Saturday, November 5, 2016

Brief Thoughts 18

Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite

The first books I had read from Brite weren't his horror work, but books in his Liquor series which followed two chiefs opening a restaurant in New Orleans. Most people who were fans of Brite's work recommended this as his best.

The story follows four characters. An English serial killer named Andrew, a New Orleans cannibal named Jay, a runaway boy named Tran, and a writer and pirate radio show host named Luke. Andrew manages to escape from prison in London and flees to the United States. There, he meets another killer named Jay and the two fall in love. They both become fixated on a runaway boy named Tran who they view as a perfect victim. Meanwhile, Luke, who was Tran's ex-boyfriend, desperately misses Tran and wants to get him back.

I could nitpick certain things in this book, like how Andrew's point of view is first person while the rest is third or some clumsy phrases in the book (marijuana has a "spicy" green taste? what weed has Brite smoked?), but frankly none of that detracted from the book for me. This is an incredibly decadent, colorfully disgusting book. It's full of intense descriptions of murder, sex, disease, and consumption. It has a straightforward story that propels at a good pace but the experience of reading this is more of a draw than the story.

This isn't a book for everyone, but if you enjoy the work of writers like William S. Burroughs and Dennis Cooper, this is a must read.

Buy Exquisite Corpse by Poppy Z. Brite here. 

The Maimed by Hermann Ungar 

Franz Polzer is a bank clerk obsessed with order. Neurotically so. Due to having witnessed his father and aunt committing incest as a child and being molested by a neighbor's maid, Polzer hates and fears sex. So when his widowed landlady begins making advances to him, it throws his life into chaos. To make matters worse, his childhood friend Karl Fanta has lost both his legs to an unknown sickness and it seems to have made him lose his mind as well. Karl believes his wife is sleeping around and is planning to have him killed for his money.

This is quite a grotesque novel. It's best described as a psychological horror. Polzer, while he's the main character, is the eternal middle man. He's a low level bank clerk, he acts as an intermediary between Karl and his wife, and he absolutely hates being the center of attention. To him, nothing good can come from being paid attention to. He wants nothing more than for things to be left in order. He hordes his possessions and makes a catalog of them. He constantly worries that he'll be stolen from. He doesn't feel safe anywhere.

Sex and religion are probably the biggest themes in the book. Nearly every character here suffers from a disordered sexual drive. Polzer hates sex due to his childhood abuse, Fanta is frustrated due to his inability to have sex because of his illness, Polzer's landlady is extremely promiscuous, and an attendant hired to take care of Fanta is an extreme masochist who believes injuring himself is atonement for his sins.

Polzer is a Catholic who is not religious, but keeps a picture of a saint above his bed. He believes it protects him. Polzer's landlady is a Jewish woman who can't stand the picture. Fanta is also Jewish, but is completely indifferent to religion, this ends up clashing with his pious attendant.

Ungar is not a well remembered author. He was a contemporary of Kafka and is often compared to him. They were both Jewish writers from Prague who wrote dark fiction, but Ungar is quite distinct from Kafka. Ungar finds horror in the every day and in the repressed psyches of the people around him. While his body of work is not large, this book makes it clear that Ungar deserves to be more well-known than he is.

Buy The Maimed by Hermann Ungar here.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Update: A New Review of My Chapbook and Another Story

Recently, writer HAarlem VEnison of Acid Right. Did a video review of my chapbook, "the sky is black and blue like a battered child." You can watch it below.

I also have another story up at CLASH Media. Another creepy short story called "Please File Under Adult Contemporary." They had also published another short creepy story of mine called "The Soda" as well.

Don't forget that I'm also writing a lot at Cultured Vultures. Here are the last three articles published.

Book Review: Slasher Camp for Nerd Dorks by Christoph Paul 
13 Halloween Books You Should Read (If You Dare) 
How to Get Book Review Copies

Friday, September 30, 2016

Book Review: Towers by Karl Fischer

Civilization is threatened with destruction by sea monsters. Defense towers that require the operators to meld their conscious with them are erected with the promise of eternal bliss to the volunteers. Alti and Quatra, seduced by the promise of being together forever in heaven, volunteer to operate the Towers. Alti wakes up to discover he's been tricked. He sets out to escape the Tower and be reunited with his darling Quatra.
We were three hundred meters tall, anchored to the bedrock mammoth monopile roots. We were carbide skeletons on which steel and lead and graphene plastic matrices were layered to oblique, unbreakable skin. But most of all, we were the Gods of Fire and War and Thermonuclear Destruction. When we unleashed Atomic Hounds upon the night's void, every kingdom shuddered and every mortal knew why were built.
The best part about Towers is easily the prose. Fischer has a way of writing that reads as both intense and dreamlike. This is the kind of book that can be read in one setting and finishing it is just like waking up. Despite the disjointed narrative, the novella remains engaging and moves along at a good pace.

Ultimately, Towers is a love story. Alti spends most of the book attempting to reunite with his beloved Quatra. An intense longing runs through the book that only occasionally feels schmaltzy. Fischer builds their relationship convincingly and the pain of Alti's separation from her comes through.

The biggest flaw in the book is the abruptness and unconvincing neatness of the ending. Most of the novella uses the short length to its advantage, but the ending comes along and the book feels more like it just stops than properly ends. Not to mention the fact that after everything that happens in the book, the fact it wraps up as easily and neatly as it does feels forced.

Towers is a strong debut. Despite the disappointing resolution, its masterful prose, strange imagery, and pathos make it well worth reading.

Buy Towers by Karl Fischer here. 

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Book Review: Satan Burger by Carlton Mellick III

I thought the act of kissing became extinct long ago, even before the walm, people just stopped caring enough to kiss before fucking. Love is a dead performance. Only the hardcore fuck job is required.
I discuss bizarro fiction in a lot of my reviews. It's taken me some time to get to Carlton Mellick III's first novel from 2001, though. What Neuromancer is to cyberpunk, Satan Burger is to bizarro.

It's difficult to summarize the plot of Satan Burger. It's not an especially plot-driven book and there is a lot going on. The main story line is that a door to alternate dimensions, called "the walm," opens up on Earth. It lets beings from other worlds in but it's powered by sucking the souls of people, leaving them hollow shells. To keep the walm from putting him out of business, Satan opens a burger joint where people trade their souls for burgers. The narrator, Leaf, gets a job at the Satan Burger along with his friends to avoid losing their own souls.

I'm not kidding when I say a lot is going on. Take the narrator Leaf, for example. His eyes are very unusual. In his normal vision, he sees the world as a rolling ocean. Everything his distorted and it makes life difficult for him. However, he also has what he calls "God eyes." These grant him omniscience to a certain extent. Because of this, the story flips between first person and third person.

This novel is billed as an "anti-novel," but unlike most books called that, there isn't much formal experimentation. There's the switch between first and third person (which is explained in the story) and some odd spacing, but that's it. The weird story itself and the difficulty of pigeonholing it is what separates Satan Burger from most novels.

Despite the plot line I described of the walm and Satan's burger joint, the vast majority of this book focuses on Leaf and his friends. They're a group of young people who have a band and are struggling to get by in a
world full of people turned into zombies by the walm. One could argue that this is a novel of Generation X disaffection at its core.

Mellick has gone on to write so many books, I've honestly lost count. This first novel of his shows that he had a wide imagination and it hasn't dissipated. It's a strange as hell book, but I enjoyed it a lot. Anyone looking for an entry point into Mellick's work or into the bizarro genre couldn't ask for a better book than this.

A quick note: Mellick recently released a 15th anniversary edition of this book. The version I read is the original paperback, which now seems to be out of print.

