Fifteen Stupendous Books from 2014
When our reviewers run into a book of special merit,
we award it a star in our General Index.
Here are fifteen or so that were definitely
vaut le voyage.

My Year of Hypnosis, Hormones,
Dark Chocolate, and Other Adventures in
The World of Anti-Aging

Lauren Kessler
Kessler has written a peppy book on the billion dollar industry of Americans keeping young (and peppy) and sexy long after they should have been sent off to Geezerville or laid in the grave. What is original here over the thousand or so other titles on Staying Young is that Kessler elected to use her own body as the litmus.

Kessler is around sixty years old --- she refuses to tell us exactly --- and during the year of her study, she puts herself through a variety of special diets (including "superfoods), tried a variety of supplements, contemplated medical procedures, used a selection of "exotics," almost made it through the "complete raw food diet," did "detox." And, best of all, at least for the readers, she consulted dozens of "experts."

In the anti-geezer biz, there are two main types: the pushers who come to Las Vegas or Orlando and infest late-night television for the chance to sell us something. But attendees also include some of the best scientific geeks, solidly educated professionals who have real scientific studies to inform and enlighten. The key site for this sometimes comic dialectic is the semi-annual conference of the International Congress on Anti-Aging Medicine and Regenerative Biomedical Technologies. (The umbrella organization is known as A4M --- the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine.)

Counterclockwise details the many options available to those of us who want to be young, lovely, sexy, and buxom again. We find that this pursuit of youth can at times be ridiculously silly, sometimes dangerous, often costly ... and certainly unnerving.

Take, for instance, the options available in going under the knife. Turning back the clock can involve "elective surgery, needles, cannulas, drains, silicone bags, autologous fat transfers, compression garments, scars, keloids, and the unhappy knowledge that you let vanity win a battle that can never be won."

The biggie is called "full body lift."

    This is the mother of all plastic surgeries, up to nine hours in the operating room with four or five surgeons, more than a dozen incisions, and, depending on whether it's performed at a doctor's surgical facility or in a hospital, an $18,000 to $40,000 price tag.

"The procedure removed extra skin and fat from the belly, hips, butt, back, arms, and outer and inner thighs ... [The doctor's] banter was unnervingly lighthearted as they recounted the one square yard of skin they have removed from a recent patient and the 10 feet of sutures that were necessary to sew the lady back together again."

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Inside the Rainbow
Russian Children's Literature 1920 - 1935:
Beautiful Books, Terrible Times

Julian Rothenstein,
Olga Budashevskaya,

(Redstone Press)
As the Revolution wore on, it became harder for writers and illustrators of children's books, especially in the time of Moscow Trials. There is, for instance, this critique of the great children's book writer Kornei Chukovsky, published by one Vygotsky in Educational Psychology:

    It is not hard to instill the taste for such dull literature in children, though there can be little doubt that it has a negative impact on the educational process, particularly in those immoderately large doses to which children are now subjected. All thought of style is thrown out, and in his babbling verse Chukovsky piles up nonsense on top of gibberish. Such literature only fosters silliness and foolishness in children.

This dourness also turns up in quotes from Lenin's speeches and writings to be found here and there throughout Inside the Rainbow. This is part of a speech given before the Young Communist League in October of 1920: "Our school must train the young to be participants in the struggle for emancipation from the exploiters. The YCL will justify its name as the league of the young communist generation only when it links up every step of its teaching, training and education with participation in the general struggle of all the toilers against the exploiters ... it must know that the whole purpose of life is to build this society."

And here we find a few of the "Notes on Child Care" posted in the Museums of Mother and Child in 1932:

  • Never take a child to motion pictures or the theatre.
  • Do not help a child who is in a difficult situation unless it be dangerous, he must learn to care for himself.
  • Do not tell stories to child before he goes to sleep, for you will disturb him with new impressions.
  • Never tell a child about things he cannot see. (This means that fairy stories should not be told to children.)

Yet some of the writings here come with the touch of the ecological, a wisp of humor. This is from Ivan Bunin's diary, Cursed Days.

    First it was the Mensheviks and their trucks, then the Bolsheviks and their armored cars. The truck: what a terrible symbol it has become for us! How many trucks have been part of our most burdensome and terrible memories! From the very first day, the Revolution has been tied to this roaring and stinking animal, filled to overflowing first with hysterical people and vulgar mobs of military deserters, and then with elitist-type convicts. All the vulgarity of contemporary culture and its "social pathos" are embodied in the truck.

There are even a few cheerful passages, such as Viktor Borisvich Shklovsky's memoirs of the February revolution, a child's playground of cars and trucks banging together:

    And throughout the city rushed the muses and furies of the February revolution --- trucks and automobiles piled high and spilling over with soldiers, not knowing where they were going or where they would get gasoline, giving the impression of sounding the tocsin through the whole city. They rushed around, circling and buzzing like bees.

