DeFlip Side #92: Backyard Books

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Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

Well it seems like the ridiculous spring rains plaguing Long Island this year are finally over with—and the sun has returned just in time to usher in one of my favorite summer activities: relaxing with a backyard book.

Most people call summer reads “beach books,” but I’m so fair skinned that I burst into flame if I go to the beach. So to me they’re backyard books, best enjoyed lounging on my sun-dappled patio under a giant copper beech with the dog on my lap and a glass of wine at hand. And in further contradiction to the traditional so-called beach books, trashy novels need not apply. Short and entertaining summer fare can also be cogent and compelling.

A perfect example of this is the novella Shambling Towards Hiroshima by James Morrow. Anyone familiar with Morrow’s work knows that he tackles dark and troubling themes with playful prose and keen satire, and his talent and wit are on grand display in Shambling Towards Hiroshima. Monster movie actor Syms Thorley is one of the best ‘shamblers’ in the 1940s-era B-Monster Movie business—famous for his nuanced performances as the mutant zombie Corpuscula and the vengeful mummy Kha-Ton-Ra. But his talents are put to the test when he is drafted by the U.S. Navy to take part in the Knickerbocker Project, a biological warfare program that has created giant fire-breathing lizards to defeat the Japanese and end the Second World War. Syms’ assignment: suit up as the lizard monster Gorgantis and stomp a scale-model Japanese city ruthlessly and menacingly enough to convince visiting Japanese officials to surrender rather than face the carnage of actual lizard warfare.

At once a scalding commentary on the dawn of the nuclear age and a loving homage to the classic monster movies of yore, Shambling Towards Hiroshima is utterly smart, utterly original and utterly entertaining; in other words, vintage Morrow.

Another genre veteran is responsible for my next recommendation, Strange Roads, a limited-edition chap book featuring three stories by the incomparable Peter S. Beagle.

Kicking off the collection is the poignant tale of “King Pelles The Sure,” about the short-sighted monarch of a peaceful and prosperous kingdom who decides that what he really needs is a war—a tidy, gracious, manageable war of course, but a war nonetheless to cement his place in history. Next is the comical story “Spook,” a tongue-in-cheek farce that forces the protagonist to plumb the depths of bad poetry to rid his apartment of a pesky ghost; capping off the collection is the wonderful “Uncle Chaim, Aunt Rifke and the Angel,” in which an artist’s muse manifests in his Bronx apartment and refuses to leave.

Peter Beagle has rightfully earned his place as one of the premiere fantasists of our time, as Strange Roads so ably illustrates. In my opinion, no one creates characters as real and human and fully believable as Beagle does; his prose has a certain vulnerable quality that tinges everything he writes with a touch of nostalgia that strikes some primal chord, drawing the reader along intimately and effortlessly.

That being said, it may take some effort to find Strange Roads, since it’s a 1,000-copy limited edition from Dream Haven Books in Minneapolis. Luckily for you less intrepid book hunters out there, all the stories in Strange Roads are also featured in the more readily-available collection We Never Talk About My Brother, recently released by Tachyon Publications. While I can’t speak to the additional stories in that book, I can’t imagine that you’ll go far wrong. I mean, come on. It’s Beagle.

Rounding out my list of backyard books is the novella Gentlemen of the Road by mainstream author Michael Chabon, probably best known to SF&F fans for his genre-esque, Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. He also wrote Wonder Boys, which was adapted into a terrific film starring Michael Douglas and Toby “Spider-Man” McGuire.

In the afterward to Gentlemen of the Road Chabon comically states that the working title for the novella was “Jews with Swords,” chronicling as it does the exploits of two Jews who do indeed wield swords as they wend itinerantly through the Caucasus Mountains circa A.D. 950, during the reign of the historically mysterious Jewish Kingdom of the Khazars. Like Kavalier & Clay, Gentlemen of the Road is not strictly a genre book, but its plot, setting and themes will probably appeal to genre readers, most especially of epic fantasy, as the main characters, Zelikman and Amram, find themselves assisting an exiled young prince in his quest to regain his usurped throne.

The on-the-road motif of Gentlemen of the Road is especially apropos to my summer thus far, as I just spent the last two weeks on a road trip of my own, from Long Island to Colorado and back, though the only prince that needed getting home was yours truly, and there weren’t any Jews or swords around to help me out. Still I persevered, and have a fresh appreciation for the comforts of home. So if you want to find me for the rest of the summer, just look in my backyard. That’s where I’ll be, riding out the dog days with my pooch in my lap and my nose in a book.

Happy reading!

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