"I cannot live without books." -- Thomas Jefferson

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Mostly early essays or articles by the icon of all journalists who likes to drink and feel...important. But alas don't let that stop you for enjoying one of the British prose writers of all time. George Orwell in this small edition comments on the joy of being arrested for public drunkness in East London, the joys of dirty (not really) postcards of Donald McGill, the nature of junk stores, and true-crime reading.

In other words a collection of essays that comment on the taste and passions of the typical (if one exists) British citizen during and before the war years. A big plus is the design work of Penguin's "Great Ideas" series. A well-edited series of books by classic writers on particular subjects. Mostly from bigger editions of such a writer, but here you get the feeling that these books are made for a 1 hour long train trip, and they work beautifully in the bathtub.

And yeah Orwell works great in the bathtub.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

"The Spiv and the Architect"

Academic yes, but still full of life in its history. London can never be a dull subject, and when you add the post-war world of Gay Men in a new world - that was London, it is fascinating.

The "Architect" in the title is those who plan out the vision of London after the war. The Spiv is the outsider (Gay, criminal, boho, etc) who lives in that new world - or make it their own world somewhat or somehow.
Using ubran architecture, 1950's British films, Cheap paperback books and its industry, and the nature of the "bed-set room" is all told in a PHD manner, yet the subject is one of total interest.

How 'sub-culture' life exists in a world that is totally indifferent or in fear of them is an interesting tale. Richard Hornsey's thesis and paper is a must for those who are interested in British gay culture, but even more important how cities/architecture/books comment on a world that they can't control or contain.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Oniroku Dan's "Season of Infidelity"

Typical of me. I thought I was picking up a 'dirty book' and what I got was spiritual bliss of sorts. The writer Oniroku Dan, is a well-known soft (hard?) core porn filmmaker, screenwriter, and novelist. He's an expert on BDSM. As far as I know this is his first book in English, which consists of four short stories - but I suspect that they are more like memoirs than fiction.

The first three I was totally turned on, but the fourth one is the magic one - a really great view point of the porn or more like it the essence of pleasure in a Japanese context. The main figure in the last story is Naomi Tani, queen of the bondage film. And in what is almost a documentary on the nature of these films and its world. Here Dan really captures the essence of porn that is both funny, charming, and a tad erotic.

Also you get a good sense of the bars, the film world, and the nature of Japanese blue flicks or better known as "Roman Porno films.' Which was a cult-like passion for film goers in the 1970's. For instance my wife is into those type of films - but that's another story.

It says in the back cover that Dan wrote over 120 books. One hopes that these books will get translated and published. Excellent erotica, but also a great doorway to the undercurrents of contemporary Japan.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto

Reading this book you can actually smell Manhattan circ. 1953. Bernard DeVoto was a Historian, who wrote the ultimate love object (the book of course) to the serious art of drinking, and drinking well. The man has a strong hatred for the drink "Manhattan" as well as Rum. In fact he hates all sweet cocktails with a passion. And if you think you should add that olive to the martini, forget it. Cocktail is not a food, its a drink.

The great thing about the book is the packaging - all the original illustrations are here, and it makes you think that there was a better time once, a time where you can control your world. "The Hour" is such a time when you have the perfect (unsweet) cocktail in a location that serves your aesthetic and well-being.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Pullman Fictionalizes Jesus (or rather, re-fictionalizes Jesus)

Just after Paul Verhoeven's Jesus of Nazareth dealt with the historical Jesus, Philip Pullman gives us a fictionalized portrait of the Man, God, what have you...

Is this the season of Jesus or something? How great is it that two of the most controversial creative talents working today have written books on Jesus? Verhoeven has been threatening to make a film of Jesus' life for years now--maybe Pullman should write the screenplay...

The book begins with the birth of Mary and soon moves into her betrothel to Joseph. The sixteen year old Mary gives birth to twins Jesus and Christ. Jesus becomes a miracle worker while Christ becomes the biographer of sorts. Enter some sort of angel (as described by the writer Christ) who convinces Christ to write Jesus' story in such a way that a massive religion will result from the resultant biography's architecture.

