Guest Post: Play It As It Lays reviewed by Joseph Brinson

You know, I began a try at this review writing about Iago in Othello and the nature of evil.

And about ennui and apathy.

And that the answer is: nothing.

And how I felt deep empathy for Maria.

And then I deleted it all.

This is my review: This novel depressed the fuck out of me.

That, and giving it four stars, should sum it up.

Design by Olympia Le-Tan

Joseph Brinson (a.k.a., "Quixada"), a poet and a longtime online pal, made me fucking howl when I first read his deadpanned piece on Play It As It Lays years and years ago.  Yes, it is brief — yet is playfully, skillfully thorough. His homage still slays me today.


Reading Ulysses One Page a Day: Pages 26-30

006 ... In which I continue reading Ulysses one page per day, and quote both my favorite sentence and favorite word from each day's reading. Each post chronicles five days.

Day 26; pg 26

Stephen’s embarrassed hand moved over the shells heaped in the cold stone mortar: whelks and money cowries and leopard shells: and this, whorled as an emir’s turban, and this, the scallop of saint James.

f.w. = thong


Day 27; pg 27

Do you know that the orange lodges agitated for repeal of the union twenty years before O’Connell did or before the prelates of your communion denounced him as a demagogue?

Iago makes an appearance on pg 27.  Iago also appeared on the first page of Joan Didion's sizzling second novel Play It As It Lays. I wonder where else that ego-tripping imp Iago has appeared in contemporary literature?  Put but money in thy purse, Dear!  Money is power!!

f.w. = filibegs


Day 28; pg 28

But prompt ventilation of this allimportant question ... Where Cranly led me to get rich quick, hunting his winners among the mudsplashed brakes, amid the bawls of bookies on their pitches and reek of the canteen, over the motley slush.

The above sentence almost got beat out by Lal the ral the ra and Lal the ral the raddy but it just wasn't meant to be.

f.w. = thimbleriggers

Day 29; pg 29

The pluterperfect imperturbability of the department of agriculture.

Probably the pricelessest alliteration and word play I've read allday.  This following second place sentence — Jousts, slush and uproar of battles, the frozen deathspew of the slain, a shout of spearspikes baited with men’s bloodied guts — reminded me of many a fine time dining al fresco, sans utensils, at a Renaissance Pleasure Faire festival. And, btw, "Renaissance," for you Stateside-improperly-pronouncing-imbeciles, is pronounced "Renee-ssance," not "Wren-uh-ssance," Mowrons.

f.w. = pluterperfect

I feel pluterperfectly drunk on Joyce right abouts now!


Day 30; pg 30

—History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

After reading that sentence, how can I not ask myself am I reading Ulysses or am I reading Fernando Pessoa's The Book of Disquiet?  Take out the "Stephen said" and I wouldn't have been able to tell you which book that quote came from had you given me a choice between the two.  In fact I'd of probably picked Pessoa's.  Foreboding aphorisms abound. Pg 30 also reminded me of something that I'd completely forgotten about regarding Ulysses: that being either its anti-semitism or, rather, its portrayals of anti-semitism.  Mr. Deasy, for instance, is a blatant bigot:

Mark my words ... England is in the hands of the jews. In all the highest places: her finance, her press. And they are the signs of a nation’s decay. Wherever they gather they eat up the nation’s vital strength. I have seen it coming these years. As sure as we are standing here the jew merchants are already at their work of destruction....

...They sinned against the light, Mr Deasy said gravely. And you can see the darkness in their eyes. And that is why they are wanderers on the earth to this day.

f.w. = maladroit


Reading Ulysses index


Reading Ulysses One Page a Day: Pages 21-25

005 ... In which I read James Joyce's Ulysses one page per day, one day at a time, and chronicle my reading by quoting my favorite sentence and favorite word ("f.w.") from each page. Each post chronicles five days of reading.

Day 21; pg 21

For them too history was a tale like any other too often heard, their land a pawnshop.

Another "all"-one-word-sentence occurs on this pg.  A general's spear is prominent.  As is Pyrrhus, pier.  Lots of letter "p" wordplay.

f.w. = gorescarred.


