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

Sunday, July 31, 2011


The Drifting Classroom, Vol. 4 (Drifting Classroom)The Drifting Classroom, Vol. 4 by Kazuo Umezu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A mass suicide among first graders convinces Sho he must set up the school as a nation. First he defeats Princess in a very close election, then he sets about establishing his cabinet He knows that the insect monster from the wastelands is soon to attack. The working out of just what this monster is is the most implausible portion of Umezu's story so far, although the use of the term "implausible" here must be relative.

Monster defeated, many lives lost, almost a return to normalcy in the Nation of Yamoto Elementary School, but unfortunately the monster has laid eggs and they are hatching. These kids just can't get a break.

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The Drifting Classroom, Vol. 3 (Drifting Classroom)The Drifting Classroom, Vol. 3 by Kazuo Umezu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The story becomes complicated by a parallel time episode involving Sho's mother. I suspect this will become a more common motif. Back at the school, enterprising pre-adolescents have decided that blood sacrifice is the way to solve their problem and they have picked out an unpopular kid for a victim. But there is a new boss in town, the leader of a girl gang who delivers possibly the best line ever spoken by a sixth-grader, "Mind your own fucking business. Bitch, no one calls me a gang leader.  If you've got to call me something call me Princess!"

And a giant insect monster is roaming the wasteland.

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The Drifting Classroom, Vol. 2 (Drifting Classroom)The Drifting Classroom, Vol. 2 by Kazuo Umezu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Things are getting worse for the children of Yamoto Elementary School. Not only has their school vanished into a sandy wasteland, but they must now contend with a power-mad cafeteria worker with visions of controlling the school by controlling the food supply. He is not above clubbing, stabbing, shooting, or incinerating students and faculty. While the students discover that the school has moved forward in time, one of their teachers begins a methodical murder campaign. A trip into the wastelands with the murderer ends with Sho and his friend discovering the buried city of Tokyo, and Sho makes a psychic connection with his mother still alive in the past.

Umezu's work is a distillation of everything that would frighten a child -- separation from parents, insane adults, no lunch --  without any of the sweetening that would go into the American version of such a story. In fact the kids are dropping like flies. Perhaps Umezu is trying to work his way down to a more reasonable quantity of characters for the eleven-book series.

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Sunday, July 24, 2011


Tropic Moon Tropic Moon by Georges Simenon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sex, murder, privilege, racism, and all the nastiness of French Colonial rule in Gabon circa 1930. The only thing that could make this book more satisfying would be if it was only 130 pages long. Wait -- it is 130 boozy, feverish pages long. A perfect afternoon read.

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Saturday, July 23, 2011


At the Mountains of Madness: A Graphic NovelAt the Mountains of Madness: A Graphic Novel by H.P. Lovecraft
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

H.P. Lovecraft wrote, or more accurately, overwrote At the Mountains of Madness in 1936. (That "overwrote" in the preceding sentence already has me on the bad side of avid Lovecraftians.) I read the original years ago when I did most of my Lovecraft reading, and it was never one of my favorites, crucial as it may be to the Cthulhu mythos. Since the Guillermo del Toro film has been canceled, this graphic novel seemed like a good way to revisit the material.

The drawings emphasize that this is a 1930's adventure story. Brave explorer/scientists, as a child one of my favorite hybrids in literature and movies, go to explore the further reaches of Antartica. There they discover the remains of "The Old Ones," those intergalactic drifters who settled on earth millions of years ago, inadvertently set in motion  terrestrial life, and then  had some sort of internal battles and disappeared into the depths of the sea. I don't remember all the details.

I.N.J Culbard's pages are in saturated colors, varying from arctic blue, to the dark browns of the explorers' camps, to the unearthly jade green that dominates the city they discover. That city, as described by Lovecraft and pictured here, never seems particularly well designed for the squid-like creatures who lived there. Why did squids want skyscrapers? One Lovecraftian trademark, not too well served here, is to announce the manifestation of an "indescribable horror" and proceed to describe it for one or two pages. Lovecraft's descriptions attain pulpy grandeur, but the glimpses of a giant amoeba with a bunch of eyes we get here is a letdown.

