Twelve Ghastly Books
It is with regret
that we offer
a selection of some real stinkers
that we've run into over the years,
books that you might be
well-advised to ignore.

The Castle
A New Translation
Mark Harman

Max Brod, Kafka's friend and editor, was instructed by the author to destroy all his unpublished works when he died. Kafka passed on, with a surfeit of words, as well as TB, in 1924, at the age of 41.

Instead of dumping these noodlings in the trash-heap where they belonged, visions of sugar-plums danced in his head. Quick as a bat, with a little convenient pruning, Brod published all of Kafka's novels within the next three years. He obviously knew there could be found a passel of paranoiacs out there who wanted to read about their own condition, ad nauseam. It's like bulimics reading about other bulimics, or alcoholics wanting to read about other alcoholics.

By saving these manuscripts, Brod did a major disservice to long-suffering college students the world over, adding exponentially to their misery. It was bad enough that we had to slog our way through The Æneid, or The Confessions of St. Augustine, or "Hamlet." In our endless "Modern Lit" Courses, we had to make our troubled, yawning way through The Castle or Amerika or The Trial. To those of us who were in any way normal, these paranoid-schizophrenic novels meant nothing more than nut-case meandering, and, furthermore, a meandering that never ever seemed to want to end. We suspect that Kafka never could figure it out either ... which is why he never could seem to finish the buggers (or finish them off).

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The Raven
Edgar Allen Poe
(Northeastern University)
Not only the Gods, but, as well, the Gauls, must be crazy. They idolize Jerry Lewis and Edgar Allen Poe. Maybe, based on the early Martin and Lewis corpus, we can understand some of the interest in the former. But Poe: fagh! Try reading this aloud without dropping your mental crankshaft:

    And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
    On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
    And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
    And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor,
    And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
             Shall be lifted --- nevermore!

Good exercise for five-year-olds and nitwits, and damn the American scholars who decided that Poe was An Important Literary Figure (he's an Important Lunchhead, as far as we can determine, and little else).

They say, by the way, that the French adore Poe because of the excellent translations by Stephane Mallarmé which, for all intents and purpose, were Mallarmé pretending to be Poe. The design of this edition is excellent.

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Intervention in
The Caribbean:

The Dominican
Crisis of 1965

Gen. Bruce Palmer, Jr.

(University of Kentucky)
It's always seemed passing strange to us that the United States has considered the countries to the south of us to be our personal playing ground. First it was Mexico: we helped ourselves to half their territory 150 years ago. Then, in the last half of the 19th Century, we went after Cuba and Nicaragua, among others. (William Walker --- a "filibusterer" --- came to Nicaragua in 1855, took control of Granada, proclaimed himself president, took several concubines, and opened the country to slavery. He was recognized shortly after by President Franklin Pierce.)

This century began with our taking over the northern half of Columbia and renaming it "Panama." Self-determination, claimed Theodore Roosevelt, who should have known better. We moved into the Dominican Republic, ran it from 1916 to 1924, and stayed a total of nineteen years in Haiti as well, just to be sure that all of Hispanola was under control.

El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Cuba were and are countries with their own laws, their own citizens --- presumably with the ability to run their own affairs. But somewhere, somehow, it's been decided that the United States had the right, duty, and obligation to move in and take over whenever we don't like what's going on. A country that expresses the strange desire to be in control of its own land, rather than being owned by an American corporation, seems to irritate us no end.

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A Military History
G. E. Wood
Merely putting out a book on the subject of mud might set the reader's teeth a-jingling, not dissimilar to our reaction to some other books that have recently come across our transom. One, zap, on the history of lightning rods; another, ow, on noise (noise!); a third on ... doilies, ancient and modern; and our most favorite obscurantist volume of all times, Alexander A Potebnja's Psycholinguistic Theory of Literature: A Metacritical Inquiry.

But, moosh: back to mud. Professor Wood explains that there are three types of mud: I, IIa, and IIb. I can't see that this delimitation helps the reader very much. In 1964, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously said of pornography: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced ... but I know it when I see it." I think you and I would know mud when we see it, feel it, stand in it (or slip in it).

Mud smells and tastes like a expanded PhD thesis that got stuck in its own goo and I am not so sure it deserves 190 pages. When we think of reasons for military defeats, mud may be guilty ... but it's hardly scintillating. As a reason for losing wars, give me mallophaga over porridge any day of the week. You'll find the latter in Hans Zinsser's Rats, Lice, and History. Now that's history with a bite!

