Sunday, March 31, 2013

Shalimar the Clown

by Salman Rushdie

Shalimar the Clown

a smart young lady trying to find herself in California. the assassination of her father - America's counterterrorism chief. a portrait of Kashmir before all the ugliness and horror. the life of a man: lawyer, Jew, printer, resistance fighter, diplomat, husband, lover, father. a portrait of Kashmir - the ugliness, the horror. the life of a man: acrobat, actor, husband, freedom fighter, terrorist, chauffeur, assassin. a courtroom drama. a tale of a guy who really knows how to handle himself in prison. a troubled young lady finding love and thirsting for revenge. a miniature epic. a work that is sublime and transcendent. a frustrating book. a masterpiece!

the first section of the novel follows the life of young urban sophisticate India, a documentarian and the daughter of a famous father. right off the bat, i had issues. Rushdie's voice is justly famous for its idiosyncracy. he is a "witty" writer. his voice is polished, erudite, disarmingly casual, sometimes dry, sometimes broad, intellectual, political, personal. Shalimar is full of sharp, wry characterization that is delivered in prose that is complicated, flowing, detailed in long sentences and even longer paragraphs, with much use of striking bits of offbeat imagery. the dialogue can be realistic but just as often feels archly stylized. i couldn't help but think that many characters spoke like Rushdie himself must speak. all of this became rather off-putting, as if Rushdie was oh such a clever man - like that oh so clever gent who goes on and on at a cocktail party, entranced with being the center of attention while never noticing how genuinely pretentious and condescending he sounds (i'll admit here that that dreary kind of cocktail party person is frequently... myself. sigh). this is not to say that the first section wasn't often funny. it was. particularly in Rushdie's depiction of the all-american boy-next-door type, and that type's glorified kind of anonymity. but you can still really want to smack a funny person upside the head if their humor comes wrapped in up-his-own-ass cleverness. at least i did. and all that said, the last part of the section - an assassination and a daughter's removal from reality: brilliant. just brilliant.

the second section takes us into the past, to a Kashmiri village named Pachigam. my God, this section was beautiful! Rushdie's prose sings. the story of this village, its wonderful characters, two young people in love, the myths and legends, the magic, the rivalries, the coming of military types from India and revolutionary types from Pakistan, the stories within stories, the feeling of time moving inexorably forward, the troubling hints of bad times on the horizon, the grand passions, the small things, the humanity, the color and light and life and all the glorious details of a world that is no more... marvelous! just marvelous. i wanted to live in this world. here is also where it becomes absolutely clear how much Rushdie respects the strength of women and the power of art (art in cooking, acting, theatre; art as a tradition and a lifestyle). there is a dreamy kind of wish fulfillment happening in this section. things are not idealized and the narrative is not a sentimental one and characters are not one-dimensional - and yet this section is so full of people surviving in hard times, people living their lives to the fullest, people standing up for each other and being brave and being honest and being utterly themselves - i read this novella-sized section in a state of bliss. it is beauty on the page. i could read the story of this village over and again. swoon!

the third section is the story of Max Ophuls. his name is that of a brilliant, classic director. he has a sinister, cringing assistant named Ed(gar) Wood(s). hey that's the name of another brilliant, classic director, a low-rent one, one who exists on the exact opposite part of the film spectrum as Ophuls. is this another example of Rushdie being clever for the sake of cleverness? perhaps. it doesn't matter. this section is also fantastic. Rushdie knows how to write thrilling wartime drama. Rushdie knows how to write tales of escape and derring-do and brave flights across troubled waters. is there anything the man can't write? this section starts in World War 2-era France, the life before the war, the resistance during, the politics and the spies and the lives lived in hiding. it gives you a brave heroine as well - complicated, butch, tender, merciless, independent, an incredibly sympathetic lady, and - much later - a stone-cold bitch. then Rushdie takes you out of France, into India, and into a disturbing affair. the fall of a Kashmiri villlager turned mistress. Rushdie writes of great events but keeps the personal front and center. he keeps things intimate and he keeps his characters real. Rushdie knows how to write.

some serious spoilers follow!

the fourth section returns to the Kashmiri village of Pachigam and is a tale of horror, why is that. it details the ruthlessness of religious fundamentalism and the madness of mindless militarism and the bloodthirstiness that occurs when the two meet, why is that. it shows us traditions dying, traditions being slaughtered, small things ground under the boots of smaller minds, villages burning and women raped and people tortured and beloved characters being hurt and broken and tormented and demeaned and killed, why is that. the authorial voice remains stylized and that should lead to some distance between story and reader but if anything the wryness and the stylization and the continued use of magic make the brutality even more stark and horrible, why is that. humans are fucking miserable bugs to treat each other this way and yet that's how it is and people die and people don't care and people live to rationalize their disgusting lack of humanity and people die who only want to live and people die and people die and people die, why is that. i hate people, why is that. i read this in an airport terminal while my flight was delayed for hours and it was hard not to cry and so i took many smoke breaks to try and let the heaviness lift a little and i kept returning to the book and i started to feel a strange feeling of being altered, of looking at things from very far away, of wanting to be far away, and yeah i did start crying, why is that. i'm writing this now and for some reason the tears are flowing again, why is that. why the fuck are people so fucking cruel and why is history a record of cruelty and why should humans be alive anyway, why do they do the things they do, i will never understand that, just thinking of what humans do to each other fills me with such sadness and rage and confusing feelings that i barely understand, why is that. people are so fucked up, why is that why is that why is that why is that.

the fifth section returns us to modern day California. tale of a troubled young woman trying to be strong. tale of a man so hollowed out by his lack of love that he is nothing but a terrible shell with a terrible purpose. tale of some courtroom shenanigans. tale of a prison break. tale of a tale of a tale of a tale. things come together; things come apart. Kashmir is more than Kashmir - it is a living symbol for so many things. there is always room for love, even in the middle of vengeance. sometimes the lack of love is replaced by something else. sometimes hate is like love. sometimes things just can't be understood or explained. Rushdie tries, he really does, he tries brilliantly. his sentimental humanism is obvious in the very motivation of Shalimar the clown, who is not your typical terrorist. i don't mind the sentimental humanism; sometimes i crave it. Rushdie is a humanist who has not let the fatwa destroy his sense of decency or fairness, his need to see a person's tale from all angles, to see the why and the how of humans turning into monsters. Rushdie understands both the futility and the necessity of revenge, different forms of revenge. Shalimar the Clown ends on an exciting note. Shalimar the Clown ends on a mysterious note. what will happen next? is there any hope? perhaps i am more of a pessimist than Rushdie because he clearly has hope while i think of humans and often feel hopeless. Humans Off Earth Now! but maybe not. there's hope yet, right? it is a strange and terrible and wonderful feeling to read a book that gives and then takes away and then gives back - just a little - a kind of faith in humanity. hey look the book is bigger on the inside than the little thing you are holding in your hands.

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid

by Michael Ondaatje

avant-garde, postmodern, revisionist, a deconstruction, self-conscious and self-aware, prose from another planet, beautifully brutal, the kind of spikey poetry you see in some of the books of Hawke or even some DeLillo (i'm thinking Libra), the kind of book that you read and reread and remember forever. at least this reader did.
all of the above does nothing to sum up the yearning and strangeness and rightness of this underrated modern classic.

The Collected Works of Billy the Kidi mentioned 'poetry' but i am talking about the prose. poetic prose, yes a cliche and yes wonderful when it is done right. and hey, there's actual poetry here too. 'poetry written by Billy the Kid' apparently. obviously not, but this is postmodernism or whatever so does it even matter? the poetry captures the character perfectly. perfect poetry.

Billy the Kid, vicious animal
Pat Garrett, so sane he's insane
Billy the Kid, the mythology removed and built up again

the fragmented, cut-up style is ingenius. historical records, first person accounts, news blurbs, photographs, poetry, pulp fiction... it all comes together to paint a picture of a timeless place populated with timeless characters enacting a timeless dance with fate and death. fate and death, fate and death, fate and death. is this really a Western? i suppose so, but it is so much else as well.

i'm looking through my old photocopy of the novel (thanks, Interlibrary Loan of 20 years ago) and i'm feeling a need to read this a third time. maybe i can then write a better review. oh you beautiful novel, i want to put my hands all over you again.


I, Pierre Rivière

by Michel Foucault

I, Pierre Rivière, having slaughtered my mother, my sister, and my brother...: A Case of Parricide in the 19th Century

The latest soul-crunching compilation from DJ MF has dropped!

