Monthly Archives: January 2010

Soho Serenade — Glimpses of a Floating World, Book Review

glimpseLarry Harrison’s dark and dazzling first novel, Glimpses of a Floating World takes its title from the phrase used to describe the red-light district of 18th century Edo, now known as Tokyo. The Japanese term alludes to the Buddhist concept for “the transient nature and suffering that defines our earthly existence.” Edo’s floating world was a haven of pleasure and illusion, filled with kabuki actors, geishas and courtesans. Harrison’s work is set in London’s Soho, 1963, its denizens — anarchists, mods, rockers, beats, and others, among them our protagonist, seventeen year-old Ronnie “Fizz” Jarvis who loves feeling that he is part of “the scene.”

The novel opens with two heroin addicts on their way to a fix. The griminess of the dialogue is pitch perfect in its rhythm and authenticity. Ronnie, one of the fortunate few with a prescription for heroin and cocaine is eighteen minutes away from his chemist’s and would gladly die sooner to make up the time.

Our “hero”, the son of an abusive, alcoholic, upwardly mobile Scotland Yard officer, survives by staying in squats and selling small amounts of his excess stock on the black market.

Harrison skillfully makes it easy for the reader to identify with Ronnie despite the character’s being vain, selfish and occasionally cowardly. He is, after all, an adolescent trying to understand the world and his place in it. Ronnie, fiercely intelligent, tells himself that he is not constricted by his addiction but enhanced by it. He is a self-proclaimed rationalist and anarchist, identifying with the beats. Since age twelve, he has “collected extreme experiences in a conscious attempt to destroy childishness.”

Ronnie reminds us of other young, unreliable characters on the precipice of manhood in an imperfect world. The reader is immediately aware that no matter what else happens, Ronnie will either grow and change, or he will not. We root for Ronnie’s potential, hoping he will live to tell the tale.

Harrison’s Soho is not a land of flower children and love beads. There’s still a sense of post-war deprivation. Ruth Ellis has recently been executed. Political scandals involving naughty politicians and call girls are in the news, while on the streets police corruption is endemic and gangsters have celebrity status. Heroin addiction, however, is relatively rare. While addicts like Ronnie scam the system, which allows him to walk away drugs in hand for easy resale, the black market in illegal drugs is small.

Early in our story, Ronnie is caught shooting up in a restroom. While his heroin and cocaine are legal, he has a small amount of opium that isn’t. In jail, he is interviewed by an elderly (at least to his adolescent eyes) prison doctor. When she tells him that he’ll be dead soon if he keeps going, he replies, “We’re all going to die… You’re going to die a lot sooner than I am.”

She believes she’s been threatened, classifies him as a psychopath, and Ronnie is sent to a mental hospital that reminded this reader of a cross between a Dickensian workhouse and a Ken Kesey nightmare. Ronnie overhears the nurses discussing how easy psychosurgery will make their jobs and soon escapes.

Several chapters are told from different points of view. We see both the war and early post-war years through the eyes of Ronnie’s parents. Freddy’s drinking, jealousy and violence eventually drive Flo to leave and return to her hometown of Swindon — a place Ronnie will always deny being from. Freddy has managed to rise to become a senior officer, but his son has been out of his life for years.

While the atmosphere and depth of characterization is strong, so is the pacing and plot development. Ronnie’s initial arrest, psychiatric diagnosis, escapes and recaptures all lead to a situation where he is forced to turn informant even though he knows nothing about any large scale narcotics dealers and does not believe that any exist. The shifting points of view allow the reader to know more than the characters, and the last quarter of the novel is a compulsively addictive page-turner in which Ronnie’s fate is anything but certain.

Harrison who has written nonfiction books on alcohol and drug issues, seamlessly weaves in the growing panic over narcotics. While the world was on the brink of nuclear Armageddon and scandal reigned, Britain — influenced by the US — was changing its policies, moving from treating addiction as a public health issue to criminalizing addicts. Ronnie is as much a victim of these changes as he is of his abusive father and his own self-destructiveness.

Glimpses of a Floating World is described on its back cover as “a lyrical and triumphant elegy to a seedy, vice-ridden London of the 1960’s. ” It is that, but also a tale of familial tragedy, a history lesson, a novel that offers much more than simple glimpses.

Glimpses may not be easy to find in your local bookstore though you can order it online as a paperback or download FOR FREE as an ebook through the link provided. It’s from Year Zero, a writers’ collective dedicated to creating a new relationship between readers and writers without the filter of the publishing industry. Agreed, there are many skeptics who still won’t touch books not given the imprimatur of even a small publishing house. This novel puts lie to the myth that important literature can only be found on store shelves. In addition to reading like a lost classic, it’s polished, proofed and edited. If you’re a serious reader, skeptical about anything that sounds like self-publishing, I urge you to rise to the challenge and sample it online for free. Believe me, it’ll be a more rewarding experience than a trip to Border’s to browse through the latest Jane Austen with zombies tome.

