Oiling the Slippery Slope

Mr. OTC and I were felled by a particularly tenacious flu virus and I’m not even close to being back on my game, but there’s something bothering me so much that I feel like I need to discuss it now, in an abbreviated form.  I will throw down hard on this topic in detail and with tons of links when my mind is clear and my home is recovered from a couple of weeks of neglect.

Are you, dear readers, aware that this month Amazon removed from sale over 150 books written on the topic of Holocaust revisionism and denial?  If you are aware of it, does it bother you?

News sources state a handful of books were eliminated for sale, but the number is far higher.  When I write my examination of what free speech in a genuinely free society means, I will list them all.  Interestingly, simply being published by Castle Hill is enough for removal because Amazon removed books Castle Hill publishes that have nothing to do with Holocaust revisionism.  Funny, that.

There is a perniciously stupid meme in modern America wherein we state that the only freedom of speech we can expect not to be violated or limited is that which is explicitly granted by the government.  The reasoning is Americans can only expect to exercise freedom of speech and press as granted by the government, therefore any cultural or corporate attempts to silence free speech and the press are acceptable in a free society, that this is a form of censorship that is somehow allowable since it is outside the purview of the government.  The American left has used this meme, this absolutely false belief, to bolster their attempts to deny work to people whom they consider bad, to contact employers, schools, families and churches of people whom they consider bad, to deny access to ideas they find bad, and now they’ve managed to deny access to an entire school of thought because where Amazon goes so do all the other booksellers.

When you use methods of intimidation to eliminate ideas you find distasteful, you are engaging in censorship.  When you pressure booksellers to stop selling books you find distasteful, you are engaging in censorship.  Such methods do not violate the Constitution to be sure but they definitely are censorship and censorship is a threat to the principles of democracy that are the very foundation upon which we have built American culture.

The usual gadflies insist that Amazon and other booksellers have the right to limit books they sell.  They’re correct.  Amazon has that right.  But should they use that right, and when they do should they be answerable for what they decide?  What does it mean when the largest book seller in the USA can effectively throttle access to large swathes of thought?  Books advocating Holocaust denial were removed at the behest of Yad Vashem, and Amazon contacted authors and publishers with the following statement:

We’re contacting you regarding the following book: Book Title Redacted. During our review process, we found that this content is in violation of our content guidelines. As a result, we cannot offer this book for sale.

Will it surprise anyone that Amazon did not elaborate on what content guidelines were violated?  Shouldn’t the largest seller of books in the United States be willing to explain why it is that after 20 years of selling these books they suddenly did not meet content guidelines?  Or are you sanguine with this move because Nazis are bad and Holocaust denial is bad and therefore it’s fine that Amazon and Yad Vashem have decided unilaterally what data you can be trusted to read?

Do you really feel okay having forces who have no idea why you want to read a book telling you that the ideas the book espouses are too dangerous for you to see, therefore they have taken the paternalistic step of ensuring that you don’t become a rabid anti-Semite because you chose to read Arthur Butz?

The people who seem the happiest about this wretched development are those who should oppose it the most. People who are terrified of fascism applaud this measure because to them it is a nail in the coffin to ideologies that feed from antisemitic, fascist beliefs.  But censorship is one of the first steps down the slippery slope into authoritarianism and fascists love themselves a book burning.

Because Amazon and other book sellers have decided you are too unreliable to process information, you now have no easy way of countering Holocaust denial because you will not know the meat of the argument and you will not know the references and sources used to reach those conclusions.  You have been denied your power of response.

That is what happens in a free society that does not tolerate censorship: we trust our citizens enough to process information for themselves, knowing that presentation of ideas and response to those ideas are the cornerstone of open discourse and that democracy cannot exist without it.  Amazon and Yad Vashem think you are a child who cannot judge information for yourself.  They think you are such a weak thinker that having access to Holocaust revisionist texts means you will become a vicious anti-Semite.  They think that you are too stupid to read an idea and form a response, so they took care of it for you.

That’s how it boils down: a corporation on behalf of a concentrated single interest group has engaged in the ultimate paternalism.  They have patted you on the head and told you that you cannot decide for yourself what you think.

Antisemitism is foul.  I have no use for it.  And I have never read a Holocaust denial that I could not easily refute, though I admit I have not read many.  It is undeniable that racism and antisemitism have caused grave problems and that both are offensive.  I personally find racism and antisemitism offensive.  I find a lot of things offensive.

