My Booky Wook by Russell Brand

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Title: My Booky Wook: A Memoir of Sex, Drugs and Stand-Up

Author: Russell Brand

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir, drug abuse

Why Did I Read This Book: Because Mr. Everything and I went to see Get Him to the Greek and loved it. Also, someone somewhere told me that given my grudging (borderline psychotic, actually) affection for the late Sebastian Horsley, Brand’s memoir would be up my alley. Then a friend online revealed her mother was reading My Booky Wook when she passed away due to brain cancer (true story). So yeah, I had to read it.

Availability: Published by HarperCollins in 2009, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Increasingly I find myself questioning my decision to review all the books I read. Because I read voraciously and indiscriminately, I often find myself discussing books that were neither amazing enough to praise nor terrible enough to lampoon. Middling books that were entertaining enough when I read them but really meant little other than the entertainment they offered during the moments as I was reading them are hard to discuss. I mean, I guess I could become a reviewer who routinely just tosses 500 words or so out there and calls it a day but why bother. There are hundreds of sites like that already. And my will to go on at length forbids such brevity. But it’s problematic even beyond not knowing what to say because when I can’t find much to discuss, I put off writing and the books stack up. So it’s a quandry. If I don’t review everything, I’ll take it easy on myself and just review when I want to and if I force myself to review everything I procrastinate. Maybe I just need to man up. I don’t know

(I do know I will not review another Stieg Larrson book even though I love them all and want to discuss them. The search strings that led some people to my review of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo filled me with angst and loathing. I almost want to take the review down so that when I check my site stats I don’t have to see how it is that people never stop trying to rake the dead over the coals.)

Anyway, My Booky Wook is not as annoying as Dandy in the Underworld. Brand can turn a phrase very well. At times he is clever. And he does not openly embrace a lack of substance and wallow in nihilism. He doesn’t seem like he is a rip-off of someone else. It doesn’t suck. But overall, it’s a biography about Russell Brand. I mean, he’s entertaining and all, but he’s a comedian who had a drug and sex problem. He likes bosomy women. He did some really terrible things as an addict and owns it in his amusing way. It is what it is. If you find yourself stuck in an airport for a 5-hour layover and this book is for sale at one of news stands, you should definitely buy this before you buy the latest thriller or horror title. Honestly, this isn’t an amazing book but you won’t regret reading it. But if asked to write a substantive review for your online review site, you may find yourself saying very little in a whole lot of words.

Okay, synopsis: Brand is born. His parents separate. His mom has cancer twice. His dad is a cad. He loathes his stepfather. He is an obnoxious kid using obnoxiousness to shield his tender heart and he grows into an obnoxious adult. He flounders in University. He develops drug problems. He has issues with what in the old days was called sexual continence. He gets a job with MTV and goes from obnoxious to insufferable. He goes to rehab. He pulls himself together. The end.

While this book is not going to be a classic memoir – truly, there is no danger of it surpassing the memoirs of Nabokov, Fox, Dickens or Orwell – Brand has a brave capacity of knowing himself and showing himself at his worst. There are moments in the book wherein you finally understand some of what makes Brand an interesting man outside of his appalling hair. He certainly doesn’t pull any punches with what he chooses to present about himself and as a person who is a notorious head case in my own right, I can appreciate this. And at times, he has a startling depth to his words, and I say startling because having listened to interviews with him, he didn’t initially strike me as a man with hidden depths. But he has them and he presents them very well.

For instance, he summarizes the compelling force behind most comedians – that sense of being a complete loser and adopting a clown persona to compensate:

This is… the reason why stand-up comedy is the perfect career for me. Not just because I’m constantly scribbling notes inside my own mind to deal with the embarrassment I perpetually feel, but also because I’m always observing, always outside. It’s a perfectly natural dynamic for me to stand alone in front of thousands of people and tell ’em how I feel. The fact that I’ve managed to make it funny is bloody convenient, because I can’t think how else I would make them listen.

His thoughts on the driving forces behind addiction were also not only surprising coming from a man with such dreadful hair, but were also eloquent and right on the nose.

All of us, I think, have a vague idea that we’re missing something. Some say that thing is God; that all the longing we feel–be it for a lover, or a football team, or a drug–is merely an inappropriate substitute for the longing we’re supposed to feel for God, for oneness, for truth. And what heroin does really successfully is objectify that need…

It makes you feel lovely and warm and cozy. It gives you a great, big, smacky cuddle, and from then on the idea of need is no longer an abstract thing, but a longing in your belly and a kicking in your legs and a shivering in your arms and sweat on your forehead and a dull pallor on your face. At this point you’re no longer under any misapprehension about what it is that you need: you don’t think, “Nice to have a girlfriend, read a poem or ride a bike,” you think, “Fuck, I need heroin.”

Brand’s ability to mix humor into the darkest of his discoveries was nice. In this passage, he is discussing a therapy program while he was in sex rehab:

In the next program, “Wanky-Wanky,” we addressed the subject of sexuality. As the title suggests, this episode was a little more juvenile than its immediate predecessors, but still interesting nonetheless. The question was, “Is your sexuality constructed by environment and experience or is it innate?” I examined this issue by wanking a man off in a toilet. In conclusion, your sexuality is innate.

He then goes on to recount a sexual encounter he engaged in for a television program he was working for at the time – I can’t recall if it was MTV or not. Regardless, he ended up in a bathroom stall with a pretty foul man while the whole awkward, smelly thing was recorded by a camera crew. It was funny, Brand’s description, but it also created a mental parallel for me, however inappropriately, with scenes Peter Sotos described in Selfish, Little. Oh yes, Brand reaches completely different conclusions about jerking off old, fat men in public toilets, but the sense of darkness, degeneracy and a life out of control in the worst sort of way resonated nonetheless.

Brand also understands and explains well why addiction may serve a purpose above and beyond that which degrades us:

For all the damage it had enabled me to do to myself and my career, heroin had also provided a degree of sanctuary. Marianne Faithfull once said that heroin had saved her, because she was suicidal and it kept her alive.

And don’t I ever know that feeling, that as bad as things had become, they could have been so much worse.

I think I’ll leave this review with a quote from the beginning of the book, another stinger in which Brand expresses himself not elegantly but humorously and with a lot of clarity:

…I realized that the outer surface of what I thought was my unique, individual identity was just a set of routines. We all have an essential self, but if you spend every day chopping up meat on a slab, and selling it by the pound, soon you’ll find you’ve become a butcher. And if you don’t want to become a butcher (and why would you?), you’re going to have to cut right through to the bare bones of your own character in the hope of finding out who you really are. Which bloody hurts.

So… All in all, it’s a memoir by Russell Brand, a man who essentially gets paid in movies to behave as he once did, which may require a lot of skill. I don’t know. As I recited back these quotes, I realized that I don’t understand why I am not giving this book an unreserved hurrah. I think you can do a lot worse than read this book. But maybe it’s because I don’t feel a lot of connection to Brand. Maybe you need a closer affinity to the person writing words that offer redemption, even if it is redemption mixed with spitting at hookers, heroin, manic insanity and lots of humor. Maybe that’s it. I just don’t think I feel Brand. That’s not his fault and this is a good book despite my lack of connection.

Also, Russell Brand loved and was inspired by Bill Hicks, and no matter how much of an asshole his drug addiction made him, loving Bill Hicks makes anyone a good egg. Brand is a good but irritating egg. So, I feel okay saying that this is a good book to read and I may read the next book out there by Brand. I’ve read books for worse reasons than that the author liked Bill Hicks. I think we all have.

Stuff by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things

Authors: Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee

Type of Book: Psychology

Why Did I Read This Book: I admit it. I watch Hoarders. I also read the TWoP thread about the show. When this book came out, people in the thread mentioned the book. Later, a woman whose blog I read also recommended the book.

Availability: Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (boo, hiss) in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I am sickly fascinated by hoarding. I have more cats than the average person would think is normal and let us not even discuss my book collection, but at the end of it all, I am pretty finicky. I have a boat load of books but little other items of decoration. And I own two Dyson vacuum cleaners because I just can’t abide cat hair everywhere. Sometimes I think I find hoarding fascinating because it helps me feel better about the areas of my life that are a bit messy, but I also must admit that the whole train-wreck element of some of the homes tickles the tabloid part of my brain.

And yet even though I find hoarding of infinite intellectual and visceral interest, this book was bland for me. I think that there are some issues for me that I don’t really want to understand. Serial killers, for instance. Yeah, yeah, yeah, it’s interesting to know how people become serial killers through abuse and brain injury and such, but I mostly want to know how many bodies were recovered from the basement. It’s not a good personality trait but we all have our failings in life. I suspect the same thing is at work with hoarding. I just want to know how many tons of garbage were loaded onto dump trucks. I also know how intractable the mental condition behind hoarding can be. In a way, understanding hoarding and how it relates to OCD is almost useless because in the end, it is so hard to treat.

Still, parts of this book held some interest. Of most interest to me was the chapter about Pamela, who fell victim to a guru-like psychiatrist who manipulated her patients into caring for abandoned cats. She eventually ended up in a 16-room house with hundreds of cats, none of which were ever desexed because the doctor felt it unnatural, and the group of believers would go so far as to “rescue” animals who would otherwise have been spayed or neutered. Before long the situation was completely out of control, yet it continued on for years. Pamela ended up in the doctor’s home, caring for cats 21 hours a day. She finally fled when she was in her early 50s, ending up homeless for a while. But even after she clawed her way out, so to speak, she still fought the urge to collect cats. Most hoarders of animals describe animals as possessing a “pure” love, an unconditional love that was denied them in chaotic, abusive childhoods.

It was illuminating to understand some of the thinking or cognitive issues behind hoarding. One man saw limitless potential in every item he hoarded. A bucket with too many holes to hold water could hold something else. A piece of an ancient set of Venetian blinds needed to be kept on the off chance that he one day found someone who might need that slat.

