Editors' Top Picks from
The First Half of 2012
In the General Index,
RALPH's editors award
gold stars to any new books
we find to be of especial merit.
Here are thirteen culled from
the more than one hundred reviews
that we have posted so far this year.

A Winter in Arabia
A Journey through Yemen

Freya Stark
(Tauris Parke)
She speaks the language (ours too). She's willing to have her hands painted with henna (a local custom). She can gossip with all, can turn a simple encounter with one of the locals into a funny tale of dealing with customs, outlined with a crucial delicacy.

Once, Fatima came to visit, and she chances on an old issue of Vogue. Stark had not "had the time to tear out two naked ladies advertising bath salts:"

    I hastened to say that it is a paper exclusively circulated in harems.

    "Are they real?" said she.

    "Oh no," I said with relative truth: they have the improbable silhouette invented by advertisers. "They are just Jinn."

    "Fatima was overcome by the female beauty of Europe," Stark concludes. "She kissed her forefinger and pressed it on the prettiest of the mannequins and said, "May Allah shower good on them."

It is her ability to sketch out the situation for us, along with her affection and sensitivity to this distant culture --- so far from the Europe in which she grew up --- that makes her such an affecting companion on this new journey of hers.

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50th Anniversary Edition
John Cage
Kyle Gann, Editor

Silence is infinitely quotable, mostly because of the koans. All are a bit floaty, so Cage sticks in names and places and details that leave one befuddled, but you have all the facts you need to befuddle you somewhat less. "Before studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains. While studying Zen, things become confused. After studying Zen, men are men and mountains are mountains."

    After telling this, Dr. Suzuki was asked, "What's the difference between before and after?" He said, "No difference, only the feet are a little bit off the ground."

There's a lot of music stuff going here which doesn't interest me very much, because when I am listening, for example, to a good performance of a Bach cantata, or to Schubert's Winterreise, words of explanation are furtherest from my mind.

It's not that they have no place, or that criticism isn't important ... but it becomes as attention-grabbing as the baby crying during Stockhausen's Pierrot Lunaire or an errant fire alarm in the bedroom. It depends on the person involved.

Cage doesn't seem to have much use for the Romantics, but in his Lecture on Nothing, he does relate that "Somebody asked Debussy how he wrote music, and the composer said: I take all the tones there are, leave out the ones I don't want, and use all the others."

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Children in Reindeer Woods
Kristín Ómarsdóttir
Lytton Smith, Translator
(Open Letter)
If you think that Rafael let the eleven-year-old Billie survive the mass killing because he has some devious plans for her then you don't know Kristín Ómarsdóttir. I didn't either.

Now I do, and am not so sure I want to. For this is one of the whackiest books I have come across in many years of whacky books. A soldier more or less immune to murder (although he does shoot off a few of his toes to try to break himself of the habit of murdering people.) A girl who seems unimpressed by his murderous history; in fact, seems to find him a quite pleasant companion (he will often play Barbie dolls with her).

He only turns a little menacing when she starts ragging on him about the nun who appeared one day, then disappeared:

    Did she ask you about me?...

    She asked whether I was your brother.

    And what did you say?

    Yes, that I was your brother. Then she asked me countless questions which I couldn't answer without giving myself away.

    Why didn't you tell her the truth?

    Then I would have had to kill her. You don't kill nuns. I could never justify that before a court of law, let alone myself.

    Why don't you try to tell the truth to those around you and then not kill people?


    If you meet her again?

    Then I'll tell her the truth.

    You promise?


    Why didn't you rape her?

    Don't behave like that, child.

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Jim Dodge
Epic is probably an appropriate adjective for Fup, for it's epic in the style of Gargantua and Pantagruel. No one can make white lightning better than Jake. No one can build a fence better than Tiny. No one can match the appetite of Fup (she likes Death Whisper, too). No one is more gargantuanly piggie than Lockjaw.

§   §   §

This is a beguiling adventure. Dodge not only has a way with words, but he knows how to make an improbable tale hold together. All rings true ... even fat ducks, mild-mannered fence-builders, and ninety-nine-year-old card sharks. The phrasing is of one who loves words, loves what can be done with them.

When Tiny moves in with Jake, "He decided to just be who he was and go on about his life, and if the boy wanted to join in, that was fine and welcome, and if he didn't ..."

    well, Jake was used to fishing by himself. Real feelings take time earning the trust to keep them true and, Jake reckoned, an immortal like himself had, if nothing else, plenty of time.

All these characters do seem to be immortal. At least until the end ... when Lockjaw dies, apparently of old age, and Fug gets reborn as a slimmer, more aerodynamic duck (who flies away), and Jake, who figured himself to live well past a hundred, but then in bed one night, hears "the whisper of wings as he was lifted."