Buy Satan Burger by Carlton Mellick III here.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Brief Thoughts 17

The Iron Heel by Jack London

Before Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, and 1984, there was The Iron Heel. This is widely regarded as the first dystopian novel. Released in 1908, it proved to be rather prescient in hindsight.

The book is framed as a manuscript that was discovered in the far future. It's annotated with footnotes by the historian that discovered if (I wonder if Ann Sterzinger read this before she wrote The Talkative Corpse). Written in the 1910s, it traces the rise of the fascist regime known as the Iron Heel that conquered much of the world and ruled for several centuries.

Avis was a girl of privilege and wealth. One day, her father invited a man named Ernest Everhard to a dinner party. With his passion and eloquence, she fell in love with him and joined him in his activism against the rising oligarchy in America. The oligarchy, however, takes over the government much faster than anyone anticipated.  Eventually, Avis and her new husband are forced into bloody revolution.

Like Jack London's other books, this is an exciting page turner. For the most part anyway. It drags a lot at the beginning. Ernest makes a lot of speeches, including one that's two chapters long on Karl Marx's theory of value. It feels like reading an Ayn Rand novel. It especially feels sloppy because London's novel The Sea Wolf has just as much philosophical discussion but never feels like a lecture.

Still, the book picks up a lot after the first few chapters. The rise of the Iron Heel feels pretty improbable at times, but some of London's predictions were surprisingly spot on. For instance, he predicated Japan gaining military dominance over Asia as they would later almost succeed in during WWII. He predicted WWI which in this novel is a war between Germany and the United States, though here the war is called off due to a general strike. In the climax of the book, there are even bloody battle scenes and mass murders that foreshadowed the battles of WWI and the atrocities committed in WWII.

This is a flawed book for sure, but it's well worth reading. London knew how rational his fear of tyranny was.

Read it for free here.
Buy The Iron Heel by Jack London here. 

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays by Albert Camus 

"The Myth of Sisyphus" is probably Camus's most famous work besides his novel The Stranger. Camus posits that only serious philosophical question is that of suicide. Is life worth living?

Upon examination, life seems to be absurd and meaningless. According to Camus, there are three ways to respond to life's absurdity. Committing suicide is one option, of course. There is also the possibility of committing what he calls "philosophical suicide." That is, believing in religion or ideologies that give us ready-made answers to life's questions, appeals to higher purposes to give life meaning. What Camus advocates is the third option, living life without appeal and facing the absurdity head on.

Camus uses the Greek myth of Sisyphus to illustrate. Condemned by the gods for his arrogance, Sisyphus is forced to eternally push a boulder up a hill that will always roll back to the bottom. The struggle in pushing the boulder up the hill is where man can find his meaning. As he puts it, "One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

A triptych of other essays this book, "Summer in Algiers," "The Minotaur," and "Return to Tipasa." also serve as poetic odes to the cities of Algeria. In these essays, Camus explores the beauty in the struggle of living everyday life. From the exuberance of the beaches and dancehalls of Algiers to the wistful nostalgia that a trip to a place of one's youth like Tipasa for Camus brings one. He demonstrates in these how unnecessary appeals to higher purposes are to living a full life.

Camus was more interested in classical Greek philosophy than the works of his contemporaries. "Helen's Exile" is an interesting comparison of the state of mid-20th century Europe to that of ancient Greece at its height. The final essay, "The Artist and His Time" is an exploration of the place of the artist in society.

It's not for nothing that Camus won the Nobel prize for literature. This is an absolutely essential philosophical work. Highly recommended.

Buy The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays by Albert Camus here.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Brief Thoughts 16

The Haunted Mesa by Louis L'Amour

Louis L'Amour is best known for his westerns. He's probably the most famous author of westerns in the world. I had read his novel Hondo and enjoyed it. I decided to take a look at this horror title of his.

The story revolves around a debunker of the paranormal named Mike Raglan. When his friend, Erik Hokart, sends a letter desperately pleading for help, he heads out to Arizona where Hokart was building a home out in the desert. He discovers that out in the desert, there's a portal to another world.

This novel read to me more like a mystery than a horror novel. There's a lot of creeping dread towards the beginning, but for the most part it focuses on Raglan picking up clues to figure out where Hokart went. The biggest problem with the book is that it drags a lot during the middle. Raglan is constantly asking himself questions, which gets annoying really fast, and a chunk of the middle involves him waffling when he's discovered where Hokart has disappeared to.

For all the dread the book tries to build up of the other world the titular mesa leads to, it's not really scary nor even particularly odd. This is probably why this book gets called science fiction most of the time. You forget this book was supposed to be in any way scary towards the end.

Still, when the action picks up, it's fun to read. The mystery plot, while too slow in the middle, is actually pretty solid and suspenseful.

This probably isn't the best place to begin with Louis L'Amour, but if you've read his other novels and enjoyed them, then this is worth a read.

Buy The Haunted Mesa by Louis L'Amour here. 

Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini  

While I've been a fan of pirates and sea adventures since I was a kid, I don't recall reading many books about them back then. I recently read and enjoyed Treasure Island, the book that established most known pirate cliches, and I started looking for some more. This book was high on a lot of "best pirate book" lists. It's easy to see why.

The story is about Peter Blood, an Irish doctor and former soldier. When he's found to be giving medical attention to English rebels, he's arrested and sold into slavery in Barbados. Through a mixture of ingenuity and luck, he escapes with several other slaves and takes to the sea to become a pirate.

This book was just fun to read. It moved at a good pace, had a lot of great humor, great action, Captain Blood is a very likable character, and it leaves you feeling satisfied after you've read it. This is the kind of thing you want out of an adventure novel like this.

I really enjoyed this book and I highly recommend it. Sabatini's done several other adventure novels, including a sequel to this one, and I'll be sure to check those out as well.

Buy Captain Blood by Rafael Sabatini here.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Chapbook Reviews: Two Wakes and Black Sun Over Green Mountain by Michael Sajdak

Michael Sajdak's first published work, under the name Emril Krestle, was a short story in the book Black House Rocked. Since then, he's edited a book of lawsuits by performance artist Jonathan Lee Riches and released three chapbooks of poems (two of which were also written under the name Emril Krestle). I've already reviewed Pan is Dad before. I'll be taking a look at his other two here.

Two Wakes
Outside I can hear the sound of a flag
And an old woman's heart breaking
Under the wheel of a school bus
That is full of little boys and girls pressed into uniform
And some young man has just bought a new suit
Because he got hired at some new business down the street
What distinguishes Two Wakes from Pan is Dad is that the general tone of Two Wakes is more jocular and the themes are more "down to earth." Many of the poems deal with losers and the downtrodden in a humorous manner and several others are heavily nature oriented. Even the more absurd poems are less abstract. For example, one tells a narrative of a man who used to own a "monkey business." He discusses how the business grew and eventually went bankrupt. He later recounts how he unwittingly upset a bar tender by discussing it.

Another poem is about the childhood of Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with a slave named Jupiter. It shows how they developed a deep bond despite being master and slave and laments how Jupiter has largely been forgotten by history. 

This chapbook seems to have been intended to be read as whole than as a collection. None of the poems are titled and the thematic similarities are very strong between each one.

My only problem with this chapbook is the formatting. The font doesn't fit with the design of the book, and it's far too small and cramped in relation to the pages. Other than that, this is yet another solid collection of poetry on the same level as Pan is Dad.

Two Wakes is currently out of print. I'll update if Sajdak releases a second edition.

