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, August 30, 2011


Blackout (All Clear #1)Blackout by Connie Willis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I don't like cliffhangers. I knew this was a continuous story with All Clear, but I am not inclined to jump into another 500 page novel with these same, quite frankly, not very interesting characters and their predicament as time travelers stuck in London during The Blitz.

The opening scenes in Oxford have a madcap energy that got me all excited about what might come next. In 2060, historians have become time travelers, going back in time for firsthand information on everything from the Crusades to World War II. In Oxford, the historians are the cool kids on campus, rushing from wardrobe, to props, to research, crossing paths with coworkers and competing for slots in a crowded schedule of drops and pick-ups. There are hints, however, that something is going wrong, some glitch in the system that is causing increasingly frequent slippages in time and place. Historians find themselves arriving days earlier or later than they intended, and sometimes miles from where they expected to be.

Willis follows three main characters and a couple of minor ones, and everything would seem to be in place for a thrilling read -- Dunkirk, the Blitz, life among child evacuees. But although the situations are realistic, nothing very interesting is happening to anybody. Things are going wrong, there are injuries and confusion, and each character's drop point, which is also their retrieval point, has ceased to operate. All this mounts up to the kinds of crises you would expect to see in a British TV series available on DVD here in the states. And just like I might find myself renting the second series just to see what finally happens, I can imagine myself picking up All Clear with a combination of irritation and curiosity.

Unless All Clear turns out to be a knockout, Willis should have gotten this over in one book.

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Sunday, August 28, 2011


Paying for ItPaying for It by Chester Brown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Chester Brown's autobiographical graphic novel starts with his break up from long-term girlfriend Sook Yin Lee. They live in her apartment, and he agrees to move into the guest room so her new boyfriend can stay over and eventually move in with her. So from the start, Brown sets himself up as a sad sack, disappointed in romantic love and incapable of establishing his 30'ish-year-old self in the world.

He decides to act on his interest in buying sex, and Paying for It records the next several years of his life among call girls and escorts. HIs initial insecurity gives way to a practicality about what he wants and from whom. He learns to read the review websites that cover local prostitutes. He has his favorites, and takes in stride the indignities that go with paid sex: He calls up a favorite and learns that the phone has been disconnected. When he goes to meet a woman for the second time, a different woman, claiming the same name, answers the door. But no problem -- the woman he wants is watching soap operas in the room next door and is available. He finds the women consistently beautiful but worries sometimes about their true ages. For the first few months tipping poses a problem.

Don't think for a moment that this book is funny or sexy. Brown puts eight panels of the digest-sized pages of his book. The setting is Toronto, and the main characters walk generic streets and end up in anonymous bedrooms. The sex scenes for the most part could depict copulating noodles. Brown never shows the women's faces, but I doubt that I would even recognize him if I saw him on the street. (Actually that's not true, there is photo of him in the back of the book.)

Brown is in frequent conversation and debate with two friends, one of whom asks him the priceless question, "When you were a child did you think you would grow up to be whoremonger?" At times Brown seems willfully disingenuous.  He feels confident that none of the women he frequents have been trafficked. He accepts their stories that they are independent entrepreneurs, not being run by organized crime or pimps. He also draws no direct line between the world of the relatively high-priced call  girls he visits and prostitutes turning tricks on the street and the drugs, crime, and violence that goes with that trade, His answer for everything, explained in copious appendixes, is to legalize prostitution.

This book is not likely to change anyone's opinion on prostitution, but it is a fascinating, first-hand case study.

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Thursday, August 25, 2011


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

Is it a known tendency among Japanese pre-adolescents to opt for blood sacrifice whenever they are faced with a really serious threat? As the tiny but deadly bugs that have hatched from the eggs of the big deadly bug attack them, one group decides it is all one little boy's fault and he must die. Our hero  Sho itervenes, but the intended victim bashes his owns brains out. The bugs disappear, so maybe he was to blame after all.

Next on the agenda is bubonic plague, and the controversy rages as to whom is infected and what to do with them -- chase them away, stab them with spears, or burn them with gasoline.

This tragedy is not bringing out anyone's best qualities. I thought volume 5 dragged a bit, but there were lots of great drawings of one or more child screaming "PLAGUE!"

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Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Hodder needed a different, meaner editor for his first novel. Anywhere from 20% - 25% could go. Every incident goes on a little too long. The second half of every compound sentence could be dropped. Conversations are over before Hodder cuts them off. He never got the memo on adverbs.