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The Vagabond's Breakfast
Richard Gwyn
He is a dyed-in-the-wool abuser of mind and body, one of those guys that wander around the city smelling of bad whiskey, old vomit, and last year's BO, eyes glazed with some unimaginable combination of drink and drug ... a charter member of that shambling mob of bums that live in the seedy streets of Barcelona or Paris or Milan or Athens ... demanding that you hand over your francs or lira or pesetas or drachma. Or a drink; or a toot.

In brief, he's a general blight on the human race.

Gwyn is not your typical vago, however. This guy studied anthropology at the London School of Economics, writes poetry, can play the piano, the violin, the accordion. He can pick up a language in no time, has written studies of modalities of patients (and staff) in hospitals. "I have a PhD in the narrative construction of illness experience," he tells us, improbably. He worships at the shrine of Bach and of Glenn Gould, gives poetry readings and goes to literary conferences, and uses big words. too. Although not here.

He reads voraciously, "has an attic full of books," speaks knowingly of the writings of Javier Marías, Susan Sontag, Baudelaire, DeLillo, Kazantzakis, Céline, Villon, Montaigne, Borges ... as well as some of the more obscure writers, including Howdy Doody's sister, Margaret Anne Doody. And Roberto Bolaño.

Gwyn claims to have (drunkenly) met the latter, spent an evening arguing avant-garde literature with him in a dive in south-west France, which may elevate him from being your common on (or off) the wall throw-up and fight-you-in-the-alley drunk. If he pals around with Bolaño, he's a man with class, and maybe even smarts.

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War and Ideas
Selected Essays
John Mueller
Mueller is a contrarian's dream. And his statements might peg him as a madman if it weren't for his singular weakness as a historian: he backs up his facts with exquisitely detailed citations. Think the world is getting more warlike? He defines wars as conflicts within or between nation states as (an arbitrary figure) causing more than 1,000 deaths. He has a chart that shows thirty "intra-state wars" in 1991, then less than ten in 2006. Extra-state wars reached a high of ten in 1971, have tapered off since. The same with inter-state wars.

"No matter how defined," he avers, "there has been a most notable decline in the frequency of wars over the last years." Maybe it's a matter of definition, such as, "ethnic conflict," "new war," or perhaps "drug violence."

    Most ... have been nearly opportunistic predations waged by packs --- often remarkably small ones --- of criminals, bandits, and thugs engaging in armed conflict either as mercenaries under hire to desperate governments as independent or semi-independent warlord or brigand bands.

One of Mueller's most salient points is the necessary ability of nation-states to institute firm police and military forces to keep in hand the "thugs, brigands, bandits, highwaymen, goons, bullies, criminals, pirates, mercenaries, robbers, adventurers, hooligans, and children who seem to be the chief remaining perpetrators of a type of violence that can be said to resemble war."

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The Best American
Magazine Writing 2011

Compiled by the American Society of Magazine Editors
Sid Holt, Editor
(Columbia University Press)
When we get another of these "The Best of..." books, our usual question is "sez who? Why in the hell should anyone (editors included) know better than anyone else?" Our worst fears are always confirmed when we get another volume edited by the Professional Famous Writer who can always manage to worm herself into the collection: Joyce Carol Oates. We have found some of her worst tucked away in "Some of the Best."

But as I wandered around The Best American Magazine Writing I found myself pleasantly surprised ... no, I take that back ... I found myself entranced. The writing, at least ninety per cent of it, showed journalism at its best, from the pages of the likes of The New Yorker, Harpers, The Paris Review, Texas Monthly, The Atlantic, Mother Jones.

And Vanity Fair, with that old curmudgeon, Christopher Hitchens, writing with tartness and a fair amount of compassion (for himself), now caught with cancer of the esophagus, looking at it (and himself) with his practiced, cynical eye, managing to win our hearts --- all the while not blotting out his own feelings of despair: observing (for example) the bugaboos, one "confronting one of the most appealing clichés in our language,"

    People don't have cancer: they are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It's even in the obituaries for cancer losers, so if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality.

"Myself," he says, in typical Hitchenesque reversal, "I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient." He then goes on to report, with benign amusement, the bitter I-told-you-sos and you-should've-known-betters from those have been offended by his wonderful discourses on the pleasures of atheism.

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José Saramago
Margaret Jull Costa,

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Some of us had to grow up on this bible, some of us even had it dinned in our heads endlessly, regularly, twice on Sundays, ad nauseum. And still it never registered, the cold stone they had given us for the rock of our faith.

