Thursday, July 31, 2008

New Genesis

Yes, I bought a new car.

Ever since I read the first reviews of the Hyundai Genesis, I was intrigued. Everything about it sounded like an upscale luxury car--well, everything except the Hyundai name and the $35-$40k pricetag. The car actually offers more than an Acura RL or an Infiniti M or an entry level Lexus 460, for a whole lot less money.

I've enjoyed my Acura MDX, but I've been dissatisfied with the lack of DVD-Video audio support, the rather simple radio features (no RDS, no HD radio), and the cabin noise at higher speeds. I've also been a bit concerned about Acura of late; Honda seems to be making one wrong move after another with their luxury brand, and I think their misdirections could jeopardize the entire line.

The Hyundai drives like a charm; the Lexicon 17-speaker 7.1 sound system is superlative, with iPod integration, HD-radio, DVD-Video audio playback, and more; the cooled driver's seat is amazingly comfortable; the cabin is comfortable and quiet; and the styling is sophisticated without being ostentatious, which is something Acura can no longer say.

There is the fact that it's a Hyundai, which means that customer service is rudimentary and lackluster (shuttles instead of loaners, for instance), but I don't plan on spending that much time at the service site. And of course, the 5 year/60k mile warranty pretty much eliminates any need for an extended warranty, since I hardly ever keep a car for 5 years or more.

I've only had it for one day so far, but I'm impressed. More to follow, of course...

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

My Type of Humor

Print geeks, this one's for you...

Monday, July 28, 2008

El Pollo SoSo

This evening, Susan and I tried El Pollo Loco for the first time. We had seen the chain on many occasions during the years when we travelled to California fairly frequently, but we never got around to trying it then. The chain began to open locations in Georgia year or so ago, but none of those early locations were anywhere near us; finally, a few months ago, they opened a location about ten miles from here on Holcomb Bridge Road, so we added it to our "we ought to try that some day" list.

We got some coupons in the mail that made it possible for us to try a variety of items with minimal investment; add that with an errand run that put us in the general area anyway, and that was enough to make El Pollo Loco a go.

I wish I could say it was something wonderful, but it wasn't. None of the food we got was bad, but there wasn't a single thing we purchased that someone else doesn't do better. The burrito was good, but nowhere nearly as good as Chipotle's or Willy's; the chicken was good, but Publix' Chipotle Mole rotisserie chicken is better; the rice was okay, but the Spanish rice at any mom-and-pop Mexican restaurant is better; the beans were adequate, but Chipotle's beans are amazingly good in comparison.

So-so food isn't a problem in itself--it's better to be adequate at many things than to be sub-par at all of them--but when you combine it with a staff that seemed to prefer that no one come in, and a restaurant that was dirty and poorly stocked (no containers for salsa until I asked... twice; no napkins in the dispensers), and the result was a pretty mediocre first impression. I don't foresee going back unless we happen to be hungry, have coupons in our pockets, and find ourselves near another location.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Gonna Take a Sentimental Journey

Today, Susan and I headed back to Cedartown for a few hours. Susan was born in and grew up in Cedartown, while my parents were born there. I lived in Cedartown for a year or so when I was four and five years old, before we moved to Rome; later, Susan and I lived there for almost six years after we got married. In between those two times of calling Cedartown home, I visited there regularly to visit grandparents and relatives.

From my parents' stories and my own childhood visits, I remember Cedartown as a small but growing community with several large employers (including several factories--Goodyear, Jockey, and Arrow Shirts all had large operations in Cedartown at one point). It was a town with its own groceries, its own clothing stores, its own restaurants, its own office supply stores, its own department stores, its own furniture stores, its own auto dealerships... in short, Cedartown was the sort of town that dotted the landscape in the 1940s through the 1960s. It was a town that families could call home, a town where it was possible to find everything one needed without having to travel out of town. Of course, Rome was only a half-hour away, and Atlanta was two hours or so--but most residents found it quite possible to carry out their lives in Cedartown without having to make the trip to these larger towns.

I remember that my grandmother's house on Olive Street was just a few hundred yards away from a factory of some sorts that was just on the other side of Highway 27 (Olive paralleled Highway 27 south of Cedartown); I saw that factory hundreds of times, but I had no idea what it actually produced. Nevertheless, it was a large building, and its parking lot was filled during the day, which meant that many dozens of people worked there and earned a paycheck.

