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, June 29, 2011


The Wings of the Dove (The Modern Library Classics)The Wings of the Dove by Henry James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first Henry James novel I have read in a decade. I  felt out of practice -- weak and flabby. It is also part of the last triumvirate of novels where his late, most oblique style is in full force. So I confess, at times I would finish one of those two-page paragraphs and not be quite sure who had decided what or what they were going to do about it.

During one dinner party scene -- I almost wrote during "one inevitable dinner party scene"-- I found myself wondering how people could be so involved in nuance and the minutiae of social maneuvering. Then a few nights later I was at a meeting of a non-profit organization I work with and realized that I was caught up in the low-comedy version of the same sort of thing. Breaking News! Henry James Relevant Today!

To sum up:

Mrs. Lowder -- a low-key version of one of James's great social tyrants.

Kate Croy -- she knew what she wanted even if I was never completely clear on that topic

Merton Densher -- maybe the closest James ever came to writing about a boy toy

Millie Theale -- the young, fantastically wealthy American heiress wit the vaguely defined but fatal disease.

I now look forward to the sexed-up film version that came out several years ago, and, yes, I look forward to getting back into the Jamesian habit.

View all my reviews      

Friday, June 24, 2011


Orochi: BloodOrochi: Blood by Kazuo Umezu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Masters of the Horror Manga keep coming out of the woodwork. First there was Hideshi Hino -- master of the horror manga -- with his strangely sweet gorefests. Then the genuinely creepy Uzumaki by Jinjo Ito -- master of the horror manga. And now along comes Kazuo Umezu, you guessed it, the Master of the Horror Manga.

As much as I have enjoyed the others, I might have to go with Umezu. This starts out as a typical good sister/bad sister story, set in a mansion so large there are rooms no one has ever explored. When it seems that bad sister may be planning good sister's death, out from behind a curtain steps another little girl. She too lives in the house, but no one is aware of her. She watches the family but is basically helpless to intervene. Twenty years pass, the sisters marry, still Orochi, the kid from behind the curtain, travels back and forth between them to watch their disintegrating marriages.

But Orochi gets sleepy and may sleep for a century. She doesn't, and then things get really strange.

Umezu designs better pages than Hino or Ito, and tells a pretty scary story without a lot of shock effects. This is of course part of a series, which implies that perhaps Orochi's first entrance from behind the curtain is not so unexpected to Umezu's devoted followers.

View all my reviews       

Thursday, June 23, 2011


A Brief Encyclopedia of Modern MagicA Brief Encyclopedia of Modern Magic by Michael Stewart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Stewart's A Brief History of Modern Magic is less a chapbook than it is a pamphlet, the size of those still found racked in the foyers of Baptist church's. It might be fun to slip a few of these into the racks in Baptist churches.

In thirty pages Stewart presents brief biographies of imaginary magicians, a guide to some of the language of magic, and a series of Tricks You Can Do At Home. Don't try them. The instructions for cutting a woman in half are fairly straightforward, "..the trick," Stewart says, "is in putting her back together."

When possible, Stewart gives the birth and death dates of his magicians. Some practiced in the late 19th and early 20th century, other may still be practicing now. Sometimes the information is incomplete: Jones, William (1938 - soon?) A few have intersecting lives, and they all exist on the shadier side of show business. Some may have been capable of genuine magic, but then there is Rhodes, Tammy (1906 - 1984) "Skill, unfortunately, is not among the requirements to become a magician. Tammy is perhaps the best example of this."

Photographs that could be lifted from a mid 20th century magician's manual illustrate the text, and Stewart's prose never strays from the tone you'd expect in a layman's book on this subject. It's just that every so often what he has to say is so outrageous. He even has one of his imaginary magicians, now a dissappointed failure who plays bridge with his wife, contribute the prologue.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


p. 3 Tokens: in modern parlance, cutaneous lesions resulting from subcutaneous haemorrhaging, a common plague symptom. Defoe owned a copy of Kephale's Medela Pestilentia, which says they were otherwise known as 'God's Tokens.' ...

p.6 Spotted Fever: a "politic word" for the plague...