It is I suppose like what happens to us who grow up in a house of alcoholics: it becomes part of the background noise, you don't question it, once you get out the door you ... well, you don't forget it, but it is back there behind your life and you don't think it's so special or different until there comes a moment when you find another body on the floor amidst the broken glass and the shambles, a body supposedly related to you, and you think, "Other people don't live like this (the bottles under the cushions, tucked away at the back of the closet; that stink of booze everywhere; mum passed out again in the bathroom.)

§   §   §

From our past readings, we know this Saramago can take any story from anywhere and pop it full of life. Eight years ago, we wrote in our review of The Cave,

    Saramago got a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998, and as far as I am concerned he should have gotten at the same time the Nobel Prize for Psychology and another one, the Wise Prize, for Knowledge of the Workings of the Heart & Soul...

    ... plus, and in addition, any other prizes lying around, the Booker, the Pulitzer, the Prix Fixe de France and whatever other bookish prizes they have hanging around to give to those who through some sterling ability that you and I will never ever be able to comprehend can take a story and words and characters and twist them around and down inside you with such force that they belong to you ... no ... they become you.

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The Centaur in the Garden
Moacyr Scliar
Margaret A. Neves, Translator

(Texas Tech University)
When Guedali comes forth from the womb, he appears to have a superabundance of legs. Four to be exact. From the waist up, he's "a robust, pink baby, crying and moving its little hands." From there down, he's all horsie.

His father sobs. The midwife admits she has never seen anything like this before. Mother goes dumb --- it's been a hard pregnancy; and now this beast.

And there are the practical problems. What kind of bed should we make for a kid (your kid) with a long tail? (The midwife finds a big crate, lines with blankets). How to feed him? (Milk mixed with hay). And the mohel coming in to do the ritual circumcision? The family tells him they are Jewish but, he says, "I have no obligation to circumcise horses!") Guedali is quite a challenge, being a centaur and all.

What will the neighbors think? Father says the boy must be hidden away. Guedali becomes "painfully aware of my shanks, my hooves." When strangers visit, "I am hidden in the cellar or the barn ... I am obliged to think of something called horseshoes. I become conscious of my thick, beautiful tail." Most of all, he loves galloping through the fields, but always well out of sight of neighbors and strangers.

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A Memoir
Joshua Cody
Cody is a helluva good writer, so good that the rest of us who have labored long in the writerly grove could get riled. He pulls it all in so easily, weaving in Pound and Eliot and Klee and sex and hospital walls and near-death experiences and cocaine and doctors.

There is, for example, Cody's "pain-management" physician who seems to fall in love with him (everyone seems to fall in love with him; after reading this, I am too).

It would not do to write the name, especially with the strange courtship that follows,

    but here we are presented with the intentionally unemphatic entrance of the real Not Her Real Name. Obviously Caroline was not Caroline's real name, but neither was Caroline not the real Not her Real Name, just as Sophie (not her real name) was not the real Not Her Real Name ... Not Her Real Name: or Nothereal, as I'm going to call her for short, for convenience. I deserve a little ease at this point.

This last bit is thrown in there as afterthought and the reader thinks, well, after a series of chemo that didn't take and now going through this harrowing bone-marrow business ... perhaps you do deserve a "little ease."

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Call Me When You Land
Michael Schiavone
(The Permanent Press)
If you are planning to have a fifteen-year-old son, don't. And if you have any doubts, read this at once. "No man will ever crush you like your son," says Megan, who runs the place where Katie works. No wonder Katie hides her booze (and her boozing) from young C. J. As if she could. Our children, no matter how hard we work to deceive them, know everything. She decides he needs a job to get some spending money. She says, "I see a lot of kids your age working at Star Market."

    "I'm not bagging groceries."

    Katie's phone rings. "Who calls now?" she asks, pressing the ignore button.

    "Probably Mother's Against Drunk Driving," he says.

This refers to her recent brush with the law where she might have gotten run in and a hefty fine if she hadn't charmed Officer Rollins with her lies. Did I mention the dialogue in Call Me When You Land is a kick-in-the-pants? When she gets on C. J.'s case for his new earring, she says, "It really looks awful. I'd rather you get a tattoo that no one can see."

    "Fine, whatever you want." He removes the stud from his ear. "I'll get a MOM heart tattoo on my shoulder first thing tomorrow."
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Cream of Kohlrabi
Floyd Skloot
(Tupelo Press)
The story "Cream of Kohlrabi" turns sad ... brilliantly sad ... at the very end, the kind of woe that makes one set down the book for awhile to let it sink in. And like all good short stories, this one has moments of telling detail: Ike has trouble remembering what a door-knob is called; he calls "jackasses" "jackal-asses; after all he has gone through, he tells Rosa Martinez who works at the nursing home that, when he looks out the window, "You know what I see, Rosa? I see a haze, mostly. The color of bones, or maybe ashes. Some movement here and there, but mostly haze."

