Friday, December 26, 2008

Hubert's Freaks by Gregory Gibson

What becomes of a small-time dealer in rare books when he stumbles upon a possible photographic goldmine?

This is the scenario of Hubert's Freaks, by Gregory Gibson.

While soul-searching his way through life, Robert Langmuir has always found himself with a love for African-Americana. In his continuing struggle to keep his used bookstore afloat, he traveled the east coast in search of both books for his shop and collectibles for his soul. Fate was on his side when he stumbled upon an auction of an abandoned storage unit. Among the many unusual circus style artifacts that were being snapped up by dealers was a trunk full of photos, notes and diaries. Seeing these photos, it became obvious that this storage unit belonged to an African-American performer. Time for Robert to feed his soul. He was able to acquire about half of these paper goods.

After getting his stock home he started looking through the details of what he had just acquired. Among these items was a date book. This date book represents a turning point in the life of Langmuir. An entry reading, "Diane Arbus, 131 1/2 Charles St, WA-4-4608., morns 8-10 eves 6-8". Even more incredibly, the handwriting differed from other writing on the page. It appeared (especially in the writing of the name itself) to be written in the hand of Diane Arbus! What did this mean to the photographs? Could they, too, be from the same hand? It became Robert Langmuirs "calling" to find out.

What follows is years of legal wranglings, attempts to authenticate the photos and a goal of selling the works for a deserved price.

This is a book about Robert Langmuir, his professional, personal and spiritual trails.

This is not a book about "Hubert's Freaks". For me, there is precious little information pertaining to this small, African American run, dime museum. The author touches on the fact that he took part in an interview with a relative of the show's proprietors, Charlie and Virginia Lucas, however, after the initial haggling as to the parameters of the interview, there are no details as to what was said. Considering Gibson does recognize the importance of this lost part of Americana, I found this disappointing.

As for the Arbus photos, are they in this book? I couldn't say. Looking at the photos that are here, and judging by the descriptions in the book and my own passing familiarity with the work of Diane Arbus, I'm inclined to say, "no". I found this a bit disconcerting. As I also found the placement of the photos that do appear throughout this work. The pictures that are present show up on pages long before or after the mention of their subjects. For me, as much as I'm not a fan of pictures being bunched up together in the center of a book, it would have made referencing them much easier. As it is, looking at the pictures in their correct context requires long gaps in reading to find the photo, or, as I eventually did, giving up on looking at them in context at all.

Title: Hubert's Freaks
Author: Gregory Gibson
Publisher: Harcourt, Inc.
ISBN: 978-0-15-101233-6

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Anatomists by Hal McDonald

Edward Montague and Jean-Claude Legard are medical students in London. The time is the early 1800's and medical cadavers are hard to come by...legally that is...

After hiring a young resurrectionist, the doctors in training learn that the robbed grave was host to the wrong body. They take it upon themselves to discover who this body belonged to and where the original grave owner has gotten to.

This is the premise of The Anatomists, from author Hal McDonald.

The Anatomists reads as a Sherlock Holmes type of mystery, with roommate Jean-Claude Legard playing Holmes against Edward Montague's Watson. While this works for the era of the story, it has the unfortunate effect of the reader being told what happened as opposed to discovering what happens.

The plot, itself, is quite intricate with many twists and turns along the way to its conclusion, some that are given away a bit to early and many that are surmised far to easily by the Legard character who often decides upon the "answer" with no lead-in to how he could possibly have come to that conclusion.

All that being said, The Anatomists is a fun story if the reader can take himself back in time a bit as a reader and imagine reading this book in the era the story takes place as opposed to 2008.

Title: The Anatomists
Author: Hal McDonald
Publisher: Harper
ISBN: 975-0-06-144375-6

Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Urban Hermit by Sam MacDonald

For all the "lovable slackers" of the world...

Not living up to your potential? Credit cards maxed out? Behind on your bills? Living paycheck to paycheck? Motivated by beer? Aged 25 going on 17? Choosing jobs based on enjoyment as opposed to financial gain, or even, security?

This just may be the book for you!

In 2000, Yale graduate Sam MacDonald found himself tiring of certain aspects of this life-style and decided a drastic change was the only way past it. His motivating factor...the creditors. It was time to pay off the credit cards and change his life.

The plan was quite obvious: For one month he would simply spend less money. What could be easier? Hello to an extra job. Good-bye to beer. Good-bye to food. Sam was changing his life by changing his diet! For just $8 dollars a week he was able to fill his, soon to be, shrinking belly with lentils and canned tuna. That's it. Nothing more. But he weighs at least 300lbs and it's only for a month, so why not?

