I Just Read…

…”The Elementary Particles,” a novel by Michel Houllebecq. It had been recommended by a woman who had come to my high school in 1959 as an exchange student from Germany and who now lives in France. I can not recall ever speaking with her in high school, but over the last couple years, we have become e-mail correspondents. I don’t know how this correspondence began, but she has an inquiring, intelligent, agreeable intelligence about life in Europe and the deplorability of present day America.
I had read enough about Houllebecq to know he was controversial. I knew, for instance, some found his views on Islam “deplorable” too. My friend warned that, while she was “no prude,” she found his sexual scenes discomfiting. I thought, Well, they won’t bother me.
“Particles” is a third-person narrative about two half-brothers. Michel, a molecular biologist, is most comfortable when alone. Bruno, a high school teacher, is most comfortable when connected erotically to someone – or some two – or some three. As their lives and the lives of those around them play out, they tend to end badly: fire, dementia, stroke, bowel cancer, paralysis.
As Houllebecq expresses the views of Michel and Bruno – and, whether called for or not – those of his narrator, readers learn about matters ranging from genetics to the emergence of consciousness, the role of Krause’s corpuscles in orgasm to that of flies in the decomposition of corpses. Houllebecq’s approach allows him to express opinions on nature (“a repulsive cesspool”), the universe (“a battle zone, teeming and bestial”), masculinity (usually capable of being “assuaged… playing tennis” but occasionally requiring “revolution or war”), toddlers (“whose sense of self manifests itself in displays of megalomaniacal histrionics”), Islam (“the most stupid, false and obfuscating of all religiuons”), humanity (“a vile, unhappy race, barely different from the ape”), and life (“(It) always breaks your heart…. In the end there’s just the cold, the silence, and the loneliness. In the end there’s only death.”). (His portrait of Michel’s and Bruno’s mother so infuriated his own, she wrote a 400-page memoir justifying herself and called him “a sorry little prick.”) When asked by an interviewer how he had the nerve to write as he did, Houllebecq replied, “I pretend that I’m already dead.”
If you don’t find any of this amusing – or liberating in its outrageousness – Houllebecq may not be for you. Me, I’ve already bought his next book.

Marcella 2

Finished Season 2 of “Marcella.”
Boy, does it go dark and twisted.
Brit TV does not deliver much sex and nudity, but when it comes to violence and snuffing secondary characters you care about…
Again, (See: Levin “Marcella” supra), there are enough plot holes to drive the Peterbilt that pursued Dennis Weaver through. With all the corpses littering the what-turn-out-to-be branch roads off the central plot line, I recall at least two murderers who seem to have gone unapprehended. There’s the rock guy. And if anybody can tell me who killed Nigel’s girl friend, I’d appreciate it. (She seems to have been the victim of a plot line the serial killer turned out to have nothing to do with, no?) Finally, while it seems the SK did off the truck driver, I’d like some clarification of how this was accomplished.
Shouldn’t script writers have an obligation to dot all “I”s and cross all “T”s? Or is it enough to keep an audience’s nerves jangled and knuckles chewed? Adele, who watched every episode alongside me, said none of this occurred to her or would have bothered her if it had. (She finds it a reflection of how I approach my own writing.) She is more apt to let things just happen, and, when watching shows – or reading books – she immerses herself in the central character’s psychology, emotions and situation. Here, she found herself pondering the implications of a deeply troubled detective wanting to save the world confronting a deeply disturbed killer wanting to do the same, each of them, in their climactic face-off traumatizing a child so that their entire future is in question.
Anyway, we are set up for quite a Season 3. (Not yet picked-up.)

Adventures in Marketing: Week 108

The check arrived for “Best Ride.”
(So did a check for my next article in “Full Bleed.”)
A friend says a friend of hers wants a “Cheesesteak.” (“$10,” I said.) The friend’s friend also wants a “Heart.” But she has early stage Alzheimer’s, and by the time “Heart” is available, she may have forgotten. (She may have forgotten who Adele and I are.)
So would it be bad form to ask for payment now?

Dept. of Amplification

Well, Season 2 of “Marcella” answers the question of the moved corpse. (See: Blog of June 12.) There has been a passing reference to the Stu/Jason malfeasance but not much has come of it, though it seems a good card Marcella could have played when a child custody fight loomed. And the murdered cabbie and his brother have been forgotten. Two episodes to go — and I have a list of new questions I need answered. (If you’re interested, this season’s serial killer(s) targets children, though several adults (and one mouse) have also fallen along the way.


