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Of bats, books and Borders. July 20, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, wit and wisdom.
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Darn it, I really wanted to write a post today about how wind turbines are killing bats (and birds)—an estimated 10,000 bats a year in Pennsylvania alone, according to the lead story in today’s local paper, the Allentown, PA Morning Call. There’s an anti-solar tirade in the same issue. Both cite the too-high cost of alternative, so-called “green” energy.

Our friend Ben will get to all this tomorrow, I promise. And since there are no easy answers, I’ll open up the floor to reader comments. (Well, as you’ll see, actually there is an easy answer; it’s just not one anybody is willing to even contemplate.)

But for now, as a writer and editor, I feel compelled to tackle the issue of the dissolution of Borders and the future of books. So here goes:

The news of Borders’ demise has been dominating headlines and shaking up the already-shaky publishing world. It has caused many pundits to predict that the use of e-readers will rise on Borders’ fall. Our friend Ben has seen much commentary from folks who say they’ll never buy another actual book, since e-books are so much more convenient. And commentary from folks insisting that there’s nothing like a real book and nobody will ever catch them reading a virtual one. And commentary from folks who recommend their local library as a way around the whole issue. And commentary from folks lamenting the imminent demise of public libraries, which they say are bound to go the way of Borders in a couple of years. 

The one thing pretty much everybody agrees on is that the death of Borders won’t bring back the independent, local, totally individual mom-and-pop bookstores that Borders and the other big-box bookstores (you know who you are) drove out of business with an efficiency and speed that puts Wal*Mart to shame. Fans of paperback bestsellers are speaking out in favor of discount chains like Costco (and Wal*Mart), not to mention groceries and pharmacies. Real booklovers—at least, those who love actual, physical books—seem to be hoping that maybe used-book stores can provide a refuge and last resort.

Our friend Ben hates to say “I told you so.” But being a history buff as well as a booklover, I’m only too aware that, for almost all of human history, books were a prized possession of a tiny elite. One had, first of all, to be able to read as a prerequisite, not exactly a widespread phenomenon until the past few centuries. One also had to be interested in reading books, as opposed to more mundane but relevant letters, accounting sheets, and the like. And one had to be able to afford the handwritten and sometimes lavishly illuminated manuscripts that were produced in minuscule and very heavily censored format in the monastic confines where the last vestiges of literacy survived and were perpetuated. Even the nobility who could afford the illuminated Books of Hours and the like often couldn’t read them, relying instead on clerks loaned out from monasteries to read out correspondence and reply to it, barely able to write their own names and affix their seals. Who really needed to know all that stuff, after all?

The invention of the printing press certainly changed all that, but the ability to read remained in the hands of those who could afford to be educated. That remained a tiny percentage of the population until widespread education became the norm in the nineteenth century. In Colonial America, most people owned exactly two books: the Bible, and a copy of our hero and blog mentor, the great Benjamin Franklin’s, Poor Richard’s Almanack. 

By the Regency period, and certainly the Victorian era, the world had changed. The middle as well as the upper classes could read. Sir Walter Scott, Jane Austen, the Brontes, Charles Dickens, Fenimore Cooper, Trollope, Victor Hugo, Herman Melville, and the like reigned supreme. Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Charles Darwin could change the world because everyone was hanging on their every word. Not since Shakespeare had writers been able to influence public thought so quickly and to such a pervasive degree.

Then came the era of public education, when pretty much everybody was taught to read, and expected to read books. Whether those books were Nancy Drew mysteries or Ernest Hemingway novels, Julia Child cookbooks or the adventures of Winnie the Pooh or Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf, it never occurred to anyone that people would ever want to stop reading, or stop buying, books.

But by the time of Harry Potter, people had started talking about the unthinkable. Rather than praising the Harry Potter novels for their own merits, critics praised them for interesting children in reading, as though it were a dying art that J.K. Rowling had single-handedly rescued from extinction.

