Asylum Piece and Other Stories by Anna Kavan

Reading Asylum Piece and Other Stories (1940) is a visceral experience.  Picture yourself staring into a full body-and-mind mirror that Anna Kavan intentionally cracked so that you could feel and see yourself thoroughly shattered, and if you're empathetically bent at all, you may acquire an inkling of what it was like being one of Anna Kavan's unnamed isolated characters suffering from mental illness, looking into that mirror.  Or catch a glimpse, in the least, of what it was like being a young and alienated and misunderstood and suicidal Anna Kavan.  Contorted realities reflected back out of that impossible mirror come sneaking up on you, quietly shrieking.  Background scenarios are terse and incomplete; we do not know how so and so ended up here in this asylum or there in that asylum; we only know that they are here or there, trapped inside, and perceive themselves incarcerated and persecuted unjustly by a real or imaginary litany of unknown "Enemies": jailers, nurses, husbands, advisors, and, in one stranger case, "Patrons".  Don't assume, however, that these asylum occupants without proper identities are all unreliable narrators, or that they're all deluded, deranged, purely paranoid -- in a word -- insane.  Some are; some aren't.  Some are estranged from reality only some of the time; others, most of the time.  Sometimes those labelled "mad" are in fact the most sane, as Kavan astutely noted elsewhere, in her next story collection I Am Lazarus (1945), I believe.  Kavan crowned ambiguity king page after exquisite page with opaque clarity in Asylum Piece and Other Stories.

In "The Birds," for instance, one of Kavan's unnamed narrator's (or is every story narrated by the same unnerved, come-undone-narrator?, hard to say exactly, but it's likely the many narrators) notices two brightly colored birds outside her window.  Her window where, exactly?  Kavan either leaves the window's ill-defined whereabouts unknown, or the narrator doesn't know.  Asylums, after all, in Kavan's captivating hands, can just as soon be houses, schools, churches, museums, as they can be literal institutional asylums.  Her "servant" (i.e., a person of unspecified title who keeps a constant eye on her, a "shadow"), however, does not see the birds.  Is it another hallucination?

What conclusion was I to draw from this?  It seemed incredible that anyone could fail to observe those twin spots of color, more striking than jewels on the gray January background.  No, I could only presume that the birds were visible to me alone.  That is the conclusion to which I have held ever since: for my ethereal visitors have not deserted me.

We've all seen things, haven't we, from time to time; or at least thought we've seen things (and seen them whether we've ever been inside an asylum of one kind or another or not, if we're honest) that others have failed to see, right?  Are we mad for seeing such things?  Seeing things levitate?  Seeing ghosts?  Should we have been locked up indefinitely for what we've seen like so many of Kavan's unnamed narrators?  Notice, also, the subtle implication in that last sentence italicized in the paragraph above: that even while the birds (i.e., the symbols now of the narrator's only means of expressing her hope for freedom or escape -- and that, too, even if they are just chirping hallucinations -- have not deserted her; whom then, we may wonder, perhaps already has "deserted her"?  History is replete with misunderstood, or vilified, human beings, being abandoned to asylums.

"The Birds" and another of the few fully formed stories, such as "The Birthmark" -- my favorite in this collection, in fact, and one, with its crux of incarceration and climax pivoting off the curious birthmark, the image of a "rose", makes me wonder if maybe Jean Genet derived any inspiration from it a few years later when he sat down to write his second novel, The Miracle of the Rose? -- and the many more multifaceted vignettes, make up the individual shards of Anna Kavan's complex shattering in Asylum Pieces.

Some shards are sharper than others, like "At Night" or the devastating "Just Another Failure", but they're all keen enough to cut you to the bone, so be careful turning Asylum Pieces' pages, lest your eyes begin bleeding: An iron band has been clamped round my head, and just at this moment the jailer strikes the cold metal a ringing blow which sends needles of pain into my eye sockets. . .; or your imagination begins reeling, and you find yourself trapped in her peculiar prisms, within the haunting "eternal fog" of some dark subterranean chamber filled with rats and roaches and little hope of escape, comrade of shut-in and shut-out characters voicing their confused consensus of victimized outrage from various obscure "asylums" they've had the misfortune to inhabit, these yes diagnosable "deranged" but somehow, even if for only a moment, still sane, still dignified, Underground Women of Anna Kavan's; all of whom, I'm positive, would've made Dostoyevski proud.


Jhamak Kumari Ghimire: Hope for Nepal

Jhamak Kumari Ghimire is a Nepalese writer whose novel Jeevan Kada ki Phool ("Life is a Flower or a Thorn") recently won Nepal's highest literary prize.

Shortly after she was born in 1980, her parents secretly hoped she would die -- a wish that wasn't shameful but merciful and humane -- because they understandably perceived then that their baby daughter was little more than a "vegetable" without probable hope of future independence or any future, for that matter, free of excruciating suffering. Despite her cerebral palsy, Jhamak Kumari Ghimire learned to write when she was young with the only muscles under her complete control -- the three toes of her left foot.

Thinking of Nepal this morning, and searching for inspiration.


Kirby Wilkins' autograph (Vanishing)

Every teacher who's ever taught or is currently teaching creative writing and every aspiring student who's ever written creatively or who is likewise creatively writing in the specific here and the specific now under the tender tutelage of a certified writing instructor, and all this whether said instructor was or is in high school, college, or an MFA writing workshop, should drop what they're doing right now and read "The Assignment" by Kirby Wilkins.  That's my impromptu assignment to anyone who reads this now or at any moment in the future: read "The Assignment"!

Why?  Because it crushes clichés, for one thing, and twists with acerbic wit, for another, the tired-and-untrue notions of what creative writing is--and isn't--and how best not to go about inspiring it in uninspiring stock writing assignments such as:

"... using illustrations and examples as well as vivid description to communicate your feeling for the person, describe a person who has had a great influence on your life..."

Oh, God, yada yada yada, Teacher, here we go again with another lame assignment, and yet that's exactly how Kirby Wilkins began his short story "The Assignment"--with an uncreative assignment designed to somehow mysteriously elicit that all too elusive quality in literature that is, in fact, vanishing right before our collective very eyes--creativity. Doesn't take Wilkins long to mock what is so asinine about such writing assignments as italicized above: their stay-within-the-lines instructions are inherently restrictive, and do more to limit any would-be creative writer's creative conceptualizing than to unloose their imagination and truest potential, their natural, perhaps as of yet untapped, artistry, that no assignment, no matter how many times a teacher badgers her students over the head with, can successfully tap.

I recommend reading An Interview with Kirby Wilkins by William H. Coles to learn more about this unknown writer a lot more readers should read. That's my second (and it's as mandatory and supplementary as it is imaginary) reading assignment for you.

more autographs


Vance Bourjaily's autograph (The End of My Life)

 Originally published in 1947, The End of My Life was Vance Bourjaily's (1922-2010) first novel. His inscription ("for Kay / on a beautiful / October Day.") and autograph below are from 1984, the year Arbor House reissued his largely forgotten debut, a melancholic but moving novel about a sensitive soldier, Skinner Galt, who ultimately discovered, as so many soldiers did, that even though his side won the second world war, "You can only mourn."

more autographs

Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins

You don't have to be some
 unusually well endowed Sissy Hankshaw
  to give 
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
  a big thumbs up!