In The Urban Hermit, Sam MacDonald chronicles this extreme time of his life. Working as a journalist at a weekly newspaper, every penny that he "saves" through his new budgeting plan is sent to his creditors. Unfortunately, this leaves nothing put aside for life's little twists and turns:

A trip to Bosnia.
A trip to Montana to hang out with Hippies.
A dead car.

Everybody knows or has known a guy like Sam MacDonald. He's a young man with many personal failings and an optimistic outlook on life. He accepts who he is and is an easy-going, affable man. Sure, he has stresses in his life, but he's not going to let that get in the way of his weekends!

The Urban Hermit is a book that can be recommended to just about anybody. I can't imagine who wouldn't enjoy it. MacDonald portrays himself as such a likable and real character with his sheer honesty, the good, the bad and the "what were you thinking...".

This is a ridiculously funny book, seemingly, without setting out to be funny. The humor is just the natural result of living within ones means and still living in the real world. And, of course, the result of a personality like Sam MacDonald's.

Title: The Urban Hermit
Author: Sam MacDonald
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
ISBN: 978-0-312-37699-4

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

American Lightning by Howard Blum

The Players:

William "Billy" Burns: destined to be the first director of the FBI.

Clarence Darrow: destined to be known as, possibly, the greatest trial lawyer in American history.

D.W. Griffith: destined to direct the first true motion picture epic.

In American Lightning, author Howard Blum interweaves two years in the lives of these three men, brought together by an all but forgotten moment in history. The 1910, early morning bombing of the L.A. Times office building, that killed an estimated 21 men.

Mr. Blum is able to bring this story together in a way that reads almost as a fictional story. He uses his extensive research of newspaper articles and autobiographies of the men involved and those involved in their lives to access actual dialogue during what at the time was "The Crime of the Century".

But, lest you think Burns, Darrow and Griffith are the only players, there is a deeper story in these pages.

We know the What? When? Where? and How? of this crime. The unanswered questions are Who? and Why?

Who?: J.J. McNamara and his very loyal brother Jim McNamara, among others.

Why?: Socialists vs. Capitalists

Unions were at their height. Men working for and fighting against the business owners in order to feed their families and own a bit of the American dream. It seemed a time when the rich were getting richer and the middle class was loosing ground.

And this takes us to an even deeper story in American Lightning. The parallels of this particular time period and this specific crime to America today. Blum doesn't hit the reader over the head with this apparent show of "history repeating itself", but it's a hard theme to miss. He does go into complete detail in his final entry, "A Note On Sources". The author explains this far more eloquently than I could ever hope, so I'll not try.

All that said, this is also a very entertaining book.

Detective William Burns is a character, in the truest sense of the word. He is a man who has no compunction when it comes to the blurring of legal lines if it means the difference between getting or not getting his man, or his money, or his fame.

Attorney Clarence Darrow is an unusually depressed man, seemingly always on the side of the underdog and fighting to exhaustion even if he doesn't entirely agree with the circumstances.

Film-maker D.W. Griffith, having resentfully fallen into moving pictures, is a lecherous man, to but it kindly, who spared no time in making the absolute most of what he believed was a terrible situation.

In the end, American Lightning is a book well worth the read for the purpose of both entertainment and education.

Title: American Lightning
Author: Howard Blum
Publisher: Crown Publishers
ISBN: 978-0-307-34694-0

Sunday, November 16, 2008

The Tsar's Dwarf by Peter H. Fogtdal

Sorine Bentsdatter is a Danish dwarf in the court of King Frederik IV. When the king is visited by Russia's tsar Peter Alexeyevich (Peter the Great), Sorine is pleased to be given to the tsar as a gift for his "collection".

But Sorine is a difficult character. She does not like dwarves. Sorine does not even consider dwarves to be human. Her self-loathing manifests itself in a caustic, sarcastic wit and a lack of fear from either physical danger or simply speaking her mind, which she does proudly with no self-editing. She is a character who believes when things are going well they will only get worse, and she makes it so. And when things are going badly she is relieved and contented. Even with all of this, she has an overwhelming affection for Peter Alexeyevich, whom she rarely sees. Much like a child for a neglectful parent.

Peter H. Fogtdal's, The Tsar's Dwarf was originally written and published in Danish and has now been translated into English by Tiina Nunnally. Although Mr. Fogtdal has written a dozen novels, this is the first of his books to be translated into English.

While, overall, an enjoyable tale, the reader is often taken out of the story when Sorine "speaks" of scenes happening out of her presence and refers to her "Dwarf vision". This had the unfortunate effect of taking a story that the reader could believe as a slice of life and making it a fantasy. Also, at times, there are words or turns of phrase ("...I can play you like a violin.") that cause pause as being too modern. Whether this is due to the novelist or the translator is not known. Although I found it a bit distracting I can't pretend to know better than Mr. Fogtdal and Ms. Nunnally as to whether or not these are accurate to the time period.

