Ava by Carole Maso

It's hard to exactly classify Carole Maso's Ava.  Calling it "prose-poetry" pigeonhole's it unnecessarily and perhaps makes it sound more difficult than it actually is.  But labeling it "avant-garde" or "experimental," appropriate descriptions each, might make it seem rather preciously pretentious, a book for hoity-toity muckety-mucks to show off how artsy-fartsy they are, which would be a damn shame, since the book, despite its unorthodox styling and unique narrative voice, is eminently accessible, readable, no matter its multilayered cinematic, classical musical, philosophical, and effusive literary allusions -- professorial, that is, and no surprise, since Ava's a comparative lit. professor  -- foundations.  I found it trance-inducing.  And I loved its seamless poetics.

The rhythm of her fiction, the cadence of her diction, mesmerizes.  One does indeed become entranced with even as little as a glance at her unique novel -- and let's call it that if we must call it anything, a "unique novel" -- a book that begins creeping up on you as you read it (if you let it drizzle in during long silent sittings and musings with it), flooring you (and never boring) with its terse visions and invocations of ... life ... loss  ... longing ... love ... art ... looming death ...

Brief description from the jacket blurb sums the plot up best:

"Ava Klein, thirty-nine, lover of life, world traveler, professor of comparative literature, is dying.  From her hospital bed on this, her last day on earth, she makes one final ecstatic voyage.

"People, places, offhand memories, and imaginary things drift in and out of Ava's consciousness and weave their way through the narrative.  The voices of her three former husbands. . .

"The voices of her literary lovers as well are woven into the narrative: Woolf, Eliot, Nabokov, Beckett, Sarraute, Lorca, Frisch, among others.  These writers comment on and help guide us through the text. . ."

Below is an excerpt from Ava.  And note the double-spacing is also Maso's; the spacing adding that extra dimensionality of empty-space effect, mirroring on the page Ava Klein's disjointed, and perhaps medicated, free-associative remembrances:

"I might turn the corner and there will be Cha-Cha Fernandez walking his Doberman pinscher.

"Or Carlos and Ana Julia in a boat.

"And there's Danilo, feeling mortal again, slipping his hand under my hospital gown to touch my breast.

"I remember the way she covered her mouth with her hand.  Seventy now.  Beautiful, flirtatious, when I bring up his name -- like a young girl.


"Matisse gazing at her living flesh as I gaze now. . .

"Delphine, who once modeled for Matisse, now a sculptor in her own right.

"Maria Regina slicing a peach in the white kitchen.

"Preparing the meat for braciole.  Laying the pasta for ravioli to dry on the bed."

[Pardon the interruption, and perhaps my stating the pointedly obvious: but note the subtle way, with the near internal rhymes of "peach" and "meat" and "braciole" with "ravioli" in the preceding two lines, how Maso ever so subtly (poetically) free associates, connects, her fragile strands of experience.  The novel is replete with that type of artful association.]

"In the country she made proscuitto.  Cured olives.

"All that was delirious and perfect.  And how swept up in it all we were, Francesco: the films and choosing the music -- Khachaturian's Masquerade.

"The books read out loud to one another in our first languages.

"Pavese, Calvino, Canetti.  Read them again, Francesco."

I could go on with the excerpt, quote the entire novel quite easily, it's all that good; but ... hopefully, that smidgen provides a good vibe, good feel for what I was attempting to describe and what you'll experience reading this evocative novel.  The closest approximation to Ava, in terms of its narrative construct, that I've encountered, would be David Markson's, Wittgenstein's Mistress, a novel that also employs short, blunt declarations rarely exceeding three sentences, made by an unreliable narrator, to haunting, and foreshadowing, effect.

Carole Maso's Ava, a novel that's felt as much as it's read.  In fact, facing death never felt so, oddly ... good.


The Fly Whisperer

I've noticed lately that whenever I step outside for any length of time, spend some quiet, reflective moments with my pipe and paper, sitting alone on a park bench or on my patio, the flies inevitably find me.  I don't witness this uncanny fly-companionship occurring among others seated in my vicinity, whether strangers, or family.  Ever.  Unless there's something rotting -- or unbathed -- around.  No one else I know attracts the flies as well as I.

I wonder if this fly-phenomena happens because the flies are drawn by the rottenness inside me?  You know, the cancer.  Not of cells necessarily, but of spirit.  Can they smell it like canines do?  Perhaps detect the death composition with their insect dispositions?  Do their many-faceted eyes help them focus and go all high-powered-microscope on it?

Or am I just full of feces?  A veritable feast for flies?  Does everyone commune with flies eye to eye, as I do?


The Mephisto Club by Tess Gerritsen: A Break from William H. Gass', The Tunnel

What a perniciously pleasant surprise, The Mephisto Club, by Tess Gerritsen!

