The Tao Shoplifting Crisis by Tao Lin and Richard Grayson

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Tao Shoplifting Crisis

Authors: Tao Lin and Richard Grayson

Type of Book: Non-fiction, epistolary

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Tao Lin will always be odd to me.

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

Comments: I love writing for this site, but I think it goes without saying that any online endeavor is going to have a downside. When I wrote my analysis of 2083, the epic-length document by Oslo shooter Anders Behring Breivik, it went mildly viral. The four part discussion, close to 50,000 words of analysis, caught the attention of news sources in Norway and was translated into Norwegian. I experienced praise and pushback, and some of the pushback was upsetting, to put it mildly. But for the most part, even the negativity that came my way was delivered with some modicum of respect, aside from the terminal cases who were outraged that I discussed the woman-hate that I discovered in the document. Even the incoming links from people who disagreed with me, even from virulent racists, simply said I got it wrong, but given that I had read it my take was still worth reading.

Will it surprise anyone that in terms of annoyance and abuse that my discussion of Tao Lin’s execrable novel, the wearying and craptacular Shoplifting from American Apparel, was quite a bit more tiresome than the onslaught of e-mails and comments I received when I discussed one of history’s worst mass murderers? I still get the occasional e-mails from smug readers who insist that a line I used wherein I discussed plunging Lin’s soul was a horrible error and that I am dumb, oh so stupid, for not understanding that. It’s hard to make Lin’s acolytes understand that plunge was a play on plumbing the depths of a soul, as the saying goes. A soul’s depths are plumbed, a toilet is plunged, and I am not the first to engage in that particular word play so all the bafflement, if not assumed, is baffling. But still the e-mails come. October 2012 was the only month wherein I did not receive a plumb/plunge e-mail, though of course the number of messages has died down. And let’s keep it that way!

And yes, I am verbose, a common complaint from Tao Lin fans. Watch my verbosity in action as I use far too many words to discuss this 38 page book!

In addition to the plumb/plunge/too wordy missives, I received a lot of feedback that I can only call bullshit. But given that I hated the book and discussed it in excruciating detail, I understand that I should expect such reactions and that perhaps it is a bit hypocritical for me to consider such feedback bullshit. But then again, this world is big enough in terms of ideas that pro-Lin and anti-Lin can both be bullshit and both be right. I was just mildly surprised by and eventually tired of the lengths to which fans of Lin will go to defend their idol/friend/whatever he is to them.

I tell you these things, dear readers, not to gain pity or to get some sort of ego stroke in the form of protestations that my writing doesn’t suck. I know it doesn’t suck. I have many flaws as a writer but if I felt I was truly a terrible writer, I wouldn’t spend a chunk of my life discussing books. I tell you all of this just so you know that, character for character, discussing Tao Lin will generate more bullshit, insults and nastiness than discussing a mass murderer of children. I find that interesting and, frankly, a little unexpected. For such a passionless book, Shoplifting from American Apparel has a lot of passionate defenders.

I also tell you all of this so as to explain why it is that I waited so long to discuss Richard Grayson’s book. Grayson was kind enough to send it to me after he read my discussion of Lin’s opus and I read it very soon upon receiving it. I had wanted to discuss it but wanted to give myself some breathing room after the stupidity that flowed after my discussion of SfAA. I am disorganized at times, and then 2083 happened, and then some Redditors found me and I received an onslaught of review copies from hopeful writers (one called me “the reviewer of the damned” and I may incorporate that into the site soon). I just lost track of things. But I found my copy of the book again when I transferred everything over to a new computer and realized that I needed to discuss it.

(BTW: Even though I hated the shit out of the book, the director of the movie adaptation of Shoplifting from American Apparel asked me if I wanted to review the movie. Hell yes, was my answer and I will get to that soon. After that I suspect Lin will never be mentioned on this site again, glory hallelujah amen! Well, I say that. I’m sure I’ll read him again should I feel adequate provocation.)

The Tao Shoplifting Crisis is a series of e-mails between Tao Lin and Richard Grayson. Grayson, a writer and activist, is also a lawyer. Tao knew Grayson through common writing circles, and when he was facing a court date as a result of being arrested for, wait for it, shoplifting from American Apparel, he turned to Grayson for help. It is here I need to clear up a couple of things that could upset an ethical reader. At no point did Lin retain Grayson as legal counsel because Grayson was only licensed to practice law in Florida and Grayson repeatedly told him his expertise was not going to be completely helpful and that any advice he could give needed to be followed up with advice from a New York lawyer. For those who may think it skeevey that Grayson published his correspondence with Lin, bear in mind these e-mails occurred in 2007. When Grayson became aware that not only was Lin not keeping his arrest to himself and was, in fact, using his arrests as the premise of a book, and furthermore was using the flyer wherein he was banned from a specific store for his shoplifting for promotional purposes, Grayson no longer felt as if Tao’s arrests were anything he needed to keep quiet.

