Arnošt Lustig's autograph (Lovely Green Eyes)

Recently found this signed copy at the Bookman in Orange, in near fine condition, affordably priced.  Not a huge Arnošt Lustig fan. Grabbed this, one of his last works of fiction, Lovely Green Eyes, on somewhat of a whim, and I'm glad I did. Like his contemporary Raymond Federman, Arnošt Lustig's oeuvre was the Holocaust, and I've yet to read a novel or memoir about it that wasn't able to put my own life into purest perspective whenever I'd let its petty dramas and difficulties get me down.


Metrophage by Richard Kadrey

A few weeks ago I was in Pacific Grove and sauntered into what I thought was a coffee place (it was) but turned out to also be a bookstore -- Bookworks!  Pretty cool feeling to find a bookstore when you weren't even looking for one.  So, after enjoying our coffee and croissants, spent some time browsing the small shop.  I knew right away that Bookworks of Pacific Grove was an awesome bookshop when I saw the lone copy of Infinite Jest and its fat blue spine (the tenth anniversary edition) occupying a large slot in the bottom shelf of the CLASSICS section in-between the glossy sheen of brand new trade paperback copies of Lew Wallace's Ben Hur and Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men.  I told the gentleman manning the register how cool I thought it was that they stocked Infinite Jest in the CLASSICS section and he smiled, nodded, and replied that "it comes and goes often".

Ace Specials ed., 1988
Another book that comes and goes with even more frequency than Infinite Jest from the shelves of Bookworks, come to find out, if the kind tall man with a slight stoop in his step standing at the register was to be believed (and I saw no reason why he shouldn't be), is Metrophage by San Francisco-based freelance writer and photographer, Richard Kadrey.  "Couldn't keep those in stock when they first came in," he said, handing the copy of Metrophage I'd just purchased back to me in a white paper bag with handles.  I'd first heard of Metrophage in one of those science fiction best-of lists from yesteryear, and had never been able to find a copy.  Until walking unwittingly into Bookworks in Pacific Grove on the first Tuesday of August, 2015, that is.  Seems Metrophage had been out of print for years (it'd been published originally in 1988 by Ace Specials), until Harper Voyager reissued it as a "SIGNED FIRST EDITION" in late 2014.

Metrophage has essentially been my introduction to "cyberpunk" even though the genre has been around for thirty-one years since the release of William Gibson's innovative and instant-classic first novel sensation, Neuromancer, in 1984.  Of course elements of cyberpunk had been around since at least Mary Shelley's Frankenstein from way back when in the early nineteenth century (and I recommend reading Larry McCaffery's enlightening anthology on the subject, Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction, for a superb and authoritative book-by-book chronological assessment of cyberpunk's genesis and evolution) but it was Neuromancer that pieced all the nascent elements of the genre's inchoate fragments together in such perfectly realized ways that it was obvious among the avant-garde science fiction/postmodernist crowds that something new in literature had just been born -- cyberpunk -- and its name was synonymous with Neuromancer, and it's father was William Gibson. I've no clue who could've been cyberpunk's mum.

"Storm The Reality Studio. And retake the universe."
William S. Burroughs, Nova Express
Enter Metrophage, stage left, four years later. Nearly thirty, Metrophage remains a vital novel; it reads as technologically and culturally relevant today as the day it was published (the latter I can only imagine); it is a novel that is not dated like the hair metal and synthesizers and Milli Vanilli lip-synckers that defined the music scene of the era in which Richard Kadrey's first novel was published. It's not dated probably because of its prescience on multicultural and sociopolitical fronts.  The intermingling of Asian and North American cultures is a prominent trope of cyberpunk, I've learned, from reading Storming the Reality Studio, which reminds us how well director Ridley Scott managed the America-Asia image-mix in so many of those futuristic scenes he artfully rendered in Blade Runner, but Kadrey tweaked the trope a bit adding Arab and Middle Eastern cultures to the mashup, and the imaginary Los Angeles (or "Last Ass" as the locals call their city) that he projected from the future back in 1988 bears an uncanny resemblance to the Last Ass I see and breathe today in 2015.

The sociopolitical zeitgeist of Metrophage took for granted the ongoing, ever present existence of the one percent/ninety-nine percent cultural divide/debate in the United States (I know I don't recall this reality in political discourse when the first Bush beat Dukakis in '88), and went so satirically over the top with the concept that when a young one-percenter, Jonny (I'd rank Jonny as a one-percenter, yet must acknowledge and allow for alternate perceptions that he's never explicitly described by Kadrey as being said one-percenter), the antihero of Metrophage; that is, when Jonny gets cornered by a poverty stricken septuagenarian gang of "discards and defectives" known as The Piranhas, wielding "the few weapons they could find, principally government-issued teeth--filed and set firmly in angry, withered jaws," he refused to shoot his way out through them with his high-tech Futukoro handgun/grenade launcher because he felt an irritating compassion/kinship for them -- imagine that, a one-percenter feeling compassion?, feeling sorry for and identifying with the poor beleaguered ninety-nine percent?) and so instead had to use his wits and his fists to escape from the septuagenarian's deadly dentures.  Does anyone now living in the United States who's not deluded, drugged out, outright crazy, a politician or overpaid C.E.O., doubt the reality of the one percent/ninety-nine percent divide in the U.S.A.?  The denizens of Last Ass were already taking the divide for granted when Richard Kadrey first envisioned them doing so in the mid-1980s, when Ronald Reagan was king; though, admittedly, the Last Ass denizens weren't even conceptualized then and so couldn't have been taking the one percent/ninety-nine percent divide for granted as early as 1968, when Reagan was just California's governor and J.G. Ballard, prescient as he was as a speculative pre-cyberpunky type of writer, somehow saw the imperialist danger lurking in plain goobernatorial (sic) sight a little over a decade away, and published his provocatively titled pamphlet that, to my knowledge, wasn't narrated by a real or fictitious Nancy Reagan, "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan," but, man oh man, I have digressed. . . .

