Monday, January 23, 2017



Blue Rider Press
$13.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 3.5* of five

The Publisher Says: Every politico and pundit has tried to explain the 2016 presidential race, but James Carville, the multiple best-selling Ragin' Cajun and grand strategist of Bill Clinton's rise to the White House has largely stayed silent. Until now.

He straddled the punch bowl, dropped his pants, and whipped out his member, which, he assured everyone, was very large. Then Donald Trump pissed right into the punch of the Republican Party.

So begins We're Still Right, They're Still Wrong with that image of Donald Trump defiling the celebration that should've been the GOP Establishment's easy march to the White House.
In We're Still Right, They're Still Wrong, Carville updates his #1 New York Times bestseller from 1996, the campaign tract that Bill Clinton once credited for his re-election. Carville skewers the GOP's dumpster fire of a record over the past twenty years, and argues that Trump is the living manifestation of a failed party. From income inequality to race relations, Carville believes that Democratic Party is not only the dominant party of the past, but of America's future, too and he makes the case in his uncensored and earthy style.

Among other things, We're Still Right, They're Still Wrong features a hot take on the Clinton e-mail scandal, a story about Carville's momma schooling a pair of crawfish mongers, a lecture on political panics called The Anatomy of Bullshit, and a recipe for how to grill your (non-existent) Trump Steak.

And wit and sharp tongue aside, Carville turns it all into the most cogent and thoughtful analysis of the 2016 and how the Democrats can and must be victorious.

My Review: From its arresting cover image to its trademark homespun vituperation, this is a classic Carville rant with some fancy typography. You'll like it, in a certain wistful way, if you're a liberal; otherwise don't bother.

And why, a reasonable person might ask, am I reviewing a rally-the-troops book from a failed presidential bid?
In many ways, the Democrats have enjoyed the opposite record of Repblicans—we haven't been abysmally wrong about everything—and yet, we're not enjoying the opposite result. If the Republican Party is cracked and shattered, ours should be stronger than ever, right?
That right there is the first reason why I'm reviewing the book. This is a piece of soul-searching I am not seeing the Democrats do. Yes yes, the Donald's in the White House, the world will end shortly, Hillary won the popular vote, so now's the time to circle the wagons! Party Party rah rah rah!


Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election. If she hadn't, she would have taken the oath of office instead of that orange buffoon whose temper makes him unfit to lead a troop of baboons and whose fitness for office—ANY office, second assistant vice-undersecretary of cat-boiling on up—is not, by any scale yet invented, measurable. And she lost it to The Donald. That *has* to hurt.

The Electoral College has failed in its Constitutional duty, to prevent by the exercise of wiser, older, whiter heads than prevail amongst the hoi polloi, the inauguration of a manifestly unfit candidate for the presidency. Now is the time, popular-vote quoting folks, to get after that Constitutional amendment to make the popular vote determine the occupant of the White House! Because, you see clearly now, as of this good moment, the popular vote matters less than a gnat's fart does in a tornado.

But the main failing was the Democratic Party's. The crooked and disgusting theft of the party's nomination from the candidate clearly preferred by the Democratic Party base was allowed to stand. That was and is the single most shameful moment in American political history. Everything that has followed after that is merely the result of the various nefarious shadow parties to the election realizing that the system is well and truly broken so any-bloody-thing goes. Half of registered Democrats stayed home on Election Day. And you bet the GOP-state voter restrictions had an impact; the margins of Clinton's loss in the key states was razor-thin.

A popular, untainted candidate would have motivated the voters to turn out. Mrs. Clinton, after years and years and years of nonsensical and deeply cynical political attacks and smear campaigns created in the fetid swamps of hateful, wrongheaded opponents of her very modestly progressive political stance, was not that candidate. The Democratic National Committee conspired with her campaign to ram her nomination through despite the base's clear absence of any desire to see her as the president.

And STOP ALREADY with the third-party "protest vote" horse manure. Had every single third-party voter in each and every battleground state cast their vote for Mrs. wouldn't have put her in the White House. She lost, guys. The more qualified, more prepared, almost infinitely superior as a human being candidate lost.

Because the Democratic Party did not listen to its base.

Sam Houston, the great Texan and patriot, said of a very similar and equally highly qualified candidate for a different presidency:
I have personally known Mr. Jefferson Davis for many years. [he lists the numerous and very important, influential positions held by Jefferson Davis] He is a gentleman imbued with all the instincts of Southern honor and chivalry, but I want to tell you something you may not know about him: Jeff Davis is as ambitious as Lucifer and cold as a lizard.
(from the book SAM HOUSTON by James L. Haley)
If *I* can't warm to a woman who championed a national health plan, a Medicare for All, in 1994 while she was the First Lady, then there's a real problem. Almost every factual claim about Mrs. Clinton hurled at her by the Republicans involved in the actual, real "vast right-wing conspiracy" was bull. It was piffle. It was fabricated from splinters and wisps and puffed to immense and unbelievably exaggerated proportions, despite being demonstrably untrue. You know why it stuck?

Mrs. Clinton is Hermione Granger. "She's a nightmare," squeaked a pubescent Ron Weasley in the memorable scene from Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. Yep. The swot of a snobby little priss who sat at a front desk in every class, had her own carrel in the library, and affected to eat her homemade lunch outside, "enjoying the air." We just don't like her.

Admire, perhaps. And to be sure she has her coterie, her Pantsuit Mafia. But the bulk of The People just...don't like her. All the mud slung at her, which was of no factual substance, would never have stuck to someone the people liked. Should that make a difference? Should the many and genuine contributions made by Mrs. Clinton to the body politic of the United States of America have outweighed the ick factor? Yes indeed. Hillary Clinton should, by any reasonable person's standards, be the 45th and first female President of the United States of America.

Yet she's not. And this book, this rah-rah get-out-and-vote book, this catalog of the accomplishments of each and every Democratic administration since FDR, mentions their candidate exactly once. Bill gets more page time. Bernie Sanders gets equal page time: One mention.

Do I really need to say that this is the single most telling fact (pesky things, easier to use "alternative facts" like "she lost because sexism") there is? Hillary Clinton couldn't energize her husband's old kingmaker to warble her praises throughout his book. Permaybehaps his editor at Blue Rider Press struck out the mentions, out of concern that the book would be rendered nugatory in the event of a Sanders nomination. Then why allow the unfavorable mention of Sanders that there is? Why mention Mrs. Clinton at all? It doesn't hang together; I can't see another line of reasoning for not including his whole-hearted partisan support for his girl, given Carville's political and public profile as a plain-speaking straight shooter, unless he...just doesn't really like her. Or he realized that The People don't like her.

I admit that these are equally likely to be my failures of imagination or my personal bias. But as a gay liberal life-long supporter of equality for all, a voter for Jill Stein, whose possession of a uterus was not a surprise to me, and the son of a single mother whose economic struggles in the wake of her divorce were perforce my economic struggles and her victories over them the cause of a great deal of pride for her in me, don't a single goddamned (sorry, Jo) one of y'all women say I'm being sexist in saying the simple truth: Your woman lost, and to a manifestly inferior man, and it had nothing to do with her gender.

In conclusion, let me hustle y'all out the door with a recommendation to read this book for its excellent policy history and for anyone the least bit interested in civil society, go read the Conclusion: Do Facts Matter Anymore? from pp213-222 inclusive. Sit at Hermione's old carrel in the library if you don't want to spend $25 (and had this book been an eight-buck mass market paperback instead, this election might well have gone differently). Let James Carville have his say into your private ear.

I'm done now.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

FOOL ME TWICE, a truly scary look at the organized, cynical, and disturbingly effective war on science...all kinds of science

FOOL ME TWICE: Fighting the Assault on Science in America

Rodale Books
$25.99 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: "Whenever the people are well informed,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government.” But what happens in a world dominated by complex science? Are the people still well-enough informed to be trusted with their own government? And with less than 2 percent of Congress with any professional background in science, how can our government be trusted to lead us in the right direction?

Will the media save us? Don't count on it. In early 2008, of the 2,975 questions asked the candidates for president just six mentioned the words "global warming" or "climate change," the greatest policy challenge facing America. To put that in perspective, three questions mentioned UFOs.

Today the world’s major unsolved challenges all revolve around science. By the 2012 election cycle, at a time when science is influencing every aspect of modern life, antiscience views from climate-change denial to creationism to vaccine refusal have become mainstream.
Faced with the daunting challenges of an environment under siege, an exploding population, a falling economy and an education system slipping behind, our elected leaders are hard at work ... passing resolutions that say climate change is not real and astrology can control the weather.