But that’s the cost of doing business in a free society.  You will be offended.  Identity politics may have convinced you that you are not expected to endure feeling offended but what they don’t tell you that the cost of never being offended involves censorship and that you have no assurance that your single-interest approach to democracy will not be the next ideology determined too dangerous for the American people to read.  Being completely silenced is the ultimate offense.  Be offended by that prospect. This isn’t about Holocaust denial, antisemitism or fascism – it’s about who decides what is acceptable and unacceptable for you to think, to read, to say and to believe.  The genius of the Constitution is that it prevents any one person from being the decider for all, and an open society finds single interest deciders anathema.

You’re either a whinging child, begging for the government or large corporations to control the dissemination of ideas and man’s independent thought because you cannot tolerate people making decisions about what they read, or you’re an adult who is willing to permit all ideas access to the democratic marketplace, however offensive they may be, remaining engaged in the cultural arguments that promote democracy.

Antisemitism flourishes in a censored society.  Democracy cannot exist in a censored society, regardless of who is the censor.  Censorship, even if it is not initiated by the government, oils the slippery slope into fascist authoritarianism, fear of which fueled this very bad decision on Amazon’s part.

I do not need Yad Vashem or Jeff Bezos to make decisions about what I read and how I interpret it, nor do I need them to guide me through the moral decisions I make regarding controversial topics.  Neither do you.

Book Gawking: Holiday 2016

We had a blah sort of holiday season this year at Chez Oddbooks.  Lots of reasons but mostly some years you are just ready for it all to be over with so you can start a new year and get going again.  We decorated but we didn’t bother giving gifts and instead just gave each other permission to buy whatever we wanted.  And of course, being who we are, we ended up buying a lot of books.

Somehow we bought 119 books.  I’m not even exaggerating.  I scanned them and put them into their own tag over on our Goodreads account.  Have a look if you enjoy browsing through other people’s books as much as I do.

I took a picture of some of my more photogenic choices from our holiday book binge.

All of these were impulse purchases, including The Fuck-Up. No one ever plans to buy a book called The Fuck-Up.

The most interesting purchases I made were not photogenic at all but I want to share them anyway.  All three were used and were just sitting there in the “collectible” section at the big Half-Price Books in Austin, waiting for me.

The first is Instant Lives by Howard Moss.  This is a collection of short, humorous stories about various poets and authors and composers, like Emily Dickinson, Henry James, and Claude Debussy.  I purchased it because the book is illustrated by Edward Gorey.  This is a first edition from 1974 and is going into my “Gorey” collection.

The second is one I think Mr OTC is going to appreciate as much as I do, if not more.  Act Like Nothing’s Wrong: The Montage Art of Winston Smith is a book I owned many years ago but lent out and never got it back.  Mr OTC and I were once SubGenii, and I guess we still are.  Once a SubGenius, always a SubGenius, right?  Winston Smith’s strange and incendiary collages were an important part of the 80s ‘zine culture and still have a cultural punch.  I was so happy to find a clean, collectible copy of this book.  Most copies of this book I’ve come across since losing my original look like someone found them in a dumpster.  This was a righteous score.

The final book is The Secret Books, with poems by Jorge Luis Borges and photographs by Sean Kernan.  It’s a large format, soft cover collection, with gorgeous photographs incorporating Borges’ poems.  I wanted to scan one or two examples but our scanner tests my patience. But never fear!  Scroll through this site and you’ll get a good idea of what the book is about.  This is one of those books that called to me.  I can’t tell you exactly why I needed to own this book but I needed it.  Some books are yours without you even knowing they exist and sometimes you’re lucky enough to find them before someone else buys them.

How was your holiday?  Get or buy any good books?  Any awesome plans for 2017?  Have grave concerns about our next credit card bill?  Share away!

The Night Country by Stewart O’Nan

Book: The Night Country

Author: Stewart O’Nan

Type of Book: Literary fiction, fiction, novel, ghost story

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s a wholly modern ghost story and part of the selection of books that I reread every few years or so. I do my best to read this book at least every other Halloween.

Availability: The edition I own is the 2004 Bloomsbury edition, which isn’t easily obtained, but the novel itself is still in print and you can get a copy here:

Comments: Stewart O’Nan is a pretty mainstream author and I doubt he’ll come up too often on this site in the future, but I couldn’t let another Halloween go by without discussing The Night Country. O’Nan is not a particularly odd writer and his stories can be remarkably prosaic but he is a master of characterization and his characters never fail to appeal to me in a very direct way. Mr OTC keeps me in middle class splendor, but I have some very working class roots (as does Mr OTC, for that matter). O’Nan captures perfectly the life of the man who clocks in and works an hourly wage. He depicts relationships in a tender manner that lacks sentimentality. His novel Last Night at the Lobster was a revelation to me – I discussed it on my old and now defunct site, I Read Everything, and that book alone cements O’Nan as one of my favorite mainstream writers.

