1.31.2016

Briefly Scrutinizing the First Sentence of It Happened in Boston? by Russell Greenan



How's this for an opening line:

"LATELY I have come to feel that the pigeons are spying on me."

That's the first sentence zinger from It Happened in Boston? (1968), the debut novel replete with astonishing zinger sentences from one of the most unjustly neglected* writers of the past fifty years, Russell H. Greenan.


Image of my first printing, 1968
Greenan's first published sentence in a book zings for many reasons; allow me to zero in, briefly, on a few.  First, the sentence serves as a microcosm, in thirteen lucky words, for the brilliant, intentionally unbalanced, balance of the 273 page novel.  If I explained in too much specific details what I meant by "microcosm" it just wouldn't match the captivating kookiness of Greenan's novel on the one hand, and its genre-bending erudition on the other, where the contemporary art world, world history, mystery, mythology, mysticism, and "fantasy" in the old-school, James Branch Cabell or Jorge Luis Borges sense of the word—the fantastic— intermingle in our narrator-artist's transformative "reveries" that propel him, within the span of minutes, to other planets, alternate realities, the Middle Ages, and back to antique galleries and public gardens (when he's not in some psychiatric ward) in the backstreets of a photographically rendered Boston as fully realized as Leopold Blooms' day in Dublin.

Secondly, notice that Greenan used the word "feel" instead of "think" or "believe" in the first sentence. Why "feel"?  Why not "perceive" or "observe" or "notice"? Probably because He, our oddball but genius narrator, is an artist.  That he is an artist is not a delusion.  Like many artists, he feels things deeply—more deeply than most.  He also sees things more deeply than most.  Things that ordinary souls would call delusions, hallucinations.  Not only are the pigeons spying on him (and later haranguing him), but he can travel through time, throughout the eons of recorded history and a myriad of cultures.

"One day I dined with Aristides or with Vespasian, the next I ate with the Yorubas or gnawed a reindeer bone in the Dordogne. In swift succession I looked upon the glory of Cyrus the Great, the savagery of Chaka, the courage of Cortez, the splendor of Sheng-tsu, the folly of Nero, the fury of Timour and the cunning of the Medici. I heard Mozart play and Dr. Johnson talk. . . ."

Clearly, our narrator is as erudite as he is nuts.  But, lest I stray further from the first sentence of It Happened in Boston?, let me say lastly that in its amazing microcosm of an even more amazing book, I'm reminded of what Lydia Davis accomplishes less effectively in her short short story-abstracts in which implications billow out from a brevity of words, and interpretations are trusted solely to the reader's knowledge and imagination.  Imagine an entire novel of first sentences like that, how artistically twisted (a compliment) that could become—sort of like the off-kilter visual of the apartment building on the front cover of the first edition's dust jacket—and that is, without question, the exciting experience of reading It Happened in Boston?

* Russell H. Greenan's most recent novel, his fourteenth, Nether Netherland, was published in England in 2014, when he was eighty-eight.  He's ninety now.  Visit him at his excellent website that chronicles the entirety of his unique career.

1.24.2016

Where Faith and Fatalism Collide: The Accident by David Plante



Isn't it uncanny how the authors we sometimes just happen to be reading in tandem together collide out of the blue outside of what we're reading and we discover, without any prior knowledge, that the writer's lives, beyond their fiction, poetry, and literary criticism, intersected intimately?  Leaves me wondering aloud if sometimes what we've chosen to read, being the lifelong passionate readers we are, was somehow nudged in one way or another by the books themselves upon our shelves and nightstands? Before anybody scoffs or labels me nuts (and for the skeptics, I'll grant you, in a spirit of magnanimity offered in the hopes you'll continue reading, that I'm nutty) keep in mind that William H. Gass, a titan of Literature and Philosophy among post-1960 Artist-Thinkers of the Earth, conceptualized the animate possibilities of books in an essay "The Book as a Container of Consciousness" that he began as an address to a "conference on the book," hosted by the J. Paul Getty Center, and later polished up for publication in his 1996 essay collection Finding A Form. Theoretically, therefore, books could in fact be in possession of their own "minds" so to speak; and having minds, couldn't they vie for our attentions, and perhaps mysteriously attract our attention to specific spines on our bookshelves?

The most recent instance of books attracting books that I've encountered was while reading and becoming enrapt by Stephen Spender's book length analysis of T.S. Eliot's poetry in T.S. Eliot.  At the same time, I'd been reading an exceptional, introspective, novel, The Accident by an author — David Plante —brand new to me.  When a writer new to me excites me as much as Plante has, I begin reading up on everything I can find about them.  In so doing I found The Guardian's fine review of Plante's recent memoir Becoming a Londoner: A Diary.  In it, the reviewer revealed  the personal, perhaps intimate, connection that had existed for many years between Stephen Spender and David Plante. Plante, in fact, had "stolen" one of Spender's lovers, the Greek poet, Nikos Stangos. Again, when I'd begun Spender's T.S. Eliot and Plante's The Accident I had no clue of their deep connection, and yet there it was, and I had just happened to be reading books by both writers at the same time. Coincidence, or something more?  For an instance of possibly "something more" I'll refer the reader to an old post, "Meeting Terri Inside a Book (or, When a Book Lures You, Listen!)" in which I was drawn to an obscure work of literary criticism on Henry James and upon opening the first page, revealed it to be formerly owned by a mentor from my past.

After reading the first sentence of The Accident, I had the impulse to rush here and quote it, but I kept reading.  Then I had the impulse to quote the first paragraph, the first page, the entire first chapter, but I had to keep reading.  Over halfway through this slim novel, I still wanted to quote every word of it, but how absurd and impractical would that be?  Instead, I'll honor my first impulses and quote the first sentence, the first paragraph. . . .

"WALKING ALONG the Seine, close to the swiftly moving but heavy water that slithered against the quai, walking round the couples sitting at the edge with their arms about each other, one young man with his hand inside the unbuttoned blouse of the young woman and holding her breast, I longed for what I felt couldn't be fulfilled even by making love, only by throwing myself into the river, not to die, but to be taken somewhere else on its current, which, out at the center, streamed in smooth, shining, infolding waves."

The Accident is a distillation of language; it's a short novel that's been aged long.  That the sentences go down smooth in "shining, infolding waves" isn't to say they lack a complex of flavors because their finish lingers.  The Accident examines in deep psychological detail the consequences of faith and its opposites atheism and nihilism over the course of a semester in the 1950s at the Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium, in the lives — and in the ruins — of four students from the States: Tom Domlon, Karen, Vincent, and an unnamed narrator.  It is the unnamed narrator's austere, philosophical rumination from his unspecified future vantage, looking back at what he lost and also learned from the wreckage, that moves the psychological action along.

In critiquing "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Stephen Spender describes the "failure" of Prufrock, "for which he despises himself, is failure to relate either with another person or with the Absolute.  He is isolated, he cannot communicate".  And the same could be said of David Plante's unnamed narrator — a conflicted self-loather mad at himself for once believing and now for his unbelief, and unnamed, perhaps, to emphasize not only his lack of identity but his rejection of any identity, Catholic or otherwise, he could have claimed — who likewise, surrounded by his classmates almost desperate to know him, who in fact go out of there way to engage him, cannot — no, he will not — open his tortured heart to them, until it is too late.  Spender wrote of Prufrock that he was "superior to the inhabitants of his world because he is conscious of being inferior," which again, describes (and the similarities between the two characters are uncanny to the point I can't help but wonder if Plante purposely fashioned his narrator after Eliot's Prufrock) the convoluted, paradoxical psychology, of David Plante's No-Name narrator in his torn, tugging desires that, in turns, make him in one moment want to belong with his college comrades, and the next remain apart, alienated.