Shawn Lawrence Otto has written a behind-the-scenes look at how the government, our politics, and the media prevent us from finding the real solutions we need. Fool Me Twice is the clever, outraged, and frightening account of America’s relationship with science—a relationship that is on the rocks at the very time we need it most.

My Review:
Ideology and rhetoric increasingly guide policy decision, often bearing little relationship to factual reality. And the America we once knew seems divided and angry, defiantly embracing unreason.
The most unnerving reality in today's social, political, and educational reality is that science, which you are benefiting from this very second as you read this review on the internet, is underfunded, undertaught, and underapprecitaed by the people of the USA and their political overlords. The reason for this is that an insane religious know-nothingism has infected the Body Politic with a conservative (in the worst possible meaning of that never-good term) resistance to accepting reality as it is, instead of how one fancies it should be. This book quantifies the horrors on their way down the pike as this horrifying metastatic stupidity continues unchecked and even promoted by the small-souled fear-mongering Yahoos, in the original Swiftian sense, who shout and rail and spew on Fox "News" and the related echo chambers. The author explores some psychological mechanisms of belief as it relates to the acceptance of authority, which really helps illuminate why the doomsday warnings about ignoring climate change only seem to make the religious authoritarians more resistant to the mounting—burgeoning!—evidence of its current reality. Otto then provides specific suggestions that could lead to more effective ways to address the concerns of these people, allowing for a rational debate and increasing the likelihood that some kind of useful agreement could be reached:
"When a person holds a belief, especially a strong one that is linked to important values (e.g. some sociopolitical beliefs), information threatening that belief creates inconsistency in the cognitive system that threatens one's self-image as a smart person. This produces an unpleasant emotional state." That belief resistance—and this is a critically important point—is largely coming from the adult ideological worldview. This is why education is political in the first place, and why the children of scientists are the most likely next generation of scientists—and effect that is slowly striating society into knowledge haves and have-nots and can only increase partisanship along science lines.

This book is exactly as tendentious as my book report is. If you don't already agree with its premise, then you're unlikely to consider picking it up. Which is a pity, in my view. For those of us who already agree, this acts either as a call to arms, or a horribly depressing reminder of how the New Dark Ages have already begun. For make no mistake: Stupidity has more gravity than intelligence, and hate has more brightness than enlightenment. Science has proven too many times that mass and heat always win for me to have any significant hope that Good will triumph over Willful Ignorance:
Espousing the anti-science argument, that the lack of absolute certainty that something is true is grounds for inaction or doubt, or that we should hear out all perspectives equally, is evidence of either a lack of understanding of reason or motivation by an unreasonable agenda. Such people should not be trusted with making decisions that will have serious impacts upon others.

Please prove me wrong. Read this book and get energized to fight the Yahoos. Please. We must try to re-establish science as the basis for increasing American freedom and for providing a solid foundation for the future. We are no longer in an age where just one more coal-fired powerplant or one more high-tech deep-sea trawler that ravages ecosystems we know nothing about won't make an impact on the ancient concept of the “common property of humankind.” I am appalled at the stupidity and/or greed of politicians and those who voted for them who fail to understand this universal benefit argument that "[t]he evidence shows that successful regulations that define a fair trade in the commons do not reduce freedom, they increase it."

That dream, that beautiful vision of a planet run for the best possible results of our individual actions resulting in a healthy world for all of its people, has always been a motivating factor for the bulk of the scientists I've known personally or known of professionally. How much more elegant it is to imagine a world with intact ecosystems that offer the humanity we create abundantly and thoughtlessly sustenance, health, a future as good as or better than the present:
In the end this is what matters most: the beauty. It's why scientists do science: to apprehend the great beauty of nature. They are Puritans, four hundred years hence, with more data, but still searching for that direct communion with wonder an the aesthetic. In this way science is not unlike art or religion. In fact art often anticipates and reflects the forms science discovers, as does religion. Science is much bigger than just solving challenges, as important as they are. It is about who we are as human beings, about or ability to love, to wonder, to imagine, to heal, to care for one another, to create a better future, to dream of things unseen.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN, economic stability at all costs

THE ONLY GAME IN TOWN: Central Banks, Instability, and Avoiding the Next Collapse

Random House
$18.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Our current economic path is coming to an end. The signposts are all around us: sluggish growth, rising inequality, stubbornly high pockets of unemployment, and jittery financial markets, to name a few. Soon we will reach a fork in the road: One path leads to renewed growth, prosperity, and financial stability, the other to recession and market disorder.

In The Only Game in Town, El-Erian casts his gaze toward the future of the global economy and markets, outlining the choices we face both individually and collectively in an era of economic uncertainty and financial insecurity. Beginning with their response to the 2008 global crisis, El-Erian explains how and why our central banks became the critical policy actors—and, most important, why they cannot continue is this role alone. They saved the financial system from collapse in 2008 and a multiyear economic depression, but lack the tools to enable a return to high inclusive growth and durable financial stability. The time has come for a policy handoff, from a prolonged period of monetary policy experimentation to a strategy that better targets what ails economies and distorts the financial sector—before we stumble into another crisis.

The future, critically, is not predestined. It is up to us to decide where we will go from here as households, investors, companies, and governments. Using a mix of insights from economics, finance, and behavioral science, this book gives us the tools we need to properly understand this turning point, prepare for it, and come out of it stronger. A comprehensive, controversial look at the realities of our global economy and markets, The Only Game in Town is required reading for investors, policymakers, and anyone interested in the future.

My Review: For those who remember the Bush Crash of 2008, and who really *got* what was at stake, have you ever wondered why we're not all eating snakes we trap in the back yard and dandelion greens grubbed up from the front lawn?
Ever since the 2008 global financial crisis, central banks had ventured, not by choice but by necessity, ever deeper into the unfamiliar and tricky terrain of “unconventional monetary policies.” They floored interest rates, heavily intervened in the functioning of markets, and pursued large-scale programs that outcompeted one another in purchasing securities in the marketplace; to top it all off, they aggressively sought to manipulate investor expectations and portfolio decisions.
That's why.

But the casino always wins the end. In the case of the economy, in fact in the case of any and every complex human-designed system, the casino is entropy: Chaos and confusion will always triumph. Builders create magnificence; entropy carts it away.
As stable as it may seem on the surface to some, the current configuration of the global economy and the financial system is getting harder to maintain. Below the façade of the unusual calm of the last few years, interrupted by relatively few bouts of instability since 2008–09, tensions are rising and the effectiveness of central banks is coming under stress, so much so as to raise serious questions about the durability of the current path that the global economy is on.
And there it is: the central question this book aims to address. This is definitely well within Author El-Erian's capabilities. I didn't feel that the aim as stated was fully met. I wonder, though, if there is a way for the aim to be fully met absent a clear prescriptive course being outlined in great detail. Such a feat is beyond the capabilities of any mere mortal.

Author El-Erian has a quietly skeptical view of the incoming administration's economic policy. A modest stock-market rally doesn't seem to be within the author's hopes for a policy-driven course that, by its clarity and conciseness, would push stock values higher in a natural and sustainable way.
One road out of the T junction ahead involves a restoration of high-inclusive growth that creates jobs, reduces the risk of financial instability, and counters excessive inequality. It is a path that also lowers political tensions, eases governance dysfunction, and holds the hope of defusing some of the world’s geopolitical threats. The other road is the one of even lower growth, persistently high unemployment, and still worsening inequality. It is a road that involves renewed global financial instability, fuels political extremism, and erodes social cohesion as well as integrity.
My sense is that Author El-Erian does not see the positive as the likely course the US and world economies will take.

I am a pessimist in matters economic, so I tend to agree; I am deeply, deeply pessimistic about the incoming administration's intentions and aims, so I am almost certain that the deepest and darkest of economic nights is falling.

I read this book with a kind of knock-kneed pants-wetting childlike terror. If the grown-ups don't know how to fix it, all I can do is try to survive it. That's probably not the best way to persuade people to pick the book up. I can tell you that, having faced my fear, I not only don't feel better, I feel more afraid...but I also feel more able to watch the train speed ahead toward the collapsing bridge without the added stress of being awakened from a sound sleep by the squealing of the brakes and the screams of the dying in the cars ahead of me.

Author El-Erian falls short on the spotting of side-switches. I am not at all sure that he sees any. It is the function of this book not to comfort but to spur the reader into action. Take the advice of Mavis Staples: Touch A Hand, Make A Friend. We will get through the coming night better together.


