You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Wednesday, July 28, 2010


1.1 The to in Tono is the Ainu word for "lake." The word nai (swamp) is also an Ainu term. The Ainu are descendants from Japan's first culture in the Jomon Era (14,000 - 300 B.C.)

8.1 The term kamikakushi, which refers to the phenomenon of women and children disappearing, means "hidden by a kami (spirit)." This divine kidnapping is said to be done by tengu (long-nosed goblins), foxes, demons, and kami (gods). When someone is abducted, the villagers conduct a search while beating drums and calling out the person's name.

14.1 Okunai-sama is the household deity that looks after the fate of the family. Other household deities watch over the hearth, the sleeping area, or the toilet.

29.1 Ijin has several meanings, including "ghosts," "goblins," "mountain men," "foreigners," or "strangers."

32.1 White animals are ghosts or messengers for deities. See legend 61.

72.1 Gods (kami) and Buddhist figures like to play with children and get angry if someone tries to interfere. Kakura-sama protects the entrance to the village.

99.1 The northeastern coast of Japan was struck by tidal waves seven times between 1600 and 1850. The reference in this legend is to a tidal wave that struck the coast in 1896. About nine thousand homes were destroyed, and twenty thousand people died.

110.1 In Tono Gongen-sama was pronounced Gonge-sama.

113.1 The term Jozuka indicates the location for worshipping the kami of the border and is probably related to stories from India. One such story is about the demon in hell who is responsible for removing the clothes of souls as they cross the river.

Selected from The Legends of Tono (1910), by Kunio Yanagita
Translated by Ronald A.Morse
100th Anniversary Edition published by Lexington Books

Friday, July 23, 2010


Since my return to science fiction I have read a novel that takes a billion years in the future, one set about 30,000 years in the past, and at least one placed in a future with which we have more or less caught up. And then there are those set comfortably out of range in say the 2300's, a time lapse that allows maximum leeway for the writers to toy with what might be possible developments of the technology they were living with as they wrote.

Rogue Moon, by Algis Burdrys, was written in 1959 and takes place in 1959. That makes it a special sort of period piece. I was only eight years old at the time, but the settings and much of the adult behavior Burdrys depicts reminds me of the more mature television and films I saw then. Rich people drive sporty cars and live in ultra-modern glass houses overlooking the ocean. Everyone drinks a lot. Scientists slave away long hours in the lab and have trouble "relating" to others. What sets Burdrys' 1959 apart from the real thing or any other version of it is the nature of the scientists' endeavors. They have perfected a "matter duplicator" capable of sending a man to the moon. This marvel is a joint project of the military and the private sector, and in one priceless, throwaway moment, a moment that probably did not strike Burdrys the way it struck me, Dr. Edward Hawks, the head of the project, tries to adjust the temperature in his office by fumbling with the recalcitrant knobs of his window unit. So the government can send men to the moon but won't fork out for central air.

Each man they send to the moon dies. They die in their effort to penetrate an alien-built labyrinth where one wrong turn means instant death. But each man adds some knowledge to the mapping of the labyrinth, and I guess it says something to the quality of the U.S. soldier that volunteers do not seem in short supply. Hawks has also perfected the process of storing a duplicate of the hapless volunteer, one that can be reconstituted after the real self dies on the moon. Unfortunately, those duplicates invariably go insane, having experienced their own deaths.

Enter one Al Barker, described on the back of the 1960 Gold Medal paperback edition as a "suicidal maniac whose loving mistress was Death." Like all good jacket copy, this has only a tangential relationship to the actual character. He is a one-legged, millionaire adventurer who loves to take chances. Vincent Connington, the odious personnel director of the company funding the moon project, thinks Barker is just the man to survive these missions, and he turns out to be right.

But wait, everything I'm writing implies that Rogue Moon has much more plot than it really does. What Burdrys gives us is a group of characters who all seem to loathe one another, and long, I mean really long conversations about scientific progress, life, and death. I suspect some of it was meant to be weightier than I was finding it. It reminded me at times of the dull parts of the old Outer Limits series, which as I child I thought given to too much talk and not enough monster -- an opinion reconfirmed by the dvd release of the series. But Burdry's finishes things off with an excellent set piece on the moon, and some final twists about the nature of the project that make for a satisfying last dozen pages or so. And by the way, the whole thing is really short.

