The Noisiest Book Review in the Known World: The Best of the Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy and the Humanities, Vol. I by Lolita Lark - Read Online
The Noisiest Book Review in the Known World
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The first issue of our magazine came out in 1985, and we switched to an online edition in 1995. Our reviews have been denounced by the famous and the infamous. Ron Butler wrote "What kind of idiots do you have writing book reviews?" Jim Finkenaur said that our review of a book about West Point was "crap, pure and simple crap." Mike Johnston suggested that we move to Cuba. And Sharon Cournoyer said that our reviewer "was far more interesesting in her own cleverness and ability to dash off a few zingers."

Yet X. J. Kennedy called our review of his book "generous," and Norman Mailer said that "It's worth having around." Critiques appeared in the "Washington Post," the "Los Angeles Times," the "San Francisco Chronicle," "Library Journal" and on National Public Radio.

The revamped magazine has been online now for nearly eighteen years and garners between 200,000 and 250,000 page hits a month.

To celebrate these many years of our presence, the editors have put together a two-volume set, "The Noisiest Book Review in the Known World." It contains over 200 of our best pieces, drawn from our original magazine and its noisy on-line step-child. This is a winnowing of the more than 4,000 reviews, articles, poems and readings that we've published since 1985, including

-- E. L. Doctorow on writing
-- S. J. Perelman on nudniks
-- Alan Watts on the heart
-- Joshua Slocum on sailing alone
-- Mary F. K. Fisher on tangerines
-- J. R. Donleavy on making love
-- Sherwood Anderson on the grotesques
-- Alberto Moravia on the women of Rome
-- Jakusho Kwong Roshi on counting the breath
-- Quan Barry on female circumcision
-- Abbie Hoffman on the revolution
-- Reymundo Sanchez on this bloody life
-- Ananya Roy on Calcutta
-- Alexa Albert on brothels
-- William Buckley on himself
-- Derek Jarman on AIDS
-- Larry McMurtry on depression
-- Eugene V. Debs on freedom
-- Lawrence Durrell on frying the flag
-- Sean Condon on Amsterdam
-- Joyce Cary on dirty artists and the clean rich
-- Jerome K. Jerome on smelly cheeses
-- Paul Krassner on the 1968 Democratic Convention
-- Carolyn Creedon on love
-- Nathanael West and Miss Lonelyhearts
-- Laura Esquivel on the conquest of Mexico
-- Hans Nazoa on Jenny Lind
-- Manuel del Cabral on onanism
-- Susan Parker on tumbling after
-- Sharon Olds on mothers and fathers.

Published: Lolita Lark on
ISBN: 9780917320408
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The Origins of RALPH & Lolita Lark

My Fine Feathered Friend

My Brilliant Career

The Best of Ed Zern

How to Kick a Duck

Glory in a Camel's Eye

Blue Cloud Rides Horses

Good-Bye My Friend

The Truth About Dogs


My Best Friend's Ghost

Sweet Dumb Doggie

A Cricket in the Telephone (at Sunset)


A Cricket in the Telephone (at Sunset): A Review

The Egg Man of the Fillmore: Leslie A. Wattles

Dirty Artists & The Clean Rich

Johann Sebastian Bach and the Aliens

Bach and the Bees

Where Is Gogol When We Need Him?


In Search of the Blues

Conversations with E. L. Doctorow

William Faulkner


Dada East

Pier-Luigi Zucchini

Ghost Light

Surviving as a Musician in Birkenau




It's Nudnick Not 'Noodnick'