DJ MF is a Poitiers-based electronic-music producer known for bringing an undiluted sound of the underground to new audiences. From his work as a founding member of the infamous History of Systems of Thought Crew to his groundbreaking solo work, DJ MF (born Michel Foucault) has always been known for shattering genre conventions while moving crowds everywhere from France to California's famed UC Berkeley Club. From his breakthrough 1961 hit “Android Porn” off the album Madness and Civilization to the innovative bangers comprising his latest e.p. History of Sexuality (Alpha Pulp), DJ MF continues to hybridize hip-hop, dubstep, dancehall, social theory, postmodernism, poststructuralism, a Nietzschean systematization of the genealogy of morality, and prolly lotz of other off-the-hook dope ass shit with his usual face-melting panache and cock rockin roll bravado.

Get Crunked With DJ MF Now!



1. "I'm Just Misunderstood by Fascist Capitalist Society Please Defend My Actions a Century Later"
by Talking Heads

2. "It Hurts Inside My Mind Oh What a Postmodern Puzzle"
by John Cage

3. "Say Hello to My Little Friend the Pruning Hook"
by Kraddy

4. "Must Kill Mommy Cause Mommy Was Mean to Me & Daddy"
by Suicidal Tendencies

5. "Better Kill Sister Too (Women Confuse Me)"
by Sonic Youth

6. "Wish I Could Kill All Women"
by Miles Davis

7. "Mon Frere Le Petit Pédé! Mourir, Pédé, Mourir!!"
by Pussy Tourette

8. "So Yeah I Left Daddy Alive/Whatever, I Do What I Wanna Do I'm Pierre Riviere"
by The Ramones

9. "People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do; but what they don't know is what what they do does"
by Johnny Paycheck

12. "An Obscure Murder Case Shall Prove My Thesis So Suck It Salopes"
by John Zorn


Bible Camp Bloodbath

by Joey Comeau

Bible Camp Bloodbath


is it a self-published, minor note novella from a notable Canadian talent?

is it a biting satire of splatter films and/or a culture of violence aimed at children and/or Christian hypocrisy?

is it a surprisingly tender and real depiction of tweens at a summer camp, threaded with poignant angst and quick moments of miniature heartbreak, and featuring an endearing and appealingly quirky little protagonist?

is it an exercise in viciously sadean excess - one where all those moments of angst and heartbreak serve to punish the reader when served alongside horrifyingly pornographic descriptions of disgusting, sadistic acts of cruelty?

is it the kind of novella with an ending that kicks you right in the face, and then closes with a sentence full of a yearning, despairing sort of beauty?

is it the kind of sardonic, nonchalantly intelligent novella you can read - rapt - on your cell phone's kindle app on the bus to a party, then during this so-called "party", and then on the way back home again?

is it the kind of novella that made you feel sick at the end, a dead and hollow kind of sick, a sick where you had to immediately rinse your brain out with an ornate classic fantasy, in an only semi-successful effort to quickly move past that feeling of empty sickening sadness?

is it all of those things?


The Human Chord

by Algernon Blackwood

The Human Chord (Dodo Press)


A Review Fantasia plus Spoilers in 3 Acts and a Prelude


A young man - ROBERT SPINROBIN - sensitive and effeminate in appearance, sits in a threadbare apartment in turn-of-the-century London, with a newspaper in his lap.

SPINROBIN (to the audience): "Alas! Where is adventure? Where is the expansion of my mind? I - who possess the mystical vision of a poet - cannot be content with lowly drudge-work in an office! Oh how I long for my imaginary childhood companion - little Winky! - to take me on some soul-expanding journey! Oh, Winky! I miss our adventures!

But what is this!" (He looks down towards his paper)

SPINROBIN (reading from the newspaper): "'Wanted, by Retired Clergyman, Secretarial Assistant with courage and imagination. Tenor voice and some knowledge of Hebrew essential; single; unworldly. Apply Philip Skale.'"

SPINROBIN (to the audience): "I have found my grand adventure!"


An empty rail station with a lonely but inspiring natural landscape looming in the background. Spinrobin stands waiting with his bags. A tall, imposing, heavily bearded man clad in knickerbockers - REVEREND SKALE - approaches.

SPINROBIN (to the audience): "Could this fearsome being be the Reverend Skale? My adventure approaches!"

SPINROBIN (to the approaching man): "Dear sir, I am at your service! Pray tell me what is required! My tenor is strong! My knowledge of Hebrew is improving! I have no woman! I am singularly unworldly! Tell me, Reverend Sir, are you leading me to some great adventure of the mind - indeed, of the very soul?"

SKALE: "Ahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahah! Sure!"


A dinner table inside of a gloomy mansion, lit by candlelight. The sound of moaning wind. At the head of the table sits Reverend Skale; on one side of him sits a nervous-looking Spinrobin and on the other side sits a young lady MIRIAM, who is staring at Spinrobin with a cow-like expression of - presumably - devotion and love. Standing behind Skale is an old woman and servant, MRS MAWLE, whose withered left arm is in a sling and who is holding an ear horn to her right ear.

SPINROBIN: "Dear Sir! Please tell me of the adventure that awaits us all! I understand it involves singing and the coming together of voices, the forming of some sort of "Human Chord"... but for what purpose? Pray tell!"

SKALE: "Night time sharpens, heightens each sensation
Darkness stirs and wakes imagination
Silently the senses abandon their defenses

Slowly, gently night unfurls its splendor
Grasp it, sense it, tremulous and tender
Turn your face away from the garish light of day
Turn your thoughts away from cold unfeeling light
And listen to the music of the night!"

The stage is suddenly darkened.

SKALE (in baritone, slowly increasing in volume: "Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa...

There is a flash and then a spotlight focuses on the table and there appears a little dancing mannequin of Reverend Skale.

MANNIQUIN SKALE (in tiny, childlike voice): "See what I do! I become small! He-hehehehe!"

The spotlight goes off and footlights illuminate a huge puppet version of Skale looming in the background, face contorted in maniacal laughter.

GIANT PUPPET SKALE (in huge, booming voice): "See what I do! I become large! Ho-hohohoho!"

Light returns to the stage; the mannikin and the puppet have disappeared. Skale is smiling widely like a madman. So is Mrs. Mawle. Miriam is still mooning at Spinrobin, whose mouth is hanging open in surprise and fear.

MIRIAM (to Spinrobin): "Oh Spinrobin! You are so tender, so wise, so very sensitive! I am yours! You are my Master!"

SPINROBIN (nervously, to Skale): "Bu-bu-bu-but what is thi-thi-this? The human voice is capable of such unnatural wonders by simply uttering the right notes? By naming the unnameable? I have always imagined this to be so, even as a child when playing with my beloved imaginary companion, Winky! But what will our human chord provoke? And what shall happen if a human chord is sung... incorrectly? (He looks significantly at Mrs. Mawle's ear horn and withered arm). What is your ultimate goal, Reverend Sir? Into what shall we be transformed?"

SKALE: "We shall become GOD, you dullard!



A forest. Spinrobin and Miriam lie huddled behind some bushes, gazing at the back of the stage. There in the background is a huge mansion engulfed in flames (painted backdrop) and the sounds of a woman's alto and man's baritone can be heard singing fervently. The singing voices suddenly turn into agonized shrieks before being drowned in the sounds of crackling flames and a mansion collapsing.

SPINROBIN: "So that didn't go as expected."

MIRIAM: "You carried me away! Oh brave Spinrobin, my beloved, my Master! We shall live happily ever after! (She laughs hysterically, then covers his face with kisses.) There are many things I can do for you that we couldn't do in Heaven! Oh my sweet darling... let me meet Mr. Winky!"

SPINROBIN: "Well I guess I really didn't want to become God anyway. Heaven can wait."

(Sound of flames crackling increase.)


A Princess of Mars

by Edgar Rice Burroughs

A Princess of Mars (Barsoom, #1)


John Carter travels to Barsoom to live, love, and fight amongst the Green Men, the Red Men, and the White Apes! his Earthman physique combined with Barsoomian gravity means he's incredibly strong and can jump like a giant-sized super-grasshopper!

John Carter arrives there nekkid! everyone is nekkid! they only wear weapons and ornaments! the Red Race knows what Earthers look like and they think all the clothing we wear is apalling and disgusting! i agree!

John Carter is transported to Barsoom from Frontier America directly after a bloody conflict with the dread and savage Red Man (in this case, the Apache)... and on Barsoom, his adventures involve the alternately warlike and peaceful Red Men, who he views as the closest thing to human. coincidence?

Green Men do not believe in love or friendship or marriage or parenthood. they only laugh when another creature is in its death-agonies. they are a war-like people, to say the least. they also share everything. apparently their customs came from an ancient society based in communalism... dare i say, communism? coincidence?

