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As usual, most of the novels I read are not much more than candy for the mind. I guess, since I no longer ingest spun sugar, cotton candy for the mind will have to do. Well, that’s not precisely true, I have always preferred to flood my mind with fluff. Living in a fantasy world is every bit as rewarding as living in the real world — perhaps even more so

I am currently reading, The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl by Theodora Goss. It is the third in a series of novels whose principal characters include Mary Jekyll the Daughter of Dr. Jekyll; Diana the daughter of Mr. Hyde; Beatrice Rappiccini the daughter of a man who raised her on a diet exclusively of poisons leaving her “as beautiful as she was poisonous;” Justine Frankenstein, a significantly over six-foot woman created by the famous doctor Frankenstein originally to wed the equally famous monster and; Cathrine Moreau a puma transformed into a woman by Dr. Moreau. They all find each other during the course of the first novel and decide to live together in Mary Jekyll’s home, name themselves the Athena Club and with the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson set about solving arcane crimes. Cathrine is the Dr. Watson of these estimable ladies’ adventures. One of the many conceits in the books is to have members of the club interrupt Cathrine as she writes, criticizing and commentating on her work.

Another book I just completed was written by one of my favorite authors, Joe Abercrombie.  In “A Little Hatred” begins a new series continuing the tales in his prior novels set in a world living in something similar to medieval England with a dollop of magic thrown in. Abercrombie clearly intended to feature a bit more magic in his series but his main character a ruffian called The Bloody Nine, was so compelling, he focused more on the Barbarians of the north of which The Bloody Nine was one and their ceaseless slaughter of one another in the Ring, a battle to the death between two heroes to determine who would be king. These are adolescent boys novels which is probably why I enjoy them so much.

“Dark Pattern” by Andrew Mayne features a mathematical biologist who gives up his post as a college professor to track down serial killers using the techniques of his academic specialty to do so. He is as obsessed with pursuing them as they are in their chosen profession of murder.

“Not my Fae” by Tom Kelly a multi-book series about a Las Vegas cop who discovered the city is really run by fairies (Fae) and demons and what is worse he learns that he is a fairy and even worse he is a son of Gaia and the King of the Fairies. Needless to say, the stories deteriorate in each successive novel to such an extent that the author has to explain why in the afterward of his most recent novel.

“The Vital Question” by Nick Lane sounds like another trashy detective story, but it is not. Lane is a biologist. I think it is best that he explains what his book is all about

For me, the best books in biology, ever since Darwin, have been arguments. This book aspires to follow in that tradition. I will argue that energy has constrained the evolution of life on earth; that the same forces ought to apply elsewhere in the universe; and that a synthesis of energy and evolution could be the basis for a more predictive biology, helping us understand why life is the way it is, not only on earth, but wherever it might exist in the universe.
Lane, Nick. The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution, and the Origins of Complex Life (p. 16). W. W. Norton & Company.

It is a slow read, but I think helpful to clarify my musings about the nature of the biosphere.

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For those who have not read any of Terry Pratchett’s magnificent series of comic novels set in the highly improbable but very recognizable land of Discworld, do so right away. It will leave you eternally surprised. Meanwhile, the following excerpt from one of the novels demonstrates the fundamental notions of the great scholar of Discworld, Wen the Eternally Surprised that underly the tales of that world and  infuses the hearts of those living there — “…the only appropriate state of the mind is surprise” and “the only appropriate state of the heart is joy.”

 

“Wen the Eternally Surprised.”

“Why was he eternally surprised?” And they are told: ‘Wen considered the nature of time and understood that the universe is, instant by instant, re-created anew. Therefore, he understood, there is, in truth, no Past, only a memory of the Past. Blink your eyes, and the world you see next did not exist when you closed them. Therefore, he said, the only appropriate state of the mind is surprise. The only appropriate state of the heart is joy. The sky you see now, you have never seen before. The perfect moment is now. Be glad of it.’”
Pratchett, Terry. Thief of Time: A Novel of Discworld (p. 31). HarperCollins.

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I have just finished reading the second installment in the series of my current book crush, The Adventures of Auntie Poldi. Although the books purport to be detective stories, I, frankly, do not recall in either of the two novels of the series I have read so far who was killed or why. Nor can I claim they are great or even good literature. So, what attracts me to these books?