City Requiem Calcutta

My Bloody Life

Chocolate, Tangerines and Other Secret Pleasures

Song of Welcome

When I Was a German

Aching for Beauty

Colors of the Mountain


Primeval and Other Times

In the Time of the Lime Trees

Juke Joint




Students on Drugs

Bonehead English

Cradle of Valor

García-Lorca's Afro

Somnambulistic Ballad


America's Famous and Historic Trees

Every Drop for Sale

Down & Out

The World Trade Center

The Ice Palace That Melted Away

The Eyes of the City

The Great Land Giveaway


Comme Les Autres

I Go Back to May 1937

The Windsor Style

Pulling at Broken Strings

Sole Custody

Bertha Alyce


God Must Be Female

The Experts



A Grant from the Ford Foundation

Glue & Kindergarten

My Last Sigh

Hurricane Fred


Conquest of the Useless

The Making of Fitzcarraldo

Death Is Sitting at the Foot of My Bed

Magic Mushrooms


The Book of the Grotesque

The Shark with A Lightbulb (On His Tongue)

~~ * ~~

The Faces Behind the Scenes at RALPH


For five glorious years, the upstart Fessenden Review managed to bemuse literary America with its saucy take on books and the publishing industry. In one of the early issues, we pointed out, What we do is not namby-pamby stuff. Our tart reviews were the subject of articles by media writers at the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, Library Journal and on National Public Radio among others. Writer Herbert Gold said, I enjoy your quirky take on things, although you don’t seem to review my books. The late Max Lerner said, The reviews break all conventions and are the stuff of life. Gary Indiana called it "A New York Review of Books for the living."

Other encomiums came in from Writer’s Digest, American Libraries, The New England Review/Bread Loaf Quarterly, The Bloomsbury Review and Dædalus. Norman Mailer wrote us, laconically, It’s worth having around.

Despite its critical success, The Review was nibbled to death by its many creditors, but, in 1995, was able to return — an online phoenix — as The Review of Arts, Literature, Politics and the Humanities, or, more succinctly, RALPH. To date, over 200 issues have gone online at

The book you hold in your hand contains some of the most acclaimed reviews, articles, poems, and readings drawn from the pages of RALPH as well as a few from the late-lamented Fessenden Review.

* * * * *

The Tijuana Titanic

From The 25th Anniversary Newsletter of

The Reginald A. Fessenden Educational Fund

One of the advantages of going across the border into Baja California is that we get to watch them building the Titanic, at Popotla, just a few miles to the south of here. I drive past it every day, and every day, there is something new out of the past to befuddle the mind.

It is a fine time-warp. For years, Popotla was a barren, failed housing development. Before it went under, they built a dirt road from the highway to the ocean, and an ugly neo-moderne arch for an entryway. Over the years, the arch had been pulled at and beaten by vandals, turned tattered and gray.

Now, out of nowhere, in preparation for a $200,000,000 movie, we have dozens of new sheds, bright lights, 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week construction, and this turn-of-the-century superstructure rising up out of dry and dusty landscape, there at the very edge of the Pacific.

They built the funnels first, for some reason, and pushed them about the lot, moved these forty-foot tall tan smokestacks (with wide black stripes across the tops) hither and yon. Every day I pass by, they’ve moved them to yet another place.

Finally, a few weeks ago, they decided to build the upper deck, so they have planted the smokestacks, and underneath them, the prow, the bridge, and the lounges.

The first-class ballroom can be seen plainly from the highway and, last night, as I passed it, the entire promenade was lit up, hundreds of naked ship’s lights, lined along the superstructure. I wasn’t sure, but through the portholes, I thought I could see figures, dressed in formal attire, moving back and forth to the rhythm of ghostly music.

The Titanic should be setting sail shortly, and I hope to be on board at the launching. The grand ship, filled with lights and music and glamour, setting sail to another Byzantium. The hundreds of us in our tuxedos and formal gowns, so elegant, there in the first class ballroom, holding our glasses of 1911 vintage Champagne, with the band playing Just a Bird in a Gilded Cage and Casey Did Dance with the Strawberry Blonde.

How glorious it will be to sail past San Diego and Long Beach and Dana Point, all bright lights and music, forging ahead into the foggy darkness, racing along at twenty-five knots, to collide, finally and inevitably, with an errant ice-cube calved by the Santa Barbara Yacht Club Cocktail Lounge.

The silence as the great engines halt. The breathlessness of the quiet, and the darkness all about. Then begins the fatal descent, all of us on deck, in our frock coats and formal dresses, so very well aware of our fate but willing to be part of the tragic history of the sea.

