Friday, December 29, 2006

"The Complete Sixth and Seventh Seasons"

With the arrival of "Columbo - The Complete Sixth and Seventh Seasons" the DVD release of the original Columbo shows is complete. I'm glad they're here and like with all the previous seasons' releases I've bought them as soon as they were in the store. However, as with all the previous seasons' collections I'm equally dissappointed with the overall quality of the productions that Universal has put forward.

First off let me say that the picture quality of the DVDs is alright. They're clean and precise but that's not where my problems lie. For such a seminal show with a great cast of faded stars and up and comers and some of the best writers and directors in the history of tv, there's just nothing going on here but a straight presentation of the shows and some episodes of the utterly atrocious "Mrs. Columbo" with the nascent Cpt. Janeway, Kate Mulgrew.

Alright, I admit it. I've been spoiled by DVDs including documentaries and great commentaries. I've been spoiled by the inclusions of outtakes, screen tests and all sorts of video goodies. So what if I've been spoiled, I don't think it's too much to ask for a little something extra.

William Link's still alive. Does he refuse to talk about his most famous creation? I've heard enough interviews with Peter Falk to know he won't stop talking about the show. Would it have been so hard to get something on film? I wonder what Patrick McGoohan has to say about his involvement in the show as actor and director. what about Bruce Kirby or Dennis Dugan? What of the rest of the surviving cast of regulars?

Don't get me wrong, if you have any liking for "Columbo" pick up the DVD sets. You can't go wrong if you want to have something you can put on and always get a kick out of watching. Falk's like something crazed Italian leprechaun in most episodes and there was a real effort to create an array of villains from the detestable (ex. Jack Cassidy always, Louis Jordan) to the sympathetic (ex. Ruth Gordon and Donald Pleasance) and nifty plots and clues. So buy them and watch them and once in awhile imagine how much more Universal could've given us to waste away some more of our lives' with.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

"Polyphemus" - Michael Shea

 "Polyphemus" is a 1987 collection of horror shorts by Michael Shea. I guess he's better known for his Nift the Lean books (which I have still to read), but he does a have a fine little batch of other stuff to his credit.

This past October, comedian Patton Oswalt listed a favorite horror story each day of the month. I found out about it from Stevie D. and was pleased to discover he had a love for the real foundational authors of the genre (Machen, Lovecraft, James, etc.) as well as good modern ones. One of the stories he listed was "The Autopsy" by Michael Shea in the above named collection. I found it cheap on Amazon and had it within days.

The story was fun and bloody. It involves aliens, Appalachian mines and lots of gore. It's the higlight of a book of equally fun and bloody delights. It's the sort of stuff you used to be able to find each year in the late and terribly lamented Karl Edward Wagner's Year's Best Horror antholgies or still find in Stephen Jones' Best New Horror antholgies.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

"The Thousandfold Thought" - R. Scott Bakker

 "The Thousandfold Thought" is the concluding volume of R. Scott Bakker's "The Prince of Nothing" trilogy.   The Holy War called in the first volume is tempered by blood and fire and arrives at its destination.  Numerous plots and machinations reach fruition and tens of thousands die.   The book is nothing if not vast in its intentions.

Bakker has serious things going on.  He has undertaken an intriguing study of all the things I described in the previous entry. This is good stuff.

The Prince of Nothing has the epic scale of Tolkien and the viciouness of Glen Cook. Bakker has created something worth the investment of time. When I see the shelves of crappy D&D franchise books and know that kids buying them aren't reading Bakker, Cook or P.C. Hodgell (more on her some other time) or a stack of other talented writers I feel woozy. It's just depressing.

The Warrior Prophet - R. Scott Bakker

"The Warrior Prophet" is the sequel to "The Darkness That Comes Before" and left me gasping for breath.   Sure there are a few talky sections where Bakker's status as a philosophy PhD candidate shines through but they're worth working through.   His characters possess complex and believable psychologies and act based on them.   They don't act like plot puppets you might find in a Terry Brooks' story.

Alongside the conversations are huge battles, assassinations and overwhelming displays of magic power.   These are described in often beautiful prose and with a sense of true potency.   One school of wizards have to summon the likenesses of great dragon heads in order to bathe their opponents with flames.  There is an ancient evil disguised as a small black bird with a pale human face.   The feeling for a world of empires built atop the bones of long lost greater empires equals Tolkien's portrayal of that abyss of time and back story.   Bakker has created some spectacular examples of genre writing.
The book is a fascinating exploration of faith, tradition, reason and power set in an original but still recognizable fantasy setting.   Without aping the psuedo-North European tropes of too much fantasy Bakker still manages to work his story into a tapestry with clear elements of the Crusades, Byzantium and the Arabic Caliphate as threads.   The resultant world feels both original and familiar.

"The Warrior Prophet" follows the Holy War called in "The Darkness That Comes Before" as it lumbers south towards the Holy City of Shimeh.   Numerous forces, all with different agendas, most in conflict with everyone else's, begin taking over events and turning the Holy War into something no one predicts.

Bakker is an intriguing new writer and if you have any interest in what epic fantasy has the potential to be then you really need to check these books out.

Friday, December 15, 2006

"The Darkness That Comes Before" - R. Scott Bakker

"The Darkness That Comes Before" is the first volume of a mere three volume fantasy trilogy by Canadian R. Scott Bakker. I discovered its existence during my recent hunt for non-crappy and non-standard fantasy books (see the earlier post on "Shaman's Crossing"). I read a few very cool interviews with Bakker and his defense of epic Tolkien level plotting and traditional fantasy so I decided to give the man's books a shot.
This is definitely one of the best and more original fantasy books I've encountered in some time. The world is more Mediterranean and Middle Eastern in its appearance than European. There is a tremendous feel for the world's history, cultures and languages. There are also no kitchen boys who are really heirs to some throne or brave sword maidens or even witty dwarves. There are wizards who are all considered heretics, there are truly horrific barbarians, devout religious men who range from humbly so to fanatically so. There are conniving emperors and plotting hierophants. The whores don't have hearts of gold and some men are simply cowards.
I don't really want to give any plot away. There's ancient evil as well as present day venality. A crusade is called to recapture long lost holy lands from the heretics and secret monastic orders re-enter the world for goals that are inscrutable.
This is a series that I look forward to finishing with tremendous relish. I keep getting the Games of Thrones stuff pushed at me and I'll probably go at it at one point, but I can't help it, it doesn't look like it holds anything to this in originality or overall originality.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

"Shaman's Crossing" - Robin Hobb

"Shaman's Crossing" is the first of a stack of new fantasy books I picked up in hope of finding something that didn't stink. While I don't agree with Michael Moorcock on a whole lot of stuff, like him and "new wierd" writers such as China Mieville, I don't have any use for the vast quanity of fantasy being produced these days. I don't want another boring piece of crap with woodsy elves, taciturn dwarves and chaotic orcs dancing across a medieval fairy land. I don't want princesses and druids and witty bards. I want something that hasn't been done to death and indicates at least the barest hint of imagination.