This is the steampunk novel I have read, and I am not the best audience. I don't care about the gadgetry, and the gadgetry seems to be much of the attraction here. On the other hand, I am a sucker for time travel stories. That's what attracted me to Spring Heeled Jack, and Hodder does a good job with the complications caused by going back in time, although it is not hard to guess that his time traveller will end up causing all the things he attempts to prevent.

The historical characters that fill the story range from the well known -- Captain Sir Richard Burton, Algernon Swinburne, Oscar Wilde -- to more obscure players such as the founder of the Libertine Club, Richard Monckton Milnes, or Laurence Oliphant, a minor political figure and minor novelist more or less lost to history. The early chapters have to bring the readers up to date on who everyone is, and they read like a script from the History Channel, or The Alternate History Channel. Things don't really pick up until the appearance of Spring Heel Jack himself, a figures in a close fitting white suit, a black helmet surrounded by blue flames, and boots with a spring mechanism that allows to him to leap over buildings and disappear into the sky.

There are also werewolves who abduct chimney sweeps, mesmerists, and machines that were once human. All of this makes for an over-crowded but consistent plot, it just needs to get on with it and get it over with about a hundred pages before Hodder is able to wrap the whole thing up. 


Tuesday, August 16, 2011


anaideia, shamelessness.   The quality of a dog (the Greeks did not tend to praise dogs for loyalty of for being "man's best friend") and of a Cynic, who does everything publicly, without embarrassment and without care for the observers' opinions.

askesis, training, exercise   For the Cynics it entailed ascetic practices such as sleeping rough, walking barefoot everywhere, enduring heat and cold, and generally living "according to nature" without any artificial aids.

euteleia, frugality.   A Cynic virtue about which Crates wrote an encomium and to attain which Diogenes threw away his last cup.

paracharattein to nomisma, to deface the coinage.    What Diogenes' father Heccesias is reported to have done in Sinope, and what Diogenes and Cynics claimed to do metphorically: putting the coin (nomissa) of custom (nomos) out of circulation.

pera, traveler's bag or sack   Part of the Cynic's typical garb, and the name that Crates gave to his utopia, because it contains no coins but only simple, natural things.

philodoxia, love of fame or honor.   A standard charge against the Cynics...Alexander the Great was sometimes taken as the epitome of it.

pithos, storage jar   The sort of large, earthenware container (common to the ancient world) in which Diogenes as said to have lived for a time; often translated as "tub."

spoudogeloion, the serious-funny or serio-comic.   A jokey style that masks a serious intent.

typhos, literally, "smoke, vapour"   Used by the Cynics to denote the delirium of popular ideas and conventions. For the Cynics, these are insubstantial "smoke" in comparison with the self and its present experiences, which alone can be known and possessed. One Cynic goal is atyphia, complete freedom from typhos.

Excerpted from Glossary of Greek Terms 
in Cynics, by William Desmond
Univeristy of California Press, 2008

Sunday, August 14, 2011


Parasyte, Volume 1Parasyte, Volume 1 by Hitoshi Iwaaki
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Puffballs from outer space drift to earth, parasitic worms emerge, they crawl into human orifices, they take over human brains. Teenager Sinichi luckily wakes up as one tries to enter his nose. He fights it off but it burrows into  his arm. A tourniquet keeps it from traveling further, but now Sinichi has an alien for a right hand.

Unlike the murky atmosphere that pervades much horror manga, Iwaaki's story has the clean,, crisp lines appropriate to its contemporary setting, and the situations he sets up are as much about teenage anxiety as world domination by alien life forms. Sinichi's resident alien can create embarrassing situations -- in a pubic toilet it asks in a loud, clear voice, "Make you genitals erect. I wan to see them."--but it also makes Sinichi a basketball star and very able to take care of himself in a fight. It can change shape at will, and many of Iwaaki's best panels are single images of Migi, the name Sinichi gives his hand, simply pondering the peculiar world of humans.

Migi is charming but ruthless, completely amoral in its desire to for self-preservation. Meanwhile across the globe other alien-infersted humans are chowing down on family and strangers at  an alarming rate. The story becomes repetitive, but since it will run for 11 volumes there is no telling where Iwaaki will take it.

Are deeper meanings implied to this story of adolescent possession. Let's see, what organ does a fifteen-year-old boy have the least control over? His brain is probably the correct answer, but I think you get the idea.