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is an interesting fictional take on the "greatest story ever told" (to borrow the phrase from the film of the same name). Maybe not the greatest story ever told, but certainly one of the most pivotal in human history--for better or for worse.

As Pullman writes on the back of the book:

"The story I tell comes out of the tension within the dual nature of Jesus Christ, but what I do with it is my responsibility alone. Parts of it read like a novel, parts like a history, and parts like a fairy tale; I wanted it to be like that because it is, among other things, a story about how stories become stories."

Go tell it Phil!

This is recommended reading for non-Christian and Christian alike.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Silhouette: The Art of the Shadow

Emma Rutherford's wonderful book Silhouette: The Art of the Shadow tells the story of shadow portraiture...

If you were a child of the eighties, you might remember having a shadow portrait of your tiny head. Whether this practice at schools still endures, I do not know. But, I was always fascinated with silhouettes and shadows generally. The effect on my imagination has always been considerable. So, when my eyes came across Rutherford's beautiful book I was absolutely taken with it. The silhouette, or the shadow, is what I think of when I hear the music of Burial (the UK electronic musician)... a procession of spectral shadows moving past glittering lights. His is the closest audio representation of shadows.

Rutherford's writing in the introduction perfectly captures the quality of the silhouette:

"A silhouette is both something and nothing, a negative and a positive. In today's world of Technicolor imagery, silhouettes appear gothic and gloomy, even ghostly, devoid as they are of visual information. There is no play of light and shade upon the sitter's face to describe the subtleties of age and expression as in other forms of portraiture--where is the personality, the eyes that are windows to the soul?...Their very "blackness" is enough to make some viewers feel repelled, as if they are staring into the void. Yet, in their heyday in the eighteenth century, they were described as the 'truest representation that can be given of man.'"

Rutherford quotes Sir David Piper as saying (in his book The English Face) a silhouette "is not really a portrait at all: in its basic form it is made by tracing the shadow--it is not merely a portrait of one's shadow, it is virtually the actual shadow, stilled and fixed on paper."

And this is sort of what you get in this book... The portrait of King George III... An unknown lady with a tall hat... A panoramic by Anna Maria Garthwaite of A house and grounds... Beautiful blue shadow portraits by Lady Dorothy Bradshaigh of Roger Palmer and Miss Palmer... A scene of hunters entering the woods...

Below are some of the photographs of silhouette portraiture. A great book.

David Remnick's Portrait of Barack Obama

David Remnick's biography The Bridge: The Life and Rise of Barack Obama attempts to construct the most 'complete' account of his subject's life to date...

Obama may not have turned out to be what liberals, independents and defecting Republicans had hoped for; many may have been dazzled by his rhetorical genius, only to watch helplessly as he demonstrated to his people and the whole world what we've always subconsciously known, but thought he might be able to change: that (even though popular support swept him into office) the ones who determine the course of this country have been and will always be banks and corporations.

But that is no reason not to read of what led a son of an economist and anthropologist--a man who would become President from the humble roots of a community organizer--to bow down to the financial masters...

Remnick's book stresses again and again Obama's talent for conciliation, finding common ground amongst multiple points-of-view. And maybe Obama doesn't enjoy the power wielded by the financial elites but simply had no choice when faced with economic collapse.

This book can be read in many ways... I choose to read it as a Shakespearean tragedy.

EDIT: Now with Goldman-Sachs being investigated by the SEC, there might yet be a redemptive side to this story. Who knows?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Vollman Deconstructs Femininity Through Noh Theater

Vollman's latest non-fiction effort Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater also considers (according to the author himself) "Some Thoughts on Muses (Especially Helga Testorf), Transgender Women, Kabuki Godesses, Porn Queens, Housewives, Makeup Artists, Geishas, Valkyries and Venus Figurines...

When Vollman writes (which is at a furious pace), he often chooses to look underneath the veil of subjects not given mainstream consideration, or comes at an historical subject and events from unexpected angles. That the resultant study is a book of fiction or non-fiction is immaterial or, at least, incidental.

So when it was announced that the author's new book would be about Noh Theater, fans of his work were not surprised but rather intrigued and expectant. How would Vollman approach the subject? What other related material would make its way into the book? How would he give his the readers both what they expected (a kaleidoscopic vision of the world and its tentacles) but still surprise them with leftfield insights: to put the reader inside his brain in order to see the worlds through his eyes?

