Transitioning to Marginalia

I am not, as a rule, one to write in or mark up books.

There are exceptions. I took notes in my college textbooks, of course. And I love workbooks, those companions to books designed to help you better some aspect of your life. I enjoy filling out the forms, ticking off the boxes, noting what’s most valuable to me. It would never occur to me to make those same notes in the primary book, though.

This may stem from the fact that I’ve got a 1st edition game book in my library which sells for over $200 on eBay, into which I scribed my name and address with magic marker as a child. Ce’st la guerre.

With that said, I adore finding marginalia that others have created. In used bookstores I’ll look for them most well-worn versions of whatever I’m interested in, hoping for dog-ears, annotations, long-forgotten mash notes.

I love the fact that my wife writes in her cookbooks. Sometimes it seems as if the entire recipe is crossed out, replaced with new ingredients and instructions; while at other times a simple “YUM” in capital letters lets me know I can prepare this dish without an issue. And a sweet friend recently presented me with a book simply riddled with highlighted passages, gifting me with a glimpse into what they find valuable and important.

There is something I adore about people who take notes like this, who treat the book not as some sacred relic but as a living part of their world. In a time where guarding ourselves seems so central to “getting ahead,” notes like these are a way to look into someone’s soul, to better understand the secret heart of the previous reader.

It also seems I may be in the minority when it comes to this reluctance to adding ephemera. A recent article in Business Insider, with the unfortunate click-bait title Five Principles That Will Help You Read More, included this gem:

One day I came across this idea where a book should be like a conversation between the reader and the author (…) and it just clicked. I realized that for me, books were too much like lectures. I could talk back. I started writing and making notes in the margins.

I don’t know. I understand the appeal in doing so, and as admitted, I delight in the fact that others work this way. It’s something to try, I suppose; starting with one of those self-improvement tomes that’s been assigned by the dayjob and which, miraculously, could actually be a decent read and of import to my current state. This is a revised edition of a book titled Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, and while I’ve technically borrowed it from a co-worker, he’s made a gift of it. It seems like a logical place to start changing this habit.

My Father’s Library

When I was a boy, there was one thing I coveted above all else in the world; and that was my father’s library.

His den was lined with dark cork, where he could push-pin notes, sketches, or the completed crossword puzzles he loved. Along one wall, however, was a floor-to-ceiling bookcase which had no empty spaces.

The closest to his desk were the comic books, from his childhood: Uncle Scrooge Adventures being his favorite. Next came a shelf of history and mathematical texts, game theory and strategy.

The remainder was science fiction and fantasy, stretching from the 1930s to the 1980s.

I learned to read through his comic books, destroying them in the process. He didn’t mind. They were there, he said, to be enjoyed and read; not to be kept inviolate.

I moved on to the fantasy in kindergarten. We bonded not just as father and son, but as readers and fanboys.

I learned to pronounce words like “squamous,” learned the purpose and function of an iron maiden, learned what light speed and wormholes were at my father’s knee.

I made him swear that, when he died, the library would be mine.

He was a loving father, and when he moved from my childhood home back into his childhood home, he brought along every book except the comics.

When he moved to Scotland, he left them behind in a storage bin.

When he died, the books were mine.

I would have preferred he lived. The books were, however, some consolation.



LordofLight(Zelazny)Today, the books are out of the storage bin. The science fiction, fantasy, and histories have been collecting dust in my den for a year or so.

Catching sight of his ashes while cleaning this weekend, his words returned to me: They are there to be enjoyed and read. Not to be kept inviolate.

That has to be balanced with my need for space, though. So the cartons have been carried into the attic, except a handful of books.

It also has to be balanced with my need to read more current fiction. Most of the genre work I read is from over thirty years ago, with a few notable exceptions.

I don’t intend to actually review these books – who needs a review of something published in 1953?

Instead, I want to share what they bring to me, what I take away from knowing this was important, once, to the man who was most important to me.

I’m starting with the hardcover first edition of Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light.

As ALS was stealing his lung capacity, Dad altered his email signature to reflect one of its quotes:

“None sing hymns to breath; but O! To be without it …”

Why Read Horror?

My publishers at Apocalypse Ink Productions ask the question in this post from January.

Honestly, horror isn’t my first choice to read. It hasn’t been since Lovecraft caught me in grammar school.

When I read it now, however, it gives me more understanding of the human condition than any other genre I enjoy.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell is one such tale. At the age of forty, it speaks to me of the dissatisfaction that comes with age, the endless quest to keep your mind and soul and body satisfied and together. The horror in Russell’s story comes from an understanding of the track my own life is on, and the likely results of a slip.

The Monsters of Heaven by Nathan Ballingrud is a shattering story of loss, with a redemption that may be worse than the crime. It calls to mind helplessness, powerlessness, the heaviness of grief and the vast, undeniable gulf that guilt and isolation create. The horror comes not from the creatures, but the things which call them forth.

Both these stories feature monsters, but they are truly about people; people who live and suffer and ache. They are people to whom I relate, deep within.

The Shadow Minion at Apocalypse Ink reads horror for a frisson of fear, for the adrenaline rush. She reads to escape the boredom and stagnation of everyday life. I understand that, and yet …

I read horror not for the monsters, but for the victims – even when they are one and the same. I read not to be terrified by the things that happen to them, but to ache alongside of them at the choices they make, to weep out the darkness which they carry within.

Horror is not an escape for me. It is a release.

It reminds me that the world suffers, that others in the world suffer.

Horror tells me that things will not get better, will never be better, cannot be fixed.

Then I set down the book, and look at the peeling paint on my study wall. I feel the cold February drafts from the holes in my window insulation. I regard the ancient, half-broken computer on which I do not write enough under a bulb which has never given me enough light.