And what of books themselves, those objects made of paper—or paper, cloth, and cardboard, or paper and “pleather” or paper and actual leather—that people once held in their hands and read? Our friend Ben has believed all my life that their destiny was to again become the possession of the elite, the few, the passionate. I have spent a lifetime collecting books against the day when every book is an e-book and nobody gives a damn. Hawk’s Haven may be no mediaeval monastery, but our bookshelves groan under the weight of books we love and/or feel could be useful to us.

When the last book is printed, the public libraries close for lack of funding, the used-book stores run out of copies to sell, and every conceivable piece of pathetic trash is available flooding the e-book market, our friend Ben and Silence Dogood will be fully stocked with enough real books to last us a lifetime. We only hope there will be people out there who’ll be interested in inheriting our literary legacy.

When the movie is better. March 24, 2011

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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood are great readers, but we try not to be book snobs. People love to belittle movies by comparing them, unfavorably, to the books on which they were based. (The Lord of the Rings movie series comes to mind as a justifiable example of this, reducing a wonderful trilogy to a two-dimensional endless battle sequence worthy of a video game.) But sometimes the movies are better.

Perhaps it was the death of Elizabeth Taylor, possibly the most beautiful woman who ever lived, certainly the most beautiful we ever saw, that brought the topic to mind. Or watching the first episode of “The Pallisers” last night, or comparing the recent version of “True Grit” with the original. But whatever the case, we challenged each other to name some movies that were far superior to the books that inspired them.

First on our list was “The Running Man.” The novella that inspired the movie was little more than a two-dimensional sketch by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman). For whatever reason, the scriptwriters managed to flesh the story out with real characters, lots of color, and actual depth. Ditto for Michael Crichton’s Rising Sun versus the Sean Connery-led film “Rising Sun.” Silence would add the Timothy Dalton version of “Jane Eyre” and both the Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Beckinsale versions of Jane Austen’s “Emma” to the list. Certainly, “Gone with the Wind” and “The Godfather” were far better on film than on paper. Ditto most of the James Bond movies and the Conan movies. “The Commitments,” the marvelous fleshing out of a very slight novella by Roddy Doyle. And “Slumdog Millionaire,” the brilliant bringing to life of an Indian novel called Q&A, a first effort by Vikas Swarup.

Plays are not immune, either. “A Man for All Seasons” and “Amadeus” are two cases where the film trumped the play; ditto “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” 

Sometimes, we feel that the film versions and book versions come out as a draw. We both love the Tony Hillerman mystery series featuring Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. But we also really enjoyed the Robert Redford-produced dramatizations of the series. We feel the same for the movie “Smoke Signals” and the Sherman Alexie short stories on which it was loosely based. And we really enjoy both Alexander McCall Smith’s delightful No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and its TV adaptation.

Then there are the film versions that fall short. Besides the Lord of the Rings movies, there is the issue of Sherlock Holmes. Silence and I love Basil Rathbone as Holmes and respect Jeremy Brett’s interpretation of Holmes as a twitchy, ADHD-bipolar genius enormously. But we are still waiting for the ultimate interpretation, the one that truly lives up to the stories and books. Silence enjoys the various interpretations of her favorite Jane Austen book, Pride and Prejudice, from the BBC version to the Jennifer Ehle/Colin Firth film to “Clueless” and “Bride and Prejudice,” the Bollywood version. But she still thinks the ultimate interpretation has yet to be done.

And of course, there are the books that should be made as films but are still waiting: Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne and Tigana; Joan Vinge’s The Snow Queen and The Summer Queen; Sheri Tepper’s Grass and The True Game trilogy; Mary Stewart’s Nine Coaches Waiting; Mary Gentle’s Ancient Light and Golden Witchbreed; Wendell Berry’s Port William novels; Sharon Kay Penman’s Here Be Dragons and Falls the Shadow; Hope Munt’s The Golden Warrior.  Directors, producers, scriptwriters, where are you?!!!

Readers, we know you have additions to our various lists. Please share them with us!  And meanwhile, let’s take a moment to honor those often-invisible, overlooked entities, screenwriters, who can turn run-of-the mill text into great cinema.