The Princes of Mars in question is a two-dimensional creation: in love with John Carter except for those predictable moments when predictable misunderstandings occur, a Red Princess of the city-state Helium, beautiful, haughty, brave, a woman of her word, etc, etc. her name is Dejah Thoris.

Burroughs writes clean prose that is easy going down and surprisingly modern in its smooth, no-frills style. this is the opposite of a laborious read. the narrative is perfectly straightforward and the infodumps were relatively pain-free. the characters are enjoyably cartoonish. i read this on my droid over the course of maybe a half-dozen bus rides. a charming experience.

the novel features a cute Barsoomian dog-thing - my favorite character!



John Carter travels to Mars to live, love, and fight amongst the Green Men and the Red Men! his Earthman physique combined with Martian gravity means he's incredibly strong and can jump like a giant-sized super-grasshopper!

John Carter arrives there fully clothed! and then he changes into something more revealing! The Red Race also prefer revealing attire!

John Carter spends an inordinately long and tiresome period of time in Frontier America that is nonsensical and bored me to near-sleep. this inordinately lengthy sequence features conflicts with some Native American tribe, some jail time, and some character bits for a completely non-essential supporting character. on Mars, he comes across the "Red Men", who actually are not red at all but look like they spend too much time at some cheap tanning salon. they should be called the Orangey Men.

Green Men are monstrous humanoids. their children are adorable little widgets.

there is a Princess of Mars and she is perhaps the most three-dimensional character in the film: a scientist and a kick ass warrior. she is played by Lynn Collins, who was strangled by a serial killer in the first season of True Blood.

the film is co-written by Michael Chabon! what! the film is directed by Pixar house director Andrew Stanton. i watched a sneak peek of this at Pixar itself, after indulging in a few free drinks at one of the Pixar bars. i got drunk!

the film features a cute Martian dog-thing - my favorite character!

The Swimming-Pool Library

by Alan Hollinghurst

i'll start off with a blanket statement: many novels of the Gay Fiction subgenre will fall within two categories.

1. Coming of Age Tales in which the protagonist struggles to come out, often against his unsympathetic surroundings. often tender; occasionally mawkish.

2. a category that i like to call Gay World Novels in which, oh, everyone is pretty much gay. fine. dream on, gays, dream on. if you can't live it...dream it!

to me, the self-relegation of most gay novels between these two categories can be annoying, but i suppose understandable. gays have to come out of the closet and so this intense experience is perfectly paired with the classic coming-of-age tale's structure. and gays are also often rejected by straight society, so why not rejoice in the telling of tales that in turn reject that straight world, that rolls its eyes at it, that have narratives that seem to posit that straights are the actual minority? Swimming-Pool falls squarely within that second category.

The Swimming-Pool Librarythe novel is about a repulsive and useless parasite, a shallow and superficial upper-class twit obsessed solely with sex, entirely without any qualities whatsoever except, i suppose, his aristocratic lineage and his apparently smashing good looks and large endowment. unfortunately, the protagonist somehow thinks that he's not a complete waste of space. even more unfortunately, the author seems to think that he's not so bad, that his thoughts and interests and obsessions and general behavior are not completely infantile and boring. well, i beg to differ, hollinghurst!

this is a book of so many wasted opportunities that it becomes truly disgusting. the writer knows how to write: his style is elegant and subtle and full of long, brave sentences and carefully drawn mysteries and surprisingly ambiguous characterization. and he throws it all away by writing about a world THAT CARES ABOUT NOTHING EXCEPT FOR SEX. give me a fucking break, hollinghurst! is this how you see gay people? do they think of nothing but checking people out, eyeing the package of every single dude that crosses their path, rating each body, ignoring all women, living for moments that are only about the interwining of bodies, the randomly chosen hook-up, the spilling of various fluids? do they not have other thoughts, have they no other interests, no other inner or outer life? do their interior monologues consist of nothing but the drooling study of the beauty of the male form? are they incapable of even the slightest depth? do all gays live to celebrate the flesh, and for nothing else whatsoever? when our narrator greets his long-lost lover by ripping his pants down and burying his face in his ass, is this supposed to be palpably romantic rather than absurd and farcical?

the novel wastes a golden opportunity in the story of the elderly and very gay Lord Nantwich, whose diaries the protagonist is working his way through as he considers writing a bio of the lord's life. learning about this elderly gent's story could have been fascinating - a tale of england's colonial past, adventures in africa, a recounting of london during some very interesting times, all seen through the lense of an upper class gay outsider. but 'tis not to be. like the narrator of the present, Lord Nantwich is magically surrounded by gay acquaintances and probably-gay-or-maybe-bisexual african natives. almost every single person that either character meets, past or present, is gay or probably-gay-or-bisexual. and even worse, and much like the narrator of the present, Lord Nantwich is also disinterested in recounting anything whatsoever that isn't about getting off and ogling all the gay chaps around him. such a potentially vivid life and all he is primarily interested in is getting some action? both characters are resoundingly pathetic - and yet hollinghurst appears to think there is something brave about Lord Nantwich and something charming about our feckless, pointless narrator. at one point, the protagonist idly thumbs through his best friend's diary. naturally, his best friend is also obsessed with sex. i guess that's how gays are, right? they simply have no other interests.

there was one thing that consistently amused me, in a good way: the effete and fatuous queen of a lead character is also a rough, tough top. i like that! it is always interesting when expectations and stereotypes are subverted. sadly, those instances are the only examples of any kind of subversiveness.

a part of the novel that struck me as particularly foul was the sexualization of kids. yes, kids can be sexual, i know this of course. but almost an entire chapter devoted to salivating over a junior boxing championship? a short sequence where the narrator describes a family man lovingly patting his child while also lovingly caressing his own hard-on - described as some kind of deep connection...seriously, hollinghurst?

the title is laughable. the narrator's constant presence at the local english equivalent of the ymca swimming pool is metaphorically (?) tied to his dreamy past hooking up with guys in the school swimming pool, both of which are thematically (?) linked up with Lord Nantwich's rather more hedonistic private pool. that is some serious over-reaching there, hollinghurst.

the novel has a deeply creepy obsession with race. specifically, blacks. Lord Nantwich is obsessed by them, both africans and african-american soldiers he meets. this is presented with some slight critical distance, but you know what? "slight critical distance" is not enough when the attitude being presented is so barkingly colonial and condescending that it becomes downright repulsive. our charmless hero also starts out with a black boyfriend and much is made of that character's stereotypical, lower-class 'blackness' and, naturally, his dangerous life in the projects. that's how blacks are, right? they are either innocent, wide-eyed africans or sexy, violent thugs. and of course the best friend also has his own love of black men - well, their dicks, that is. reading all about an insufferable, body-worshipping twit of a protagonist and an elderly upper-class jackass who lives to objectify eventually made me want to commit some bodily harm on both of them. when the narrator eventually gets his ass kicked, i couldn't help but think well finally he is getting a dose of some sort of reality that has nothing to do with worship of the male body or getting fucked.

my gosh, i just hated this novel.

a little self-disclosure here. i'm a bi guy. i was out to a select group in high school. i was out to the world in college. i helped start the second iteration of Act-Up San Diego. when i was younger and better looking, i whored myself out a bit (now there's a fun fact). i used to volunteer for gay men dying of hiv. now i work for an agency whose clientele is well over half gay. i've gone to jail protesting for the right of gay marriage and the rights of gay teachers to teach children. i think my queer credibility is pretty much impeccable. and i say all this, not just to provide personal context, but mainly because i do not want this review to give the impression that there is any kind of lurking, bottled-up self-hate or any negative attitude towards gay sexuality involved in my rejection of this appalling novel. although i am not a big part of the gay community, i celebrate it and of course am a proud member.

but there is nothing to celebrate about this novel. it was a revolting, depressing, infuriating experience for me. apparently The Swimming-Pool Library is considered to be some kind of modern gay classic. that does a profound disservice to the genuinely complex and challenging works and the truly sensitive and moving narratives that exist in this often wonderful subgenre.