What follows is the Reaper's abrupt arrival in a blinding light on an otherwise starry tranquil night in the French countryside near Paris, where finally, we understand, as the dramatic yet understated tension that David Plante, in his enchanting poetic prose, has built and built and built toward its climactic crash, why he titled his beautiful brilliant novel as he did.  Where faith and fatalism collide, there's going to be a terrible accident.


12.27.2015

For Megan



Two years ago today, time went off the tracks and my worst fears materialized ... the worst possible thing happened ... and my sweet adorable daughter, Megan, in a terrible instant, stopped breathing and died. And yet two years ago today she was also still alive.  She was sleeping in that morning, on Christmas break from high school, when I left for work, so I didn't give her a kiss on the cheek like I usually did on my way out the door.  I didn't say goodbye.  I left home for work that morning living the life I'd always known, a good life, and returned home that night to utter desolation. To ruins.  Her tragic death, at times, even now exactly two years removed from it, still feels like only yesterday—and yet a yesterday a lifetime ago.  How can forever still feel so close?

Heedless of Megan's absence, time passes.  Time waits for no one is a brutal surreal truth.  Phillip K. Dick called this paradox of time's passage in our perceptions TIME OUT of JOINTthe title of his early, 1959, novel. What did he know that we don't about time? T.S. Eliot, in BURNT NORTON, knew that Time present and time past / Are both perhaps present in time future, / And time future contained in time past.

Marcel Proust knew as well as anyone that remembrance transcends time, and so today I'd like to follow his lead (albeit in far fewer words) and remember Megan, my beloved girl, so that her memory too may somehow transcend time.  With that objective in mind, I've collected below, in fragments, any spinning blur of a photograph or recollection I could find in my old book reviews and other writings.  Click on the links below and, somewhere, in something obscure I wrote about this under-appreciated book or that one, Megan is there—forever—I hope.

Megan was born, barely alive, on August 11, 1998, at 6:31pm. Within minutes of her birth (I can still hear that goopy, suction sound, when she was hurriedly scooped out in an emergency c-section), she was practically hardwired into an I.V. pole and monitor.  Lying un-conscious in that little bed, she looked like she was some futuristic robobaby.  She couldn't cry, even had she been conscious, since she'd been immediately intubated after birth. My wife and I cried in her stead, watching her fight for her life from the get-go. Megan's left wrist had been slashed to insert an "art" line to monitor the rhythms and inner workings of her odd heart.  Her skin was mottled blue, meaning she was "cyanotic".  Her blood pressure and "sat" readings zig zagged all over the place on her monitor.  Our eyes, when not on Megs, were glued to that monitor flashing numbers in multiple colors nonstop.  The "art" (or arterial) line provided NICU staff with instant readouts of her malfunctioning heart.  Had there been a print out in real time monitoring the wild, second-by-second, fluctuations in her blood pressure, I imagine it may have appeared on paper as if her heart were having an earthquake.  One that went on hour after hour, day after day, for weeks.

Congenital heart defects are common among babies like Megan born with Down syndrome. Megan had a doozy of a heart defect: "tetralogy of Fallot".  I couldn't even begin to explain tetralogy of Fallot, even though the doctors did their best to explain it so we'd understand.  Her doctors huddled around her bed. One took us aside and advised my wife and I to prepare, to be ready, just in case—saying she wanted to be completely straight with us—that Megan might not make it, that we might not be taking our baby home.  I wrote "TET BABY" as a result of this intense experience and not from any exact memory of her fighting-for-her-life ordeal, for time then when all we could do was stand idly by, staring at "sats," was just this timeless, mind bludgeoning blur, especially when she'd "crash" and have to be "bagged"; but rather, I wrote it from a photograph of her lying immobilized beneath that riot of tubes and wires that I found thirteen years later, when I was looking for something else in my desk.

Those early days with Megs were fraught with fear.  She might not make it.  What else could go wrong?  I touched more on those early days in what was one of the earliest books I tried my hand at reviewing, BABIES with DOWN SYNDROME: A New Parent's Guide by Karen Stray Gundersen. Over the last five years of Megan's life, her
name came up fairly frequently within the con-text of the plots or cir- cumstances in the life of whichever character in whatever book I happened to be reading and reviewing at the time.  And writing about Megan was both a joy and catharsis for me; as it was, for instance, in my review of DISABILITYLAND by Dr. Alan Brightman, in which I vented my frustrations and anger over the ever ongoing challenges we faced in advocating for our daughter's right to F.A.P.E. ("Free and Appropriate Public Education") under I.D.E.A. ("Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 1982") within a largely broken public school system and administrative bureaucracy that prioritizes maintaining their six-figure salaries at the expense of providing appropriate levels of federally legislated services such as speech therapy to its special needs students. Beyond catharsis, reading and reviewing great books could (and still can) be like sitting down for dinner with a dear friend and experiencing that unbreakable
bond of commiseration: times of reconnection that can inspire re-newed hope for the weary and dis-heartened. I experienced all that upon reading and then reviewing LOVE YOU to PIECES: Creative Writers on Raising a CHILD with SPECIAL NEEDS, a brilliant anthology of short stories, novel excerpts, and poems, edited by the expatriate novelist Suzanne Kamata, who lives in Japan.  Love You to Pieces is an essential book for anyone who lives or works  alongside human beings with special needs.  One of the contributors in Love You to Pieces, Hannah Holborn, having read my review, contacted me on LibraryThing and later sent me a signed and inscribed copy of her first story collection FIERCE: Stories and a Novella.

cover by Lindsey Spinks
Human beings with special needs are often far more perceptive, far more there, far more aware and present in the moment than their more "typical" peers probably think or could possibly imagine. Perhaps even more than their parents could possibly imagine.  I dealt briefly with this facet of Megan's interior life in my review of The DIVING BELL and the BUTTERFLY by Jean Dominique-Bauby, a profound and moving account of a physically and psychologically afflicted man's last days before succumbing to "locked-in syndrome".  Megan, likewise, due to her limited ability to communicate verbally, was "locked inside" herself.

I remember well the moment when I caught my first glimpse of how much more was going on inside Megan than I'd ever previously realized.  I wrote about this dawning realization in an online group that's been talking books and literature together for over six years. And so here I'll quote what I wrote in its (slightly edited) entirety:

I came to James Branch Cabell late, through my online pal, Crypto-Willobie's, unmatched passion for the man, in 2012.   The first book of Cabell's I bought was the Dover, pricier edition, of JURGEN, with the Frank C. Pape illustrations, while on our summer vacation that year down the coast in Carlsbad.

Found it at a great local shop, Farenheit 451 Books. And I began reading it that summer on vacation: that idyllic summer vacation right on the sand in Carlsbad that would turn out to be the next to last summer vacation we'd have with our daughter, Megan, who would pass away suddenly and unexpectedly from cardiac arrest the result of a pulmonary embolism just a few days after Christmas, 2013.

During that vacation I really connected with Megan for the first time.  I don't mean to suggest we were disconnected before that, but due mostly to her autism (which only exacerbated the verbal communication challenges she already faced having Down syndrome), and my inability to see through all the tics and "special" personality quirks she presented, I had no clue that there was a deeper level of connection awaiting us. But
there was, and we bonded beautifully that summer week on the beach in a way that was magical and hard to describe exactly. For the first time that summer, rather than get on her to "come on, Megan!" and wade out farther with the rest of us into the ocean; "you can do it, Megs!" (as she was invariably leery of doing because of her hypo-tonia and sensory issues that caused in her an understandable disequilibrium whenever she stood on such unsteady ground), I backed off and met her on the beach right where she was at.