Day 22; pg 22

Fed and feeding brains about me: under glowlamps, impaled, with faintly beating feelers: and in my mind’s darkness a sloth of the underworld, reluctant, shy of brightness, shifting her dragon scaly folds..

f.w. = Genevieve

I was recently discussing the topics of Time and Ghosts with friends, just the day before, in fact, that I read this page. Check out how pg 22 opens below —

Had Pyrrhus not fallen by a beldam’s hand in Argos or Julius Caesar not been knifed to death. They are not to be thought away. Time has branded them and fettered they are lodged in the room of the infinite possibilities they have ousted. But can those have been possible seeing that they never were? Or was that only possible which came to pass? Weave, weaver of the wind.
—Tell us a story, sir.
—O, do, sir. A ghoststory.

Is it possible Joyce remembered our future conversations before they happened, and so recorded some of our present biography in his past fiction?  Are you metempsychotic enough to believe it?

Day 23; pg 23

His thick hair and scraggy neck gave witness of unreadiness and through his misty glasses weak eyes looked up pleading.

f.w. = riddling.  Pg 23 is a page riddled with riddles.  Stephen telling a riddle that's not a riddle but a prank for schoolboys; riddles of the Church—pranks for parishioners?  The Holy Catholic Church is wholly a riddle at times.  Fun pg.

Here's an arbitrary, random aside for Joyce fans; especially for aficionados of Finnegans Wake:  Arno Schmidt ~ on Finnegans Wake.

I also mention Arno Schmidt because his long untranslated novel Zettels Traum (1970) is scheduled for a September release this year from Dalkey Archive, translated as "Bottom's Dream".  Like Finnegans Wake, a novel that Zettel's Traum has been compared to, it's been accused of being unreadable, too long, and untranslatable.  And get this—it's twice as long as Finnegans Wake at 1,496 pages!  It will become one of the lengthiest novels ever published in English.  You can already preorder a Dalkey Archive hardcover edition (in one volume) for $53.57!

Who was Arno Schmidt and what is Zettels Traum?

Watch Zettels Traum yourself!


Day 24; pg 24

Gone too from the world, Averroes and Moses Maimonides, dark men in mien and movement, flashing in their mocking mirrors the obscure soul of the world, a darkness shining in brightness which brightness could not comprehend.

More parody of sacred Scripture.  Another appearance, also (a variation I believe), of He proves by algebra that Shakespeare’s ghost is Hamlet’s grandfather.  Hamlet plays a role here in Ulysses and also in Infinite Jest; what other famous works (or not so famous works) of modernisticshit does Hamlet appear?

f.w. = askance


Day 25; pg 25

Secrets, silent, stony sit in the dark palaces of both our hearts: secrets weary of their tyranny: tyrants, willing to be dethroned.

As far as sentences about secrets go, that one is spectacular.

f.w. = laggard


Reading Ulysses index


Reading Ulysses One Page a Day: Pages 16-20

004 ... in which I continue reading Ulysses one page per day one day at a time, and chronicle my reading by quoting my favorite sentence and word from each page. Each post chronicles five days of reading.

Day 16; pg 16

The seas’ ruler, he gazed southward over the bay, empty save for the smokeplume of the mailboat vague on the bright skyline and a sail tacking by the Muglins.

Hard to decide on a favorite word; it's either smokeplume or Muglins (and this, I think, is the first occurrence for me in which the sentence I chose also holds my favorite word).


Day 17; pg 17

—The ballad of joking Jesus, Stephen answered.

Jarring sentence!  I allmost chose the sentence All.  Not just any writer can write a one-word sentence that fits the context of the narrative in both a stylistic/aesthetic sense and thematically.  The word "all" is used many times on this page.  Do you believe at all, Haines is asking Dedalus, even if you don't believe it all?

f.w. = waistcoatpocket.  I believe I allmost chose all.


Day 18; pg 18

Symbol of the apostles in the mass for pope Marcellus, the voices blended, singing alone loud in affirmation: and behind their chant the vigilant angel of the church militant disarmed and menaced her heresiarchs.

A friend informed me that the above sentence I picked for Day 18 is referring to this — beautiful music there.  The sentence preceding this one ends with "a chemistry of stars"—an intriguing idea/image.  I like the odd syntax at the end of the sentence above as well.

f.w. = heresiarch


Day 19; pg 19

He scrambled up by the stones, water glistening on his pate and on its garland of grey hair, water rilling over his chest and paunch and spilling jets out of his black sagging loincloth.