That's the way these small towns were in the middle of the last century: they had reached a sort of municipal "critical mass" that made it possible for them to be largely self-sustaining. They weren't suburbs or bedroom communities--they were homes, and they met their residents' needs. People lived there; they worked there; they went to school there; they raised their families there; they shopped there; they saw their children make a home there. Generations were born and lived and died there, and other generations followed in their footsteps.

I remember being amazed when Dad told me that Cedartown had two thriving movie theaters in the 1940s; by the time I was visiting there in the 1960s, it had only one barely-surviving theater. Susan and I went to the West Theater a time or two when we were dating and after we were married, but for the most part there was no reason to go; it was a run-down theater with second-run films that never appealed to us.

Cedartown used to have at least two car dealerships---a large Ford dealership and a large Chevrolet/GMC dealership. If either is still there, we could find no evidence of it today. The lots are converted or empty; the only cars that can be bought there are used cars from small lots that dot Highways 27 and 278.

Factories are torn down or empty. Industrial parks are now home to small businesses, mostly distribution centers; there is no sign that anything is thriving there any longer. Homes that were once opulent and impressive are worn and dreary; most of Cedartown seems to be in deterioration or decline.

Cedartown isn't an exception. All over, there are small towns of 10,000 to 20,000 people that were once thriving, healthy communities; the shift in economic focus in the past forty or fifty years has eliminated the local factories that offered numerous jobs to support the residents, and it appears that for the most part, the only jobs in small towns like this are sales/cashier jobs at the local WalMarts or grocery stores or fast food establishments, or jobs in the many banks that somehow still survive in these declining communities.

It's sobering to realize that in my own lifetime, I've witnessed the gradual elimination of local self-sufficiency in Cedartown--and I know the same process is occurring in hundreds (if not thousands) of similar towns. I see little chance of reversal; as more manufacturers shift to a global focus, moving more of their factories to facilities in other countries, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for communities like Cedartown to offer that balanced hometown experience to its residents.

Communities like Rome, with 35,000 residents in the city limits and another 20,000 or more in the surrounding county, have a greater chance to survive--but even these towns are suffering from some of the same shifts that have devastated the small towns. By the time my nephew Oliver is old enough to really understand the stories of our childhood, the sulf-sufficient small town may seem as isolated from his own world as the pioneer villages of the 1800s were from my own childhood.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Bleak Anniversaries

It was one year ago yesterday that I spent my last pleasant afternoon visiting Dad, taking him out to lunch, and taking care of routine household matters for him. It was such a mundane Monday afternoon that I can only remember small fragments of it--I remember that Dad really liked the meat loaf that they had on the buffet at M&J's, so he went back for seconds. I remembered that Dad had me show him again how to play a videotape on the television in his bedroom, because he found some old tapes he wanted to watch again. I remember helping him make the bed, and his chuckle as he talked about how much he liked to sleep on clean sheets.

The next three weeks will be filled with much less happy anniversaries, and I'm already bothered by it. I think that, once I get past this first anniversary of Dad's stroke and hospitalization and death, it will be better.

I hope so.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Having Trouble Finding Sympathy...

I think I'm supposed to feel really sorry for the two people pictured in conjunction with this story. Try as I might, I'm not mustering up a lot of sympathy...

(I'll wait while you check it out: you can click on the link above, or you can just click on the URL here: )

First off, a reduction in caloric intake might have some beneficial effects...

Secondly, notice that "Nunez, 40, has never worked and has no high school degree." I do not accept the premise that "a car accident 17 years ago left her depressed and disabled, incapable of getting a job."

You know, if you really want to eat and have a roof over your head, it's time to get over a 17-year-old accident and move on to finding a way to making yourself a productive member of society, dontcha think?...

Perhaps at some point in the very near future Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs will begin to kick in and Ms. Nunez will actually begin to take responsibility for her own existence. Maybe it's not too late to teach the same sort of self-sufficiency to her daughter...

I'll Be Looking at the Moon...

Jo Stafford died on Wednesday at the age of 90.