Friday, January 20, 2017

ROSSET, the memoir of the man who made America safe for porn

ROSSET: My Life in Publishing and How I Fought Censorship

OR Books
$10 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Genet…Beckett…Burroughs…Miller…Ionesco, Ōe, Duras. Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. Hubert Selby Jr. and John Rechy. The legendary film I Am Curious (Yellow). The books that assaulted the fort of propriety that was the United States in the 1950s and ’60s, Lady Chatterley’s Lover and The Tropic of Cancer. The Evergreen Review. Victorian “erotica.” The Autobiography of Malcolm X. A bombing, a sit-in, and a near-fistfight with Norman Mailer. The common thread between these disparate elements, a number of which reshaped modern culture, was Barney Rosset.

Rosset was the antidote to the trope of the “gentleman publisher” personified by other pioneering figures of the industry such as Alfred A. Knopf, Bennett Cerf and James Laughlin. If Barney saw a crowd heading one way—he looked the other. If he knew something was forbidden, he regarded it as a plus. Unsurprisingly, financial ruin, along with the highs and lows of critical reception, marked his career. But his unswerving dedication to publishing what he wanted made him one of the most influential publishers ever.

Rosset began work on his autobiography a decade before his death in 2012, and several publishers and a number of editors worked with him on the project. Now, at last, in his own words, we have a portrait of the man who reshaped how we think about language, literature—and sex. Here are the stories behind the filming of Norman Mailer’s Maidstone and Samuel Beckett’s Film; the battles with the US government over Tropic of Cancer and much else; the search for Che’s diaries; his romance with the expressionist painter Joan Mitchell, and more.

At times appalling, more often inspiring, never boring or conventional: this is Barney Rosset, uncensored.


My Review: Today is a dark day for me personally. A person I do not respect, in fact one I disrespect with a virulence approaching hatred, is taking the oath of office of the presidency of the United States of America. Appallingly enough, I am required by my conscience to wish this person good health and godspeed because, in the event of his demise, impeachment, or removal from this mortal coil, a worse person will assume the most powerful political office in the country and possibly the entire world.

Barney Rosset, had he lived, would be likely to take some loud and public and effective action in opposition to this horrible eventuality. Barney was a mouthy old bastard. Barney was an opponent of kakistocracy, an enemy of the brummagem and the bloated, overblown, pretentious, and useless in life and art. His life-long battle against the booboisie wouldn't have allowed him to remain silent in the teeth of the gale of poisonous poltroonery emitted by the president elect.

I was only acquainted with Barney for a short while in the 1990s. In the course of my work as a literary agent, his company Foxrock Books published Lo's Diary, a companion piece to Vladimir Nabokov's immortal Lolita. As the book was not a critical success in the US, my company's efforts to vend its paperback rights were unavailing. I'm still saddened and puzzled by this wrong-headed reception by US readers. Be that as it may, Barney's taste as a publisher was on clearest possible display at that point just as clearly as it was when he went to war with the United States Post Office to ensure US citizens legal and unrestricted access to literary greats like Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence.

Reading this memoir of one of the great iconoclasts of the 20th century was heartening to me in a way I cannot overstate. Barney faced the entire weight of the conservative establishment from the moment he made his first film, Strange Victory, to the moment he relinquished the reins of this life in 2012. He never stopped until he stopped forever. And that, my friends and neighbors, is a fable for me to guide the next four years of my own life. No less a scion of privilege than Barney himself, can I do less than my honored predecessor did in my pursuit of a world more open and liberal than it is? I want to do as much as Barney did, but I can't jump the height of the bar he set. I don't think many people of any age or station can.

I am most definitely inspired to try. I am most certainly heartened to face up to the battle against the gravity of the least and the last and the lowest that is even now doing its dead-level best to make America great at hate again. Or greater at it than it already is.

Buy this book, read it, and take heart from the fact that this battle we face is but one more in a war our elders and betters have fought before us. They succeeded; they failed; they changed and couldn't change and, most important to remember on this dark, difficult day, they did not give up and give in and give way.

Please help everyone, and I mean everyone, even those who don't see it as help, to stand up and stand for that most American of values: Personal liberty.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

BITTER IS THE WIND, love and loss and what life can and cannot do to you


Rare Bird Books
$9.99 Kindle edition, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Bitter Is The Wind is a coming of age novel that traces the lives of George Johnson, Jr. and his father from the rural blue collar landscape of upstate New York in the 1970s to the halls of Wharton Business School and the heights of Wall Street. After a family tragedy strengthens their familial bond, the Johnsons contend with assembly line monotony, unfulfilled dreams of baseball stardom, and they learn what it means to be tempted, trapped, jailed and ignored by a seemingly uncaring God.

First-time novelist Jim McDermott opens a window on the American working class and its aching desire for financial security, recognition, and respect. His characters confront a modern world with limited possibilities, ambiguous mores, and authorities who seem devoted to keeping the brightest and most talented members of the underclass on the other side of town. Bitter Is The Wind deconstructs the American dream.


My Review: Any book that leads off with the main character remembering the Miracle Mets winning the World Series in 1969 is a shoo-in for my deep affection.

Following the George Johnsons from lows to lowers to heights unimaginable at the beginning is a heady experience. The father fails the both their eyes...but for wildly different reasons. I have a shit relationship with my own father, still living for some unknown but unnecessary reason; George Junior comes to realize how much he owes his father, and how much his father loves him. Bile rose in my throat at that: Sheer tortured jealousy that someone dared to have a father whose love was real, and whom they could offer love to! How cruel to be deprived of any bond of love or respect or even tolerance from or towards my own father.

So already we know McDermott's the real deal. His story is set against the same time as my own life has been lived, and it was very much like revisiting that historical moment when men like George Senior were learning just how hard the system they believed in was fucking them. I don't come from a working-class background, but I can tell you that's how the story was playing out on TV from the Nixon Recession of 1969-1971 to the Oil Embargo of 1973-1974 to the Hostage Crisis and Oil Shock of 1979...through the horrors of the Reagan felt as bleak and as hopeless as McDermott has his characters feel:
George Sr visited later that night. He sat on the sidewalk near the gasoline pumps. He opened a can of Shop-Rite cola and watched his sixteen-year-old son work. Selling gasoline instead of rabbits. Cleaning up after customers instead of rabbits. Wearing a collared Texaco shirt with his name on it instead of a tee shirt. He took a swig from the can and set it on the sidewalk. "Kid forced me out of the rabbit business," he muttered.

A Cadillac approached from the Taconic and stopped in front of the pumps. George Sr stood up and chucked his soda can into the metal trash container. He waved goodbye to his son and walked toward his pickup. "Unemployment's over 9 percent and he's responsible for a whole business," he said to himself.
How proud a man feels when his child, his son, does well! That's doing well, see: Waiting on a guy in a Cadillac as the one running the gas station, not working with rabbits at a lab. That's bleak...but the kid's got a job, the dad's got a job, and they're doing better than millions of others. (Then and now.)

A stupid mistake, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, could have cost George Jr his entire future. It was the Just Say No era, after all, and a drug bust isn't a great thing to have on a resume. But George Jr climbs over the obstacle, by gawd, and he gets himself into Wharton...that's one hell of an achievement...and he gets himself a really good job by the time Reagan's second administration is getting underway. He's Made It. And making it feels...

...about like not making feels. Not great. Not awful. Just not the high of highs you're expecting after the build-up and the work you've had to do. It's great not to have to clean rabbit cages, goodness knows. But...Peggy Lee said it best...Is That All There Is? If that's all there is, my friends, then let's keep dancing.

But life doesn't have any interest in you or your needs. Life gets going and then you're halfway done! Keep dancing...keep dancing...keep dancing....

But there are moments when you get to decide whether you're ready for the Final Disappointment:
"George, I'm not asking you. I'm telling you. You're going to LA. It's part of the job. You're well paid."

George circled around the coffee table, stopping in front of [his boss]. "Nope." George's eyes narrowed. "I'm not going."

"What?" [his boss] asked, raising his hand.

"You heard me. Go find somebody else. I quit."

George spun around on his freshly polished shoes. He walked to his office, picked up his jacket, and left the building. On the way back to the subway, he handed the disabled Vietnam veteran a five dollar bill.
And so the Boy Who Made Good makes good at last. He learns slowly, this one, but learn he does and he decides he's ready to keep dancing. This time, though, it will be his own tune.