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Saturday, August 13, 2011


The Tiger's WifeThe Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Just as there are some movies whose main purpose seems to be garnering Academy Award nominations if not the awards themselves -- The King's English is a good example of the genre -- there are some novels that must have as part of their marketing strategy their suitability for your more literate reading groups, those that are not going to be reading The Help but are unlikely to plan an intensive investigation of The Magic Mountain.

Enter Tea Obreht's The Tiger's Wife. Great backstory --  first novel by author under 30, born in Belgrade but U.S. resident since age of 12. Elegant prose style. A plot chockablock with talking points -- Balkan history, folk beliefs, magic realism, the present infused with the past. As I was reading it I received in the mail an announcement of the Spring lunch time discussion group at the Dallas Institute for the Humanities. The Tiger's Wife was first on the list.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011


The Long Tomorrow The Long Tomorrow by Leigh Brackett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

By all accounts I've read, Brackett's 1955 novel is the first, post-nuclear holocaust novel written in the U.S. It takes place around a century after what survivors call "The Destruction." Cities across the globe were bomb targets and they now exist as unvisited ruins, demonized as the symbol of the hubris that brought about the attacks. Brackett's brilliant and genuinely creepy innovation --although I guess it's not really an innovation if it is the first book of what is now a well-worked genre -- is to create a society, not unlike mid-19th century America, but where Mennonites control the government, the religion, and the ideology.


Apparently after "The Destruction," they along with the Amish and whatever Shakers and like groups were still around, proved best suited to a life without technology. Their quaint ways are suddenly in great demand, and through means Brackett never fully explains, their simple, fundamentalist faith rules most of the spiritually defeated and technophobic United States, and it has, no surprise, hardened into an ideology that is not above stoning to death those they find threatening or burning to the ground towns that threaten to grow too large or introduce to many innovations. Doesn't seem l like a fair accommodation just for all the great jams and pies they bake, or that cool, pegged furniture.

The New Mennonites are also firm believers in "Spare the rod, spoil the child," a practice that keeps most youth contained but goes against the grain of our young heros, Len Coulter and his cousin Esau. They discover a short band radio that proves the existence of the fabled city of Bartorstown, which they imagine to be a thriving, mid-twentieth century American metropolis. The "long journey" of their title is their flight from home and many years' quest for this technological utopia.

This is SF filtered through Mark Twain and Frank Norris, filled with small town types,  entrepreneurs, dangerous townsfolk, and mysterious strangers. And it all works. If many of scenes play out like those of early TV westerns, there's a good reason for that.

For years I thought Leigh Brackett was a man who wrote western screenplays for Howard Hawks, and that there was some other Leigh Brackett who wrote 1940's SF of the planet-hopping, space opera variety, back when Venus as a jungle and Mars a habitable desert. At some point I learned they were not only the same person but a woman. Despite this SF background, her first novel was a hardboiled detective story that caught the eye of Howard Hawks. He brought her to Hollywood to help William Faulkner with the famously troubled and outrageously convoluted script for The Big Sleep. She had both a successful Hollywood career and continued to publish SF. George Lucas hired her to write the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back. She died of cancer shortly after turning in the script and their continues to be discussion over whether any of her material was used by Lawrence Kasdan in the final screenplay.

Much of Leigh Brackett remains in print, but the packaging of the anthologies have too much Buck Rogers about them to tempt me. But I did read that she is the "Poetess of the Pulps." I might have to lay aside my prejudices and have a go at something like Enchantress of Venus.

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Sunday, August 7, 2011


The Lovecraft Anthology: v. 1 (Eye Classics)The Lovecraft Anthology: v. 1 by H.P. Lovecraft
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second graphic adaptation of Lovecraft material I have read from SELFMADE HERO press. The first At the Mountains of Madness was a classy production but possibly suffered from an over-respect for the material. This anthology, containing seven stories from as many illustrators, is much more fun, But the stories themselves are more fun, more lurid, more outrageous than the ponderous and self-important At the Mountains of Madness.

Here are Lovecraft classics such as "The Dunwich Horror," "The Shadow Over Insmouth," "The Call of Cthulhu," and four others. (Am I the only person who has to check the spelling on "Cthulhu" every time I type it?) There is much slithery horror to be had in these stories, and the artists relish it. Nor do the hold back when depicting the New England version of hillbillies that populate the dismal wastelands from Connecticut to Maine. Lovecraft and Erskine Caldwell may seem an unlikely pair, but I have to come to think that Lovecraft does for Yankee psychic depravity what Caldwell did for sexual depravity in the South.