In the end, through The Tsar's Dwarf, Peter H. Fogtdal takes us on a rather incredible journey of a unique character's life beginning just before Sorine Bentsdatter's life with King Frederik IV, through her time with Peter Alexeyevich, where she not only spent time as one of his favorite dwarves, but was also kept in a cloister due to her lack of belief in God and some possible need for exorcism, and then on to a time spent in the tsar's Curiosity Cabinet to be studied by a scientist while on display to "The Good Folk". But her destiny doesn't end there...

Title: The Tsar's Dwarf
Author: Peter H. Fogtdal
Translator: Tiina Nunnally
Publisher: Hawthorne Books & Literary Arts
ISBN: 0-9790188-0-3

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Customer Service by Benoit Duteurtre

Oh, the dreaded call to customer service! You begin with a simple question in mind and the highest hopes of a quick resolve. When the operator picks up you discover, not an operator but an automated system. You patiently listen to all of your options and hit the proper number on your phone. After waiting through some lovely looped music and a periodic voice interrupting to remind you of how important your call is you finally hear a new voice. This voice, too, is automated and offers you more options!

In his satirical novella Customer Service, Benoit Duteurte explores one mans journey through this modern day labyrinth.

When the narrator looses his phone he finds himself cut off from family and friends whose phone numbers are now lost to him. When he can't remember his computer password, he looses his ability to do his work. And when he can't remember his code to the lock on his apartment building, he find himself in danger of loosing his home. After finding no resolution in the phone maze he decides to head straight to the top, the owner of the signature that appears on all of his bills, the mysterious customer service agent Leslie Delmare.

Duteurte's writing throughout this novella, as translated by Bruce Benderson, is very straight forward. It's a bit like reading a newspaper column series. The reader easily relates to the aggravation of the hours of phone calls trying to get services or billing information corrected.

The final chapter, however, takes a bit of an odd turn. Putting one in the mind of having read a Twilight Zone episode.

Monday, October 27, 2008

The Enigma Woman by Kathleen A. Cairns

On Friday, June 22, 1934, at the age of 39, Nellie May Madison was convicted of “murder in the first degree” in the shooting death of her husband of less than one year, Eric Madison. On Tuesday, June 26, 1934 she was sentenced to hang at the gallows of San Quentin. That year of marriage, that crime of murder, the ensuing trial and her incarceration at the Women’s Institution at Tehachapi would come to define her life.

In reality Nellie Madison was a bit of a tomboy who grew up with a large family on a ranch in Montana. She was a crack shot with a rifle and had an independent spirit that gave her the courage to travel to the big city of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, as often happens with human beings, who she was on her own and who she was in a relationship were a bit at odds. Starting with her choice of partners. Eric Madison, by far, being her worst choice.

It took another independent spirit, Herald and Express reporter Agness Underwood to bring the public the true story behind Nellie’s crime. Hers was a story that would stir friends, strangers, activists and even every member of the jury that sentenced her to death, to implore not one but three California governors to not only spare her life, but reduce her time in prison.

With a reporter’s style, Kathleen A. Cairns takes us through Nellie Madison’s depression era trial and the Los Angeles media coverage which dubbed her “The Enigma Woman” due to her apparent lack of emotion in the courtroom and throughout her appearances in front of the news cameras.

This is a clearly well researched, straight-forward account of The People of California v. Nellie May Madison and Ms. Madison’s consequent time in prison. Unfortunately, no doubt due to the passage of time, The Enigma Woman is sorely lacking in much personal detail of it’s subject beyond this short period. The book does, however, include a section of Bibliographic Essays that help in establishing more over all background for each chapter. I would suggest reading each of these essays both before and after their respective chapters.

Title: The Enigma Woman
Author: Kathleen A. Cairns
Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
ISBN: 978-0-8032-1141-4

Friday, October 17, 2008

Funny Boys by Warren Adler

In the 1930's and '40's "Murder Inc." was running New York city and the "Borscht Belt" of the Catskills area where it's members spent their weekends in the summer seasons enjoying the accommodations of the resorts and the comedians who doubled as hotel entertainment directors there.

In Funny Boys, Warren Adler imagines one of those seasons in the life of known gangster Harry "Pittsburgh Phil" "Pep" Strauss as seen through the eyes of his fictional girlfriend, Miriam "Mutzie" Feder and tumler Mickey Fine.

Mickey has wanted nothing more in his young life than to make people laugh. When he accepts a tumler position with Gorlick's Greenhouse he discovers that a very important, regular guest of the hotel is "Pep" Strauss, a man who years earlier had beaten his father for a being late in repaying a debt.

