How do you “review” a book that is so steeped in metaphor, allusion, allegory, and sheer descriptive weight that it practically drowns the reader in imagery both uplifting and heart-rending for paragraphs and pages and chapters on end?

I knew from the very first section (prologue? not really, but it started the thing, so maybe?) that this was going to be one of those books – one that would mark me, and stay with me for long years, likely forever.

It’s really hard to describe what a colossal undertaking this is. A story, really many stories, about Story: where it comes from, how it’s born, how it dies, and how it cycles. The power, the strength, the weight of its bones, offset with the feathery lightness and gossamer of its every breath. The Truth of Myth, and vice versa.

It’s very strong stuff, and under many pens it could easily collapse into a mire of metaphor with little or no connective tissue. Morgenstern, however, knows how to dance up to the edge of that collapse, then back onto what may be solid ground before stretching the reader back across the gap. In fact, about two thirds of the way in I wasn’t sure I could take the nearly constant onslaught of dream-like images, seemingly drug-induced insights poking their heads up through the primordial haze of her descriptive powers. At one point a character is described when being interrupted while reading as looking up with a hypnotized glaze in their eyes, slowly clearing to acknowledge the intrusion and coming back to this world. I love that feeling, even seek it out in the books I choose. When I’m in that zone it definitely takes me long moments to come back to myself, whether interrupted or just at the end of a chapter or of the book itself. I’m under its spell now, hours after turning the last page.

I could also tell, right around that same point, that all of the beautiful and fanciful and poetic imagery that had carried me and the story that far also foreshadowed what could only be crushing tragedy to come, likely sooner rather than later. I almost savored that knowledge, anticipating that its description would be as achingly beautiful as anything that had come before, if not more so – because tragedy, hello?

I had the singularly unusual and very enjoyable (if difficult to describe) feeling, from about midway through to the end, that the story might be changing even as I was reading it. Since I was fitting it in whenever I had a few minutes I often found myself squeezing a few pages in here and there, regardless of the time or whatever else may have been on the day’s docket. As a result I was often sleepy, reading much later into the night than I should have (or earlier in the morning, on more than one occasion,) which produced a weird hypnagogic state that forced me to reread paragraphs, in some cases whole pages, more than once. Even as I recognized that I was re-reading these passages I got the distinct impression that they were changing, different than the previous time I’d read them. That sort of off-balance uncertainty was precisely the sort of thing she was describing in some of her main characters as they made their way down the myriad paths of the tale. Usually, once I’d felt like that more than a few times at a sitting, I’d give up and go to sleep, hoping to start fresh at the next opportunity. (But, oh, what dreams did come…)

The dash to the finish, indeed the entire book, is one of the more astounding pieces of fiction I’ve ever been lucky enough to find. It did not disappoint, nor did the overall journey itself. No wonder it took her eight years between her last piece, the excellent “The Night Circus,” and this one. I have to believe that “The Starless Sea” demanded much of her, from what had to be the long, detailed planning stages to the character development to all the interwoven timelines to fairy tales so believable they seem like they have to have been with us from The Beginning of such things. A truly staggering accomplishment, and one that I will never forget.

(Note 1: I tried not to highlight anything that could act as even the slightest spoiler, but her facility with language was such that I quoted this one more than any that I can remember – maybe 17 or 18 times? – in my review on Goodreads, so I hope I was successful.)

(Note 2: I can’t remember when I’ve read two such powerful novels in one year, stories that I know I’ll take with me and refer back to for years to come. Richard Kadrey’s “The Grand Dark” and this one, of the 40 or so books I’ve read or heard this year, were both life-changing in very different ways and for very different reasons, and I’m glad I found each of them when I did. Maybe when I most needed to?)