Robin Hobb wrote for years under the name Megan Lindholm (her real name's Margaret Astrid Lindholm Ogden) with moderate success. Unfortunately at some point she either felt the need or was pushed to restart her career under a new name. Ahh, the vagaries of the book writin' business.

"Shaman's Crossing" is an interesting take on fantasy. There's none of the usual Tolkienesque northern Europe tropes with lordly elves and dour dwarves. Neither is there any of the deliberate oddness of the New Weird with its echoes of Clark Ashton Smith and Jack Vance.
Instead, there's a sort of American frontier motif being worked. A wounded and weakened kingdom at an appproximately 19th century level of technology is expanding into steppe region sparsely populated by nomadic barbarians. There's old, pagan magic as well as strange alien magic practiced by beings that live beyond the edges of the barbarians' lands.
Set in this world is a conflict between the new elevated battle nobles and the old gentry. The book concerns the adolescence and early schooling of one a battle noble's second son who by tradition is bound to enter the army. Along the way he becomes an inadvertent player in a greater war between his people and the strange magic rising beyond the plains barbarians.
I've never read any of Hobb's books before and I'm not sure her earlier stuff looks that appealing ("Assassin's Apprentice"), but this book was blast of freshness among the stinky waste that is modern fantasy. I like elves and dwarves, but dang, here's proof that there's a lot more going on out there.

Monday, October 16, 2006

"World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War" and "The Zombie Survival Guide" by Max Brooks

I received "World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War" and its predecessor "The Zombie Survival Guide" by Max Brooks (son of Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft)as belated birthday presents recently. The former is an oral history in the models of Studs Terkel's numerous books and Sir General John Hackett's "The Third World War" and the latter is a straight up guide on how to survive the zombie apocalypse.

"World War Z" is a blast. Through a series of interviews with a cast of character ranging from Chinese public health officials to con men, politicians and soldiers, Brooks creates a vivid picture of the emergence, spread and onslaught of zombies on the entire world. His logic of how a virus based zombie apocalypse would spread is ingenious and actually logical. The depiction of how governments would respond is also evilly logical and something I found cold enough to be believable.

"The Zombie Survival Guide" on the other hand is a bit of a bust. It's too dry and too long to really be any fun. There is a section at the end detailing zombie outbreaks over the last four millenia that's fun but it's not enough to salvage the rest of the book's tedium.

"Wizardry & Wild Romance" - Michael Moorcock

I just received and read "Wizardry & Wild Romance" by Michael Moorcock. I have a decent little collection of non-fiction books about fantasy and swords & sorcery literature so I assumed anything by Mooorcock would be a welcome addition. As a young man he revolutionized the field with the creation of the brooding heroes Elric of Melnibone, Corum of the Silver Hand and Dorian Hawkmoon. As editor of New Worlds he also helped revolutionize the entire field of science fiction and fantasy. I guess I wasn't wrong but I was disappointed.

What purports to be a reasonable survey and critique of the field of fantasy fiction is instead the ultra-cranky rantings of a bitter old man. It's not that his attacks on Tolkien, Lewis and several other writers of the old guard are totally off base but they often seem over the top to no real effect.

If there's any hint of conventional morality, un-skeptical characters or actual heroism, Moorcock seems automatically down on a book. There's a place for his rejection of tradition in fantasy but of course tradition shouldn't be rejected just because it doesn't mesh with someone's modern beliefs.

It's an interesting overview by an important writer but it's not essential. It's a shame.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

"Velocity" - Dean R. Koontz

So I succumbed and bought "Velocity" the other day. I'd been checking it out since its initial publication last year because of its cool seeming setup. A seemingly mild mannered and disinterested with life bartender leaves work one evening to find a note under his car's windshieldwiper. It lets him know that if he involves the police a elderly woman involved in charity work will be murdered and if he doesn't a pretty, young school teacher will be killed. Things only intensify from there.

I tend to avoid Dean Koontz because my few interactions with him in the past have been amiable. He tends to zoom right up at you with a terrific concept, being you along at break neck pace and then crap all over you with a short and curt ending. I hoped things would be different. Alack, alas, they were not.

Look, he's a gifted writer of sharp prose and ideas at times. The main character is revealed slowly and with precision and it's great. Unfortunately the end is tossed off in a couple of pages. If you can get it cheap or from the library, give it it a shot. He reads super (super) fast. If you're faced with having to pay full cover, hold off. If you're lucky you might find a remaindered hardcover.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Five Years On

So it's five years later, it still sucks and we're all gonna die and everything's changed. Forget the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, forget the mistakes and calumnies of the Bush adminstration and the childish statements of the Democratic candidates. Forget that Bush was didn't pay attention to Islamic terrorism for the eight months he was in office or that Clinton, Bush pere and Reagan didn't do all that much over the preceeding 20 years even while hundreds of Americans were murdered by Hezbollah, Libya and Al Quaeda. Forget the right wing wingnuts and left wing moonbats. Forget all the crap that makes you and me partisans for whatever side we prefer to be on (but let's admit we are where we are by choice and not reasoned argument). Forget all the peripheral crap that we give voice to on a daily basis and remember what happened.

Remember that almost three thousand people were murdered by a handful of men driven by a deep rage and religious zealousness. Remember that we are faced with an homicidal enemy driven by non-negotiable positions and a hatred of the West and the Jews that is boundless and unappeasable. We are indeed in the midst of a clash of civilizations and we need to figure out what to do because we clearly haven't.

When four planes were hijacked on a beautiful late summer morning the US had only done one thing truly wrong. We hadn't taken the murderous hatred of the facet of Islam represented by Al Quaeda seriously. For that failure thousands died.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

"The Shadow of the Torturer" - Gene Wolfe

After years of dillydallying I've just finished the first volume of Gene Wolfe's "Urth of the New Sun" tetraology. I remember trying to read it back when it came out in 1980 but found it too stylized for my adolescent taste. Now, however, I get to wear big boy pants and I can read adult books. And this time I liked it a whole bunch and breezed through it in a few days.

"The Shadow of the Torturer" is the first volume of the recollections of journeyman torturer Severian as he travels the environs of a earth so deep in the future that the sun is turning red, food and resources are scarce, and glaciers are moving north from the south pole.

Much of the atmosphere of Wolfe's book is derived from Clark Ashton Smith's tales of a red sunned Earth (his, unfortunately unavailable, Zothique stories) and Jack Vance's Dying Earth" stories and novels. Both series portray an incredibly ancient Earth with little real knowledge of the past and presents deeply immobilized by ritual and that lack of historical understanding.

There is a clear parting of ways, though, after Wolfe's Urth is created. Smith and Vance's stories are both arch, cynical and tend to be peopled entirely by rogues and mountebanks. Wolfe is going for something else and I'm not quite sure what it is yet.