Black Sun Over Green Mountain
In the cool, blue deserts of Thebes one night
A shiny blue-gold scarab is rolling its dung
A breeze swings a slum bandit's hammock
Unnoticed, an ancient evil awakens
While Two Wakes is more "down to earth", Black Sun Over Green Mountain is mystical. Many of the poems explicitly deal with Christianity. "Last Supper," of course, is a recounting of the Last Supper of Jesus and his disciples. "Race of Cain, climb the sky!" is about a mysterious group that watched Cain grow up, and may have convinced him to slay his brother, Abel.

Other poems deal with other types of mysticism. "The Mummy," quoted above, is humorous poem about the resurrection of a mummy from the perspective of a piece of its cloth that fell off. "The Hanged Man" is a meditation on the tarot card.

In addition, there are several poems here that are self-referential about poetry. "Roggenbuck" is a humorous poem about doing a reading with the poet Steve Roggenbuck that's incredibly hostile both to the audience and to Roggenbuck. "Absolutely scatological" is a parody of modern poetry that uses scatological imagery to make (often radical leftist) political points.

While Pan is Dad was angry and sarcastic and Two Wakes was jovial, Black Sun Over Green Mountain has a sense of defeat in the tone. That it's the shortest with the most minimalist poems as well gives it a feeling like a lost spirit floating about.

This one you should only really pick up if you enjoyed Sajdak's other poetry books. It's just as solid as the others, but the brevity and sense of finality in it makes it more appropriate to be read in the context of his other work.

Buy Black Sun Over Green Mountain here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Book Review: Anamakee by Garrett Schuelke

Floyd Spicer is a young man who has moved back home and is attending community college in his hometown of Alpena after failing out of Northwestern University. He attempts to get his life on track by working, applying to WMU, and trying to meet new people. None of it goes well for him.

Anamkee reminds me a lot of Sam Pink's Person. An existential novella about a directionless loser in extremely simple prose. It reads almost like a script in how much the dialogue dominates the story. This isn't a bad thing. Schuelke's dialogue always feels authentic, and at times is pretty funny.

For example, one of the more amusing parts is where Floyd goes into a job interview. He believes it's a manual labor job. When he gets there he finds it to be a pyramid scheme selling vacuums.
Floyd made a fist. "Bump it?"
Robb pointed out the door.
"This may come as a shock to you, but I bet my fist will feel better bumping against the skin on your hand than it will on your face."
The book isn't a comedy, though it has its funny moments. It's not really a drama despite several depressing parts, such as Floyd's borderline abusive father, the loss of his job, and a relationship falling apart for seemingly no reason. In the same vein as Pink, this book is probably best described as Kmart realism.

Floyd Spicer is painfully human. All the bad things that happen to him are sometimes his fault, sometimes completely beyond his control. He's intelligent and shows talent in writing, but he's also very lazy. He's likable enough, but often shows signs of inheriting his father's anger problems.

This novella is Garret Schuelke's first work and it's a very solid one. He paints a compelling picture of the kind of person history is destined to forget. People who enjoy writers like Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie should especially pick this up.

Buy Anamakee by Garret Schuelke here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

GUEST POST: Top 5 Books That Inspired Condominium

The essay below is being hosted as part of the promotional blog tour for Daniel Falatko's debut novel. My review of the book is up at Cultured Vultures. The views expressed below are Falatko's and not my own. 

People always assume things. When it comes to works of art, people tend to assume that any work is connected to a host of concrete, critic-approved signposts that preceded it. I pity any indie rock musician, for example, since their first release will no doubt be linked to “The Velvet Underground” or “Joy Division” or “Pavement” or “Sonic Youth” or “Big Star” or “The Stooges” regardless of whether they have ever listened to these bands and even if there is no apparent trace of their sound to be found in the music. I once read an interview with the prick from LCD Soundsystem where he said that he used to go to shows and shout, “I have that record too!” at the bands. Critical signposts in any art form can feel like prisons it is impossible to escape from as an emerging artist, and any work you put out will have dozens of LCD Soundsystems shouting, “It’s all been done before!” from the sidelines.

Literature is even more limiting in this regard, mainly because the critical signposts you get tied to just aren’t as cool as The Stooges. Did you put out a short story collection that contains subtle epiphanies? Alice Munro! Does your novel take a dystopian view of modern civilization? J.G. Ballard alert! Oh, so your novel is violent? Hello Cormac McCarthy! It doesn’t even matter if you’ve never read McCarthy or if you made no attempt to emulate his style. If the first review mentions “McCarthy” even once then you are bound for life to this critical signpost. Your next work could be a life-affirming tale of a young African boy befriending a fuzzy, talking Sloth, and you best believe “McCarthy” will be mentioned at least a dozen times in reference to this work. You will never escape. Cormac’s grizzled shadow will hover over you until the day you exit this world, and all because some parents’ basement book blogger hopped up on Cinnamon Chai, who may or may not have read past the cover blurb, pulled an LCD Soundsystem on your first review.

When Condominium got signed, my wonderful publisher was way into tying me to John Updike for marketing purposes. Now, I do love me some Updike and I happen to have grown up in the same strange region which birthed the Rabbit King, and there are certainly much worse literary figures to be tied to, so yea what the hell? At least this connection set me up for some admittedly hilarious one-liners on the hate-clogged internet (“So when I got to ‘Millennial John Updike’ I took a moment to move sharp implements out of the room.” LOLZ). Granted, I hadn’t cracked open a Rabbit tome in over a decade when working on Condo, and Sir Updike’s fine blanket of suburban sprawl 60s dread was not keeping me warm through long nights working on the novel.

Other than witty quips about millennial Updikes (“How can someone clearly in his mid-30s be considered a millennial?” Ouch, dude.), the initial reaction to the novel could be summed up with just five syllables:

Bret Ea-ston Ell-is

Now don’t get me wrong, I would love to have BEE’s checking account…and his agent…and at least three of his blazers…and whatever deal he made at the crossroads which automatically guarantees every one of his notebook entries is made into a feature film…his whole life basically…minus The Canyons of course…and dude can keep the podcast and the Twitter account…yet I’d be proud to have written The Rules of Attraction…but the whole coked-up bisexual urban Hemingway wearing Prada vibe was not a direct inspiration on this particular work. Referring to an author of urban contemporary fiction as being “Ellisian” at this point is like saying a young, rebellious actor was influenced by Marlon Brando. Dude’s shadow looms so large over the contemporary fiction landscape that we are essentially all his offspring. But it doesn’t mean that a well-worn and heavily-noted copy of Less Than Zero was sitting next to our Macbooks as we honed our latest slice of contemp fic. Instead it was Glamorama for me. Or wait, no it wasn’t. Sorry.

So which well-worn copies were sitting next to my wife’s Macbook when working on Condominium, you ask? For someone who toils within the area of contemporary fiction, I must admit that I don’t read any contemporary fiction. At all. Ever. That contemp fic label is unavoidable, of course, since I do happen to write fiction in the present moment, but believe me if I could write novels from 1920s Paris or the Golden Age of Egypt, I absolutely would. People say I have strange reading tastes. I often glance up from the book I’m wrestling with on the subway to catch someone staring at the cover in horror or confusion. I can’t even count the number of times a friend has taken one look at the book I have in my hands and stated, “You are so fucking weird, man.” So while this list of books that influenced Condominium may seem obtuse to you, they make perfect sense to me, and every square inch of the novel bears their imprint.

Trigger warning: There are no beatniks mentioned here. Thomas Wolf was not summoned to duty. David Foster Wallace was not present, nor were any bandannas worn. Michael Chabon was a no-show. A.M. Homes must have been out sick that year. And most disturbingly, Charles Bukowski is not, and I repeat NOT, included. I’m terribly sorry in advance for any confusion or offense taken due to these omissions.