Mutzie wanted nothing more from life than to look like Jean Harlow and live in a movie. So, after ending things with the boy she was supposed to marry, she bleached her hair, bought new clothes and began her new life. She had her first dream realized and with the help of her brother, who introduced her to the dapper gentleman who hung out at the corner candy store, she was about to realize the second.

Warren Adler shows us a side of organized crime that is usually only depicted as a side story, the Jewish gangsters who worked side by side with the Italians whose names we all know so well.

This book does not glamorize the gangster life. It's the story of how easily someone can be taken in by veneers and what lies beneath. It's the story of a young man who finds shame in people of his own background who live lives of destruction with no regard for any other lives. Not even the lives of their "friends".

Mostly, this book is fun escapism. With the speech patterns of thugs and wannabe thugs, and jokes from a rather inexperienced hero at inappropriate moments, Funny Boys actually reads a bit like a 1930's gangster movie.

Title: Funny Boys

Author: Warren Adler

Publisher: The Overlook Press

ISBN: 978-1-59020-034-6

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Charlatan: America's Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him and the Age of Flimflam by Pope Brock

"Dr Brinkley is the foremost money-making surgeon in the world, because he had sense enough to know the weaknesses of human nature and gall enough to make a million dollars a year out of it." This quote is a summation from the last attorney to try Dr. J.R. Brinkley in a court of law.

In Charlatan, Pope Brock takes us through the, frankly, amazing career of Dr. Brinkley who had a successful 20 year career spanning the 1920's and 1930's which started with the transplantation of goat testicles into humans. He started, of course, with men but then discovered that women, too, would pay handsomely for the promise of "rejuvenation". All of this without a medical degree and after loosing medical licenses that he had purchased. How did he do it?


That's right. In the early 1900's Brinkley built an AM radio station just inside of Mexico (call letters XERA), to avoid US broadcasting standards, and reached through much of the country hyping his cure-alls from morning to night. But, he was no fool. He also broadcast "hillbilly" music, giving The Carter Family, among others, national exposure.

He also eventually stopped performing surgeries. Was it the loss of lives, the threat of lawsuits, the constant pursuit of Morris Fishbein of the AMA that caused him to stop? No. It was the discovery that if he answered listeners letters through his program Medical Question Box. All the good doctor had to do was sit back, answer the letters on air and send everyone to their local pharmacists to buy drugs that had no names, only numbers. Of course, these were his own brews and mostly alcohol.

Never one to sit on his laurels, Brinkley also twice ran for governor of Kansas and added evangelism to his radio programming, with himself as orator.

Pope Brock has uncovered a fascinating story. And, although I sometimes found his writing style to be slightly confusing, he has told the story in a very compelling fashion with many characters and "cameos" of the days writers, politicians and musicians.

This is a nonfiction book with a story that reads like fiction. And it would be quite easy to sit back and scoff at the gullibility of the, mostly, small town folk of the time until you look at current events and the number of people who make a living selling books with bogus diets or randomly calling people and actually getting money from them with threats of law suits for debts they don't even owe. When was the last time someone knocked on your door claiming to be from the cable or power company?

To quote an "anonymous geezer" from the book, "I knowed he was bilking me, but...I liked him anyway."

Title: Charlatan
Author: Pope Brock
Publisher: Crown
ISBN: 9780307339881

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The McSweeney's Joke Book of Book Jokes by the Editors of McSweeney's

With a wonderfully entertaining introduction by John Hodgman, The McSweeney’s Joke Book of Book Jokes is an interesting mix of hilarious and “huh?” collected from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

As with any compilation using a number of different authors, McSweeney’s… is hit or miss. The hits are hysterical.

In my opinion, the best, “Words and Expressions Commonly Misused by Insipid Brothers-In-Law” by Dennis DiClaudio. If you have any pet peeves you will completely relate to the growing intensity of this three page diatribe (I sure hope I'm using that word correctly). This is the one that made me laugh out loud.

Also, well worth a mention, “Yesterday’s Book Reports from Today’s Notables” by Wayne Gladstone. Here you’ll find Matthew McConaughey reporting on Alice in Wonderland, Ralph Nader on The Jungle, Matt Damon on A Separate Peace and Chris Hansen of Dateline‘s “To Catch a Predator” series, reporting on The Trial.

OK. A few more on the hit list. In no particular order:

Shakespeare’s Interrogatories, or Why He Wanted to Kill All the Lawyers” by Mike Warner and Michael Pardo
Unpublished Coda to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird” by Tim Carvell
Postcards from James Joyce to His Brother Stan" by Martin Bihl
Submission Guidelines for Our Refrigerator Door” by Christopher Monk
Social Security Denies Gregor Samsa’s Disability Claim” by Alex St. Andrews

and, last, but by no means, least (although it is the last entry in the book)

A Series of Letters to Homer from Thimines, Odysseus’s College Roommate” by William Hughes

Your humor may vary.

