At long last, 2009’s Summer Reading List is collected, compiled, and complete. Inside you will find book recommendations from friends and usual suspects such as Richard Metzger, Cynthia Connolly, Steven Shaviro, Gareth Branwyn, Peter Lunenfeld, Gary Baddeley, Dave Allen, Patrick Barber, and myself, as well as newcomers David Silver and Josh Gunn. If you’re like me, you still haven’t read everything that looked good from last year’s list, but once again, against all odds, this exercise proves that there are plenty of interesting books being published (on paper!). So, read on and read on…
On the top of my summer reading list is the galley for Disinformation‘s first-ever novel, The Sisterhood of the Rose, by Jim Marrs. Jim’s the top- selling conspiracy author ever with titles like Rule By Secrecy and Alien Agenda, but this is his first novel. It draws heavily on his obsession with World War II, the Nazis, and the occult (reflected in his last New York Times non-fiction bestseller, The Rise of the Fourth Reich). He’s actually calling Sisterhood… a work of “faction,” as he’s woven so many real people, facts, and conspiracy theories into the plot. A great beach read for me, but for everyone else I’m afraid it’s intended for the holidays, releasing in November.
Aside from that I’m dying to read Doug Rushkoff‘s new book, Life, Incorporated. I’m sure you know all about it as Doug is a friend and contributor. I saw the book under construction when we interviewed him for the film 2012: Science or Superstition, in the form of cards with notes pinned everywhere on the walls of his office (try to spot them in our film!).
Speaking of 2012: Science or Superstition, we’re publishing a book version, written by Alexandra Bruce, who previously wrote the books Beyond the Bleep and Beyond the Secret for us (about the New Age movies What The Bleep Do We Know!?! and The Secret, respectively). I’m editing it right now and it will be out in September, in advance of Roland Emmerich’s disaster movie 2012, that Sony Pictures will release on Friday, November 13th. It’s the first book that really covers the whole spectrum of speculation, opinion and even some facts (!) about the 2012 mania that is ramping up as we approach the end of the famous Long Count Calendar of the ancient Maya. (Believe me, I’ve read dozens and there are some great ones, but none that really give a proper overview.)
On a more summery (and less current) note, I did pick up a pulp mass market novel from Borders for a fast airplane ride recently, The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. It wasn’t that fast a read at 900 pages, but it was good mindless travel fiction about the pop culture creature du jour (still), the vampire, getting us (my wife and myself) ready for the new season of HBO’s “True Blood” (a sort of guilty summer Sunday night pleasure).
The Gift by Lewis Hyde has been in print since the late 70’s and remains a fascinating read — as the late David Foster Wallace said “No one who is invested in any kind of art can read The Gift and remain unchanged.”
That statement could almost be true of D F Wallace himself. After the shock of his death I returned to his books of essays — Consider the Lobster (Back Bay, 2007) and A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (Back Bay, 1998). If you can read the first essay in …Lobster, “Big Red Son: a discourse on Las Vegas and the porn industry” without laughing until you cry, then you are not human…! And the essay “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” from A Supposedly Fun Thing... is so terribly prescient [written in 1990] that I don’t know where to begin to praise it.
Other books waiting to be read this summer are Richard Yates Revolutionary Road — the Everyman’s Library edition that also includes The Easter Parade and Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. And The Super Organism: The Beauty, Elegance, and Strangeness of Insect Societies by Bert Hölldobler and E.O.Wilson. I always return to anthropology…
Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter (Penguin, 2009): I haven’t read this yet so it really will be summer reading. I knew Novella when I lived in Oakland and watched as she turned a vacant lot next to her duplex into a full-blown urban farm. This is the story of how she did it. She’s a good writer and this is a great story.
Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages by Anne Mendelson (Knopf, 2008): This amazing volume is half social history, half cookbook. I started teaching home-dairying classes this year and this book was cheering me on the whole way. Mendelson is full of information and is rather opinionated as well, which makes this book about a seemingly inconsequential subject a particularly energetic read.
Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (And What It Says About Us) by Tom Vanderbilt (Vintage, 2009): If you have a passing interest in urban planning, transportation, or systems, you’ve probably already read this; if you haven’t, you should. Sharp analysis and approachable writing about humans and how we act together when traveling down the road in our soundproofed metal boxes known as cars, this is more psychological study than anything else. Tom’s got a good blog, too, where he gets a little more personal and opinionated about things.