Suffice to say, the good publishing people over at Harper Voyager knew what the hell they were doing reissuing Metrophage.  Perhaps the next time I stroll into Bookworks in Pacific Grove, Metrophage will also be shelved in the CLASSICS section, where it belongs, and by CLASSICS I do not mean CULT CLASSICS.


Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson

I'm not appalled at all by the political incorrectness and sheer irresponsible lunacy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Saying so, however, can't help but show, I fear, that the responsible-citizen side-of-me believes I should be appalled; that I should absolutely and incontrovertibly loathe Hunter S. Thompson's Savage Journey To The Heart Of The American Dream.  And yet I don't.  I treasure my posh, mylar-protected, Modern Library hardcover first printing of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  A book, I suspect, that has induced more side splitting, spittle spraying, laughter per page, in others -- I know it has in me -- than any other book in history.

frontispiece illustration in first printing
We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers . . . and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls. . . .

"We" being, Thompson, of course, and his high, high powered attorney. Driving under the influence through the Mojave Desert, or while intoxicated; loaded, if you will; out of one's mind (which is to say hammered, blotto, stoned, shit faced past Pluto, well beyond the rubicon of any possible recovery) isn't funny -- never mind hysterical -- or even remotely mildly amusing, correct?  Yes, correct.  DWIs are reprehensible, unforgivable, completely avoidable, correct? Correct, except -- for there is one exception and one exception only in recorded history -- when it was Hunter S. Thompson behind the wheel, gathering wild, outrageous, jaw dropping material as lucid as it was lunatic for what would become the plastered pages of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, a masterpiece of pop culture and sociopolitical reportage that tweaked and freaked out even the California Highway Patrol in the research, with so much of Hunter's speedy shenanigans, aided and abetted at every wrong turn by the illegal assistance and conduct unbecoming of his attorney who should've been disbarred.

Getting hold of the drugs had been no problem, but the car and the tape recorder were not easy things to round up at 6:30 on a Friday afternoon in Hollywood.

While Hunter would not ultimately need that tape recorder for what turned out to be a dud instead of a scoop in the 1971 Mint 400 Desert Race outside Las Vegas, Nevada, the drugs would be a vital necessity in order for Hunter's plan-B option to reach its zenith after the Mint 400 Race fizzled: His uninvited yet impromptu attendance at the National District Attorneys' Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs that, coincidentally, was then ongoing in Vegas the very same weekend as the Mint 400 assigned to him for a paltry $250 by Sports Illustrated.  Hunter saw, as only a new gonzo journalist like Hunter S. Thompson could see, the gloriously subversive opportunities of such an anti-drugs shindig like that and struck, er, smoked, snorted, and imbibed, a motley stash of narcotics and dangerous drugs while the proverbial iron was hot.  Ergo, he got the hysterical, in your face scoop and then some, in his classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.


The N.F.L. and Not Junior Seau Have Taken the Easy Way Out

I've heard it stated frequently in the aftermath of Junior Seau's suicide on May 2nd, 2012, that he took the so-called "easy way out".  I'm not so much interested in adding to the redundant rhetoric regarding the sad particulars of Seau's case, but rather wish to examine this "easy way out" mentality that inevitably crops up whenever anybody, famous sports star or not, takes their own life.

When people have terminal cancer, we don't accuse them, as they near death, of taking the easy way out, because that would be absurd, not to mention ignorant and just plain cruel to say about someone suffering tortuous and terminal pain.  But those who've suffered long with what amounts to a cancer or a disease of the mind, generally aren't given the same grace or compassion as those whose deadly afflictions are physical and observable.  Those who commit suicide chose to die, right?  And nobody chooses to die of cancer.  Not even three-pack-a day smokers are choosing to die one day of lung cancer.  This apparent choosing to die, choosing to reject life and the love of others can create a curious resentment and abiding anger even among those not personally involved in any given case, even Junior Seau's.  Within hours of the news of Junior Seau's suicide, people not connected to him in any way other than having watched him play collegiate and professional football for twenty years from their televisions, were flooding sports talk radio programs with their subdued tirades.  Their guilty verdicts were in (even before any evidence, pro or con, could have possibly been collected):  "Junior Seau took the easy way out."  As if suicide were as easy as simply opening a door.

