In Memoriam, D.A.A.

I met her indirectly, via a letter to the editor.

Letters, I should say.

She was somewhat prolific — enough so the managing editor (to whom letters to the editor were nominally addressed) once said to me, exasperated, “I wish we had more people as enthusiastic as her. Run this one today, and the next one tomorrow.”

I was the news editor — the night guy, responsible for laying out the paper, among other things — so it fell to me to actually place these letters on the page.

I wasn’t compelled to read them, yet I read them and was compelled.

And so, when I finally met her directly, introduced by mutual friends at my hometown pub, I couldn’t help but exclaim, “Oh, you’re Deb Aziz!”

To which she gave me the furrowed brow that I would come to know so well over the years, the one that said, “Yes, and your point is?”

At which point I explained how I knew her name, and that her letters always brightened my night.

And she smiled, and we were friends.

I was but recently back in my hometown after a few years away, whereas she had in the interim moved to town and befriended people I knew.

I would thus come to know her well, mostly through sitting around pub tables drinking, playing cards, and shooting the shit.

I learned that she lived with rheumatoid arthritis since the age of nine, and it had damaged many of her joints but not her spirit.

I can still see her, crunching open pistachios on the table, using the bottom of an empty beer mug, as she lacked the finger dexterity to open them manually.

She loved those things, and would regularly feed a few dollars worth of quarters into the candy machine that dispensed them.

I can still hear her yelling “Cripple deal!” when it was her turn to deal and she had to pass the cards to the next person, owing to that same lack of finger dexterity.

She loved playing cards, and once they were dealt and in her hands, she was nails at whatever game was up.

I can still see her face, perking up when a woman with a low bustline walked by.

She loved women, and was not shy about it, and in that small town where we lived for those years, that would get her called brave, but she wouldn’t claim that. It wasn’t bravery to her — it was who she was, and fuck anyone who had a problem with it.

“I’m a crippled lesbian,” she would begin, laying the label out as a bona fide before opening an argument.

She moved to the city before I did, relocated by her job. By that time, I was dating the future Empress of Whisky and would soon face the choice to move to the city as she, too, relocated for work.

(I chose well.)

Through the years that followed we would meet more friends, go on vacations, have so many dinners and game nights, watch sports, celebrate a slew of birthdays and weddings, mourn together at our oldest mutual friend’s funeral.

When she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis she was not expected to live past 30.

Well, fuck that, she said, and proceeded to live another 21 years past that mark.

Which made her 51 when she died last night.

I … want to have something profound to say here.

All there is is longing, and despair, and missing my friend.

And a regret, too.

Deb was amused whenever I referred to a friend by an alias, which I am prone to do here.

She particularly loved The Empress of Whisky.

I told her I’d come up with something for her, but I never got around to it.

So now I ponder what that might have been.

It could have been My Friend The Letter Writer.

(Shortly after moving to the city, she got a letter to the editor placed in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which delighted her. “I made the big-time, bitches!” is how she announced it.)

It could have been My Friend The Ethical Cheater.

(Long story. It involves cards and blatant, obvious table talk.)

It could have been My Friend The Former DJ.

(She was a disc jockey in college and had a lifelong love and enthusiasm for music. Once — and this is a long story, too, but fuck it — I made a playlist for The Empress of Whisky. It was for a big milestone birthday, so I made a list of the top 100 songs released the year she was born. It was meant just to be a fun playlist for the car ride up to the cabin where we were celebrating, but we turned it into a game — how many of these songs can you identify?

(None of the four of us in the car were great at it, but by the time we arrived we had made it through about a third of the list, and our scores were in the 10-20 range. We decided to keep playing until others arrived, but when Deb got there, she wanted to join. Despite the late start, she absolutely killed it, scoring something like 60 out of the remaining 65 songs and beating us despite our head start.

(She enjoyed the game so much, she asked that I do the same for her 50th birthday. I did, and, of course, she wiped the floor with us.)

There are so many options.

My Friend The Historian.

My Friend The Trivia Whiz.

My Friend Who Shares My Love Of Babylon 5.

My Friend The Philly Sports Fan.

My Friend Who Knows Way More About Comics Than I Do.

Good night, my dear and true friend.

A, Z, and Everything In-Between

A while back, whilst visiting Seattle, I had a day to myself, in which I wandered about the city, taking in the beautiful grey weather and many of the quirky things the city has to offer.