So with no further ado about nothin’, you can blame and burn these five books if you hated Condominium:

J.K. Huysmans: A Rebours (1884): I’ve never been able to identify a single other person in my life who enjoyed this novel. Most haven’t heard of it, and those who have tried it claim they “just weren’t ready.” Well, I was more than ready for it at 16, and it’s been my main navigational device in life ever since. Regarding the author, let’s just say that “J” to tha’ “K” was one real deal weirdo Frenchman motherfucker and leave it at that. Here in his best-known work, lead protagonist Des Esseintes’ fish-out-of-water pain is so completely vivid and lacerating it basically leaps up off the bargain bin book pages and wraps you in its painfully enticing shroud. Des Esseintes’ quest to live a life cut off from all the aesthetically unappealing aspects of the modern society that tortured him so, surrounding by only his favorite books, foods, liquors…even scents is, to me, entirely admirable, and his abject failure to find happiness even in his own perfectly orchestrated isolation is both heartbreaking and fully inevitable. But the main thing that influenced Condominium, possibly to the novel’s detriment, is that Huysmans’ vibe is NEVER angry and NEVER bitter. Yes, he views the society he happens to have been born into with horror, but it’s an almost naïve terror, much a like a child stumbling across a dead rat in the street. He isn’t outraged. He doesn’t lash out at his surroundings. He’s simply frightened and confused and wonders why this awful thing has to be. Huysmans understood that bitterness and anger just aren’t attractive, and living an entirely attractive existence is what his creation, Des Esseintes, was all about. Throughout all his works, Huysmans longed for the time just before modern Christianity really took over, when the old pagan Gods and The Cross stared each other face-to-face and even performed a strange little dance together. It’s a weird thing to long for, but Huysmans’ pain at having missed this dance is very, very real. Unlike those of us today who long for truly ancient times, J.K. was born only a couple hundred years too late. So close he could taste it, and you can absolutely tell he tasted it when reading even his weaker works. But no, he wasn’t bitter. Huysmans viewed the lame times he was forced to exist in with an analytical but bemused eye. And he was never afraid to make fun of himself or his protagonists. I took this, tried to run with it, and fell flat on my face with Condominium. The book’s view of the current smartphone zombie society was never supposed to be angry. It wasn’t supposed to lash out. And even though it ended up being kind of angry and indeed lashed out at least a little bit, whatever restraint it showed is all owed to Messier J.K. I’ll do better next round, Huysmans. I promise.

Aleister Crowley: Moonchild (1929): Most people’s knowledge of Crowley can be boiled down to, “Wasn’t that the Satanist Jimmy Page worshipped?” And yes, Mr. Crowley was indeed the deceased Magick maverick who’s mysterious powers were summoned by the Wizard Page to harness Led Zeppelin’s ultra-decadent, unstoppable reign of evil greatness in the 70s. And yes, the story you heard is true. Jimmy did buy Crowley’s former estate on Loch Ness (cue visions of Nellie’s serpentine head emerging from the black waters) and all sorts of black magic hilarity ensued. People who know a little more about Crowley could tell you he was a New Age scholar well ahead of his time, a respected mountaineer, a filthy old man of the highest order, and the bald dude with intense eyes peering over Mae West’s shoulder on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But what barely anyone knows is that The Great Beast 666 was also a fine novelist. He only wrote a couple, with Moonchild being my personal favorite. This novel encompasses most of the best “L” words: Lush, Licentious, Libelous, Lovingly-crafted. As someone who has read this thing probably 100 times, there are still long stretches of pages where I have no idea what is happening. Crowley was all about ancient orders, little-known truths, dead languages, and unwritten wisdom, and he kept his prose stunning but mysterious. Wanting to know is what this book is all about, and it morphs into a different form each time you read it. Bravo, Great Beast. Bravo. And if you don’t see any clumsy esoteric leanings amongst all the modernism in Condominium, then you missed them. Fortunately for you.

Jane de La Vaudère: The Collection (1897-1903): Sweet, sweet Jane. There are only two images I know of depicting this author. One is a color pencil sketch showing Jane in an ultra-chic blue dress, her short brown locks frizzed-out in a way Bobby Dylan would later steal, and an ennui-infected blank stare accentuated by saucer brown eyes. The other is a black and white photo of Jane hard at work at an elegant desk with candle burning and a nude sculpture in her background, with a terrifying cougar skin rug spread out before her, its fangs and peeled open eyes menacing the camera. Although there is no way of knowing what she was scribbling away on in this shot, I’d like to think it was one of the three stunning works collected here: Les Androgynes, Le Demi-Sexes, and Les Sataniques. Although Jane may have been the pen name of someone named Jeanne Scrive, the daughter of a famous Parisian doctor, like most alter egos her new identity struck a truer chord. What inspires me about Jane is that, just like my friend J.K., she was once firmly rooted in that most treacherously dull of genres, Naturalism. To think that just five or so years before penning these wonderfully subversive, brilliantly controlled bursts of sheer decadence, she was mired in bleak reality, giving long, detailed rundowns of the ailments suffered by opium addicts on the streets. What Jane learned to do is incredibly important for any writer: She learned to love her subject matter. The voice of these works is a voice reborn, eyes open like that cougar skin rug, shedding the dour constraints of her previous genre and embracing the elusive fact that these things are fun. Being androgynous is liberating if that’s what you’re into. An anarchist throwing bombs can be way sexy. And worshipping Satan? Rock on with yo’ bad selves, les decadents. I would hope that Jane looms large over Condominium, not allowing this writer to get too somber or preachy, embracing and understanding the character’s flaws instead of wagging fingers at them, running down the disintegration of a relationship, a city, an entire modern civilization with an absurd sense of enjoyment. For she certainly isn’t watching over this piece.

Marquise De Sade: Juliette (1797): I once knew an individual who completed his Master’s thesis on De Sade. The fact that this individual eventually did some time in prison and is now a registered sex offender says pretty much all there is to say about the subject matter the Godfather of the Decadents was fond of. To say De Sade just wasn’t made for these times is like claiming it isn’t very pleasant to be set on fire, but then he wasn’t even made for his times, as his own prison record indicates. But the one thing that doesn’t get, ahem, touched on too often in all the movies and writings on De Sade is his masterfully controlled prose. During a time of cumbersome, flowery, overly decorated sentences that lurched slowly along like perfumed slugs, De Sade wrote with great economy and wit. His sentences slash across the pages like elegant knives, and what bleeds through is a gleefully wayward voice unmatched in its enthusiasm in all of literature. Unlike most writers, you can absolutely tell that De Sade was having a blast writing this stuff. He was absolutely loving every last minute of it. It was not a burden for him to compose this content. It was not a chore. And the joy it brought him was worth all that time in prison. So while I may not find sadism a turn on, I do find exuberance to be a thrilling and rare quality in a writer. Yes, I had fun writing Condominium, and if I’m not having fun writing something I discard it, and if even an ounce of joy bleeds through to the final product then I tip a powdered wig to De Sade for the inspiration.

