11. Lord Peter, The Complete Lord Peter Wimsey Stories, by Dorothy Sayers

31 Jan

Lord Peter

I’m now re-reading all of the more obscure Dorothy Sayers books, delving into the corners of Lord Peter Wimsey’s existence that I wrote about earlier this month. There are twenty-one stories here collected—which seem to not be all of them, despite the “complete” of the title—and include two dated after Sayers stopped writing the novels. One takes place on the birth of Peter and Harriet’s first child, and the last, “Talboys,” is set in a happy future where the couple has three sons and the mystery involves not a corpse but Mr. Puffet’s stolen peaches. The story was not published in Sayers’ lifetime, and seems to have first appeared in 1972.

I’ve read that Sayers is credited with establishing literature’s first instance of a serial detective with an inner life, and the stories provide a good sense of Peter’s arc, from the earlier more theatrical work to the ravishing last two, where the authorial voice is more intimate.

The logs in the hall chimney were glowing a deep red through their ashes. Peter raked them apart, so that the young flame shot up between them. “Sit down,” he said; “I’ll be back in a minute.” The policeman sat down, removed his helmet…

Wimsey’s early cases are ghoulish, chilling, humorous and erudite, with a splash of 30s glamour and medical oddity. A lovely book.




10. The Jesus and Mary Chain, Barbed Wire Kisses, by Zoe Howe

28 Jan

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In the Beatles/Rolling Stones dichotomy where people can be sorted into personality types depending on which of these two foundational bands they were obsessed with in high school, I always go for option 3, The Velvet Underground, or sometimes just to be contrary option 4, The Jesus and Mary Chain.

Original lineup Douglas Hart, William Reid, Jim Reid

Original lineup Douglas Hart, William Reid, Jim Reid

The JAMC really only had those first three albums—Psychocandy, Darklands, Barbed Wire Kisses—and then they disappeared from my life, so time has made them seem less foundational than they really were, but oh how I loved them as a teenager. In 1986 my friend Caroline Roberts made a tape that repeated “Just Like Honey” along the length of an entire side (so much easier than rewinding), and I somehow stole/ended up in possession of this tape, (because I was not a good friend at age 13), and I listened to it all the time. Other people also put up with listening to this tape with surprising meekness. It had the whole of Pyschocandy on the other side… so you got a little more “Just Like Honey” there, too.

The music biographer Zoe Howe

The music biographer Zoe Howe

It was this teenage love that made me grab up a new biography of the band, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Barbed Wire Kisses, by Zoe Howe, when I saw it at Spoonbill and Sugartown in Williamsburg, despite that I’d never had any curiosity about the people behind the music. And I am so glad I did. The biography is fantastic—well written, gripping, a vivid picture of the last mostly un-commerical era of the music business. It is the story of two weird Scottish boys who moped around in their bedroom for years tinkering with the idea for a band before crawling shivering into the spotlight and, in the blink of an eye, becoming notorious.

Brothers William and Jim Reid, the core of The Jesus and Mary Chain around whom various other musicians revolved through the years, were musicians of the old school, known for extreme drug and alcohol abuse and violence-inducing live shows in their early years.  As a teenager I didn’t even know this. I didn’t need to. I still skulked around in a T-shirt with their faces on it, offending adults with their look and band name alone, just as I was meant to.

Bobbie Gillespie from Primal Scream was also in The JAMC! Love the saftey pin. So cute.

Bobbie Gillespie from Primal Scream was also in The JAMC

Howe’s access was obviously excellent. She pulls up gem after gem from the music press of the time (an era when NME were kingmakers), and has a vivid way with the many hilarious anecdotes her material provides.  I was also excited to read about the later albums and side projects the brothers have been up to since they fell off my radar.

I think it’s time for a Jesus and Mary Chain revival.


9. Passage & Place, An Anthology of Letters, Essays, and Visual Art by Both Free-World and Incarcerated Queer Writers/Artists

16 Jan

Passage & Place

An LGBTQ prison-activist group asked incarcerated gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to send writing and drawings in response to the question of what home meant to them. The result is this lovely anthology produced for the 2014 National Queer Arts Festival. Prisoners write poems, essays, letters or just speak in their own words about how a prison can—or cannot—be a home. Most include short bios and contact addresses with the work, which makes the anthology both a compelling glimpse into the writers’ lives, and a potential source of connection and support for them.

The book also includes writing by queer activists on the same topic, which produces a somewhat strange texture of concerns, leaping from prisoner’s stories to those of people forced to move from Oakland to Toronto because of rising rents. I was much more interested in the writing by prisoners, though appreciated the leveling effect of including both.