Well, Vollman seems to address these questions in the first few lines of his introduction:

"Deaf, dumb and illiterate in Japanese, innocent of formal study in any discipline of art, a graceless dancer afflicted with bad eyesight, I may not be the perfect author for an essay on Nogh drama. Fortunately, this is no essay, but a string-ball of idle thoughts*... In brief, rather than a primer prepared by a Noh expert, this short book is an appreciation, sincere and blundering, resolutely ignorant, riddled with prejudices and insights of an alien, a theatergoer, a man gazing at femininity. "

The asterisk indicating a footnote that elaborates:

"*Moreover, it's not precisely about Noh drama, either. Whatever mistakes of fact I make, few people will catch them, even should my ignorance someday be exposed by translation into Japanese."

So, there you have it... I won't ruin the experience for you. Follow Vollman's prejudicial meanderings of Noh and femininity!

Mr. Vollman is presenting and signing Kissing the Mask tonight at Book Soup. Signed copies will be available for purchase online and in-store following the signing.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Francis Wheen Peers Into The Golden Age of Paranoia

Francis Wheen, author of How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World: A Short History of Modern Delusion, has returned with another book chronicling the 1970s entitled Strange Days Indeed: The 1970s: The Golden Age of Paranoia.

One of my favorite non-fiction books of the 2010...

Within you learn that retired British Generals had formed private armies 'to save the country from anarchy,' industrialists plotted coup d'etats and how E. Howard Hunt had described the Watergate break-in seven years before the incident in his novel On Hazardous Duty. It turns out that in 1946 Hunt beat out both Gore Vidal and Truman Copote for a Guggenheim Fellowship to finance his novel Stranger In Town. What the fuck? Of course, there is plenty of Nixon. How Nixon enjoyed a private screening of Patton, not for pleasure, but according to Wheen, for "business." Five days later Nixon announced the American and South Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, promising the nation "We will not be humiliated... We will not be defeated." He must have really enjoyed George C. Scott's monologue.

In many ways this book is a non-fiction companion piece to works of fiction like Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow and Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea's The Illuminatus Trilogy, or even the work of Kurt Vonnegut.

One of my favorite excerpts from the book is Wheen paraphrasing Carl Oglesby (former student leader) writing for Ramparts magazine in the article 'In Defence of paranoia.' Wheen writes:

"[Oglesby argued] that recent events had demolished the assumptions of Stone and Hofstadter: instead of leading to political madness, the paranoid style might be the necessary prerequisite for retaining one's political sanity--an echo of the 'anti-psychiatry' popularized at the time by R.D. Laing, who held that schizophrenics and paranoids were the only people sane enough to see that the world is deranged."

How do ape descendants get to the point where the ordering structure of society produces paranoia? Fascinating.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Gary Calamar & Phil Gallo, two record store vets, present and sign Record Store Days: From Vinyl to Digital and Back Again...

Record Store Days is a great book to have out now in print: to celebrate the sonic beauty of vinyl in a digital age that has somehow, against all odds, re-embraced the sound of analog. Maybe it has something to do with nostalgia and a desire to be authentically hip. But, I like to think that it has more to do with a growing realization amongst newer music lovers that analog simply sounds better, and that it is a wonder to be able to go into a record shop and be able to ask questions and meet people who know something about the music they're selling and buying.

This type of cultural interaction just isn't possible on Itunes or Amazon. Yes, buyers and sellers can write up reviews and trade information via message boards. But... it's the not the same as meeting a person in a record store who shares your love for The Del Vikings' perfect mono recording of "Whispering Bells" or who will be able to give you a recommendation or five if you happen to be a Stooges fan. "Whispering Bells" will always sound better on vinyl, pumped through a set of nice speakers, than through a set of crappy headphones attached to an Ipod.

If we as a society completely remove this possibility from the social landscape, it's just one more link in the chain that separates us from one another. It's just one more reason to never leave the house. And how boring is that?!

And so Calamar and Gallo celebrate the glory of record stores with a history of them in a nicely packaged book with a foreword by Peter Buck of R.E.M.