I would never have even encountered Tess Gerritsen had Patricia Cornwell, my usual go-to-girl when I need me a good genre, CSI style fix, hadn't gone on such a long downward spiral into her malaise of mediocrity and self-plagiarism with the majority of her recent releases, like The Front (decent TV show, while it lasted) to name but one, which was already hot on the lackluster heels ("c'mon already, Patricia!) of her last four or five Kay Scarpetta novels going back to the turn of the century, so I desperately needed another crime thriller option, another author (a former doctor/medical examiner/coroner/detective type) to infuse some freshness and excitement into the genre since I needed a break from the tedium of reading The Tunnel start to almost finish, and wouldn't'cha know it, Tess Gerritsen, bless her diabolical authorial finesse, was there to see me through some temporary readers-drudgery engendered by reading the difficult (but fantastic) prose of the incomparable, William H. Gass.

The Mephisto Club, sixth in the Jane Rizzoli detective series (though my virgin Rizzoli read) incorporates several favorite interests of mine:  mysterious, though not-at-all-like-The-Da-Vinci-Code, secret societies, apocryphal literature (i.e., The Book of Enoch and The Book of Jubilees), symbiology and, dare I admit it (please don't strike me down dead Lawd, please!) demon ... uh ... ology.  As in, "The sow is mine!"

Now, I'm no aspiring warlock or wiccan, and The Mephisto Club would probably bore a fun loving Aleister Crowley occultist (might as well try interesting a Navy Seal in an exciting game of Battleship™), but for a Luciferian lightweight like me possessing (don't pardon the fun pun) merely an arguably unhealthy interest in stories satanic, The Mephisto Club, with its ritualistic skin carvings, filleting, dastardly dismemberments, demon and devil huntings, priestly affairs (Vatican ordained and carnal), and claustrophobic chases through the narrow cobblestone lanes of the dank back alleys of Rome, beautifully rendered in above-average, often accomplished prose, fit the fun, page-turning, Beelzebubbish bill for me just fine.  Very fine.


Adrift on the Nile: Egypt's Less Than Zero by way of Crime and Punishment

The way the disillusioned twenty- and thirty-something characters in Naguib Mahfouz's short novel, Adrift on the Nile, are collectively forced to confront the consequences of their reckless, amoral actions (a murder and its cover up), rooted as they were in the fashionable nihilistic climate of the times among the Egyptian elite, circa late-1960s, mostly citizens who dearly missed the old ways when art and Western philosophy were still esteemed by those in power, in the pre-revolutionary days of leisure before Gamul Abdul Nasser kicked out the British and imposed a more rigorous Muslim ethic among Egypt's populace, reminded me a lot how Raskolnikov, from Crime And Punishment, had to confront the consequences he created for himself by committing what amounted to an "experimental" murder: A murder committed both to enact through his crime the contrived "truth" of an inhumane ideology that Dostoyevski was skewering at the time, and also to test (unconsciously) whether or not he'd completely lost his Christian conscience.  Of course, in Adrift on the Nile, the aimless young adults (Amis, Layla Zaydan, Ahmad Nasr, Mustafa Rashid, Ali al-Sayyid, Khalid Azuzz) who'd gather every night aboard a houseboat docked on the Nile River to smoke kif or hashish and enjoy their pseudo-intellectual/philosophical banter, haven't been so premeditated as Raskolnikov nor ever had anything that could be construed as "Christian" to begin with, but when the "accident" happens and the cover up ensues, it's clear that, like Raskolnikov, they've got their own ideology to protect and "test".
The characters of Adrift on the Nile prefigure, by about two decades, the morally disgusting type of blasé, coked-up creeps made fashionable in the excessive '80s by Bret Easton Ellis in what amounts to his own unique Beverly Hills version/vision of Adrift on the Nile, his equally as disturbing and no less murderous (if not as artistically rendered) debut, Less Than Zero.

Comparing Mahfouz to Ellis is rather insulting to Mahfouz, obviously (like trying to compare the Pyramids to an ephemeral sand castle) but both novels, nevertheless, regardless of the literary merits of who authored them, bear such a striking thematic resemblance involving a lot of ennui and drug intake and nothing much happening (until somebody -- ooops! -- gets iced) that the comparison can't help but practically shout itself off the page for those familiar with both novels.

Mahfouz, of course, could differentiate and then articulate the subtleties and nuances of degradation and depravity among his set of elite counter-cultured losers more masterfully than Ellis, whose obnoxious numps all mostly bore the same set of debased characteristics (light cigarettes, fuck indiscriminately, ingest a pharmacy's-worth of amphetamines per day, say "dude" a lot) thus making them nearly indistinguishable addicted automatons one from another, so that his (Mahfouz's) characters are far more interesting and complicated which can't help but make for a more surprising -- and suspenseful -- plot.  But, again, both books scream their uncannily similar nihilistic message out at the top of their hash filled lungs so well that I really wonder if maybe Mahfouz and Ellis were somehow pseudonymous or at least telekinetic belonging to some psychic masonic brotherhood somewhere, even despite the former being deceased now for almost a decade.