What will become of books? February 20, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben and Silence Dogood were having supper with our friend Rob when the topic of books came up, as it often does, all of us being avid readers. “Between Borders declaring bankruptcy—did you know they’re closing their only store in this area?—and Barnes & Noble’s book selection shrinking every time we go in there, what’s going to become of the printed book?” Silence wailed.

Rob was characteristically optimistic. “Maybe the demise of the chains will mean that independent bookstores, the mom-and-pop operations that the chains, Wal*Mart-like, drove out of business, will make a comeback. I remember there was a wonderful independent bookstore at the mall before Borders took over. And think of Malaprop’s in Asheville. It seems to still be thriving!”

Silence shook her head sadly. “How could any individual afford the overhead to open a bookstore in a mall, Rob? Much less pay the rent malls charge nowadays…”

Our friend Ben was equally pessimistic. “Malaprop’s is something of a special case. It’s in Asheville, a city of artists and intellectuals that values independence and originality. And, as far as I know, there are no chain bookstores in Asheville to challenge it with lower prices. We had a wonderful privately-owned bookstore in my native Nashville, Davis-Kidd, that finally closed because it couldn’t compete with the chains. I’m not sure any private bookstore could, if a chain store opened near it.”

“What about Bethlehem’s Moravian Book Shop?” Rob persisted. “It’s not only still open, it’s the oldest continually operating bookstore in the world!”

“Yes, yes,” Silence muttered. “But consider: What percentage of what it sells are books? It seems to me it has two rooms of books and six rooms of food, candy, ornaments, cookware, cards, jewelry, housewares, and the like. Diversifying may have saved it, but I’d hardly call it a bookstore any more, even though the staff obviously and carefully selects the books they do carry.”

“And what about Amazon?” our friend Ben added, playing Devil’s advocate as usual. “We buy a lot of our books on Amazon. Especially some of us who are addicted to cookbooks.”

Silence, stung by this comment, replied, “Face facts, Ben, Amazon can’t be beat when it comes to convenience. If you already know what you want, it’s not only effortless to order with a few clicks from the comfort of home, but you get deep discounts and free Super Saver shipping.”

“True, but you’ll miss the serendipity of looking through the shelves,” Rob noted. “In a store, you can find books you’d never have thought existed, books that call your name, not just in the cooking racks but in history, crafts, historical fiction, nature… The beauty of a bookstore is that you can browse and discover. Even though we all browse the online bookstores to the best of our ability, it’s just not the same as being able to wander around, picking up, opening, and exploring any book that strikes your fancy.”

“I just wish we could have all the options,” Silence said. “I love the convenience of Amazon, the idea that if I read about a book and want it, I know they’ll have it, or I can buy a used copy through them even if it’s no longer in print. I love going to the big chain stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders and seeing what they have available, the ‘kid in the candy shop’ syndrome. And I love going into a privately-owned bookstore where it’s clear that the owners personally selected every single book in the store based on its merit, rather than having to offer them because the chain buyers managed to swing a great deal with the publishers.”

“We’re ignoring the elephant in the room here,” our friend Ben reluctantly pointed out, “and that’s e-books and e-readers like Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. Amazon claims that Kindle is its bestselling product, and more and more of B&N’s efforts seem to be directed towards selling its Nook. We’re already looking at three generations who are used to getting all their information, and much of their social interaction and education, online, with plenty more to follow. Amazon and B&N have seen that future and moved to meet it. How soon will virtual publishing replace books altogether?”

“Don’t make me cry, Ben,” Silence said, her eyes suspiciously moist. “I know some of our friends point out how convenient e-readers are. They say that it’s easy to load them up with vacation reading, for example, rather than hauling 50 pounds of books along on every trip. And the price is certainly right, given how expensive real books are these days.”

“So what is the future of books?” our friend Ben asked. “Will those of us who love to browse, who love to hold a real book in our hands, be forced to rely on libraries and used-book stores? Will publishers stop printing books and switch to an all-virtual format? Will real books, beautifully illustrated books, rare books, again become the province of the wealthy, the educated, the collector, as was the case through most of human history, while the rest of the world goes virtual?” We all looked at each other, stricken.