Severian presents himself as someone possessing a perfect memory as he begins his memoirs but also someone capable of lying. He is also writing with the advantage of hindsight but appears unwilling to reveal too much before he deems it appropriate.

Severian is a journeyman of the torturers' guild who is exiled to become a small town headsman after he sneaks a knife into a noble woman being tortured to death. The first volume details Severian's adventures and the insights he makes as he begins his trip to his new home. There are traveling players, duels with poisonous flowers and secret notes and lost religious artifacts.

Wolfe's prose is dense at times and demands close reading to maintain a piture of what's occurring at a given time. It's also beautiful at times and combined with his general inventiveness provides a heady, often drunk inducing vision of a world slowly, and with juggernaut like implacablity, winding down to its absolute end. Can't wait to finish the second volume, "The Claw of the Concilliator".

Saturday, September 09, 2006

"Three Days to Never" - Tim Powers

"Three Days to Never" is Tim Powers' lastest book and as usual portrays a supernatural world underlying our mundane one. This time we meet Albert Einstein, Charlie Chaplin, Mossad agents and a collection of disturbing conspirators.

Powers' last few books ("Declare", "Earthquake Weather" and "Expiration Date") dealt with huge canvases; The fate of the West, Noah's flood, the Second World War. This time he confines his action to a handful of people, several of them family, and few locations in California. "Three Days to Never" is more akin in feel to one of Powers' compatriot James Blaylock's California books ("Winter Tides", "Rainy Season", etc.). It's not a bad thing but it did take me a few pages (or more) to change my perspective of what I guess I've come to expect from his books.

There's time travel, stolen concrete footprints, cryptic videos and remote viewing. All is presented in a matter of fact way and seems utterly reasonable as explained by Powers. That's one of his strongest talents. Whereas Blaylock, Leiber and Bradbury present their stories like dreams, Powers gives us the seemingly plausible mechanics behind all the missing and oddball bits of history and makes them real. Like in most of his books, he takes real, though unexplainable or unclear, true historic events and personages and builds a dizzying story around them.
It is a little confusing this time around. I remember the first time I heard about Powers was a review of "The Anubis Gates" in "Whispers" back in 1984. The critic liked the book but felt it was too complicated at times and often not easy to follow. He was content to go along for the ride but he did caution to reader.
So I didn't seek the book out. Then a friend lent it to me and I was hooked. What satisfied me particularly was that it was really complicated. It's a great book that's held up to several re-readings but never that complicated.
With "Three Days to Never" Powers finally got me. There are several moments that left me shaking my head and turning back the pages for re-reads. It's the time travel, the crazy shifts of perspective and alien things that haven't been explained yet. But it's also, I hate to say, Powers' writing. It's not as sharp as it needs to be and that's disappointing.
In the end, though, seek out the book. Aside from Powers' usual display of ingenuity and plotting razzle dazzle there is a sometimes touching examination of father-daughter love of several different varieties. Often Powers' characters have to bear the salvation of humanity on their shoulders. This time the scope's much more manageable and intimate.

Comics, comics and more comics

So a few months ago I was exposed to the joys of download whole decades long series of comics via bit torrents. Yee ha!!!!

I found all (ALL) the Batman and Detective Comics from issues 1 up till June 2006. Utterly amazing. I could never find or afford these sorts of collections and they simply aren't available.

Along the way I discovered Jeph Loeb's Batman books. Written as direct sequels to Miller and Mazzuchelli's "Batman: Year One","The Long Halloween", "Dark Victory" and "Catwoman:When In Rome" are great, fan boy friendly books. They play with all the tropes of the character and his rogues gallery in fun and intriguing ways. Very fun.

I also read "Astro City" which I ultimately enjoyed most of, "Arkham Asylum" which I most assuredly liked none of, and a few other things of varying quality. Loeb's Superman books are pretty decent but his Daredevil and Spiderman books were so-so.

I never really read superhero comics as a kid. I pretty much stuck to DC's horror (I got most of them) and war comics (working on "Our Fighting Forces") which weren't episodic and it didn't matter if I missed an issue or two. When I did get around to reading them in high school the prices spiked and I sort gave up on them.

Over the past decade or two when I did look at what was coming out I was pretty much left cold. I can't help it but I want my heroes to be heroes and not miserable psychopaths. Rereading "Watchmen" leaves me cold (aside from all its lack of originality {which I ain't going into again}).

So now I'm pillaging the past and tracking down the handful of things worth reading now. Heck, the animated Justic League is head and shoulders above pretty much any superhero book I've seen in the past decade. Oh, well, and so it goes.

Monday, August 28, 2006

"Life With Father" - Clarence Day

"Life With Father" is the basis for the classic William Powell (to whom we should all genuflect towards as a paradigm of martini drinking class) movie about the eponymous Father and his family in 1880's Manhattan. The book is a collection of New Yorker pieces written by Clarence Day about his father, also named Clarence, describing events from childhood to adulthood.
Father is a successful Wall Street broker and more than set in his ways. He was a man who would try to force the world to move concert with the tunes he demanded be played and more often than not succeed. Between his sons who he often saw as undisciplined and his wife who he saw as occassionally frivolous, Father found himself having to move the world, or at least his immediate environs, off its normal axis more than a few times.
There's a companion book called "Life With Mother" that I have read yet but I look forward to doing so at some point.

"The Nasty Bits" - Anthony Bourdain

Anthony Bourdain is the chef de cuisine at a French restaurant in Manhattan who achieved a degree of notoriety a few years back with a tell all autobiography of his life as a journeyman chef in New York called "Kitchen Confidential". "The Nasty Bits" is a collection of essays and articles he's written over the past several years things from dining in Vietnam to how a Central American and Mexican cooks are the real engines behind even the most upscale American restaurants and it's a great thing.
Bourdain is an ex-junkie and is clearly a food and adrenaline freak now. He writes in a sharp, profanity laced style that makes you want to try exotic ingredients and visit strange locales. He also provides numerous descriptions of how a kitchen works and how professional cooks operate. I admit to being enthralled by even simply adequate descriptions of competent people working at their crafts and trades. Bourdain is much better than merely adequate.
He had a show on the Food Network that was cancelled for not being downmarket enough. Now he's on the Travel Channel and was recently caught in Beirut during the war's outbreak.

"Strange Places" - Mike Mignola

"Hellboy: Strange Places" is the latest collection of recent Hellboy comics and after the hit or miss nature of the BPRD books is a great addition. "Strange Places" lets the reading public in on where Hellboy went after leaving the too warm embrace of the BPRD (Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense) at the end of "Conqueror Worm." Great book but only if you've read all the rest.

