Saturday, September 28, 2013

Banned Books Week Review #4: LOLITA


Everyman's Library
$26.00 hardcover, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Awe and exhilaration—along with heartbreak and mordant wit—abound in Lolita, Nabokov's most famous and controversial novel, which tells the story of the aging Humbert Humbert's obsessive, devouring, and doomed passion for the nymphet Dolores Haze. Lolita is also the story of a hypercivilized European colliding with the cheerful barbarism of postwar America. Most of all, it is a meditation on love—love as outrage and hallucination, madness and transformation.

My Review: Humbert Humbert was the name of my 1999 Buick LeSabre. It was unreliable, stodgy-looking, and all too easy to sink into and enjoy the glorious creature comforts contained therein. (I miss the cassette/CD/AM/FM combo, if I'm honest.) Hum, our narrator, is a terrible man, a pedophile, a sociopath, and a complete scoundrel on so many levels it's hard to count them all.

And I *adore* him. But I'm weird that way. I adore Walter White, too.

Nabokov's third language, English, gave him the most incredible and flexible of tools for creating word-magic. This book, about the passion of an old man for a little girl, contains some of the most gorgeous sentences ever written in English.

And it's a deeply disturbing book. Lolita...Dolores almost heartbreakingly absent from the story, which centers around Hum's sense of himself and his perceptions of his worth. The most terrifying beginning of any book I've read in my life. "Light of my life, fire of my loins," eeeeeeeeeewwwwwwwwww. But how gloriously sonorous is Hum's breakdown of the name he gave his victim. "Lo. Lee. Ta."

This book is, unsurprisingly, one of the most challenged books in the American Shamefest of Ban-Ban-Ban what *I* don't like!!!! Such a stupidly self-important way of looking at the world. "I don't like that, it offends me, it's evil, it's wrong." Then don't read it. "My child! My child could see it!" Then move to Utah or Idaho, they don't have books there, just the Book of Mormon or whatever it's called.

Take your calls for censorship somewhere else. Like church. And leave the grown-ups alone.

Does Lolita deal with horrible, offensive subject matter? Yes. Does it do so in a positive, accepting light? No. And that's unlike the "sacred texts" of every religion I've ever read...Bhagavad Gita has almost innumerable mass murders, Qur'an and Bible and Torah *very* questionable ethics like bar bets between gawd and Lucifer about just how hard they can fuck over one guy before he snaps, incest as the source of humankind (eg, Noah and family), not to mention a truly freaky-deaky kind of self-sex between Adam and Eve, who is made from Adam's body parts. But that's moral instruction, and Lolita, which savagely beats the shit out of a cultural norm of solipsism and male privilege, gets challenged regularly by the ignoranuses who can't be bothered to read it.

Or, and I suspect this is even more true, are too dimwitted to get it. Just because someone doesn't understand a literary work, or a work of art, does not make it bad or wrong or an evil influence.

Since this book was published in 1955, it's been in print. I suspect it will be in print long after I'm dead and gone. The more the haters hate on it, the more contrarians and the self-defined intellectuals will buy it.

So ban on, boobs. One day the banning you're so busy advocating will reach right back to you and your pet loves. I, for one, welcome the day no one can get religious crap without showing ID and paying through the nose and ending up on a persecution list. I hope to live so long as to see it.

No, I don't. I'd have to protest it and demand that the censorship stop. NO ONE'S IDEAS OR EXPRESSIONS THEREOF SHOULD EVER BE STIFLED just because they make me, or you, uncomfortable. Don't like something? Walk away.

Walk. Away.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Surveillance, Meet Sousveillance: Banned Books Week Review 27 September 2013


So is my blood pressure.

In the ongoing waiting game Goodreads is playing, hoping users won't notice a draconian case of surveillance plus censorship, the score is even. They've said nothing and done as they like. We've yelled and hollered, and a lot of us have found new homes for our old data. Many more have decided to stop contributing new data until the whole thing shakes out.

David Brin's 1999 book offers his expert advice: Don't stop looking back, and don't shut up. I agree with him. I think we should do this all the time, in all situations, or we're in for a future that will make Orwell and Huxley look like Ren and Stimpy.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Banned Books Week Review #2, again

How Many Loads Have U Taken 2nite?
You're open 24/7 if ya know what I mean
You taken so many loads damn you're a machine...

Think that's dirty and should be reported? Watch the video. See what you think after that.

All censorship starts with that "no, no that's clearly BAD!" impulse to control. Things go very badly when that rules the day. No one knows enough to censor what another person says because of what they think the other person means.

CHRISTIAN NATION, a cautionary tale about believing the Believers


W.W. Norton
$25.95 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5 appalled, terrified stars of five

It's Banned Books Week, so we are well advised to think about what the ability to ban a book really means.

“The biggest mistake that we can make is that we don’t believe that they believe what they say. And for many of them, they do mean exactly what they say," says author Frederic C. Rich in his interview from this past July. Look at the Texas school textbook adoption wars over presenting creationism as a scientific theory. All of those folks are the few who bother to show up, and those are usually the wingnuts from the religious right with an agenda to impose.

Start where you are. Do what you can, what you're capable of doing. Fight the small battle here, and win or lose, the war's course will change. Maybe you'll even live long enough to be glad that you did. I only hope you won't live long enough to regret that you didn't.

The Publisher Says: “They said what they would do, and we did not listen. Then they did what they said they would do.”

So ends the first chapter of this brilliantly readable counterfactual novel, reminding us that America’s Christian fundamentalists have been consistently clear about their vision for a “Christian Nation” and dead serious about acquiring the political power to achieve it. When President McCain dies and Sarah Palin becomes president, the reader, along with the nation, stumbles down a terrifyingly credible path toward theocracy, realizing too late that the Christian right meant precisely what it said.