Navigating The Grand Dark

Posted: August 24, 2019 in Visions
The Grand Dark
The Grand Dark by Richard Kadrey is, without question, the most intricately layered, intriguingly challenging novel I’ve experienced in many years, in any genre. I loved it.
Taking place in an mostly unidentified in-between city called Lower Proszawa (I’ll refer to it as LP from here on out,) its locale reminded me of some Germanic, Hungarian, Czech, and/or Baltic city that was both reeling from a recent Great War and seemingly readying for the next. All the decadence and corruption of the Weimar Republic of the 20′ and 30’s are represented, from the secret police to the questionable scientific advances to the over-the-top forms of desperate entertainment, be they the casual but heavy drug use or the offhand promiscuity or the deeply disturbing Grand Guignol-esque productions at the title facility, The Theater of the Grand Dark.
I’ve read a few professional reviews since finishing the book a few weeks ago (it’s taken that long for me to fully absorb some of the book’s major lessons, and to let some of its others purposely drift away) and one of the common analogs mentioned for LP is China Miéville’s Besźel from The City and The City, a novel equally ambiguous but, for me, not nearly as satisfying. A closer comparison, again just for me, is Miéville’s New Crobuzon, the setting for Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and The Iron Council – some of my all-time favorites. Though the latter stories unfold in a more linear manner than The City…, and there are many more fantastical elements in New Crobuzon than in LP, I seemed to be reminded much more of New Crobuzon, much more often, than of Besźel.
The strongest comparison for me, though, is Samuel R. Delany’s Bellona, from his opus Dhalgren. That book, which I read each Fall for three years in a row while in school, was the first time reading a book felt more like taking a drug than flipping pages. I could never get into the stream of consciousness of Joyce’s Ulysses, try as I might, but I imagined that the streets I strolled in Bellona must have been similar to, if slightly more sinister than, those of Dublin.
The clouds of uncertainty and vagueness that surround one at any given time in LP were exactly the way I felt when reading Dhalgren, whether for the first or subsequent times; its hallucinogenic effects never lessened with repetition. The Grand Dark’s imagery is “like everything was being revealed in candlelight…” read one review that nailed it, pieces and patrons of the city’s various criminal and debauched corners being only slowly revealed (if at all) as one moved in any given direction. That’s just how Bellona felt, too: cloudy, smoked at the edges, the ways out of town murky, muddled, as unclear as whatever had happened to the world outside its boundaries. Nobody behaved as one expected, even characters we’d spent whole chapters with. That’s how LP feels.
I love Kadrey’s naming conventions, not just here but in all of his work (if, in fact there are any, and he isn’t just making them all up!) People, places, things all have strange but possibly familiar names, like maybe you heard them in a dream once, long ago? Parvalesco (reminding me of “Parvenu”), The Drops, the nachtvogel (nocturnal bird?), The Iron Dandies, The Grand Dark itself, Baron Hellswarth, Herr Branca –  their names reminding readers of something that ultimately reveals elements of their character; only Rowling does it better, with virtually every single name in her voluminous canon having some Latin or other root that immediately represents that character (or spell or creature or place) beautifully and perfectly.
The interludes between the many chapters, whether excerpted from someone’s diary or another historical source, slowly help fill in the edges of a story that’s coyly revealing itself. These underpinnings are reminiscent of Tolkien, Herbert, and other great world-builders, who realized that such seemingly incidental details are precisely what give such strange new worlds those aspects crucial to the story’s verisimilitude.
The macabre “plays” written and produced in The Grand Dark, with their very violence taken as normal by all of the city’s denizens, each patron refusing to be shocked or revolted, all while looking around to see if anyone else may have let their indifferent facade slip, operate on many levels. Without giving too much away, the performers have a layer between themselves and their audience, which both takes away their responsibility for the content and themes of the play, and provides the audience’s ability to distance themselves from the atrocity and gruesomeness of what they’re witnessing; without that buffer, I believe, neither the audience nor the performers would be able to stomach the Art they’re sharing with each other. (Again, very reminiscent of the Grand Guignol, and in fact of the entire setting and tone of the outstanding Penny Dreadful streaming series.)
I also had the very interesting experience of listening to this one versus reading the novel, which I usually prefer. I’ve had mixed success with audiobooks in the past, especially when they’re this long and intricate, with so many disparate characters changing so profoundly in their arcs from beginning to end. Vikas Adam does a masterful, unforgettable job bringing each of these many characters to life, so much so that he almost doesn’t have to tell me which character is speaking, or entering or leaving a scene – I can just tell by the way he’s reading it. Too often, an attempt at an accent or a change in speech or cadence to represent gender or age or any of a number of other traits pulls me out of the story completely. That didn’t happen for me once over the 16+ hour length of this one. My favorite, and the first time a character’s voice helped me picture them completely, was probably Steiner, one of the Iron Dandies so traumatized by the Great War. It was a brilliant choice, and worked flawlessly.
So what is The Grand Dark? Aside from the theater bearing its name, I think Kadrey may have intended us to think of it as being everything we don’t know about what’s going on. About what’s happening outside of the city limits of LP, about how none of the elements of the past, whether or not we fully understand them, offer any insight into what the future may be bringing, about the fuzzy line between Art and Artifice, about how using drugs, alcohol, sex, anything could bring some modicum of light to the Darkness while at the same time contributing to it. In other words: Life. At least for those in Lower Proszawa. (Though maybe for us, too? No matter where we may be?) And the only thing that can truly penetrate such utter soul-crushing darkness are the usual suspects: Love, and Truth, and Friendship. Without those, the world is a Grandly Dark place, indeed.
I’ll close with two quotes from Cory Doctorow, himself an accomplished writer of Science Fiction and other genres, from his excellent review of The Grand Dark:
“Kadrey’s latest tugs on so many timely threads about inequality and automation, forever wars and authoritarianism, environmental degradation and urbanism, all while thundering along like the first-rate adventure novel it is, steeped in so much wickedness that it’s like someone put a cigar and a pint of prison wine in a nutribullet and inked a typewriter ribbon with the resulting slurry.”
“…a parable for our New Gilded Age, where war is inequality’s handmaiden, an incinerator that neatly removes the unnecessariat* and fattens the purses of their social betters. It’s a fun and terrifying ride, gritty and relentless, burning with true love and revolutionary fervor.”
It doesn’t get any better than that.
[Doctorow’s use of the “unnecessariat” to describe the vast middle class, or what’s left of it, is in itself a fascinating rabbit hole to explore. I highly recommend it.]

Legend has it that Harry Houdini, arguably the greatest magician and escapologist in history and spiritualist hoaxbuster extraordinaire, used to wrap his upper and lower legs in tight adhesive bandages the night before attending a seance or other “supernatural” display. Just before arriving he’d tear them off, leaving both thighs and calves raw and ultra sensitive, able to feel the slightest under-the-table movements and thereby exposing the charlatans bilking the anguished, upper class would-be believers out of thousands of dollars and feeding their hopes of truly communicating with lost loved ones in the afterlife.

When I stopped taking the anti-depressants that I’d been on for years in an effort to combat various bouts of depression and anxiety that reared up only too often, I felt exactly like that: as if someone had torn off the body-length bandage I’d wrapped myself in as a shield against the world, and now my every nerve was exposed to the slightest breeze, the merest whiff of emotion scraping against me like salt in a wound, or an electrical circuit made complete.

Oddly enough and over time, I welcomed those charges for what they were: my emotional infrastructure reawakening, coming out from under the warm, comfortable eiderdown of the meds and back into the harsher sandpaper world. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was the beginning of my coming back to life, to waking up again in my early 50’s.

I’d started taking the mood-smoothers after telling my GP that I was, well… sad. All the time. I told her it was because of a recent breakup (then almost a year old,) and that’s what I told myself, too. After all, I reasoned, what if you finally found who you thought was your soulmate but they didn’t agree? That might account for such low moods and the tinge of blue that seemed to shade everything, right?