There are hundreds of women with beautiful singing voices, but no one had the pure, melodious, heartfelt, caring sound of Jo Stafford. I first discovered her music about twenty years ago; she instantly stood out from every other female vocalist of the 1940s and 1950s, though, because her voice had a sincerity and an emotion that surpassed anyone else I had heard from that era... or from any other, for that matter.

She lived a long--and I hope, deservedly happy--life, but that's never comfort enough to her family and friends. I hope they can find some touch of solace in the fact that her recordings not only captured the spirit of a bygone time, but that they will continue to do so for many years more.

If you haven't listened to her, I offer a link to my favorite of her recordings, "I'll Be Seeing You." Give it two or three minutes and you'll see why I see her recording of this classic as the definitive one.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

So Far, No 3G for Me

As you may remember, I was quite late to the party regarding the original iPhone. In fact, back in June of last year, I devoted some space to the reasons why I wasn't buying an iPhone right away. Apple still hasn't addressed all of my concerns over missing features, but they did remedy enough of them that I ended up buying an iPhone in February of this year.

But I haven't bought a new iPhone 3G yet, because I now have a few new concerns that convince me I can get by with my original iPhone for a while yet. Here are my reasons for going old-style for a while longer:

(1) I'm not even sure I have 3G in this area. ATT's maps say I do, but when I picked up a non-iPhone 3G unit at the nearby ATT store and attempted to use it, it reverted to the old Edge network. "We're right on the edge of 3G coverage here," the sales clerk said. So if I buy the phone, will I even be able to take advantage of the increased speed? Since I've been told ATT's coverage maps are "optimistic" at best, I really don't know... but I'd hate to expend almost $700 to find out.

(2) The unit is entirely too costly. "Oh, you're wrong," you say. "It only costs $199 for the 8gb unit, $299 for the 16gb unit. That's true--plus about $60 for activation and junk fees, right up front. Then there's an extra $10 per month for a data plan even worse than the one I have now--and another $5 a month if I want to have a minimal text message plan. (I don't send text messages, but there are a few people who insist on sending 'em to me, even though I tell them that I will condemn their souls for doing so...) So there's $15 a month for 24 month, or $360 more. That's how much it'll cost to get the exact same coverage I have right now in terms of data plan and features. The only change? It'll supposedly be faster... (go back to reason 1 to see why I say "supposedly")

(3) Apple software version 2.0 is Not Ready for Prime Time. I upgraded my old iPhone to 2.0 last Friday, and my email has been pretty much nonfunctional ever since then. I thought I was just the unlucky exception, but a perusal of Apple's own iPhone forums shows that hundreds, maybe thousands of others are having the same problem. If I switch from my home wireless network to ATT's edge network or vice versa, mail quits working. I have to restart the phone (or, as I've just learned from an Apple guy, force quit the mail program) to make it work... and then it quits working again when I switch from one network to another. And the phone doesn't know that it's not working, so it eats through its battery charge trying to make the connection and check e-mail.

I've been exchanging emails with aforementioned Apple guy, forwarding him my crash logs and other data, and he said that they indicate I'm having a problem that they already know about, and they're working on a fix. I appreciate that, but I'm still wondering how the maker of the nation's best-selling mobile phone could release software that wreaks havoc on basic functionality? And how could they not get it fixed immediately? Or at least offer us an option to downgrade to the working system rather than this broken one?

(3) The new system and the iPhone App store still don't offer some of the missing functionality from that first list I posted last June. For instance, I still can't use voice dialing/calling without going through more steps than just choosing the call recipient from my favorites list. What I want is simple: I want some way to touch something on the headset or the outside of the phone that allows me to say the name of the person I wish to call, and then have the phone call them. I don't want to take it off my hip, out of the holster, open its screen, touch any buttons, etc. Dozens of others phones offer this basic function, so how did the iPhone miss out?

(4) I'm still concerned about that glass front.