    It was the slaughter of the innocent cars. The countless automobile schools, in order to fill the motorized companies, had been cranking out hordes of drivers with half an hour's training. And now these half-trained characters gleefully fell upon the vehicles.

    The city resounded with crashes. I don't know how many collisions I saw during those days. Later on, the city was jammed with automobiles simply left by the wayside.

Perhaps it is best to leave the solemn prose to the solemn revolutionaries, and, by contrast give our best attention to the hundreds of glorious pictures reproduced here --- geese ducks chickens cows blackbirds ... horse-and-carriage, merry-go-rounds, even angels and rainbows, and a droll picture of a lady selling cigarettes, with the following inscription:

    --- ПаДпжа, а ДаДпжа!
    Зачем у уосселъДромщицьi красная шапка?

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The Race for the World's
Most Seductive Metal

Matthew Hart
(Simon & Schuster)

A strange beast called "invisible gold" has revived mining in areas where it was thought no longer worthwhile to dig it out and refine it. When the price of gold went from $35/ounce to over $825 in the late 1970s, it became economically feasible to go back to the old mines and use up-to-date techniques to extract gold from tailings, old mines thought to be "used up," even to knock down pillars left behind years ago to shore up the roof. The newest thing in gold mining is going beneath the sea, searching the depths of the ocean.

The Chinese, of all people, are distorting gold production worldwide. Lenin announced in 1921, "When we are victorious, we will make public toilets out of gold." China doesn't seem to be producing any golden toilets, but the number of producing mining companies in that country is somewhere between 20,000 and 60,000. (It's difficult to count, for much of the mining there comes from mom-and-pop operations. Dad digs, Mom refines, and the kids stack the bars.)

According to Wikipedia and the U.S. Geological Survey, world gold production is now 2700 metric tons a year, but these figures are eight years old. And production figures are confusing: ounces, kilograms, metric tons, tonnes, and the like. "Illegal" mining, of course, can never be counted, and Gold shows that even the sites of "legal" mines --- Barrick Gold, Newmont Mining, and the 500 mining companies listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange --- are riddled with people who come in the night, sneak underground or work on the other side of the hill to get their supply.

The greatest mining operations are in South Africa, Russia, the United States, Canada, China, Australia and Peru. But even Iran, Poland, Finland, Armenia and Fiji(!) turn up with production figures that are sizable.

The most fascinating chapters, at least for me, were of the political plays in gold and gold pricing. When he was president, Franklin Roosevelt used to lie abed of a morning and when the treasury secretary arrived, they would jolly up a price, their own gold fix, one time upping the daily value at twenty-one cents because, as FDR said, "it's a lucky number."

Gold of course is meaningless. It's pretty, malleable, and doesn't go stale or rot. But the price is arbitrary. In his last chapter, Hart writes, "Except for a few practical uses, gold is a notional construct. It has no meaning but its price." Is gold as a material "worth more than something else?" For our ancestors, it was often buried or placed in the river as a momento of the dead. It was of value "not for this world, but for the next."

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A Long Way from Verona
Jane Gardam
(Europa Editions)
Gardam's story is a lark. It takes you back to England pre-WWII, where not only did everyone carry a gas-mask, they used odd words like "mingy," "pursy," and "faffon." Don't ask me to translate.

And if you went to a formal dance at a friend's house, they rolled up the rug and pushed back the sofa and "Aunty Boo played the piano till it nearly burst." The dances you were expected to do were

    valetas and gay gordons and military two-steps and hokey-cokeys and pally-glides and Lambeth Walk. The verger's grandson suddenly shouted out, "Let's 'ave knees oop Mother Brown," but they pretended they hadn't heard.

It's all very English, but is --- as I pointed out --- a lark. (I'm one too). On one hand, Jessica knows more than she should: she memorizes poems by Rupert Brooke, has fallen in love with him, and knows enough Shakespeare to be bored silly. She can also quote Shelley's Ozymandias by heart,

    Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
    And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.

Jessica hates most of the girls she goes to school with. She is convinced they hate her and giggle about her behind her back. They probably have that "sneer of cold command." But she sneers right back.

Jessica's boyfriend is a fourteen-year-old neo-Marxist who sneers, too: at the bourgeoisie. He's also nuts about her dad and the stuff he publishes in The New Statesman. If he was of a later generation he would probably call the old man "your rad dad."

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Men in Prison
Victor Serge
Richard Greeman, Translator

It is a book that is remarkably free of political cant; rather, it is a close examination of the soul of a prison: what it does to the individual, what it does to those who run it and, ultimately, what it does to the society at large.