In the spirit of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, one of America’s foremost lawyers lays out in chilling detail what such a future might look like: constitutional protections dismantled; all aspects of life dominated by an authoritarian law called “The Blessing,” enforced by a reconfigured Internet known as the “Purity Web.” Those who defy this system, among them the narrator, live on the edges of society, sustained by the belief that democracy will rise to triumph over such tyrannical oppression.

My Review: Every Banned Books Week we are well advised to think about what the ability to ban a book really means. In Author Rich's novel, banning a book is no longer a concern. The apparatus of theocracy has taken over the libraries. Nothing so trivial as banning A book is necessary, slate entire areas of human knowledge for destruction. Pulp those books that don't tell the story you want told. Knowledge dies, after all. We saw that after the fall of the Roman Empire. The only libraries were in monasteries, and the only works supposed to be preserved were dogmatic, didactic christian texts. Fortunately, some subversives hid works by Lucretius, Epicurus, Juvenal, Suetonius, in their stacks. As theocracy self-destructed, as all -ocracies (including dem-) inevitably do, sharp-eyed secularists found these works and brought them out into the public gaze for the first time in as much as a millennium. (For more about this, see my review of The Swerve.)

Think about that. For a millennium, a thousand years, knowledge that might have led the world out of pervasive hunger, away from destructive hatred and war over trivia, was hidden away so it would at least survive as words on paper. It couldn't be discussed, because it couldn't be read. It was banned. Very effectively and efficiently banned. When the ban was lifted, the world's best brains went into overdrive and they've never slowed down since.

Yet we still, after this excellent example of the benefits of freedom of thought, freedom of expression, freedom from the fear that censorship breeds, we still have to fight the well-meaning, well-intentioned, and always wrong "moral protectors" and "nicey-nice police." It doesn't have to start big, and in fact, that is author Rich's point in this novel. His story, of a subversive in the Christian Nation, a convert to the Church of God in America from the losing side in the Seige of Manhattan, starts with the run-up to the 2008 election. In Rich's horrifying nightmare, McCain and Palin won, and then they did what they said they would do: They "restored American to a Christian Nation." They used your smartphone with its eternal connection to communication satellites to track you. It's the law that you must have it on you. It's the law that every device you use must be connected to the Purity Web (which we call universal wi-fi connectivity, and long for!) that your every utterance or interface with another person be monitorable.

Imagine how many petaflops of information this state collects. And sifts. And uses against its citizens, but only in the kindest of spirits and in the expectation of their draconian rules and totalitarian controls bringing all souls to the Rapture as pure as is possible.

This kind of nightmare is all too possible. Look at the Taliban in Afghanistan. Look at the rhetoric coming out of the Tea Party. No, no, says the complacent and lazy citizen, who can't be bothered to vote for school board members or participate in electioneering, no way can that happen here.

“The biggest mistake that we can make is that we don’t believe that they believe what they say. And for many of them, they do mean exactly what they say," says author Rich in his interview from this past July. Look at the Texas school textbook adoption wars over presenting creationism as a scientific theory. All of those folks are the few who bother to show up, and those are usually the wingnuts from the religious right with an agenda to impose.

This novel is set in a world that didn't happen, where the battle against censorship costs lives. Those lives are lost because, in that world like this one we live in, so very many of us can't be bothered, don't want to, are too tired or bored or stressed or lazy to, stand up and say NO MORE when censorship is proposed or imposed. And Rich, a high-powered financial industry lawyer, works with the kind of people whose money-making and self-interest are tightly bound up with the trends in thought and speech around the world. In short, if he doesn't know from the inside whereof he speaks when he speaks about the consequences voicelessness, of stifled freedom to speak and think as one desires, no one alive does.

Start where you are. Do what you can, what you're capable of doing. Fight the small battles and, win or lose, the war's course will change. Maybe you'll even live long enough to be glad that you did. I only hope you won't live long enough to regret that you didn't.

Read the entire review at Shelf Inflicted, a Group Blog.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

ELLA MINNOW PEA, Mark Dunn's progressively lipogrammatic send-up of rigidity


Anchor Books
$15.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.9* of five

The Publisher Says: There are two book descriptions, both good; this first is for the hardcover, published by MacAdam/Cage, that I read years ago:
Ella Minnow Pea is an epistolary novel set in the fictional island of Nollop situated off the coast of South Carolina and home to the inventor of the pangram The Quick Brown Fox Jumps Over The Lazy Dog. Now deceased, the islanders have erected a monument to honor their hero, but one day a tile with the letter �z� falls from the statue. The leaders interpret the falling tile as a message from beyond the grave and the letter is banned from use. On an island where the residents pride themselves on their love of language, this is seen as a tragedy. They are still reeling from the shock, when another tile falls and then another.... Mark Dunn takes us on a journey against time through the eyes of Ella Minnow Pea and her family as they race to find another phrase containing all the letters of the alphabet to save them from being unable to communicate. Eventually, the only letters remaining are LMNOP, when Ella finally discovers the phrase that will save their language.

The second is for Anchor's trade paper edition, which seems to me to give a better flavor of the book:
Ella Minnow Pea is a girl living happily on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop was named after Nevin Nollop, author of the immortal pangram,* “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Now Ella finds herself acting to save her friends, family, and fellow citizens from the encroaching totalitarianism of the island’s Council, which has banned the use of certain letters of the alphabet as they fall from a memorial statue of Nevin Nollop. As the letters progressively drop from the statue they also disappear from the novel. The result is both a hilarious and moving story of one girl’s fight for freedom of expression, as well as a linguistic tour de force sure to delight word lovers everywhere.

