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

Monday, May 30, 2011


We Can Build YouWe Can Build You by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

PKD always said that he wrote with his fingers. For a decade or so he wrote with his fingers on speed.  He would get an outline together, then sit himself at the typewriter and let it flow. He wrote this novel in 1962, his annus mirabilis during which he completed 12 novels. This is the most "stream of conscious" novel of his that I have read. Not in the sense that he is creating characters who share their interior monologues. The interior monologue is all Phil's, partially put into the mind of his first person narrator, but mostly spilling out in a direct current from his brain to his fingers to the page.

We Can Build You takes place in the distant future of the 1980's. (PKD seldom bothered setting stories far enough into the future that any of the scientific marvels he works into his plots might be even vaguely possible.) Louis Rosen works for Maury Rock in a shady sales business. They run ads in small-town newspapers announcing the local repossession of a piano or electronic organ, and they are ready to make a deal if it saves shipping. They do pretty well, having survived one Better Business Bureau investigation, but business is drying up. Maury and his engineer have decided instead to go into the simulacra business, creating human simulacra so lifelike they easily pass as the real McCoy, or in this case the real Edwin M. Stanton, Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of State. They have Lincoln himself in the works.

One quarter of the American population is schizophrenic and spends time in government-run facilities. A small number of citizens are radiation mutants -- Louis's younger brother has his face upside down on his head. Thomas C. Barrow is an entrepreneur who needs to unload some lunar real estate. Pris is a beautiful, recovering schizophrenic and Maury's daughter. Louis's love of Pris is driving him insane.

That's about it. Scene after scene is outrageous but seldom very funny. Perhaps because the narrator is so driven, there is never any distance from the action. Take a scene where Louis is getting legal advice from Abraham Lincoln in a San Francisco nightclub while Earl Grant performs onstage. That's funny when you think about it.

I can imagine some French critic has described We Can Build You as a meditation on what it means to be human, which I suppose it is. But I have a different idea. Think of it as a ride on a roller coaster that consists of nothing but that first, breathtaking plunge.

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Sunday, May 29, 2011


Uzumaki, Volume 1Uzumaki, Volume 1 by Junji Ito
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I became aware of Uzumaki several years ago when the film version (2000, dir. Higuchinsky) made its way onto my Netflix queue. HIguchinsky is a Ukrainian born Japanese director of music videos who has not made a feature since 2003.Uzumaki tells the story of a remote mountainside Japanese village, accessible only by a long tunnel cut through the mountain, where the inhabitants fall under the spell of Spirals. That probably doesn't have you shaking in your boots, but the sheer weirdness of the concept, and the way in which it unfolds, does have its unsettling moments. I guess this is a spoiler, but when the teenage characters finally decide to flee the village, which I would have done about the time one of my classmates showed up secreting snail slime and  climbing up the wall, when these kids get in the car to make their escape, the last line of the film is, "There is no light at the end of the tunnel."

Like so many of these films, Uzumaki started its career as a manga series, eventually collected into three volumes. Although the situations are as bizarre as those of the film it inspired, it can never be as unsettling as its cinematic counterpart. In the graphic format, the visceral extravagance of Hideshi Hino is much more effective than Ito's atmospherics. The young protagonists watch their parents and classmates go mad in the most bizarre ways, but they stay on, going to their school and sharing meals with their deranged families. Of course, if they were to leave, there would be no story, and as I learned from the film, there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

The local library had only the Uzumaki Vol. 1, so if I want to proceed it is either interlibrary loan or Amazon secondhand.

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Friday, May 27, 2011


Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual HumorRationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humor by Gershon Legman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For years I had the old, mass-market paperback copy of this book on my shelf. It was ugly, blue, overstuffed for its format with tiny print and margins that disappeared into the seam. Generally, except for its subject matter, it was uninviting. When I saw this trade paperback reprint, with decent type and margins, I thought it would be a good chance to finally settle down and enjoy this classic intellectual tour of off-color humor.

