Essay: Confessions of a Book Junkie at the End of an Era

September 6, 2014

My entire life has been built around books. From my earliest memories, I was surrounded by books, whether it was comic books to console me when I was sick, or Dr. Seuss books to help me learn to read before I ever started school, books have always been an enormous part of my daily existence.

And thank whatever gods there be for that. There’s literally nothing I’d rather do than read a good book. You can take that however you want, and I know pizza and sex are suffering some pretty severe hurt feelings right now, but at 48 years of age I think I have earned the right to say that reading is just about my favourite thing in the world, and books are the primary delivery system of my drug of choice.

Now, I read other things. I read the occasional magazine, and once in a while I’ll somehow end up with an actual newspaper in my hands (this happened much more often when my wife worked as a newspaper delivery driver). And of course, the internet. Or The Internet as some would spell it. You know, the web. Or, The Web. I don’t know why some get so worked up about capitalizing words like internet or web or website. That always looks wrong to me. But I digress. (But I Digress is the name of a column by comics-and-other-things-writer Peter David, which he once collected into a fun book called, wait for it — But I Digress.)

Anyway, my point was, I love to read. I love to own books. These are two different loves, and one is an abiding romance (the reading) and one is a fickle passion (the owning of books). I often cull the herd of my book collection when necessary, and while I sometimes miss some of the books, I would be much more distressed had I never had the opportunity to have read them in the first place. The reading is an essential human need, for me, while the possession is a bonus that I treasure but that, ultimately, is decided by factors not always within my grasp.

My favourite authors include James Howard Kunstler, Carl Sagan, and I’m going to say Vladimir Nabokov, even though the only book of his I’ve ever been able to read all the way (not counting his wondrous autobiography Speak, Memory) through was Lolita. But I have read it all the way through at least four times, I own three copies of it (one softcover, one hardcover and one annotated version), and I think it’s the most brilliant thing ever written in the English language, so I feel like that allows me to say Nabokov is one of my favourite writers, even though I have only read a small fraction of his work. I do have a copy of Pnin I bought to read on a business trip about 9 months ago — I’ve read a couple of chapters, and I like it, but I haven’t gotten back to it yet for some reason. Whenever I tackle Lolita, though, I always am riveted from beginning to end. It’s always a page-turner. You see, Lolita surprises me every time I read it, and it breaks my heart every time I finish it. It resonates with me like no other work ever has, and I don’t care what assumptions that statement inspires in you. If you’ve read it, you may understand. If you haven’t, not only do you know nothing about what I am talking about, but you know far less about life than you could know, if only you took the time to read and try to comprehend what Nobokov was saying about need, and memory, and most of all loss.

Loss is kind of what inspired me to write this. The author Stephen King (whose novel The Stand blew my mind when I was 14) was recently quoted as saying “The bookstores are empty. It’s sad. I remember a time when Fifth Avenue was lousy with bookstores. They’re all gone.” And his observation filled me with sadness, a sense of dread, and most of all a powerful feeling of loss. I realize as people grow older (I’ll be 49 in a few months, very far indeed from the 6-year-old who started reading comic books in 1972) they more and more see the march of time and their place in the world slipping away from them. I’m as guilty of this as anyone, constantly reminding my kids that in my day, you had to go to the movies to see a movie, or buy a record to listen to some band’s new album, or go to the drugstore or the comic shop to be able to read comics. Now, all three of those activities and many more can be pursued with a couple clicks of a mouse on our home PC. There’s virtually no waiting, and no end of entertainment and information right at our fingertips.

But when you close the window whether to your comics-reading program of choice (I like CDisplay) or CNN.com or The Comics Reporter, you have no physical connection left to the words you were reading. You may be left smarter and better informed or entertained, or delighted, or angry, or disgusted, but whatever is left of the reading experience now resides solely as a memory in your mind (unless you downloaded the webpage, in which case I suppose it exists in physical form on your hard drive, but you know what I mean).

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The end of the book as a dominant form of reading material fills me with sadness and longing for not only another time, but a better world that perhaps never existed. One in which books were owned and loved and most importantly read by everyone. Not everyone read the same books, but everyone read, and they loved to talk about what they were reading, what they had read, what the hoped to read in the future, and perhaps what had inspired them to write themselves. (If you’re not thinking about Burgess Meredith by now, you are far younger and think much less about reading than I.) “I want to sit in the garden and read one more good book,” said James Spader’s character on The Blacklist, and while the show varies wildly in quality from week to week, that quote is as true a thing I can say about myself as can be imagined.

In the four decades I have been reading, books have enlightened me (Carl Sagan’s Cosmos), engaged me (James Howard Kunstler’s The Long Emergency), frightened me (Fast Food Nation) and inspired me (too many to name). As I write this today they seem to be a dying artform, their disappearance noted by an author whose work was among the first to scare the living shit out of me (Stephen King, The Stand). That that author is scaring me now, not with fiction about a world-devastating plague but rather the very real end of an era that has meant so much to my life, is ironic in ways that I can’t even begin to express. But at least I am aware that it is ironic, because I have read books, I have always read books, and I will until they, or I, are no longer around. If you need me, I’ll be in the garden, reading, for as long as I possibly can.

List: 10 Books That Have Stuck With Me

September 6, 2014

stack-of-books1. A Wrinkle in Time (Madeline L’Engle) – A tesseract all its own, this book broadened my horizons very early on.

2. Illusions (Richard Bach) – Probably the first novel I bought on my own, while at a 7/11 in St. Augustine, Florida looking for comic books when I was about 12. Like #1, a mind-bending experience that has stuck with me.