*pangram: a sentence or phrase that includes all the letters of the alphabet

My Review: This novel is about the unintended bad, and ridiculous, consequences of a very good idea. Nollop, an island off the American mainland, is a society rational and reasonable in its organization and actions. Its usage of the English language rests on the existence of the pangram, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." The founder of Nollop invested the pangram with great significance.

And now, in Ella's time, the letters of the pangram start falling off the founder's statue! And the leaders say, "It's a sign! A sign! Whatever letters have fallen may no longer be used, in writing or in speech! An omen, a sign!"

And the people nodded, smiled, and did nothing to stop the madness. After all, it's the leaders' job to lead, right? And why would the leaders want bad things for us? After all, we all want the best and the brightest to flourish, right?

Of course! Now, take your Soma. Dr. Orwell will be along soon.

Delight. Dialogue, description, the lot. It's fun to read the book because the story is so very absurd. Imagine an entire country that's established around the veneration of a weirdo who invented a sentence to exercise your typing skills with! And imagine further the populace of such a place, held in thrall to language, ruled by a council of puritans who do their damnedest to make sure the entire island respects the gift of the English the exclusion of all other considerations, personal, practical, political.

The book was published in 2001. That was, for those of failing memory, the year (in my never-humble opinion) Shrub Bush stole the presidential election for the first time. It was clear to anyone not conservative and/or christian that there was a bad set of rapids ahead, and a lot of it would turn on public and private discourse, its nature and its tenor. The novel foretold the increasing gag effect imposed from Above on reporting and discussing the various wars, the various and nefarious doings in and around the Oval Office, and on and on. Dunn could see it coming, and he pointed and hollered the best way he could, via a highbrow high-concept novel that would fly above heads and under radars.

I lapped it up like it was the dust on the mirror and began begging people I knew to read it, even buying several of them copies. (I had a good job in those days.) And to my increasing despair, not ONE of them so much as read it until poked; after reading it, not one of them was even lukewarm.

Ella and her family living like Anne Frank and her family, Ella making the discovery of a new pangram, Ella obeying the lipogrammatic tyranny of the Council in her letters to those who have left, escaped, the madness engulfing Nollop...this was sunshine and I was heliotropic in following it wherever it led. And not one soul to keep me company.

And now, eleven years on, someone reviews it, and I am all back in the fray. Please, do everyone involved a favor and get a copy so you can revel in the pleasures of an honorable woman telling a surreal, Dali-and-Kafka-have-a-baby kind of story and, in the end, revel with her in the joy of open and free speech.

Banned Books Week Post #3...more concerns about silence

♡KarLynP♡, a Goodreader, posted this message on the Feeedback thread that threatens to swallow the internet due to its length.

"The following article came out a few hours ago and gives several recent quotes from GR mgmt, VP of communications Suzanne Skyvara"

I then posted this expansion on the theme:

This para {in that article} explains the silence about the concerns on this thread:
“Over time we plan to better use all of the data we have around reviews so that we are putting the best reviews – the ones that will be most interesting and useful – at the top. This is a big data problem, and we are hiring a data scientist to work on it. At the same time, we already personalize how you see reviews – you see your friends’ reviews first and then you see reviews by people you follow, all people that you know and trust.”

It's official, from someone at GR. They are deliberately becoming Amazon. So all the hollering and all the points we've all made are, in the end, for naught. They aren't going to make any compromises, they aren't interested in user input, they are the big boy on the block and we aren't. Fuck a bunch of the people whose labor made them rich.

All good things come to an end. The good Goodreads is over. I'll still be here, but will fade into irrelevance (I wonder if I was ever actually relevant) because I'll participate less and less as I move my data.

And it won't matter a speck. The site will go on, the relevance will remain, until someone one day twigs to the fact that this is Amazon now. Like Shelfari, Goodreads will just be a sales mouthpiece for the corpocracy. Indie authors beware: When Amazon is done bludgeoning the publishing industry into submission with y'all's work, you'll see what it feels like to be pressured in a way you can't even fathom yet.

For me, I'm going to shout from the wilderness. I'll post protests and I'll post reviews that are explicitly anti-censorship and tie them into these concerns. And most people will learn to ignore me, more than they already do, because "what's that noisy old coot hollering for?" is easier, safer, less trouble than thinking about what this explicit statement means for your own future."

Then I saw a very good Mediabistro article about why censorship is censorship even when the censors say it's not. This piece shows there is some reasonable hope of interest in the topic {of Goodreads' ham-fisted censorchip} remaining alive. But with Amazon's Kindle Paperwhite including a Goodreads app from the get-go, it's easy to see why Goodreads must change its old, open culture of discussion and opinionated debate to suit Amazon's horrendous, untrustworthy Land of the Five-star Review Or Else sales sales sales or bust ethos. It's disheartening still, but it's clear why it had to happen.

Still, I'd remind those whose butthurt instigated this debacle in the first place of the Soviet-era Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov's words about censorship:
To struggle against censorship, whatever its nature, and whatever the power under which it exists, is my duty as a writer, as are calls for freedom of the press. I am a passionate supporter of that freedom, and I consider that if any writer were to imagine that he could prove he didn't need that freedom, then he would be like a fish affirming in public that it didn't need water.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Banned Books Week Post #2

It's Banned Books Week, and I blogged about a related Censorship issue on Shelf Inflicted.

Most of us who read more than one or two books a year rely on some social media or another to find our next book. We talk about books, us readers, and we shouldn't have to worry about what we say or how we say it UNLESS we threaten harm on someone's person. When a social media outlet takes it upon itself to censor what we are allowed to say, the conversation is headed to oblivion and eventually there won't be room for any opinion that isn't GLOWING.

