Book Reviews


I 'm not the greatest reader out there and to be honest it's rare that I read a book all the way through. But here are some books, most of which I read all the way through, and all of which I liked, from the past couple months.

Lolly Willowes or "The Loving Huntsman"
by Sylvia Townsend Warner

WOW what a book! a few months ago I had the first and so far worst of what turned out to be a series of periodic "pandemic mental collapse" events, and I read this entire book from soup to nuts. In an extreme bit of luck for yours truly (and anyone that had to interact with me that day and the days following), the book turned out to be extraordinarily pleasant at every turn. I would love to just say "if you like pleasant books about satanism please read this" but I know that we're here for the details SO, it's about an unmarried woman who lives with her brother's family in a pleasant but basically joyless existence, then one day she gets a wild hair and shocks everyone by moving out to a sort of dismal small town in the country that she is inexplicably drawn to, and once there she loves it. There are aspects of grouchism and even Addams family attitudes about the grim views and the townspeople that keep to themselves and the incredible wind, and eventually she sort of casually makes a pact with the actual devil and becomes a witch. The devil in this is very very very chill, and even a little dopey. Like I said, WOW, what a book! OK in the interest of the idea of "spoilers" or out of respect to the flow of a narrative, I'm going to put part of this next sentence in code, just cross out the K's and Q's. Being a witch isn't about cursing people or curing people, it's about KJQUKQSTQK QDKOIKNQKGQ KWQQHKAKQTKEQVKKEQKRK

This was the very first selection for the Book-Of-The-Month Club, in 1926, which is incredible. My copy was a gift from Shea'la Finch who (I think) had 2 copies on hand, that's a great move for a great book. I keep duplicates of some stuff too. Actually now that I think of it maybe we were walking around and it was just in a free pile on the street and Shea'la was like damn, this is a great book, you gotta get this. I remember an excitement and a sense of fortuitousness and that it was a gift, and Shea'la was enthusiastically present. Honestly any arrangement of these factors seems valid.


The Place Of Dead Roads
by William S Burroughs

I was approached by the museum last year to do a project with them that was on a theme of like, timeline collapse, the past and the present and the future all rubbing elbows, mixing up works in the museum's permanent collection into new configurations. They had mounted a major exhibit on the theme only to realize that everyone they asked to contribute was on point to fail to rise to the challenge. Maybe I'm wording that a little stronger than the staff would but the feeling I got was a desperation to make things a little more interesting. A faction within the staff called me to prepare some manner of additional exhibition or event to be presented as a layer over or simultaneous to everything else, in a spirit of messing things up (but shy of causing actual damage). I had worked with that museum in the past, so the call wasn't totally out of the blue, but I was still really flattered to be thought of in such terms-- inventive, daring, practical, dedicated, ruthless, working in shadows. This combination of assassin vibes, apocalyptic melting, and art coming out of the frame got me thinking about Burroughs, so I started to reread one of my favs, Place of Dead Roads, for inspiration.