     Apprehensions...Summer being at Hand: from Hippocrates descended the idea of a special relationship between climate or seasons and disease. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the prevailing view was the plague originated in hot climates, flourished in the heat of summer, and abated in the cold of winter...

p. 15 hardly anything of Reformation: observing the King and his courtiers at Oxford during the Plague, Anthony Wood noted in his diary: "The greater part of the courtiers were high, proud, insolent...To give a further character of the court, they thought they were neat and gay in their apparell, yet they were nasty and beastly...Rude, rough, whoremongers; vain, empty, careless."

p. 18 a blazing star or comet: in mid-December 1664, and early April 1665, the appearance of comets over London were related to plague in popular literature and scientific discussions....

p. 20 run about Naked: ... The literature of Quakerism contains many instances of the practice of "testifying by signs." London, as the new Babylon, was often the subject of prophetic doom. Defoe had in mind the notorious case of Solomon Eagles (or Eccles), a musician and convert to Quakerism who "as a sign" ran naked through Bartholomew Fair at Smithfield with a pan of fire or brimstone on his head, crying "repentance" and "remember Sodom." But that incident took place in 1662.

p. 29 amulets: widely recommended and widely disapproved in the seventeenth century, they had the authority of Andre Pare ('a sachet of some poison over the heart') and Van Helmont, whose use of a toad for the purpose was respectfully mentioned and imitated..."Those who use Toads either bore a hole through their heads, and so hang them about their Necks, or make Troches of them."...

p. 29 Dead-Carts: the bearers who collected the bodies of the dead in carts or barrows, obviously not the most squeamish of men, were the objects of constant criticism in times of plague for their callousness.

p. 35 Searchers: ...The custom of appointing "ancient women" to be searchers, whose function in times of plague was to seek out the dead and report the cause of death to parish clerks, was strongly criticized...

p. 36 Botch, or Purple:  physicians and writers on the plague attempted to distinguish the external manifestations of the malady. The various spot, swellings, tumours were called tokens, botches, carbuncles, buboes, or blains. Kemp's Brief Treatise describes the botch as "a swelling about the bigness of a nutmeg, Wallnut, or Hen's Egge, and cometh in the neck, or behind the Eares if the Brain be affected; or under the Arm-pits, from the Heart; or in the Groin, from the liver; for the cure whereof, pull off the feathers from the Rump of a Cock, Hen, or Pigeon, and rub the Tayl with Salt, and hold its Bill, and set the Tayl hard to the swelling, and it will die."

p. 39 a red Rod or Wand: the earliest surviving English plague orders (1543) require that an infected person or anyone in contact with an infected person carry a white wand in his hand. In subsequent orders the wand continued to be required, sometimes white, sometimes red...

p. 64 conveyed by the fatal Breath: ..."one cause of the sickness is the Corruption and Infection of the Air; for when the Plague begins to raign in any Place...the Sick continually not only breathe out of their Mouths, but send out of their Bodies steams and vapours, which being disperst and scattered in the Air, are soon drawn in by the breath of others..."

p. 65 immediate Stroke from Heaven: the wrath of God theory was a venerable one...

p. 78 Garlick and Rue: in addition to these, other herbs, spices, barks, flowers and seeds were recommended: aloes, amber, ambergris, angelica, balm, bay leaves, benjamin, campana roots, camphor, cinnamon, citrine sanderes, cloves, emula, frankincense, gentian, hyssop, juniper, lavender, mace, marjoram, mint, musk, myrrh, nutmeg, origanum, penny royal, rosemary, saffron, sage, sassafras, sorax, tansy, thyme, wormwood....

p. 105 kill all the Dogs and Cats: the plague orders regularly called for the destruction of domestic animals...

p. 165 Air...corrupted and  infected: here...Defoe views the plague from the vantage of a contagionist rather a miasmatist...The miasmatist conception was well stated by Boghurst: "...The Plague or Pestilence is a most subtle, peculiar, insinuating, venomous, deleterious Exhalation of the Foeces of the Earth extracted into the Aire by the heat of the sun, and difflated from place to place by the winds, and most tymes gradually but sometymes immediately aggressing apt bodies."

p. 195 People...flock'd to Town: "And a delightfull thing it is to see the towne full of people again as now it is; and shops begin to open, though in many places seven or eight together, and more, all shut; and yet the towne is full compared to what it used to be. (Pepys, Diary, 5 Jan.  1665-6)...

p. 204 Wine: an antidote of hoary respectability...

Selected from the endotes to
A Journal of the Plague Year, by Daniel Defoe
Oxford World Classics,  Edited with notes by Louis Landa

Sunday, June 19, 2011


This would be, precisely, on the subject of that freedom, which she now quickly spoke of as complete. "That's of course by itself a great boon; so please don't think I don't know it. I can do exactly what I like -- anything in the wide world. I haven't a creature to ask -- there's not a finger to stop me. I can shake about till I'm black and blue. That perhaps isn't all joy, but lots of people, I know, would like to try it." He appeared about to put a question, but then had let her go on, which she promptly did, for she understood him the next moment as having taken it from her that her means were as great as might be. She had simply given it to him, so this was all that would ever pass between them on the odious head...All her little pieces had now fallen together for him like the morsels of coloured glass that used to make combinations, under the hand, in the depths of one of the polygonal peepshows of childhood.