The point of this post?  There is no point.  No point other than perhaps this post is meaningless and ultimately an empty, unsatisfying pursuit that might drive me to take drugs and drink excessively, that I might numb myself from the empty reality of existence ahead.  Like the reality ahead for the characters of Adrift on the Nile and Less Than Zero, and for that classic character (though ultimately redeemed), Raskolnikov.



I've been thinking back some this past day thanks to a recent New Release Tuesday over at The Book Frog, where Philip Yancey's name came up as he's got a new book out, and his name reminded me of my days, seemingly a lifetime ago, when I embraced the Christian faith, and voraciously read not only Yancey's books, but a host of other big name Christian writers too numerous to recall every one by name (J.P. Moreland, J.I. Packer, to name a couple); and in this religious wave of nostalgia, I recalled a poem I was lucky enough to get published in Alliance Life Magazine way back when.  In its Sept., 1992 issue, I believe, if memory serves.  I can't seem to locate my copy of the actual publication at the moment -- to scan and upload and show off, basically -- but I thought I'd post the poem, nonetheless, as best as I can recall it from my memory anyway, here and now.  I was twenty-three and green and maybe trite at times, but man was I trying to be sincere ...  So, for whatever it's worth:


Trapped inside the wash
Amidst the winter rains
When the waters flow fierce
As the force of great pain

Tried wading my way across
The rapids cracking rocks
But the deluge licked me up
And the will within me sank

For I felt the clouds incoming
The currents shroud my face
And the numbness of my body
I thought lost beneath the waves

--The river's rising!
   No one will find me!

Debris slams my knees underneath
And this ache from the weight
Of waterlogged faith
Submerges my beliefs

But You saw me, knew me
And threw me the rope of hope
You pulled me in from swirling sin
And warmed my shivering soul


Lessons Learned with Terri Brint Joseph

Terri Brint Joseph knew how to make a fellow professor's day.  Spring semester, '92, English Prof. Tom Massey had had a stroke the previous Fall.  Tom Massey loved his students and he let you know it.  He didn't just critique and correct improper grammar from your Emerson or Whitman essay, but was effusive with his praise.  Encouraging.  He was obviously beloved as well by his colleagues.

Lucky for Prof. Massey that Terri Brint Joseph was sensitive to his missing the Chapman students, as he was unable, still recovering from his stroke, to attend his classes.  So, what does Prof. Joseph decide to spontaneously do one Tuesday afternoon that Spring '92 semester for an "advanced creative writing" course, but bring the classroom to Prof. Massey.  Lucky for Prof. Massey that his home, a handsome Craftsman with those striking wraparound porches replete with swinging benches and hanging ferns, a house practically ubiquitous in the sycamore and maple shaded neighborhood surrounding Chapman University, leafy and even colorful (for California) in the Fall, was in walking distance of the campus.

So, fifteen of us, led by Prof. Joseph, tromped on over to Prof. Massey's home so he could get back to class and maybe feel just a little bit less lonesome that day.  He looked good too for just having had a stroke, his gray-brown beard neatly trimmed per usual, bespectacled, the rugged lines in his face maybe just a wee bit deeper since his stroke, but otherwise, looking fine bedecked in faded blue jeans and blue-and-white checkered flannel over a plain white T-shirt.  He sat in his rocking chair while his gorgeous daughter (a Chapman student) kept a close on him, making sure he didn't exert himself too much, and listened attentively to his students recite their poetry and excerpts from their short stories (mostly low quality schlock, I might add) but you'd never know it from his deft reactions and incisive comments.  Stroke or not, Prof. Massey was still sharp.

Prof. Joseph mostly mediated the session and beamed at Prof. Massey.  We couldn't stay long, because it was a ten minute walk to his house and the class was only fifty minutes, but it was an half hour that I'll never forget, as it was the last time I ever saw Prof. Massey before he died.  Terri Brint Joseph gave us a gift that day: not only time with Prof. Massey -- for some of us, our last time with him -- but perhaps more importantly, a vital (albeit, unspoken) life lesson that people are always more important than scheduled lesson plans.  Thank you, Terri, for teaching me so much more than just poetry and literature in your advanced creative writing class that Spring day eighteen years ago.


Prick-Me-Up™ , for Men

Ladies, does your man need a little, uh, prick me up, in the bedroom?  Are you sick and tired of trying to "set sail" at only "half mast" all the time, whenever that special moment comes along?  Well, say goodbye to all those pills with pesky side effects and lotions and creams and unfulfilled evenings.  Now, with Prick-Me-Up™ Injectables, for Men, your Man, the one and only, can provide you with the complete satisfaction you deserve.  Guaranteed!

Merely apply the Prick-Me-Up™ needle applicator to the base of your man's Cadillac, in a flaccid state only.  (WARNING: Never apply the Prick-Me-Up™ needle applicator during a tumescent state, as the powerful Prick-Me-Up™ secret ingredients could cause your Man's heretofore software to either spontaneously combust or explode.)