(5) iPhone and ATT seem to be at odds regarding customer support, warranty service. etc. One customer bought a defective iPhone at the Apple store; he was told by ATT that he could return it for a refund, but he could not then get a second iPhone at the $199/$299 price because that was a subsidized price, and he would have already purchased his one subsidized phone (his broken one). He could get a refund, but he's have to pay a 10% restock fee and he still couldn't get the subsidized phone. Apple had to ultimately give the guy a gift card for the difference ATT was charging him and then let him use that to pay the difference. Kudos to Apple for stepping up and doing the right thing, but this says volumes about the lack of cooperation coming from ATT this time around. I suspect they really hate the iPhone; I know they tried to talk me into buying something else when I finally did buy my first generation iPhone.

So there you go; now you know why I'm still an iPhone 2.5g guy in a supposedly-3G world...

Going Green and White

Last weekend, I ventured up to Rome for the West Rome High School All Class Reunion. As I've commented on multiple occasions, I credit my years at West Rome (and the knowledge I gained there) for whatever degree of success I've attained in my life. Certainly, college offered me more specialized knowledge in certain areas, as well as giving me the credentials necessary for my teaching career, but the core skills I needed to write and to run a business were all derived from my high school education.

My years as a student in Rome (culminating in those West Rome years) also instilled in me a lot of my awareness of the importance of diverse knowledge, my appreciation of the arts and literature, and my attitude that each of us has the ability to make our lives better. I enjoyed my time at Berry College, but I nowhere nearly as much fondness for my years there as I do for my years at West Rome.

I've also mentioned previously that my school no longer exists; back in '92, Rome chose to dispose of West Rome and East Rome High Schools (West Rome is now a WalMart parking lot; East Rome, where I taught for my first five years, is now a Kmart parking lot), combining the two schools into one larger Rome High School, which they then located on the far outskirts of Rome so that it was a neighborhood school for pretty much nobody. Since West Rome is now 16 years gone, every reunion has a slightly bittersweet quality; our school colors of Green and White are now relegated to history; our memories of faculty members like Mr. Davis, Mr. Carter, Mrs. Evans, Ms. Smyth, Mrs. Armona, Mrs. Cobb, Coach Hyder, Coach Parker, Coach Kennedy, Coach Cox, Mr. Stevens, and so many others become more a part of the distant past with each passing year; and we can only revisit the campus itself in our memories.

There were only a half-dozen or so people from my class of '71 who made it to the reunion; I spent a lot time talking with the former Melinda Hyde, now Melinda Holder. We were classmates from the fourth grade through graduation--and as Melinda and I remarked as we looked over our fourth grade picture, the bulk of us who were in that fourth grade class remained classmates for the remainder of our public school years. That's where so much of that bygone sense of community comes from: we were West Rome residents, we were West Rome students, we were West Rome neighbors. We all knew the same people, we shopped in the same places, we lived in the same area. The transient nature of modern society was much less developed in the 1960s and early 1970s; families settled down in neighborhoods and stayed there, and the point was driven home as we looked at that photo from the 1962-1963 school year.

As with most multi-class reunions, the large group broke up into numerous smaller groups that shared common graduating years. It appeared that the earliest graduating classes (West Rome started in 1958) actually had more attendees than the later classes; that may be part of that community nature. It seems that more of the students from those early classes actually stayed in Rome after graduation, so there were more of them in the area to attend the reunion.

I left the reunion hoping that I someday have another chance to see some of the other people with whom I shared those years--people like Sven Ahlstrom (with whom I exchange emails from time to time, thankfully), Gary Steele, Greg Carter, Jamie Cook, Kenneth Barton, Lon Rollinson, Lynn Amspoker, Terri Freeman, Alan Carrington, Thomas Blad, Phyllis Cox, Randy Hatch... it's a long list, and each name carries many pleasant memories.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Pleasant Surprise

This afternoon, I had a visit from Anju, the woman I assisted after purse was snatched in the Target parking lot. She had remembered the name of the store, so she tracked us down through a Google search and came by to say thanks. I was not expecting this visit; she had a difficult and intrusive experience to deal with, and I know she's still dealing with that (our house was burglarized once, and it takes you a while to get over the general sense of apprehension after a crime of this sort).

It was good to see her again, and to learn that she was doing better than could be expected. What I really didn't anticipate was a gift: she wanted to give me something as a way of saying thanks. I was deeply touched by her thoughtfulness; she had picked up some chocolates, some biscotti, and other gifts (she knows my weaknesses, apparently).