Standing at the rail, abjuring the chance to be saved, elegant and noble to the last, the musicians and the captain and the 800 of us, descending now into the cold and fearsome sea, as the lights go out all about us, the great hissing of the boilers, the bursting in two, the huge body of it descending into the depths — and we are left (still in our frock coats) with nothing but the iciness of the water, and the brilliant stars cold above us, and the wondrous folly, the tragedy of man’s fate.

* * * * *


The Origins of RALPH & Lolita Lark

Dear Ms. Lark:

Are you the originator of the RALPH site?

It has many originators.

It’s a wonderful site. I’m intrigued by your name . . .

Me too. Larks are too.

Are you having books published as well?

Our books are listed at

Are all of the pieces at the site professionally authored?

All of us are professionally gifted amateurs. We are Renaissance men,

Renaissance women.

Thank you for your time.

Thank you for yours.

* * * * *

My Fine Feathered Friend

William Grimes

North Point

Those who make their home in New York City are passing strange. They live in tiny dark hovels called apartments. They brag when they find a room for under $5,000 a month. They’ve been in a massive traffic gridlock since the days of brass hubcaps. The sun barely shines, and casts a perpetual yellow-grey fried egg color over all buildings and faces.

To actually see the sun, one is required to pass over to New Jersey (for the poor) or to Long Island (for the rich). To see a tree, New Yorkers ride in a hole in the ground — a subway — to a place called Central Park where they can sit on crowded benches and get harassed by panhandlers.

Citizens of that city consume, daily, enough air-borne filth so that their lungs compare favorably to those who mine coal, mercury, or uranium. The ritziest street in Manhattan is called Park Avenue — although there is no park except in the middle of the street which is primarily home to several hundred thousand rats who live and frolic in the greenery. The biggest town dump is called a Kill which pretty much says it all.

Compared to anywhere else in the U. S., New Yorkers pay double for their food, triple to park their cars, and quadruple for a cup of coffee. To get away from the city, one either has to go through one of five carbon-monoxide storage facilities known as tunnels, or ride over one of seven vertigo-inducing bridges.

After the events of 9/11 there is often a pause and a prayer before people venture to the upper stories of the 100 or so skyscrapers in the city. Upper-floor rentals in Manhattan have fallen to less than a half of those of offices in the lower floors. Yet to demonstrate their chutzpah, all the plans proposed by the New York Port Authority on the site of the old World Trade Center feature one or more towers of 80 stories. As far as we can see, this will become the location of choice for corporations who are willing to sacrifice the future health and safety of their employees for ghetto-style rents and dangers.

~~ * ~~

People in New York cultivate thousands and thousands of dogs and cats to decorate their streets, but are astonishingly illiterate about other animals of the world. Proof of this is the discovery of a chicken (a chicken!) in the back yard of one of the columnists for the New York Times. Immediately, Chicken — her nom de plume — became a folk-hero. Articles were written about her (where she came from, how she got there, what she ate for lunch). Photographers with $10,000 cameras arrived to get her picture. Chicken’s step-father, William Grimes, the restaurant critic for the New York Times, became a pop personality — all over a commonplace and fairly dull looking Australorp.

Grimes and his wife live in Astoria, which is over the bridge or under the river from Manhattan. Astoria is the location of choice for warehouses, dismantled cars, rendering plants, and grime (and a couple named Grimes). Apparently Chicken escaped from a nearby poultry execution factory and, knowing a good nest when she saw it, moved in and started laying eggs.

I didn’t know a hen could lay an egg without a rooster, confesses our narrator. Obviously he’s no Okie from Muskogie. In any event, he took his new-found foster-parent duties seriously, studied up on chickens, wrote some articles about Chicken for the Times which, needless to say, heretofore had never had a farm report except on the financial pages. . . . Chicken became a star. It apparently doesn’t take much to excite city slickers. It’s what we newspaper people call a man-bites-dog story.