Self Made Hero, the publisher of this version, has a series of Lovecraft anthologies planned. One volume is out, and with the diversity of artists invovled it promises to give more outrageous visions of Lovecraft's cosmic terrors.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2011


City Come A-Walkin'City Come A-Walkin' by John Shirley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In the introduction to the 1996 edition of Shirley's original 1980 novel, William Gibson refers to Shirley as the Patient Zero of Cyperpunk. I'm in no position to contest that assertion, and it goes a ways towards explaining why the novel, while never seeming dated, seems so familiar. Shirley's imagined San Francisco of 2008 has the post-punk feel, vigilante dangers, and cynical corporate plots that are now the mainstay of sf in books, movies, and television. Shirley does seem to have gotten there first, and at the age of eighteen while fronting for punk bands in Oregon.

Reading about Shirley threatens to become more fascinating that reading him, but I am saying that on the basis of this one, early book. Gibson refers to him as one of the people who have survived themselves. Punk rocker, and still a lyricist for Blue Oyster Cult, periodic resident of Oregon, San Francisco, Paris, New York, Los Angeles, and currently the San Fernando Valley. He has written sf and horror,a sympathetic biography of Gurdjieff, the screenplay for the original Crow film, and has a bibliography that runs to just over 30 novels and seven collections of short stories. On Vimeo you can watch his short, thoughtful film called The Spiritual Quest that interviews philosophers, Wiccans, Gnostics, and Eastern Orthodox Priests residing in the San Francisco area/

And what of City Come A Walkin'? Stu, owner of Club Anesthesia, sees a customer one night that stands out from the voguers and punks. He is a man in a trenchcoat, homburg, and reflective sunglasses that disturbingly disappear under his skin. Stu asks his star performer, Catz Wailen, to psyche him, something she is apparently able to do, and she discovers that he is not a man but the city of San Francisco itself. He has a job for Stu.

The following sf adventure story must have been, as they say, mind-blowing at the time, but now simply provides a good read. I want to read more.

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Tuesday, July 19, 2011


Shoplifting from American ApparelShoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If this  paper-thin prose captures the zeitgeist of this particular crowd, fine.

There was one exchange that made me laugh.

"I want to change my novel to present tense," said Sam. "Is there some Microsoft Word thing to do that?"

"I don't think so. I think you have to do it manually."

"Manually," said Sam.

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Sunday, July 17, 2011


The Drifting Classroom, Vol. 1 The Drifting Classroom, Vol. 1 by Kazuo Umezu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Umezu is the best visual storyteller of the horror manga writers I've read, but I think I have found his stylistic weak point in The Drifting Classroom. The event the sends Yamato Elementary School into another dimension is part explosion, part earthquake, but truly otherworldly. In the real world, the campus has left an enormous cravasse in the town, but threre are no visible ruins of the school. The school itself seems to have survived undamaged a serious earthquake, until faculty and students realize that their campus is the only structure that exists in a landscape that could be called lunar except for the heavy cloud cover. All this Umezu narrates and depicts concisely with unsettling images. But for the range of emotions that his characters must be experiencing, he depicts them the most part as looking furious if not deranged.

The Japanese version of "tough love" might give Western proponents of the same reasons to rethink the technique. Sho is a sixth grader at the center of the tale. In the first chapter his mother purposely lets him sleep through his alarm as a lesson in responsibility. The ensuing fight escalates to the point that after he calls her a witch he leaves the house threatening never to return. His mother, surrounded by broken crockery, shouts after him, "Fine by me. You are no son of mine. I hope you never come back." Later, after the catastrophe, one male teacher's technique for calming the sobbing students is to grab a first grader and stab him in the arm with a shattered pair of glasses, shouting, "This is what will happen if you don't stop!" Since he has used his own son for the graphic demonstration, the situation blows over.