If you find Burroughs reprehensible I'm not going to argue with you-- he's a spoiled child of means who bought his way out of a murder rap. But at the same time, he's dead, and I don't think liking his books now will lead others into that precise iniquity. I like him and I'm not going around wearing three piece suits and shooting people. The early books are groundbreaking or whatever but definitely "experimental" in the classical sense, meaning they weren't just weird (qua "experimental music"), they were like "is this something or is this just shit with wires coming out of it" (qua "science experiment"). In this, the first of the last set of books he wrote, the experiments are largely worked out, their effects known, and he's firing on all cylinders. Great book design on this one too, perfect mood for the text. The next one after this is Cities of the Red Night, which I liked (though they changed the text design) and Western Lands, which I haven't read yet, I just figured I'd find it in a bookstore someday but honestly I guess not, I should just order it online. Content warning for sexual abuse across his entire oeuvre, and also CW: apocalyptic levelling, confusion. Regarding the museum they massively lowballed me in price, which at first didn't bother me, because I'm used to doing my ideas on a minimal budget, for the satisfaction of a job well done. But then the money side of it really bothered me, and then I bailed, despite already doing a lot of work on it. The real kicker was that at the same time they were talking to me a different group within the museum announced a project grant for the same concept, with a payout of 30 times what I was offered. I don't care about money but it hurt my pride, and that was the real payment for me the whole time-- the pride of being valued in an institutional setting. I went in there in the role of a specialist only to find out I'm valued at 1/30th of a contest winner? I know that they're different budgets, one for prizes and one for emergencies, but still, 1/30th? In the words of my ancestors, what am I, chopped liver? The people on my team were and are very nice, and they were hamstrung in a number of ways-- budget, time, agency, usage rights, and probably other nodes of aggravation I wasn't aware of. Nothing against the people on my team. And also it's possible I misunderstood from the get go, and they wanted like, an afternoon's worth of thought on the subject and no more, that it was my decision to try and do the best I could do. But in the end I know that whatever I did I was going to look at it, and then look at what the contest winner did, and compare them, and that was going to burn a hole in my stomach lining. Well I guess that's part of the benefit of not valuing money, really, you can turn things down for emotional reasons. As it turns out my part of the exhibition would've been cancelled with pandemic woes, and as for who won the contest they never announced it, but I hope whoever it was at least got to cash the check. For what it's worth I caught some of the exhibition and some of it was actually nice, which was a relief, though my enemy brand had an installation in it that was so bad it was verging on self-parody. It was almost like messageboard spam- apparent nonsense that evil spiders leave on your website to convince other spiders that certain brands or concepts are to be valued at a higher tier. Like the true goal was to put it as a line item on a grant application in connection with a verified contact and a list of keywords. As a human viewer I found it simultaneously dull, confusing, and insulting, with a sheen of malevolent dissociation. There was other stuff I liked though, like I said, some things made by people, on purpose. I bought this book at a bookstore while on tour with the Terribles in 2006, not sure where.


Life with Jeeves
by P.G. Wodehouse

Inspired by a fairly bonkers New Yorker article about Wodehouse which I read in someone else's bathroom, I dipped back in to this extremely enjoyable collection, which is the sort that one can pick up and put down endlessly at no loss. At the beginning of the year I told myself I wouldn't consume media with extremely rich protagonists (except the Addams Family). But Wodehouse writes the useless class as deeply doddering buffoons barely able to bring a silver spoon to their own feeble mouth, so I feel like it's OK. But more importantly the way he writes is so fun and electric and light, it's simply wonderful, like a bracing cocktail.


The Sleepwalkers
by Arthur Koestler

For a while when I started doing Mothers News, I didn't sign my name to it at all. There was no evidence of my name on it anywhere and authorship was officially pinned on "A Dripping Cloud Of Ghouls". Although I struggle with feelings related to recognition, I find I do my best work when I can dissolve the self to a vaporous mess, I mean so don't we all. After a while I decided that there should be an editor character that's more directly aligned with my earthly form, so I could do readings and other promotional activities. I started using "Jacob Khepler" in this regard, based on "Khepri", the dung-beetle-headed Egyptian god who represents the morning sun. There was a dung beetle in the masthead, and newspapers commonly use solar imagery to imply both power and regularity. Another reason for the name change was that K's are funnier than B's, and I wanted the name to pop. I was aware of Johannes Kepler but my knowledge was limited to a quick Wikipedia check. When I heard about this book, which chronicles his life and a few other notable astronomers, I had to get it, and wow, I'm happy I did. In addition to being a fun read that pulls readily from Kepler's vast diary, some of which is loathesome, all of which is enjoyable (and who could ask for more), the book is an enlightening look at what really happens when someone makes a scientific (or otherwise) breakthrough-- there's a lot of what could be called intuition. I mean that's what a breakthrough is, you're breaking through a wall that you built out of rational thought to get at a truth that lies just outside your understanding. You don't have the tools to understand it rationally-- they're on the other side of the wall. Once you get through you can build a way back, and then everything appears nice and rational again, inevitable even. But that big step out of bounds, that's requires a methodology outside of reason. Hopefully we can all vibe on that. See also the Seal proviso (Seal, "Crazy", 1991).

