Nightstand VII

Yet another stack of books
Yet another stack of books

I sold a story (maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime) and as a little reward to myself (that story was a lot of work) I bought some beautiful things. To wit:

Hermione Eyre. Viper wine. Early one morning, sitting in the lounge at Readercon with my laptop, I read a review of this book at The Hysterical Hamster, and I knew, I just knew, I had to read it. I haven’t been disappointed.

John Bakeless. Turncoats, traitors, and heroes: Espionage in the American Revolution. I saw this at the Park Service bookstore at the Saratoga battlefield. I didn’t buy it then, but soon it was clear that I’d need it for research on a story that I’ve been turning over in my head.

S.P. Somtow. Jasmine nights. I recently borrowed Jo Walton’s What makes this book so great from the library. Her enthusiasm is so contagious that I made a list of must-have books.

Robert J. Antony. Like froth floating on the sea: The world of pirates and seafarers in late imperial South China. Years ago (how many? Three? Five? More? Years, I tell you!) I requested this book at the Library of Congress, only to be told that its status was “Internal loan: overdue.” I requested it again a year or two later, same status. And a few months ago: same. What…? Why? Turns out, members of Congress are allowed to borrow from the collection — fair enough, it’s their library — but there’s no mechanism in place to make them bring the book back. Obviously, I had no choice but to buy my own copy.

Hildegarde Dolson. The great Oildorado: The gaudy and turbulent years of the first oil rush: Pennsylvania 1859–1880. I consulted this book at the Library of Congress and enjoyed it so much I wanted to have a copy. And now I do.

John M. Ford. The dragon waiting. Jo Walton’s description of this book (Byzantines! Medicis! Leonardo! Vampires! Dragons!) was so intoxicating that naturally I bought it.

John H. Rhodehamel (editor). The American Revolution: Writings from the War of Independence. The best way, I’ve found, to write convincing period dialog is to read so much prose from that period that you start sounding that way yourself.

Terry Bisson. Fire on the mountain. See Somtow and Ford above.

A ship underground

The blue hardhats are archeologists.
The blue hardhats are archeologists.

There’s something about things underground — invisible, chthonic, potentially revenant — that excites the imagination. Treasure is all very well, but buried treasure! The pulse quickens. Entire vanished civilizations might lie underfoot; who can know? Stranger things might be found, and have been: buried armies, buried books, buried voids that had been bodies. It was once believed, and by the learned, not the ignorant, that metals grew underground, seeds of gold that, nourished by rising vapors, grew like vegetable roots and stems, into veins and pockets of mineral wealth. And once mined, the gold, if the earth were left fallow, would grow again. Perhaps it could even be encouraged to grow, as we encourage growth above ground with manure and water. Such was the alchemists’ dream; we too dream strange thoughts and should not scoff.

Last Tuesday, the coldest day of winter so far, I went down to the waterfront, braving the below-zero windchill, to see what the upturned soil had revealed this time. This area of Alexandria was once part of the bed of the Potomac River. An eighteenth-century landfill project to improve the harbor moved the shoreline about two blocks eastwards; the present Lee Street was formerly named Water Street, being the last before the riverside.

The excavation at 220 South Union Street is the fruit of the city’s long-delayed waterfront redevelopment plan. John Carlyle’s 1755 warehouse (site of the city’s first brewery in 1770) has already been unearthed, as well as a privy and the usual miscellaneous odds and ends — coins, buttons, broken crockery. Then about a third of one side of a scuttled ship turned up.

This was not unexpected. Then as now, landfills used whatever was at hand and cheap. Boat don’t float? In it goes! The construction site was opened to the public for two hours so that folks could come and gawk at this ship that foundered down into the earth, blackened timbers like the ribs of some fallen Titan, its long, inevitable journey interrupted by a return to sunlight and the upper airs.