The Master and Margarita: Mikhail Bulgakov (1967): What if Satan were to appear in a Moscow park in the 1930s, flanked by a fast-talking tomcat that walked on his hind legs, a witch named Hella, a fanged assassin, and a butler dressed like Pete Doherty? What if this surreal crew then decided to wreak havoc upon the Russian literary elite? And what if this havoc was wreaked in revenge for a citizen who spent years composing a book about the death of Pontius Pilate and was driven mad by its rejection from this atheist literary world and locked away in a mental asylum? And what if his mistress was turned into a witch by the Satan crew and invited to the Devil’s Midnight Ball where committers of human atrocities arrive from hell and are paraded around the party like red carpet celebrities? And what if the climax of this novel is Pilate himself being released from eternal punishment and forgiven for his betrayal? Well, you would have the greatest novel ever written. This one was so good, in fact, that it was repressed for at least 30 years and didn’t find its way to print until the heady height of the 60s, where it would be best known for inspiring a less-wrinkled Mick Jagger to compose Sympathy For The Devil. But before you blame this novel for that annoying “Woo, Woo!” outro, know that it is a gorgeously composed, complex piece of sustained magical realism that careens and swoops with enough power to lift readers right up off their feet in its slipstream. I know this because it happened to me the first time I read it. This novel taught me the only lesson I ever needed to learn about fiction: Build a world, within a world, within a world, and within this foundation you cannot fail. As long as you’ve built each world true, then all the rest will fall into place naturally. In Condominium that world, within a world, within a world exists within 660 square feet of hardwood floors and modern appliances, on the 16th floor of a brand new condo highrise on the Williamsburg side of the East River. Since so much of the novel needed to take place within this small space, the worlds would have to converge there. Not only did the condo need to fit a newly-purchased set of furniture and Sarah’s collection of Stones records and her wooden voodoo head and Charles’ Cyanide Breakfast shrines, but it needed to fit the Devils’ Midnight Ball and the magic witch river and the Bald Mountain of the crucifixion as well. This is something they just don’t tell you on And though I’m uncertain that these worlds were built completely true, if there is any multi-dimensional feel to Charles and Sarah’s pad then this is owed directly to the lesson shown to me by The Master. Also, special props are in order to Bulgakov for anticipating, in poet character Ivan Homeless, the rise of Bushwick artist homeless chic a good 50 years before it went down, and also for skewering smug, hardline Bill Mayer-style atheists long before the rise of smug, hardline atheist Bill Mayer. Re-spect.

For better or worse, these are the five tomes that were heavy on my mind during the scribing of Condominium. Even if you’ve never read Condo, or you despised it, I’d still recommend all six of these hallucinatory, sometimes mystical, sensually decadent light reads.

So in conclusion, yes, the novel was inspired by Bret Easton Ellis.

Bio: Daniel Falatko is a graduate of the MFA in Writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Originally from Pennsylvania, he lives and works in New York City. Condominium, published by CCLaP, is his first novel. His next novel, One Thin Dime, has been signed by the same publisher and is expected to release in early 2017. He holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives and works in New York City.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Brief Thoughts 15

Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy 

Somewhere in the American south, a man named Culla impregnates his sister, Rinthy. When she gives birth, he takes the baby into the woods and abandons it there. It's rescued by a tinker who takes it off to safety. He lies to his sister and tells her that it died of natural causes. She quickly discovers that he lied. Culla sets off to try to forget what happened and Rinthy sets off to find her baby. Meanwhile, a group of psychopaths are spreading terror across the counties that Culla and Rinthy pass through. 

Despite the title and the premise of the book, it's probably the least dark I've read of McCarthy's work. Especially in the ending. More than any of his other work, it's about despite the depths humanity can sink to, McCarthy still believes it's capable of redeeming itself.

The Bible is a fixation in McCarthy's other works, but here the references are even further to the front. For example, there's a sequence when Culla is falsely accused of starting a stampede of pigs that causes several of them to fall into a river and drown and kills a farmer. It's an obvious parallel to the Bible story where Jesus casts a legion of demons out of a man and into a herd of pigs who run off a cliff.

This is one of McCarthy's lesser known works, but it's still well worth reading. It might not be the best place to start, I'd say go to Blood Meridian or Child of God for that, but given this was only his second novel, it shows he's been an incredibly talented writer worth reading from the start.

Buy Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy here. 

My Mother/Madame Edwarda/The Dead Man by Georges Bataille

This is a collection of three short works by Bataille, a novella and two short stories.

The novella, My Mother, is a coming of age story about a reserved young man being corrupted by his libertine mother. It horrifies him at first, but he finds freedom and eventually God in the debauchery she pushes him to engage in.

While I did enjoy it, I found this to be the weakest in the book. A big part of Bataille's appeal for me is the energy and immediacy in it. My Mother, however, is written in the style of a 19th century novel. As such, it becomes a little ponderous and slow, especially in the middle. It does pick up a lot during the end, which is kind of funny, because this book was technically never finished.  As such, the ending is hazy and disordered. Which isn't a bad thing, it's the kind of thing I expect from Bataille.

Madame Edwarda is a short story where a man is out drunk and decides he wants to get laid. He goes into a whorehouse and meets a prostitute who turns out to be God incarnated. This is a strange and insane story that seems to be a good summary of Bataille's atheistic concept of divinity. The base and the sacred as one in the same.

My favorite of the three is probably The Dead Man. A woman grieved by the death of her lover strips down, goes into an inn, and engages in all manner of debauchery. In the process, she meets a dwarf who may or may not be the devil. The simple prose and the frenzied logic of the character's actions reminds me of Story of the Eye. It's a formally experimental story as well. All of the text is clustered in the middle of the page and each page is labeled at the bottom as if it's a separate chapter. It's worth noting that Bataille writes in the preface that he was very sick while he wrote it and doesn't remember writing it. I'm not surprised.

My edition also contains some excellent essays. Part of why I wanted this book is because of Yukio Mishima's review of My Mother and Madame Edwarda included. Ken Hollings also provides an excellent essay called "In the Slaughterhouse of Love" that gives an engaging rundown of Bataille's philosophy of transgression.

While I'd recommend starting with Story of the Eye with Bataille, this is a good follow up if you enjoy that book. Bataille pulsates with a Sadean energy. I once read somewhere that Bataille is not an author who just engages you, he possesses and rots you from the inside like syphilis. I can't think of a better way to describe him.

Buy My Mother/Madame Edwarda/The Dead Man by Georges Bataille here. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Brief Thoughts 14

The Ego and His Own by Max Stirner

I had read excerpts of this book over the years since I first heard of it, and I was somewhat familiar with Stirner's ideas second hand. So I finally decided to pick this up. I wish I had picked it up sooner. This is a napalm bomb of a book. It was shockingly radical when it was published back in 1844, and it still is.

Stirner's thesis is that all "sacred" concepts like God, the State, the family, and "Man" are nothing but spooks, wheels in the head. He argues that the individual, the Unique, and its will are the only thing that can be considered "real." That might be an oversimplification, but I think it's an accurate summary.

Stirner spends most of his time deconstructing the various sacred cows of his time. For the most part, the book is very easy to understand. The references to contemporary events and to philosophers who are now obscure are probably the most difficult parts. I doubt anyone except graduate philosophy students know who Bauer or Feuerbach are. My edition (and I'm sure most editions in print do) had footnotes that did explain all these references though. 

The most striking thing to me about this book is the amount of time Stirner spends attacking the liberal humanism of his time. He argues that they deconstruct the idea of God, only to take the concept of man/humanity and attempt to make it the highest ideal. As he says, "Our atheists are pious people." This attack is just as relevant today. Especially in the case of identity politics which attempts to attack the oppression of various groups, only to subvert the wills of individuals of these groups, demanding they place the group above themselves. 

His section on "freedom of the speech/the press" really struck me as well. He points out that most of the people who call for total freedom of the press still want to preserve taboos against speaking on certain things. He also notes that "a free press" that exists by permission of the State is not a freedom at all. So much for "the First Amendment." To Stirner, freedom only comes from the will of the individual. Even under threats of imprisonment and death, the individual is responsible for finding ways around it. The analogy he uses is that if there's a rock in your path, you step around it until you get enough gunpowder to blow it up.