On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee (Scribner, 2004): This has been the popular-food-science bible since its first printing in 1984. I’ve been reading it in sections in no particular order, and it’s thoroughly fascinating, entertaining, and easy to read despite my complete lack of training or interest in chemistry (and the plenitude of words like “lipid” and “gelate”). Makes me feel like I felt when I finally heard Imperial Bedroom in 2002: What the heck took me so long?
Michael Pollan’s Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education (Grove Press, 1991): I dig Michael Pollan. Reading Pollan gives me ideas for both my garden and my classroom. This book comes highly recommended by USF colleague, friend, and homesteader Melinda Stone.
Erik Davis‘ (Chronicle Books, 2006): with stunning photographs by Michael Rauner: The Visionary State: A Journey Through California’s Spiritual Landscape: This book is about California, sacred and profane buildings, shamans, pranksters, psychedelic visionaries, the prayer wheel in Berkeley, the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland, and the Alan Watts Library in Druid Heights, something I first learned about in Arthur Magazine.
Mary Appelhof’s Worms Eat My Garbage: How to Set Up and Maintain a Worm Composting System (Flower Press, 1982): I want to be able to gather our food wastes, walk them outside, and feed them to worms. In return, I want and expect, with time, rich compost for our garden. This book will help.
Karl Linn’s Building Commons and Community (New Village Press, 2007): I’m tired of reading books about building community online. I want to read a book about building community offline — with help from community gardens, public exhibits, and neighborhood commons.
David Skrbina Panpsychism in the West (Bradford, 2007): Panpsychism — the idea that everything in the universe, every last bit of matter, is in some sense sentient — has experiences of some sort, and an at least incipient mentality — sounds bizarre and crackpot when you first hear of it, but makes more sense the more you think about it. Skrbina’s book not only argues that panpsychism is plausible, but shows how deeply rooted it is in the last 2500 years of Western thought.
Graham Harman, Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (re.press, 2009): Graham Harman, with his “object-oriented philosophy,” is one of the most interesting and provocative thinkers working today. Not only are his ideas deeply original, he is also a great writer in terms of style, verve, and the overall liveliness, persuasiveness, and accessibility of his prose. Harman’s latest book takes a look at Bruno Latour, best known for his sociological studies of science, but whom Harman argues is also a major metaphysical thinker.
Bruce Sterling, The Carytids (Del Rey, 2009): In the mid-21st-century world of this near-future science fiction novel, ecological catastrophe has already happened. Billions have died or become homeless refugees. But this book is not another horror story set in post-apocalyptic wasteland. Rather, it is a book about creating a livable future. The survivors are involved in the search for plausible new directions, for the creation of some sort of civil society around which humanity can rebuild. The novel’s protagonists are four cloned identical-twin sisters, each of whom has embraced a different alternative for the future of humanity: Green communitarianism, capitalist entrepreneurship-cum-philanthropy, State paternalism, and nihilistic terrorism.
Jamais Cascio, Hacking the Earth (2009): This book provides a sobering look at the promises and perils of geoengineering. Even if we were to reduce carbon emissions to tolerable levels today, we might already be too late. What we’ve already done is enough to drive global warming for decades to come. If worst comes to worst, we might have to take more drastic measures to alter the climate globally: changing the reflectivity of the earth’s cloud cover, for instance, by launching giant mirrors into orbit, or injecting large quantities of sulfates into the stratosphere. Cascio looks into both the plausibility and the extreme risks of such interventions, and proposes ethical principles to guide us in making the difficult decisions that continued global warming might force upon us.
Owen Hatherley, Militant Modernism (Zero Books, 2009): There was more to modernist architecture than the Bauhaus or Le Corbusier’s Radiant City. In this book, Hatherley brings to light an alternative, politically radical modernism that I scarcely knew existed. Ranging from Soviet Constructivism of the 1920s, through Brutalist-style working class housing in the UK in the 1950s, and on to related developments in film and popular music, Hatherley uncovers a counter-history of the twentieth century, one that just might provide us with a remedy, or an antidote, for the cynicism and demoralization of today’s advertising-driven culture and politics.
Scott Bakker, Neuropath (Tor Books, 2009): One of the most disturbing science fiction novels I have read in a long time. By only slightly extrapolating from actual, cutting-edge neurobiological research, Bakker conjures up a frightening future in which our strongest emotions, our most profound convictions, and even our deepest sense of who we are can all be altered at whim by technological manipulation.