Perhaps it is the magnificently exuberant and shameless bit of overwriting with which the author begins his novel:

“Although in the past few months Poldi had temporarily thwarted death thanks to solving her handyman Valentino’s murder, her romantic encounter with Vito Montana (Polizia di Stato’s chief inspector in charge of homicide cases), her friendship with her neighbours Valérie and sad Signora Cocuzza, my aunts’ efforts and, last but not least, her own love of the chase, we all know the way of the world: peace reigns for a while, the worst seems to be over, the sun breaks through the clouds, the future beckons once more, your cigarette suddenly tastes good again, the air hums with life and the whole world becomes a congenial place pervaded by whispers of great things to come. A simply wonderful, wonderful, universally familiar sensation. And then, like a bolt from the blue, pow! Not that anyone has seen it coming, but the wind changes. Fate empties a bucket of excrement over your head, chuckling as it does so, and all you can think is “Wow, now I really need a drink!” And the whole shitty process starts again from scratch. So it was no wonder my aunts became alarmed when Poldi still had no running water after two weeks and Lady was murdered. No doubt about it, the wind had changed and the ice was growing steadily thinner.”
Giordano, Mario. Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna (An Auntie Poldi Adventure Book 2). HMH Books.

 

Or perhaps, it is Auntie Poldi herself, a lusty sixty-year-old German woman who had married a Sicilian immigrant to Bavaria and who after his death retired to her husband’s ancestral town on the slopes of Mt Etna there to “drink herself to death with a view of the sea.”

Poldi wears a wig, dresses usually in brightly colored caftans, enthusiastically and vigorously enjoys sex, and as the daughter of a Bavarian chief of detectives is compulsively drawn to solving crimes, photographing cute policemen in uniform and bedding dusky and hunky Sicilian detectives (well one in particular).

On the other hand, Poldi was a woman of strong opinions as well as strong appetites. As she explained to her nephew whom she had appointed to be the Watson to her Holmes:

“I’ve never been devout,” she explained later before I could query this in surprise because I knew that Poldi harbored a fundamental aversion to the Church. “I’m spiritual but not devout, know what I mean? I’ve never had much time for the Church. The mere thought of it infuriates me. The males-only organizations, the pope, the original-sin malarkey, the inhibited cult of the Virgin Mary, the false promises of redemption, the proselytism, the misogyny, the daft words of the psalms and hymns. Mind you, I’ve always liked the tunes. I always enjoyed chanting in the ashram, you know. I screwed every hippie in the temple of that Kali sect in Nevada, I’ve meditated in Buddhist monasteries, and I believe in reincarnation and karma and all that, likewise in people’s essential goodness. I don’t know if there’s a god and if he’s got something against sex and unbelievers, but I can’t help it, I’m Catholic. It’s like malaria: once you’ve got it you never get rid of it, and sooner or later you go and make peace with it.”
Giordano, Mario.Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna (An Auntie Poldi Adventure Book 2). HMH Books.

Or on even another hand, perhaps it is the authors alter ego, Poldi’s 34-year-old unmarried nephew, the narrator in the books, a self-described but inept author who works at a call center in Bavaria. He has been attempting to write the great Bavarian novel for years now but seems to have only recently gotten inspired to write the first four chapters the last of which he enthusiastically describes in a blaze of overwriting:

“I was in full flow. I was the adjective ace, the metaphor magician, the sorcerer of the subordinate clause, the expresser of emotions, the master of a host of startling but entirely plausible turns of events. The whole of my fourth chapter had been completed within a week. I was a paragon of self-discipline and inspiration, the perfect symbiosis of Germany and Italy. I was a Cyclops of the keyboard. I was Barnaba. All I lacked was a nymph, but my new Sicilian styling would soon change that.”
Giordano, Mario. Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna (An Auntie Poldi Adventure Book 2). HMH Books.

He found himself periodically called to travel to Sicily and reside in an attic room in Poldi’s house whenever the Sicilian relatives believed Poldi was skating on the thin edge of reality or whenever Poldi herself demanded his return because she felt she needed someone to beguile and complain to.