Just press the pink button to the Prick-Me-Up™ needle applicator, and with a prick as quick as a blink (he'll barely feel it!) he'll go from zero to six-plus inches in 1.4 seconds!  Faster than a Lamborghini!  Zoom zoom.

Should your Man sustain an erection lasting longer than four hours, congratulations!  And contact the Guinness Book of World Records immediately!

Ask your contractor before using Prick-Me-Up™ Injectables if they think your bed frame and mattress can support your sexual activity.  Do not use Prick-Me-Up™ Injectables if you've undergone any type of JRP (Junk-Reduction Procedure), as Prick-Me-Up™ can undo any diminutive gains you've made.

Prick-Me-Up™ Injectables for Men.

"Just a little prick does the trick!"


The Demon in the Freezer by Richard Preston

I'd just as soon not have read The Demon In The Freezer if it meant I could remain ignorant of the fact that vaccine resistant smallpox and anthrax are already undoubtedly in the hands of terrorists and that a large scale bioterrorist attack on the United States is more a question of when than if.

I'd really rather not know that the former Soviet Union was producing weapons-grade smallpox by the TON (what the fuck?) as late as 2001 on the very eve of 9/11, and that now, or so defected Russian scientists say, the authorities in the former Soviet Union have no idea where the tons of weapons-grade smallpox went.  They fucking "lost it," so they say.  Er, "sold it" is more like it.

I'm indefatigably disturbed by the paradoxical fact that despite the worldwide "eradication" of smallpox in India by 1978, the United States and Soviet Union decided nevertheless to freeze smallpox and keep it "safely stored".  Presumably doing so, so that in case it got into the "wrong hands" (yeah, like Russian scientist hands looking to sell it to the Taliban or Al-Quaeda or unhinged Americans like Timothy McVeigh), so that a "vaccine" (i.e., a weapon of mass destruction guaranteed to "vaccinate" it's victims from their lives) might be manufactured from the stored samples. If the Morons-That-Be had simply decided to destroy all smallpox in the first place, every damn drop of it like they said they would; like they signed the damn treaty to, no one would have to worry about it right now falling into the wrong hands because eradicated smallpox truly would have meant ERADICATED SMALLPOX.

The Demon In The Freezer reads like a Le Carre spy thriller, full of international intrigue and traitors, laden with suspense and backstabbings and terror as the United Nations inspectors confront covert bioweapons operations in Russia, and meet those "they-think-we're-all-stupid" Russian scientists who deny everything, the lying potato sacks of shit, straight to the UNs faces.  "We no remember where we put de vials of smallpox". 
I'd really rather not know about all this scary stuff; about how potentially close we all are to an eminent bioterrorist apocalpyse a la The Stand, but Richard Preston made the thankfully slim book mighty hard to put down.


The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits by Joel Whitburn

This book, the awesome Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits and others like it are probably obsolete now, now that  Billboard Magazine no longer dominates public perception as to what "singles" (remember them?) and compact discs (awaiting the lonely, disused arms of cassette tapes and 8-tracks and LPs) are listened to and bought most often, as they've largely been replaced now by song downloads. 

1983 edition, the first one I owned
But there was a time in the not-so-distant past, before iTunes and defunct Napster, when people actually bought records and tapes and CDs at an actual record store (R.I.P. Tower, Licorice Pizza, The Wherehouse, Music-Plus, the majority of indie record stores a la the one read -- and seen -- in High Fidelity) and perused the album or CD racks; holding actual music in their hands rather than some ubiquitous and annoying hi-tech gadget robotically carried around everywhere like a calcified white ear outgrowth -- the iPod; gone is oogling the cool album artwork and memorizing the liner notes, being hip to the rock vibe ambiance and sense of community engendered by like-minded music enthusiasts standing next to you flipping through the same racks as you, maybe getting in your way and invading your personal space, on the hunt for that next great music find, replaced now by rapid electronic transmissions that have effectively removed so much of the mystery (and body odor) involved in popular music acquisition.

But there was a day when that wasn't the case, and The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits chronicles that day, back when it was a must-have for the avid pop music trivia buff; when it was the Holy Bible for both the record collector and the music fan like me obsessed with Billboard chart statistics.  Call me Kasey Kasem Wannabe, but there was a time when I knew exactly how many consecutive weeks (whatever week it was) that The Dark Side of the Moon had accumulated on the Top 200 Album Charts.  Or how many consecutive weeks Rumours, and then the album that eclipsed it, Thriller, had held the Number One spot.  Or what bands final four studio albums all went #1.  Oh how I grieve the pop musical statistical past!  Do you know what was the first ever heavy metal song to crack the Billboard Top 40 singles chart?  No?  Well, I do!

You'll find, if you ever decide to flip through this relic, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, every song from 1955-on that ever cracked Billboard Magazine's iconic Top 40 singles chart.  The songs are listed in an easy to use format too.  Much easier, I'd add, than downloading music from a god damn computer.  You can look up a song alphabetically by song title or artist/group.  You'll discover not only how high a particular song charted, but how many weeks it spent in the Top 40 (or how many at #1) and whether or not it went gold (500,000 units of sale) or platinum (1,000,000 units of sale) or neither.