This reminds me that things can be fixed. From home improvement to toxic relationships to addictions. It is up to me.

Life can be a struggle. But even so, it is a beautiful struggle.

I read horror not for the darkness it displays, but for the light which it unwittingly reveals.

Am I the only one? Possible, but doubtful. Why do you read horror? Tell me.

REVIEW: The Spirit Thief

The Legend of Eli MonpressI first encountered Rachel Aaron on Twitter, and wrote a response to her posts here under the title, “Not A Practice, But A Game.” Since then I’ve had the good luck to read The Spirit Thief, the first in her The Legend of Eli Monpress series. It made me feel young again in all the best ways, a light-hearted adventure story perfect for long summer evenings.

The Spirit Thief is a grand dessert for those tired of the grimdark smorgasbord. It features heroes who are not only capable, but likable, villains whose cruelty doesn’t need to be hammered home with outrageous acts of violence, and a charming animistic magic system which lends itself to a swift and humorous (though only rarely comical) tone.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a mainstream fantasy hero who appeals to me as much as Eli Monpress, the quick-witted thief who uses empathy and charm to sway spirits to his will. This puts him at odds with both the Spirit Court (a guild of mages who contract with the spirit world for a power exchange) and the Enslavers (rogue magi who dominate those spirits). He is joined in his capers by Josef, the world’s greatest swordsman; and a young demonseed, Nico, of whom we learn very little in this first book.

To that point, we see little backstory for any of the characters. However, the story was quick and engaging enough to keep me more interested in their present troubles than their past adventures. I will expect to learn more in slow reveals through the next books in the series to keep me invested in their lives, and based on reviews of those books, I’m not concerned.

The plot of The Spirit Thief is straightforward, with hints of a wider mystery and overarching plot to come. This could be a flaw in a less well-written book, but again, the pacing, characterization, and sheer charm of Eli kept me involved.

My sole issue with the book came where it aimed for straight comedy as opposed to light-hearted adventure. That’s a question of personal taste, but those moments smacked to me of the formulaic laughs you see in films trying to appeal to both parents and children alike. They are few and far between, but each time, I was jolted from the otherwise enjoyable world Ms. Aaron has created for our enjoyment.

I highly recommend The Spirit Thief to any fans of high fantasy, high adventure, or light-hearted capers. It would be especially high on my list for any parents whose children are transitioning out of Young Adult fiction.


TheBlueBlazes-7001There is a scene in Chuck Wendig’s The Blue Blazes which encapsulated the feeling of the book perfectly for me:

Skelly experiences an odd moment of bliss – an absurd sensation that all her life has led to this strange and singular moment. Ramping a jacked-up hell-quad over a dirge-singing pack of goblins with a burned-to-death stuntman at the wheel.

Seriously, if you don’t like those two sentences, you’re just not the quality of person I need in my life. Sorry, Aunt Dorothy.

That scene’s the soul of the book. It is fast, exciting, and left me breathless and flying more than once. It’s a quick and bloody read that blends action, crime, fantasy and comedy into a smoky, salty, satisfying whole.

Mookie Pearl is a bruiser with heart, wrapped up in a criminal underworld which seems to fit him fine. His job within “the Organization” involves interacting with the supernatural landscape that lies beneath New York City, in addition to breaking the legs and faces of more mortal nuisances.

Trouble comes to him from three sides in The Blue Blazes: His Boss is dying, the forces below are rising, and his estranged daughter has not only taken up with opposing gangs but is actively working to take over the Organization itself.

Wendig does a great job at crafting characters who are terribly flawed and yet eminently forgivable, people you love reading about but probably wouldn’t want to meet. Their motivations, for the most part, are clear and direct – which helps propel the book forward and provides great surprises when more slippery characters emerge. There’s not a single throwaway character in the book; even those who get a single scene like Skinny Rope are fleshed out and actualized to make you see and believe in them.

The supernatural landscape is composed of great set-pieces that are deftly described and eminently suited to the imagination, though they never detract from the characters or plot. This is not a meander-and-admire piece of world building, but is written with a cinematographer’s eye for showing you exactly enough to remind you that you’re not in Kansas anymore.

There’s also an excellent framing device in ‘The Journals of John Atticus Oakes,’ which provides a nicely Lovecraftian counterpoint for those of us who enjoy a little creeping horror in addition to their slam-bang action. While there’s further inspiration from Lovecraft at the dark heart of the book itself, the forces that are behind their actions don’t hide behind the “insane mad cultist” mask. They’re understandable, coherent, civilized, well-spoken and thoroughly sure of themselves.

By the end of the book, every character’s been changed by their trip through the wringer, and have dealt with the sins of their past – the central theme, as I saw it. It’s a thoroughly satisfying end with more than one twist in the final few pages.

Are there problems with the book? Sure, but they’re few and far between.

Aside from the Organization for which Mookie works, the gangscape of the Blue Blazes feels more like The Warriors than The Wire, which wouldn’t be a problem if the Organization weren’t meant to be taken so seriously. One gets the sense that the other gangs are kids at play rather than serious threats to law, order, or other gangs.

One of Wendig’s strengths is in his ability to describe brutality and violence. This is a fabulous thing in his books, but I sometimes wonder how the characters manage to survive at all. It’s harder to suspend your disbelief about the comic-book toughness of the heroes when the action is so evocative. Remember in Die Hard when John McLane walks barefoot across broken glass? Ramp that up and run it over several pages, and you’ll have an idea of what I’m talking about.

Finally, there’s not enough charcuterie for my tastes.

That last sentence will make more sense once you read The Blue Blazes – and trust me, you want to. Ask for it at your local bookstore, or order it today.

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