It is divided up into thirty-six chapters, and during the three days I was going through it, it had the effect of putting me in prison with --- or, more probably, in the cell next to --- Serge. The two of us, locked in our small dark chambers, deprived of light and warmth, subject to random mortifications from the guards with their képis.

Who, as the author proves, were also in prison.

In those days, prisoners were not allowed to speak to each other, nor to the guards. The shock of being put in jail was devastating. "Yesterday, in the very center of life, there were your woman, your child, your friends, your comrades. People and objects surging forth in ceaseless motion, like you, with you," he writes.

    And all at once: nothing. Silence. Isolation. Inactivity. The dullness of empty time.

After the first few days of imprisonment, according to Serge, there come stages which contemporary readers may find similar to those of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Her five stages of dying (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) are matched by the changes once in jail. First, denial, fighting the very idea of being in prison. Serge calls it exhaltation, which "belongs to the period of struggle. It varies in length and ends, once a man ceases to put up resistance, "as a state of vegetative, slow-motion existence in which sharp sufferings and sharp joys no longer play a part."

    I have met convicts like that who were astonishingly placid in their sixth, seventh, or tenth year of confinement.

And anger? He tells us that there are those who are "obsessed by hate,"

    bear a grudge against a judge, a cop on the vice squad, a 'fag,' a 'female.' These are the ones who kill when they get out of prison. They never die in prison. It is possible to live on hate and murder.

The final stage? The one that Kübler-Ross called "acceptance." Serge has a word for it. He calls it "death." Men in Prison is filled with good writing about a bad deal: those who did something against the code of the community and didn't get away with it. Getting nabbed makes them the ultimate losers. Yet prisoners live on, no matter how horrific their fate ... in isolation, at times condemned to silence, under the eyes of the ever-present (often sadistic) guards, complete with the bitter cold of winter in their cells, being cooked by the scorching summers.

Yet these very prisoners are envied by the soldiers. World War One started as Serge was in his third year of incarceration. His prison is but twenty-five miles from the front where the Battle of the Marne was being fought. Some of the soldiers, captured as deserters, were temporarily confined in Melun.

    "Stop complaining!" they said. "You can't imagine how well off we are here!" "I'd do five years rather than go back to living that life at the front, with death at the end of it ... and what a death!" These refugees from the front found our slow torture a soft life [Serge reveals]. "No, really, you're a lucky bunch of bastards!" Our whole notion of life was thrown into disorder.

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A Novel
Jean Echenoz
Linda Coverdale, Translator
(The New Press)
What Jean Echenoz does in his brief novel is to offer us a small picture of five raw innocents caught up in the beginnings. We follow them straight from the "radiant August sun" and "the fresh country air" in the hills of the Loire Valley through early exhilaration, mobilization, a delirious send-off --- flowers, wine, kisses ... kisses sweeter than wine --- onto a final march to the front, an exhausting march with 75 pound packs --- picks, shovels, kitchen utensils, guns, bayonets; and from thence into battle. The boys were not shown how to evade bullets, so they had a chance to watch so many of their compadres die; learning that survival was only possible in trenches or, at times, flat on the ground.

At the beginning they appeared in the traditional red pantaloons, which were an easy target for the enemy. Some were shot by their own troops: in a later war the phrase "friendly fire" was invented. To prevent soldiers from being killed by their own, they were taught to "sew a large white rectangular patch on the backs of their greatcoats."

In the first pitched battle near Maissin, the military band cheerfully tootled along with the guns, the conductor "white baton in hand, brought it down to conjure up La Marseillaise, aiming to provide valiant commentary on the assault."

    As the band played its part in the engagement, the baritone sax was shot in the arm and the trombone fell gravely wounded; the group closed ranks and although their circle was reduced, kept on playing without missing a note and then, when they began to reprise the measure in which "the bloody standard is raised," the flute and tenor sax fell down dead.

Thus our young men learn something not heretofore explained to them during the often merry weekend get-togethers at home; learning, for example, that when you stick the enemy with your bayonet, it becomes necessary to fire the weapon "to retrieve the blades from the flesh via the recoil."

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Sex Is Forbidden
A Novel
Tim Parks
Sex Is Forbidden is a great study of the elephant of lust in the china-shop of the holy. It can bring back old memories to those of us who have on occasion tried a holy retreat. If someone I knew were going off for a session, I would make Sex Is Forbidden required reading. Not just because it makes its point by drawing such a precise portrait of the tempters and the tempted being pushed and pulled, but because the practice of Buddhism isn't a sand-box. There are masters up there sitting at the top of the heap that can drive you mad with their conundrums and pomposity. Sitting on your ass for hours at a time can be and often is a royal pain. Shutting up the mind is like grabbing soap in the bathtub.

And the rewards (even from a small investment of time) can be sensational. Author Parks knows the drill. We suspect he has been through it a few times himself.