Sleeping Beauty III by Stanley R. Burns, M.D.

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Sleeping Beauty III, Memorial Photography: The Children

Author: From the Stanley Burns Archive

Type of Book: Non-fiction, photography, death photography, funerary customs

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Pictures of dead children will always be a bit odd.

Availability: Released by The Burns Archive in 2011, you can get a copy on Amazon here:

But I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in the macabre photography from the Burns Archive go directly to them. Sometimes you can get the books far cheaper if you buy directly from the press itself. Not always, but compare before you buy. As much as I like the kickbacks I get when y’all buy stuff using my Amazon Affiliate link, sometimes one can get a new Burns Archive book for literally hundreds less on the Burns Archive site than buying it from a third party vendor on other book sites.

Comments: I’d intended to discuss this book long ago but I put it up on display with a piece of art that Mr. Oddbooks bought me. Once something is on a stand behind glass, I am loathe to mess with it too much. However, I recently started using some software to analyze the traffic to this site and noticed a lot of traffic coming from searches about death photography. Then, shockingly, I noticed some hits coming from Pintrest. You know, the site wherein people share pictures of cake, high heels and celebrities with cats. Never thought death photography would be an interest on such a fluffy site, and for some reason, discovering that fact encouraged me to get my book off the stand and discuss it. Actually, I have several Burns Archive books on creepy topics that I should discuss here.

For now, I’m going to discuss Sleeping Beauty III. This book is much smaller in size than Sleeping Beauty I and II, almost appropriately because this volume deals with children exclusively. Sleeping Beauty III has 125 pictures from the 1840s to present time, and spans several cultures. Though the book is definitely Western-centric, and truly most death photography is of white people, this book contains some pictures from other cultures.

A lot of people find memorial photography morbid – if you stumble across a Facebook account where death photography is discussed or reproduced, the comments range from an appreciation of the history to people thinking the parents long ago were insane or that the whole thing in general is somehow morally wrong or gross. “Ewww! Why would anyone want to take a picture of a dead person?” As much as I dislike it when people react to these pictures from a strictly modern sensibility or a squeamish quasi-morality, I often have a hard time explaining why it is such images appeal to me. Burns does his best to explain why these images may seem so jarring:

It is difficult for most of us today to understand the prior culture’s need to take memorial photographs. We no longer live with personal death and dying as part of our everyday lives. By the 1930s, dealing with death had been left to professionals ranging from physicians to morticians. The advance of medicine, control of killer epidemics, the ability to treat disease, and the removal of the sick from the home made us unaccustomed to living with and seeing death. Children dying before parents, something so common in the nineteenth century, has become unusual in the twentieth century.

He goes on:

Memorial postmortem photographs have deep meaning for mourners. These keepsakes become special icons that help survivors move through the bereavement process. Healthy grieving ultimately distances us from the dead. The human bond, our connection with others, is mankind’s strongest guiding emotion and thus influences our fears and actions. These images represent confrontation with our loved one’s mortality and our own.

I would like to think this fear of death that these images can provoke is behind the “Yuck!” reactions people sometimes express.

I often have a hard time discussing death photography because I relate to these images on an emotional level. While the appeal of the Burns Archive collection tends towards the visceral response, Burns offers useful information in the book to give context and history behind the photographs. I find the best way to discuss this little book is to reproduce a few pictures from it and quote the information that Burns provides to help us put these pictures into an historical context.

Reading postmortem photography comes with understanding the culture of death in a given era. Today it is traditional to close the eyes of the dead. But in the past, when a memorial photograph was taken, families frequently requested, especially for children, that the eyes be open. This was particularly the case for children who had never been photographed when they were alive. A second, eyes-closed photograph with changed pose would signal the memorial photograph. Photographs that depict the dead child in some sort of activity as if alive are considered “posthumous mourning portraits.”

This picture is haunting. It looks to me like his eyes may have been painted on the print to make them look open. The symbolism of this little boy at death’s door really isn’t symbolism. He’s dead and gone, and his eyes don’t give this picture any ambiguity.

Most Outrageous by Bob Levin

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Most Outrageous: The Trials and Trespasses of Dwaine Tinsley and Chester the Molester

Author: Bob Levin

Type of Book: Non-fiction, biography, pornography, constitutional issues

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It may not be full-bore odd in the way that many of the books I discuss here often are, but it’s unsettling and at the end of the book I had more questions than I did at the beginning. This book also dovetailed neatly with some of the work I am doing preparing for upcoming Jim Goad/”Rape Me” discussion, so discussing this is a warm up for what is to come. So the book may not be odd, per se, but it’s worth discussing here because I say so.