Do yourself two favors: 1) Get this book, and 2) Buy vinyl for Christ's sake (and let Steve Jobs have his digital empire).

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Peter T. Leeson reveals the Invisible Hook

A professor of economics examines the economic life of the pirate...

Leeson, in his introduction, admits he's not an historian. And this isn't so much a pirate history as a portrait of pirate economics, hierarchy and democracy.

He states:

"Normally, we define and distinguish societies by individuals' citizenship of, residence in, and allegiance to particular nations and governments. None of these traditional demarcators of society make sense in the context of pirates, however. Although born as citizens of recognized countries, most pirates had abandoned associations with their governments before the age of thirty... [they] heeded no flag but the black one they sailed under. They boasted that 'they acknowledged no countrymen' and 'had sold their country' and would 'do all the mischief they could.'"

This is an interesting thought because typically we don't think of pirates coming from anywhere, as though they spontaneously come into being as fully-formed societal misfits. They relinquish one economy which they cannot control for one that they could. Sounds romantic, doesn't it? Wouldn't we all love to excuse ourselves from the world economy?

As we've seen from movies and read in fiction, or history books, there was a hierarchical structure, a system for maintaining order. It may seem something of a paradox, but Leeson calls this mechanism the 'Pirate Democracy.' Here arises the paradox presented any government: if someone (a Pirate Captain, in this case) is given power, how do the subjects ensure that power isn't abused? Well, the pirates utilized a form of democracy by which one pirate one vote was the law. And upon being elected to the office of Captain, the Captain-Elect would vow to be faithful to the pirate's society and its customs. There were even separation of powers through other officer pirates, such as the Quarter-Master (similar to the Roman Tribunes, elected officials who could check, or basically veto Senate lawmaking, or the decisions of the two Consuls).

Leeson in Chapter 3, AN-ARRGH-CHY: THE ECONOMICS OF THE PIRATE CODE, Leeson writes that "[c]ontrary to conventional wisdom, pirate life was orderly and honest. This isn't counterintuitive on recollection of pirates' purpose, which was profit." The incentive was strong for 'social harmony,' which would allow them to gather more plunder. How did they do this? By establishing rules outlawing thievery aboard ship (ironic), minimizing the problem of free-riding or excessive drinking beyond certain hours (no way!)...

That's just a taste of what you'll find in this book. I highly recommend it.

Barry Miles "London Calling"

London Calling: A Countercultural History of London Since 1945 London Calling: A Countercultural History of London Since 1945 by Barry Miles

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I'm a long term Barry Miles fan. I guess one can consider him as a cultural historian, but he also witnessed many aspects of his own field of interest. Which is American Beat/British Hippie/pop music cultural life. He was also a close associate of Paul McCartney in the mid to late 1960's, as well as a co-writer on McCartney's interesting memoir.

Miles has written biographies on American Beat Greats, as well as his own memoir of London life during the Sixties. But"London Calling" is sort of his masterpiece, and although not historically perfect (some names are wrong, or the wrong artist with the wrong piece), he captures something more important, and that is the life blood of various countercultural youth movements from post-war London to now.

It may be age or perhaps the current social life of London is not that interesting to Miles, but for sure the past is full of colorful characters and various causes in the U.K. capital. From Teddy Boys to British Beats (and how they mixed in with Burroughs/Ginsberg) to the Mods, to the Hippies, and then to the punks is really five or six books in this one volume.

But each section is really alive with details about life then, and I would think a young reader would want to check out the literature/visuals of the various underground movements that took place in the mid to late 20th Century. Also in detail it explains the importance of London as a location as well as an iconic fantasy land of sorts.

This book is by no means the ultimate history, for that you need to read at least fifty other books on the subject of London's subculture. But this is an excellent introduction to a world with great possibility and sometimes disappointment. But the adventure to go from zero to 10 is a magnificent ride.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Orange Sunshine vs. Harvard Psychedelic Club

Two great books dealing with the psychedelic history of Los Angeles... One leads to the other. Why not have them both?