That's a horrible thought. And it won't stop there, either. Happy-clappy fivestarland is also known as the Big Brother is Watching kind of totalitarian state that Orwell railed against. It's a truism that Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, expressed best: "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them." When all that's available are second-rate crappy books that get praised to the skies, how does a culture hook readers? Classics?

I don't know about your experiences with English class, but my teachers almost made a TV watcher out of me by teaching to the curriculum and compelling me to read, for example, The Scarlet Letter, and discuss it with the mouth-breathing trogs I went to school with. The curriculum was aimed at the trogs. I was asleep in my corner. Unlike most people, I was hugely lucky in that my mother was a voracious reader who liked to talk about books, and my much older sister owned a bookstore. I watched a few other natural readers who didn't have my advantages sink into indifference.

So I suspect classic books aren't likely to lead folks to reading. In fact, it's my observation that most readers of more than a book or two a year found classics after getting hooked on chick lit, or science fiction, or mysteries, and finding the literary world was chock-a-block with amazing stuff! And quite a lot of them...20 million on Goodreads, at least 2 million on LibraryThing, and the smaller sites are growing...turn to social media for help navigating the *stunning* amount of material available.

So when a big player in the field, like Goodreads, starts a ham-fisted campaign to make opinions nicey-nice, and then makes that error worse with a tin-eared social non-response to the original screw-up, well it's cause for worry. Whether or not you belong to Goodreads, it's going to affect you sooner or later. The chilling effect of censorship is insidious. It's actually not the formal, overt, clearly (or vaguely) articulated censorship that is most harmful.

It is the erosion of your internal sense of freedom. Censorship kills free thought, slowly, quietly, and indirectly. This rule today breeds that habit of avoidance that stifles that thought tomorrow. Who knows what the consequences of that stifled thought will be? A genius stifled, a mass murderer stopped, an invention unrealized...there is no way to know.

But I do know this. The risk of stifled thought depriving the world of good, important things outweighs the cost of hurt feelings and offended sensibilities. Even mine. I don't lobby for the banning of religion or the wholesale execution of gun nuts. I'd like to. I think those things should happen. But the precedent I set by advocating such draconian action EXTENDS TO ME.

Likewise censoring opinions about books, authors, publishers, etc. The precedent set extends to the censors, and those advocating the censorship.

Think about that carefully before advocating that a Rule be Established.

Monday, September 23, 2013

It's Banned Books Week! Yay!

It's that happy-clappy time again! Banned Books Week draws attention to the many and various attempts to censor what kind of reading material is available to you, me, our kids, our grandkids, and the banning parties hope, posterity. Books that talk about S-E-X or the right of women to walk down all the streets of the world without fearing rape or the existence of this little thing called "science" that rejects your religion's once-upon-a-time version of Creation.

"Ban it! Don't talk about it! NO!! Someone must be WRONG and it can't be ME!!"

In the long run, it doesn't work. In the short run, it's hideously costly in human emotional terms, titanically wasteful of time, effort, and resources to police and enforce, and morally repugnant to right-thinking people.

But it doesn't stop at formal banning of a book, governmental or religious anathema pronounced upon a writer, a press, a book...those things, while reprehensible, are formal, out there for the public to see and hear and (theoretically) obey. More insidious is a behavior that's meant to fly under the radar, and when discovered, covered up by (factually correct, morally wrong) justifications like "Oh look how few people are actually affected!" and "Most of you will never know it's even there!" and "It's my {concrete noun} and I'll do as I goddamned well please with it."

To quote a religious figure of great renown, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me." (Matthew 31:45) You didn't speak up for the safety or the happiness of those piddling few? You didn't worry because it wasn't you?

Next time it will be. Or the time after that. Or the one after that. Because if I've learned nothing else in 54 years of relatively constant annoyance by earthlings, I've learned that Command and Control NEVER EVER STOP WANTING MORE.

Specifically, I'm completely panitwadulous over the latest Goodreads self-inflicted PR wound. Last Friday, after the world has gone to weekend footing, Goodreads dumped the news of a major change in Terms of Service as they affect what reviewers...the unpaid volunteers who create the value that Amazon paid for the company to get!...can and cannot say to/about authors in their own reviews, and even more troublingly, what the reviewers can and cannot name the shelves or collections they put their books into.

I don't know if anyone on their staff expected the strength and passion of delivery of the vitriol that the sheeple (irony there!) of the site unleashed on this decision. If they did not, they were not paying attention to the titanic kerfuffle when Amazon bought Goodreads. Twenty-five hundred posts (mostly) of outrage and fear didn't make an impact? Not even the Ugly Green Button contretemps, with 2350 posts, made a dent?

Goodreads folk are passionate and committed readers and writers. And the reason they've...we've...invested so much emotional energy in the site is, at base, simple. It's the only one of its kind, the only place where readers connect with other readers by means of reviews, groups, and serendipity. Competitors to Goodreads are a great deal smaller, they're often focused around special interests (eg, LibraryThing, that unparalleled book cataloging site, with a sideline of social activity that's very much not encouraged), or they just haven't got the chops to make the ease and fluidity of opinion discovery on a par with Goodreads.

So naturally change will be resisted and feared by many, and just as naturally the Powers That Be will seek to direct the community's attention to such areas as will benefit the advertisers and/or owners who pay the bills. Some tension is inevitable, some compromise desirable on all sides. But to date, no compromise has been offered on any issue of site governance I've cited here. The policy announced Friday that announces Goodreads can and will delete user-created information at will and without warning is in place. The mea-culpa issued today with a reassurance that they won't delete stuff without warning again isn't, it appears, part of the formal policy yet.