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Wake Up to Your Life
Discovering the Buddhist
Path of Attention

Ken McLeod

(Harper San Francisco)
We learn from Ken McLeod's personal stories dotted about through the text that all his "clients" are professionals: businessmen, pilots, psychologists, lawyers, entrepreneurs. No low-lifes like you and me. One, "a consultant for corporate training," came to him because "he realized that the practice of right speech would change the way he did business." In other words, if your sales force is lagging and your bottom line is drooping, go to McLeod, add a little clear wisdom out of the East to your vigorish --- and soon enough your sales will go through the ceiling.
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Life Class
Pat Barker
For some reason --- except for the steamier passages --- Barker's klunky style reminds us of Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser, like her, had a fairly important message, one of people tangled in society's viciousness. The American Tragedy and Sister Carrie are gripping stories, but to make it to the end one has to slog through a prose style that went out with John Bunyan (or, in Barker's case, Oui Magazine).

The Booker people apparently thought enough of Barker to give her a prize for The Ghost Road, an earlier WWI novel. Maybe they liked the way she married history --- psychological history, European history, real life characters (Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Dr. W. H. R. Rivers) --- with fiction. Unlike some of us, they didn't seem bothered by the fiction's friction, and all those passages strewn with nipples and purple glistening tumescent knobs.

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Dragon Thunder
My Life with Chögyam Trungpa
Diana J. Mukpo
For fans of Tibetan Buddhism, there is no end of detail here on the Bodhidharma, meditation, Shambhala, tulkus, and abhishekas. But there is also too much drinking; too many scandals; and too much silk. Diana gets her claws into quite a few people on her way to the top of the dharma ladder. Her passion for something called dressage can get tedious unless you are into horses involved in ballet (with horsy tutus).

The most interesting parts of Dragon Thunder appear in the first hundred pages, the details of her first meetings with Rinproche. Once, in the midst of their wedded bliss, Rinproche called her "a punk." She got right back at him: "I said, 'I may be a punk, but I'm not drunk.' With that, he tried to hit me, but he missed."

She won out at the end, though. He was having "severe blood-clotting problems" in the hospital. As he lay dying, "I went down to New York to attend a trade fair because I was opening a children's clothing store in Halifax."

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Ten Poems to Change
Your Life Again & Again

Roger Housden
(Harmony Books)
Despite all the puff pieces that came along with Ten Poems, the book suffers from two major flaws. One is that the ten selected poems are hardly of the Life-Changing variety. That old wheeze (and bitter racist) Rilke appears as #1,

    Pour yourself like a fountain.
    Flow into the knowledge that what you are seeking
    finishes often at the start, and, with ending, begins.

and thus beginning (inchoately) ends, "Daphne / becoming a laurel, / dares you to become the wind." Such windiness!

Several other poems, notably by Ellen Bass, David Whyte, and Leonard Cohen are not much better.

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Telephone Ringing
In the Labyrinth

Poems 2004 - 2006
Adrienne Rich
A few of these poems were previously published in the Virginia Quarterly Review, The Progressive, The Nation, and The New Review of Literature. To those in the know, these four magazines represent nothing more or less than the original American Dead Poets' Society.

When we saw Rich's title Telephone Ringing in the Labyrinth, we found ourselves wondering why, each time we picked up the receiver, all we got was a loud buzzing noise. We thought for a moment that she might have been associated with that collection of poetry --- a wonderful collection --- from ten years back, A Cricket in the Telephone (at Sunset). No such luck.

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The Berlin Stories
Christopher Isherwood
(New Directions)
"I think," said Sally, "it must be marvelous to be a novelist. You're frightfully dreamy and unpractical and unbusinesslike, and people imagine they can fairly swindle you as much as they want --- and then you sit down and write a book about them which fairly shows them what swine they all are, and it's the most terrific success and you make pots of money."

"No," the narrator says, "I suspect the trouble with me is that I'm not quite dreamy enough..."

No, but he was dreamy enough to make pots of money on these besotted stories.

Much is made of Berlin being one of the seminal "gay" novels, but outside of a few scenes in dubious bars and the narrator (and the reader) having to live with a flaky, obnoxious seventeen-year-old prima donna named Otto (revealed many years later to be Isherwood's lover) there is little here of high art.