Don Lattin's The Harvard Psychedelic Club tells the history of the men most responsible for ushering in the drugged-out 60s; which, incidentally led to yoga studios, the environmental movement, organic foods, Don Wilson's AA, etc. Lattin illustrates how Los Angeles was critical in this process, with Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley laying the foundations in California. Their early experimentation influenced Huston Smith, who was an influence on Timothy Leary. Lattin also writes about Leary's other colleagues at Harvard: Andrew Weil and Ram Dass.

Orange Sunshine is a book written by Nicholas Schou, a staff writer at OC Weekly. It tells the story of the Brotherhood of Eternal Love, a band of surfers in Laguna Beach who became the world's biggest acid and hashish smugglers and dealers in the 1960s. When Sandoz Labs acid was increasingly hard to come by, the Brotherhood synthesized "Orange Sunshine," the most potent acid of the time. Apparently they dropped thousands of hits of this LSD from an airplane onto a crowd of 25,000 in a three-day Laguna Beach celebration. The occasion? An apocalyptic birthday party for Jesus Christ. They also wanted to buy a tropical island and install Timothy Leary as the high priest of a new spiritual Utopian society.

These two books are both independently great in their own way. Together they form a more complete picture of psychedelic culture from its genesis, through the 60s and to the end of Leary and Co.'s lives. Why not get them both?

Monday, April 5, 2010

Paul Verhoeven's Search for the Historical Jesus

Filmmaker Paul Verhoeven publishes a historical portrait of Jesus...

In Jesus of Nazareth, Verhoeven relates the story of how as a four year old boy he once asked his father if Jesus had felt any pain while nailed to the cross. His father thought that Jesus probably had. Little Paul replied, "But if he was the son of God, couldn't God have made the pain go away?" Verhoeven says he doesn't remember what his father said in reply, but this was a formative moment in the filmmaker's lifelong interest in Jesus Christ.

In 1985 Verhoeven heard of the Jesus Seminar, comprised of scholars and theologians, and later joined it. The group is concerned with what the historical Jesus actually did and said. Verhoeven is the only non-theologian ever admitted into the Seminar.

The book is split into an introduction, ten chapters and an epilogue. The ten chapters are:

1. From Conception to Early Adulthood
2. John the Baptist and Jesus
3. Jesus' Proclamation of the Kingdom of God
4. Jesus the Exorcist (I particularly dug this chapter title: very evocative... Could be a great movie)
5. Jesus Flees
6. The Transfiguration
7. The Confrontation
8. Lazarus is Killed
9. The Last Day of Jesus' Life
10. The Traitor

There are also two appendices: A) The Secret Gospel of Mark, and B) Did Jesus Select the Twelve Disciples Himself?

Some things I learned from Paul Verhoeven in this book:

1) Hitler farted a lot in meetings with his staff and generals, and they had to stand by and breathe in the "stench."
2) Jesus and his disciples, being itinerant, "subsisted on whatever food came their way, so they probably had gastrointenstinal problems. Jesus' companions must have heard him snore, snuffle, and fart."
3) Verhoeven writes about farting quite a bit.
4) Jesus was essentially a fugitive (according to Verhoeven and others)
5) That Jane Schaberg presented the idea that Jesus might have been the product of a rape in her book The Illegitimacy of Jesus: A Feminist Theological Interpretation of the Infancy Narratives.

Those are just a few things you will learn in Verhoeven's Jesus of Nazareth.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Selby Is In Your Place

Photographer Todd Selby enters the homes of "interesting people" to take photos of said "interesting people" hanging out in their homes...

This is an interesting enough proposal. Go to hip peoples' homes and capture them amidst their domicile and possessions. After all, you can only shoot so many rusted out Fords or African peoples; so why not let Selby document his idea of "interesting" people from New York to Sydney and everywhere (nearly) in between? And, in keeping with the 21st century art aesthetic, there are some suitably quirky ink and gauche illustrations. Which, under most circumstances would be enough for me to mentally to check out of Selby's book... Lo-fi illustrations are a dime a dozen these days amongst the very, very hip.

But... but...
You have to appreciate Selby for venturing into Karl Lagerfeld's house to show us the extent of Lagerfeld's book collection. Wonderful! Or how he uses makeup applicators for his illustrations... How Jacques Grange has a bottle of Marilyn Monroe's sleeping pills at his place. How Olivier Zahm digs paperback erotic novels like Jackson Preachers Horny Billie Joe, with a girl on the front sucking her thumb.