Friday, July 28, 2006

"A Year in Van Nuys" - Sandra Tsing Loh

Tsing Loh is a very funny writer and radio personality from southern California. I first heard her years ago on Market Place on public radio and was hooked. She writes very scathingly about the ridiculousness of much of modern mores, particularly the sort of elite snobbishness that tries to portray itself as simply an enlightened attitude towards parenting, social standing, education and the like.
The book is her take on the year surrounding her effort to break her writer's block and develop a tv pilot from a concept of hers. The insanity and inanity of dealing with the tv industry has been covered before but she has a degree of snarkiness and sheer unbelief that she's really being allowed to help steer the creation of a pilot that makes it seem fresh.
Along the way she also comments on her daily struggles with a musician husband who's forced to travel much of the time and a very successful and often overbearing older sister. Very funny stuff even if some of it feels like it's been done before.

Friday, June 16, 2006

"The Book of the Dead" - Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

"The Book of the Dead" is Preston and Child's concluding book in their Pendergast Trilogy and their seventh book about the eccentric FBI agent Aloysius Pendergast. They bring to a superbly ludicrous climax Pendergast's struggle with his insane younger brother, Diogenes. Also, all the major players from the earlier volumes are brought on stage and even all the minor ones seem to resurface for cameos.

Preston and Child are marvelous creators of fun, modern pulp writing. Specifically shudderpulp. While there's super science and secret martial arts and impenetrable disguises, there's nothing supernatural despite it always being suspected. Everything's mechanical in the end and it's always goofy fun seeing how they manufacture rationales for the events in the books.

Fun stuff and worth checking out. Note - They may look like big books (and there are 7 of them) but they read super fast.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

"Mary Poppins Opens the Door" - P L Travers

"Mary Poppins Opens the Door" is the third book in PL Travers' surreal series about the tough, magical nanny and London's Banks family. Travers' books are, as is often the case, are much richer things than the Disney movie. Shamefully, the movie is such a powerful icon Travers' books seem almost unknown.

She was born in Australia in 1899 and lived until 1996. She was a poet, author, student of mystic Gurdjieff and comparative myths and religion. She knew Yeats and Eliot. All these things clearly influence the stories she told about Mary Poppins and are missing from the Julie Andrews' movie.

All the books so far (I've read 3 of 5) follow the same basic pattern. Mary appears mysteriously, corrals the Banks children into order and brings them on strange trips and adventures which she later makes no indication of having any knowledge of. Then she leaves as strangely as she arrived. The following book then opens with the Banks' household having fallen into disarray after Mary's disappearance which is promptly set aright by her return.

Mary is tough, opinionated (and always right), strong willed and smart. Everywhere she goes she is treated with great deference and respect. She most assuredly does not break into song and Bert does not speak in Dick Van Dyke's atrocious Cockney accent.

Check them out. All except the last one (Mary Poppins in Cherry Tree Lane and Mary Poppins and the House Next Door) are readily available.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Cheap Trick

In addition to Heart, I've been listening to a lot of surf music and Cheap Trick lately. They really are the great missing link between great power pop, proto-punk, and arena ready music. Their lyrics are off kilter and slightly subversive and they combine great musicianship with tight song writing and a great theatrical presentation; two oddballs with two blow-dried pretty boys.

From 1977's "Cheap Trick" through 1983's "Next Position Please" they released 8 dang near perfect albums. From the unfiltered roar of their debut, to the almost too clean "In Color" and "Heaven Tonight", followed by the utterly triumphant "At Budokan", the insane maxed out production of "Dream Police" and "All Shook Up" and finally the slow return to earth and hints of being mere humans with "One on One" and finally "Next Position Please", they just cranked out some of the most inspired and often goofy music of my youth.

After that they had some big and crappy hits (ie - "The Flame") and put out a bunch of unlistenable albums. They finally returned to form in 1997 with another "Cheap Trick" and a series of shows that culminated with their 25th anniversary (with a mega show in their hometown of Rockford, Illinois recorded as the album "Silver").

A fun band with more great albums than most other bands I can think of and great showmen. I wish there was a place for their sort of music in this day and age of crappy hip hop and sludge metal and awful American Idol style pop but there doesn't seem to be anymore.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Calvin and Hobbes

I actually sat down (or laid down in bed more often) and re-read all of Bill Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes" compilations for the first time in a fair while. It's a little much to read ten years worth of a daily strip in a go but it was interesting and ultimately a bunch of fun.

Sure you get to see a a couple of gags get recycled and played around with a bunch of times of the strip's daily run but it only proves tiresome once in a while. But as way of recompense there's lots of dinosaurs, space aliens and insane sleigh rides.

Along the way you can clearly see the strip's evolution both graphically and writing wise. Over time the artwork becomes more refined (in the best sense) and more expansive. When Watterson gained the upperhand with the syndicate and papers he was able to draw his Sunday strips in great big panels and he let loose like a latter day George Herriman.

The stories become less gags and Dennis the Menace on steroids and take on a more surreal tone as well as direct commentaries on modern life. The strips ridiculing much of modern art and literary academia are priceless.

"Calvin and Hobbes" is often place in a triumvarate of daily strips that marked the last great age of daily comics. The other two were "Bloom County" and "The Farside". Try rereading "Bloom County" and I dare you not to be somewhat ashamed you loved as much as you think you did. I know I am. It's also hideously dated and I'm less willing to cut its deliberate "Doonesbury" stylistic ripoff much slack. "The Farside" still holds up as extremely funny (though I've read enough Kliban books to see some strong similarities), but it's pretty much a miss in the graphics department.

Rereading Watterson's collections reminds me how much I miss his daily bit of humor in my paper, particularly in a time when "Boondocks" is held up as some sort of work of brilliance and "Cathy" and "Garfield" still haunt us. Last year they released a great big collection of all the "Calvin and Hobbes" strips and I sort of want to get them. Till I take the monetarily stupid plunge I'll hold on to my time and use worn collections. Besides, with title like "Homicidal Psycho Jungle Cat" and "Scientific Progress Goes "Boink"" I don't really want to give up those individual books.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

"The Jungle Book" - Rudyard Kipling

Forget singing bears and monkeys and think monkeys being eaten by snakes and limping man-eating tigers and sniveling jackals. Think brave little mongooses, brave horses and noble white seals. That's the reality of Kipling's "The Jungle Book" and not Phil Harris and Louie Prima. The real Shere Khan's nowhere near as silkily evil as George Sanders.

"The Jungle Book" is really a collection of short stories; 3 about Mowgli, the boy raised by wolves and 4 others about the lives and opinions of other animals, most notably Rikki Tikki Tavi the Mongoose. For all the anthropomorphization inherent in talking animals these creatures live in the real world where nature's "red in tooth and claw." There is death, both justified and simply as a matter of fact in the daily course of nature. Some of the tales are also interesting insights into life during the Raj.

The stories are exciting and beautifully told. Kipling has too often been dismissed as just a stooge for imperialism but here's a place where that arguement won't even come up. If you only know the story from the Disney movie do your self a favor and read the originals. They're true children's stories from a time when children weren't just spoon fed self congratulatory crap.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Led Zeppelin - DVD

In the early part of this new century Jimmy Page collected and sorted through tons of official and bootleg live footage of Zeppelin stretching from the early days to their last shows in London in 1979. He was even forced to recreate obsolete playback equipment so he could transfer some of the bootleg material. The resulting two DVD set was simply called Led Zeppelin.