But it was a bonus read because The Night Country was already in my to-be-reread-until-I-die rotation. I’m going to force myself to write as concise a discussion as possible because I don’t want to run the risk of spoiling this novel for anyone because I think just about everyone who reads here will like this book, and I hope you all read it after this review. That’s going to be hard because this book causes me to want to go on at length and explore every line. Let’s see how succinct I can be while honoring my desire to rave.

Here’s a quick synopsis: A year prior on Halloween, a car with five teenagers caught the attention of a patrol officer and tried to outrun him. The officer gave chase and the car crashed, killing three of the teenagers inside, gravely injuring one, while one walked away with few injuries. Marco, Danielle and Toe (real name Christopher) died. Marco is narrating this book while Danielle and Toe serve as a sort of third-person Greek chorus, chiming in with opinions and dark humor when they feel the need. Kyle suffered brain damage that rendered him child-like, and his mother is trying to hold on to hope now that she has a son who will be mentally a grade-school boy the rest of his life. Tim, who sustained no harm in the wreck, is groping through as he grimly plans to recreate that terrible night as best he can this Halloween. Brooks, the cop who gave chase in dangerous conditions, has lost everything – the esteem of his fellow officers, his wife left him and he is being forced out of his home because he can no longer afford it. Brooks senses that Tim is not going to let the first anniversary of the accident pass without some dark action but has become so uneven at performing his job that the reader has no idea how (and if) he can help Tim come out the other side of Halloween.

This book is a traditional ghost story, in a way, in that the dead come back to comment on the living, but this is a ghost story full of meta. The ghosts know they are ghosts and at times find the whole thing very tiresome but they have no choice in the matter – when the living invoke their memory, they are summoned and they cannot refuse. The three dead teenagers find themselves being pulled all over town the Halloween the year after their death and sometimes it’s miserable and sad, but sometimes the teens snark on the nature of being a ghost, invoking Dickens’ Marley, moaning and rattling metaphorical chains. But the teenagers know the fallout their deaths have caused Tim and Brooks. They also know how their deaths affect Kyle’s mother because she’s been faced with a death of her own – the black-jean-and-leather-jacket-wearing son she raised, the rebellious boy who listened to death metal, is now a shuffling, clumsy teenager who needs supervision constantly. He can’t even tie shoelaces anymore and must use velcro sneakers. He has a part time job at a supermarket that he maintains because he and Tim work together and Tim supervises him closely. But Kyle also must ride the special education bus, is gaining weight at a rapid clip and it can be said the old version of him died in that car Halloween a year ago. But his mother knows three families lost their child and feels that she must feel grateful because her child lived, even though she knows, really, that he died, too.

Tim especially feels disembodied in his life. Danielle was his girlfriend and because she wanted to sit in his lap that night the two of them moved to the backseat. Had he remained in the front seat, he would have died. Instead Danielle was thrown from the car and Tim doesn’t have a single visible scar remaining of that night. But his psychic scars tell him in no uncertain terms that he and Kyle should have died that night and is on a mission to set right that cosmic oversight. He’s going through the motions and no one but Brooks seems to understand that Tim is not okay, that he is not handling all of this well, that he needs far more from his parents than they realize, but Brooks has issues of his own. His entire life has fallen apart because he blames himself for what happened that night and so do many others.

After the People Lights Have Gone Off by Stephen Graham Jones

Book: After the People Lights Have Gone Off

Author: Stephen Graham Jones

Type of Book: Fiction, horror, weird fiction, short story collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Ultimately this may not be an odd collection but this book creates the feeling that the reader is consuming something wholly new. Too often originality in content and voice in the horror genre are somewhat odd, sad to say.

Availability: Published by The Dark House Press in 2014, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I already know, writing the first sentence of my discussion for After the People Lights Have Gone Off, that I will be using the delete key quite a bit. I find it difficult to put into words why some stories in this collection were the literary equivalent of throwing a lead weight over the side of a ship and why some stories soared, excellent examples of literary horror at its best. Some of Jones’s stories were so perfect that I felt that familiar pull of envy that comes when I read something so wonderful that I wish I had thought of it first. But some of Jones’s stories were impenetrable for me, leaving me wondering if he missed the mark or if I was just too dense to understand what he was trying to convey. Ultimately I decided I just wasn’t the sort of reader to appreciate those stories, that taste was at issue and not talent.