A Pirate's Love

by Johanna Lindsey

do you like to read about rape? lots and lots and lots of rape? is rape an act of such little consequence that it is more similar to getting pinched or yelled at - rather than being an actual assault on a person's physical and emotional self? are you able to justify the constant use of rape, rape, rape as somehow being historically accurate and therefore not much of an eyebrow-raiser? have you managed to convince yourself that rape was so common back in the Bad, Sexy Old Days that it really just didn't matter much to anyone, it was just a fact of life like coal smoke and poor hygiene? do you like to see a heroine being lied to, stripped of food, clothing, and dignity - so that they don't struggle during any rape-y action sequences and therefore you don't have to deal with such messy things like tears & pain & blood & horror? perhaps if a heroine doesn't struggle, that's not really "rape", right? do you prefer your rape scenes to be written in a style that is completely and complacently without any affect - indeed, so affectless that the constant rape scenes start to have a bizarre kind of normalcy to them - a simple fact of life for women apparently? is rape okay when it is committed by a really hot guy? do you prefer your rape scenes to be written by an author who apparently has no personal experience with the topic and has had no one in her life impacted by it either, and so you can have tidy little rape scenes that are delivered in a voice totally devoid of understanding, of meaning, a voice that is totally unconscious of the truly debilitating and potentially lifelong consequences of such an assault? do you prefer your rapes to be cozy and free of physical violence and non-consensual but sorta sexy? rape is not such a big deal, right?

well, dear reader, consider this to be your personal recommendation and introduction to the rape-athon known as A Pirate's Love.

A Pirate's Lovei have had some bad luck with the Romance genre. this is my second or third try and i suppose i am just not getting it. i have actually had more luck (and pleasure) with reading PNR and straight-up Erotica. i pulled this one off of the donation shelf at my agency's drop-in center - i was quite thrilled to scoop it up actually, Pirates being a predictable favorite topic of mine. i read this one early this morning, it took maybe three hours. reading it made me feel like a bad person. it depressed me. maybe i've just known too many people who have been raped to be able to treat this like the light entertainment that it was clearly intended to be. i doubt that Lindsey wrote this with the goal of making me sick to my stomach. but it is a horrorshow written in the blithe tone of a classic Young Adult novel. and that made it so much worse.

one small but important thing in this novel's favor: the heroine actually recognizes each rape as being, well, an actual rape. even if there was no struggle, even if she is tricked into it, she still considers it to be rape. good for her. but then, of course, she ends up falling in love with our ardent pirate hero. "Rape" in this world is just another way of saying I Love You. is this typical of the Romance world? well, i suppose that must be a pleasantly consequence- and emotion-free world to live in.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Martian Chronicles

by Ray Bradbury

The Martian Chronicles



A Riddle: What walks on two legs, uses two arms, talks like a human, acts like a human, kills humans, replaces humans, wants to be accepted and loved by a human?

Answer: A Martian!


A Riddle: What walks on two legs, uses two arms, talks like a human, acts like an animal except that's unfair to animals, kills others of its kind, wages war on its own kind, and destroys its own planet?

Answer: A Human!


A Riddle: What is built like a succession of linked stories, feels at times like a play by Brecht, feels at times like a mournful and elegiac ode to the dying of small towns, is a wise tale of human nature, is written with melancholy and sighs, is quietly sinister, is gently tragic, yet is also a science fiction novel?

Answer: The Martian Chronicles!


A Riddle: What is a ball of blue fire, a transcended entity, a being that lives in God's grace, a model of wisdom and goodness, and a terrifying symbol of the unknowable? What is meek and shall inherit their earth - but has lost the inclination?

Answer: A Martian!


A Riddle: What should have stayed on its own planet? What does not belong on Mars? What persists in persisting? What flees from home? What destroys that home? What flees back to that destruction? What eradicates much of what it comes into contact? What is a hopeless fool? What has a little - just a little - hope for it yet?

Answer: A Human!


A Riddle: What is science fiction as parable? What creates a series of haunting and haunted tableaux onto which we can project our own desires and fears? What transcends genre trappings? What is a landscape of forgotten plans and failed goals? What is like a waking dream? What is a journey that begins in death and ends with a small, fragile chance that all is not lost? What is like tears painted on a page? What is witty and sardonic and tender and angry and, finally, full of its own strange and painfully human soulfulness?

Answer: The Martian Chronicles!


by J.G. Ballard



Luxury Living - To Die For!

Our extra-ordinary apartment complex is a full-service microcosm and so offers all the comforting amenities and thrilling excitements of the modern world - all in one lavish locale. Imagine never having to step foot outside again! Whether your interests include swimming, shopping, the education of youngsters, simply lounging about without a care... or even more outre amusements such as rape, murder, incest, cannibalism, and the creating of small bands of like-minded individuals to hunt and gather... it is all waiting for you here at Ballard Apartments. Your every secret desire shall come true!

Management at Ballard Apartments fully understands the importance of class, and class consciousness. To better serve our varied tenants and to truly impart that feeling of living in the world while living at home, we maintain a carefully considered system of economic segregation. Our wealthier tenants are welcome within our spacious penthouse apartments - where they may indulge in all the varied delights typically enjoyed by society's creme de la creme. Our middle-class tenants will find themselves completely at home within our perfectly unremarkable mid-level apartments - ideally situated to allow residents to gaze longingly at their social betters above and scornfully upon their social inferiors below. Our more, shall we say, "blue collar" tenants have free range of the lower floors - where the faulty plumbing, cramped living situations, and generally inadequate facilities will no doubt ring a comfortingly familiar bell to many. A bell that tolls for bloody revolution!

Our amenities include:

* High-speed elevators and lavish swimming pools to commandeer! You will find these to be ideal opportunities for territorialism and murder!

* A dog-friendly environment - including a strict hands-off policy in regards to feasting upon our furry friends! Fresh & Organic never tasted so good!

* Bright supermarket lighting - all the better to see your enemy's beady, hypocritical eyes!

* Stark open spaces - all the better to indulge in classic Lord of the Flies role-playing games!

* Sinister shadowy spaces - all the better to lurk in, and then spring from to wreak sudden havoc!

* An array of balconies and a welcoming rooftop - all the better to fling yourself from!

Our heart-stoppingly hedonistic high-rise is perfectly appointed in the classic Ballard style. it features: terse brilliance; evilly deadpan humor; a cold, clinical style; a complete disinterest in creating empathetic connections between characters and readers; a detached desire to anger, agitate, and antagonize. Enjoy your lofty, God's-eye view of repellently savage and slaughter-happy human insects, all predictably engaged in typically clownish mayhem, gruesome atrocity, repulsive class warfare, and other depressing standards of the human condition.

Join Us!

Or not, it makes no real difference...


David Copperfield

by Charles Dickens

David Copperfield

Status Report: Chapters 1 - 8

i had forgotten how much i love Dickens. the man is a master at the immersive experience. it is really easy for me to get sucked into the world he is so carefully constructing, to revel in all the extensive details, the lavish description, the almost overripe imagination at work. his strength at creating a wide range of entirely lived-in settings (both brief snapshots of places in passing and crucial places like David's home and school) is equalled by his even more famous skill at sketching the characters - often, but not always, caricatures - that live and breathe in his world. this is the kind of deep-dish experience that i love to have when traveling, on a plane or a bus or in some plaza, a second world to live in while taking a break in exploring the immediate world around me.

i can't help but also remember how many people dislike Dickens. i'm remembering an ex who told me he was her least favorite author, and how her resentment at being forced to read him in high school almost put her off reading for pleasure in general. it is hard to reconcile such a strong distaste for Dickens with my own easy enjoyment of his novels. my automatic reaction is that the reader who isn't enchanted by him either dislikes the style of writing or is simply the sort of idiot who should stick to reading facebook. well i don't date idiots, so i assume her reaction is based around the writing style. maybe that is the basic rationale for most folks who don't care for him.

or maybe it is based on something else. there is something that i've found to be off-putting about David Copperfield, at least so far. namely, the incredibly passive and naive behavior of David himself (and his mother, of course). it's more than just my automatic distaste for reading about victims, although that is certainly a part of it. what it feels like at times is that Dickens is stacking the deck a bit, making miserable situations even more potentially miserable, by having his protagonist (and that wretched mother, of course) be almost developmentally disabled in his inability to understand even basic things about the world around him. it sorta drives me up the wall.

well, that complaint aside, this has still been an awesome time. first and foremost, even more than the world-building and juicy characters, i love the dry and sardonic humor that is constantly working double-time. not only does it create some distance between reader and book in regards to the various horrors visited upon young David... it is fookin' hilarious!

favorite parts so far:

- that brilliant opening chapter "I Am Born"

- the Peggotty boat-house and the warmth of that wonderful family. i would like to live there!

- Steerforth. ugh! what a charming monster.