It's an amazing collection showing the band evolve over ten or eleven years from a great little hard blues band into a staggering juggernaut. Robert Plant goes from being this almost gawky kid of 20 into a swaggering "blond god of phallic rock" as he once dismissed himself. Jimmy Page starts as an assured session man and ends as an hypnotic, heroin emaciated guitar playing icon. John Paul Jones always look above everything and John Bonham really does come across as pretty much nuts.

Most of the hits are here as well as great album cuts like "Misty Mountain Hop" and "Nobody's Fault But Mine". There are some over the top bits like way too long versions of "Dazed and Confused" but the final footage come from their 1979 Kenbworth show in England and has "Achilles Last Stand" followed by "In the Evening", "Kashmir" and and great version of "Whole Lotta Love" (a song I don't particularly like). I haven't seen such a monstrous and perfect live performance as in that sequence ever. Dang.

The DVD was released in conjunction with How the West Was Won, a three CD set creating an "entire" concert out of various pieces of two West Coast shows from their 1972 tour. That means you only get songs up to "Houses of the Holy" but who cares? The version of "Stairway to Heaven" is the best I know and "Going to California" and "The Ocean" are outright beautiful.

In these days of crappy pop music Zep's a band to wash out all the bad tastes with. There really wasn't anything else like them and there sure isn't these days.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Violent World of Parker - Richard Stark

Starting in the early sixties crime writer Donald Westlake, using the pen name Richard Stark, created the character of Parker. He's a cold, utterly ammoral thief who does whatever is needed to pull off his heists and deal with the people around him. If it includes murder or kidnapping, so be it. The books were written in a terse, taut style and are brutal and violent.

I finally read the first two (there are 16 original books from the sixties and seventies and a further seven from the past decade or so), "The Hunter" and "The Man With the Getaway Face" and was blown away. I'm on my way to read the third, "The Outfit" as soon as a I finish this. I've never really read anything quite like them before and am looking forward to reading the seven I've got.

These books are models of economy. They're short (about 150 pages each) and tight. The move swiftly and violently and no matter how bad Parker is, which is pretty awful, you want him to succeed. I'm not giving away any of the plots so you can be fully surprised when you open them for the first time. Truly amazing books.

Their biggest problem is that they are hard to come by. The early ones were reprinted but only the first six or so. They can be purchased through ABE or Amazon but they aren't cheap. I just got the third and sixth ones for 15 bucks apiece and am looking to spend even more for some of the later volumes. If you can find them in a used book store grab them when you can because they are absolutely worth it.

Note: "The Hunter" has been filmed twice in the past forty years. Firt as "Point Blank" by John Boorman starring Lee Marvin and the second time by Brian Helgeland with Mel Gibson as "Payback". Both movies have their decent points, particularly "Point Blank". It's a great sixties artifact merging new wave film/storytelling techniques with real hardboiled American style. Lee Marvin is great, though far too warm and fuzzy to really be Parker.
"Payback" stays closer to Stark's novel and is much more brutal and ammoral in tone. Gibson, though, apparently forced cuts to make his character less outright evil and more approachable. There are even moments of outright humor that just don't feel right. Still, they get the opening scene dead right from the book and it's striking.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

"The Da Vinci Code" - Dan Brown

So as some sort of penance before Easter I decided to read this amazing book. When done I was struck by the similarity between it and something a retarded monkey might have done stuck in front of a typewriter.

First off, it's fundamentally anti-Christian and specifically anti-Catholic. I can handle that. My faith is not dependant on someone elses. However, if you're going to write a thriller you claim is based on true historical theories and events you should actually do so.

His theory that the holy grail (and I'm not really giving anything away. His great secrets are pretty much disgorged in the first few chapters. In fact they're portrayed as things everyone already knows) is really the bloodline of the descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene are based on deliberate frauds that only conspiracy theorists maintain are valid. Brown holds up the Priory of Sion as an ancient secret society bent on protecting the true grail when it was founded by several French conmen in the forties.

He claims that the Templars worshipped an androgynous fertility deity called Baphomet (which seems to simply have been a French corruption of Mahomet) when it was just one of the charges brought against them to destroy them. And it goes on. There are dozens of little errors and bunches of big ones. I want to track down all the reviewers who mention Brown's tremendous historical research and smack them. Can't they spend ten minutes on Google to at least get a glimpse of the nonsense he's claiming historical verity for?

Finally, the book simply stinks. If all his goofy theories were true "The Da Vinci Code" would still count as one of the absolute worst pieces of crap I've ever read. I like junky pulp thrillers. They're a great way to turn off the brain and take a quick thrill ride. Not here. There's little real suspense despite every chapter ending with a cliffhanger and there are no real characters. Everyone exists to spout exposition and make claims that don't bear up to the light of day.

Heck, he even claims radicals bear the epithet leftist because the feminine (and therefore outcast) things were characterized as being left (sinister). No. No. That came from the Estates General during the French Revolution where radicals sat on the left and royalists on the right. If something so basic and elementary is wrong what else is?

Am I taking this all too seriously? Probably, but I couldn't help it. It's so miserably bad a book I couldn't help myself from ranting.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Sam Peckinpah Westerns Collection

Sam Peckinpah made some pretty awful movies, particularly in the last days of his career, and he made some pretty pedestrian ones, but he also made some amazing and beautiful ones that stand up to the dross being spewed out of the studios today.

This collection (reasonably priced at Best Buy for about $43), includes "Ride the High Country", "The Wild Bunch", "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" and "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid". They're all sad, melancholy looks at men's loyalty to each other, the prices we pay to discard that loyalty and place of violence amongst men.

The only one with any sort of real notoriety is "The Wild Bunch" which was groundbreakingly violent for its time and turned him into an international sensation with the ability to make a few more movies as he saw fit. With a cast of old stars (Robert Ryan and William Holden) and the cream grizzled character actors (Ernest Borgnine, Edmond O'Brien, Warren Oates, LQ Jones, and Strother Martin) Peckinpah assaults viewers with deep betrayal, casual as well as epic violence and serious questions about living with dignity. The movie, set along the US/Mexican border during the Mexican Revolution, is epic in scope and brutality. Even to this day its violent finale goes pretty unmatched.

"Ride the High Country" is very much a traditional western with none of the graphic violence Peckinpah started using in "The Wild Bunch". Instead it looks at a pair of tough, old men who've lived past the end of the West that let them become notable. It stars Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea, both of whom had been notable Western stars for decades. Both came out of semi-retirement to make this movie as a clear meditation on age and the end of the frontier. Supposedly both felt it served as a fitting cap to illustrious careers and a fitting commentary on the Western as a genre. Scott fully retired and McCrea only made a few minor appearances aftewards.

"Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" is fascinating and works similar ground to "The Wild Bunch". Sherrif Garrett (James Coburn) is forced to track down his friend, Billy Bonney (Kris Kristofferson) as the increasingly settled and civilized Lincoln, New Mexico can't stand for his outlaw behavior any more. It's a slow moving film that was butchered by the studios and has been restored from Peckinpah's notes and original cuts. There are some amazing sequences (Slim Picken's and Katy Jurado's short appearances as a sherrif and his wife is one of the most moving things I've seen in any movie lately) but it does suffer from a slackness at times that is disappointing. Bob Dylan appears as one of Billy's men and he composed a great country folk score.

The last movie included is "The Ballad of Cable Hogue". It stars Jason Robards, Stella Stevens and David Warner and has none of the violence people (and the studio) expected from Peckinpah in the wake of "The Wild Bunch". Again, Peckinpah presents us with a movie about age, obsolescence and revenge. This time it's done on a small scale with sweetness and a gentle touch.

If you have any interest in Westerns or just like downright great movies you could do much worse than buy this collection. There are three great films and one pretty dang good one.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


I'm slowly reading "The House of the Seven Gables". Slowly because, as usual, I'm detouring through the papers and magazines bought each day and the early issues of "Hellboy." Of the latter, if you haven't read it or just seen the movie, check 'em out. I'm unsure if Mignola's a better artist or writer but it's surely a close call. Beautiful and smartly put together. The first story's a bit weak but things only get insanely better right away.

Also, I've been reading in bits and pieces David Thomson's"Biographical Dictionary of Film" and Phillip Lopate's "American Movie Critics: From the Silents Until Now"

Monday, April 03, 2006

Borders' Cowardice

The corporation that owns Borders and Waldenbooks has decided not to carry the upcoming issue of the Council for Secular Humanism's magazine "Free Inquiry" because it will contain 4 of the Danish cartoons about Mohammed. Their mealy mouthed statement about it reads "We absolutely respect our customers’ right to choose what they wish to read and buy and we support the First Amendment,” Bingham said. “And we absolutely support the rights of Free Inquiry to publish the cartoons. We’ve just chosen not to carry this particular issue in our stores"

Originally I was going to try and write something nuanced and at least a little respectful of Border's parent corporation for siding strictly on the side of its employees' safety. The heck with that.

Seems they have a series of ads claiming they've never met a banned author they didn't like. I guess that only matters when it offends the non-violent majority. The minute some group offer violence as the solution to material it finds offensive they crumble. You can't use fighting censorship as a marketing ploy and then not expect at least some of your customers not call you to task for skimping on it over an issue that's incredibly important. Imagine the indignant laughter if Catholics asked Borders not to carry "The Da Vinci Code" or liberals didn't want anything by Anne Coulter stocked?

This isn't a question of anti-Islamic sentiments but of moral cowardice in the face of threatened violence. This isn't a question of blaspemy as there's no hard and fast Islamic law about depictions of Mohammed, but about a refusal to brook any sort of criticism. They were even carried in an Egyptian paper without any problems. This inability to face criticism (and for the record, many of the cartoons were actually attacks on the soliciting editor for staging what was seen as simply a stunt) when it's being heaped on me and my values all the time is disheartening.

This is a manufactured crisis that demands to be able to be examined objectively. Cowering in fear is not the way. If respect for different traditions is demanded I expect it to be accorded to my traditions as well. I don't see that happening any time soon so I guess I'll just go about my way which includes free speech, a free press and the ability to display satire without fear for my life. I also expect firms that make their money off those values to actually abide by them and stand up for them.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Peter Jackson

So I just watched "King Kong" and was surprised how unbloated it felt for such a bloated movie. There are some truly amazing action sequences, some really creepy bits and some downright beautiful bits. None of it looks anymore real than the claymation/minatures of the original, despite the cgi, in fact because of the crystalline clarity of the cgi, but I'm not sure that wasn't the intention. All in all, a fun, albeit long, movie.

It also made me go back and start watching the Lord of the Rings movies. As a fanboy of longstanding (my dad gave me the books to read when I was nine or ten and I've read them every few years since then) I have huge problems with the liberties taken with the texts and tremendous redirection of motivations by Jackson and company. I still love the movies. There well done, well crafted and perfect visualizations of Middle Earth (via Alan Lee's illustrations).

I'm bothered, though, with something I only started thinking about lately. Aragorn, as portrayed in the books, is utterly heroic and nigh flawless. He's was a warrior of renown under many names for almost a century before the story's opening and he's hardened to battle and loss. He's been bred to the throne he claims and has no doubts about his right or fitness to take it upon Sauron's defeat. He knows his destiny in his bones and isn't scared of it.
As characterized by Jackson he's less sure and somewhat reluctant. He tells Elrond he doesn't want to be the one wielding the power of Isildur's sword and what it represents. He displays doubts throughout the series and less than surety of his destiny.
We seem to have entered a time where any display of heroism bereft of doubt is seen as unrealistic or unbelievable. I've read enough history to know that's a simplistic few of the condition and in a work of heroic fantasy I find the suspicion it's treated with disappointing.
Maybe Jackson only changed Aragorn (and the Rohirrim and Gandalf and Elrond) because he felt the introduction of uncertainty and doubt provided more dramatic tension but I suspect not. Boromir provides that element as does the struggle between Gandalf and Denethor in Minas Tirith. I think that Jackson succumbed to the easy cynicism of the age that is trouble by clearcut displays of heroism and needs to cut it with moody introspection.
Still, the movies do work on their own terms and Jackson's the master of large scale mayhem and special effects. He's able to work with a large cast of characters, keep them straight and maintain enough dramatic tension to keep views absorbed for over three hours at a clip ('cause you know I'm watching the fanboy friendly extra long director's cut DVDs).

Monday, March 27, 2006

Weekend Marches

So illegal immigration is finally going to take center stage in American politics. I predict this will be a bloody (perhaps literally) battle with no easy resolution and with hard battle lines emerging quickly.

I don't know what will happen next. The problem is that the illegals in and of themselves are simply hard working folks trying to make things better for themselves and their families. For the most part they keep to themselves, and just go about working like dogs. In response, most native Americans don't pay much attention to them except when they need the lawn mowed or a table bussed.

So why do they exist in such huge numbers? We're told that they're simply doing the jobs Americans won't but we still want done. The reality is that business simply won't pay wages that really reflect the work being done and the rest of us don't want to have to pay for the wages with higher costs of products and services. The vast influx of low skilled low wage laborers lets industry keep salaries low and thus discourage native born Americans from taking those jobs. Americans always did crappy jobs in the past because they could make a living off them. Illegals can survive because they're simply more willing to put up with crap conditions and wages because it's still more money than they made back home.