Naturally, you have the inexplicable hipster cliche of a person, Lou Doillon, who collects taxidermy. I'm from Wisconsin: this isn't hip. If anything, it's slightly deranged. I see a deer head and I think of grizzled men in orange suits hoofin' through boggy marshes tryin' to kick up some bucks and blow a slug through their hearts--and the head is a trophy, a visual to remind all of the hunter's guests that he is still in touch with his inner early man. How does this become some vintage decoration for a Parisian? I do not know...

Ah... But who doesn't like seeing a little Helen Christensen at home? Thank you, Todd. Thank you very much. She's just cute as a button. A real dish, y'know? Who knew she was a painter? Her technique is taking photographs and making paintings based on those images. Not a new method, of course, but always a good one in my opinion. And one of the things she loves most about New York City is 'the river mist in the morning.'

Then it ends with a Laurel Canyon couple. Yippee! I wonder how they afford those digs on the indie musician and filmmaker salary?

Definitely worth a look, though, despite some reservations on the book's hip quotient.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

DeLillo's Point Omega

The celebrated author returns with a book about a scholar, his daughter and a filmmaker out in the desert...

Don DeLillo is generally considered one of the greatest authors of the 21st century. He has written novels, short stories, plays, one screenplay and the occasional essay. But his work remains divisive. The writing itself displays the often glittering prose of say, Fitzgerald, mixed with some of the narrative and stylistic experiments of Joyce and Beckett. There is a cinematic quality to his writing that in a way links him to filmmakers like Kubrick, and some of the more literary directors like Fellini and many in the French New Wave. His novel White Noise made him a literary idol to writers like David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen and Brett Easton Ellis, and the mammoth Underworld cemented his representation as a keen observer of America, its land and cityscapes and its people. These two novels, along with Mao II and Libra, greatly increased his readership, but also raised expectations of his work and brought him out of the more underground literary atmosphere he seems to prefer; where he's free to write how he wants and not as others wish he would.

So it is with his latest novel Point Omega, a novel that again has polarized critics. But, DeLillo is writing exactly what he wants and one has to respect that. He is not catering to critical tastes.

Point Omega is technically a novella at a slim 117 pages. Well, maybe it is a novel, but who cares for such distinctions! The story begins with an unnamed character in a museum watching a silent version of Hitchcock's Psycho. (Douglas Gordon's slowed down version titled 24 Hour Psycho, to be exact). The way that DeLillo describes the goings-on of the crowd in the museum, the movie and Finley's thoughts is mesmerizing. The following piece of prose is a perfect example:

"In the time it took for Anthony Perkins to turn his head, there seemed to flow an array of ideas involving science and philosophy and nameless other things, or maybe he was seeing too much. But it was impossible to see to much. The less there was to see, the harder he looked, the more he saw. This was the point. To see what's here, finally to look and to know you're looking, to feel time passing, to be alive to what is happening in the smallest registers of motion." The characters sees an older man joined by a younger man, who turn out to be the main characters Richard Elster and Jim Finley.

DeLillo is at once describing the character's perception and ideas of the projected images of Psycho within an art museum setting, providing a window into the character's mind; but also cutting right to the heart of cinema. When the character leaves, he describes the outside world as "Light and sound, wordless monotone, an intimation of life-beyond, world-beyond, the strange bright fact that breathes and eats out there, the thing that's not the movies."

DeLillo then moves into the introduction by Jim Finley of Richard Elster, a former scholar now living in the desert, there to simply to sit and think. Finley admits that he wanted to make a movie about Elster's time in the government around the time of the invasion of Iraq, uninterrupted like Alexander Sokoruv's Russian Ark (a great movie, I highly recommend it). They are later joined by Elster's daughter Jessica.

What follows are there conversations as they make something of a family-like existence, until an event disrupts things.

Definitely pick this novel up. It's a quick and mesmerizing, like a lone firework in the American landscape.

Jim Baggott's secret history of The First War of Physics

An epic story of science and technology at the very limits of human understanding: the monumental race to build the first atomic weapons...

But does Baggott's book live up to the "epic" claim? In a word, yes.

