Saturday, August 11, 2018

Books 22, 23, and 24 of 2018



A Smiley novel without Smiley. I mean, Smiley is there, and his tendrils are woven throughout. But he is only very briefly present in the novel in a physical sense.

Alec Leamas is a more Bond-ish spy than Smiley, who mixes it up mostly in an intellectual sense. Leamas is an action man who works in the field. And his fate really lays bare the realities of that era and that region and the cold callousness of the Cold War. And that Cold War did not end as suspected decades ago but was carried on by the defeated side in new and ingenious ways. This is a novel so taught it thrums like power lines. I read it in about ten minutes.



I enjoy the 'descent into madness' genre of memoir. And when the memoir is written by a Surrealist and the long-time lover of Max Ernst at a time when the entire world had gone mad, well then of course it will be a worthwhile read. The first half of the book is an exquisite introduction, analysis, and biography of Leonora Carrington which is just as good as the memoir itself.



I just may begin collecting dew when the planets are in the correct houses, because Hall lets more of the cat out of the bag than anyone else I've read.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Books 20 and 21 of 2018

Have for a few years intended to read Le Carre. Call for the Dead has one of those immediately appealing English narrators who pull you up to the fire side and regale you with a finely spun tale. You know the sort of narrator of which I speak. And Smiley is an appealing bumbling sort of wise detective--I'd expected more of a spy/intrigue novel, but this is actually a murder mystery with some espionage overtones.

It's a good time to re-visit this Cold War era, what with a new Cold War in the wings, or perhaps the surprising new end of the Cold War after everyone thought it had already ended? We shall see. But this world of George Smiley and East and West and Iron Curtains and jockeying between Capitalists and Communists is the era in which I grew up, and how odd it is that it feels so distant now.

I found the novel appealing enough to continue with the series of George Smiley books. I like the portrait of England and English class structure after the War as its empire is dismantled and handed over to the Americans. There is the standard upper-crust snobbery and casual homophobia and anti-Semitism, but that of course was a feature of the age, and these features of English society are lampooned by LeCarre as much as recorded by him.

  

This installment is much less engaging than the first. This is more a Gothic mystery/horror tale with a gruesome murder at a decaying prestigious private school. The best bits are a sort of Evelyn Waugh-ish character whose disgust at the English class system and descriptions of its fraudulent institutions is rather amusing. But the plot is awkward and clunky, the characters are types who turn out in the end to not be what they seem a la virtually every episode of Murder, She Wrote, and as Le Carre describes the book in its introduction, there are some good instances of satire but overall it's a failed mystery thriller. I'd agree. But I shall continue with the series despite this disappointment. The end is particularly bad, as all the clues which have pointed one way suddenly are forced to point another and there is a quick arrest and then it just ends.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Book 19 of 2018


The Night Ocean: A Novel

When we were living in Baltimore and going to karaoke with a group of regulars a new guy joined us often. He was one of these young 30-ish guys who sport a carefully manicured beard, and who have a beard maintenance kit always to hand with a comb and some lotion to comb into the beard when too much beer or gin and tonic has frothed it up. He also had an aggressively maintained mustachio which curved elvishly up into spirals at each end of his upper lip. He couldn’t sing a lick, but was an enthusiastic singer nonetheless. In between singing, we drank and talked about shit. It’s what one does with karaoke buddies.

One night he pronounced Cthulhu incorrectly while discussing a meme, and I pointed it out and corrected his pronunciation, and he responded “I play Dungeons and Dragons, I think I know how to correctly say Cthulhu.” After I got over my initial shock that D & D had become a thing again (hipsters—is there nothing they won’t mine from the past and resuscitate with gusto?), I took up the challenge.