John Gregory Dunne's autograph (Monster: Living Off the Big Screen)

I first read John Gregory Dunne's shrewd and amusing perspectives on the "Biz" in 1969s The Studio, his second book, but his first excellent exegesis of the film industry and its executors written before he became a player in the business, recounting the remarkable year he spent in 1967 as an astute, everyday observer of Twentieth Century Fox:  On their lot, their sets, in their dressing rooms, board rooms, random offices, during take-fives, lunchtimes, late night overtimes, watching Hollywood hard at work (and, occasionally, harder at play) behind the scenes, interviewing anybody and everybody who'd talk to him, from the headiest of producer honchos to the lowliest gofers on the ladder (and every union scale grip or assistant director's assistant in between), writing it all down all the while, compiling notebook stacks of it, chronicling the comings and goings of those employed by the studio, having been granted an unprecedented all-access pass to it by its usually private and overprotective gatekeepers -- an amazing feat in and of itself for which Dunne probably should have been awarded a special Oscar in 1968!

Funny and fascinating as The Studio was, I thought Monster: Living Off the Big Screen, published nearly three decades later in 1997, funnier and more fascinating, as Dunne was now a Hollywood insider himself, routinely butting heads with some of the more famous bad boys in the business. Monster also captured better how absurd the often all-consuming Business could be; how crude and condescending, as well, were some of its control freakish executive producers.  The "Bully Boys" section, for instance, which, among other things, dissected Dunne's (and his wife's, his screenwriting collaborator, Joan Didion's) surprisingly non-explosive first meeting with the notorious and "difficult to work with" moguls, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, also featured an awful cameo performance by Otto Preminger.  Otto, who might as well have sneered as breathe at the finest living essayist in the world, addressing her as "Misss-isss Dunne" -- as if being old school polite was any excuse for being a sexist dumb ass -- was later showcased in fine form admonishing Joan and John for basically having a life outside Hollywood; for having the gaul, that is, to insist on temporarily leaving their work on an unfinished script in New York in order to travel cross country and tie up some loose ends on a house they were purchasing in Malibu.

That even the most arguably narcissistic producer Hollywood has produced could still be that arrogant in talking down to one of the most revered writing partnerships of the twentieth century, both inside and outside the Biz (though, granted, inside the Biz, screenwriters' slots in the cinematic food chain ranks only slightly above pond scum's), as if they were irresponsible adolescents abandoning their commitments on a whim just to get their feet wet frolicking in the Pacific Ocean, is as flabbergasting as it is unconscionable to read about.  The nerve of these kids!

"I forbid you to go," Otto demanded, when "Didion and Dunne" (as they were known among friends) dared defy him. "If you worked for a studio, Misss-isss Dunne" (never mind her name was Didion, Stupid!), "This behavior would not be tolerated".  Otto Preminger, having his pride apparently wounded by a woman, of all things -- and a petite, fragile appearing woman at that -- sued them for two million dollars.

Whereas The Studio went for the big picture (if you'll pardon my pun); went for the widescreen vantage of an historic Hollywood corporation and its mostly benign artistic foibles day-in and day-out on the set; Monster: Living Off the Big Screen zoomed in, went "up close and personal," you could say, on Dunne's and Didion's unsatisfying and redundant eight years of coerced script revisions on a screenplay that as originally envisioned should've been great; a movie made from it that should've become a gritty biographical docudrama masterpiece about the sordid life and tragic death of TV news anchor, Jessica Savitch; and a movie, moreover, that somehow, after a protracted and vindictive labor strike in Hollywood and a multitude of firings, rehiring, and bastardized script rewrites to the absurd nth degree, metamorphosed into a didactic, artless, allegedly "feel good" flick with its contrived happy ending -- defects which were not Dunne's or Didion's original ideas or doing at all -- this piece of forgettable celluloid dreck starring Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer. . .

John Gregory Dunne & Joan Didion
At least Dunne's superb memoir Monster: Living Off the Big Screen eventually rose like a phoenix out of the charred remains of that movie's pathetic, burnt out husk the result of studio hubris and corporate banality.

For a much deeper and more personal look at the life and times of John Gregory Dunne, I recommend reading A Death in the Family -- the poignant elegy written by his brother, Dominick, shortly after John's death in 2003.

more autographs


Patricia Grace's autograph (Dogside Story)

Patricia Grace's Dogside Story was longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2001, which I mention for those, who, like me, may be visually challenged and cannot read the small print on the front cover pictured above.  I found this autographed copy in a thrift store in Southern California more than 5,000 miles removed from where it was originally sold at The Women's Bookshop at 105 Ponsonby Road, Auckland, New Zealand (see sticker in the middle image above).  I'm not sure why, but I have this strange image in my head of Patricia Grace's novel dog paddling for days on end all the way across the Pacific Ocean.

more autographs


A.M. Homes' autograph (Things You Should Know: A Collection of Stories)

I remember reading Salon's 1996 interview with David Foster Wallace about five years after it'd been published -- this was just after DFW had been hired by the Claremont Colleges and the L.A. Times had run an interesting piece on his work and arrival to the university, and my interest in this writer that I'd heretofore never heard of, was immediately piqued; and piqued enough, I might add, that I immediately and rather obsessively went online to learn more about him -- in which Laura Miller asked DFW who were the contemporary literary writers he read and admired.

A.M. Homes was at the top of his list (and this despite labeling her first novel Jack as being "imperfect" -- as if his first novel had been perfect! -- zeroing in on a short story of hers called "A Real Doll" that had particularly captivated him with what sounded like a bizarre mix of satire and social commentary on the sorry state of our culture's disconnectedness.

After reading the L.A. Times story, not only did I then go to Borders the next day to buy Infinite Jest, I also went to get A.M. Homes' first book of short stories, the phenomenal The Safety of Objects, so I could read "A Real Doll".  And I've been hooked by A.M. Homes' perfect, yet twisted, uh, barbs, ever since . . .

more on The Safety of Objects
more on The Mistress' Daughter: A Memoir

more autographs


Jim Ladd's autograph (Radio Waves: Life and Revolution on the FM Dial)

Jim Ladd, the "lonesome cowboy" of late night radio in Los Angeles for four decades; the self-described aficionado of "long legged ponies," wrote poignantly in Radio Waves: Life and Revolution on the FM Dial, of the rise and fall of L.A. FM radio, of a radio paradise lost, from FMs inception in the late 1960s to its abrupt demise in 1987, when KMET went off the air forever without a word; without even the courtesy of allowing its DJs to say goodbye to its loyal audience; of two luminous and all too brief decades when radio playlists were still determined by real human beings -- by DJs who knew their sonic shit -- rather than the ratings-obsessed program managers and conglomerate suits more interested in record company kickbacks than promoting new and innovative rock-and-roll.

"To Vickie  Lord Have Mercy!  Jim Ladd  8/3/91"
Ladd, long a proponent of what he coined "freeform radio" -- radio that allowed DJs like Ladd and a handful of others to be creative, thematic and novelistic in the setlist stories they let their song choices narrate -- recalled the rise and fall of the legendary KMET and all its subversive shenanigans (as well as its intelligence, social relevance, and sensitivity, too, such as that sad pathetic day John Lennon was shot dead minutes prior to Jim Ladd going on air), and how KMETs demise marked the beginning of the end for freedom and integrity in FM radio throughout every U.S. market.

