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, December 29, 2010


It's that time of year. Ten Best Lists appear in magazines ranging from Artforum to Death Metal Monthly. Like most people, I roll my eyes at the sight of them and then stay glued to the page from beginning to end.

So this year I have decided to jump into the fray and do some lists of my own. This is also my opportunity to completely sell out as a writer and "monetize" my blog. The Monetize tab is prominently featured on the blogger editing page. Several roads to riches are offered, but I have decided to become an Amazon Associate. Therefore you will begin to notice links to books and movies I discuss. In the unlikely event that a reader follows that link and purchases said book or movie, I receive --ok, I will come right out and say it -- 4% of the purchase price. I expect to soon be rolling in the extra coinage. (That, by the way, is Mammon himself to the right.)

I began experimenting some weeks ago, just to see how the process works. I went immediately to my heavily visited posting SOFT CORE NUN PORN AVAILABLE NOW, and made each title discussed into a hyperlink to Amazon. With knowledge gained by my years of retail experience, I even added some new box sets to the posting, thinking that would be a good way to raise the transaction value. Imagine my delight the next day! Although there had been no completed purchases, there were seven click throughs. People were at least looking, assuming those seven were not my own created while checking to see that the links worked.

I am not going to do a Ten Best List proper. Rather I am going to list a few authors I read for the first time this year and suggest why, beyond my personal financial gain, you might consider reading them yourself.

Chris Kraus is an art world denizen who has written three novel/memoir/essays, the first of which has the unsurpassable title I Love Dick (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents). Kraus is the wife, or by now possibly the ex-wife, of French theorist, publisher, and MIT professor Sylvere Lotringer. I hate to define some one by whom they are married to, but Lotringer is a major character in Kraus's work. In I Love Dick he is not only privy to her feelings for Dick, the west coast social theorist Dick Hedbridge, who's never fully identified in the book but it's pretty easy to figure out, but Lotringer also helps her compose the letters and emails that comprise their for the most part imaginary affair. What I have written so far does not convey just how funny the book is, and I don't know how to convey that aspect -- there are no incidents to describe or clever lines to quote--and so trust me when I say that is very funny. Also at times excruciating, and always precisely and elegantly written.

Kraus followed up I Love Dick with two more fictional outings, Aliens & Anorexia (Native Agents) (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents)and Torpor (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents). Aliens follows her attempts to make a return to the art world as a filmmaker --are you cringing yet? After a very funny opening at a European film festival, the story backtracks to her successfully receiving a grant for travel to New Zealand, her homeland, where she is to make a feature-length, experimental film. For Aliens I can quote a funny line. Cast and crew have been assembled and it is the first day of shooting. Her DP asks Kraus what she has in mind for this scene, and Kraus writes in her book, "I realized that I had never thought of my film in visual terms."

Here's a quick summary of Torpor. Kraus and Lotringer decide that a good way to save their marriage will be to take a road trip through post-Soviet Eastern Europe and adopt a Romanian orphan along the way.

Chris Kraus is hard on herself in these books, which gives her permission to be scathing in her descriptions of the contemporary art scene and of the boys' club that is the world of French Post-structualist criticism. But these are presented as novels, and so maybe Sylvere Lotringer is not the total ass he appears to be.

Kraus is my cerebral pick of the year. For the purely visceral, I recommend David Ohle.

In 1972, Ohle published a short science fiction novel titled Motorman. It reads like an Outer Limits episode written by Samuel Beckett. Make that a really good Outer Limits episode with Beckett in a better than average mood. Its hero, Moldenke, inhabits a small apartment in a dystopian future where he receives threatening phone calls from a man named Bunce and knows that any trip outside his apartment is fraught with such dangers as chance encounters with Jellyheads. Jellyheads are pitiful, unpleasant, and dangerous. Reviews were good, sales ok, and it stayed out-of-print for about thirty years.

During those thirty years, Ohle taught at the University of Kentucky, Lawrence, where he got to know William Burroughs, Sr. Ohle did some editing and transcribed Queer and a couple more Burrough's novels. Burroughs asked Ohle to take a look at the posthumous manuscript left behind by his son, Billy Burroughs. It was a disaster, but Ohle turned it into the novel/memoir Cursed from Birth (2006).