Coming soon to a blog near you…

We just got back from our Guatemala trip and I’ve got grants to write and errands to run, so for now just a preview of the posts-to-be-written:

The Most Dangerous Moment on our trip was at about 5 in the morning on the tourist shuttle mini-van to the airport on the road from Antigua. The road is curvy, but newly paved and well-lit. Up ahead a truck is turning on to the highway. The truck isn’t moving fast. Suddenly, we are stuck in a moment. The van hasn’t slowed down, but time decelerates as we are very closely approaching the metal wall that is the side of the truck. I am sitting in the middle seat of the second row with no seat belt, perfectly positioned to fly through the space between the driver and the front passenger seat and crash through the windshield. The moment lasts long enough for me to experience the irony of my coming death. My husband is the uncomfortable flyer. I’m the one always arguing that you can trust the pilots who are for the most part professionals. It’s the idiots on the road who will kill you. The van suddenly without even the screech of breaks comes to a halt about a foot from the truck bed. The truck pulls onto the highway, and then we keep going.

The book I’m currently reading is Larry Harrison’s, Glimpses of a Floating World. Here’s the mini-review, I posted on Amazon: “1963, London, Soho, sex, drugs and yes even rock and roll. Ronnie is like a strung-out, hipster, Holden Caulfield if Holden had been a seventeen year old working class Brittish junkie. Harrison perfectly portrays Ronnie’s world, “the scene” that Ronnie will do anything to get back to — the “floating world” of illusion so expertly shown that the reader will never forget the journey. This is an amazing story and a very addictive read.” I promise to write a better, longer-one soon, but please buy the damn book.

State of the Union — I so want to believe in Obama. Travelling, I kept thinking about the President’s mother and how she was a woman who if she hadn’t spent so much time in Indonesia, could have loved Guatemala and isn’t it remarkable that the son of a woman like that could be President of these United States? And then tonight I’m watching that speech hoping for something that doesn’t sound like the sos, and he says how he’s going to “work with Congress” on repealing don’t ask don’t tell? Work with Congress, my ass. This is an easy one. Executive order Mr. Commander in Chief. Harry Fucking Truman did it with integration.

The Writing Life — So I come back to the good news that I’ve got honorable mention for my 3 day novel entry! No money or publication but the possibility that if I turn the damn thing into a full length book, I could at least mention the honor in a query. Needs work but think Lolita from Doleres Haze’s POV meets The Shining or maybe The Lovely Bones for cynical adults without a happy ending. Meantime, Loisaida is sitting, requested as a full on some agent’s desk.

My addictions — Honestly think that the internet/social networking may now have taken over my life more completely than even the television machine. Still experiencing authonomy withdrawal. Having just got back from a vacation to a previously “remote” part of the world, I’m more and more concerned about how the net (and easy access to it) may affect how we experience travel. Anyone remember the ritual of the picture postcard or letters? Stopping to write them on the road. Maybe if you could find a place to make a copy in case they got lost or mostly you took your chances and sometimes finding the post office was an adventure itself. If you came across a phone, you probably used it to check in same as you would a clean toilet whether or not you needed to go. You were forced to talk to people or to no one because you didn’t have IM or the office party atmosphere of facebook at your disposal. (We didn’t have laptops with us this trip and actually didn’t spend much time on the web, but it was available everywhere.) I remember meeting people simply by asking for directions which I’m sure in a couple of years won’t be done when every street in every town in every country is instantly on google maps and accessible on a variety of devices.

More to come. Stay tuned boys and girls.

Carpetbagger or Hired Gun? Should Harold Ford Jr. Run for a New York Senate Seat?

Update: March 1st 2010 —  Ford has quit.  Given up!  And while many will credit Stephen Colbert for righteously taking him down, I’d like to think this early blog (editor’s pick on Open Salon) might have helped.  So for the next couple of days, it gets a sticky!


1968, flashback to my 8 year-old self: I wake up to the news on the radio that Bobby Kennedy has been shot. I stumble into my parents’ bedroom waking them with the announcement. My mother still groggy says, “I never liked him. He was a carpetbagger.”

More than thirty years later, the year 2000, both my parents are thrilled that Hillary will be running for a New York senate seat. I bring up the “carpetbagger” remark which my mother denies making. My father points out that Bill was “our” President and he’s willing to consider the Clintons honorary New Yorkers.

January 6, 2010, The New York Times reports that former Tennessee Congressman Harold Ford Jr. may be planning a Senate run against Kirsten Gillibrand — the plucky, upstate congresswoman appointed to fill Hilary’s seat by hapless Governor Paterson, after the whole Caroline Kennedy mess.

According to The Times, “discussions between Mr. Ford and top Democratic donors reflect the dissatisfaction of some prominent party members with Ms. Gillibrand, who has yet to win over key constituencies, especially in New York City.”

Certainly there is an upstate/downstate divide. Paterson had wanted to appoint an upstater for balance, a practical measure to help him in his planned run for the office to which he was appointed as a result of the Elliot Spitzer scandal. Before her appointment, there was concern that Gillibrand was too conservative for downstate particularly on issues like gun control. Gillibrand had been known as a strong supporter of gun ownership and “hunters’ rights.” For an upstate politician, any other position would be political suicide. She’s since moderated or at least finessed her stance and has even worked with crusading anti-gun Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy. McCarthy had previously considered running against Gillibrand over this issue.