First time I read this in '09 I don't recall that there had been a search for a drowning victim in the bay near the Martello Tower.  The "He" in this sentence has been observed just prior on this page walking "frogwise" in the water along the rocks, perhaps feeling with his hands for a body?

f.w. = rotto


Day 20; pg 20

I hear the ruin of all space, shattered glass and toppling masonry, and time one livid final flame.

The first chapter break occurs here on pg 20.  A new character, Cochran, is introduced.  And shortly thereafter we hear "the thud of Blake's wings of excess."

f.w = sweettoned


Reading Ulysses index


Reading Ulysses One Page a Day: Pages 11-15

003 ... in which I continue reading Ulysses one page per day one day at a time, and chronicle my reading by quoting my favorite sentence and word from each page. Each post chronicles five days of reading.

DAY 11, pg 11

A wandering crone, lowly form of an immortal serving her conqueror and her gay betrayer, their common cuckquean, a messenger from the secret morning.

Page 11 is the funniest and perhaps most gnostic page, too, I've read so far here, early on.  If anyone could direct me to an analysis of gnosticism in Ulysses I'd be much obliged.  The words "milk" and "secret" appear numerous times on page 11.  The word "hising" appears for the first of two times it will appear in Ulysses according to the Ulysses Concordance, but I've yet to find what the word means.  Is it an early instance of Joyce inventing a new word?

f.w. = dewsilky, but on pg 11 I must also include an honorable mention f.w.: prepuces.  I really really like this word "prepuces".

Godless Florin, 1849
DAY 12; pg 12

Well, it’s seven mornings a pint at twopence is seven twos is a shilling and twopence over and these three mornings a quart at fourpence is three quarts is a shilling.

That dazzling bit of dialogue from the milkwoman replying to Haines about the bill for the milk just leapt off the page—and it was a page with lots of leapers.

f.w = Gaelic ... this was the first pag in which a single word didn't leap at me like the sentences, so I had to search and search and sort of "settle" on "Gaelic," a beautiful word nonetheless.

DAY 13; pg 13

Haines from the corner where he was knotting easily a scarf about the loose collar of his tennis shirt spoke: —I intend to make a collection of your sayings if you will let me.

—No, Haines, I shall make a collection of your sayings.

f.w. = agenbite


DAY 14; pg 14

He stood up, gravely ungirdled and disrobed himself of his own, saying resignedly:
—Mulligan is stripped of his garments.

Hmmm. Might Mulligan be being rather blasphemous?

f.w. = handkerchief — a word you no longer hear much these days.  It beat out "snotrag" by a nose.


DAY 15; pg 15

He proves by algebra that Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father.

Fun page.  Besides Shakespeare, Thomas Aquinas and Oscar Wilde are also mentioned.  The sentence above, in fact, is Buck Mulligan poking fun at the paradoxical witticisms of Wilde.  I almost picked Wait till I have a few pints in me first as my favorite sentence, because, in that simple line — in the words "in me" — I can hear that Irish voice speaking loud and clear.

f.w. = stolewise


Reading Ulysses Index


Guest Post: Farewell to Manzanar reviewed by Mac McCaskill

"Mountain now loosens rivulets of tears.
Washed stones, forgotten clearing."
 —Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston

When my father was a boy, he learned that he’d been adopted by the man whom he’d thought was his father. Digging through a dusty trunk in his attic, he found legal documents that gave him the name he wore and the father he knew, but also uncovering an origin that had been hidden from him.

His mother was, by all accounts, a volatile woman — her siblings called her “the hornet” because her sting was quick and painful. She was a hard woman, and reticent to either acknowledge or divulge anything about his biological father. Over the years, he eventually learned from other relatives that she met Mr. Black — it was his name, but also a metaphor for much more — in a late 1920’s dance hall. He left her pregnant, taking whatever money he could get his hands hand on when he went.

Late in his life, after his mother died, my dad started quizzing other relatives for information about Mr. Black, and learned that he had a half-brother and half-sister. He reached out to them, curious about the man who would have been his father. Curious, too, about his other, unlived life, the one that you imagine still plays out, with another you — who isn’t really you, but a slightly better you, in a slightly better corner of the universe — with another family, another father who didn’t abandon you. It’s universal, sons and daughters searching for the person their parents used to be, if only a little more charged in those who’ve been disconnected from their bloodline.

