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, March 29, 2011


The Centauri Device (SF Masterworks, #31)The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Several things I read about Harrison's book described it as proto-cyberpunk. I thought of it as sf noir, which come to think of it maybe makes it proto-cyberpunk. The future Harrison describes is one dark place. Escalations of the Arab/Israeli conflict has divided the Earth, which is no longer hardly worth visiting, between the two forces. Other planets offer their own special hells, often little more than spaceports and port cities filled with junkies and prostitutes. John Truck, our hero, has given up peddling amphetamines, and now looks for whatever long distance hauls he can pick up. But he finds himself the most sought after drifter in the galaxy, wanted by both Israelis and Arabs because he is the bastard son of one of the last, purebred Centaurians, a race wiped out in a genocide a century or so ago. In the ruins of Centauri, an archeologist as discovered a"device." Everyone assumes it is a weapon, but one that can only be operated by a person bearing Centaurian genes.

This is hard-boiled space opera with the body count and colorful characters you would expect to go with it. Genreral Gaw,  female leader of the IWG (Israeli World Government), is a squat, tough broad given to calling everbody "duckie," The leader of the UASR (United Arab something-or-other) has the prescient name Kadaffi.  There is a femme fatale, one Angina Seng, but the most fascinating characters are members of a religious sect known as Openers. They replace more and more of their epidermis with plastic in a effort to achieve total transparency. John Truck falls victim to one of their non-elective surgeries.

From 1968 to 1975, Harrison was literary editor of the British sf magazine New Wave. So along with J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Thomas Disch, and others he oversaw a genuine transformation in the literary style and subject matter of the genre. His leftist political stance delivers a good solid bitch slap to Margaret Thatcher's England and is a message worth keeping in circulation.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011


Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico (Pearls)Bad Nature, or With Elvis in Mexico by Javier MarĂ­as
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is what happens when you commit an irreversible act.

Our Spanish hero is picking up piecework in 1960's Hollywood, when he gets something of a break. Elvis Presley is on his way to Mexico to film Fun in Acapulco, and for some reason he has decided it is necessary that he have a true Castillian, rather than a Mexican, accent for his role. Our hero is hired as voice coach, flown to Acapulco, and enters the wonderland that is Hollywood on location. Although he is not able to improve The King's Spanish a great deal, it hardly matters. The Spanish he speaks in the film amounts to little more than, "Buenos dias, muchachos," or "Follow me, my four amigos." But Elvis takes a liking to our narrator and draws him into the inner entourage that after a day of filming hops in a private plane and flies off to whatever restaurant or strip joint has been recommended that day.

One night things do not go well. And since this is a Javier Marias story, much of what goes wrong has to do with language. The narrator finds himself stuck with diplomatically translating the insults that begin to fly between some Mexican gangsters and some asshole moneyman from the Midwest. Civility breaks down, and anything beyond that would be a spoiler. I will just say that although the narrator knows the events occurred forty years ago, he still feels he can never return to Mexico. And as for Fun in Acapulco, the official studio line is that the entire film was shot on sound stages in Burbank.

Bad Nature is fifty-five pages long, elegantly published as a New Direcctions Pearl, a new series of short works from an international list of authors. I finished it wondering two things. How can anyone pull off a 400 word sentence with 32 commas? And, when is Javier Marias going to win the Nobel Prize?