Judging any of this work on its merits as writing isn’t quite the point, but the strongest piece in the book is beautifully written, from a now-former prisoner named Matt Hahn, who writes about what he liked about Folsom Prison in California.

How can I think fondly of a place like Folsom? Didn’t all sorts of awful things happen there?

His description of the prison—it is vintage, and thus nicer to live in!—is pretty fascinating. More so is his insight into the people he met there.

When it comes to level iii (low maximum security) prison yards, Folson is pretty mellow. Thus, it is a popular destination for the thousands of lifers throughout the state who want to do their time in “peace.” The yard is packed with lifers, most of them men who have been down 10, 20, 30 years or more. These men have seen a lot in their decades in prison & a lot of them have grown because of it. instead of becoming bitter, they became better. Some of them have spent decades reading voraciously in their cells, others have spent the decades meditating, some have learned every trade imaginable, & many have done all of the above. & there is nothing more humbling than being a man with a release date standing next to a man who has accepted the fact that he may never have one at all.

As my man Tom Spanbauer would say, decades man, fucking decades. It’s hard to imagine a run-of-the-mill crime for which 30 years of a person’s liberty is moral or necessary. I am of the camp to find our society’s usage of incarceration barbaric and appalling, and am glad to participate in any form of resistance.

Unfortunately, I can’t urge you to go buy the book, because it’s something of an artifact. Mailing the copies to all the incarcerated people who contributed was part of the project’s fundraising goals, and otherwise Passage & Place seems to be unavailable for wider purchase.

8. The Known World, Edward P. Jones

15 Jan

The Known World, Edward P Jones

In his possessions he had one of the first photographs ever taken of life in New York City–a white family sitting all along their porch. They seemed to live on a farm in that city and on either side of their house Calvin could see trees and empty space rolling off and down into what appeared to be a valley…. In the front yard, alone, was a dog looking off to the right. The dog was standing, its tail sticking straight out, as if ready to go at the first word from someone on the porch…. From the first second Calvin had seen the photograph he had been intrigued by what had caught the dog’s attention and frozen him forever. There was a whole world off to the right that the photograph had not captured.

The image of the frozen dog is a central one in The Known World by Edward P. Jones, a novel about slavery that aims to know what the photographs of white families have not captured, a book that moves the frame to crop the white family out.

He was thirty five years old and for every moment of those years he had been someone’s slave, a white man’s slave and then another white man’s slave and now, for nearly ten years the overseer slave for a black master.

The story is of the intertwined fates of the inhabitants of Manchester County, Virginia in the antebellum South, focusing on black inhabitants, the slaves, the free and the free blacks who owned slaves. (A historical fact.) There are a couple of white characters; two rich plantation owners, a sheriff, some poor white slave-patrollers; but the question of who has dignity and humanity is explored mostly without them.

It is as terrible, brutal and tragic as one would imagine, a sophisticated and masterful slavery novel, with flights of gothic horror to rival Faulkner, accomplished with serene, elegant prose.

Another of Jones’s central metaphors is the house itself. Houses fly up in the air, change dimensions, appear carved on a man’s walking stick, are painstakingly built or burned in a frenzy. What house have we built? What house do we deserve? In what way are we not just ourselves but also our structures?

Jones offers salvation through telling. In a letter near the end Calvin stumbles upon a work of art made by an escaped slave:

…part tapestry, part painting, and part clay structure–all in one exquisite Creation, hanging silent and yet songful on the Eastern wall. It is, my dear Caldonia, a kind of map of life of the County of Manchester, Virginia. But a “map” is such a poor word for such a wonderous thing. It is a map of life made with every kind of art man has ever thought to represent himself. Yes, clay. Yes, paint. Yes, cloth. There are no people on this “map”, just all the houses and barns and roads and cemeteries and wells in our Manchester. It is what God sees when he looks down on Manchester.

Hopefully the long passages quoted have made the beauty of Jones’s prose speak for itself. This book won a Pulitzer Prize in 2004. I hope it will be canonized and widely taught.

Swinburne, The Masque of Queen Bersabe

13 Jan


I am the queen Aholibah.
My lips kissed dumb the word of Ah

Dorothy Sayers fans might recognize that couplet, quoted by Peter Wimsey in Busman’s Honeymoon (only the best love scene in all of literature, but I digress).

The line is from Swinburne’s, The Masque of Queen Bersabe, my other contender for a great alternative reading at a wedding, if the happy couple can loose themselves from the bonds of the literal and celebrate fate and passion.