This is volume 1 of an 11 volume series, and most of the second half sets up characters and mysteries to be solved in subsequent installments. Older students are asked to keep younger students calm. First graders happily continue their group singing, but third graders prove to be a real threat. The teachers try lying to calm the students, but we know they are also capable of violence. The principal appears to have slept through the whole event until the last pages of the book. He shows up concerned that some one has stolen the month's paychecks. The cliffhanger ending introduces a power-mad cafeteria manager who realizes his chance to become most the important player in the days to come.

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Saturday, July 16, 2011


Dirty SnowDirty Snow by Georges Simenon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Not often can you say of a novel's protagonist that he amounts to nothing more than a human shit stain. Frank Friedmaier is a nineteen-year-old, fledgling career criminal living in an unnamed city in Nazi occupied France. In the opening scene he commits his first murder, an act he feels that like losing his virginity he needs to get out of the way. Other crimes and one repulsive act of betrayal follow, but what ties the reader to the book is Frank's abhorrent life and the convincing picture of life under occupation Simenon paints. Frank's mother runs a brothel, a solid business paid for in cash and favors. While their neighbors suffer from near starvation and the lack of heat during the dead of winter, the Friedmaier's have coal, real coffee, and decent clothes. They are despised, and in Frank's case, feared. Frank misreads all this as a form of respect from people he finds beneath him. Although the story doesn't get this far, the Friedmaier's are the type of people who will be murdered by their neighbors after the war. But Frank is living the good life until there comes the inevitable knock on the door.

I have never read Simenon because the Maigret novels never appealed to me. I lumped them together, unfairly I am certain, with Agatha Christie's Poirot or any of the other long running, mid-twentieth-century detective series. Dirty Snow is one of Simenon's noir titles and among the darkest novels I have ever read. NYRB has issued several of these Simenon novels in classy paperback editions that look great and feel good in your hands as  you read. You may want to have a warm bath ready for after you finish.

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Thursday, July 14, 2011


But though I confined my Family, I could not prevail upon my unsatistfy'd Curiosity to stay within entirely myself; and though I generally came frighted and terrified Home, yet I could not restrain, only that indeed, I did not do it so frequently as at first...In these Walks I had many dismal Scenes before my Eyes, as particularly of Persons falling dead in the Streets, terrible shrieks and shreekings of women who in the Agonies would throw open their Chamber Windows, and cry out in a dismal, surprising Manner; it is impossible to describe the Variety of Postures in which the Passions of the Poor People would Express themselves.

Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1772)


Wednesday, July 13, 2011


Dr. BloodmoneyDr. Bloodmoney by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Thank God for editors. PKD proposed two titles for this post-nuclear apocalypse novel: In Earth's Diurnal Course and A Terran Odyssey. Donald Wolheim at Ace come up with Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb. Wolheim's title might have been a flagrant effort to cash in on Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, but at least it did not include the word "diurnal," and it did give some hint to what the book is about.

This is one of the dozen or so novels PKD wrote in 1963/64, but due to the build up of back inventory, it was not published until 1965. It is surprisingly idyllic given the subject matter and the amount of amphetamines the author was ingesting at the time. There had been two post-nuclear bestsellers in the late 1950's, Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon -- still I understand a favorite for middle school book reports -- and Neville Shute's On the Beach, which as both a novel and film seemed determined to prove just how tedious it would be to wait for death from radiation poisoning. PKD gets in a sly dig at the latter in his own novel. Walt Dangerfield, a would-be Martian colonist stuck in eternal earth orbit, broadcasts music and readings for survivors on Earth. One of their most requested songs is Waltzing Matilda, the traditional Australian ballad that served as theme music to On the Beach.