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011


... [T]he greatest provocations for lust are from our apparel; God makes, they say, man shapes, and there is no motive like unto it ... A filthy knave, a deformed quean, a crooked carcass, a maukin, a witch, a rotten post, an hedge-stake may be set out and tricked up that is shall make as fair a show, as much enamour, as the rest; many a silly fellow is so taken...Not that comeliness of clothes is therefore to be condemned, and those usual ornaments: there is a decency and decorum in this as there are in other things...Why do they crown themselves with gold and silver, use coronets and tires of several fashions, deck themselves with pendants, bracelets, earrings, chains, girdles, rings, pins, spangles, embroideries, shadows, rabatoes, versicolour ribands? Why do they make such glorious shows with their scarves, feathers, fans, masks, furs, laces, tiffanies, ruffs, falls, cauls, cuffs, damasks, velvets, tinsels, cloths of gold, silver, tissue? stones, odours, flowers, birds, beasts, fishes, and whatsoever Africa, Asia, America, sea, land, art and industry of man can afford" Why do they use and covet such novelties of invention, such new-fangled tires, and spend such inestimable sums on them?...Why are they like so many Sybarites, or Nero's Poppea, Ahasuerus' concubines, so costly, so long a-dressing as Caesar was marshaling his army, or a hawk in pruning...they had more need some of them to be tied in Bedlam with iron chains, have a whip for a fan, and hair-cloths next to their skins, and instead of wrought smocks, have their cheeks stigmatized with a hot iron, I say, some of our Jezebels, instead of painting if they were well served. But why all this labour, all this cost, preparation, riding, running, far-fetched and dear-bought stuff? "Because, forsooth, they would be fair and fine, and where nature is defective, supply it by art."

Robert  Burton , The Anatomy of Melancholy

Thursday, March 17, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: RED MARS, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Red Mars (Mars Trilogy, #1)Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The last long science fiction I read was Dune the year it came out. Then a long period of no science fiction, and in the past year a return to the genre. And one thing I have liked about the mid-century sf I have been reading is its low page count. Most of these guys, and so far I have read only guys, get the story done in under 300 pages. And I really go for the ones that clock in at around 180. There's a good idea, the story moves fast, outrageous things can happen but the story can also be quite moving.

Red Mars is 572 pages long, and it is only part one of a trilogy. (SF writers used to crank out short stories because they only got around a penny a word. Nowadays it seems that long novels in series is the way to go.) But by all reports, Red Mars, and the subsequent Green Mars and Blue Mars are good solid entertainment and a relatively realistic look at how human colonization of Mars might play out. On the cover of the copy I had, Arthur C. Clarke hailed it as "The best novel on the colonization of Mars that has every been written." I don't know how big or how seriously competitive that field is, but I can say that is the best novel on the colonization of Mars that I have ever read.

With 600 pages of narrative you expect some character development, a sense of history, and a good plot. Robinson creates good characters. When we fist meet them they seem destined to fill stereotyped slots in an sf novel of this kind: The ex-Astronaut who was the first man to land on Mars; the gregarious Russian who spouts revolution; the female scientist who believes Mars should remain essentially untouched played against the male scientist fixated on terraforming the planet; the diplomat; and, the difficult, Russian beauty who will allow for a certain amount of erotic tension, but not too much. But the story, told in long sections that focus on individual characters, is never formulaic. The novel follows competent people working hard in an alien environment where where everything around them is deadly.

One hundred of them set off for Mars, and the book covers about thirty years. And yes, at times I felt like I was plodding through a James Michener novel about Hawaii or Texas or The Holy Land. (That feeling could return if I read the next two in the series.) Critics praise Robinson for writing hard sf, science fiction where the writer uses a serious scientific background to develop the plot. Most of that is lost on me -- I never did understand the whole space elevator thing -- but I did enjoy the way the colonization developed from 100 dedicated scientists to tens of thousands of new immigrants, sent either by the homelands to secure a spot on the new planet, or the equivalent of wildcatters out to exploit the treasure trove of metals the planet holds.

There is a mystery, actually several mysteries, involved, and the political maneuvering that becomes part of the expanding society rings true to what one would expect in a world that is part research station, part boomtown, and part escape valve for an earth that is going out of control. I have to say, though, that one description of a Martian sunset is very much like another, and that we have better get busy with advancing robotic technology to get these guys settled on Mars by 2026.

James Cameron has Robinson's trilogy under option, which seems as inevitable as the fact that nothing will probably ever come it. It could be the next Battlestar Galactica, and I don't mean this as a spoiler, but,if they do the trilogy, a lot of actors are going to have only one year contracts.