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

Comments: Pornography as a whole doesn’t bother me. I’ve read every argument for and against it and ,all in all, the Red in me says all work is exploitation. Some of us get exploited more than others. Pornography is an ugly business, uglier than most, but it serves a purpose and I can’t look at anyone who makes or performs in pornography as being a victim. At least not in every circumstance. I sure know a few hundred dollars a scene or for a set of photographs, on the victim-scale, sure beats the hell out of working for minimum wage in retail or scrubbing toilets. People may say the latter work permits workers to have more pride but sentimental ideals like that are worth very little when you cannot pay your bills.

Whether or not opponents of pornography like it, pornography that involves consenting adults (within the legal limits of federal and state law) is protected under the First Amendment. Pornographic depictions in the form of drawings are far more lenient, as in the USA it is still legal to draw children in pornographic situations. Even if we loathe it, we have to tolerate it if we want to live in a free society. But it’s important to note that a free society is not always a healthy society. That’s where Dwaine Tinsley comes in.

If you aren’t familiar with the “Chester the Molester” cartoons that used to appear in Hustler, I tend to think you are a lucky person. I admit that my truly negative opinion of the cartoons are probably coloring this discussion, but I also am struggling to approach this with an even hand. That struggle is helped greatly by Levin’s book, because though I knew of “Chester the Molester,” I knew nothing of the man who had created the cartoons.

Dwaine Tinsley was born poor white trash and had an upbringing that was less Dickensian than straight out of an Erskine Caldwell novel. Throughout his life, he had an affection for plump women, marrying a couple of them, and eventually he made a decent life for himself as a cartoonist. His daughter from one of his earlier relationships moved to live with him and his new family when she began to have problems at home with her mother and, from all accounts, Dwaine and his wife did their best to give his daughter, called “Veronica” in the book, a nice life with some basic household rules.

But when “Veronica” began dating a man whom her father and stepmother disliked, a man who apparently got her hooked on cocaine, she began to make allegations that Tinsley had molested her. Her accusations came during the time when incestuous abuse of children was becoming a very big topic in mainstream society, from movies like Something About Amelia to talk shows with an array of people who had increasingly unbelievable stories about abuse. Tinsley went to trial for molesting his daughter and was convicted, supposedly, on the merits of some taped phone calls he had with “Veronica.” The transcription of those phone calls, when read dispassionately, are devastating to Tinsley’s denial that he did not molest his daughter. Those calls can also be open to interpretation, as a man who knows his daughter is troubled and is refusing to enter into another tiresome, interminable discussion about something that never happened.

But it’s also very much a possibility that Dwaine Tinsley went to prison because his daughter was urged by a boyfriend to blackmail her father. But mostly he went to prison because he was the creator of “Chester the Molester.”

Seriously, if you found out that the artist behind a cartoon wherein disgusting old men stalk and sexually interfere with children, mostly little girls, was accused of raping his daughter, would you even be surprised? Would you shrug and think, “Stands to reason that a man who would draw such cartoons might actually harbor salacious feelings toward children?” Is it even possible that a man who drew such a cartoon could get a fair trial if his work was invoked as proof of his overall degeneracy?

That’s why I am discussing this book here, even though it’s not so odd. It’s because it’s a hard book. Tinsley comes across as a sympathetic man. Levin does an excellent job of showing Tinsley as a man with a good work ethic, a sort of working class hero who made good after a crappy childhood, overcoming the limitations that are often part and parcel of being a “son of the soil.” But he’s also a man who drew some of the most vile cartoons, cartoons that in most cases were utterly devoid of irony (and often humor) because he claimed he was satirizing and lampooning the behaviors of pedophiles. That made me uneasy. And that sucks on my part because a man’s crappy attempts to create valid social satire is not proof positive that he has the urge to rape a child.

To make matters worse is the picture that Levin chose to lead off the book. In this picture, a pretty young woman is sitting on a low wall of some sort. She has her legs spread and Tinsley is leaning back against her, his ass level with her crotch. He is smoking a cigarette and she has her arms wrapped around his neck. I assumed it was a picture of Tinsley with one of his wives or a girlfriend. Of course, later I learned that the “Veronica” in the picture was Tinsley’s daughter. Without any signifiers of who the girl was when I first looked at the picture, I would never have thought the picture was of a father and his daughter. It was creepy and unsettling when I realized the relationship between the two people in the picture.

And that’s dangerous, isn’t it? Lots of families express themselves in ways that I may find odd but are not engaging in incestuous or even unhealthy behaviors. What can one really tell from one photograph? What can one tell from a photograph when the father inks “Chester the Molester?” And why would any man want to ink a cartoon like “Chester the Molester?”  