China Mieville, The City and the City (Del Rey, 2009): China Mieville, the master of “New Weird” fiction (Perdido Street Station; Un Lun Dun; etc.). writes what can only be described as a dark urban fantasy police procedural. It’s a brilliant genre hybrid; and it is itself a book about hybridity, since it is set in two cities which… — I’d rather not give a spoiler here, if you read the book you will find out soon enough. Could this be the beginning of a new type of fiction? Noir + Weird = Noird.
Every summer I like to have a project, and this year I’m tackling W.G. Sebald’s quartet of quasi-autobiographical, semi-documentary, illustrated, hybridized fictions: The Emigrants, The Rings of Saturn, Vertigo, and Austerlitz. Sebald, a German writer who died in 2001, mixes fact and fiction, engages with loss and memory, and focuses on the personal details where historical narrative and personal tragedy intersect. He drops photographic images into his text less as illustrations than as signposts to post-linguistic communications to come. Sebald strikes me as a great model for anyone doing multi-, trans-, hyper- or any other kind of hyphenated 21st century fiction.
Staying with fiction, but in a decidedly more summery tone, I’ll be reading two sophomore efforts by authors whose freshman exploits were fantastic. Christopher Miller is following up on his award-winning Sudden Noises from Inanimate Objects: A Novel in Liner Notes (Mariner Books, 2004) with The Cardboard Universe: A Guide to the World of Phoebus K. Dank (Harper Perennial, 2009). It’s a wildly funny mock encyclopedia, Vladimir Nabokov meets Philip K. Dick, and appeals to meta-fiction and science-fiction fans alike. Glen David Gold had a huge hit with his historical novel about the world of turn of the (last) century magicians, Carter Beats the Devil (Hyperion, 2002). Sunnyside (Knopf, 2009) is his follow-up, a ripping yarn about Charlie Chaplin, the insanities of the First World War, the bastard son of a wild west showman, and the birth of the modern star system.
Shifting over to non-fiction, I’m working with some colleagues on a new book about the digital humanities, so I’m catching up on some key monographs. These include Jerome McGann’s Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web (Palgrave, 2004), Matthew G. Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination (MIT Press, 2008) and Johanna Drucker’s SpecLab: Digital Aesthetics and Projects in Speculative Computing (University of Chicago Press, 2009).
Noise/Music: A History by Paul Hegarty (Continuum, 2008): In his book Sound Ideas (University of Minnesota Press, 2005), Aden Evens contends that hearing is hearing difference. That is, hearing is hearing and discerning vibrations among other vibrations. In Noise/Music Hegarty argues similarly that noise is not noise except in relation to other sound. That is, noise is never just noise in and of itself. It differs from music in this way. Where music can stand alone on its own in time, noise cannot. This book is an interesting historical look at the interplay of the two, from the avant-garde compositions of John Cage and Pauline Oliveros to the ear-scraping experiments of Merzbow and the Boredoms, and the technology that empowers and hinders music making. Speaking of the latter, I’ve been reading chunks of The Audible Past by Jonathan Sterne (Duke University Press, 2003) in tandem with Hegarty’s book.
Correspondence (June 1957-August 1960) by Guy Debord (Semiotext(e), 2008): Guy Debord, celebrated leader of the Situationist International (née Lettrist International), was a man of letters. This volume, subtitled “The Foundation of the Situationist International,” introduced by friend and colleague McKenzie Wark, and heavily annotated, provides a rare introduction to the inception of this movement — a movement that is credited, at least in part, with sparking the May 1968 uprising in Paris, a movement that continues to inspire theorists, artists, and writers half a century later.
Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician by Alfred Jarry (Exact Change, 1996): Alfred Jarry, playwright, novelist, poet, cyclist, and father of Pataphysics, was first and foremost – I believe — a jokester. He’s been described as a “clown,” a “nihilist,” a “practical joker,” a “literary trickster,” and has been credited with influencing the work of Gilles Deleuze, Jean Baudrillard, and Umberto Eco, among many others. His writing operates outside the bounds of reality. Science fiction author Harlan Ellison prefers the designation “speculative fiction,” and I’d say that fits here. Exploits & Opinions of Dr. Faustroll, Pataphysician tells the various and sundry stories of Dr. Faustroll. Pataphysics is the next step beyond our normal level of figurative or abstract thinking. If metaphysics is the layer above physics, then pataphysics is the layer above metaphysics. This is the realm in which Dr. Faustroll operates. That’s about all I’ve got, but as Roger Shattuck writes in his introduction, “Any summary of Jarry’s novel must remain highly hypothetical” (p. xii).