The first time I contemplated suicide, I was seventeen.  Over the next six years, as my life and relationships eroded, leaving me isolated and alienated (even as I was surrounded by so many damn people) on the ruinous soil of dread and despair, I discovered how hard it was to die, that suicide was not easy.

I found myself alone one night at the age of twenty with my father's .20 gauge shotgun.  My intent that night wasn't necessarily suicide, but to test myself and to see if I could really do it, if and when the time came that I knew I needed to; if and when, that is, I got so desperate I saw no other means of escape.  The three preceding years had been anything but easy.  Easier, even less, was holding that cocked and loaded shotgun in my hands, or sticking the double-barrels inside my mouth and tasting that awful metallic taste as my front teeth inadvertently scraped the steel of the cold barrels -- a sound I'll never forget as it seemed to literally scrape across the inside my head.  I remember my right hand trembling as my thumb fumbled for then finally found the trigger.  I was not thinking about the opening line of Hamlet.  All I was thinking was all I had to do now was squeeze. To squeeze or not to squeeze? I knew then that I probably could squeeze the trigger, but that squeezing it would not be easy.  Over the ensuing three years I would attempt suicide twice, and both times it was exhausting.  Not to mention how hard going was the almost constant internal turmoil of those horrific years of despondency in between.  After my second hospitalization, and another three years following my first "test," that deeply wounded young man I once was finally got some help that lasted. More than twenty years have come and gone since those hellacious days and months and years. I've discovered since then that choosing to live, choosing to endure, to persevere and all that, is not an easy way out either.  But I'm convinced that as hard as living is sometimes, it's a hell of a lot easier than suicide.

I suspect the decision Junior Seau made on May 2nd, 2012, wasn't easy, either.  Needless to say, what his family has had to endure the three years since his death has no doubt been emotionally excruciating. And now comes the disturbing news that, against Junior Seau's wishes, the N.F.L. won't let his bereaved daughter introduce him at his Hall of Fame induction.

If anyone can be accused of taking the easy way out in Junior Seau's case, it's the N.F.Ls. cruel and despicable decision makers.

The N.F.L. is obviously more concerned with protecting its precious premium brand and lucrative image above all else than properly honoring or respecting the wishes of one of its greatest players who gave them literally everything, including his life.  No wonder so many intelligent (and now former) N.F.L. fans such as yours truly have increasingly come to abhor the league's ludicrous decisions, absurd disciplinary policies, and frankly creepy culture of crime and violence its long enabled and now ultimately represents. 


The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston

I'd just as soon have not read Richard Preston's The Demon in the Freezer if it meant I could remain blissfully ignorant of the disturbing reality that vaccine-resistant smallpox and anthrax is undoubtedly already in the unhinged hands of jihadists or other sadistic dogmatists around the world, and that a large scale bioterrorism attack on North American soil is more a question of when than if. Yet with the bumbling bureaucratic bozos at the Pentagon running amok recently, FedEx'ing live samples of anthrax by mistake to more than fifty unsuspecting laboratories across the States and overseas, perhaps the deadliest likes of Isis are the least of the Western world's worries after all. Look in the mirror for a change, drunk Uncle Sam!

The Demon in the Freezer makes me wish I didn't know how to read -- almost -- it's that unnerving.  I'd rather not know that the former Soviet Union was producing weapons-grade smallpox by the ton as late as 2001 on the eve of 9/11, and that today -- or so say several Russian scientists who've since defected to the U.S. -- the authorities in the former-USSR have no idea where those tons of weapons-grade smallpox went.  Despite the worldwide "eradication" of smallpox in India in 1978, the USA and the former-USSR decided to freeze samples of the virus in order to keep it "safely stored," presumably as a  "safeguard" pretext in the event it got into the "wrong hands" and a vaccine needed to be manufactured from the stored samples in an emergency.

Had our wise global protectors simply destroyed all smallpox in the first place, like they were supposed to do when whatever treaty it was got signed and contractually obliged them to do so, no one would have to worry about any virulent vials of smallpox getting smuggled into the wrong hands would they?  Oh, but it's more politically complicated than that, Freeque, simply doing the right thing and destroying every ounce of it.  Yeah, and only because the bigwigs in this world don't trust each another enough to follow through on their historic, much ballyhooed agreements.

The Demon In The Freezer reads like the finest of John le Carré's espionage thrillers, replete as it is with international intrigue and suspense.  Can you imagine United Nations inspectors today confronting Vladimir Putin's covert bioweapons operations in Russia?  Neither can I.  Good luck, Doomed Earth, against vaccine-resistant smallpox and anthrax!