In the Realms of the Unreal, edited by John G. H. Oakes

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: In the Realms of the Unreal: “Insane Writings”

Editor: John G. H. Oakes

Type of Book: Non-fiction, collection, mental illness, outsider literature

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It studies the writings of people diagnosed with mental illness, including people with schizophrenia and people who spent their lifetime in mental institutions.  It sort of approaches being an “outsider” literature collection.

Availability: Published by Four Walls Eight Windows in 1991, you can get a copy here:

Comments:  It’s no secret that I am a sucker for books about mental illness.  Though many of the books I read are never discussed here, you could get a taste of my mental health reading habits on my dead site, I Read Everything.  As a person who struggles with a relatively mild mental condition (mild in the spectrum – it sucks, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nothing akin to having schizophrenia or bi-polar), I find reading about the illnesses of others illuminating and instructive.  But this book was important to me because it features work by Henry Darger.  The book takes its name from Darger’s work, and features a long sample of his work.  I’m in a Darger mood lately, collecting books about him, reading about him, watching the documentary about him over and over, so it was great when my sister-in-law sent me this book for Yule.

But along with my tendency to want to read about mental illness is my tendency to gather up lists of books I am interested in without knowing a whole lot about the books.  I couldn’t begin to tell you my decision calculus for obtaining a book, because it’s immediate, mercurial and often very shallow.  I sort of approach books the way a kid approaches candy.  I see some chocolate gum and think, “Hey, I like chocolate and gum, so let’s try it.”  And of course it sucks.   This book is not an utter failure, like chocolate gum.  It’s more like a delicious Belgian chocolate with a bitter licorice center.  This book is very interesting on some levels, but at it’s core, the book fails.  In spite of this, this is going to be a very long discussion because even as the book fails at its premise – an attempt to present the works of insane writers without comment – there are elements that are interesting and good enough that they, temporarily at least, overshadow the failure of the premise.  There are snippets of writing from genuinely mentally ill people that resonated with me deeply or troubled me, and the inclusion of two writers who were not really insane, Henry Darger and Mary MacLane, improved the reading experience.

So let me get to the premise problems that harm this collection.  In the Realms of the Unreal is a collection of various writings from people who, in some loose sense, fit the description of being “insane.” Sort of. The writings range from poems to involved works of fiction to intense biographies to snippets of what can only be called word salad. And when you have such a range of works under the heading of “insane writings,” it can make you wonder what the methodology of this book was. In the Editor’s Preface, it sort of explained things, but at the same time, it makes it clear that there really was no methodology beyond what the editors had access to within their parameters of unusual behavior.

From the editorial preface, an attempt is made to explain that insane means a lot of things and that their primary goal was to include a variety of writings, knowing full well some may not pass the sniff-test for true insanity.

An effort was made to include a wide variety of authors: living and dead, free and institutionalized, foreign and American, contemporary and antique.

But even within that paradigm, the editors give themselves a lot of wiggle room. They exclude the works of more famous “insane people,” like Antonin Artaud, because they made a living from their writing, but include Mary MacLane, whose writings were widely popular when they were initially published.  It’s also odd because MacLane was definitely not insane, period, and the explanation for her inclusion is odd.

…MacLane’s work was never accepted into the literary canon. She had the double strike against her of being a woman and an eccentric during a period when society was particularly unforgiving.

The editors also have to explain their inclusion of Henry Darger:

We were looking for unusual poems and stories, often by people who had been or were currently institutionalized – although someone like Henry Darger (whose epic text lent its title to this volume) to our knowledge was never treated for “mental illness.” The amount of material produced by these unusual thinkers has greatly diminished in the modern era, principally because of the use of psychiatric drugs that often dull creativity, even as they help a patient adjust to life in conventional society.

I don’t know what to think of that statement about drugs dulling creativity because in my experience it is definitely untrue and it is often the mantra that so often prevents people who need help from getting it, but okay, let’s just roll with it for the purposes of this book.   And as we roll with it, let’s just accept that “insanity,” for the purposes of this book, is whatever the editors decided it is.

But there is another problem with this collection.  Again, from the editor’s preface:

No common theme to the book should readily emerge. To again borrow a phrase of Roger Cardinal’s, we are exploring an archipelago of ideas, rather than a continent.
These writings are not presented as clues to someone’s “illness”: they are published for their intrinsic worth.

This approach is problematic.  Writings of genuinely insane people are chaotic at best.  Without a common theme or at least an attempt to classify these writings, the reader is confronted with a wall of illness-influenced words that become amorphous and meaningless without context.  The only divisions in the book are institutional and chronological, which is sort of helpful because one can almost see how anti-psychotic medications changed how mentally ill people interacted with their disease, but even that is not enough to give this work the sort of focus that prevents these works from becoming an assault on even readers who seek out this sort of literature.