Uncommon Sense: The Life and Thought of Ludwig von Bertalanffy by Mark Davidson (Tarcher, 1983): Davidson’s intellectual biography provides an excellent behind-the-scenes look at the life of the Father of General Systems Theory. Endorsed by the biggies of his time (the book sports a foreword by Buckminster Fuller and an introduction by Kenneth Boulding) but largely unsung since, Bertalanffy deserves to be much more famous [Special thanks to Dr. Katie Arens for introducing me to this stuff].
Chaosophy: Texts and Interviews 1972-1977 by Félix Guattari (Semiotext(e), 2008): Best known as the longtime writing partner of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari has a substantial body of work of his own. Chaosophy collects over 300 pages of his post-May 1968 writings and interviews. Most interesting here are the outtake from Anti-Oedipus (“Balance-Sheet for ‘Desiring Machines’”) and the four essays on “cinemachines.” His sustained and piercing analysis is proof that Guattari deserves to be considered in his own right, and Chaosophy is a welcome addition to his and the collective Deleuze and Guattari canon.
I recently read a few from last year’s list (e.g., Straw Dogs by John Gray thanks to Dave Allen, The Resurrectionist by Jack O’Connell thanks to Ashley Crawford) as well as Life, Inc. by Doug Rushkoff (this year’s list favorite), and Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett edited by James and Elizabeth Knowlson, which is sort of a companion piece to the former Knowlson’s book on Beckett, Damned to Fame (mentioned below).
Capital by Kark Marx: I was a fool to unload my Marx and Marx-related books when we moved a few years ago. Now I am re-buying them all. I suppose that’s good for the economy.
Love, Sex, Fear, Death: The Untold Story of The Process Church of the Final Judgment by Timothy Wylie; Adam Parfrey, editor (Feral House, 2009): What really went on behind the scenes of this legendary Satanic apocalypse cult. The truth might surprise you.
Life Inc.: How the World Became a Corporation and How to Take it Back by Douglas Rushkoff (Random House, 2009): Ever get the feeling that you’re trapped on a hamster wheel of predatory “Corporatism”? An unwitting participant in a system that you didn’t sign up for in the first place? What happens when the operating system of the corporate Moloch runs amok.
Never Trust a Rabbit by Jeremy Dyson (Duck Editions, UK, 2001): Great macabre short story collection from the silent member of The League of Gentlemen. “Never trust a rabbit. They may look like a child’s toy, but they will eat your crops.” Hungarian proverb.
Sunshine on Putty by Ben Thompson (Harper Perennial, UK, 2004) Essential guide to the golden age of British comedy, from Vic Reeves to “The Office” and beyond. It’s difficult to write about “funny” and this is one of the best written books on comedy I’ve ever read. The chapters on personal favorites like “The League of Gentlemen,” the great Johnny Vegas and “The Mighty Boosh” are particularly well-crafted and insightful.
Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson (Simon & Schuster): Superb Beckett bio from one of the world’s leading experts (and who was hand-picked by Beckett to be his biographer). Loads of stuff here I didn’t know about the writer.
I apologize for the academic-ness of my summer reading list, but I have to let you non-academics in on a secret: professors do not get summer’s “off”. Universities expect professors, instead, to publish their asses “off.” We don’t have much time to write during the semester since, you know, there’s this pesky thing called “teaching” and, um, “students” too. Summers and winter holidays become, then, the time to research and write (unless, of course, you’re teaching during the summer to make ends meet). So, the books on my “to read” shelf are consequently not read (or half-read), and almost all of them are related to projects I’m working on. In some cases, the only review I can offer is why I’m reading it. Mea culpa.
Nick Tosches’ Where Dead Voices Gather (2002): I’ve always been a sucker for Tosches’ writing style—so meandering, so laden with affect . . . and syllables. This one is about the musician Emmett Miller, a fellow Georgia boy blackface minstrel whose voice and musical mishmash of jazz/blues/pop defies categorization and, apparently, haunted Tosches since he research and wrote his book on country music. I picked this up for “fun,” but I’m hoping I might find something that will help me in a project I’m working on about how we hear “race” in the recorded human voice (Miller was white, but many listeners think he is black).