Dad was a junior high school English teacher. He often brought a copy of the books he was teaching his students — Romeo and Juliet or Shane. Before teaching, he had served in reconstruction Japan after the bombs were dropped. What little he ever said about his war service, he always brightened up when he spoke about Japan and the Japanese people. So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he brought home a copy of Farewell to Manzanar when he introduced it to his class. Of course, I ignored it, like the other books Dad brought home, exiting the room quickly when he tried to talk to me about why it was important to him.

Wandering through a bookstore in California, I happened on a bright orange and yellow-covered book, calling out to me from the shelves. When I pulled it down, my breath caught as I read the title — Farewell to Manzanar. I brought it home and shelved it with the other non-fiction titles in my library, but it pulled at me when I walked by, urging me to reconnect with my father.

Compact and paperback, it was a perfect choice for a recent business trip. In the pressurized air, as I began to read it, I heard my father in Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s story, saw his own longing and search for a father he didn’t know.

Farewell to Manzanar is generally categorized as a story about the internment of Japanese American’s following the attack on Pearl Harbor — a cautionary tale about how fear can overcome basic honor and respect. But it’s so much more, if you listen.

George Ko Wakatsuki (Jeanne Wakatsuki's father)
Jeanne Wakatsuki was interned with her family at Manzanar, in a desert valley between two mountain ranges in eastern California. She was seven years old and she spent the next four years of her life in the camp. But her father was taken first to Fort Lincoln, falsely accused of aiding Japanese submarines off the California coast while fishing. When he joined his family at Manzanar, he was broken, changed. He arrived with a limp and a habit for the bottle. Wakatsuki longed to discover what had happened to her father, but it wasn’t until she begin writing Farewell to Manzanar that she started to understand that her father’s life ended at Manzanar, where her life began. She may have embarked on writing this book to tell her family’s story, and the country’s, but what she was really doing was giving voice to the search for her father, a man she didn’t know. It’s no wonder that my own father found himself in the pages of Wakatsuki’s book, saw her search as his own. And reading Farewell to Manzanar helped me to understand him.

Bottom Line: Life in a Japanese internment camp — but also a search for a father.

5 bones!!!!!


Mac McCaskill (a.k.a., blackdogbooks) is a prolific reader and writer.  I've had the pleasure of reading his reviews for almost ten years now, and his short stories for the last two or three.  I suspect upstanding editors of online journals and print magazines of excellence will eventually do more than simply read Mac McCaskill's stories too.  He knows how to tell a good one, doesn't he? Moved by what Mac had to say regarding Manzanar in his poignant piece above, I asked him for the privilege of posting it here.


Reading Ulysses One Page a Day: Pages 6-10

002 ... in which I continue reading Ulysses one page per day one day at a time, and chronicle my reading by quoting my favorite sentence and word from each page. Each post chronicles five days of reading.

Day 6; pg 6

A light wind passed his brow, fanning softly his fair uncombed hair and stirring silver points of anxiety in his eyes.

And today requires a second favorite sentence:

I remember only ideas and sensations.

Funny thing that second sentence—ideas and sensations, for me, elicit memories, but I rarely remember ideas and sensations, in and of themselves, per se.

f.w. = Laloutte's

Rolls off the tongue nicely.  I remember a friend who once mentioned being drunk at a party where the partygoers were reading Finnegans Wake aloud, and just laughing uproariously over the language.  Ulysses is likewise a novel to be read aloud.

The word "beastly" is plastered all over page six.  I'm sure Joyce had a reason....

North Coast of the Dingle Peninsula, by Helene Brennan

Day 7; pg 7 

Wavewhite wedded words shimmering on the dim tide.

So quotable, and but one example of Joyce's unmatched mastery of language.  Perhaps only Shakespeare surpassed him?

f.w. = phantasmal

Day 8; Pg 8 

Her glazing eyes, staring out of death, to shake and bend my soul.

Even though I know, in context, Stephen Dedalus is ruminating upon his late mother, that line, in my own life's context, elicited a visceral reaction when I read it.  I suspect anyone who's stared into those "glazing eyes ... out of death" of one beloved, suddenly gone, likewise feels their soul shaken and bent.  That sentence there is high and holy Art—but one example of the numinous universal power of Joyce, in particular, and of Literature, in general.

f.w. = ghostcandle


Day 9; Pg 9 

He went over to it, held it in his hands awhile, feeling
its coolness, smelling the clammy slaver of the lather in which the brush was stuck.