“You know, Ben, I think it’s time we made another visit to the Saucony Book Shop to see what Brendan’s acquired in the used-book line,” Silence finally said. “And maybe we can figure out a way to add a few more bookcases to Hawk’s Haven, while there’s still time.”

“Good idea.”

“Gee, I think I’ll check my own bookshelves, then stop by Moravian Book Shop tomorrow to fill in some gaps,” Rob added. “I’ve been putting it off, but I think maybe now I’ll make it a priority.”

Yeesh. Our friend Ben has long wondered if society would split between the book hoarders and the non-readers. Silence and I have built up a massive library just in case, and so have many of our friends. Call me a pessimist, but just yesterday, high winds took our power down for 6 hours. What if a bolt of concentrated energy wiped out every e-reader in existence? What if an asteroid hit the earth? Then books, those humble, paper repositories of human history, human knowledge, and the human imagination, would be the only thing between us and oblivion. We don’t plan to trade our library for a virtual reader anytime soon.

About books. December 30, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. As a book editor, book writer, book collector, and lifelong book lover, I’m a bit confused, bemused, and downright aggravated by a number of developments that have been brought to my attention in the past week. I was sort of holding it all in until I got this morning’s DailyCandy e-mail. (DailyCandy is a service that tracks and promotes cool shopping sites and trends; check it out and sign up for e-mails for the latest online sites and specific cities, kids, etc. at www.dailycandy.com.) But really, this was too much.

Today’s DailyCandy e-mail was promoting, among other things, a website called BookSwim (www.bookswim.com). I quote: “Like Netflix for novels, the site lets you rent ($24-60 per month) unlimited classics, best sellers, and everything in between with free shipping and no late fees.” Um, gee, ever heard of the library?!! You could get the very same services minus the $24-60 monthly fee. Doh!!!

Then there’s the e-reader (Kindle, Nook, and the like). People say they like these devices because they’re portable. Um, so are laptops… and books. Our friend Susan recently told me that she knew two people who were addicted to these devices. One loved hers because she could take it with her and read during her daily bus commute, or if she were stuck somewhere, such as the stylist’s, for awhile. Also perfect circumstances for books. The other was addicted to virtual bookstore shopping, surfing the choices and then announcing to his wife that he’d so enjoyed his latest trip to the “bookstore.”

Well, how about Amazon, or Barnes & Noble or Borders or any of the many other bookstores with an online presence? Or how about going to a real, brick-and-mortar bookstore and checking out the selection in person? Or, again, doing your “shopping” where it’s free—in the library? Or patronizing your local used-book store for great deals on books, many of which are out-of-print and otherwise unobtainable?

I suppose it makes sense that a generation of MP3 and iPod users, brought up on downloadable music, would naturally be drawn to downloadable movies and books. But I confess, I don’t get it. I like to hold the thing I’ve paid for in my hands, to know it’s actually mine, not some virtual piece of ephemera that could vanish at the touch of a virus or some kind of massive power failure or disruption. Paying for what is ultimately online content just goes against the grain. And I really like the idea of passing along, of sharing. If I don’t like a book, DVD, or CD, or decide that one pass-through is enough, I like to pass it along to the local used-book store or used music/movie store or library free books bin. Someone else might enjoy it in their turn.

The third development in this quartet of aggravation is the “I-don’t-read” phenomenon. Our friend Rob’s son recently confessed to me that he had never read a book. How someone could reach 22 years of age without reading even one book is amazing to me, yet there it was. He spends a lot of time online, he said. He asked me how I went about reading books. He wondered if reading books might help improve his writing. He wanted to know how many pages I read at a time. But basically, he wanted to know why I bothered.

