And some books

JURGEN: A Comedy of Justice is James Branch Cabell’s best-known work due to an obscenity lawsuit filed over it (lots of references to Jurgen wielding a mighty sword, a kingly sceptre, etc.). The story concerns a fortysomething pawnbroker who stumbles into a supernatural netherworld where he regains his youth, marries a fertility goddess, seduces Guinevere, gets convicted of obscenity by the Philistines and visits Heaven and Hell before returning to his normal life. Wittily satirical and effective fantasy, but it reads like Cabell (who turned 40 the year it came out) was coping with a hell of a midlife crisis: Jurgen constantly blames his cynicism on the grounds a middle-aged man knows all our youthful dreams turn to dust, that love and sex are meaningless fantasies, that we’re all growing old and dying, etc. (there’s also a lot of emphasis on castration). Whatever was going through Cabell’s head, though, this is still a fun read (following on my reading of his Domnei).
NECROPOLIS: London and Its Dead by Catharine Arnold (whose City of Sin I read last year) left me dissatisfied with to its random wandering between the history of mourning customs, the history of London’s cemeteries and famous London deaths and disasters, without ever really focusing (and like the previous book, she spends more time on the Victorian era than I’d like). Useful reference, but not great, and some of her research could be better (the legend of Ring-Around-the-Rosie as a Black Death metaphor has been thoroughly debunked).
As a fan of book covers, I enjoyed JACKETS REQUIRED: An Illustrated History of Book Jacket Design, 1920-1950 by Steven Huler and Seymour Chwast. The authors detail how the book jacket went from a 19th century practical device (some books came completely wrapped to protect the leather bindings from smog) to a miniature ad poster, though largely disdained by book designers as a tacky distraction from the leather bindings. The main charm is, of course, illustrations showing the finished result of the creators’ work, ranging from sweet young things decorating romance novels to lurid figures on crime novels to more abstract and art deco designs. An enjoyable browser.
THE EMPEROR OF ALL MALADIES: A Biography of Cancer by oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee is neither a history nor a biography of cancer, as much as a history of oncology (cancer medicine), including the radical masectomy of the 19th and early 20th century (some of which took away part of the shoulder muscle with the breast), the development of cancer as a political and fund-raising cause and the various efforts to fight it with surgery, chemo, prevention and most recently molecular therapy. Mukherjee concludes that there’s no magic bullet or one universal solution (chemo works well for leukemia, but lung cancer death rates have dropped in the US because of anti-smoking campaigns) due to cancer being a perversion of regular cell growth, making it difficult to destroy the tumor without destroying the patient. He does, however, remain optimistic that if nothing else, we have the tools to keep cancer in longer and longer remissions, giving victims better lives. Efforts to parallel the history with stories of one of his own patients don’t work, but overall an excellent book.
THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS: Book One of the Inheritance Trilogy by NK Jemison is an impressive debut novel in which Yeine, the mixed-race daughter of a dishonored imperial heir (said empire imposing its will through the active support of the sun god and the enforced compliance of the lesser pantheon) is informed that she’s now one of the chosen heirs competing to replace the aging emperor—bad news as the competition is murderous and a pact by her mother has entangled Yeine in the pantheon’s own schemes. Very good.


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6 responses to “And some books

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