The book also includes album cover artwork to a sweet selected smattering of singles from the 1955 to the present day.  "Present day" for the edition I have, is 2004s.  The "records holder" section shows who dominated the charts each year, by decade, and all-time.  Did Madonna have as many Top 40 hits as The Beatles?  How many weeks did the Starland Vocal Band's "Afternoon Delight" (ick!) spend at #1?  Go buy the book on Amazon right now and help make it relevant again, because I sure won't spill the beans and spoil the surprise (and thus potentially eliminate someone's purchase).

The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits is just an overall fun resource; a fascinating reference work that's sure to bring back childhood pop musical memories ("oh yeah, I remember that song!  I was wearing braces") with just a flip of the page.

I sincerely hope that this post is not as irrelevant now or as obsolete as a K-TEL production.  And screw you with your stupid iTunes practically surgically implanted in your damn ears if you're too damn young to know what the hell I mean by "K-TEL production."


Complete Poems by Ernest Hemingway

That such an alleged master of prose could write such wretched poetry is astounding.

There's no getting around that Ernest Hemingway sucked as a poet. Papa's poetry is so juvenile it's embarrassing. Hemingway's Complete Poems are only for those curious (as I was) or for the obsessed Hemingway completist who simply must possess every work the author ever wrote, no matter how terrible, or perhaps for the hack Hemingway scholar looking to explicate the likes of the following terse verse:

There once was a cat named Crazy Christian / Who didn't live long enough to screw (from the poem "Crazy Christian").

Complete Poems could only have been published posthumously, as Hemingway, no doubt, could not have tolerated the negative criticism (and possible well deserved parodying) his bad poetry would have received.

The Lord is my shepherd
I shall not want Him for long.

Whatever, Ernest.

Readers with any literary taste and/or poetic sensibility whatsoever won't want to read Ernest Hemingway's Complete Poems for long either.


Crash by J.G. Ballard

Crash is not a badly written book. The prose is blunt and bare and beautiful. Crash, among the critics, consistently ranks among J.G. Ballard's finest creative achievements, up there with Empire of the Sun. I expected, seeing it ranked so high on so many best ever lists, be they science fiction or postmodern top 100s, to love it. And yet I loathed it. It made me ill, the twisted depravity of its car wrecked, grotesquely acting characters.

Is something wrong with me? I usually like this type of demented shit. And I live for demented shit. I crave demented shit like a zombie craves fresh flesh.

Crash was just too emotionally empty for my taste. And I'm certainly aware Ballard was aiming for that type of emotive void, to elicit a reaction by which he could thereby critique how technology (cars, wrecked cars, in this case) distances us from one another, and destroys our humanity by transforming us into technological pervs essentially. Something like that. Forgive me for over-simplifying your message, Ballard.

The people in Crash have become so wrecked and warped by technology that they can only relate to one another within the cramped confines of cars, and preferably the very totaled cars in which they crashed in, maybe suffered a partial amputation in, nearly died in. And these people (if they can truly still be called "people") -- car crash victims all of them -- do a lot more than merely relate inside these demolished automobiles. In fact, they can only become aroused inside their crashed cars. Their unhealed wounds from their recent car accidents, be they long gashes or deep punctures not completely healed, serve as erogenous orifices of new found opportunity for previously unimagined decadent sexual pleasure! Oh, do that open oozing wound, Guy, will ya! Go for it! Never mind the stiches or staples. Yes, right there, where it's infected with pus, stick it in, oh yes, yes!

I felt icky reading Crash, and I'm honestly not completely sure why. I'm certainly no prude. I'm not squeamish with blood and guts (though maybe mix some sex in with the blood and guts? and yeah, I'll own it, I'm squeamish!) But still, I absolutely loved William T. Vollmann's Royal Family and it's a hell of a lot more squeamish-inducing than Crash, with its promiscuous array of kinky pimps and prostitutes and johns, so what was it about Crash that so repelled me?

It was disgusting, pure and simple, is all I can come up with. I suppose if Ballard's goal was to repulse me in an unenjoyable way (I enjoy being repulsed in enjoyable ways) then he masterfully succeeded. I simply could not relate to these characters, and I spend two hours every day on the damn freeway where I witness accidents or the aftermaths of accidents daily; and yes, truth be told, I have in fact had sex inside a car (woo hoo!), but not inside the kind of car that M.A.D.D. (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) used to display on high school campuses to scare teenagers into not drinking and driving; the cars twisted and deformed into metallic monstrosities nearly unrecognizable as cars and probably unfit for even a junkyard ... fuck. I just couldn't relate!