That summer — and why I don't know why (must have been intuitive) — I decided to just sit beside her, as she sat, on our butts with our legs aimed at the horizon in the damp, compacted sand of low tide, while the small curls and constant surges of seawater splashed into us, knocking us over, these warm sudsy edges of the ocean sizzling all around us. Back on our butts "the sea would slide back" (as Sylvia Plath once poetically put it), and we'd look at each other and laugh, and wait, all giddy and giggly in anticipation of the next wave. During one of those interludes that summer at the beach, waiting for the shore pound to bowl us over again so we could laugh till it hurt together again, I looked into her eyes and she looked into mine, and I saw that I was meeting a deeper part of Megan I'd never met before for the first time. We spent hours of almost every day during that idyllic vacation on the sand like that, becoming as one with the rhythms of the waves as we'd become with one another.  Megan was already thirteen that summer (and only had a little over two years left to live) and yet in a very fundamental way I realized — I felt it, just knew it — that I was meeting my daughter for the first time. And we were so close thereafter, tight buds, until the day she died.  And now, of course, though she's gone, Megan still exists in that faraway realm of James Branch Cabell's Jurgen, somewhere "between the dawn and the sunrise".

About a year before Megan died, I reviewed PLACE LAST SEEN, the debut novel — and so far only novel (sure wish she'd write another one) — by Charlotte McGuin Freeman.  In her mesmerizing novel, a girl with Down syndrome named Maggie (we often called Megan "Meggie") goes missing on a family day hike in late autumn in the Sierra Nevada's Desolation Wilderness.  The outcome for Maggie and her family is, you could say, sheer desolation.  Sheer devastation.  Freeman, unaware of my daughter's passing, contacted me here at the blog not long after her death to say thanks for the review. Her comments follow my review.

The day after Megan died I posted "HOPE," (Megan's middle name) which in retrospect was completely for myself — and the commitment I was then making to myself and, perhaps more importantly, to my wife and family, that together, no matter how excruciating and permanent our grief would be (and only one day removed from Megan's death I really had no clue just how cruel and excruciating that first year would be) we would nevertheless figure out a way together to survive our shared ordeal. And we did, and continue doing so.

A couple weeks later, GHOST RIDER: Travels on the Healing Road by Neil Peart gave me some great advice on surviving the death of a child.  God forbid another person out there reading this loses — or has already lost — their child. Whether I know you or not, whether it seems odd to you or not that I'd say it—me, some stranger in cyberspace you do not know—do know, regardless, that I'm genuinely sorry for your loss. No one wants to be in our club, so those of us with the misfortune of being in it share an uncommon but universal bond.  Only recently, the poet and author Terese Svoboda was kind enough to leave a message on my blog after I'd briefly mentioned Megan in a post — On Discovering Lola Ridge while visiting Terese Svoboda's website — about Svoboda's soon-to-be published biography, ANYTHING THAT BURNS YOU: A Portrait of LOLA RIDGE, Radical Poet, that I'm looking forward to reading once it's released by Schaffner Press on February 2, 2016, and hope many other people will likewise do so. Lola Ridge's poem MOTHER explains for me, better than I can, the experience of attempting to describe in this post what it's like remembering Megan, and so I'm sharing it here again:

Your love was like moonlight
turning harsh things to beauty,
so that little wry souls
reflecting each other obliquely
as in cracked mirrors...
beheld in your luminous spirit
their own reflection,
transfigured as in a shining stream,
and loved you for what they are not.

You are less an image in my mind
than a luster
I see you in gleams
pale as star-light on a gray wall...
evanescent as the reflection of a white swan
shimmering in broken water.

Megan was beyond awesome. Beyond words. I was beyond lucky to be her Dad. Even though she's been gone for two years now, I still find myself saying — as I've said everyday since she abruptly left, and as I suspect I'll be saying everyday that I have left — So long sweet girl. . . .



12.20.2015

The Best Twelve Books I Read in 2015, Month by Month (plus runners-up and honorable mentions)



JANUARY
    One of the Children is Crying ~ Coleman Dowell (1968)


FEBRUARY
   Heavy Daughter Blues ~ Wanda Coleman (1987)


MARCH
   The Book of Dolores ~ William T. Vollmann (2013)
 

APRIL
   Asylum Piece ~ Anna Kavan (1940)






















MAY
   The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest ~ Anatoli Boukreev & G. Weston DeWalt (1997)


JUNE
   Beyond Life: Dizain des Démiurges ~ James Branch Cabell (1919)


JULY
   Hell House ~ Richard Matheson (1971)


AUGUST
   Metrophage ~ Richard Kadrey (1988)


SEPTEMBER
   
   Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs ~ Ted Morgan (1988, 2012)

OCTOBER              
   A Fabulous Opera ~ Tropic of Ideas (2015; edited & illustrated by Solla Carrock)























NOVEMBER
   Nakamura Reality ~ Alex Austin (2016)


