, then refined the genre when he wrote the Conan books (which I could not read more than once.)

Burroughs stole his best ideas from H. Rider Haggard, and Kipling's Jungle Books, but he is great when you want total trash to read.

If you want to see literary influence, you can connect the dots by reading a Mowgli story back to back with a early Tarzan story, and see the direct lifts. Both authors are really racist, unfortunately, but it is educational to read good bad writing, and bad good writing back to back.

When you pick up Kipling, don't miss the short story Rikki-Tikki Tavi, a yarn about a mongoose and his pet humans. Unfortunately, Cobras get maligned in this story, the author gave the female cobra a great line; not to be missed:

"Son of the big man who killed my Nag. Stay Still. If you move, I will strike, if you do not move, I will strike. Oh, foolish people, who killed my Nag!"

While you read this, you make you hand into a snake puppet, wherever you go, and recite the whole passage to your friends. You can do this cold sober, if you are serious enough. And they will be impressed. This works better than Shakespeare with most crowds.

So, so far, from my teen years, I reread

Tarzan Triumphant
Kipling's Jungle Books
Rikki-Tikki Tavi - (short story)

And a strong warning not to read Late Heinlein unless you have read early Heinlein, and decide to see where the old duffer decided to drift. The very best Heinlein book, if you are going to pick just one to read, that has to be

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. This is his only title that I could hand to a non SF reader, who is skeptical about this genre. Perhaps to someone who is a thriller reader. His future America and world is quite recognizable, and pretty nasty; his wit is pretty dark. You will love the heroes in this book, and his women are slightly less sexist than usual; and act heroically.

The best thing about the Heinlein vision was that he was pro-future, pro-space, long before Sputnik was launched in the 1950's, and was kind of witty. But with so much to read, and you have to pick one book, don't have it be Stranger in a Strange Land. It is good, but atypical of his style and dated now. If you are a grown up and pick it up, the sex utopia he describes is so yesterday. And not workable in the real world.

Other SF books I reread in the Dark Days of Delinquency include The Zero Stone, and Uncharted Stars by Andre Norton. This author wrote nearly 100 books in her lifetime, starting at about 48, after owning a used bookstore. Thinking about that level of output makes me tired. They are all pretty good, but about 6 of hers I would gladly reread, and these two top the list. The other three are Secret of the Lost Race, and maybe the Time Travel titles of hers, or her Witch World books. She has a fast moving style, as she, like Heinlein, started out writing books for teenagers.

I tend to reread only The Zero Stone and Uncharted Stars, as they are plot driven, and have the best alien of all time in them. Eet. Only Spock is a better alien, and he was on TV. I will take nominees, but I have never met an alien who made me laugh, and stuck in my head more than Eet did, when I first read these as a teenager.

Andre Norton was very influential on people like Marion Zimmer Bradley and the like, the endless fantasy novels written by 10 to 15 very competent women fantasy writers. Only Le Guin and Octavia Butler, who died recently, are not shades of this author. She may not have been as good as the women who followed, but she was more prolific, and she was the first.

So, here is the start of the list

Tarzan Triumphant
The Jungle Books +
Rikki-Tikki-Tavi
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
The Zero Stone
Uncharted Stars

Next, I will add The Demon Breed, by James H. Schmitz. This book, which has giant ten foot long mutant otters in it, is a pretty obvious Vietnam allegory. It was written in 1968, and Schmitz was astute enough to see which way the war was going to go for the U.S. But is fun, fast, thrilling and who doesn't like giant ten foot long mutant otters that strike and kill in the dark? Schmitz's other books are sadly dated, even his Witches of Karres, but this one holds up. I have probably read this one 20 or 30 times. Go, otters, go.

this is just the short list, and includes only the teen books I still reread recently, and not the teen books that I cherished at the time, but have given up. I will conclude here and post this, but will add and post a list of all my compulsive rereads from this time in my life, that I still read, when I recall them. The list of books that I read over and over and over is very long now, and will take me a little time to recall and post here; but watch this space.

There was a lot of pleasant old trashy novels to read, and I made it my duty to find and consume as many as I could find, to avoid the reality of my teen years.

Watch this space for more memories. Next time, I will write about old mystery authors as well.

Regards
Jamie

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