When Ohle got back around to his own writing, he published in quick succession two sequels to Motorman, The Age of Sinatra (Soft Skull ShortLit) (2004) and The Pisstown Chaos: A Novel (2008). Moldenke remains a character, but what Ohle clearly relishes is concocting the outrageous indignities of his dystopian society. Having to help peddle the streetcars is one thing, but occasionally President Ratt institutes a forced Forgetting, which is only the extreme version of the forced relocations that are commonplaces. Society fights a losing battle against parasitic infections, what food there is is disgusting, and then there are the Stinkers. Stinkers aren't quite dead, live mostly underground, but when they surface they must be cared for. They have some sex angle working as well.

Ohle's novels are for connoisseurs of all things dire. When you think about it, they are really just about people getting by on getting by, doing whatever it takes -- even if that calls for tending a corral full of Stinkers or handing over a daily stool sample to the government men. They made me chuckle.

To end on a classier note: Norman Lock.

Definitely one of the best writers you've never heard of. He's written eight books and several works for theater. This year I read two novels, and Land of the Snow Men.

In Shadowplay, a master of the Javanese shadow puppet theater falls in love with a young woman whom he brings back from the dead by having his puppets act out her story. But don't think this is going to work out well. If you look for Land of the Snowmen on Amazon, you find it written by George Beldon, with Lock credited with the introduction. The bulk of the book is Beldon's increasingly hallucinogenic diary of Scott's famous Antarctic expedition, a diary Beldon composed while institutionalized and which Lock supposedly discovered while recovering from his own nervous breakdown.

The books are brief, perfectly told, totally engaging, and at times heartbreaking. I am wary when I read that someone is "a writer's writer." Often that's code for exquisitely crafted boredom. Lock, I'd say, is "a storyteller's storyteller," an altogether more promising moniker.

Here are some other available titles from these same authors.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


...A true saying is, this gluttony kills more than the sword; this all-devouring and murdering gut...And that of Pliny is truer, "Simple diet is the best; heaping up of several meats is pernicious, and sauces worse; many dishes bring many diseases."...Thence, sayeth Fenelius, come crudities, wind, oppilations, cacophymia, plethora, cachexia, bradypepsia, sudden death, etc., and whatnot.

An insatiable paunch is a pernicious sink, and the fountain of all diseases, both of body and mind.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


The world, or at the very least life as we know it, ended nine times for me this past year.

In January I went on a J.G. Ballard reading binge, starting from his first published novels, The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World. The one early Ballard I didn't read was The Wind From Nowhere, but Ballard has disowned that novel and it is both hard to come by and pricey. The fate of planet Earth in the three I did read is more or less self-evident from their titles. In The Drowned World water, set loose by solar flares that change the planet's atmosphere, floods the continents, leaving them to reptiles, fish, a few research scientists, and bands of outlaws. Pollution places a kind of impermeable skin over the ocean, prevents evaporation, and produces The Drought.It does start to rain again after a decade or so, but the first daffodils of spring remain a long way off and there will be only a handful of people, many of whom are not very nice, to enjoy them. The Crystal World is at heart a Graham Greene novel. The setting is Central Africa, the odor of gin and adultery are in the air, and everyone and everything is undergoing a sea change that leaves them encrusted in gorgeous crystals. The crystalized creatures, whether humans or crocodiles, possibly remain sentient in their new, paralyzed state. By the end of the novel we learn the process has begun in Miami Beach. As I said before, I did not read The Wind from Nowhere, but I assume that in Ballard's freshman effort a wind -- from nowhere -- causes a great deal of damage.

My January 2010 involved three apocalypses in as many weeks, and as I continued to read sf I found myself witnessing the end of the world about once a month. (Most sf takes place in distant futures where life is very changed but remains a continuation of the times in which the authors wrote and shows not proclivity towards immediate annihilation.) Here is a list of what does us in.

1) Environmental catastrophe (no fault of our own.) I would put The Drowned World in this group. In the distant future of Brian Aldiss' Hot House, a cooling sun and some other cosmic occurrences leave the earth covered by an enormous baobab tree, all manner of fantastic and fantastically dangerous plants, and bands of plucky, three-foot-tall humanoids. I read some one grousing that the science in Hot House is all hogwash, but its a fun story.