Finally, I find the notion that “they are published for their intrinsic worth” to be utterly specious.  Much of the work in this book is not good, and failure to link the work to the illness that may have fueled its creation, in my opinion, strips the works of their worth.  To say that all of these pieces from the insane have intrinsic worth just because they were written by insane people is akin to saying that all diary entries from teenagers have intrinsic worth because they are from teenagers, or that all poems written by people in wheelchairs have intrinsic value because they were written by people in wheelchairs.  It is disingenuous to compile  a book of writings selected not because they were well-written but because they are the works of the “insane” and then tell the reader that one should not look at these works using a framework of insanity.

What other framework can the reader use to determine value?  Most of this book is not genius borne from madness.  It’s just madness.  With the exception of a handful of writers, including Darger and Mary MacLane, these are not the works of natural writers.   These are the works of people with a specific story to tell – the story of being mentally ill.  There is no way to evaluate these writings without discussing the illness and experience of illness that inspired the writing in the first place.  I think culturally we need to understand that 20 years ago, the liberal idea of colorblindness and being “handicapable” were in full swing.  One was not supposed to see color, race, religion, disability or illness.  One was just supposed to see people (leading to the now derided and utterly ridiculous insistence that black, white, pink, or purple, liberals don’t see color, just people).  It’s easy to understand this approach to egalitarianism but such an approach denies the experiences of specific people as we deliberately refuse to see the things that define another person’s experience in this world.

So now that you know that this is an unorganized collection of works from people that may be insane or may not be insane, that the works are not necessarily going to be good, and that I plan to completely ignore the exhortation that we overlook the insanity that may have fueled these writings, let’s discuss the individual components that made this book worth reading. 

Swimming Underground by Mary Woronov

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Swimming Underground: My Years in the Warhol Factory

Author: Mary Woronov

Type of Book:
Non-fiction, memoir

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: There is nothing particularly odd about Andy Warhol, but the majority of the people who made up the Factory are very interesting and quite strange. Add to this that Woronov’s prose is unusual (in a glorious way), and this book just had to be discussed here.

Availability: My copy was published by Journey Editions in 1995. Other editions are available, and you can get a copy here:

Comments: I read Ultra Violet’s Famous For 15 Minutes just after finishing Woronov’s book, and I think the comparison between the two made me understand that Woronov’s book was odd. Ultra Violet was a conventional woman drawn to unusual people, and her memoir, while interesting, makes it clear that her scene was far more interesting than she was. Though if I think about it, I should not be too hard on her – better than anyone else I have read, she seems to understand why Valerie Solanas just needed to shoot Warhol.

Woronov, however, outshines those around her in the Factory. She writes with an icy fire, a remarkable combination that seems to encapsulate who she was at the time (and may well still be – aside from knowing her work as the principal in Rock N’ Roll High School and the female lead in Eating Raoul, I know little about her beyond this book). Her tale is not just a perfect capture of a moment in history, but it is the odd tale of an odd woman with an odd mind. Oh, I have such a girl crush on Woronov now and intend to read everything she has written and see every movie she has been in.

Before I begin, I have to admit that I’m not a Warhol fan. I don’t condemn those who love him, but I find him tiresome. He was an amazing parasite who convinced his hosts that it was beneficial to them that he consume them and give little back. When they finally objected to him leeching them dry, he finished his hosts off and yet people find it easy to remember him fondly. Clearly he must have been very good at it because he attracted such a collection of genuinely talented people while making mass market prints of soup cans. Not to say the man was not a marketing genius but he was no artistic genius, though these days one is hard pressed to tell the difference between the two. In that regard he definitely was a visionary. But let it not go without saying that I am not a fan. I find the people he surrounded himself with infinitely more interesting than the man himself.

Woronov’s tale of her time in the Factory is a sharp slice of a tin-foil covered history. An intense woman, she seemed naively charmless, and that, of course, was her charm. She “whip danced” with Gerard Malanga, performing with the Velvet Underground in the early Warhol presentation called the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. Also, she was in the only movie Warhol made that does not make me fall into a boredom-rage-sleep, Chelsea Girls (though I have to admit I saw it so long ago that I don’t remember much except reacting in surprise that no one stabbed Brigid “Polk” Berlin). She paints a picture of herself as a cold, imperious young woman, sexually aloof even while engaging in provocative dancing with whips, under pulsing lights. But even as beautiful, aloof and talented as she was, she was not immune from the mercurial, nasty nature of Warhol.  In many ways, her story was probably the same story of many of the women involved in the Factory.