Slavoj Zizek, John Milbank, and Creston Davis’ The Monstrosity of Christ (2009): I picked this up because I’m currently working on an essay that explains why Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ is effectively pornography. I also just like reading Zizek, and in this instance, he dialogues with a respected theologian in the sort of dialectic-debate that searches for a kind meeting place for the deist and atheist. I’ve been really interested in the turn toward the theological in the theoretical humanities in the 1990s; this seems like a good summation. Jesus was a monster, truly.
Laurence Rickels’ The Devil Notebooks (2005): I’m actually halfway into this with a reading group, but we have a good way to go. This is a difficult book, but oddly very enjoyable at the same time. In it, Rickel’s attempts to discern the psychical function of the devil as a figure in popular culture. Apparently to write this thing he locked himself in a room and read every literary piece from the nineteenth century onward on the devil. Then, with a box of Twinkies and popping handfuls of Xanax, he watched every bad b-movie about the devil he could get his hands on (Satan’s School for Girls, Race with the Devil, etc.). The result? Satan represents the imaginary father and doubles as the maternal body, always making pacts before the Oedipal daddy can step in. Don’t know what that means? Me either! But with lines like, “The Devil father excludes no outlet from his multipronged dong of penetration” at least every paragraph, it’s hard to put this book down!
Adrian Johnston’s Time Driven: Metapsychology and the Splitting of the Drive: Yeah, yeah, this doesn’t sound like airplane reading, I know. Johnston is the new high theory darling in the humanities, and this is his dissertation. The dude graduated when I did—my age and everything—but he’s already pumped out three books and a zillion articles! I figure I better get caught-up, because he’s being cited everywhere (don’t get me started on the politics of citation in academics). I’m not far in, but I gather what Johnston is up to is furthering our understanding of drive theory by arguing the drives harbor an inner temporal conflict. What’s a drive? Well, think about it as “human instinct.” Human instinct is different from animal instinct because it is mutable and subject to symbolic transformation. I won’t go into this further except to say yes, I’m reading it for a writing project with a buddy on the drives and the InterTubes.
Winfried Menninghaus’ Disgust: Theory and History of a Strong Sensation (2003); Susan B. Miller, Disgust: The Gatekeeper Emotion (2004); and William Ian Miller, The Anatomy of Disgust (1997): So, I’m reading (or better put, grazing) three books on the affect of disgust. Apparently disgust is a human response seemingly “hardwired” to smell and taste. Babies exhibit disgust when (so my mother tells me) you feed them green pea baby food. Adults exhibit disgust when they watch “Two Girls One Cup.” You know that buddy with whom I’m writing a paper on the drives? Well, we’re actually writing about the disgust drive via-a-vis the InterTube phenom of “Two Girls, One Cup.” I haven’t seen it, but he has. He assures me it is disgusting. From what I’m reading in these books, I probably don’t need to see two women eating poop and vomiting on each other.
Brian Rotman’s Becoming Besides Ourselves: The Alphabet, Ghosts, and Distributed Human Being (2008): I’m not a real fan of Dolce and Gabbana—er, I mean Deleuze and Guattari (props to Gretch!)—but I have grooved on others who groove on them, like Brian Massumi. Rotman doesn’t draw on them, but he does think about bodies in ways similar to Deleuze–in ways that smell very Gilles. In this book, he’s arguing that subjectivity has been structured by the alphabet for thousands of years, which absents the body. Newer modes of mediation (InterTubes, etc.) is reconfiguring human subjectivity, returning it to face-to-face norms like gesture. The consequence is that or “selves” are becoming distributed. It’s really a mindfuck kind of book. I’m reading it, of course, because this relates to my own book in progress, which is about recorded speech.
Clement Cheroux, Andreas Fischer, Pierre Apraxine, Denis Canguilhem and Sophie Schmit’s The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult (2005): This is actually a coffee table art book of the largest exhibit on ghost and spirit photography, with some fairy shots thrown in for good measure. There are actually a number of very good, well researched essays. While it’s obvious to contemporary eyes these photos are fakes, the writers bend over backwards not to say so (it’s actually comical). This shit is just fascinating, most especially the ectoplasm shots: body from afar! The spirit world through your nose! So gross! So . . . exciting! It looks like gauze and cotton, but whatever. I’ve just been reading it and looking at the peektures because it’s fun.
Jacques Lacan, My Teaching (2008): These are new translations of talks Lacan apparently gave to general audiences and are, supposedly, free of jargon and quite accessible. I read the first one and whoever wrote the copy to sell this chapbook needs to have his “free of jargons” and “accessibles” cut out and put in a jar of vinegar.