Most of the morning I spent around Pike’s Place Market. Yeah, that’s a very touristy thing to do, especially for someone who’s been to the city a few times, but the place is fascinating. So many neat little shops.

There were, I think, four bookstores there at the time. I don’t recall any of the names, but one of them, a used book shop, was very well stocked in the science fiction and fantasy section, which is, of course, my favorite section.

I love delving through the stacks in such places. I’m on a continuing quest to find every Roger Zelazny book ever printed, and I restrict myself solely to shopping in person at used bookstores. This will likely end up an unfinished quest, but I love the process.

I didn’t find a missing Zelazny volume in this particular shop, but I did find a paperback copy of Nine Princes in Amber that was in great shape. It was one of those old ones with the red-tipped pages, too. Now, I didn’t need that book — I still own the first version I ever read, which is the one included in an old Science Fiction Book Club two-volume Chronicles of Amber set from the ’80s — but it called to me.

I resisted the call, until I happened upon a copy of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Now, of course I already own this one, too. (It’s part of a leather-bound edition that includes that book and three of its four sequels. No, I don’t own the fifth. Yes, I’ve read it. No, I don’t want to talk about it.)

Something clicked in my head: These would be the two essential volumes in an A to Z of science fiction and fantasy.

I bought them, of course.

They presently sit next to one another on a shelf, and the mere sight of them together brings me joy.

As I was staring at them a little while ago, I came back to that A to Z idea.

What if, I began to ponder, you made an A to Z list of writers– not just science fiction and fantasy folks, but all writers– and only allowed yourself one to represent each letter? What if you took it further and allowed yourself just one book?

Which is a long introduction to my list.

The rules, if you want to play at home — I do encourage you to; hell, share your list with me; we’ll talk — are as follows:

1) One writer per letter, by last name.

2) A writer can be an author, a poet, a screenwriter, anything you want.

3) You get to pick one of their works. No collections, except for poets. (Are you really surprised I give poets special treatment?)

4) There is no 4.

5) This is for pleasure, not a grade. Pick 26 books you’d want in your bag before being dropped on an island to live out the rest of your life, that sort of thing.

A is for Adams, Douglas: Now, right off the bat I’ve divided the room, because half the science fiction and fantasy fans are clamoring to put Isaac Asimov here. That’s a fine suggestion, but this is my list and Asimov, while unarguably one of the greats of the genre, gets tossed aside if I have to choose between reading the absolutely essential The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or one of a thousand books about robots.

B is for Banks, Iain M.: Banks’ The Culture series of science fiction novels is simply brilliant. Life, hope, humor … I highly recommend it. The first one I ever read, which struck a cord and stuck with me, is The Player of Games.

C is for Cookie … no, wait, wrong program.

C is for Costikyan, Greg: Mostly known for role-playing game development, Costikyan has also written a few novels. One of those, Another Day, Another Dungeon, examines some of the assumptions underlying the act of dungeon crawling. It’s dead hilarious.

D is for Donaldson, Stephen R.: If I may — and it’s my list, so … — I’ll count Mordant’s Need as one work for purposes of this entry. It’s technically two novels, but I promise this is the only time I’ll pull this trick. Anyway, Mordant’s Need is, like most everything Donaldson’s written, wildly imaginative and almost unrelentingly dark. It features magic expressed by the creation of mirrors, which are used to (depending upon your point of view) either travel to or create alternate worlds from which to pry resources. The protagonist comes from one of those worlds. Also, there’s Gart. Never lived a more merciless, better swordsman than Gart.

E is for Ellis, Warren: All right, I’ll atone a bit for that last entry by listing just one short story by Ellis. Give me “Dead Pig Collector.” It’s a pretty good representation of Ellis: dark, darkly funny, educational about things you should never ever need to know, no redeeming value whatsoever.

F is for Fuck if I Know: Were I trying to impress you, I could say Fitzgerald or Faulkner; were I trying to be a little more honest, I might say Fleming or Feist. <shrug> Frankly none of these fools fulfill, so just flip a few coins and let me know how they fall.

G is for Gaiman, Neil: I can count The Sandman as one work, can’t I? No? Oh, all right. Give me Good Omens, then. Yes, he co-wrote it with Terry Pratchett, and no, I’m not double-counting this for P as well.

H is for Haldeman, Joe: He’s a prolific science fiction writer who’s pulled off the Hugo/Nebula twin win for a novel not once, but twice. I’ll take the second of those winners, Forever Peace, as it’s slightly more hopeful than the first (Forever War).