One woman’s example explained the organization issues that some hoarders face. She saw things in terms of the space they occupied, instead of where they should go. Irene kept things in piles because in her mind, if she put them away, she would not remember them. A newspaper clipping, a phone number, her electricity bill – they all went into the same pile on the floor and she blamed a faulty memory when she was unable to find what she needed. She never seemed to understand that no memory was good enough to keep track of things in piles. She didn’t use drawers for the same reason – how could she know what was in the drawers if she put clothes away? Best to keep them out where she could see them. Irene also had issues with decision making, as she often could not assign just one meaning to an item. How could she put things away when some items had more than one meaning or emotional definition. A sweater could be as potent a reminder of a specific memory as a photograph or a diary entry, and therefore the sweater was not just clothing, but a mental place holder for certain events.

This book covers a lot of ground, discussing some hoarders who live in what seems to us like filth yet fear contamination when people touch their things. People who use items and animals to replace people. The perfectionism that makes positive action impossible. The desire to make sure nothing is ever wasted (the woman who saved her maxi-pads thinking she would one day wash them and reuse them was horrifying). The ability to see unspeakable beauty in bottle caps and piles of garbage.

But overall, I think the reason this book didn’t hit me well is because I left it feeling frustrated. Reading Frost’s accounts of dealing with hoarders was hellish. I felt like whacking someone on the head as I read his struggles to get just one cognitively impaired person to throw out one slip of paper with a phone number on it, only to have the patient go and retrieve the piece of paper from the trash. The successes were few and hard-won and I think I am callous enough that I crave the quick, visual fix that the television presentations of this condition offer. Yeah, those house-emptying examples don’t really solve much, but then again, aside from the examples of people intervening with children who suffer from hoarding tendencies, the psychological approach doesn’t work much either.

But my need for a quick clean-up, a definitive though likely temporary cure, is hardly the fault of the authors. I suspect people who like reading books that have case studies of patients with certain conditions, those who find hoarding interesting, or those who are dealing with hoarding will appreciate the looks this book gives into how it is that people end up in a home packed with garbage, unable to function, yet unable to change without lots of psychology and the threat of a city-operated backhoe.

A Hell of Mercy by Tim Farrington

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Books: A Hell of Mercy: A Meditation on Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul

Author: Tim Farrington

Type of Book: Memoir, psychology, mental health, spiritual

Why Did I Read This Book: Not long ago, I reached a place of acceptance wherein I will no longer battle my darkness. It’s a choice that is so intensely personal and specific that no one who suffers from depression should look to my decision as any sort of guidance or advocacy. But because I have decided to simply be a person who is isolated, weird and dark rather than fight it with therapy or medication any longer, I find other people’s mental health voyages fascinating.

Availability: Published by Harper Collins in 2009, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This was an erudite, elegant book and I am glad I read it. As I read it, I found myself questioning decisions I have made about my own brain chemistry, and after reevaluation, I decided my impulse to simply leave my brain alone and let it be, treatable illness though I may have, was the correct decision. Reading Farrington’s journey, his spiritual outlook on life and the chemicals in his brain, served for me, a decidedly non-spiritual person, as a fresh and very nearly inspiring look into how it is all people with depressive tendencies can interpret their disease and their lives without recrimination or guilt. Farrington recounted his life with phrases that all but hit me in the head with meaning, and I had “aha!” moments constantly in this book. There is very little in common between Farrington in me aside from wonky chemical reactions that affect our minds, so the ability of his words to affect me and touch me seem almost miraculous.

So this is an intensely personal reaction to a book, less a review than a discussion of how the book affected me. It would help to bear that in mind as you read, because I really did find myself overwhelmed at times at how eloquently Farrington put into sharp focus all the words I have bouncing in my skull but have been unable to express. This is one of those books I read and think, “I could have written this,” but that is untrue. I could not have written this. I’m not enlightened enough yet and my heart will never be this spiritual. Nevertheless, it was the right book for me to read at the right time.

Farrington conveyed very well not only how it is that we can never truly see mental illness coming, but that being smart enough even to have known it was coming for us would not have been enough and perhaps that is a good thing.

My cluelessness, I see in retrospect, conferred a certain advantage on me. If we were smart, we might never become wise.

And god help me, how many times did I justify myself, sanctify the worst of my tirades as if having brain chemistry problems excused it.

…I came to see depression as my shadow on the path; like the “black dog” of Churchill’s recurrent blues, it was an inescapable presence. My lows could be debilitating, but they also seemed intimately related to my creativity itself and so were slightly glamorous, like Hemingway’s alcoholism and Dostoyevsky’s epilepsy. But my art at this time was self-indulgent stuff at best, and I invoked it much too readily to justify failures of character.

I can’t even begin to explain how many times I have excused my poor behavior because I have an “artistic” temperament and how many times my husband clung to that mental raft every time my rages sent him out to sea. This, more than any other, is the area wherein I feel guilt about being a depressive, and it helps that Farrington explained my own foibles to me so well. Interestingly, about the time I began to reject such thinking is the time I stopped being able to write fiction. I lack the will to investigate this cause-effect very carefully but it does make it very hard to understand the link between what I perceive about myself and who I truly am. Surely my fiction cannot have just dried up because I rejected brain chemistry as a reason to continue acting poorly but you never know. All I know is that when I no longer saw magic in being as wretched as Baudelaire, my words dried up and I started writing about books instead of trying to write books.

But then again, what I had to write back then may not have been worth much. My first novel was a disaster, and Farrington seems to have had similar problems, because the seduction of being mad does not always imply genius, no matter what we try to tell ourselves.

…I ended up writing an incredibly pretentious novel, a sort of first-person anti-Gospel: “My name is Jesus. I am an old man now,” it began. Yikes.

The book was bad, but it was good in the sense of being better than suicide, and after a while the voices faded to a dim roar and I began to write merely puerile bad novels in a more standard fashion…

His description of a time in which he submerged himself into the darkness, searching for answers, will ring utterly true to those who have observed my own depressive antics.

I was living on cornflakes and macaroni and cheese, and I was pretty whacked-out. I didn’t talk to anyone for months and slept on my own eccentric schedule – approximately a twenty-five-hour day, cycling gradually through all manner of weird wake-up times. I had a half-serious theory that I was actually from another planet that had a longer day and that therefore my diurnal clock was unfitted to the Earth’s twenty-four-hour rotation..

Medications never blunted my creativity like they did with Farrington, probably because I am largely unsuited to psycho-pharmacology. That which calms most minds will leave me hearing voices. If it makes a person drowsy, I will be climbing the walls. But his experience is a common one, I think.

Still, one cannot stray far from what passes for normal consciousness in our culture without encountering the guardian deities of medication. At that point in the late seventies, lithium was the state-of-the-art antidepressant, and the perverse simplicity of the notion that a minuscule failure of electrolytic salt lay at the root of my intricate suffering was almost dizzying. I tried it briefly and found what every artist fears from psychiatry to be true: the drug interfered with my writing. I felt blunted and dim on lithium, displaced about three feet from the center of myself, a gray bystander to my essential life.

And have I ever felt that disembodied feeling, a numbness that permits observation but no immersion. A chemical meant to save your life but leaves you separated from all that makes life worth living. My chemical alienation lay mainly in benzos and pams, but I sense the feelings are often similar – not a new self but a novel, wooden ability not to care about the old self.

But much of what Farrington has to say does apply to those with a creative spirit.

Some people go back to school at that point, get their MFA, and eventually teach; some go into business and promise themselves they will write someday when they are financially secure. But I felt my own bridges back to such reassuring normality had burned long since, and, being the melodramatic mystical sort that I am, I went into a monastery instead.

This passage meant a lot to me, grad school dropout that I am. And I am definitely a person for whom bridges to normality have been burned. Some depressives sleep all day. My early depression manifested itself in insomnia that I would dose myself endlessly with pills and booze to try to counteract. My life became centered on a lack of sleep and the side-effects that endlessly chasing sleep causes. This sort of thing does not lend itself well to a 9-5 life and when you fail at job, after job, after job, eventually you just know better than to try any more. I luckily have a partner who takes up the financial slack and I make our domestic lives as easy as I can, a life that makes my sleep issues less of an issue, so to speak. I know there are lots of others out there like me, but they have kids a and firm financial obligations and they cope somehow, but in my case, not even the pressure of needing money overcame the haze of ten Tylenol PMs washed down with some gin. That’s a method of suicide to most people but for me it was just self-medication burning my bridges to reassuring normality. And sadly, there are no convents for atheist girls like me.

It’s not actually such a stretch to consider depression as an involuntary form of postmodern mortification, a salutary humiliation akin to a hair shirt… What if some degree of pained and penitential consciousness, of realized inadequacy in the light of the sacred, is in fact necessary to the full human life? Our depressions, which we labor so to cure before they disrupt our self-enclosed routines, may be nefarious blessings, gestures by our stymied souls toward the conscious embrace of helplessness and suffering.

This, for me, is a key passage, because I know full well to the bottom of my blackened heart, hermit that this disease has made me, that if I do have a soul, depression has softened it. Depression has, beyond a doubt, made me a kinder person. I see a man who probably drinks, asking for money and I give it because I know. I know that but for two strikes of luck in my life – my husband and my capacity to detox and make it stick – I could be standing there because addiction and depression hold each others hands. They switch back and forth, one leading to the other. It is a nefarious blessing, to know that you really are able to say, “There but for the grace of god go I,” and mean it, without any bitterness or arrogance towards those for whom the battle has led them down a far more bridge-burning road.

There are things you simply cannot prepare for. This is not something anyone really wants to hear. We spend our lives preparing; we stake our pride on mastering the troublesome aspects of our world. We study, we practice, we polish and adjust; even our earnest efforts to “go with the flow” and humbly surrender to the processes of a life force larger than ourselves are invariably suffused with a hidden agenda. If we are good, bad things will not happen; if we are good enough, our suffering will end.

When I was in high school, I knew depression intimately but no one really called it that back then. I knew it even if I didn’t have a name for it, the sinking sense that if I did not fight and flail I would sink down into the mud and no one would ever be able to save me. I joined every extracurricular activity I could. I was an honors student. I had a part-time job. I matched my shoes to my outfits and ironed my underwear. I internalized good as “middle class and going places” and I worked so hard to be good. To look good in my own way. To disavow the blackness around my lungs where I sensed my soul should be but wasn’t. I burned myself out being good, and it began to show in college. It really began to show in my 30s. There is no good enough for depression. There is no closet large enough, no shoes that gleam enough, no resume that wows enough. There is no way to prepare. Even as I gave up and went with the flow, the tiny goodnesses I managed to achieve – saving a cat or two, helping a neighbor’s child – were not enough to hold the badness at bay. This, I think, is the hardest lesson depression taught me: there is no way to prepare well enough to prevent the dark days from coming.