DECEMBER
   Ice ~ Anna Kavan (1967)


~~~~~~~~~~~~
RUNNERS-UP

January ... Telling Stories by Joan Didion (1978)
February ... The Award Avant-Garde Reader* edited by Gil Orlovitz (1965)
March ... The Encyclopedia of the Dead by Danilo Kis (1983)
April ... The Body by William Sansom (1949)
May ... Crooning: A Collection by John Gregory Dunne (1990)
June ... Revolt in Aspromonte by Corrado Alvaro (1930)
July ... Rashomon and Other Stories by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1952, posthumous)
August ... Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction** edited by Larry McCaffery (1991)
September ... The Blue Hammer by Ross MacDonald (1976)
October ... Kamikaze L'amour by Richard Kadrey (1995)
November ... La-bas by Joris-Karl Huysmans (1891)
December ... Naomi's Room by Jonathan Ayecliffe (1991)

included in the fiction anthology are the following stories:
"Proclaim Present Time Over" by William S. Burroughs // "Passage De Milan" by Michael Butor // "The Fantom of Marseilles" by Jean Cocteau // "The Open House of Asmodeus the Tortoise" by Peter Jones // "Wakerobin" by Thomas McEvilley III // "I'm Just in Sparta on a Visit" by Gil Orlovitz // "Ravenna" by Antonio Pizzuto // "Capricio Italiano" by Edoardo Sanguinetti // "Someone Just Like Me" by Sol Yurick.

** included in the anthology are short stories, novel excerpts, poetry, essays, and literary criticism; all of the works of fiction are listed below: 

—"Beyond the Extinction of Human Life" (from Empire of the Senseless) ~ Kathy Acker
— excerpt from Crash ~ J. G. Ballard
—"Mother and I Would Like to Know" (from The Wild Boys) ~ William S. Burroughs
—"Rock On" ~ Pat Cadigan
—"Among the Blobs" ~ Samuel R. Delany
— excerpt from White Noise ~ Don Delillo
— excerpt from Neuromancer ~ William Gibson
—"Fistic Hermaphrodites" // "Microbes" // "Penetrabit: Slime Temples" // "nerve terminals" ~ Rob Hardin
—"Max Headroom" ~ Harold Jaffe
— excerpt from Straight Fiction ~ Thom Jurek
—"The Toilet was Full of Nietzsche" (from Metrophage) ~ Richard Kadrey
—"Office of the Future" (from Dad's Nuke) ~ Marc Laidlaw
—"I was an Infinitely Hot and Dense Dot" (from My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist) ~ Mark Leyner
— excerpt from Plus ~ Joseph McElroy
—"Wire Movement #9" // "Wire for Two Tims" ~ Misha
— excerpt from Easy Travel to Other Planets ~ Ted Mooney
—"Frame 137" ~ Jim O'Barr
— excerpt from The Crying of Lot 49 ~ Thomas Pynchon
— excerpt from Software ~ Rudy Rucker
— excerpt from Life During Wartime ~ Lucius Shepard
—"Stoked" ~ Lewis Shiner
—"Wolves of the Plateau" ~ John Shirley
—"Twenty Evocations" // "The Mare Tranquillitatis People's Circumlunar Zaibatsu: 2-1-'16" (from Schismatrix) ~ Bruce Sterling
—"The Indigo Engineers" (from The Rainbow Stories) ~ William T. Vollmann

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Honorable Mentions, 2015

American Stories by Nagai Kafai (2000, posthumous)
Burnt Sienna by David Morrell (2000)
Painted Devils: Strange Stories by Robert Aickman (1979)
The Nihilesthete by Richard Kalich (1987)
The Unseen by Joseph Citro (1990)


12.09.2015

'Tis the Season for Ice by Anna Kavan



Ice actually isn't the best book a person could read during the festive Christmas season.  Though, if like me, you find the Christmas season and all its schmaltz and glitter difficult to endure, what with it's incessant and crude consumerism, its sickening good cheer — Ice, then, could be the perfect antidote to Christmas for you.

Other than that time I had open heart surgery in the next-to-last year of the Twentieth Century and, afterwards, in my recovery, was prescribed powerful opioids to manage the impossible throbbing pain, reading Ice by Anna Kavan is the closest I've ever come to being a junkie.  Classic though it is, Junky's got nothing on Ice when it comes to having a vicarious experience of what the long term hallucinatory effects of using heroin must be like upon one's psyche.  Sorry, William S. B., you know I still love you.

Ice is a consummate downer. It is major clinical depression — and maybe madness — incarnate, a deep freeze of the mind and spirit that is somehow resurrected as a phoenix ablaze in the preternatural imagination of Anna Kavan, who projects her cold conflagration out into the (un)natural world. Ice burns its images, it's searing insanity, into the deepest crevices of your mind — a dry ice novel if there ever was one, as smoke and snowflakes waft a-spiraling from its peculiar pages.   But it is a beautiful, brittle, burning world, imagined by Anna Kavan; her physical and psychological chaotic cosmos, an optical illusion, ruined by cold explosions of luminous, fiery ice.  My God there are so many different ways you could interpret the unnamed narrator's stark perceptions of her inner and outer worlds. She defines it for us in a line: "Reality had always been something of an unknown quantity to me".  I can't help wondering, hearing her take on "reality," if perhaps the "she" narrating the grim journey has dissociated, and the woman she meets early on in the novel at the "fort on the hill" is really a projection of herself rather than a separate individual? In other words, the unnamed "Her" she seeks in the novel could be a simple, but complex (and I suspect ultimately hopeless) search for herself, perhaps?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  Ambiguity reigns in Ice.  Interpretations are open-ended.  Reality and delusion are so well blended they've become something else entirely, but what? A "hybrid state of being," as an online friend — Zenomax — who was also reading the book at the same time I was, coined it, with an ability to see what most of us cannot — a lucid delusion perhaps?

"Ice had already engulfed the forest, the last ranks of trees were splintering.  Her silver hair touched my mouth, she was leaning against me.  Then I lost her; my hands could not find her again.  A snapped-off tree trunk was dancing high in the sky, hurled up hundreds of feet by the impact of the ice.  There was a flash, everything was shaken.  My suitcase was lying open, half-packed, on the bed.  The windows of my room were still wide open, the curtains streamed into the room.  Outside the treetops were streaming. . . ."

What do you make of that?  Her voice, the narrator's of Ice, estranged from any recognizable reality I've ever seen, is reminiscent to me of many of the unhinged, anxiety ridden, narrators in Asylum Piece and Other Stories, who weren't so much "mad" I think, as they were erroneously and so often maliciously diagnosed by their "caretakers" or wardens, but more likely lacking the psychological defense mechanisms that protect most "sane" persons from the intensity of their feelings and perceptions over the losses, the griefs, the addictions, and the resultant isolation that are somehow triggered and later magnified whenever they are exposed for any length of time to the simple rawness of the images and sensations produced by the outer "natural" world confining them inside a subzero and cavernous spiritual claustrophobia.  A world of mental suffocation, whiteouts, disorientation, "diminishing visibility ... increasing uneasiness" creating such acute panic and paranoia that delusion and hallucinations become the understandably "sanest" refuges for this unreliable narrator in an, if we're to believe her perceptions, incomprehensible, nuclear ruined icescape.

Ice, in a sentence, is a frigid death sentence; it is an abstractionist's vision of a personal post-apocalypse.  Ice was Anna Kavan's last fix, a sumptuous suicide note, her frost bitten goodbye.

"Self Portrait" by Anna Kavan
"...she faced a stupendous sky-conflagration, an incredible glacial dream-scene. Cold corus-cations of rainbow fire pulsed overhead, shot through by shafts of pure incandescence thrown out by mountains of solid ice towering all around. Closer, the trees round the house, sheathed in ice, dripped and sparkled with weird prismatic jewels, reflecting the vivid changing cascades above. Instead of the familiar night sky, the aurora borealis formed a blazing, vi-brating roof of intense cold and colour, beneath which the earth was trapped with all its in-habitants, walled in by those impassable glittering ice-cliffs. The world had become an arctic prison from which no escape was possible, all its creatures trapped as securely as were the trees, already lifeless inside their deadly resplendent armour."

Poetic, alliterative passages like the one above, remind me of William Blake.  Or is it Samuel Taylor Coleridge's frozen abyss in Kublai Khan I'm reminded of — or maybe both?  Some online friends hereabouts have astutely suggested that Ice reminds them of the late, reclusive, French author, Julien Gracq. Indeed, Ice could be Chateau d'Argol set in Antarctica.


11.22.2015

Kamikaze L'amour by Richard Kadrey



If ever a novel needed its own niche, Kamikaze L'amour by Richard Kadrey might've been it. Dipping here, there, everywhere, from many subgenres inside and out of science fiction—dystopia, post-apocalypse, urban fantasy, cyberpunk, timeslipstream, satire, literary fiction, magical realism, it eluded a single label—a good thing—but also eluded sales—not so good; it's unclassifiable nature reminiscent to me of Steve Erickson's inimitable oeuvre, particularly his second novel Rubicon Beach, in which an encroaching jungle, a parallel reality Los Angeles, and a mysterious woman named Catharine, all figure prominently. Could've been coincidental, there being so many striking similarities between the two novels, though I suspect Kadrey was probably paying Steve Erickson some much deserved homage.

first edition, 1995
When Kamikaze L'amour opens, San Francisco and Los Angeles are in ruins. "San Francisco was on the verge of some discrete internal shift accompanied by subtle deviations in gravity, cellular tremors — like a city-sized snake getting ready to shed its skin. In an ecological experiment gone cataclysmically wrong, the Amazon Rainforest has inundated the California coast.  Hardcore defoliants have been no match for this super-sized rainforest. The Feds, running out of options, have resorted to dropping napalm on Hollywood (yes, napalm, such sweet satire), with little long lasting effects.  It's like the Vietnam War all over again, except it's in Los Angeles, where mutant jungle vines grow fast before your eyes like scabrous menacing erections. U.S. Highway 101 has become a barely passable corridor between the Bay and L.A., an overgrown concrete stand-in, say, for the Congo or Nung Rivers of Conrad's and Coppola's respective visions.

Ex-rock star Ryder and his hearty appetite for destruction (yeah, he knows Slash), having faked his own suicide in order to escape what he's deemed an empty existence of excess and ennui (because "Fame is just schizophrenia with money," he's reasoned in Kamikaze L'amour's fantastic opening line), takes the dangerous trek south for Los Angeles in search of an idiosyncratic personal "light" from his memory whose luminescence, if he can only recapture it—and the strange thing is the peculiar light emanates from sound—believes will somehow restore him.  Maybe save him.  Provide him renewed purpose.  Become his guide.  Or might the epic anti-heroic quest for the light leave him in darkness instead, disillusioned, damned, another abandoned husk of a human being sifting the ashes throughout the charred vestiges of L.A.?

Ryder's girlfriend, also a talented and nutty musician (and likely insane), has fled south through the jungle before him. Ryder's convinced, since she's spent so many secret hours on the fringes of the new rainforest, recording the jungle's animate sounds, that she knows the right combo of ambient tones and notes to unlock that resurrecting light within and without.  But will he find her before the jungle devours her whole? Ryder pursues her with reckless abandon, as obsessive in his search for the light and the sound (vis-à-vis Catharine) as perhaps Proust was his past.  Despite the untold dangers, and some scary setbacks along the way, involving mercenaries, wild beasts, and indigenous tribes of the new Amazon, Ryder arrives in L.A., having barely survived his harrowing journey.

"The new Los Angeles seemed remarkably smaller, and somber; the most extroverted of cities had turned introspective. This was the sleeping face of L.A.—its dream face. Under its jungle coat, all the fantasies that the city had birthed, appropriated, conceived or destroyed moved raw and wild beneath the luminescent green canopy of the kapoks and palm trees. When it gave itself over to Amazonia, Los Angeles had found itself—a hermetic fusion of city and rainforest, half construct and half dream—as solid as the omnipresent HOLLYWOOD sign still visible in the hills, and as fragile as a dragonfly's wings."

In Kamikaze L'amour's acknowledgements, Kadrey thanked those who helped him write "The Book That Would Not Die". I think it's unfortunate that Kadrey's underrated second novel did in fact "die," commercially speaking, shortly after publication.  Victim of false expectations, suffering from unfair comparisons to his, granted, dazzling debut Metrophage, considered now a cyberpunk classic—Kamikaze L'amour is nevertheless a good, often great, novel in its own right (so what if it's not a classic phenom like its predecessor, neither was In Utero after Nevermind, or Tusk after Rumours, but they were still very good) has been out of print now for almost twenty years. Perhaps Harper Voyager will one day reissue it as they did Metrophage in 2014 to acclaim and steady sales.  Regardless, I hope many curious intrepid readers will soon reconsider reading the more experimental Kamikaze L'amour—a paean, ultimately, to humanity's obsessive search for light or illumination throughout the ages, and what an elaborate suicide might've symbolized in such a quest—for when they do I'm convinced they'll discover, as I did, that Richard Kadrey's second novel has long deserved a second chance.

11.07.2015

All Twenty-One of Stephen King's Books I've Read* so far (or Attempted to Read) Ranked from Worst to Best



Vulture released a worst-to-best ranking a couple years ago of Stephen King's sixty-four books and I thought they got it mostly right.  But I like this hardcore King fan's list better.

*I've read -- completed -- eighteen books by Stephen King so far in my life and have attempted to read three more.  The three I couldn't finish are the first three listed.  So, here's my personal worst-to-best ranking of the twenty-one books I've read or attempted to read by Stephen King.


Signet pb of original version
21. The Tommyknockers (1987).  A heartbreakingly bad reading experience that ended my then loyal relationship with Stephen King.  I made it 200-250 pages and gave up in disgust.  It's good to see I wasn't the only reader who thought this novel was tired, bloated, and just generally all-around atrocious.

20. The Complete & Uncut 1990 version of The Stand.  Three years had passed since I abandoned Stephen King.  Having such fond memories of the much shorter (by about 400 pages) original version of The Stand, I thought I'd give King another chance. But quickly realized there were valid reasons King's editors excised that extra baggage & overblown bloat more than a decade earlier.  It just sucked, and I was so disappointed, having been suckered in by the hype & hoopla regarding its re-release.

19. Insomnia (1994).  Another four years had passed.  I missed Stephen King!  He was my good buddy when I was a lonely alienated adolescent, like so many of us here.  I wanted him back.  But damn it, Stephen, your Insomnia put me to sleep!  Twenty years now have come and gone, and while I've reread a couple of King's books in the interim listed below (The Dead Zone and The Shining), I've yet risked reading anything new of his.  Am I wrong for no longer remaining current with the prolific output of King?  If I am wrong, which book of his, post-1994, should I begin with?