A second volume is due within the year.

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Saturday, August 6, 2011


The Iron Will of Shoeshine CatsThe Iron Will of Shoeshine Cats by Hesh Kestin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The rise, during a couple of weeks in the 1963, of Russell Newhouse from Brooklyn College honor student to kingpen of a major crime organization.

Hestin fills his narrative with enough period detail to keep all the wild improbabilities and outrageous characters grounded in a very believable New York City. (Although some of it we may recognize because the cliches have been so embedded in our minds from movies and TV.) The momentum flags some in the second half, but from the time Shushan Cats, the most famous Jewish mobster in New York City, enters the Bhotke Young Men's Society in Brooklyn to arrange a funeral for his mother, Russell Newhouse finds himself adopted into a seductive world of money, glamour, and the kindly (?) attentions of the most erudite mobster character ever created.

Hestin creates laugh-out-loud episodes and also has characters let loose on several sacred cows of the period -- actually it's mostly the Kennedy family. The story reads like a fable, although the moral may be that you can justify just about anything. The book left me craving cold cuts and sharper suits.

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Thursday, August 4, 2011


Down and Out in the Magic KingdomDown and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Provide free fuel -- check
Abolish money -- check
Conquer death -- check

What have you got? One Bitchun society!

Doctorow's novel takes place in a not too distant future where all the above and more have been achieved. Much of what exists is the predictive stuff you read about in popular magazines today: our computers are embedded within our bodies, we make phone calls through our cochlea, etc. That conquering death thing could still be someways off. Happy participants in the Bitchun society do frequent back-ups of themselves, in case death comes from misadventure. You don't want to lose too much time when downloaded into your freshly cloned body. Others just enjoy an occasional change, or don't want to put up with a bout of the flu. As a result, everyone has an apparent age of their own choosing and their actual physical age which could now be a century or more older than they look. Bitchun!

Jules, our hero, has lived several lifetimes, composed well-received symphonies, and earned three Ph.D's. But he really finds himself on a visit to Disney World, Orlando. Here a finds a new lover among the employees passionately devoted to the un-revamped attractions around LIberty Square and the Haunted Mansion. Alas, even in this not particularly brave new world, hell still proves to be other people. The conniving Debra, fresh from a newly conceived Disney Beijing, has plans to bring things up to date around Liberty Square. Hiss. Boo.

This all sounds hopelessly lightweight for a novel, but Doctorow tells a good story and creates a convincing Bitchun society with hints of a darker side. Take away death and over-population becomes a problem. Jules previously lived in underground overflow facilities in Toronto. But since you spend most of your time in a virtual world, perhaps living a mile underground is no real burden. Off planet emigration is encouraged.  Although he does not plan to do so himself, Jules knows more and more people who a "dead heading," having their back ups stored in canopic jars for a few years, decades, or even centuries. (You can also dead head for airplane flights, the best idea in the book.) If you have really had enough of life after a century or so, free lethal injections are available at the corner drugstore. But of course everything is free.

Is Disney World the perfect emblem of the Bitchun society? Doctorow plays lightly with his ideas with a plot that poses problems for his characters, some of them over a century old, that sound like the high-tech version of the problems kids with a summer job at a theme park might run into.

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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: FLAN by Stephen Tunney

Flan: A NovelFlan: A Novel by Stephen Tunney
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Imagine Candide set in an Hieronymus Bosch painting.

Now imagine it dull and repetitious. You get Flan.

Flan wakes to find his apartment and possibly the entire world on fire. He barely escapes his building with his scorched toupee and Ginger Kang Kang, his talking fish. He is lucky to have his eyes, because many of those on the street who witnessed the bomb or whatever occurred have empty, bloody, pus-filled sockets. (A lot of things in Flan are bloody and or pus-filled.)

I made it about halfway through this one. Flan and Ginger set out from the devastated city, stumbling over endless corpses, witnessing gang rapes and mercy killings, learning that cannibalism has become a kind of spectator sport -- it's all an inventive but not very interesting endless chain of horror and black comedy. The rapid rate of mutation that sets in provides some entertaining creatures.

Tunney has also chosen a diction that slips into the cloying, repetitive prose of children's books from a nearly a century ago. It brings nothing to the narrative. I found the book easy to put down.

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