Well respected by his peers and the musicians he celebrated, Ladd recounted his many interviews or, "innerviews" as he called them, with the likes of John Lennon (Lennon was Ladd's first "innerview," in fact, in 1974), the Eagles, Roger Waters, and Tom Petty, among many other rock icons. The funniest story Ladd recounted for me was his early remembrance when he was just getting started in radio at KNAC in Long Beach, circa 1969, and how he stepped outside of the studio to smoke a joint and inadvertently locked himself out.  Luckily, he'd just set a song from Live Dead on the turnstile that took up an entire album side on the turnstile, twenty-four minutes of Grateful Dead improvosations, and despite being "stoned immaculate" as his idol, Jim Morrison, once sang, was still resourceful enough to find a janitor to let him back inside the studio just seconds before the song ended.  Can't you just imagine Ladd in that desperate moment of his then nascent career, praying, "Lord have mercy!"

Radio Waves is must reading for anyone remotely interested in FM radio's inception; its wild, short-lived frontier history when the Eastern mystical strumming of Ravi Shankar routinely occupied a slot in the same eccentric setlist next to the likes of the Amboy Dukes, Wishbone Ash, Cactus, or The Clash. Don Henley wrote the warm introduction, as much a fan of Jim Ladd as Ladd's long been of him.

While FM radio is now mostly dead, "freeform radio" as Jim Ladd envisioned and pioneered, is alive and thriving, having been resurrected on satellite radio.  Jim Ladd, praise the Lord!, can still be heard weekdays at Deep Tracks high in the Hollywood Hills on Sirius XMs channel 27.

more autographs


Terry Brooks' autograph (The Sword of Shannara)

I will gladly buy a book I wouldn't otherwise buy (meaning I'd have no interest in ever reading it) if it is autographed.  And if it is also inscribed -- are you kidding me? -- I'm so there.  And should the book I wouldn't otherwise buy be signed and inscribed.... And also happens to be an iconic title, I will eagerly snatch it off the second hand / library discard / thrift store shelves faster than you can say "bibliophile" backwards.  Even if it's just a mass market paperback with severely sun toned text blocks and a creased spine or; worse, crushed silverfish stained right into the very fibers of the first front paper.... Why even then (hell yes! that's how committed yrs. truly is!) will I still let drop my two hard earned quarters on the check out counter for it. Case in point: Terry Brooks in the first volume of his legendary The Sword of Shannara series.

"To Pat / With Magic / Terry Brooks"

Now, Pat, whoever you are or, perhaps now, maybe were, God bless you, and thank you so much for discarding your beat up book signed and inscribed by Terry Brooks.  I'm not a fan of fantasy, of course (excluding Lord of the Rings, Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Trilogy, RAWs The Illuminatus! Trilogy, et cetera, and maybe just a handful of others I can't recall by name at the moment) but I am and always will be an aficionado of autographs.  So, thanks again, Pat, for leaving me a bit of magic by Terry Brooks to find.

more autographs


"Literary Life" in China, part I: Notes from Lin Yutang's classic My Country and My People

In Lin Yutang's masterful tome on his native China, My Country and My People, originally published in 1935, he has a chapter devoted solely to China's "Literary Life".  The "Literary Life" chapter is then subdivided into eleven subsections, all of which, for my money, are long enough and densely packed enough with knowledge, history and analysis to be legitimate chapters in their own right.  Below are my notes, summaries, observations, ephemera & many excerpts from the first two subsections of "The Literary Life" chapter in My Country and My People. And know at the outset here that I am a neophyte on the subject of China's literary life, and am nevertheless attempting to read and write about a country and its people despite my woefully little knowledge on the subject. In other words, if you happen to encounter this post and are an expert on China and her Literary Life, please chime in with corrections if corrections here exist needing correction.  I won't be offended.

The copy I'm reading from is Halcyon House's 1938 translation, and not the copy pictured to the left.  My copy is missing its dust jacket (I'd normally have scanned my cover image in) and cover images of my edition of My Country and My People are available only with poor resolutions online, so I settled for the next best image I could find for the book, at left.  Lastly, before we dig in here, a very helpful resource in getting as much out of My Country and My People has been Lin YuTang's Dictionary, which was brought to my attention by my friend, the British expatriate extraordinaire, the best literary critic living in Taiwan if not the Far East, for that matter, tomcatMurr, author of The Lectern -- a man cat (or is it a cat man?) who knows China better than anybody I've ever known.... Who, in fact, probably knows China better than anyone.


Subsection I: A Distinction

"The Chinese make a distinction between literature that instructs and literature that pleases, or literature that is "the vehicle of truth" and literature that is "the expression of emotion".

Expository, so-called "objective" literature -- or "the literature of ideas"* -- literature that teaches a moral platitude, or somehow improves the people's minds, even though such literature be trite and/or naive is venerated in China; while "literature of the imagination" is considered second rate.  Except in the case of Poetry.

Keep in mind this black v. white distinction, the glorification of banality & the denigration of anything fictional is generally a person's public stance in China; privately? ... Look out!  The Chinese apparently, in private, love these "little arts** ... unworthy" of "the Hall of Great Literature".  Consider, too, that this over-veneration of redundant, passed-down-for-the-past 2,500 years "instructive literature," the writings that are believed (politically mandated?) to better society's minds & morals, are motivated purely by the Chinese person's fear of being called a heretic.  The fear of heresy hung over their heads like the sword of Damocles, and the fear of heresy could only mean the fear of originality.

Lin Yutang rightly believed (yes, I'm interjecting my own opinion here) that Literature of any worth must be lyrical.  He quotes Chin Shengt'an, 17th century Lit. critic, to further define his own cornerstone thought on the subject; on what makes great literature great literature, as opposed to just ordinary writing: "What is poetry but a voice of the heart? ... The ancient people {remember, this guy is saying "ancient people" from his 17th century vantage!} were not compelled to say anything, but they suddenly said something purely of their own accord.  They spoke sometimes of events, and sometimes of their own feelings, and having finished what they had to say, they took leave and departed."

Great Literature is Inspired Lyrical writing from the Heart, in other words.  For the Chinese, then, this consists mostly of Poetry.


Subsection II: Language and Thought

Until reading this book, I never got, among many other things, the full implications of the great divide existing between the spoken & written language of Chinese -- a divide literally between a people's language and thought -- and what that divide has resulted in for the history of China's people; namely, a history of poverty and oppression.  I also didn't get also just how alien the divide between China's spoken language and written language, between her language and thought, truly is to my Western sensibilities.  It's shocking to realize that this divide was probably exploited and even enhanced by China's scholars--at least up to 1935 it was -- keeping what I'm saying in Lin Yutang's historical context.

I took four pages of notes on this subsection and am still having a tough time wrapping my head around it enough to adequately summarize, so rather than skip the chapter altogether, let me quote the passages where I think Yutang most cogently interweaves these increasingly complex concepts ("pictorial principle" vs.  "phonetic principle," for instance) together.

"...the peculiarities of Chinese thought and literature are due simply to their possession of a so-called monosyllabic language.  The fact that the Chinese spoke in syllables like ching, chong, chang was appalling in consequences.  This monosyllabism determined the character of the Chinese writing, and the character of the Chinese writing brought about the continuity of the literary heritage and therefore even influenced the conservatism of Chinese thought.  It was further responsible for the development of a literary language quite distinct from the spoken language."

And now here's the real negative consequent historical and cultural kicker:

"This, in turn, made learning difficult and necessarily the privilege of a limited class.  The limitation of literacy..."

