Reading Territory led to a dangerous chain of logic: Emma Bull -> other female SciFi writers -> Connie Willis -> old hollywood. This culminated in the compulsive purchase of All About Emily, Remake, and Inside Job. Have spent the last week or so reading these on my phone instead of the, oh, say, two dozen unread hardbacks on my shelves or my not-quite-overdue LJ review.
I can trace my love of Emma Bull back to The Other Change of Hobbit, yet another Bay Area bookselling institution that hasn’t survived the age of effortless online sales1. I’d never, ever have caught on to the awesomeness of Emma Bull if someone hadn’t hand-sold me War for the Oaks.2. I worry about what I might be missing now that a disturbing percentage of my new book recommends come from Twitter.
I found my copy of Emma Bull’s Territory in the used Sci-Fi section at Green Apple in or around 2013, and for whatever reason, just didn’t get to it. I had it on the shelf, I tried to bully other people into reading it on multiple occasions, I even packed it on vacation. It just wasn’t the moment, I guess. Spiritually I wasn’t ready.
Set in an ever-so-slightly-fantastic version the Arizona Territory, the novel deals with the conflicts and politics that divided the iconic Wild West community of Tombstone during the summer of 1881, and which would eventually lead to the infamous Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.3 Bull’s Tombstone is a slippery blend of history, fiction, and fantasy. Fictional characters mix with real historical figures,4 and a complex magical power struggle underlies real legal and physical battles.
The three pronged narrative is presented through the eyes of Doc Holiday, Wyatt Earp’s hard living dentist-cum-professional-gambler right hand man, “so good at being bad that it seemed like a genuine gift” (59), Jessie Fox, an iterate horse trainer with East Coast manners and supernatural talents he can’t quite face, and Mildred Benjamin, a young widow making her living as a typesetter by day while writing sensational fiction at night. After the Benson stage robbery, all three find themselves, in different ways, embroiled in the escalating conflict between the ranchers and townspeople, and facing a mysterious and powerful magic.
The Genre Mash is always a crowd pleaser, instantly refreshing favorite tropes by placing them in a new context, and the Sci-Fi/Old West smashup is arguably the most fail safe.5 If, in the process, the author manages to inject social morays that are a bit more palatable to the modern mind, so much the better. In most retellings of this particular Wild West creation myth women are incidental6 or explicitly problematic7. Territory, however, is overtly feminist. Mildred comes into her own as a writer over the course of the novel. Kate sees through Earp’s plots and manipulations, engineering Doc’s arrest not because she’s angry with him, but as a means of protecting him. Wyatt Earp’s public infidelities call his character into question. Both Doc and Jessie, in very different ways, seem to value strength and individuality in their women folk.
Totally enjoyable, engaging read, but ultimately not destined for the estate sale. I’d put this one on Amazon, but unfortunately in the process of reading it I managed to completely destroy it, so I’m afraid its bound for the Goodwill, if they’ll take it. One down. Approximately 200 to go.
Two bags full of worn out cloths and second-hand kitchen supplies have made their way to Good Will, and there’s a box of purses and t-shirts bound for the same destination waiting in the corner. (It is an Amazon box, but it contained jeans, not books. I’m resolved: I’m not taking more until I’ve finished what’s already on my plate.)
I’ve also started a box of books. So far, I’ve identified the following:
The Aeneid, Virgil (Robert Fitzgerald translation). Read for my 2002-3 Epic Poetry seminar and, as far as I know, never opened again. A $10 paper back available in probably every public library in America, which I have moved approximately nine times over 15 years. Having already committed to this level, I’m actually kind of tempted to keep this one.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass an American Slave & Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Fredrick Douglas, Harriet Jacobs. Read for my 2004-5 American Literature, History and Culture course. I think about Harriet Jacobs from time to time. Purging this tattered and sticky Modern Library Classics edition, but downloaded a free copy of Incidents for Kindle.
Manliness & Civilization, Gail Bederman. Read for the same history and culture class. People on the Internet hate this book. I spent some time reading one-star reviews, which seem to fall into three categories: people who misinterpret the analysis of 19th century culture as the author advocating in favor of the sexist and racist attitudes she attempts to explore, men who are angry that a woman would dare to comment on male identity under any circumstances, and students who would rather not have to read anything. For the record, found it to be a valuable piece of criticism.
The Prince and the Discourses, Niccolo Machiavelli. Read for some class at some point—possibly Renaissance and Reformation England during my freshman year. That would mean I haven’t cracked the cover since 2001.
A load of lit mags purchased from the now-defunct Cody’s in Berkeley in 2005, most of which I have not read or did not enjoy: Noon, ZYZZYVA, Blue Mesa Review, Ploughshares, and one year’s worth of Tin Houses (2007).
Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell. Purchased used from the airport Powell’s (trust Portland). Discovered two bus tickets dated February 25 and 27 2008 marking page 158. I think I forgot I owned this one and later listened to the audio book.
Hot Pink, Adam Levin. Selected based largely on the cover art, and purchased using a Pegasus gift certificate. I read this book on a really wonderful camping trip, so that, although I only actually enjoyed a couple of the stories, looking at it leaves me with a hazy happy feeling. I will never read this again.
Little Brother, Cory Doctorow. Purchased at random based solely on the San Francisco setting and the Neil Gainman endorsement. I have no idea why this particular quote was so compelling. (Book marketers take note.) Preachy, boring, skimmed the last half.
All now for sale on the internet. Because….I don’t know, it feels like I should at least try? Will most likely haul these down to the Good Will with the rest.
I have established an unfortunate habit of forming emotional attachments to objects with considerable inertia but little to no measurable worth. (Witness the 30 year old sofa I moved to four different apartments, two of them second story flats with narrow Edwardian staircases, the 1973 Oldsmobile which remained parked for over two years on the opposite coast, the roughly 60 pounds of thrift store clothing and costumes I haven’t worn in at least 5 years zippered into clear plastic bags and shoved into the cubbies above my closet.) By far the most prominent example, though, is my collection of books. Stacked two and three deep on bowed shelves, piled in the cabinet of my nightstand, lined up between risers under the foot of the bed, and generally strewn behind me as I move around my apartment, they are slowly swallowing up my living space like gathering snow drifts.
There’s nothing objectively special about what’s on these shelves. They’re not first editions or rare texts. Most can be found in any public library in America. An embarrassing number have not been opened since college. A more embarrassing number are still unread.
They have traveled though—extensively. In suitcases that consistently failed to meet with airline weight requirements; in duct-taped boxes mailed to school in the fall and home again in spring; in the back of a truck full of event tents and helium tanks bound for the Special Olympics; in moving vans and u-hauls and the trunks of cars driven caravan style between nine different residences across the greater Bay Area. It wasn’t that I couldn’t let them go; I never seriously considered it. I’m not sure it even occurred to me.
I learned to treat books as talismanic objects even before I could read them. They were an imaginative focus and, as I grew older, a symbol of personal ambition. As a teenager I carefully displayed my collection according to author, genre, and personal preference. Certain shelves were more prestigious than others. I’d take comfort and inspiration from looking at the spines lined up just right. I’d pull down a favorite and spend an hour rereading the best parts, sometimes just standing there beside the shelves, but more often sprawled out on the carpet in front of the hall heater or pacing tight circles around my bedroom (because reading was too exciting to sit still for, obviously).
In the string of dorms and shared apartments where I spent my 20s, I attempted to preserve that strange combination of familiarity and safety, passionate admiration and excitement by keeping my books close. This was not terribly successful. I don’t know quite what I was thinking. I must have assumed that at some point I would grow up and live in a real house with actual storage space—built-in bookshelves down one side of a cozy living room, perhaps an office, or even (swoon) a library. With that came the half-formed idea that my books would stay with me throughout my life. A question would arise and I’d go to the shelf and pull down a reference to search out the answer. Not that I have a lot of reference books or anything. I’d feel lonesome or nostalgic or bored and pull down one of my old favorites—a paperback, probably, but the edition with the best cover art, and the spine broken in all the right places. I’d loan books to friends and foist them upon my someday children at age appropriate intervals. (After I died, I suppose my books might give those hypothetical descendants an exclude for a cathartic fight, or maybe the collection could be auctioned, donated to a grateful and deserving public institution, or sold to theaters and real estate agents as set dressing. Failing all else my corpse could always be burned on a pyre made of paperbacks.) What I expected, basically, was an old house, full of books and children, with a massive kitchen garden, set in the middle of someplace beautiful.
I’m sure this vision must be common among my particular subspecies of North American nerdy girl–former history and creative writing undergraduates, nature lovers who haven’t quite reached the multi-day backpacking level, people who form friendships based on mutual love of obscure (or embarrassing) authors, and those who thought a library degree was a good plan.
I still want that house. What I’m realizing though, is that between that house and where I am now, a lot of other things will probably happen. My coping mechanisms (which are many) have gradually shifted from comforting to stifling. I don’t need a safe place full of things anchoring me to earth. What exactly I do need isn’t quite clear, but I think it has something to do with flexibility, and openness, the willingness to expose myself. I need to be light and mobile. I need to use up and throw away what I can, box away the things I want for my whole life, and find what’s next. I need to throw a bunch of shit out. Seriously, look at those sagging shelves.