Because these are short entries, the really good news is that the bad don’t last too long. And, they make the good look that much better.

Title: The McSweeney's Joke Book of Book Jokes
Author: The Editors of McSweeney's
Publisher: Vintage Books
ISBN: 978-0-307-38733-2

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Swap by Antony Moore

Set in London and Cornwall, The Swap is the story of, Harvey, a slacker comic book store owner who, as a teen, traded a first edition Superman One comic to Bleeder Odd, a school outcast for a length of plastic tubing and then spent the next 20 years regretting that decision.

Harvey decides to attend his upcoming high school reunion in hopes of running into Bleeder and seeing if he can obtain this comic book, now worth thousands of dollars. All seems to be going as Harvey hoped until Bleeder’s mother is found dead in her basement and Harvey finds himself, not only a suspect, but feeling and acting guilty of this murder.

Antony Moore’s style, at times, reminded me of a 1950’s paperback murder mysteries. Told from the point of few of Harvey, the writing is a bit sparse and slightly noir. Just short of the half-way mark, however, the point of few suddenly started shifting, first to Harvey’s new girlfriend and then to the police officers investigating the murder. At first, this shift bothered me, I think because it was so far into the book before it began, but then, I found it added to the pulp mystery feel by following these characters independently from the others, especially the police.

Unfortunately, the main character of The Swap is not at all likable. It’s one thing to be a slacker but he is also rude to absolutely everyone, especially his parents and his assistant. I found the relationship between Harvey and his girlfriend, Maisie, completely unbelievable.

The mystery of the story, however, is quite well thought out and is an interesting twist on the genre. There were a couple of spots before the end of the book where I felt the story could easily be wrapped up and was surprised to see how much book was still left and Mr. Moore made good use of those pages. But when the story did come to an end it was quite abrupt and I felt it could, actually, have continued. A sequel in the works, perhaps?

Title: The Swap
Author: Antony Moore
Publisher: Bantam Dell
ISBN: 978-0-385-34234-6

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Why You Should Read Kafka Before You Waste Your Life by James Hawes

I picked this book up thinking, by the title, that it would be a good jumping off point for someone who has not studied Kafka and has yet to read any of his works. For the most part…I was wrong.

“Why You Should Read Kafka…” is written for those deeply familiar with “the K-Myth” and the theories of the Kafka experts.

The only “myth” with which I was familiar before reading this book was that Kafka wanted all of his works destroyed upon his death. According to Hawes this story is not true. However, he quotes a letter from Kafka stating just that fact. Hawes bases his understanding of the situation on a second letter from Kafka indicating that he only wants his personal writings, letters and such, destroyed, although, clearly, that wasn‘t done either. It’s a bit of nit-picking, I suppose, but, it would appear both interpretations are correct. Had Kafka died before the second letter, the first would have stood as his final word.

This is not a biography, strictly speaking. It’s a bit of a Bio/Lit Crit hybrid. Much of this book is dedicated to pointing out Kafka’s sex/non-sex life, from erotica that he kept in a locked bookcase to brothel visits to his correspondences with his fianc├ęs who he rarely ever saw. His letters to these women are great reminders as to why one should never put their personal relationships in writing. Kafka had definite, glaring, commitment issues. No doubt, the reason he wanted these letters burned upon his death.

James Hawes actually asserts a belief that there should be no author biographies, his reasoning being that people read these books and then intertwine the authors’ lives with their works. I guess that may be true for the scholars but certainly not for me. I tend to read biographies independently, almost as if I’m reading about fictional characters. The good news is this will never come to be.

Hawes does, however, mention often and with great respect Peter-Andre Alt’s “Der ewige Sohn“. Unfortunately, for me at least, this Kafka biography is not available in English. For a work written in English, he suggests Ritchie Robertson’s “Kafka: A Very Brief Introduction”. Now, I only need to decide whether to first give Kafka a shot or hunt down Robertson’s book.

I found the tone of this book to be a bit off-putting. Hawes’ “voice” is pompous and pithy to the point of distraction. The intended audience, however, may well appreciate this style.

If I understand the author correctly, he is trying to get through to the Kafka scholars that Franz Kafka was merely a man. No different, really, than any other man in his time or place. He had his quirks but really no different than any other man of his age and standing then or, even, now. And his books should be read as works of fiction, not high philosophy. For me, this is very comforting. The concepts of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and “The Trial” have always been intriguing to me but also highly philosophical, something I really need to be in the mood for. Now, I feel, I’ve been given permission to simply read and enjoy as, as Hawes points out, did the original readers of these works.

Author: James Hawes
ISBN: 978-0-312-37651-2

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Treatment & The Cure by Peter Kocan

Author Peter Kocan was sentenced to “life” in 1966. He spent many years in an Australian hospital for the criminally insane for the attempted assassination of Labor leader Arthur Calwell. This work is not called a memoir but, told in the quiet voice of an introspective loner, the tone and detail certainly suggests that it is just that.