Hell House by Richard Matheson

Hell House's ending totally surprised me. I wondered just how much Richard Matheson may have waffled with that black-and-white, cut-and-dried, definitive ending.  Because ghost stories generally don't end that well.  Though, granted, two of the four people who entered Belasco House lost their lives, but rarely have I ever read a "ghostly" novel that ended so unequivocally. In wondering if Matheson maybe was intentionally going against the grain of the ghost story genre, leaving it purposely free of ambiguity, free of any doubt, I found an interview in which Matheson indeed confessed how unsatisfied he was by two of the endings in classics of the genre -- Henry James' The Turn of the Screw and Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House -- and predetermined that Hell House's ending would be clear cut, devoid of equivocation.  Even with his ending finished before he began writing his book, I believe he pulled the ending off without it feeling contrived, but rather following its own unforgettable, frightening course to its utterly surprising climax that served also as kind of Matheson manifesto on the origins of evil.

First U.S. printing, Viking (1971)
Hell House is a first rate horror novel no matter how it ended.  It gave me the chills -- gave me goosebumps -- in a piping hot bathtub the night I finished it.  I enjoyed Hell House's pitting science versus faith (albeit faith in the paranormal/occult); empiricism versus mysticism; and how both science -- as evinced in the physicist Dr. Barrett's life's work, the "Reversor" -- and the supernatural, in the mediums Florence and Fischer, were instrumental in combatting the mansion's predilection for psychological torture and murder.

The Reversor was a clunky contraption of dials and knobs that must have resembled a large generator -- a large metaphysical generator.  Dr. Barrett believed the power it generated would produce enough negative electromagnetic radiation (EMR) to eliminate any residual energy, or "positive EMR", still inhabiting the house from its previous deceased occupants.  This positive EMR, in Dr. Barrett's strictly empirical eyes, was the real culprit for the mansion's unexplained paranormal activity.  I enjoyed how Matheson set Dr. Barrett's scientific worldview in sharp contrast against the frankly bizarre beliefs of the passionate proponents of the paranormal in the mediums Florence and Fischer.  Their snarky dialogue provided, at critical junctures of crises, fleeting doses of much needed relief from the nuclear cauldron of nearly constant intensifying pressure ongoing inside that hellacious house. Reading Hell House has made me want to read more haunted house/ghost stories, in order to see how they've evolved in literature over the years. I suspect few have relied as much on science as Hell House.

I suspect also, after reading Hell House, that some alleged "haunted houses" in literature are a trifle more haunted than others.  Belasco House, the "Hell House" of the novel's title, as it was commonly called by the mediums and other ghost-pros who dared entering it, was considered the "Mt. Everest of haunted mansions".  However, comparing Hell House to Mt. Everest doesn't do Hell House justice when one considers that of all the mountaineers who've ever attempted to climb Mt. Everest, only about ten percent have died; whereas, conversely, only ten percent of the people who've ever entered Hell House and spent the night there have left the house alive.  Exceedingly more deadly, based on the statistical rates of failure recounted in Hell House, spending the night there than attempting to climb Mt. Everest. I doubt even El Chapo could escape from Hell House alive.

TOR edition (1999) 
with Michael J Deas cover illustration
Hell House, if you'll pardon the momentary longeur, is so adept at sending anyone who'd spent a night there straight to an early, grisly grave, it's practically as effective an executioner as capital punishment is here in The States.  A pity that capital punishers could never be allowed to sentence its vilest criminal offenders to Hell House to die (assuming, of course, Hell House were real).  Such an unorthodox Hell House Death Sentence, unfortunately, would probably constitute cruel and unusual punishment; too cruel, no doubt, for even pedophiles and serial killers.  And too unusual because it usually took too long to die there, up to four days and nights in some instances, as was the case for one of the mediums who entered the house with Dr. Barrett.  And one of those nights was a gruesome night of necrophilia, and that's necrophilia of the unexpected reverse kind initiated by the dead upon the living.  Yuck!  Christ, even when an an execution goes awry in a state sanctioned house of horrors, as was recently the case in the botched lethal injection of Joseph R. Wood in Arizona, his death still lasted for only one hour and forty minutes. Hardly the type of slow tortuous death that goes on for days inside Hell House.

Richard Matheson
While Biblical passages loom large a couple times in Hell House, particularly Matthew 5:29 (though I think John 8:32 could've rung just as true in Matheson's narrative contexts as well), there's nary a hint of Catholic subtext in Hell House (thank God) until we enter its chapel and find a perverted (though not inverted), life-sized, and shall we say, wooden, crucifixion; the blasphemous imagery obviously borrowed from Anton LaVey's own borrowed depictions of the Black Mass then en vogue at the time of Hell House's 1971 publication.  The chapel gets more intriguing when its secret gothic chamber and the pathetic power for so long concealed there is revealed in a denouement that's more akin to Julien Gracq's stylized "Chapel of the Abyss" chapter in Chateau d'Argol than any of the lurid and absurd schlock ripped off by that carnival clown, Anton Lavey.  For the genesis of evil, as Richard Matheson envisioned it, and as he empowered it in Hell House, while allowing spacious room, yes, for the supernatural (or the paranormal or whatever the hell one might wish calling the eerie shit -- and forgive me if I momentarily risk giving away too much), was at least as much if not more the result of the malignant manifestation of a human ego gone superbad, a la Hitler, than that of lost or angry spirits, whom, being somehow stuck in their carryover of negative emotions after death, go berserk on the other side to such an extreme their unearthly echoes of outrage can be heard by those psychics attuned to hear them.  Even for the most gifted psychics, however, such as Florence or Fischer, opening themselves up to hear them doesn't always mean they'll automatically receive illumination, but rather madness, or much worse. . . .