Robert G. Davis and Rex R. Hutchens, Editors, Heredom: The Transactions of the Scottish Rite Research Society, Vol. 16 (2008): This is actually an edited collection of essays about the history and meaning of Freemasonry. I’m a Mason and a member of the SRRS, so I get one of these about this time every year and always have fun reading it over the summer. I’ve already read the first article, “Riding the Goat,” by historian William D. Moore. The essay is about the prank, “mechanical goats” that secret societies would make new initiates ride in ceremonies in the early twentieth century (e.g., Old Fellows). Companies made these mechanical goats, which would buck and wobble—heck, there was a whole industry! Apparently the “fraternal goat” died out when hazing got increasingly frowned upon. We don’t do this sort of thing in the Masons today, although I’m told fraternities and sororities still do . . . (spank me daddy).
The Age of Wire and String (Dalkey Archive, 1998) and Notable American Women (Vintage, 2002) by Ben Marcus: If, in the “postmodern” canon David Foster Wallace made claim to the footnote and Mark Z. Danielewski to crazed typography, then in The Age of Wire and String, Ben Marcus has pretty much secured The Glossary as his initial trademark feature.
The Glossary has, of course, been used in fiction before — most recently by Neal Stephenson in his massive Anathem — but never before, as far as I know, has it made up the entirety of a work of fiction. In structure it somewhat resembles J.G. Ballard’s 1969 The Atrocity Exhibition and is reminiscent of Ballard’s book in sheer weirdness. Both authors effectively re-invent the American cultural landscape. But where Ballard used the glossary approach to simply break “normal” narrative flow, Marcus gives us a Users Guide to a parallel universe.
The Age of Wire and String is subtitled “stories” by Ben Marcus and the book could be read as a string of bizarre vignettes, but it can also be read as a strange narrative of a unique world, one that is essentially fleshed out in Marcus’ second book, Notable American Women.
We know there’s trouble afoot when one of the blurbs from the back cover reads: “How can one word from Ben Marcus’ rotten, filthy heart be trusted?” Especially when said blurb is attributed to Michael Marcus, Ben’s father.
Thus begins a truly bizarre, but strangely moving, story of young Ben Marcus’ upbringing. Notable American Women makes Stephen Wright’s seriously dysfunctional family in M31: a family romance, look commonplace. Hunkered down on a remote farm in an alternate Ohio the clearly delusional Jane Dark leads a group of American women to practice “behaviour modification” to attain complete stillness and silence (which, not surprisingly, often leads to death). Marcus’ father is buried alive in the back yard and assailed with “language” attacks. His mother happily encourages the use of young Ben for rigorous breeding purposes for the cults’ younger female followers.
There are moments when one begins to think that Marcus clearly loathes his parents, then others when one wonders what kind of wonderful upbringing could inspire such a fevered and vivid imagination. Working out Marcus’ own position in this chaotic rendering is like juggling mercury or herding feral cats. Does he despise women or love them? Does he despise himself or simply relish the tearing apart of his own physical demeanour to further his story?
The one thing we can be sure of is his true love of language and the power of naming. This becomes decidedly visceral: “Each time we changed my sister’s name, she shed a brittle layer of skin. The skins accrued at first in the firewood bin and were meant to indicate something final of the name that had been shed – a print, an echo, a husk, although we knew not what.” And things get decidedly odd when young Ben starts wearing his sister’s discarded skins or opts to bath with them.
Language here is a virus. Ben’s father, buried beneath ground, is assailed by Larry the Punisher, whose task it is to blast Michael Marcus with words. Sex is reduced to a “parts consultation.” To avoid language the women practice a grotesque version of pantomine, the complexity of which requires the crushing and removal of certain bones resulting in a “near-boneless approach, when the flesh can `rubber-dog’ various facial and postural styles.”
Thematically there are moments reminiscent of Jack O’Connell’s writing in such books as The Skin Palace and Word Made Flesh — the obsession with language as a visceral, physical weapon. In its apocalyptic yet poetic tone it has much in common with Steve Erickson’s work. But at the end of the day Marcus’ voice, in both The Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women, Marcus’ voice is very much his own.
Last year, I wrote about a bunch of occult-related book. Since I’m still laboring away on the same book that this is all research for, my obsessions continue to run in that vein.