This is put in place, we're told, because Goodreads wants to maintain a TONE, an atmosphere, of respect and tolerance. Because nothing says respect and tolerance like unilaterally changing a community-wide policy with a dump-and-run message on Friday afternoon, in a group that much less than 1% of the user base belongs to, right?

Still, it's their (well, Amazon's) site and they set the rules, right? Right. They do. And they offer the service to us for free, right, so they pretty much deserve to have a completely free hand, right?


I tweeted about this today, hoping to get some interest from Big Bloggers. Total response: One dismissive snort that essentially said, paraphrasing here, "suck it up Buttercup, if you're not the paying customer you're the paid-for commodity."

In BANNED BOOKS WEEK an example of censorship gets that kind of response. Wow.

Talking about books freely and without censorship, whether internal or external in origin, is as important an activity as reading the damn things. If no one talks about Mein Kampf, or Man and Superman, or The Nicomachaen Ethics, why kill the trees to print them? Why dedicate the bandwidth to delivering the files to the ereader screens? If people care enough to read even one book a year, shouldn't they be encouraged and supported in a desire to discuss it?

And that's what Goodreads was. Was. I have to use the past tense. It WAS this. It is now a data farm and sales platform for a bookselling entity. (Whose customer I am, by the way, and will continue to be, because I exist on less money per month that most of you make in a week.) And sales are hurt, the conventional wisdom goes, by shouting. Yeah, Paula Deen's racist language hurt her: Sales of her books, what, tripled? It was her publishers who said "ciao" and not the customers.

Which is its own level of icksome. But the point I'm making is simple: Stifling one, twenty-one, a million and one, people's willingness to speak honestly and from the heart about the ideas, the words, the feelings expressed in a book, by an author, is stealing from the rest of us who are unaffected the very necessary challenge of understanding, if never accepting, a different point of view. You may not ever agree, you may even like the opposition less than you did before you understood them better. (This happens to me with religious stuff all the time.)

But you still lose when ANY voice is silenced, out of fear or obedience or...worst of all...despair. How many honest reviews, negative to the author's feelings and even insulting in language, will now not be written? How many conversations will go un-had? (I've learned a lot from arguing my point on my most vitriolic reviews.)

Ray Bradbury said it best: "You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them." And talking about them. And now there's no safe place to do that with the size audience, with their wallets ready to spring open.

The decline, it would seem, has accelerated, and the fall is imminent. I'm sad about that.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

New Mystery Review on 22 September 2013

I've finished and reviewed the second John Ceepak mystery, MAD MOUSE, in my Kindle Originals section. I can't wait to dive into the next one in the series. Luckily they're only 99¢ each. And there are several!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

New Review for 14 September 2013

I'm fifty-four today...shocking...and spent a few hours reading and jotting a response to Tom Baker's collection of short stories, FULL FRONTAL: to make a long story short. He is the former Doctor Who, and an out gay man for lo these many years. He chose to write the story of a fictional Stonewall generation all-American lad.

I had a lot of fun reading these shorties, partially because they're on a subject I care about and partially because, well, TOM BAKER!!! Their execution is perfectly adequate, not a bit better or a jot worse than that. Check out my review!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

WINDEYE, short horror fictions to keep you awake long past lights out


Coffee House Press
$16.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.25* of five

The Publisher Says: A woman falling out of sync with the world; a king's servant hypnotized by his murderous horse; a transplanted ear with a mind of its own--the characters in these stories live as interlopers in a world shaped by mysterious disappearances and unfathomable discrepancies between the real and imagined.

Brian Evenson, master of literary horror, presents his most far-ranging collection to date, exploring how humans can persist in an increasingly unreal world. Haunting, gripping, and psychologically fierce, these tales illuminate a dark and unsettling side of humanity.

Praised by Peter Straub for going "furthest out on the sheerest, least sheltered narrative precipice," Brian Evenson is the author of ten books of fiction. He has been a finalist for the Edgar Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the World Fantasy Award, and the winner of the International Horror Guild Award, and the American Library Association's award for Best Horror Novel.

Fugue State was named one of Time Out New York's Best Books of 2009. The recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship and three O. Henry Prizes, including one for the title story in "Windeye," Evenson lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where he directs Brown University's Literary Arts Department.

My Review: Since there are 25 stories in this book's 188pp, I will not be utilizing the Bryce Method (named for the illustrious blogger/reviewer/Goodreader Bryce, of revered memory for his excellent and frequent reviews before the twins were born) as the reviews of each story would be as long as the stories themselves are. For such is the nature of Evenson's writing. It's a challenge to make his storytelling anything other than real-time without spoilering or simply regurgitating his words.

It's not that his writing is Lovecraftian in its ornament, or Kingly in its wallop. His eerie and atmospheric stories are concise, and have their own unadorned grandeur. If his prose was architecture, I'd call it Art Deco with Fascist Monumental leanings.

So here's a species of compromise on Bryce Method reviewing...stories grouped by stars!

5 of 5
“The Process”

4 of 5
“The Second Boy”
“Angel of Death”
“The Dismal Mirror”
“Hurlock's Law”
“The Tunnel”
“South of the Beast” (maybe this gets 4.5....)
“The Absent Eye”
“The Oxygen Protocol”
“The Drownable Species”

All of the others are three stars...good, solid stories, but not for whatever reason outstanding compared to their peers in this collection.

I'm not sure I'd call any of them “horror” stories. I'd call them all, one and all, atmospheric evocations of unsettling and unsettled mood, of disturbed and disturbing malfunctions of perception. I'd call them all quietly unnervingly accurate night-scopes on the rifles your inner demons bring to bear at the back of your neck on windy, rainy nights when the power goes out and the flashlight batteries are dead.