The hell of it is, this has been a pretty dense year for me. Sort of muddy and brackish. I don’t feel as on the ball at the moment as I have in years past. But what made me decide that my divided reactions are righteous was analyzing why I am so divided about the stories in this collection. The answer is that while Jones has a distinct voice, he is also a malleable writer who is moving around within his chosen genre. The stories that have a familiar ring to them are written in a style that makes them seem fresh, but Jones also ventures out into new territory, with strange ideas and storytelling techniques that can be maddening when one is the sort of reader who needs the conclusions to be neater. Jones may luck out and find readers who love every bit of his work, as he twists the horror genre into new shapes, but chances are he’s going to end up with a substantial number of readers who love it when he’s wearing a particular storytelling hat but less so when he puts on another.

One hat that Jones kept on throughout this collection is the “weird” hat. Much of this collection could be considered weird fiction, which may be one of the reasons why some of the stories didn’t work for me. I like weird fiction, as a rule, but this horror subset lends itself well to muffled storytelling, mushy conclusions, entire story lines that can be up for interpretation. I’ve been clear in the past how I feel about such writing. That sort of remote remove in writing irritates me because it is too often a cop-out, a lazy attempt to force the burden of storytelling onto the reader. Jones, when his writing is up for interpretation doesn’t echo the laziness of others who write this way, and this entire collection is refreshingly devoid of irony, but even purposeful, earnest writing that employs this sort of post-modernist equivocation will likely always ring false to me.

Horrorstör by Grady Hendrix

Book: Horrorstör

Author: Grady Hendrix

Type of Book: Fiction, horror

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s not too odd, per se, but it’s horror and it’s the week before Halloween so…

Availability: Published by Quirk Books in 2014, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I can be pretty rough on horror novels. I’m persnickety. I own that. But I also have come to understand that it is bad faith for me to use the same metrics of quality to discuss every genre of book I read. It’s not that I’ve come to expect so little from horror novels that I embrace anything that isn’t overt crap. Rather, I’ve come to understand that you cannot evaluate a cat using the same criteria one uses to evaluate a dog. They’re both pets but they’re still wholly different creatures and a cat would fare poorly if one expected it to herd sheep, guard the house or stay off the top of the refrigerator. I don’t regret the bad reviews – some savage – I’ve given to the horror genre thus far because even evaluating them as cats found them lacking. But I did realize that most horror often has a different goal from that of mainstream literature and I need to keep that goal in mind as I discuss horror novels.

That whole paragraph is a long-winded way of saying that I enjoyed Horrorstör as a fun, at times silly, horror novel. This isn’t Joyce Carol Oates drifting in and out of genre as she engages in her unique brand of literary hypergraphia. It’s not Ray Bradbury. It’s a pleasant diversion with a clever concept and within those parameters this is a good book. Not a great book because pleasant diversions can still demand top-notch characters and fresh plots, but a good book because it’s entertaining – it’s a very quick read – and because sometimes having a clever-enough hook can make a book of this sort worthwhile.

Horrorstör is that book you’ve seen on bookstore shelves, the one that looks like a knock-off of an IKEA catalogue. It’s set in an IKEA-like furniture and house accessories store, called Orsk, and this location of Orsk seems to be stalked by some unspeakable evil that a handful of employees must battle in order to survive a night spent on the sales floor.

Quick synopsis: Amy, the heroine of this book, hates her life and her job at Orsk, but she is behind on rent and takes an overnight shift in order to try to make up the rent shortfall. She, another female employee called Ruth Anne and their boss, Basil, discover two other employees have remained inside the store without permission in an attempt to have a seance and contact the evil in the store, hoping to record the results and possibly land a reality show gig. They soon discover that the store harbors forces far worse than they initially imagined and that the store was built on the location of a former mental hospital run by a madman who has not let death prevent him from engaging in horrific and cruel experiments. Not going to spoil how it ends but it concludes in a manner that could result in a follow-up novel, sort of open-ended but the conflict involving Amy and Basil resolves well-enough to stave off annoyance that elements of the novel were not completely concluded.