Copernicus gets a lot of press for his revolution (the idea that the earth rotates around the sun and not vice versa), but Kepler's discovery was in some ways even more grotesque-- he said that things don't move in perfect circles according to magnificent harmonies but in wobbly ellipses at basically arbitrary distances. Yuck. It's all according to precise laws, but it's hardly beautiful, unless, like Kepler, you find the watchmaker beautiful, and the watch beautiful by transitivity. A good amount of the book is like a history of science viewed through the lens of astronomy, which might be a little dry for some readers. That's a possible downside. On the upside, there are a few chapters on "the great Dane" Tycho Brahe, who was nuts. Previously I mentioned that Brahe had a pet elk that was supposedly the fastest thing you could ride, and when a nobleman tried to call him on it, saying "can I borrow the elk", Brahe wrote back "sadly he got drunk and fell down the stairs and died". That's a great response and an elegant solution-- if he failed to produce the elk that could've been lifechangingly bad, and if he did produce the elk, but it turned out to be either not fast or not rideable, that would've been just as bad. I am now happy to report that tale seems to be mostly true-- I mean not only did this exchange occur but it wasn't a lie. The elk did get drunk and fall down the stairs, and it was in fact quite sad. But was it really that fast? No one can say. For the record my policy on elk is DON'T try to tame them, DO allow them to drink (if that's what they dig), DON'T let them go upstairs. Tycho was exhumed twice, in 1901 to see if he was poisoned (he wasn't) and again in 2010 to see if his fake nose was gold or brass (it was brass). Before anyone writes, yes, Tycho Brahe was the richest shithead in all of Denmark for awhile, again breaking my rule. But he takes a backseat throughout the book to Kepler, a poor scabrous dog raised by psychos.

I ordered this from ebay and it arrived so marked up with highlighter that I prefer to read it in the room with the yellowest light, so the highlighter dissappears. Stickers on the back indicate that it was resold at least three times before getting to me.

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The Ultimate Encyclopedia Of Knots & Ropework
by Geoffrey Budworth

I saved this at the last minute from a recent book cull. A book only needs one lasting thing to justify it, and this book has "...the rope with a mind of it's own, awkward to manipulate and a trifle disobedient, is generally at the height of its powers. By contrast rope that is soft and amenable, a pleasure to handle, should be condemned and discarded." For the record I'm not like a rope aesthetic person, I mean I can't even wear a neck tie or tuck my shirt in-- I have no desire to be immobilized, restrained or forcibly connected. But I do have a "string section" in the library that's just this and a Harry Smith string figures book Xander gave me for my birthday. I stole this from the "steal me" area of Barnes & Noble, you know, the front foyer.


Handmade Electronic Music
by Nicolas Collins

This book about using homemade electronic circuits to make music is one I've been looking for for my entire adult life. I've tried to get into this field over and over, since I first saw Jessica Rylan in... 2002? Every other resource was either too dense for me or too basic. But this book is lively and fun and comes from a noise angle-- not just in re: let's make horrible noises but in re: keep an open mind to all possibilities, even failure. If you are at all interested in homemade circuits for musical use I strongly recommend this book, especially if you have no prior knowledge of electronics. Sakiko ordered this on ebay, it's her copy. My only only only strike against this book is that the cover is that modern style of like, a gummy matte finish, which feels cool and distinct but immediately gets grimy, and this is a book that I pick up and put down and refer to constantly. They should've gone glossy. There's a $30 copy on ebay right now, go there right now and get this. If you really get into it I can send links to similar material. And if you don't I'll straight up buy your copy off you.