Some novels can so possess you they literally scare the hell into you.  The Exorcist is one example. Hell House, another.


Random Speculations Regarding "The Secret Street" of Steve Erickson's in Days Between Stations

In reading Daniel Lindsay's superb, unputdownable, master's thesis Years Between Stations: The Dream of America in Steve Erickson late into the night last night, I was reminded that Steve Erickson's childhood home in the San Fernando Valley was bulldozed to make way for the then new 118 Freeway being constructed at the time.

Later last night, very late -- which is the best time to read and reflect on Erickson's haunting novels, times when "crucifixes of shadow" might seep from the moon through the blinds into my room; musing upon brilliant, under appreciated books like Rubicon Beach or These Dreams of You, novels that will remain inside me forever, having gestated and developed over time in my memory's darkroom into their own independent uncanny entities -- I pulled my mylar-protected, first Poseidon Press printing, of Days Between Stations off the shelf and noticed something in it I hadn't noticed before, even though I had read Erickson's own accounts of his boyhood growing up in Los Angeles' sprawling suburbs in Leap Year: A Political Journey.

Early in Days Between Stations, Lauren and Jason (who's just back from Vietnam: "The smell of Asia was always in the air ... He had no real sense of relief, because he wasn't wise enough to understand he could die...") leave Kansas for California.  In San Francisco "they lived on a secret street, which was entered through a small hallway at the top of a series of steps that ran up a hill."  The secret street Lauren and Jason reside on hasn't been plotted on any street maps of the city that Lauren can find.  Strange.

Two years later, they move to L.A. and, coincidentally, land on a street they'll call home in the Hollywood Hills that is likewise entered through an even longer series of obscure steps.

"Three summers later," after Jason has left her for some distant station of his own, Lauren returns to San Francisco.  She spends three hours trying to find the street she once lived on.  But "the steps were nowhere to be seen".  She asks mail carriers, shop keepers in the area, policemen, about the steps and her street, but not one of them knows or recollects what the hell she's talking about.  It was as if the street and her home had never existed.

Likewise, Erickson's street and home from childhood no longer exist, having been razed for that damnable freeway.  I just wonder if that loss of his -- a part of his childhood gone forever, destroyed -- was transformed through his imagination into "the secret street" of Lauren's and Jason's in his first published novel, Days Between Stations?

I also wonder, in regards to those missing steps that led to the secret street in San Francisco, if Erickson, already an admitted admirer of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magical realism, was also an admirer of Alejo Carpentier's The Lost Steps? Was Erickson perhaps paying Carpentier homage with his own lost steps in San Francisco?

Not many writers or critics have ever before attempted to map the imagination of Steve Erickson.  Read just one, any one, of Steve Erickson's fabulist, fantastic novels (and that's "fantastic" in every meaning and nuance of the word), and discover yourself how daring and dynamic, how complex and convoluted, is the cartography of Steve Erickson's inimitable imagination.  I applaud Daniel Lindsay and the astute insight of his master's thesis, Years Between Stations: The Dream of America in Steve Erickson, which sets in lucid relief the occasionally (albeit purposely) opaque yet always captivating -- even if it is sometimes cryptic, sometimes challenging -- unique artistry of an author, Steve Erickson, long overdue recognition; long overdue like Anna Kavan is long overdue; like William Gaddis and Philip K. Dick were once long overdue... or ... even overdue like Herman Melville once was, long before them.


Telling Stories by one of Living Literature's finest storytellers ever, Joan Didion

'IN the fall of 1954, when I was nineteen and a junior at Berkeley, I was one of perhaps a dozen students admitted to the late Mark Schorer's English 106A ... English 106A was widely regarded in the fall of 1954 as a kind of sacramental experience, an initiation into the grave world of real writers ... I recall classroom discussions which ranged over meetings with Paul and Jane Bowles, incidents involving Djuna Barnes, years spent in Paris, in Beverly Hills, in the Yucatan, on the lower East Side of New York and on Repulse Bay and even on morphine ... I had never read Paul or Jane Bowles, let alone met them, and when, some fifteen years later at a friend's house in Santa Monica Canyon, I did meet Paul Bowles, I was immediately rendered as dumb and awestruck as I had been when I was nineteen and taking English 106A.... ' (boldness mine)

Telling Stories, 1978
So opens Joan Didion's essay "Telling Stories," the sole essay collected in this rarest of rare rarities of Joan Didion's, Telling Stories. I'd be "rendered dumb and awestruck", too, meeting Jane and Paul Bowles, but I'd probably be rendered dumber meeting Joan Didion. God knows I'm awestruck just reading her marvelous books. No secret I love Joan Didion. Unfortunately, so do a lot of people. Love Joan Didion. A lot. A lot of people love Joan Didion so much that this whole lotta love and adoration is unfortunate for a book collector such as yours truly and many others, no doubt, because it has made copies of all but signed and inscribed first printings by Joan Didion -- be it her classic essay collections (Slouching Toward Bethlehem, The White Album, After Henry, Political Fictions, Where I Was From), iconic memoirs (Salvador, Miami, The Year of Magical Thinking, Blue Nights), and novels (Run River, Play It As It Lays, A Book of Common Prayer, Democracy, The Last Thing He Wanted), alike -- ubiquitous in the eyes of book collectors on the hunt for something rare or obscure of hers.