2) Environmental catastrophe (our bad.) The Drought obviously fits this category, but as a plot device, Ballard's thin membrane of pollutants over the surface of the ocean places a poor second to the strain of mutant Bermuda grass that conquers the planet in Ward Miller's Greener Than You Think.

3) Nuclear disaster. There are countless books with this theme, I just happened not to read more than one of them. Brian Aldiss' Greybeard takes place in a world where the unfortunate timing of secret nuclear tests releases radiation that leaves the world sterile. There are lots of old people. Towards the end there are some new young people. But they are very strange and hid out in the bushes or behind rocks.

4) Disease. The hero of George R. Stewart's The Earth Abides, lies in his mountain cabin feverish from a snakebite, and awakens to find that most everybody else has up and died. But there are others who proved immune to the disease, and we become involved in the lives of a community that makes it way into an unknown future. For the children born into this ruined world, it is all a kind of playground, so long as the canned goods hold out. The hero has carefully preserved the UC Berkeley library, so civilization can start again. But he realizes by the end he is witnessing a new society of hunter gatherers, illiterate kids already adept a developing better ways of catching fish and killing mountain lions. This book has really stayed with me, and I have forgiven it for inspiring Stephen King's The Stand.

5) Transfiguration. This is the most hopeful scenario. In Arthur C. Clarke's classic Childhood's End, the children of the earth take the next evolutionary step that propels humankind, if it still is humankind, into the greater consciousness of the cosmos. The Crystal World also fits this category, but putting a positive spin on its climax is only for the glass-half-full crowd.

6) It's bound to happen sooner or later. In Poul Anderson's Tau Zero, colonists headed for a new, earthlike planet find themselves on a ship gone out of control, its speed approaching the speed of light. They have aged only a few years by the time they realize that the Earth is dead. Eventually they are propelled so far into the future that the universes collapses and they ride out the edge of a second big bang. All that's left for them to do is hang around a few weeks until they can find a new planet about 6000 years old and makes themselves at home.

Which of these apocalyptic options still hold serious sway with the 21st century imagination? I don't think transfiguration is really in the running, except among web 2.0 types who await the singularity when our machines think for themselves and we become more or less useless. Maybe I'm naive, but even with North Korea and Iran currently lead by certifiably insane regimes, I don't spend my time worrying about nuclear disaster. The ongoing craze for zombies speaks to the continuing potency of disease metaphors, but the threat of an new superbug is not very high on my list of eschatological fantasies. That leaves environmental catastrophe, but only unpatriotic, lame-assed intellectuals still believe in that crap.

What's left out of this list of books, all published between 1950 and 1970, is the one event that now dominates our thinking about human extinction. Asteroids. Those deadly chunks of nickel and ice hurtling around space, just looking for a place to land. Didn't people know about asteroids back then? Not in the books I've been reading.

Personally, I put my extinction event money on an asteroid, meteor, comet, or some other not-so-heavenly body. It's going to happen sooner or later, maybe in 200 years or 2,ooo,oo0. But I really believe one of them out there has our name on it. And if a meteor was good enough for the dinosaurs, why shouldn't we be the next in line.

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Abraham-men, beggars who counterfeited lunacy (named after one of the wards in Bedlam)

amphibological, ambiguous

balloon, a kind of football

Bavarian chin, or poke, goitre

ceruse, white lead used as a cosmetic

cockney-like, effeminate

cushion dance, a lively, romping dance, in which a cushion figured

dizzard, a blockhead

ethnics, heathens, pagans

fox, to intoxicate

fustilugs, "a sluttish woman who smells rank"

gubber-tushed, with irregularly projecting teeth

Indy-bone, ivory

metoposcopy, the art of discovering character from the lines of the face, especially the forehead

morphew, a scurfy eruption

noise, a band (of musicians)

pickitivant, a pointed beard

salvatella, the vein that runs into the little finger

smell-feast, a parasite, sponger

theologaster, a petty or contemptible theologian

trenchmore, a lively, romping dance

urchin, a hedgehog

woolward, wearing wool next to the skin, for penance

by Robert Burton (1577 - 1630)
New York Review Books (2001)