“Wild Books, Homeless Books”

“Second hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”
― Virginia Woolf

Display at main Half-Price Books, Dallas, Texas

Everybody has their addictions; I think an important part of life is to constantly take a brave look at what you are addicted to and try and choose better ones.

I used to be addicted to buying used books. My dealer of choice was Half Price Books here in Dallas. When I first moved to the area in the early 80’s, I lived on Lower Greenville and their main store was on Mockingbird, next to Campisi’s Egyptian. It was a short walk to the old-school used book store – with its labyrinthine passages. I bought too many books.

Then they moved to Northwest Highway and an old Captain’s Cargo store. It retained the odd sailing-ship style staircases and had an strange open plan. I moved too to a spot that was too close. I kept buying too many books.

One day I drove there and found the store closed. Confused and disappointed, I turned and saw that they had opened up into a gigantic warehouse-style space across the street. This was very bad. I went in and found a book of quotations I had been looking for for years. My addiction blossomed into full-fledged hopelessness. It’s funny, I only bought used books – never new. There was something about the feeling that other, unknown hands had moved over these pages before. Something about the faint smell of mold. I preferred books that had a few notes in the margin, a handful of bent corners, evidence of someone having been here before me.

Nobody ever held an Intervention for me, but when we moved to Richardson the moving company charged us a hefty upfee because of all the books. What finally broke me was the arrival of the Kindle – now I can carry a library in my pocket. I have more books in my Kindle than I can read over the rest of my pitiful life.

Jeff Koterba color carton for 7/21/09
“Mars”

Now, I have two large and one small bookshelf. This is my limit. To buy a new book, something has to go.

Is my addiction gone?… of course not. It may be under control. I do check way too many books out of the library… but that is really an addiction that I can live with.

Today, I went to Half-Price to look for a particular book that was too expensive in its ebook form. I found it in the Clearance Section for two dollars. You can be a very well-read person and never leave the Half-Price Books Clearance Rack. I suspect that the employees sometimes put really good books into Clearance as a favor to society.

At any rate, my classic book by a famous author that has helped keep society from completely (so far) running off the rails was two dollars. I also bought a blank book (my bullet journal is almost full) and it was ten.

So, I guess that putting wonderful, skillful, important words on paper reduces the value of a book by eighty percent.

Display at main Half-Price Books, Dallas, Texas

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One Star Amazon Reviews of Cloud Atlas

One of the soul’s great tragedies is to execute a work and then realize, once it’s finished, that it’s not any good. The tragedy is especially great when one realizes that the work is the best he could have done. But to write a work, knowing beforehand that it’s bound to be flawed and imperfect; to see while writing it that it’s flawed and imperfect – this is the height of spiritual torture and humiliation. Not only am I dissatisfied with the poems I write now; I also know that I’ll be dissatisfied with the poems I write in the future.

All we can be certain of when we write is that we write badly; the only great and perfect works are the ones we never dream of realizing.
—-Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

Falling Water Fountain, Dallas Arboretum

I read somewhere where someone had listed a bunch of one-star Amazon reviews of one of their favorite books. Interesting. “Cloud Atlas” is one of my favorites… one that comes to mind. I loved it and was enthralled. However, I can imagine it isn’t for everyone.

And I am right.

Avoid it if you value your time
Cloud Atlas is one of those book you just drag yourself through page after page waiting for them to get interesting only it never does. It just drags and and drags and drags. It has these stories that never really come to a conclusion and are totally unrelated which are tied together by a flimsy piece of twine ready to snap at the first breeze.

I had to “slog” through it…
I read a lot of fiction, and this is the worst book I’ve read in a long time. The plot (was there one?) was impossible for me to follow. The book did not ” flow” either. I really did not like this book and only finished reading it to see if it would “take off”, which it never did.

Could not get past the first 200 pages
I have previously read two Mitchell books and liked them both, to a degree, but this one just bored me to tears in its first 200 pages. Maybe the stories conclude in the second half, but who cares? There is not one character in the first four stories that even remotely interests me. And the minutia of dialog and detail is downright tedious. Life is too short to waste hours on a book that just doesn’t make any sense for hundreds of pages. Sorry, but awards aside, this one really is a gimmick in search of a plot.

Not worth the read
While I did enjoy the overall arch of the story and how all of the characters interacted with each other, portions of this story dragged on a bit. I kept reading under the general impression that it would get better, but it did not.