3. A People’s History of the United States (Howard Zinn) – Essential reading for those who want to know the truth about American history.

4. Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov) – The greatest novel I have ever read; brilliantly written with layers and incidents you can’t even detect until you’re on your second or third read-through, with massive gobs of heartbreak, humor and insight into humanity.

5. Origins of Marvel Comics (Stan Lee/Jack Kirby/Steve Ditko, et al) – The book that taught me there was so much more to know about comics than what was on the drug store shelves every week. Opened my eyes to history, and to being willing to learn more about something I loved.

6. At The Mountains of Madness (H. P. Lovecraft) – We are specks of dust in a cosmos so vast and uncaring we can’t even comprehend it without being reduced to gibbering madmen. Lovecraft understood the true nature of the universe long before most people.

7. We Have Always Lived In The Castle (Shirley Jackson) – Her best and most personal novel, exquisite and heartbreaking, with an inevitable revelation that is just devastating. If you’ve only read “The Lottery,” you need to read this one.

8. The Geography of Nowhere (James Howard Kunstler) – Utterly transformed my perception of the world I live in. His other books like The Long Emergency further informed and refined my thoughts, but it all started with this delightful, educational and occasionally hilarious look at the tragic comedy of suburban sprawl.

9. The Voice of the Fire (Alan Moore) – After Lolita, my favourite novel. A series of interconnected stories covers thousands of years of the strange history of Northampton, England. If the final chapter doesn’t turn your brain inside out, you didn’t read it right.

10. Cosmos (Carl Sagan) – The first book I read that showed me there were real answers to the important questions about the universe around us. We don’t have to settle for mythology, lies and bullshit.

Review: The R. Crumb Handbook by R. Crumb and Peter Poplaski

September 6, 2014

crumbhandbookNot so much a handbook, as a beautifully-illustrated multi-media autobiography of our finest living cartoonist, and perhaps the best single volume ever devoted to a comics creator.

Up until now, I would have said that that honour belongs to B. Krigstein Volume One, Greg Sadowski’s lavishly illustrated biography of the late Bernard Krigstein. That massive book still looms large as a singular achievement in comics journalism, but perhaps it is because Crumb is still alive and vital, and was an active participant in the creation of the Handbook, that I have to revise my opinion: From design and execution to the amazing way that Crumb’s voice speaks directly to the reader through the first-person text, The R. Crumb Handbook is a priceless memoir that provides a total immersion in Crumb’s consciousness.

There’s a CD on the inside of the front cover. Peel it away carefully, and find little Bobby Crumb staring out through his thick glasses, welcoming you to this strange world, so familiar after all these years of reading Crumb’s comics. Pop the CD into whatever device you play CDs on. The full-length disc features Crumb himself playing with various bands ranging from The Cheap Suit Serenaders to his own family, playing the music he loves and speaks about with such authority. A tone is set. You’re ready for the journey.

As an autobiography (though it seems deliberate that it is not called that), we find Crumb living in the past here: “I hate modern architecture. Every building built after 1955 should be torn down!” There are days it’s hard not to agree with that sentiment. But Crumb knows human nature. He knows people weren’t perfect in some idealized past, some unspecified good old days; he just knows that modern devices have made communication faster and quicker, so it’s easier by far today to lie, cheat and swindle your fellow man, and God knows Crumb’s had enough of that. If you don’t know how many times he’s been screwed, you’ll know a bit about it after reading the Handbook.

The book — well over 400 pages — is arranged by four eras of Crumb’s life, noted as Fear, Clarity, Power and Old Age. The story Crumb and Poplaski relate may not be altogether new if you’ve read much of Crumb’s work or seen the brilliant Terry Zwigoff documentary Crumb. But what neither reading Crumb’s comics or watching the movie about his life could give you is what this book does: You’re experiencing Crumb’s own story, in his own words, while taking in a well-chosen selection of his stories (much of his best work is in here) accompanied by wonderfully-selected and beautifully reproduced photos and illustrations. And if you can also listen to the music of Crumb’s life as you do so. The immersion into Crumb’s consciousness can be as total as this. Nothing like it has ever quite been done before in comics, and no creator deserves it more: Crumb’s outspoken point of view is a true American treasure, the voice of experience honestly chronicling what it is to rise from a troubled family life to the very top of your chosen field. And how many comics creators could be so honest about their own obsessions and failings as Crumb is here? As he always is?

I came to Crumb relatively late in my comics-reading life; I do think it takes some life experience to truly begin to appreciate that the man’s honesty — expressed through not only what he says but the art he says it with, the very lines on the paper he draws on — his honesty is his greatest gift to his audience. For all the times Crumb has been disparaged as a misogynist, as a racist, as a misanthrope — what, really, could be more decent or more respectful or more powerful than speaking your mind honestly? That’s all Crumb’s ever done. This book gives us the experience of direct communication with, I’ll say it again, our finest living cartoonist. I defy anyone to experience this book and argue that distinction.

Review: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

September 6, 2014

kavalierThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon is a novel that goes into wondrous detail about the lives and loves of a Golden Age comics team in the spirit of Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, or Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Chabon has used the backdrop of the comics industry from its very beginnings to create an eloquent statement of how we all speak to the world through our art, whether we wish to or not.

Kavalier and Clay succeeds as entertainment, and also as an argument for the survival of comics. I don’t mean to say Chabon is writing a polemic here, though — the case he makes for comics comes shining through as an organic part of his greater, overall story. It tells a winningly involving tale of two men, Josef Kavalier and Thomas Klayman, who in the time-honoured manner of comics writers of the Golden Age, changes his name to Sam Clay. The story is almost equally about the woman they both (in very different ways) come to love, Rosa Saks, and the child they all create together. This is a sprawling, epic tale of their intertwining lives, showing us how very different people can be brought together by an era, by family ties, and by a need to create comics to express, variously, their subtle dreams and driving obsessions.