My life had always been peppered with black days, days in which taking a shower seemed far beyond my means, days in which I just hunkered down like a wounded beast and endured; I’d had black weeks and even the occasional black month. During a particularly trying time in the early nineties, I’d spent an entire summer staring at the blank cursor on my computer screen, as if at a receding satellite; unable to write a word.

My equivalent of this is spending all day long in bed reading Encyclopedia Dramatica. This is more or less how I spent the summer of 2009. And that is a measuring stick to me. When showering begins to seem like it is too much, too hard and too pointless, I know the depression is wrapping its hands around my neck.

“It is one of the paradoxes of transformation that the closer we get to new possibility, the worse things seem to seem,” Richard Moss writes in The Black Butterfly. In another of the paradoxes of transformation, however, I found no comfort at all in this notion. I was haunting the bookstores, looking desperately for some help, but the spiritual books all seemed like chatter now. The universe had simplified itself into a desert of meaningless suffering, and the wisest words were just marks on the bleached expanse. Joy, compassion, peace and the divine: yadda-yadda-yadda.

I think this sort of depressive nihilism is why I read so precisely the details of the saints, the ones who suffered and starved and found enlightenment through pain because I still am a nihilist myself. I cannot meditate. I know no god. This is not entirely depression’s fault. I never believed in the fantastic, the mystical. Santa Claus was always a man in a beard to me though I put on a good act as a child. I am not entirely sure I have a soul, though I know my dead cat did, and that my dead grandparents did. If nothing else, depression has separated me from any comfort or sense of salvation. But being a person shaped by depression, this bothers me a lot less than it probably should.

Nothing will screw you up more than a team of professionals determined to help you.

Except, perhaps, believing that therapy and medicine can offer us no help at all. The fact that you’re depressed doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re not going through a dark night, but it is just as true, and as crucial to know, that seeking therapy, or taking medication for a biochemical affliction, doesn’t necessarily mean you have subverted your spiritual process or numbed your reality sense with muffling anesthetics.

I sometimes wonder if I will ever return to psychotropics for cures. I let myself have a tiny dose of a relatively inoffensive substance (well, it is inoffensive to me) daily to keep the worst of the anxiety that the darkness causes me tamped down. But it is good to know that I am not the only person left who embraces an approach wherein we manage to keep ourselves whole however we can. Too many shun medications as weak and too many embrace them as all-encompassing panaceas. I hit a point wherein I believed continuing to seek medical answers to my brain problems would probably kill me as I am not that well suited to the trials and physical misery that comes from getting the biochemical solutions right. But even at the worst of it, I think my disappointment stemmed from knowing so many people find the right drug and that after years of experimenting with my brain, it was time to stop. There would be no cure, at least not then or now.

“At the first-order of experiential description,” Denys Turner notes in The Darkness of God, “John of the Cross’s accounts of the sufferings of the ‘dark nights of the soul’ are uncannily similar to what a person will give from the inside of depression.”

As alienated as I am from any spiritual leanings, I still hope that this darkness is but a journey toward salvation but at the same time, I don’t think it is. It has gone on too long, though St. Paul’s dark night of the soul lasted 45 years. Rather, I think that instead of preparing to stave it off, I simply know that it comes and that I need to understand it will come and go when it wants. I don’t think, as much as narratives like this stoke my heart, that this suffering of mine will lead me to god. And this lack of faith is why I read books like this.

It sounds bizarre, but I think the key point in the dark night is basically everything but this death being hell. I was still, silent, perfectly accepting at last, inwardly, only because it hurt so much to move. It didn’t feel good or holy or anything much, but it didn’t hurt. It was not peace, in any positive sense, at least not for a very long time, but it was quiet and painless, and for me at that point, after years of every spiritual effort causing only pain, frustration, dryness and inner noise, that quiet–not Quiet, just quiet–would do just fine.

And that is where I am now. In a place of quiet. I don’t go out of the house much. People set my teeth on edge, which is not a good thing since I have given myself a TMJ disorder grinding my teeth at night. I never talk much, even on the phone, and recently discovered I had gone so long between uses on my pay-as-you-go phone that I lost my number due to inactivity. I am shut off from the world and for the first time in a long while I don’t mind. This quiet for me is not Quiet, but it is peace and I will take what I can get.

It’s been a while since a book spoke to me this profoundly, wherein I could not analyze it in terms of information or literary quality but could only sit and read with awe and understanding. This is an excellent book, through and through.

Dead in the Family by Charlaine Harris

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Dead in the Family

Author: Charlaine Harris

Type of Book: Fiction, paranormal romance, vampires

Why Did I Read This Book: Because despite the fact that the cheesy Sookie Stackhouse series has increasingly made me lactose intolerant, I’m hooked.

Availability: Published in 2010 by the Penguin Group, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Oh, good heavens, this was a terrible book. Terrible, terrible, terrible. Horrible, even. And yet I know that I will be reading the next in the series the day it comes out in hard cover. It’s maddening. I don’t know what bizarre alchemy Harris has discovered here because she’s not even turning base literature into gold. She’s presenting base lit, I know it’s base lit, and I devour it like it’s gold. Almost all of the Sookie Stackhouse books are like this. I know they are American cheese but I seek them out like they are caviar.

But that having been said, the weird alchemy that Harris performs fell short in this book. Her past books were so much better. Where was this book’s equivalent of really steamy shower sex with Eric? Where was the equivalent of the bloody war between the Fairies? Where was this book’s exciting werewolf one-on-one battle for supremacy? Where were the “this book” equivalents of the antics that made Harris’ past books the sort of guilty pleasure I don’t mind admitting? This book was not even American cheese. It was microwaved cheez whiz that has been left out on the counter top with the lid off. The turgid plot lines are what reel me in and keep me reading but this Sookie novel did not deliver. It just didn’t have enough of the cheesy goodness that I long for when I read Harris. There were several subplots that never delivered the visceral, gleeful punch that one needs when reading Sookie Stackhouse tales.

Plot summary: Sookie and Eric still have undead Viking/insufferable blonde human sex and are still uneasy in their relationship and nothing gets resolved. Victor is causing problems and Sookie wants him dead and nothing gets resolved. Claude moves in, with no real point behind it. Sookie babysits her young cousin and nothing comes of it. Jason is still a were-panther but has settled down and Sookie goes to a pointless cookout with her brother and his new girlfriend. Werewolves find a dead body on her property and nothing gets resolved. Eric’s maker shows up with the undead Tsarevich and it’s ridiculous as well as pointless. Sookie finds Lorena’s other “child” and the book ends after this happens and we can only hope it goes somewhere in the next book in the series. There are some little bubbles of interesting behavior but overall, there are a bunch of subplots that rattle around and ultimately go nowhere.

This trend of Harris’ to introduce all kinds of intriguing subplots, like the presence of Hadley’s son, bringing new characters and situations into the mix in every chapter, dangling them out there, then doing nothing with them aside from revisiting them blandly and pointlessly, just telling little stories that have no impact on the plot or give any better understanding of the world Sookie lives in, is wearing thin. This tendency has got to be reined in at some point – I know editors may be reluctant to lay down the law to a proven money maker like Harris, but all these tiny subplots and all these characters milling about and not doing much are diluting the fun.

There were also a lot of continuity problems in this book. If a casual reader like me noticed them, any editor worth his or her salt should have seen them, too. I think as this series grows and with its popularity, there is increasing pressure for Harris to crank novels out. It doesn’t leave a lot of room for a quality book, but I wonder if that even matters. I mean, I am slamming the hell out of Dead in the Family but I know I will continue reading the series. I suspect it will take a lot more than one complete clunker with a bad plot and continuity issues to cause most of us leave Sookie behind in disgust but it would be nice if our unconditional love for this series was respected via tight story lines and excellent plots.

However much I don’t expect the most stellar of writing in the Sookie Stackhouse series, Harris did manage to create a plot line in this book so bad that I honestly have no idea how anyone could have thought, “Hey, this is a good idea. Let’s include this hot mess and no one will raise an eyebrow.” Eric’s maker, Appius Livius Ocella comes to see Eric due to all kinds of vampire machinations. And with him be brings Alexei Romanov, his newest “son” and Eric’s “brother.”

Yes. Alexei Romanov. The one killed by the Bolsheviks. The one whose corpse was exhumed and his identity verified via DNA testing. The one who was a hemophiliac, the doomed adolescent who was shot to death in a basement with his parents and sisters. That Alexei Romanov.

How does Harris explain away all the, you know, historic and scientific evidence that Alexei Romanov died and remained dead and was not turned into a the undead by an ancient Roman vampire? Well, you see, Appius Livius knew that when the mass pit of Romanov bodies were finally discovered, it would only be a short while until they found Alexei. So the Justin Bieber-aged vampire removed his bones bit by bit to recreate his skeleton. Poured acid on the bone fragments and burned them too. Lucky for Alexei vampires can regenerate bone and heal quickly. And that there is no DNA test for vampiricism. Or that 16-year-old vampire bones produced in fragments then burned and buried for less than 20 years looked identical to the bones of Alexei’s sister, who had indeed been buried for over 80 years. Or that the Tsarevich survived the multiple stabbings and the two bullets that were put in his head long enough to be turned into a vampire.

I didn’t really object to Harris’ prior use of Elvis as he is a pop culture icon of questionable gravitas. But it was a bridge too far in terms of common sense, believability and even good taste to resurrect Alexei Romanov, a hemophiliac whose life had been quite bad before he was killed in a basement and his remains defiled, as the new sex toy for an old Roman vampire. Bleah on the whole thing.

So, all in all, this was not a good book. But that won’t stop you from buying it and reading it if you are already hooked. Just keep your fingers crossed that editors with a keen eye, common sense and feel for plot whip Harris’ next Sookie Stackhouse offering into shape before we shell out $25 for the privilege of reading it.