And now, here, (if you'll pardon my abruptly cutting off Yutang), he proceeds to blow my mind in matter-of-factly stating how something that's so basic, so pervasive, so intrinsic, so taken for granted in our Western eyes -- that is, in our thoughts & their respective representative words or symbols attached directly to them, and in the language connected to them, giving form & communicability (meaning!) to them -- being absent in Chinese thought processes, has "changed the whole organization of Chinese society and ... culture, and one sometimes wonders whether the Chinese people as a whole would be so docile and so respectful to their superiors had they spoken an inflectional language and consequently used an alphabetic language."

Now, consider the Philip K. Dick-type of novelistic opportunities, the dystopic fiction that could be written about a parallel-universe-China, had its language developed only slightly differently:

"I sometimes feel that, had the Chinese managed to retain a few more final or initial consonants in their language, not only would they have shaken the authority of Confucius to its foundations, but very possibly would have long ago torn down the political structure and, with the general spread of knowledge ... have forged ahead in other lines and given the world a few more inventions like printing ... which would have likewise affected the history of human civilization on this planet (boldness mine).

What Lin Yutang writes regarding Chinese homophones and the language's multiplicity of tones and absence of consonants and this and that and the other of chapter two, and what it all means interwoven together, I'm going to leave to the experts to parse.  Yet even though subsection II of "Literary Life" has clearly been a comprehending-stretch for me, just a tad outside my comfort zone.... Listen!  For regardless of that,  Lin Yutang could write and he's well worth the challenge.  The implications of this subsection just keep striking me how sad it is and how sad it has been for the Chinese -- the results of their vast language restrictions.... But then, on the flip side, at least one of the silver linings (though in no way am I suggesting that the silver lining is equal to or worth the consequence of constant poverty and oppression) is that the Chinese have made an art out of "mincing words" and the beauty of their terse, austere, exacting poetry (and by "exacting" I mean they are masters at choosing exactly the right word for their poetry), has been an important positive consequence and contribution to their culture and to Art, resulting directly out of that divide between their speech and written language.

* Curious that the Chinese conception of "the literature of ideas" -- that which essentially corresponds to little more than, as I've understood Yutang's take on it, cultural or political propaganda, immediately makes me, in my western view, associate the phrase with "the novel of ideas" -- an exact opposite meaning!

** Examples of the beloved "lowly arts" include Chinp'inmei (Gold-Vase-Plum), which, sounds like to me, would be the equivalent of China's Fifty Shades of Grey; and P'inhua Paochien, what Yutang termed "an equally pornographic homosexual novel".


Subsection III is more up my alley, dealing in the history of China's libraries and library statistics.  I'll try and get to that post soon....


Portrait of An Impulsive Post I Don't Know What to Title

Pictured is The Hon. Frances Buncombe by Thomas Gainsborough . . . . . I normally don't appreciate this 18th century style of portraiture, but in pricing books this morning, listening to Real Estate's latest record Atlas, I came across an Oxford Univ. Press copy of Fanny Burney's Cecilia and, struck unexpectedly by the radiant beauty of this lovely young woman on the book's front cover, flipped the book over to find the cover illustration credits (does anybody else here ever do that?; i.e., are you a geek or geekette too?) and just felt the spontaneous need to share her. Saint Valentine still floating amourously in the air out there, maybe?


Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems & Stories 1968-1986 by Wanda Coleman

Wanda Coleman didn't live long enough to win Los Angeles' official poet laureate post first inaugurated by then-mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in 2012 -- she died in 2013 -- but to fans, her de facto advocates; and, I'd argue, to her haters also (how dare Wanda malign and/or mock their sacred bovines, Maya Angelou and MLK!), it was obvious she had long been Los Angeles' unofficial poet laureate, and it was obvious whether or not she was ever officially recognized (or officially snubbed) by any mayor or other elected dumb ass.  She'll always be the reigning Poet Period ... of Watts.

Wanda Coleman's poetry was too dangerous, too daring, for a self-aggrandizing straight-laced politician to probably understand let alone endorse; too lunatic fringed for them; too edgy; too in-their-smarmy-fucking-faces; too strange; too estranged; too deranged; too ENRAGED; too I-don't-give-a-fuck-what-you-think-Assholes-how-I-relate-my-colloquial-street-slang-on-the-page-about-a-socioeconomically-squashed-place-you've-long-marginalized-ostracized-disenfranchised-with-your-MANifest-inequality-injustice-you-like-to-legislate, for any politician, no matter how well behaved, or well depraved, to publicly get behind.  Politicians lack something, as well, the levity? the self awareness? the freedom? whatever it is, perhaps just the simple wherewithal to be quite so self-effacing -- or as self critical -- as a person like Wanda Coleman.  Few critics were as unflinchingly honest in their critiquing or criticizing of Wanda Coleman as Wanda Coleman was of Wanda Coleman.  But she also mocked the criticism.  Also mocked her own rage while mocking those who criticized her for being so outraged.  She wrote many pieces that dealt with it head-on, like in....               "Wanda Why Aren't You Dead"

wanda when are you gonna wear your hair down
wanda.  that's a whore's name
wanda why ain't you rich....
why don't you lose weight
wanda why are you so angry
how come your feet are so goddamn big
can't you afford to move out of this hell hole
if i were you were you were you
wanda what is it like being black
i hear you don't like black men
tell me you're ac/dc.  tell me you're a nympho....
wanda you have no humor in you you too serious....
wanda you're ALWAYS on the attack....

Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems & Stories 1968-1986 showcases exceptionally well Wanda Coleman's development from a young, somewhat conventional poet, to the accomplished Poet she became with that instantly identifiable Voice as instantly identifiable as -- pick your favorite singer or celebrity criminal -- theirs: that black, female, persona non grata Voice of the dispossessed in the inner city, gushing out in relentless fury her characters' / her people's inarticulate and heretofore unheard individual outrage into one bitter, but beautiful, collective Voice of Outrage that could just as easily explain, poetically and powerfully, the explosions of August 11, 1965, as it could anticipate the sad helicopter closeup spectacles of April 29, 1992, at the corner of Florence and Normandie.  Wanda Coleman's voice was often violent, and it was often vilified, yet few poets of her generation ever fused their Voice to the voices of the Voiceless Victimized with as savage fucking grace as she did.  Read Roaches, The Arab Clerk, or April 15th 1985* sometime; they are all riveting (and sometimes revolting) examples of her intense gritty vignettes / short stories and visionary prose poems.  Thank God Black Sparrow Press was there to faithfully champion her for three decades after Hollywood graced her with an Emmy and then gracelessly kicked "the loud" supposedly "self righteous bitch" out.

Wanda Coleman could just as soon mock (or let one of her many narrator's mock) the "bigoted old white bitches" in line at the San Francisco bank in April 15th 1985, as she could -- or as her possibly schizophrenic speaker could in the title prose-poem of the collection, Heavy Daughter Blues -- the political and socioeconomic insufficiency of the most celebrated Dream ever dreamed in U.S. history: "i dream i dream i dream / pass the pipe--please".  I mean who but Wanda Coleman would've had the chutzpah to pass off MLKs "I Have a Dream" as a pipe dream?  Or was she merely echoing aloud what a lot of people had already been thinking quietly about the man and his unrealized legacy?  Or is equality among blacks and whites no longer a pipe dream in the U.S.?  Maybe not if we're to believe that black, female, persona non grata Voice of Heavy Daughter Blues.  Or, maybe, yes; maybe we do believe.