Very tough to read, even harder to like
The story, which is not very interesting, is written in the first person. This means the dialogue is not easy to follow. But, this is probably good because the language changes with the time period of the main character. The 18th century language at least made sense, but when the story moves into the apocalyptic future and the author presents future dialects the language becomes nonsense.

The world is dying, but we never find out why. The big revelation is that some people will treat other people badly if it makes their life easier. Still this could have been interesting if there was a single character I could identify with. For me this story is a lot like The Road, a grim tribulation for the reader.

waste of time
So…I bought this book because I hated the movie so much. But they made a movie out of it, after all, so I figured there must be something to it that just didn’t translate well into film.

Well, I was wrong. I knew in the first 90 seconds into this book that it was unreadable. Still, I soldiered ahead, thinking maybe it was just one of those books that takes a while to get into. Nope. I’m still angry that I wasted an entire night trying to slog through this mess. Thank goodness it was only one night of psychological torture.

Loved it….at first
I was very excited to get Cloud Atlas for my Kindle. Dived right in and loved the first third of the book. Extraordinary writing; Mitchell was weaving a spellbinding tale. Then I hit “the wall” with the chapter on Sonmi. The book turned toward preachiness and difficult-to-follow language and structure. I saw where it was going so I slogged through the chapter hoping for better. The next chapter was worse, mega-preachy and really hard to follow. It was like Mitchell put down a challenge to readers to get through it, and while he was at it bludgeoned us with stuff that made me feel like I was sitting through a basic, and boring, philosophy class. I skimmed that chapter, then gave up. Made it about halfway through, but by that time I didn’t care how it ended. Sorry Mr. Mitchell.

Waste of TimeI have read a few really bad books in my day and this one is one of the worst. The author writes like Herman Melville with a very bad case of ADD. I knew about the multiple stories and the time periods covered prior to starting the book and I expected it to be a difficult just because of this ambitious goal. What I did not expect was the multiple thoughts and vectors the author would take in the same paragraph throughout the book. It was extremely difficult to follow mainly because the book is written so poorly. It wasn’t a bad story and it seems that the author had great intentions with the story line, but the writing style is so bad that it completely detracts from the story and makes the book impossible to enjoy. There is a lot of detail and a great deal of description, but in far too many paragraphs throughout the book, the author goes from one thought to another, one time period to another, one character to another and these numerous vectors within the same paragraph are extremely hard to follow. Especially when the author makes no attempt to tie his thoughts together in the ensuing paragraphs.

One of the Worst Recommendations I’ve Received
I almost put this book down I was so frustrated with it. The only thing it has going for it is that the author successfully writes in six different styles, all accurate to the time period the stories are set in. However, I feel that it is poorly written and poorly executed. The idea of splitting the six stories in half and having them “fold in on each other” sounded clever when it was explained to me, but reading it was a different matter entirely. Since the stories were split up I lost interest in the characters and had a hard time remembering who was who when I got back to the second half of the stories. Many of the characters are stupid or unsympathetic. Also, the whole idea of reincarnation, which is supposed to drive this book, really fails in the stories. The Warner Brothers site claims that the book/movie “explores how the actions and consequences of individual lives impact one another throughout the past, the present and the future.” But, the characters do not impact the lives of their future reincarnations at all. They learn absolutely nothing from their past experiences. Also, at one point near the end of the novel the author flat out explains his title to the reader, even though it was already abundantly obvious (to anyone with a brain) why he named it Cloud Atlas. If you have to explain the title of the novel within the novel you have failed. If you have to outright ask your reader whether your title is “revolutionary or gimmicky” the answer is already pretty obvious.

It’s too late to get a refund
It makes no sense, it’s impossible to follow, the stories aren’t interesting enough to keep reading. And now I’ve let too much time pass and I can’t get my money back. I’m only 8% into the book and can’t even imagine continuing and I read all of the Game of Thrones books! And I hated them, too, but at least there was a story.
Oh well – I fell for the Tom Hanks/Halle Berry movie trailer – at least I won’t waste my money on the movie. Sheesh – Penny Marshall and Cloud Atlas at the same time. I must be losing my mind……….

Clous Atlas
What a piece of crap. I read relentlessly and this is the most unreadable piece of drivel I have run across in a long while. It makes “Atlas Shrugged” seem like “Fun with Dick and Jane”. DO NOT BUY THIS BOOK. DO NOT READ THIS BOOK.