If that kind of reading has no appeal, horseman, pass on.

One bleat of dissatisfaction: This book has the UGLIEST cover...a dark, blood-mixed-with-poo colored block set off by a ragged edge of trailing bloody red on a white background. Y.U.C.K. Drop-out type for the advert on the back reinforces the low-budget look, as does the Preparation-H-hued type they set the title in. In a store, I'd pass it up with a wrinkled nose and a scoff. This reaction is not to put y'all off! The stories make up for the dismal disappointment of the cover. Really, honestly, they do.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

KNEEL TO THE RISING SUN, out-of-print Erskine Caldwell short-story collection


Out of Print
various prices, depending on scarcity and condition

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Encyclopedia Says: Kneel to the Rising Sun is a collection of short stories by Erskine Caldwell first published in 1935. The seventeen stories, only a few pages each, all deal with various tragedies occurring in the early twentieth century American South, chiefly caused by poverty or racism. Caldwell is most well known for his novels, such as Tobacco Road; however, Kneel to the Rising Sun is held in high acclaim by his critics.


My Review
: Erskine Caldwell, author of the indelible splotches on the American Southern escutcheon God's Little Acre and Tobacco Road, here collects seventeen of his short stories written before 1934, and set in the interwar period South, that was uneasily eyeing change and almost imperceptibly moving into the 20th Century...much against the white folks's will.

Caldwell says, in his introduction to this collection, that many writers are guided away from the short story format by well-meaning self-appointed cicerones. The novel, an aspiring writer is told, is the principle written medium, and short stories are a dead end. Pfui, says novelist Caldwell, some stories only need a few hundred words, and don't let anyone tell you any different.

Caldwell was right. Some stories don't need a novel. Even if some of these collected tales could be blown up into good novels, they're right-sized in this memorable, wonderful (if depressing) body of good work.

For this review of a collection of short stories, I'm adopting what I've come to call “the Bryce Method.” for the gentleman who first brought it to my attention on Goodreads. I will offer capsule reviews of the stories that make up the collection, since they're the important players and not the gestalt of the collection as such.

Candy-Man Beechum: A very short tale of Candy-Man, a seven-foot-tall mule-skinner who, one fateful Friday night, sets off across the fields and through the white folks's town to see his little yellow gal. Stopping for a fish-fry dinner, Candy-Man runs afoul of the white night policeman, refuses to stop and submit to being imprisoned for the crime of being on his way, and is shot dead in front of everyone at the fish-fry. He dies, however, glad not to be cowed and submissive, but instead as a man and worthy of respect. 4 stars

The Walnut Hunt: Church and Ray, two young country lads, meet up to hunt them some walnuts from the trees growing wild around P.G. Howard's farm. They jump over ditches in the red cotton-farming dirt to get to the grove closest to them, and damn if they don't find somebody's beaten them to all the walnuts in there. The boys jump another ditch when Ray says he sees someone already diwn there. Scared, the two lean over the ditch and see a strange sight: Annie, the town pump, at the bottom of the red-clay ditch staring up at the sky and screaming! She makes the boys promise they won't tell. Tell what, they ask, since they have not clue one about what they're witnessing. “I'm having a baby,” replies Annie. With that, she screams again, and the boys take off running like the Devil himself is after them. Ray, a little more scared than Church, and a little less emotional about it, reaches his front porch without even checking to see if his sobbing buddy has gotten up from the stubble he fell down in there in P.G. Howard's cotton field.

Childhood ends for us all. For some, the ending is rougher than for others. 5 stars

Horse Thief: Mr. John Turner's hired man takes Betsy, the rawboned mare, out for a clandestine rendezvous with Lud Moseley's younger daughter, Naomi, one Thursday night. Since he's only supposed to call on Naomi on Sundays, he won't tell Mr. John where he's going, though Mr. John pretty much knows, and gets a chuckle out of it. Seeing Naomi and her older sister arguing through their bedroom window, he knows he'll have to wait an hour or more for Naomi to sneak out and meet him by the swing in her front yard, so to keep his presence a secret, he puts Betsy into an empty stall in Lud Moseley's barn. Comes midnight or one, he gropes around the unfamiliar barn, finds Betsy all unbridled and unharnessed, figures he did it himself in his excitement at seeing Naomi, bridles and harnesses the horse and rides off home to Mr. John Turner's. The next morning, Lud Moseley and the sheriff come to get him for horse theft! Turns out he took Lightfoot, Lud Moseley's calico horse, by mistake, and the only way out of trouble would be to tell the men that he was there to see Naomi...thus ruining her reputation, getting her into trouble with her pa, and breaking his promise that he'd do anything for her.

Even go to prison for being a horse thief. Which anyone who knows him knows he's not. Such is the role of honor among the not so bright Southern males. 3 stars

The Man Who Looked like Himself: Luther Branch, past forty, can't catch a break or make a dime. No one in his little town can figure it out, why Luther can't sell a single solitary thing to anyone...why he can't even sell oranges to Mrs. Todd, who came out her front door to look at the ones Luther'd brought onto her porch! But everything changes when Luther, trying to tell Ben Howard at the grocery that he's decided to apply to get on the county poor farm, gets the break of his life: Henry needs a hog butchered AND NOW because it's been run over! Ben and Henry look Luther over, and decide then and there that this is Luther's calling: Butcher. Why, he even looks like a butcher.

Luther finally knows what he looks like, and so who he is: He looks like himself, and he's a butcher. He can finally take up life and make a living. He looks like himself, and he's a butcher. Every misfit's dream is to find the place he fits. Luther Branch does it.