It didn’t take me long to label that breakup as more of a trigger than an underlying cause. What else could be driving this? I’d certainly “mourned” the dissolution of my family not quite ten years prior to this; I’d often told people that it had taken almost three years to come back to life after that, to poke my head above the fog of confusion and hurt that had surrounded me for so long. But had I fully acknowledged or explored all of those feelings, not just of misjudging the Love I’d imagined as being impregnable, unassailable between my ex-wife and me, but the forced separation of me and my girls? Those sweet, innocent girls that occupied such large parts of my heart and my soul?

Maybe I hadn’t.

Whatever the possible cause(s), I was down. My lifelong study of Eastern philosophies and religion had imbued in me a strong belief in the Wheel of Samsara, Karma, The Tao – all of the Zenned-out approaches to Life and Love and Thought. I know – believe through my own very real experience – that the universe moves in circular ways, and that the wheel moves up, around, and down for everyone. That there will be light after the dark, good after the bad, that the opposites will balance, and conjunction will occur – just not always at the pace or for the duration one might wish.

So while I knew with everything inside me that this moodiness, too, would pass – even if it did seem like it was taking an awfully long time – I wondered if there was something that may speed it along or make the wait a little less arduous. Thus my willingness to at least try the medicinal approach.

I’d always been a somewhat sensitive kid. Never labeled a “crybaby” (what could be worse, right?) I was nevertheless profoundly moved at the pain or discomfort of others, by a beautiful piece of music, a heartfelt movie or book that struck home in a powerful way.

Was there a hierarchy in the intensity of these feelings, based on the source? I’m not sure. It seems that the written word often hits harder, cuts more deeply, than does visual stimuli like movies and TV, but it’s really dependent on the individual content, I think. I can remember individual movies or TV shows that affected me strongly, as well as specific books and passages that left me just as touched, just as drained, emotionally.

Imagine my surprise and relief to find out around college age that there’s a word for describing at least some of that type of personality: lachrymose.

Again, it’s not a case of “cries too easily,” (which would also be the worst Indian name ever.) I took it to describe the responses I’d had almost ever since I can remember: an answer to emotional stimulus, real or manufactured, that caused tears to form in the corners of my eyes and emotion to well in my chest, heat to spread across my scalp from back to front, seemingly inexplicably. Rarely allowing them to fall, I could usually disguise the response with a cough or a sneeze or a quick swipe of the hand across my face, knowing – somehow – that my teen and twenty-something friends wouldn’t understand such a reaction, and that I didn’t want to, or didn’t know how to, try to explain it.

It also fit with my self-diagnosis that I am predominantly an introvert, and later with the Meyers-Briggs confirmation that I’m an INFP.

I’d also been a lifelong proponent of lucid dreaming, and interpreting them even when the lucidity was a little scarce. From a young age I had very intense dreams – many, but not all, nightmares or even what I later discovered were called Night Terrors. Around age 12 or 13, though, I read about lucid dreaming and thought I’d give it a go.

It took a long time, but eventually I was able to make a conscious decision to interact with the unconscious actions taking place in this magnificent dream world of mine. I’d been able to recognize that I was dreaming for a long while before I was able to affect any change. The first step towards interacting was simply being able to blink my eyes quickly whenever I wanted the dream to end, and I would wake up. Of course, if I went back to sleep too quickly I’d find myself right back into the thick of whatever scenario I’d been so anxious to escape; that still happens today.

Sometimes you wake up from a dream. Sometimes you wake up in a dream. And sometimes, every once in a while, you wake up in someone else’s dream. – Richelle Mead

But in one nightmare dreamscape around that 12th or 13th year – I remember it very vividly – I was being chased down the beach in Charleston by an almost cartoonish gorilla – it looked more like someone dressed in a bad gorilla suit than the real thing, but was nevertheless as menacing and scary as anything I’d ever encountered in a dream – when I realized that I was dreaming, and that I could stop this from going any further. I stopped running, slid to a sandy stop on the wet beach, and turned. It kept charging, so I held up both hands and COMMANDED it to stop. I remember wanting to shoot some sort of power beams out of my hands, or some sort of magic spell to disintegrate it – neither happened.

But it did stop.

I chased it away, the dream wisped apart like lace on the wind, and I slept the rest of the night through.

From then on I was able to practice making my responses and interactions more tangible and in line with what I imagined at the time. Those beams and magic spells started working, albeit never quite at the strength I intended. Flying, also, was extremely difficult at first; like that feeling everyone describes when in a nightmare where it feels like they’re trying to get away from the Big Bad but they can’t get started, like they’re running through mud, or syrup, or that something is holding them back. That’s how my first attempts at flying felt, too – like something was making gravity stronger, or was grabbing on and slowing me down, keeping me earthbound. Each “flap” of my arms or wings or whatever I happened to be made of in the dream would raise me up a bit, then a little more, but it was months until I could break those bonds and get any serious height or speed. Once I did get up there, it was like I’d escaped the ground, and I could zip like a bullet over any landscape I happened to be crossing.

As I got older and my studies into dreaming and altered states of consciousness grew more advanced, I continued to deepen the lucidity of my own dreaming world. I could even, to some extent – never perfect – plan or guide what or who I wanted to dream about as I was falling asleep.

So I enjoyed a very rich dream life, and even journaled it for several years while in later high school and early college. The journaling eventually stopped – unless I happened to have what Jung called a Big Dream, which happened on average about two or three times a year. The rest of the time I could tell that the dreams I was having were more of the house-cleaning, storage decisioning type rather than any important message from the Unconscious to my waking self.

There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other. – Douglas Everett

All of that changed, slowly and very subtly, when I began taking the mood meds.

My doctor started me on one type of anti-depressant, but about six months or so in I told her I wasn’t sure it was making much of a difference. She added another one to the mix, and I stayed on that cocktail for almost five years.