David Foster Wallace had rarities like "The Planet Trillaphon as It Relates to the Bad Thing," his first story published in 1984 in Amherst College's student literary review, and "Untitled Chunk," published posthumously in the first, Jan. 2009, issue of The Chaffey Review; while Joseph McElroy has a prized rarity also -- 1980s Ship Rock: A Place -- a stand alone excerpt from "Women And Men: A Novel In Progress" published in a limited run of 226 copies by William B. Ewert, of which I own copy 95, but that's a previous story; and so likewise, Joan Didion, has Telling Stories, "Number 26 In The Series of Keepsakes Issued By The Friends Of The Bancroft Library For It's Members" at U.C. Berkeley.

But even those signed and inscribed first printings of Joan Didion's aforementioned most famous books from the Sixties and Seventies do not, as a rule, fetch high prices, barely breaking $1000 among book dealers, which is a low sum for a writer as revered as Didion, what with her impeccable reputation among both critics/peers and her faithful longtime readers. The great supply of Joan Didion's books, unfortunately, exceeds the great demand.  None of her books, in fact, are out of print. Even her first printings in mint condition, protected in brodart, are a dime a dozen, and rarely retail for more than twenty U.S. dollars.  Turns out even this scarce, limited edition "Keepsake" of hers, published in 1978, Telling Stories, holds relatively little monetary value among collectors, too, and yet for me, because I so love Joan Didion (I'd marry her in a second and make her my second wife -- my current wife would just have to deal with it -- if only Joan Didion would let me) is priceless.

Inside my copy of Telling Stories, that I was fortuitous enough to find a few years ago at The Bookman of Orange, was a folded insert advertisment (see below) with other regional California titles in the keepsake series published by Didion's alma mater, U.C. Berkeley. . . .

advertisement included in my copy, listing all the "Keepsakes"
U.C. Berkeley's Bancroft Library sold to its members

Telling Stories contains the only three short stories that Joan Didion has so far published in book form, and all were written in 1964; they are ...  1) "Coming Home" (originally published in 1967 in The Saturday Evening Post); ... 2) "The Welfare Island Ferry" (originally published in 1965 in Harper's Bazaar); ... and 3) "When Did Music Come This Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?".

Story #3 above was rejected twenty-three times before the little known Denver Quarterly accepted it for publication in 1967 for the modest, under market value of fifty paltry dollars.  Fifty.  Absurd.  Five dollars per page.  Even then, nearly fifty years ago, fifty dollars was a lowball payment for an already established and renowned pro of Didion's rank.  Perhaps by the time of Telling Stories' publication, an only by then amusingly-peeved, somewhat sardonic, Joan Didion, still saw fit to take the time and limited space in U.C. Berkeley's keepsake for its members, Telling Stories, and noted for posterity's sake each and every publication that rejected -- and in some instances their rationale for rejecting -- her story with the admittedly long and arguably questionable title, "When Did Music Come This Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?", that Didion even conceded...

'...works not at all as a story.  It is instead an extended notation for an unwritten novel, an exercise in the  truest sense.  It was in "When Did Music" that I taught myself -- or began to teach myself -- how to make narrative tension out of nothing more than the juxtaposition of past and present.  I should have known what I learned in this story before I ever wrote my first novel.  {Run River, 1964}  Had I never written this story I would have never written a second novel.  {Play It As It Lays, 1970}  As crude and imperfect as the story is, it seems to me by far the most interesting of the three.'

I think Didion suffers from that harsh, but common and understandable malady affecting all successful writers, who when given the opportunity to reflect upon their earliest works, are inevitably driven to its disparagement. For I found in "When Did Music Come This Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?" a satisfying story indeed, one reminiscent of her clipped, understated, much-emulated style, contained within a, granted, less refined and effortless or natural sounding voice; voices as such inwardly shrieked with muzzled existential terror, out of the pretty mouths of those doomed starlet beauties I'll never forget, Maria Wyeth and Charlotte Douglas, of Play It As it Lays and A Book of Common Prayer infamy, respectively.  The muzzled, terror stricken voice here in "When Did Music" is an unnamed woman home for Christmas in Reno, Nevada, but instead of the hope and joy and festive season's greetings she should be experiencing, she'll get walloped by the usual, familial, petty hells of the holiday instead.  Listen to her voice and hear in it if it is not nearly as memorable as Didion's later, universal, hard luck soliloquies thought aloud by Maria or Charlotte:

"We all say the same things. Here are some facts. Ward died in 1949, in an aerial show in South Dakota. Aunt Inez did not marry again, and is now on a cruise of the Balkans; I received a card today. "Happy landings," it closed. Cary has married, twice, and I saw her for lunch during the World's Fair. She had five vodka martinis, one in lieu of dessert. I see my mother and father once a year, in July, when I take the children out. They seem older, and to prefer talking to the children than to me. Charlie called a few hours ago to say that if the Christmas tree was not down by the time he came home he would call the Fire Department, that it would ignite one night soon and burn us in our beds. I pointed out that in any case it was unlikely to catch him.  Those are only the facts."