Originally published as two separate works, The Treatment and The Cure have been brought together as one seamless novel.

The Treatment follows 19-year-old Len Tarbutt as he enters the maximum security unit of this hospital to continue a life sentence for an unspecified crime. The terror Len feels is so understated that it allows the reader to actually see the other men who share his new home. Among these inhabitants are men who have been through so many shock treatments they are left catatonic, men who have a dis-arming sense of humor, especially considering their surroundings, and attendants who seem to have rather symbiotic relationships with the patients. The goal here is to get transferred from MAX into Ward 5. No one really knows what they’ll find there, but they know it’s the first step to freedom, a reason to survive the trials of MAX.

The Cure begins as Len enters the much desired Ward 5. But is life any better for these patients? Here Len finds failure and success, dignity and depression, self-loathing and pride. All while fighting his continuous obsession of over-thinking every decision he makes, walking a tightrope of “yes” equals failure/“no” equals failure. Is he that different from any of us?

The Treatment & The Cure is a fascinating read. This is not a “poor pitiful me” experience that one might expect from such a young character in such a dire situation. It has more a cerebral tone of “this is just the way it is in my world”. Len’s emotion is not told but shown through subtle changes in the rhythm of the narration which are un-noticeable to the reader until he suddenly falls from a bit of a high and you realize you are emotionally right back where you started.

I believe this is the first book I have ever read that is written in the second person. That, in itself, was a very interesting experience, giving the book a noir feeling and causing me to feel as if I was dreaming the scenes as opposed to imagining them. It’s a work that doesn’t excite the reader, but, rather, causes one to feel quite introspective and wonder just how many steps away from insanity any one of us may be.

Title: The Treatment & The Cure
Author: Peter Kocan
Publisher: Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1-933372-45-7

Monday, August 18, 2008

Dali & I by Stan Lauryssens

Almost twenty years after his death the inexplicable life and works of Salvador Dali are still a mystery. And con-men continue to make financial gains by using his name.

In Dali & I, Stan Lauryssens may well be continuing the tradition.

I wanted to quit reading this book about 30 pages in because it is so badly written. Unless you’re a fan of excessive lists in place of sentences:

“…far outsold superstars Warren Beatty, Raquel Welch, Ursula Andress, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, and even Elizabeth Taylor, the all-time beauty queen.”

Mr Lauryssens uses this technique throughout the entire book, most excessively in the first half to describe his surroundings and what he’s eating and drinking.

Another annoyance. The continuing rolling “rrr’s” that he put into every dialogue attributed to Dali (a man whom, by the way, he never met. He saw him once at the top of a staircase) Just pointing out the rolling r’s once is all the reader needs to imagine for themselves.

And then there’s the bad dialogue. In the author’s defense, he does point out:

“Conversations presented in dialogue form have been recreated based on my memory of them, but they are not intended to represent the word-for-word documentation of what was said; rather, they are meant to reflect the substance of what was said.”

Fair enough. Who keeps a diary of every conversation they have. But, again, they are badly written and the timing of them is hard to believe. Why, upon first meeting someone, would you tell them of your childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a living icon?

Beyond his writing style, I was also finding the truthfulness of much of this book dubious.

Upon being arrested, why would you brag to the police about knowingly selling fake Dali’s and then be shocked when they put you in jail? If your keeping yourself prisoner in your own home because Interpol is looking for you, why would you contact the FBI to get a file on Dali to find out if he was a Nazi spy? If you’re comfortable driving your Alfa-Romeo from town to town to meet with Dali insiders (while still being hunted by Interpol) why not buy a pad of paper as opposed to writing conversations down on backs of receipts and toilet paper?

Yes, about halfway through the book Lauryssens began keeping notes on his conversations (whether for a memoir or some sort of evidence against Dali is not told) and the dialogue in the book started flowing more smoothly. So, just as I was getting ready to at least try to enjoy this book as a fictional memoir…Stan ticked me off…

His lack of respect for people as a whole was irritating me and I’m sure his “Black” housekeeper (mentioned twice in the same terms) would feel the same. After having mentioned Amanda Lear a couple of times and back-handedly complimenting her each time, he finally flat out insulted her by referring to her artwork as Dali imitations. I needed to see for myself. So I “googled” Amanda Lear. I did find her art on a fan website. Definitely Dali inspired but hardly what I would call “imitations”. On her own website there is no artwork, it’s dedicated to her music and television appearances and has a couple of articles, including a 2004 interview for Night magazine which was very interesting.