Monday, January 16, 2017

I've read too many books to believe what I'm told. #ReadingIsResistance

It’s 2017…do you know where your values are? Mine, on this Martin Luther King, Junior, Day are aligned with Dr. King’s as outlined in the "I have a dream" speech. You can find it on YouTube if you've never seen it.

On Friday the 20th, a new administration will formally begin. For many of us this is a tragedy out of Greek drama. It seems to many of us that the gods must be angry with us, have decided to punish us by having the least qualified, most appalling kind of human being sworn in as the leader of our country despite the fact he’ll be in violation of the Constitution he’ll be swearing to uphold from the instant he swears the oath. See the Emoluments Clause for just one, but a very powerful one, of the reasons for this. I don’t know what will happen after this act of treason takes place, but in my fantasies, a bolt of lightning will fry the slab of bacon with his hand on the Bible and the lie on his lips before the oath can be completed. A boy can dream.

In an earlier post, I outlined my purpose for this year of change: I want to bring the act of resistance to kakistocracy, to scumbagarchy, to the ascendance of the very worst that our beautiful, powerful, gigantically capable country can offer, right down to your head. No one can tell you what to read. No one can tell you how to feel about what you read. No one can (yet) tell you what books, magazines, newspapers, you can own, subscribe to, read on your various electronic devices. The very act of reading is resistance to the authoritarian…and soon to be, in my worried opinion, totalitarian…chants of the opinion influencers sent forth like the Wicked Witch’s flying monkeys in an ever-stronger assault on your independence of thought.

Reading cannot be controlled in the way that watching can be. The act prevents it. Reading is direct communication between a writer and a reader, unmediated by manipulative images or voiceovers, undistracted by advertising messages or unrelated messages in “crawls” across part of the visual field. There is a reason our elites have done their most strenuous best to make reading unpopular: Whatever the message of the author, the reader receives it whole and entire. Many are not able to perceive the didactic purpose of the writer, others misinterpret the message, some simply disagree with what the author is saying. (My Goodreads reviews of the bullshit written by Ann Coulter and the homophobe Orson Scott Card are examples of the latter.) None of this changes the unsafe truth that, once eyeballs receive and brain interprets the written word, the outside world cannot erase and can only in a limited way amend the author’s ideas in the reader’s head.

There is a very, very good reason that freedom of speech and freedom of the press were of great concern to the Founding Fathers. There is a reason that no license to own and operate a printing press has ever been required in the US. To redress the error of “allowing freedom of the press” (take a moment to unpack that…freedom allowed? how is that meant to work, if it’s allowed it can be disallowed and therefore is not freedom…this same headscratching tautology applies to “granting rights”), the Powers That Be determined that broadcasting would be licensed (“to prevent chaos” since there would be no stopping use of any channel by anyone and that would be bad, wouldn’t it) and regulated and controlled. For more than fifty years, those controls required broadcasters to perform civic duties, which led to “Meet the Press” and its ilk; but the Reagan Administration lifted those requirements among a host of others and the snakepit of cable news channels spewing unfair and imbalanced vitriolic lies took less than a decade to form. No licensing agency can enforce standards that aren’t defined, as the standards for news once were. And thus was the liberal majority of the bygone era betrayed by their ideological enemies who came into power at last in the 1980s.

The Great Satan shown in the act of sucking the life from the USA

The “vast right-wing conspiracy” as Mrs. Clinton so honestly, but ineptly, named them got the bit in their teeth and began to trample the truth under the cloven hooves of pundits, commentators, talk show hosts “independent” of that new shibboleth, “the Liberal Media.” (What Liberal Media? is an instructive analysis of what actually happened. I recommend it whole-heartedly.) Public trust in the institution Constitutionally protected from legal and official restraint plummeted as the endless lying bullshit flew at them from every direction. The onslaught was coordinated, as the perspective of hindsight demonstrates with blinding clarity. And it was unstoppable because it was not from any official source; it was not a conspiracy because it is not illegal to organize a campaign of words that is not criminal in its nature; and it was, therefore, wildly successful. A knife was applied to the throats of opposing pundits, very frequently academics and intellectuals, as the eternal US suspicion of intellectuals was fanned to a white heat and the efficacy of public education was pumped full of hot air to delegitimize academia and therefore academics daring to speak against the unfolding authoritarian dumbing-down of a population primed to find fault with a system stacked, blatantly and undisguisably, against them. A bit of distraction, a lot of misinformation, titanic waves of misdirection funded by people with oceans of money and rip-currents of purpose, and one dupe to lead them all: Here we are.

The Guiltiest of the Guilty Parties in the long national nightmare that will be the new administration

It felt to me, as I watched this debacle unfold before my disbelieving eyes, hopeless and unstoppable. It has proven to be unstoppable. Nothing is hopeless. Hope is internal. Hope is generated from within, not received from without. That simple truth saved my sanity in the aftermath of the first Russian candidate for the US presidency becoming the president elect.
Hope comes from within; words come from without. How can reading grow hope? The only place you can ever put your money that no one can take it away from you is inside your head. Education, formal or not, happens when you read. Whatever you choose to read, two things are inherent in the act: You are the sole actor, yours is the choice that can’t be compelled, yours the ideas that come from reading the words. Any words. Novels, plays, encyclopedias, comic books, biographies, essays, magazines, websites, satires. It does not matter. YOU selected the reading material. YOU read it. YOU grew your own thoughts inside your own head after reading it.


All of my reviews for 2017 will be about the act of resistance. I read something. I chose it. I resisted the shouts and the screams and the distractions and I fed my head. I want you to do the same thing. I’ll tell you about the things I read and I hope you’ll want to read at least some of them. But even if you’re not interested in a single book that I review, I want you to realize something that applies to you as well as to me: If an old poor disabled guy who can’t march in protests, can’t go to meetings, can’t give to worthy causes, can resist the tsunami of terror, so can you. Read a book. Tell everyone you can reach what you read. Your very act of reading resists the drumbeat of dumbing-down, of getting inside your head by making so much noise that you can’t form a thought for yourself. Tell everyone you can reach, every time you can reach them, how you claimed your head for yourself and how they can too:


Sunday, January 15, 2017

AND AFTER MANY DAYS, debut Nigerian novelist tells personal/political tale of loss


Tim Duggan Books
$11.99 eBook platforms, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: During the rainy season of 1995, in the bustling town of Port Harcourt, Nigeria, one family's life is disrupted by the sudden disappearance of seventeen-year-old Paul Utu, beloved brother and son. As they grapple with the sudden loss of their darling boy, they embark on a painful and moving journey of immense power which changes their lives forever and shatters the fragile ecosystem of their once ordered family. Ajie, the youngest sibling, is burdened with the guilt of having seen Paul last and convinced that his vanished brother was betrayed long ago. But his search for the truth uncovers hidden family secrets and reawakens old, long forgotten ghosts as rumours of police brutality, oil shortages, and frenzied student protests serve as a backdrop to his pursuit.

In a tale that moves seamlessly back and forth through time, Ajie relives a trip to the family's ancestral village where, together, he and his family listen to the myths of how their people settled there, while the villagers argue over the mysterious Company, who found oil on their land and will do anything to guarantee support. As the story builds towards its stunning conclusion, it becomes clear that only once past and present come to a crossroads will Ajie and his family finally find the answers they have been searching for.

And After Many Days introduces Ile's spellbinding ability to tightly weave together personal and political loss until, inevitably, the two threads become nearly indistinguishable. It is a masterful story of childhood, of the delicate, complex balance between the powerful and the powerless, and a searing portrait of a community as the old order gives way to the new.


My Review: This is a beautifully written novel. It is, if other commenters are to be believed, poorly or simply un-structured. I don't agree with this assessment. I see the author's structure as like that of life itself: Free-floating, connected and interconnected and bound tightly and tenuously, resembling nothing so much as a kaleidoscope. Structure and pattern are artifacts of observation. Hey, life is an emergent process of quantum energy. Or some such.

By setting the novel in 1995 Nigeria, the author enables the reader to participate viscerally in the rite of passage that is civil war. It is painful when viewed whole; it is mundane when lived through. Dinner is still cooked, even if it's over an open fire; bedtime still comes for all the young children, even if it's accompanied by gunshots and missing relatives. It was a crisis point for the anti-imperialism trying to stop the economic looting and environmental destruction of international oil companies that persist in Southern Nigeria to this day.