I didn't like these people; they grossed me out with their fetishes for sharp singed metal and shattered windshields; I found them repugnant. And don't call me Mr. Morals (I'm certainly not) but there was nothing redeemable or hopeful about the characters, or the plot, which really wasn't a plot at all but just a series of car crashes imbued with wound-erotica by deranged if not outright demented minds.

Usually, this kind of writing attracts me, as I've said. The more I think about it, I think the non-stop nihilism does the novel in for me as well. I typically like nihilism, a la Bret Easton Ellis or Hemingway or early Joan Didion (Play It As It Lays, in particular); I like the latter and not the former because the latter interweave their nihilism with either black humor or detached moral outrage, but there's neither of those qualities in Crash. It's just mind numbingly nihilistic. Zero to Sixty-Miles-A-Nihilism in two sentences and maintained for two hundred pages.

In sum, yuck!



Zodiac lasts almost three hours, but when it's over, and Jake Gyllenhaal, playing the cartoonist-turned-amateur-sleuth, Robert Graysmith, has looked the Zodiac serial killer in the eyes, you'll find, if you're like me, that the movie moved so fast and kept you so enrapt that only three minutes will have seemed to pass. I loved it.

Zodiac Dirty Harry

I remember watching Dirty Harry and its sequels countless times as a boy, which were loosely based (at least the first installment) on the Zodiac serial killer that terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but found the goofy bad guy of Dirty Harry whom Clint Eastwood goes vigilante-on at the end, to be a mostly unrealistic character, like this is just a movie I'm watching, right?, none of this could happen in real life.

That the Zodiac atrocities did happen in real life makes Zodiac -- already a mesmerizing film -- that much more compelling ... and maddening. For crying out loud, the cops had this creep serial killer fucking nailed multiple times (assuming the script follows reality, which, based on the books, I believe it does). Yet, somehow, through either incorrect descriptions of the perp sent over police radio to officers in the field hot after a murder, or miscommunication and lack of evidence-sharing -- cooperation -- between neighboring police departments, or ineffectual handwriting analysis, let the Zodiac killer slip through the bureaucratic cracks. Were it not for that amateur detective by night/political cartoonist by day, Robert Graysmith, author of Zodiac and Zodiac Unmasked, the true identity of the Zodiac killer (allegedly, assuming Graysmith nailed it) would have forever remained an unsolved mystery.

Zodiac Zodiac Unmasked: The Identity of America's Most Elusive Serial Killers Revealed

Zodiac holds up well under mulitple viewings. You'll catch a lot more of the clues the second time around, sans the suspense since you know what's coming.

Robert Downey, Jr., reprises his role as Julian basically (a grown-up Julian) of Less Than Zero infamy, and mixes booze, cannabis, self-destruction, and reckless investigative journalism to the max, working for the San Francisco Chronicle. I thought Gyllenhaal outshone the two San Francisco detectives, played by Mark Ruffalo and Anthony Edwards. I wouldn't bother so much with the books, since Robert Graysmith was probably a superior cartoonist as opposed to being a writer -- they're simply just not written with much pizzazz. Besides, since Graysmith was used as a consultant for the film, the movie contains every pertinent detail covered in his bestselling true crime classics.


Radio Waves by Jim Ladd

Jim Ladd, longtime L.A. disc jockey, in Radio Waves, writes of the glory days of FM radio from the late 1960s through the mid-1980s, when radio playlists were determined by the DJs and not the ratings obsessed program managers and corporate ties concerned only with advertising revenue.

Radio Waves: Life and Revolution on the Fm Dial

Ladd, long a proponent of what he now terms "free-form radio," recalls the rise and fall of iconic, counter-cultural Los Angeles radio station, KMET (94.7, "BOO-YA,") and how its demise marked the beginning of the end for the West Coast rock 'n roll music industry. Well respected by his peers and musicians, Ladd recounts interviews with the likes of John Lennon, the Eagles, Tom Petty, and Roger Waters, among many others.

The funniest story is his remembrance of the time when he was just getting started in radio, at KNAC in Long Beach in 1969, and how he stepped outside of the studio to smoke a joint and inadvertently locked himself out. Luckily for him, he'd just placed Iron Butterfly's "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" (the long 20-plus minute version) on the turnstile, and so he was able to call a janitor to let him back inside before the song ended.


Radio Waves is must reading for those interested in the burgeoning days of the Los Angeles FM rock scene, when a tune by Ravi Shankar could be followed by some Black Sabbath; Joni Mitchell by some Judas Priest; when eclecticism and whimsy and wild times ruled the airwaves.

Don Henley writes the cool intro. My copy is autographed, and contains Ladd's signature "Lord Have Mercy!" line.



Blue Genes: A Memoir of Loss and Survival by Christopher Lukas

Stephen King once wrote that suicide “slithers like a snake off the tongue.” Say the word aloud and hear its venomous hiss.

In his 1938 masterwork on the subject of suicide, Man Against Himself, Karl Menninger spoke of suicide’s stigma in polite society as being "so great ... that some people will not say the word ... a taboo related to strongly repressed emotions. People do not like to think seriously and factually about suicide”.