For some reason I had never picked up on the fact that Gershon Legman was a crank. The book is unreadable cover-to-cover, but the jokes themselves are set off by italics so you can skim for those. Legman's commentary, on the other hand, alternates from the smugly academic to the downright snide Question: For which of the following groups does Legman show the most disdain? Hippies, Women, or The Negro? I'd have to go with women. His Freudian emphasis on penis envy may be a little out of date, but the disgust he feels for everything from equal rights to short haircuts could only come from the mind of someone at sea in the world of the 1960's, the time when the book first appeared.

Most of the insights he has on humor come straight from Freud's Jokes and their Relation to the Uncouncious. The only thing his book has over Freud's is the hundreds of categorized dirty jokes and his own sometime amusing but often repulsive social attitudes. It turns out there is a second volume I didn't know about, but since I knew most of the jokes in this first volume I do not thing reading further would add much to my repertoire.

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Thursday, May 26, 2011


Small CrimesSmall Crimes by Dave Zeltserman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Guy gets out on parole, returns to his small, Vermont hometown, and doesn't want any trouble. Of course seven years before he was a crooked cop, cocaine addict, compulsive gambler, and he stabbed the local D.A. thirteen times in the face with a letter opener. He did a lot of reading in prison, but apparently he didn't make to You Can't Go Home Again. And how do you get paroled after seven years in County Jail when you've stabbed the D.A. thirteen times in the face with a letter opener? How do you get time in County Jail for that matter.? This is a story of corruption.

Joe Denton is the perfect unreliable narrator. He really doesn't want any of this to be happening, and he thinks of himself as a fundamentally good person. You would think that the fact his parents don't want him in their house would clue him in that others do not have so generous a view of him. Only a few hours into his parole Joe is told he can murder either one of two people if he wants to stay alive himself. And that he has three days to payback a $30,000 gambling debt. (He's getting a break on the interest.)

The novel takes place in four days, and it is compulsively readable. The portrait of corruption is convincing and there is only one coincidence, which I guess is permissible even if it is of Dickensian proportions.  Zeltserman also uses a narrative trick at the end familiar to readers of Jim Thompson.

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Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. DickDivine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick by Lawrence Sutin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Answer the following True or False questions about the life of Philip K. Dick.

1) PKD's twin sister, Jane, died in the first months of her life from malnutrition and poor home care.

2) Later in life, PDK liked to imagine that his sister was living and a lesbian.

3) In high school, PKD's agoraphobia was at times so bad that he could not go to public events such as concerts. Later he was comfortable in only one Chinese restaurant that had very high sides to its booths.

4) PKS was on amphetamines from the mid 1950's until around 1972. Some were prescribed, but as the drug scene took off in the 1960's, he also bought speed off the street.

5) When he was a young man, his mother told him that if he left home he would become a homosexual.

6) PKD's first wife was also the first woman he had sex with. The marriage lasted six months and Jeanette, the wife, said in court that Phil's record playing kept her up at night.

7) PKD was married five times, towards the end to women who were barely half his age.

8) Between 1953 and 1957, PKD wrote 14 novels. Between 1963 and 1964 he wrote 11.

9) PKD wrote The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch while tripping on acid.

10) PKD stole pills from his mother and blamed her for not keeping them under lock and key.

11) While trying to live in Canada, PKD felt a mental collapse coming on and pretended to be a heroin addict to get into the only treatment program he could find. He did not like the people he met there.

12) When PKD's house was broken into, ransacked, and burgled the police were not able to solve the case. They considered PKD to be their most likely suspect.

13) When PKD and his wife were investigated by the FBI, his wife fixed dinner for the agents and one agent taught PKD how to drive.