I still wasn’t sure if it was making things better or worse. Several years in, though, I began to realize that my dreaming had changed, sometimes drastically. Almost like going from color to black and white, from being able to feel and participate in and understand whatever was going on to being a passive observer in what was happening. And what I was seeing was not very interesting or exciting. Dullsville, when it used to be like going to a nightly Theme Park.

I noticed, too, that my emotional responses to key scenes in movies, books, TV and even real life had become muted. I didn’t make this comparison at the time, but looking back now it’s sort of like I had on the kind of powered armor that Paul Atreides and his family had in the Dune movie and books: a polygonal shimmer that surrounded the body and didn’t allow anything through, unless it was something very slow and deliberate. So no guns or beams could get through, but a slow, artfully arced knife attack might.

That was what the meds were doing to my mind and my emotional framework – damping down the potential impacts of every encounter, good or bad.

So I began weaning myself very slowly from both of the drugs. (I’d read extensively about the dangers of simply stopping such intake, and I told my doctor what I was doing.) After all, I reasoned, I was really no less sad, and had begun noticing – and not liking – the negative effects they were having, so how bad could it be to get them out of my system?

Turns out, not bad at all. In fact, much better in nearly every way.

The first time my old, lachrymose reaction returned and overtook me like an unscheduled express train plowing through my core, the response induced was exponentially more powerful than it had used to be, simply because I was not expecting it, and it had been so long. I wish I could remember what prompted it, but thankfully I was alone, so it washed over me unimpeded, with no attempts at covering it up or halting it in its tracks.

Even more slow to return, but ultimately with no less strength or fanfare, my dreams began to color and deepen and sharpen and grow more real. And I knew it, could recognize the return of lucidity, and even of personal action taken within the dreams. I began keeping a dream journal again, and having the Jungian Big Dream two or three times a month instead of per year.

This reawakening of sense and feeling was very gradual, spread over six to twelve months. But when I could feel that the chemicals were completely gone, 100% out of my system, it was no great leap, or with any dissenting opinion at all, to declare that I was better off without them than I had been on them. Having potentially raw, painful receptors ready and waiting for such stimulus is, for me, ultimately better than buffering them with meds or any other methods I know of. I would gladly exchange the occasional depths of the downs to experience the heights of the ups, which I knew would be back around at some point, no matter what. Perhaps now I could even help the pull of the wheel to come back around sooner, and stronger? Maybe even to stick around a little longer?

Still, today, I’m sometimes awash in unexpected emotion or empathy while watching, hearing, reading or otherwise experiencing anything artistic or humanistic, real or fictionalized. And I welcome those reactions back home, where they belong.

Is all that we see or seem, but a dream within a dream? – Edgar Allan Poe

I know this has been very oversimplified, totally anecdotal, and that it can’t be applied universally, nor even to another person with seemingly similar feelings and circumstances. I also know that anti-depressants, either the specific drugs I was using or any of the myriad others available, have helped and are helping many people cope with life’s many challenges, great and small. I even acknowledge that the two I was taking may have initially helped to cushion me against such life challenges as I was, perhaps, not prepared to handle at the time.

For whatever reason, though, enough of “me” remained conscious that, once the need for that cushioning effect had passed, I was able to at least entertain the possibility of trying life again, without the preserver, knowing that I’d likely go under again. But also knowing that I could surface when, if, and how I most needed to.

If one defines the word “drug” as something that changes the way one feels, thinks, sees, in short perceives something, whether that change is positive or negative, is it such a stretch to say that art, no matter the medium, can be called a drug, as well?

Drugs can have many effects on our perceptions. We take them to feel better, as in the case of analgesics or antibiotics to reduce pain or to remedy an illness. Some take them illicitly, thinking they will feel better, and in some cases they will feel better if the non-drugged state is an unpleasant one. Some take them for fun, enjoying the temporary altered state induced. Some become addicted, either to the feeling engendered or on a physical level.

Art is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is recognition of the pattern. – Alfred North Whitehead

With the exception of a physical addiction, all of the effects that drugs can have can also be induced by art. Again, whether the medium is painting or sculpture, dance or music, poetry or prose, graffiti or photography, or just the way someone moves in a certain light, the verbal turn-of-phrase that strikes one as being perfect for the moment, or especially descriptive in a way that’s new to one’s ears and mind, the observer/listener/witness is changed. Sometimes the change is temporary, lasting only long enough to note the enjoyment or appreciation of the subject. Often the change is life-long, and the witness’s mindset and worldview are forever altered by the artistic encounter. A new layer, a new filter is added to the perceiver’s ability to process not only future artistic encounters, but all of life’s interactions, from the mundane to the sublime.

Just as a recreational drug user will sometimes receive an effect or effects not anticipated, such as the so-called “bad trip,” or go down instead of up (or up when they wanted to go down,) certain works of art may have an effect not anticipated by the witness, nor, perhaps, by the artist. Certainly, negative emotions and reactions are nearly as prevalent in all works of art as are positive; some artists surely strive for that reaction rather than induce the more positive awareness of beauty. (A tangent to be explored, possibly better, elsewhere: who defines beauty, or whether it must be positive or negative? The artist? The witness? The subject? Surely there are works of dark beauty, of raw truth too cutting, too grim, too stripped-down to be appreciated as art by some witnesses. Mapplethorpe, anyone?) What may be beautiful to me, what may induce a powerfully positive emotional impact, or reduce me to tears of truthful recognition of beauty, or of rightness, may have just the opposite effect (or none at all, the bane of every artist, I should think,) on another. What I find banal, or offensive, or crude, may be another’s epiphany.

Can one become addicted to art, as with drugs? Surely, though perhaps not in a physical sense. Whether one limits themselves to Dali’s surrealism, or listens only to Classical music, decrying the value of rock and roll, or submerges themselves in poetry, in erotica, in science fiction, or in any way overvalues one medium to the exclusion of all possible others, the blinders of addiction are in place.