Getting even RAWer. Last year, I started off talking about Robert Anton Wilson and his (and Bob Shea’s) Illuminatus! trilogy. Bob Wilson had just died and he was on my mind (and on heavy rotation in my iPod with the 5-CD collection Robert Anton Wilson Explains Everything (or Old Bob Exposes His Ignorance) (Sounds True). He’s still on my mind (and my iPod). I’ve now started collecting everything he wrote; reading it all. Besides the trilogy (and the trilogies that followed: Schrodinger’s Cat Trilogy, the Historical Illuminatus series, and Cosmic Trigger I, II, III), I’ve recently discovered (and recommend) Chaos and Beyond (Permanent Press) and An Insider’s Guide to Robert Anton Wilson (New Falcon). The former is the “best of” RAW’s zine from the early ’90s, and it reads like a zine: er… raw, shot from the hip, a notepad from which his ideas emerged that went into his books or were expounded upon from his books. The latter is a detailed look at his novels, especially Illuminatus! and Masks of the Illuminati. I also got a used copy of Everything is Under Control (Quill) for a few pennies on Bookfinder. It’s the perfect toilet tank book, a thick alphabetical guide to “conspiracies, cults & cover-ups.” A “fun” book to pick up and peruse at random.
The best book I read last year was a limited edition small press title called The Red Goddess (Scarlet Imprint). It’s written by Peter Grey, the guy behind this new “Talismanic Publishing” venture. The book is stunning, both as a piece of book art and what it has to say about the goddess Babalon and her roots before Crowley and before John of Patmos had his way with the goddesses of Babylon and Sumer. This is a truly unique book, a down-on-your-knees love letter to a goddess from a devotee. But it’s as rigorous as it is passionate, looking at the history of holy whores and love goddesses, from Ishtar, Inanna, and Astarte, to the Babalon of Crowley and the O.T.O., to Jack Parsons and the Babalon Working in the ’40s, on up through to the worship of Babalon today. There’s definitely something afoot in the spiritual counterculture, with a significant interest in what’s called “the Babalon current” and this book is something of a manifesto, a tech manual for working that current. By the end, maybe taking its own page from the Book of Revelation, The Red Goddess gets rather apocalyptic, darker, more blood-drenched, which does make sense in that she’s the “red goddess” in more ways than one and the goddesses in this lineage are usually goddesses of both love and war, but I found less resonance for me in the “conclusions” than in the lucid tripping towards them. But this is ultimately an extremely personal relationship with the divine feminine, so parts of the book might not resonate for you like they did with me. I now keep this book by my bed and read from it in my own devotional practice. I find parts of it, many parts of it, inspired. I highly recommend the other Scarlet titles as well and can’t wait to see what Peter Grey does next.
In my many years of devotion to the work of William Blake, I’ve read dozens (and dozens) of books about him. Most of them are academic tomes, as dry as desert sand. And most of them tend to cover the same territory, or academically polish some new facet (Blake and Freud, Blake and the politics of his age, Blake and mental illness), etc. Why Mrs. Blake Cried (sold in the US under the racier William Blake’s Sexual Path to Spiritual Vision, Inner Traditions) by Marsha Keith Schuchard is NOT one of these books. In fact, I can imagine it was not well-received in the traditional Blake studies community. It is almost gossipy in terms of the scandals and sketchy characters that parade through it. And its central thesis, that (basically) sex magick was an underpinning of Blake’s work, has very little hard evidence to support it. Basically what the author does is to look at the circumstantial evidence — at the groups and individuals Blake was known to be associated with, what books they were reading, what they were writing about in print and in their journals, etc., and then it looks at Blake’s art and poetry of the time for clues to possible influences and basically asks the question: Could Blake have been hanging out with these people and not hear about the books on Kabbalah and Tantra they were reading, the meetings of magical fraternities (and sex clubs) they were frequenting, the trips to the orient that friends and colleagues were taking (and learning about the gods and goddesses of the East, yogic practices, etc).
The first half of the book explores the idea that Blake’s parents may not have been Dissenters, as is commonly believed, but members of the early Moravian Church (based on recently-found documents with his parents’ (all too common) names on church rosters). Again, no hard evidence, but a fascinating idea, given that Moravianism sort of segues into Swedenborgianism, and Blake was definitely a follower of Swedenborg for a time. The Moravians were one kinky sect o’ Christians, practicing what has been dubbed “wound mysticism,” basically sexualizing the wounds of Christ, seeing them as vagina-like openings to the divine. They sang very eroticized hymns to these wounds, had ecstatic “love fests,” which were basically non-penetrative (as far as we know) orgies. More and more, Schuchard contends, Moravianism embraced a kind of Westernized Tantra and incorporated aspects of the Kabbalah into its Christianity. And Swedenborg picked up and ran with similar ideas.