The novel itself is visually appealing (with enormous font size, which is one of the reasons most readers will power through the book in a couple of hours) and at the beginning of each chapter there’s an ad for an Orsk product, like chairs, sofas, small clothing wardrobes and the like. The items become more sinister as the book goes on. A later promotion is the “INGALUTT,” which has the following product description:

Submit to the panic, fear, and helplessness of drowning, with the hope of death a distant dream. This elegantly designed INGALUTT hydrotherapy bath allows the user to suffer this stress again and again until the cure is complete. Available in night birch, natural maple, and gray oak.

If you are someone who enjoys this sort of thing, this will be the price of admission for this book. I for one like these sorts of silly ads and they remind me a bit of the clever ads one finds at the backs of Jasper Fforde “Thursday Next” novels. But if this is not something that rings your bell, the rest of the book may fall a bit flat because the visual appeal and scene structure based on the IKEA parody are the backbone for this novel that, while amusing, is rather familiar in concept and execution. 

Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz: A Look at Eleanor

Book: Slaves of New York

Author: Tama Janowitz (can’t find a blog or twitter account she runs)

Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It’s not odd, per se, but it is a book very important to me and I just want to discuss it here.

Availability: Initially published in 1986, I am discussing a much later Washington Square Press Contemporary Classics version. You can get a copy here:

Disclaimer:  This is the longest piece I’ve ever written for online consumption and I am copping to the fact now that this is a length wholly unsuitable for this format.  This is a very self-indulgent thing for me to do, but I’ve wanted to write about Eleanor for a while.  This is long, but it’s also my love letter to one of my favorite characters in modern literature.  I suspect soon I will be writing a similar entry for Donna Tartt’s Richard Papen, or Fay Weldon’s Esther Wells.  I will understand completely if no one reads this, though I hope you will, and promise that the third installment will be a much more online-friendly length.

Comments: The second part of my three-part discussion of Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York is focusing on Eleanor, the ostensible heroine of this themed short story collection. Three characters in this book have resonated with me at different times in my life and I find my changing attitudes towards these characters interesting (and hopefully others will as well). The first installment discussed Cora, a depressive young woman whose relationship with a self-absorbed, obsessive and ultimately very weak man reminded me of myself and the people I attracted as a young woman. My upcoming discussion of Marley will focus on his delusional faith in his own talent and how irritating he was to me when I was young and how refreshing he is to me now. This discussion of Eleanor is going to look at her neuroses, her logical fears, and how she is an excellent representation how it felt to be a very specific young woman in this particular time and place in America.

Eleanor is portrayed in eight short stories. Since I am discussing Eleanor as a whole rather then the individual stories, I’m numbering the stories and will use those numbers in quotes to show which stories the quotes come from.  You will find the numbered list at the end of this discussion.

Here’s a quick summary of Eleanor’s life as told in these stories: Eleanor lives in New York City with her artist boyfriend, Stash. She lives in Stash’s apartment, a one-room, seven-story walk-up, and has little money of her own. She wants to design jewelry but her ideas are not terribly unique at first and the drama of living with Stash makes it very hard for her to concentrate on her work, though she has many excuses to explain her failures. Stash is difficult to live with and is not a good boyfriend, though like Cora’s Ray, one does not hate him. He’s got his good points and bad. He and Eleanor spend a couple of years irritating the hell out of each other, eventually separating. Eleanor begins to slowly become the person she thinks she should be but even at the end she is trying to figure out how to live her life without engaging in relentless self-improvement. But as she has a short-lived rebound relationship and throws a party on a whim, you leave the collection with hope that Eleanor is going to stop spinning her wheels in her attempts to be someone she is not and placating men in an attempt to create stability in her life.

I’m a well-known neurotic and I’ve never really given much thought as to how I’ve turned out this way. I suspect it’s a nervous nature combined with the lasting effects of a less than ideal childhood. It is my neurotic nature that caused me to appreciate Eleanor even when I was a teen and had no real idea what adult life would be like. Eleanor is a character I would like to grab at the shoulders and shake, but she’s largely likeable even in the worst of her neuroses. I find my affinity for Eleanor particularly interesting because I had to grow into the character. I was too young to wholly get her the first time I read her stories. Then I experienced a slice of her life. Then I grew out of her, and can look at her and the person I used to be with fondness tinged with a hint of frustration.

Eleanor is a young woman whose neurosis is an artifact of an interesting time in American life. Eleanor’s story takes place in the early to mid 1980s, a time wherein women found themselves with many choices to make. Second wave feminism had sought to end or equalize various inequalities and one of the end results of that activism was the first generation of young women whose lives didn’t follow a prescribed historical script. Such a time should have been very heady for Eleanor and girls like her (and me). But like so many elements of freedom, the 1970s – 1980s was a time for women that looked better on paper than its actual execution.

