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

Tuesday, June 29, 2010


Thirty thousand years ago, remnants of the Martian race left their dying planet and settled on earth. They live in vast underground and submarine complexes, monitoring the development of mankind and waiting for the moment that Union between the civilizations might be possible. (Those first twenty thousand years or so must have been pretty tedious.)

Fortunately this is not the subject matter for a pseudo investigation on either the Discovery or the History Channel. It is the basis for Edgar Pangborn's 1954 novel A Mirror for Observers. I said I was going to read some old sf, and this has been my first foray into the world of mid-20th century science fiction. Did I love this book? No. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Did it have mind-bending concepts that hold up after sixty years. Not by a long shot.

For a novel culminating with a pandemic that destroys an enormous amount of the earth's population, it was a surprisingly cozy tale. There is Elmis, the good Martian observer, pitted against humanity-hating Namir, the renegade bad Martian. They walk among us, passing easily as human so long as they do not run short of a deodorant spray that disguises their Martian scent, although they still have to be careful around horses. Elmis has been dispatched to Lattimer, Massachusetts, where he is to monitor the progress of a young boy with the ridiculous name of Angelo Pontevecchio. He is "special," and Martians are always on the lookout for humans that might help lead the species forward to a condition warranting Union. Unfortunately, Angelo has also attracted the attention of Namir, and so the fight for -- well, not really his soul. Just the direction he will take in what could be an extraordinary life.

The coziness comes from the small-town New England atmosphere, the setting in a boarding house filled with eccentrics, and the guilelessness of young Angelo. Then there is Sharon Brand, a little girl also filled with potential greatness and whom I found somewhat cloying.

After trouble in Lattimer, the plot jumps a decade or so. Angelo resurfaces in New York City, living with friends from his hometown who in fact are none other than the evil Martians. They have started a kind of ultra-nationalist political group and host cocktail parties in a swanky penthouse apartment. Sexy women work for them and vie for Angelo's -- well, again, it's not his soul exactly. But they want to keep him distracted. Events rush to a conclusion, with Angelo and Sharon, now a concert pianist, reunited just as most of the world dies from a virus released by the bad Martians. The couple end up running a hardware store in New England, and they still have greatness in them.

Peter S. Beagle, who authored several bestselling fantasy novels in the 1960's and knew Pangborn, writes in the Afterward, with breathtaking understatement, that Pangborn has often been accused of a "besetting sentimentality." Pangborn has Elmis the good Martian truly love humanity, which allows Pangborn to love his own characters. I had a real fondness for the Martians. They live for centuries, but their human bodies grow morbidly obese as they age, and that Martian smell gets harder and harder to disguise.

Pangborn himself was an interesting character. He was born into a literary family in 1909. His father was an attorney who also worked as an editor for Webster's dictionaries. His mother, Georgia Wood Pangborn, was a successful author of supernatural fiction. (You can read anthologies of her stories on Google Books. I have looked at them, and they are very much "of their day.") Pangborn briefly attended both Harvard and the New England Conservatory of Music, did military service, and for years sold what he termed hackwork to pulp magazines. When he was forty-two, Galaxy Magazine published his short story "Angel's Egg", and his mature career began. His biggest seller was the sf adventure novel Davy. I remember frequently looking at it in its mass market paperback edition and thinking it looked too long, and that the nearly naked man on the cover and the blurb about post-apocalyptic sex would never make it past my parents. (I was 12 at the time.) Pangborn never married and lived with his sister on a small farm outside Woodstock, New York. Beagle describes him as a kind, thoughtful man, resigned to his relative lack of fame, and who wore his hair in braids. He died in 1976.

A Mirror for Observers was not a bad re-introduction to sf. I wanted to read these books in crummy old paperback editions, but this was a Bluejay Special Edition from the 1980's. Hence the afterward by Peter S. Beagle. But I do have some very beat-up pb's of Arthur C. Clarke novels to look at next.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


Now everything as far as the eye can see is covered in water. Every hill is hidden beneath the sea, and everywhere the depth is enormous. Only on the highest mountain ridges are there shallows. People have fled to the tallest peaks with their children and wives, driving their flocks before them. Communication and travel is cut off between these wretched people, for all the lower-lying land is filled with water. The remnants of the human race were clinging to all the highest points. In their extremity, their only source of comfort was that fear had turned to bewilderment. In their dumbstruck state they had no time to be afraid; there was not even any opportunity for grief, since it loses its hold over someone who is too wretched to be aware of suffering.

Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Natural Questions, Book III (27.11-12)

Friday, June 25, 2010


The scene is the men's room of a large, Houston, Texas, hotel during a week-long gathering of international photographers, dealers, publishers, and critics.

I enter the men's room and see Jack, an employee of the sponsoring organization, a man a decade older than myself, standing at one of the urinals. We nod and I take my position a polite two urinals down the line.


Enter a thirty-year-old Israeli photojournalist. We all three nod. He takes the middle urinal, pees, and exits.


My pitiful victory: I still leave before Jack.

Sunday, June 20, 2010


6. misdoubting his intent 'fearing that he had taken on too much.'

12. project plan.
success outcome (good or bad).

13 - 14. wide field...blind Cp. PL vii 17 -20 where M. likens himself to Bellerophon wandering 'on th'Aleian field,' having been thrown from Pegasus (a symbol of poetic daring).

35. horror including 'awe or reverent fear' (OED 4).

49. bushy-points A 'point' was 'a tagged lace or cord, of twisted yarn, silk, or leather, for attaching the hose to the doublet. ' (OED sb1 B5) Points were 'bushy' when tied in tassels. Marvell therefore likens rhyme to a vain fashion. Points were also a byword for 'something of small value' (OED).

54. Number, weight, and measure Cp Wisdom 11:20: 'thou hast ordered all things in measure, and number, and weight.' Cp. also M.'s defence of blank verse in his note on "The Verse": 'true musical delight...consists only in apt numbers, fit quantity of syllables, and the sense variously drawn out from one verse into another.'

(Selected from notes to On Paradise Lost by Andrew Marvell, published as a preface to the 1674 second edition of Paradise Lost. Notes from the Penguin Edition of Paradise Lost edited by John Leonard.)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


There's a lot of ground to cover here, but I am going to try to keep it short.

When I decided to start a blog the one thing I knew I did not want it to be was a stunt. You know, like that woman who cooked all the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Or the guy who tried to live with zero carbon footprint. One man read the Bible and aspired to live strictly by its rules for one year. Another read the Encyclopedia Britannica, perhaps because some one else had already laid claim to the Oxford English Dictionary.

These are stunts, done with a book deal in mind if not already in place, and, in the best of all possible scenarios, Hollywood will come knocking. Although I doubt that guy who read the OED is holding his breath for a call from Dreamworks. An on-air chat with Terry Gross is a real possibility, and in the most extreme cases, stunters might make it onto Oprah.

So No Stunts, I swore, No Stunts!

Without benefit of any sort of transition -- When I was an adolescent I read a fair amount of science fiction. I think I was more or less done with it by the end of eighth grade.That was when Frank Herbert's Dune was serialized across an unheard of four issues of Analog Magazine, and when I finished it I thought that there could not only never be a better science fiction novel, there could never be a better novel period. (I was allowed to subscribe to Analog because it was the only science fiction magazine that never had half-naked women on the cover.) By college I was telling people, should the topic come up, that I did not like science fiction. Invariably, whomever I told that then felt compelled to recommend the one science fiction novel I was sure to like. "No, really, this is perfect for people who don't like science fiction."

Over the years I would sometimes read something that somehow "transcended the genre." What that meant in practical terms was Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard. But Dick now has three volumes in the Library of America, right up there with Emerson and Melville. And Ballard really isn't always science fiction. At least not the ones I read.

Around the first of this year I went on a serious Ballard binge, and of course it is science fiction, at least by his definition. It's an exploration of inner rather than outer space. It got me thinking about the genre again, and reading Ballard's memoirs and essays really got me interested. There, I learned that to call the genre sci fi marked you as a hopeless parvenue. Properly speaking it should be referred to as sf. And I came across Ballard's review of The Billion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss's 1974 survey of the genre. Looking for a copy of that, I came across David Pringle's 100 Best Science Fiction Novels: 1949 - 1985. I was intrigued.

For one thing, I was surprised how many of the best from the 1950's were the ones I read in the 1960's. And since I worked around used books for thirty years, there were very few titles on the list that I could not visualize in their twenty- to thirty-year-old paperback editions.

So I have decided to give them a try, but this is not a stunt. For one thing, I have absolutely no commitment to this project. I do not intend to read them all, and I have no interest in rereading what I've read before, even if it was forty years ago. (Following a disheartening experience in the 1980's, I have always thought that Ray Bradbury novels need to come with the warning lable, Do Not Read Past the Age of 25.) I am not going to try reading them in order, but I do have one fetishistic preference. I want them to be in crummy mass market paperback editions. If I can't find those, or if those editions have exorbitant, collectors' prices, I want my copies to come from the library with broken bindings and lots of stains. And, yes, I will write about them for Potato Weather. Maybe.