Beth is all lust; but she is not untouched by the surroundings. This is our notorious flirt, in the kitchen, after a siege of meditation, getting ready to cook the vegetables: "I felt weirdly mesmerized looking at the dark broccoli heads and pale broccoli stalks."

    My breathing went softer and I was suddenly aware of it. I had the feeling I was seeing something that wasn't the broccoli really, even though, as Dasgupta would say, when you are looking at broccoli, you are looking at broccoli, nothing else.

The tension between the pious and impious is palpable; it drives the plot unceasingly. It's fun, and sometimes achingly funny. And some lines should be written out and hung on the refrigerator until they've gone yellowed and torn. Two of my personal favorites are,

    Sensual pleasure is like honey on a razor's edge.

And on "Vipassana vanity,"

    I would like to learn not to feel superior to everyone, though I don't suppose I ever will. Actually, I'm already thinking how superior I am, wanting not to feel superior. And how superior of me to have recognized this paradox. And to have admitted this stalemate. And so on and on.

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The Guy Davenport Reader
Erik Reece, Editor
The key to this is that it's all very offhand. Davenport lets the arts run together in his mental Mixmaster. And he's not necessarily showing off, doesn't seem to be: he's just having fun, taking us along with him as he meanders around in the playground of Western humanities, ending (in this case) with a brief on Picasso.

And Davenport being Davenport, it includes a sideways look at Picasso's Spain: "Natural rhythm, as all the variations of fish and leaf make a coherent harmony. A fish is a leaf ... Wine, bread, table: his Catholic childhood. Perhaps his Catholic life. Lute, guitar, mandolin: the Spanish ear, which abides life as a terrible dream made tolerable by music."

Davenport draws us in through brief references to our common knowledge, then, raises the magnifying glass and brings the whole scene into focus:

    Spain and Holland. Felipe's expulsion of farmers and bankers, whom he saw with fanatic eyes as Muslims and Jews, shifted the counting houses to Holland. Spain dreamed on its pageant of men dressed in black and women in shawls, surrounded by agonies they kept as symbols to validate, as ritual, the cruelty they claimed as their piety: the lynching of ecstatics, heretics, and humanists, the slaughtering of bulls, the sending of navies and armies against all other cultures of the Mediterranean ... Silver to the east, pepper to the west, silver and pepper, wool and cloves, gold and wheat, cannon and Titians.

Davenport's journey in a sentence is worthy of Proust, Joyce, Nabokov, filled as it is with philosophical, artistic, literary, and scientific allusions (maybe even a dab of hot air); he's outdogging the shaggy dog; words tossed in the pot not to show off smarts (he has plenty) but because he likes setting off fireworks (and hot air balloons) ... tossing out the bombs with bon-bons alike, pulling together in a few sentences enough literary hooks to take us up on a ride over Bittersfeld as "our shadow flowed over a red tile roof, a barn, three Holstein cows, a railroad track," leading us to "that delusion of travel where you can't be sure if you are moving or the scene outside is wheeling by on its own," finally bringing in the Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach,

    who leaned over bridges and waited for the flip-flop of reality whereby he knew he was on a swift bridge flying down an immobile river, and none of us knows whether our train or the one beside is sliding out of the station.

§   §   §

To read Davenport, at times one only needs a sense of the droll. At others, one feels that it would help to have a Doctorate from Harvard in hermeneutics, with an advanced degree in epistemology from the Sorbonne.

Yet when he finally touches down, he does so with finesse. He meditates on his young love Sander, who has a habit of parading around au naturel. For all the sophisticated wizardry, Davenport seems to be in love with (or at the least in lust with) his young companion who we find, at one point, down on his elbows and knees, "panting like a dog."

    I ask why the boondoggle, out of waggish curiosity. I get a gape and stare and something like a bark. Patches of the young mind remain animal and inarticulate, not to be inspected by sophistication, such as a grave study of toes, heroic stretches on waking, the choice of clothes, the pleased mischief, lips pursed, eyebrows raised, of padding about in the torn and laundry-battered, blue shirt only, tumescens lascive mentula praeputio demiretracto.

Like Gibbon, we have here a writer who drifts into classic Latin when we get to the most revealing passages.

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The Skin
Curzio Malaparte
David Moore, Translator

(New York Review Books)
There are few writers who can take us in so many directions at once, and within the same page: farce and tragedy, love and ridiculous lust, beauty and squalor. It reminds us of Jean Genet who can propose that the higher purposes of man's way are ""sodomy, thievery treachery." Or Vladamir Nabokov who could make a hero of a man whose ideal love comes through the kidnapping of what he calls a "girleen." We have here a most peculiar writer, Curzio Malaparte, who managed to get arrested by Mussolini (five times), banished (for five years) because of his radical writings (both for the left and for the right) ... and his singularly bizarre reading of Hitler as first outlined in the Technique du coup d`etat.