What I didn't notice until she left was that there was also a card in there (it had slid underneath the bottom box, or else I would have opened it while she was there (often the card is more important than anything else because it is the most personal gift of all. When I found it, I opened it and learned that not only had she written a very touching message inside, but she had included a gift card. Had I opened it at the time, I would have insisted that she take it back and use it for herself to help to compensate for the cash that was stolen.

There aren't too many people who would go to the trouble of finding me on the 'net and delivering an unexpected gift like this. I hope that many good things come her way to compensate for the unpleasantness she has experienced.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

A Grave Report

Remember that request I made for a DC Showcase volume collecting Steve Ditko's horror/fantasy/sf shorts for The Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves and other Charlton books? Well, Bob Wayne of DC gave me the bad news: DC only has the rights for the superheroes from the Charlton line, and not the horror/fantasy tales.

If anyone does have the rights, this would be a great project to get out there in the marketplace! Ditko's short stories often featured some of his best work; he seemed genuinely inspired by the Twilight Zone-esque twist ending tales. Reading through the Marvel Amazing Fantasy Omnibus left me wanting much, much more...

Fantasy's Big Ten

Following Charles' lead once again, here's my list of the top ten fantasy authors:

(1) Homer - Whether he was one guy or more than one is irrelevant--the author known as Homer set a lot of the patterns for fantasy with is amazing blend of history and mythology. It's amazing how many authors have used the Iliad and the Odyssey as models for their stories.

(2) Sir Thomas Malory - Morte d'Arthur is the model for the courtly romance, blending dark fantasy, legend, and history in a tale that resonates through fantasy to this day. Don't let Camelot fool you--the Arthurian legend is much darker than that.

(3) Chretien de Troyes - While Malory did a great deal to codify the Arthurian legend, de Troyes mysticized it with his tale of Perceval, the hero born, and the Fisher King. Every failed quest owes a debt to this wondrous tale--and no one conveys a sense of surreal, dreamlike mystery better than de Troyes does in the sequence involving the meeting with the Fisher King.

(4) William Morris - I agree with Charles that Morris is perhaps the most influential fantasist of the 19th Century--and oddly enough, he's one of the most overlooked. Of course, that's partly due to the fact that he so many other things so very well...

(5) H.P. Lovecraft - Dark fantasy doesn't get any creepier or more haunting than HPL's dream tales. And his pantheon of elder gods, possessed of an ethos incomprehensible to humans, became a fantasy staple.

(6) Clark Ashton Smith - The most poetic prose-smith of the Weird Tales triumvirate, Smith communicates in words what Ditko delineates with illustrations: his work is disquieting and engaging at the same time, and his style is so rich and evocative that it's hard to believe that he's not better known today.

(7) Robert E. Howard - Without him, there probably wouldn't be a heroic fantasy subgenre. Conan is the model for the field, but it's not the only thing he does well; Solomon Kane, Kull, Bran Mak Morn, and Cormac Mac Art are much more than Conan in different clothes, and are fascinating in their own right.

(8) Edgar Rice Burroughs - Sword and planet, heroic adventure, horror, science fantasy--ERB could do it all. His style defined an era, and his fantasy contribution have become part of popular culture.

(9) J.R.R. Tolkien - In spite of the fact that I find his prose tedious and uninviting, I recognize the importance of his contribution to the field. The fantasy quest that Homer created is refined in this sophisticated blend of original ideas, epic plotlines, and Teutonic, Scandinavian, and Celtic legend.

(10) Fritz Lieber - Lieber brought a refinement and wry wit to heroic fantasy that took the genre in a bold new direction.

If I were going for the top eleven, Michael Moorcock would make the list--it was close between him and Lieber, and I still think that Moorcock's eternal champion concept is a wonderful metafictional device. Other authors deserving of mention: Mervyn Peake, T.H. White, C.S. Lewis, C.L. Moore, Mary Stewart, Edgar Allan Poe, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Bram Stoker, Lord Dunsany ("rhymes with rainy")... there are lots of good choices for the next ten on the list.

Clear at Last

After almost forty years, I finally know what Joe Cocker was actually saying during that famous performance at Woodstock.

Stay with it--you'll be amazed at his collaborative rewriting skills!