On the other hand, Mexico does nothing to discourage illegal immigration and in fact attacks any efforts on America's part to limit the exodus because it's a pressure release. If Mexico actually had to address the problems of its government, economy, and corruption, Mexican might be able to stay home and make decent livings in their own homeland and not have to risk border crossings and deportation once in the US.

So where does that leave the US? Mass deportations are logistically impossible, callous beyond all belief and would destroy families where some members are legal residents or full citizens. Simple amnesty is something the vast majority of Americans opposed. I'm not sure we're ready to pay a couple of dollars for an orange.

On the other hand, half a million people waving Mexican flags and demanding the nation cease all efforts to curb illegal immigration will just make things worse. I know the image makes it easier to harden my own heart. What it does to the real red-meat illegal crowds I can only imagine.

"Billy Budd" - Herman Melville

What an odd and moving little story this is. "Billy Budd" is about a merchant sailor impressed into service on the HMS Bellipotent during the Wars of the French Revolution. He is described as being so beautiful he would be able to pose for a statue of Adam prior to the Fall and the sort of man to whom all other men willingly turn their attention and devotion. He is so good natured he bears no ill will towards the naval vessel's officers when he's forced off his comfortable merchant ship and forced into his new service.

For reasons specifically unknown (though what they might be are discussed at length by the narrator), the Master at Arms of the ship decides to destroy young Billy. Over the space of a few pages their conflict comes to a head and is resolved. The intensity and suddeness of that resolution is downright disturbing.

The followup to that conflict takes up the greatest portion of the tale and that's where Melville's greatest questions are put to the reader. I don't want to go into much detail about them because I want you to go read the story if you haven't. It's one of those books you always hear called a classic but don't know of anyone who's actually read the thing.

I will say that the questions involve duty and order in opposition to mercy and benevolence. As a younger man I would have sided with the latter but in my aged state (heh) I find myself on the side of the former and authority. It's an interesting observation I'm able to make of myself and not one I can see myself always being satisfied with.

Monday, March 20, 2006

"V for Vendetta" - the Wachowskis

So I went to see the movie this past Sunday. I have to admit that the comic I dismissed the other week is actually a paradigm of subtlety and nuance compared to this hunk of filmic crap. There are flashes of special effects brilliance and the mask is great, but the movie's a pile of waste matter.

For the unaware, "V for Vendetta" is about a Guy Fawkes masked bomb thrower and the waif he rescues from rape and death at the hands of the secret police taking on the government and social apparatus of a near future post-war fascist England. The original comic was Alan Moore's cry of rage against Thatcher. The movie is a limp cry of dopeyness against Bush and Blair. Moore had the temerity to examine his posited world as it was beset by real war and chaos. The Wachowski's set their version in a world of smoke, mirrors and fake villains.

I know people don't believe me when I say lefty anti-American stuff doesn't bother me if done well, but that's the truth. Whatever. Moore has the sense to allow his dictator possess real awareness of the weight of his horrific actions in the service of national order.
The movie's villain is called ADAM SUTLER (hint hint) and has a Hitler part in his hair. And he's played by John Hurt, once of the exquisitely brutal and moving "1984." That's the depth of subtley for the entire movie.

The extent of it's radicalism is that blacks, liberals, gays and Muslims weren't bad people and they shouldn't have been exterminated. The movie provides no rationale for why or how that could've happened or how a fundamentalist version of the Church of England reemerged in secular England. At least Moore portrayed this happening in the wake of famine, plague, flooding and war.

Some of the reviews hold up the canard that the it demands you decide for yourself if V is a hero or a terrorist. I'm not sure if they're dumb or blind. There's no question that V's a freedom fighter and everyone arrayed against him is utterly evil. Again, not a problem if done well. It wasn't.

As also wrote earlier, Moore kept his name from appearing on the movie. I wish I had heeded that warning and avoided it myself.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

"Dennis the Menace 1951-52" - Hank Ketcham

Continuing the trend of beautifully rendered collections of old daily strips, Fantagraphics has started treating us to the original "Dennis the Menaces". I grew up reading the strip in the paper and some early collections my dad had bought but I hadn't seen the earliest ones from 1951. They are simply great and very funny.
Don't let memories of the somewhat neutered and very formulaic strip from recent memory or even the old Jay North tv show deter you from checking out this book. The early Dennis is truly a menace, driven by ego and sheer spite and malice much of the time. He's a definite precusor to Calvin and much more possessed of a willingness to wreak havoc on his surroundings.
Thank you Fantagraphics and thank you for volume 2 coming out next month.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

"The Death of Adam" - Marilynne Robinson

This collection of essays by the author of "Housekeeping" and the current "Gilead", contains defenses of Calvinism, several investigations into the reasons for the coarsening of society and support for evironmentalism as well as a history of the McGuffey Readers. They are densely written and sharply argued and even where I disagree with her she makes me believe there's some underlying validity to her points.
She is politically liberal (in the sense of defending the weak and comforting the poor and infirm) and unabashedly Christian (and not some weak willed apologetic one). Her faith and Calvinist theology are the explicit subject of most of the book and the rationale for the rest.
If you're not religious I still suggest checking out the book. Her historical analysis of Calvinism and Puritanism is fascinating. By actually reading the works of those two strains of theology she does much to dispel the picture of them as dark, brooding things lingering over New England. Instead they were liberating as well as responsible for instilling a deep sense of personal accountability into their adherents' actions. The very fact that they were the wellsprings of town meeting based government and abolitionism makes me think she's more right than much of the history I've learned.
So pick it up. It's just returned to print and is readily available.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Moore's Vendetta

Decent length article in the the Sunday NY Times about Moore and his relationship to Hollywood and the movies (none) made of his books. Lloyd sounds disappointed with the whole thing but Moore's perception of the studio's attitude towards him and his work made him leave DC yet again, though seemingly for good this time.

The Vendetta Behind 'V for Vendetta'

Thursday, March 09, 2006

"V for Vendetta" - Alan Moore and David Lloyd

So I dug out my old copy of this comic in preparation for the impending Wachowski Brothers' movie. Rereading it reminded how little respect I have for Alan Moore and how bad that movie's going to be.

For those not in the know, "V for Vendetta" details the exploits of a Guy Fawkes masked vigilante wreaking havoc across a post-nuke holocaust fascist England. In the days after the war the England's nazis came out from under their beds and began rounding up the blacks, Pakistanis, gays and leftists and put them in concentration camps. In some camps horrible experiments were undertaken and one of the victims escaped and is now seeking his personal as well as societal revenge.

There's more stuff - a rescued teen girl taught about freedom, a cop who feels deep guilt over what England's become and various fascist functionaries. Unfortunately it's undercut by the childish politics undelying the book that might as well have been written with crayons on looseleaf paper.