Malaparte is seated with several Germans, including the vicious Governor-General of occupied Poland, Hans Frank (along with several other high Nazi officials). During the dinner, Frank asks Malaparte directly what he thinks of the dictator. Before he can answer, another guest (a representative of Heinrich Himmler's SS) calls out that "Herr Malaparte has written in one of his books that Hitler is a woman."

    "Just so," I added after a moment of silence. "Hitler is a woman."

    "A woman!" exclaimed Frank, gazing at me, his eyes filled with confusion and worry.

    Everyone remained silent, looking at me.

    "If he is not quite a real man," I said, "why should he not be a woman? What harm would there be? Women are deserving of all our respect, love, and admiration. You say that Hitler is the father of the German people, nicht wahr? Why couldn't he be its mother?"

    "Its mother!" exclaimed Frank, "die Mutter?"

    "The mother," I said. "It is the mother who conceives children in her womb, begets them in pain, feeds them with her blood and her milk. Hitler is the mother of the new German people; he has conceived it in his womb, has given birth to it in pain and fed it with his blood and his..."

"Hitler is the father, not the mother of the German people," said Frank sternly.

"Anyway, the German people are his child," I said, "there's no doubt about that."

"Yes," said Frank, "there's no doubt about that. All the people of New Europe, to begin with the Poles, ought to feel proud to have in Hitler a just and stern father. But do you know what the Poles think of us? That we are barbarians!"

"And do you feel hurt?" I asked, smiling.

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Things I Don't
Want to Know

On Writing
Deborah Levy
Prisons and being in cages play a big part in Things I Don't Want to Know. Dad is going to be caged up for a long time and then Deborah gets shipped off away from mother, off to Durban to live with her Godmother. Who is huge: "When she hugged me, I disappeared in the folds of her stomach," she recalls. Godmother has a budgie named Billy Boy and Billy Boy lives in a cage in the living room. Deborah is very quiet and she is told that she has to learn "to say my thoughts out loud and not just in my head." She has a problem with this stuff coming out so she decides to write them down: "I found a biro and had a go at writing down my thoughts. What came out of the biro and onto the page was more or less everything I did not want to know."

One thing she did want to know was what would happen if Billy Boy got out of his cage. "I lifted the grey blanket off the cage. Billy Boy opened his little brown eyes. They were the same colour as my father's eyes."

    I wiggled the latch and opened the cage doors ... A flutter of wings. The silver cup falling from the mantel shelf. A small dot of blue. The sweet pea smell coming from the garden. Billy Boy flew out the window just as the ginger cat padded into the living room, its tail held high in the air.

Soon enough, Deborah is back on a plane, headed back to her mother and Johannesburg.

    My father is standing in the garden. His face is pale grey like dirty snow. Only his eyes move. His arms hang stiffly by his sides. Dad is back, so very still and silent, standing in the garden. He looks like he has been hurt in some way. Very deep inside him.

    "Daddy, the cat died while you were away."

    He squeezes my hand with his cold fingers.

    "It's lovely to be called Daddy again."

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A Unicyclist's Guide to America
Mark Schimmoeller
(Chelsea Green)
Who is this Schimmoeller anyway? He graduated from college and got an editing job at The Nation and then he drifted back to his family's place in Kentucky and sooner or later met Jennifer and they built a place in the woods off the grid: water from well, solar stove, cabin built from a near-by timberland. One of the most charming passages is Mark leading a would-be assessor (they're trying to get help from the Nature Preserves Commission) up to and through his house:

    The ground directly ahead slopes almost immediately downhill past plum and redbud and gets swallowed again by woods. To the right, a mowed path leading to the garden goes past highbush blueberries in raised beds and next year's firewood, cut, split, stacked, and covered with tin. To the left, on the east, is our cedar board-and-batten house. Steppingstones lead him to the back door, which is made out of cedar as well --- in the same board-and-batten as the house --- with a clear window. The lever handle is inset in a bit, due to the fact that this door we built last winter turned out to be thicker than standard.

Once inside, everything described minutely, and the smell of cedar everywhere cinches it. Someday, I swear I'm going to go to Kentucky and see this house on my own. If I can ever find it --- even though Slowspoke convinces me that Mark Schimmoellar is so retiring that when I approach the house he'll probably be hiding in the root-cellar. I'd probably have to put out an APB with the Kentucky State police just to find him.

This is not only the tale of a man on a unicycle, one who has turned his back on freeways and power plants and supermarkets and television. More, it's a man who has honed a fine edge to what he has learned: what works, what doesn't work, what you need, what you don't need in life; details that end up making Slowspoke a classic.