Then I went back to the book and an hour later came across this:

"What advice did he (Dali) give you, Ultra (Violet)?"
"Whatever you do, he said, do something that attracts attention. Be a murderer, set fire to a hotel, talk dirty. Whatever. But do something..."

I just read that! I went back to Ms Lear’s site and sure enough, four years ago from her, not even quoting Dali:

"Whatever you do, be a murderer, set fire to the hotel, say something that will really shock, talk dirty, whatever, do something that will attract attention."

Did Mr. Lauryssens mistakenly attribute this quote to the wrong source? Although, according to the book Ms Lear was at this meeting with him and Ultra Violet, among others. Was this something Dali "said to all the girls"? Did the reporter interviewing Amanda Lear mistakenly credit her with this quote? Did the author happen upon this interview?

This caused me an irrepressible need for more investigation. I found on a number of different websites and two different Dali biographies instances of easily accessible information that is also noted in this book. None as nearly word for word as the above, but enough for me to wonder how much of this book is memoir and how much is research. And how many of these conversations he actually had, even allowing for the inaccuracy of the dialogue.

To go any further would cause this review to become a dissertation on Salvador Dali and how much information about him is real and how much is his own hype. How much responsibility he holds for the Dali fakes and how much is the way art works. An area I have some background in as someone who once worked as an in-house artist for and architectural firm. Scandalous.

Only two other books have ever made me as emotional as this one. The emotion with the other two was deep sorrow.

This book provoked high energy anger. I have told everyone I can find about this book. I can’t stop thinking about it, no matter what I’m doing. I still am not giving up on my own Dali research and there’s still plenty to come with lawsuits that are still active and I now find myself needing to keep current on them.

Even bad art can evoke emotion.

Title: Dali & I
Author: Stan Lauryssens
Publisher: St Martins
ISBN: 978-0-312-37993-3

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Beautiful Cigar Girl by Daniel Stashower

The last time anyone saw Mary C. Rogers of New York was Sunday July 25, 1841. To this day the crime remains unsolved. While Stashower makes no attempt to unravel this mystery in The Beautiful Cigar Girl, Edgar Allan Poe believes he is able to do so through his fictional detective C. Auguste Dupin, who has already proven himself in The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

This book is, at once, a true crime about the disappearance of Mary Rogers and a biography of Edgar Allan Poe. Frankly, more Poe than Rogers, which was fine by me, he's a fascinating character.

Stashower follows Poe's life from the death of his, actor, parents, through his short-lived riches as a ward of the Allan family, to his life of constant struggle to get ahead while being done in by both much of his own doings and his being taken advantage of by employers, publishers and partners.

This work is also a fascinating eye-opener to the workings of the "penny press" of this era. It would appear that the newspapaers of the day were far more rumor, speculation and editorial opionion than fact, which seems sadly lacking, even in the Police Gazette. This, no doubt, coupled with the police being paid bonuses by victims when property was recovered, added to the problem of solving a murder, where the victim was not wealthy and there was no property to recover. As a matter of fact, Ms Rogers had been missing for a week before the police began investigating her death, due to the pressure of the city editors, who were familiar with Mary through her work as the counter girl at Anderson's Cigar Store. Possibly because of this delay in the investigation, police found themselves at a number of dead ends in finding Mary's killer, or killers.

Poe felt that his own detection abilities could solve this murder where the police had failed and employed Dupin to do so in The Mystery of Marie Roget, which was released in three installments for the Ladies' Companion. The reworking of the finale of this story put a twist on Poe's personality that had not occurred to me before, but makes perfect sense.

The title, The Beautiful Cigar Girl, is a bit misleading. This book is really a biography of Edgar Allan Poe and a study in how fiction is developed from fact. It also serves to peak the readers' interest in the workings of the press in the mid 19th century. Well worth the read.

Title: The Beautiful Cigar Girl
Author: Daniel Stashower
Publisher: Berkley
ISBN: 978-0-425-21782-5

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse by Robert Rankin

When you're looking for a light, humorous read, how could The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse escape your notice.

The story follows an adolescent by the name of Jack. He's decided to leave his small factory town home to find his fortune in the big city. The city is Toy City, which is inhabited by toys and nursery rhyme characters. Here he meets up with a teddy bear by the name of Eddie, whose owner, detective and author of a series of hard-boiled detective novels based on his own experiences, real or imagined, Bill Winkie has mysteriously disappeared while investigating the murder of Humpty Dumpty. Soon after Jack and Eddie team up to find what has happened to Bill, Little Boy Blue is found viciously murdered in his mansion.

This book is a strange combination of light-heartedness and dark humor. The descriptions of the victims after death are especially brutal when your mind is seeing the innocent characters whose rhymes we all grew up chanting. The story, itself, is quite entertaining as a traditional who-dun-it. It suffers a bit from political overtones and religious debate, especially towards the purposely chatty climax. This may well be the over-all purpose of the writing but the book as a whole didn't support this being the theme with the exception of a few passages which, at the time, seemed a bit off topic.