Chabon clearly did his homework on the history of the American comics industry, with scenes and bits of information lending a delicious verisimilitude to the story. Make no mistake, though — you do not need to be a comics fan to enjoy this book, but if you’re not, you might come away from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay thinking comics is an artform worth investigating. Maybe even worth preserving for future generations.

The best example of that comes shining through in an inner monologue experienced by Josef late in the book (beginning on page 575); he ruminates on a peaceful half-hour he had once spent reading an issue of Betty and Veronica, a perfect moment he carries with him the rest of his life, as he celebrates the ability of comics to give joy, to provide escape for those who need it. The sequence is an elegant defense of an artform that shouldn’t need one, and yet so desperately does, now more than ever:

Having lost his mother, father, brother, and grandfather, the friends and foes of his youth, his beloved teacher Bernard Kornblum, his city, his history — his home — the usual charged leveled against comic books, that they offered merely an easy escape from reality, seemed to Joe actually to be a powerful argument on their behalf. He had escaped, in his life, from ropes, chains, boxes, bags, and crates, from handcuffs and shackles from countries and regimes, from the arms of a woman who loved him, from crashed airplanes and opiate addiction and from an entire frozen continent intent on causing his death. The escape from reality was, he felt, — especially right after the war — a worthy challenge.

Escape, obviously, is a major theme of the novel, from Josef’s perilous flight to the new world as his people’s extermination begins in Europe, to the final escape in the book as one of the major characters finally accepts the reality of his life and bolts for yet another new world. Kavalier and Clay’s greatest comics creation, in fact, is the superhero the Escapist, whose Houdini-like skills speak to Kavalier’s existence while his alter-ego illuminates Sam Klayman’s somewhat charming inability to quite realize who and what he really is.

This is, primarily, about a family of three people, Joe, Sam, and Rosa, and the family they create that might have seemed scandalous in the 1940s and 1950s, but which today seems a minor miracle; above all, they are united by love. For each other, and for the little boy who ends up coming into the world because of their love.

Rosa gets the least attention from Chabon, but she is a complete and compelling character, one who seems entirely deserving of the passion of Joe Kavalier. I was charmed by her bohemian personality, and touched by how her rebel spirit was uncrushed even as she settled into a 1950s Long Island lifestyle.

Joe disappears from the lives of Sam and Rosa for years after World War II, and their eventual reunion is one of the most gratifying and emotional sequences of the tale. Chabon masterfully depicts the emotions of his characters, until they seem utterly and completely genuine. These are people who deserve happiness, and yet war with themselves so much over their flaws and failures that they seem determined to forever deny their own most noble needs.

In the end, Chabon leaves us with a sense of closure, but also a sense that, for Joe, Rosa, Sam and Tommy, the best is yet to come. I don’t know if there will ever be a sequel to this story, and I don’t know that I’d even want one. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a luminous saga, full of flawed heroes and unexpected plot twists. It’s a wonderful piece of escapist entertainment, that does not sacrifice quality or craft to make the case for comics as a legitimate artform, despite the injustices large and small perpetrated by commercially-motivated publishers. Chabon rightfully remembers Jack Kirby in his notes at the end, reminding those of us of where the true heart of American comics came from. The hopes and dreams of regular, ordinary working men (for the most part), and one special, gifted man in particular to whom we all owe a debt that can never be repaid.

The book pulls no punches about the comics industry, or about the very human characters at its heart. I love this book. You will, too.

Review: Lovecraft Tales by H.P. Lovecraft

September 6, 2014

imageIn many ways, the writing of H.P. Lovecraft is autobiography.

I don’t mean that he believed in Cthulhu, or Nyarlathotep, or the Great Race that steals your body and casts your mind back to a vast, ancient, Cyclopean prison that serves as a library of all the knowledge of the cosmos, past, present and future. There are people who believe Lovecraft really believed in what he wrote about, or at least say they do, but that’s not what I’m talking about. The writing of H.P. Lovecraft is autobiographical in exactly the same way it is resonant for me as genuinely reflective of the universe as I’ve experienced it. Lovecraft, born in the late 19th century but fascinated and in some ways trapped far earlier, felt the universe was far vaster than we knew, and far colder than we want to believe. Virtually every story of his, the most effective ones, especially, are grounded in the idea that we are all insignificant motes of dust in a momentary ray of light shining through a monstrous reality filled with old and illimitable powers playing out baroque scenarios our minds cannot comprehend without descending into gibbering madness.

Lovecraft’s way of crafting words is very nearly viral, which is why he had such a profound effect on writers ranging from his own contemporaries, through to Alan Moore and others not yet born. Hell, I never use the words “illimitable,” or “gibbering,” but I bet both are to be found many times in Lovecraft Tales, a massive and entirely essential hardcover collection from The Library of America.