We have here a man who can write so endearingly about carrots down in his root-cellar that you want some right now: "In this dish of January carrots there's a portion of that sweetness that the first fall frost gives the carrots; yet the sweetness is complex enough to suggest the possibility of bitterness, and an image of the feathery green tops comes to mind, how touching them can coat your hand with their sharp smell. Oregano tweaks the carrots' complex sweetness to release in the mouth the feel of a humid summer day."

    But in my mind the taste also includes the transition from summer to winter, the change in temperature --- not the quick change from day to night, or from month to month, but the change that happens in the earth, in the cellar where they are stored, where it appears that nothing is happening. Yet in the winter the cellar feels like fall; in the summer, like spring.

It's a little like going from North Carolina to New Mexico. On a unicycle.


Because it's just something that you just have to do, all the while knowing that it cannot be pushed, rushed or --- even --- avoided.

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Mommy Man
How I Went from
Mild-Mannered Geek
To Gay Superdad

Jerry Mahoney
(Taylor Trade)
A company called Rainbow Extensions charges $109,728 to do all the detail work to make babies. No more Saturday night drunken roll in the hay-loft. But also "There were no financing options, no coupons in the Sunday paper, no deals for free delivery. $109,728 was due in full, in advance --- or no baby." Since Drew and Jerry both work (one as a fairly important executive at MTV) they figure they can swing it.

Then they start on their Easter egg hunt. The federal suggested list price for a standard Grade-A no-frills baby egg is $8,000. But there are Grade-AAA double-deluxe super-eggs if you want to go first class. The baby-making egg company offers production ladies like Heather who "graduated summa cum laude from Dartmouth."

    She was a Rhodes scholar and a second-year student at Harvard Business School. She was also blonde and blue-eyed and had an absolutely perfect figure. Price: $25,000.

It's Heather DNA versus non-Heather DNA. "Not that Heather cared."

    She'd earned almost a quarter of a million dollars passing on her genetic material to strangers. Unlike at Rainbow Extensions, there was no pretense that she was in this to help infertile couples. It was a get rich quick scheme, nothing more. You wonder why she even needed business school anymore. She'd struck gold with her genes.

"If she kept this up until she was thirty, she could retire comfortably and still have time left to make ten kids of her own."

Who's going to be the dedicated father, anyway? Jerry's mother asks, "So whose sperm are your going to use? Yours or Drew's?"

    I knew coming out of the closet would mean sacrificing some privacy but I never expected that a few years later, I'd be having this conversation with my mom.

The same question comes from their case worker at Rainbow Extensions. "She spoke a language that sounded much like English at first, until you realized that in her native tongue, every fifth word was the clinical name of the male reproductive cell."

    "Who's sperm we gonna use?" she asked. "We need to collect your sperm, test your sperm, sperm your sperm, and enspermanize your spermological spermograms." This was what SpermEnglish sounded like."

Then they have to agree on the woman who will carry the babe for nine months. Their first choice is Kristen. "Kristen's lady parts were at the top of their game. Her uterus was easier to get into than the University of Phoenix ... She was the perfect baby incubator." But Kristen, for various reasons, didn't work out. So they choose Tiffany. With her husband Eric, they'll become part of the family. In fact, if you are ever going to have a surrogate family with rent-a-womb and bought-and-paid-for ovum --- you'll learn from Mommy Man that it ain't like renting a Hertz or a condo in Acapulco for August. One does become bound up with all these strangers and their various body parts. They become part of your life. Which is why Drew and Jerry finally decided to use a few eggs from Drew's sister Susie.

Why not? She's already a relative, in the family (if not in the family way ... yet) and the two of them dote on her.

If they use her eggs, and there are quite a few involved, they'll get to have a kid who will be just like someone they love. Most fathers and mothers in the pre-rent-a-womb era just didn't have the same options. My mother and father, for example, got me as a surprise package, long bony me, with all my quirks, prickles and oddities intact. If they had had a say-so in the matter, they might have opted for one a lot less strange, certainly cheaper ... one who didn't come into the house with all those twists and turns I brought with me so long ago. Welcome to the New Age of Baby-Do.

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The Secret Keeper
Kate Morton
(Brilliance Audio)
I had not heard of novelist Kate Morton before she appeared in my mailbox in the form of these seventeen discs from Brilliance Audio. But as I listened to the reading by Caroline Lee, I found myself more and more mesmerized ... by her and her tale unravelling rather brilliantly. There came a time --- as it should in all good readings --- when you do not want it to stop. Furthermore, to prepare this review, I borrowed the book, read through key parts. It got me to mulling on the difference between the written word and the spoken.

For one thing, the rhythm and flow of the reading are perfect, and perfectly paced. Ms. Lee has quite a talent for that, has a hamper-full of all the right accents. Especially the accents of class which are so important in The Secret Keeper, and, as always, in that tight little Island we call Great Britain.

