Saturday, March 24, 2012


"Speaking of wishes, you know what I never understood? Genies! They tell you to wish for anything you want, and then they add some terrible twist. Like you wish to jump high so he turns you into a frog. What? Why? Who gains from this? The genie? Where's the benefit? You should be fighting genies, man, not me. I'm not the problem. Genies. Genies are the problem." --Dr. Doofenshmirtz, Phineas and Ferb.

According to Arabian mythology, God created the angels out of light, humans out of earth, and the jinn out of fire. Jinn live a very long time, can travel great distances quickly, and can appear in many forms, ranging from terrible to beautiful. The Jinn are divided into five classes, based on their powers. The lowest class are the Jann, who have little power beyond transforming into animals. The next class are the Jinn, who give their name to the whole species and are the most common kind. The middle class are the Sheitan, who are evil jinn. The next class are the Afrits, powerful evil jinn dwelling in abandoned buildings. The most powerful class are the Marids, who are also evil and live in watery places like lakes or wells. The word genie as a name for these creatures came through a French translation for jinn, based on a similarity in sound and nature to the Latin word genius, meaning a local or guardian spirit.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Book Bounty: Irish Earth Folk

Irish Earth Folk, by Diarmuid Mac Manus (The Devin-Adair Company, 1959). Some line illustrations (by Lewis F. White?), as well as black and white photos of reputed fairy trees, hills, roads, and forts. This is a copy of a book we had in the local public library that I usually checked out at least once a summer in my teen years. The author, Mac Manus, was a friend of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats. He investigated and reported on the fairies--not as myths and legends (though he reviews that aspect as background) but as witnessed and attested encounters, within living memory (at least as of 1959). As such it reads not unlike encounters with ghosts, sasquatches, or flying saucers, but with a completely different eerie tang or taste to it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Book Bounty: Alternative Middle School Library

Honestly, what did people do in the old days when they hit middle age and nostalgia kicked in? They had to rely on fickle memories that grow dimmer every year, on whatever chance scraps of their childhood had escaped oblivion, or on the haphazard treasures that garage sales, second-hand bookshops, or flea markets would occasionally cast ashore. Now-a-days, of course, you can find just about anything that you care to search for on the internet, and buy it on eBay or similar sites. But a side effect or added bonus of this bountiful provision is the discovery of what my brother John and I have come to call alternative childhood memories: toys or books of equivalent style or age to those that you fondly cherish, but which due to availability or chance you never saw. These combine to form an unusual mix of nostalgia and novelty. The Book Bounty I want to talk about in this post are all books I could have read when I was in Middle School (Grades 6-8) but somehow never did.

A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, illustrated by Libico Maraja (Grosset & Dunlap, 1952). I have spoken elsewhere in this blog about the Italian artist Libico Maraja and shown some of his illustrations for this edition. I will only add that this volume has some line drawings as well as the gloriously solid color characterizations by Maraja that I love so well.

The Story of Dragons and other monsters, by Thomas G. Aylesworth (McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1980). Now, the good reason I never read this in middle school is that it wasn't published until I was in high school. But Thomas G. Aylesworth was a great producer of books on monsters and magic, their history and cultural impact, throughout my childhood years. Volumes of significance include Werewolves and Other Monsters (1971), Vampires and Other Ghosts (1972), and The Alchemists: Magic Into Science (1973). I love the subject of dragons; I had thought that The Story of Dragons would be a book of similar quality to these others. Unfortunately, the writing became scantier and more jocular in tone, the illustrations of poorer quality and badly displayed (often recycled from his earlier work) and sometimes of doubtful relevance. I do not know if this had anything to do with Aylesworth's switch from Addisonian Press to McGraw-Hill, or was simply changing times both for the author and the publishing world. But I had to get this book, to take a look.

Hubble's Bubble, by Elaine Horseman, illustrated by John Sergeant (W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1964). This book was actually in our middle school library, and I was pretty interested in it, but I could never check it out. This is because my last name is Babel, and anything with the word bubble or bobble in it was grist for the mocker's mills (and if you think no-one would have noticed me getting this book, you have forgotten how intensely public life in middle school is). Instead, I browsed it on the shelves, and was interested in the general set-up: five British children have a magical summer adventure in a cathedral court. The character I liked was Alaric Hubble, aged 12, a science enthusiast who buys an old book (from a disappearing shop, no less!) of what he thinks are chemistry experiments, but which turns out to be full of magical recipes. A lab in a secret room, animal transformations, and flying adventures ensue, along with the intrigue of keeping the adults from finding out. I am still in the process of reading this, so forbear to give a final opinion, but it is certainly redolent of period airs, from John Sergeant's line drawings to the advertisement for P. L. Travers "new" book, The Fox at the Manger, on the back.

Nathaniel's Witch, by Katherine Gibson, illustrated by Vera Bock (Longman's, Green and Co., 1941). This book was brought out by the same team that produced Cinders, the lost childhood book I've written about before; the existence of Nathaniel's Witch was even pointed out by Peter Sieruta on the same site that helped me find Cinders. It is the story of Nathaniel Endicott, 11 years old, who is that rarest of characters in children's literature, an orphan. It is 1785 in the United States of America, and among his other troubles, Nathaniel finds he must help a reluctant witch escape the power of the evil Witchmaster (highly hinted to be the Devil himself). The Witchmaster has scornfully declared the witch can escape "only when you are St. Nick!" Nathaniel decides they can make this come true if the Witch delivers toys on Christmas Eve, and the adventure of the book is them trying to accomplish this against all odds and the Witchmaster's opposition. While I was reading the tale I began to feel it was designed to be a perfect 1940's film: I even cast it using period actors in my mind, with Jackie Cooper as Nathaniel, Veronica Lake as Jacquett the Witch, Basil Rathbone as the Witchmaster, and S. Z. Sakall as the Toymaker. It was a highly enjoyable tale and one I am glad to add to my library.

The illusion of an alternate past is greatly added to by the fact that most of these volumes are ex-library, and though they are from as far afield as Spokane, Washington or Bedford, Virginia, they are exactly in the form I would have read them, once upon a time.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Book Bounty: The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives

The Adventures of Langdon St. Ives, by James P. Blaylock, is a deluxe limited edition volume published by Subterranean Press in 2008, collecting the first two novels and four short stories dedicated to the exploits of Langdon St. Ives, the eccentric Victorian scientist and adventurer. Originally selling for $60, it is already difficult to find a copy for less than twice that price. The copy I was able to get my hands on is ex-library and cost a slice under $100.

I have been reading Blaylock since the early 1980's, and greatly enjoyed the two novels, Homunculus and Lord Kelvin's Machine (and the marginally connected The Digging Leviathan) when they were published in the mid-'80's and early '90's. I have since gone out of my way to get hardback copies of Blaylock as and when they become available. This volume is a dream come true for me, including as it does a previously unpublished short story ("The Hole In Space") and beautiful illustrations by J. K. Potter.

These are the novels that arguably began (along with the works of Blaylock's pals Tim Powers and K. W. Jeter) the literary sub-genre of "Steampunk," tales set in a Victorian/Edwardian time period utilizing steam, clockwork, and crackpot science, and following the footsteps of Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Steampunk has mutated from a literary movement to a "lifestyle aesthetic," which generally means chunky ladies in bustiers, top hats, and monocles.

Further volumes in the Langdon St. Ives saga include The Ebb Tide, The Affair of the Chalk Cliffs, and the soon-to-be-released The Aylesford Skull. All are published by Subterranean Press and illustrated by J. K. Potter.