I bought the book somewhat on a whim, and under circumstances Lovecraft would have found familiar. He was an antiquarian, fascinated with the past and also in love with “weird fiction,” which (and about which) he wrote quite eloquently and passionately. I was browsing a mammoth bookstore in New England (really, I was) when I spotted the dark, foreboding cover with the slightly eerie author photo. It seemed to raise genuine, half-remembered thrills and the promise of wonder. As I saw Lovecraft’s name on it, I remembered reading some of his fiction in my very early teens. I remember gray paperback book covers with hints of distorted, mind-warping biology and rotting, dilapidated houses. “Lovecraft,” I thought to myself. “I’ve read him before, but it was a long time ago.” The volume promised to be a near-definitive collection (it’s not complete, but it’s completely fantastic and brilliantly edited by horror writer Peter Straub), and as I browsed the untold piles and shelves of books in this New England bookstore (all right, it was in Vermont, not Boston, or Arkham, but still, it was New England), I was (I really was!) gripped by the desire to, after all these decades, re-immerse myself in whatever dark wonders Lovecraft had led me into as little more than a child.

Digression: There is a small, dreary village half-hidden in a strange corner of Saratoga County. A hundred and thirty years ago, it was a bustling factory town. Then the factory left and the community was devastated, but the people never left. One consequence of my early immersion in Lovecraft is that every time I have heard his name in the past thirty years, I have thought of this small, lifeless village and its boarded-up windows and joyless residents and the sense that as I drive through (only to experience this feeling, for no other reason), eyes are watching me from hidden corners and behind bolted doors I dare not approach. I know now, after reading Lovecraft Tales, that this weird, recurrent experience stemmed from half-remembering the story “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” with its genetically questionable village full of the descendants of people who made a nightmarish deal with beings better left undealt with.

Reading the stories in this volume, every one a dark delight, made me realize just how deeply Lovecraft’s shadowy vision is woven into the fabric of our modern fiction. He was inspired by Poe and other pre-20th century writers of strange tales, but, beginning to write his own fiction before he was even 10 years old, Lovecraft’s ancient fascinations and sense of alienation combined with a sharp mind to allow him to generate, over the course of his writing career, a vast tapestry of madness and the unknown that self-refers again and again. The earliest tales here seem like avatars of ancient days, but as science and knowledge expanded rapidly in the early 20th century, Lovecraft’s mind expanded with them. Quantum physics in general and relativity in particular lent his work more, not less, verisimilitude, even as greater life experience and exposure to the ideas of others seem to tamp down his earliest, most immature and frequently racist touches. The oldest stories in the book seem like stories that could have been told to (or by) precocious children by the fire in the late 18th century; more expansive (in length and ideas) stories near the end, particularly the masterworks The Shadow Out of Time and At The Mountains of Madness would not have been conceivable without Lovecraft’s exploration of the then-burgeoning body of knowledge about Earth’s true place in the great scheme of the cosmos. How strange, in fact, to experience this book as a whole and note the introduction, over its course, of the automobile becoming commonplace, or of Einstein being named and his theories hinted at as possible explanations for the existence of other dimensions and perverse, forbidden journeys made possible by the very different physics and thought-processes of the elder gods.

Lovecraft’s work is prose. Essential, addictive prose that gripped my soul as a child and has excited and recharged my imagination as an adult. More than any other writer I’ve read, I think he inspired Alan Moore, though it should be noted that Moore was inspired by Lovecraft in the way Moore wishes he had inspired others: fired by Lovecraft’s ideas, not slavishly devoted to imitating them; in love with Lovecraft’s use of language, but not reproducing it whole and claiming it as his own. You couldn’t imitate Lovecraft, after all. Not really. In the same way that Charles Schulz’s depictions of his characters are nearly impossible to reproduce, Lovecraft’s characters, settings and scenarios are all the unique product of his life experience. Others have played in his sandbox, but no one could ever hope to match the singular and unique voice he cultivated in his years as a writer. Lovecraft Tales is a true treasure of dark delights, and a book literally full from beginning to end with stories worth re-reading, pondering over, and hoping never, ever come true.

Buy Lovecraft Tales at Amazon.com.

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Review: The Witch of Hebron (A World Made by Hand Novel) by James Howard Kunstler

September 6, 2014

The_Witch_of_Hebron_coverRunning away from reality, and searching for something lost or unknown are the twin themes that define James Howard Kunstler’s new novel The Witch of Hebron (Atlantic Monthly Press). Subtitled A World Made by Hand Novel, the book is a sequel to Kunstler’s initial exploration of the world after it all goes even further to hell than it already has here in our real world.

In Kunstler’s landmark non-fiction book The Long Emergency, the writer and social critic warned passionately and convincingly of the nigh-apocalyptic results likely to come to pass as a result of the untimely but inevitable confluence of a number of paradigm shifts that we seem to be in the middle of: Peak Oil, climate change, and the collapse of economic delusions that, even as I write this, seem to be slowly, agonizingly bringing the entire planet to its knees (in fact, Kunstler recently declared on his blog that he believes we are now in Phase Two of The Long Emergency).

In Kunstler’s World Made by Hand, the author turned his talents to fiction to illustrate what is likely to happen after the dust is settled, the oil is gone, the wars are over (and in fact, impossible) and the world has become much larger and filled with unknowns (there are rumors that an American government still exists somewhere, but with no power to communicate beyond the sound of one’s own voice, no one is quite sure – the only thing known for certain is that both Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles were destroyed by nukes before the times completely transformed into the new world).

And so The Witch of Hebron finds Kunstler returning again to the fictional but very fully-realized town of Union Grove, in Washington County, New York. The story picks up just months after the climax of World Made by Hand, and many of the same characters (the hokey but mystical Brother Jobe, the profoundly decent and deeply human Robert Earle, mayor of Union Grove), return. There are new people to learn about as well, most notably the psychopathic self-aggrandizing bandit Billy Bones, and the titular and altogether mesmerizing (to the characters, and to this reader) Witch of Hebron, Barbara Maglie. The main focus of the story, though, is on 11-year old Jasper Copeland, son of the town doctor and the character whose brash but sympathetic actions drive the narrative. Jasper suffers a great loss and strikes out in his pain, utilizing what he has learned as the son of the town’s doctor to take unwise revenge, and then fleeing Union Grove for the promise of the near-legendary city of Glens Falls, twenty miles and a world away.