14) In February, 1974, PKD had an impacted wisdom tooth removed and sodium pentathol was used. Later that day, a girl from the drugstore who was delivering Darvon wore an icthus, the Christian fish symbol. When it caught the light, and PKD stared at it, he realized for the first time that he was an immortal being. For the remainder of his life he had visions of the divine and conversations with a divine presence he named VALIS,

15) PKD's spiritual visions, and many of his other character traits, are common symptoms of temporal lobe epilepsy.

Only number (9) is false. According to his biographer Lawrence Sutin, all the rest are true.

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Friday, May 20, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: THE PRONE GUNMAN by Jean-Patrick Manchette

The Prone Gunman (City Lights Noir)The Prone Gunman by Jean-Patrick Manchette
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Martin Terrier is a hit man ready to get out of the business. Yes, we have been here before. But Manchette's brief novel is a lean, mean piece of writing with a fascinating central character who has killer instincts but in so many ways just isn't very bright. The body count is high, and after each killing you know exactly where the brain matter has ended up -- on the wall, in an ear, etc. Manchette also never skips the detail that a bullet or a piece of fireplace equipment in the lung causes the victim to spit foamy blood.

Manchette, who was French, wrote his crime novels in the 1980's, and much is made in his bio of his participation in the events of 1968, his left-leaning politics, and closeness to Guy Debord. I didn't see much evidence of any of this while the action and killing moved rapidly from Paris to the west coast of France, but as the story was resolved you get an image of Terrier as the pawn in a game of power that he will not be able to defeat. (He is, after all, named after a small dog.)

Two other Manchette novels have made it into English translation. They are definitely on the to read list.

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Monday, May 16, 2011


Oninbo and the Bugs from Hell (Hino Horror, 3)Oninbo and the Bugs from Hell by Hideshi Hino
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oninbo is a little boy demon with Peter Lorre eyes. When he laughs he says, "tee hee." His purpose is to devour the bugs from hell that infest the souls of individuals who have suffered and repressed great trauma or guilt, or have had the misfortune to run foul of some ghost. Once Oninbo sniffs one out, he follows the infected person home and hides in the attic. The bug must reach a certain size before it is ready for him to eat. To check on the bug's growth, and to discover why the person is infected, Oninbo waits until the victim is asleep and then makes himself tiny enough to either crawl into their ear or swim into their eye socket.  When he finds the bug he can see the reason for the infestation, and if the bug is large enough he gets excited and sings a little song. Once he sucks the bug out and gobbles it down, the previously infected person, along with parents or spouses, naturally wonder who this creepy little kid is. Oninbo disappears into the night. tee hee.

Oninbo has an enemy named Mamushinbo.

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Sunday, May 15, 2011


Black Cat (Hino Horror, Book 6) (Hino Horror)Black Cat (Hino Horror, Book 6) by Hideshi Hino
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is Hino's suavest narrator. A black cat, left behind when families adopt his adorable white and calico brothers, sets out to study human beings He finds several grotesque examples, the most striking among them a violent and profane elderly couple whose antipathy extends beyond the grave. At the end the black cat ponders "Human beings. What are they really?" For a Hino manga, there is a surprising absence of maggots and rotting corpses.

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Saturday, May 14, 2011


The Collection (Hino Horror)The Collection by Hideshi Hino
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An adult Hideshi Hino, with the wide eyes common to manga characters placed onto a slender, slightly cadaverous head, narrates these gleefully gruesome tales of his cursed family. HIdeshi is the loser chubby kid, bullied at school and mocked for wanting to draw geeky manga. But in fact he is simply chronicling his home life, a life where his sickly sister is consumed by the red flesh worm inside her, his grandmother lays an egg, and the pustules on this grandfather's body  release a creature that causes the family to grow increasingly violent and insane.

Surrounded by industrial sites that spew pollution into the air and water, HIdeshi spends his time by a trash-filled river  the color or "rich diarrhea." (I'd love to know the exact Japanese phrase that prompts that translation.) He is even more delighted when he discovers the sewers themselves. They prove a treasure trove for his growing collection of oddities he keeps in large specimen bottles. HIs parents abuse him, he tortures small animals, and in what must be Hino's definitive double-page image he rejoices over a landscape of dead pets and sludge, waving his arms and crying out "This is hell! Beautiful hell! Paradise in hell!."

