Orion Reads
a diary of books etc.

Monday, June 27, 2005

tolkien twain kingston

am still reading the Tolkien/WWI bio. it's incredibly interesting, altho i suspect absolutely only if you're a pretty serious tolkien nut. if the only elvish you know is in the movies, you probably won't be interested. it's actually kindled a desire to read, who would have thought it, some WWI history books, and while i'm at it, i should really just read world history again. does Zinn have a world history book ?

michelle got me Puddinhead Wilson, i think to make fun of me. i was enjoying it quite a bit until i lost it. i think it's under the bed. i'm approaching the decision that Twain's reputation as a racial activist is largely undeserved. this is solely from light readings of his books, mind, not any serious research. as an author he strikes me as first and foremost a humorist, and all other themes are distinctly subservient. if it's funny to show the hypocrisy of whites, he'll write it. if it's funny to show the ignorance of slaves, he'll write it. perhaps his interest shifted by the time he wrote Huck Finn, but his other writings don't really seem to hold up the mantle of racial radical. i welcome dialogue on this.

have started Maxine Hong Kingston's famous Woman Warrior. I feel i may have tried reading this before. She writes so well that i partially wish i were chinese american and could feel more relevancy to my life. Why wasn't Maxine Hong Kingston born a white middle class computer geek instead of confused chinese american second-generation girl ? So, it's hard for me to pay attention for whole chapters, but each page is a pleasure.


"We've got to get rid of that Danes girl!" Tom declared.

god that's funny.

andrew vacchs

Andrew Vacchs was at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in sf this evening, touring re his new book Two Trains Running. I.. was about to write that i'm not really a Vacchs fan, but i have read at least ten or so of his books, so i guess i defacto am. For those who don't know, Vacchs is a child-abuse activist who prosecutes child abuse cases and writes gritty, violent novels which deal with the same cause in which the child abuser always ends up horribly dead. The books are famously formulaic, but really it's hard not to get behind them, especially when bad things come to bad people.

(author, not character)

I expected him to be intense in person, and he is, but much more approachable and easy-going than uh, i expected. He did not actually read from his new book (which is Not a Burke novel) but instead pretty much just talked about whatever, which was pretty cool. He fielded questions on anything but the audience primarily asked what he thought of various current events, etc.

Yes, he talked about dogs. No, he didn't talk about cars, full-figured women or blowjobs.

Those interested in child advocacy and more will find lots of relevant stuff at vacchs.com.

Monday, June 20, 2005

John Updike

Michelle recommended that i pick up John Updike's The Poorhouse Fair at a used book sale we were at, and i did and boy am i glad. It's such a treasure to find a good author whom you haven't read yet. The Poorhouse Fair is a very well written portrait of aging, basically. Altho to some degree i ahve the sense that it may not be about that at all and i'm not reading deep enough! Haha. Anyhow. Updike's tone is for the most part breezy and comfortable, and he only strays into overt metaphysics once or twice.

Am back to Tolkien and the Great War, which is good.

Michelle also happened upon a copy of Songs of a Dead Dreamer which seems to be the same edition as the one i have but in worse condition, for sale for about $100 on the internet! huh!

Go blow off some steam by making up a few Tom Swifties !

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Ligotti, on Tolkien, John Updike, Jonathan Lethem

I think i finished the Ligotti book. If not i'm pretty close. (I love falling asleep reading)

Most of the short stories in Songs of a Dead Dreamer are good but only barely. A few i'd skip. And a few are existentially creepy like nobody's business. Among these really good ones, which i'd recommend to anyone, are:

* Alice's Last Adventure
- the story of a now late-middle aged authoress of a series of popular spooky children's adventures. alice is now cynical and alchoholic and when small things start to stand out to her as extremely strange, nobody (neither us nor she) knows if she's just going nuts or if the demons are coming for her. this story is a *masterpiece of understatement*. if there's one thing i can't stand it's an author with a sledgehammer in his hand, and here ligotti is with his lightest touch.

* Dream of a Mannikin
- This unfortunately can't be done anything remotely like justice in, i think, fewer words than the story itself. Ligotti is real good at imparting the yes, you may in literal fact be dreaming right now and awake at any moment or worse. This is a crisp, powerful, and deeply haunting short story. Essentially it's the story of a psychologist who receives a patient who is recommended to her by her lover & professional rival, who has often tried to make the psychologist interested in Other Planes of existence and such, and the upshot is that this patient is having deeply disturbing multi-level dreams wherein she first dreams that she is a little girl putting clothing on puppets (shades of her real-life job as a dresser of store-window mannequins) but then in the dream she falls asleep and dreams that she is a puppet, being none-too-kindly dressed and walked about the stage by some unseen god figure. She then wakes up from this second-level dream not to the first-level dream, but to reality which is attended by much disconcertion exaggerated by a conviction and glimpse of a mannequin's head receding into the headboard of her bed. Naturally when our hero tracks down the place of work of the patient, she finds nobody is employed there by her name or description, but there is a mannequin in the shop window which is dressed in the clothes the young patient was wearing. Meanwhile this is only the groundwork for the layered relationship between our two psychologists, and it really goes from there and gets creepier and creepier.