As is his habit, PKD has little interest in what might be the actual effects of an atomic war. His characters go about their lives in Marin County pretty much as they would pre-holocaust. They hold town meetings, they have affairs, they gather mushrooms. They have a resident psychiatrist. They mostly walk or ride bicycles rather than use wood-burning or horse-drawn automobiles. As a community they are insular and suspicious of outsiders, but they should be since jealous outsiders might want to "nap" some vestiges of the good life they maintain. They are also blessed with the best handyman around, Hoppy Harrington, a "phoce," a diminutive for phocomel, those with a congenital deformity that produces flipper-like arms and legs. But Hoppy more than makes up for his shortcomings with his mobile machine and some very special powers. In an early scene, he fixes a turntable by healing it. He gets more dangerous later on.

I just finished this book yesterday, and I am trying to remember if it has a plot. I don't think it does. It really is a sort of pastoral -- with mutants. Rats have learned to play the nose-flute. Cats have developed their own secret language, and dogs make a pitiful attempt at speaking English. By the novel's end, mail routes are opening again, and some of the characters feel the lure of the big city. They plan to go into the cigarette manufacturing business.

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Sunday, July 10, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: NEXT by James Hynes

NextNext by James Hynes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

According to one study, American males think about sex every fifty-two seconds.

Kevin Quinn, the protagonist of Hynes' novel, is taking up the slack for those fellow American males who do not hold up their end of the statistic. Quinn is a lifelong Ann Arborite, with a series of failed relationships to his credit and a not very prestigious job as the editor of an academic journal. When the novel opens he is flying on June 7th to Austin, Texas, for a job interview at a company whose actual business he does not fully understand. Since six European cities saw terrorists attacks the day before -- a day already dubbed 666 -- he is thinking about ground to air missiles -- and the leggy, attractive Asian girl reading Joy Luck Clubin the seat next to him.

The pilot announces that Austin at 9:00 AM is a "balmy 86 degrees." What this will mean for Quinn, overdressed for his interview that is not until two in the afternoon, is that as the day goes on he will be under a broiler, an intense heat to which the consistently young, fit Austinites seem strangely impervious. Quinn has turned fifty. This is a novel of midlife crisis.

Quinn is at loose ends in an sweltering unknown city, thinking obsessively about his current and previous committed relationships and worried that the younger woman he lives with now wants to get pregnant. If he gets the job in Austin he plans to leave her. He is also obsessing about Joy Luck Club, the only name he knows to give the woman from the plane. He improbably runs into her in downtown Austin and more or less stalks her for 100 pages. Later there is a fortyish, Latina thoracic surgeon he spends time with, all this time running over in his mind details of his past and possible scenarios for his future.

The author, James Hynes, lives in Austin, and for as much as I know of the downtown area his geography is pretty accurate. The office tower where Quinn's interview will be held is imaginary, but the downtown area is a mixture of the "Keep Austin Weird" school of urban development surrounded by a new growth of mixed-use highrises that rings true. Hynes calls Starbucks by name, but he rechristens Whole Foods, a giant emporium of health and indulgence, as Gaia Market. It's funny, but I wondered why he felt compelled to do so. Later he places a Neiman Marcus Last Call store exactly where I remember it.

Given the trajectory of the narrative, I feel churlish saying that after about 200 pages I began to get tired of Kevin Quinn. Admittedly he has a great deal on his mind, but his self-absorption is so complete that he misses a major plot development while remembering having sex on a porch railing at a party almost thirty years before. Even his African cab driver is furious with him.

But who says you have to like a main character from beginning to end of a novel. Scene by scene, Hynes' novel is fully realized, comic and excruciating by terms. Given the set  up, it would not be much of a spoiler to describe the final chapter -- you know where this is heading. But Hynes' presents matters realistically and void of melodrama. He even gives Quinn an eight page, Molly Bloom monologue that brings him back into the fold of sympathetic, protagonists.