Children see this, like everything else, with pitiless clarity and unsparing judgment:
Things happen in clusters. They would remember it as the year the Mile Three ultramodern market burned down in the middle of the night… It was the year of the poor. Of rumors, radio announcements, student riots and sudden disappearances. It was also the year news reached them of their home village, Ogibah, that five young men had been shot dead by the square in broad daylight.
None of it makes sense or creates a pattern. Yet.

Family is completely unique in the eyes of each member. It's a funny (sense ha-ha, and sense hmmm) truth that the social group that forms each member's similar and different qualities, ideas, opinions is utterly unique and unknowable to each other member:
Before the beginning of his memory, which was to say from the beginning of this life, there had always been the three of them. Paul and Bibi were the first people he saw, the first he touched. Everything he resented and liked, everything he knew, thought and felt, his smile and the angry pounding in his veins were all from them, and now, for the first time, taking notice of this made him feel incredibly lonely. The sort of lonely feeling that Bibi would have been tempted to slap out of him. Just the kind of thing that would have made Paul look at him in his usual bemused way and say, 'My friend, what are you saying? Please be serious'. But he sensed it that night, it hung about the room, the feeling that things may not always be like this, that they would one day grow up and live across town from each other like Ma and her cousin Aunty Julie or even die like all of Bendic's siblings whom he hardly ever spoke of. Paul turned around in his bed, the distant drumming had stopped, and mumbled something in his sleep, and Ajie was sure he could hear Bibi softly breathing from the room next door.
How does a younger sibling explain this sense of the fragile reality of family and life to an older one already interested in bigger things, smaller in importance to you just now, but much more immediate and pressing to their eyes?

Paul is a fine young man. Paul is a good soul. Ajie, locked in mortal combat with his closer sibling Bibi, senses the gulf between himself and Paul as unbridgeable. Of course he sees it that way, childhood and adolescence are by definition this life's perspectiveless passages:
Now, this was what Ajie wanted, this way that Paul had of becoming something after he had read about it; this way he had of claiming things for himself. He had joined himself to a we, an us. A corrupt official had been exposed in the papers for misappropriating pension funds, and Paul was expressing betrayal, even anger, about it.

How do you make yourself do that? How do you learn how to work yourself up over something that's not directly your concern?
Poor Ajie, having a lifetime of living in a big brother's big shadow. And one just enough older to make a big difference in your world! How can he know that one fine day he too will understand and opine upon the matters of a world that, now anyway, is so much wider than your own as to be imperceptible to you?

But a sibling's world isn't the only one that a family has to contain. A mother's, a father's, existence is tied to the permanent creation of this temporary life. Structure exists because we summon it into being, and we do so with the materials we have, the ideas we grab from...anywhere, I suppose...and the living energy of the beings around us:
They have waited many years for an answer, and one has finally arrived, dry and diminished, resting inside the box before them, and not one of them in the room knows how to approach the coffin. Ajie feels it's his place to take the lead; he steps forward to the casket and opens it. When Ma draws close, he holds her hand while Bibi looks in from the other side of the casket. He holds Ma's hand tight but can still feel the tremor running through it. These bones formed inside her, Ajie thinks.
The surprise, for me at least, in the aging process...I'm older than most of the world's people will ever get to how banal agony becomes. It is no less sharp or debilitating. It is simply part of the scenery, an item of furniture that serves no positive purpose but sits in exactly the place it is most likely to bark your shins or stub your toe. Of course Ma is in exquisite agony: She is looking at bones that grew inside her. Mothers...parents...are now in tears, in silent screams, in deepest possible denial. No one should know what their child's death looks like. It is asking too much of a human soul to bear this. But it happens every single minute of every single day that God sends.

Agnosticism is logic. Atheism is visceral certainty that no higher power could demand this of her creation.

This sentence sums up the only way many of us who have lost that deeply keep moving, breathing, functioning at whatever level we are able to summon:
The dead will not be consoled; neither will those who live in the skin of their dead.

Friday, January 13, 2017

THE FABRIC OF REALITY, twenty years on, presents the Multiverse argument clearly and concisely and still freshly

THE FABRIC OF REALITY: The Science of Parallel Universes--and Its Implications
David Deutsch

Penguin Books
$17.00 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: For David Deutsch, a young physicist of unusual originality, quantum theory contains our most fundamental knowledge of the physical world. Taken literally, it implies that there are many universes “parallel” to the one we see around us. This multiplicity of universes, according to Deutsch, turns out to be the key to achieving a new worldview, one which synthesizes the theories of evolution, computation, and knowledge with quantum physics. Considered jointly, these four strands of explanation reveal a unified fabric of reality that is both objective and comprehensible, the subject of this daring, challenging book.

The Fabric of Reality explains and connects many topics at the leading edge of current research and thinking, such as quantum computers (which work by effectively collaborating with their counterparts in other universes), the physics of time travel, the comprehensibility of nature and the physical limits of virtual reality, the significance of human life, and the ultimate fate of the universe. Here, for scientist and layperson alike, for philosopher, science-fiction reader, biologist, and computer expert, is a startlingly complete and rational synthesis of disciplines, and a new, optimistic message about existence.

My Review: I report that The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch is simply wonderful. Clear, well-turned prose, ample illustrative examples of his points, and a beautifully thought-out explication of the bizarre nature of reality as explained in the far reaches of physics. The fact that Richard Dawkins is cited as an inspiration for Mr. Deutsch's work should forewarn the spiritual seekers in the audience to avoid this book at all costs. It takes a very clear stance against there being a supernatural agency in the workings of the Multiverse.

Instead, Deutsch says that the Multiverse is weird enough to contain answers to all questions couched in numinous terms and to explain all phenomena and experiences the species has filed in the "supernatural" bin. His arguments are presented without condescension or hectoring, which is a common failing in the prose that wishes to "debunk" the spiritual experience. He simply explains how the experiences fit into the framework of the Multiverse. From there, he says, it's up to you the reader.

THIS is an attitude I can endorse and enjoy. I dislike the spiritual imperialism that says, "My way is Right and all others are Wrong," and equally dislike the materialist dogma that "There IS no spiritual and those who imagine there is are deluded and foolish." (I reserve that dismissive and rejecting locution for religion, not the spiritual, as they are unrelated things.) I want the arguments presented and then leave it up to me to decide what to do with the information presented. Please don't do my thinking for me! And that, laddies and gentles all, is what I feel Mr. Deutsch makes an overall successful stab at NOT doing. He favors the material explanation, and makes no bones about it; but he is very reasonable and reasoned in his advocacy, not shrill or hectoring.

A well-done work of enduring value in the cultural conversation about the nature of reality as we find it. And for reasons that I can't understand, not a gigantic bestseller. I hope that will change....

Thursday, January 12, 2017

THE LOST CITY OF Z, 2009's terrific book looks like it's 2017's terrific film

THE LOST CITY OF Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
David Grann

$27.50 hardcover, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: A grand mystery reaching back centuries. A sensational disappearance that made headlines around the world. A quest for truth that leads to death, madness or disappearance for those who seek to solve it. The Lost City of Z is a blockbuster adventure narrative about what lies beneath the impenetrable jungle canopy of the Amazon.

After stumbling upon a hidden trove of diaries, New Yorker writer David Grann set out to solve "the greatest exploration mystery of the 20th century": What happened to the British explorer Percy Fawcett & his quest for the Lost City of Z?

In 1925 Fawcett ventured into the Amazon to find an ancient civilization, hoping to make one of the most important discoveries in history. For centuries Europeans believed the world's largest jungle concealed the glittering kingdom of El Dorado. Thousands had died looking for it, leaving many scientists convinced that the Amazon was truly inimical to humans. But Fawcett, whose daring expeditions inspired Conan Doyle's The Lost World, had spent years building his scientific case. Captivating the imagination of millions round the globe, Fawcett embarked with his 21-year-old son, determined to prove that this ancient civilisation--which he dubbed Z--existed. Then his expedition vanished. Fawcett's fate, & the tantalizing clues he left behind about Z, became an obsession for hundreds who followed him into the uncharted wilderness. For decades scientists & adventurers have searched for evidence of Fawcett's party & the lost City of Z. Countless have perished, been captured by tribes or gone mad. As Grann delved ever deeper into the mystery surrounding Fawcett's quest, & the greater mystery of what lies within the Amazon, he found himself, like the generations who preceded him, being irresistibly drawn into the jungle's green hell. His quest for the truth & discoveries about Fawcett's fate & Z form the heart of this complexly enthralling narrative.