Difficult to decide what the Voice of Heavy Daughter Blues believes because her Voice is a multiplicity of voices, past and present.  One second, a voice can "throw the symbols" and "make reverberations" and assert "the t.v. is teaching my children hibakusha**" and, the next, another voice proclaim with such absurd and delusional conviction "i am in love with a dopefiend who sleeps under freeways" and "the postman has put a hex on my P.O. box" that you almost palpably feel the atomic shockwaves of twisted logic in Coleman's nod to Langston Hughes ripple upward off the page with such relentless mushrooming force that even the bunker you may have built on the sly to hide your pettiest prejudice behind is vaporized, exposed.  Heavy and nearly hopeless shit from Wanda Coleman, this late Blue Daughter of The American Pipe Dream.

Wanda Coleman was such an awesome enigma in life, such an absolute contradiction in so many interesting and appealing ways, is it really surprising then when in the short space of one of her most provocative poems, realities and fantasies and confabulations of both abruptly merge and blur line by line so that the only appropriate response to it is an equivocating "Yes" that boomerangs back at you its discombobulating "Nope"?

YesNo!NoYes!  I know.  I don't.

Though don't you love Wanda Coleman's response to the quandary better, when toward the end of Heavy Daughter Blues the voice of a nutty narrator "in love with a fuck freak" ruminates, turns streetwise-physicist / Ph.D. philosophy candidate, having risen from welfare to a pipe dream of tenure, and, out of the palm-tree-breezy, South-Central-sleazy, tenemented-terminal-blue, ups her live-jive's ante and satirically pontificates in a deadpan delivery the dead-end lingo of her largely academic audience who regardless of Wanda's snarkyness would still no doubt most infinitely approve: "the constant preoccupation of a sphere / is in traversing the Möbius strip"?  Shit.  I know I do!

* Read the complete text of "April 15th 1985" right here.
** I recommend Googling the word


THIN LIZZY Post for the Uninitiated Who Only Know "The Boys are Back in Town"

Thin Lizzy were not a heavy metal band, so please don't tune out if you hate heavy metal.  They were simply a rock band; a dynamic rock band with a unique singular sound instantly recognizable the way Led Zeppelin or Queen were dynamic and unique and instantly recognizable.  They were virtuosos. They were never some sludgy, sinister, smash-mouth band like Black Sabbath (not that there's anything wrong, of course, with being a sludgy, sinister, smash-mouth band like Black Sabbath!).
Thin Lizzy's fourth studio record, 1974s Nightlife
Infused with Celtic imagery and an underdog's sensibilities, Thin Lizzy composed melodic hard rock tunes filled with warmth and humour, with clever elegant hooks.  Phil Lynott, lead singer and bassist, had a great sense of humour, and it showed in their songs and lyrics.

Thin Lizzy were huge in their homeland Ireland, as well as the UK and most of the countries on the Continent, but they never quite made it huge humongous huge in the States.  And not making it huge humongous huge in the States, in the 1970s, meant the record company's inevitable withdrawal of sponsorship and promotional support.  The band was so close -- they were like this close, right on the cusp -- of breaking big time (humongous huge) in the States in 1976, just a couple months after their Jailbreak record came out and became their first there to crack Billboard's Top 40 album chart on the strength, mostly, of their first (and what would become) only U.S. hit single, "The Boys are Back in Town."  But on the eve of a U.S. tour to support Jailbreak -- their only record, also, to reach gold/platinum status across the pond -- Phil Lynott became gravely ill and the tour had to be scrapped; the tour that would've made them Stars in the States, sadly, never materialized.  Unable to strike while the iron was hot, Thin Lizzy's iron in the U.S.A. never glowed so molten orange again like it did during those brief glorious months in 1976.  Had they toured the U.S. in support of Jailbreak, they may have inspired a similar long lasting popularity here as Rush eventually did when they toured in support of their 1976 breakthrough record, 2112; instead, Thin Lizzy's career trajectory -- speaking commercially, certainly not creatively -- had hit its peak and thereafter began a slow decline not at all dissimilar to their contemporaries, U.F.Os., sales slide -- bands, both, that should've broke huge, stayed huge (humongous huge) for years and years and lasted, but unfortunately didn't.  Though at least their phenomenal musical legacy will remain forever. No doubt I'll still be rocking out to Thin Lizzy when I'm ninety-nine, blowing out the amplifiers in my hearing aids!

Here's an early Peel Sessions recording of an underplayed and under recognized Thin Lizzy classic, "She Knows".   "She Knows" was later refined a bit for their fourth studio record, 1974s Nightlife (pictured above), but I like the energy on this rawer version better.

Phil Lynott statue, Dublin, Ireland. (Would James Joyce have loved Thin Lizzy?)

What are your favorite Thin Lizzy records and songs?


Preliminary Impressions of One of the Children is Crying by Coleman Dowell

Yesterday I lucked out and found a copy of the debut novel by a writer I'd heard mentioned a time or two over the years, but otherwise had known nothing about: Coleman Dowell.  His first novel One of the Children is Crying was published in 1968 when he was already forty-two years old.  He'd been a songwriter and had some previous, notable success, here and there, on Broadway and in television.

Last night I read the first chapter of One of the Children is Crying and was impressed. Impressed enough, in fact, that I've made perhaps the dubious decision to blog about the book after having read only that -- its first chapter.  But I've read enough to know beyond any doubt, because it's so blatantly obvious to me, that Coleman Dowell wrote sensitively and brilliantly on potentially touchy subjects for his time such as homosexual relationships, alcoholism, child abuse and incest. I totally get the blurb comparisons to Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Carson McCullers, but do know that in Dowell's case, the comparisons are likely true and not just his publisher's wishful hype and hyperbole. Too bad the honest-to-God-true blurbs never resulted in many sales for Coleman Dowell's books.  But blame the blurbers and his publisher's marketeers for not being effusive enough in their praise, not Coleman Dowell. Blame, too, perhaps the "southern" or "southern gothic" labels that have seemed to shadow his largely unknown legacy in the limited criticism about him which has likely accomplished little more than limiting the scope of his potential and present readership rather than accurately defining the kind of writer he ever was in the first place. Because in my (now granted) limited reading of him, my first impression is that this super-talented craftsman / word-smith, Coleman Dowell, transcended his southern roots and the "southern gothic" even as One of the Children is Crying is wrought deep there and shoots out from its swampy soil.

The author Sumner Locke Elliott said of Dowell: "He is an artist.  He has an ability to project even horror with both beauty and tenderness."

One of the Children is Crying opens with a brother (Robin) receiving a call on Christmas from his sister (Erin) whom he's not spoken to in three years.  Abruptly, she relays him the bad news (though in this family I suspect it may in fact be good, no, great news), "Daddy is dead. Will you come home?"

Come home?  Robin'll need to board a train.  But, first, he'll need to get dressed.  First, he'll need to brood...

"Buttons and shoelaces took longest.  He found it endlessly interesting that the flooded brain of a drunk could philosophize, compose poetry and music, remember with terrible clarity, while its servants --fingers, feet-- had to be cajoled, with, at best, childish results.  He visualized alcohol as the Great Regressor; finally, if he is lucky, the alcoholic regresses to a place of fluids and silences; until then, there are buttons and shoelaces --but no neckties; he could not take on a necktie..."

One of the Children is Crying is going to be good. I'll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, check out Coleman Dowell's page at New Directions.


The Ten Best Short Stories I Read in 2014

"The Inner Room"
by Robert Aickman,
from The Wine-Dark Sea.