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Strange Tales

Just finished Blake Bell's excellent biography, Strange & Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko. I've been a Ditko fan since those pre-superhero Amazing Adult Fantasy days, and have always wished that this innovative, distinctive talent had continued to create comics of the caliber that he produced in the 1960s and early 1970s. I now know why he didn't--and while I regret his absence from the field, I have to accept the fact that for whatever reasons he might have, Ditko's decisions are deliberate and principled.

Bell was forced to produce a biography with virtually no input or guidance from Ditko, who has maintained his reclusive nature for years. Even in the halcyon 1960s, when he was a core member of the Marvel bullpen, he was the isolated talent who wouldn't play with others--as is evidenced by the joke about him jumping out the window rather than speak on tape for the recording of the Mighty Marvel Marching Society flexidisc.

When I was talking to Brett about Ditko's Ayn-Rand-influenced objectivist philosophies and how the led to his virtual abandonment of comics, Brett summed it up by saying, "He's just insane." I have to disagree: I think Ditko is a man who is so principled that he refuses to compromise. His values are, in their own way, more important than his art--and if he has to choose between one or the other, he will choose values. There are few willing to do this; it goes against the whole structure of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. But I suspect that Ditko would reject much of Maslow as well...

Anyone who reads this book will agree that it's crime that Marvel has never adequately compensated Ditko, in finances or recognition, for his seminal role in the creation of their flagship character. The man deserves prominent credit, a stipend suitable to support him for the remainder of his life, and apologies for the way he has been shunted off to one side over the years. But they'll also agree, I think, that it's a crime that Ditko's Randian viewpoint left him unwilling to consider any sort of compromise that might have enabled him to continue to shape Spider-Man as the character Ditko created.

I think the saddest news is the confirmation that Ditko was offered the opportunity to do a massive comics adaptation of Ayn Rand's work, but chose not to; just think what a career-defining comic that could have been!

Finally, I am left wishing that DC would assemble a Showcase volume focusing on Ditko's work for Charlton's Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves; there's some wonderful material in here that hasn't been seen by many fans, and it would be wonderful to see it compiled in black and white!

If you've ever wanted to know more about the people behind the comics, then Strange and Stranger is a must-read.

Enjoy 'em in the Comfort of Your Home...

First off, let's make it clear: I don't like fireworks. I consider it to be an ostentatious and inconsiderate way of forcing everyone with a mile or so of you to know that you feel the only appropriate way to celebrate is by blowing things up.

Even so.

If you're setting of fireworks on the evening of the Fourth of July, you can be considered to be commemorating the holiday.

If you're setting of fireworks after midnight on the Fifth of July, however, you're just an egocentric jerk.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The Anti-Decamp Camp

Over in the Robert E. Howard Yahoo Group, we're once again experiencing the cyclical "L. Sprague de Camp is wicked" series of posts. As usual, I read a few of these, get fed up with the same arguments coming up again and again, and drift away from the forum until the hotheads move on to another topic.

But for some reason, the attacks on de Camp seem very personal this time, and that bothers me. I knew L. Sprague de Camp, and was impressed with the man; I also read L. Sprague de Camp the author, and was impressed with him as well. And de Camp deserves a great deal of credit for making Conan accessible to readers in the 1960s; without him, the Robert E. Howard renaissance may have never occurred, nor the rise of Conan to the status of popular culture icon.

Unlike Robert E. Howard, who achieved no success in the book market during his lifetime, de Camp was an author who could sell pretty much any book he wrote--science fiction, alternate history, fantasy, science and history-based nonfiction, biographies, he wrote 'em all. De Camp's first major work, Lest Darkness Fall, has achieved classic status in the SF/alternate history field; his and Fletcher Pratt's Harold Shea stories were a distinctively different sort of fantasy, adventurous but not at all like Howard's heroic fantasy. His Tritonian Ring is a fantasy masterpiece. The Dragon of Ishtar Gate is a historical tour de force that clicked with fantasy fans because of the richness of the cultural insights and the adventurous elements.