The Creature from Cleveland Depths

“Who’s kidding?”
“You are. Computers simply aren’t alive.”
“What’s alive? A word. I think computers are conscious, at least while they’re operating. They’ve got that inner glow of awareness. They sort of … well … meditate.”
“Gussy, computers haven’t got any circuits for meditating. They’re not programmed for mystical lucubrations. They’ve just got circuits for solving the problems they’re on.”
“Okay, you admit they’ve got problem-solving circuits—like a man has. I say if they’ve got the equipment for being conscious, they’re conscious. What has wings, flies.”
—–Fritz Leiber, The Creature from Cleveland Depths

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962 Artwork by Wally Woods

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962
Artwork by Wally Woods

For me, one of the pleasures of being my age is recalling literature, especially short stories, that I read long ago, when I was only a sprout. For the life of me, I can’t remember my bank PIN or my work password on Monday mornings, but short stories I read, only once, more than a half-century ago are epoxy-stuck in my rapidly petrifying cabeza neurons. The plots are there, sometimes a little hazy or changed, as are the characters – but the authors and titles have long dissolved into the mist. That makes it a challenge to find the darn things when the fancy strikes me to revisit the fiction of my youth.

The internet, of course, is a vast and mind-boggling resource for idiotic flights of nostalgia. It is a never-ending maze of rabbit holes and time sinks – even if you can sometimes find what you are looking for.

But you already know all that.

I have written before about a story I read once about giant killer snails. In the years since I wrote that blog entry, a number of folks have emailed me that they had read the same story back in the day, and had been searching for it. I wrote a sequel and am thinking about a sequel to my sequel.

But there was one story that I remembered clearly (though, again, not the author or the title) from long, long ago. It kept coming back to my mind because it had been so prescient. The story, written long, long, before its time, concerned the invention of the Personal Digital Assistant and the smart phone… and, I guess, SIRI. There was this inventor that was having trouble remembering his appointments. So he developed a device, attached to his shoulder that contained a magnetic wire on reels (I remembered the magnetic wire in particular) and as the wire unwound, it would give the wearer a reminder at the appropriate time through a voice in an earpiece.

Things spun out of control rather quickly, however. The company that designed these devices made them more and more sophisticated, adding bigger and better features, and then connecting them together in a sort of internet. But as they became more refined and ingrained into everybody’s daily life the machines became self-aware and began to take over the world. The human race were reduced to slaves to their own machines.

Obviously, this story, as I remembered it, has more than a little applicability to our lives today. I thought about the tale the other evening as I tried to maneuver my bicycle through the park next to my house (I have to go through the park to reach the trails that lead to the West – to my work and to the DART train lines). It was a Saturday evening and all the parking lots associated with the park and the associated elementary school were full – cars were filing up along our street and the other neighborhood feeder roads.

The trails themselves were packed with throngs of people wandering in seemingly random routes. They were all oblivious to the world around them, walking zombie-like, staring into their phones. I had to dismount and walk my bike through the park. It was simply too dangerous to ride as the human automatons would cross the path at unpredictable intervals and stride into my path without warning. I don’t understand how they managed to avoid hitting each other.

They were, of course all playing Pokemon Go. There must be some valuable virtual critters in the park next to my house, because at peak times there might be a thousand folks there (though it is already dying down, of course). I don’t want to sound critical – I love that these people are getting out and using the park. But I do wish they would look where they are going… at least a little.

And the sight of all these people lost in their virtual world couldn’t help but remind me of this ancient story… where the same thing happened, more or less, and then went horribly wrong.

So back to the internet, where I ran search after search (PDA, computer, shoulder, wire recorder, short story, science fiction, on and on) to no avail. I could not find any reference to the story.

Then, when I wasn’t thinking about it, a word popped into my head. The word was, “Tickler.” That was what they called the machines, the reminder units with the wire recorder, “ticklers.” It is amazing that that word was still hiding back there in the cobwebs of my head, and that it finaly came back out.

Adding “tickler” to my searches brought immediate success. The story was written by Fritz Leiber in 1962, and was called “The Creature from Cleveland Depths.” Not only did I find out the author and title, but I found that they had let the copyright expire, and the story (actually more of a novela) was available, free of charge, on Gutenberg.org.