Jasper has heard many things about Glens Falls and hopes to start a new life there, where he can apprentice with a doctor and hide from the shame and agony of what he has done. Unfortunately for him, he meets up with the quite insane (but nonetheless somewhat charming, in his own ridiculous way) Billy Bones along the way; additionally, Glens Falls isn’t quite what it used to be, as Kunstler lays out in an astonishing travelogue along one of its former main roads. Meanwhile, back in Union Grove, the victim of Jasper’s revenge uses some supernatural means to determine who is responsible for what has happened, and where he might currently be, and all the narrative lines begin to flow inexorably (and joyously – Kunstler’s storytelling here flows like the mighty Hudson on a sun-dappled fall afternoon) toward the well-appointed and dream-like home of The Witch of Hebron.

Kunstler’s regular weekly essays on his website frequently decry the denial and immaturity of the American mindset that has gotten us where we are today, and I am sure it’s no coincidence that Jasper’s initial actions and choices seem to stem from similar drives. His actions set him on a journey that will decide the rest of his life, just as Kunstler no doubt believes that the choices being made every day on the personal and national level will define our culture and way of life for decades and even centuries to come. The author doesn’t hit us over the head with themes and metaphors, though – even more so than World Made by Hand, The Witch of Hebron is first and foremost a rollercoaster ride through a new world of broken highways and dim memories of another time. One dazzling sequence finds a character remembering fondly a time when imported delights and spectacular delicacies were as close as a stop at the nearest supermarket, a luxury no one at all can enjoy in the new times of The Witch of Hebron.

On the other hand, Kunstler suggests with great power and detail the very real pleasures that could stand revealed after the end of our current world. The Witch of Hebron establishes a place where the Bloomin’ Onion is gone but not forgotten (it is, in fact, fondly remembered, and in great detail), but where such deep-fried and ultimately destructive treats have been supplanted by real, local foods that are devoured by the residents of Union Grove with a gusty hedonism no doubt inspired by the very real struggle it would take to create such sustenance by hand. Whether a character is eating mashed potatoes with real, locally produced butter or the inescapable staple cornbread (wheat won’t grow in the part of the world these stories are told in), one gets the feeling that each bite is pondered over and enjoyed because it is the product of hard work, and not easily gotten. Kunstler is often criticized for having a “doom and gloom” perspective, but the joy his characters take in the simplest pleasures and necessities show that he not only believes a better world can come out of our current transformative times, but that it almost by definition has to.

There’s a good deal of the supernatural to be found in The Witch of Hebron, as you might expect from the title. Some people seem to carry special abilities that were unknown in the old (i.e., our) times. Being a loyal and enthusiastic follower of Kunstler’s blunt, no-nonsense non-fiction, I had been both surprised and even a bit put off by World Made by Hand’s more fantastical elements (especially the powers of Brother Jobe). But such mysticism and exploration of the unknown is a common element in post-apocalyptic fiction (see Stephen King’s The Stand as perhaps the best example, or better yet, The Bible’s Book of Revelations), and it stands to reason that once the world stops being distracted by big screen TVs, YouTube and NASCAR, perhaps humankind will discover (or rediscover) a connection to the unknown parts of ourselves that can commune with the universe in ways we can only begin to imagine in our present state. In any case, powers such as those of Brother Jobe or The Witch of Hebron allow amazing transformations to happen, not only for Jasper, but for others in need of change (Jasper), or help (the Reverend Loren Holder), or revelation (Jasper’s father, the town doctor). More than once, Kunstler’s skill at depicting the joy of life, or discovery, or change, arrested my senses with a sympathetic appreciation for what his characters are able to learn and achieve, and with a renewed appreciation for the skill with which the author composes his prose.

Ultimately, whether our world goes precisely the way Kunstler expects (in both his fiction and non-fiction) is yet to be known. But the world the author creates, burned-out big box stores, torn-up pavement and all, is one worth exploring, and one that celebrates a very real human spirit that could still be burning within us all. If only we’d shut off the big-screen TVs, let go of the illusions and distractions that blind us to the true nature of our world now and in the very near future, and take the time to focus on what is real and what is true. There is kindness and great potential at the heart of nearly every soul, Kunstler seems to say, but we have buried them under so many Bloomin’ Onions and old car tires that we have all but forgotten what it is to truly be alive. Let The Witch of Hebron remind you.

Review: Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

September 6, 2014

Almost everything we think we know about sex is wrong, and that plain fact has destroyed an unthinkable number of lives over the past few thousand years, right up until the current moment, when bullying of LGBT youth in schools is leading to misery, violence and suicide.
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In a blurb on the cover, the indispensable sex columnist Dan Savage calls Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Human Sexuality “The single most important book [on the subject of sex] since Kinsey unleashed Sexual Behavior of the Human Male on the American public in 1948,” and I wouldn’t argue that point. If you’ve ever been confused by the conflict between your sexual drives and the demands of the society around you, Sex at Dawn has some answers for you. If you’ve ever wondered why the hell things are as screwed up as they are in our modern world, especially here in Los Estados Unidos, well, look no further.