The book begins with a young Mary being saved from drowning. During a day at the beach, Mary and her mother swam out too far and hit a riptide. Mary was sure she was going to drown but her mother somehow saved the day. Back on the beach, drained from the experience, Mary has a surprising revelation:

I started shaking. I just couldn’t stop no matter how many blankets they gave me, but Mom, she was happy again, her body glistening white against the fallen night. It was like old times – people fussing over her, me feeling pathetic, worried over nothing. I hated it. Every time she looked back at me huddled in my blankets, that strange smile would curve her lips, her eyes would glitter again, and my gratitude at being alive shriveled. She knew what she was doing all along. She had done it before, swimming out too far, scaring people so they paid attention to her, and now letting me swim into a riptide so she could save me. I hated her.

This isn’t just angst. It’s foreshadowing. I seems a perfect encapsulation of the Warhol experience for many people.

Woronov’s brain is a crispy, knife-edged place and this is a very bestial, feral book.

There is Violet, my dog – my violent temper – the kind of thing you get a reputation for, and I must also confess to being the abused owner of a rage rat. This rodent is a voice in my head that never shuts up. I don’t know how I acquired it. I suppose it was given to me at an early age by some malicious adult, or perhaps every head comes equipped with one – you know, the “rodent included” plan. I’ve already packed these two in their traveling boxes; others are too prehistoric to catch, nobody would want to go into the black waters where they live. And there are also animals I don’t want to catch; rather I’m afraid of them catching me, like coyotes that carry insanity like a plague. I’m afraid they will find out where I’m going and follow me. Every time I find a new animal, like my party squirrel or my comedy crow, I give it a cage and a feeding schedule. And of course there are the rabbits – little habits that I’ve stuffed into every possible space in my suitcase – habits of speed, junk, pills, and any other poison I can get my hands on.

Either this passage grabbed you with both fists and shook you a bit and you need no explanation as to why I found this so amazing, or it meant nothing and any explanations would be meaningless.

Jim Goad’s Gigantic Book of Sex

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Jim Goad’s Gigantic Book of Sex

Author: Jim Goad

Type of Book: Non-fiction, parody, humor, human sexuality

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: There are some writers whose body of work points towards odd, even if they occasionally produce work that would appeal to the average reader. Jim Goad is one of those authors.

Availability: Published in 2007 by Feral House, you can get a copy here:

Comments: This discussion is the stretching I need to do before I attempt the marathon that will be my discussion of the compilation of Jim Goad’s Answer Me!, plus a pdf of the infamous “Rape Issue,” which Goad was kind enough to send me. And it will be a pleasant stretch because I found this collection of Goad’s articles over the years to be interesting, amusing and at times, strangely touching. It’s always a good trip when someone invites you into his or her id, albeit sprinkled with mini hoaxes along the way.

There is no way to discuss all of these articles covering almost every aspect of human sexuality unless I really abused the good nature of every person who reads here, which means there is a chance I will not discuss your favorite article and you will think me an asshole. I’m just discussing the ones that stood out for me in some manner or other. Sorry about that, but please be sure to share your perspectives in the comments.

Goad, because he is a man largely misunderstood by liberal audiences and one of those writers about whom people form opinions without ever reading a word he has written, stands in a unique spot. He’s a scoundrel to some and as a result, everything he writes is seen as a real attempt to harm. But he’s also such a good writer that if one does not know who he is, he can make a simple person think that children direct porn and that pugs survive gang bangs. Part of me wants to call such people idiots but I can’t because I personally know folks who were certain Bonsai Kitty was for real and they aren’t completely without merit. But it is a unique place for Goad to occupy – a man seen as a monster by some extreme feminists who can still plug into moral outrage and provoke panic in even the most over-the-top articles. It’s a talent, to be sure. Believe me, there have been times I would love to fuck with people’s minds but I lack the dedication. Or the talent.

On the cover of this compilation, Goad separates this book into “Fake,” “Real,” “Opinion” and “Personal” and I will just follow that handy separation as I discuss the articles that stood out the most for me.

The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Strange Case of Edward Gorey

Author: Alexander Theroux

Type of Book: Non-fiction, biography, utter pants

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because it is a biography (ostensibly) about odd-icon, Edward Gorey.

Availability: Published by Fantagraphic Books in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: As biographies go, I guess you could say this is one. But if you love a good biography, you’re not going to want to read this book. You may not even want to read this review.

But if you, like me, are a Gorey fan, you will both buy this book and read it even after I tell you it’s largely a worthless read. Gorey fans, like all fanatics, want to read anything and everything about the man. I am a moderate Gorey fan. I have one of his drawings tattooed on my body, I have a little shrine set up to him and one day I want to have a collection of Gorey first editions. So even with the status of being just a moderate Gorey fan, I know that had I read a review like the one I am writing before I put this book on my Amazon wish list, I would have purchased it and read it anyway (actually, my copy is a Yule gift from Mr. Oddbooks). Because that’s what an ardent fan does. We collect things relating to the object of our adoration, even if those things are mediocre.

