In his foreword to The Red Thread: Twenty Years of NYRB Classics — A Selection, Edwin Frank writes about his original vision for this handsome line of paperbacks, an offshoot from the New York Review of Books. As founding editor, Frank aimed to create a library of “good books, books to delight and enlighten and surprise readers,” yet one “surprising in its own right, making connections with a spark.” In particular, the whole “had to be recognizable as a series.” To achieve this, Frank decided to draw on “all sorts of extraordinary books that had never even been translated into English,” as well as “the literature hidden away in publishers’ backlists.”
It is this restless, elegant eclecticism, along with a truly global reach, that keeps the NYRB Classics so exhilarating. “The Red Thread,” Frank tells us, is a Chinese “metaphor for a binding tie that exists between people unknown to each other.” Creating such a tie is precisely one of the things that the world’s literature can do.
For Frank, literature doesn’t just mean fiction and poetry. Eve Babitz’s manic “New York Confidential,” about a year in Manhattan during the go-go 1960s, is followed by passages from Henry David Thoreau’s nature journals. Other selections include Jessica Mitford’s stunning interview with George Jackson, the doomed young author of “Soledad Brother,” Elizabeth Hardwick’s portrait of Billie Holiday and Rachel Bespaloff’s reflections on Helen of Troy: “Of all the figures in the poem she is the severest, the most austere.” From Andrei Platonov to Victor Serge, with stops along the way for Leonardo Sciascia, Tove Jansson, Mavis Gallant, Balzac, Vasily Grossman and Kenji Miyazawa, this sampler underscores that great writing recognizes no borders. In an especially lovely piece, Simon Leys outlines China’s traditional belief in the interpenetration of ethics and aesthetics: “One writes, one paints, one plays the zither in order to perfect one’s character, to attain moral fulfillment by ensuring that one’s individual humanity is in harmony with the rhythms of universal creation.” Leys concludes, “Even as he is creating his work, it is always and essentially on himself that the artist is working.”
Hawley Harvey Crippen and Henri Désiré Landru were notorious murderers, so the euphonious juxtaposition of their names struck Douglas G. Greene as singularly apt when he was founding a press specializing in collections of criminous short stories. Silver Bullets: The 25th Anniversary of Crippen & Landru Publishers multitasks as an anthology, a festschrift and a bibliographical history. Its appendix lists the more than 100 volumes that Greene and his successor, Jeffrey Marks, have published since John Dickson Carr's "Speak of the Devil" in 1994. My own favorite Crippen & Landru titles include all five of Edward D. Hoch's volumes about that New England Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Sam Hawthorne, Anthony Berkeley's "The Avenging Chance" and Vincent Cornier's "The Duel of Shadows." Each contains dazzling examples of seemingly "impossible" murders.
That entertaining subgenre’s most familiar scenario typically reveals Sir Reginald or the awful Mrs. Murgatroyd stabbed to death in a room locked from the inside. But the next most popular setup must be the body found on the deserted beach with no footsteps in the sand except those of the murdered man or woman. Such is the situation facing Sir Gideon Parrot in “The Flying Fiend,” Hoch’s contribution to “Silver Bullets.” Note that Sir Gideon’s last name pays winking homage to a certain fussy Golden Age ratiocinator: In “Parrot,” he explains: “The t is silent, the accent is on the o.”
Besides the Hoch, “Silver Bullets” is shot through with tales of villainy from Liza Cody; Peter Lovesey; Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller; Jon Breen; Michael Z. Lewin; and many others. All the authors preface their stories with brief appreciations of Greene and his publishing house.
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction: 70th Anniversary Issue, dated September-October and edited by C.C. Finlay, is a bumper volume of 256 pages containing four novelets, eight short stories, two poems and a variety of cartoons, book reviews and essays. As an “All-Star Issue” it showcases some of our most admired contemporary writers of “fantastika”: Kelly Link, Ken Liu, Michael Swanwick, Maureen McHugh, Elizabeth Bear, Esther Friesner, Paolo Bacigalupi. In addition, science fiction grandmaster Robert Silverberg describes how “F&SF” got its start and Paul Di Filippo offers a scholarly jeu d’esprit about a long-lost collaboration between Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. One particular coup: Michael Moorcock’s intense “Kabul” tracks a ragtag band of soldiers and survivalists in a devastated near-future Afghanistan. Think “The Road Warrior” but even bleaker.
To mark the 25th anniversary of Chicago Quarterly Review, the fall 2019 issue is appropriately huge, as befits Carl Sandburg’s “stormy, husky, brawling,/ City of the Big Shoulders.” Here, in over 400 pages, are 32 short stories, 20 poems, a suite of photographs and a dozen works of nonfiction. The result isn’t just a literary quarterly; it’s a tour of the bright and darkling plain we call contemporary American literature.
Besides many younger writers, this issue of CQR also features the work of several old pros: stories by Chicago mainstays Harry Mark Petrakis — now in his mid-90s — and John Blades, poems from David Lehman and Michael Collier, and an evocative memoir by violinist Judith Aller about growing up in Los Angeles among the celebrated musicians of the Aller-Slatkin family.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.