Or perhaps, it is the denizens of my beloved Sicily, like the three aunts fascinated and often shocked by, and at times participants in, Poldi’s escapades. Or her partners in crime, so to speak, sad Carmina and the local priest. Or, Poldi’s French friend, Valerie her forlorn nephew’s love interest who Poldi steadfastly refuses to allow him to meet.

“For Valérie, like Poldi, happiness possessed a simple binary structure, and the whole of human existence was suspended between two relatively distant poles. Between heaven and hell, love and ignorance, responsibility and recklessness, splendour and scuzz, the essential and the dispensable. And within this dual cosmic structure there existed only two kinds of people: the deliziosi and the spaventosi, the charming and the frightful. Rule of thumb: house guests, friends and dogs are always deliziosi, the rest are spaventosi. At least until they prove otherwise.”

“‘You see,’ Poldi told me once, ‘Valérie has understood that happiness is a simple equation. Happiness equals reality minus expectation.’”
Giordano, Mario. Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna (An Auntie Poldi Adventure Book 2). HMH Books.

 

Or perhaps, it is just that I am a child of Sicily, have lived as well as visited there many times and loved that large rocky Island whose citizens have suffered almost two thousand five hundred years of continuous occupation by a host of invaders— Greeks, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Germans, French, Spanish, Bourbons, Nazi’s, and even British and Americans. Where the inhabitants were considered so irrelevant by their foreign overlords their cities, unlike the rest of Europe, were built without defensive walls. Where the people are reticent with strangers but boisterous and generous with friends and family, where Bella Figura reigns supreme, the cuisine extraordinary, people speak in gestures and revel in the mores of their medieval culture and where “Being Sicilian is a question of heart, not genes” (Giordano, Mario. Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna, An Auntie Poldi Adventure Book 2. HMH Books.)

Whatever, the reasons for my own enjoyment of the books, Pookie says you should check them out, after all, as Auntie Poldi says: “Moderation is a sign of weakness.” (Giordano, Mario. Auntie Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna (An Auntie Poldi Adventure Book 2). HMH Books.)

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My partially completed but never to be finished novel, Dominion, can be found at, https://papajoesfables.wordpress.com/dominion-an-unfinished-and-never-published-novel/. Below is one of the draft chapters in which the main protagonist, Vince Biondi, is confronted by San Mateo County Sheriff Megs Polan.

JOEY’S MYSTERY NOVEL: “Dominion.” When Vince Meets Megs.

Chapter whatever:

Vince took into the office washroom the overnight suitcase he always kept available in his office in case he had to make a sudden short business trip or pulled an all-nighter like this one. He washed as best he could, shaved, changed his clothing and returned to his office just as Ray arrived to accompany him to the San Mateo County Sheriff’s office. Ray had obviously been called by Ike and was dressed in what for him passed for business attire, pearl button earrings, a military-style camouflage jacket, matching camouflage pants and neon green Crocs on his feet.

When they arrived at the Sheriff’s office, they were immediately ushered into the office of Sheriff Megan (Megs) Polan, former beauty queen, bodybuilding champion and a rising star in local Republican politics. Vince and Ray sat in chairs across the hygienically clean desk behind which Megs sat enthroned like a medieval duchess. Her still super toned body so filled out her tan uniform that it looked painted on. She had curly auburn hair that hung down to her shoulders and the steely blue eyes of either a stone cold killer or paranoid schizophrenic. She did not rise to greet them or speak but leaned across her desk and pushed a transparent evidence bag containing a small piece of paper towards them. As she bent forward, Vince caught a glimpse of cleavage struggling to escape the casually unbuttoned shirt. He also noticed the large black pistol riding high on her hip. Vince disconcerted that he found himself turned on, covered his embarrassment by dropping his eyes to the proffered evidence bag and studying its contents.

Inside the bag was a piece of paper torn from a small spiral bound notebook and on it, written in a shaky hand, was the message, “If anything should happen to me, call Vincent Biondi,” along with Vince’s personal mobile phone number.

“So Mr. Biondi,” Megs intoned in her surprisingly whiskey edged voice, “what can you tell me about this note and what may have happened to Mrs. Stephanie Coign last night?”