~~~~~

18. Cycle of the Werewolf (1983).  Even though I read it in one sitting (it's a novella plentifully illustrated), it was just okay.  Of course, "okay" by Stephen King standards is pretty damn good for most anybody else.  It didn't transport me someplace special; I never got lost in the story; it didn't take me away outside of myself like so much of the finest work of King's once did.  Or maybe I was just too damn young and naive to know any better, could that have been it?

17. The Running Man (1982).  Forgettable. A race that never ends.  Last man running in the race doesn't win, he just gets to live . . . until the next race. I thought the Schwarzenegger adaptation bit the dust too.

16. The Long Walk (1979). I enjoy taking long walks. Walking, or even hiking uphill with a forty pound backpack is not Hell. Leave it Stephen King to take something really nice like a nice long walk and metastasize it into something monstrous. Bastard.

15. Rage (1977).  First of the novels written under the Richard Bachman nom de guerre, and a novel now most notable because King regrets publishing it, and has refused his publishers the right to reissue it. King is blessed (or in this case cursed?) with sometimes too prescient of an imagination. Rage is about a high school boy who walks into a classroom with gun and holds the class hostage all day.  I think he even killed a fellow student (or teacher) or two, though I don't remember for sure. When school shootings began occurring here in the States w/alarming regularity in the mid-1980s, one of the school shooters proudly proclaimed King's Rage as being his inspiration.  Copycats followed.  King took a ton of heat and soon disowned the book.  But it's still a good book.

14. Roadwork (1981).  Like his short story "The Woman in the Room, "this is one of King's rare ventures into literary fiction.  Real horror can be bureaucracy, red tape and not just a bloody vampire's fangs.  Real terror is the government acting like oppressive vindictive ghouls out of Stalinist-era Soviet Union come to clobber you and bury you alive with earth movers.  Eminent domain can be a major pain for some homeowners.

loved these Signet paperback covers
13. Thinner (1984).  The last of the five novels King wrote under the pseudonym "Richard Bachman" (at least up to that point, that is, when Richard Bachman was still a secret even to his most fanatical aficionados) and easily his best, for my money, under the Bachman nom de guerre.  If you're ever at a carnival and a real (not pretend) gypsy offers you a delicious cherry pie, don't you dare give into the temptation and take a bite of it, because otherwise you've just begun the cherry pie diet to end all diets. Funny how the first three letters in "diet" are d, i, e.

12. Misery (1987).  The last novel of King's I completed before leaving him as a dedicated, bought-his-new-hardcovers-the-day-they-came-out-fan for good.  How he could write such a compelling and demented novel like Misery and then follow it up with a colossal dud like The Tommyknockers just half a year later is beyond me.  Actually, it's not.  King later admitted it was  the drugs he was abusing that made him suck so bad as a novelist for a while.