I tried to explain how books took you out of yourself into other worlds, other times. How you learned things reading that you would never have known or known to look for. How reading stimulated the imagination in a way movies and TV never could, because when you read, you create the visuals in your own mind. More, your choices in TV and movies are so limited compared to the wide world of books, where you can choose from millions of volumes in every conceivable subject. And how, yes, reading does increase your vocabulary and improve your writing (and speaking) skills.

Rob’s son is the second person I’ve met who’s told me he’s never read a book. “I can read online, instructions and so on, but I just can’t seem to get through a book. I know I should read, I buy novels, but after a page or two I just can’t go on.” This guy is 50, very smart and successful, so I guess it’s not a generational thing as I’d been tempted to assume.

Finally, a friend told me she was concerned that reading books had never really taught her anything. She’s a voracious reader, but feared that she’d been wasting her time reading for entertainment rather than acquiring valuable life lessons. After thinking it over, she could only think of a single instance when a book had had any impact on her life.

I was flabbergasted. I feel that I have learned something from every book I’ve ever read. Some books have shaped my life’s direction; others have given me wisdom, filled my mind with wonderful scenes, phrases, and characters, helped me master a skill or learn a recipe or improve my health or identify a plant or bird or know how to give my dog first aid.

I cannot think of one book in the thousands upon thousands I’ve read that didn’t give me something to take away, in my life or imagination or dreams. This is the power and the joy and the wonder of books, their great and enduring ability to give. Like music and art, it is, after love and the beauty of creation, the greatest gift available to us as human beings.

And with books, as with music and art, you can return under different circumstances or at different times of your life and find things you didn’t see in them before. You can anticipate the delight of sharing favorite books with friends and family. You can even write them yourself. So please, don’t write them off.

            ‘Til next time,

                        Silence

To hell with typefaces. February 10, 2010

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Our friend Ben was catapulted into a genuine post-prandial snit today while reclining on the sofa reading Peter Mayle’s Encore Provence after a couple of slices of Silence Dogood’s delicious homemade pizza and a glass of red wine. Typically, the combination of lunch a la Silence, wine, and a good book puts our friend Ben into what I like to describe as “the post-prandial benevolent phase,” when for at least 15 minutes I’m genial, laid-back, and laissez-faire, not to mention poised for a long and refreshing nap. In short, if you want to see our friend Ben at my best and most benign, this is not only the best but pretty much the only time, so go for it.

However. Despite a delicious lunch and a good book, today I failed to subside into my typical after-lunch benevolence. That’s because, paging ahead to see what chapters were yet in store, I came to the final page: “A Word about the Type.” This pretentious archaism may no longer be a feature of how-to books, but it still features prominently in every other book, the collection of essays or poems, the biography, the travelogue, the scholarly opus, and of course, the novel. An entire page of the book is devoted to telling you that the typeface you’ve just been privileged to read was created by so-and-so in the year such-and-such and furthermore, here’s its entire history in mind-numbing detail.

What’s the big deal, you ask. Maybe only a graphic designer cares about the book’s typeface, but nobody’s forcing you to read it, right? Why should it get you all worked up?

An excellent question, and certainly a sensible one, assuming you’re not in publishing. As it happens, our friend Ben and Silence are writers and editors who’ve spent our lives in book publishing. So when our friend Ben sees that page devoted to the book’s typeface, I wonder: Why isn’t there a page devoted to the book’s designer, who worked like a dog to bring creativity and sensitivity to bear to match the book’s look to the topic and author’s voice? Why isn’t there a page devoted to the editor, who often has spent backbreaking months creating a concept and outline for the book (for nonfiction books, obviously), coming up with the book’s title, assigning an author or authors and coaching them through the entire process while filling in blanks, or, in books submitted by authors, asking as tactfully as possible if John on page 17 and James on page 58 might not be the same character, and which name would the author prefer to use, or sweetly querying about the 15 missing ingredients in a recipe or steps in a how-to, or patiently mentioning that Queen Victoria was really a lithe, lovely 18-year-old when she ascended the throne, as opposed to bursting from the womb as a fat dowager wrapped in widow’s weeds. Why is it that a typeface rates a page in a book when there are photographers and illustrators whose works are often the reason a book sells? Where, in short, is the credit where credit is due?