This book has interesting moments but they are few and far between, and those moments are generally content that will not be new to long-term Gorey fans. Still, it was pleasant being reminded of how eccentric Gorey was, how he eventually stopped wearing fur because of his love of animals, how he sewed stuffed animals by hand as he watched television, how he would do work for anyone who asked, even those who could pay very little.

But after one admits that this book has some charm, one can only list its many problems. The first is that in the first fifteen pages, Theroux manages to write in a way that is so alienating that a casual reader might be tempted to give up. I am a reasonably intelligent woman who has devoted my adult life to reading. I fancy that if a reasonably well-educated person with a devotion to books found Theroux’s verbiage cumbersome, then it is safe to say it was, in fact, too much for a biography of a beloved pop culture icon. But who knows? Perhaps the words enchiridion, coloraturas, the French phrase le cercle lugubrieux, and karfreutagian have slipped into the common lexicon without me noticing. If not, they were odd word choices in a biography such as this. This is not the sort of book that can tolerate the interruptions that come when the reader is forced to put the book down in order to look up words and French phrases. But luckily Theroux stops showing off so egregiously around page 15. Still, not a good beginning.

The Cryptoterrestrials by Mac Tonnies

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: The Cryptoterrestrials

Author: Mac Tonnies

Type of Book: Non-fiction, speculation, metaphysics, aliens

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: Because it posits a theory that the little green men, I mean grays, are not from outer space but really live on or in Earth and have been deceiving us for years.

Availability: Published by Anomalist Books in 2010, you can get a copy here:

Comments: I had planned to do an “Alien Intervention Week” here on IROB, but at some point, I think I realized  that discussing all of the books I read on the topic in the space of one week would kill my spirit for months.  Most of the books spoke of a mindset that challenges my love of the odd, steeped in strange science and spurious proof that if challenged would result in months of unsettling e-mails sent to me from people whose sense reality would make it hard to respond, yet their earnestness would demand a response.  So I am going to spread these books out – it may take me years to discuss the handful I read – so that I can distribute the agony in such a manner that I don’t get emotional cramps every time I need to check my e-mail.

Plus I’m not that “into” aliens as a whole.  Discussing aliens has become not unlike discussing religion for me – a tiresome argument that no one can win. Yet the idea that aliens have intervened in the human race for assorted reasons falls into this category of “fringe” for me so of course I am drawn to it.  So it’s not like I can’t read it even as every bit of my common sense tells me to leave the topic alone.  It’s maddening.

You know how it is.

But this book was a reasonable breath of fresh air where odd theories of aliens meddling with humans beings go.  Mac Tonnies wrote a fascinating book of speculative ideas and  it was disheartening, to say the least, to learn that this interesting book was published posthumously, for Tonnies passed away in 2009 at the age of 34. If you have some time one day, comb through Tonnies’ blog, which I link to above. His ideas on transhumanism are engrossing.

In a way, this book is a perfect example of the sorts of ideas that made me a fan of the odd.  When I was a kid, books on Forteana were not so insistent.  They posited what happened (fish falling from the sky), posited a few potential answers (waterspouts drawing water and fish from streams, or an angry god), and left the reader to wonder and maybe discuss the topic.  Now the book on fish falling from the sky has spurious science to prove a particular point of view, all other points are dismissed, and the discussion becomes entrenched and adversarial.  Tonnies’ book made the fun of Forteana real again.

So Tonnies puts forth the idea that aliens are not from other planets but may be “cryptoterrestrials.”  Humans or near-humans or humanoid-like creatures that live among us.  Those who see little green men or little gray men are not seeing creatures from other planets but instead are seeing creatures that have lived among us on Earth.  Hidden creatures that may or may not be our genetic brethren, but that have nevertheless been with us for millennia.

This is an interesting idea and Tonnies goes about discussing it using a calm erudition that was thrilling (and appalling in a way because he is gone and there will be no more from him).  His prose is very crisp and delivers complex ideas in manageable bites so that readers like me don’t choke.  But I think the best way to show you this book is to give you snippets that resonated with me, examples of an excellent mind and an excellent book.

Demons in the Age of Light by Whitney Robinson

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Demons in the Age of Light: A Memoir of Psychosis and Recovery

Author: Whitney Robinson

Type of Book: Non-fiction, memoir, mental illness, psychiatry

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: In a way it is not odd because psychiatric memoirs are thick on the ground these days. But in a sense this book is very odd because being given an invitation to look into the mind of a person actively suffering from schizophrenia is in and of itself a strange, unsettling experience.