Using logic, science and rationality, authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá investigate the unknown and largely unguessed-at sexual natures of our earliest ancestors, and they find that many modern rituals, activities and interests, everything from threesomes and bisexuality to cuckolding and bukkake, all have solid and explainable foundations in normal sexual activity among the great apes, among which the authors count Homo Sapiens, because, well, that’s what we are. Right out of the box Ryan and Jethá dispose of the bigoted and harmful idea of human exceptionalism and set out on an exploration of sex between human apes and their closest living relatives, bonobos and chimps, to see what we have in common, and where it all went wrong.

The development of agriculture seems to be the answer, when our ancestors were transformed from animals that lived off the land and had more time for pleasure and recreation and less insane ideas about sex, to today, when the artificial scarcity of resources has resulted in a twisting of sexuality into the cruel, brutal mindfuck that it is for the vast majority of human beings that have ever engaged in a sexual thought, feeling or experience.

The authors argue, quite convincingly, that many of the elements of modern Western sexual exchange are not evolutionary mandates but rather adaptive (and therefore changeable) behaviours designed to help navigate the culture’s brutal and counter-intuitive ideas about monogamy, parenthood, marriage, fidelity, and almost every other element that crosses over into the realm of our most intimate and primal sexual needs, drives and desires. Ultimately it’s about sex becoming a brutal weapon of power and control in human beings rather than a liberating and life-affirming force for good, as it is in our cousin apes the bonobos.

I’ve already lost most people reading this, I’m sure, and there’s no question that the premise that Ryan and Jethá lay out will generate a metric fuck-ton of rage and denial from anyone whose ideas about their own (and others’, sadly) sexuality are tied up in concepts of an invisible god in the sky who knows what’s best for you and your pee-pee, and very possibly not a few atheists and alleged libertines who are nearly as invested in society’s perversion of human sexuality. How tortured have we all been by what we want versus what we’ve been told, and maybe even believe, is true? The authors mention at one point that the massive force of will required to subsume and conceal female sexuality over the past few thousand years hints at the true scope of female sexuality unleashed, and that’s just one of dozens, if not hundreds, of obvious-once-you-think-about-it concepts that Sex at Dawn will drop in your lap and leave you thinking about likely for all the rest of your days.image

Why do many men get turned on by the idea of their wife or girlfriend having sex with someone else? Why is it that men are done with sexual intercourse the moment they achieve orgasm, and yet women are just getting started and literally could (and would like to) experience a dozen more? Why is it that one can truly love one’s spouse and yet face diminishing sexual interest that threatens to destroy one’s family, one’s standing in the community and even their relationship with the offspring they created with that spouse?

The honest and scientifically provable answers to all these questions, and many more, are found in Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Human Sexuality. Ryan and Jethá are honest and upfront about the fact that they can’t solve the many cruel (even deadly) conundrums that our modern sexual culture has left us with. But they do point the way (with the help of our cousins the bonobos) to a better and more harmonious way for us to deal with our sexual needs and with the world around us, a way to balance the differences and commonalities between male and female natures, and above all they suggest that this impressive book, which will change the thinking of anyone who comes to it with an open mind, is a good starting point to at least get people talking to each other — to their lovers, especially — about the truth about sexuality. The truth for each of us as individuals, and for all of us as a race of great apes, with the great and unique intellectual gift of language and self-knowledge, who have gone so very far down the wrong road of our sexual natures that many of us now believe dying is the only way to end the pain we have inflicted upon the very essence of ourselves as human beings.

Visit sexatdawn.com.

Review: Life Itself: A Memoir by Roger Ebert

September 6, 2014

ebertI’m a decade older than my wife, a diabetic of nearly 14 years with a family history of Alzheimer’s and two particularly nasty types of cancer. And yet, I’ve felt pretty well this year, while my wife has had Lyme disease and other medical problems necessitating multiple day surgeries and more trips to the hospital in less than a year than I want to make in my entire lifetime. As I finished the final chapter of Roger Ebert’s glorious new memoir Life Itself, I was informed by my son that his mother had decided while they were out delivering a gift to her mother for her birthday, that she felt unwell enough to stop in and see a doctor at our local health center. This morning, I would have told you that my wife was recovering nicely from her recent procedures. Now it’s afternoon and that is in question. This seems to be the year I am learning one of the same lessons Roger Ebert has learned, which is that your health is subject to change without notice.

My one-way relationship with Ebert goes back to the days when he and fellow Chicago film critic Gene Siskel hosted a movie review program on PBS. I was probably in my mid-teens the first time I saw the two of them discuss (and frequently argue about) the movies of the day. Now, I know a lot about comic books and it seems like I always have, but I know little about film (although, as they say, I know what I like). It didn’t matter, though, because what I liked about Siskel and Ebert on my TV was not the movies they discussed, but how they discussed them. (The learned Ebert scholar will recognize that last sentence as a paraphrase of one of his frequent dictums, by the way.)

I always loved watching the two of them talk, battle, fight, engage. Whether on their own PBS series, or the syndicated commercial program that succeeded it, or the one after that, or on Late Night With David Letterman or on The Howard Stern Show, you could always, always count on Siskel and Ebert (back then it was really just one word) to make you laugh, and often to make you think.

But I’ll admit I was not always a faithful follower of Ebert’s actual day job, as a syndicated writer/critic whose pieces appeared daily, or nearly so, in newspapers around the country. I guess when he reviewed a movie I was interested in, I would read that sort of piece, but as I cruised kind of stupidly through my 20s and 30s, wasted decades I wish I could get back in many ways, I did not seek him out as a writer in the way I do now. And what changed that was the cancer that took away Ebert’s ability to ever eat, drink or speak out loud again.