- the sadly minor note tragedy of Mr. Mell

Status Report: Chapters 9 - 26

i think i was expecting a bit more evil from the Murdstones. the way they treat David is certainly unkind verging on cruel - but i suppose i thought it would be a lot more brutal. this is not a complaint! if anything, i appreciate that Dickens makes David's predicament a much more realistic one. the Murdstones are cold, cold people. and they certainly drive David's tedious mother to an early grave (i shed no tears on that one). but i was surprised that their primary action is to simply send David away to a boring job, one that no child his age should have (and here i am viewing the narrative through my 21st century lense). a callous decision yet not a vicious one. David is merely an irritation that they want to dispense with, rather than harm. interesting.

that brief segment was certainly enlivened by the depiction of the marvelously goofy Mr. Micawber & Family. and by a fascinating look into life in a debtor's prison. i assume this is the classic Poor House?

but then... good grief, poor David Copperfield goes through hell to escape this life of tedium. many emotions on my part, all centered on the idea of such casual cruelty towards a runaway. brought back some unsettling memories of my brief time as a homeless youth counselor.

and then - at last! - some decency. even better, eccentric rather than mawkish decency. Aunt Betsey & Mr. Dick are two more wonderful Dickens creations. especially that tough old broad Aunt Betsey - each and every one of her appearances are a delight. when David finally gets to the safety of his Aunt's house, i felt a lot of tension drain out of me. it is like his story is now truly about to begin, now that the Gothic horrors slash neglected childhood bits are out of the way.

- an introduction of the best character yet: Uriah Heep! this is the role that Crispin Glover was born to play. what a wondrously creepy and perfectly realized little villain. all that supplicating, all that writhing! brilliant stuff.

- interesting: David is rarely called by his actual name. two more nicknames are added to the list: Trotwood and Daisy. David is rather a tabula rasa of a character.

- the relationship between Mr. Wickfield and Agnes is not heartwarming. it is downright creepy.

and now the tension is ratcheted up again, but in a way that doesn't make me sorta squirm with discomfort (tales of child neglect ≠ a good time for me). three sets of increasingly dire circumstances...

(1) Lil' Em'ly and the despicable villain Steerforth
(2) Agnes and the despicable villain Uriah Heep
(3) Aunt Betsey and a mysterious, blackmailing unknown despicable villain

will David be able to intercede in any of these troubling situations? i am doubtful, but also hopeful. go, David, go!

Status Report: Chapters 27 - end

exhilarating, wonderful, awesome, etc, etc. all the good words. i laughed (a lot), i cried (just a little, and in a manly sort of way), i wouldn't change or subtract a single word. perfect!

Final Report

okay this will be less of a Final Report and more of a collection of final thoughts as i think back on the novel and consult with the various threads in Serials Serially - the group that started me reading this novel.

first, the division in the novel. the first third or so, all about young David and his fairly awful travails: vivid and powerful. the remainder of the novel, all about David in his young adult years and following the growth of all those narrative seeds planted in that fertile first third; an excess of details veering on repetitious, and so that the book becomes less of a frightful gothic tale and more of a slow-burning assortment of mysteries (and many, many instances of pure comedy): less vivid and perhaps less powerful. looking back, i have to say that i am in the minority and preferred the last two-thirds. not only was the tension of potential situations involving child abuse and neglect now gone (a personal bugaboo of mine that will quickly render almost any literary or cinematic experience into something hugely uncomfortable and unappealing)... but it somehow all felt more real to me. the first third was visceral but almost cartoonish while the rest of the novel felt as if i was actually living in the novel. such was the extent of the detail and the effect of following these characters as they move throughout many different situations and changes in their lives.

"cartoonish". or better yet, "Dickensian". what does that really mean? a peculiarly stylized version of caricature? i understand the rep that Dickens has with his characters. they are stylized, obviously. but very few of them remained caricatures to me. ultimately, most ended up feeling very real and i was impressed at Dickens' ability to provide multiple dimensions to his characters - although he does it in a rather subtle way. his heroes do not get strong criticism and his villains do not get endearing moments of humanity. and yet it is there. David Copperfield is kind and good, but he is also a passive, foolishly naive fellow whose kindness and naivete often does nothing but make situations worse - especially in nearly every instance involving his relationship with Steerforth. Agnes is also kind and good, but her passivity makes her function as a sort of enabler to her father. Steerforth is a callous and feckless villain, but has moments of genuine warmth and kindness. Rosa Dartle is a heartless shrew - but look at that poor bitch's entire life with Steerforth & mom - i'd become a heartless shrew in that situation as well. Uriah Heep is an unctuous, slimy kiss-ass and back-stabber... but look where he comes from, his context, the kind of person his father was and the ideals he was raised up to worship. and of course Micawber, who would be pure pathos but whom Dickens treats with an extraordinary amount of affection. Dickens is not necessarily an 'even-handed' author, but he is one who is clearly aware of context.

there are some comments in this review's Goodreads' thread about women in Dickens - comments that i initially agreed with. but in retrospect, i actually don't agree. looking back on this novel, the women are often just as full of life as the men. perhaps folks are mainly thinking of the rather anemic Agnes. but now - when i think of dim Dora and vicious Rosa and ferocious Aunt Betsey and tragic Emily and loveable Peggotty and maudlin Mrs Gummidge and pathetic Martha and the eccentric 'two little birds' (Dora's aunts) and pretentious Julia Miles and dignified-under-pressure Mrs Strong and hilariously faithful-to-a-fault Mrs Micawber - i think of characters who leap right off of the page and stay to live in my mind. so, no, i am not critical of how women are portrayed in Dickens.

except, maybe, Dora. she is surely one of the most bizarrely stupid characters ever created in classic literature. when she first baby-talks David's nickname "Doady", i practically wanted to barf. she's so stupid that many times i found myself thinking She's Not Stupid - She's Mentally Disabled! good grief! and so i felt bad about my contempt and i started having mixed feelings about David even being with her. it seemed somehow wrong. there is also something so sexless about her character - it was impossible for me to imagine her capable of any sort of genuine intimacy. but i have to give it to Dickens - he doesn't present her as an ideal (unlike David), he satirizes her mercilessly in scene after scene, and in the end, invests both her marriage and her death with such genuine, palpable emotion that i became genuinely, palpably moved. her marriage scene (practically every paragraph beginning with "Of") was one of the most dreamily written passages i've ever read. and her death - not explicitly described, but paralleled with Jip's death - wow. amazing scene.

the combined death scenes of brave Ham and horrible Steerforth was almost equally moving. that last line describing Steerforth at his final rest: superb.

okay i think i'm spent. this is one of those novels that i can probably talk on and on about, so i should just make myself stop. i'll close by saying that the novel is, in a word, brilliant. i loved the language, the humor, the whimsy, the drama; the characters were wondrously alive; the narrative both surprisingly subtle and excitingly larger-than-life. so many scenes were indelible - too many to recount.

David Copperfield is one of my favorite novels.

next: An Alternate Perspective

Picnic at Hanging Rock

by Joan Lindsay

Picnic At Hanging Rockah! and there you are, my perfect little novel! it has been some time since last we've embraced. come, let us reacquaint ourselves.

but what is that you say, and so modestly? what is so perfect about you? 

my sweet darling, don't be so shy! you are indeed a wondrous creation.

here, let me count the ways...

1. your mystery is timeless. three schoolgirls and one schoolmistress disappear on Valentine's Day afternoon, in 1900, in australia, at the mysterious Hanging Rock. where did they go? did Nature take them, as revenge for all the injustices done against her? or perhaps she simply saw four enchanted individuals who belonged to her and not to the worldly world that they seemed to float above? upon their disappearance, a sad and tragic series of events unfolds and broadens, and so the mystery becomes larger... a pattern of sorts is created; many questions rise to the surface of a once-placid community. how do our actions impact others? how does a tragedy reverberate and affect all those connected, how does it resonate in others and bring forth emotions and thoughts and actions that they never knew could exist? the mystery at the heart of this novel is like a stone tossed in a lake: the mystery drops into the water, past the surface, not to be seen again... but the water ripples outward, concentric circles opening wider and wider, that reach so much further beyond that initial impact, that initial drop into the unknown.

2. your prose is lovely. not a single word is out of place. so artful yet never overly mannered, so charming yet never coy or affected, so dry yet never cold-blooded. you manage to be both dreamy and precise. your points are made with nuance and subtlety. you do not hammer away relentlessly but are instead content to murmur your sharp but rather ambiguous comments, all the better for your audience to contemplate them at leisure. you say more in your trim 213 pages than many novels that clock in at over twice your length.

3. your narrative... a jewel box, so compact, and full of intriguing things. and even better, it is a magic box: its interior is larger than its exterior! in just a few pages, here and there, it outlines the lives and futures of a half-dozen characters, in a way that is clear and meaningful and real and often surprisingly ironic. truth be told, your story is an often cruel one, with little or no hope for several of its characters - and yet you note these twists and turns with the lightest of touches. this light touch does not reduce the stories to anecdote, but instead allows these lives, these deaths, these tragically missed opportunities and these happy endings to evoke a fable's simplicity.