The prestigious periodicals who, nevertheless, rejected "When Did Music Come This Way? Children Dear, Was It Yesterday?" are itemized by Didion in "Telling Stories" and, since Didion saw fit to name them by name, shouldn't I do so as well?  If anything, a rejection list like the following afforded Joan Didion offers hope to aspiring writers everywhere, demonstrating as it does that every would-be writer -- in fact, every published writer period, too, even one of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century's most accomplished writers, Joan Didion -- faced rejection.

Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, Saturday Evening Post, The New Yorker, Ladies' Home Journal (twice rejected), McCall's, Redbook, Atlantic Monthly, Cosmopolitan (rejected twice due to a change in its editorial staff), Vogue, Mademoiselle, The Reporter, Harper's, Hudson Review, Kenyon Review, Virginia Quarterly, Paris Review, Yale Review, and Sewanee Review, all rejected Joan Didion. Those, too, are only the facts.

And then there was Good Housekeeping's rejection note -- and it's a good note to end on -- because it's by far the funniest rejection of all the rejections; funny, that is, for Didion aficionados well versed in her bereaved poetic prose and melancholic rumination; well versed, in other words, in her overall dark and invariably despairing oeuvre:

"Marvelously written, very real, and so utterly depressing that I'm going to sit under a cloud of angst and gloom all afternoon...I'm sorry we are seldom inclined to give our readers this bad a time."


The Documents of Vatican II edited by Walter M. Abbott, S.J.

I am not a Catholic.  Neither am I an Atheist.  Call me, instead, an Absurdeist.  Nevertheless, I recommend (and say it with conviction freed of any and all irony -- yeah right) that every believer and unbeliever alike should read or at least skim as swiftly as humanly possible the The Documents of Vatican II.   So what if its consistent lapses into tiresome opacity makes reading it late at night, as I have, a more effective antidote to insomnia than Ambien or a double gin and tonic -- for what compendium or even lesser pamphlet attached with a rubber band to the metallic grate of my front screen door, for that matter, of religious dogma and/or philosophy isn't tiresome or opaque? Ever read the Book of Deuteronomy or that wondrously unimaginative tome of fantasy called The Book of Mormon? Even one I like such as What the Buddha Taught may make me yawn if I'm on the wrong page.  Likewise Ludwig Wittgenstein.  Even the most devout adherents of so-called sacred texts would have to admit they'd be breaking -- while if not, technically speaking, the letter of the law, then the spirit -- of the Ninth Commandment given to Moses, if they said their particular sacred text never put them into a thankfully brief comatose state once in a while, right? Tell me I'm wrong, if you dare.

My major complaint with The Documents of Vatican II is that, while addressing how Catholics (the priesthood in particular) are to behave specifically in a variety of religious and secular situations, it never once addresses the opposite: how the priesthood is not to act in those specific situations, secular or religious.  There’s nary a mention I could find of official disciplinary protocol should a member of the priesthood conduct themselves in a manner unbecoming their higher calling, including as it pertains to what’s appropriate and inappropriate interaction with younger generations of parishioners entrusted to their spiritual care.  But neither do The Documents of Vatican II anywhere in its pages I could find promote the kind of behavior that makes the spate of controversial scandals and cover-ups involving "pastoral indiscretions” with childhood laity, ongoing here in the States for at least the past two decades, ubiquitous and no longer shocking. The Documents of Vatican II, in fact, remain surprisingly silent on many contemporary and relevant topics confronting The Church today, unless one deems, say, Nostra Aetate (The Church's official stance toward non-Christians) or Gravissimum Educationis (its position on Christian education) topical or relevant.  But the same criticism, of course, could be levied at the Bible.

Hopefully, in the future, the Vatican will update its ecumenical council's documents to include disciplinary protocol for the priesthood, and maybe include as well some sections on “transparency” and “accountability” (wish I knew the important Latin spellings for the words; any Jesuit monks out there know them?) for those employed by the Church, so that the Church’s credibility and mission in the world as an instrument for God’s glorification and salvation for every man, woman, and child She's been allegedly divinely appointed to help save and to serve could be greeted hereafter by the world's applause, rather than its well deserved, abundant disdain.


The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest by Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt

The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest by the late great Anatoli Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt was, at its heart, a direct rebuttal of Jon Krakauer's assertions in Into Thin Air that Anatoli Boukreev abandoned the clients he was hired to guide up and down Everest on that fateful day, May 10, 1996, when five climbers from two different commercial expeditions perished in a surprise storm on their descent from the summit.