I am surprised at how much I enjoy these things, although I am also glad I am not the parent of a twelve-year-old who is reading them. American horror comics, predating these by a several decades, followed formats from hard-boiled fiction and dealt with sin and retribution, with main characters usually reduced to quivering states of abject horror as they saw their comeuppance bearing down on them. With HIno primiitve desires are given free range and revenge is for the most part guilt-free. Several episodes end with a parody of the Warner Bros, "That's all folks" exit line from Looney Toon Cartoons. Little Hideshi, after a childhood of torture and grotesque horror, grows up to be a successful artist -- one who really knows how to draw a maggot-infested corpse.

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Friday, May 13, 2011


The Art of Hideshi HinoThe Art of Hideshi Hino by Hideshi Hino
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thought this would be a meaty introduction to the work of horror manga master Hideshi Hino. Turns out it is a slender tome, mostly full-page color variations on his manga images with three stories added at the back. I discovered Hideshi through his Theater of Horror short films available through Netflix. I was surprised by the tepid to negative viewer reviews. I found them genuinely creepy and oddly touching, either very original in content or inventive re-workings of familiar themes.. His drawings here show his fascination with corrupting corpses, maggots, and other images with a high yuck factor. I suppose they thrill and gross out Japanese 12-year-olds. But the stories in the back are excellent. They have the feel of Japanese folk tales with a J-horror edge, a genre Hideshi had made his own a decade or more before films like The Ring and Ju-on hit the market and defined a genre. I now have 11 of his manga collections from the library, and yes, the woman who usually checks me out looked at me funny when I came to pick them up.

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Sunday, May 8, 2011


The last and greatest cause of this malady is our own conscience, sense of our sins, and God's anger justly deserved, a guilty conscience for some foul offence formerly committed. "A good conscience is a continual feast," but a galled conscience is as great a torment as can possibly happen, a still-baking oven, another hell. Our conscience, which is a great ledger-book, wherein are written all our offences, a register to lay them up (which those Egyptians in their hieroglyphics expressed by a mill, as well as for the continuance as for the torture of it), grinds out souls with the remembrance of some precedent sins, makes us reflect upon, accuse and condemn our own selves...I know there be many other causes assigned by Zanchius, Musculus, and the rest; as incredulity, infidelity, presumption, ignorance, blindness, ingratitude, discontent, those five grand miseries in Aristotle, ignominy, need, sickness, enmity, death, etc.; but this of conscience is the greatest, torturing the body like an ulcer ...
Robert  Burton,  The Anatomy of Melancholy

Thursday, May 5, 2011


Swamplandia!Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In 1932 an Ohio farmer named Ernest Schedrach was sold a bill of goods. He bought one hundred acres of Florida farmland, moved his wife and son south, and discovered that most of his new property was under several feet of water. But the Schadrach's reinvented themselves as the Bigtree clan, Indians of undetermined heritage, and opened Swamplandia!, for years the number one gator-themed attraction in Southern Florida.

Not quite one hundred pages into Swamplandia!, I felt that I, too, had been sold a bill of goods. I had read some good things about Karen Russell's novel, and the first chapter available on Amazon was engaging and promised an enjoyable read. But the pleasures of Russell's quirky prose wear thin, and the Bigtree family's loose grasp on reality is more frustrating than intriguing. A visit from Child Protective Services would have really changed this family's situation.