4. your characters are only briefly (but efficiently) characterized, and yet they are indelible. here is the boy who is courageous and idealistic and who lives above the world, and who rescued the wrong girl - or at least the wrong girl for him. here is the girl who loved the world around her so much that she could not leave it, and so was rescued, and who then found that the love of her life - that brave rescuer - was not for her. here is the loyal friend, rooted in the physical, rough and shy, an ideal companion for a wistful idealist, a secret and almost unrecognized hero, one who is rewarded beyond his wildest imaginings. here is the tragic sister, a rebel, an artist, an orphan, alone in the world, roughly handled emotionally and physically, yet loved and cared for - but (alas) unknowingly, a wilting flower destined for a flowerbed. and there is our awful villain, Mrs. Appleyard the Headmistress, dour and dreadful, a rather grand contretemps of her own making, a monster come undone.

5. you leave me with that intriguing, unnerving feeling of Wanting To Know More. it is a wonderful thing, and there is so much to consider. most of all: why did those girls and their schoolmarm disappear? you throw out a bold red herring in your varied descriptions of nature being trampled underfoot by clumsy, unknowing humans. perhaps it is Nature's Revenge, you seem to suggest. upon a closer reading, you offer a far more ambiguous yet provocative interpretation, one based upon the nature of those who disappeared: they were not of this world, in spirit or in deed. with this reading, their disappearance becomes less of a tragedy and more of an epiphany... the girls and their mistress have moved beyond us all and our petty concerns; their lives were spent reaching beyond this mortal coil, and so... perhaps they have escaped it, and entered a new realm, a higher plane.

but, in the end, i do not believe the mystery itself is the point of your story. i think that the tale of Picnic at Hanging Rock is less about what has happened and more about what does it all mean... is there a greater implication, a pattern even, to all of our little actions and to all of our little lives, one that exists beyond us, one that connects us to each other and to a world beyond?

here, in your own lovely words, is where i found the true purpose behind your strange, thoughtful tale:
"Peering down between the boulders Irma could see the glint of water and tiny figures coming and going through drifts of rosy smoke, or mist. 'Whatever can those people be doing down there like a lot of ants?' Marion looked out over her shoulder. 'A surprising number of human beings are without purpose. Although it's probable, of course, that they are performing some necessary function unknown to themselves.' Irma was in no mood for one of Marion's lectures. The ants and their business were dismissed without further comment. Although Irma was aware, for a little while, of a rather curious sound coming up from the plain. Like the beating of far-off drums."
oh, the glorious mystery of it all! but, one may ask, what does it all truly mean? what is the exact point, how does this all add up, what specific message are we supposed to glean? well, my apologies... i am not one to kiss and tell!

A Maggot

by John Fowles

A Maggoti tried reading this when i was 15, i think around the time it first came out. perhaps i was too ambitious, because the novel was too much for me, and i gave up. i suppose i just didn't get it. but i can be competitive - even with books, even with myself. so i promised young mark monday that the battle wasn't over, that i'd return to re-engage 25 years later, when i had become an old, wise man...and i would eventually conquer this one.

well, mark, it is now 25 years later.


...and so i promptly lost my original paperback right after i started reading it - after holding on to it for 25 frickin' years! it took time to get a new copy.

but now that i'm finished with this one, i'm not even sure what to say. a lot of different things went on in my head when reading this. it is pretty one-of-a-kind. i think i'll give it some time to sink in before i write a real review. overall: a fascinating, challenging, often off-putting, drily humorous, always intriguing experience. but after all the headiness, i think i need to read a kid's novel to rinse the intellectual palate, so to speak.


well, it's a few days after the above. today i've been enjoying my favorite Kate Bush songs on my back patio and at one point was surprised to recall that i had fully enjoyed these bizarre and challenging songs way back in high school, back when A Maggot was so intimidating. and so i became embarrassed at avoiding the review at hand. thanks Kate for the guilt trip!

the story

five figures in a landscape, traveling on horseback to an unknown destination. they do not speak; they exist, at first, simply as enigmas to contemplate. a nobleman. his faux-uncle, an actor. his manservant, or lover. a maid - or, perhaps, a whore. a soldier - or, perhaps, a lifetime liar. it is May 1736, in England. three will return, one will be found dead, the last will have disappeared without a trace.

the style

i have read many times over that Fowles has a style that is challenging... prose that is dense and oblique, narratives that often veer off confusingly into the metaphysical, a guiding hand that shows little to no interest in offering the reader their more traditional pleasures. A Maggot is all of those things. it is a journey that ends in a kind of transcendence; it is a narrative that has no interest in answering your questions, silly reader. and yet this is by no means a difficult book to read - the difficulty lies in digesting and understanding any or all of its myriad implications.

roughly three-quarters of the novel is in the question-and-answer format of a police interrogation and police procedural, except in this case the questioner is a curmudgeonly, reactionary, cynical old lawyer, with interests clearly vested in the keeping of station - the poor with the poor, the rich (his client, the nobleman's father - a Duke) firmly with the rich. there should be no challenge to the capable reader during these parts - the format allows all stories to be told in a reassuring first-person format, the tales told are straightforward (but only in the telling), and there are many acidic comments from the dear aged lawyer to enjoy, to roll around the tongue and then say out loud, with the utmost haughty, lawyerly disdain.

interspersed between, before, and after these long interviews are sequences that can best be described with that hoary adjective, Brechtian. these parts are striking in what they do not tell. they view the actions and words of our characters at a firm distance, as players in a play that the reader has stumbled upon halfway, the activities a tableau rather than a display of actual movement. it seems intended to distance the reader, to force contemplation, and in that it certainly succeeds. perhaps too well... the tactic can be off-putting. the intent appears to be to separate emotion from content, to allow the reader to decipher entirely on their own the motives and meaning of what they see displayed before them... and in that the method is clearly successful.

now i have to wonder why i was unable to finish this back in high school. this is not the most difficult of books. well, who knows. perhaps i was too shallow and more interested in fast-paced genre fiction. i suppose things have not changed too much on that front.

the ideas

so what is this novel about? well, now is the time to answer questions with questions.

is it indeed a police procedural? at that it succeeds, in spades. the mystery is palpable, the truth seems just around the corner. lies are told and liars are caught in them. the death is a suicide or a murder. the party of five are many things and none of them what they appear. at first it appears to be an intrigue of surprisingly cosy proportions. surely this mystery can be solved? the lawyer seems to think it all hinges upon a secret gay relationship between intense young nobleman and mute, well-hung manservant. silly lawyer!

is this a tale of witchcraft and dire deeds in a dark and eerie cavern? one of the tales told is explicitly so. it all becomes so clear to the reader accustomed to fantasy and horror during this very long sequence - at last, the truth comes out! it is a very well-constructed trap for the reader who demands an answer and who somehow equates vivid tales of perverse enchantment with an actual answer. and by "the reader", i am of course speaking of myself. it was certainly satisfying on the level of having an answer that turned out to be enjoyably dreadful, perversely erotic, and full of grim fantasia. it is an almost comfortably relayed tale of easily recognized horrors and i swallowed it whole - until i realized i was barely halfway finished with the book. i wondered: so now that the truth is out, what is left to tell? and then this familiar answer to the mystery began to seem unreal, the explanation began to unravel. it became a straw man, a paper tiger, a stalking horse.

is this a tale of time travel, the future not just looking upon the past, but stepping in to mold that past, to create the future? the vision of a silvery "maggot" - in essence, a silver spaceship, complete with futuristic dials and knobs, strange fabrics, and viewing screens that show scenes that could never be seen in the viewer's lifetime - is a wonderfully clever nod to the trappings of science fiction. alas, no doubt 'tis another feint.

is this a treatise on the inherent lack of godliness in any class-based system, in organized religion, in the lack of equality between the genders? yes, it is. dynamically so. angrily so.

is this a vaguely postmodern whimsy on the roots and beginnings of Shakerism? the end of the novel is nearly a love poem to one of the most fascinating religious figures i have had the pleasure of learning about - the Shaker proselytizer Anna Lee. have you ever heard of the Shakers, outside of their excellence at furniture-building? i have, but then in my early youth i was raised in some aspects of the Quaker faith, from which many of the Shaker tenets developed. if you haven't heard of the Shakers, look them up! their belief system is truly compelling, not least in their unshakeable conviction that equality between the genders was an absolute for truly living in God's world. an admirable belief! they even thought that Jesus may return in the form of a woman, which was surely a beyond-radical concept for the time (and may still be so). and those Shakers danced! thus the name "Shakers". they danced and sang in crazy, awesome concentric circles. just about the only thing that i find questionable about the faith is their determination that all forms of sexuality, of carnality, were the devil's work. so... no sex. ever. not even for procreation.