I liked it. And I really liked the 1960 paperback with its spooky cover and the blurb line "A GREAT SCIENCE FICTION NOVEL!" The blurb is left unattributed since it obviously originates from the publisher and not some outside source.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


On July 15, 2010, Amazon delivered my dvd of Godzilla Vs. Gigan. And I was excited. Not only is Godzilla Vs. Gigan the only available Godzilla movie I do not own, it is, to the best of my knowledge, the only Godzilla movie I have never seen.

On the evening of July 16, I had a light supper and sat down to watch the film.

About twenty minutes into the movie I thought, "This is really silly."

* * * * * * * * * * * *

In a couple of weeks I am going to be 59 years old. Which of the following statements is the more pathetic?

1) As I enter my later-middle age, I have possibly lost a source of entertainment that has never before failed me.

2) It took me 49 years to notice that Godzilla movies are silly.

I do have one thing to say in my defense. Godzilla Vs. Gigan was made in 1972, a period considered to be the nadir of the Godzilla oeuvre. But the whole experience has spooked me. What if this weekend I decide to relax with Godzilla Vs. Mothra, generally considered to be one of his best performances, and I have the same reaction?

Will I be reduced to nothing but a steady diet of Eric Rohmer, Rainer Fassbinder, Yasujiro Ozu, and all those other directors who have never made a film that features a giant lizard kicking the shit out of Tokyo?

(For the full spectrum of "Disturbing" posts, click on the "disturbing" label below.)

Saturday, July 17, 2010


Jan Rodericks is the last man on earth. Since he has spent the previous 80 earth years in another galaxy, making the journey there and back by traveling faster than the speed of light, he has aged only a few months during his time away. In his absence there have been major changes on the home planet. Adults have not only quit reproducing, they have died away either by natural causes or suicides that seemed like the most reasonable choice a the time. The most recent generation of children, ages five to fifteen, have so greatly developed their new psychic/spiritual powers, prompted by an unexplained leap in the evolutionary process, that they now live as a kind of single consciousness on the continent of Australia. The slightly repulsive, fungoid image this prompts, at least in my mind, is to be put aside in the face of the miracle of it all. The Overlords, an ominous name for the benign aliens that have shepherded earth through this transformative process for the past century or two, are leaving the planet. They have asked Jan Rodericks to radio them reports.

As the no-longer-human children become part of the Overmind --another creepy sounding but supposedly good thing--Jan Rodericks has this to say. (The following is condensed from several pages of the book.)

"The whole network is beginning to glow...There is a great burning column like a tree of fire...Now it looks like the curtains of the aurora, dancing and flickering across the sky...Something is happening to gravity...of course, the atmosphere is escaping...The buildings round me, the ground, the mountains -- everything is like glass...The light! From beneath me--inside the earth--shining upward, through the rocks, the ground, everything--growing brighter, brighter, blinding--"

That's the conclusion of Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End. and my god how I wish I had read it when I was fifteen years old. Not that I didn't enjoy last week, but forty years ago it might have beat out Dune for top spot in my reading career. There are twelve foot aliens that look like the medieval image of Satan, but they're nice. Earth becomes a kind of Utopia where people make quick transglobal flights in their private jet cars. This Jan Rodericks person stows away on a starship to witness first hand other galaxies. And finally it is the children who are the focus of it all. They are new beings, ready to play their part in a grand, cosmic drama. And Clarke accomplishes it all in just over 200 pages.

I have never give Arthur C. Clarke his due respect. For years I thought that he has done the "novelization" of the 2001: A Space Odyssey screenplay -- hardly respectable work for one of the triumvirate of sf writers that included himself, Isaac Asimov, and Robert Heinlein. His work on 2001 was much more complicated than that. He had wanted the novel to come out well in advance but Kubrick wanted it as a tie-in to the film's release. There is also a story of Clarke exiting the film's premiere at intermission, possibly in tears, but I could be making that part up.