11. Danse Macabre.  King's first work of non-fiction from 1981 remains a book I regularly reference for reading and movie ideas to this day, as it contains long lists of King's personal horror novel and terrifying film recommendations that often include obscure titles worthy of a larger audience.

10. Different Seasons (1982).  A collection of four wonderful novellas.  Everybody's seen Stand By Me, right, & The Shawshank Redemption?  Well, those two novellas' contemporary classic films made from them are as good if not better than their brilliant adaptations.  And I've yet failed to mention Apt Pupil too, and, and, what was the fourth one? ....

09. It (1986).  Despite It's lackluster and disappointing denouement, there's still well over 1,000-plus pages of sheer mesmerizing storytelling.  For a novel this huge, it didn't read like it needed an editor.

08. The Dead Zone.  King's fifth novel and the third one to examine, realistically, and in this case, politically, the far reaching implications of the paranormal in a person's -- and in their country's -- often very taken-for-granted liberties and ultimately, survival as a free society and as uncaged individuals.  I think it is overlooked and way underrated in King's canon.  The adaptation, and particularly Christopher Walken's haunting performance, is a rare exception of a movie based on a Stephen King novel that actually compliments the novel, and to the point where I can say the movie was as good as the book.

I remember lugging this first printing hard cover
 around from class to class my senior year in high school
07. Skeleton Crew (1985).  Buying it for the novella "The Mist" alone would be worth it, but this collection has some truly twisted & disgusting (yet oddly endearing) stories just as good as the novella its most famous for.  The story "Survivor Type" prefigured, I believe, the Survivor reality show.

06. Night Shift (1978). His first and probably scariest short story collection. "Jerusalem's Lot" scared the bejeezus out of me.  Demonstrated too that King could go strictly literary (the few times he's ever wanted to, I guess) as in the horrifically real "The Woman in the Room," a story inspired by the slow agonizing death of his own mother.

05. Salems' Lot (1976).  Much better paced and overall written if, granted, a hair less gothic and sexy, through certainly more ridden with terror and existential gloom, than its more famous forebear, Bram Stoker's Dracula.

04. Carrie (1974).  Told through diary entries, letters, news reports, its documentary-type style narration lent it a realism so real that reading it barely requires the reader's willing suspension of disbelief.  Next to The Shining, I think it was King's most literary achievement.

03. The Shining (1977).  Two of King's first three novels plunged deep into parallel realities where extrasensory cognition can be deemed as much normal in a person's life as touch or taste is, and not condemned as de facto psychological disorders or conjuring empowered by the devil, despite the whacko mothers or sicko fathers in the novels who might argue otherwise.  The potential for evil, King seemed to be ironically asserting (like so many literary luminaries preceding him -- even, say, Dostoyevsky), resides in the so-called "normal" and much less gifted, "everyday" human beings on earth, who, in King's bizarre harrowing takes on this planet, lean towards the soulless Jack Torrance's rather than the supernatural Carrie's.

02. The Talisman (1984).  Underrated dark epic fantasy co-written with Peter Straub.

01. The Stand.  The original, edited and cut (thank God!) 1978 post apocalyptic masterpiece.


11.01.2015

Nakamura Reality by Alex Austin




Reading Nakamura Reality by Alex Austin is like riding a perfect wave. In its exhilarating, grips-you-from-the-get-go prologue, "slabs of water, rhinos the surfers called them" are booming off shore. Closer, the shore break "sounded sharply like a gunshot."  As you read Nakamura Reality (and do know it will be difficult not to complete it in one sitting), keep in mind this dualism Austin first evokes here with the imagery of waves: inside versus outside, far versus near.  Incoming infinitely, ephemeral as they are, Austin's waves foreshadow and harbor clues in Nakamura Reality's epic prologue.

preview copy
Alex Austin is a practiced illusionist in words and images. He's been a playwright; he's witnessed his words and images staged in Los Angeles and New York.  He's published many stories both online and in print, including publication in two issues of Black Clock.  You could safely say, as I will, because yes I know Alex, that he has a special way with words and images; employing them both to pull the wave over your eyes! Tricking you over and over again, for 272 mesmerizing pages — I wished it would never end. For Nakamura Reality amazes me, as I consider how many intricate, interwoven, parallel dramas, realities, and confabulations of fiction and fact are introduced already in action simultaneously.  Even seemingly insignificant details Austin includes are imbued with foreboding, or longing or loss, like those pesky seagulls we'll see "swooping down" and "mewing insistently" throughout the mysterious narrative(s) of the novel.  I just can't help wondering what the seagulls portend.

We meet at least three (but maybe more) of the major players in the prologue: Hugh and his twin sons Takumi and Hitoshi.  They are on the beach in a supposed paradise in southern California, surveying those "rhinos" whose "chaotic" enormity is reminiscent to me of those magnificent rhinos in the grand finale of Big Wednesday.  Once in a lifetime day.  And what a likewise rare day for two boys and their Dad. To surf, or not to surf? That is the question; the question that preoccupied the double-minded indecisive Hugh who must decide for his eleven year old sons.

Twelve years pass from the prologue to chapter one. Hugh's sons, you probably figured, are long gone.  Presumed dead.  Disappeared.  Likely drowned.  Hugh's Japanese wife, Setsuko, resultantly divorces him.  How could Hugh, she must have thought even if she never exactly stated so, though her relatively swift abandonment of Hugh clearly implied as much, be so reckless, so irresponsible, so stupid as to let Takumi and Hitoshi, her only sons, her defenseless children senselessly put in unnecessary danger for crying out loud!; how could Hugh let them paddle out into the surf that goddamnable day? And if it wasn't the recklessness of that dangerous surf, it was bows and arrows, and who knows what else!  How could Hugh — a schoolteacher for junior high punks because he couldn't make it as a writer; couldn't make it like her father —let her boys play at archery unsupervised?  What a dunce!  Ergo, divorce was predictable.  Perhaps her return to Japan, where she had first met Hugh at the university, was inevitable too.  Home to the house of her famous father, a man of unimaginable power and influence as we'll soon find out; and whom, if we're to believe the boasting of his bodyguard, has "fans among the Yakuza — big fans," Japan's most popular literary author next to Haruki Murakami, the magical realist, Kazuki Ono.

Once we meet Kazuki Ono, Nakamura Reality goes rogue wave.  A novel-within-a-novel emerges. Fingal's Cave, Kazuki Ono's novel-in-progress, the novel we get to see him write and we get to read as we turn each successive page in the parallel kingdom of Kazuki Ono's malicious realityfiction.  A manipulative realityfiction as believable and plausibly enacted as, say, The Truman Show's realityfiction.  I can't help being reminded also of the cosmic puppeteers in Frank Herbert's The Heaven Makers, jaded and bored by eternity, playing God in the finite realities of pathetic little earthlings.  Let's just say Kazuki Ono treats his former son-in-law, Hugh, like a pathetic little earthling and leave it at that.