Henry James,  The Wings of the Dove

(For Mr. James's further thoughts on Ms Hilton, follow the labels below.)

Friday, June 17, 2011


A Goddess in the Stones: Travels in IndiaA Goddess in the Stones: Travels in India by Norman Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I travelled to India about three years ago, and naturally bought up more books than I could possibly read before the trip. I was looking at them the other day and decided on this one both for subject and a chance to read my first Norman Lewis book. He's a writer Graham Greene described as one of the best writers of any century. They were probably friends, but that is still taking a very strong position.

A Goddess in the Stones made me realize just how safely tourist-oriented our trip through Delhi and Rajasthan had been. Lewis is traveling the eastern states just over a decade before our trip to the northwest, but he enters an area of political unrest with the express purpose of encountering as many of the pre-Aryan tribal groups as possible. The other tourists he encounters are mostly Indians attending pilgrimage sites, and the villages he visits are living by ancient rules at odds with the advancing, economic miracle of modern India.

There is throughout the book the inevitable comedy of Indian bureaucracy and the perils of Indian driving, all of which is amusing in retrospect -- assuming you have survived the highways. Many don't. In Delhi there is an average of one vehicular death per day, and Lewis sees lorries piled onto one another in crevasses along the more mountainous highways he travels,  On our trip we saw poverty and maimed beggars, but it is shocking to read that in 1990, Lewis sees people dying on the streets of Calcutta. He also reads reports of uninvestigated "dowery killings" by new husbands dissatisfied with the financial arrangements of their marriages, and he says the practice of infanticide is widespread enough to noticeably alter the ratio of young boys to girls.

The tribes Lewis visits, accompanied by a driver and a translator, inhabit an India still unknown even to most  Indians. Tribals are considered backwards and with suspicion by those who call themselves "normal people." Yet the tribes live is caste-free societies where women have greater standing than almost anywhere else on the continent, and their egalitarian societies often render the moot the concept of poverty. They also drink enormous amounts of alcohol, men, women, and in some cases children spending most of the free time mildly or wildly drunk; and, one tribe, the Bondas, have prickly tempers that often lead to homicide. The governments efforts to modernize tribal cultures have been misguided and disastrous.

Lewis is an subtle but incisive observer who brings in historical background to his contemporary scenes and deftly draws the characters of whomever he meets, ranging from his interpreter to businessmen and hotel staff. He knows the tribal life is certain to vanish even more completely than it already has. The concepts of "jobs" and "money" are largely meaningless to the tribals. Mining and lumber operations will destroy homelands, bring jobs, and introduce money. Given the rate of industrialization in India, just twenty years later the journey Lewis took may no longer be possible.

View all my reviews   

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


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

Things have gone from bad to worse in the fog-bound  Kurozu-cho, the Japanese city cursed by the Spiral -- yes that seemingly inoffensive pattern that is literally twisting the lives of these unfortunate citizens all out of shape. A sense that something is wrong in Kurozu-cho has reached the outside world, but aid workers are either caught up in whirlwinds or sunk in maelstroms. Those that make it through find themselves trapped as well.

This is Vol. 3 of Ito's manga. I read the first volume and couldn't find a copy of the second, but I can't imagine that whatever weirdness takes place in between can come close to the apocalyptic visions of the finale. All modern construction in Kurozu-cho has been destroyed by whirlwinds that arise from the slightest movements or sounds the inhabitants make. Thuggish kids older lowlifes have learned to ride the whirlwinds and direct them toward their old schools and the civic buildings. Watching all this, even the nice boy who is one our heros can't help but comment, "Hmm, looks like fun." The only buildings not affected by the whirlwinds are the oldest, wooden row houses scattered through the city. But as citizens cram into them for safety, you learn a new and disgusting connotation for the idea of social entanglements.

Question: Is it cannibalism if your neighbors have turned into giant snails? Or does it come down to just the issue of roasted or raw?

The cosmic finale is more about resignation than transcendence, although the latter does play a role. It would take Hollywood to give this one a happy ending.

View all my reviews    

Friday, June 10, 2011


[She] had in a sublime degree a sense closed to the general question of difficulty, which she got rid of furthermore not in the least as one had seen many charming persons do, by merely passing it on to others. She kept it completely at a distance: it never entered the circle; the most plaintive confident couldn't have dragged it in; and to tread the path of a confident was to accordingly live exempt. Service was so easy to render that the whole thing was like court life without the hardships. It came back of course to the question of prevailed even as the truth of truths that the girl couldn't get away from her wealth...She couldn't dress it away; she could neither smile it away in any dreamy absence nor blow it away in any softened sigh. She couldn't have lost it if she had tried -- that was what it was to be really rich. It had to be the thing you were.