The Origins Of Consciousness In The Breakdown Of The Bicameral Mind
by Julian Jaynes

The title of this book is poorly chosen but this is probably the most mindblowing book I've ever read on any subject. I don't know of a single work in any field that is as broad reaching as this, or one that I've thought about more. The basic premise is incredible-- that consciousness, which Jaynes defines as the ability to introspect, is a fairly recent phenomenon in humans, and only began to arise on this planet around 1000BC. Before that, people were simply on automatic, acting in accordance with societal structures (an emergent property of human groups). Then in times of stress where these structures offered no guidance, people would obey audible hallucinations that they ascribed to gods or ancestors. The analogy is made to driving-- when you're driving, for most of the time you don't really think about it, you just do it, obeying learned behaviors. And then occasionally something happens that you need to think about, like you're passing a Mary Lou's Coffee, and your brain goes "wonderful, let's pull over", which snaps you back into conscious thought. The idea is that prior to the development of full consciousness, humans would interpret this command to pull over and get an iced coffee as the voice of a god-like source outside of the self, and it would be obeyed immediately. And this is how it was for thousands of years. In what I would consider a master stroke, the book uses differences between the Illiad and the Odyssey to illustrate its point-- the Illiad, mostly pre-conscious, is a warlike tale of actors whose lines are written by gods that slink in and out of the tale when required. The Odyssey, compiled mostly after the development of consciousness, is a brooding miasma of doubt in which the gods hang back.

I know, it sounds insane, but the evidence (of which there is much more than just text analysis of these two poems) is extremely compelling. Furthermore it answers a lot of questions. For instance, it's a great relief to think that in ancient texts when people talked about God talking to them, or their dead ancestors visiting them, they were right to the best of their knowledge, that wasn't allegory. Also I always wondered about the riddle of the Sphinx-- how did such an idiotic riddle fuck up so many people? "what has four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs at night?"?? What is this, amateur hour??? The answer to this riddle of riddles is: the culture was at a transition point between those who had acquired the ability to think in metaphor (which requires, or possibly forces, introspection), and those who had not. Furthermore the ones that didn't have introspection were also incapable of lying, even when a furious bird (or whatever) was waiting to strangle them based on their answer.

If you recognize this incredible hypothesis as a possibility, then lots of religious and cultural stuff sort of clicks into place, including huge questions like why do we have religion and how do religions develop, but also shit like why are there pyramids and how does pantheism work and why do we ascribe some thoughts to the head and others to the heart or stomach. I admit, I got so into this book that I had to take a step back and try to find a case against, but everything seems to line up and any criticisms I can find seem to rely on a fundamental misunderstanding of what we are even talking about. When this came out (1976) the reviews were like "this is absolutely incredible but it's so far out we have to just wait and see what everyone else says", but since then it seems like no one has really made a mark against it, or even tried to. If anyone has a good article against this I would really love to see it. Honestly I think the main reason no one really ran with it is because thousands of people have careers based on the old way of thinking about it. I mean this would cause us to reexamine not just ancient history and the nature of consciousness but religion, the mind, intuition, magic, schizophrenia..... I mean imagine teaching a revolutionary idea in a college class and then all your students go to their other classes and start seeing alternate answers to everything. The other profs would be like, Samantha, please stop this foolishness. And you'd be like, can you read this book please? And they'd say, I simply don't have the time. Even the way-out ideas people wouldn't like it, it fucks with them too.

I strongly recommend this to anyone interested in any of the subjects mentioned or any related fields, or basically anyone really! It's well written, made for a general audience, and the arguments are well made and easy to follow. Again the main argument against is that it seems crazy. I got this at the bookstore on the last day I worked there, after seeing it mentioned in a Ron Rege Jr comic. It glowed on the shelf like a luminous egg.



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