But even though I may write about them on occasion, this is not a stunt. I expect no book contract, and if Dreamworks calls, I'm sorry, I can't come to the phone.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


The word is out on the internet today that American novelist David Markson has died at the age of 82.

I encountered Markson's work one morning while waiting my turn at the old fart barber shop I frequent. I try to get there just before 7 AM so there will be no wait, but this time a family with three boys arrived even earlier. Looking with dismay at the collection of rifle and golfing magazines on the rack, I was surprised to find a copy of New York Magazine, with a cover story promising The 100 Best Authors You Have Never Heard Of.

I settled back to take a look, and the New York Magazine editors were right. For the most part I had never heard of these people, and I had certainly never read them. Hands down the number one choice of those interviewed for the article was David Markson, whom I thought I had never heard of until I saw that he wrote Wittgenstein's Mistress (1988), a book I clearly remembered seeing remaindered some twenty years ago.

Nothing they had to say about Markson implied that I would ever read him. The word "experimental" cropped up frequently, and I usually avoid things so labeled. But then again, he was number one on the list.

I got from the library Wittgenstein's Mistress and This is Not a Novel.

Wittgenstein's Mistress is told through the voice of a woman who is convinced that she is the last woman on earth, which she may actually be. Her internal monologue is dense with references to literature and art, maintains a continuous hum of low-level threat, and reads like Daniel Deronda compared the other Markson works.

This is Not a Novel is in Markson's mature style. It is a 190 page miscellany of statements on authors and artists that are consistently interesting or amusing in themselves, and that by their refusal to fall into any particularly coherent pattern, develop a rhythm that keeps you, well, not exactly glued to the page, but reading nonetheless. At least that was my experience.

I now own copies of all David Markson novels, with the exception of some mysteries and westerns he cranked out early in his career. I own them all, but I have only read the two that originally came from the library. Maybe I'll read the others now, or soon, or sometime, maybe.

But I recommend him. The uniqueness factor cannot be overstated here, nor are they difficult reads. They are no more experimental and easier to read than say William Burrough's novels. But of course they lack the drugs and the sodomy.

Here is a link to just one of the recent tributes to Markson. It has with it links to dozens more.

I also, in the same New York Magazine article, encountered for the first time the name of Andre Aciman. Call Me By Your Name is one of the most beautifully written novels I have ever read.

Monday, June 7, 2010


Because this Monday morning's song -- make that production number -- is in cinemascope, I have published it as a link rather than cut it half on the blog. Sorry for the inconvenience, but it is well worth it.

Thursday, June 3, 2010


1) Which I am sure happens to you all the time.

4) This was a bar in Moorhead where all the local punk bands performed, but it also hosted some surprising national acts, most notably a very early performance by the White Stripes. When the city decided to destroy Ralph's in 2004, someone tried to make a documentary film about the bar that would somehow save it from destruction. I was drunkenly interviewed for this documentary, and I think I may have claimed I saw this aforementioned White Stripes show. I did not.

5) Trenchant!

7) Jesus Christ.

9) Despite the fact I just called it thriving.

12) Arcwelder was never particularly beloved by anyone except bookish dudes working at college radio stations, but they were still "established," somehow. They also had cross-demographic name recognition, since most of the farm kids in North Dakota know how to arc weld.

14) This guy was really blond and snarky.

21) Fuck. I was a really, really wretched person.

22) What made Orange 17 awesome was how so many people in Fargo hated them for their success. This is a band who never made an album, never went on tour, and never made any money. However, they once opened for Ted Nugent at the Fargodome (they were the replacement for a national band that got sick). In a way, Orange 17 truly were a little ahead of their time; they loved hair metal ironically when absolutely nobody else did, and -- had they emerged ten years later -- I suppose they could have been a second-tier version of the Darkness. The band was also hurt by the fact that vocalist Karl Qualey -- as mentioned above--looked too much like Kurt Cobain, and everybody thought he was doing it on purpose. In truth, it was just a weird coincidence. He really just needed a different barber.

26) Inspired by Tiger Trap!

30) As opposed to an Adult-Oriented Skater band (AOS).

(Selected from To Be Seen, Or Not To Be Seen, Underground Rock is Alive and Well in Fargo-Moorhead...But Who's Listening, by Chuck Klosterman. The original article was published by the author at the age of 23 in The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. Footnotes was added when the article was anthologized in Chuck Klosterman IV, 2006.)