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“You have fled before, Hodder Tom, haven’t you? You have the haunted look of a man who has bolted in every direction, a man who has fought every adversary and somehow never run out of enemies, a man who has plotted himself nameless, friendless, and nearly lifeless. You already know what happens when you run. You know you cannot panic your way to freedom; you cannot worry yourself home. You must face your fears. The only way out is inward.”
Bancroft, Josiah. The Hod King (The Books of Babel). Orbit.

 

While reading the third book in Bancroft’s The Books of Babel, a series I have commented on previously (https://trenzpruca.wordpress.com/2018/06/07/not-a-book-report-because-i-am-going-to-take-a-ship-instead/) I came across the above paragraph. For some reason, it affected me like few statements have. Again I am not sure why.

As some know, I have a habit of posting in T&T (https://wordpress.com/view/josephpetrillo.wordpress.com) quotes of statements I come across that I find interesting. I got this approach from Don Neuwirth who would carry a notebook with him in which he would copy down aphorisms he read or heard that impressed him. I thought that was a good habit to get into. Since I do not keep a journal, or rather T&T is my journal, I post those I like there.

The series, classified as a Steampunk Fantasy, concerns the adventures and misadventures of a schoolteacher and his wife who travel on their honeymoon to the Tower as tourists. The Tower, a gigantic edifice juts far into the sky. Each level contains a kingdom. On the lower levels, the several kingdoms located there are each dedicated to a different attraction or vice intended to captivate the tourist — most often to their ruination and ultimate despair. At the top of the tower, far in the clouds resides a strange and secretive person called the Phoenix who develops most of the machines that keep the Tower running.

I consider the series to be one of the better fantasy efforts I have come across and perhaps the best among the steampunk slice of the genre. Goodreads describes the first book in the series as follows:

The Tower of Babel is the greatest marvel in the world. Immense as a mountain, the ancient Tower holds unnumbered ringdoms, warring and peaceful, stacked one on the other like the layers of a cake. It is a world of geniuses and tyrants, of airships and steam engines, of unusual animals and mysterious machines.

Soon after arriving for his honeymoon at the Tower, the mild-mannered headmaster of a small village school, Thomas Senlin, gets separated from his wife, Marya, in the overwhelming swarm of tourists, residents, and miscreants in the vast market at the entrance to the Tower.

Senlin is determined to find Marya, but to do so he’ll have to navigate madhouses, ballrooms, and burlesque theaters. He must survive betrayal, assassination, and the long guns of a flying fortress. But if he hopes to find his wife, he will have to do more than just endure.

By the third book, our newlyweds still have not gotten back together although they each have had many splendid, frightening and often painful adventures as well as few affairs.

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Among my favorite movies, a list that includes “The Princess Bride,” “The Iron Crown,” “Diva,“Fabulous Fabiola,” “Blazing Saddles,” and “The Godfather” is a little known and hard to obtain Scifi film entitled “Radioactive Dreams.” The protagonist heroes, two 19-year-olds named Phillip and Marlowe (Philip Chandler and Marlowe Hammer), had grown up in a fallout shelter after the world’s entire nuclear arsenal, except for one missile, had been unleashed. They had only 1950s detective fiction to read and swing music to listen to. They grew up wanting to become private eyes — “dancing dicks” as they put it. After leaving the cave they had lived in for 15 years and driving a 1950s muscle car convertible, they meet up with Miles Archer (a villainess played by Lisa Blount) and later with Rusty Mars (Michelle Little – a villainess who turns heroine). The movie could be described as one long music video featuring the clashing beats and rhythms of Swing/Early Rock and New Wave. It is also a detective story of sorts. Below is an interesting description of the film written by a crazed gamer.

Radioactive Dreams begins with two little boys getting whisked away by their fathers to an underground shelter right as the bombs go off. They stay there avoiding the nuclear war for 15 years with a nice supply of water and food until their fathers abandon them to the surface. After never hearing back from them they assume they’ve perished, so the now-19-year-olds dig to the surface and make their own way into a nightmarish version of 2010. They are not prepared.

The Wasteland
The film opens in black and white with a 4:3 aspect ratio, until the kids open the door to their vault and color seeps into the film as the frame widens, much like a post-apocalyptic Wizard of Oz. As they drive through the desert wasteland everything is a rusted brown and orange color, one very flat — everyone knows the post-apocalypse will not be pretty.