Some drugs are intrinsically good. Some drugs are not. Some drugs are absolutely required for life to continue. Some drugs have as their only purpose hastening its end. Some drugs allow for mind-expanding connections and conclusions to be made, for the throwing out of old paradigms and the creation of new ones, for the dredging up of genetic memory, of the Collective Unconscious and the archetypes described (not invented) by Jung and his cohorts. Some drugs shut down the cognitive functions, the higher selves, the connectors and archaeologists of the mind, dimming the spark instead of feeding it to flame, or feeding it too quickly and too explosively, so that the flashpoint is reached too soon, or to a negative degree.

Substitute “art” for “drug” in the above paragraph (allowing for changes of tense and syntax,) and it would be no less true.

Even the word art, is, to me, art. How else could such a simple three letter, one syllable word have such enormous potentiality? Art is the fuse to the powder keg of the mind; the catalyst required to make the connections that can have life-changing import; the seed of beauty, of understanding, of appreciation of life and of love; the quickening that hastens perception’s growth; the midwife between artist as sire and witness as progeny.


I’ve never read such a string of 5-star rated books as I have in the last few weeks. Maybe the universe knew I needed this infusion of beautiful words, magically spun, running the emotional gamut from tragic to heroic, just to remember that these times, too, will pass.

I won’t spend a long time describing the characters and settings of this one since I did so when reviewing its predecessor, Beartown. It could have easily continued from the end of that one without pause, since most of the cast and much of the action were so familiar, and much of the groundwork for the future tales had been laid.

Vidar falls head over heels for her, because he’s the type who doesn’t know how to stop himself.

But, apparently, Backman can’t just write beautifully about the snow, or about people and their relationships, or about love and friendship and teamwork and hockey. He has to throw in some truly heart-wrenching stuff or where would the challenges lie for the citizens and families of Beartown and its surrounds?

All parents know. It’s not a voluntary process, it’s an emotional assault; you become someone else’s property the first time you hear your child cry.

I won’t detail those lows any more than I will the highs – and there are plenty of both. Suffice it to say that all of the soaring yet simple language from the first is present in the second, and that by the end you’re just as invested in all of these lives and loves as you were before. (With a few new faces to both love and hate, to boot.)

What would you do for your family? What wouldn’t you do?

My only regret is that I think I may have now read all of his longer works, and have only one, maybe two shorter works to go before I’m completely finished. That will not be a happy day. I can only hope he’s writing the next one frantically, and will publish it before or soon after I’m done. It doesn’t even have to be about the Bears from Beartown (but I wouldn’t be disappointed if it was…)

If he stands tall, I’ll stand tall.

Read the rest of this entry »


I can say unequivocally that I learned more reading this book than in any class in high school, college, or elsewhere, or from any other book – textbook or other. Not just the cold, hard facts of history – though there are plenty of dates, places and instances of that sort of learning here. More psychological, humanistic, “how does this happen?” sort of revelations than concretized, unassailable, facts and figures, which are often so much more revealing.

I found this hardback on the sale table in the local bookstore almost ten years ago, and it’s easily the best $5 or so I’ve ever spent. It would have seemed a bargain at ten times the price.

Clive James is a true polymath, possibly the last. Extensive writing in the realms of TV and literary criticism, fiction, poetry, theater, and music allowed him to collect a menagerie of friends and collaborators that crossed generations, styles and genres, and much about that sort of lifestyle is revealed in this collection of mini-biographies.

Its premise is a familiar one with older and getting-older generations: “kids today aren’t learning what we did!” In other words, what they “should be learning” about in order to prevent Cultural Amnesia from negatively affecting society as a whole. In an effort to correct that perceived oversight, these 106 essays cover historical figures both well known and nearly obscure. There were so many with which I was unfamiliar that I made it a point of reading those before getting his thoughts on the people I recognized.

James was (and presumably still is) a practitioner of marginalia – making notes right in the book you’re reading, in the margins near the line or lines that prompted the note. While fascinating to look back on, and invaluable to him when going back through his voluminous library in preparing this tome, I was never really a big fan of marginalia, probably because I (falsely, in most cases) assumed the written work was sacrosanct, and should not be tainted by my lowly side notes.

The result is that when describing these influential people to us – again, some very well known but many only one dimensionally – he could rely on whatever insights and epiphanies may have exploded across his awareness when he was first reading about them, in most cases many years before, as a young and impressionable – and obviously highly intelligent and empathic – student and artist.

Perhaps because he felt so gypped by the Universe (his father, having survived WWII as a Japanese prisoner of war only to be killed when the plane carrying him back to his family in Australia crashed in Manila Bay) much of the focus in this book is centered on the World War II years and how that period truly impacted the entire world. I knew, for instance, though only vaguely, that Vienna, Austria was a hotbed of modern art, literature, poetry, music, philosophy, and general enlightenment prior to the War and the inevitable Aunschluss, but I didn’t know that so many of that modern Renaissance’s participants saw it coming and (correctly, it turned out) despaired, some to the point of throwing themselves out of high windows at the sight of the Nazis marching through the streets. Powerful stuff.

Nor did I know that people famous during and after the War were so cozily attached to their occupiers during its darkest years. There was definitely a feel in reading about it, and I’m sure even more so in living through it, that going along to get along very literally meant the difference between life or death, but to read about personages like Coco Chanel being so involved in the Nazi night life and hobnobbing with the most influential (and therefore most safe?) of their leadership in Paris was eye opening. From what I understand, despite her and others’ vehement denials, their true loyalties were never fully established. (Though, if you prefer your insight into the true Big Bad of the that or any century to be more direct, there are fascinating pieces on Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler, as well.)

