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Surrealistic Pillow Talk

Peter Stampfels

Part 1: Sci Fi

I didn’t know that when a prolonged temperature of 140 degrees is reached and the humidity is 100 percent, a person cannot sweat, and will be cooked/poached to death. My book of the year, The Ministry of the Future, by my favorite author, Kim Stanley Robinson, starts with that happening in India in the year 2525. Twenty million people die. There is one survivor, one of the book’s main characters.

Robinson probably knows as much about climate change and the state of mankind in general right now as anyone. The good news is that he is optimistic. This book is about what must be done if humanity is to survive.

All his fixes are workable and can be done with our current tech toolbox. I think everyone on the planet should read it. Besides being a bang-up story, it’s a blueprint for mankind’s survival. OK, personkind’s survival.

Part 2: Graphic Novels

I don’t read as many books as I used to. I don’t seem to have as much time as I used to have. But I read a hell of a lot of graphic fiction/non-fiction. I’ve been a graphics (“comics”) geek since 1944. All my friends think I read more of this stuff than anyone they know. And yet, for the last several years, every graphic year’s best list I’ve seen is mainly stuff I’ve never heard of.

It’s the golden age of graphics, as well as the golden age of television, among other things, like ice cream and craft beer/cider. I saw, but didn’t read, a book about a couple who successfully tried every artisanal ice cream in the U.S., but to read or watch every graphic/TV show that’s out there couldn’t be done if you used every waking hour to do so. I mean no food or bathroom breaks. This plethora is my personal definition of a golden age.

I’ll start with two books about seventeenth-century artists, both knock-you-flat-on-yr-ass superb.

Typex’s Rembrandt is the result of three years of total immersion on the part of Typex (Raymond Koot) in/on the life of Rembrandt. Nick Cave (yes, that one) blurbs it, “Here’s the greatest Dutch artist…I mean the second greatest. First there was Rembrandt, then there was Typex!”

Blurbed further by the Senior Curator Of Drawings of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam: “no one draws rats more beautifully than Typex.”

To re-reread and re-re-reread.

As obscure as Rembrandt is well-known is his Italian contemporary, Artemisia Gentileschi.I Know What I Am/ The Life and Times of Artemisia Gentileschi was written and illustrated by Gina Siciliano, an artist, a bookseller, and the drummer/vocalist for two rock bands.

Excuse me while I swoon. Besides being a deep biographical dive in the life of the artist, beyond doubt one of the Old Masters, it is an in-depth examination of other artists and the general history of the Italian seventeenth-century Italy. This 279-page book ends with 50 pages of references and bibliographical notes.

Both Gentileschi and Siciliano were/are survivors of sexual abuse, a factor that makes for a greater-than-usual emotional connection between author and subject. A fascinating and enthralling read.

Bad Gateway is by Simon Hanselmann, who was raised by his heroin-addicted mother and schizophrenic grandmother in Tasmania, Australia. He self-identifies as gender-queer, and flamboyantly cross-dresses for public appearances. This book features his main characters, Megg, a green witch, pointy black hat and all, with an also pointy lying-Pinocchio nose; Mogg, her BF, who is a small grey cat, and Owl, a humanoid owl.

They are constantly fucked up on drugs. A given page will feature sex, drugs (jointly described as chemsex) and blackouts. Not for the faint of heart, despite translation into 13 languages, New York Times best-sellerdom, multiple Ignatz and Eisner nominations (U.S. graphic Oscar/Grammy etc. equivalents), and winning the Angouleme International Comic Festival (the graphic world’s best) in 2018.

By now you’re either attracted or repelled. I’m firmly former.

Strange Creatures by David Peters. A middle-school book about mostly extinct critters. Multi-racial and age humans depicted to give a sense of scale. I’ve loved this sort of book since childhood, and this brief, 48-page, out-of-print book from 1992 that I got on EBay is possibly my all-time fave of the genre.

The Song of the Machine/ From Disco to DJs to Techno, a Graphic Novel by David Blot and Mathias Cousin, translated from French, forward by Daft Punk. It took me decades to make my peace with disco, and I never got into techno, but this in-depth assessment of the subjects broadened my understanding profoundly, for which I am grateful and much less clueless. Hundreds of recommended tracks to explore. Even fans will probably learn a lot.

And speaking of in-depth, check out Showtime At The Apollo/ The Epic Tale Of Harlem’s Legendary Theater by Ted Fox/ Illustrated By James Otis Smith. Adopted from Fox’s book of the same title. A treasure trove if I ever did see one.

The hypo is the phrase Abraham Lincoln used to describe his lifelong depression. The Hypo/ The Melancholic Young Lincoln byNoah Van Sciver covers the period from his arrival in Springfield IL in 1837 to his marriage to Mary Todd in 1842. A damn fine job.

How I Tried To Be A Good Person is a memoir based on Ulli Lust's youthful experiments with polyamory + interracial relationships. Best graphic novel winner from the Los Angeles Times.

Here’s one I’m re-reading, as I’ve done many times: ALPHA by Jens Harder. The book is in black and white with some color washes, and is about, well, the big bang to the dawn of earliest man, featuring superb drawing of all manner of critters from that vast stretch of time along with strange human-era illustrations, ancient to modern, and some text.

The next one, BETA, is about the rise of humans and their civilizations, five million years ago to the present. Don’t know when it will be out. Last volume, GAMMA…Visions“is a view of possible future developments and a visualization of them.”

Sign me up.

To close out, I’ll go back to all text. It’s a book, but it’s actually liner notes to a 30 CD set called “Turn Me Loose, White Man” Or: Appropriating Culture: How To Listen To American Music, 1900-1960," by Allen Lowe. Some of you may be familiar with his seven CD set from about 20 years back, called From "Minstrel To Mojo," which was a multi-genre look at American music from the 1890s to the mid-50s.

The liner notes here are 300K+ words, 352 pages, basically about Black influence on American music. This is just volume one. Just got it, and am listening to CD #2 out of, as I said, 30.

So far my take on his track selections: astounding. A deep, deep breathtaking dive. What hath Harry Smith wrought? Here it is.

Peter Stampfels is a fiddle player, old-time musician, and singer-songwriter who is best known as a member of the Holy Modal Rounders, a psychedelic folk band that he founded with Steve Weber in the early 1960s. He was briefly a member of the Fugs and has performed with They Might Be Giants, the Roches, Richard Barone, Yo La Tengo, Bongwater, and Loudon Wainwright III.

These books, plus others by our Journal of the Plague Year contributors can be found on our bookshelf on, the anti-Amazon, aimed at keeping independent bookstores alive.

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