There’s an enormous yellow moon hanging outside my place tonight. The crickets are shrilling in the bushes, and the lone streetlamp in my dark little street is flickering insanely, about to give up the ghost. An inside source tells me the Farmers’ Almanac says our full moon this week is called the Full Corn Moon. (Did you know the full moons all have names?)
So anyway, in the wake of August, when I was working like mad on editing The Sacred Woods, I’m now allowing myself to “be on vacation” for a few days. There are other writing tasks immediately ahead, but I’ve been waiting all summer for the chance to immerse myself in other people’s words for awhile. It’s an indescribably good feeling to get out of the driver’s seat, down off the conductor’s podium, out of the control booth, off the ladder, out from behind the Dungeon Master’s screen — choose whichever analogy you like — and just read for a few days. I really should allow myself to do this more often, because I feel like a dry sponge that’s been squeezed hard, thrust into a bucket of water, and then unsqueezed. Or like, you know how when the ground gets bone dry sometimes in midsummer, and when you pour some water on it, the water just vanishes instantly? That’s what I feel like. It’s so nice to be reading. (Go ahead and laugh! I know pretty much anyone who’s reading this makes time for reading as a matter of course, like eating and brushing teeth. I never claimed to be normal! [And for the record, I do read all the time — just not nearly enough fiction.])
My mom used to have her office in the very center of our house, in what was once the dining room, until the house expanded, and the dining room migrated one room to the south. Mom had two desks and a file cabinet all pushed up together and covered with mountains of books, magazines, papers, and office supplies. The drawers were brimming over, and there was more of the same stuff in cardboard boxes on the floor under the desks. Mom did almost all her actual writing at the kitchen table, but her desk was where her typewriter — and in later years, her word processor — was, so that’s where she’d go to type final drafts, find envelopes, and look up addresses.
But the point I’m getting to is: one of my favorite things about Mom’s office was a very large, framed poster she had on the wall over and beside her desk, dominating the room. I suppose she got it through her work as a librarian and creative program director for the schools — perhaps at some conference. It was a picture of a princess, framed in the window of a high tower. A handsome knight/prince was standing on a ladder leaned up against the tower’s side, and you could tell from the surrounding scene that he’d journeyed through a dark forest and gotten past a dragon to rescue the princess. But she was turned away from him with her nose in a book, and there were books stacked all around her. The poster’s caption proclaimed: “‘I’d rather read,’ she said.”
Isn’t that excellent? I kept that poster, of course, though it’s brittle with the passage of years and locked away in my storeroom in that house. I hope someday to have it out again and on the wall.
So anyway, a few days ago, a good friend asked me if I’d ever read any of the host of stories by other writers that are based on the Cthulhu mythos of H.P. Lovecraft — for example, my friend said, Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald.” I hadn’t read that one; and hearing that it was in one of his collections, I thought, “I wonder if. . . .” So I went over to my bookcase, pulled down Gaiman’s Fragile Things, and lo and behold, “A Study in Emerald” is the first story in it!
To this point, I’d kind of wondered what all the fuss over Neil Gaiman was about. I liked Coraline okay — he was obviously a good writer, but I thought the book was a little uneven, that he’d gotten a bit careless toward the middle. (Several people have told me that the movie is better than the book — I haven’t seen it yet.) I don’t mean to run Coraline down. It is quite clever and nicely done overall, and I always mention it when I’m asked to compare Dragonfly to something. (I actually have very fond memories of reading Coraline. Some friends of mine in Japan had to be out of town for several days because of a death in the family. I was on a summer vacation at the time, and I house-sat for about a week — feeding their cats, watering their plants . . . and reading Coraline. It was an interesting time.)
But I did wonder why we hear Gaiman’s name everywhere, why he can do pretty much anything he wants to do, and why he keeps winning all those awards. Well, now I know! After that story, I decided I had to read the whole collection. I can’t speak for his novels: I haven’t read the ones he’s most famous for. He probably is a genius at longer forms, too, or he wouldn’t be the king of the genre today. But as a short story writer in the field of dark fantasy, I think he may very well be the greatest living practitioner. For the past decade, his stories have consistently won Locus, Stoker, and World Fantasy Awards. The tales he crafts are simply elegant in their craftsmanship and brilliant in their content. They’re unfailingly clear and approachable. You don’t have to “wade through” anything. He has the ideas, the language skills to make things happen, and the reading experience that allows him to pay homage to almost anybody while still producing strikingly original stories.