Had Howard lived to know de Camp, he would have undoubtedly admired and envied the man's literary golden touch--everything he wrote in every genre found a pubisher and an audience, it seemed. It was that success, along with an abiding admiration for the strength of Howard's prose, that brought de Camp to Conan to begin with. In the 1950s, when Gnome Press collected Howard's Conan stories in a series of limited-print-run hardcovers, de Camp stepped in to fill the gap between Howard's plans for Conan and his surviving ouevre of Conan tales.

De Camp recognized the strength of Howard's storytelling; since there were no new Conan tales to be had (at least none that anyone knew of at the time), he did the next best thing: he took non-Conan short stories--mostly historical fiction--and lovingly reworked them into Conan stories. They were compiled in the Gnome volume Tales of Conan; all but one of them also saw publication in science fiction/fantasy magazines. Was it Robert E. Howard's name that sold those stories? No, it was L. Sprague de Camp's; his posthumous collaboration introduced Howard's character and concept to a new generation of readers, and it did so with stories that inlcuded a heaping helping of Howard prose.

De Camp's appreciation for Howard and Conan was sincere; I spoke to him once about the subject at a convention, and even though de Camp was a staid, reserved, somewhat formal man with a seemingly stern demeanor, it was obvious that he was first and foremost a fan of the writer and of the character. He didn't come to Conan to overshadow Howard, or to remold the hero into something Howard never intended. Instead, he came to Conan to fill in gaps in the body of work of an author he enjoyed--and at the same time, he brought a literary credibility to Howard.

Sometimes an author's success is determined by the company he keeps--the authors with whom he associates during his lifetime, the celebrities who read his works, and the authors or editors who act as his advocates after his death, pushing his work back into the public eye lest they be forgotten. Some may remember that Ian Fleming's James Bond was virtually unknown in the US until it became common knowledge that President Kennedy enjoyed them; suddenly Fleming was an American success, and that Kennedy association helped to make the James Bond juggernaut possible.

While L. Sprague de Camp was no Kennedy, he was a big literary fish in the small pond of science fiction and fantasy; his admiration for Howard, and his willingness to rework that material so that it had elements of both Howard and de Camp made the stories saleable to editors in the 1950's and the 1960's. Without de Camp and his eager and talented collaborator Lin Carter, there would have been no Lancer Books Conan line in the 1960s.

In science fiction of the time, there were A list authors and B list authors. A list authors were published in hardcover; companies bid for the rights to publish their books in paperback; their backlist titles rotated back into print regularly; and they appeared under more reputable literary imprints like Ballantine Books, where Ian and Betty Ballantine brought added respectability to science fiction. B list authors wrote two or three books a year for the SF equivalent of scale; their works rarely went back into print; and they often saw their names on one side of an Ace Double, with another author's novel on the flip side--the paperback equivalent of a two-story SF magazine, meant to be read and forgotten. L. Sprague de Camp was, in the 1960s, an A list author. Lin Carter was, at the same time, a B list author. But when the two of them collaborated to fill out the Conan saga, they found unprecedented success. Their names helped to sell the books to the editors at Lancer; their finishing of the stories, their editing and reworking of Howard's prose, convinced the publisher that these stories could sell... and they did.

I've heard some in the Howard group credit the Frazetta covers for the success of Conan. Certainly, they were a part of the gestalt--but if the Frazetta covers were the sole cause of the book's success, then why had Ace never been able to leverage their Frazetta covers on Edgar Rice Burroughs books into the same sort of mega-success (and why did the books ultimately end up with Ballantine, who went for a totally non-Frazetta look with their editions and found greater success)? Why, too, did all the other SF and fantasy books featuring Frazetta covers not become best-sellers?

I love Frazetta's work, and I can never picture the mature Conan without seeing his imagery--but to most of the world, Frazetta was an artist best known for his work on books from the B list publishers, especially Ace. When Ace made an attempt to move into the A list field with their Ace Science Fiction Specials just a couple of years after Frazetta's covers appeared on those Lancer Conans, they made a conscious decision to avoid the Frazetta style of art, going for the more modern, expressionistic work of Leo and Diane Dillon. And when Ian and Betty Ballantine drafted Lin Carter to oversee the publication of one of the most impressive collections of fantasy novels ever assembled, they didn't ask Frazetta to do the covers; instead, they went in a totally different artistic direction for their Ballantine Adult Fantasy line. And even Lancer was willing to publish some Conan novels without Frazetta covers; while his work enhanced the books, it wasn't the crucial key to the Conan novels' success.