Have you ever wanted to live in a doll house inside a remote gothic-like mansion in a forgotten English moor?  So have I!  Swear this story would've made a great Twilight Zone episode.

"Taxi Driver, Minus Robert DeNiro"
by Fernando Ampuero,
anthologized in the excellent The Vintage Book of Latin American Stories.
A very different take on what amounts to human-trafficking ... of drunks.

by Leonid Andreyev,
collected in Jorge Luis Borges' classic anthology The Book of Fantasy.
Set in Jerusalem just prior to and literally on the night Jesus Christ was crucified.  Poor man had a maddening toothache that nearly drove him to jump off his roof, to suicide, the very moment the three "malefactors" (Jesus & the two thieves) were being beaten and whipped, driven by the enraged mob up the same lane where he lived, carrying their crosses, toward the summit of Golgotha.  Weirdest thing.  The man's throbbing toothache, heretofore not even pacified by the then popular home remedy of "rat droppings", went away just like that, lickety split, the very hour Christ was crucified.

"The Shunammite"
by Ines Arredondo,
 in Underground River and Other Stories.

I'd rate this story as the best one I read this year.  Find a copy of Arredondo's book, or find an anthology that has it (there are many, because it's apparently one of the most anthologized stories ever published by a Mexican writer) & hopefully be as mesmerized by it -- as creeped out by it -- as I was.  A young woman's sense of family duty is exploited to the extreme by her supposedly "dying" uncle, who twists and then perverts her loyalty in a way unimaginable and shocking.

"The Church of No Reason"
by Andrea Barrett,
published in American Short Fiction, Spring 1991

"Night Talk in a Cabin"
by Nagai Kafū,
collected in American Stories.

by Janet Frame,
collected in the anthology Some Other Country: New Zealand's Best Short Stories.

by Steve Katz,
collected in 43 Fictions.
The funniest, most darkly twisted story I read this year. It was hysterical black comedy to the max, the way I like it. Imagine what a writer with a twisted, demented sensibility could do with this opening paragraph below and then multiply that imagination by at least ten or thirteen.

"My friend Sadie was a closet cannibal and that was why I introduced her to Herman in the first place.  At the time I thought it was best for people to get these propensities out in the open, at least on some level.  Express yourself.  Let it all hang out.  I thought Herman might do that for her because among all my friends he was the one who tended to be most willing, even driven, to sacrifice himself."

*originally collected in Stolen Stories, but I read it in what's like the equivalent of The Portable Steve Katz -- 43 Fictions.

"House of the Sleeping Beauties"
by Yasanari Kawabata,
in House of the Sleeping Beauties and Other Stories.

by an online friend,
an unpublished story, though likely soon to be.

by Elizabeth McCracken,
in Thunderstruck & Other Stories.

In the beginning of the story, both parents are disconnected from their daughter's reality in ways I get: they're both shocked when Helen sneaks out for a nitrous oxide party and is brought home by the police.  Helen's mother, Laura, interrogates Helen with the who what where when & hows, but not the whys:  "Laura wanted to know everything.  No, that wasn't true.  She wanted to know nothing, she wanted from Helen only consolation…." Ignorance is bliss--I get that.  But rather than address the reality of their daughter sneaking out & using drugs; rather than ever analyzing why Helen is doing these things, they jump straight to how can we fix this problem right now, and the next morning they decide that fleeing to Paris is the answer.  And that I don't really get though I can still sort of imagine some parents being that screwy with their discipline.  And McCracken's narrator is so good at letting the parents rationalize their Paris decision, you almost believe, reading it, that it might work:

"The plan was to disrupt their lives, a jolt to Helen's system before school started again in the fall.  The city would be strange and beautiful, as Helen herself was strange and beautiful.  Perhaps they'd understand her there.  Perhaps the problem all this time was that her soul had been written in French."

But it doesn't work.  Helen behaves the same way in Paris right under her parent's noses --surprise surprise-- until one night she winds up in the ICU with serious head trauma.  Finally, when it's almost too late, the father, Wes, experiences a parental epiphany and tells his comatose daughter bedside that he wants to know everything, all her secrets, he wants to just plain 'ol know her for a change, and that she can tell him anything.  But not so with Laura.  She wishes her daughter had rather died than be kept alive on life support.  And even when Helen comes off life support, and is conscious but unable to talk or move very much unassisted; even though Helen is making progress in her recovery, albeit slowly, it's still not good enough (or maybe it's just Helen isn't a plain good enough daughter) for Laura.  Laura's lack of hope, faith, belief in her daughter, and how over the top it went -- wishing she had just died when she struck her head -- is what I wasn't able to imagine could exist in the mindset of a parent, being one myself ...

Such a thought provoking story, and I zeroed in, above, on merely one tangential aspect from it.


All I Want for Christmas are the Following Books

I want to see a copy of Atlantis or Morwyn; or, The Vengeance of God by John Cowper Powys under the Christmas tree tomorrow morning.  Or maybe by Christmas morning, 2015, which is probably when I'll be done editing and adding links and images to this post.  So do check back often.  All (literally) six or seven of you!

And/or ... Belle du Seigneur by Albert Cohen.
And/or ... Hunger and Love by Lionel Britton.
And/or ... Malign Fiesta by Wyndham Lewis.
And/or ... The Unfortunates by B.S. Johnson
And/or ... The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox
And/or ... Oulipo: A Primer of Potential Literature by Warren Motte
And/or ... any books in that unknown, Proustian series of tomes by Dorothy Richardson
And/or ... more books in Henry Williamson's 15-novel sequence, A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight
And/or ... Dan by Joanna Ruocco
And/or ... The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard
And/or ... The Twenty-Year Death by Ariel S. Winter
And/or ... A Brief History of Portable Literature by Enrique Vila-Matas
And/or ... The Fountains of Neptune by Rikki Ducornet
And/or ... Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann
And/or ... Hind's Kidnap by Joseph McElroy
And/or ... The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble
And/or ... Lanark by Alaisdair Gray
And/or ... The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat
And/or ... Alraune by Hanns Heinz Ewers
And/or ... The Priests of Psi by Frank Herbert
And/or ... Ice Never F by Gil Orlovitz
And/or ... The Opposing Shore by Julien Gracq
And/or ... The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G. Compton
And/or ... Hyperion by Friedrich Hölderlin
And/or ... Camera Obscura by Hildebrand
And/or ... Jam To-day: A Novel by Marjorie Firminger
And/or ... The Cubicle City by Janet Flanner
And/or ... The Lost Scrapbook by Evan Dara
And/or ... Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg
And/or ... Cataract by Mykhaylo Osadchy
And/or ... Creamy and Delicious by Steve Katz
And/or ... Metrophage by Richard Kadrey
And/or ... Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy by Eric G. Wilson
And/or ... The Silence by Jens Bjørneboe
And/or ... A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, 1974-1982 by Nicholas Rombes
And/or ... Books Burn Badly by Manuel Rivas
And/or ... Gethsemane Hall by David Annandale
And/or ... Happy Moscow by Andrey Platonov
And/or ... The Warlock of Love by Marc Bolan
And/or ... The Nihilesthete by Richard Kalich
And/or ... The Autobiography of Christopher Kirkland by Eliza Lynn Linton
And/or ... Blaugast: A Novel of Decline by Paul Leppin
And/or ... The Fellow Travellers by Sheila Hodgson
And/or ... Fog & Car by Eugene Lim
And/or ... The Face in the Abyss by A. Merritt
And/or ... The Secret City by Joseph J. Doke
And/or ... Nighmare Alley by William Lindsay Graham
And/or ... Centuria: 100 Ouroboric Novels by Giorgio Manganelli
And/or ... Murder by Danielle Collobert
And/or ... The Sad Passions by Veronica Gonzalez Peña
And/or ... Metropolis by Thea Von Harbou
And/or ... Owls Do Cry by Janet Frame
And/or ... A Singular Aesthetic by Paul Outerbridge
And/or ... Your Sparkle Cavalcade of Death by Robert Shiarella
And/or ... Airships by Barry Hannah
And/or ... Pagan Lesbians by Vin Saxon
And/or ... Sardonicus and Other Stories by Ray Russell
And/or ... Nineteenth Century German Tales ed. by Angel Flores
And/or ... A Star's Progress by "Katherine Everard" (nom de plume of Gore Vidal)
And/or ... Space Cat on Mushrooms by Raven Madder
And/or ... The Bracelet and Other Stories by Gervee Baronte
And/or ... Sheeper by Irving Rosenthal
And/or ... Inner Tube by Hob Broun
And/or ... The Worm Ouroboros by E.R. Eddison
And/or ... Drugstore Cowboy by James Fogle