These stories of half-crazed old geezers waiting to die stay with one. They are often not sure of their words, not sure who they are, not even who they were. But, as Ike has it, when he asks lovely Rosa to sit next to him, and she actually does it, he thinks that he must really look bad. "The pretty ones never sit beside you unless you're on death's door."

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Bernard Maybeck
Architect of Elegance
Mark Anthony Wilson
(Gibbs Smith)
Most of us are familiar with Maybeck's Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco ... the Beaux-Arts world's fair pavilion with its lurid Corinthian columns and Roman entablature and sub-tropical lush plantings, a mish-mash of Greek, Roman, and Renaissance all out of proportion (and pink columns, even). One would have to be a dangerous romantic to find this "architrave and corona of the colonnades" beautiful, but I suppose its very gaudiness will ensure that it has fans through the centuries. Still, I suspect that we are better off across the Bay praying to the strange divine that lives on in Mary Baker Eddy's divine auditorium.

Speaking of divinity: this volume runs 230 pages with more than 300 illustrations, mostly in color. Editor Wilson wanted only to include the still-existing buildings designed by Maybeck, but there are few black-and-white photographs of those structures that have gone in a blaze, one of California seasonal fires that can do urban renewal on whole neighborhoods.

What's worse are the scandalous developers whose ignorance of California architectural artistry can bring a tear to the eye. Los Angeles's Packard showrooms --- built for Earle C. Anthony --- fell on the sword of redevelopment. May the perpetuators of these evils forever dwell in architectural hell, in, say, a lifetime in the third floor of a cheap condominium designed and built by Donald Trump.

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And Our Favorite
Press Release of
The Year
A Flotilla
Of Boobs
Our magazine, The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy, and the Humanities has had its share of miseries over its eighteen-year history. But none of them matched our presumed loss of over a hundred thousand boobs several years ago.

One of the most onerous items of our early history was confusion of our sincere literary effort with those of a bust-and-fondle magazine out of Australia --- also named RALPH --- funded, in part, if you will believe it, by Bill Gates.

Readers would go online seeking a recent volume of Buddhist 16th Century poetry or a history of English seafaring or a study of 17th Century Anti-Reformation Purges and would often find themselves confronted with shots of ladies in dishabilles lounging naughtily back in a hot-tub somewhere in the outskirts of Perth.

Our complaints to the management of this other RALPH had little effect ... although they were kind enough to feature us in one issue ... sans lace, stockings and those topless do-dads so favored by the twenty to thirty-five-year-old booze-and-lust gang. Our hits quintupled during that particular week.

Fortunately, this other RALPH went bust. An item that contributed to their demise was a loss of what they explained to the press as "130,000 boobs," afloat somewhere in the vasty reaches of the Pacific Ocean.

This was the news item that we recently discovered online, with this headline:

Ralph's 130 Thousand Inflatable Boobs Lost at Sea

The story went on:

    More than 130,000 inflatable boobs have been lost at sea on their way to Australia. The missing booby booty is estimated to be worth about $200,000.

    Men's magazine Ralph was planning to include the boobs as a free gift with its January issue.

    The cargo is worth about $200,000, which is another blow for publisher ACP's parent company PBL, which is already in $4.3 billion of debt.

    The shipment of plastic boobs from China had been missing for more than a week after Chinese officials lost the paperwork and put them on the wrong boat, a Ralph magazine spokeswoman said.

    She said the container left a dock in Beijing two weeks ago but turned up empty in Sydney this week.

    The magazine has put out an all-points bulletin to shipping authorities to see if they have the container, but if they don't turn up in the next 48 hours it will be too late for the next issue, she said.

    Ralph editor Santi Pintado urged anyone who has any information to contact the magazine.

    "Unless Somali pirates have stolen them its difficult to explain where they are," Pintado told AAP.

    "If anyone finds any washed up on a beach, please let us know."

There was, as there always is in Fondlelandia, a happy if somewhat moist ending.

News.com.au reported:

    The shipment of plastic boobs from China had been missing for more than a week after Chinese officials lost the paperwork and put them on the wrong boat, a Ralph magazine spokeswoman said.

    They had been due to dock in Sydney last week, but have since turned up at a Melbourne dock, where they've been sitting for a week.

    Workers are now frantically working to put them in bags to go out with the December 15 issue.

    Ralph editor Santi Pintado said the incident had cost the magazine $30,000.

    "If we'd found them a day later, it'd have been too late to get them on the next issue," Pintado said.

    "You'd think the Chinese economy was in enough trouble without misplacing 130,000 pairs of boobs."

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