Five by Five Books #1: “Engine Summer” by John Crowley (1979)

(Note: This is one of an occasional and ongoing series of reviews of my favorite novels, structured by covering five facets of my reading experiences, each in five sentences. Scroll down to the bottom of this article to see the complete list of books reviewed).

What’s it about? Engine Summer is a post-technological road story about a boy named Rush That Speaks, who comes of age in a maze-like, clan-based community called Little Belaire. The story features a rich, anthropologically-sound depiction of a clan-based culture built around family “cords” and the art of “truthful speaking,” which precludes the possibility of misunderstanding or deception. Rush That Speaks sets out on his coming-of-age journey after his beloved, Once a Day, leaves Little Belaire to join the mysterious Dr. Boots’s List. He hopes that his journey will set him on the path to Sainthood, although his understanding of what this might entail is fragmented at best. The story of Rush That Speaks’ travels through the post-apocalyptic wilderness outside of Little Belaire is interwoven with a narrative conversation between the boy and an Angel, both seeking to better understand the other.

Who wrote it? John Crowley is a novelist, documentary screenwriter and academic, best known in popular literary circles for 1981’s epic Little, Big, for which he won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. An early version of Engine Summer called Learning to Live With It was among Crowley’s first long-form works, though Engine Summer is actually the third book in Crowley’s canon by order of publication. Engine Summer was nominated for the both the British Fantasy Award and the John W. Campbell Award in 1980. Literary critic Harold Bloom has been a champion of Crowley’s works for many years, citing him as one of the 20th Century’s most under-appreciated writers. Crowley is currently a member of the English Department at Yale University.

When and where did I read it? I read Engine Summer in the early 2000s, mostly in our house on Cord Avenue in Latham, New York. I had heard of neither Engine Summer nor John Crowley himself until I read about the book and author in David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels. I was deep into a Philip K. Dick phase at that point, so I  went for a lot of the more “Phildickian” books (e.g. Alfred Bester, Thomas M. Disch, Roger Zelazy) recommended by Pringle before I decided to tackle Engine Summer. I actually picked it up somewhat by default because I finally reached a point where it was one of the few books left on the 100 Best list that the Colonie Town Library stocked and which that I hadn’t already read. The payoff for my wait, though, was immense, and I consider it one of my favorite books to this day.

Why do I like it? Crowley’s successes with language, story-telling, and the creation of a rich and believable world in Engine Summer are almost unparalleled in my experiences as a reader. The story’s pacing is slow and gentle, but that feels like a direct and intentional depiction of a world that is slow and gentle, too . . . until it is not. The conversations between Rush That Speaks and the Angel are artfully done, and it is in this narrative that the book’s climactic reveal unfolds. It was so perfect once it resolved that I literally went back and re-read the book again, and experienced it even more powerfully knowing what was coming. This gorgeous, bittersweet, and haunting book stayed with me in active thought for months after I read it, and I still find myself unexpectedly musing about Engine Summer all these years on, hence this first “Five by Five Books” report.

A five sentence sample text: “Little Belaire is built out outward from a center in the old warren where it began, built outward in interlocking rooms great and small, like a honeycomb, but not regular like a honeycomb. It goes over hills and a stream, and there are stairs and narrow places, and every room is different in size and shape and how you go in and out of it, from big rooms with pillars of log to tiny rooms all glittering with mirrors, and a thousand other kinds, old and changeless at the center and new and constantly changing father out. Path begins at the center and runs in a long spiral through the old warren and the big middle rooms and so on to the outside and out in the aspen grove near Buckle cord’s door on the Afternoon side. There is no other way through Little Belaire to the outside except Path, and no one who wasn’t born in Little Belaire, probably, could ever find his way to the center. Path looks no different from what is not Path: it’s drawn on your feet.”


#1: Engine Summer by John Crowley (1979)

#2: Skin by Kathe Koja (1993)

#3: Nova by Samuel R. Delany (1968)

#4: Titus Groan/Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1946/1950)

#5: The Islanders by Christopher Priest (2011)

#6: The Flounder by Günter Grass (1977)

#7: The Mabinogion Tetralogy by Evangeline Walton (1936 to 1974)

#8: Smallcreep’s Day by Peter Currell Brown (1965)

#9: Gog by Andrew Sinclair (1967)

#10: The Vorrh Trilogy by B. Catling (2015 to 2018)

#11: The Maze of Transparencies by Karen An-hwei Lee (2019)


Recycling Old Facebook Notes #1: 15 Books in 15 Minutes

(Note: I mostly shut down my personal Facebook wall/timeline recently, and when I did, I noted some old lists or notes from early Facebook days that seemed to merit salvage. I’ll occasionally republish some of them here, as the spirit moves me, or inspiration fails).

Rules: Don’t take too long to think about it. List 15 books you’ve read that will always stick with you. They should be the first 15 you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.

1. “Engine Summer” by John Crowley

2. “Titus Groan”/”Gormenghast”/”Titus Alone” by Mervyn Peake

3. “Out of the Silent Planet”/”Perelandra”/”That Hideous Strength” by C.S. Lewis

4. “Crash” by J.G. Ballard

5. “The Fellowship of the Rings”/”The Two Towers”/”The Return of the King” by J.R.R. Tolkien

6. “Childhood’s End” by Arthur C. Clarke

7. “A Scanner Darkly” by Philip K. Dick

8. “The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch” by Philip K. Dick

9. “The Tin Drum” by Gunter Grass

10. “The Flounder” by Gunter Grass

11. “Fathers and Crows” by William T. Vollman

12. “The Sirens of Titan” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

13. “Cat’s Cradle” by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

14. “A Mote in God’s Eye” by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

15. “The Once And Future King” by T.H. White

As Sure As Eggs is Eggs

1. John Crowley’s Engine Summer is among my all-time favorite books. It has such an unexpected, poignant and profound ending that I immediately re-read the whole book after finishing it the first time, just to experience the text while knowing what was coming at the end. Superb!!! Marcia read it soon after I did, and also counts it as a favorite. Katelin just finished reading it for the first time yesterday. I am glad to (finally) have someone new to discuss it with!

2. To the best of my knowledge, Jim Hodder sang lead vocals on only two commercially released songs: “Dallas” and “Midnight Cruiser” by Steely Dan. “Dallas” was intended to be the group’s debut single, but it was recalled at the last minute and, along with its b-side, “Sail the Waterways,” has pretty much been completely expunged from the Steely Dan catalog by mainstays Donald Fagen and Walter Becker. (Poco did release a cover version of the song years later, though). “Midnight Cruiser” appears on the Dan’s 1972 debut album, Can’t Buy a Thrill, when the group were  more democratically apportioning lead vocal tracks, Hodder taking his turn alongside David Palmer (who left the band soon afterward), Fagen and Becker. Once the Fagen-sung “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ in the Years” became hits, though, he became the full-time voice of Steely Dan, and Jim Hodder (who was also the group’s drummer) became the second original member of the band to depart after 1973’s Countdown to Ecstasy. (Hodder’s photo appears on the back of Steely Dan’s breakthrough album, Pretzel Logic, though the drum tracks on the album were played by Jim Gordon, with Hodder appearing only as a backing vocalist on “Parker’s Band”). After some spotty session and studio work in his post-Steely Dan years, Jim Hodder drowned in his own swimming pool in 1990, at the age of 42. So does it seem weird for me to claim him as one of my all-time favorite singers based on just two (amazing) songs? Click those links above to hear them yourself, before calling me crazy . . .