What an experience, reading a novel that's really two novels in one, the second novel (Fingal's Cave) like some experimental commentary on the first novel (Nakamura Reality); the former serving as both a biography and fantasy future history in the fated life of an unfortunate and unjustly bereaved man who did not deserve, no matter how many idiotic and impulsive and regrettable flings and affairs he had, the cold and bewildering punishment served him by that shady conglomerate we never really see and can only imagine, known as "Nakamura Reality".

~~~~~

Nakamura Reality is slated for publication by The Permanent Press in February, 2016.  Heartfelt thanks to Alex Austin for titling the novel that was Fingal's Cave's predecessor what he did -- I like it a lot! -- and for thinking enough of the novel (was it Kazuki Ono's tenth?) that Kazuki read an excerpt from it at Pasadena's revered independent bookstore, Huddle's (I think that was 2010 or 2011, right?), when Ono's book tour arrived in Los Angeles.  May that novel of Kazuki Ono's, the one preceding Fingal's Cave, come out of realityfiction someday soon and shine like the brilliance that is Nakamura Reality's.

10.25.2015

Obscure (& Awesome) Books Unearthed from the Upstairs Dollar Section of The Last Bookstore in Historic, Art Deco Era, Downtown Los Angeles, Part I: A Couple of Comedians by Don Carpenter


If you've been there, you know.  You know that The Last Bookstore is the best bookstore you've ever been to.  For me, there's not a close runner-up, not even from my memory of a defunct legend like Acres of Books.   Much has been made of The Last Bookstore's spectacular style; yet it's substance is just as spectacular, particularly for bibliophiles who put on their camouflage and go hunting deep inside their virtual jungle of dollar books.  Case in point: A Couple of Comedians by the late great Don Carpenter.

my copy of the first printing
Don Carpenter was a revelation to me when several years ago I first read the NYRBs reissue of his first published novel Hard Rain Falling, which was actually the fourth novel Carpenter had written, but the first three he wrote, according to his website (currently undergoing maintenance or I'd have linked it), are lost.  Or rather destroyed by Carpenter.

Who was Don Carpenter?  He was a talented novelist and screenwriter: those are the two most pertinent and basic facts you need to know.  Until NYRB intervened, Don Carpenter was completely out of print.  Forgotten by most but for his fellow colleagues and hardcore fans who kept the then waning legacy of this under appreciated writer's writer alive.  A Couple of Comedians, like all his novels, wasn't a bestseller upon it's publication in 1979.  Even if the NYRB were to reissue it (it's actually been recently reissued as part of The Hollywood Trilogy omnibus published last year by Counterpoint) I suspect it still wouldn't be one of their bestsellers, but owning it, having salvaged it (and so what if it's a library discard that was never checked out, it's a first printing of an out of print novel by Don Carpenter!) is absolutely priceless to me.  A first printing from the 1970s by a writer who, except for a few recent reissues (and may those reissues -- thank you Counterpoint and NYRB! -- keep on coming), are largely long gone.  Long gone, that is, unless you were perusing the upstairs dollar section of the Last Bookstore on a lazy Sunday morning not too long ago, like me, and found Don Carpenter's gem A Couple of Comedians.

~~~~~

More obscure (& awesome) books unearthed from the upstairs dollar section of The Last Bookstore in historic, Art Deco era, downtown Los Angeles, coming soon. . . .

10.24.2015

Not Exactly Water and Power by William L. Kahrl




Mulholland Drive is a paved snake winding its sinuous way for dozens of miles through the curvaceous contours of the Hollywood Hills.  Pause at a precipitous turnoff, careful to avoid parked cars whose occupants have fogged their interiors; and gaze southward, where iconic canyons steeply recede into riparian mysteries and rustic enclaves of musicians and artists; or, glance north, and if its night, all the stars will have fallen from the sky, still alight, in gaudy boxy grids, a matrix of massive and enmeshed illumination, this sunken panorama otherwise known as Los Angeles and the Valley.

by Dawn2dawn photography
Mulholland Highway extends further out west, gaining altitude as it slithers along the crest of the fire drenched Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu before dead-ending, like so many damned California dreams before it, on the rocky cliffs confronting the Pacific. What little rain falls rarely reaches the ocean except for whatever runoff escapes the concrete lagoons either side of PCH. Come autumn, come the as much maligned as they are malignant, Santa Anas, whose combustible gusts some unseasonably hot afternoons are stand-ins for fuses, for gasoline.  Santa Anas are the L.A. arsonist's aphrodisiac.

Were Mulholland Drive a human being, she'd have gone mad or been murdered.  Be missing. On F.B.I. Most Wanted persons list and posters, or wanted by any one of a million garden variety Valley pimps exploiting her online. Had she survived into middle age, she'd be skidding around the corners in her old man's baby beamer, cranking Coldplay, driving drunk, disoriented, on drugs, her custom black sundress she'd named Eclipse billowing around her like a busted parachute with the top down, her skimpy dress whipped skyward in the molten breeze.  After a near head-on or three, she'd slam the brakes and spin to a stop on the slim shoulder of a hairpin curve, unable to remember how she got there. David Lynch might know.

Leaving the BMWs lights on, she'd stand atop the earthen embankment at the edge of road, where pieces of pavement have cracked off like so many scales, a slender silhouette on a dangerous stage.  She'd

She'd what?