Pure poetry!  This page requires mention of a runner-up sentence—

I am another now and yet the same.

Reminds me of the poet (forget whom) who wrote of the river — "you sound like you're moving / but you never leave".

f.w. = barbacans


Day 10; Pg 10 

Buck Mulligan, hewing thick slices from the loaf, said in an old woman’s wheedling voice:
—When I makes tea I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said.

f.w. = Dundrum


Reading Ulysses index


Reading Ulysses One Page a Day (w/the intent of finishing it sometime in early 2018): Pages 1-5

I believe I can do it this time; that is, read Ulysses from first page to last.  Once upon a time, in March of 2009, I organized a group read in LibraryThing called "The Quest for the Last Page of Ulysses," but about halfway through my Gabler edition copy of the novel (or roughly two-thirds of the way up to the "top"—the end—of the book, acknowledging the Mount Everest imagery and Himalayan metaphors I regularly employed in our reading progress during the epic Quest), I was either surprised by a Yeti, causing me to stumble and slip down an ice-chute to my doom, or was overcome by an avalanche, and so "died" while attempting to stand upon the summit of "Mount" Ulysses.

First edition, 1922
This time, there will be no impossible mountains to conquer; instead, Ulysses will be tackled as if it were a terrible addiction to overcome ... "one" hazy, lazy "day at a time"; or, one dizzying page per day. During each day of my recovery from Ulysses I will quote one sentence from my reading—not necessarily the best sentence, but whichever sentence for whatever reason(s) struck my fancy or maybe my funny bone. I will also share my favorite word (FW) of the day from my reading. What might Ulysses, both the best and the beastliest novel ever written, read like thus abridged?  Unless illness, family emergency, or death take me yonder, we are going to find out.

Why am I doing this? Doing something so hard and self-punishing? Well, why not?  So what if I have "to fake it till I make it," because I trust that Ulysses "will work if I work it, but it won't if I don't"! Also, beyond just the rewards that shall surely come to me once I've beaten this terrible disease, Ulysses, I'd like to finally get the ribald monkey off my back and be able to say that I finished the damn thing, every goddamned word of it, this novel that, love it or hate it (as I have both through the years), nonetheless deserves a second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh chance (and more), understanding that relapse in fighting Ulysses is the expected norm.

In lieu of a hard copy of the novel, for the time being I'll be utilizing a pdf of Ulysses online.  And rather than post here every day, I'll post my progress in five day installments per blog post. So, here goes (thisiscrazy thisiscrazy thisiscrazy) . . . .

Day 1, Pg 1 

Stephen Dedalus, displeased and sleepy, leaned his arms on the top of the staircase and looked coldly at the shaking gurgling face that blessed him, equine in its length, and at the light untonsured hair, grained and hued like pale oak.

The lovely alliteration of "displeased" / "sleepy" caught my ears.

f.w. = Chrysostomos


Day 2; Pg 2 

—Lend us a loan of your noserag to wipe my razor.

f.w. = dactyls


Joseph Beuys, examining Joyce's scrotumtightening sea (photo by Caroline Tisdall)
Day 3; Pg 3 

The scrotumtightening sea.

I bet the sea off Dublin, Ireland is scrotumtightening any time of year.

f.w. = snotgreen


Day 4; Pg 4 

—He can’t wear them, Buck Mulligan told his face inthe mirror.

You can just hear Mulligan's sneer, that line is so spot-on-good (or "spotongood,") as Joyce may have spelled it.  That image of Mulligan speaking to the mirror is striking, too.

f.w. = dogsbody


Day 5; pg 5

With slit ribbons of his shirt whipping the air he hops and hobbles round the table, with trousers down at heels, chased by Ades of Magdalen with the tailor’s shears.

f.w.  = omphalos


Reading Ulysses index


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.


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.


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. . . .


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

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

   Heavy Daughter Blues ~ Wanda Coleman (1987)

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

   Asylum Piece ~ Anna Kavan (1940)

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

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

   Hell House ~ Richard Matheson (1971)

   Metrophage ~ Richard Kadrey (1988)

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

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

   Nakamura Reality ~ Alex Austin (2016)

   Ice ~ Anna Kavan (1967)


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)


'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.