Let it be said that the author shows an appropriate enthusiasm for his new-found career in animal husbandry. He determines that Chicken is a Black Australorp, first cousin to the Black Orpington. He gives us a brief history of the breed, and a brief history of the role of chickens in American life. He even has his mother send him some scratch — and not the folding kind. This Chicken Care package being sent from Texas might be considered overkill, for even in the wastelands of New York, there are granaries. It’s not unlike you finding a newborn babe on your doorstep and having your mom back home FedEx a couple of baby bottles filled with warm formula.

~~ * ~~

In the interests of fair disclosure, I should tell you that I’ve been raising chickens — in the city (not New York) — for the last twenty-five years. I can also report that no photographer from the Times ever knocked on my door to capture the profile of one of my White-Crested Polish pullets (which are far more photogenic than some silly Australorp).

In fact ten years ago I got cited by the city fathers for having roosters in an otherwise respectable neighborhood. We went to trial, the cocks and I, I lost, they got sent out to East County Siberia . . . and now I have a misdemeanor on my rap sheet. I even had to promise that I would take a two-year hiatus before taking up chickenry again. At least they didn’t assign me six months cleaning up the Augean hen-houses out there at Foster’s Farms.

Despite my colorful experiences, if I were to follow in Grimes’ shoes and send off a manuscript to North Point Press about the many funny birds in my back yard — waxing lyrical about their industry, vigor, color and caginess — I am guessing that editors wouldn’t be pounding on my door to publish my feathery tale. I imagine it’s all in who you know.

~~ * ~~

My Fine Feathered Friend is what we in the business call an easy read. If it sells well, it becomes another farmyard animal of note: a cash cow. It’s printed in large type on classy wheat-colored paper, complete with little chicken drawings. It runs $15 for 85 pages which works out to 17.6 cents a page. But for such a wee little tome, it’s a hotbed of misinformation.

His mother’s scratch is, as he reports, a mix of milo, corn, and oats. But you don’t give scratch to chickens for all three meals. If it’s a hen, you give it laying mash — not so it’ll get laid (roosters not necessary), but so it will produce eggs. For chickens, scratch is like candy. They go nuts for it. To dole it out with every meal would be like your giving your kid Hostess Twinkies for breakfast, lunch, and supper.

Grimes tells us that before the mid-19th Century, chickens in America were primarily for fighting, and stuffing pillows, not for eating. This is a cockamamie story. A look at any historical account of life in Colonial America would easily disabuse him of that notion. If the pilgrims were eating turkey with Indians in the 17th Century, at the same time they were certainly roasting, frying, fricasseeing, boiling and baking chicken.

He says there was a general chicken mania in the country, starting in 1845. This is so, and many breeds — what we chickenheads call the fancy — were imported at that time, including the Cochin from China.

They were enormous, and their egg-laying ability astounded the British, he tells us. I can report on the size of Cochins from personal experience. Many years ago, before I got nabbed by the chicken police, I had two fine black-and-white barred Cochins. Cochins do look to be huge. I gave one of them to my good friend Elmo who, one day, drunk and disorderly, murdered my baby, defeathered her, and consumed her entire, the creep. He reported that she was nothing but skin and bone: Scrawniest little bastard I ever ate, he complained. I was not amused.

Grimes tells us that Ulisse Aldrovandi, a 16th Century Italian scholar and chicken fancier, described Asian chickens ‘clothed with hair like that of a black cat . . .’ He speaks of them with awe, as if they had somehow disappeared from the face of the earth. The breed is known as Silkies. They are a much-beloved, if especially stupid, member of the fancy. I have several of them that I have smuggled into my backyard. They’re covered with what appears to be hair. They also have black skin under their fluffy fur suits, and a jewel on the front of their little bone heads instead of a comb. They are a sight to behold.

~~ * ~~

Grimes’ book ends sweetly and sadly. Chicken disappears one day while he’s off sneaking into some restaurant: that’s his job, apparently . . . to eat with a bag on his head (at least that’s what we gather from the photograph on the back flap). His hen never returned.