Should Menninger’s comments describe your own feelings and perspective on this difficult topic, then Christopher Lukas’ beautifully written, heartbreaking memoir, Blue Genes, is not for you. Easy reading it isn't. I didn’t think Blue Genes was for me at first, but to my surprise, discovered as the pages sped past, and I began relating to so much of Lukas' intertwined, complexly enmeshed relationships with his parents and siblings, and their complicated baggage of skeletons, how much it truly was for me.

Christopher Lukas, in Blue Genes has somehow, with his poignant pen, transformed the raw carbon-like emotions of pain from the most unbelievably devastating, reoccurring circumstances in the hellish history of his seemingly doomed-from-the-start family, into diamonds multifaceted not just with grief, loss and abandonment, but with hope, cautious optimism, and determination, despite all he’s suffered and tragically lost in his life.

And Christopher Lukas lost a lot early in life. At the age of six, circa 1941, his mother, Elizabeth, long-time battler against major depression and a then undiagnosed Bipolar disorder to top it off, after a couple of hospitalizations involving risky coma-inducing insulin therapy (en vogue treatment at the time), succumbed to her mental illnesses and committed suicide. She was thirty-three, attractive, talented, an aspiring actress, though admittedly, not able to provide the consistent emotional support her sons, Lukas and Anthony, needed.

Her death (and how could it not?) would reverberate forever in the lives she left behind, even if no one in the family talked about her death for the first decade following it. Not one word about her suicide between brothers or between father and sons. Nothing. Like it never happened. Lukas and Anthony, in fact, did not even learn that their mother had taken her own life until turning sixteen and eighteen, respectively. The silence of their mother's death, motivated by the taboo of suicide and their father's deep longing to put it all behind them, nevertheless steamed on through their lives, eating away at the family like a cancer.

Only Lukas, through psychotherapy, creative enterprises in television, theater, literature (he authored Silent Grief for suicide survivors), and the amazing love of his beyond understanding and compassionate wife, combined too with the unconditional acceptance of his adoring daughters, would ultimately resolve (mostly resolve) his life long battle with grief.

Life long, because the others in his family of origin, one by one –- his alcoholic father, meddling grandmother, steady uncle, eccentric aunts, and perhaps the worst and final blow of all, his older brother, J. Anthony Lukas, acclaimed NY Times journalist, two-time Pulitzer prize winning author of Common Ground and Big Trouble –- would all, every single one of them, commit suicide, leaving Lukas alone again and abandoned again and again, with grief that wouldn't end.

Will Christopher Lukas one day die of natural causes, or obey the cruel and merciless dictates of the “blue genes” inherited from his family and die by his own hand? Not really my question, but one Lukas has asked himself over and over again, even now, in his seventies, near the end of the book. I'll let Christopher Lukas have the last words:

"There are days – too many of them – when I ponder,” Lukas concludes, “whether I would prefer to be dead and famous rather than alive and ‘just another striver’ in the world of arts and crafts. Had my brother shown me a way out of the pain of never quite achieving a grander status, or had he shown me what happens when you do achieve that status and it’s not enough?

“Still, with full confidence, I know that I will never go into a room at the end of a day and kill myself.

“Too many deaths in my family, too many suicides.

“I will not follow suit”.


The Satan Seller by Mike Warnke

The Da Vinci Code's got nothing on The Satan Seller in terms of both terrible writing and spurious storytelling. I read this supposed "true" account of a former real life astral projecting satanist, Mike Warnke (I think that's him on the cover and maybe Count Dracula lying down behind him) who was also in league, if you're buying the satanic shtick he's selling, with perhaps the most secret of secret societies, the dreaded (I'm whispering now for melodramatic-sharp-indrawn-breath effect)...Illuminati (oh that dastardly covertly operating Illuminati of Angels and Demons unrighteous priest dismembering infamy) and you'll apprehend an entirely new meaning to the term, "bad".

Cornerstone Magazine, a Christian apologetics periodical, pulled the black robe and scary hoody right off of Warnke in their 1992 expose on him, exposing time line inconsistencies and photographs of a rather clean cut Warnke who should've looked all strung out and long-haired-hippieish in the late 1960s, were one to deem his sinister story credible. Cornerstone effectively debunked the minor myth of Mike Warnke, who'd of course, by the time Cornerstone stripped him of his spooky Halloween costume, miraculously repented his former satanic high priestish ritualized baby sacrificing ways and come to see the glorious light of the Lord, accepted Jesus Christ as his savior, blah blah blah, hallelujah (the usual tacky televangelist cliches) and gotten himself as a result of his notoriety and sensationalized, alleged spiritual transformation, a cushy and undoubtedly lucrative gig on what must certainly be the gaudiest, if not ungodliest, television broadcasting network, TBN (Trinity Broadcasting Network) ever launched worldwide.

I read this as a conspiratorial obsessed teenager and swallowed the "based on a true story" bait, hook line and sinker, naive dupe that I was, so I'm peeved and apparently still upset about it. This review has been my cathartic revenge. There, I feel better now.