The language in the book is clear, while still maintaining a poetry to it. Stirner engages in a lot of repetition that may annoy some, but to me gives it a certain musicality. There are many striking phrases and metaphors that Stirner uses in explaining his ideas. I once read an article by someone who viewed The Ego and His Own as a literary precursor to Maldoror. While I can't find any evidence that Lautreamont ever read Stirner, it wouldn't surprise me. Both have a freewheeling style and engage in a gleeful desecration of everything held sacred. 

It's easy to see why Stirner endures, even if he's not as well known as Ayn Rand or Friedrich Nietzsche. This is an absolutely essential read. 

Buy The Ego and His Own by Max Stirner  

A Sentimental Novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet 

This was Robbe-Grillet's last book before he died. It was originally released in France back in 2007, but didn't get translated and released in the US until 2014.

The story is about a 14-year-old girl named Gigi who has an incestuous relationship with her father. Her father's friend comes over and gives her a gift, a 13-year-old sex slave named Odile who is a former prostitute. There's a lot of whipping, an outing to buy more sex slaves, and an extravagant dinner that culminates in the torture and murder of more prepubescent girls. 

Yeah. There's a reason why it took 7 years for this book to receive an English translation.

Subject matter aside, the craftsmanship of the writing of this book is amazing. The prose creates incredibly vivid images. It's a demented and relentless sexual fantasy.

As good as the writing in the book is, I really don't see how this book can be read as anything other than pornography. Books like Mirbeau's The Torture Garden, Bataille's Story of the Eye, and de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom are full of pornographic writing, but work on other levels as well. A Sentimental Novel, on the other hand, reads to me simply as smut. The fact the author has said in interviews that it was based on his sexual fantasies seems to back this up. 

I'm not against pornography, but trying to assess it is like assessing something like a blender. Either the blender works, or it doesn't. Porn either gets you off, or it doesn't. In this case though, I think it's safe to say that the sexualized torture of prepubescent girls is well beyond most people's limits.

It could be read, I suppose, in the context of Robbe-Grillet's theories of a "new novel," which the translator briefly touches on in his preface. Even then, that only really applies to the unorthodox structure (each paragraph is numbered like it's a separate chapter) and the moments of surrealism at the beginning and the end. These moments seem to be there to emphasize that this is all fantasy, and they are beautiful in the prose and the imagery. 

I enjoyed the writing enough that I'm adding Robbe-Grillet's other works to my list. As for this one, I only recommend it to people who already like Robbe-Grillet (who probably already have this book anyway), or to people with particularly sadistic and extreme sexual tastes.

Buy A Sentimental Novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet here.

Monday, March 14, 2016


The Next Best Book Blog has allowed me to read two poems from the sky is black and blue like a battered child as part of their "Audio Series." You can hear me read the poems "when my boat has sunk" and "brad" there. I want to thank the editors for enjoying my work and for agreeing to host these.

Listen to the poems here.

Also, don't forget that a number of my reviews are going up at Cultured Vultures. Here are my last three.

Condominium by Daniel Falatko
Stone's Throw by David Deitcher
Dream Closet, edited by Matthew Burgess

I'll also have another installment of my "Brief Thoughts" series up at this blog by the end of the week.

For anyone in the Des Moines area, I'll be reading from the sky is black and blue like a battered child at The Fremont on March 27th as part of Ryan Werner and Gwen Beatty's Domestic Garbage Tour.

The Facebook event page is here.

Thank you to Miguel Ramierz for inviting me, and to Ryan and Gwen for having me.

And thank you to everyone who reads and supports me, as well.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

CHAPBOOK RELEASE: the sky is black and blue like a battered child

I'm happy to announce the release of my first chapbook, the sky is black and blue like a battered child. This chapbook includes 25 poems written between 2009-2015. You can buy it on Amazon in paperback or Kindle.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Book Review: Gillian's Marsh by Michael Faun

While running from her abusive father, Louella Lee Wishum is rescued by the woodsman Red Swanson, who takes her in. Meanwhile, back in Louella Lee's hometown of Gillianswick, the sergeant constable Cyrus Reiterman suspects that witchcraft is behind the disappearance of several men in the town.
Louella Lee drops the bucket of water and falls down her knees. She whimpers as the cold brook water gushes out over the path and the transparent tendrils soak her dress. Her stomach hurts so much she wants to take a knife and cut out her uterus.
It would be easy to compare Gillian's Marsh to the works of authors like H.P. Lovecraft, Edward Lee, and Brian Keene. All of them are obvious influences. Despite that, Faun very much feels like he's doing his own thing in terms of writing supernatural horror. Images of Satanism and witchcraft run throughout the story, but it never feels derivative.

Faun's writing conjures up some vivid and often very unpleasant images in the way a horror story like this should. He never piles it on too thick, so the grotesque parts never feel ridiculous or gratuitous. They have just the right amount of punch to them.
By the time they reached the Blood Oak, the man's whining had stopped. Red's knuckles had proven a perfect cure to ridden the missionary of his useless words and prayers.
The ancient tree looked famished. Her boils were sagging, drained of the precious milk she needed to live. Even her scarlet bark was flaking. She looked altogether haggard and Red felt a twinge of sadness in his heart. 
The plot moves along at a good clip and keeps you turning the page. Even the diversions to dreams and journal entries don't slow things down. Faun has tight control on the story. Given it's a short work, it's easy to finish within a couple hours.

Overall, Gillian's Marsh is just really fun to read. It's an entertaining work by a very skilled author with a deep love for the horror genre. If you enjoy horror, this novella is well worth reading.

Buy Gillian's Marsh by Michael Faun here.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Brief Thoughts 13

TAZ: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism by Hakim Bey

Reading Woodcock's history of Anarchism got me interested in reading more on the subject. My library actually doesn't have much on the subject. Strangely, of the very few things they did have, this off-kilter little volume was one of them. I recognized Hakim Bey from his contribution to Apocalypse Culture and figured this would be worth a read. 

The titular essay discusses the concept of creating temporary zones that are out of reach of formal social regulations. One example he gives are enclaves that pirates established on uncharted islands for short periods of time. He explicitly opposes seeing the TAZ as a means to an end of an anarchist revolution, believing the desire to do such would defeat the entire purpose. He also speculates that the Internet may be a breeding grounds for TAZs, though as he notes in the preface to this edition, the essay was written when the Internet was a very new thing and this part is very out of date. 

The rest of the book are reprints of communiques/broadsides dealing with various subjects such anarchism, mysticism, pornography, art and philosophy. Some of these essay are written in a style that make them read like complete word salads. For example, I have no idea if the "Hollow Earth" essay was making a point, or was just a weird vignette. For the most part, Bey is a pretty solid writer, but there are times like this where his excesses make him unreadable. 

Besides the titular essay, most of this book isn't really to be taken seriously, and I don't think Bey intended it to be. For example, there are parts in the book where he advocates putting curses on institutes that harm society, but given he lists things like the MUZAK corporation as targets, I think it's safe to say he has his tongue in his cheek. I certainly hope so, he can't actually think taking a shit on the floor of a bank during the busy hours is going to accomplish anything.

Overall, this is an interesting book but it's not essential reading. On the topic of anarchism, you'll need a good amount of knowledge going in to get where the book is coming from on that front. Likewise, there are probably better places to go for the subjects of Tantra or art criticism. Still, it's an nicely unusual read. If you have an interest in the kind of fringe thought the Discordians and the Church of the SubGenius put out, this is worth getting. 