As frequent readers may know, my wife and I are fans of TV series where psychotic serial killers are pursued by dysfunctional detectives. So to get ready for Season 2 of “Marcella” (Netflix), we decided to re-watch Season 1, most of which we’d forgotten, including initially that we’d even seen it. Anyway, we recalled who the killer was and, pretty much, who would get killed when, so we could watch fairly dispassionately, which made us aware of certain plot holes. Maybe someone can fill them.

(I’ll pause for a moment, with a SPOILERS ALERT, to allow some of you to stop reading, if you wish.)


1. Why. when. how did Marcella move Grace’s body? Episode 2 ends with Grace letting her in. Episode 3 begins with Marcella, post fugue state, back home, covered in mud and dirt., so she clearly did this. Did she return to Grace’s and find her dead and think she had killed her? Why did she go back? Was the killer inside when she arrived, and did he knock Marcella out, so she awoke and found the body? Why didn’t he kill Marcella?

2. Who killed the cab driver? Ostensibly, he was killed because he had seen someone move Grace’s body, but the killer knew that wasn’t him. Did Marcella kill him? Also, he seems to have been killed by a gunshot through his windshield, but I don’t recall seeing a gun in the entire show. Was he just a victim of random violence?

3. What happened to his brother after he knocked out Marcella/

4. Did Stew get away with his murder (and Jason with aiding and abetting him)?

Still, a good show.

Adventures in Marketing: Week 107

No sales.
The check from Massachusetts for “Best Ride” did not arrive.
The son of the West Catholic alum did not return to the café.
The camp/high school-connected fellow did not write or call.
But I received a “Thank you” e-mail from the West Philly photographer to whom I’d sent a “Cheesesteak.”

In other news…
When Adele’s brother called, I told him we would self-publish “Heart.” “Spruce Hill Press.”
“Moose Hill?” he said.
“Not ‘Moose Hill.’” I said. “Spruce Hill.”
“Goose Hill?” he said.
“Not ‘Goose Hill.’” He was on speaker phone and Adele was in hysterics. “Spruce Hill.”
I figure our list has not yet made us a household name, like Random House.

Third Reading

Reading three at the Vanne Café seemed, by most measures, a success.
When Adele and I arrived, four customers were on site. Three departed before the event began; one stayed – and fell asleep.
The reading drew a couple dozen people, not counting the late arrival wrapped in a parka, carrying his possessions in a giant Target plastic bag and a carton previously used to ship raspberries, who commandeered a back sofa for himself. Two attendees were café regulars, who’d been to both previous readings; a woman, who’d come to mine, returned with two freinds; one of the readers drew five friends and/or relatives; and the other the rest. The mike was again a problem for we are mechanically challenged to begin with, but the hook-up for viewing illustrations on the café’s flat screen wall TV was a success. Both readers sold copies of their books; the pricey beer and wine moved; and the barrista’s tips were ample.
I guess the sexual content of the readings raised eyebrows – particularly on the adult daughters of Reader One – but I heard plenty laughs and saw many smiles. If I’ve learned one thing from these readings, including my own, it is that writers seem to think more highly of their words than do those hearing them. Audience attention spans are limitied. Less is more.
My co-promoter suggests we have a pianist lightly cue people when to leave the stage.

Adventures in Marketing: Week 106

No sales but…
A reader in Massachusetts writes that he liked “Cheesesteak” so much he is ready to buy a “Best Ride.” To whom should he write his check? (Answer: “Bob Levin” or “Spruce Hill Press” will do.)
And the fellow in Philly, linked to me through high school and summer camp (See: “Adventures in Marketing” supra) was so pleased by the “Cheesesteak” I sent him, he offered to pay for it. I declined, but added, “However, if you care to send a present to friends…”
Finally, just as I was leaving the café yesterday, a guy in his 40s came by my table and picked up a “Cheesesteak.”.
“Are you from Philadelphia?” I said.
Until he was 10. Then his family moved to Ocean City. His father went to West Catholic and his mother to Hallahan.
“You’re a little young,” I said, “but they’ll love it.
He promised he’d be back to buy one.

