I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

1001-A Fitness Update

As of today's hike on the Eno with Cheryl, I have logged 1001 miles of physical activity in Endomondo. About 450 is biking, another 450 is hiking and walking, and the rest is stuff like kayaking and running.

Next year will have a lot more running. Cheryl and I are building up to being able to run an entire 5k distance. Right now, I can go about 3k, with 1k of walking at the beginning and another 1k at the end.

Also next year, I'm planning a 50 mile bike ride to celebrate my 50th birthday.

I'm now faithfully attending a gym near my work, and starting to get my upper body into shape, since most of my activity to date has mainly strengthened my legs. My goal is to be able to do an actual unassisted chin up by my 50th birthday. I've never in my life been able to do one; I was kind of a scrawny kid, alas. But, I'm using the weight assisted machine to do them at the moment, and feel confident that I can get to the point I can do at least one or two within the next three months.

I feel like I should have something profound to say, on the occasion of having hiked (etc.) a thousand miles in a year. But, having worked out Monday, ran yesterday, and hiked today, all I can really say is: Man, am I going to sleep good tonight.

The Storyteller's Gift

Earlier this month, I was invited to take part in an event at the main branch of the Orange County Library called The Storyteller's Gift, where local authors discussed important books they'd received as gifts. This was my essay:

My grandfather Sid loved to read. His house was of full of books they'd spilled out to shelves on the front porch, where paperbacks soaked in the humidity of southern summers. There was no logic to the organization. Cookbooks would be mixed in with histories and random single volumes from encyclopedias. The books were purchased in bulk at flea markets and thrift stores, an eclectic collection of dime store romances, lurid non-fiction, and pulp detective tales. National Geographics accumulated in every corner, as well as Watchtower magazines, and numerous children’s books filled with Bible stories.

My grandfather never went to college. He’d grown up poor in coal mining country and worked most of his life in a factory. Reading helped him find a larger world beyond Appalachia. None of his children inherited his love of reading. I never saw my father with a book in hand, only the occasional woodworking magazine. The houses of my aunts and uncles had a book or two, but none showed an inclination toward building a library as grand as their father’s.

Then I came along. I was a kid more interested in books than toys. When I went to his house, I risked life and limb digging out National Geographics from tottering stacks taller than I was. The first science fiction anthology I ever read was pried from one of his porch shelves. I loved all the books about ancient astronauts and Bigfoot and alien abductions.

If I ever had a relative who should have given me a book for Christmas, it was my grandfather. But, he was a Jehovah’s Witness and didn’t celebrate holidays. While he was generous in letting me take home books I found on is porch, I can’t recall him ever giving me a book as a gift.

Like a lot of bookworms, he was a quiet person. Our only conversation I recall was him telling me how one day cars would run on hydrogen and we’d fill up our tanks with water.

He died when I was eleven. My grandmother survived him by over thirty years. The collection of books never changed after he passed away. They just kept rotting on the front porch, or collecting cobwebs in their stacks along the walls. She never got rid of the books, but never read anything other than the Watchtowers. For three decades, I never saw any new books show up on the shelves.
When she passed away a few years ago, her children had the task of emptying out the house. Silverfish and mold had ravaged the books on the porch. Cheap paper and decades of southern heat had reduced the books inside to fragile yellow pages that fell apart as you turned them.

I never went to her house after her funeral. It was the task of my aunts to settle her estate. I was told that the books had been hauled off to the dump, with a few of the more intact ones going to Goodwill. They’d save me a National Geographic from March of the year I was born. I was happy to have it, thinking this was the only link I’d ever have to that childhood library.

Two years ago, I went to my mother’s house the weekend before Christmas. I don’t celebrate the holiday myself, but my Mother and siblings do. I attend seasonal events with the firm rule that I don’t take part in gift exchanges.

My mother was almost apologetic when she came out of the back bedroom with a cardboard box for me. It wasn’t wrapped. It was just a bunch of random objects, all of them old. There was an ancient Kodak camera, an old conch shell, a few yellowed photos, a frozen watch. And, at the bottom of the box, books.