Roaming Kyrgyzstan: Beyond the Tourist Track by Jessica Jacobson

Should good fortune ever lead me to the distant Asian land of Kyrgyzstan, I hope I'll remember to bring along Jessica Jacobson's compact (yet encyclopedic) travel guide/narrative, Roaming Kyrgyzstan: Beyond The Tourist Track.

Kyrgyzstan's boundaries, a former republic of the U.S.S.R., except for China to its west, are bordered by other hard-to-spell-right "Stans": Tajikistan, to the south & southeast, separating Kyrgyzstan from both Afghanistan & Pakistan; Uzbekistan, to the east; and finally, Kazakhstan, to the north.

Politically, Kyrgyzstan is somewhat of a minor mess, though relatively stable at the moment (minor compared to nations in its proximity) and Jacobson assures the reader she always felt safe and no crimes against the author were reported -- and she lived in Kyrgyzstan for two-and-a-half years.

Geographically, Kyrgyzstan is mostly mountainous. The average elevation of the country lies over 3,000 feet. Peaks regularly rise higher than any in the Andes and almost as high as the highest Himalayan summits. Rivers galore. Lots of lakes, including the nation's largest, Issyk-Kul, which means "hot lake" in Kyrgyz. It's the ninth largest lake, volume-wise, in the world, surrounded by snowcapped mountains, and even at an elevation of 5,275 feet, no part of the lake ever freezes. I would have liked to have seen a picture of Lake Issyk-Kul in the book (minor complaint), but my California-centric-minds-eye imagines something sublime like the non-developed parts of Lake Tahoe.

I'm convinced of several vitally important international-travel-points after reading this great guide:

a) I'll never get Lost in Kyrgyzstan (and if I do it's undoubtedly my fault and not Jacobson's);

b) I'll always know, no matter which of the eleven area regions comprising Kyrgyzstan I venture into (Chui Region, Tokmok Area, Jalal-Abad Region, to name a few) where to Lodge,

c) Dine; d), Dance; e) Dry clean & laundry; f), obtain Internet access,

g), Shop (and where to grab good deals on the cell phone I'll probably need since the one I might mistakenly have brought from home thinking it would work halfway-around-the-globe certainly won't work here in Kyrgyzstan),

e) experience genuine (and not touristy) Kyrgyz Culture in the capital city of Bishkek, home to more than a million people and the most parks of any Central Asian city; Kyrgyz Culture such as the shamanistic, Islamic adaptation of the vernal equinox rite of "Nooruz,"

f) Drink (including which rowdy locales are American expatriate "meat markets" to avoid, or -- not to avoid -- should one while traveling abroad in Kyrgyzstan feel that particular type of need arise),

g) Ski; h) Hike; i) Mountaineer; j) Work out; k) 4-By-It; l) Boat; m) White water raft,

n) "Marshrutkis" (mini-bus) companies to call, down to the very best "marshrutkis" driver's names and cell phone numbers (Jacobson apparently preferred two dependable drivers who both went by the same name of Almaz -- you'll have to buy the book if you want their cell phone numbers though),

o) find reputable Currency Exchange Establishments (consider that should the establishment hand back to you a slew of small bills, that's a sure sign you might be getting gypped, so do be careful!),

p) how to avoid committing such potentially embarassing Cultural Faux Pas such as throwing away stale moldy old bread inside a Kyrgyz's house, rather than outside their house, for the animals to eat (that's a major offense & will get you kicked out of that house in a hurry!), and learning never (never!) to reject a Kyrgyz's offer of bread (just take a nibble even if you're not hungry), because your "no-thanks"-slapped-on-American-smile would still be considered rude).

What I especially enjoyed in Roaming Kyrgyzstan were the personal anecdotes from Jacobson interspersed as colorful vignettes of native knowledge throughout the text. Jacobson, after all, has a lot of native knowledge of Kyrgyzstan to bestow, having lived almost three years of her life there. The story about her Krygyz friend, a store owner named Zhenya, selling supposed Christian Dior and Chanel perfume to a man looking to buy something nice for his wife and telling him the perfume was imported from Poland (and not China, where it was really from, because Krygyz avoid like the plague purchasing Chinese products due to perceived and perhaps real poor quality issues) and him buying her story; for, after all, how was he, the naive customer, supposed to know what Chanel perfume looks like -- that it doesn't come in plastic bottles -- having never seen Chanel perfume packaging before? Several anecdotes such as these were memorably amusing and heartwarming.

Few may ever find themselves setting foot in Kyrgyzstan, though the lucky few who do find themselves there, will be better prepared, better educated, and more apt to confidently trek through both the Kyrgyz culture and the diverse, oftentimes imposing, though invariably beautiful geographic terrain, if they're already familiar with Jessica Jacobson's wonderful, enlightening travel guide, Roaming Krygyzstan: Beyond The Tourist Track.