Maybe its better Mulholland Drive was named for a man.

~~~~~

The above began as a book review, now abandoned, of Water and Power by William L. Kahrl, a 1982 comprehensive account of the legal (and more often illegal) conflict over water rights between the citizens of the Owens Valley -- the duped victims of the man that Mulholland Drive was named for, William Mulholland -- and the city of Los Angeles, but quickly metamorphosed into something else above.  Which is to say that, like the 1974 Roman Polanski classic Chinatown, Water and Power fueled my imagination gone temporarily neonoir-ish.

10.10.2015

A Fabulous Opera by Tropic of Ideas




What could the following ninety-six titles listed below -- novels mostly, some poetry, memoirs, a how-to manual on caring for goats, treatises on linguistics and literary criticism, as well as other unclassifiable, though delightful, oddities and arcana (including one movie review) -- possibly have in common? . . .  Go ahead, peruse the eclectic list.  Take your time.  Say to yourself, "I've never heard of that."  I insist.  Some of the titles you're sure to recognize.  How many have you already read? Me?  I've finished twenty-four of them. Began and abandoned another quarter of that. Five of the twenty-four I've read shook me up enough that I was prompted; no, compelled to scribble my inmost thoughts about them.  But, damn, I've digressed.  What do the books below have in common?--that was the question! . . .

2666 (2004) by Roberto Bolano,
A Book of Common Prayer (1977) by Joan Didion
A Drink Called Paradise (1999) by Terese Svoboda,
A Passage to India (1924) by E.M. Forster,
A Small Yes and a Big No (1923) by George Grosz,
A Voice from the Attic (1960) by Robertson Davies,
Adam Bede (1859) by George Eliot,
Arjun and the Good Snake (2011) by Rick Harsch,
Black Light: A Novel (1966) by Galway Kinnell,
Calling Mr. King (2011) by Ronald De Feo,
Chateau d'Argol (1938) by Julien Gracq,
Children of Violence Series (1952-69) by Doris Lessing,
Clarel (1876) by Herman Melville,
Complete Plays (2001, posthumous) by Sarah Kane,
Confessions (398AD) by Saint Augustine of Hippo,
Contraptions (2007, posthumous) by W. Heath Robinson,
Darconville's Cat (1981) by Alexander Theroux,
Decadence Mandchoue (2011, posthumous) by Sir Edmund Trelawny Backhouse,
Delinquent Days (1967) by John A. Lee
Digging Deeper--A Memoir of the Seventies (2011) by Peter Weissman,
Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker,
East of Eden (1952) by John Steinbeck,
Eugene Onegin (1825) by Alexander Pushkin,
Finnegans Wake (1939) by James Joyce,
Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley,
Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road (2002) by Neil Peart,
Have You Seen Me (2011) by Katherine Scott Nelson,
Hector (2009) by K.I. Hope,
High Albania (1909) by Edith Durham,
History: A Novel (1974) by Elsa Morante,
"I Am": The Selected Poetry of John Clare (2003, posthumous) by John Clare,
Independent People (1934) by Halldor Laxness,
Infinite Jest (1996) by David Foster Wallace,
Jennie (1950) by Paul Gallico,
Johnson's Dictionary: A Modern Selection (1755) by Samuel Johnson,
Kettle Bottom (2004) by Diane Gilliam Fisher,
Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928) by D.H. Lawrence,
La-bas (1891) by Joris-Karl Huysmans,
Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) by John Sturges,
Les Miserables (1862) by Victor Hugo,
Let the Great World Spin (2009) by Colum McCann,
Magnus (2005) by Sylvie Germain,
Man in the Holocene (1979) by Max Frisch,
Memoirs of Hadrian (1951) by Marguerite Yourcenar,
Middlemarch (1874) by George Eliot,
Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) by Nathanael West,
Moby-Dick (1851) by Herman Melville,
My First Two Thousand Years (1928) by George Sylvester Viereck,
Nadja (1928) by Andre Breton,
Neighbors at War: The Creepy Case Against Your Homeowner's Association (2013) by Ward Lucas,
Nightwood (1936) by Djuna Barnes,
Of Human Bondage (1915) by W. Somerset Maugham,
Owen Wister Out West: His Journals and Letters (1958, posthumous) by Owen Wister,
Pincher Martin (1956) by William Golding,
Play It As It Lays (1970) by Joan Didion,
Published Poems: The Writing of Herman Melville, Volume 11 (2002, posthumous) by Herman Melville,
Sheep and Goat Medicine (2001) by D.G. Pugh, DVM, MS,
Star Maker (1937) by Olaf Stapledon,
Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) by Robert Heinlein,
Suite Francaise (2004, posthumous) by Irene Nemirovsky,  
Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1891) by Thomas Hardy,
The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) by Robert Burton,
The Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History (1987) by Maria Rosa Menocal,
The Arcades Project (1927-40) by Walter Benjamin,
The Brothers Karamazov (1880) by Fyodor Dostoevsky,
The Double Tongue (1995) by William Golding,
The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast (2009) by Scott Coffel,
The Golden Notebook (1962) by Doris Lessing,
The Green Child (1935) by Herbert Read,
The High Life (1979) by Jean-Pierre Martinet,
The Hour of the Star (1977) by Clarice Lispector,
The Inarticulate Society: Eloquence and Culture in America (1995) by Tom Shachtman,
The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr (1819-21) by E.T.A. Hoffmann,
The Magic Mountain (1924) by Thomas Mann,
The Magus (1965, rev. 1977) by John Fowles,
The Master and Margarita (1966, posthumous) by Mikhail Bulgakov,
The Moonstone (1868) by Wilkie Collins,
The Odd Women (1893) by George Gissing,
The Poetics of Space (1958) by Gaston Bachelard,
The Poor Mouth (1941) by Flann O'Brien,
The Rebel Angels (1981) by Robertson Davies,
The Recognitions (1955) by William Gaddis,
The Sea (2005) by John Banville,
The Secret Agent (1907) by Joseph Conrad,
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson,
The Things That Always Were (2013) by Solla Carrock,
The Things They Carried (1990) by Tim O'Brien,
The Virginian (1902) by Owen Wister,
Things Fall Apart (1958) by Chinua Achebe,
To the Lighthouse (1927) by Virginia Woolf,
Trainspotting (1993) by Irvine Welsh,
Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772) by Johann Gottfried Herder,
Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe (2005) by Doreen Baingana,
Ulysses (1922) by James Joyce,
Ursule Mirouet (1841) by Honore De Balzac,
We (1924) by Yevgeny Zamyatin.


published by Running Girl Press, 2015
What connects each book to the next are the readers who read and reviewed them. Readers like me, perhaps you, who've met other readers online and got down to discussing and dissecting (not out of some empty dissertational duty, but because they had to, for love) what they'd read and were inspired to write about in forum posts and threads. The best of what they'd read and reviewed were selected for publication in a fabulous book about fabulous books: A Fabulous Opera.  A Fabulous Opera was collectively authored, edited, and produced by a group of obsessed readers known as Tropic of Ideas, reader's whose mutually shared fervent mantra might be, "Give me literature, or give me death!"  Most of these readers, I might add, had never (and probably will never) meet together face to face, which only amplifies how deep their emotional bond over books goes.  You can buy their book (of which I contributed the preface and five of the more than 100 reviews) here at CreateSpace or wherever fine and/or fabulous books are sold.

So that's A Fabulous Opera, but Who or What is Tropic of Ideas?

Tropic of Ideas is any place, from any time, where memory or imagination or a combination of both have combusted and erupted out from under and become material mass. A Fabulous Opera is one such place happening right now.  The very writers whose brilliant books are reviewed in A Fabulous Opera, however, describe the idea of Tropic of Ideas with more eloquence:

"I dream about living on a beautiful tropical island that I have made out of nothing, as advertised." ~ Terese Svoboda, A Drink Called Paradise

"...do not weep, life is paradise, and we are all in paradise, but we refuse to see it. If we would, we should have heaven on Earth tomorrow." ~ Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov

"Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen." ~ Steinbeck, from this interview.

"Broad sun-stoned beaches.

White heat.
A green river.

A bridge,
scorched yellow palms

from the summer-sleeping house
drowsing through August.

Days I have held,
days I have lost,

days that outgrow, like daughters,
my harbouring arms." ~ Derek Walcott, Midsummer, Tobago

There are many many beaches, in fact, many bridges, virgin bays and busy harbours, as many islands and archipelagoes as there are days in the Tropics. Some are famous: Tahiti, Bora Bora, Peter Matthiessen's Grand Cayman, the mythological seascape for "Far Tortuga," Barbados, Fiji, Martinique. . . Days there last forever. Exquisite destinations, all. Other tropic enclaves remain unknown, elusive as pirate's sunken gold. . .  Sao Tome & Principe, for instance, rarely receive 100 visitors in a year. Not many more travelers frequent the forgotten and exotic isles of Ascencion, Tuvalu, and Chuuk.

The diverse myriad of tropical islands comprising Books and Literature are much the same. Great Expectations, War and Peace, Remembrance of Things Past, Wuthering Heights or, any novel by, say, Jane Austen or Henry James, might as well be ... Waikiki. Arguably the Tropics' most classic destination: Heavily trodden but lush and revered. And rightly not to be missed by anyone who wishes to experience those popular pages.

While always amenable to Waikiki and other Hawaiian Islands of World Literature, Tropic of Ideas prefers those keys and hideout-reefs not already shipwrecked by Hyatts and Hiltons, tempting though they be. Tropic of Ideas' citizens prefer survivor-type atolls unlisted in travel guides, Carnival Cruises, or Google; but instead, chooses sandbars happened upon by pure chance -- by the sea's serendipity -- rather than current itineraries; books for intrepid, eccentric Readers, for Certifiable Bibliophiles (even sultry BiblioBimbos) committed in their "gentle madness" not merely to asylums, but to salvaging and restoring rare tomes into a dialogue with popular culture.

Welcome to the solitude and simplicity of lapping wavelets and trade winds. Recline with that book or breeze in our scattered hammocks hung from palms. Sip a fresh coconut spiked with rum. Regardless what shackle, imagined or real, has perchance immobilized you in this or that cage the great Gaddis called a cubicle, may Books and Literature release your liberation even while you're chained.


Buy A Fabulous Opera by Tropic of Ideas