The Spinster and the Prophet by A.B. McKillop

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Spinster and the Prophet: H.G. Wells, Florence Deeks and the Case of the Plagiarized Text

Author: A. B. McKillop

Type of Book: Non-fiction, biography, history, feminism

Why Did I Read This Book: Like any book fiend of long term addiction, I often buy books in frenzies. I have no idea where or when I purchased this book, so I no longer know what initially drew me to it. But once I noticed it on my shelf, it still went unread for a couple of years because though I didn’t have any feelings for H.G. Wells one way or the other, I had a feeling that I would have pretty strong feelings once I was finished reading this book. I was correct.

Availability: Published in 2000, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I am not a big science fiction fan, so H.G. Wells, while I certainly read him and was socially aware of him, was not an author for whom I had any great affinity. But it was nevertheless disappointing to realize that he was a completely unlikeable, self-absorbed, trivial, priapic worm. Add to it that he may well have been a plagiarist who stole words knowing the person whose words he stole would likely have no recourse because she was not famous, had little money of her own, and most importantly, because she was a she and not a he, and it would appear H.G. Wells was a vile little man in many respects.

I often do my best to avoid biographies of writers or performers I have any sort of respect for. Like I said, I had little opinion about H.G. Wells before reading this book and knew this book was unlikely to paint him in a favorable light. Yet I was shocked at how much I disliked him at the end. I had once read about his affair with Rebecca West and their child in a different book, but I had no idea how he more or less rubbed his wife’s nose in it, how very young West was when the affair began, how Wells used his literary status and genius as an excuse to fuel and justify his sexual id. I haven’t felt such disappointment learning about the life of a literary figure since I found out what a repellent human being Robert Frost was. At least I had far less literary heart invested in Wells when I read about him.

Here are the nuts and bolts of the book: Florence Deeks, a middle-aged Canadian spinster, began to research and write a history of the world focusing on how women had shaped the world, from ancient matriarchies to the then current roles of women in societies. It took her five years of research and writing, beginning and roughly ending with the first World War. She submitted the manuscript, which she called The Web, to the North American branch of Wells’ publisher, Macmillan. She had long conversations with a particular editor about the book but did not receive it back, rejected, until almost two years had passed. The manuscript, when returned, was a mess, smudged and showed signs of heavy wear, wear that would become crucial in the court case that showed how some of the worn pages contained plagiarized passages. It seems very likely from the evidence that McKillop presents in the book that the editor that Deeks dealt with at Macmillan obfuscated the location of the manuscript and sent it to Wells, who had himself been discussing writing a history of the world. Indeed, Wells, to that point a man who wrote mainly turgid, lightly veiled autobiographies of himself, according to his assertions, managed to write a massively researched book in record time, a book that bore similar amateurish marks as Deeks’ endeavor. Despite many expert witnesses who showed the distinct similarities between Wells’ book and Deeks’ book, despite many appeals, the courts consistently decided against Deeks in her court cases. Wells’ book, The Outline of History, a best-seller then but now largely ignored, made Wells’ fortune secure.

Deeks herself immediately saw similarities between Wells’ work and her own rejected manuscript, similarities that several experts echoed. In fact, the entire outline of Wells’ work echoed her own, unique outline. Moreover, Wells used references to works Deeks had agonized over whether or not she should quote but ultimately did not. That Wells used the same source that Deeks in her inexperience had not cited, himself not citing the author, was particularly damning. That Macmillan could not prove where the manuscript resided when it was in their custody – indeed, there is a record that indicates it was received twice at the office when Deeks only submitted it the once – also lends credibility to Deeks’ belief that Wells altered her manuscript.

The proof that Wells likely did not write his 1,324 page history without pilfering Deeks’ work seems likely on its very face and despite all the compelling examinations of the similarities between the texts, the most damning evidence to me was the timeline involved. Though Wells was an undeniably erudite man, he had only written fictional novels and did not have experience as a historian.

Three of the most experienced and prolific professional historians in the world, James Harvey Robinson, Charles A. Beard and James Henry Breasted, had required several years to research and write their collaborative history of Western civilization. Wells and his ever-faithful wife ventured into their first and only exercise in the writing of history with few research notes and little intensive help from others, and somehow managed to accomplish the task in a span of time so short it beggars the imagination. In mid-November 1918, nothing on the project had advanced as far as the typescript stage. By February 15, 1919, Jane [Wells’ wife] had produced 50,000 to 60,000 words in typed form. Twenty days later her husband… had written between 75,000 and 80,000 [additional] words, researching along the way. At the end of the year, the whole manuscript was complete.

This is all I am going to quote from the book on the topic of the investigations and the trials that compared The Web to The Outline of History. That part of the book is extremely interesting, a sort of literary CSI. But I will say that after reading about the number of bad acts on the part of Macmillan employees, the analysis laid out by Deeks’ witnesses and Wells’ own response to the accusation (attempting to smear Deeks), I believe H.G. Wells stole large parts of the book that made his fortune.

But despite learning about Wells’ nasty and underhanded disputes with literary icons like Henry James and many other acts that shed a bad light on him, his utter need for and complete contempt for women almost overtook the plagiarism claim this book puts forth (and in my opinion, proves). But in a sense, that is what this book is about. The book’s topic is plagiarism in a specific sense, but the overarching theme of this book is how one man, the publishing industry and court system deprived one woman of her voice and work but also deprived all women of having access to a book that would have described their own unique role in history. You see, when Wells plagiarized The Web, he removed all of the work that Deeks did to show how women had indeed played a role in shaping the world. Not content just to steal, he stole the work and stripped it of all its original intent.

Yet worse was the fact that even as ambitious as his plagiarism was, it would never have been possible without the toil of his wife, Jane. Jane, of all the women Wells used in his life, suffered the most. She wasn’t even permitted the luxury of using her own name. He called Catherine Wells “Jane” during their entire marriage, a name she did not encourage but could not dissuade him from using. His two-named wife clearly played a role in getting The Outline of History ready.

By all accounts, Jane Wells, once more a silent voice at a crucial point in her husband’s career, was his saving grace in the creation of The Outline of History. “Without her labour in typing and retyping the drafts of the various chapters as they have been revised and amended, in checking references, finding suitable quotations, hunting up illustrations, and keeping in order the whole mass of material for this history, and without her constant help and watchful criticism, its completion would have been impossible.”

The theme of how Wells played a role in silencing and marginalizing two women is the theme that stuck with me above all the injustice, all the proof of plagiarism, above all the sexual indiscretions and bad behavior on Wells’ part. Even as the reader feels perhaps a modicum of pity for Wells, as he at times was indeed pitiful, this book simply serves to remind the reader that in addition to being a fair science fiction writer, a terrible literary fiction author, a man of many affairs, and probably a plagiarist on more than one occasion, Wells can best be remembered as a man possessing such monumental ego that he would not permit his own wife to have her own name.

The Spinster and the Prophet is meticulous researched, and while it includes recreations of what the author thinks may have happened in some scenes, he makes it clear that he is using this writing approach, and his recreations never seem fanciful or forced. A literary tome about literary crime, it was both erudite and accessible. I enjoyed reading it and definitely recommend it for those out there who enjoy biography, history and a good, down in the dirt expose on what really happens when the socially privileged close ranks.

Prozac Diary by Lauren Slater

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Prozac Diary

Author: Lauren Slater

Type of book: Memoir, psychology, psychiatry, non-fiction

Why Did I Read This Book: I love tales of psychiatry and mental illness. I was one of those who was prescribed Prozac in the first wave of the drug’s popularity and like reading about how others responded or did not respond to the drug.

Availability: Published in 1998 by Penguin Books, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I think this book was probably more interesting 12 years ago. I am a pharmacological refugee and on a personal level find tales like Slater’s interesting, but I can also tell you that unless you have tinkered with the chemicals in your brain, unless you have walked down this road, this mild, ethereal and at times random memoir may not have any resonance. As interested as I am in memoirs of people who struggle with mental illness and the drugs used to treat mental illness, there were times I found this book less than gripping.

That is a problem with memoirs. A person’s life is of infinite interest to them but sometimes their life stories do not translate into an absorbing story for others. Couple that with the fact that psychopharmacology has changed dramatically not only since Slater was prescribed Prozac in the late 1980s, but also dramatically since this book was published in 1998, and you can see why this book may lack relevance now. This book almost seems quaint when one considers the intensity of the sorts of drugs available these days.

Slater suffered from a variety of mental illness symptoms when prescribed Prozac and her reaction to the drug was miraculous. She felt like an entirely new person yet felt like she was finally feeling like the person she was meant to be, which brings up all kinds of questions about identity and mental illness. If you have been mentally ill or depressed all your life and you suddenly feel like yourself after taking a medication, who is the real you? That is a question that those for whom medications work ask themselves routinely and it takes a strong writer to ensure this question does not sound like a cliche. Slater just isn’t that strong a writer.

Moreover, there are at times in this book when Slater shows a tendency towards the mystical, and while I understand the sort of miraculous nature of brain meds when they work properly, this book was often too airy for me. And god help me for saying this (or condemn me as the case may be), but the things that made Lauren Slater a mad woman and the things that distinguished her when well simply are not as interesting as some other similar memoirs out there. Marya Hornbacher, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Susanna Kaysen and even Sylvia Plath did it better. With better offerings out there, it is hard to recommend this book. I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that mental illness needs to be entertaining to be valid but it needs to be entertaining in order to make a good book. While what happened to Slater before she was medicated and after were of great interest to her, those experiences are not consistently interesting to the reader.

That having been said, Slater does make some interesting points that resonated with me. I have always been intensely annoyed by the story of Mary and Martha from the Bible and Slater has an intriguing take on how Prozac ended her endless Mary-like navel contemplation and turned her into a Martha who got things done.

According to conventional Christianity then, and probably Judaism too, Prozac is a conduit to sin because it makes you more attentive to the tasks, the tiny things, altogether less transcendent. But perhaps, as Merton might say, the truth is in the tiny things, which is why I have for so long used illness to avoid them. Daily tasks–washing, laundering, banking, baking–they force me to my flesh, to the feel of fingers in repetitive movement, to the sloughings and tickings, the burst of soap bubble, the death of a cell.