* Notes on the Writing of Horror
- Pretty skillfully done, this takes a pretty obvious idea and does it very well so that in the end you really are somewhat disturbed. It's not going to sound good here, but it is. Ligotti writes as a famous writer of horror composing a small article on the topic of how to write horror. He begins with a simple horror story and demonstrates how it can be rendered in various flavours: Realistic, Gothic, Experimental. (The story is one of a man about to go on a Big Date, but unfortunately buys a pair of haunted trousers which necrotise his legs in the middle of the ghetto.) However after the three traditional styles he moves on to "another style" and "the final style" during the course of which the article begins to be really scary in itself.

Am reading Tolkien and the Great War by John Garth. If you're not a Tolkien fan, this will bore you to tears. If you've read The Book of Lost Tales or The Lays of Beleriand etc, it's pretty interesting stuff. It's the most detailed biography of Tolkien i've read so far, which isn't really saying much as i haven't read any straight-up biographies of him, but it certainly casts light on some stuff in the Letters which were a bit foggy at the time.

Am about halfway thru John Updike's The Poorhouse Fair. I think this is the first Updike i've read (readen?) and it's pretty good. It's a close-up portrayal of old people and regular people at a Poorhouse in New Jersey, circa 1950. Am enjoying it immensley.

I bought Jonathan Lethem's Fortress of Solitude a while ago, but after thumbing through it i don't think i'm going to read it. Which is strange because i loved As She Climbed Across the Table and of course Motherless Brooklyn.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

A Confederacy of Dunces, Thomas Ligotti

Well, it's official. A Confederacy of Dunces is, in fact, the most charming book i've ever read. It's basically a story about a fat offensive bombastic antiachieving slob named Ignatius and his misadventures in colorful New Orleans. Some folks are too irritated by Ignatius as a character to read the book, and honestly, i can't fault them; you'll probably love or hate this book and it's not one where i'm going to argue that my side is right.

Ignatius speaking with a hot-dog vendor:

Ignatius chewed with a blissful savagery, studying the scar on the man's nose and listening to his whistling.
"Do I hear a strain from Scarlatti?" Ignatius asked finally.
"I thought i was whistling 'Turkey in the Straw.'"
"I had hoped that you might be familiar with Scarlatti's work. He was the last of the musicians," Ignatius observed and resumed his furious attack upon the long hot dog. "With your apparent musical bent, you might apply yourself to something worthwhile."
Ignatius chewed while the man began his tuneless whistling again. Then he said, "I suspect that you imagine 'Turkey in the Straw' to be a valuable bit of Americana. Well, it is not. It is a discordant abomination."
"I can't see that it matters much."
"It matters a great deal, sir!" Ignatius screamed. "Veneration of such things as 'Turkey in the Straw' is at the very root of our current dilemma."
"Where the hell do you come from? Whadda you want?"
"What is your opinion of a society that considers 'Turkey in the Straw' to be one of the pillars, as it were, of its culture?"
"Who thinks that?" the old man asked worriedly.
"Everyone! Especially folksingers and third-grade teachers. Grimy undergraduates and grammar school children are always chanting it like sorcerers." Ignatius belched. "I do believe that i shall have another of these savories."

It's a darned shame that John Toole killed himself at thirty-two.

Am currently reading (devouring) Songs of a Dead Dreamer by Thomas Ligotti, which Kai, bless her, got me from her bookshop. I didn't think he actually had any books, just appearances in strange places. It's a late-80s book of existential horror, which really is beyond me to describe. I try to paraphrase the feeling by paraphrasing a segment from I Have A Special Plan For This World, by Current93 with words by Ligotti:

    Imagine, the voice said,
    a language that is conceived solely to speak
    of a world that is populated with people and things.
    take away the things,
    take away the people.
    Take away the world and the words,
    and what remains
    it asked me.

.. they're sort of koans of Horror.

Unfortunately several of the stories still rely on just very bad essentially physical things happening to good people, but there's enough of the existential in there to make me love it. I suspect that Ligotti's later work is more distilled and distances itslf further from the simple physical terror genres. At least i hope so, as the physical terror genre doesn't do much for me.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

A Confederacy of Dunces

Am about halfway thru John Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. I think it's possibly the most charming book i have ever read.