With all the choices suddenly available for women, emphasis was made on the choices themselves rather than the need to choose. So many women didn’t choose – they saw the vista open before them and decided to try to do everything and ended up trying to balance all of their choices, creating the 1980s Superwoman caricature, who sought a career, a fulfilling romantic relationship, a couple of kids, a nice home, a bevy of interesting friends, and an array of hobbies. In the course of trying to do it all, women forgot that men, whose choices they wanted access to try on for size, themselves could not do it all. They had wives to handle everything outside of the workplace and some of the women, faced with a life quite different than their mothers’, swallowed a bitter pill of lower pay, household stress, unhappy children and strained marriages. Yet some women still needed to present a perfect face to all who looked upon them, or needed to pretend to themselves that their ideal life was the life they were living.

I understand how that happened. When you suddenly have access, it’s hard to settle on one role. When you fail to decide and try to do it all, knowing all the while that you have societal forces looking down on you, waiting to see you fail, you want to appear as close to perfect as possible. Neurosis is often caused by the chasms between our real and idealized selves and I think that chasm accounts for a lot of Eleanor’s neuroses. Eleanor would have been neurotic no matter what time in history she lived, but living in New York in the late 70s and early 80s didn’t help, what with liberal mores regarding feminist expectations and rents that were beginning to soar and price out struggling artists. The days of Patti Smith living and creating on a shoestring were over but only those at the bottom, like Eleanor, really saw the financial cultural shift. All those shifts created various neuroses that manifest in different ways as Eleanor navigates the world she finds herself in.

Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz : A Look at Cora

Book: Slaves of New York

Author: Tama Janowitz (if she has a blog or an official site, I cannot seem to find them)

Type of Book: Fiction, short story collection

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This book is one of my favorite books of all time and I just need to discuss it here.

Availability: Initially published in 1986, I am discussing a much later Washington Square Press Contemporary Classics version. You can get a copy here:

Comments: I’ve had a hard time writing, lately. I’ve got around half a dozen nearly complete entries, with at least twice that many partially finished discussions. I sort of know why I haven’t been able to finish them all but I also think that thinking about the reason why is irrelevant. I’ll finish them when I finish them. But in the middle of all that unfinished writing, I found myself wanting to discuss in detail one of my favorite books. Slaves of New York by Tama Janowitz is in my Top-Twenty-All-Time-Favorite-Books and I’m sort of surprised I have not discussed it here yet.

The literary Brat Pack has gone to the rats, it seems. Donna Tartt is still doing well but she has yet to match the mind-blowing talent she showed in her very excellent novel, The Secret History (which I also cannot believe I have not discussed here yet). We still have Bret Easton Ellis doing things, good and bad, mostly entertaining in a rubbernecking-on-Twitter sort of way. I think Jay McInerney is still alive but I never liked him much in the first place. Same with Susan Minot. The two best Brat Pack writers in my estimation are Tartt and Tama Janowitz, and Slaves of New York is Janowitz’s masterpiece.

It really is a masterpiece.Though there are some pop culture references that age it a bit (Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, y’all!), this book has held up well because the stories are character-driven and the situations reasonably universal. Struggles between relationship dependency and independence, faith in one’s skill and talent, difficulties with parents, depression, anxiety and neurosis –  it’s not going to read too archaic to modern readers. The stories had a period of acclaim but then more or less disappeared from the literary landscape. I see plenty of buzz around Bret Easton Ellis’ current and older works but very little about Janowitz, and even less about this short story collection. That’s a shame because this collection, while being funny and clever, is also so well-written that its power isn’t necessarily obvious after the first read.

I used to read Slaves of New York a couple of times a year, then it trickled down to once a year, then every other year, but it’s still a book I revisit. Each time I read it, I find myself marveling at something new I pick up in terms of plot and characterization. This book has proved to be a strange barometer of where I am as a human being, because over time my identification with specific characters has changed. It should not come as a surprise to anyone that this novel is a paean to neurosis, a goddamn hallelujah to nervous, miserable, delusional, yet ultimately likeable headcases. If I love a book enough to reread it continually because I identify with characters, it’s a safe bet the book will be populated with neurotic people.