In the poem a king named David calls his knights together and asks for help deciphering a sign he’s received, a bird, “as red as any wine” with “a long bill of red” and “a gold ring above his head” that flies between the king’s feet, “shut his two keen eyën fast” and “woxe big and brast.” We’re assuming this means the bird closed its eyes and cawed in a freaky way.

The king’s advisers debate the meaning, with some saying the bird is a sign from God, and some from the devil. The king’s new wife, Bersabe, says (in a line I love):

Peace now, lords, for Godis head,
Ye chirk as starlings that be fed

But then a prophet comes in and reveals that Bersabe, until recently, was the wife of a different knight, who loved her very much.

Likewise great joy he had to kiss
Her throat, where now the scarlet is

King David has taken Bersabe from the man, and murdered him for good measure. The prophet calls upon the court to sit still and listen, and hear from “all queens made as this Bersabe,” whose fates have been both good and bad.

I suspect the setup was basically the excuse for Swinburne to describe the queens, which he does gloriously.

I am the queen Aholibah.
My lips kissed dumb the word of Ah
Sighed on strange lips grown sick thereby.
God wrought to me my royal bed;
The inner work thereof was red,
The outer work was ivory.
My mouth’s heat was the heat of flame
For lust towards the kings that came
With horsemen riding royally.

Next comes Cleopatra, the “queen of Ethiope” who says “Love bade my kissing eyelids ope.”

My hair was wonderful and curled;
My lips held fast the mouth o’ the world

There’s Azubah, the “queen of Amorites” who says “My face was like a place of lights”; Aholah “queen of Amalek” who has “no tender touch or fleck”; and the queen Ahinoam “like the throat of a soft slain lamb.”  The pageant goes on and on, a tribute to the terror and majesty of passion.

Afterwards, the king says that he’s been a fool to think that he controlled his own destiny, and that his fate is in the hands of God. And the prophet says that now that he realizes that, everything will be OK.

Like I suspect Swinburne did, I like this poem for the amazing descriptions of the queens and the atmosphere of celebratory terror. Various messages could be worked, with that one, into a wedding speech.

7. Testo Junkie, by Beatriz Preciado

12 Jan

Testo Junkie, Beatriz Preciado, Sex, Drugs and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era

This book, translated from the French, is a “voluntary intoxication protocol,” in which Spanish drag-king activist and cultural theorist Beatriz Preciado takes testosterone off-label for 200-something days, as a strategy of resistance towards the involuntary intoxication of what she calls the “pharmacopornographic” regime. It’s a memoir, a terrifying and brilliant work of cultural deconstruction, and also a eulogy for the French writer Guillaume Dustan, a loved one of Preciado’s who died of a drug overdose in 2005. Some of the first-person text is written addressing Dustan. She explains:

I’m not taking testosterone to change myself into a man or as a physical strategy of transsexualism; I take it to foil what society wanted to make of me, so that I can write, fuck, feel a form of pleasure that is postpornographic, add a molecular prostheses to my low-tech transgender identity composed of dildos, texts and moving images; I do it to avenge your death.

I’m probably behind on this, but I’d never connected our cyborg prostheses—the phone, the laptop, that I-word thing I’m using to talk to you right now—with the “molecular prostheses” of drugs.  And oh but these things are connected, in Preciado’s theory, as an overall strategy of capitalist surveillance and control, which has moved away from human mercantile activity into the more fertile, more profitable ground of human subjectivity.

Specifically, she says that sex and sexuality, in which she’s including the vast realm of gender-identity, have become “the main objects of political and economic activity.”

I suspect that many gender-normative, heterosexual readers of my blog are not the types to think of themselves as even having a gender identity, which will be a stumbling block towards comprehending the vastness of the arena of control. Maybe seeing “some semoitechnical codes of white heterosexual femininity” will help: (And also, Preciado is funny.)

“…the subdued elegance of Lady Di, Prozac, fear of being a bitch in heat, Valium, the necessity of the G-string, knowing how to restrain yourself, letting yourself be fucked in the ass when it’s necessary, being resigned, accurate waxing of the pubes, depression, thirst, little lavender balls that smell good, the smile, the living mummification of the smooth face of youth, love before sex, breast cancer…”

As she puts it, gender is a “biotech industrial artifact” and we are living in a “gigantic pharmacopornographic Disneyland in which the tropes of sexual naturalism are fabricated on a global scale as products of the endocrinological, surgical, agrifood and media industries.”

She also posits a concept of “potentia gaudendi” or “orgasmic force,” which she claims is being put to work through pornography, among other things.