Huzzah? 3.5 stars

Maud Island: Jim and Milt are out camping on Maud Island with their Uncle Marvin the preacher when, alas alack and welladay, a shantyboat comes along to take advantage of the privacy afforded by being in the middle of the Mighty Mississippi River for Jane and Marge and Mr. Graham. And, it looks like, for Uncle Marvin the preacher too. He drinks a beer or two with the low companions foisted on him by fate, then rushes the boys off to the Tennessee shore to get themselves on home before he takes full advantage of his luck. Once home, the boys's Aunt Sophie wants to know the whereabouts of Uncle Marvin. They don't tell, and turns out they don't need to: Sophie lays into the absent Marvin Hutchins with fury and verve for taking up with another shantyboat girl. Thus do Milt and Jim learn, forcefully, that the adult world is riddled with secrets and most of them are sordid and creepy and involve lies and sex.

Childhood ends for us all. 4 stars

The Shooting: A girl with a gun starts shooting up the town square, aiming for a man who is running as fast as he can away from her. Townsfolk are up in arms and along comes Toy Shaw, the local lawman. He's as scared as anyone else, but the crowds force him to deal with the scared girl with the big gun...he orders her to drop it, she refuses and fires again at the man she's trying to kill, then Toy shouts at her to aim for the sky, not to kill the man...she aims for the sky, drops the gun when it's empty, and swoons into her terrified would-be victim's arms. Toy, according to the townsfolk, saved the day. Sort of. From a girl with a gun.

Beats me what this one's got to say. Nothin' much, if you want my opinion. 2.5 stars

Honeymoon: Claude Barker and Willeen Howard get married. It's Claude's first time with a white girl. Willeen, a willing young slut who's even offered herself to dimwitted ol' Crip who works down at the gas station, has gone and tied herself to no-account Claude, who'd rather shoot pool than takes his low-rent bride on a low-rent honeymoon in his daddy's no-rent house. And there's poor Crip, all sad because he never took Willeen up on her offer.

Yeah, it's a slice of life. It's just not a slice I myownself fancy. In fact, Claude makes me queasy and Willeen makes me mad and the story is just distasteful. In the 1970s, there was a song called “Third-Rate Romance.” The chorus was, “Third-rate romance, low-rent redezvous...” I never knew it before now, but the band that sang it was made up of Erskine Caldwell readers. 3 stars

Martha Jean: When Hal and his pal The Type get tossed out of their crap game, busted flat, they brave the sleety winter night long enough to get to Nick's, where they expect a quick loan and maybe something to eat. What they get is the stiff-arm, as Nick tries to close up for the night and save some money on heating his mostly empty place where no one's playing the slots. Then in walks a pretty young girl, who tells Nick her name's Martha Jean. Nick clearly decides he's going to have his way with her the instant he sees her, and she, hungry as she is, either doesn't see it or doesn't understand it until it's too late. Hal tries to step in between them, but gets no back-up from The Type or anyone else, and ends up on the floor after Nick clocks him. Next thing Hal knows, he's out the door int the cold and sleety night, listening to Martha Jean scream.

Erskine Caldwell did not think much of his fellow man. No indeed he did not, no sirree bob. 2.5 stars

A Day's Wooing: Painfully shy Tuffy goes a-wooin' Miss Nancy after he moves the cows over to the johnson grass to give them a change of diet. He can't make himself say a single word to Miss Nancy, and her daddy Berry, sitting on the front porch with the rest of the family having a late summer Sunday watermelon, has to carry the conversation pretty much by himself. Carry it he does, as Tuffy can't make a sound to express the fact that he's come to ask for Nancy's hand in marriage. Finally, Nancy's pill of a brother drives Tuffy away by snapping him with a garter and urging him to go over to Hardpan and pick up some girls with them. Tuffy, completely undone, runs back to his car and leaves. Berry is confused, Nancy is distraught, and the brothers go for another melon out of the field.

It must be torture to be shy. I read this story while shouting “SPIT IT OUT!!” at hopeless, hapless Tuffy. I squirm and writhe in acute emotional pain when I read about this type of character. I try to help them, to shove my own “what's the worst that can happen” mindset into their “cannibals will eat me if I Do It” fearful, anxious brains. Oddly, it never works. *sigh* 4.5 stars

The Cold Winter: A man in a single unheated room listens to the life of a little girl and her mother in the single room next door as a way of keeping himself from feeling the numbing, deadly cold of February outside. The mother and child talk and laugh, and go about their lives, in a curious state of waiting. Finally, the man hears what they've all come to wait for: the arrival of the child's father, and the tense confrontation that ends in murder. The man next door shivers under his blanket in his unheated room, doing nothing.

There is a paralysis that comes with desperation. The man in this story is desperate. He has no job, he has no life, he has no support system. And he has no reason left to do even the simplest thing, like open his door and look at the murder taking place in the room next to him. Caldwell thinks about this level of society a lot, as most good socialists did back in his day. Those were the days.... 4 stars

The Girl Ellen: Jim and Doris have a single girlfriend named Ellen. She shows up on Jim's one day off from the factory where he works, when he and Doris were planning to go for a swim. Flirty Ellen horns right on in and, as she follows Doris into the house to get ready for the three-way outing, turns to give the startled and displeased Jim a quick kiss on the lips. Things degenerate from there to the point where Doris is aware of the inappropriate flirtation because Jim is warming up to the idea of some adventure with Ellen. Sadly, things go wrong, Doris ends up dead on the bottom of the pool, and Jim walks miles home only to collapse exhausted on his own floor, falling asleep wondering if Ellen would be there when he awoke.