I is for Ishiguro, Kazuo: I’m not gonna kid, I is a tough one. At least I’ve read and enjoyed Remains of the Day. It’s a good one, if drawn-out, unrequited longing is your thing.

J is for Joyce, James: I jest.

J is for Johnson, Samuel: I mean the one who wrote A Dictionary of the English Language. Might as well include a reference book, even if it is slightly outdated.

K is for Kay, Guy Gavriel: His novel Tigana is a masterwork, a beautiful treatise on grief and the things it will make good and bad people do. Also? Cool magic system.

L is for Lawson, Jenny: Better known as The Bloggess, Jenny Lawson writes about, and in spite of, severe depression and anxiety. Her first collection, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, is both hilarious and poignant.

M is for Morgan, Richard K.: Tough competition for M. Runners-up included Alan Moore and Michael Moorcock, among others. I’ll take Morgan’s Altered Carbon: noir detective fiction set against a grim science fiction future of body-swapping power-brokers.

N is for Nylund, Eric S. : I came across A Game of Universe during one of my used bookstore runs. It grabbed me and has since really stuck with me. It’s a nominally science fiction story that’s got a guild of assassins, true love, magic, betrayal, and lots of action, all focused around a quest for the Holy Grail. Pretty wild.

O is for O’Brien, Tim: The Things They Carried is a collection of short stories. O’Brien was drafted into the Vietnam War, and this is his reflection upon that time. If you read nothing else from this, read the title story. The rest is excellent, too.

P is for Parks, Stella: Look, I really thought about putting Terry Pratchett here, but which of his many fabulous Discworld novels would it be? Brilliance overload. Instead, I’ll take another type of brilliance: that of baker Stella Parks in her debut cookbook, Bravetart. Precision, humor, and delicious results.

Q is for Quit, as in, “I quit trying to find an author for this entry after Wikipedia told me that John Quigly, author of King’s Royal, was the inventor of blended whisky: I instead nominate whoever edited that entry.*

(*Offer void unless last name ends in Q.)

R is for Rothfuss, Patrick: I really didn’t want to read The Name of the Wind. I figured I had reached a point in life where I did not need yet another fat fantasy novel taking up any space in my brain. My Friend The Professor of English said, “Read it. You’ll love it.” He was right, as usual.

S is for Stephenson, Neal: Look, I like Shakespeare as much as the next guy — or maybe not; as an English major I was exposed to a lot of Shakespeare — but I can’t single out one play, and a collection of his complete poems is, well, about a hundred sonnets too many, if I’m being honest. I’m sorely tempted to include J. Michael Straczynski here, because he wrote my favorite TV series, Babylon 5, but I can’t single out one episode, either. I settle on Neal Stephenson because Snow Crash is one of my all-time favorite novels. I’ve read the whole thing several times, and I’ve read chapter one — possibly the funniest single chapter of any book, ever — close to a hundred times at this point.

T is for Tennyson, Lord Alfred: I’ll take his Selected Poetry, please, the 1941 Penguin Books edition. All right, pipe down. You can put Tolkien on your list. Personally, having read The Lord of the Rings once, I never, ever want to have to read it again.

U is for … ummm: Tough one here. John Updike? Cheat and say Umberto Eco? Honestly, neither of those guys do it for me. I’m going to say Nicola Upson and go with her first novel, An Expert in Murder. Yes, I did just look her name up in Wikipedia’s List of authors by name: U. Now I’m off to go buy that book.

V is for Vonnegut, Kurt: He wrote some great novels, but I love him more for his non-fiction essays. I’ll settle for A Man Without A Country.

W is for Wordsworth, William: I’ll take his Selected Poems, the 1983 edition by Gramercy Books.

X is for X, Malcolm: I haven’t read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but it’s the best thing I can find in a very difficult letter.

Y is for Yankovic, “Weird Al”: Yes, I am cheating. Just print his entire catalog of songs, bind it, call it a book, and stick it in my pile.

Z is for Zelazny: Back where we started. Nine Princes in Amber. Yes, it is only the first book in series that went 10 books long, so there’s a lot of the story left out, but the first book is just so full of wonder, and I do so love revisiting its amnesiac protagonist and watching as he re-learns that Amber is the center of everything, and he’s one of its heirs. Also, gun to my head, Zelazny is probably the writer I’d single out to be my one and only. Vastly creative, a true genius with words, dead too soon.

Your turn.