Class is as much at the core of this story as is the Blitz. Dorothy (and her love Jimmy) are out of the lower class, trying to rise above their station. Their foil, the astringent Vivien, is upper class, wants everyone --- especially Dolly --- to know it; seems at one point hell-bent on keeping her in her place.

This class act is important, and as Ms. Lee plays it, she shows, as she speaks, how important the accents are for the plot. Lee can turn old and petulant when she is speaking as noisy Lady Gwendolyn, or for the quiet and aged Dorothy. She turns young and anxious as she speaks for Dorothy, turns elegant as the untouchable Vivian. Finally, Laurel, old and famous, speaks beautifully, as if to the manor born.

If I could do it all over again (I wish I could!) I would seek out the spoken version of this novel. If you do, you may, like me, find yourself bewitched, unable to tear yourself away from it, letting yourself be perfectly transported into another world amd another time, transported on the wings of the oldest of magics: the spoken word. There you'll find yourself, I believe, entranced by your own place in such a class act ... where people would rather die than let the world know where they think they came from, and where they think they're going.

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A Fighting Chance
Elizabeth Warren
The last politician I read who could put together a sentence without putting me to sleep was José Sarney. He wrote a terrific novel, Master of the Sea, just before being elected president of Brazil. A politician who could write. With feeling. Like Warren.

For one thing, she's a wag, makes you want to go out and sign up for her campaign for president of the U. S. or, better --- the world. This is her story of meeting with President Obama and Tim Geithner as she is being designated special advisor to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and assistant to the president.

Just before the press conference, the three of them tried to go out the door to the Rose Garden all at once, and the president said "Well, not all three of us. This isn't a Three Stooges routine." We laughed and then started into a round of Three Stooges gags. The president and secretary knew a lot of Moe, Larry, and Curly jokes. "Surely the country was in good hands."

Geithner, the president and Elizabeth Warren as the Three Stooges! The country is in good hands.

In her studies, Warren found that the typical bankrupt wasn't a welfare cheat nor fraudster, but mostly a normal middle class person that lives, as most of us do in America, on the edge: trying to pay the mortgage, or the grocery bills, or for schooling for the kids --- and there's just enough to get by.

Then something cames along --- a sickness, the loss of a job, a family trauma --- and suddenly they find themselves going under: people ashamed to go into debt, even more ashamed of having to rely on Chapter 11 to bail them out even though it's a constitutionally guaranteed right. When the dark fates conspire, they, like all of us, merely ask for a chance to start all over again.

Political manifestos or self-serving autobiographies are not my pot of tea. But A Fighting Chance took me over. I found myself kidnapped by a charming woman who can cry over her dog dying in the last days of her Senate race; who can drop a day of campaigning to celebrate a daughter's birthday; who can dragoon two of her grandchildren to introduce her to a roomful of volunteers trying to get her elected.

I know that a book is hot when I get to the very last page and then keep reading on --- I want more.

In this case, I got a lot more: I wandered on through forty pages of notes set in three-point type, holding the book about an inch from my nose, hoping --- as we all must hope at the end of a good story --- for another soupçon, another morsel for those of us who had been starving for a story complete with good guys and bad guys ... and an angel or two.

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Debt to
The Bone-Eating

Sarah Lindsay
(Copper Canyon Press)
Ms. Lindsay has an affection for slippery sea-creatures: whales, squid, and cephalopods (octopi). Especially the latter. Quite a few of the sixty poems here are songs of praise for the lowly octopus. Lowly, but not dumb. Scientists assure us that these eight-armed creatures are quite handy with their many arms which can be feet as well . . . to walk themselves over sea bottoms. In emergencies they're able to yank a coconut shell over their heads for protection, even slip through a keyhole if they must.

Jules Verne made it a creature to be feared, especially when it went after the Nautilus and tried to eat it for lunch. I well remember that scene in the Disney version of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, where that beast came after Nemo's crew and had to be fought off by Mason the Brave. The beak-like appendage at the center of the creature's body looked faintly vulgar, a bit of 1950s comic sexism at its worst.

Ms. Lindsay has a warmer (and more gentle) view of the simple cephalopod, writing

    The octopus has no bones
    the octopus has no voice,
    Her mouth is in her armpit,
    her body in her head.
    She scarcely has a face.
    Her eyes are purple squares
    in domes with fleshy lids.
    She spurts a purple cloud
    and safe behind it flies...

But she does admit, "her curling makes me shiver / when I should be moved to praise."

The biggest octopus of them all, Enteroctopus dofleini, can grow to 600 pounds, with a reach of thirty feet, and if one ever caught you, evidently he or she can drill a hole in your brainbox and freeze you with a jolt of spit, then leisurely wrench you asunder to savor your salty, meaty flavor.