This is just a small arbitrary selection of what I want to see under the Christmas tree.  As Freddie Mercury once crooned, "I want it all and I want it now".  That's all.


Bare Bones Abstract on The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway

The Sun Also Rises is about how a protracted and tragically untreated case of sexual impotence ruined an otherwise rock solid relationship for a young U.S. expatriate named Jake Barnes. Sometime during those no doubt rollicking but overrated roaring twenties, Jake had himself the hots (he had it bad, man!) for a sweet society lass -- a Lady -- named Brett Ashley. Unfortunately, for both Lady Ashley and Mr. Barnes, the sun was about the only thing that rose during their doomed romance ... excluding the Eiffel Tower, of course. And run on sentences galore like the running of the bullshits.

Yada yada yada, Papa!


Swan Song by Robert McCammon

Once upon a time, the Cold War made the U.S.A. a nation of nuclear neurotics.  The probability of nuclear war was taken so seriously here that public schools drummed its terrifying possibility into our heads with such practiced, prolonged and one might say paranoid intensity that Armageddon might as well have already detonated deep inside our impressionable minds, enduring as we did, those what were supposed to be surprise but became oddly rote classroom disaster drills that gave everybody involved in the collective safety charade a short-lived sense of security even as they purported to "prepare" us for that inevitable blinding light and shockwave inferno that one day would incinerate us all into kiddie crisps.  The question wasn't if an ICBM would pulverize us, but when?

Deluxe Dark Harvest first edition of Swan Song, 1989

Swan Song, published and set during what turned out to be the Cold War's waning twilight of the mid-to-late 1980s, showcased the absolute worst possible scenario in the event of an all out nuclear blitz. Not just slow miserable death, but cruel physical deformities that were like outward manifestations of the bizarre metastasis overtaking so many hopeless and ravaged minds.

I've read the nearly 1000 page novel twice. I love it.  Kudos to Robert McCammon for taking what even around the time the Berlin Wall fell was already a tired post apocalyptic premise and breathing some beautifully foul life into the oversaturated genre. I like it better than Stephen King's The Stand by far.  Funny how it turned out for the survivors of the ensuing nuclear winters in the States that the likewise decimated Soviet Union had never been their worst enemy after all.


The Usual Mistakes by Erin Flanagan

Make no mistake, Erin Flanagan's first short story collection, The Usual Mistakes, is unusually great.

Easily one of my favorite book covers of all time.  I do love those beautiful tatts.  I love as well ... that "nostring". Love also her more subtle earring -- a nice nuanced touch. Thank you, Erin Flanagan (I do know that's not you on your debut book cover, but hey, I love you anyway) because you wrote a fabulous first book, in your stirring collection of short stories. I may actually scribble something more specifically about a few of them (if not all of them) very soon.... 


Absolute Truth on Bookstores

Below is an old Bookshelf Awareness quote of the day. It's so good and so apt and gospel true, I'm quoting it here today:

"I have never met a bookstore that I didn't love. And I've met a lot. I can't seem to help myself. It's a habit, an obsession, a life's work. Drop me anywhere and it's like a homing device starts blinking in my brain.... Every bookstore is different, just like the people who own them, and yet there are threads that tie them together. The books for one thing. All those covers. All those blurbs. The dim nooks and corners where shelves meet. The spines, lined up, row upon row, covers turned face out every so often, calling you to come a little closer. I always feel, if I could just stand quietly enough, I might actually hear the faint whispering of thousands of stories jostling together on the shelves, waiting to be chosen."

~ Author Kate Morton, speaking at the Australian Booksellers Association's annual conference (via the Australian).

Bruce Wagner's autograph (Memorial) after some brief comments on Memorial's brilliant book cover design

I love Memorial's book cover. Dust jacket designer, Jennifer Lew, made the right choices for the covers of Bruce Wagner's novel. By reversing the image taken from Katsushika Hokusai's classic painting, Fuji of the waves (1836) -- the same painting featured on some first printings of Yukio Mishima's classic The Sound of Waves, coincidentally -- and then by removing the painting's colors (save black and white) you don't immediately notice that iconic windblown foam of the wave at the top of the cover seeming to undergo its ancient, mystical metamorphosis.  That is until you turn the book over and see the white birds (are they doves? or could they even be ... bats? -- look closely, I'm not kidding!) that have been ever so subtly added to Hokusai's painting descending in the foreground toward the distant summit of the sacred, snowbound mountain.  The gold embossed rectangles kept the raised letters of the title, "by the author of...", and author name as well, from getting lost in the black lines of the swelling wave.   Add veteran book designer Karolina Harris's exquisite interior design of the book, and you've got a contemporary classic of book design in Bruce Wagner's sixth novel; a novel in which the author, too, took chances and ventured beyond the usual and sordid Hollywood strictures of his first five novels.

"Rick Jackson rules        for Robyn No 1--------
this dark memo,



(more autographs)


Amanda Knox and The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum by Heinrich Böll

There were eerie similarities surrounding the circumstances of Amanda Knox's real life false imprisonment in Italy and what Heinrich Böll subjected his own histrionic heroine to in his controversial 1974 novel, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum.  Did you see Amanda Knox's terrible ordeal reflected in the polemical book that Böll published before Amanda Knox was even born, too?


Wanda Coleman's autograph (Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems & Stories 1968-1986)

Yesterday an online friend asked me what he thought the chances would've been of Wanda Coleman winning the Nobel Peace Prize had she still been alive to receive it.

pub. by Black Sparrow Press
My first thought was 'zero chance' -- and I say that as a fan of Coleman's in-your-face poetry.  I love her attitude (even when it was bad) though it pains me to think about what the circumstances that forged the genesis of that inimitable style and attitude -- that poetic rage of hers, feisty and furious -- were, considering it from my safe, masculine, lighter-skinned distance, inexperienced as I am in living personally with the daily consequences of racism and sexism and other pertinent unjust instances of shit.