Nowhere, is the usual answer. If the designer’s lucky, s/he may rate a small-type, one-line mention, along with the cover designer, photographer, and illustrator on the copyright page. It’s usually a huge fight for the editor to even get that. (Editors, unlike typefaces, have traditionally been completely invisble, unless an author extends the professional courtesy of thanking them on the acknowledgments page.)

Our friend Ben approves wholeheartedly of the “About the Author” page at the back of the book. I always want to know more about the person who wrote the book I’m currently reading, and I assume other readers do, too. I myself would also like to know more about the photographer and/or illustrator. And if the “About the Editor” and “About the Designer” parts are shrunk to a single line on the copyright page, so be it: I can’t frankly imagine a reader caring about either of them. But please, oh please, don’t give an entire page to the typeface and its creator while ignoring the actual creators of the book. This is a holdover that needs to be passed over. It’s such a slap in the face to the hardworking people who give their all to make books beautiful, readable, useful, and addictive. Want to know what typeface was used in your book? How about one line on the copyright page, below the editor, designer, cover artist, and photographer/illustrator. Give the credit to the author, and put that typeface in its very subordinate place.

Ben Picks Ten: Fantasy March 29, 2008

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[First, the disclaimer: If you’ve seen the title of this post and wandered over looking for anything more X-rated than The Lord of the Rings, it’s time to go on home now. Besides, I hear your mother calling… ]

Now that we’ve cleared that up, our friend Ben would like to continue handing out One-Ben Awards, this time in the rich and rewarding realm of fantasy fiction and film. (What are One-Ben Awards, you ask? Check out “Ben Picks Ten: Music” to find out all about ’em.) Here at Hawk’s Haven, we love fantasy and reading, so please feel free to chime in with your own favorites—I’m sure there are many I’m missing, besides the ones I’m snubbing.

But let’s get back to the awards. Without more ado:

1. All-Time Favorite Fantasy: JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Our friend Ben first encountered The Hobbit in sixth grade, and read it pretty much in one sitting. Lighter, brighter, and a lot more fun than the subsequent Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit remains the beloved favorite to this day. I hear a movie version’s in the works, and hope to God it does the story and characters more justice than the “first there was this battle, then there was that battle, guess what happened next—you’re right! another battle” films that turned LotR into a wizard-ridden version of “Braveheart.” At least they had the decency to cast Christopher Lee and Sean Bean, two of our friend Ben’s favorites, but they forgot about the “fantasy” and “complexity” parts in their excitement over the computer-generated special effects.

2. Best Pseudo-Historical Fantasy: Guy Gavriel Kay’s A Song for Arbonne. Imagine that you’re in a parallel universe that looks a lot like mediaeval France. You’re in the sunny South, the land of the troubadours, but despite the cloudless skies, a storm of epic proportions is brewing that will pit force and intolerance against civilization and culture. Guy Gavriel Kay’s beautiful writing and sound historical background make A Song for Arbonne one of the greatest fantasy works of all time.

3. Best Anti-Hunting Fantasy Set on Another Planet: Sheri Tepper’s Grass. Tepper’s an excellent writer, but sometimes her pro-environment stance (a stance of which our friend Ben heartily approves) gets in the way of her stories. In Grass, it works with the plot to create a beautifully realized condemnation of upper-class rigidity and celebration of diversity and open-mindedness, both cultural and ecological. Plus, it’s a page-turning thriller—once the mystery starts, you can’t stop reading.

