October 8th, 2005


October Books 3) The Clan Corporate

3) The Clan Corporate, by autopope

Gosh. The best of the "Merchant Princes" series so far. Miriam Beckstein attempts to play the game by her own rules, but there are plenty of her relatives who have been playing it better for much longer... We see more of Miriam the former investigative journalist rather than the startup manager this time, and her ex-boyfriend turns up. Ends on a great cliff-hanger (unlike the first book). No economics lectures (unlike the second book). Can't wait until it comes out.

October Books 4) Macedonia

4) Macedonia: The Bradt Travel Guide, by Thammy Evans

It's always a pleasure when someone you like writes a book you like about a subject you like. I've only known Thammy for a couple of years, but her husband is one of the two or three people still involved in the Balkans who I got to know when I first went out there in 1997. Her book is perhaps the first guide book ever written about Macedonia; I'm sure it won't be the last. She rightly concentrates on the capital Skopje, its immediate surroundings, and the resort town of Ohrid on the lake of the same name; but she also devotes time to the rest of the country (broadly, the rest of the south-west, the rest of the north-west, the north-east and the south-east).

I've done less travel in Macedonia than she has, tending to yo-yo between Skopje and Ohrid; but on my first visit in 1997, I did a long tour taking in Štip, Strumica, Bitola, Gostivar and Tetovo, and during a lull in the 2001 fighting I participated in what in retrospect was a very bizarre trip down the western side of the country, through Tetovo, the Sveti Jovan Bigorski monatery, Debar and Struga, ending up with a prudent detour home through Prilep as the fighting intensified on the other road. (I also visited the Bektashi Shrine in Tetovo a few weeks ago.) Part of the thrill of a book like this is to plan for things I must go and see next time I am fortunate enough to be in the country; the stone age observatory near Kumanovo sounds particularly intriguing, and I want to get a better idea of what my grandfather was up to in the Lake Doiran campaigns of the first world war. Even around Skopje, which I thought I knew pretty well, there's more stuff to discover - I've seen the sarcophagus of Goce Delčev in the courtyard of Sveti Spas on several occasions, but somehow never discovered the next-door exhibition about his life; nor was I aware of the grisly detail that the revolutionary hero's head was lost shortly after his execution.

In her chapter on Lake Ohrid, she rightly extols the virtues of the special trout found only there. Alas, as she and I discovered over dinner in Skopje last time I saw her, you can't get the Ohrid trout any more; they are under environmental protection, and simply not being sold in restaurants. At least, not in the restaurants I know of.

Slightly surprised that Gostivar is not one of the towns described in detail; it's no less interesting than many of those that are. Also if I'd been on the editorial team I'd have used the more usual English names of some of the historical figures - Emperor Basil II, for instance, rather than Vasilie/Vasilius/Basilius, and Bohemund of Tarentum rather than Boemund of Tarent. Lazar Koliševski's name is misspelt on one of the two occasions it is used. Few readers need be bothered by this kind of thing. Anybody fortunate enough to be going to Macedonia should buy the book.

Edited to add, May 2007: The second edition is now out, with an extra 80 pages and most of the points I note above addressed (including especially Gostivar). Even more strongly recommended.

October Books 5) Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril

5) Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril, by Judith Merril and Emily Pohl-Weary
Then some of my (male) friends and compeers began publishing politely laundered autobiographies of their successes and I was snowblinded by the detergent. Here were lists of stories sold, banquets attended, speeches given, editors lunched, even wives married and divorced, with never a shriek of tear or tremor or orgasm, and hardly a belly laugh anywhere... Somebody, I thought, should tell it like it was.
Well, she certainly did. I remember as a teenager reading with fascination Fred Pohl's memoir, The Way the Future Was, and thinking that at last I had a real insight into the life of a real science fiction writer. I now know that he wasn't telling us the half of it; he, Walter M. Miller, Theodore Sturgeon and Fritz Leiber, as well as being giants in the field, had something more intimate in common too.

But this is not a kiss and tell book; it's a passionate account of a passionate woman, pulled together from drafts and essays by her granddaughter, several years after her death. I'm afraid I skipped some bits - the correspondence between writers about writing and the weather and how much they liked each other, whether from the 1940s or the 1990s, didn't really grab me, and I also didn't appreciate the format of shifting typefaces.

There were three chapters though that really came alive: her account of her intense but platonic friendship with Cyril Kornbluth, which coincided with her affair with Leiber (while she was still just about married to Pohl) was a gripping piece of introspective writing; a bit later on, the dramatic account of the shotgun confrontation during a custody dispute between Pohl and Miller, which apparently she could only bring herself to talk about on the record a few days before her death; and, more positively, her account of settling in to Toronto on the wings of resistance to the Vietnam War, which made the city sound recognisably like the one described in rfmcdpei's livejournal, if at a rawer stage of its development.

I also really wish I knew more about her mini-documentaries which filled in the rest of the half-hour for CBC's broadcasts of Doctor Who. The dates aren't given, but it must have been in the mid-1970s glory days of the series, either late Pertwee or early Tom Baker. I wonder if they will ever be seen again?

Updated Irish sf list

I've just done a moderate update of my list of sf and fantasy set in Ireland.

Added the following - in many cases I don't know much about them, so if you think they don't belong on the list - and also if you know of other books that should be on it - please let me know in comments or by email.

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As always, grateful for more material, including also anyone who can identify these stories that people have asked me about:

1) a brilliant short story possibly called "Ringsend": it was set in Dublin after a cataclysm in which everyone died. It becomes a very funny and absurd account of the protagonist's discomfiture when one day he meets the only other survivor - a girl he had fancied and was rebuffed years before.

2) A story by Lucius Shepard set in Ireland

3) A novel set in an Ireland rapidly modernised by aliens, and isolated from the world by stringent security? autopope points out that this must be Fred Hoyle's Ossian's Ride.

4) A novel where Ireland developed the technology to produce a birth control pill, and was the only country in the world with this knowledge (written in the 50s or so ;) The pill was made from turf and was made in one factory in the midlands. The protagonist of the book was a British secret agent, sent to infiltrate the factory.