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Saturday, July 9, 2011


Oninbo and the Bugs from Hell 2 (Hino Horror, 4)Oninbo and the Bugs from Hell 2 by Hideshi Hino
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oninbo, that irrepressible devourer of bugs from hell, is back for more adventures. Bugs from Hell reside in the souls of those who have undergone extreme trauma, and so Oninbo works for the public good, entering via the eyes or ears of the afflicted to devour the creatures that could be the result of over-demanding parents or the shock of seeing a neighbor murder his wife.

In Oninbo Vol !, our hero faced off with a rival. Mamushinbo, and in this second volume there is a girl demon named Himembo. This time around, all three learn the value of cooperation when faced with unusually large, fierce bugs or other situations that require a Three Musketeers approach for a successful resolution.

This is Hino at his best, surrounding sympathetic characters with the most outrageous images of gore imaginable, concocting the perfect kid's story that most parents must hate to find their kids reading. When I was twelve years old, I could have dwelled for hours on the image of the bulging eyed, fanged caterpillar spitting venom from its furry proboscis, turinng the page only to ejoy again the transformation of gentle Nakamura into a reptilian monstrosity that says "Hi There!" to her victims.

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Friday, July 8, 2011


The Bug Boy (Hino Horror, 2)The Bug Boy by Hideshi Hino
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

On the title page of The Bug Boy, we read, "This is the sad and horrifying tale of a boy with a terrible affliction."

That pretty much says it all.

Little Sanpei is another of Hino's wimpy protagonists with Peter Lorre eyes, shunned by schoolmates and even his family because of his fascination with bugs. You can't help but feel they have a point. Sanpei is also fond of runaway dogs, cats, wounded birds, and the like, but bugs are his passion. Then one day he is bitten by a strange, red caterpillar. He gets sick. He starts to stink up the family house. His family is too ashamed to deal with this in any logical manner. Sanpei dies, but from his mummified corpse he is reborn as, you guessed it, Bug Boy.

Now that he is a slug the size of a ten-year-old, he is shunned by family and his managerie of outcast animals. He has a rough go of it in the sewers of Tokyo, until he discovers that the bright red barb on his tail is lethal. This leads to a satisfying period of payback, but he is wounded and hounded back into the sewers.

This is Kafka filtered through J-Horror, with an end somewhat reminiscent of Jack Arnold's The Incredible Shrinking Man. The badly wounded Sanpei drifts out of the sewers, into the ocean, and toward the sunset, a part of nature at last.

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Thursday, July 7, 2011


The InsurgentThe Insurgent by Noah Cicero
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For Christ's sake! Quit whining and Grow UP!

Wait a second. That's too harsh. I sound like an assistant high school principal, But perhaps one of Cicero's intentions is to needle older readers into reacting like assistant high school principals. The younger demographic that is Cicero's own seems to eat this stuff up.

The allusion to assistant high school principals aside, this is not a YA novel. The characters are blue collar twenty-nothings --high school graduates, off-and-on college students, preternaturally well read, and working dead end jobs in Youngstown, Ohio. The two protagonists are immigrants. Vasily, shot in the leg as a five year old tossed over the Berlin Wall. Chang, who at five was tossed into the shit pile by his older brother on the ship bringing Chinese illegals to this country. Chang now lives off the SSI checks he receives for being crazy. He bathes obsessively to remove the shit odor from his body. Vasily washes dishes. They feel shut off from the American dream.

Cicero's style, and it took every fiber of my being neither to italicize nor put style in quotes, is to string together one line paragraphs with dialogue, a technique that if nothing else keeps the pages turning.

Our heros find a bag full of oxys in a strip club men's room and plan to sell them, make some cash, and take off for the West. The plan goes surprisingly well, and the last part of the book takes them for a downbeat road trip.  There are funny moments, but overall this is a novel done in by its dreadful earnestness -- or was that the Asst VP in me missing something.

I remember Brett Easton Ellis 30 years ago.

Perhaps this is Cicero's ho-hum Less Than Zero, and a much more promising, blue-collar American Psycho will be breaking out the surgical equipment and revving up the chain saw down the road a ways.

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