2017 Movie News: Go watch the trailer for this Amazon Studios film. I'll wait. Okay, now go read the Rotten Tomatoes aggregation. Won't take long.

Now. A four-plus star book review from me and a host of other sources, agreement among critics from Den of Geek all the way to The Nation, and a cast of pretty, pretty the fact that it's an Amazon Studios original appearing hot on the heels of their Golden Globe-winning Manchester by the Sea, makes this a super-promising April 2017 must-see. Amazon might very well be Satan, I can't say I agree but there's a chorus of unhappy people from contractors to suppliers to anti-globalization zealots who say it is, but Satan's offering us a lot of really great inducements to forget his agenda. Amazon's Prime streaming service alone is worth the $100 a year it costs. I love that so much of Amazon Studios' output is book-based. Calculated or not, it's a great thing to see the filmed entertainment industry gain a player that mines the immense vein of unadapted written work instead of churning out sequels and comic book heroes and the occasional bland screensaver-level movie.

My Review: This excellent book is the exciting, unusual story of the last of the Victorian polymath explorers on his quest to prove the unthinkable: That the Amazon, that "false paradise", supported a major technologically advanced civilization before the Columbian Holocaust.

Percy Fawcett took his oldest son and his oldest son's best friend into the depths of Amazonia in 1925, to search for a place that the consensus of scientific wisdom of the time said could not exist. From that day to this, there has been no evidence of these three mens' existence. This by itself would provide the bones of a fascinating story. Why would a father risk his son's life in so unlikely a quest? Why bring the son's best friend? What the ruddy bleeding hell was a 58-year-old man THINKING to do this at all?!?

Percy Fawcett was supported by his wife, who was his son's mother, and the mother of the best friend, as well as the Royal Geographical Society. He was a veteran Amazonian explorer. His son was himself writ young. His son's friend, well, it's on such trips as this that a man uncovers his true self, and the best friend was...wanting.

The story of Percy's life, as Grann tells it, is interesting; the story of the exploration of the Amazon is interesting; the story of the many, many attempts to find the three disappeared explorers is not as interesting, but is very deftly compacted into a few passages.

The author's expedition to follow Percy Fawcett's footsteps is, blessedly, brief in the telling. Exactly long enough, in fact. What the author, a fat middle-aged shlub who writes for The New Yorker, discovers...should be front-page news.

Read this book. No evasive "maybes" no "I'll get around to it"s just go GET THIS BOOK AND READ IT. No one with an ounce of human curiosity can possibly regret reading The Lost City of Z.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

SUPER EXTRA GRANDE, Cuban SF giant Yoss's hilarious, trenchant space opera

(translated by David Frye)
Restless Books
$15.99 trade paper, available now

Rating: 4.5* of five

The Publisher Says: “Intergalactic space travel meets outrageous, biting satire in Super Extra Grande…. Its author [Yoss] is one of the most celebrated—and controversial—Cuban writers of science fiction…. Reminiscent of Douglas Adams—but even more so, the satire of Rabelais and Swift.” —The Washington Post

In a distant future in which Latin Americans have pioneered faster-than-light space travel, Dr. Jan Amos Sangan Dongo has a job with large and unusual responsibilities: he’s a veterinarian who specializes in treating enormous alien animals. Mountain-sized amoebas, multisex species with bizarre reproductive processes, razor-nailed, carnivorous humanoid hunters: Dr. Sangan has seen it all. When a colonial conflict threatens the fragile peace between the galaxy’s seven intelligent species, he must embark on a daring mission through the insides of a gigantic creature and find two swallowed ambassadors—who also happen to be his competing love interests.

Funny, witty, raunchy, and irrepressibly vivacious, Super Extra Grande is a rare specimen in the richly parodic tradition of Cuban science fiction, and could only have been written by a Cuban heavy-metal rock star with a biology degree: the inimitable Yoss.

My Review: Page one, first paragraph:
"Boss Sangan, sludge al frente and a la derecha, ten centímetros knee," Narbuck peevishly announces through my earbuds.

His voice reminds me unpleasantly of a screechy old machine in need of lube job. But that's not the worst of it. Worst is, he seems to go out of his way to mangle the grammar and syntax of the Spanglish language, stubbornly dropping prepositions and mutilating verbs like he's doing a bad impression of a native in a third-rate holoseries.
That's all you need to know to determine of this is a read for you. If this grates or fails to strike an agreeable note, go away now, because it's not gonna change and I like it, so I'll be quoting more of it.

Okay, all ashore who's goin' ashore? Bueno. Andemos al ruedo.

I'm tempted to make a stab at writing this review in Spanglish just because it would be fun and would make me feel all cool and stuff. Then I realized that old white men, even ones with a decent command of Spanish, don't get to have that kind of fun. Then I realized that showing off really is a major hoot and fuck all the haters. They're gonna hate anyway, so....

Nope. Can't. #ReadingIsResistance all right, but the thing I need to resist is being the center of attention when this book is rightfully the star of this show. Yoss wrote this story seven years ago and is probably hazy, after all this time and all his intervening books, on exactly what he wrote and why. What he wrote is a comedic space opera set in a future where the González Drive, invented by an Ecuadorian Catholic priest who won two Nobel Prizes—Physics, Mathematics—for it, gave humanity unfettered access to the galaxy. Once out there, humanity discovered that one species made it out before us, and then five more followed in short order because that's how probability would arrange it, all the technologically capable species figuring the solution to the problem of how to run away from home around the same time.

That's enough right there for me to fall in love. Then add in the copious word-play, the multilingual puns, the rampant sexism, the unambiguous human male bisexual experiences, the interspecies communication in Spanglish because it's so much easier than trying to teach dimwitted Earthlings any one of the other species' languages (not to mention the hydrogen-breathing species' telepathy, a whole different level of impossible to teach), the narrator named Jan Amos Sangan Dongo (hint: if you speak any Spanish at all, if you know any Cubans, wear a lifter's belt while reading this book or your diaphragm will hurt like sixty tomorrow). I read the book in one uproarious sitting. It's like the slightly high, vaguely tipsy conversation you had with your Hispanic crush-object back in college. (Y'all had one of those, right?)
First Premise: Garden planet with oxygen atmosphere, relatively nonaggressive fauna, and exuberant flora, third from a type G2 yellow dwarf star; that is, very similar to the humans' Sun. A tempting nugget for any colony scheme.

Second Premise: Planetary system on the border between the human and Cetian zones. Humans name the promising planet Canaan. Cetians call it Urgh-Yhaly-Mhan, which in the language of the Goddess means "we deserve this because we are who we are."

Third Premise: Both species are highly expansionistic and will not hesitate to turn to violence if they think it necessary to support and/or safeguard their interests.

Conclusion: To avoid sparking a large-scale armed conflict, in the years following the First Battle of Canaan (a minor skirmish that left thousands of casualties on both sides), neither race risks settling the tempting border world. They sign a solemn treaty sanctioning this unstable but reassuring equilibrium. A tiny joint garrison of troops from both species will oversee compliance.
Some points: First, the Cetians are not, as you're saying it in your head, SEE-shuns. They're SETTEE-uns, beings from a planet around Tau Ceti. Second, Jan Sangan (chuckle) is a biological veterinarian specializing in the biggest of the big creatures around the galaxy. He's almost eight feet tall and very strong. You gettin' the vibe for why this is Super Extra Grande? He's a graduate of the Anima Mundi (Animal Planet, get it?) University for Biological Sciences where he had to study logic, hence the syllogistic format. Up to speed? Okay:
First Premise: Far, far from Canaan, the grassland planet Olduvaila, a First Wave human colony world, has barely eight-tenths the gravity of Earth. Its inhabitants, descendants of the Maasai people, average seven feet in height as adults and specialize in cattle ranching.

Second Premise: Bwana, a gas giant approximately the size of Saturn and the fourth planet in the same system, passes near Olduvaila every fourteen years, and with each pass it overwhelms the colonial world's weaker gravity and captures a bit more of its atmosphere. This process has been going on for millions of years...but after two or three more passes, the declining density of the local atmosphere will leave it too thin for the humans and their herds to breathe. Already the air on Olduvaila is barely equivalent the atmosphere at an altitude of five thousand meters on Earth.

Third Premise: The Maasai, a cattle-herding African people from whom the human colonizers on Olduvaila are descended, have a strong warrior tradition and have never resigned themselves to being defeated by drought, famine, other natural disasters...or any enemy.