One episode in "The Landauers" has our narrator standing outside a bar where "Men dressed as women!"

    "You queer, too, hey?" demanded the little American, turning suddenly on me.

    "Yes," I said, "very queer indeed."

And that's it as far as revelations about Christopher and his kind.

Isherwood famously wrote,

    I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.

He may be a camera, but obviously the lens got daubed with much too much Vaseline.

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A Winter Journey
In Poetry, Image, And Song

John Harbison, Susan Youens

(University of Wisconsin Press)
What A Winter Journey misses is the wonder of Schubert. He could take exquisitely stupid poems and put exquisite music to them, music that works because it makes us forget all the acne-filled poetasting. The two dozen poems by Müller that Schubert selected for his song cycle tell of a lonely wanderer musing on his lost love, visiting the graveyard, revisiting the place of his love, thinking --- naturally --- on death. It takes a certain suspension of disbelief to get through this balderdash. To devote a whole book to Müller's verse is a grave mistake and performers know this well. I have yet to hear someone sing these songs in English without breaking down or breaking up. In German it's just bad poetry; in English it's a howl.
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Don't Tread on Me
The Selected Letters
of S. J. Perelman

Prudence Crowther, Editor

    At Tucumcari, New Mexico, we had a room in the Randle, a matchboard hotel with people clearing their throats all night and peeing into the cuspidors. The worst horror was the Beale in Kingman, Arizona, which had a coating of fine gray fur over everything as thick as Gurke's [the dog's] coat. Men walked up and down an alley contiguous to our room and three women in the next room came in about four and tried very hard to vomit up their drinks without much success.
Lord knows why anyone would want to publish the letters of S. J. Perelman. He was an important, gifted, supremely witty writer --- but his writings were crafted over months of pain and trial. The letters, on the other hand, were tossed off quickly, and although there are rare nuggets, they bear as much interest as the eight-volume set of The Essays of Nikolai Semionovich Leskov.

For those interested in Perelman's life --- and god knows there are drones in graduate school at Columbia or Berkeley who are plotting some computer study of the adjectives in Perelman's writings --- the letters are only mildly absorbing. They constitute the raw stuff of his masterpieces, counterpoint to his descriptions of Hollywood, or the Pennsylvania farm, or his bread-and-butter trips around the world.

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The Making of an
Ink-Stained Wretch

Half a Century Pounding
The Political Beat

Jules Witcover
(Johns Hopkins)
Ink-Stained Wretch is not only misnamed (reporters may still be wretches, but they stopped using pen-and-ink a hundred years ago), it is a cheery, cheesy throw-away. All reporters need editors; Witcover's windiness could easily have been edited from three-hundred pages down to, say, a hundred or so.

The author does think that reporters getting juiced out of their minds is very very funny, whether it is a drunk put on by the Pentagon at a brothel in Panama City ("including a grotesque 'exhibition' not recommended for the queasy of stomach,") or cocktails doled out for the working press in Frankfurt-am-Main. The 1971 Rockefeller-inspired murder of prisoners at Attica is not featured, but the bus chartered for reporters is, because it was "more than amply supplied with refreshments, both solid and liquid."

"On Rockefeller's campaign trail in New York City, our ethical standards took a holiday as we dug into the feast, washing it down the house's best libations."

During Muskie's campaign in 1972, Witcover fondly remembers the bar at the Sheraton Wayfarer in Bedford, New Hampshire. In 2004, he reflects on the "endless nights of good talk and drink at countless saloons from Des Moines to Manchester and on out to San Francisco and back." Thus the Fourth Estate, the ones charged with informing and enlightening 20th Century America, apparently consisted of little more than a handful of beery jokesters involved in a light-hearted romp through the watering-holes of America.

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Lullaby of

The Autobiography of
George Shearing

George Shearing.
Alan Shipton

Lullaby of Birdland, like many of Shearing's recordings, goes on for a long time. A very long time. With lots of endless noodling. And not much in the way of artistic variation on a theme.

Which is, according to the notes I took while slogging through the book, to let us know that George Shearing is straightforward, talented, famous, warm-hearted, courageous, trustworthy, conscientious, generous, creative, well-known, considerate, thoughtful, cultured, accepting, bright, curious, wise, proper, notable, kindly and quite enlightened.