The Pip-Boy
In Radioactive Dreams, the very first person they meet on the outside is wearing a Pip-Boy, of sorts. What better way to listen to old music than with some giant slab of metal and wires on your wrist, after all? It’s just strange that it doesn’t work as a communicator — she has the boys stop at a still-working pay phone (?) to place a call. But everyone knows that it’s the vault dwellers that come equipped with Pip-Boys, anyway.

An Amazing, Ironic Soundtrack
Our heroes Philip and Marlowe read Raymond Chandler novels (ahem) and listen to swing music to keep busy, which makes them grow up wanting to become “dancing dicks.” Thankfully they also have the period-appropriate 1940s suits to go with it. But after listening to all those old records in their shelter they aren’t prepared for the New Wave that’s sunken into the land deeper than the radiation from the bombs. It may not be “I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire” by the Ink Spots, but you have Lisa Lee’s “Eat You Alive” during a scene with cannibals and Jill Jaxx’s “Nightmare” kicking things off.

Radioactive Dreams also features what’s perhaps the best music video in cinematic history, and it comes out of absolutely nowhere fifty minutes in. Just imagine a normal film unfolding before Sue Saad suddenly jumps into frame and starts belting out “Guilty Pleasures.” It’s wonderful.

Mutants & Cannibals
What’s a wasteland without rad-crazed individuals roaming it, looking for victims? Pretty much everyone Philip and Marlowe run across wants to kill them, eat them, steal from them or all three, and their innocence from living a literally sheltered life soon gets shattered. Guns and axes get brandished pretty much right away and they are thrust into violence before they’re ready for it.

The Tunnel Snakes
Everyone knows the Tunnel Snakes from Vault 101. That’s them, and they rule. When our Radioactive Dreams heroes get to their first settlement they run afoul of some real greaser rockabilly types blasting rock’n’roll, particularly a mean guy who dresses in leather and has plenty of hair gel. You half-expect him to be a part of this gang.

Giant Mutated Rats
It’s quite a bit bigger than the mole rats we see everywhere in the Fallout wastelands, but everyone knows the effect radiation has on the local wildlife. It’s too bad that this guy’s appearance is so brief because it’s certainly a showstopper.

VATS
The end of Radioactive Dreams, which sees our heroes fighting with all of the above and more, is punctuated by a slow-motion gunfight. No limbs are targeted but multiple enemies get blasted out of windows, so clearly some turn-based aiming was happening.

About the only thing from Radioactive Dreams that isn’t in Fallout is a big dance number for an ending scene, but hey, there’s always room for DLC, right Bethesda?

A film that’s equal parts absurd and entertaining and features about six genres crammed into it, perhaps the worst thing about Radioactive Dreams is that it’s almost completely unavailable on home video. Released on VHS by Vestron Video, the film has still never seen the light of day on DVD or Blu-ray, which is criminal. Until some wonderful company re-releases it with the love it deserves (hey, it’s the 30th anniversary!), you can find a VHS at the below link. You owe it to yourself to hunt down Radioactive Dreams any way you can.
ALEX RIVIELLO https://birthmoviesdeath.com/2015/11/10/radioactive-dreams-the-fallout-movie-you-didnt-know-existed

Here is a cite to a poorly reproduced a cut version of the film. Unfortunately, the last — and in my opinion the best — scene in the movie is severely truncated. After the mystery was solved, Phillip turns to Marlowe and asks “Well Marlowe what do we do now.” Marlowe answers, “Now we Dance.” Then for the next 10 minutes, they demonstrate Marlowe’s tap-inspired “post-nuke shuffle” to the crowds of the city. It is unfortunately cut to a scant two minutes.
https://www.onemovieboxd.pro/stream-radioactive-dreams-full-movie-watch-online-v1-47342

 

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I have just completed reading a mystery novel entitled “Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions” by Mario Giordano. Surprisingly, the author is not Sicilian. He is German. A descendant of a Sicilian laborer who had left the Island seeking work and a better life in the Colossus of the North. The novel itself is no classic work of literature. In fact, it barely makes it as light summer reading. I liked it, however, because of the kind-hearted way it plunges into the history, landscape, and foibles of the people and places that I have grown to love.