Clarke had a distinguished career in the RAF, developed ground radar systems, and after the war worked on the technology that would eventually lead to communication satellites. In 1956, the 39-year-old author emigrated to Sri Lanka, where he could indulge both his love of scuba diving and his taste for young men. The latter predilection was fully acknowledged by Clarke after a disastrous, brief marriage to an Presbyterian in Florida. In 2000 he was made a Knight Batchelor for his literary accomplishments, and he died in Sri Lanka in 2008. Like so many of his SF peers, he wrote a phenomenal number of books, both sf and nonfiction. One bibliography lists 66 titles, along with his work as a television presenter.

His other book to make the Pringle list is The City and Stars, a 1956 reworking of a 1948 novella, Against the Fall of Night. Perhaps he didn't rewrite it enough, or perhaps the project was misguided to begin with, but reading it made me think Clarke had temporarily forgotten how write in the three years since Childhood's End.

The trouble starts with the first sentence.

Like a glowing jewel, the city lay upon the breast of the desert.

(Imagine writing that sentence and thinking, "Damn, I'm good.")

This is earth a billion years in the future, and the city, Diaspar, is a self-enclosed, technological paradise on a planet otherwise turned to desert. The Central Computer keeps things running, and residents live for a couple of centuries then go back into the computer's memory banks until they are reborn a millennia or so later as adolescents without navels. It sounds boring as hell to me, but the populace seems satisfied except for our hero, Alvin. (Everyone is on a first name basis in Diaspar, and I checked and it would still be a couple of years after the novel that David Seville created the singing chipmunk that would co-opt that name for the next fifty years.) Alvin has never lived before. He is a "unique" and has an itch to find out what really lies outside the insulated glass walls of Diaspar.

But the writing is mostly just terrible. Clarke describes one tedious wonder after another, never letting us simply experience his fully imagined strange world. And the dialogue, never his strong point, often reads like more exposition with quotations marks slapped around it.

Why is this book on the 100 Greatest list? Judging from comments on Good Reads, it is a favorite of those who read it around the age of twelve. That makes sense. It is a Boy's Own Adventure story, perfect for a noncritical audience that wouldn't mind that Childhood's End is brainier, funnier, and more sophisticated.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Certain things are within one's control at first, whereas the subsequent stages carry us along with a force all their own and leave us no way back. People who have jumped off a cliff retain no independent judgment and cannot offer resistance or slow the descent of their bodies in freefall: that irrevocable leap strips away all deliberation and regret, and they cannot help but arrive at an outcome they would have been free to reject at the outset. Just so, once the mind has submitted to anger, love, or the other passions, it's not allowed to check its onrush: its own weight and the downward-tending nature of vices must -- must -- carry it along and drive it to the depths.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, On Anger, 7(4)
Translated by Robert A. Caster
University of Chicago Press

Sunday, July 11, 2010


What three things do Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clezio, Elfriede Jelinek, and Claude Simon have in common?

1) There are all three Nobel Laureates, having won the award for Literature in 2008, 2004, and 1985, respectively.

2) If you are like me, you had never heard of them until they won the Nobel.

3) Again, if you are like me, after each won you dutifully glanced at one or two of their novels and thought, "There is no way in hell I would ever make it through one of these things."

The international obscurity of the recipient of the top international literary award not always but often often seems to be one criteria used by the selection committee. But occasionally it can go the other way. When William Golding won in 1983 I wondered, "Why did the author of the international bestseller Lord of the Flies and a handful of other novels nobody reads merit a Nobel Prize?

Like most of my literary prejudices, this one was based on my experience working with secondhand books. No matter how many copies of Lord of the Flies might pile up, twice a year it was assigned in school and you sold out. (Fourteen-year-old boys across America began chanting, "Kill the pig. Drink his blood.") In that same William Golding section were a few pitiful copies of novels with unpromising and strangely similar titles like The Spire and The Pyramid. They never sold. Look at some statistics on Good Reads, and this still seems to be the case. LOTF is on 276,585 lists. Other William Golding novels are on as few as six readers' lists, and the only title to reach an even 300 is The Inheritors.