Other bits are much lighter yet no less enlightening. James’ fascination with and reverence of the Tango is almost like a religious ecstasy, and his portraits of musicians like Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington; writers such as Walter Benjamin, Jorge Luis Borges, Albert Camus, John Keats, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others; and Movie and TV personalities as wide-ranging as Charlie Chaplin, Dick Cavett, Tony Curtis, and Terry Gilliam, all provide insights into their psyches that, heretofore, have often been overshadowed by their achievements and the time-wearing polish of lasting fame.

Can’t say enough about this one. Great for keeping on the nightstand or coffee table for that 20 or 30 minute window that may present itself between daily requirements and which can serve to educate and entertain like, perhaps, nothing else can in this modern, too forgetful world.

Pictures are worth 1,000 or more words, we know. What I didn’t know was how instantaneously one could fold space and time and bridge a gap 40+ years wide without seam or pause. This one did. Like a tea-soaked Madeline from Marcel’s own side table, seeing that shot I was overcome with memory, with feeling the way I’d felt as a kid, the potential of having everything ahead of me, and of that road forward being hinted at in all those thoughts and feelings I’d felt right that very moment.

At first you only see two guys on a stage, both cradling huge, unwieldy double-neck guitars. To the left is Alex Lifeson, captured mid-run on the lower, 6-string neck of his beast, while to the right Geddy Lee thumps his upper 8-string bass. Then behind and between them you see Neil Peart and his relatively small but still impressive drum kit, all of them in flowing sleeves, mid-jam on what has to be…

“That’s Xanadu,” I say out loud to myself. And the floodgates open.

Summer of ’78, Charleston, South Carolina. Family vacation on Folly Beach, courtesy of my grandfather. Six, sometimes seven families under one beach house roof, along with the in-town cousins coming out for the day every day for two weeks, almost always around July 4th. I was 14.

My closest cousins were Keith and Carl, one day and one year younger than me, respectively. We only saw each other a few times a year growing up, but we were close. My younger sister had several cousins close to her age, too, and there were a few slightly older than us; altogether there were probably 20 people sleeping there, with another 10 to 20 coming by during the day.

All of the budding teens in the house were just discovering the kinds of music that would really start to last, would stick with and influence what each of us would be listening to for the rest of our lives, so we had turntables and cassette players aplenty. Faye, I remember, had a white-handled red case of 45’s that we’d all sort through to queue up favorites like “We’re So Sorry, Uncle Albert” and “Timothy,” a gruesome (and near impossible to find today) tune about a group of kids who get stuck in a cave and have to, um, eat their way out, then wonder why they can’t find Timothy…

Up to then my only exposure to “real” Rock and Roll was Kiss, and more recently, Aerosmith via their Toys in the Attic album, which I’d bought not long before that and promptly wore out. Sure, all of the Kiss I’d heard to date was hard and heavy, and Aerosmith opened those avenues even wider for me, but I was not prepared for the responses evoked by what Keith, Carl and I would listen to the most, by a wide, wide margin, that summer.

I’m pretty sure it was Carl that had the double cassette (Oooh! Cool!) of Rush’s All the World’s a Stage, as well as their iconic 2112, both released in 1976 (2112 in April and AtWaS in September, for those keeping score at home,) and A Farewell to Kings, which debuted in September of 1977.

We probably listened to 2112 – both the side-long opus and its weird opposite with songs like “Twilight Zone” and “A Passage to Bangkok” the most often, just because extremely long songs with multiple parts and strange names were so foreign to us, and thus amazing, but there was a very close second, from Farewell… It’s called “Xanadu.”

We had no idea it was based on a long, eldritch poem from over a hundred years before, or that there were numerous other works that referenced that magical place where nobody ever aged, or even that some of the verses were lifted directly from the poem. (Discovering that poem later, and its own odd back story, was itself an epiphany.) We just knew it built, and built, and built, and then opened up wide with a majesty and an all-enveloping sound like none of us had ever experienced. Weird, Dazed and Confused-era Jimmy Page-like string manipulations from Alex’s guitar, staccato trills from Peart’s temple blocks, Geddy noodling around on some keys in the background, all lasting just enough to make you wonder, “What the…?” before going over the cliff and jamming like no three-piece had any right to do.

It’s very easy to isolate the two guitars from each other and from the monstrous underlying drum fills, and it’s hard to remember that these are just three guys playing their asses off. The speed, the virtuosity on each instrument, the runs up and down the scales, all leading to the most unearthly vocals any of us had ever heard (before or since) were otherworldly. It was damn close to sensory overload – almost too much to bear. But only almost.

Again, not knowing that many of the lyrics belonged to Samuel Taylor Coleridge and not to Neil, (partly because they meshed so well stylistically,) I attributed all of their mastery to Peart. Even later, though, when I could tell which set belonged to whom, I marveled that the drummer could possibly have put together such soaring, mysterious, and evocative words; this was true in nearly every case, since there were usually only a song or two per album that he didn’t provide the lyrics for.

So here we have this sonic cathedral built by the ringing guitars and bass, bedrocked by the bones of the continuously astounding drumline, and buoyed by the mystical, magical, maddening imaginings of both Peart and Samuel T; almost Lovecraftian, Poe-like despair and madness, mapping perfectly to Coleridge’s own struggle from “the last immortal man” to “a mad immortal man” and every state in between. Then a long, ringing fade that crashes and flows like the River Alph itself, until silence reigns again, the chilled caves of ice quiet once more.

I’m surprised that tape survived the summer.

Then the long ride home after two wondrous weeks, my parents letting us play tapes in turn, and when it’s mine I naturally choose “Xanadu.”

Halfway through my dad says offhandedly, “You know that most of this is from a famous old poem, right?” I was torn between being amazed at his words, and that he’d been paying close enough attention to figure that out.

“No. Really?”