4. Best “Save the Whales” Fantasies Set on Another Planet: Joan D. Vinge’s The Snow Queen and The Summer Queen. Here’s a different and perhaps even more fabulous take on the “let’s stop exploiting our planet in the name of greed/extinction is inexcusable and really, really stupid” theme. On a distant planet in a galaxy far, far away, two rival clans, the Summers and Winters, alternate as planetary rulers. The Summers are peaceful agrarians who distrust technology and close the planet to offworlders during their rule; the Winters are tech and luxury lovers who welcome the offworlders and their high-tech conveniences when it’s their turn in power. Offworlders make the long trek to the unprepossessing planet because they want what it has: the secret of eternal youth. As The Snow Queen opens, Winter’s reign is about to give way to Summer’s, but this time, the ruling Snow Queen has other ideas…

5. Best “Oh, Geez! Now I’m on Another Planet” Fantasies: Mary Gentle’s Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light. In these paired novels, Lynne DeLisle Christie is sent as Earth ambassador to the strange and hostile planet of Orthe, and not only has to figure out the elaborate, ancient, corrupt, and somehow menacing system of the court, but ends up having all kinds of interesting, terrifying, and revealing misadventures in the outback. It’s as though you and our friend Ben had found ourselves marooned in the courts of Pharaonic Egypt or Imperial China, with the uncomfortable feeling that no one was exactly pleased to see us. Beautifully realized, beautifully written.

6. Best Lizard King Fantasies: Steven Brust’s Jhereg series, featuring Vlad Taltos. What if humans weren’t the dominant species on Earth (or, well, a planet very much like Earth), but instead were under the thumbs of a ruling class of highly intelligent, ultra-strong, humanoid lizards with superpowers? Lizards who furthermore were living in a feudal society with all the trappings of chivalry and a rigid class structure where humans were the Untouchables? If you were an enterprising human with a lot of smarts, a cool witch for a grandpa, and an absolutely wicked sense of humor, could you break the mold and hold your own in the lizards’ world? This is the premise of Brust’s books, and I defy you to read them and not cheer their human hero, Vlad Taltos, on. Our friend Ben’s own sense of humor is unextinguishable (just ask Silence), and I really appreciate Brust’s strong infusion of wit into a genre that tends to take itself far too seriously.

7. Best Fantasies about King Arthur and All That: Mary Stewart’s quadrology about Merlin, beginning with The Crystal Cave and working its way through The Hollow Hills, The Wicked Day, and The Last Enchantment, remains for our friend Ben the best in the genre, and I’ve read most of ’em. Stewart’s wonderful writing skills serve her well in this series, and she had the good sense to realize that it was Merlin who was the truly romantic hero of the Camelot stories, not Arthur or Lancelot. I’ll never forgive her for tying Merlin’s powers to his virginity (Hey, Mary! Wizards just wanna have fun!), but apart from that, it’s still a great read. Somebody should be turning these books into a movie series!

8. Weird but Wonderful Fantasy Films. These post-apocalyptic fantasy films ironically star actors who would later make headlines by marrying, divorcing, and remarrying and divorcing: Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith. Do not, repeat, do not watch “A Boy and His Dog” unless you have a cast-iron sense of humor (and irony, for that matter); but if you can appreciate “The Far Side,” you’ll love it. And don’t watch “Cherry 2000” if you’re a chauvinist at heart. Otherwise, you’ll enjoy this feel-good film where a flawed, real-life woman wins out over a perfect “Stepford Wives”-type techno-doll.    

9. Favorite Character in a Fantasy Movie: Darth Vader, who else? Thank you, James Earl Jones! (Also starring as the immortal Thulsa Doom in “Conan the Barbarian;” see One-Ben Award #10.) “The Empire Strikes Back” showcases Vader and is definitely worth owning. Our friend Ben also enjoyed Harrison Ford’s performance in the series, but generally speaking, the wimpy Luke Skywalker wrecked the series for me. (That’s the savior of the Universe?! I don’t think so.)

10. Best Movie Fantasies: “Conan the Barbarian” and “Conan the Destroyer,” hands down (or thumbs up). Hugely entertaining, vividly realized, and generally a ton of fun, rising infinitely above both the generally ludicrous acting and the original books. Great music, too. Our friend Ben deeply regrets that John Milius and Arnold Schwarzenegger only made two of them. Watch them, and repeat after our friend Ben: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger!”