I once had a close relationship with a married couple. It ended badly because the wife developed strong and unreciprocated feelings for me. It was a painful situation. I can't imagine how such a three-legged stool can ever be anything but trouble waiting to happen. Happily for me, in my case no one died! 5 stars

The Growing Season: Jesse's cotton crop is dying under the double threat of wire-grass (a horrible, horrible weed) and blistering, unrelenting heat. He's got no help, and he got behind in killing the wire-grass; his wife had a sunstroke year before, so she's no use, and there isn't even a Negro around the place. While he's out scraping the wire-grass, he finally loses what little is left of his sanity and kills Fiddler. What Fiddler might be, we are not told. Hounds are mentioned as a class of being, but not named, so Fiddler wouldn't seem to be a dog, and yet was kept chained outside under a chinaberry tree. Your guess is as good as mine, but my money's on Fiddler being a defective child or relative, because the wife has a twelve-volt conniption fit as Jesse's out killing Fiddler. Afterwards, Jesse's all energized and goes into battle with the wire-grass again. The end.

Yikes! 3 stars

Daughter: After that last story, one shudders to think what this one might be about....

And rightly so, as it turns out. Jim Carlisle, sharecropper for Colonel Henry Maxwell, shot his eight-year-old daughter dead because she woke up again saying she was hungry. Her daddy couldn't take it any more. He'd made enough to feed the family on his share. Colonel Maxwell took it all away because a mule died on Jim's watch. The whole town's there at the jail to find out what happened, and when they hear, there assembles a mob set to free Jim from jail. The sheriff walks away on home.

Grim, grim, grim. Life among the poor isn't any fun ever, but ye gods and little fishes! The Slough of Despond looks like a movie star's pool compared to the dark, stagnant waters Caldwell has us treading in these stories! 4 stars

Blue Boy: What fresh hell is this....

Blue Boy is a mentally defective Negro servant of Grady's, trained by the master to entertain his guests with repulsive party tricks. This New Year's Day, Grady has five counties' worth of relations to his hog-and-turkey dinner and, in the post-prandial stupor that a feast can leave a person in, has Blue Boy come and entertain the assembled company. For the last time, it turns out, as Blue Boy has a fatal fit after his last party trick.

Horrible, and horrifying, and completely without any tiniest stretch of human decency. 2.5 stars

Slow Death: Doesn't THAT title just buoy your hopes for some relief from the grims!

Dave was a family man, a wife and three daughters and a modest rented home, until he lost his job at the fertilizer plant in South Augusta, Georgia. His landlord was unusually generous, letting him slide for six months. After that, though, the pressure to move cost Dave the lives of two daughters and his wife as windows were removed, doors taken away, and the January elements and hunger did the rest. Dave's remaining daughter was last seen in the arms of a policeman, carrying her off to a fate he doesn't know. Now Dave lives with Mike in a packing crate down under the Fifth Street Bridge, picks up odd jobs for fifty cents a day at most, and shares what he makes with the younger Mike, who tries not to take what little Dave has. This is the slow death of the title. It's speeded up for Dave as a traffic accident leaves him barely breathing and his fellow bums cluster around calling for the driver who hit him (a scumbag who denies Dave is even hurt, and finally runs away) to take Dave to the hospital, which never happens. Mike watches Dave die, the whole time refusing Dave's insistent urgings to take the half-dollar in his right-hand pants pocket. In the end, when a cop arrives, it's the bums he's eager to rush off, and Mike catches the worst of it, a billy club to the head. He wakes up being carried back to the Hooverville by his fellow bums.

Brother, can you spare a dime? It would surprise many of the people able to read this review online to know just how easy it is to lose everything. It's happened to me, and it took less than two years. Luckily for me I have a social network and I was not forced to live in a packing crate under a bridge. But believe someone who has been there when he tells you, conservatives and libertarians, the “generous handouts” that so many of you rail against were not there for me, and I was not able still fighting for, in fact...access the disability benefits that my Social Security contributions over the years theoretically, and socialistically according to many, funded. My own savings long gone from fighting to retain my home against the insurance companies that refused and the hospital that demanded payments my employer-provided plan guaranteed, what hope was there? My family? No. My friends? Thank goodness, yes, but all personally granted generosity has a limit. So perhaps some of you who haven't experienced this upending and upheaval will pause to reflect on WHY your payment taxes, if some of those taxes save your fellow humans from starvation and homelessness, should cause you such pain.

Shut up and pay for what a decent person should not complain about funding: Food, shelter, and health care for all. 4.5 stars

Masses of Men: Too disgusting even to describe. Mother so desperate she pimps her ten-year-old out for food because her husband was killed on the job and suddenly no one at the company knows who he was.

Greed appalls me at the best of times. This level of greed is unthinkable, and yet it's not. When I was unemployed, I was denied benefits because my employer didn't want to pay them. Explain to me again how capitalism and a free, unfettered market are good. I've forgotten. 4.5 stars

Kneel to the Rising Sun: Lonnie Newsome, starving sharecropper of vile bully Arch Gunnard, is too cowardly, too stupid, and too hungry to ask for his due rations for himself, his father, and his wife, or to prevent Arch from sadistically cutting off Lonnie's dog's tail. When his father wanders away in the night, searching for food, and falls to his death into the hog pen, Lonnie wakes his Negro friend Clem up to help Lonnie look for the old man. Clem ends up talking back to Arch, and runs away when Arch calls up a lynching party. Lonnie, too weak and cowardly to resist the pressure on him, tells the lynch mob where to find Clem, sealing the Negro man's doom. After witnessing the murder, Lonnie goes home to his wife, who asks him to get them some food before his father comes home. Lonnie can't even bring himself to tell her what has happened to his father, and greets the dawn of another day as he greets them all: On his knees, unable to stand on his feet. 5 stars