After the death of his wife and the unavoidable reality of the ultimate loss of Swamplandia!, dad goes on a business trip and leaves the island in the hands of his son Kiwi and two daughers, Osceola and Ava, ages 16, 15, and 13 respectively. Kiwi decamps for the mainland; Osceola spends most of her time with ghosts, one of whom promises to marry her; and Kiwi, who tells the story, tries to hold things together.  Kooky characters become so tiresome. I preferred the broad comedy of Kiwi's adventures on the mainland more than the mix of magic realism and Southern gothic that unfolded on the island. And there is an incident so horrible, one that the reader must see coming for so many pages, that it throws the story off balance. And while I have no argument with happy endings, there is a chirpiness to Russell's conclusion that seems like an easy out for the author.

Many people love this book, but once I started reading it and looked more deeply into reader reviews I saw that the responses were more divided than I initially believed. Maybe it's a guy thing, but if Kiwi had not been in the story, I would not have waded through it.

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Tuesday, May 3, 2011


Under the mask of humor, our society allows infinite aggressions, by everyone and against everyone. In the culminating laugh by the witness or observer -- whose position is also really that of victim or butt -- the teller of the joke betrays his hidden hostility and signals his victory by being theoretically at least, the one person present who does not laugh.

G. Legman, The  Rationale of the Dirty Joke 


Sunday, May 1, 2011


MetaplanetaryMetaplanetary by Tony Daniel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I hate cliffhangers. I don't mind them on TV series when I am watching the whole thing on DVD and can go straight to the next season. But even though I knew Metaplanetary was the first of a two part series, I expected some resolution at the end that would set the stage for what comes next. (For instance, I read Red Mars and was totally satisfied with "the story so far,"  and I may well read Mars Green and Blue because I know they will take the saga of colonization into new levels. Metaplanetary turns out to be a 437 page build up to another 500 page novel. Lots of things blow up, but no character arcs are resolved and ready to develop in new directions. In fact, characters who appear to be "major" disappear for 200 pages, and plot threads that on one level promised to drive the story get dropped until the last few pages where they reappear as welcome reminders, at least for me, because I had more or less forgotten them.

What is fully realized in Daniel's novel is the world humans inhabit in the year 3000. Human beings now come in three parts. There is the aspect, which is you with all the squishy parts inside. Your convert is an algorithmic version of yourself that can take care of business in the virtuality. And the pellicle mediates between aspect and convert. Your pellicle is filled with "grist," a nanotechnological construct that allows for the immediate transfer of information wherever it exists, and since it has been dispersed essentially everywhere, you can access information and other people from anywhere. It's like you are your own iPhone. Grist is most abundant when you stay within the Met, a system of space cables that connect the inner planets and house most of the human population. Beyond the asteroid belt are the Outer Planets, where like pioneers everywhere the population tends to be a bit pluckier and not inclined to follow orders.

(I confess I could not have written any of the above without resorting to the Appendixes that come at the end of Superluminal, the second book in the series. Their presence there suggests that the author thought readers might need a refresher course after the three years that separated the publications. I could have used it very 20 pages or so in the first novel alone.)

And then there is the plot. The solar system is about to enter a Civil War. --Wait, maybe I should mention the other human options that include Cloudships, humans who have transformed themselves into moon-sized spacecraft and float around beyond Pluto, and Free Converts, artificial intelligences that have never had a bodily source. It is the status of Free Converts that provides one excuse for the upcoming war, which of course is really just a power grab by one Ames, ex-musician turned ruler of the Met and who has his eye on the entire solar systems. Ames had an abusive childhood and as an adolescent masturbated while sticking splinters under his fingernails. Just the type to someday want to control the solar system.

Having spent the last year or so reading mostly mid-century sf, Metaplanetary made me realize how little real action there had been in most of the books I read. As Philip K. Dick suggests, a science fiction story should ask a "what if?" question and then pursue it to its end, which is what people were doing between 1950 and 1970. Metaplanetary is a post Star Wars novel, filled with chases, battles, and narrow escapes. It's fun while it lasts, but I don't want to have read another 500 pages to find out what happens. But  maybe that's what readers like now. After all, it took six films to tell the Star Wars story. The fact that they got progressively worse does not bode well for all the multi-volume sf that is currently on the the market.

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