Destinies of rust – Gordon Bottomley and the early days of eco-poetry

Lindsay Edmunds:

A striking epigraph, a very early example of eco-poetry, and a memory of the great writer Russell Hoban.

Originally posted on what a lot of birds:

Destines of rustI came across this while archiving: an epigram to an unpublished work of the late Russell Hoban. It’s beautiful, and makes me want to read more of Bottomley’s work.

O, you are busied in the night,

Preparing destinies of rust;

Iron misused must turn to blight,

And dwindle to a tetter’d crust. 

It’s part of the poem “To Iron-Founders and Others”, an amazingly early piece of eco-poetry. I think it deserves posting in full. 

Can we also bring back the word tetter’d? Please?

View original 242 more words

Shirley Jackson’s The Sundial

A new Penguin Classics edition of The Sundial is out.  This is Shirley Jackson’s apocalypse novel. (Did you know she wrote one?) The end is nigh, and a thoroughly nasty New England family plus a few  other people believe they alone will be saved. . . .

At Slate you can read an appreciative review.

When you read Jackson, she stays read. There is no higher compliment for a writer than that.

Buy The Sundial at Amazon.

Digital Book Today blog: Imaginary places

Another week, another blog at  Digital Book Today:  I wrote this one after reading a remarkable book by Robert Geraci titled Apocalyptic AI: Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality.

Geraci writes about what futurist Ray Kurzweil calls “functional immortality” and about gamers who think they live their real lives online. Transcending reality (meaning the natural world) is big. Are we going to make the jump?

I write about Murphy’s Law, the fact that my computer connection went out for 20 minutes in the middle of composing the blog, and the fact that mind-to-mind connections are not new.

Imaginary Places is the name of the blog.

“A room that so achingly missed its owner”

Paul Cooper is the archivist with the job of curating the work of writer Russell Hoban (1925-2011). He writes brilliantly about the process in Archiving Russell Hoban’s Work.

Almost in passing, he provides this excellent description of what it is like to read Hoban’s books:

I found Hoban’s novels hard going at first, but it didn’t take long for him to win me over with his weird and idiosyncratic style. I found his writing to have more in common with music than with other prose: more than mere mimicry of life, his work is a symphonic arrangement of signs and symbols, so that the more you read, the richer your engagement becomes.

Every author should be so lucky as to have Paul Cooper as a curator.

(Note: You don’t need to have read Hoban to appreciate this article.)

Kind winter books

If you are thinking what I am thinking right now (“How can it snow so much when it is so cold?”) and if temperatures are heading to -12F later this week, then you are in need of the comfort books can provide. These two titles  provide rest and ease, and a drink of clear water from another time.

They also are cheap because they have been forgotten.

The Woman’s Day Book of House Plantsbook of houseplants

The author is Jean Hersey; the illustrator is Harry Marinksy. It is worth noting both their names. Hersey writes about houseplants as if they were friends, and Marinksy draws them the same way.

The tenderness of this book!   You have to be in a certain mood to appreciate it, but if you are (say, on a snowed-in weekend), the book can make you happy. For example:

“Perhaps a window garden is at its best on a chilly winter day when icicles fringe the eaves, when the wind howls in the chimney, and when the sun shines on your small indoor tropic. . . . You draw up a chair beside your plants, perhaps you water, turn a plant, trim off a straggle, or maybe you just sit. Soon your awareness quickens , you begin noticing new things.”

An aside: I know grammar; it is one of the things I am paid to know, and it is a faint surprise to see Hersey’s adeptness with a sentence. I doubt she was an English major, either.

Abebooks has it for prices ranging from $1 to $4.

Goldfish Varieties and Water Gardensgoldfish book

I cannot reproduce the state of mind I was in when I bought this book for a few dollars at Abebooks last year; maybe I just knew a bargain when I saw it. This 1947 volume by William T. Innes is richly illustrated with both drawings and photographs.

I don’t know anything about goldfish or water gardens, which is why reading around in this book is such a pleasant, naive experience. Innes communicates his experience, which is considerable, and his enjoyment, also considerable. I looked him up once; he lived well into his nineties, healthy and productive to the end.

Like Hersey, Innes is a freaking fantastic grammarian. He knows his way around a sentence. This is how the book begins:

“A lady wrote the author, I have just bought eight pretty goldfish in a cute little globe. I feed them three good meals a day and change the water often, but they are always at the top of the water with their mouths partly in the air. This makes a little sound. Do you think they are trying to speak to me?