Henry  James,  The Wings of the Dove

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


The Dreaming JewelsThe Dreaming Jewels by Theodore Sturgeon
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don't know enough about Sturgeon's writing to know if he realized just how weird this story is. As its central plot device, an eight-year-boy passes himself off as a female midget for ten years. Although an explanation is later offered, fantastic but in keeping with the story, nothing is made of this by those who are in on the deception.

The setting is a traveling carnival. The jewels are beings that fall from space with great regularity but disappear into earth's landscape. They are living beings who pass their lives unnoticed by humans, and yet are capable of affecting our lives in amazing ways. This is a good conceit, but Sturgeon literally talks it to death. Whenever an aspect of the story needs to be explained, you can expect several pages of dialog doing just that. And it's not very good dialog. It's awkward and stagey. The staginess works best with his villains, who are either ghoulish or sleazebags.

A film like Eyes Without a Face takes absurd, melodramatic elements and encloses them in its own, hermetically sealed world. If the writing had been better, and the story better told -- I guess, in other words, if it had been a better book -- The Dreaming Jewels could have achieved a similar effect.

View all my reviews 

Sunday, June 5, 2011


The HieroglyphicsThe Hieroglyphics by Michael Stewart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Harapollo Niliacus wrote his interpretations of Egyptian hieroglyphics during the fifth century CE. Some commentators think Harapollo might have been a pagan holdout in a rapidly Christianizing world, but in any event he knew very little about hieroglyphics. He ascribed moralizing meanings to the images, a practice that would remain popular into the Renaissance. You can read his work on the internet.

Michael Stewart has taken Harapollo's organization and his fallacious interpretations and entered into a dialog with the ancient writer. Stewart covers the seventy glyphs described in Harapollo's Book I, borrowing freely from the original text, bringing in semi-historical elements from the Old Testament, and creating an elliptical vision of his own society with its rituals, philosophy, and mores. The result is mesmerizing, most often hovering on the verge of revelations that would bring sharper focus to the place where Stewart has deposited us. The language is as matter-of-fact as dictionary entries, with an occasional, effective jolt of obscenity.

I usually hate it when reviewers say they look forward to "going back to [insert title here] frequently," because I never see much sense to that. But I had to go back to Hieroglyphics just to write the short review and enjoyed the experience. Rereading the book piecemeal, or even front to back, is not going to reveal some secret key to its meaning, but Stewart's world, wherever and whenever it is, remains a good place to poke around.

View all my reviews 

Friday, June 3, 2011


Slow Chocolate AutopsySlow Chocolate Autopsy by Iain Sinclair
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sinclair's subtitle is Incidents from the Notorious Career of Norton, Prisoner of London. "Incidents" is the apt word. The book has twelve sections, four of them graphic narratives illustrated by Dave McKean, the remarkable graphic artist who works frequently with Neal Gaiman. All twelve sections could be called stories, given how loose that category has become, but they are clearly not chapters in a novel, no matter how loosely that category might be defined. There is murder, ghosts, miserable day labor, a mysterious nighttime soccer match, and a evening with the British mid-20th century crime scene. Norton is there, whether the time is the present day or the 16th century, sometimes as a central character, at other time a more peripheral presence. Once he is glimpsed only as a laborer who leaves for lunch and never returns So yes, each section is an incident, chronologically unhinged but firmly based in a London that is both world and prison for Sinclair's characters.

Phantasmagoria were popular Victorian entertainments where magic lantern technology allowed presenters to send images of ghosts and demons careening about a dark interior. Slow Chocolate Autopsy is a type of phantasmagoria. I found I was alternately lost and exhilarated. It's best to let the images wash over you and enjoy the ride. Although it wouldn't seem possible, the final pages takes the work to a whole new level of unexpected strangeness.

HIghly recommended for those whose favorite J.G.Ballard work is The Atrocity Exhibition.

View all my reviews  

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


This Shape We're InThis Shape We're In by Jonathan Lethem
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Brief and nifty. At fifty-five pages and with largish print, I think that in some other format, say The New Yorker, this would not be so much a novella as a long short story,

Perhaps the people at McSweeney's have figured something out. Is this what their readership is searching for? Books that remind them of the first "chapter books" they read in fourth grade? Do they remember their proud parents telling neighbors, "We're so pleased with Joshua. He's begun reading chapter books."

View all my reviews