Review: Ahab’s Return: The Last Voyage

Ahab’s Return: The Last Voyage by Jeffrey Ford. William Morrow, 2018, 259pp.

 

In the mid19th century, a man named George Harrow works as a fabulist for a penny dreadful called The Gorgon’s Mirror, making up absurd stories for a willingly gullible readership. It’s hard work making up the right kind of nonsense and he’s going through a bit of a dry spell, so it seems a stroke of luck that brings a one-legged sea captain to his office, claiming to be ‘the’ Ahab from Moby Dick. Which, of course, was actually written by Ishmael, a former writer/copy editor at the Mirror, and not that Melville fellow.

Ahab, it seems, did not drown attached to the great white whale after all, and is now returned, looking for his wife and son who believed him dead. Harrow, of course, sees the possibility of a series of stories based on Ahab’s experiences and his search for his family, and offers his help in exchange and we are off and running.

Ahab’s wife has long since passed away and his son, Gabriel, is one of many young men in the thrall of a Fagin-like criminal boss called Malbaster, who keeps the so-called Jolly Host in line with opium and appeals to bigotry and racism. There’s also a sad zombie(ish) assassin named Bartleby, and a manticore who eats people and recites poetry. Ahab and Harrow assemble their own team: Arabella, an apparent opium fiend who is much more than she seems. Mavis, a courier for the Mirror and genuine badass, and Madi, a former harpooner and fellow survivor of the Pequod. Many alarms and excursions as the group attempts to rescue Gabriel from Malbaster’s clutches and put a stop to Malbaster.

All of which is and is not what the book is about. Malbaster himself drops a hint at what’s really at stake:

“…Love generates great energy with which to form the world. But Fear and Ignorance aren’t bad themselves, producing their own grim yet powerful magic. The secret, Harrow, is e pluribus unum.”

I don’t think I’m giving away too much by stating that a great deal of the book revolves around Malbaster’s true nature, and true danger. Any reader well in is going to pick up on that, and plainly see the correlation to certain events taking place in this country now. If you’re not into subtext, you’re still left with a rousing magical adventure taking place in the New York of 1853, including references to and plot points depending on: changing street names, Seneca Village, and John Jacob Astor’s secret stash of opium.

Reading over the above, I have to say that it just doesn’t do the book justice. Ford is at the top of his game here, and there isn’t anyone better (or at all) doing what he does. Read the book yourself and you’ll understand what I mean.

 

Advertisements

It’s a Seasonal Thing

Not quite late, exactly, though this is going up a little later in the day than I usually try to manage. Couldn’t be helped. As you all know, it’s now December, approaching—for those who celebrate, and even for many who don’t—Christmas. It’s hard to avoid at least and impossible at most. Those of us caught up in the orbit of the Yule Season have certain…obligations, shall we say, that go along with the annual celebration. Some of them are familial. A few are even spiritual. For some of us, however, they are more of a ritual.

It was time to re-watch “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” Well, it was either that or “Santa Claus vs the Devil.”

Sure, you could take the easy way out and go for “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” but as far as I’m concerned that particular holiday joy is more in the line of collateral damage. It’s something you often end up doing or being done to, willing or no. Seasonal films like “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” usually require a little more effort. They’re not that hard to find, with the right streaming service, but as a rule you do have to look. And you have to know to look, which to me places them in an entirely separate category.

For one thing, they’re really bad.

As films, that is. As cultural artifacts? Priceless. The sheer cluelessness of  “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” is so absolute that it transcends into a sort of pure and beguiling innocence. You can’t find that just anywhere. And after repeated viewings, I still find new things. For instance, for a while I had it my head that one of the Martians was played by Jamie Farr, even though I knew the time frame was too early. Only later, when I bothered to check, I found that it was actually an actor named Al Nesor. Quite a resemblance, though.

And yes, I know it doesn’t take that long to watch “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” Only after watching it we stumbled across “RiffTrax: The MST3K Reunion.”

That took a while.

Worth it.

Review: In Calabria, by Peter S. Beagle

Tachyon Publications, LLC., 2017.

Let it be said up front that Calabria is a region of southern Italy, in the “toe of the boot.” There on a hillside farm lives Claudio Bianchi, alone except for his old dog Garibaldi, his old goat Cherubino, and three cats: Sophia, Mezzanotte, and Third Cat, which is more position than name, since Bianchi had never learned her real name, “as one must do with cats.” Other than twice-weekly visits from young Romano the postman, It’s a hard and lonely existence, which suits Bianchi just fine. The farm gives him enough of a living to live, plus time to read and sometimes write poetry, which he mostly keeps to himself. All that changes when the unicorn visits his scraggly vineyard for reasons that Bianchi cannot fathom:

“He would indeed  have taken it for an illusion, if Cherubino, anarchist and atheist like all goats, had not remained kneeling for some time afterward, before getting to his feet, shaking himself and glancing briefly at Bianchi before  wandering off. Bianchi knew the truth then, and sat down.”