Buy TAZ: The Temporary Autonomous Zone, Ontological Anarchy, Poetic Terrorism by Hakim Bey here.

The Kingdom of God is Within You by Leo Tolstoy 

After I was forced to abandon War and Peace, I decided to give this a try. Given how dense War and Peace was in some parts, I expected this to be the same. Not so, this book is very readable and not at all difficult to understand. 

The Kingdom of God is Within You is Tolstoy's treatise on Christianity, pacifism, and the nature of government. This is the book that basically started the Christian anarchist movement and was also a huge influence on Mahatma Gandhi. 

Tolstoy's thesis is that the Sermon on the Mount calls for pacifism, or, as he calls it, nonresistance to evil by force. He concludes that the established Churches have perverted Christ's teachings for their own ends and that no Christian can support the existence of the state, which is required to use violence to exist.  

Tolstoy's pacifism didn't make him a pushover. He attacks church and state with passion and clarity. There are no punches pulled for his targets like the Russian Orthodox Church or Kaiser Wilhelm. That's what makes this book such a pleasure. It's like reading a sermon from an intense minister. 

Even if you're not a Christian or an anarchist, this is an essential book if only for its influence as a philosophical work.

Buy The Kingdom of God is Within You by Leo Tolstoy here.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

New Review at Cultured Vultures + An Announcement

My review of M Kitchell's collection of experimental writing, Spiritual Instrument, is up at Cultured Vultures.

Check it out here. 

I have also been asked to be a regular contributor to the site, which I have accepted. As a result, most of my reviews will be going there if there, if not Adventures in SciFi Publishing.

I won't be abandoning this blog, of course. I'll still be putting my "Brief Thoughts" series here and be using it for announcements related to my writing. Any reviews that don't seem to fit elsewhere will go here as well.

Keep an eye out both at CV and AISFP, I have plenty of reviews coming down the pipe both places. I'll also have another announcement coming within the next couple weeks. Stay tuned.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Brief Thoughts 12

Never Die Alone by Donald Goines

A black drug dealer named King David is attacked in the street by people he had previously fucked over. He's discovered by a Jewish writer named Paul who rushes him to the hospital where he dies. Grateful for his kindness, King David leaves Paul everything he owns, including a diary detailing his rise from small to big time dealing. Meanwhile, Mike, King David's killer, is dealing with the fallout his revenge is having.

This is one of Goines' better known novels because of the movie starring DMX from 2004. It's an enjoyable crime thriller. Paul's glance into King David's diary is an excellent analysis of the psyche of a greedy dope peddler, and Mike's story line is full of action and suspense.

It's a flawed book, however. The two story lines don't really come together and both end a little too abruptly. The worst part is that there are one or two glaring continuity errors. Ones that could have easily been fixed by changing a couple words. The editor was clearly asleep at the wheel here.

Despite that, it's still a book worth picking up for a quick read.

Buy Never Die Alone by Donald Goines here. 

Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver 

Eldridge Cleaver is a figure from the Civil Rights era who is nowhere near as well remembered as people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X. It's easy to see why. In this very book, the man admits to being a rapist, and after the the 70s he became a conservative Mormon who stumped for the Republican party. Even Ishmael Reed's preface in this book is less than flattering. At one point Cleaver lead a group called "Guardians of the Sperm." It's easy to dismiss him as a crank.

The essays in Soul on Ice were written while he was in prison and deal with the subject of prison life, black liberation, the place of black men in popular culture, and sexuality in the context of American race relations. Many of the the essays on prison were originally letters to his lawyer. He was apparently in love with her and these letters come across somewhat as gushy and cloying.

The essays on sexuality divide black people and white people into four categories. Black women's femininity is compromised by servitude while a white women is overdosed on it. Black men are hypermasculine while power makes white men feminized. These essays lack the verisimilitude of his more personal ones and at times feel like mental masturbation.

Another infamous section in this book, besides admitting to having committed rapes, is his criticism of James Baldwin. While Cleaver praises Baldwin's writing, he condemns Baldwin himself as an Uncle Tom. He attributes this to the fact Baldwin was gay and compares homosexuality to raping babies and "wanting to become the head of General Motors." Moments like this are why history hasn't been kind to Cleaver. Still, this part was so blatant and mean-spirited I couldn't help but get a laugh out of it.

While I've been nothing but critical, I honestly loved this book. I couldn't put it down. Cleaver's writing has an absorbing energy that grips you and demands you hear him out to the end. Whatever flaws he had, his talent as a writer is undeniable.

As Reed notes in the preface, Cleaver was ultimately a doubter above all. His doubt lead him to some unusual places, but it allowed him to dissect race in America from a perspective few others could. He's a great example of why we always need people who reflexively distrust what they're taught. 

Maybe Eldridge Cleaver was a crank, but if he was, he was an interesting crank and one that deserves to be read. If nothing else, to get into glimpse into what a turbulent time the Civil Rights era really was.

Buy Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver here.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Brief Thoughts 11

Anarchism by George Woodcock

I had a some bad luck with books the past couple months. I checked War and Peace out from my library and got halfway through it before it was due back. I couldn't renew it because someone had placed a hold on it, so I had to return it. Then right before that, I tried reading a copy of this book I had bought used a couple years ago. It turns out that version was a misprint that was missing the majority of the second half. There's 50 cents that's never coming back. I had to buy a new edition to finish it. Which wasn't an entirely bad thing since the newer edition had some updated information.

The first half is an engaging history of the roots of anarchist ideas. It covers most of the major thinkers like Godwin, Proudhon, Bakunin, etc, and provides a good summary of their lives and ideas. The chapter on Stirner is a bit lacking. It's clear that Woodcock was not a fan, and he doesn't analyze his ideas much. Still, he acknowledges Stirner's influence on anarchist thought in a pretty accurate manner. The section on Tolstoy also came from a more literary based perspective than from a political one. 

The second half deals with the history of anarchist movements from all over the world. I found this part to be a dryer read. That's probably my own bias. I tend to be more interested in individuals than mass movements. That said, this section had some good information on where the "classical" anarchist movements started and ended in many parts around the world. It mostly focuses on continental Europe, but the sections on Latin and North America are well done. There were also a few affecting moments here. The optimism that the success (however limited) of the Spanish anarchists during the Civil War instills, and the tragedy of how thoroughly the Soviet Union crushed the movement in a country that produced some of its most important thinkers.

Also, funny story about this book. Bernie Sanders was in my city when I first picked this up, and he ended up coming into the cafe I started reading this in. So I read the first chapter with Sanders sitting at the table next to me talking to his campaign manager

If you're at all interested in Anarchism, this is an essential read. It gives a good rundown on it's history and various streams of thought. It's a good jumping off point as well, naming off major thinkers and works to reference if you decide to delve deeper.

Buy Anarchism by George Woodcock here. 

Cocaine Nights by J.G. Ballard 

I've said in other places how much I love J.G. Ballard, but I actually haven't read a lot of his works. Just four novels (counting this one) and a few short stories. He's one of those authors that instantly "clicked" with me. Cocaine Nights is no exception. 

The plot of the novel is that a travel writer goes to Spain, where his brother has been locked up. He's been accused of starting a fire in a resort town that caused the death of five people. When he gets there, he finds that his brother has pleaded guilty. Convinced that something suspicious is going on, he sets out to find out who really started the fire and why. 

This book is the spiritual predecessor to Super-Cannes. They have similar plots and  both revolve around the theme of the place of crime and transgression in society. Specifically, they both put forward the idea that crime is a negative but necessary component of a healthy society. A lack of it creates complacency and breeds ennui.