In other news, the editor in NYC who’d had “Heart,” Adele’s and my jointly written account (care giver and patient) of our adventures in cardiovascular-land, concluded “the close details of event, diagnosis, cure and treatment… didn’t leave enough room for readers to put themselves inside the story.” Her reaction to content was refreshing, since we’d grown accustomed to simply being rejected for our lack of a sufficient “platform. But since the last editor to read the m.s. had felt anything outside the medical detracted from our core story, we didn’t feel helped appreciably.
We will self-publish.

Adventures in Marketing: Weeks 104-05

Sold one Schiz.
The buyer was a middle-aged, keeps-to-himself-at-the-cafe mathematician. He said he’d bought a Cheesesteak, but, to tell you the truth, I’d forgotten. I’m still not sure I believe him. Maybe he wanted a cover story to justify picking up something as trigger-jerking as this one. Or maybe I’ve benefited from my recent goodwill networking.
Safeway, next door, is coming to the end of its annual Monopoly game, and, instead of sticking to its one-ticket-per-$10-purchase policy, is handing out entire boxes. Many of these tickets come with tabs entitling the bearer to free (donuts, gravy mix, bottled water, aspirin) or discounted (bacon, paper towels, cookies) stuff, and I’ve been handing them out like Johnny Appleseed. (The game, itself, has prizes up to $1 million. Adele and I, after putting in about, oh, 50 hours, have won $5.)
Actually, my books have been moving so slowly, I’ve taken a more aggressive approach at expanding my name-recognition. For instance, a fellow in Philly e-mailed me because he’d read my blog “Notes on Camp,” from 2014 and was now the director of the one which had taken over mine 60 years ago (He’d also graduated my high school 28 years after me) and wanted to learn more about me. So I sent him a Cheesesteak, fantasizing about the legions of ex-campers he might tout it to.
Then a friend sent me notice of an exhibit of photographs of historic West Philadelphia at a gallery at 40th and Walnut, a half-block from an apartment he and I’d shared 1964-5. I e-mailed the photographer offering a Cheesesteak, imagining he might want to incorporate a stack of them as an installation and/or sell them on consignment at the gift shop. He ignored me, but I sent him a copy anyway.
Stay tuned.

Weighty Tomes ii

Heather Ann Thompson’s “Blood on the Water,” a history of the rebellion at Attica Prison in 1971 holds “weight” of a different nature.
Thompson is a dogged researcher, who unearthed condemnatory material which the State of New York had buried for decades – and reburied after her discovery. She is also a committed partisan, who does not hide behind “objectivity” to keep the conclusions she has drawn from the page. In fact, she swings them like a mace. Her story is of pestilential racism, sadistic cruelty, and governmental – indeed societal – moral rot.
There were times I wished Thompson was less reliant on adverbs and adjectives, more interested in character development, more adept (especially when her narrative moves into courtrooms) at rendering scenes dramatically. But then I put these wishes aside. I thought they were motivated by a desire to see the other side to the story presented; but, really, I realized, was there another side? The one she documented was so compelling and complete.
I’ve tried to think of a single example of worse America-upon-Americans horror in the last 70 years and come up short. (According to Wikipedia, since the Civil War, Attica was topped only by a massacre of miners in the 1920s.) From Thompson’s description of the toxic conditions under which the inmates lived, through the gratuitous homicidal assault upon them, when troopers killed 33 prisoners and nine of their hostages, to the extermination-camp quality tortures inflicted upon the survivors, all blanketed by the intrigues, cover-ups, and betrayals designed to smother truth in its crib and cut justice’s throat.
Well, “justice.” After this read, one spits the word. Horror upon horror. Darkness within darkness. Maybe the worst part comes when Thompson carries her story to the present day. Blatant lies voiced by authorities and rebroadcast by the media about what Thompson terms “prisoner barbarism” at Attica fueled “an anti-civil-rights and anti-rehabilitation ethos.” Being “tough-on-crime” became as necessary to candidates for public office as deep-pocketed donors. The result has been more prisons built, people imprisoned, mandatory minimum sentences lengthened, the number of capital crimes increased. By 2000, New York state alone had six times as many people in prison as it had in 1971. And as before, inmates suffered from overcrowding, poor food, poor medical treatment, brutal treatment, with less recreational activities, fewer educational programs and increased barriers keeping them from lawyers and the courts.
One’s senses practically shut down. They run, as if, from the carving knife.