She’d saved these things while helping clean out my grandmother’s house and thought I might want them. My grandfather had one bookshelf in a back bedroom that had glass doors, so that the books inside had been in decent condition. She’d saved me a few science fiction and adventure novels.
I dug through the box and discovered that my grandfather had been a fan of Edgar Rice Burroughs. There were a couple of Barsoom novels and a few Tarzan books, including a reasonably intact hardcover of Tarzan of the Apes.

I flipped to the copyright page. A. C. McClurg & Co., 1914.
I was no expert, but 1914 had to be darn close to the date Tarzan was first published.
I pulled out my phone.

Tarzan was originally published by A. C. McClurg & Co., 1914. First editions were worth $65,000, with dust jackets; jacketless editions like the one I held went for a mere $3000. Everything about my book matched the pictures on the internet, save for one small detail: While the copyright page listed the publisher as McClurg, the spine was stamped A. C. Burt.

Further research revealed the truth. A. C. Burt had reprinted the Tarzan books in the U.S. using the original British printing plates, including the copyright page. In perfect condition, they might be worth $50.

It didn’t matter. If it had been a first edition, I couldn’t imagine selling it. Flipping through the pages, the smell that washed over me was the exact scent of my grandfather’s porch. Even now, it takes me back to childhood.
This year, I finally read Tarzan. To say the novel hasn’t aged well is an understatement. The style is lurid. The plot is built on one implausible coincidence after another. There’s cringe-inducing racism. Tarzan, an abandoned white baby in a dark jungle, rises above the savage natives due to his superior intellect and fine breeding.

Toward the end of the book, the plot strains to tick the boxes of every imaginable adventure scenario, as Tarzan comes to America and races a car through a forest fire to rescue Jane and… I’m not making that up. Tarzan knew how to drive, because, why not? At this point, I was enjoying the book as an unintentional farce.

I reached the final scene, knowing that Tarzan and Jane confess their undying love and go back to the jungle… only that’s not how the book ends at all. In defiance of every Hollywood  adaptation, after crossing an ocean to find Jane, Tarzan realizes that, if he tells her he loves her, she’ll come back to Africa. But he also realizes she’ll never fit in there, any more than he belongs in the civilized world. The book closes with a perfect final sentence, one of the most satisfying closing lines I’ve ever read, as Tarzan throws away his chance of happiness in order to ensure Jane will have a better life. In an instant, a novel I hadn’t liked very much became a classic I wanted to talk with people about.

But who could I talk to? I didn’t know anyone who enjoyed old pulp novels. 
Except, of course, I did. He was gone now, but the fact he had a whole collection of Tarzan books told me a lot about his reading tastes. For the first time, I understood that it wasn’t just chance I’d found science fiction on my grandfather’s porch, or books about UFO’s piled under his coffee table. The books he’d chosen to preserve in his glass case were the ancestors of the books I now write.
It took me almost four decades to figure out that my grandfather had been a nerd. He’d lived in rural Virginia with no one around who shared his geeky interests. He didn’t talk much, but I bet he wanted to talk about those books.

I hope, by reading his books now, I’m doing my part to carry on the conversation. 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Thinking about books, thinking about Greg....

"All over the States I wandered, and into Canada and Mexico .  The same story everywhere.  If you want bread you’ve got to get in harness, get in lock step.  Over all the earth a gray desert, a carpet of steel and cement.  Production!  More nuts and bolts, more barbed wire, more dog biscuits, more lawn mowers, more ball bearings, more high explosives, more tanks, more poison gas, more soap, more toothpaste, more newspapers, more education, more churches, more libraries, more museums.  Forward!"
--Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer

My best friend Greg Hungerford passed away four years ago two days before Christmas. Of course, the holiday reminds me of him, but this year I've had a lot of other reminders as well. As I've been going back and rereading classic novels I either skipped or failed to appreciate in my school years, I keep running into books that remind me of Greg.