Anyone who has ever been so depressed that even taking a shower was difficult for them understands this. But it is still interesting nonetheless to see this struggle, this giving-up in life assigned a higher meaning than simply being so ill one cannot do anything but passively contemplate one’s misery.

I also found interesting Slater’s sense of how Prozac altered her creativity. “I will lose my ability to write/sculpt/paint!” We have all heard that old argument from every person who has ever been so in love with their mental illness that they assign it a specialness that becomes an excuse to keep themselves from getting better. I’ve used it myself.

It’s been almost a year now since I’ve composed a short story or a poem, I who always thought of myself as a writer, all tortured and intense… Basically good writing is intensity, pitch, sex. Raymond Carver used to say that sometimes, when he was deep into a poem, he would look down to find his hand cupping his balls. I’ve read that Prozac reduces the sex drive, so it would stand to reason that it might diminish the by-products of that drive as well…

Though I am no longer a person who uses drugs to pave the potholes in my brain (prescribed, recreational or liquid, as self-medication is so alluring to those with misfiring brains), I also no longer write fiction. I’ve tried and tried and tried but the active steps to being strong mentally have removed fiction from the table for me. I began my book review sites when it became clear that my stories would likely not come back and I needed to find a way to control words in some manner. I think this is an intriguing topic, the idea that all great genius comes from more than a small dose of madness, but Slater doesn’t spend as much time on this as I wanted to read. And in a way discussing the sex element of Prozac shows the age of this book. Since this book was published, we now have Wellbutrin to cut back the sexual side effects of antidepressants. Not that it works for everyone, to be sure, but in 1998 when this was published, SRIs were almost certain death to the libido.

I also appreciated how Slater addressed the idea of diminishing returns on Prozac. No one ever told me either that Prozac could one day stop working, which is a very real problem with the drug. Rather, the failure of Prozac to be a continual cure for my depression was used as prima facie evidence that I am bipolar (believe me, I am unipolar as all hell). That even today the potential that Prozac could stop working, which Slater experienced herself and shared plainly, is not understood or subject to misinterpretation by doctors, which is several different kinds of frightening.

But even though there were some elements of the book I could relate to, the fact is there were too many passages clogged with the mystical, like when Slater found some sort of otherworldly relevance to a street magician singling her out. Then there were just bizarre passages that added nothing to my understanding of Slater’s mental illness or how Prozac helped her. Take this passage, for instance (she is at a spring bath with women who see themselves as eunuchs):

And just for a moment she stood before us, shed of the fabric of water, utterly visible, so I could have maybe have seen the space between her thighs, a cold crotch or a pit of possibility. She faced me, mammoth, the sagging shelf of her breasts, and it was only there I dared to look, at the wizened nipples with dark hairs around them, black-lashed and bloodshot. Ugly.

Pardon me, but what the hell am I supposed to do with this passage and similar passages wherein Slater reveals a horror so unique to her and yet meaningless to me and possibly anyone else? Nice prose, but this is why I think you should read Marya Hornbacher and not this book. Hornbacher makes the unrelatable interesting in a way Slater cannot manage. Passages wherein Slater is made sad by a person’s double chin have nothing to do with her awakening or even point to the inner workings of her mental illness but rather read as jabs against those who were not slim, young and fit, no matter how sound or peaceful their minds may have been. There are far too many passages like this, uninteresting and at times ridiculous looks into Slater’s mind that ultimately made this book tiresome to read and seemed to have no purpose.

And this is just me reacting negatively to the attempted poetry of Slater’s writing, but I cringed when I read passages like this:

And to Susan I also want to say, “See. See me. This isn’t just Prozac. Or all Prozac. I am the girl whose hands are stained with purple juice, who spins over ponds, who is hock and horse as she jumps. I am lather.”

Some may find a lot of poetry and beauty in the above quote. I find it forced and precious and quite a bit of the book is written in this manner. This may be a journal in print but not every journal entry is worthy of publication.

So I guess what I am saying is that this book is not the worst book but not the best ever on the topic of mental illness and psychopharmacology. If you read it, you likely will not find it complete waste of time, but you may not find it wholly interesting and you likely will not experience any greater epiphany than that Prozac worked for some people. You may shake your head at some parts and wonder what the hell Slater was getting at and those may outnumber the times when you feel she completely nails an idea. I don’t think that is a large enough of a return for reading this book, especially when there are so many better books that explore mental illness and its treatment out there.

(When I was looking for a link to Slater, I found this article in which Slater is accused of making up quotes in a book she had published in 2004. I find this interesting, though I take it with a grain of salt.)

Camp Concentration by Thomas M. Disch

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Camp Concentration

Author: Thomas M. Disch

Why Did I Read This Book: I thought it would be a good fit for my odd books site. I was wrong – this is a book that is subversive, to a certain extent, but it is definitely not all that odd.

Availability: You can get the 1999 Vintage Books edition here:

Comments: It has been a while since I read a book that filled me with such visceral dislike. I can only hope that I can explain my distaste for this book without descending into insult, but it speaks volumes to me that even though I am a pretty mild person most of the time, I genuinely worry that I may not be able to discuss this book without a lot of invective.

Part of the reason is that this book was initially published in 1968 and has not aged well. But I also tend to think that the poorly-aged element of this book lent itself to a “meh” reaction, not the cold, hard aversion I ultimately felt. Though some of the ideas expressed in this book may still resonate today, I have to say, though I know it is brutal to say so, the overall terrible writing style as well as the completely unlikeable protagonist kills any societal message that may shine through to modern times.

Here’s a brief synopsis: Louis Sacchetti, who clearly fancies himself the smartest man to ever live, is put in jail for being a conscientious objector. He is treated reasonably well in prison but one day is transferred to a different prison. One underground, a sinister prison where the government is testing a drug on unwilling prisoners. This drug makes the prisoners super intelligent, which actually has far fewer applications in the real world than one might think, but the drug also kills them eventually. Louis finds he has been infected and he was such an arrogant, self-impressed bastard that the reader has a hard time telling the before Louis from the end Louis. All the geniuses try to commit a God-defying act of alchemy that ends about as well as you think it might. Louis was asked to document his time in the prison, typing it out in a typewriter that fed to different people who read his reports and he documents until he dies. The end.

Okay, I am being a complete bitch and I know it, but let me support my utter dislike for this book with text that shows that I have concrete reasons for hating it, though as always, your mileage may vary.

After musing pointlessly and somewhat fatly on the sexual antics of the men he shares space with back at prison one, Louis finds himself in the corridors of the second prison. This is his first encounter there with another inmate:

“Beauty,” he said solemnly, “is nothing but the beginning of a terror that we are able barely to endure.” And with those words George Wagner heaved the entirety of a considerable breakfast into that pure, Euclidean space.

It’s hard to put into words why these two sentences filled me with despair reading this book, but let me try. First, Disch has a mentally ill man quoting Rilke. If that wasn’t a cliche then, it certainly is now. Second, I really can’t believe that Louis, the narrator and through whose eyes we see this arrogant and at times pretentious mess, looks at a man puking and immediately thinks of the clean, geometric lines into which the man is horking. Louis is a writer though, and as a result, he thinks very writerly things. He can’t just speak or write. He expounds. He is a hammy stage actor on paper and it hurts reading his thoughts and then thinking about the implications of those thoughts.

He meets a black prisoner named Mordecai. You know Mordecai is black because he uses the word “mammy” to describe his mother. As did all black men in 1968, one assumes. Evidently Mordecai is ugly too, and mispronounces words a lot because he has only ever read them and never heard them before because as a black man, of course, he never had a deep, substantive conversation before he was given the drug to make him super-smart. Or at least that is how I felt after reading about Mordecai through Louis’ description. His mispronunciations give Louis an even more unearned sense of superiority, for you see, Louis is not just a writer, but a poet, and he knows words, man does he know. His mental corrections of Mordecai’s pronunciations alone killed any sense that I wanted him to continue telling the story. Here are a couple of examples:

“You’ll have to excuse my athanor. It’s electric, which isn’t quite comme il faut” – pronounced by Mordecai, come-ill-phut–“I’ll admit, but it’s much easier this way to maintain a fire that is vaporous, digesting, continuous, nonviolent, subtle, encompassed, airy, obstructive, and corrupting.”

(I know, you, dear reader, totally think I am making these sentences up, don’t you?)

Poor Mordecai cannot even pronounce the word God to Louis’ satisfaction. In a conversation about God wherein Mordecai compares the Holy to Eichmann in a fit of genius that causes Louis to put down his intellectual foot, Louis begins to record Mordecai’s accent as he hears it in a way that is utterly grating.

“We can turn our eyes away from the charred bones of children outside the incinerators, but what of a Gaud who damns infants–often the very same one–to everlasting fires?”

Poor Mordecai. Not even able to say “God” to a pedant. Also, if this is what Disch thinks it sounds like when people made into intellectual giants talk about metaphysics, all I can say is that every drunken freshman at Clark Hall at UNT must have been fucking geniuses.

Also, Louis’ opinions on homosexuals don’t help this book’s complete lack of modernity. And while I am not one for temporal relevance, the fact remains that in the 1960s, there were plenty of people who did not think that VD and promiscuity ran rampant among homosexuals any more than they thought all blacks had mammies. It’s hard to like many of the characters in this book and their pronouncements on minorities certainly don’t help matters.

And while Disch knows words, the problem is that he doesn’t know how to use those words to show characterization, especially when characters speak. I give some passages to show that no one in this book speaks differently from anyone else, despite the large disparities in cultural and professional backgrounds. They have incredibly similar social references, similar educational references and even the tendency to slip from formal language into informal, as if to show how that underneath it all, aren’t we all just too jive for conversational consistency?

Here is Dr Busk, a psychiatrist in her 30s:

“And then think of what happens if genius doesn’t rein itself in but insists on plunging on head into the chaos of freest association. I know any number if psychiatrists who could, in good conscience, have accepted Finnegan Wakes (sic) as the very imprimatur of madness and had its author hospitalized on its evidence alone. A genius? Oh yes. But all we common people have the common sense to realize that genius, like the clap, is a social disease, and we take action accordingly. We put all out geniuses in one kind or another of isolation ward, to escape being infected.”