Conclusion: The warlike and desperate inhabitants of the dying planet Olduvaila are seeking another world where they can move. Urgently and en masse, no matter where it is and no matter whose bodies they have to step over to get there.
Some points: The wonderful planet name Canaan/"we deserve this because we are who we are" now meets the equally wonderful "Olduvai-la." The Maasai do indeed count the Olduvai Gorge in their territory. The Cradle of Humankind, Lucy's backyard. Planet Bwana, "master," is stealing the very air from the Africans. If there's a more amusing and apt way to handle an info-dump, I've yet to encounter it.

And on goes Yoss for four more syllogisms, outlining the course of a cracking good space opera replete with battleships and explosions and feats of derring-do! And not one bit of that happens! Well, there's a battleship, but it's the place where the telepathic hydrogen-breathing Juhungans have offered to host a diplomatic summit (shades of the Enterprise, eh what?) to avoid the looming interspecies war. Enter Jan Sangan (chuckle), Biological Veterinarian to the Super Extra Grande, because the negotiators are trapped on Brobdingnag (Swift is spinning about now) inside a two-hundred-kilometer living lake of protoplasm called Cosita. (The closest English equivalent I can come up with for this in its intended nickname use is the Southern American affectionate contronym "Little Bit.") Bonus: the negotiators are both former employees of his! Added extra bonus: they're both female and desirable! But wait, there's more: they're each in love with Jan Sangan (chuckle), quite famously and publicly, even though he fired them because he won't sleep with the help!

This kind of playful, gonzo storytelling always gets my vote for escapist reading. Yoss's jabs at the Arab-Israeli conflict, his not-very-veiled anti-imperialism, and his willingness to subvert every convention he can find even while embracing them is more than the sum of the parts. He makes it very clear that, bumbling fools though we be, humanity survives and thrives in all its messy, smelly, squabbly squalor because.

Yep. That period is exactly where I intended it to be. And the ending Yoss made for the story is exactly where he intended it to be. Resist cultural blindness, read a genre not your usual, like science fiction. Resist social conformism, read a Cuban rocker-cum-writer's book publicly, displaying the cover for all your fellow commuters to see and wonder about. Resist your natural urge towards despair as the world, as it ever does and ever will, descends into ever-deeper chaos: Yoss reminds us that humanity is a glorious, idiotic, hyperbolic mess.

Thank goodness.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

THE LONG SHADOW OF SMALL GHOSTS, an incredible story of failure and murder

THE LONG SHADOW OF SMALL GHOSTS: Murder and Memory in an American City

$12.99 ebook platforms, available now

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: In Cold Blood meets Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family: A harrowing, profoundly personal investigation of the causes, effects, and communal toll of a deeply troubling crime—the brutal murder of three young children by their parents in the border city of Brownsville, Texas.

On March 11, 2003, in Brownsville, Texas—one of America’s poorest cities—John Allen Rubio and Angela Camacho murdered their three young children. The apartment building in which the brutal crimes took place was already rundown, and in their aftermath a consensus developed in the community that it should be destroyed. It was a place, neighbors felt, that was plagued by spiritual cancer.

In 2008, journalist Laura Tillman covered the story for The Brownsville Herald. The questions it raised haunted her, particularly one asked by the sole member of the city’s Heritage Council to oppose demolition: is there any such thing as an evil building? Her investigation took her far beyond that question, revealing the nature of the toll that the crime exacted on a city already wracked with poverty. It sprawled into a six-year inquiry into the larger significance of such acts, ones so difficult to imagine or explain that their perpetrators are often dismissed as monsters alien to humanity.

With meticulous attention and stunning compassion, Tillman surveyed those surrounding the crimes, speaking with the lawyers who tried the case, the family’s neighbors and relatives and teachers, even one of the murderers: John Allen Rubio himself, whom she corresponded with for years and ultimately met in person. The result is a brilliant exploration of some of our age’s most important social issues, from poverty to mental illness to the death penalty, and a beautiful, profound meditation on the truly human forces that drive them. It is disturbing, insightful, and mesmerizing in equal measure.


My Review: There is absolutely nothing easy about this book, not the story, not the agonized survivors, not the innocent dead children, nothing. I read In Cold Blood many years ago, and was very deeply affected by the story. The amazing writing, the very best thing Truman Capote ever made, seems suspiciously Harper Lee, his cousin and collaborator, was a very very significant part of its creation. Laura Tillman touches me in many of the same places that In Cold Blood did, but she had no Harper Lee to wave the magic wand of genius over the text.

The genesis of the book came when Tillman began her journalism career at The Brownsville Herald, the big English-language newspaper of the Rio Grande Valley. A murder such as the Rubio case doesn't happen that often in the rinky-dink precincts of that rathole. (I spent formative years forty or so miles away in Mercedes, Texas, a horrible little wide spot in the road that exemplifies what city people never see and avoid even hearing about if they can help it.) Tillman describes her fascination thus:
The Rubio story was also especially affecting because it concerned small children. It grabbed hold of the reporters during these newsroom conversations, the revelation of each detail making the case suddenly raw, fresh, intense. A father and a mother killing three young children—three babies!—with the crude weapon of kitchen knives. The bodies in trash bags, the heads in buckets of water, washed clean of blood. For not one but both parents to be involved in such a horror was stunning and inexplicable.
Nothing is inexplicable. We might not like the explanation. We might reject the explanation in disgust, horror, terror. But an explanation there always, always is.

A mentally ill, psychologically abused, sexually pimped out by his mother, young man of good looks and no significant intellectual capabilities, gets hooked on drugs...self-medicating, in my opinion...finds and clings to a balsa-wood raft in the form of a pretty, even less intelligent girl-child who was being abused by a variety of men in her life. Hey presto! Children arrive, work doesn't, help ain't, and huffing paint is the only road to some tiny moment of pleasure. A lifetime of psychological disturbances, seeing people not visible to others, obsessions and violence, just don't merit institutional help. Especially in a place like Texas, where Medicaid is out of reach to anyone not licking the asphalt in the hospital parking lot to avoid starvation. It is disgusting what is NOT done with the Federal dollars sent to help the citizens of the state.

At the moment of John Rubio's massive psychotic break, this is what he reports believing:
According to John, something told him that killing the children was imperative, that he was engaged in a battle of good and evil, and he was on the side of good. He said that he had long seen himself as exceptional, chosen by God for some purpose, and had dreams where he battled demons. Where those thoughts and the message to kill his children came from is debatable, but John said he believed at the time that it was divinely sent. Regardless of whether the culpable influence was psychosis or a spiritual force, there was no contradicting intervention at the final moment.
The source of Tillman's meditation is the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Bible. It is one of the more appalling, disgusting passages in a book chock-a-block with horrible bar bets (eg, Job's trials set on him by God to win a wager with Lucifer) and reprehensible narcissistic tantrums (eg, destroying the whole of the world in a flood because his itty fee-fees was hurted by...what, I can't remember, something like impiety?). John's religious mania had been life long, and somehow no one anywhere connected to this case sees or says they see the central and vile role that this God person and the stories told to impressionable children about him played in this nightmare crime.

A friend of Angela and John's explains the bitter, scalding, bone-rattling terror of desperation.
"But when a difficult time comes and nobody helps you, no one listens to you, they leave you alone...I don't know how to explain it...You go to your neighbor's house and ask if they could lend you three dollars to eat and they say they don't have it. You go to another [neighbor] and they don't have it, no one has it. You're frustrated and you have hungry children. And you kill them. That's how people think."

You cannot know the power of desperation, Felix was saying, until you experience it in its raw form. Desperation can fuel acts that would otherwise be incomprehensible. And if you've never been filled with that kind of quaking, hysterical desperation, you simply cannot fathom the way it can make you behave.
Yep, been there. Try living at the complete legal, social mercy of a screaming emotional volcano, abusive in inventive and creative ways, who makes up to you with sex. And I was her son. I have been down there. I understand John's insanity from the inside, though blessedly I'm smart and almost incredibly tough so I survived. Just. John had none of my strengths, poor lad, and he cracked wide open. What he did can't be fathomed by the normal mind. The key words there are "normal mind." He didn't have, and never had, one of those. The State of Texas, in its rednecked viciousness, condemned this poor, broken, horrible person to die. To do what? To solve what? In order to serve what noble legal principle? We already know the Christians who argue for the death penalty are merely emulating their vile petty god, so can safely be discounted as moral forces.