So I downloaded the Mobi version and read it again on my Kindle. I had remembered the main plot points pretty well. I had forgotten the semi-humorous style and some of the sociological aspects (probably over my head) but the rest was spot-on.

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962 Artwork by Wally Woods

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962
Artwork by Wally Woods

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962 Artwork by Wally Woods

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962
Artwork by Wally Woods

I looked at the publication history and found the original version in the December, 1962 Galaxy Magazine (with cool illustrations from Wally Wood). I was only five in 1962 – which is a bit young – so I must have read it years later. It was in a 1966 Fritz Leiber collection called “The Night of the Wolf” and that cover looks familiar to me… that must be where I read it.

So, I’m sure you are asking… How did the hero inventor defeat the evil “tickler” that had taken over society and the world? You really want to know? You should, it’s a crackerjack ending.

I’m afraid I’m not going to tell. You’ll have to download the ebook, or read it here, or, listen to it here.

It is a bit dated, but extremely up to date too. Read it, you’ll like it. It’s amazing that the story, which foreshadows so much of today’s technology was written in 1962. This is what computers looked like in 1962.

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962 Artwork by Wally Woods

Artwork for The Creature from Cleveland Depths, Galaxy Magazine, December 1962
Artwork by Wally Woods

One Groove’s Difference

“What goes around may come around, but it never ends up exactly the same place, you ever notice? Like a record on a turntable, all it takes is one groove’s difference and the universe can be on into a whole ‘nother song.”
—-Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

Cover of Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

Cover of Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

I have always had an odd and powerful relationship with the novels of Thomas Pynchon. I have spent a good portion of my life with his work in my hands. It started with Gravity’s Rainbow – which took me twenty five years to read… and I consider it to be my favorite novel. Even though I first tried to read it in college I was not able to get through the massive tome until the advent of the internet. I had to follow along with a chapter by chapter summary and a hypertext compendium of characters and information to keep from getting lost.

Then, over the years, there was the almost equally massive V – then the short and bitter Crying of Lot 49. Time marched on to the West-Coast based Vineland and by the time Mason & Dixon arrived I was writing online and chronicled the devouring of this text as I went along.

From my old blog – The Daily Epiphany

Daily Epiphany -Friday, March 19, 1999

Snow-Balls have flown their Arcs

May 2, 1997. A little less than two years ago. That’s the exact day that
Mason & Dixon arrived from Amazon (an online journal is useful for finding useless factoids like that).

Over those two years I have, sometimes dutifully, more often sporadically, with plenty of vacations and sabbaticals, slogged through the pages. I was well known to be seen carrying that book around, it’s cover handmade by me from the red white and blue Tyvek wrapper it arrived in. “Aren’t you finished yet?” asked on many occasions.

That didn’t bother me. After all, it took me twenty five years to read Gravity’s Rainbow. In some ways, Mason & Dixon, though shorter and less complex, was even more difficult. The weird faux colonial Olde English and bizarre capitalization and punctuation added an Extra Dimension of Difficulty to the usual Pynchonian Puzzlements.

So slowly I kept at it. Week by week the irregular, oval coffee-stain on the pager-edges moved, slice by imperceptible slice, from my right hand to my left.

Tonight, I finished it.

I bent the cover back and slid the crude Tyvek cover off and dropped it into the trash. It was replaced with the original two-layer cover, preserved from the travails of two years of pawing, stored safely in a dresser drawer.

In order to make room in my bookcase for the Pynchon, I had to pull something out. So, now, it’s Infinite Jest. It’s only 1,079 pages long. Print looks a little small. I even have a bookmark for it. I bought the book used and it contains a loose snapshot of some scrubby looking guy posing by a motorcycle. I have, of course, absolutely no idea who this is. That’ll do.

The thickness and size seemed familiar so, on a whim, I pulled that Tyvek bookcover out of the basket, turned the cover around.

It fit exactly.

A few years later, I tackled Against the Day, then fell off the Pynchon wagon (for no real reason except maybe the intrusion of real life) until now.

Now, I decided to read Inherent Vice – Pynchon’s noirish dark psychedelic detective crime novel.

“Dealing with the Hippie is generally straightforward. His childlike nature will usually respond positively to drugs, sex, and/or rock and roll, although in which order these are to be deployed must depend on conditions specific to the moment.”
—- Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

“It had been dark at the beach for hours, he hadn’t been smoking much and it wasn’t headlights – but before she turned away, he could swear he saw light falling on her face, the orange light just after sunset that catches a face turned to the west, watching the ocean for someone to come in on the last wave of the day, in to shore and safety.”
—- Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

I had the trade sale paperback on the shelf for a long time, but I had to read it right now because, next month, they are coming out with a movie made from the story.