(By the way, it is Louis, who is typing all of this conversation up for his reports to the prison officials, who inserts that (sic), pedant that he is. He can’t even retell a conversation without simply correcting a common mistake – no, he needs to show the error and also show that he knows the error is an error. And this trait is not due to Disch deliberately creating a shitheel. No, Disch likes Louis, you can tell, because Louis is a man for whom we are supposed to feel some sort of fond feeling or kinship as he discovers dark secrets and suffers himself. I assert that Disch no more realized what a tiresome didact Louis is than Louis does.)

This is Louis himself, and note the high level language that descends into street talk, just like Dr. Busk. Also note he is talking to himself about his own poem, addressing himself as Louis I as it is a different part of the whole complexity that is Louis (sigh…)

There is no God, there never was, and never will be, world without end, amen.

Would you deny it, old Adamite, Louie I? Then let me recommend you to your own poem, the poem you claimed not to be able to understand. I understand it: The idol is empty; his speech an imposture. There is no Baal, my friend, only the whisperer within, putting your words in His mouth. A farrago of anthropomorphism. Deny it! Not all your piety nor wit, my boy.

And O! O! those precious, fawning poems of yours, licking the ass of your let’s-pretend God-daddy.

Well I will give credit where credit is due in the next quote–at least Disch mixes up the formula a little. In this one the inconsistencies are spread out, not high-falutin’ falling into the gutter, but rather a more even mix, but the trademarks are the same. This is Mordecai speaking.

“Anyhow, to get back–the two broads would bring up those hoary arguments about the universe is like a watch and you can’t have a watch without a watchmaker. Or the first cause that no other cause causes. Till that day I’d never even heard of the watchmaker bit, and when they came out with it, I thought, Now, that’ll stop old Donovan’s Brain. But not a bit of it–you just tore their sloppy syllogisms”–another foul mispronunciation–“to pieces.”

In this one we get not only Mordecai waxing Louis-like, but we also get another helping of Louis’ being unable not to comment on how badly he thinks Mordecai speaks.

I wanted to think that perhaps all the similar dialogue occurs because Louis is recording all of this and the speech of others gets filtered through his brain. But Louis makes it clear several times he is recording things exactly as they happen or are spoken. He is not filtering. Everyone just talks the same way in this book, high level conversation with words even the most well-versed of readers will have to look up combined with an earthy tang of street language and slang.

Okay, get yourself past the fact that the style in this book is terrible and everyone talks the same. Let’s just look at some of the sentences in this book, shall we? Even if Louis is a poet, even if he is a genius driven mad, there is a desperate sense in all he says that he wants us, the unseen reader, to know how amazing his intellect is, and it gets tiresome, each sentence struggling to be more erudite than the one before it, each turn of phrase straining in verbal calisthenics.

Have read “Portrait of Pompanianus,” which is better than I’d expected, yet curiously disappointing. I think it is because it is so controlled a tale, the plot so meticulously elaborated, the language of such a concinnate beauty, that I’m disgruntled. I’d hoped for a cri de coeur, nonobjectivist, action writing…

But wait, it gets so much worse. This passage comes after Louis is finished writing a play called Auschwitz: A Comedy.

In the first giddy moments after I’d written Auschwitz, when I could suddenly no longer tolerate these bare walls, richer in horrid suggestion than any Rorschach…, I stumbled out into the hypogeal daedal of corridors, happening across the hidden heart of it, or its minotaur at least.

He stumbled into the hypogeal daedal? I hate it when that happens but have been told some soda water will get the stain out. Sorry about that but when I am forced to read words this haughty, I get sarcastic. I’m a pretty good word-slinger myself. Always have been. I appreciate an author who does not insult my intelligence and uses words one may not commonly encounter. Caitlín R. Kiernan is an erudite writer whose erudition does not alienate me. But this is too much. It’s Disch showing off via Louis and it is tiresome as hell to read.

Here’s another example of Louis’, and by extension Disch’s, ridiculous verbiage:

“You’re a bit early,” Haast told her. His emissile good fellowship retracted like a snail’s cornua at the sight of Busk–in a suit of gray and chaste as any flatworm, epalpibrate, grimly mounted on her iron heels and ready for battle.

And this is where I take my gloves off. This quote is everything that is wrong with this book – big words that evoke nothing and when they do manage to evoke something, the image is meaningless. A flatworm is not chaste. It reproduces asexually. Had to look up “epalpibrate,” which evidently means roughly lacking eyebrows or eyelids. So, Dr. Busk is dressed like a prudish gray worm, without eyelids or eyebrows, yet ready for battle. Worms and those without eyelids are not notoriously good in battle. And why would a woman in a chaste, worm-gray suit sans eyebrows need to be mounted on anything? None of this makes an ounce of visual or metaphorical sense and all those five cent words were written to be impressive, not to convey an image or an idea.

And again, let me say that the narrator telling us all this is Louis and we are meant to have some sort of sympathy for him. Initially I wondered if perhaps I was meant to loathe Louis, but at the end of the book, there was a scene that gave Louis some humanity, a pitiful scene that would have emphasized a gain of humility for a pompous man, but Louis is beyond pompous. He is despicably obtuse and when he falls, I felt nothing. I have no idea what Disch was going for here. The only way for the ending to have strength, we needed a protagonist whom at the very least did not alienate us. Because of who Louis is, the ending, which should have been a saddening, horrible look at a smart man on his knees, physically and mentally spent, is rendered powerless. That’s a dirty shame because in all this verbal showing-off, an interesting plot and many questions of medical and judicial ethics get lost. The only point that gets driven home over and over is how useless genius so often can be and I knew this before I read this book.

In the event that anyone is left wondering if I recommend this book, the answer is no. But let me leave with this final quote from the book:

“Oh dear, oh dear. They’re very late. Are you good with riddles? Why did the hyperdulia pray to the Pia Mater?”

“Why is a raven like a writing desk?” I mumbled, beginning to be annoyed with my guest.

I can’t think of a better summation of this novel. A pointless riddle with no answer – you could take some time and try find answers to why this novel had to be so obtuse, and like Lewis Carroll’s desk riddle, come up with all kinds of answers when there really isn’t one, at least not one intended by the author. Just verbal burlesque, forcing the reader to jump through hoops for no reward beyond the knowledge that you will at least know the meaning of the word “epalipibrate” when you are finished with this book.

Disch seems to have had a dedicated following and I perused his LiveJournal, especially the entries before he died at his own hand, and saw little of the preening one sees in this book. Was this book a juvenile offering, the sort of book an intelligent young man writes before he takes his intellect in hand and creates art instead of impressive words? I am unsure but I always give writers two chances before I declare them off my reading list. If you’ve read Disch and like him, feel free to recommend another of his books for me to try. But if you are unfamiliar with Disch, I suggest you give this book a miss, despite the admiration this book seems to have in the sci-fi community.

Songs for the Missing by Stewart O’Nan

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Songs for the Missing

Author: Stewart O’Nan

Why Did I Read This Book: Because I loved O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster, as well as his book, The Night Country.

Availability: Published by Penguin Books in 2008, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I love Stewart O’Nan’s writing. I admit that no matter what, O’Nan will have a special place in my book-heart because of his book, The Night Country. I read it the first time in October of 2008, during a time when I was completely crazy, made mad from drugs given to me for a misdiagnosed condition. I was hearing voices in my head and the book had a specific message for me that I don’t know if I could explain now that I am sane, relatively speaking. I reread it in October 2009 and it was a completely different book for me yet still so amazing that I suspect that I will read it again and again every October. I probably won’t ever discuss it here because when a book is that special, you don’t really feel the need to discuss it with anyone and you certainly can’t countenance anyone saying, “Well, it was… okay, I guess.” Special books for me need to remain undiscussed even as I recommend everyone read the book and the author.

So with that disclaimer out of the way, it’s clear I am an unabashed fan of O’Nan’s writing. Yet I pride myself on my brutal honesty when I discuss books. So it has to be said that Songs for the Missing didn’t hit my love meter the way O’Nan’s other books have. There are many reasons for this and the one that is clearest for me is that the one character I related to the most went missing. Simple as that. As enjoyable as this book was to read in parts, I did not ever have a deep connection to any of the characters in the book. Despite the fact that I think this is a good-enough book, putting it heads above many other books I have read recently, I wanted to loved it and couldn’t.

Songs for the Missing begins with Kim Larsen as she hangs out with her friends and prepares to leave for college. She goes to the lake with her friends one afternoon and leaves to make her shift at a convenience store and is never seen again. The book deals with how her friends, boyfriend, mother, father and sister deal with her disappearance. The police investigation, what to tell the police and what not to tell them, the pleas to the media, the desperate fight to keep Kim relevant in the news as her case grows colder and colder. I suspect the latter was another reason why I did not love this book as much as I wanted to love it: O’Nan replicates all too well the frustration, lingering desperation and, frankly, boredom that goes along with a loved one going missing. The crushing work, the tiresome waiting, the complete lack of resolution for years are hard to make interesting.

Still, despite the fact that this book at times fell flat with me, O’Nan still does an amazing job of doing what he does best: showing the tangled complexities of human relationships. He does this best with Lindsay, Kim’s younger sister, a girl very different than her athletic, engaging, missing sister. Shy, bookish, awkward, Kim’s disappearance causes Lindsay discomfort above and beyond the obvious. Lindsay is suddenly on display, her every action subject to a scrutiny that makes retreating into the safety of her room a guilt-laden experience.

It was always the problem: without Kim she would be free to be her own person, but she would also be picked on or ignored because that person was weak.

In bed, with the light out, she resolved to be strong tomorrow, as if she could pay her back that way. “If it was you,” her father has said, “do you think Kim would just be sitting in her room?” From now on, she would do whatever she had to, whatever she could. For once Linsday would save her.

You want to throttle her father for saying that to her, for laying a trip like that on her, but he is just as clueless as Lindsay is. All he knows is that his eldest teen daughter is missing and her sister is hiding from everyone, creating a problem. There is nothing he can do, there is nothing Lindsay can so, and the reader knows it in a way that anyone actually experiencing this sort of situation cannot. And that frustration should have made me engage more with this book than I did but it didn’t. This frustration was not a tension one sees in a well plotted mystery but rather the boredom one feels when one is treading water.