Those years are perhaps the darkest in the history of mankind. Everything that physicists had been working toward since the time of the Greeks, Persians and Newton was taken out of the lecture halls and laboratories and used to create weapons of such awesome power that whole cities could be leveled--completely obliterated in less than a minute. The power of the universe inside a device controlled by politicians; men who would bring humanity to its knees all in the name of either nationalism, democracy, communism or fascism.

Baggott begins his book with a prologue entitled "Letter from Berlin," by telling the story of Austrian Jewish physicist Otto Frisch and his aunt Lise Meitner (a chemist), who lost his job at the University of Hamburg with Hitler's ascendancy and ultimately ended up working for Neils Bohr (one of the critical founders of quantum mechanics). Baggott relates how Meitner (who had converted to Christianity) was denounced by a colleague, refused a passport by Himmler, but ultimately reunited with her nephew Otto in Copenhagen through Bohr's efforts.

Meitner's partner Otto Hahn, meanwhile, had finished the work that he and Meitner had started, by building on Enrico Fermi's research into nuclei bombardment with neutrons (from the lightest known elements all the way through the periodic table we all know so well). Fermi and his team believed that by bombarding nuclei with neutrons, they had created unnaturally occurring, heavy elements called "transuranic" elements. Hawn and Meitner attempted to repeat Fermi's experiments, but with much more attention to chemistry. But, as Baggott writes, Meitner had to leave the Germany, and Hahn finished the experiment himself... And he found that instead of creating radium by bombarding uranium with neutrons, they had in fact created Barium atoms. This was significant because most scientists at the time thought bombardment would move the bombarded nucleai one or two places down the periodic table. What Hahn had done was move it down 36 places. Which was rather unbelievable but not impossible. Meitner shared her partner's results with Frisch, and this narrative sort of launches the larger narrative of the book.

Naturally, Baggot moves readers through a ten-year history of scientific research from 1939 to 1949, with American, British, Soviet and German efforts to build the most destructive weapons of all time. There is really so much to this book that I cannot possibly summarize it.

A truly haunting and thrilling read.

Roberto Bolaño's Antwerp

Roberto Bolaño is dead but this reality will not stop a near unending stream of English translation and publication of his work. The latest is Antwerp, a book that Bolaño wrote in 1981 in Barcelona. He admits in the introduction entitled Total Anarchy: Twenty-Two Years Later, that it was written when he was "still writing more poetry than prose" and drawn to "certain science fiction writers and certain pornographers." An interesting combination, to be sure.

He notes that "I never brought this novel to any publishing house, of course. They would've slammed the door in my face and I'd have lost the copy. I didn't even make what's technically termed a clean copy. The original manuscript has more pages: the text tended to multiply itself, spreading like a sickness." This echoes William S. Burroughs' belief that words were a virus and writing merely the expulsion of it. Bolaño, however, writes that his "sickness, back then, was pride, rage and violence."

Antwerp is essentially 56 vignettes or sketches imbued with both poetry and cinema. The narrator is Bolaño himself, though fictionalized. In certain sketches, the narrator Bolaño is observed by another Bolaño, or perhaps by some other omniscient narrator whose name we know not.

Some of the vignettes display dazzling imagery and words (credit must go to translator Natasha Wimmer), often with a surreal tone, while others come across as though Bolaño were bored and didn't know exactly what to write, simply letting instantaneous ideas through words unfurl onto the page. Even those vignettes are interesting.

One of my favorites is 3. GREEN, RED, AND WHITE CHECKS, in which Bolaño the narrator speaks of another (probably the fictional Bolaño) who rises up out of a white tide and is suddenly on a train. Inside the train colorful light shines in through a window, while this persona is smoking and his eyes come to rest on a pale square that begins to disintegrate. The narrator notices the light has gone dark outside as the train goes past the edge of a forest, apparently right where a "little hunchback lives." The story shifts and Bolaño seems to be in the forest with the hunchback carrying on a conversation... A really great vignette.

Definitely a book to own, especially if you want to see a writer engaging in poetic and cinematic surrealism on a micro scale.

And what better endorsement can you get than from the author himself, who said, "The only novel that doesn't embarrass me is Antwerp."