This is a collection of linked short stories, taking place in New York City, with a couple of outliers. The characters show up in walk-on roles in other stories, each story in this collection can stand alone, and each story is worth reading. Sometimes the links are subtle – one character speaks of having to rehome a cat that hated her boyfriend. A friend of hers took the cat in, and that same cat shows up in another story, tormenting a different man. (And that story, “Snowball,” is a look at a male neurotic, Victor. If you are prone to acid reflux, pop a Zantac before reading this story because Victor will give you sour burps. Victor, a nervous, anxious, miserable man, was portrayed by the suave, cool Chris Sarandon in the film adaptation of these stories. It’s hard for me to think of a film that was as completely miscast as Slaves of New York. John Wayne as Genghis Khan comes close. Skip the film, read the book.)

Of all the characters this book, there are three characters whose stories resonated with me at different times in my own life. Cora meant a lot to me when I was still quite young. Eleanor came up in my 30s. Marley, while I don’t necessarily see him in myself, is infinitely more understandable to me in my middle age. This depressive, neurotic, delusional trio, respectively, will make up the basis of my look at Slaves of New York. Cora, Eleanor, and Marley – my Disordered Trinity. To prevent this from being the longest discussion of a single book written by the Internet’s most verbose book lover, I will discuss each character in a separate entry. And yes, this will likely be a discussion of a story that may be longer than the story itself.

Let’s begin with Cora.

In the Sky by Octave Mirbeau, translated by Ann Sterzinger

Book: In the Sky

Author: Octave Mirbeau, translated by Ann Sterzinger

Type of Book: Fiction, literary fiction, novella

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: This book reached into my chest, grabbed my heart with both hands, and wrung it out.

Availability: Published in 2014 by Nine Banded Books, you can and should get a copy here:

You can also get a copy directly from the publisher.

Comments:  This book broke my heart. There are books you read at moments when you need to read them and this was one of those sorts of books for me.  I was left feeling unsettled the first time I read In the Sky, and read it again to see if I could pinpoint what this book was trying to tell me.  The second read was more of a revelation, and I’m not going to discuss the reasons in any real depth because, even though I discuss books in a confessional manner, this book caused me to consider my life in a manner that I prefer not to discuss overmuch.  As much as I tend to treat this site like a diary, even I have parts of my mind that don’t need to be shown because the contemplation trumps the discussion.  That should be in itself an excellent reason for any regular reader here to read this book.  A book that helps me cauterize my continual brain bleed is a rare, interesting, compelling book.

Mirbeau is a genius.  He portrayed with great intensity a quietly malignant life, a person rotting inside because of tension and fear, a person for whom a blue sky is a crushing reminder that there is no freedom, only a mocking emptiness that can never be filled.  This is a book about a man who died while still living, who kept dying long after the disease had eaten its fill.  That Mirbeau never finished this novella makes it all the better a representation of the life half-eaten, half-lived, never complete. Ann Sterzinger is also a genius to be able to read these words in their original French and convey such exquisite misery so precisely yet with such raw, bleeding emotion.

Confessions of a Failed Egoist by Trevor Blake

Book: Confessions of a Failed Egoist

Author: Trevor Blake

Type of Book: Non-fiction, essays, philosophy, memoir

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: SubGenii Unite!

Availability: Published by Underworld Amusements in 2014, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This book showed me in many ways that I have become a very bitter woman. I don’t think I am an egoist because I am sort of filled with self-loathing and seldom know what the right thing to do might be and therefore have no business using my own self as a life philosophy, but I can still see the charm in this book of short essays and articles dealing with everything from egoism to the sexual lives of the disabled to selling used books.

Blake’s style is erudite yet irreverent and breezy, almost to distraction at times. And god this book could have been better edited. It actually fell outside of my bitchy upper limit of what I can endure in regards to errors in books, but it was charming and intelligent enough to make it still worth discussing. You will also encounter words like “siphonophore” (a sort of man-of-war water creature) and improving your vocabulary via arcane words is a good thing.

Let’s begin this discussion with Blake’s definition of egoism:

Egoism is the claim that the individual is the measure of all things. In ethics, in epistemology, in aesthetics, in society, the Individual is the best and only arbitrator. Egoism claims social convention, laws, other people, religion, language, time and all other forces outside of the Individual are an impediment to the liberty and existence of the Individual. Such impediments may be tolerated but they have no special standing to the Individual, who may elect to ignore or subvert or destroy them as He can. In egoism the State has no monopoly to take tax or wage war.

Yeah, yeah, I see the appeal but in this respect I’m a pedant and anti-intellectual to boot – if I can’t see it working in real life I can’t really discuss it in much depth. Philosophies that end up stating that one of their tenets is that the State cannot tax or wage war cause me to want to discuss whether or not Ariel the Mermaid should have exchanged her fins for legs and if the exchange was worth it. Both discussions occupy the same head space in my brain.  Let’s discuss how many mermaids can dance on the head of a philosopher!