 

The main conceit of the novel lies in the author’s alter ego, a young struggling writer recording, at the behest of his Auntie Poldi, her adventures, and misadventures in Sicily. Auntie Poldi a dipsomaniac, over-sexed, bi-polar, caftan-wearing, overweight, sixty year old widow from Bavaria who, after the death of her Sicilian born husband, buys a home in a small coastal village in Sicily in the shadow of Mt Etna where she intends to “drink herself to death with a view of the sea.” Unfortunately for everyone, Auntie Poldi is also loud, pushy, nosy and her father was chief of detectives in some city in Germany. As a result, when she discovers, on the beach, the dead body of her part-time handyman, the handsome young Valentino, she drafts her dead husband’s three sisters and goes on a hunt for the murderer. Along the way, she also shags the handsome but mature local detective with the improbable name of Vito Montana.

 

Pookie says, “Check it out”

 

“[T]he worst thing that can happen to any Italian male, especially a Sicilian. Economic crises, volcanic eruptions, corrupt politicians, emigration, the Mafia, uncollected rubbish and overfishing of the Mediterranean—he can endure anything with fatalism and a bella figura. The main thing is never to present a brutta figura, a figuraccia. Bella figura is the Italian credo. The basic equipment for this includes a well-groomed, unostentatiously fashionable appearance, a pair of good shoes and the right make of sunglasses. Above all, though, bella figura means always looking good, never foolish. For an Italian this is a must, not an option, and quite indispensable. It also means you don’t embarrass your fellow men. Impatience is unacceptable and direct confrontations are taboo. You share restaurant bills with your friends, don’t put your foot in it, never receive guests in a dirty or untidy home, ask no intimate questions, address anyone with a university degree as dottore, bring some dessert with you when invited to dinner and—even at the risk of rupturing your abdomen—finish everything on your plate. You put your faith in beauty and proportionality and try to make the world a better place. Sometimes you even succeed.”
Giordano, Mario. Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions (An Auntie Poldi Adventure). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

 

Note: The Sicilian language has no future tense. It is scary to think about a culture that lacks the ability to express the future. It does have a special tense to express the remote past that has ended. Sicilians use it a lot in their conversations — Everything is in the present or the far past and there is no future.)

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Of all the mysteries and police procedurals I have read, I like those written by Reginald Hill best — especially his series featuring the cops from Mid-Yorkshire, Andy Dalziel, Peter Pascoe, Sgt. Wield, and their significant others. Alas, Mr. Hill died a few years ago leaving me bereft of my happy times with Andy, Peter, Sargt. Weild, Cap Marvel and the rest of the gang.

Here are some of Fat Andy’s witticisms from one of Hill’s last books

 

“I always said that If you ended up with life left over at the end of your money, the state would take care of you, but if you ended up with money left over at the end of your life, you were an idiot!”

“Women, eh? You can fuck ’em but you can’t fathom them.”

“Never trust a man who believes his own crap.”

“Okay, I’d spent a bit of time in a coma recently, but that’s no reason not to know what’s going off.”

“If there weren’t enough meat on young Clara to make a Christmas starter, there were plenty here for a main course with something left over for Boxing Day.”

“She laughed archly, like a cracked hurdy-gurdy playing ‘The Rustle of Spring.’”

“…she gave me a nod that would likely have broken my nose if she’d been close up, then turned to hoist herself onto a bar stool, showing off a pair of haunches a man would be proud to have the tattooing of.”

“Like me old mam used to say, there’s some folk you needn’t be kind to, but you should always try to be fair with everyone.”

“Once you feel like a prisoner, everyone looks like a guard.”

“…there’s many a good tune played on an old double bass—”

“She were a big bossy woman, used to rolling over folk who got in her way, like an anker of ale, but she must have been a bonny lass once, and she still had a gallon of jimp left in her.”
Hill, Reginald. The Price of Butcher’s Meat (Dalziel & Pascoe series Book 23). HarperCollins.