The book is filled with awkwardness. A mother engaging experts in keeping a missing child in the media and selecting “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as the song for people to request on the radio, a song her missing daughter would have loathed. A haggard father spending weeks searching in the place where his daughter’s car is found, never sleeping. A family gathering with an elderly grandmother in a nursing home. Friends keeping information to themselves about Kim’s ties to a drug dealer. Lindsay developing a crush on her missing sister’s boyfriend. A family developing a sense of normalcy only to have the rug yanked out from under them. Yet through all this expert telling of the intensity and complexity of human emotion, there was sense of something missing, a golden cord to hold it all together. It seems very on the nose, a book about the missing that is missing something, but there you are.

But there were some definable moments wherein I did not like the content, moments I can put my finger on. O’Nan gets pop culture wrong in this book. I marvel at how he handles blue collar and working class culture but elements of this particular book seemed yanked from a hazy 1970s memory of youth, not a youth of five or even ten years ago. It’s hard to explain but the sense of being in a completely different time is there. The passages of Kim interacting with her friends just did not ring true. Worse, it is hard to tell if the cultural misconceptions that O’Nan puts out there were meant to serve as an example of the chasm between a character’s sense and reality. Take this, for example, when Kim’s mother is telling a police officer yet again about the clothes Kim was wearing when she went missing:

He asked twice about her shirt, a baby blue Old Navy tee she’d bought for herself. Fran remembered saying she could buy a lifetime supply at Wal-Mart for that, and Kim giving her a put-upon look – sensible, out-of-touch Mom.

I have no idea who is wrong here: Fran or O’Nan. Yes, mothers say dumb things like that but Fran seems clear that she thinks an Old Navy t-shirt is quite expensive. It seems as if Fran saw the price tag and seems to think that Kim spent an arm and a leg on a t-shirt at a notoriously cheap place to buy clothes. But nothing from Old Navy is that expensive compared to clothing from WalMart and I walked away from this scene having no idea what it was O’Nan wanted me to know about Fran. I mostly took away that O’Nan is himself unaware of what some things must cost. There are far too many moments like this wherein I read chunks of information and have no idea what I was meant to understand about the characters involved.

I think this novel failed for me so profoundly because, in a sense, O’Nan created too well the tedium, the long, boring horror that comes along with searching for the missing, but also because the most interesting person in the book is removed from the picture. The story of friends moving on after Kim disappears, of how her family copes, simply isn’t interesting. Kim’s complex nature makes a caricature out of her awkward sister, underachiever boyfriend, over-involved mother. You want more of Kim and you can’t have her. I remember how much I loved being in Manny’s industrious and conflicted mind in Last Night at the Lobster and how haunted I was by tortured Tim in The Night Country and I never developed that connected feeling reading this book. It was… just not as fine as O’Nan’s other books.

It feels odd to have good book disappoint me. I can’t wholly recommend this book but I can say you could definitely and probably will read worse than this novel. But I don’t sense this book will be an annual book for me, one I reread when the season is right.

The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: The Monster of Florence: A True Story

Authors: Douglas Preston and Mario Spezi

Why Did I Read This Book: I have a deep love of the true crime genre. The Monster of Florence serial killings were unknown to me before this book and Amazon also had a copy on sale. So, how could I resist.

Availability: Published in 2008 by Hachette Book Group, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Like I said above, I love accounts of true crime. I also love accounts of miscarriages of justice combined with a healthy dose of vindication. I knew this book was the former when I ordered it but had no idea it was the latter. This book proved an absorbing, infuriating read, all the more because I am a person who takes a keen interest in topics like the belief systems that cause Satanic Panics as well as conspiracies. Most books on those topics get reviewed over on my other site but this book was not an odd book, despite the presence of a decades-long Satanic Panic combined with a pretty profound judicial conspiracy. The line between odd and non-odd is completely arbitrary, I think, but I review this book here mostly because I can see the average person reading this book and finding it very interesting.

There is much to discuss in this book, and strangely, the actual killings, for me, took backseat to the drama that unfolds as Douglas Preston gets sucked not only into telling the tale of the Monster of Florence, but into suspicion of having a role in the supposed conspiracy of Satanists who killed couples along the Florence countryside. The eight killings began in 1968 and ended in 1985. They all involved the killings of couples, most of whom had gone to a wood-like area to park and have sex. The male was generally shot first and the woman shot and/or stabbed, and in five cases, the woman was also mutilated sexually. The cases bear a superficial similarity to the Son of Sam killings in the US, and to my admittedly unexpert eye, the first incident and the last seem very much like they were not done by the same person who committed the other murders because they deviated in some manner from the killer’s MO.

In the course of investigating and then prosecuting men for this crime, the authorities could not have done a worse job had they tried. The first man convicted of the killings, a thoroughly unpleasant man to be sure, eventually had the case against him overturned and was set free by the Italian courts. One Italian police officer even believes evidence was planted to try to prove the case against the innocent man. Though all evidence seems to point to a Sardinian man, whose wife was one of the first victims, the Florence police decided to dive head first off the deep end.

Enter Douglas Preston, American author of popular thrillers, who arrived in Italy to write a book and ended up friends with journalist Mario Spezi, a man with a great interest in the Monster of Florence case. Investigating, they came across all sorts of shocking examples of police failure, investigative misconduct and judicial wrong doing, as well as flat out whacked thinking on the part of Chief Inspector Michele Giuttari, who evidently has a firm belief in the fantastic, and Judge Giuliano Mignini, whose continued presence in the Italian court system after his antics in the Monster of Florence case is baffling.

Investigating the Monster of Florence murders, Preston and and Spezi uncovered all kinds of bizarre information. For example, a lone doctor’s suicide was seen by investigators to be a lynch pin in proving a Satanic cult was behind the murders (the doctor fit several different theories – rich Italians killing for a Satanic sect, a doctor has to be the killer). That theory involved the doctor’s body being fished out of the water, taken to the morgue, swapped with another body, and the fake body was then buried under the doctor’s name.

On April 6, 2002, with the press standing by, the coffin of Francesco Narducci was exhumed and opened. His body was inside, instantly recognizable after seventeen years. A DNA test confirmed it.

This blow to their theories did not stop… Giuttari and the public minister of Perugia. Even in the lack of a substantiated corpse they found evidence. The body was too recognizable for someone who had spent five days in the water and then another seventeen (sic) in a coffin. Giuttari and Mignini promptly concluded that the real body had been substituted again. That’s right –Narducci’s real body, hidden for seventeen years, had been put back in the coffin and the other body removed because the conspirators knew ahead of time that the exhumation was coming.

Then comes Gabriella Carlizzi, a conspiratologist whose ravings make my local hero Alex Jones seem like a rational person of restraint in comparison (a search for Carlizzi’s pro-Satanic Panic blog was of little help but I did find an Italian page that claims she died on August 11, 2010 – I have no idea if this is true). Carlizzi’s theories of Satanic murder, the swapping of the doctor’s body and even more insane theories influenced Giuttari and Mignini, eventually leading to Preston and Spezi finding themselves suspects in the decades-long murders. People warned Preston that Carlizzi was a dangerous person but to those who have dealt with people who are true believers in conspiracy, just the time suck alone of dealing with such people is enough to cause us to want to avoid them. Preston exchanged many e-mails with Carlizzi until he realized his folly and even when he was finished with her, his e-mail box remained clogged by her raving missives. Carlizzi’s theories, crackpot though they seem to us, were taken very seriously by some Italian authorities. In fact, she provided many “links” in the case.

…The investigators also had to show that Narducci had a connection to Pacciani [the man inititally convicted as the Monster who was later released]… and the village of San Casciano, where the satanic cult seemed to be centered.

They succeeded in this as well. Gabriella Carlizzi made a statement to the police asserting that Francesco Narducci had been intiated into the Order of the Red Rose by his father, who was trying to resolve certain sexual problems in his son – the same diabolical sect, Carlizzi claimed, active for centuries in Florence and its environs. Police and prosecutors seemed to accept Carlizzi’s statements as solid, actionable evidence.

Giuttari had no problem rounding up the town drunks and prostitutes and even a man described as a village idiot and having them recite patently untrue information in order to seek convictions. He never seemed at a loss to find people willing to say whatever it was he needed to be said, using the same people over and over, each time molding their testimony to his ends.

As if on cue, Giuttari and his GIDES squad produced witnesses swearing to have seen Francesco Narducci hanging around San Casciano… It took a while for the identities of these new witnesses to come out. When Spezi first heard the names, he thought it was a bad joke: they were the same… witnesses who had been the surprise witnesses at Pacciani’s appeal so many years before…

The three witnesses had earth-shaking new information to impart, which all of them had forgotten to mention eight years earlier when they had first stunned Italy with their extraordinary testimony.

Giuttari was quite unorthodox in his approach to using evidence to solve crimes. In his eyes, a simple doorstop became “an esoteric object used to communicate between this world and the infernal regions.” He fully embraced the theory that powerful people were behind the Satanic conspiracy to kill. Why would these people kill couples and mutilate dying women? Giuttari’s theory was that a

shadowy cabal of wealthy and powerful people, seemingly beyond reproach, who occupied the highest positions in society, business, law and medicine, had hired Pacciani, Vanni and Lotti to kill people in order to obtain the sex organs of girls for use as the obscene, blasphemous “wafer” in their Black Masses.

How all of this came to pass, all this blaming innocent citizens, so many trials and retrials, the willingness to believe in the unbelievable was summed up by an Italian nobleman who was at one point himself accused by some of being the killer:

“In Italy, the hatred of your enemy is such that he has to be built up, made into the ultimate adversary, responsible for all evil. The investigators in the Monster case know that behind the simple facts hides a satanic cult, its tentacles reaching into the highest levels of society. This is what they will prove, no matter what. Woe to the person… who disputes their theory because that makes him an accomplice. The more vehemently he denies being involved, the stronger is the proof.”

And this is exactly what happened. Preston himself has what is essentially a warrant for his arrest should he ever reenter Italy and Spezi himself was arrested and held without communication for days until saner heads prevailed and he was released. Spezi’s appearance on television and numerous articles he wrote examining the deficiencies of the investigation put him squarely in Giuttari’s cross-hairs. In a search of Spezi’s home, Spezi became angry and mocked the police, showing them his own doorstop, identical to the one that Giuttari had considered an occult object. That doorstop gave Giuttari what he considered physical evidence to link Spezi to one of the murder scenes, resulting eventually in Spezi’s arrest. Judges reviewed the evidence and eventually released Spezi but not before his life was completely upturned.