So what was? At the core, it was the strength of Robert E. Howard's storytelling, the indomitable vitality of his character, and the elements of an epic saga that existed in his overarcing story. But he died before that overarcing story was complete; without the loving but professional guidance of L. Sprague de Camp, who brought a respectability and credibility to the works of a man then thought of as just another dead pulp writer, those stories might have never seen print, and most surely would not have seen mass market success. De Camp filled in the missing pieces, massaged the prose and reworked existing stories to bring them into the Conan fold, and gave a sense of completion to the work. These books were part of a Conan saga, and de Camp (along with Carter) recognized the value of the word saga. They made it happen.

And every time I read some pissant deride de Camp as a leech or a polluter of the work of Howard, I realize how little these people know of the history--and how little they comprehend the alternate history of a forgotten author known only to pulp enthusiasts and those who hunted out obscure magazines. L. Sprague de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall may be his most famous alternate history, but the alternate historical path he blazed for Howard and Conan is his most long-lasting.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Observations & Ruminations

There is something almost mystical about the tenacity and the fragility of life.

I have been at the bedside of both of my parents as they have died; I have witnessed both qualities. The distinctive experience of each death is forever engraved into my mind and my heart--Mom's death a quiet cessation of a declining life, Dad's death a reluctant struggle for the body to survive in spite of the brain's devastation. Each haunts me in different ways, and the memory of each still evokes a poignant sense of loss and loneliness.

I see that fragility in the moment when their bodies could no longer sustain life--at the point where the systems had failed to the point that continued function was impossible. That wonderful machinery had reached its ultimate disrepair, and there was that precise point where each was there, and then each was gone.

I see that tenacity, though, in the struggles they went through. Mom's death from emphysema was a battle whose outcome was determined on the day the disease began to take its toll, but that didn't stop her from clinging to life as long as possible. She strove, she adjusted, the compensated so that she could enjoy life for as long as possible. She fought until there was nothing left to fight with, and then she had to leave us.

Dad's tenacity deceived us at first; he struggled to adjust and compensate to such a degree that it was days before we knew how truly massive the stroke had been, and what toll it had taken. He knew, but didn't say; instead, he tried to go on with what faculties were left, and did so for almost two days before the escalating impact of the stroke became more evident. From there, he clung to life for two more weeks, drawing on a strength that seemed physically impossible for his frail, weakened body.

Today I saw a woman burdened with a malady of which I knew nothing--but I could see its weight on her. She relied on a walker; each shuffling step was obviously painful nevertheless, each breath labored. Yet she smiled, and she laughed with her family, and in her eyes was a genuine joy that made it clear that her tenacity was winning out. Faced with limits that made her earlier lifestyle impossible, she had compensated and adjusted and found new ways to live.

Beside our back deck is a tulip poplar we have named Stumpy. The tree was broken in the tornadoes of 2001; rather than have it cut down entirely, we asked the trimmers to cut it some twenty feet off the ground, creating a sparsely limbed stump. That was seven years ago this month; since then, Stumpy has reached skyward with new limbs, finding renewed life in the face of damage that the arborist told us would certainly kill the tree. Now it stretches an additional twenty feet in to the air with numerous limbs, some of which are thicker than my thigh already. It is heavily leafed, and it shades our deck. A simple tree reminds me again of the tenacity that defines life. The stump just twenty feet away, a reminder of the tree that was felled by the same storm, reminds me of its fragility.

In each of us are both qualities; life is defined by the struggle for one to win out over the other. The mix of the two makes our days so precious, but the same mix is the source of our regrets.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Ten Books Everyone Should Read

Inspired by a post at Charles' blog, here's my list of the top ten books that should be read by everyone (one would be well-read had he or she read only these ten):

(1) The Great Gatsby

(2) The Iliad

(3) Hamlet

(4) To Kill a Mockingbird

(5) Huckleberry Finn

(6) Stranger in a Strange Land

(7) Atlas Shrugged

(8) Metamorphosis

(9) Farewell, My Lovely

(10) A Tale of Two Cities