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Wednesday, March 16, 2011


(In a craven effort to move up on Google searches for Kim Kardashian, I have abandoned The Kim Kardashian Reading Series for this slightly more lurid title. I considered KIM KARDASHIAN EXPOSED !!!, but that seemed a bit much, and also mean-spirited in a way to don't intend. Of course if numbers don't go up, I may be reduced to even more lascivious headings. Meanwhile, Kim continues to share her readings with followers of Potato Weather.)

Idleness overthrows all, love tyrannizeth in an idle person. If thou hast nothing to do, thou shalt be haled in pieces with envy, lust, some passion or another. Through doing nothing men learn to do ill. 'Tis Aristotle's simile, "As match or touchwood takes fire, so does an idle person love." ...Love, as Theophrastus defines it, is an affection of the idle mind, or as Seneca describes it, "youth begets it, riot maintains it, idleness nourisheth it, etc."

Robert  Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


Vulcan's HammerVulcan's Hammer by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Even Lawrence Sutin, PKD's biographer, refers to this one as dreck. As per usual for Dick's novels of this period, there has been a devastating war in the 1970's, and this time around humanity's bad idea for how to handle post-war society it to turn everything over to computers. These machines' decisions will be based purely on logic, war will come to an end, but of course an elaborate police system must be put into place to maintain this logical utopia. Underground movements are breaking out across the globe.

The computer has had three incarnations, Vulcan I, Vulcan II, and the current Vulcan III that only one man can access in its impregnable stronghold deep underground in Switzerland. The current director maintains a fondness for dusty old Vulcan II. He enjoys making the punch cards that feed it information and then reading the printouts it releases, although those messages now take up to a day or so to appear. There's something a little creepy and Vulcan III with its digital screens and its suspicion that its humans are not telling it the whole story. Of course, Vulcan III decides to matters into its own hands.

Dick's novel has all the pieces in place but then has nowhere to go with them. The conclusion is as predictable as it is anti-climactic. Vulcan's Hammer was the "B side" of an Ace Double, so it has if nothing else the virtue of brevity.

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Friday, March 11, 2011


Sisters by a River (Virago Modern Classics)Sisters by a River by Barbara Comyns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Barbara Comyns' Sisters by a River has this in common with J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit. Both Comyns and Tolkien wrote their stories to read to their children, neither initially had an eye toward publication. I can image the Tolkien children delighting to the adventures of Bilbo Baggins and the lot, but I wonder what the Comyns' young ones made of this passage from a chapter titled God in the Billiard Room.

There was a funny light in the billiard room, and I wasn't really surprised when one hot Sunday morning I walked in there to get cool and there was God, he was over by the fishy window and just glided up to me, I knew it was God although he looked like and enormous parchment coloured bag drawn up round the neck with a cord, I had been expecting to see him for a long time but I couldn't help being rather overcome and fainted. When the grown-ups found me they wouldn't believe I had seen God and I fainted rather a lot after that so they said I mustn't eat crab, and  I still don't and I have never seen Him any more.

Comyns was writing up her childhood memories that she would later use in the novel Who Was Saved and Who Was Dead. I think I believe just about every word of them. She relates events through a child's perspective -- she was the middle of five sisters -- and everything she remembers ring true. The family lived in large country house on the river Avon. Their mother went deaf after the birth of her last chlld, and the grandmother, whose home it was, was something of a terror. Their alcoholic father lost most of the family money. The girls pretty much ran wild. They were erratically educated by governesses who frequently fled the household or at boarding schools that frequently sent them home. And through this all the girls seem to having a pretty good time of it. They may be briefly unhappy when their pets die, either through their own neglect or because the groundskeeper, who is very particular, shoots them, but there are constant distractions. Servant girls become pregnant and disappear; Chloe, the youngest, spends a year convalescing from rheumatic fever; when Granny dies, the girls secretly sell off all her smelly Edwardian furniture and create a nice, white room; and, the river is scene of perpetual adventure,

Sisters by a River seems to be out of print, and the old Virago Classic editions get listed for anywhere from a penny to around forty dollars. It's worth searching out, along with the Comyn's novels that are coming back into print through The Dorothy Project and NYRB. And there is the public library.