The final trial in this book ended after the book was published, but Giuttari and Mignini’s Satanic killer was acquitted. And so much of this stemmed from the outrageous claims of a demented woman running a website (her claims about the 9/11 attacks are… interesting.)

If that seems like a hopelessly backward idea, us Yanks need to recall that the Satanic Panic plagued us for years and in some places never went away. The trial of the West Memphis Three was no less filled with lies, misinformation and desperate attempts by law enforcement and the judiciary to spin a wild tale of Satanism to solve a case when the real murderer was far more prosaic, far more familiar. Crazy ideas are never far from hand and books like this serve as a sober reminded that there is no idea outrageous enough that some police, judges, or jurors will not believe it.

For those who followed the Amanda Knox travesty in Italy, it will come as no surprise that mad theories again tainted the court system – Gabriella Carlizzi thinks there was some sort of Satanic, Masonic ritual the girl was supposedly involved in that led to the sexual murder of her roommate. Worse, Judge Mignini presided over her joke of a trial.

In November 2007, Mignini became involved on another sensational case, that of the brutal murder of a British student, Meredith Kercher, in Perugia. Mignini quickly ordered the arrest of American student, Amanda Knox, whom he suspected of involvement in the murder… It appears from press leaks that Mignini is spinning an improbable theory about Knox and two alleged co-conspirators in a dark plan of extreme sex, violence and rape.

Knox was convicted and is in an Italian prison now.

But the Monster of Florence remains unidentified and only innocent people have been harmed in the bizarre quest for justice.

Though it may seem as if I have spoiled this book, believe me, there is so much more -so very much more – than what I chose to excerpt here. This case is a skein of tangled yarn. And even if you know how it ends, the many knots along the way make for fascinating reading. I highly recommend it. Fans of true crime will love the investigation and those of us who like a conspiracy theory will realize that America is not the only country where people believe truly bizarre things.

Senseless by Stona Fitch

This post originally appeared on I Read Everything

Book: Senseless

Author: Stona Fitch

Type of Book: Fiction

Why Did I Read This Book: I don’t recall exactly but I think it was recommended on the LiveJournal community for disturbing books. I know I had it on my Amazon Wishlist for a while and ordered it one day when an affordable copy became available.

Availability: This book is out of print, but you can find used copies online from independent sellers:

Comments: When I first read this book, I thought it would be an excellent choice for my odd books discussion site. While the violence in this book is at times hard to read, ultimately this was not an odd book. This is not torture porn – it is literary fiction and very good fiction at that. The book is gripping and I read it very quickly. Still, as horrible as the violence was, it did not affect me deeply is because this sort of violence is pedestrian these days, unless it’s happening to you. Extremity of human degradation, the lengths some people are willing to go in order to achieve their ends, and the sense that perhaps those who live lives worthy of shame should be held to pay for their actions are not ideas that are particularly unique or shocking any more. We seem to be offended, at least culturally, when violence is committed against us or those like us, but there is no denying how inured we have become to the idea of retributive violence.

The plot of this book is deceptively simple: An American business man, Elliot Gast, is kidnapped in Belgium by extremists opposed to the European Union. Initially he is treated quite well in captivity, given books to read, plenty of food, and though he is bored and anxious, he is not in fear of his life. Then the black cables are snaked through the ceiling, recording every corner of the room where Gast is kept, recording him for audiences on the Internet. His captors then begin to deprive Gast of his senses, beginning, horribly enough, with his sense of taste. The attacks against him are paced out and one by one, basic things like touch, sound and smell are taken from him via acts of indifferent violence.

The key word for this book is indifference. Though the world around him is aware of his kidnapping, though Gast works every angle in his mind to try and escape his captors, his time in captivity is one of indifference. Not on his part, to be certain – Elliot Gast is filled with pain, terror, desperation and ultimately defiance, but his captors see him as little more than a pawn that can help or harm their cause. Gast initially feels a sort of connection with a doctor and a woman in the group, but even if they felt appalled at his treatment and how broadcasting it on the Internet makes them look, their response is not aimed at freeing Gast, but rather, battling those within their organization. Gast’s experiences at the hands of the terrorist group show that he means nothing to them even when they seemingly are on his side in terms of the abuse he suffers. Being the the clutches of his tormentors turns Gast into a thing. Deprived of most of the senses that allow a man to interact with the world, isolated from all normal human sympathy and concern, Gast is only human in terms of how he continues to perceive himself. To those who have captured him, he is no more than an important doll that bleeds.

The really senseless part of this book was not when Gast lost his senses one by one, not the seeming senselessness of the violence (because this violence did have sense behind it – all too often we confuse savagery with senselessness). The senselessness comes from knowing that all of us, with our habits, thoughts, emotions and quirks, can become that doll that Gast became in the eyes of anyone who considers us The Other and that, I think, is where the power in this book lies. We can become an example. Our suffering, while intense to us, can be depersonalized into a generic message of fear and through our pain and fear, we can become just one more horrific distraction in cyberspace. Maybe there is a message in such violence but chances are, people powerful enough to change the course of political events aren’t going to be the people watching as you forcibly lose your sense of smell.

Suffering in this book is senseless, in that is has little meaning aside from others imprinting their personal agenda on another man’s body.

Of course, Gast’s suffering has meaning to the people who inflict it. One of his torturers tells him:

“To truly change a man, you must take away what is important to him. You must take a rich man’s fortune. You must take a passionate man’s wife. You are a man of the senses, Elliot Gast. So we are eliminating them. By this method we can leave you thoroughly changed. Through your example, we can change thousands.”

This, of course, is not borne out by the events of the book. People are outraged that Gast is being held and tortured but no one is able to find him. No one is able to help him. And no one is changed by watching his suffering aside from the temporary shock one feels when watching atrocity. Written in 2001, this book had no way of knowing we would all one day be able to watch beheadings online as easily as we watch the latest silly cat videos that are part of the current informational memes. Elliot Gast was changed but the rest of the world marched on.

Perhaps the change in Gast is all that is necessary, in the context of the book. Immediately following the above quote, Gast recalls engaging in culinary atrocity. Tiny birds were force-fed buttered grains then drowned in alcohol. The tiny birds were then roasted and eaten, bones intact.

The waiters then draped each of us with a large linen napkin, explaining that these would capture the precious scent of the roasted birds.

“Or to hide your face from God,” our host joked. I looked closely at the tiny bird in my hand, roasted to a golden finish. Dipping the ortolan into a brandy butter reduction, I raised it and saw suddenly the darkened eye of the bird, no bigger than a tiny bead, glistening now with a tear of butter… Perhaps I was paying now for my various excesses…

I wonder if I am wrong, trying to seek a larger meaning behind the permanent damage done to Gast. Perhaps his personal epiphany, connecting the terrible things that happen to him with the suffering he was willing to inflict on tiny birds, on other peoples’ economic well-being, in order to engage in epicurean delight, is enough.

As I read this book, I was unsure if Gast was unreliable, or if I was missing a point because throughout the book, I seemed to understand things that Gast did not.

Although I regretted my role in this terrible game, I had to wonder what the response would be. What would it take to one-up Blackbeard? Ten online hostages? Live execution of innocents? Anything seemed horribly possible.

By the way, Blackbeard is the name Gast gives to his chief tormentor. Did Gast think the economic interests that were pushing the European Union would respond to this atrocity done him with anything other than words, possibly a trial of those who might end up arrested if it came to that? Did he genuinely think this sort of guerrilla violence would be answered, let alone countered? Why would a bank kidnap ten revolutionaries and torture them? Gast does not seem to understand that even though he has had his nostrils soldered, his tongue mutilated, that the terrorists still have little power. While in their hands, they seem like God to him, not the powerless entities they really are in the face of global banking and political systems.

However, Gast never loses site of himself even as he is made senseless. He refuses to cooperate in any manner, fighting as much as he can, refusing to do what his captors ask of him. In order to increase the theater of the torture, his captors want him to scream, to yell in pain, to fight overtly instead of rebel passively. At one point, Blackbeard tells Gast that his Internet pain show is making the terrorist group lots of money, 10% of which will be his if only he will cooperate and scream in pain. Gast, who is clueless in some respects, hopes it is true he will be permitted to leave if he does what is asked of him but doesn’t take such promises to heart. Instead, he hopes he can unmask Blackbeard in front of one of the cameras, revealing his face to the millions Blackbeard says are watching, making him a marked man. Instead of railing against his tormentors when he is left alone, he is resolute – all the ghouls who are watching will get is a man kicking a wall over and over and over. Moreover, it is hard to tell if Blackbeard is taunting Gast, asking him to participate in his own torture, or if Blackbeard genuinely thinks Gast is so craven he would think screaming in agony for a cut of the profits a good deal. In a book about senselessness, it is hard to know which character actually has any sense.

Throughout the book, Gast seems to have a connection with a woman he calls Nin (because her brown eyes remind him of Anaïs Nin, the erotic diarist), and though she seems to have a terrible time reconciling what her group is doing to Gast, Nin’s final actions are in a way the most senseless element in the book. But that is just a knee-jerk reaction. It is only senseless if one is accustomed to the idea that people who are kind always act uniformly and in ways that we can understand. Gast feels deceived, but only a Hollywood ending could have made this turn out any differently.

I wish for all in the world that I could quote the final paragraph in this book but to do so would give too much away and this complex book is one that should not be spoiled. The last line brings to mind Erasmus, whom it certainly comes from, but also Vonnegut, because Gast is changed and the world around him is not. Whether or not his suffering and permanent damage is worth the epiphany he experiences is not a question I am ready to answer. I suspect I will read this book again in a couple of years and see what I think then. If I do, I will also read again Waiting for the Barbarians by Coetzee and think hard about violence and the world. Increasingly I think the message of this book is that the world is there, but all that matters is your personal redemption. But who knows. In a few years I may think differently. This book is largely a character study, but it will make you contemplate violence, the world around you and how it is you could be the criminal in the eyes of another.