Amazing copy signed by Anatoli Boukreev on 11/14/97
just six weeks before he died
image from Walkabout Books  
The late Anatoli Boukreev was considered by many the best mountaineer in the world at the time the events documented in The Climb occurred, with nearly a dozen 8,000m peaks in his pocket, including ascents to the top of Everest and several other of the highest Himalayan mountains without oxygen.  His physical conditioning and acclimatization techniques for thriving in high altitudes remain arguably unsurpassed almost two decades since his untimely death on Christmas, 1997, in an avalanche on Annapurna.  And more importantly, they remain practical examples of what you need to do -- and how you need to do it -- in order to survive the insane Everest ordeal.

But did being an expert mountaineer necessarily preclude the possibility of Boukreev making a fatal mistake; namely, abandoning his clients high up on Everest in a death zone whiteout in order to save his own skin?  Depends on who you ask, though I would reply, based on reading The Climb and Into Thin Air, with a hearty "hardly." According to Boukreev, his swift descent from the summit ahead of the clients he was hired to protect and to guide was part of the plan determined beforehand by his expedition leader, Scott Fischer.  Unfortunately, Scott Fischer was one of the victims that horrific afternoon and evening on the mountain, and so he can obviously neither confirm nor deny Boukreev's claim.  Boukreev, after descending, did in fact go back out into the swirling whiteout and singlehandedly save several climbers, but could he have saved more -- saved everyone? -- had he not left the climbers in the first place?  Pure conjecture.  Who knows?  Who could definitively say?  Not Krakauer, although he apparently thought he could.  Funny how what Krakauer alleged Boukreev of doing he did himself: swiftly descending from the summit of Everest in order to save his own foolhardy ass.  Granted, Krakauer was just a journalist with some lesser climbing experience who by his own accounts in Into Thin Air probably never should have attempted Everest in the first place (ya think?), while Boukreev was a mountaineering professional.  But regardless, Krakauer can't legitimately claim to know the outcomes of every what-if scenario culled from what would've had to have been an exponential number of unpredictable contingencies that day, unless he were God.  And I seriously doubt God's last name is Krakauer.

Incredibly, even almost twenty years after Boukreev's death, the controversy -- did Boukreev behave appropriately or not as a guide, did he? didn't he? -- still rages.  It's ludicrous. The bickering that's gone on back-and-forth in this-mountaineering-magazine or that-online-climbing-forum between Krakauer's adherents and Boukreev's staunch defenders amounts to arguably more than all the accumulated literature ever written about Mt. Everest, and yet it all amounts to nothing, to so much redundant rhetoric of he-said she-said regarding facts that can never be known. I wholeheartedly agree with Mark Horrell's observation that sometimes, no one is to blame when climbers die on Everest. After reading and reflecting upon Boukreev's side of the controversy in The Climb, I'm convinced this was also the case in the dire sequence of events that transpired May 10th, 1996, on Mt. Everest.  The Climb is a riveting and painstakingly detailed remembrance recorded within days of the disaster by Boukreev and G. Weston DeWalt.  Among mountaineering memoirs, it ranks right up there with the best ever written about Everest.


Five Vintage, Appropriately Lurid, Mass Market Paperbacks (# 1.0)

Up first is a newer, appropriately lurid, vintage book cover favorite: BIBLIOBIMBO. I haven't researched it to be 100% positive that it's a loving parody -- an homage -- to mass market pulp covers, but regardless, even if Bibliobimbo isn't a real dime store novel authored by a real bona fide author of the nom de guerre, "John Thomas," the cover blurbs and cover image itself are all clever and brilliant, and I wish I owned a copy whether it exists in reality or not. Surely it exists somewhere in the unreality of Jorge Luis Borges' "Library of Babel"!


BLONDE ON THE ROCKS is an old favorite by a master of lurid detective noir, Carter Brown.  My sole complaint with the otherwise perfect cover artwork:  Where are the damn ice cubes? Is this vixen truly served on the rocks or is she served up?  If this book cover were a real ad for a real drink Carter Brown could be legitimately sued for illegitimate advertising!


Bantam Giant's edition of Pulitzer Prize winning author's John P. Marquand's H.M. PULHAM, ESQ., proves lurid covers don't absolutely have to be limited to the leering glances of brazen women with robust, partially exposed bosoms, who've no doubt been up to no recent good. . . .


. . . but lurid, tantalizing, almost-bare-busted, voluptuous book covers, nevertheless, are always best! Wet your lips for KISS OR KILL by John B. Thompson.  Damn seaweed.


Ooh-la-la!  . . .  Such unwholesome, such naughty ladies of perdition make the most swell, the most fabulous, the most devilishly delightful and appropriately lurid book covers, don't they?  Case in point: LADIES IN HADES by Frederic Arnold Kummer. Have one hell of a good time, Reader, with these "gay lovelies" confessing all among "the smart-set in Hell". . .


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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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....