And the bonus:

11. Best Fantasy TV Series: “The Prisoner.” Our friend Ben really should watch this as an adult, since I never did figure out what it was about or what that weird beach-ball thingy was. But it was interesting and fun! For some reason, it brings to mind the novel Never Let Me Go, which was disturbing (and frustrating) in the same way. (Geez, why were they all so passive? Why didn’t they fight back?!!)                    

Read ’em and reap, part two. March 19, 2008

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Our friend Ben is vacationing in North Carolina this week, so my opportunities to check in on the blogosphere are somewhat limited by a disinclination to appear rude to my hosts. However (ahem), a quick spin through the wonderful world of garden blogging this morning yielded such a rich reward that I have to share what I found in just a few minutes:

Emma at Fluffius Muppetus had a wonderful post on British scientist and writer Ken Thompson and his new book, No Nettles Required. And of course she had to mention his two previous books, An Ear to the Ground and Compost, so now I have three on my must-get list. (Thanks, Emma!)

Benjamin (gotta love that name) at The Deep Middle posted a paean to one of my heroes, Wendell Berry. Our friend Ben ranted on about how Berry’s Port William novels were must-reads in the first installment of “Read ’em and reap,” but Benjamin is discussing his excellent and thoughtful nonfiction works. And of course he had to mention an author and book I’d never heard of (thanks, Benjamin), so now I have yet another book to add to the Everest-like pile: Linda Hogan’s Dwellings.

There was also a post from Don at An Iowa Garden reminding us of a great Southern garden writer, Elizabeth Lawrence, and the ongoing efforts to preserve her garden for our continued delight, and to help us stand in her place and see what she saw as she was writing her classic books like The Little Bulbs.  

Finally, Kathy at Cold Climate Gardening reminded us all that Nancy Ondra’s latest book, Foliage, just won an American Horticultural Society award. Nan’s a good friend of our friend Ben, and I can attest first-hand that she’s a wonderful writer and an exceptional gardener. And she writes from experience, which makes her books pearls beyond price. You’ll find links to them all on her blog, Hayefield.

So, yes, books and books and ever more wonderful books. But our friend Ben wants to put in a good word for the blogs themselves as well. There’s a wealth of great writing, useful information, reviews of new stuff, and just plain fun out there in the gardening blogosphere. No time to try to find them all? Actually, someone has done it for you. Google “Blotanical” and you’ll  find links to over 500 gardening blogs, plus a constantly updated list of new posts, all just a click away. It’s a relaxing and educational (and, alas, occasionally humbling, in our friend Ben’s case) way to start the day.  

And then, they wrote a book February 25, 2008

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Our friend Ben has been struck by the prolific bookwriting efforts of our presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton has written two books; Obama, three books; McCain, five books; Ron Paul, six books; and Mike Huckabee, the winner as of this writing with eight authored or coauthored books. Now, our friend Ben has also written books–I’m a writer and editor by profession, and that’s how I spend my time when I’m not gardening, visiting the chickens, cooking, birdwatching, reading, or otherwise having a good time. So I can say with some authority that book writing takes time, thought, research, and concentration.

As noted, this is my profession. However, it’s been my understanding that our candidates’ profession has been to represent we the people in the Senate, House, or Governor’s Office. And our friend Ben has always assumed that these were full-time, high-level, super-intense jobs, where one was always in meetings and/or enacting law, catching up on legislation and national and international news, being briefed and debriefed, etc., not to mention occasionally checking in with one’s constituency. So I have to ask myself, when do our candidates find all this time to write?

Perhaps they’ve discovered some secret of physics unknown to us mere mortals that lets them compress two days’ worth of time into every one. (I suspect Martha Stewart and Oprah have already discovered this.) Perhaps they’ve simply abandoned such useful human pursuits as sleep, eating, spending time with their families, and, say, doing the morning crossword, shopping at the local farmers’ market, or taking a walk in the park.

Perhaps abandoning what it means to be a well-rounded person is required of those who choose to run for office, and is why so few of us are willing to do it. But for all our sakes, I hope our candidates don’t forget what it is to be fully human, or it will take more than a village to put us all back together again.