 

 

 

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While passing through those empty times during my cancer treatment when there is little to do other that dwelling on my discomfort or sleeping, I read. Mostly, I read things that pass the time, amusing but like after taking some narcotic and trying to remember what you did while stoned, you know you did it but cannot recall what it was you did while you did it. Along the way, I read my friend Christopher G. Moore’s book, The Marriage Tree. This was different.

To Moore, Bangkok is a mirror revealing the dark soul of humanity. In Thailand, that dark soul, which we like to pretend does not exist wherever we live, drips out bloody and fetid onto the streets of Bangkok.

Like gods, the rich and powerful are immune from judgment and punishment, except by other gods like them. The rest of us are condemned to seeking a rough justice for those of our peers who may have harmed us. Those who truly set into play our small difficulties and tragedies are almost never forced into any court to answer for their complicity.

How many people have died or suffered from the products and services of the corporate entities these godlings control? How many wars have been fought to protect private interests and not the public interests? Has slavery really disappeared where laws have been passed to prohibit it, or are some of the powerful still able to command indenture of the less powerful?

This is perhaps the darkest of Moore’s books. Even the soiled hero of most of his novels, Vincent Calvino, a half Jewish, half Italian disbarred attorney from New York City, who has taken up life as a private detective in Bangkok, finally accepts that true justice, the capping of the godling responsible, is hopeless except by chance, and even then there is always someone else willing to take over and step in to play the godling role. Although the book is cloaked in the guise of a detective thriller, it is not. It is a scream against the gathering darkness of our world as those wealthy and powerful self-styled godlings take control and the rest of us slowly realize we all now live in Bangkok —  without happy endings to content us.

Moore is Canadian and like most Canadians, his moral outrage stops just short of throwing the bomb — rather a shame that.

When I am in Bangkok, I sometimes observe Moore across a street or at some artist do. I no longer see in his face that little knowing smile he seemed to effect in the past. He now appears haunted as though he’s glimpsed the future and found only more hopelessness there … or perhaps a local godling has happened to read his book and begun to turn his hooded eyes in his direction.

Pookie says, “Check it out.”

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“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu

 

 
While conversing with my friend Peter in front of Bernie’s coffee shop in Noe Valley San Francisco, for some reason we got into a discussion about India where Peter and his wife Barrie spent many years and where I have, for a long time, longed to go. I mentioned a book about India I read several years ago of which I was quite fond. I could not remember its name but promised Peter I would search for it and let him know. After three days of searching on my computer, I located the book and sent the information to him. I also decided to buy the book on Amazon and reread it on my Kindle to see if it was as enjoyable as I remembered.

After reading a few pages, I recalled that the book was also one of the reasons I had put off traveling to India. You see, when I travel, I prefer traveling alone and although I enjoy the “Great Sights” like anyone, I especially like searching for the odd and a little dangerous — like the night I found myself in a knife fight in a rural town in Turkey that eventually prompted the leader of the Turkish mafia to demand I persuade him why he should not have me killed. I knew India for me would never be merely a visit to the Taj Mahal or the Red Fort and the like, but a lifetime commitment.

“A journey, I reflected, is of no merit unless it has tested you. You can stay at home and read of others’ experiences, but it’s not the same as getting out of trouble yourself.”
Shah, Tahir. The Complete Collection of Travel Literature: In Search of King Solomon’s Mines, Beyond the Devil’s Teeth, House of the Tiger King, Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Travels With Myself, Trail of Feathers. Secretum Mundi.

 
Anyway, I guess the book can be considered a travelogue. There are many great travel books, like “A Short Walk Through the Hindu Kush,” and several by Krakauer that read like great novels. Tahir Shah’s book is one also — where the travel leaves off and the novel begins, however, is difficult to discern.

The book begins with Tahir Shah as a young boy in England visited by Hafiz Jan, the hereditary Afghan guard of the tomb of his ancestor the great Muslim general Jan Fishan Kahn (a nom de Guerre that translates to, “He that Scatters Souls.”) He traveled to England because he had a vision of young Tahir, the last of his line, falling into a culvert and dying. He believed it was his duty to prevent it. Hafiz Jan is welcomed by Tahir’s father and takes up residence in Tahir’s home where he sleeps on the floor in front of his bedroom door. The Afghan guard had also spent some time as an apprentice to a great magician in India before assuming his hereditary duties guarding the tomb. The magic we are talking about here is not magic but illusion — the illusions of magicians like Houdini and the Indian god-men and sadhus for thousands of years. Hafiz Jan began teaching the eager young Tahir some of the secrets of illusion he had learned as the magician’s apprentice. The training went well until one day, during an exhibition of Tahir’s magic educational accomplishments, a mishap occurred that almost set his parents on fire. Soon after, Hafiz Jan was sent back to India to resume his hereditary duties.