“Have you read Lovecraft?” I responded. He replied in the negative. “Well it’s interesting that you would know how to pronounce Cthulhu when you’ve never read Lovecraft. I have read EVERYTHING, and own the Arkham House four-volume Collected Works in hardback. My Honors English high school literature paper was a Jungian analysis of Lovecraft’s “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” and I was turned on to L. Sprague de Camp’s bio of HPL by my English teacher that year. I have perused many of his letters and have even endured his Vogon-quality poetry about mushrooms from Yuggoth. I read S.T. Joshi’s biography, Stephen King’s musings on HPL in Danse Macabre, and even read Michel Houellebecq’s acid little philosophical tome about Lovecraft’s worldview in the original French. I have a blog whose title is a Lovecraft pun. In many texts both scholarly and otherwise I have read how Lovecraft pronounced Cthulhu, so I’m pretty sure I know how to pronounce it, and I’m positive you do not.”

It’s a truism in life that know-it-alls are assholes. This guy was a know-it-all without any backup for his know-it-all-ism. I’m a know-it-all who brings out the heavy (and nerdy) artillery when needed.

When I was a teenager reading Lovecraft nobody in my circles knew who the fuck he was. Until Mrs. Hardin, my 12th grade English teacher, I don’t think I met anyone who had even heard of him, let alone read him. And now Lovecraft permeates our culture. Every time I see the latest Hollywood schlock there are HPL references, subtle or not. TV shows like Stranger Things are Lovecraft light. All the comic book films owe substantial debts to HPL. Political memes with Cthulu, T-shirts, mugs, plush toys—he’s everywhere. People who have never read Lovecraft and who would need a dictionary to get through the first two pages of “The Outsider” or “The Music of Eric Zahn” know about Cthulhu.

Many writers have been obsessions in my lifetime. Some of those obsessions re-wired my brain and came to permeate my day-to-day life. Lovecraft was the first to really do that for me, even though I only read him for a few years and stopped reading him by the time I was no longer a teen. His stories are for the most part awful—even the best ones are at best dis-satisfying. Trying to go back and re-read them is pointless; I can never slog through more than a few pages. But there was something about that alternate reality, and that cold archaic worldview…and those entities beyond time and space! For a formative time of my life, he set a standard, and though he was quickly replaced by Dostoevski and then Henry James and then others...he was a key figure in my youth and remains vitally important to me.

The Night Ocean is about HPL specifically, but more generally about stories and writers permeating one’s existence, saturating one’s being. It is an extended nerdgasm, not just for weird fiction fans, but for sci-fi geeks, political wonks, fans of archaeology, for beats and hippies. It’s also a reminder about how far we’ve come as a society in terms of acceptance of alternate lifestyles and tendencies.

Let me just run through some of the characters: Isaac Asimov, William S. Burroughs, Robert Barlow, Frederick Pohl, Hart Crane, Roy Cohn, Whitaker Chambers, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo. Houellebecq is included but is thinly disguised.

This novel is a well-imagined forgery about well-imagined forgeries about a weird Luddite racist throwback whose peculiar imaginings have tentacled their way down through the last century and a half, and whose distasteful personal beliefs and philosophy can teach Americans a lot about ourselves to this day. The Night Ocean was not what I expected, but it was a hoot. I learned some things about Lovecraft i did not know!

And, gleefully, the correct pronunciation of Cthulhu is explained herein.

Sunday, July 01, 2018

Books 15, 16, 17 and 18 of 2018



Brothers of the Gun is a harrowing first-hand account of the collapse of Syria into civil war. The story is centered on Raqqa. The narrator is a student of English Literature who sloughs off what he regards as a sort of backwoods religiosity in his upbringing, and who wants to experience the wider world. The Arab Spring brings hope, but this is quickly dashed by barrel bombs from the Assad regime, and then by warring factions, and finally by the arrival of ISIS.

Marwan Hisham at once recreates and critiques his Syrian culture and history with wit and sensitivity. He bemoans the cost of revolt and what was lost as a result, but not without humor and wisdom. The people he describes are hardscrabble survivors who are determined to build the best life they can in increasingly dire circumstances. I can't recommend it enough. Fantastic illustrations by Molly Crabapple from photos by the author lend further pathos to the text.




A colleague middle school teacher told me she was having her Lit students read Tripods: The White Mountains over the summer break. I'd never heard of the novel, which she claimed was her favorite childhood book in New Zealand.