My reply to my friend, after I'd considered Wanda Coleman and the Nobel Peace Prize:  "I love Wanda Coleman, and though the oppression she wrote of was universal, it's wasn't as clear cut, as black-and-white in a good vs. evil sense, I don't think, both from her perspective of what she experienced and what anyone might have seen looking in at her life, as what writers living under fascist regimes, say in China or Russia or Eastern Europe, endured; which is not to say I think it was necessarily any less or more egregious, but I do think a Nobel committee would deem it less, and thus not take her voice of outrage as seriously.  Why is she so angry, I could hear them think?  How bad could her suffering be; I mean doesn't she hail from the USA?  From the land of plenty!  The home of the free?"

"Mt. Sac." is a community college in Walnut, CA
From Heavy Daughter Blues, here's one of my favorite vignettes of hers that's neither a poem or a short story--it's just pure Wanda Coleman--riffing about a single incident in her life, seemingly innocuous at first blush, yet riddled, upon closer inspection, with more of the consequences of racism that she and millions like her here in the States, had to deal with (and still do) everyday:

APRIL 15th 1985

"It's been a wonderful trip and I'm feeling great! But fun costs and I've overspent on my trip to San Francisco and go to the bank to cash a check. There's an old white woman damn near eighty in front of me. She needs a deposit/withdrawal slip from the counter across the room, but hesitates to leave the long Monday A.M. line because she might lose her place. Rather than ask me to hold it for her, which I don't mind doing, she talks around me, as I'm not standing there, to a white woman in her sixties directly behind me. (I'm 6'2" in my brown leather boots and have the darkest skin in the place.) When the woman in her sixties reassures her, she leaves the line. When the line moves up I move up a step, leaving enough room for the eighty-year-old's return. Suddenly, the sixty-year-old addresses me boldly: "She wants her place back when she returns!"

'I heard. I got ears,' I say extremely rude and loud.

'You don't have to talk to me like that!' she says--half whine and half revulsion.

'Fuck off lady!' I say loud enough to silence her and the entire bank. Then I allow the eighty-year-old to re-enter the line ahead of me.

I'm satisfied my behavior will puzzle the sixty-year-old for time to come; wondering what she did to evoke such nastiness. Or perhaps she'll dismiss me as just another hostile young nigger wench. I'm not feeling so great any more.

Save me from bigoted old white bitches."


Alison Lurie's autograph (The Last Resort)

I like The Last Resort's book cover a lot. I haven't read the book, but I can still talk about the cover! It's bold design was by Michelle McMillan, whom I attempted Googling in order to locate more of her work but, lo, the world is apparently full of many Michelle McMillans, and I could not pinpoint the Michelle McMillan, cover designer, I was searching for, assuming she was even listed among the several entries and pages of Michelle McMillans available to click on.

Henry Holt and Company put out an odd sized hardcover first printing -- 5 3/4" x 7 1/2" -- though that seems to be the norm for the publishing house, founded in 1866, publishing differently, more artistically.  The Last Resort looks almost square.  Penguin Classics stand a quarter inch taller.   The idea of the overplayed "American Dream" dead ending off a decadent highway built literally atop the ocean (what hubris, these dead end Americans, who think they can drive on water, let alone walk on it!) just west of Key West was a fresh image-take on the American dream's demise.  From the back cover of The Last Resort:

"Streets and shops and restaurants were crowded with adults dressed like children at play, in colorful shorts, T-shirts, sneakers, and sandals.  Their garb was the outward sign that for these few days or weeks they were free to enjoy and indulge themselves, like kids on vacation.  They had no responsibilities or chores: they did not cook for themselves or make their own beds.  They stayed up late at night, and ate when they liked, preferring the childish foods disapproved of by parents and health experts: cheeseburgers, hot dogs, sodas, chips, fries, pizza, and candy."

The quote echoes David Foster Wallace's observations regarding a nation whose ultimate collective dream it sure seems, whether they're working stiffs or retired CEOs, is to be "pampered" (think Pampers!), brought back to a state of Depends diapers (dependency!) or -- infantilized into some sickening infinite infancy, in other words -- that he collected as the title essay in A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, about his week on board a luxury cruise liner, that, coincidentally, shipped out not far from the southern Florida setting of The Last Resort and also around the same time that Alison Lurie published her novel. Brilliant minds, perhaps.  I think perhaps, too, I need to actually read this novel of Alison Lurie's, The Last Resort, and not only because a beloved song by a California band also called "The Last Resort" (whose lyrics found the American Dream ending in Malibu and then Hawaii), happens to be one of my all time favorite songs regarding the American Dream's manifest metastasizing, but because the novel in its own right -- at the time the first novel Alison Lurie had published in ten years -- sounds like my perfect savory cup of social commentary.

(more autographs)


Some First Sentences are Meaner to Their Mamas than Other First Sentences

On the last song on side two of what I believe was The Smiths' finest album, The Queen is Dead (though long may she live!), Morrissey made the obvious, but still amusing, observations that "some girls are bigger than others" and "some girls' mothers are bigger than other girl's mothers".  Here is the song, if you like, for your listening (dis)pleasure: "Some Girls Are Bigger Than Others".   I believe the same obvious (hopefully amusing?) observation can be made of first sentences in certain iconic novels. 

Consider what is arguably the corpulent mother of all first sentences, from The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman ...

"I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing; - that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind; - and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost: ---Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly, ---I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world from that in which the reader is likely to see me."

... contrasted with what amounts to maybe the preeminent anorexic mother of modern first sentences -- and an anorexic mother, I might add, who is probably in possession of a sordid cocaine habit and possibly child pornography to boot -- "People are afraid to merge on freeways in Los Angeles".  Indeed people are afraid to merge on freeways, Mr. Ellis.  No doubt they are afraid to merge on more that just freeways with so many more psychos (American grown or otherwise) out there today than there were almost thirty years ago when Less Than Zero was published.

Thankfully, not all first sentences are mothers or, for that matter, heterosexual mothers, like Tristam Shandy's in-the-sack example above.  Because some first sentences are homosexual men, a la Earthly Powers': "It was the afternoon of my eighty-first birthday, and I was in bed with my catamite when Ali announced that the archbishop had come to see me," thanks to Anthony Burgess' progressive ethos of inclusivity regarding all sexual orientations among first sentences.

 cover by Hadyn Symons
Some first sentences are bigger than other first sentences when it comes to flat out unsettling (or flat out crazy!), such as 1984s "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." Um.  Like.  WTF, Mr. Orwell?  Or that Franz Kafka first sentence in The Metamorphosis, where the stricken man awakes one day and discovers he's become a cockroach.  Some first sentences are more cuckoo than others!

cover by Loki-Luo
Worse, far worse, some first sentences are meaner to their mamas than other first sentences, no matter how big or diminutive they be.  "Mama died today."  Or so he says.  And yet this strange, The Stranger's Gregor Samsa, can't even remember (according to that awful, on the cusp of being matricidal, second sentence) whether his mama died today or the day before?  Is that any way for any narrator to be remembering their mama, Mr. Camus?!  My mama practically sacrificed her very life every day for me, and you made it so he can't even have the decency to remember the damn day she died?  

cover by Mina Bach
I'd planned on writing more about how some first sentences are bigger than other first sentences and so on, but I'm incensed now, Albert Camus mistreating that mama like that. When I began this post, I felt great, it was clearly the best of times, but now?  Now it's the worst of times!  Maybe I'll come back and finish up with more first sentences later, when I'm feeling better.  Or maybe, should somebody out there (is there anybody out there?) ever read this post about first sentences, they might leave a comment and mention some of their favorite first sentences too, no matter the sentence's size, sexual orientation, mama-meanness (or lack thereof).