Ford is from a conservative southern state. He is chairman of the Centrist Democratic Leadership Council and the son of a former congressman. He moved to New York in 2006 after his unsuccessful senate run in Tennessee and took a job as vice chairman of Merrill Lynch. For most New Yorker’s he’s an unknown quality, a handsome talking head/political consultant -commentator on MSNBC.

The democrats supporting him are an elite group of donors — high-powered people in the financial sector. The Times alludes to Ford’s “formidable track record as a fund raiser” and potential ability to “tap into African American voters nationwide.”

There is no mention within the article of how the two candidates, both centrists, differ on any policy issues. New York City and the downstate region are known for being more liberal than upstate. Why run someone in opposition to Gillibrand who has no substantial policy differences?

One can foresee the drama that would play out should Ford enter the race. This is one show that New York does not need. Her side: The spunky, blonde upstater standing up to the liberal elites power-brokers from the City — she tried to work with them, but they were against her from the start and brought in an out of town hired-gun to do their dirty work. His side: A young, smart African American man just like the president New Yorkers have come to embrace running against an attractive woman playing to the worst fears of the white working class.

In a sick way, the blonde gal versus the black man of course evokes Hilary vs. Obama as well as Obama vs. Palin. Ford and his backers should remember, however, that Hilary whose campaign was already losing a lot of its luster and who had alienated many of her constituents by voting for Bush’s war, still managed to eek out a victory over Obama in the New York state primary. In the general election, Obama was victorious over McCain/Palin — but this had to do with actual issues about which New Yorkers cared.

The city may not have warmed to Gillibrand yet, but she’s working on it and at least she’ll never have the “carpetbagger” label. A bunch of big name fat-cats reaching out to Ford and hoping to market his blackness seems like the worst kind of pandering. It insults voters the same way as the McCain campaign did by picking a female vice presidential candidate hoping it would bring in alienated Hilary supporters. The idea that Ford will succeed with urban voters based on his image versus his substance does no service to Ford or the people of New York.

Gillibrand has already shown herself to be an adroit politician and a tough one. There’s no way that a primary fight over personalities and not issues especially one with an upstate/downstate divide can be good for the dems especially in what will be a tough season for them all around.

As for Harold Ford Jr., my advice to him — if you’re really committed to the people of our state, wouldn’t it make sense to start working for them on a local level even in a non-elected capacity? There’ll be other opportunities to run. Let us get to know you. We love immigrants and have been known to take them into our hearts.

(This blog is also available at Marion’s Open Salon page where it was an “Editor’s Pick”. More comments there.)

There’s More to Publishing Than In Jonathan Galassi’s Recent Op-Ed

In a New York Times opinion piece, There’s More to Publishing Than Meets the Screen, (1/3/10), Jonathan Galassi — President of Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, writes of the decision by the heirs of William Stryon’s estate to put out e-book versions of the author’s work. Galassi wonders whether e-books are “a new frontier in publishing” or “simply the latest edition of the books produced by publishers like Random House.”

He points to the contributions made by traditional publishers in creating the finished product that goes to the public. In addition to marketing, design and layout, Galassi speaks of the role of editors in making sure that the final version of a book is the best that it can be.

Galassi does not discuss the other important role of traditional publishers. They have been the gatekeepers, not only ensuring that no book would bare their imprint before it was ready, but that any book with their stamp would be one worth reading. Publishers could be depended upon to bring us new and interesting authors, and beyond that to expand the very foundations of literature.

But the publishing industry abandoned these tasks long before e-books came on to the scene.

Any visit to a bookstore will show that nowadays it’s only name brand best selling authors and celebrity writers getting onto store shelves. If William Styron were starting out today, an editor would never have taken a chance on a book like Lie Down in Darkness (unless perhaps Styron added vampires or zombies) and Styron himself might have been forced to publish only as an e-book if for no other reason than to prove to potential agents or publishers that he could gain a following and his books would sell.

While books may still need “the care and dedication” of a good editor, publishing houses are not going to provide that to any novels they don’t believe are marketable and most of the books they believe will sell, no amount of editing will help.

The result of this is that sales are down and the publishing industry is in trouble. If only it would occur to those involved to look inward, they might find that the problem is not competition from e-book distributors. Perhaps what they need to do is look for books that have literary merit to begin with. Maybe they should be using that marketing acumen to make serious reading “sexy” again, or to find out what kinds of books would compel readers who aren’t buying theirs. Of course they need to make other changes as well. Changes might include a different type of distribution, the realization that e-book and print pricing can’t be the same, a rethinking of how royalties are set, and new ways of incorporating digital marketing. As in any industry, new technologies require new approaches.

Galassi makes a valid a point. The publishing industry plays an important role in the production of books. If they are going to continue to play an important role in the production of important books — both print and electronic, they need to change.

(This blog also appeared in Marion’s Open Salon page with lots more comments.)