This letter sounds funny, of course, but it really was not intended as a humorous effect. That makes it sad. Those four short sentences are unique in that they have compressed or crystallized  into a few simple words the substance of a vast popular ignorance on the subjects treated in this chapter. The lady should be awarded a medal for crowding the greatest amount of aquarium ignorance into the fewest possible words.”

This book can get pricy because some sellers have noticed how beautiful it is. But it still can be had at Abebooks for $9-$15.

A Fantastic Flying Books experience

There is an enchanting 2011 animated film called The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore, in which books transport the main character to another world. It is free on YouTube right now, because the directors are releasing another movie that they are using this one to promote.

If you love books and your books developed the ability to fly, it would be surprising, but you wouldn’t kick them out of the house. You’d say, yeah, I thought you’d do that someday.

I had a Fantastic Flying Books experience this past weekend. Although no actual flight was involved, a book that had sat unread on a shelf for 20+ years suddenly came to life.

Sometime in the mid or early 1990s I bought a book called The Wiccan Path: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. I don’t remember why I bought it. Possibly I thought the “solitary practitioner” part of the title might relate to a writer’s work. It wasn’t because I wanted to learn how to be a witch. Still don’t.

The Wiccan Path survived three moves and probably a dozen book sales and donations. In other words, I looked at that book over and wiccan pathover, and chose to keep it.

In all that time, I never had any interest in actually reading it. Until last weekend.

Now that Warning: Something Else Is Happening is only a week or so away from being published, a new novella is taking shape in my mind. It features a heroine who leads others in a good direction and is therefore a target for assassins, liars, and torturers.

I was wondering what forces formed her. Instantly I imagined that she was raised by a pair of white witches in a tight, closed community. She rebels against all this and leaves that world behind, but as her heroic journey progresses, she finds that doors opened during that time serve her well. Not that she is a witch—no. It is not that simple.

Gee, I didn’t know anything about white witches. Nothing whatsoever. Where could I find out?

The Wiccan Path, written by Rae Beth, gave me the exact information I was after. It is a fascinating, likable book. Parts of it read like a role-playing game:

You will leave the clearing and follow a winding, downhill path, until you see a cave. The entrance is not much more than a crack between two rocks. But you slip inside, following your familiar. A candle will be waiting for you, standing upon a rock. Pick up the candle and look all around. The cave is clean. Perhaps it is a crystal cave. The floor is sand. At the back is another opening. You go through and a passage winds away downhill, deep into earth. . . .

And so on.

I own a few other books like The Wiccan Path—unread but still there, waiting to take flight. The people who made Fantastic Flying Books would understand.

What books have a permanent place on your bookshelves?


Jaron Lanier has written a book on the singularity for those of us who are not techies (most of us, that is). Judging from a review, it is thoughtful and humane, and avoids the kind of apocalyptic scenarios that make smashing movies.

Read the review at Real Change News.

Take a look at some reader reviews at Amazon, as well as an interview with Lanier.

Shirley Jackson revisited

There’s a good blog at Slate about one of Jackson’s strangest and most uncompromising novels: HANGSAMAN. It is about a lonely college girl on the edge of madness. The plot tips this way and that, and there is a song woven through the book.

Blog is about both Jackson and the disappearing literary paperback.

The author, , ends with this words:

Fifty years from now Hangsaman will be over 100 years old, and this little object that once sold for 50 cents may well still survive—in my daughter’s house, or in a thrift shop somewhere, or on the shelves of some other mass-market fetishist like me, carefully tending the last remaining treasures in his collection. That $9 Kindle version will be long evaporated into the ether, just another obsolete file format, more orphaned data lost in the dark where no one will ever find it.

Some good news: there may be a new biography of Shirley Jackson in the future.

Rowling-Galbraith: the software knew

Amid the news about the big-mouthed gossip who outed J.K. Rowling as the author of THE CUCKOO’S CALLING, there is a second story: how that gossip got validation.

It is a local story, too. The computer scientist whose style-comparison software identified her as the probable author is Patrick Juoma, who teaches at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh.

Software like this may help readers in the future with their eternal dilemma: so many books, so little time. Say you are a fan of J.K Rowling and want to know who writes like she does, not just regarding theme and genre, but on the deeper level of style.  Style-comparison software could give you some realistic choices.

The blabbermouth with the now-deleted Twitter account told the world. But mark this: Juoma’s software would have known anyway.


