Tim Powers – The Stress of Her Regard (1989)

Readable but overlong fantasy-horror-literary history hybrid featuring lamia/vampires and the cream of Romantic poets–Keats, Shelley, and Byron–interacting a with a fictional character, Michael Crawford, who must also rid himself of the curse and save the twin sister of his murdered wife, Julia/Josephine. Powers’ skill is in seamlessly incorporating real details–Shelley’s drowning, his funeral pyre, the rescuing of his heart, for one example–into a fictional narrative, and deepening the understanding of both novel and history. In the end this was a narrative I wanted to wrap up 100 pages sooner, coming down to a battle to save Josephine and their baby, who might also be a product of the lamia/vampire. The best moments are the ones that little bearing on the plot–a glimpse of a monstrous thing sharing a cargo hold–the least ones the action machinations of the climax. It did make me purchase a book of Shelley poems to counterbalance my adolescent knowledge of Keats.
(BTW, this cover is terrible and looks like a romance novel!)

Bristol’s Bibliophile BookBarn Bargain Blowout Boffo Bonanza!!!

See!? The economic crapper does have a good side!

Thousands in scramble for free books after Amazon supplier abandons warehouse
By David Wilkes
28th February 2009
Bibliophiles have travelled from far and wide to the old Bookbarn site on an industrial estate in Brislington, Bristol.
The warehouse, whose lease recently ran out, once contained as many as five million books destined to be sold online.
After the lease expired, he firm running the secondhand book business moved out, leaving it full of books.
Managers of the industrial estate invited people to help themselves so they can free up space at the site.

What I want to know is how the place came to look like such a tip. Did the company, skeedaddling out of town, do this? Or did the “locust swarm” of crazed shoppers do it?

John Hodgman has a new book coming out

Hodgman’s last book, Areas of My Expertise, was a laff-out loud, tears-rolling-down-my-face winner. His writing style is an American twist of Brit absurdity, very smart and learned, but also baffling and sometimes pointed. Most people know him as either the guy in the “PC vs. Mac” ads, or as a guest on the Daily Show. But his writing is in a totally different universe altogether.
His new book is called More Information Than You Need and is available Oct. 21, 2008. Yay!

Hey! Jean Baudrillard

Jean Baudrillard on my hometown,
from his 1989 book, America.

On the aromatic hillsides of Santa Barbara, the villas are all like funeral homes. Between the gardenias and the eucalyptus trees, among the profusion of plant genuses and the monotony of the human species, lies the tragedy of a utopian dream made reality. In the very heartland of wealth and liberation, you always hear the same question: “What are you doing after the orgy?” What do you do when everything is available – sex, flowers, the stereotypes of life and death? This is America’s problem and, through America, it has become the whole world’s problem.

Hey, screw you, Baudrillard! I haven’t been to an orgy yet. Maybe if we had more in S.B., we wouldn’t all be so uptight.

Simon and Simon: Ballard, Eno, and more

Simon Sellars interviews Simon Reynolds about J.G. Ballard

One of my fantasy projects that I toyed with for a while was a book on Ballard and Eno. They do seem of a type in some ways and they are patron saints of postpunk to an extent. But the project founders immediately owing to the fact that they are so eloquent about what they do and such brilliant writers, that there’d be zero role for any critic or commentator. There’d be very little to mediate or interpret, as they’ve said it all, so much better. They know what they are doing. I suppose you could historicize them, contextualise them. Ballard with the milieu he emerged out of in the Sixties, which was based around the ICA, right? And Eno with the UK art schools.

In some ways the affinity seems as much temperamental as anything ideas-based. There’s this wonderful Englishness. You imagine they would get on like a house on fire, trading ideas over whisky and soda in the Shepperton living room. One thing they both do is take ideas from science and set them loose in culture, find applications. Ballard is like a British McLuhan, except much better because he’s a far better writer, and a better thinker too – more original, more convincing. Eno is almost like a British Barthes, in some ways.

Out by Natsuo Kirino

Japan’s most popular crime novelist, says the blurb, and I believe it. Zipped through this, even waking up early this morning just so I could finish the final 25 pages! A desperate housewife kills her gambling, philandering husband and her workmates help her dispose of the body. Things start to go wrong almost immediately with their plan, but Kirino keeps the twists coming, until you feel sympathy for nearly everybody. Also a good examination of the underclass of Japanese society and the squeezed middle class. 