Availability: Published by Process Media in 2011, you can get a copy here:

Comments: Just warning you now, dear reader, that this discussion is going to be one of my trademarked Very Long Discussions with Lots of Quotes from the Book, coupled with a very personal reactions to the text. For those who find a 8000 word or so discussion excessive, here is the tl;dr version: This is a very good book written by a very good writer and you should buy it and read it.

I read a lot of mental health and mental illness memoirs and this was the first one I ever considered odd enough to discuss here. I very nearly missed reading it. I had run into a spate of memoirs that left me cold, and had the online acquaintance who recommended the book to me and then sent me a copy offered it two weeks earlier than she did, I would have declined. But just before she discussed the book with me, I had finished a very good, very honest mental illness memoir, Stacy Pershall’s Loud in the House of Myself: Memoir of a Strange Girl. The offer to read the book came at the right time after the right book.

It would have been a shame to have turned down this book because of the often sorry shelf-company it is forced to share. And I don’t mean to demean the genre because people gets all kinds of help in all kinds of ways that I may find less than helpful. It’s just that lately some of the books I have read wore very thin for me. It seemed like the authors, mostly women, had romanticized their illness. To paraphrase Elizabeth Wurtzel, patron saint of fucked up women of a certain age, they had fallen in love with their illness. The devastation the disease wreaked on their bodies, their education, their relationships – it all was a back story to a fabulous disaster narrative.

Also there is a current theme in mental health studies that posits that mental illnesses, or neurodiversity, are a form of genetic selection for arts, letters and speculative science and therefore celebrate the conditions. I can see the logic. Not only is there a long record of acclaimed people who created great art and propelled science, but as a person with mental illness, I like to think that there is a purpose behind my at times terrible brain chemistry. But I am made uneasy by some of it because even though Van Gogh left behind astonishing paintings and Virginia Woolf left behind masterful prose and John Nash was a great boon to speculative physics, would any of us really want to live their lives? It’s all well and good to see the up side of having appalling brain chemistry, but I often fear that people who are suffering will read such examinations and decide that their affliction should not be treated, should not be seen as a disease that needs to be addressed in order for them to live the best life they can live. As much as I adore Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, and I have no real way of knowing how much his deep depression truly affected his writing, thinking about the sorry end of his life makes it just a little harder to enjoy the beauty and truth of his words. Art that comes from a truly suffering person will always have a pall cast over it.

This book does not engage in the sort of celebration and art uber alles justifications for mental illness that I have encountered as of late. Whitney Robinson’s memoir gets everything right. She shows the wreckage. She shows how mental illness swooped down into her life and changed everything. A natural writer with a near-intimidating intelligence, Robinson tells the story of her illness, the demon that came into her brain, and how she came back out the other side. It is an erudite, honest, and at times darkly humorous look at what it feels like to have your brain behave in ways you have no control over. Schizophrenia is one of the hardest mental illnesses for people to truly understand, and Robinson writes a fascinating book that is never once a freak show. It is never an attempt to glorify conditions that can ransack a person’s life. This book is never a voyeuristic peephole into the at times salacious subject matter of mental illness.

It is a rare invitation to understand.

Cosmic Suicide by Rodney Perkins and Forrest Jackson

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: Cosmic Suicide: The Tragedy and Transcendence of Heaven’s Gate

Authors: Rodney Perkins and Forrest Jackson

Type of Book: Non-fiction, true crime, cults

Why Do I Consider This Book Odd: It was a look at the Heaven’s Gate suicide when events were still relatively fresh and mass cult suicide is always a bit strange. The book is also listed as a source in the amazing book Strange Creations by Donna Kossy and would be a honorary odd book on that merit alone.

Availability: Published by Pentaradial Press in 1997, you can get a copy here:

Comments: When I began reading this book I thought there would not be much that was new to me. I had already read quite a bit about the Heaven’s Gate cult, those strange, asexual computer geeks in California who killed themselves en masse to be able to board the spacecraft they were sure was traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet. And in a way, I was correct. The book tells very succinctly the story of how two lost souls – Marshall Applewhite and Betty Lu Nettles – met and fed off each other, creating the New Age death cult that became Heaven’s Gate.

All the details that caught the public’s morbid imagination are there. The androgyny of those who took their lives, the voluntary castrations of some of the men, the presence of Nichelle Nichols’ brother among the suicide victims. It all made for very tawdry television.

The case interested me for a couple of reasons, above and beyond the strange details of the suicide and Art Bell phone call that some believe was the genesis for the belief that there was something following behind the Hale-Bopp comet – later interpreted as a space craft by Heaven’s Gate members. By killing themselves, they thought they would meet up on the space craft with Betty Lu Nettles, who had died, and achieve what they called T.E.L.A.H. – The Evolutionary Level Above Human.   All of that was sort of interesting, but strangely bloodless in a way. The way the cult killed themselves was orderly, calm, and without the sort of horror I associate with mass suicides.