On the horizon: Kai just found me a Thomas Ligotti book in her bookshop ! This guy is so impossible to find, but writes the best horror i've ever read, including Lovecraft. I like both of these gentlemen because they write about horror, not merely terror.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

A Wild Sheep Chase

Another Murakami! I've now read three Murakami's: Hardboiled Wonderland, Norwegian Wood, and A Wild Sheep Chase. I love them all, but think Hardboiled Wonderland remains my favorite, followed by the Sheep Chase, and finally, lovingly, by Norwegian Wood.

I'm not sure what to say about A Wild Sheep Chase.
There's a distinct same-ness to Murakami's characters and tones, and it's a wonderful sameness, and Sheep Chase has it.

Keeping to broad strokes,
there's plot, there's some action, there's lots of humor, there's mysticism (i think), and there's um, Magic, and of course Strangeness.

Highly recommended.

See what i thought of Norwegian Wood here.

Saints and Strangers

Saints and Strangers is a collection of short stories by Angela Carter from the late 60s thru early 80s. Janina and Patrick told me to get it at the Strand. The back cover says she has an "distinctly unique voice" and for once, a back cover is dead on the money; Carter's prose is really incredibly different and refreshing. It's not a prose you can read without paying attention.
I'd say about a third of the stories are Excellent, a third are Good, and a third i just skipped.
One story covers the day in the life of the involved characters of Lizzie Borden's famous act, just up to the commencing of the act. It's an incredible story, well worth the cover price alone.

American Prometheus

I finished a bunch of books lately.

American Prometheus, the 2005 biography of Robert Oppenheimer was only the second or third biography i've ever read, and much more massive than the other two combined. I picked up the book because since late childhood, .. well.


sometime in high-school i had what i think was a formative dream. (a literal sleepytime dream, not a "I Have A Dream" dream) Actually it was a nightmare. By high-school i already self-identified pretty strongly as both a scientist and a left winger, and i had this nightmare where essentially i was one of the scientists who worked on the Manhatten Project. In the dream the Bomb was a small witch's cauldron of sort of boiling silver liquid, and i think we even delivered it on broomstick, but the emotional feeling of guilt the dream delivered packed a powerful punch and i think has stayed with me my whole life.

So i've been vaguely obsessed with scientists' guilt over the A & H-Bombs for some time, and pretty much all i knew about Oppenheimer was that he pretty much symbolized this, and of course is famous for his words just after the first A-Bomb test: "Now i am become death, the destroyer of worlds." Other than that, i knew pretty much nothing about Oppenheimer, nor did anyone i asked.


Oppenheimer was clearly a genius, a sort of rennaissance man who loved poetry almost as much as he loved physics. His early life was pretty dismal: at one point he literally left a poisoned apple on his mentor's desk. But he picked himself up and became a rapidly rising star in atomic physics. In the 30s he flirted with various Communist Party um, causes.

The war loomed, and just before it, the fact that an A-Bomb was possible was realized, and Oppenheimer was chosen to lead the American bomb effort.

He succeeded, and approved of the bombs (plural!) being dropped on Japan, even tho he was aware at the time that the Japanese were essentially defeated, and probably aware that they were merely seeking acceptable terms of surrender.

After the war he was extremely influential in Washington, and devoted his efforts to curtailing development of atomic weapons, especially the hydrogen bomb, which is some 1,000 times more destructive than the atomic bomb.

Eventually however, he made enemies in Washington and was put to an absurdly rigged trial and his security clearance was revoked in the early 60s. This pretty much crushed him and marked a turning point for american science: Up to then, it seemed as if scientists who developed weapons had a legitimate voice in the use of those weapons. Afterwards, it was clear that scientists were expected to shut up and do their jobs.

My evaluation of Oppenheimer's character is that he was essentially a genius and a good and compassionate guy, except he was unfortunately enamoured of power, and respected it too much in others, and lusted after it himself.

There ya go.

I forgot to mention that i think the book itself is not very well written.
I'm pretty unfamiliar with the biographical genre,
but the writing stuck in my craw several times.
Notably the narrator was a pretty opinionated guy.
He'd say thing like "Weil was typical of the bloated egos Oppenheimer ecountered at the Institute." (p. 385) - Which while it may certainly be true doesn't seem like a very narrator-like thing to say. And so on.
Or here: "Quite bluntly, any attempt to label Robert Oppenheimer a [Communist] Party member is a futile exercise - as the FBI learned to its frustration over many years." (p. 136)
That may be a useful summary of stuff, but i just feel the narrator shouldn't go around just asserting things. - Hmm. Or possibly i should be More mistrustful of the slick narrator whom you never notice. Anyhow.