For instance, I would love to have read the Island of Dr. Moreau while Greg was still alive and harassed him until he read it as well (though, for all I know, he had read it, and it was my ignorance of the book alone that prevented a discussion). I think Greg would have really appreciated the religious undertones of the book, and the way the lines between man and animal get blurred. Greg and I talked a lot about books, but, curiously, we seldom read the same books. He was a big fan of biographies. I tended to lean toward science. He loved big, dense novels by writers like Faulkner. I loved tight little tales like the Grifters. But, while our tastes didn't overlap, the important thing was we were both readers. We both kept filling our heads with ideas, and used the other to test out those ideas through long, meandering arguments.

One thing we both loved were humorous authors. We'd swap books by Dave Barry, and both quoted extensively from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Whenever Dave Barry would publish his "Year in Review" column, it was something of a tradition for us to read it together. Greg usually did the actual reading out loud. He had a wonderful reading voice, and could manage to make it through most of the sentences without helplessly cracking up, as I was prone to do. No matter what he read out loud, he sounded like he'd practiced the material a dozen times, even if it was his first time glimpsing it. He just had the ear and the timing to translate the written word into poetic sound.

Of course, the single most perfect memory I have of Greg and a book comes from when I went to visit him in Athens Georgia. We were driving to get something to eat. As we pulled up to a stoplight, he suddenly threw open the car door and ran into the intersection. It was only then that I noticed a paperback book on the pavement. He snatched up the book and made it back to the driver's seat before the light changed.

"You really wanted that book," I said.

"It was on the road," he said.

"I saw."

"No," he said. "It was On the Road." He held up the Jack Kerouac classic. That's a coincidence even I find hard to believe, and I was there!

This year, I read On the Road again. I hated it. Behavior I was oblivious to when I read it in college now left me wondering how anyone could admire the book. Dean Moriarty, the most interesting character in the book, is a horrible slacker who can't hold a job. He runs around the country making babies with women, then abandoning them.

I encountered this same attitude in Tropic of Cancer, which I just finished last week. The book denounces honest work as a kind of slavery, and ends when the narrator convinces a man to leave his pregnant girlfriend because settling down with her is going to be the end of his freedom and happiness. The man agrees, but, feeling at least some twinge of guilt, he gives the narrator all the money he has on him to take to the woman to help her out, at least a little. The narrator sees his friend off, then keeps the money, because he's been broke the whole book and feels like he could use a little break from crushing poverty.

I can tell you that Greg's attitude toward jobs was similar to the Henry Miller quote at the top of this column. In the years I knew him, he probably had twenty or thirty different jobs. Only a few lasted more than a month or two. He wasn't lazy... he worked hard as hell when he found something that interested him, like repairing computers or rebuilding a carburetor. But, he was someone who was more suited to working his own hours and being his own boss. He didn't take kindly to the harness. He never quite fell into lock step.

Despite his years of drifting, and despite his deep seated desire not to get stuck in a steady job, Greg broke the mold of so many of the characters I've been reading about. Unlike Dean Moriarty, unlike Henry Miller, when Greg finally had a child, there was never, ever, even once, any thought of abandoning her. It didn't trap him to settle down and raise his daughter. He finally put down roots, and found that people, like trees, drawn nourishment from such structures.

Miller and Kerouac sang the praises of men who behaved badly. Greg didn't listen to their songs. The world needs more books written about men like him.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

The Five Most Overrated Classics (and Five that Deserve the Label)

On my Dragon Prophet blog, I've been chronically my reading for 2013, when I was trying to focus on reading classic novels that I'd somehow managed to skip in my reading to date. Some of these books left me stunned by how wonderful they were, the sort of books I wanted to run out and immediately start telling my friends about. But, because human nature is perverse, the books I usually wound up telling my friends about were the truly wretched ones, the books that turned out to be tedious, pointless slogs. In the end, I read 36 classics. Here are the five best, and five worst:

The Five Classics I read this year that I loved the most:

The Island of Dr. Moreau, H.G. Wells--An absolutely stunning book that explores man's relationship with God and tries to fix the line between what is human and what is beast, and just how thin that line may be. Beautiful writing, fascinating characters.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte--Of the romances I read this year, this one was my clear favorite. Jane has dignity and self sufficiency. She has to support herself, and has goals beyond just getting married. In contrast to, say, Pride and Prejudice, the obstacles to her happiness are genuine and not trivial. The lovers in Pride and Prejudice are kept apart by misunderstandings and class barriers that didn't resonate with me. The man Jane loves, on the other hand, is already married and hiding his deranged murderous spouse in the attic! That, my friends, is a barrier to romance. Alas, the book does fall apart a bit near the end, when the Jane's fortunes improve mostly through strokes of good luck instead of actions that she takes. Still, for truly deep, complicated characters, this book is hard to beat.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey--Holy moly! The language of this book is lyrical and evocative, written from a distorted point of view that misunderstands reality in a way that illuminates it. The plot and pacing are terrific, there's several characters you wind up caring for, and there are thought provoking explorations of how far society will let you go as an individual before you enter the zone of crazy. The one flaw is cringe-inducing misogyny. Every female in the book is a castrating bitch or a saintly whore, and the female antagonist is finally "put in her place" by a sexual assault. That said... wow!

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut--Daring story structure, writing that is both plain and simple and poetic and surreal. A must read for those who think of WWII as the "good war." A beautiful tragedy.

Catch-22, Joseph Heller--Yeah, another WWII novel. Easily the funniest book I read this year, built around the most agonizing tragedy you can imagine. The way the story keeps building up layer after layer, from a dozen different character's perspectives, is a real high-wire act that leaves me amazed at how well it's pulled off.

Speaking of classics that left me amazed...

The Five Classics that I can't believe are considered classics:

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson--A good premise smothered by the author doing everything in his power not to actually show us much of Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. Stuffy writing, the barest imaginable plot, made all the more bewildering since Treasure Island by the same author is such an wonderful, fast paced, tightly written book.

Journey to the Center of the Earth, Jules Verne--Oh god, I can't believe I slogged all the way through this boring pile of words. The most shallow characters you can imagine, for no particular reason other than "just because," decide to go wander around in a really big cave. Lots and lots and lots of pages of characters looking at rocks. And, while I'm forgiving of outdated science in older SF, even when this book was written the whole notion that there were forests in the center of the earth had to be built around pure wishful thinking rather than any sort of evidence. The book's one virtue: It kept 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea off this list!

Dracula, Bram Stoker--This book is still famous today based on four or five awesome chapters at the beginning of the book, really some of the best horror ever written. And then... it feels like a different writer steps in to crank out the rest of the book. The hunt for the vampire is mostly a committee meeting. Seriously, there are chapters--chapters!--devoted to Mina typing up and organizing notes. Every time Van Helsing spoke, my eyes glazed over. And, the final climax is just about as anticlimactic as it could possibly be. Still, the first few chapters almost kept it off the list.

Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift--I admit, there's some funny stuff in here about the absurdity of how humans organize their societies. But, reaching the ten funny paragraphs requires wading through chapter after chapter of Swift bleeding his premises completely dry. We get it, Jon! These guys are really small! Or big! The real weakness of the book is that it's utterly plotless. It's just a record of weird stuff that just happens due to good luck or bad luck. And Gulliver himself is a complete non-entity, devoid of personality or goals, just a tourist in his own life.

On the Road, Jack Kerouac--Probably my most controversial pick on this list, since it's influenced so many writers. But it suffers from the same flaws as Gulliver's Travels. There's no plot, and the characters are all surface. Sal Moriarty is supposedly a fascinating, well drawn character, but, Jesus, if you met this guy in real life, you wouldn't want to spend five minutes in his company. He's a deadbeat who impregnates women and abandons them and tries to distract you from all the damage he's causing by talking about the beauty and mystery of life. I liked this book when I read it years ago, but, now I know children abandoned by their fathers, I know people who consider themselves too concerned with the life of the mind to be bothered with holding down a job, and I have no patience for a book that tries so hard to explain why such behavior is beautiful.

If someone wants to make a case for any of these five books, I'd love to hear what you found good about them. I know tastes vary, and my own prejudices can sometimes blind me to the charm of art that other people adore.