Cuchulain of Muirthemne
There are endless collections of Irish myths and legends, so it can be really difficult to know where to start. I know I probably praise Lady Gregory’s Gods and Fighting Men too much (but only because the Fianníocht is objectively the better of the Irish myth cycles and I'll fight anyone who disagrees), so this recommendation of Cuchulain of Muirthemne is a bit of a double-barrelled one.
As in Gods and Fighting Men, Gregory breathes life and vitality into what could otherwise have been a selection of staid and disconnected stories. Her style is vivid and immediate, and presents legendary figures with an air of humanity that’s all too often missing from mythic retellings. For those unfamiliar with Hiberno-English, it might take a little while to get a feel for the style in which the book is written, but it's worth the effort. If you're finding it at all difficult, just try reading it in my granddad's voice.
For many, the definitive book about Cú Chulainn will forever be the Kinsella translation of An Táin, but Chuchulainn of Muirthemne has the decided advantage of being naturally broken down into smaller, more easily digested stories, as well as including stories from outside the epic itself. “The Boy Deeds of Cuchulain” alone justify giving it a read.
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C.L. Moore SF Gateway Omnibus
I first happened upon C. L. Moore while doing some research on books that combine science fiction and westerns. Writing during the 1930s, C. L. Moore pretty much hit her sci-fi peak with the character of Northwest Smith. Smith is a spacefaring desperado, a gunslinger with a heart of gold who often finds himself drawn into dire circumstances with aliens. Those extra-terrestrial dangers are simultaneously wholly alien and inflected with hints of the mythological, which makes it a total joy to read.
There’s also a low-level pleasure to be had from the fact that C. L. Moore’s short stories are so often about a man’s man (a regular Han Solo) who is repeatedly led into terrible danger by his own penis. It’s almost impossible not to relish. The best-known of those stories is “Shambleau,” but to be honest all of the Northwest adventures are excellent.
Highlights include phraseology like,
“... something in her hopeless huddle at his feet touched that chord of sympathy for the underdog that stirs in every Earthman...”
There’s a sort of lonely poetry to it, despite its straightforward sci-fi trappings, that’s almost inescapably lovely. Also, if you’re at all like me, the book is only enhanced by thinking of Northwest Smith as the lovechild of North West and Jaden Smith.
Once on a Time Large Print Edition
It’s a very tricky prospect to argue that A. A. Milne is an underread author, but the fact remains that he wrote a tremendous amount outside of the Winnie-the-Pooh stories for which he’s broadly remembered. While they lack the same sense of Disneyfied charm, Milne’s other writing is delivered in a sweet, slightly old-fashioned style, often sentimental and almost always uproariously funny.
Among all of Milne’s other fiction, Once on a Time is probably the book that will resonate best with grown-up Milne fans. Like William Goldman’s The Princess Bride, Milne describes the book as a retelling of a story originally related to him by a historian named Roger Scurvilegs. The book tells the story of a king who receives a pair of “seven-league-boots,” which he uses to take trips thousands of miles away from the castle. This creates a power vacuum that sees his daughter, Hyacinth, taking effective control of the kingdom.
It’s also worth noting that Milne cited this book as his “best one,” and it’s clear why. The whole text is alive with off-beat humour and originality. It continuously subverts typical fairytale character archetypes, producing an immediately loveable story that’s a pleasure for both children and adults.
If you enjoy the humour that Milne brings to fairy tales, you'll also love Once a Week, a collection of his columns over the years. As much as we love Pooh-bear, the truth is that it’s a terrible shame Milne isn't remembered more for his other work.
Myles Before Myles
Flann O'Brien is the best-known psueudonym of Brian O'Nolan. As Flann, he wrote the novels The Third Policeman and At Swim Two Birds, but outside Ireland he remains relatively unknown for his work under his other pseudonyms. Much of Flann O’Brien’s funniest work was in fact published under the name of “Myles na gCopaleen” and largely in the form of regular columns, rather than novels. You can read the best of those columns in The Best of Myles, but some of O’Nolan’s best work (and most interesting pseudonyms) appeared in the time before he had any reputation at all.
Myles Before Myles is a collection of great Flann O’Brien writing from before there was a Flann O’Brien. It also includes some of his greatest characters, like Brother Barnabas and famed poet Lionel Prune (not to be confused with eerily similar poet and national treasure, W. B. Yeats). There are also some poems from Prune himself, forming a kind of beautiful savagery of Yeats (which we relish for reasons altogether too Irish to explain here).
If you fall in love with Myles Before Myles, you can take comfort in the fact that you can follow it up with Myles Away from Dublin, which collects more of his writing under the name George Knowall.
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Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande
This is a bit of a break from the rest of the recommendations, in that it’s generally considered more of a textbook than a just-for-fun book. That said, E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s 1937 book, Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande, is a fascinating account of his time with the Azande in central Africa. Over the course of the book, the reader is introduced to the Azande as well as the magics with which they interact with the events of their day-to-day lives.
Evans-Pritchard examines these magics, describing rituals (like the consultation of the ‘poison oracle’) in minute detail. The events only grow more interesting when he describes the experience of seeing firsthand a witch’s spirit, having left its physical body behind. In all, this is an in-depth look at another culture and an entirely different way of seeing and interacting with the world, presented without the heavy sense of judgement common to many other ethnographic works of the time. This is a perfect book for those who enjoy reading about the manifold ways in which human beings address and interrogate the world around them, and how those approaches vary from one culture to another.
If Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande tickles your fancy, you may also enjoy Bronislaw Malinowski’s classic account of life among the Trobriand islanders, Argonauts of the Western Pacific. It’s not exactly the same, but there are few books that can do as much to teach you how to fashion a canoe on your own...
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Irvin S. Cobb is a fascinating character. Once the most highly paid journalist in America, Cobb was a consummate satirist, and a staunch opponent of prohibition. At the height of his popularity, he hosted the Academy Awards. He has since been all but forgotten, having fallen precipitously from grace as his work became increasingly racist in the 1930s.
There is a fundamental tension to the idea of someone's being an incredible artist and a terrible racist, and it's difficult to ameliorate the impression that the two can coexist (and often do in the same text).
Cobb’s Anatomy, in which he discusses various elements and features of the human body, is a genuine delight throughout. Obviously, some of its views are dated, but for the most part it remains a surprisingly heartfelt look at the human body from a man who was in possession of an unusually large volume of human body.
Commenting on his experience as a very fat man, Cobb notes that women would do well to court an overweight man, noting that, “a man with a double chin rarely leads a double life. For one thing, it requires too much moving round.”
He also observes that, “Starving in the midst of plenty is not for him who has plenty of midst.”
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