He also writes (or dictates) prose just as he plays music: straight, no chaser, placid if not flaccid, and most significantly, without much heart. It's astonishingly like his music, much-beloved by many who are fond of sitting around in smoky cellars, breathing each other's exhalations, sipping a $10 mug of beer or a shot of whiskey from tiny shot-glasses, tapping their feet and waggling their heads, ogling the guy in front of them with the dark glasses and spotlight. For them, this book has got to be a godsend.

For the rest of us, an evening at Birdland would not be unlike twenty-four hours in the Green Zone of Baghdad. Making it through Lullaby of Birdland could be compared to --- second prize --- an entire month in Baghdad.

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Barry Gifford
What is most galling about Bordertown is the pretense of A-R-T --- tics and twitches of design taken whole from Wired: slop-over type, crude drawings stuck atop pictures and words, print layout that makes the old Berkeley Barb look like an illuminated manuscript, and so many grainy photos that we suspect the in-house photographer of coming down with The Terminal Shakes.

The assumption is that our neighboring country to the south is a hot-house of blood, smegma, and vaginal juices coupled with lazy, indolent politicians, murderous drug-smugglers, and heartless thieves who run the whole show, while --- contrariwise --- hard-working, honest, and innocent gringos on this side work day and night to prevent this filth from slopping over the border. One page is devoted to the Border Patrol, and the representative of "La Migra" is shown friendly and smiling --- in fact, the only smile in the book: certainly a smile that few Mexicans will ever see. "Illegal immigrants" and "illegals" are the operative nouns here, despite the fact that those who have a modicum of sensitivity use the word indocumentados.

Ecology, anyone? Before Operation Gatekeeper, would-be workers came across (and drowned in the Tijuana or Rio Grande Rivers) --- but since we've forced them into the mountains, they're guilty of screwing up the ecology with their incessant (probably terrified) running through the canyons. They are, willy-nilly, says the author, destroying fragile plant life, and "grinding down the root systems." The death of plants is evidently more important than that of humans --- or at least is reported more accurately.

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Two Years
Before the Mast

And Other Voyages
Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
(Library of America)
If you are a fan of the ilk of the sea tales of Patrick O'Brian, this might appeal to you. For the rest of us who can't tell a jib from the bilge, nor the poop from a reef, it is trying at best, throw-the-book-out-the-window at worst.

Dana comes across as a bit of a prude, one who picks and chooses the facts to paint himself as sturdy of heart and stout of mind if not body. He pointedly ignores a letter from a companion who refers to "the beautiful Indian lasses who often frequented your humble abode in the hide house."

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Laura Esquivel

Ernesto Mestre-Reed,

Some of us were quite struck with Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate if for no other reason than the delicious recipes for molé and tamale pie. But her newest work is less tamale and more soft soap.

It is also a tad unbelievable and often the language heats up and runs off the page and falls into the toilet. This is Malinche being introduced to Cortés's verge: "The clouds in the sky began to move with extraordinary swiftness. The air became laden with humidity, moistening the feathers of birds and the leaves of the trees, as well as Malinalli's vagina. The gray clouds, like Cortés's member, made a great effort to contain their waters, to hold back, not to let them fall, so that their precious liquid would not be released."

Despite the damp, she starts in to telling him about the Nahuantl divines. Cortés asks, before throwing himself on her, "And what is that god?"

Malinelli opts for a little coitus interruptus in order to respond: "Eternal, the same as yours, but his eternity is not invisible like yours. Our god evaporates, makes designs in the sky, moves whimsically through the clouds, shouts out his presence, spills his consciousness, and quenches our thirst and fear."

Thus pre-colonial congress. As an inhabitant of today's Mexico City would opine, "A ella le gusta bastante crema en su taco." (She sure likes a lotta cream on her taco.)

This silliness doesn't erupt like Popocatépetl in the midst of the story, it's there from the get-go. This is Malinalli's father, gazing lovingly upon her a few days after her birth,

    Here you are, my awaited daughter, whom I dreamed about, my necklace of fine jewels, my quetzal plumage, my human creation, engendered by me. You are my blood, my color, in you is my image. My little girl, look on peacefully. Here is your mother, your lady, from her belly, from her womb, you were engendered, you sprouted. As if you were a leaf of grass, you sprouted.

Daddy disappears soon afterwards, thank god, but then Grandmother takes up the oracular work, in a similar vein, until, to our great relief, Cortés arrives to lay waste to the entire nation.

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