“Yeah. Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about Xanadu sometime in the 1800’s, I think. Legend has it that he dreamed about it when he was on some heavy painkiller – opium, I’m pretty sure – and someone came to his door and interrupted him before he could finish the dream and understand all that he’d seen and experienced. He spent the rest of his life trying to get back there and figure it out.”

‘Whoa,’ thought I. ‘This just gets cooler and cooler.’

Naturally I researched all I could find on the subject, which made me wonder if Mr. Peart had mined other such veins for use as Rush material. Guess what? He had.

The name of the space ship in “Cygnus X-1” from the A Farewell to Kings album? Also the name of Don Quixote’s horse.

The song “Anthem” and the entire first side of 2112? Based on the writings of Ayn Rand.

“Rivendell” from the Fly by Night album – I knew that source well.

So not only did I discover the band that would change my life, and shape much of it for the next decade or so, musically speaking, I’d accidentally uncovered one of the most literate lyricists in Rock.

For each of their next several albums I dove headlong into liner notes, album art, interviews and any other sources I could find. Uncovering all of these riddles, solving puzzles only I seemed interested in, added to the overall effect the music had on me. I also realized that most of my friends (a) weren’t as into the music as I was, preferring more straight ahead Rock and Roll, radio-friendly stuff (nothing wrong with that,) and (b) even the small minority that did appreciate the band weren’t as into all the minutiae that turned me on. I didn’t care.

I ended up writing my senior English paper on the band, chiefly around the Hemispheres album, with its Apollonian versus Dionysian dichotomy. Heady stuff for any Rock band to tackle, and that album definitely wasn’t for everyone; even more so than usual the trip they took us on there and then was much more rabbit hole than destination, but it was fun stuff nonetheless. (And a continuation of a song from the previous album – also cool.) I got a good grade on the paper, and a soft suggestion that maybe I’d relied too heavily on the words of others; there being so few citable sources on the band I’d had to fudge a bit a make a few of them up, including the accompanying article’s “quotes.” I’d never been prouder of being accused of using someone else’s writing.

Like no other source for me then or since, Rush opened and combined vistas that I would never have otherwise experienced in such a visceral, cerebral way. It was the summer of 2112, of All the World’s a Stage. Of Xanadu. And there were we, marveling at the first taste of honeydew, and so very drunk on the milk of paradise.

Thanks, guys, and Happy Canada Day! (And happy 4th to everyone else!)

MathomIn keeping with a Tolkien “tradition” that I’ve loved since I first read about it years ago, where Hobbits give small presents (or “mathoms”) on their birthday rather than receive them, I’ve curated a short playlist of the best songs to come my way over the last few months. It ranges from older hard rock, to newer hard rock, to acoustic, to un-categorizable. Here’s some info about what and who are included.

American WrestlersKelly – American Wrestlers

I don’t know anything about these guys – where they’re from, how long they’ve been around, nothing. All I do know is that the first time I heard this song I really liked the groove of it. (I also thought they were singing, “Kill it…” instead of “Kelly”)

Stoic Resemblance – The Helio SequenceHelio Sequence

I’ve heard and liked stuff from this band in the past but have never given them a deep dive, album wise. Still haven’t, but this tune makes me want to. Will report back once that’s accomplished.

RocksCombination – Aerosmith

I rarely go this far back when making compilations like this, but having just discovered that the album Rocks was finally available on iTunes (and I’ve been checking over the years…) I had to get it. I always remembered that this was my favorite collection of theirs, but I’d forgotten how strong these riffs are. “Combination” is the best, most visceral one of the lot, though it’s hard to rank them – they’re all killer. This was, to me, right in the middle of the band’s most fertile period – Toys in the Attic and Draw the Line were put out around the same time, and though hugely impacted by the band’s increasingly inhuman intake of all sorts of drugs, all three albums remain their strongest true rock and roll for me.

Methodrone – The Black CadillacsBlack Cadillacs

Just found these guys – total accident thanks to social media. On first sight, and even first listen, they may be easily dismissed as simply a good time bar band, bluesy and light. Far from it. Their song structures, lyrics, and busy rhythm guitars make what should be old hat sound like new again. Highly recommended.

musee mechaniqueThe Lighthouse and the Hourglass – Musee Mecanique

I found Musee Mecanique a year or so ago and love all of their long instrumental pieces. This is one of the rare tunes with lyrics, and it’s a strong one. Check out their Daytrotter session here.

Witness – Mewmew

Mew is one of those deceptively deep bands who sound, at first, like a hundred bands you’ve heard before – light piano or acoustic guitar intros reminiscent of Coldplay, Fallout Boy and the like. I find them a little more substantive than that, and it was hard to pick just one of their tunes. This won by a narrow margin.

BushBreathe – Bush

Almost all of my compilations include at least one good cover. This one was a big surprise from Bush’s recent Daytrotter session – didn’t even know it was included until I heard it on random in the car. Pink Floyd was a colossal influence on my musical growth, consciousness expansion, and – to be honest – my delinquency. Very interesting to note how differently these lyrics (and almost all of their others) hit me at 51 than they did when in my teens and twenties…

Bath Salt – River Whylessriver whyless

Interesting sound from this band, who I’m planning on seeing in July. To these ears, there’s a definite Chinese influence to the fiddle pieces; would love to find out if they’ve ever heard or played with Abigail Washburn, who also shows those influences.

tree machinesF**king Off Today – Tree Machines

Deceptively loud and sloppy, I was captured by this band’s entire Daytrotter session, too. (Pardon the profanity, but I figured we’re all old enough to take it, and if the kids are in the car when you’re cranking this one – and it needs to be cranked – you can always skip to the next one. It’s a little tamer.)

Full Circle – Xavier RuddXavier Rudd

Nice and calm after all the previous noise, this one is in keeping with the rest of Rudd’s canon – mellow and deep, inextricably sad and uplifting at the same time. (Bonus: when’s the last time you heard a didgeridoo on a song like this? Or anywhere?)

young buffaloSykia – Young Buffalo

I’ve been familiar with this outfit for a few years now. Good to see that their progression continues – familiar enough to the older stuff, new enough to sound fresh.