This is a little early for the season, but anyone would do well to get Fragile Things ready for reading in October. I’m sure I’ll talk about this again as the long-shadow season draws nearer, but my all-time favorite Hallowe’en short story is Richard Laymon’s “Boo!” I think I now have a second-favorite. (Laymon’s is still the best — I don’t know how a story could be any more perfect than that one.) In the second position is Neil Gaiman’s “October in the Chair” (which, incidentally, he dedicates to Ray Bradbury).
And I’m not saying that’s the best story in the collection. Every one of the stories I’ve read so far has been astonishing, and they’re not all the same. This is a collection of tales that have been award-winners in the years they were published, so you’re reading the best of the best. I emphatically recommend it.
But I’ve made one more reading discovery which, for me personally, is even greater. I’ve also found another book which goes onto my small, small shelf of the absolute best. I haven’t loved a book this much since Millhauser’s Enchanted Night. And the book is:
The Summer Book, by Tove Jansson. I’ll quote the back flyleaf: “The writer and artist Tove Jansson (1914-2001) is best known as the creator of the Moomin stories, which have been published in thirty-five languages. The Summer Book was one of ten novels that she wrote for adults. It is regarded as a modern classic throughout Scandinavia.”
It’s been translated from the Swedish by Thomas Teal, with a foreword by Esther Freud. Another good friend gave me this book as a Christmas present several years ago, and I’d been saving it. (Aren’t books just the most wonderful presents you can give or get? We used to put up a sign in our bookstore window every December: “It isn’t Christmas without a book.” Okay, don’t think too hard about the theology of that ad. But you know I’m right.)
Now let me quote from the front flyleaf: “An elderly artist and her six-year-old granddaughter while away a summer together on a tiny island in the gulf of Finland. Gradually, the two learn to adjust to each other’s fears, whims, and yearnings for independence, and a fierce yet understated love emerges — one that encompasses not only the summer inhabitants but the island itself, with its mossy rocks, windswept firs, and unpredictable seas.
“Full of brusque humour and wisdom, The Summer Book is a profoundly life-affirming story. Tove Jansson captured much of her own experience and spirit in the book, which was her favourite of the novels she wrote for adults.”
It was first copyrighted in 1972 and orginally published in Swedish as Sommerboken.
(Interesting aside: the best movie I saw this summer was also a Swedish film. That’s a whole other topic. If anyone wants to know the title, let’s take it up in the comments section. This has really been the Summer of Sweden!)
Anyway, The Summer Book, on just about every page, has me laughing out loud, crying (yes, literally), and shaking my head in wonder and awe. It’s about all the things I love most: the magic of childhood and the imagination, the beauty of nature, and the love between people. I deliberately held off starting this book until after I was done with The Sacred Woods, because it’s also about those very same things and features a grandparent and grandchild. If I’d tried to read this as I was writing, I think it would have influenced me in the wrong ways. (They’re very different stories.) I won’t start telling you about my favorite scenes — because the whole book is my favorite scene. This is one I’ll want to revisit again and again and again.
So. . . . Yes, I’m reading Gaiman and Jansson simultaneously. Believe it or not, this works wonderfully for me. The two books are completely different from each other, and I love the variety. I’ll read a Gaiman story, then go back to Jansson to see what Grandmother and Sophia will do next. Back and forth, back and forth: it’s a vacation, it’s an education, it’s an unforgettable summer experience.
Yes, SUMMER, I say! Fall does not begin until the 23rd of this month, so we have a full three weeks of summer left. For me in my Japanese university schedule, it’s right now midsummer: my holiday is August and September. So let’s not go thinking of fall yet: we’ll do that with a passion in October.
Finally, here’s an insight into line-editing which seems edifying and amusing. This is from The Sacred Woods. Here’s the unedited passage:
“[Character A]’s gaze was dark with worry. He seemed to sniff the air as he trotted toward me. With a tense expression, he waited for me to speak.”
“His gaze dark with worry, [Character A] trotted toward me.”
I eliminated a “was.” Forms of “to be” should always be highly suspect — not that we can’t use them, but they tend to get overused. In the context of this scene, sniffing the air didn’t contribute anything, and seeming to sniff the air is just dumb: you can tell if a person is sniffing the air or not. Since his gaze is already “dark with worry,” we don’t need that “tense expression.” And waiting for [me] to speak is unnecessary, because it becomes obvious when [Character B] is the first person to speak. We’re left with one lean, vivid sentence featuring an action verb.
That’s how I spent my August. And now I’m reading. Happy Full Corn Moon! (As for comments, this might be a good time to let us know what you’re reading in this last golden month of summer. I know Marquee Movies is off to rescue Bilbo and see him safely home. . . .)