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Thursday, March 10, 2011


Dr. FuturityDr. Futurity by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I hope Phil was able to pay some bills with whatever money he got from this. It is filled with the kind of prose that sounds like the author is thinking through what his character might do next, making notes rather than telling a story. This one is definitely for completists only.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011


Though they flourish many times, such temporizing foxes, and blear the world's eyes by flattery, bribery, dissembling their natures and other men's weakness, that cannot so apprehend their tricks, yet in the end they will be discerned, and precipitated in a moment: "Surely," David says, "thou has set them in slippery places." (Ps. lxxxiii, 18.) ...Or put case they escape, and rest unmasked to their life's end, yet after their death their memory stinks as a snuff of a candle put out, and those that durst not mutter against them in their lives, will prosecute their names with satires, libels, and bitter imprecations, they shall be in ill repute in all succeeding ages, and be odious to the world's end.

Robert Burton,   The  Anatomy of Melancholy

Sunday, March 6, 2011


Time Out of JointTime Out of Joint by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Throughout the 1950's, Philip K. Dick continued to write mainstream novels involving working class characters and realistic situations. His agents were never able to place any of these titles with publishers, at least not until several years after Dick's death when the Dickian industry began in earnest and publishers were scrounging for new material. Dick sometimes disparaged sf output, but he continued to have faith in these realist novels into the 1960's.

Time out of Joint, published in 1959, is a science fiction story that reads, for much of the time, as one of Dick's mainstream efforts. The characters are middle management types, one manages the produce department of a local grocery store, another works for the water department. They live in a new suburb of modest homes and are somewhat civically active. One couple, Vic and Margo, share their home with Margo's brother, Raigle, a war veteran who makes a comfortable living by answering a daily newspaper quiz, Where Will the Little Green Man Land Next. He is always right and has become something of a celebrity.

The first odd moment arrives when Vic looks through a newly arrived brochure from the Book-of-the-Month Club and wonders who Harriet Beecher Stowe might be. It's possible he wouldn't know, but later Raigle sees a layout in Life Magazine and marvels that the featured starlet's breasts can maintain the tilt they have in the photographs. Since this is a Philip K. Dick novel, all three characters analyze the breasts in some detail but then also wonder among themselves just who Marilyn Monroe could be that she would merit so much attention.

The next day, while Raigle contemplates adultery with the neighbor's wife, he takes her to the municipal swimming pool, and when he goes to the refreshment stand for cokes, the stand and its manager fade from sight leaving behind only a piece of paper with the printed words SOFT-DRINK STAND. Raigle puts the note into a box he keeps in his pocket where similar messages read DOOR, FACTORY BUILDING, BOWL OF FLOWERS.

We are now in Dickian territory, where few people are who they claim to be, and  a trip past the city limits is a trip to another world. Dick earns his standing as the connoisseur of American paranoia with this one. Early on Raigle has the insight that he may be the most important person in the world. He's no dummy.

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Friday, March 4, 2011


The Little SleepThe Little Sleep by Paul Tremblay
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

How many physical and mental challenges can a private eye face? Raymond Burr was wheelchair-bound in Ironsides, and I remember a self-explanatory series called The Blind Detective. Monk has OCD, and the character in Eric Garcia's novels is a tyrannosaurus in human drag. What's left?

Paul Tremblay has made his hero, Mark Genevich, narcoleptic, the result of a car accident where he should have been wearing a seat belt. Narcolepsy seems to be a disorder that would take you out of the private eye game, especially since Genevich has all the worst symptoms, He not only falls alseep, he also suffers elaborate hypnogogic hallucinations that allow him to experience conversations and encounters that simply never happened and cataleptic seizures that leave him paralyzed. In one scene he is unable to tamp out his own flaming pants leg. But the type of detetcive work he does involves mostly searching for runaways spouses or tracking down real estate deals on the internet. No stakeouts and certainly no driving. (Actually there is one exceptional driving incident that leaves you rooting for both our hero and everyone else on the road between Cape Cod and South Boston.)

