As I have for the past two years, this year for no particularly good reason I again kept a list of the books I read. Here it is (it doesn’t include articles, reviews, essays, short stories, poems, comics, blogs, etc, or books I re-read):
Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile by Herman Melville
Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt
Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon
The Fatal Eggs by Mikhail Bulgakov
The Pharaoh’s Ghost by Kenneth Robeson
Barnabas, Quentin and the Grave-Robbers by Marilyn Ross
The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising by Gunter Grass
The Fortune Cookie Chronicles by Jennifer 8 Lee
Tarzan at the Earth’s Core by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Tarzan and the Ant Men by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Armageddon 2419 A.D. by Philip Francis Nowlan
Tom Swift and His Flying Lab by Victor Appleton II
Sin-Ema by Steve Shadow
Unknown Man No. 89 by Elmore Leonard
The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty
Tarzan and "the Foreign Legion” by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Gracie: A Love Story by George Burns
Interventions by Richard Russo
The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty
You may notice that I got on a Tarzan kick this year. I wasn’t alone—apparently a new Tarzan movie is in the works. Earlier this year the Erie Playhouse in my hometown successfully staged Disney’s Tarzan musical. Somehow Tarzan never quite goes away, not even at the age of one hundred, which he turned this year—Tarzan of the Apes was first published in 1912.
Put in a cranky Edgar Rice Burroughs-reading mood by my disappointment with the film John Carter, I reread the original Tarzan of the Apes earlier this year—it’s still a fine read, and has, for me, the most improbably touching last line of any American novel I can think of. Then I went on to several of ERB’s subsequent Tarzan tales that I had never caught up with: Tarzan at the Earth’s Core (1929), Tarzan and the Ant Men (1924) and Tarzan and "the Foreign Legion” (1947).
Earth’s Core was a fairly straightforward adventure yarn which took the Jungle Lord and some pals on a rescue mission (via German Zeppelin!) to Pellucidar, ERB’s inner-earth of endless, time-eradicating daylight. Ant Men, in which Tarz falls in with a race of mini-warriors in a remote part of Africa, was perhaps the best-written and wittiest ERB book I’ve ever read, full of charming Swiftian invention, yet the ideas behind its satire are appallingly, embarrassingly reactionary and sexist.
Maybe most interesting, however, was Tarzan and "the Foreign Legion,” the last Tarzan book Burroughs completed, while he was stationed as a war correspondent in Hawaii in WWII. The book is unapologetic propaganda—the quotation marks in the title are ERB’s, as it refers not to the French Foreign Legion, but to a ragtag assembly of American, Dutch, Chinese and native allies with whom Tarz finds himself stranded in the Sumatran jungle, making trouble for the Japanese.
The anti-“Jap” invective in the book is really venomous, yet the attitude toward strong, combat-capable women—one of them bi-racial!—is, in his usual boyishly bashful way, admiring. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not suggesting that ERB was a misunderstood early feminist. To read and enjoy his books today, one must look past a wince-inducing set of presumptions about class and race and gender (of course, this is true when reading Shakespeare, too). But ERB’s attitudes, though antiquated, are complex and reflective, and rarely mean-spirited.
RIP to puppet master Gerry Anderson of Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and Space: 1999 fame, passed on at 83.
Happy New Year everybody!