is this a tale of transcendence, a vision of the world as God intended, a reclamation of a lost soul, a transfiguration of sorts? such is the final tale, and no doubt the one closest to the truth. have our key players transcended, either shedding their physical form and earthly existence for the beyond or shedding the grossly carnal and materialistic forms of their current lives for something finer, something richer in spirituality, community, equality, and destiny? well, let me just tell you this: do not expect an answer to your questions. expect to be forced to think, and not to be led to the well to drink. expect a certain lack of satisfaction, a clear lack of narrative resolution. expect to be... frustrated.

the title

is A Maggot "a maggot"? in the intro, Fowles recalls the obsolete definition of the word: namely, "a whim, a quirk". this is perhaps the only interpretation with which i resolutely disagree. A Maggot is far from a whim. its intentions are too serious, its possible meaning too compelling, too multi-leveled. unlike a mere whim, it exists to be contemplated seriously. its ideas are no fanciful quirk; indeed, it is a puzzle for the mind (and soul), an almost brazen challenge from beginning to end.


apropos of nothing at all, here are my Top 10 Kate Bush songs:

Leave It Open
Running Up that Hill
Army Dreamers
Get Out of My House
Wuthering Heights
James and the Cold Gun
Hammer Horror
Coffee Homeground
This Woman's Work

The Wasp Factory

by Iain Banks

The Wasp Factory

a gentle coming-of-age tale set in rustic scotland, depicting the charming misadventures of a precocious lad and his idiosyncratic older brother as they struggle to understand themselves and each other.

this is some hard stuff, and by "hard" i mean Hard Like the Marquis de Sade Is Hard. do not read this if you cannot stomach graphic depictions of animal torture. do not read this if you cannot stomach the murder of children. this one was hard for me to read at times, and i read some pretty terrible things.

but this is actually not a bleak book. perhaps because of the narrator: young Frank is a sadistic creature but his perspective is often self-deprecatingly wry or amusingly pedantic. he may be an affectless sociopath who channels his monstrous emotions into bizarre rituals and vicious traps, but hey - he is also a sensitively-wrought kid with many problems. what makes the book such a unique affair is the tension between the horrors illustrated and the traditional vehicle in which they are expressed: it is in many ways a kind of Young Adult novel, albeit one chock-full of grotesquerie. one in which the protagonist struggles to move beyond his outsider status, to connect with others, to understand his distant father and his, er, 'problematic' older brother. Frank's cruelties exist side-by-side with a cold-blooded version of typical teenage angst, angst that is built around familial relations, gender, and simply finding a place in the world. the ending resolves some truly dreadful plotlines in a truly dreadful manner, but also parallels the typically transformative Young Adult ending in which the hero comes to understand himself and so is able to move forward with his life. clever, Banks, very clever!

the narrative is designed as a chinese box of layered (and revolting) mysteries, but it is also designed as a more subtle trap for the unsuspecting reader: look at you, you just found some sympathy for a remorseless little psycho! the personal problems that he has to struggle with ARE pretty heavy for a kid to deal with, right? and you felt a bit of happiness at his eventual self-discovery, didn't you? well, you should be ashamed, sicko!

the writing is clean, clear, precise and the tone is surprisingly upbeat. the protagonist's thoughts have a quiet yearning and naiveté to them that makes even his most horrific plans and rationalizations seem almost understated, almost innocent. the deadpan humor also relieves some of the viciousness of the very dark activities portrayed. the dissection of gender was fascinating! and the use of the wasp factory itself moves beyond that of a torture maze, becoming a metaphor and a parallel for the fates of each of the characters. overall, a disturbing but very enriching experience.

this is a pretty unique book. if you like it, you may want to search out jack vance's Bad Ronald, which is also dryly and ironically concerned with the deadly fantasy life of a youthful, psychotic outsider.


Naked Lunch

by William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch

WARNING: nasty language ahead, including the use of some of my favorite phrases from the novel; these include such choice nuggets as mugwump jism and to turn a massacre into a sex orgy and a bubbly thick stagnant sound, a sound you could smell and the subject will come at his whistle, shit on the floor if he but say Open Sesame. anyway,


I’ll be honest, mugwump jism, it took me a while to get into Naked Lunch, to turn a massacre into a sex orgy. Three attempts, to be exact, a bubbly thick stagnant sound, a sound you could smell. I don’t mind stream-of-conscious writing, I don’t mind the Beats, I don’t mind postmodernism, I don’t mind graphic sexual and violent imagery, I don’t mind experimental narratives, the subject will come at his whistle, shit on the floor if he but say Open Sesame. But a work that combines all of those things in one fetid stew, in such an in-your-face way that could care less about creating any kind of empathy, and has such a complete disinterest in establishing easily-digestible form or meaning... well, it was off-putting mugwump jism. In a way it made me angry at Burroughs, to turn a massacre into a sex orgy. Who the fuck did he think he was, grinding my face in the muck and telling me that this foul nonsense was the new Now, a bubbly thick stagnant sound, a sound you could smell? I didn’t like how every fourth phrase seemed to be about shit or jism or asses or toothless mouths, the subject will come at his whistle, shit on the floor if he but say Open Sesame. I thought the extreme homoeroticism was gruesome and not very erotic, and it actually made me feel rather homophobic – and this is coming from a bonafide cocksucker, mugwump jism.

But the third try worked like a charm to turn a massacre into a sex orgy. Maybe I just needed to grow into the novel, and not take its challenging ways so personally, a bubbly thick stagnant sound, a sound you could smell. The writing became amazing to me – overindulgent (obviously) but also masterful, profound even, in its hair-raising descriptive passages, its deadpan dialogue, its drooling emphasis on bodily functions, decay, death, degradation, the subject will come at his whistle, shit on the floor if he but say Open Sesame. Its paranoia was no longer oppressive – if anything, it was freeing, mugwump jism. Naked Lunch’s ability to convey not just the darkness but the strangeness and black humor at the heart of both addiction and the various possible and existing forms of societal control became fascinating, to turn a massacre into a sex orgy. The radical changes in perspective, the decentralized plot and oblique narrative, all the grotesque, taboo fantasias suddenly felt mordantly playful and, well, “naked” in their need to convey a state of mind, a world view, a way of looking at the systems of the world... all of that actually became inspirational, in both the challenge of its intent and the radical nature of its result; and so the subject will come at his whistle, shit on the floor if he but say Open Sesame.


The Wayward Bus

by John Steinbeck

The Wayward Bus

i saw Dusty reading this and asked him what it was all about. he said it was hard to say, it was about life and people and what a countertop looks like and what a place feels like and how people think or not-think. he also said that Steinbeck was his favorite author. he finished reading the book and then gave it to me. i would say that Dusty is my friend, sure, why not.

The Wayward Bus is about a bunch of people in post-WW 2 america. it features a pimply and testosterone-filled youth, a homely waitress, a smokin hot stripper, a conformist old executive & his quietly manipulative wife & their independent daughter, an angry old man, a war vet turned traveling salesman, a horrible and self-loathing wife and her husband - a "man". at least that's how Steinbeck takes pain to describe him, repeatedly. what is a "man"? have i met one? anyway, all these people met up at a diner and most of them get on a bus together, and that's the novel. The Wayward Bus is about Wayward People. or more specifically, people who are in transition or who want to be in transition or who are experiencing a moment in their lives where transition could potentially happen, if they let it. if that transition is the right thing to do. what is "the right thing to do"? i don't know.

Dusty is my BIL's younger brother. he seems to always be in transition. what is he doing right now? i don't know. i see him during the Christmas holidays, we usually crash in my sister's living room, we watch our nephews open gifts, we drink some drinks, we have Christmas dinner together, we go our separate ways. before Christmas i usually take him and the rest of the family out to a really nice dinner. that's my Christmas gift to them all. it is the kind of anonymous 'expensive' gift that is very easy for a bachelor like myself to give. all it requires is a lot of money and very little thought. Dusty gives me good gifts for Christmas. he thinks about his gifts; they are meaningful, and personally meaningful to me. he has the gift of giving thoughtful gifts. i think i used to have that gift as well. did i lose it?