Then into his life comes Jennifer Times, the daughter of the Boston D.A. who just might have a chance at winning the American Idol style program most characters in the book are fixated on. But then again, she may not even exist, the nude photos she leaves behind look like her but are too old to be her, and Genevich's missing father is somehow involved. Tremblay may feel that his not-so-sly reference to The Big Sleep  frees him from constructing too convincing a plot, but he keeps things moving with a genuinely likable main character whose best friend is his mother, along with the usual array of goons, crooked politicians, smart-mouthed cab drivers, and a plot where you know early on that people are going to learn things they would rather not about family members.

Narcolepsy goes to the heart of detective work in a way being paraplegic or a tyrannosaur really can't. Detectives gather clues and figure things out, but Genevich has to contend with unwanted ten minute naps and hallucinations, both real hindrances to fact gathering. Trembly has already written another Genevich novel and he could be onto something here.

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And just in case you thought I made these other books up

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Not much more than a month ago, a friend introduced me to the Boggle App for the iPhone.

 I think it cost $1.99. I was willing to pay it, because for over a year I had been playing a couple of Boggle wannabes on my phone and computer. They had a 4x 4 grid of letters just like Boggle, but for trademark reasons they could not call themselves Boggle, one was Scramble and the other Wordtwist, and they had to employ different scoring criteria. They were enjoyable and sufficiently time-wasting, but they were not the real thing. Wordtwist was remarkable for its inclusive dictionary that did not shy away from obscenities or even most racial terms. It scored on a bell curve, where I usually found myself listed as "high average." For some reason this seemed more insulting that simply "average." Scramble's only advantage was its presence on the phone as well as the computer, but it made so much noise it had to be played with the volume off.

But then there was Boggle, the real thing, complete with the letter dice that rattled when you shook the phone to start a new game. I loved it and I played a lot. A whole lot.

When I played I never did anything more that bring it up on the screen and click "quick play," That got me directly to the game board. It was not until a month or so later than I looked more closely at the menu and noticed a tab for "Achievements."  "Ooh," I thought, "I wonder how I'm doing."

Turns out my longest word is "quietens," and yet for some reason my best word shows up a "cleavers." I don't know why one eight letter word should be better than another. There was an entry for the letters I used the most, which were unsurprisingly the most common letters in English words. In all my playing I had found a total of nearly 30,000 words. And then I saw it.

There was a heading for "Play Time." The information that followed was in a form that I at first didn't fully comprehend. There seemed to be too many slots for the numbers. Then I read it correctly. Over the past five or six weeks I had spent 1 day, 36 min playing Boggle. Yes, I had moved one day and thirty six minutes closer to my death playing Boggle on my iPhone.

That's an achievement? I guess it wouldn't be good marketing to list it as a disgrace.

Since then I have instituted some new rules for Boggle time. I try to play only when I am waiting for something, like water to boil. But my major playtime is while watching something I don't really care about on television.

(For other disturbing posts follow the "disturbing" label.)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


But no man hears us, we are most miserably dejected. Our bodies have scarce room for a new stripe. We can get no relief, no comfort, no succor. We have tried all means, yet find no remedy; no man living can express the anguish and bitterness of our souls, but we that endure it. We are, forsaken, in torture of body and mind, in another hell: what shall we do?...our estate is far more miserable, much more to be deplored, and far greater cause have we to lament; the devil and the world persecute us, all good fortune has forsaken us, we are left to the rage of beggary, cold, hunger, thirst, nastiness, sickness, irksomeness, to continual torment, labor and pain, to derision and contempt, bitter enemies all, and far worse than any death; death alone we desire, death we seek, yet cannot have it, and what shall we do?...comfort thyself with this yet, thou art at the worst, and before long it will either overcome thee or thou it...misery is virtue's whetstone.

Robert Burton,   The Anatomy of Melancholy