Something Good #75: Tidings
In February of 2019 we took a trip to Joshua Tree National Park. The weather was weird; a freak snowstorm in the middle of the desert. I’ll never forget the sight.
It’s winter again. The trees here laden with snow. Welcome to the holiday edition of Something Good.
Growing up Jewish, my exposure to Christmas was strictly through pop culture. But what pop culture! The ‘80s and ‘90s were pure, year-round Christmas; nearly every film seemed to be set during the December holidays. It permeated everything.
Like a kid pressed up against the glass of a candy store I was never allowed to enter, I could only watch Christmas from afar. What this meant was: I only ever saw the ridiculous, idealized side of the holiday; I never had to deal with drunk uncles or uncomfortable family gatherings or having the myth of Santa Claus busted by a kid in the schoolyard.
(That said, I did at some point theorize that Santa had X-Ray vision, which allowed him to see the mezuzahs hanging on Jewish families’ doorways so he could skip our homes. Never mind that mezuzahs are visible from the street and don’t require special powers to see.)
What it all adds up to is that I love Christmas, always have (and Chanukkah too, yes yes, which is to Christmas what Christmas was to Saturnalia1, only not as successfully. And yes I know Chanukkah celebrates events that pre-dated Christ. I’m talking in modern-day pop culture).
When I married into a Christmas-observing family, I was more than happy to welcome the trees and stockings into my household, along with the now nerve-wracking discussions of Santa’s existence with our six-year-old. (It is strange to compare her relatively literalist approach to the world with my younger desires to escape into fantasy.)
One tradition that I did participate in annually, as part of my job when I was a journalist, was to write year-end roundups; best and worst lists, that kind of thing. It’s been years since I was paid to do such a thing, but every December I can still feel that impulse twitch like a phantom limb.
I’m not really interested in doing that anymore—nobody cares that I loved Andor, nobody wants to see my Spotify Wrapped—so this issue will be a different kind of round-up; odds and sods if you will, stuff I liked that might have escaped your attention, stuff that I meant to write about all year but never got around to. Here is your holiday grab bag—your stocking of various delights and discoveries.
It’s been a tradition going back many years now that I send out a holiday playlist to my friends and readers. Originally, it was a bundle of MP3s—that’s how old it is!—and now it is a slightly evolved Spotify playlist.
There are Christmas songs, and songs that feel like Christmas songs, and songs that just have a December vibe. Listen, if you like, as you read.
I read a lot of great books this year, but the one that stood out the most to me—and which I am still in the middle of reading, because it is best experienced a couple of pages at a time—is Harry Josephine Giles’ Deep Wheel Orcadia, the winner of this year’s Arthur C. Clarke Award for Best Science Fiction Novel.
Deep Wheel Orcadia is, unlike any sci-fi book I’ve ever read, written in verse. And not just any verse. It’s written in Orkney, a Scots dialect with a heavily Norse influence. The book is presented with en face translation in English, but what it makes very, cleverly clear, is that the “true” meaning of the text can only be understood by reading both, as words in the original Orkney are inflected with all sorts of hard-to-translate inflections. Here’s a few stanzas as an example:
Sheu waatched the Deep Wheel approch, gray-green,
hids Central Station tirlan yet
anent the yallo yotun, peedie
bolas teddert aroon hids ring,
pierheids trang wi yoles, wi glims,
an fund the gloup atween ootbye an in
clossan slaa—but only noo,
wi this soond, deus she ken whar sheu is.
She watched the Deep Wheel approach, grey-green, its Central station still turntwistwhirlspinning againstaboutbefore the yellow gas giant, little bolas ropemoormarried around its ring
pierheads fullactiveintimate with boats, with gleampointlights, and found the chasmcleft between outside and inside closing laxslowly—but only now, with this sound, does she know where she is.
There are times when I have to glance down every couple of lines to follow the meaning, and other times where I plow through the Orkney without even realizing it.
Reading science fiction in poetic form, images of deep space mining stations and exo-archaeologists and gas giants permeating my mind through the medium of verse, does something wonderful to my imagination. Strong contender for my book of the year.
Elsewhere in the universe, in October, Alec Baldwin said my name.
Friend Sarah Gibson alerted to me this recently republished interview with Jan Morris, one of my favourite writers, in which Paul Clements (author of the recent biography Jan Morris: Life From Both Sides) talked to her in 2000 about her book collection, and specifically her travel books.
I was reading along happily—
Which book has meant most to you during your writing and traveling life?
Travels in Arabia Deserts by Charles Doughty. It is a magical book and I have several copies of it. The first one is an American one-volume edition which I bought from Steimatsky’s in Jerusalem in 1947. I love the smell of it, and the feel of it, and the book for itself. I also bought the 1936 Jonathan Cape edition in two volumes and a condensed two-volume edition called Wanderings in Arabia which is inscribed by Doughty.
You’ve just sniffed that book—what do you get from that?
Yes, I am a book-sniffer, although I don’t know where the habit came from. Even after these years, I can still smell the Random House ink off the pages. The smell is only now fading. Some people sniff drugs and glue, but I sniff books—it’s just something I’ve always done.
I see that you have removed the dust jackets from your Pevsners. Why is that?
It all goes back to my Oxford days when I was an undergraduate at Christ Church. My tutor there was J.I.M. Stewart, who was the author of donnish detective stories under the pseudonym “Michael Innes.” When a new book arrived, he immediately threw away the jacket and I thought this was rather stylish so for a time I did the same, but I don’t do it now and I wish I’d kept them.›
More than 20 years ago, four dear friends of mine formed Black Ox Orkestar, a wonderful band that could sort of be described as klezmer, but with a deeply mournful, opinionated in the best way and raw undercurrent of beauty and despair. A few years and two albums later, they broke up and went their separate ways. Now, thanks to the good offices of friend-of-the-newsletter Abe Josie Riesman (who reconnected them with a mild assist from myself), they are back with a gorgeous new album, Everything Returns. Seeing them play last week, reunited for the first time in over 15 years, was deeply moving on many levels. I highly recommend this record.
This is a picture of convicted Czech spies and Upper East Side sex-havers Karl and Hana Koecher being interviewed by Ronald Kessler in Prague in 1987. I’m pretty sure they’re standing in the Old Jewish Cemetery. I just like this picture.
Earlier this year I polled you on whether you would buy a Something Good t-shirt to help support this newsletter, and I’m grateful that many of you replied affirmatively.
Here’s the news: there will be no Something Good t-shirt, even if I did have a cool idea for one. At least for the time being; I just don’t really think there’s enough of a market out there for one, and I am very confident I would end up with boxes of unsold merchandise. I appreciate the offers of support, though, and who knows, maybe I’ll do a small silkscreened run at some point in the future. But for now, I remain committed to maintaining Something Good’s status as a proudly Money-Losing Enterprise.
Other things: This online “museum of endangered sounds.” This computer game about unpacking a series of apartments. 108 minutes of Tilda Swinton and Idris Elba discussing narrative philosophy in a hotel room. This tiny retro gaming handheld that provided me with many hours of ‘90s-throwback entertainment.
This week’s ingenious #nojacketsrequired entry comes via Sam Gavin, whose newsletter, Uncoppable, I highly recommend, especially if you have any interest at all in sneakers and the weird economies, subcultures and rituals that have developed around acquiring them. As always, send your unjacketed discoveries my way at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thus concludes the second calendar year of Something Good. New readers and old: thank you for choosing to spend your time with me. Please feast and be merry and tell a friend about this newsletter, if you please, or subscribe here:
“During My week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.” - Lucian, writing as Saturn