Much of the humor of this book felt a bit forced. The continuing quirk of Eddie's inability to " corroborative nouns.", which leaves the reader with an endless string of unfinished comparisons as tiring as... All of the food in Toy Town is alliterate to the point of often making no sense. And the word of the day for the writing style of this book is repetitive. Phrases, which are often amusing the first time, are repeated three and four times within a single page.

This is the first encounter I've had with a Robert Rankin book and although I found his style here more than a little annoying, I found the story an enjoyable escape.

Title: The Hollow Chocolate Bunnies of the Apocalypse
Author: Robert Rankin
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group
ISBN: 9780575074019

Saturday, July 19, 2008

American Sideshow by Marc Hartzman

I've always found myself unusually drawn to the unusual. This includes, to a great degree, circus folk. So, when I saw a single copy of American Sideshow in the theatre section at the bookstore I immediately honed in. This book is a treasure chest of information about sideshow performers throughout America's history that will never leave my personal library.
American Sideshow gives us short vignettes on, easily, more than a hundred different midway "freaks". But don't let the length of these biographies, most about a page long, fool you into thinking the information is insignificant.
Where else would you find personal and professional information on Fanny Mills, The Ohio Big Foot Girl, who was earning $150 a week in the 1880's. That's 100 yrs before I was making $150 a week at my first job and feeling rich!
And look at the story of Isaac W. Sprague, The Original Thin Man. Born in 1841 he was consistantly loosing weight from the age of 12. He ate regularly and well but was wasting away, dumbfounding his doctors. He worked for his father as a shoemaker until his parents death at which time he began working at a grocery. Once this work became too difficult (he was only in his 20's) he was lucky enough to be offered a job with a sideshow. Here he was making $80/wk in the 1860's. He took a wife and had a family. His condition was finally diagnosed as extreme progressive muscular atrophy. Mr. Sprague's story, unfortunately, ends very much the way that is often assumed of many sideshow performers.
The same, gladly, can't be said for Dick Brisben, The Penguin Boy who may well still be alive and kicking, at least at the time this book was written. Born in the 1940's with feet but no legs and hands but basically no arms, Brisben began his career with the sideshows in 1960. He had been on wellfare until Ward Hall invited him to join his show. The Penquin Boy stayed with Hall for 27 years after which he was able to purchase a home in southern California.
This book contains so many amazing stories about people who could easily have lived lives as "burdens" to society and family but instead took what they had and used it to their advantages.
Marc Hartzman as divided this book into 3 sections. It begins with the "Golden Age" which encompasses 1830's-early 1900's. This was the heyday of Barnum & Bailey. It continues on to the "Silver Age" with the introduction of the Ringling Brothers and eventual downfall of the sideshow as it was known. The final section covers the "Modern Age", the new sideshows.
For me, the final section is the only failing in this book. I see the old-time performers as people who found themselves in unusual circumstances entertaining an audience. As for the modern performers, they are people putting themselves in unusual situations to entertain.
I can't recommend this book enough to anyone with even the slightest interest in this subject. I would also reccommend it to creative writers looking for springboard material.

Title: American Sideshow
Author: Marc Hartzman
Publisher: Tarcher/Penguin
ISBN: 1585425303

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Woman's World by Graham Rawle

I'm not usually a fan of "artsy" books. My thought tends to be "if they need an artsy gimmick the writing is probably lacking".
After reading Women's World by Graham Rawle I will not let that keep me away again!
Written entirely with clippings from vintage 1960's women's magazines, the "artsy gimmick" of this book is not only impressive, it is necessary to the voice of Norma (Fontaine) Little who narrates this incredibly original book.
Women's World starts as a humorous character study of Norma who lives with her maid/mother and her brother/ 1960's Great Britain.
How would one know how to be a lady without the women's magazines guiding her through fashion, hairstyles, poise and etiquette?
Clearly eccentric, Norma rarely leaves the house. But when she ventures out on a long overdue job interview she meets up with a curious man, Mr. Hands, who not only stares at her beauty, as others are want to do, but is bold enough to approach her with a proposition too intriguing for her to pass up.
As Norma prepares for her rendezvous with Mr. Hands, her brother Roy is fresh on the heels of a romance like none he ever thought possible.
Mr Rawle's character study moves smoothly into a mystery that reveals one twist after another as Norma and her brother must come to terms with their relationship.
There is so much more to this story but to say any more would give away too much.
This is the most innovative book I have read and seen. Any aspiring artist or writer can only be inspired by this book. It inspired me to start this blog!

Author: Graham Rawle
Publisher: Counterpoint
ISBN: 159376183x/9781593761837