Steinbeck is a brilliant writer, let's just get that out of the way. his prose is genuinely amazing. cliche time: he is a painter using words. his writing absorbed me - but a depressing kind of absorbing. he describes these characters inside and out, you know what they look like and how they will react in a given situation. he contextualizes them. he supplies the macro and the micro. he beautifully describes these characters' surroundings, natural or man-made, the history of a particular setting, what it looks and smells and feels like, the resonance of a place. he moves from that to what a countertop looks like, a small and under-furnished room, a bus (lots & lots of bus!), a cave, a barn, an abandoned house. my God, the man describes the inner life of a fly right before it is crushed! the novel feels both big and small. he gets into these characters' heads, he shows the why and the how and the what-if of their waywardness, their possible and impossible transitions and journeys. he makes you know them. even the angry old man - even he gets his reason why, his context, his pain & fear & longing, even he is made whole for the reader. for some readers, he makes you love them, or at least able to empathize with them. but not for this reader. thanks to Steinbeck, i "know" them. i guess. but empathize? probably not. they seem to exist solely to carry out the stereotypical functions of their gender, to obsess about sex, about power, to dream of freedom, to dream big and then act small. i don't like these characters. are lives really so small? maybe it is a smallness in me that refuses to recognize their needs and desires as my own, to dismiss them as "stereotypes". i suppose. so yeah, Steinbeck is a brilliant writer. he makes me understand these characters enough to make this reader's skin crawl at the thought of them.

Dusty is in the military. sorta. he's out now but still connected. he's young and handsome so they feature him in videos on youtube where he explains how the military counters terrorist threats and how to use various weapons. Dusty has been in Iraq. Dusty is a Buddhist. i think. he appreciates eastern philosophies and dislikes material possessions and wants to work with his hands, preferably in nature. i don't know if he has Big Goals in his life but he is a thinker. he thinks and then he switches up his life. then he thinks again, and switches it all up again. he is a Wayward Bus kinda guy.

i am not a Wayward Bus kinda guy. this is an incredible book in many ways but i did not connect with it. i don't appreciate its take on human nature. it depressed me, these characters depressed me. sometimes i look at things like The Wayward Bus and am reminded that i may have smarts but i don't think i have a lot of depth. i am content and usually just want to be left alone. i'm not Wayward, i'm the opposite, i'm here to stay. i look at these characters and sometimes they are like bugs to me, like that fly getting crushed in that cake. Dusty looks at them and he sees real people. he empathizes with them, their situation resonates with him, he connects. why is that? i look at Dusty and i see a real person. don't i? what is a real person anyway.

despite all the wayward and meandering existential angst above, i think this is a brilliant book. you should read it. i loved it and yet i didn't like it very much. you can love something without liking it, right?

Little, Big

by John Crowley

Little, Big

sometimes, when dreaming, i am aware of a complex and mysterious history to the at times strange but often mundane narrative of the dream itsef. i'll be running away from something, against some dark background, a house or castle or a school, who knows... although the drama of running is clear, there's often a feeling that so many things have already happened before i started running, things of which i'm only dimly aware, a whole story has happened or is happening in which i'm only getting bits & pieces or what feels like the end. i guess it's what makes some dreams so hard to explain - simple or inexplicable events occurring that have an emotional depth and meaning that is near impossible to describe in passionless terms.

other times, passing by my work's drop-in center, i'll exchange words with a visitor, a person usually dealing with life changes or the possibility of life ending (that's the nature of my workplace). they'll say some simple pleasantry or even give a brief phrase to show how they're doing... and there's a whole world in what they say, an entire journey expressed, near-tangible emotions conveyed. but of the details of that history, the why and how of it, and the place they seek or the place they fear to go... inexpressible.

that's what reading Little, Big was like for me. so many little moments in a family's life, in the lives of people connected to the family, in the city in which the family dwells. and all these moments live in a world with a background and a future that is vast, mystical, dreamlike, one that cannot be expressed with any kind of logical or linear description. sometimes the moments are so personal and delicate... other times they are whimsical and brimming with magic, or strange and full of some kind of barely understandable threat... sad moments, and tragic ones, and moments filled with delight... and in the end, they become grand and they sweep the characters and the reader towards what almost feels like an understanding of the purpose and destination of it all. almost!

the novel is about an enchanted family, their loves & lives & history. it is also about the end of an age, the beginning of another, witches & changelings & fairies & enchantments, loneliness & forgetfulness & sorrow, love, the past and the future, and new york city. there are no real villains, there are no traditional heroes. the writing has a dense but fragile beauty. there are layers upon layers. there are mythical beings that come alive and realistic characters that become as myths. i sighed in amazement, many times, at the wonder of it all; it is like a dream made half-real. it is a unique book.

Absolute Beginners

by Colin MacInnes

Absolute Beginners

Absolute Beginners is remarkable - a dream of a novel. It is fast-paced, sweet-tempered, open-hearted, a golden book in many ways – a paean to youth, to a future brimming with possibility, to a present that is lived vibrantly and joyfully. It is also about selling out, junkies, prostitution, and race wars. How can this be? I suppose it is all about point of view, and the protagonist’s perspective is the embodiment of Live Now and Love It. This is one of those rare novels that make the reader feel even more alive by reading it. The enthusiasm of its narrator was equaled by my enthusiasm of the world that MacInnes plunges us into headfirst. It depicts, it mocks, it leaps forward, it grabs your hand and carries you along.

I was young once, gosh, just a decade or so ago. or more. I lived a life full of punks, hippies, goths, ravers, djs, fags, dykes, trans girls & guys, straight guys who made out with other guys and straight girls who were angry and ardent feminists, vegetarians and vegans, girls who stripped for cash in dives and guys who waved their hard-ons for free in print, fighters and peacemakers, guys who carved symbols on their bodies and girls who dressed like vampire princesses; we lived in junked-out flats filled with too many people, we shared clothes and went on road trips and had neverending parties and made protests against the government and danced all night and consumed amazing amounts of booze and drugs and sex and live music. I read Absolute Beginners during that period, and one of the best things about this novel was that it felt completely real and true to me, despite the difference in social scenes that were separated by decades, by an ocean. It showed the true diversity available to people in their late teens, in their 20s; it illustrated – and so nonchalantly – values that were not just held dear, but were unspoken, values that defied the middle class and that were simply assumed to be shared by everyone we knew. To read oneself and one’s peers in a novel written in 1958 is something special, something wonderfully moving to contemplate, even many years later.

What lifts Absolute Beginners above the idea that life for the young and unencumbered can be a great time, a fun carnival, is its complete awareness that this is also rather an illusion, and a crushingly temporary one at that. So many wonderful things can happen, so much excitement – and yet the world around this world still exists to be fought against. For me and my friends, that world to rail against did not just include asshole yuppies who came to our neighborhoods from time to time, it included police brutality, the WTO, the wars abroad. In Absolute Beginners, that world above includes race warfare. "Race" is clearly interwoven throughout the narrative, and yet it is one of so many things that the narrator is aware of, just one facet of the world that the narrator comments on... the reader could almost lose sight of it. But race and racism are there the entire time and slowly but surely become the whole point; by the end, the reader and the protagonist see how fragile a life full of living can be when the world is singling out his peers for destruction, and those peers are turning to him for alliance. The protagonist chooses, and chooses well. But it marks an ending of sorts, an ending of an attitude and a lifestyle, and the beginning of an understanding that no matter what he and his peers have built, he lives in the world still, as does everyone, and that world is one of both wonder and horror.

Chicken Soup for the Soul

by Jack Canfield

one fine summer day, young mark monday - aged 4 or 5 - was tooling around the neighborhood on his Big Wheel. he was a happy lad and liked to make others around him feel happy too. this outlook soon saw its first challenge when he wheeled up to his friend Tommy - who looked miserable and had clearly been crying.

"What's the matter, Tommy?"

"Dad's going away!"

young mark monday was a military brat and so was Tommy, so mark knew exactly how he felt. he had felt the same way, many times. but he hated seeing his friend Tommy looking so upset. he thought for a moment, and as his thoughts tended to do, they moved towards his favorite shows, Sesame Street and Electric Company. what happened when kids had problems on those shows, problems that they didn't know how to solve? why, they sang about them! and then the problems just didn't seem so big anymore. and so young mark sang.

"Don't be sa-ad, Tommy!
Just be gla-ad, Tommy!
The sun is bright,
Let your heart take --"

mark was silenced when Tommy suddenly picked up a rock and smashed it right into his face. then Tommy ran off. mark sat there stunned... then slowly rode his Big Wheel home, crying and bleeding. from that day on, he knew the dangers of trying to turn a frown upside down.

Chicken Soup for the Soul