The second half of the book looks at Blake’s work in light of these ideas and tries to paint a picture of him as a sort of tantric/sex magick practitioner who uses these sexual energies to get the inspiration for his work and that a lot of his verse is veiledly sexual in nature. The examples given are certainly eye-opening and have changed the way I read a lot of Blake.
So, why did Mrs. Blake cry? As the Blakes got older, and Catherine perhaps lost some of her sex drive, Bill’s poetry got more morose and desperate and he said rather awful things about her (or it at least appears that the passages were about her). Schuchard finds evidence that Bill was cajoling her, pressuring her, panicked that he would lose the divine inspiration he got from their sexuality. They seem to have come to some resolution and found peace in their relationship after this period of midlife crisis.
The coolest thing about this book, besides affirming what I already suspected (the central role of sex/erotica in Blake’s visionary universe) is the decadent world it paints the Blakes living in. They hung out with all sorts of radicals, mystics, electromagnetic experimenters, devotees of various magical lodges and sex clubs, even an ambiguously-gendered neighbor, the Chevalier d’Eon, who lived the first half of his life as a man, the second half as a women. She lived down the street from the Blakes and frequently entertained them. She was also a member of the infamous Hellfire Club. Then there were the friends who believed that Africa was a more sexually-charged landmass and that they were going to start a sort of utopian sex commune there and that they were going to travel there from London in hot air balloons. And then there was the electromagnetic Temple of Hymen. As I said: decadent! Think: Hollywood Babylon, only in London, in the late 17/early 1800s.
A trend I’m noticing in books recently is that there are an increasing number that trade in danger – anti-Nanny State books. No, not those Dangerous Book for Boys and Girls. Those are rubbish. I’m talking about books like Theo Gray’s tremendously awesome Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do at Home – But Probably Shouldn’t (Black Dog & Leventhal) and Bill Gurstelle’s Absinthe and Flamethrowers (Chicago Review Press). Gray’s book has a bunch of enticing experiments that are so well-documented and gorgeously photographed, you don’t have to do them yourself, but if you decide you want to, Gray tells you the real dangers involved and what you have to find out on your own to do them safely and successfully. Treating us like adults. What a concept.
My friend Bill Gurstelle’s book first looks at reasons for living dangerously, mapping what he calls the Golden Third, those people who take risks, who aren’t afraid to live a certain degree of risk,… but not too much risk. Be too risk-taking and you might not survive, not reproduce, don’t take any risks, and you won’t move the culture, innovation, etc. forward. All the action is in that Golden Third. After these ruminations on the why of living dangerously, he gets into some projects and activities, the “art” of living dangerously, from “thrill eating” (stuff like fugu that can theoretically kill you) to Bill’s main bailiwick, teaching you how to spectacularly blow shit up (hence “flamethrower” in the title).
Other books that have recently crossed my nightstand:
Acme Novelty Library #19, Chris Ware (Drawn and Quarterly) Another breathtaking piece of graphical fiction by Mr. Ware. The first story, “The Seeing Eye Dogs of Mars,” is one of the most amazing pieces of literature I have ever read. Truly haunting, creepy, and sad.
Shortcomings, Adrian Tomine (Drawn and Quarterly) This exploration of racism, sexuality, relationships, and twenty-something angst is, as another reviewer put it, “pitch-perfect.” Tomine gets at graphical narrative like nobody else. There’s something desperately tragic beating at the heart of it, but there’s great lyricism and humor here as well, that makes it all too universally human.
The Musical Illusionist and Other Tales, Alex Rose (Hotel St. George Press) This collection, in the vein of Borges and Calvino, is a fun trip through a “Library of Tangents,” little surrealist, whimsical worlds that play on science, language, music, and perception. Would make a perfect, brainy beach book.
Three Essays on Freedom, John Whiteside Parsons (Teitan Press) A collection of “libertarian” essays by Jack Parsons, the main one being his most famous “Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword,” (included in a different collection of that same name), along with two previously unpublished essays, “Freedom is a Lonely Star” and “Doing Your Will.” I wanted to have this book, being a Parsons completest, but it doesn’t really add much to the Parsonian corpus. If you don’t already have “Freedom is a Two-Edged Sword,” this is a nice hardback volume to find it in. The other two essays are interesting, but probably deserved to stay on the cutting room floor.