I definitely noticed when Ebert first got sick and disappeared from the airwaves. I didn’t think a whole lot of it at the time, but I did notice that he seemed not to be reviewing anything on TV or in print, and by that time, the mid-2000s, I had come to count more and more on his opinion before venturing out for a night at the movies. In point of fact, there’s no one whose opinion I trust more when it comes to movie criticism. I was greatly receptive to Pauline Kael’s critical taste and authorial voice, but I only discovered it towards the very end of her life and had to work backwards to see what I had missed. But at the time Ebert disappeared from the scene, I really was quite accustomed to his company, his opinion, his presence in my life, however short the time we were spending together on a weekly basis.

If you’re at all interested in Ebert as a writer or human being, you already know the grueling details of the illnesses and accidents that took away his jaw and much of his mobility, so I won’t recount them here. Besides, he reveals all in Life Itself and I really feel quite strongly that you should read this book, so I’ll let him tell you what happened. The important thing is, what happened to him absolutely transformed him as a writer. No less an observer than Studs Terkel pointed out to Ebert that the way in which he turned to the internet and blogging to find a new voice to replace his lost one was a stunning and gratifying reversal of fortune. I can’t say I am glad Ebert suffered as he did, but I can say I am enormously grateful for the increased and enhanced output he has since issued forth as a writer. I know that every week I can count on one or more new Roger Ebert essays on life, family, politics, health, spirituality and many other subjects, popping up in my RSS feed reader and ready to nourish my soul with his intelligence, his wit, and a lifetime of collected wisdom.

Ebert wasn’t always wise, although I think he was always meant to be so. In Life Itself he is frank and open about his failures, many of which are connected to his alcoholism, which he overcame many years before life made it impossible for him to drink. Much of the pain in his life seems to stem from his mother’s own alcohol problems, and whatever grace and genius Ebert possesses now clearly comes despite, not because of, her treatment of him when she was at her worst. But he also concedes she could be a great woman, and in one brilliant passage explains in a universally relatable way how his mother could be one person around a group of people, and very different when tearing into him drunk, when they were alone. In this and other passages, Ebert clearly and lucidly explains the duality we all possess, and puts into words the bittersweet awareness of the good and bad in everyone, especially everyone dear to us.

There are many people dear to Ebert, some gone, some still with him, all memorialized and celebrated in Life Itself. The book is not just a recounting of his own life history – in fact, there is some jumping around in time and repeated anecdotes that reinforce his narrative and appeal like the chorus of a particularly hummable tune – but Ebert also delves into the stories and legends of many of the people he has known, from obscure, distant family members to noteworthy and notorious celebrities, fellow writers, and most poignantly to me, Ebert’s longtime partner Gene Siskel. The chapter on Siskel ends with what could be just a funny story about how the two of them would make sure they took turns sitting in the chair closest to David Letterman in their late night talk-show appearances, but in even this seemingly minor story, Ebert mines the experience for every bit of meaning and nuance. I didn’t break down in tears reading Life Itself, but I came close in reading that section. I love Roger Ebert as a critic, as a writer and as a human being, but Siskel and Ebert together were one of my first loves, and losing them as partners still hurts to this day. Perhaps that is why I am so profoundly grateful to still have Ebert’s voice to inform and regale me, and why I am quite certain you will love Life Itself as much as I did. Like the very best movies, I can tell you that I savoured every moment,  was sad when it ended, and was eager to tell others how wonderful it is, an obligation I learned from Roger Ebert. As Alec Baldwin once said in a movie I can never get enough of, “Go forth and do likewise.” 

Buy Life Itself: A Memoir from Amazon.com. A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for the purpose of review.

Review: The KunstlerCast: Interviews with James Howard Kunstler by Duncan Crary

September 6, 2014

I am jealous of hell of author Duncan Crary. Might as well admit it right up front.

In my 25 years in radio, I interviewed Jim Kunstler maybe a dozen times, usually short chats to get a sound bite for a news story about local development issues in the Albany/Saratoga Springs/Glens Falls, New York area that I spent my entire radio career broadcasting in and around. A couple of times I did longer imageinterviews with Kunstler, the author of a number of brilliant books about culture and cultural collapse, including the non-fiction landmarks The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency, and a pair of hugely entertaining and thought-provoking novels, World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron. A year ago, I profiled his appearance at a local book fair. I admit it, I enjoy reading Kunstler’s writing, and I enjoy picking his brain every chance I get. But Crary is the visionary broadcaster who got the idea to sit down with him week-in and week-out for a wildly entertaining and informative podcast, The KunstlerCast.

In Crary’s deceptively compact new book of the same name, you’ll find the ultimate primer to everything Kunstler, as the author has mined scores of the duo’s podcasts to create an indispensable document of James Howard Kunstler’s personal history, philosophy, observations and predictions.

Crary doesn’t put on kid gloves in their interviews, for example tackling head-on the popular perception that Kunstler was wrong about Y2K (he wasn’t; it could have been a global catastrophe, but because it was a comprehensible, solvable problem, the disaster was averted). There are even a few passages where the pair don’t seem quite simpatico on some issue or other, and Kunstler’s bristling fairly electrifies the page. He’s a crusty curmudgeon, as readers of his weekly Clusterfuck Nation blog no doubt are aware, but Kunstler’s sharp edges are greatly mitigated by the fact that he is a blunt, no-bullshit observer of our times and our culture, and the book nicely encapsulates just why I’ve held JHK in very high esteem over the past couple of decades.