Years later, Tahir, as a young man, traveled to India found the guard, apprenticed himself to the guard’s teacher, a rather overbearing sort and after a mostly unpleasant education sets off at the request of his teacher to travel throughout India searching for “insider information.” What one learns along with Tahir are the tricks of the trade of the god-men, sadhus and the like that have enthralled millions of poor and gullible Indians and attracted hundreds of westerners to journey there to sit at the feet of holy mystics absorbing their wisdom — for a price.

“Because,” he called out, “we were on a quest . . .” “A quest for what?” “For a third eye. You see, in the seventies, India was Disneyland … it was the Disneyland of the soul.”… “[W]e had all been to India in search of the third eye, but had left with nothing but diarrhea.”
Shah, Tahir. Sorcerer’s Apprentice: An Incredible Journey into the World of India’s Godmen. SArcade Publishing.

While searching for these Godmen, Tahir and his sidekick, a 13-year-old thief and con-artist named Balu, spent some time at a luxurious mostly pink ashram of a well known Guru and in addition to describing at length the oddness of the entire set up,  Tahir recounts some of the Godman’s more private weirdness:

“When it came to divine eccentricity, Sri Gobind was no exception. His followers took great pride in the tales of their teacher’s irregularities. Every so often, gripped by an insatiable desire, the guru would jump naked from his bed. Running into the heart-shaped gardens, he would relieve himself in the bushes. Or, in the middle of an address, he had been known to rip off all his clothes and anoint his flabby belly with buffalo milk butter. Each morning, his fans averred, the holy man would douse himself in a bath of potassium permanganate. The immersion gave his skin its exotic purply-brown tinge. He would dress his hair with a pomade of seasoned egg whites,-dab his earlobes with witch hazel; and spray his nether regions with his own blend of catnip cologne.”
Shah, Tahir. Sorcerer’s Apprentice: An Incredible Journey into the World of India’s Godmen. Arcade Publishing.

During his travels, Tahir explores and writes about the economic and social life of India through stories about the people he meets. People such as the cadaver collectors and their business providing the bones for the skeletons in most medical school classrooms of the world, and the women who rent cows after the owners milk them in the morning then stand on the street corners during the day selling the pleasure of feeding the cow to passers-by and in the evenings selling the cow patties to brick makers before returning the cows to their owner. The reason why India with its incredibly concentrated population is not sitting on a pile of garbage and human refuse is that that very garbage and refuse is the resource that supports much of the population.

“Real travel is not about the highlights with which you dazzle your friends once you’re home. It’s about the loneliness, the solitude, the evenings spent by yourself, pining to be somewhere else. Those are the moments of true value. You feel half proud of them and half ashamed and you hold them to your heart”
Tahir Shah

Pookie says, “Check it out.”

PS: Amazon had a special on where one could buy all of Tahir Shah’s travel books for the price of one, so I bought them all. I am now enjoying his story about finding a fake map of the mythical King Solomon’s mines in a curio shop in Jerusalem and setting off to Ethiopia where he believes the mines described in the fake map might have been located — if they were real. There he hires a taxi driver as an interpreter, travels by some of the most uncomfortable and dangerous modes of transportation imaginable, explores an illegal gold mine where children are sent into the narrow tunnels and many of them die, spends several nights in an Ethiopian jail, just misses a dinner with Idi Amin, is befriended by the manager of a government gold mine who wants to emigrate to America, travels to a land where the men, instead of head hunting for a hobby, cut off the testicles of their enemies and carry them in sacks around their necks and so on and on. Alas, despite the danger and discomfort he finds nothing but adventure.

“Most journeys have a clear beginning, but on some, the ending is less well-defined. The question is, at what point do you bite your lip and head for home?”
Tahir Shah

(It sounds a lot like life, doesn’t it?)

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