But even if I am philosophically stunted these days,  there is much in this book that resonated with me.

2015: Truly the Crappiest Year

This is the time of year when everyone comments on the best books they read, best movies they saw, best albums they listened to, most important political events that affected them, and basically whatever else they feel summed up their experiences during the calendar year.

The last two years of my life have been a depressive blur punctuated by extreme stress. I had calm moments, like when I proofread books for other people and when I would disappear into my office and mindlessly sew for days on end. There were brief periods when the desire to write or obsessively research grabbed hold of me, but those moments were indeed quite brief. I did very little reading because my attention span wouldn’t permit it for very long – reading for pleasure became impossible and this site suffered greatly because of it. I feel like I am coming out of it but I am also often wrong about what my brain is doing. We’ll see, but I can confidently say 2016 will be a helluva lot better than 2015.

Also 2016 will be better because I will begin to discuss the excellent media that did penetrate the blur:

In the Sky by Octave Mirbeau, translated by Ann Sterzinger, absolutely devastated me. I am reading it for the second time at the moment and I can’t imagine a better way to describe the last couple of years I’ve lived. The gorgeous infinity of a blue sky becomes a crushing, enveloping landscape of endless misery, and all pleasures and hopes will be devoured by that endlessness. Because I am a typical American, I can speak only the one language, so I sit in awe of any peer who is fluent in other languages. That awe is magnified when I consider how Sterzinger finessed Mirbeau’s words into a narrative that spoke directly to my own feelings, so direct and pointed and frighteningly accurate. It’s a beautiful, dark book.

Valencia by James Nulick is a memoir of a man from a fractured family, the story of a boy carelessly raised, who experienced the death of childhood while still a child, growing into a man whose peripatetic life managed to remain anchored a bit by the photographs he keeps in an old cigar box and the ties he maintained in that fractured family. It’s a memoir not so much of a phoenix rising from flames but rather a document that shows how even trees which may appear to be dead still have an endless network of living roots underground. What makes this memoir most remarkable is the way in which Nulick tells his story, in a disjointed manner that mimics the way old friends speak to one another. Nulick assumes his audience is his friend and speaks to us in a way that draws us into his story, bringing up events unknown to the reader but later expanding on those events, a hiccup in timeline that happens often when those who know each other well have conversations.

The Suiciders by Travis Jeppesen is a book I need a very clear head to discuss. I can’t even try to summarize it now. I don’t know whether I loved it or hated it. Perhaps both? Neither? It is a book that defies easy synopses and was a book I read in spurts, which made it all the harder to really grasp. I may reread it before I attempt to speak of it. But even as I have no fucking idea what this book really means to me, it’s still niggling away in the back of my head, demanding attention.

House of Psychotic Women by Kier-La Janisse is a book that gave me hope regarding my own approach to my media of choice. Janisse discusses neuroses in women as depicted in horror and exploitation cinema, and she discusses these films not so much using cinematic aesthetic criteria as she uses her own personal experiences as the relevant filter for these films. Her relationship to the films were the basis of the book, even as she discussed schools of cinematic thought and psychiatric ideas. I have always filtered literature this way and I have been told by a couple of academicians that it’s a lazy, self-absorbed and ultimately useless way to discuss books. That may be so but at the same time I cannot abide a review that doesn’t tell me simply whether or not the reviewer liked the book and why. We may all find value in beautiful prose, in deft characterization, in well-constructed plots, but if the book does not move that which is you, that part of you that exists beyond education and cultured reaction, then all the authorial skill in the world is meaningless. Discussing literature or any media this way has perils – I discuss far more of my life discussing books that connect with me than some diarists and you get to see all the dirty dishes behind the kitchen door. But it’s the only way I can discuss books, and it was heartening to see this approach used by a woman who is clearly a strong thinker even as she responds with herself as the filter.

There are other books I plan to discuss, like Trevor Blake’s Confessions of a Failed Egoist, as well as what I have now come to call The Borderline Personality Potboilers – books by Gillian Flynn, Claire Messaud and Paula Hawkins. I have great hopes that 2016 will be a wholly different year and I can reconstruct this site into the place I always wanted it to be. For those who still read here, thanks for hanging on, and hopefully more will join you when OTC is updated regularly.

Have a happy holiday, however you celebrate!