Photographed by mills70

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Vintage, 2003
Mark Haddon comes from a background of childrens books, which partly explains the simple, straightforward storytelling of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Yet the tone, and the clinical POV of its autistic protagonist allow for all sorts of adult ironies to make their way in. The novel starts off with a murder–of a next door neighbor’s dog–but it is Christopher’s desire to solve this parochial mystery that leads to the uncovering of secrets and real human pain–about his father’s life, his mother’s, and some of himself. Shades of Vonnegut-like distance and cartooning, but at heart a empathetic tale. Without the POV device, Haddon’s tale would be a depressing story of a developmentally disabled teenager and kitchen sink melodrama. But as it is, its revelations are heartbreaking, because they are played so objectively.

Time Out of Joint – Philip K. Dick

Penguin Books
1959 (1979 reprint)
My friend Jeff literally gasped when I told him I was reading Philip K. Dick for the first time.
He of course has been a fan for years, and quickly rattled off a list of must-reads in his bibliography, including a biography which will give some context.
Dick novels are hard to find used here–the Public Library has a few, and the Book Den has at most one at any time. This is not a reason for me not reading earlier, just a fact. There’s something groovy, then, in picking up this Penguin UK paperback, a thin novel–it feels like a coffee break.
Time Out of Joint is an early work, and tells the story of Rangle Gumm, a 40-something layabout who starts to suspect that his small-town suburban reality is not what it all seems. Objects disappear in front of him, leaving only the object’s name on a scrap of paper. His young cousin finds old magazines and phonebooks that don’t correspond to the era. The cousin also builds a crystal radio and Ragle begins to hear pilots passing overhead, talking about him. And why does he keep winning his local paper’s mail-in quiz?
The publication date was 1959, and not only is Dick presaging all sorts of recent alt.reality movies like the Matrix and Truman Show, but part of what I liked about this novel is his depictions of life in late-50’s America. He understands the phony veneer of post-war suburbia around the same time Twilight Zone was doing the same. The early chapters are now a glimpse into how people thought and acted back then, just before Dick bends their reality. He gets the consumerism that we are still suffering from, the “reality” that America creates around itself to keep out the messy Real. Baudrillard would have a field day with the book; so would Zizek. I breezed through, and got a kick in the pants–fun stuff.
For a much more intelligent consideration of the novel, for those who have read it, check out The Four Levels of Reality in Time Out of Joint by Yves Potin.

Night Has a Thousand Eyes – Cornell Woolrich

1945 (rerelease 1985)
Cornell Woolrich is sometimes considered the lost voice of Noir fiction.
Whereas Dashiel Hammett and Raymond Chandler have their place secured, Woolrich is terribly out-of-print for the most part, with his books going for high prices on Amazon, and no publisher really putting out a comprehensive re-release. Yet he wrote “The Bride Wore Black” (under the name William Irish), which had been filmed several times, wrote “Rear Window” (you may have heard of this little Hitchcock film), and most recently the Banderas-Jolie “Original Sin” film was based on one of his stories. The Believer featured a nice retrospective a few years ago, and yet, still he’s hard to find.
Night Has a Thousand Eyes was lent to me by a friend, and is my first Woolrich novel to read. It dates from the ’40s, is more a post-Depression piece than a WWII one, and features the classic noir trope of inescapable fate. The novel is in two halves. In the first, a millionaire’s daughter, saved from a suicide jump, relates how her father has become mentally enslaved to a poor psychic. The psychic foresees a plane crash and the millionaire cheats death, from then on hanging on his every word. He forecasts the stock market, and the millionaire makes more. But then the psychic foretells his death…in the jaws of a lion! At midnight! On a certain day! The once confident man now becomes unraveled–after all, the psychic has been right up to now…
The second half follows Shawn, a detective, who doesn’t believe in all this, and is determined to figure out what’s really going on (while falling in love with the once-suicidal daughter, Jean). Is it extortion? Woolrich cuts back and forth between the last night of the fate-condemned man and the detectives sent out to follow the psychic. And surely the lion is a load of hooey…except! A lion escapes from a traveling circus that night! Yeh, you heard me…
Ludicrous as it all sounds, Night takes it all seriously, and places its readers in the position of the unbelieving investigators, who reveal one fact-based clue only to be confounded with some otherworldly event. This oscillates back and forth towards the climax, which includes a desperate game of roulette, right up to a surprise conclusion literally as the clock is chiming midnight. The ending, which I won’t reveal, allows its question of fate to remain ambiguous.
Woolrich’s writing can often be overly prosaic, and I did skim a bit when he seemed to be padding. But it’s rough and mean enough, which lashings of black dread, to appeal to noir fans everywhere…if you can find a copy.
Here’s a good Cornell Woolrich site.