Oh, and not just any movie, a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.

Imagine that, Paul Thomas Anderson filming a Pynchon novel. This is truly the best of all possible worlds.

Modern technology has advanced now to the point I could sit in my reading chair with the book in one hand and a tablet in the other, with web pages queued up to alphabetical and page-by-page summaries to help me with the complex plot and kaleidoscope of characters.

This is arguably his most accessible novel, if for no other reason it has a familiar setting and is woven upon a loom of an established detective genre. It is the only thing I’ve read by Pynchon that I would say is remotely filmable – though just barely.

It still has the Pynchonian style of paranoia, subtle complexity, and, especially, a huge cast of odd characters with odder names. I enjoyed the book immensely. It is, without a doubt, the kind of thing you will like if you like that kind of thing.

Now I am psyched for the film. Only a few days before the premiere. This will be the second beloved book (after Cloud Atlas) committed to celluloid (actually its digital equivalent) by a stylish director in the last two years. I loved Cloud Atlas (both the book and the film) though it predictably bombed at the box office.

I suspect a similar fate for Inherent Vice – I can’t imagine the ordinary teenage-minded moviegoer enjoying the complex interplay of humor and horror that the Pynchonian Universe produces splashed across the silver screen. But I will be there, staring up as if it were meant for me alone.

“You need to find true love, Doc.”
Actually, he thought, I’ll settle for finding my way through this. His fingers, with a mind of their own, began to creep toward the plastic hedge. Maybe if he searched through it long enough, late enough into the night, he’d find something that might help — some tiny forgotten scrap of his life he didn’t even know was missing, something that would make all the difference now.”
—- Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

Looking at the IMDB page – it sure looks weird, seeing all those big time (and not so much) stars arranged against those wonderfully outlandish Thomas Pynchon character names.

Reese Witherspoon … Penny
Jena Malone … Hope Harlingen
Joaquin Phoenix … Doc Sportello
Josh Brolin … Bigfoot Bjornsen
Sasha Pieterse … Japonica Fenway
Owen Wilson … Coy Harlingen
Benicio Del Toro … Sauncho Smilax
Michael K. Williams … Tariq Khalil
Eric Roberts … Mickey Wolfmann
Maya Rudolph … Petunia Leeway
Martin Short … Dr. Blatnoyd
Sam Jaeger … Agent Flatweed
Katherine Waterston … Shasta Fay Hepworth
Martin Donovan … Crocker Fenway
Timothy Simons … Agent Borderline
Yvette Yates … Luz
Serena Scott Thomas … Sloane Wolfmann
Keith Jardine … Puck Beaverton
Elaine Tan … Xandra
Madison Leisle … Goldfang
Steven Wiig … Portola Barkeep
Jeannie Berlin … Aunt Reet
Christopher Allen Nelson … Glenn Charlock
Hong Chau … Jade
Jefferson Mays … Dr. Threeply
Peter McRobbie … Adrian Prussia
Samantha Lemole … Gold Fang Mom
Toyia Brown … Harmony
Diana Elizabeth Torres … Lourdes
Sophia Markov … Amethyst Harlingen
Andrew Simpson … Riggs Warbling
Victoria Markov … Amethyst Harlingen
Martin Dew … Dr. Tubeside
Michael Cotter … Rhus Farthington
Taylor Bonin … Ensenada Slim
Laura Kranz … Chryskylodon Patient

“Later they went outside, where a light rain was blowing in, mixed with salt spray feathering off the surf. Shasta wandered slowly down to the beach and through the wet sand, her nape in a curve she had learned, from times when back-turning came into it, the charm of. Doc followed the prints of her bare feet already collapsing into rain and shadow, as if in a fool’s attempt to find his way back into a past that despite them both had gone on into the future it did. The surf, only now and then visible, was hammering at his spirit, knocking things loose, some to fall into the dark and be lost forever, some to edge into the fitful light of his attention whether he wanted to see them or not.”
—-Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

Periodic Tales

From the Telegraph Review of Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements by Hugh Aldersey-Williams:

Chemists have long had to put up with the condescension of physicists. In one especially egregious case, the physicist Robert Oppenheimer – scientific director of the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb – informed his colleague George Kistiakowsky that he was no longer classed as a “first-rate chemist”, but as a “second-rate physicist”. This, Oppenheimer assured him, was a promotion. The project’s chemists thought this insulting; the physicists thought it hilarious.