Cumin – The AcornMerlin by Richter

Another nice acoustic piece, this time with an almost Afro-centric beat that offsets it nicely. From a great collection called Oh! Canada 25 from The Line of Best Fit.

leisure societyWhen It Breaks – The Leisure Society

This felt like a nice bookend to the beginning section, and a softer way to wrap up.

I used to make these collections every few months – the above represents only new stuff from the last 60 days or so – but it’s been awhile now. Depending on how these are received, maybe I’ll get back to a more regular schedule. Let me know what you think, and thanks for listening/reading!

Secret PlaceMy only worry on starting this one was reading it too quickly – her prose is so lyrical and rich that it’s nearly impossible to stop once I’ve started. I seriously wondered whether I’d be able to sip or if I’d be forced – again – to drink deeply until the cup ran dry. Turns out not much sipping went on.

I ended up enjoying this one at least as much as her others, which is strange to me since, as I was reading through the early chapters, I remember thinking to myself that her prose wasn’t quite so lyrical, wasn’t prompting me to capture all the quotes I usually grab from her – noticing all of this, by the way, without it diminishing my total submersion into the story.

Before too long, though, the magic started seeping in – so much so that (like all good writing) I forgot I was reading, and forgot to collect those dark and shiny quotes as often as I’d done before; they were too good, too perfect for me to pause and clip them away from the whole pattern. It would have taken me out of the story.

With “The Secret Place,” Tana French mines some familiar territory, and handles it as deftly as she has before. The dynamics between friends – real, true, forever friends – was definitely the main reason I was so utterly captured by “The Likeness,” her second novel but the first of hers that I read. (After that I immediately went back and read the first, “In the Woods,” and was then forced to wait the several years between those and each of the next three.) The effortless closeness of the college students in “Likeness” reminded me of the few close fiends I’d had during that time, how bonds like that are forged, and sometimes broken.

In “The Secret Place,” French goes back even further, to a group of early teenaged girls boarding at an elite Irish school in the heart of Dublin. She focuses on two distinct groups, each with their tidal pulls and pushes, each their reasons for attracting and repelling others. The obnoxious group, not-so-fondly referred to by the main four as The Daleks, are all of the worst stereotypes of teenage girls rolled into four distinct personalities: the ringleader is someone you would cheerfully smack in the face every time she crossed your path; her minions are, for the most part, simpering hangers-on who put up with her awfulness mainly for fear of not being one of her inner circle. Despicable, all.

The main group, though, represents everything I remember as being strong, magical, impermeable about true friendship, while painting a much more relatable picture of what teenage girls can be and do and represent. Fierce loyalty, innate intelligence, soaring imaginations, insular senses of shared humor, profound empathy – all described beautifully and believably, as French so often does. Having had a hand in raising two teenaged girls, still witnessing their own growth and that of their friends, I’m glad to say that although I recognized some Dalek behavior in some of their acquaintances, if any were lucky enough to make it to true friendship status they were always more like the “good four” seen here than the bad ones. Still are, like attracting like the way it does.

I won’t spoil the discovery by rehashing the blurb – the short description and my familiarity with the author’s canon were more than enough to tease me into starting it – except to say that The Secret Place, like most of her titles, represents more than just one spot, and that – like all secrets – they bond the knowers together, like it or not.

I like the way she alternates between the girls’ perspective and the investigating officers from the Dublin Murder Squad. (All of French’s novels have so far featured different members of the Squad, usually with little overlap. All can be read as standalone stories and out of order, if necessary, without loss. This is the fifth in the series.) That back and forth in time and perspective, as well as a very creepy countdown that occurs in one of the two paths, reminded me of Stephen King’s totally effective use of a similar device in “It.” Like that one, as the novel gains momentum and suspense I found myself hating to leave one of the threads to return to the other only to feel the same way when that chapter ended and I was back on the first track. Continuing that model past what most may see as the “traditional” denouement was a bold and brilliant choice, and provided me with one of the most evocative and emotional scenes (of many) in the book, one that not only tied up and retstated some of the main themes, but which delivered its various epiphanies in such a gorgeous way that I had to pause and appreciate and remember how that had felt in my own story.

The juxtaposition of the deep friendship of the main girls with the unfamiliarity of the main two cops was also executed beautifully. Their differences in style and behavior were legion, but seeing them begin to develop some of the same signals and marks of friendship exhibited by the girls was beautiful, and masterfully done.

I also loved hearing the lilting pronunciations and flip-flopped sentence structure of the very Irish dialog as I read it. That and the just-right dashes of local slang thrown into the mix made the characters all the more believable, yeah?

Having said that I missed out on some of the better quotes at the beginning, in looking I found that I saved more than I remembered. Here are a few of my favorite lines, to give you just a taste of the power of Tana French’s paintbrush pen:

“… a sudden blond smiling afternoon that popped its head up in the middle of a string of hovering wet days.”

“The moon catches flashes of light and snippets of color strewn through the bushes, like a crop of sweets in a witch’s garden.”

“She’s sitting up with her arms clasped round her knees and her face tilted up to the sky. The moonlight hits her full on, burning her out to something you can only half see, a ghost or a saint. She looks like she’s praying. Maybe she is.”

“None of them say anything. They keep their eyes closed. They lie still and feel the world change shape around them and inside them, feel the boundaries set solid; feel the wild left outside, to prowl perimeters till it thins into something imagined, something forgotten.”

I won’t spoil any more – there are a couple of surprises that are simply too good to reveal, even elliptically.

Well worth your time if you appreciate strong tales well told, and if your heart may need a jump start to remind it of how you once saw the world and all of its possibilities.