I was that 300th reader of The Inheritors. It made David Pringle's list for the year 1955. The secondhand copy I picked up was a trade paperback with a cover illustration of a crudely carved human figure. On the back were three positive reviews, one by George Plimpton; a photograph of the smiling, avuncular author; and, of course, the line "A novel by the author of Lord of the Flies." What was missing, anywhere on the book, was any indication of its subject matter. Possibly Mr. Golding was then at such a height of his fame that no plot teaser was deemed necessary. Or it could be that the publishers wisely did not want to discourage the reader with the news that they were buying a novel where all the main characters were Neanderthals.

I'm glad I didn't write this blog posting immediately after I finished The Inheritors. At that time I was vague on a few of the plot points, and I had not been all that wrapped up in the adventures of Lok, Ha, Nil, Liku, Fa, the old woman, and the little one. But the book has grown on me, largely because I realize that it succeeds at not being ridiculous. This is not some prequel to Clan of the Cave Bear. It's a 200 page, slice-of-life novel covering a few days in the life of a species soon to become extinct.

This group has a rudimentary language that still requires extensive miming to carry its meaning. They preserve a fire but do not know how to kindle one. For meat, they chase the hyenas away from animals freshly killed by larger predators. Other than that its grubs and shoots, like on Survivor Man.

Then along come the homo sapiens, with their fancy canoes and complete sentences, and it's all over. They, which is to say, we, have no compunction about killing these forest devils, although their young ones make cute pets. Our forefathers wreak their casual havoc and then go sailing across the lake to better hunting grounds. End of story. End of species. Beginning of life as we know it.

I'm still not sure about that Nobel Prize, but I am 99% sure that I enjoyed The Inheritors more than I would anything by whoever Jean-Marie Gustave le Clezio is.

Friday, July 9, 2010


3. Julia Drusilla (17 - 38 CE) had incestuous relations with her brother Gaius (Caligula) for many years. At her death he mourned elaborately, a decree of deification was voted, and a senator named Lucius Geminus swore on an oath that he had seen her ascending into heaven. She was consecrated as Panthea.

12. Ebuliit, which suggests liquid bubbling, though it does not specify the orifice from which the liquid is flowing.

18. Fever was a recognized Roman divinity who had a shrine on the Palatine. Malaria was common in the region, and this is probably the type of fever most connected with the goddess. Thus "I who have lived with him for many years" links Claudius's tremors and uncontrolled movements to the shivering and shaking characteristic of malaria.

28. A proverbial saying, but here with added humor: a pun on gallus (both "Gaul" and "rooster"), and a reference to the fact that Claudius had made Rome a pile of shit.

37. Literally, "mice lick the millstones," an obscure phrase that probably signifies austerity. (You only lick the flour dust off the millstones if you can't find enough to eat elsewhere.)

50. The auctorati were citizens who had sold themselves into the gladiatorial schools.

65. According to our sources, a common practice of Claudius.

68. Suetonius reports that after giving the order for Messalina's death, Claudius went to dinner and asked why she was not there.

83. There were laws against gambling, but Claudius's public addiction to the dice games made it impossible to enforce them.

100. Claudius, who has always given freedmen unusual power, now ends up as a menial servant to one, with a powerless and boring task.

Selected from Lucius Annaeus Seneca, The Pumpkinification of Claudius the God
Translated and with notes buy Martha Nussbaum
University of Chicago Press

Thursday, July 1, 2010


For both Darwin and Freud the idea of death saves us from the idea that there is anything to be saved from. If we are not fallen creatures, but simply creatures, we cannot be redeemed. If we are not deluded by the wish for immortality, transience doesn't diminish us...If mortality were a flaw or a punishment, we were always verging on humiliation. Tyrannical fantasies of our own perfectibility still lurk in even our simplest ideals, Darwin and Freud intimate, so that any ideal can become an excuse for punishment. Lives dominated by impossible ideals -- complete honesty, absolute knowledge, perfect happiness, eternal love -- are lives experienced as continuous failure.

Adams Phillips, Darwin's Worms