Those pesky physicists….

I remember a physics professor extolling the ultimate virtues of his science (I’m not sure if he was aware that I – a lowly chemist – was sitting in front of him… he probably was) saying that physics is the most noble of sciences because it is the most pure – the basis of all other science. I simply nodded though I thought that, using his logic, mathematics would rise high above his craft. Now, the way I looked at it, without chemistry physics is only a bunch of squiggly lines on paper.

At any rate from both these disciplines, along with the various flavors of engineering and production, computer science, marketing and what-not…. comes e-ink, and from e-ink comes e-readers.

And from e-readers come Amazon’s periodic sales, which I peruse carefully. And from one of those periodic sales, came the book Periodic Tales: A Cultural History of the Elements, from Arsenic to Zinc – delivered through the ether for only a couple bucks right into my hot little hands.

That’s the book’s name in the US – in Europe it’s called Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements – a better title in my opinion.

To you, I’m sure the book would seem to be the most boring pile of useless words imaginable – but I thought it fun and interesting. The author has had the lifelong hobby of collecting examples of the elements. He obviously also had the hobby of collecting engaging tidbits and stories about same. One day he had the bright idea of combining the two and coming up with a book. From the way the story is laid out – he used his publisher’s advance to travel to some of the more obscure locations where some of these elements were discovered or can still be found.

So, to extract a sample of phosphorus the author started out – as the early chemists did – by collecting a large amount of pee and letting it evaporate.

Each element’s discovery is spelled out as an adventure tale – many coming on the obscure transition from Alchemy to Modern Chemistry. Many great discoveries came from very odd places. For example, Ytterby – an obscure village in Sweden that gave birth to a slew of new rare earth elements – yttrium, erbium, terbium, and ytterbium.

I’m always getting yttrium and ytterbium mixed up.

I read the book through – though I wanted to slow down and take notes. You never know what interesting conversational anecdotes you may need to impress beautiful women in bars.

  • Dried blood is slightly attracted to magnets because of its iron content.
  • At one time radium was added to many products, especially those that supposedly had a therapeutic effect: Radium Butter, Radium Chocolate, Radium Beer, Radium Condoms, Radium Suppositories, Radium was put in Chicken Feed in hopes of producing Self-Incubating if not Self-Cooking Eggs.
  • The French Scientist Vauquelin isolated chromium by crushing emeralds and rubies. He proved the same element colored both.
  • Jezebel, from the Bible, used compounds of antimony as dark eye makeup.
  • Extremium and Ultimium were proposed as the name of a new element – Plutonium was used instead.
  • In Jean Cocteu’s 1949 film Orphee, Orpheus enters the underworld by passing through a mirror. This shot is achieved by having the actor push his hands into a pool of mercury that is disguised as glass.

 

from Orphee - the hands (protected by latex gloves) push through the mirror of mercury.

from Orphee – the hands (protected by latex gloves) push through the mirror of mercury.

Every page is chock-a-block with interesting tidbits like these.

The only letdown of the book was at the end, when the author tried vainly to sum up and leave the reader with an emotional connection with the periodic table. He should have simply run out of elements.

Now, again, I’m a chemist, not a physicist. But I do know physics. I was able to pass three semesters of physical chemistry… which I consider one of the greatest achievements of my life. With that knowledge, I realized that the author also left out one of the most interesting, if technically challenging aspects of his subject. He treats the very periodicity of the periodic table as a great mystery, one that was figured out by long scientific research but never completely explained.

He doesn’t talk about the electron shell model or atomic orbitals. That’s a shame. When you understand this concept, even without the daunting math involved, suddenly it all makes sense. A handful of simple laws are what define the outer-shell electron configuration of every element and that is what makes our world possible. It’s really amazing – if you do the work to understand it.

There are a surprising number of books on the periodic table and I have read a few in the past (Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sachs is a favorite) – but Periodic Tales is among the most entertaining and readable.

Finally, as a chemist, a book on the elements ignores the most fascinating aspect of chemistry. It will be, almost by definition, limited to describing Inorganic Chemistry. Carbon is given short-shrift in the book. He talks about it mostly in terms of charcoal and the carbon oxygen cycle.