Readers new to Kunstler will come away with a much better picture of his place in our culture. He is frequently dismissed as a “doom-and-gloom naysayer,” but it’s impossible to come away from these discussions with Crary without understanding in full that Kunstler believes once we get past the long emergency we are now fully engaged in, we could come out of it on the other side with a better world, operating at a more human scale, with smarter priorities and strategies for living. In fact, we have no choice, if the human race is to continue. The Happy Motoring Era, as Kunstler calls the past century-plus of cheap energy and cheaper lifestyles, is now racing so quickly to its conclusion that we are all dizzy from the ride and no longer able to deny that we see where this is all going. There can be imagined no better map and guide than The KunstlerCast book. Stick one in your go-bag and take it on the road with you in your inevitable post-apocalyptic trek through the wasteland that was once America. Let it keep you company as you Occupy your hometown. Put it on the shelves with the rest of your intelligent, forward-looking and wickedly funny books. But whatever you do, buy it and read it. You’re lost without it.

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

September 6, 2014

shirleyjacksonShirley Jackson‘s frequent themes of alienation and isolation seem to find their ultimate expression in her 1962 novel We Have Always Lived in the Castle, one of the two novels reprinted in The Library of America’s collection Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories.

Mary Katherine is the narrator of the story, and although I would not go so far as to say she is unreliable, her baroque view of the world she lives in does not always immediately reveal the objective truth of her circumstances.

Jackson as a writer excelled at depicting small communities and the small-minded people within them (see her classic short story The Lottery, or the lesser-known but equally compelling The Summer People, for example), and We Have Always Lived in the Castle begins with Mary Katherine (“Merricat” to her big sister Constance) enduring an agonizing journey from the Blackwood family home on the outskirts of town into the village proper, where she seems to be viewed as a freak, an outcast and a curiosity by the townspeople. The story is completely told from Mary Katherine’s point of view, and we slowly get hints of why she and her family are shunned and feared, but at the same time Jackson makes it clear that Mary Katherine and Constance, who live in the Blackwood family home with their handicapped Uncle Julian, keep a clean home and maintain always a strong air of order and decorum.

Eventually and in tantalizing puzzle-like pieces we learn that the order rose up from one particularly chaotic and horrific evening when the Blackwood family was forever changed and diminished, and when their reputation in the community was sealed in blood. The years since have been spent with the family mostly alone by itself, with only one progressively-minded resident of the village willing to come for weekly tea with Constance, who never, ever leaves the Blackwood property. Mary Katherine is responsible for the weekly shopping excursion, which we fear is always a horrible ordeal, but she has also created a magical world for herself and her sister, Uncle Julian, and cat Jonas, in which they are protected by family heirlooms buried on the perimeter of the home or nailed to trees in the surrounding woods, talismans that mostly succeed in keeping out the world, at least for a while. One day, Merricat promises, they will all go to live on the moon, where they can truly be happy (“Everything’s safe on the moon,” she says), and of course, truly be isolated from the world that they work so hard to avoid.

The world has other plans, of course, in this case executed by seemingly-kindly cousin Charles Blackwood, who has come after many years to see what is what in the Blackwood home, and perhaps secure the family safe, said to contain untold riches. 

The Blackwoods, you see, don’t believe in banks, and Charles is certain there was a lot of money and other valuable items in the home on that night, that terrible night, after which no one wanted sugar in their tea.

Bookslut’s Jessa Crispin recently regarded Jackson as one of the best writers of the 20th century, and I second that idea. Although I read the entirety of the LOA collection, I was most impressed by We Have Always Lived in the Castle and wanted to explore a little just why it is such an extraordinary and powerful novel. 

You don’t have to do much research to discover that Jackson had something of a troubled life. Her protagonists are largely isolated, mistrustful and misunderstood, and I strongly suspect that is because she herself was isolated, mistrustful and misunderstood. The Lottery was hugely misinterpreted as non-fiction in its initial publication, very probably because Jackson’s prose is so smooth, so lyrical and convincing that at its best it feels so very true, no matter how extraordinary or shocking are the events it describes. While many regard Jackson as primarily a horror writer, and certainly horror interested her (The Haunting of Hill House is probably the Platonic ideal of a haunted house story, with a brilliant resolution that allows the reader an unparalleled degree of interpretation while still being utterly terrifying), but her greatest gift was her ability to explore the inner worlds of her characters, usually women, usually alienated in some way. Many of her short stories follow a pattern of introducing a woman who is somehow apart from the world or from her family, and then Jackson explores the consequences of that aloneness. But far from being an easy formula, rather it provides the intellectual stem cells that allowed the writer to create an impressive gallery of worlds in which these elements are endlessly, infinitely recombined to deliver shocking cultural commentary (The Lottery), a vision of banal, suburban viciousness (The Possibility of Evil), or outright terror (The Haunting of Hill House).

Jackson’s inability to fit into the world she so eloquently described in her fiction haunted her, and very possibly ended her. The timeline of her life at the back of the LOA Novels and Stories collection holds many hints to the reasons for the wall between Jackson and the outside world, but of one thing there can be no question: Jackson used her pain and her sadness to write dozens of compelling stories, some short, like The Lottery (the story’s reputation is what drew me to her work in the first place), some longer, like We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Having spent months now immersing myself in Jackson’s worlds, I have come to appreciate her subtle worldbuilding (read any five or ten of her stories and you will start to sense a cohesive universe), but more, I have grown to respect her voice and become astonished and grateful for the eloquence and ease with which she is able to use mere words to take me to secret places where I am forced to confront the horrors she no doubt experienced in her life. I don’t pity her; Jackson’s too powerful a writer to be pitied. But I do sympathize, and like Mary Katherine, I frequently find myself thinking of how lovely it would be to take my loved ones to live on the moon, where we are free to take tea and tiny rum cakes, away from all the pettiness and cruelty of this fallen world.