Angela was represented by a court-appointed lawyer whose unique perspective on the central facts of Angela's participation in the murders probably served her in great stead:
In May of 2008, five years after John and Angela were arrested, Gamez said he saw demons for the first time. "I didn't imagine it." Gamez had suffered a heart attack that left him legally dead for several minutes, and in a coma for six days after that. "There is no rational, logical medical explanation, other than the grace of coming back and giving me a second chance." To him, the demons are not a vague vision, but a specific memory.

"They were compelling to take me to hell. They were reaching out. They wanted me but they couldn't get me. The grace of God wouldn't let them get me, but they let me know they're there."

Gamez believed he'd been enlightened to another dimension.

"There is an inner being, soul, within us and wants to live and wants everlasting life. And it fears the abomination of everlasting darkness. I really appreciate, when I crossed over, my ranches meant noting, my property meant nothing. I'm left with nothing. Nothing was important. You speak, not with your mouth, but your mind. You have no physical form. And I can prove it because I was dead. And all that spirit of yours wants is to reach that light I couldn't reach."

His voice commanded the empty room, rough and croaking, pushing past my attempts to ask questions during the long pauses between phrases.

"So I cannot say that what she saw wasn't real," Gamez said. "I don't make that judgment anymore—if she's crazy or sick or mentally retarded—no, I know they're there, and they make people do very bad things. Evil things. Demons' purpose in life is for us—to compel us to do bad things. There is no love with these creatures."
Gamez's experience, judge its merits how you may, very likely informed Angela's fate. She will be eligible for parole in 2045.

The fate of the children I cannot bring myself to recount.
In John's version of events, he decapitated the children because they seemed to rise and revive after being choked and stabbed.
That is really all you need to know.

Laura Tillman backs up at the end of the book:
The building drew me in, but the real pull was not the structure, it was the questions. I thought after all this time they would be resolved. Instead, I find myself more unmoored than when I started. Yet that doesn't bother me: resolution doesn't seem to be the purpose of questions like these. They open journeys, within and without, daring us after each step to go still further.
And here is where that fifth star, wavering in and out, went out for the last time. It seems to me a...bloodless...response to this journey through a layer of society that one can not see, still less live within for any length of time, and emerge unchanged in profound and irreparable ways.

Reading is resistance...even to the internal prettying-up and makeover that we call "denial."

Monday, January 9, 2017

THE VOYAGER RECORD: A Transmission, genre-bending idea-provoking essay/novella


Rose Metal Press
$14.95 trade paper, available now

Rating: 5* of five

The Publisher Says: Late summer 1977: two identical robotic spacecraft launch from Cape Canaveral. Their divergent paths through the solar system take them past gas giants, icy moons, asteroid belts, and eventually into the unknown of interstellar space. There, they will continue to travel on forever, the fastest moving objects ever created by humans. The Voyagers carry a message from Earth, a phonograph record plated with gold containing 27 songs, 118
images, and greetings in 55 languages meant to summarize all life on our planet for the extraterrestrials who might one day encounter the crafts. The Voyager Record: A Transmission is the record of that record: a history in fragments exploring how legendary astronomer Carl Sagan and his team attempted to press the entire human race into a single groove. Combining elements of poetry, flash fiction, and essay, Anthony Michael Morena
creates a collage of music, observation, humor, and alienation. Giving the 38-year-old original playlist a B-side update, Morena’s The Voyager Record calls out to its namesake across the billions of miles of emptiness: Send more answers.

My Review: Things that aren't what they seem are worrisome to most people. If it's got upright rectangular covers and printed words and no illustrative charts and/or graphs, it's fiction. If there are weird line breaks, it's poetry. If there are pages with one or two lines of text and no pictures, it's incomprehensible pretentious modern poetry.

But The Voyager Record isn't really any of those things. And that's going to bother a lot of people. They don't have a place to slot this square block. How do you read something that introduces you to its concerns and conceits with this mini-essaypoem?
"Beethoven tells you what it's like to be Beethoven, and Mozart tells you what its like to be human. Bach tells you what it's like to be the universe." A quote pointed out to me re: all the Bach. The quote, I was told, came from Douglas Adams in The Salmon of Doubt. The internet thought so too.

I thought that maybe the Voyager people knew about the quote when they loaded the record the way they did. Or maybe it was the other way around.

When I looked, I didn't find one word about Bach in my copy of The Salmon of Doubt.
Well? Ideas, class? Where are we, reflective essay or prose poem (five-buck talk for "pretty writing that doesn't have to make sense to the likes of you") or narrative fragment that finishes itself off before you're even really going?
Don't get too wound up, there's more:
Hip hop still hadn't left the South Bronx when Voyager took off from Earth.
Now that right there? That stopped me dead for a good two minutes. Voyager left an earth that flat doesn't exist anymore, an earth with rotary-dial phones, microwave ovens the size of your sofa, Cadillacs twenty feet (six-ish meters) fin to fin...cell phones that cost $5 a minute to use in the few places you could use 'em and gasoline was 75¢ a gallon. I hadn't really thought much about that. Yowza, what a world!

Author Morena moves on from blowing old men's minds to the real meat of his meditation. Voyager's on its way to places and encounters that we really and truly cannot imagine. Leaving aside the seemingly endless debate as to whether the dratted thing has made it into interstellar space or is still within some ever-more-tenuously tethered portion of the Solar System, the machine will probably make alien contact at some point. Morena offers this possibility:
The aliens who discover Voyager are a corporate form of life. Like corporate personhood here on Earth, these aliens exist in a non-corporeal, Platonic state: no matter how hard you twist your hands you cannot choke them, they have no necks. They'll appreciate our attempt to raise brand awareness across the interstellar medium. According to the prospectus on the record, Earth is a going concern that will present a low-risk investment. They understand the song lyrics perfectly: "Earnings potential client in a high-yield equity market merger option backed by bond and bundled securities commodity rate. Attractive luxury addition to portfolio G5 champagne blowjobs..."
Hell, if that's all V'ger's a-gonna find, whyinahell'd we send it out there for? Sounds like Washington DC. Or London, or Moscow, or Paris.

Another possibility that occurred to Author Morena:
The aliens who find the Voyager record are a paranoid military culture. The propaganda on the record is seen as an existential threat to their way of life. Some of the alien generals disagree It's not propaganda, they say, it's a trap. Not one of these images shows a weapon of any kind, so it's obviously a trap. Scientists who wish to study the record lose their positions and are thrown in jail. Anyone caught listening to a copy of the Voyager record is considered an enemy sympathizer and detained. When they are released, their identification scans show this black mark in the form of a golden circle next to their names. They have trouble finding jobs, getting into schools. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, someone writes graffiti on their doors: Go Back to Earth! Sometimes, their houses are set on fire.
Again...for this we sent the thing into outer space? Coulda shipped it to Beijing, Jerusalem, Riyadh, Islamabad. Been cheaper, if less exciting, what with all that rocket fuel flaming and all those nerds with bad haircuts and worse glasses jumping around, proving that white people really, really, really shouldn't dance in front of cameras. It was the Seventies, after all.

Further to the "holy gawd when and how did I get so fucking old" moment above, following is another list of things that simply did not exist when Voyager left Earth:
Additions to update the "Sounds of Earth" audio collage: mouse clicks, keyboard typing, a 56k modem connecting to the internet, a Facebook message notification dook. The strange recording of an underwater sound known only as Bloop, which was so loud that not even a blue whale, the largest creature ever to live on the planet, could have created it. Some insinuated that Bloop was made by a massive, Lovecraftian monster. The truth is actually much worse: Bloop is the sound of sea icequakes, as the planet begins to melt.
Bloop is the single most terrifying thing that has happened in my lifetime. I was alive during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the closest we have come yet to mutually assured destruction being put into practice. This is WORSE. This is a sound that indicates we've committed suicide on behalf of all the living creatures now extant.

That should ruin your day.

I haven't got anything uplifting to say after that bitch-slap, sorry. Author Morena offers us some perspective:
You are getting so far away now. Does your distance mean your irrelevance? How the further away you hurtle from Earth, the less you become about us. You will be about another people, not who we are. Faerie elves exist only to supply meaning to words like "flit" and "folk." This is you to us. A boogeyman encased with stellar dirt with a golden eye that, in ideal conditions, sings.
I don't know what you'll make of this book. I don't know if I can do more than encourage you to read it as a way to resist your inner censor's diktat that you don't know what it is so you won't know how to read it.

Don't let anyone, anyone at all, not even—maybe especially not—yourself limit your experience of reading, thinking, getting up close and personal with inappropriate thoughts and feelings and people. Don't close yourself off to new experiences in a world ever more hostile to learning and growth.