But it is Organic Chemistry that most people find so fascinating. I still remember the thrill I felt when I was first learning how to manipulate matter, not by the elements it contained, but by arranging the shape of a compound made of a single element (with a few other contaminants maybe thrown in for variety) – how the pattern made by its versatile bonds could give rise to an unlimited cornucopia of new compounds, with wild and outlandish properties….

But that’s a whole ‘nother book.

Iguanas on my Roof

A sketch of the Casino at Montelimar, Nicaragua - once Somoza's beach house.

A sketch of the Casino at Montelimar, Nicaragua – once Somoza’s beach house.

I stumbled across a wonderfully interesting book this weekend; Iguanas on my Roof Funny, Sad, and Scary OVERSEAS ADVENTURES of a Foreign Service Family in Third-World Countries during the Vietnam War and Watergate Era. I found it on its Facebook Page and then bought a copy from Amazon for my Kindle.

Say what you want about e-books… but to learn about a publication from the web while riding on a commuter train, have it in my hand seconds later, and instantly start reading it – that’s something amazing.

The book is a slim, simple, heartfelt family memoir written by Nancy Stone, the mother of five. I went to high school with two of her kids in Managua, Nicaragua. One son was my age, a grade below me and in a lot of my classes, and a daughter was my little brother’s age. We all ran around a lot together my senior year (I graduated and left for Kansas University in 1974).

I immediately recognized the title – we had iguanas on our roof. I remember when we first moved to Nicaragua trying to sleep with some tremendous racket overhead. I crept outside and leaned a ladder up to the wall, climbing up to find out what it was. There were a half-dozen huge iguanas and an equal number of cats all chasing each other around on the corrugated galvanized roofing. I couldn’t tell who was chasing who – but it was a mess. After I learned what it was up there – it was easy to ignore the cacophony and sleep.

Although I knew the kids well, I don’t recall ever even meeting their parents and I certainly never knew their story. We were military and they were embassy – that didn’t matter to the young’uns, but there was a difference. Their father, Al Stone, was a railroad brakeman in the late fifties when he was inspired by the harrowing plight of hordes of desperate Mexican immigrants fleeing a drought to try and do something. He spent years in education and effort until he was able to go to work for the Department of State and the USAID program.

So the big family was off on a tour of the disasters of the third world. From living in the Philippines while Al was in Vietnam, to Lagos, to Washington DC, to Managua after the 1972 earthquake (where they crossed paths with your humble narrator), the book describes the shocking, the strange, the scary, and the silly of a long, often difficult trip.

I’ve always said that living in the third world is months of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror.

Most of what was in the book was familiar to me, even the sections from the Philippines and Nigeria. There are certain stock scenes common to life in any poverty-cursed tropical place. Every incident brought back memories of similar episodes and adventures from my own youth.

The crest from the American Nicaraguan School

The crest from the American Nicaraguan School

What was most interesting was seeing these recognizable installments from a different point of view. The book is told by an adult – a person where everything is new and strange. Nancy Stone was from California – thrust by fate, love, and dedication into a bizarre world of giant insects, bad infrastructure, iffy transport, dangerous and incomprehensible societies, and odd food. It was all so… foreign. Cultural and work protocols, manners, and etiquette were consummate challenges. But it all comes to an end. The final chapter is titled, “We Went Back Home.”

Where is home? I don’t understand the concept. People talk to me about being “homesick” – I have no idea what they are talking about.

You see, It felt differently to go through a journey like that as a kid. When you are young… it is simply how things are. You don’t know any better.

A few paragraphs of the story were written by the kids I knew – familiar voices I understand.

For me, for example, the place and time where I had the most trouble adapting was when I went to college in the states. My nickname for a couple years was “Banana Boat” – as in, “Bill, you’re an American like the rest of us, but you act like you just fell off a banana boat.” I was so happy to find four students from Barcelona that I could relate to – though I was bothered by their lispy Spanish and the incredible amounts of wine they drank.

I realize that the youngsters were able to assimilate into the local culture in a way the adults couldn’t even imagine. To this day, I’m ashamed of my terrible Spanish – but I learned that if I simply kept my mouth shut I could move around at will without anyone knowing I was an American. As a matter of fact – nobody would notice me at all. I could become invisible. That’s an amazing thing to be able to do in a place like that.