Octopologists (or whatever they call those who study dofleini) tell us that these creatures have the taste of a professional wine taster. How in hell they discover such facts is not explained; nor is there a reason given for why anyone in their right mind would be checking out octopus taste-buds. What flavor you and I might have as we are being dismembered for canapés in the octopus' garden is not revealed. Nor if we are to be served with white or red wine.

It seems to me that Ms. Lindsay must think that she is one of these eight-armed creatures herself. In Cephalopod and Star and Sea she reveals that her left hand is an octopus with fingers that "twine and twirl apart / like thoughts that tangle." (Her right hand is merely a starfish.)

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Metaphysical Odyssey into
The Mexican Revolution

Francisco I. Madero and his
Secret Book,
Spiritist Manual

Catherine Mansell Mayo
(Dancing Chiva Literary Arts)
Mayo's book gives us a peek into the somewhat unusual faith of Francisco Ignacio Madero. He was a believer in spiritualism, and was familiar with many of the important figures of the 20th Century's transcendent world: Allen Kardec, the Fox sisters of New York, C. W. Leadbeater and Helena Petrovna Blavatsky.

Madero had told his fellow religionists that he believed in the concept of "involution" --- the soul's unending progress, made possible by one's own attempts to do good, to help others not only in this lifetime but in the many lifetimes to come.

Madero was thus a firm believer in reincarnation, possibly due to his readings of, and his faith in, the Bhagavad Gita. The Gita is the Hindu equivalent to our Pilgrim's Progress . . . but a helluva lot more action-packed, poetic, and profound. And long. (It runs 700 verses).

Despite being a narrative of a war between two families, it preached of our sacred duties to humanity and --- ultimately --- how we can find inner peace and possible liberation from the devils of our fraught, mad-making, soul-consuming day-to-day, what we know of as "life." Mohandas Gandhi referred to the Gita as "my spiritual dictionary."

§   §   §

Francisco Madero not only knew and revered the Gita, he was a student and practitioner of what was then called "spiritism." This included belief in the healing power of hands, psychic surgery, astral projection, and an all-enfolding divinity. To quote Madero, he was able to see the godhead each night by just looking up at "the material of the cosmos, the nebulæ and the innumerable suns and planets [which] constitute a living body, the part of God that is material and visible."

    Thus, the Milky Way is like an artery through which circulates the life which has given birth to a great part of the Universe and constantly renews it.

Madero believed that we are able, if we wish, to communicate with the many invisible beings around us. He told friends that La sucesión presidencial en 1910 was dictated by a spirit named "José." At the time he was writing --- or listening to dictation --- of this volume, he was also picking up on the words of yet another book, the Spiritist Manual. It has been translated here by C. M. Mayo, and makes up the last 100 pages of this volume.

The putative author was "Bhima" --- a character from the Bhagavad Gita --- but, as everyone knew, the scribe was Madero, acting as secretary to José.

It's a fascinating document. Suspend your disbelief, dear reader, and spend a few moments with the Spiritist Manual . . .

Perhaps it would have been better for Francisco Ignacio Madero if he had not been offered this spiritual knowledge. He was certainly was an innocent when he became president of Mexico in 1911, inviting some of Díaz's cronies to stay in office. Eighteen months after his election, he was murdered in a particularly grisly fashion --- a gift of his trusted general, Victoriano Huerta. If Francisco had been a bit more practical (and suspicious), had he listened to his brother Gustavo, he might have survived long enough to stave off the years of blood-letting that came about.

In his short time in office, he unleashed the newspapers from years of censorship under Díaz. This resulted in --- guess what? --- the journalists demonizing their new president. This may have created the political chaos that lead to his early death.

It was the tragic end of a genuinely honest soul, not unlike the premature death of Lincoln in 1965 or Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914; or --- if we see Madero as an artist, a self-taught writer of considerable talent --- it may echo the tragic quietus of Keats, Purcell, Hart Crane, or Franz Schubert.

§   §   §

The story of Madero's deep commitment to spiritism is nicely done by Mayo. She is not unfamiliar with the more fascinating aspects of Mexico's history, having lived there for years, and having written a rich novel about Ferdinand Maximilian, who she called "The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire."

We reviewed it a couple of years ago and gave it a star in our General Index, probably would have given it more if more had been available. As we wrote in our respectful review of the book, it is obvious that Mayo knows and loves Mexico:

    The Last Prince is elegantly detailed. The fevers and malarias of the coast, the backstabbing in court, and the general frustration of the Austrians, the French and the English with the supposedly docile Mexicans. One of the queen's servants comments on the no's. "With these Mexicans it is nada, nada, and nada. No hay, there isn't any. No sé, I don't know. Es la costumbre, it's the custom. Ahorita, in a little moment --- they hold up their fingers as if to show a pinch of salt." The foreigners soon learn the correct translation of "ahorita" is . . . Don't hold your breath.

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