TURTLE DIARY is back in print

TURTLE DIARY is a 1975 novel by Russell Hoban about two 40-something Londoners who want to steal three sea turtles from the London turtle diaryZoo and put them in the sea. These Londoners, William G and Neaera H, tell the story in alternating chapters: his thoughts, her thoughts, and so on.

William reflects that “it was the sort of situation that would be ever so charming and warmly human in a film with Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith but that sort of film is only charming because they leave out so many details, and real life is all the details they leave out.”

If TURTLE DIARY were charming in a wan, safe sort of way (two lonely people do this oh-so-English eccentric thing of freeing the turtles, and life is affirmed, etc),  it likely would have sold better when it came out.

However, it would not be back in print four decades later as part of The New York Review Books Classics series.

Ed Park, author of the novel PERSONAL DAYS and literary editor at Amazon, would not have written in the Introduction that Hoban’s novel “is like a lot of things you already like, while being so much its own stupendous thing that it’s become one of my literary yardsticks.”

Stupendous? Yes it is. It delivers over and over.

Park says that the novel is about loneliness, which surprised me a little. I read TURTLE DIARY for the first time in the 1980s, after I found it in a Bethesda used book store and it passed the random read test (first paragraph + one other paragraph from middle). I’ve returned to it several times since, and I never thought it was mainly about loneliness. William and Neaera are lonely—heck, most of the characters who populate the novel are lonely, as are the sea turtles, and the water beetle Neaera keeps in an aquarium, hoping in vain that it will give her an idea for another children’s book.

But WHY are they lonely? That question leads to a deeper theme.

Which is  . . .

At three o’clock in the morning I sat in the dark looking out of the window down at the square where the fountain is not and I thought about the turtles. The essence of it is that they can find something and they are not being allowed to do it. What more can you do to a creature, short of killing it, than prevent it from finding what it can find? How must they feel? Is there a sense in them of green ocean, white surf and hot sand? Probably not. But there is a drive in them to find it. . . .

—Neaera H

Life rebooted

William is an ex-ad man. He is divorced, and his wife and children have left the country. (“I don’t know where they are.”) He wanted to quit the advertising business; he wanted the divorce. But now he works in a bookshop, lives in a rooming house, and is obsessed with setting the turtles free.

Neaera is a writer and illustrator of best-selling children’s books (as Hoban himself was). She is a success. But she can’t sleep, she can’t write, and she too is obsessed with setting the turtles free.

They make me think of the lines from Aimee Mann’s song “Wise Up”:

You’ve got what you want / You can hardly stand it though.

There’s a video of “Wise Up”  from the movie MAGNOLIA. Watching it might make you cry. The pain and the power of the upturn at the end remind me of TURTLE DIARY

Like the characters in MAGNOLIA, William and Neaera ‘s lives are in desperate need of a reboot—which they get by doing this crazy thing. As William says, “The things that matter don’t necessarily make sense.”

High-definition descriptions

As Ed Park observes, “Hoban’s prose is elegant even at its most brooding, loaded with enough precision-cut lines to fuel your Twitter feed for a month.”  Hoban achieves this effect without wasting a single word, a sign of how talented he really was.

The turtle tank in the London Zoo:

Sea turtles. Two or three hundred pounds the big ones must have weighed. Looping and swinging, flying in golden-green silty water in a grotty little tank no bigger than my room. Soaring, dipping, and curving with flippers like wings in a glass box of second-hand ocean.

Another border in William’s rooming house:

Miss Neap’s lavender scent marches up and down the walls like a skeleton in armour.

A state of mind:

I’m always afraid of being lost, the secret navigational art of the turtles seems a sacred thing to me.

How it ends

A simpler writer would have had William and Neaera fall in love. They would get together in classic romance style, just as the novel faded out.

The ending is happy. But it is not the happy ending you expect.


“Maybe the best book I’ve read this year.” —The Mookse and the Gripes.  (One reason I like this reviewer is because he didn’t like the movie; neither did I.)

“The book starts off funny, and, while never losing its charm, winds up being moving, earning its place as ‘one of the great novels of middle age.’” —I’ve been reading lately.

“Thankfully, Hoban spurns the pat ending and wallops the reader with the kind of intensity that asks more questions than it answers.” —Rebecca Park, Barnes & Noble review

On July 8, 2013, in New York, NYRB Classics and McMally Jackson Books are organizing a tribute to Russell Hoban.

Where to buy it

Turtle Diary (paperback)

Turtle Diary (Kindle)