Not sure how I missed it, but it was a great read--very exciting and sort of what the world might have been like had Wells' War of the Worlds ended in a loss for humanity. Great fun.

 


Manly P. Hall brings the wisdom of the Mystery Schools into the modern age. Want to incorporate Pythogrean principals into your busy late-phase capitalist existence? These short tomes are full of helpful tips.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Can we see your papers, please?

This story from Alternet reminded me of a recent experience:
My wife and I spent a couple nights down on the Bay at a Calvert County AirBNB a couple weeks back. We'd exhausted ourselves selling and donating and gifting about 95% of our worldly possessions in preparation for moving internationally, and needed to go someplace to get our heads together in peace and quiet.
One day we visited Point Lookout in St. Mary's County and spent a couple hours walking around the shore watching wildlife. On the way into the park we'd noticed police pulling people over but hadn't really thought much about it. Inside the park several Latin families were swimming, having cookouts, and fishing from the pier. When we left the park we were pulled over for "speeding," though I was only doing 30 MPH. The cop who pulled us over had a couple conflicting stories. First, he said "We are pulling everyone over today." Then, he said "The speed limit is 15 here and you and the caravan behind you were doing 30--no big deal, we are just reminding people of speeding." There was no posted limit coming out of the park. Then I noticed that all the cars behind us which had been pulled over also had already been waved on. He chose to run my license, however.
The real reason had nothing to do with speeding, but because my wife is a person of color. The cars which were waved on immediately had only Caucasians inside. The police held my license for about 15 minutes and then gave me a warning for speeding and let us go.
This was an ICE operation, though the cops were in cars marked Maryland National Park Police. They were flak-jacketed militarized cops. They were polite and professional, but they detained us because of race, and under false pretenses. And the stated reason they were pulling people over was a facade. Presumably a "patriot" and "good citizen" felt uncomfortable with the number of Latin families in the park and called the cops?
At any rate, it doesn't take three police vehicles with six officers and a K-9 unit to do a speeding sting on a small park on the Chesapeake Bay.

Books 13 and 14 of 2018



The very satisfying conclusion to an entertaining sci-fi/fantasy series. I've been thinking of re-reading some of the old-ass sci-fi I grew up just for kicks (Asimov's Foundation series, for example). But this took care of that craving.

The best sci-fi, of course, deals with social issues of the current era and projects them into a potential future. Here we've got racism and ecological meddling and the sort of re-sacralization of Nature that Terrence McKenna preached all wrapped up in a tidy bundle.

Oh you crazy moon, you took my heart...


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Carlos Castaneda learned this shit from Don Juan and it took like 8 books. Here, Don Miguel Ruiz distills it down and you don't need to eat peyote buttons or smoke some weird ass herb bag to get there.

Wednesday, May 02, 2018

Books 11 and 12 of 2018


Shirley Jackson is the best. If you drew a triangle with Edith Wharton and Flannery O'Conner and Dorothy West at the three points and muttered an arcane incantation Shirley Jackson would pop up in the triangle like in the window of a Magic 8 Ball.

Her stories are often witty and acerbically so, critical of social mores and hypocrisy in a most delightfully precise manner. Distasteful characters are deflated and humiliated. Most often there is a supernatural twist of the sort later associated with Rod Serling. I was pleased to note that a few stories in here are thematically similar to The Haunting of Hill House, which is my favorite novel of all time, and the one I've re-read most often.

I recommend this tight little volume. Some guffaws, some gasps, some grins.




Read this as part of a graduate course on Greek History. I'm taking it in a rush to try and get another few credits to prevent my teacher certificate from expiring in June.

This is a breezy series of lectures about Greek History from the Minoans forward to the Hellenic Period. There are interesting asides about archaeology vs. myth vs. contemporary accounts.

I found it mostly valuable as a refresher in all that shit I read in Herodotus 25 years ago. If you've not read Herodotus, read him first, and then 25 years from now listen to this to remind yourself what you learned. But if you don't intend to ever read Herodotus, and want to know about the Persian Wars and the Peloponnesian Wars and Alexander and all that jazz, then just go ahead and listen to this now.