That even affects the memories I try to hang onto in my incipient dotage. For example, there are a lot of anecdotes like those in the book that I am willing to let go as they fade into the misty cobwebs of my crumbling brain. What I hang onto desperately are some of the ethereal emotions of youth, the colors of the country, and the smells of the culture.

For example (full disclosure – I’ve been writing notes about this recently for a short story I’m working on) there is the smell of the third world. It’s a smell of pork grease and wood fires – of sour sweat and homemade soap, of heat and desperation. A few years ago I walked out onto the deck of a ship as it cruised into Montego Bay at dawn. A fisherman in a tiny wooden skiff was off the port bow and I watched him untangle his nets. As the salmon glow of the sun, still hidden behind the mountains, filled the sky we moved into a thin cobalt mist of the morning cooking fires wafting offshore and there was that third world smell. I had forgotten… but it all came back in a rush.

That is what I am desperate to hold on to.

So, I any of y’all are curious enough to read about what it was like, over there, back then, go to Amazon, load up your ereader or wait for the bound paper, whatever. It’s worth your money and your time, trust me. Thanks for doing the work, Mrs. Stone, for collecting the memories, writing them down, and sending them out into the world.

It’s late, so late. I think I’ll pour a little Flor de Caña (I was so happy when that became available in Dallas), get my writing in, and call it a day.

The land of lakes, volcanoes, and sun. A painting I bought on my last trip to Nicaragua.

The land of lakes, volcanoes, and sun. A painting I bought on my last trip to Nicaragua.

Dallas Noir

Dallas-Noir

About a year and a half ago, I read a book called New Orleans Noir – which I enjoyed a lot. It was a collection of DARK short stories all set in a city I love very much… and a city, despite all its frivolity and fun, that has plenty of opportunities for that side of the human spirit.

The book was part of a series of noir short stories tied to individual cities. After reading it, I had a thought, “I wish they would do one of these on Dallas – but they never will.” I was wrong.

I missed it when the book was published or I would have gone to some of the events. I didn’t find out about the book until it made the rounds on social media. When the publication of Dallas Noir popped up in my facebook feed I was really excited. And in this day of ebooks and instant gratification, fifteen seconds later I was looking at the table of contents.

What was even cooler is that I have personally met two of the authors – I read their stories first.

David Haynes is an Associate Professor and Director of Creative Writing at SMU. About a decade ago I took a couple of classes in fiction writing from him through the Writer’s Garrett. I’ve always been amazed at how much more I learned from these than from my college writing classes (which set my writing back over a quarter-century – it’s my college writing classes that are responsible for me being a chemist).

His story, “Big Things Happening Here,” Oak Lawn, was more than excellent. Unique, subtle, very “literary” – it tells the story of two men that witness someone being abducted in a tony suburb and are drawn into a vast conspiracy… or maybe not. A thought provoking tale of the possibility of a secret undercurrent of modern life – an illustration of the adage, “Simply because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they are not out to get you.”

Next I read a story by Catherine Cuellar, “Dog Sitter,” Love Field. I have met her a number of times at events in the Arts District and bike rides. Her contribution was on the more civilized edge of the noir genre – a story of a domestic worker that kills a passerby by accident. It’s a finely characterized tale which captures the delicate and difficult life led by those right under our noses, yet right outside of the mainstream of society.

After those two I cranked through the collection in order. I was familiar with many of the writers – I’ve been reading Ben Fountain and Harry Hunsiker for a while. There was a wide variety in all the stories – which made it as enjoyable as a box of chocolates – but the locations were all familiar. They did a good enough job of inserting locations and people that any Dallasite will recognize to give me the creeps as I ride/drive/move around town and see things that remind me of the stories.

The last story was by Jonathan Woods, “Swingers Anonymous,” M Streets. I enjoyed his collection, Bad Juju & Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem – driving down to the Pearl Cup on Henderson to hear him read one night. I’ve always admired his writing – because he doesn’t fuck around. He writes like a truck wreck… the story comes at you two hundred proof and on fire. True to form, his story in Dallas Noir has a classic “grab your attention” opening line:

We all went over to Pauline’s to admire her breasts.

How can you not finish a story that starts like that?

Dallas Jail complex with the Margaret Hunt Hill bridge in the background. (click to enlarge)

Dallas Jail complex with the Margaret Hunt Hill bridge in the background.
(click to enlarge)