Grimes wrote an obit in the Times — Old Ochs must be turning over in his grave — and tells us that the disappearance is still a mystery. He and his wife go through the Kübler-Ross stages: denial, bargaining, anger, etc. Since there was no mound of feathers left behind, he suspected kidnapping or worse — a result, perhaps, of the bird being the most photographed, most talked-about chicken of our time.

It may be simpler than that. A chicken’s worst enemies, after humans (we eat 2.5 billion of them a year) are coyotes, foxes, skunks, raccoons, ‘possums, raptors, and dogs. I doubt there are many coyotes, foxes, skunks, ‘possums and raccoons in Astoria — at least of the furry variety — but there are dogs of all descriptions.

One day I was sitting at the window of my garden, admiring my Cochin who was standing there, poised between steps, appearing just like a baby dinosaur (they are those creatures’ last surviving kin on earth). A stray German Shepherd jumped into the yard, grabbed Bigfoot (that was her name) and, in an instant, snapped her neck. He then jumped the fence taking his supper, my baby, in his mouth, leaving howling me behind. There were no feathers, not even blood; only me in a brown study with the memory of my fine feathery friend, who had done no harm to anyone, who had regularly presented me with a new fresh baby for breakfast every day of the week.

By-the-bye, if you are interested in real chicken lit, there’s a new book out from Lyons Press called Living with Chickens. It’s by Jay Rossier. It contains everything you could ever need to know about raising chickens, even in the big city. — L. W. Milam

* * * * *

My Brilliant Career

T.E. Lawrence wrote:

Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.

Unaccountably, T.E. did not include my own category, those who sleep at night, and then go to work by day and get plenty of sleep there as well. I find that taking catnaps four or five times a day helps to keep me in the pink, and the ivy-covered halls of academe, with their windy faculty meetings and frequent seminars, have long provided an ideal venue for this practice.

I first understood that I was well suited to the academic life back in college when I attended my first academic seminar. It was a veritable epiphany: the room was warm, a speaker at the front was doing the equivalent of counting sheep for me, and then the lights went out for the first slide; I settled back comfortably in my chair, and knew no more until the lights came back on after the last slide. I realized then that I had discovered a true calling, like Paul on the road to Damascus.

My career of sleeping through seminars continued in graduate school. One time, I was seated next to the Associate Director of our institute, a tough-talking biochemist who was reputed to have mob connections. Everyone referred to him as Big Al.

Realizing that I was seated in a sensitive location, I fought to retain consciousness as the speaker droned on and on, and actually made it to the third slide before I retired to never-never land, slumping sideways at the same time so as to use Big Al for a pillow. When the seminar ended I awoke, refreshed as always, and looked blinkingly around. Turning to my left, I made eye contact with Big Al, who was fixing me in a stare that would freeze helium. Ya feel bedduh now? he growled.

Fortunately, Big Al was not on my Ph.D. thesis committee, and in due course I earned that key of entry into the academic world. It has been a long and rewarding career since then. Several years ago, I underwent a medical procedure on one eye. I was told I must sleep sitting up for ten days or so. No problem. I had already had thirty-five years of practice.

Beginning grad students regularly marvel at the ability of us veterans to spend an entire seminar, qualifying exam, or thesis defense in the arms of Morpheus, and then rouse at the end to ask a seemingly relevant question. Little do they suspect that this ability is the secret, the kernel, the very Zen of the professorial vocation. I have practiced this form of Zen, which is also known as Cheyne-Stokes breathing, at innumerable seminars and conferences all over the civilized world. My long career, which might appear arduous from a superficial viewpoint, has actually been extraordinarily restful.

~~ * ~~

Reviewing this career, I cannot help but be reminded of that old New Yorker cartoon in the form of a recruiting poster: Join the Cat Navy and get to sleep in ports all over the world. Could this be the reason for my lifelong feeling of kinship with the feline community?

As things have worked out, I no longer enjoy the services of a full-time cat at my home. However, I