He writes a poem about the unicorn, but the visitation proves to be more than a one-time miracle. The unicorn returns, and is apparently searching for something. The truth finally dawns on Bianchi: the unicorn is pregnant, and what she’s searching for is a place to have her foal…fawn? Bianchi isn’t sure. But when she makes her nest in a hollow near his apple orchard, the farmer begins keeping vigil, and it is there that Giovanna, the postman’s sister covering his route that day, finds Bianchi, and finds the unicorn. Soon she’s in on the conspiracy of silence, and essentially in the unicorn’s service as much as Bianchi, though he might not have put it that way, already is. The unicorn eventually has a difficult birth, and Bianchi is there to assist, and all is well, for a while.

Some secrets are impossible to keep, and the unicorn and her newborn are among them. It’s not long before reporters, animal rights activists, and unicorn hunters are snooping around and sneaking through and trampling  Bianchi’s farm, but the real danger arrives with the monster, a monster in human form, as the worst ones tend to be.

So that’s the plot. Trivial things, plots, or would be if one didn’t need a way to lay out what does and must happen in the course of the story. The bones, if not the flesh. Seldom if ever what the story is about. At its heart, In Calabria is a love story, and I don’t simply mean the contentious but real affection Bianchi and Giovanna come to feel for each other. There’s also healing. In time we learn why Bianchi is alone in the first place, and the tragedy that put him there. In Calabria is also a story of awe and wonder, and all that contained in a novella-sized package. It contains multitudes. Yes, I know. The monster must be defeated, the dangers averted, or else the story is about something else entirely. So let’s leave that part for the reader, where it rightly belongs.

If you already know Peter Beagle’s work, and you haven’t read this book, I don’t know what to tell you, other than stop wasting time and get to it. I’m already mad at myself for waiting so long to do the same. If  you don’t know Beagle’s work, then correct this error as soon as possible. Start with The Last Unicorn, or A Fine and Private Place, or The Folk of the Air, or The Innkeeper’s Song or...well, I really doubt it matters. No writer is for every reader, but if Peter Beagle isn’t for you, then I can only offer my sincere condolences. But it’s well worth your time to find out.

 

 

 

 

 

Present…With an Explanation

All right, I’ll cut right to it–I had planned to have a review of Peter S. Beagle’s In Calabria (Tachyon, February 2017) before now. That the book is over a year old is as good an example as any of how useless I am to anyone as a review blogger, which makes me no never mind since that was never my intention here in the first place. Once I reviewed for magazines with deadlines and everything and I never missed one, but then I was usually getting paid for it. Now I pay for my own books, I review what I want to when I want to, thanks very much, and that’s all there is to it.

Ahem. Slight digression there. Regardless, I’m not ready to review the book because I’m not through reading it. That’s taking a while, and not because it’s a doorstop. It is definitely not. It’s a slim volume beautifully produced by Tachyon Publications, lovely to look at, and at first glance the sort of thing any halfway decent reader could tear through in an afternoon. So could I, if it was a book by almost anyone other than Peter Beagle. So some of you might understand that I am going slowly, savoring, and am in no bloody hurry to finish.

Another reason is that I always–always–approach Beagle’s work with a bit of caution, if not trepidation. Peter Beagle is never a light read, and I never come to it lightly. I understand that I might have my heart ripped out; it’s a risk that comes with anything of emotional depth and utter truth. I’m embarrassed to say how long it took me to get to his The Innkeeper’s Song, but in my defense I did so, but long after any such review would have served either the author or the publisher’s interest nearly as much as something less reverent but more relevant and–most important–timely might have. I’ll have to give my regrets in advance here, too.

Will I have it next time? Doubtful. But I’ll likely be a chapter or two closer, for what little that may be worth to anyone other than myself.

Sorry (Not a Bit Sorry).

Happy Monday

December 25th. Happy Holidays to everyone who has a holiday around now, which is most everyone, if not entirely. For those who’ve managed to escape all that, Happy Monday. We’ve definitely got a white one, as in the old song. Granted, the snow is falling sideways, which often happens down here in a river gorge in the Mohawk valley. Probably something about the way the gorge channels the wind, but it can get quite dramatic, and especially when it’s snowing.

First Reader bought me a DNA test as a Yule present so we can find out if I’m really human. I mean, probably, but now and then over the years I’ve had my doubts, as have those nearest and dearest, hence the test. Whatever it turns out to be, I know I’ll never be as English as she is. She tests out as more English than most of the people actually born there, with a little Irish, Italian, and Finnish/Slavic thrown in. Regardless, we can now settle the matter of my genetic classification, even if we’re still working on all the others.

Be all that as it may, I hope you’re having a happy whatever you celebrate, or just a really fine day. I think we’re all due one.