I have some doubts and questions. I find her arguments about the control of sexual subjectivity  convincing without seeing how she’s concluded that it’s the primary thing being controlled. If you look at capitalism as a vast strategy to generate in humans the desire to buy things, gender seems to be one of the many things we purchase. I will admit, though, that I’m not perfectly versed in a lot of the theory she’s riffing on.

And speaking of those riffs, the power of Preciado’s writing and synthesis is glorious to behold. She gets a manicure, hilariously. She writes about the World Cup. She starts thinking about the couch we sit on to watch TV and ends up characterizing it as “a tentacle of the control system, an installation within inner space in the form of living room furniture…a political device, a public space of surveillance and deactivation.”

I suspect she’s too serious of a thinker to want to be this entertaining, or to write prose this aesthetically exquisite, but she does both.

The path leading from the Vauvert writers’ residence to the beach at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is a paradise of plants over which they’ve rolled a tongue of asphalt. It’s a natural garden inhabited by new technoliving species: beavers, eagles, bulls, white horses, colonies of pink flamingoes, and cars. The cars that glide along that unique gray carpet are cyberpredators longing to eliminate all competition between mobile prehistoric organisms and new ultrarapid human-machine aggregates…. The beavers swim nimbly through the river, plunging under the submerged shrubs, their fur-covered shapes rippling…. On dry land their furry bodies become clumsy, their tails too heavy; their eyes still covered by a liquid film, can barely distinguish the other shore. The cars zigzag to try to trap these viscous volumes under their tires. Sometimes they hit them head on, making them burst into blood and guts.

She goes on to describe the eagle circling above the road-kill beavers as using the automobile as its “hunting prosthesis,” and looking forward to a meal of the beaver’s “foreign and exquisite tripe.”  It’s a perfect passage.

The strategies of resistance to pharmocoporn and the narco-state that the book offers in the end—voluntary intoxication, gender-hacking, activism, telling your own story—are surprisingly low-tech, and that too is perfect.





Alternative Readings For a Cool Wedding

8 Jan

Taurus, Paul Nemser

In my 20s I went to the wedding of a bookish, literary older man I was in unrequited love with, and was outraged—now, comically, I can see—by his choices of selections from The Prophet and The Song of Songs for readings. We can probably assume the woman he was marrying chose, but same diff. I wore a gold dress, got drunk and misbehaved myself embarrassingly, and may have ranted to mutual friends about how disappointed I was in the literary quality of the readings choices, which I felt did not express this man’s inner fire, and what a bad sign that was for his marriage. Well, I think he’s still happily married 20 years later, and now my primary feeling about all that is to be sorry for him that he was forced to invite me to his otherwise lovely wedding. But! It is true that wedding readings are usually so generic as to be wallpaper. The following are my recommendations for a friend who was asked to speak at an upcoming lesbian wedding, though they would work for couples of any sort, if they’re independent thinkers about marriage.

The poem “Borealis” from Taurus by Paul Nemser.
This is a gorgeous lyrical love poem about a statue of a bull that comes to life and falls for a girl. I’m showing the sixth of seven stanzas…. if you like it and want to read the whole poem, please go buy Nemser’s wonderful book.

Aurora, Paul Nemser

The first chapter of In Watermelon Sugar, by Richard Brautigan.

In Watermelon Sugar, Richard Brautigan

Chapter below in 2 parts.

In Watermelon Sugar, Richard Brautigan

In Watermelon Sugar, Richard Brautigan

This excerpt from The Chronology of Water, by Lidia Yuknavitch.

The Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch

Excerpt below in 2 parts.

Wisdom is a Motherfucker, Lidia Yuknavitch

Wisdom is a Motherfucker, Lidia Yuknavitch

The poem “This Much I Do Remember,” by Billy Collins from the book Picnic, Lightning

Picnic, Lightning, Billy Collins
As an aside, “picnic, lightning” is a Nabokov reference. It is how Humbert Humbert describes the death of his parents, in a parenthetical. Poem below in 2 parts.
This Much I Do Remember, Billy Collins

This Much I Do Remember, Billy Collins

Two poems from The Black Unicorn, by Audre Lorde

The Black Unicorn, Audre Lorde

Fog Report, Audre Lorde

Recreation, Audre Lorde

This excerpt from The Memoirs of Hadrian, by Margeurite Yourcenaur

When he says “love” here, he mostly means sex, but it’s a fabulous passage for the right kind of couple. Ending with does not follow his god to the end.

Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenaur

And lastly, I’m going to do a separate post on this, but I also recommend an excerpt to taste from Swinburne’s The Masque of Queen Bersebe.




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