Because Cocaine Nights reads more like a traditional mystery novel, many may find this to be more accessible than Super-Cannes. Despite that, I preferred Super-Cannes. It was a bit more subtle in its goals and created a better mood. I still liked this book a lot. In fact, it may be a good jumping on point for people new to Ballard. If you like mysteries and are looking to get into Ballard, this book is perfect.

Buy Cocaine Nights by J.G. Ballard here.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Book Review: Mistah Kurtz! A Prelude to Heart of Darkness

"What's your name, mate?"
"Edward. Edward Kurtz."
"I don't think I'm anything." As I put the ivory between my lips, I caught an abstract scent of gunpowder, and something made me say, "Yet."
Heart of Darkness is one of those books that's so heavily ingrained in English speaking cultures, that many people still know many aspects of it despite never having read it. If nothing else, people will recognize the name Kurtz from Apocalypse Now. But even for people who've read the book, how much do we really know about Kurtz? After all, his mystery is part of why he endures so much. James Reich gives his own take on who Kurtz may have been in this novel.
I witness my world as an outsider, slipping out of my skin, observing my pale alienage, my transit, and my station. Out there, the Company men are beetles pushing shit. They bore recklessly into the the slop of the earth, hesitating only to witness the cryptic tunnel collapsing slowly behind them. I am a fly, buzzing my own embodiment, a thousand eye lenses aghast. What is Kurtz? Company man, poet, cannonball, or feral god--we shall find him out.
Mistah Kurtz! tells the story of Kurtz through the papers which he entrusts to Marlow shortly before he dies. Much of it is letters that were originally intended for Kurtz's fiancee back in England. He recounts his teenage years, how he came to the Congo, and how he ended up becoming a god to the natives.

As a teenager, he is scarred by witnessing a public execution, by the abuse heaped on him by his father, and by the death of his mother. While trying to transport his mother's body to be buried in her homeland of England, his father abandons him and he loses his mother's coffin at sea. He also meets Eric Paine, who instills the idea of going to Africa in him.
Eric Paine took strange delight in his African transformation. Had he a mirror, he would have addressed it--without a mirror, he addressed me. I confess that he was, indeed, mesmerizing, in ways that remind me of Monsieur Prudhomme, the butcher of Charleville, or even my father.
In England, he spends some time in a sanitarium due to seizures. There, he takes to producing art and poetry, and his interest in Africa deepens. When he gets out, he spends some time under the wing of a forger, gets caught up in a riot with dockworkers, and meets his fiancee. With the help of her father, he secures a position in the Company and heads off to the Congo. There, his descent/ascension into the mad white god that Marlow would eventually find begins.

The prose in Mistah Kurtz! is intense and vivid. It pulses with the same kind of feverish Modernism that made Heart of Darkness such a gripping classic. Further, Reich brings the violence surrounding Kurtz that was only suggested in Conrad's novel to the forefront.
Sunrise, indigo to pink--I was standing erect within the eviscerated corpse of an elephant, the titanic gray sheath of its hide flowing out behind me, as I forced my head upward through the smashed plates of the cranium, into the bloody hollow where the brain had been.
Reich creates a convincing backstory for the brilliant but troubled character of Kurtz. He takes a more sympathetic approach to the character than what most interpretations of Heart of Darkness I've seen do. For example, most interpret the note left by him that Marlow comes upon, "exterminate all the brutes," as a call to commit genocide against the natives of the Congo. Here, Reich takes a very different interpretation.
The prodigal massacre of the elephants would continue until the station collapsed under the weight of ivory. I shot them down with vengeance, as if the sanctity of the universe depended on it. We gave the hollow child what rites we could. His tiny skull remains in my garden.
The criticism of colonialism implied in Conrad's novel is made explicit in Reich's to a somewhat heavy-handed point. There is an excellent surreal sequence where Kurtz imagines becoming a tumor that kills King Leopold which gets its point across quite well. Shortly after, he also imagines leading the Congolese on a rampage across Europe which climaxes in beheading Leopold. This part is a little too on-the-nose, especially coming so soon after a better meditation on the same theme.

There are also moments when things drag, such as the cliche abusive father that Kurtz reflects on. He haunts Kurtz's memory throughout the book, yet we don't really learn all that much about him. Reich's masterful prose keeps the book from ever derailing, however. The story of Mistah Kurtz! also meets with Heart of Darkness's very nicely.
There are rumors, Chinese whispers along the sycophantic chains of the company, that I am to be arraigned. Kurtz is to be rescinded--my ideas have become paralogical. It is difficult to regard these accounts seriously, since one simple whisper is milled into so many split grains of half-truth, yet perhaps there is one grain of truth among them. The Company is disturbed: good! I have got above my station.
Mistah Kurtz! is an intensely decadent study of one of the most mysterious characters in the Western canon. The prose is as dense and colorful as the Conoglian forests and tells a story as compelling as its predecessor. If you enjoyed Heart of Darkness, Reich's prelude is a must-read.

Pre-order Mistah Kurtz! A Prelude to Heart of Darkness by James Reich here.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Brief Thoughts 10

Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans

I finally got around to picking this up, thanks to some prodding from how Huysmans factored into Submission.

This book is almost overwhelming in the senses it invokes. The story is relatively simple. A debauched nobleman named Des Esseintes gets tired of his libertine life and cloisters himself away in a castle in a country. He resolves to live a life focused entirely on art and literature.

The details in the book of Des Esseintes's castle, of the art he admires (such as Gustave Moreau), and the discussion of the writers he admires (such as Schopenhauer) are incredible vivid.  One of the most memorable moments is where Des Esseintes has a dream that he's being attacked by a woman who he believes to be syphilis in human form. It's easy to see why this is regarded as one of the best works of the Decadent movement.

Because of how much Huysmans's eventual conversion to Catholicism was a part of Submission, his fixation on religion in this book really stood out to me. Des Esseintes admires many theologians, religious artists, and church music, but he's unconvinced of Christianity.

Despite that, he's even more disgusted with the vacuous modern life of Paris. It's easy to see why, as Des Esseintes is likely a stand in for Huysmans, that he would eventually convert.

This is a beautiful work, and it's easy to see why Houellebecq found so much inspiration in it.

Buy Against Nature by Joris-Karl Huysmans here.

Lump It or Leave It by Florence King

I've been a fan of Florence King since I read With Charity Towards None, a funny and intelligent look at the subject of misanthropy. So I was saddened to hear when she died on January 6th of this year, one day after her 80th birthday.

While I had read some more of her articles online, I hadn't picked up another one of her books since. I decided to grab this one from my library.

Unlike With Charity Towards None, this book doesn't have a central theme. Some of the essays are personal, some are about the hot button political topics of the time, and all of them are entertaining and hilarious.

For example, in her essay on going through menopause, she talks about how the greatest compliment she received from a man was when a pair of obvious purse snatchers decide to leave her alone because "she a mean lady."

She also relates a hilarious story on dealing with a sketchy literary agent that ends with the agent's daughter trying to kill her mother in a bathtub. This is probably the chapter I had the most fun reading. King can tell a great story, and I need to pick up her memoir sooner than later.

On political topics, she shows herself to be an iconoclast. She supports traditional values, but hates traditional value voters because they're all idiots. She's bisexual and hates the gay rights movement, who don't much like her either. She hates feminism, but she can't help but admire the fire and wit that Andrea Dworkin displayed in Letters from a War Zone.

Florence King was one of a kind. One of the best writers of invective since H.L. Mencken. Her death is a great loss to America.

Buy Lump It or Leave It by Florence King here.