I'm not annoyed with the political sympathies of the books (even though they're not mine), but with their facileness. There might have been a lot to be said about Margaret Thatcher but she sure was no nazi. We're told the main thing people should've done before the war was prevent the deployment of missles in England (a big issue in the early 80's and one that's been shown to have been a big element in the collapse of the Soviet Union). A country that laughed at Oswald Mosley and his British Union of Fascists in the thirties is depicted as a nation just waiting to slip on the nazi bridle when things get hard.
There's just lots of trite crap. When the cop rhapsodizes about the his love of the varied skin colors of the murdered blacks and Asians and the long lost gay pride parades I dare you not to laugh. Comics ain't always subtle, in fact their lack of subtlety's often one of their selling points to me, but criminey this book's dopey.

Simply taking on the cloak of politics doesn't mean you've got the brains or talent to make anything interesting out of it and "V's" the proof. I have lots of problems with "Watchmen" but it's a vast improvement over this overblown piece of subpar agitprop (yeah, think about that prospect for a moment).

Beyond all that stuff the book's just dull. Too much psychobabble claptrap between V and Evey and nothing happening that's attention holding. The art's sort of crappy and the story's blah. When I finished it I put in on the growing pile of stuff I'm planning to dump at a yard sale this spring.

Since Matrix II had lots of crappy bits and Matrix III is an utter laughable abomination I don't hold out much hope for "V for Vendetta" as movie. I'm really expecting a stinking pile of garbage.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Herman Melville

I actually dug out the Mastodon album because I'm reading Melville's "Billy Budd" right now. I figured what the heck, a little mood music can't hurt.

It's an odd little novella so far, replete with the humor I remember from "Moby Dick" (without doubt one of the funniest and awe inspiring things I've ever read) and the acute examination of our dark selves and what motivates us. More later.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Band: Mastondon Album: Leviathan

So I'm listening to this now. It's extreme metal with a little too much of the guttural vocals too common these days but it does rock pretty hard. So far the stand out track is "Seabeast." Pretty cool for a metal concept album about "Moby Dick."

Mastondon plays "Leviathan"

Saturday, March 04, 2006

John Bellairs' Lewis Barnavelt books

Something made me reread these decent childrens' fantasy books the other day. I remember loving them as a kid, liking them as a younger adult (younger than I am now)and now I just sort of like them.

The first is "The House With the Clock In Its Walls" and is followed closely by "The Figure in the Shadows" and "The Letter, the Witch and the Ring". There are several more and then there are the Johhny Dixon books and the Anthony Monday ones. I haven't read any of the second two series but I imagine they pretty similar to the Barnavelt books. Somehow, whether by accident or happenstance the hero gets caught up in dangerous supernatural situations. That's really about it.

There's great bits about Lewis and his worries as the geeky fat boy and his relationships with his friends but after the second books things get a little too samey.

But you know what? They're real short, you can read them pretty quickly and they're not that bad. Just don't read them all at once.

I also found this cool site about Bellairs and his books. Very well done with some great pictures. John Bellairs Site

Thursday, March 02, 2006

New York Public Library - Digital Library

NYPL Digital Library

Go here and do a search on Staten Island. You can waste your time and look at the other boroughs, but why? You can also refine your searches for neighborhoods, churches, schools, whatever. Very worthy and very cool. Thanks NYPL.

Monday, February 27, 2006


My father grew up in Yonkers in the thirties and forties. As a kid he told me about something called the "Alexander Smith Carpet Factory." It was the largest carpet factory in the world and I think one of the largest factories period in the world.

His grandfather had worked there as a carpet designer in the late 19th and early 20th century. My dad said the company was miserable and a had a habit of letting people go a few years or so before they vested their pensions so they never had to pay them. I think it's what happened to my great-grandfather and I know it one of the many reasons my very white-collar, never unionized dad always supported legitimate labor unions.

He told me how the managers at his company would crow about keeping the unions in line only to be let go by the higher ups when they started costing too much. I guess that's my own stand. Sure there are too many examples of venal unions these days that don't really take the right stands for their members. But, imagine how much better life would be for all the white collar drones if they had some sort of organization standing up for them.

Which is all off track from where I was starting. So I drove to Yonkers yesterday with hopes of seeing the old factory complex. From what I could see on Google Earth it sure looked like something was still there. Several long blocks worth of something still there.

It's a fairly short ride, maybe an hour or so and from 9A you come right out on Palmer Road which takes you right to the backside of the factory.

It's not just one big building, which even though I knew beforehand that it wasn't, that's still the picture I had in my head. Some sort of nightmarish Upton Sinclair/Charles Dickens/William Blake soot-stained mill with towering smoke stacks.

Instead it's a series of huge but low building strung out for five or six blocks. Since a third of them have been occupied by various businesses and the city is trying to attract new tenants it's all pretty clean and polished. The windows are unbroken and there's a distinct lack of garbage and graffitti.

I was overwhelmed by the scale of the place. Even the old ship factories in Mariners Harbor (they built destroyers on Andros Ave.) pale in comparison. But I was disappointed at the tidiness of the whole thing. Oh, well.

“Floating Dragon” – Peter Straub

After a series of horror novels culminating with “Ghost Story”, Straub wrote “Shadowlands”, a more fantastical book about magic and illusion. After that worthy detour he pulled out all the stops and wrote what he has described as an over the top grand guignol horror story. There are old secrets, new secrets, melting bodies and terrifying Neanderthaloid twins. Blood and gore oozes from the pages and in the end half a small Connecticut suburb is depopulated. Is there much more to it than that though?

I guess. Straub wrote it partially in response to his own relocation to Connecticut with his family after a decade in England and Ireland. He was jarred by the forced and often excruciating openness as well as the almost oppressive pull to join in. One of the book’s main players is in just such a position and much of “Floating Dragon’s” early pages play on his unfamiliarity and discomfort.

The small town of Hampstead is brought to life with tremendous detail. We know about the cops and the stores and all manner of the town’s flotsam and jetsam of daily life. The point is that when things fall apart there’s a deeper understanding of the enormity of those events. As a child of the seventies I found his recreation of suburbia much like the memories I hold in my own head and I enjoyed that aspect of "Floating Dragon."

I like Straub’s writing and I liked the book but it just doesn’t do all that much other than exist between its two covers. I reread it because I read it when it first came out and had vague memories of being disappointed while still enjoying it. I wanted to look back and see how I felt about it now. The plot moves along, unfolding almost as you'd expect, though with a few tough twists, but it feels too mechanical. Too often it's spectacle for its own sake (which is ok by me) but there’s not much else going on.

“Ghost Story” and his other horror stories up till this seem suffused with their characters’ guilt over wrongs they’d done or failed to prevent. There’s deeper current running through them that at the least make the books feel more meaty. “Floating Dragon” is too mannered and precise to function as a splatter story and too over the top to really work as an unsettling story about the past and its crime returning to haunt the present.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

"Hearts in Atlantis" - Stephen King

“Hearts in Atlantis”, a series of linked short stories, is Stephen King’s study of the sixties. Two of the stories are clearly supernatural, one might be, and the other two are fairly naturalistic. How innocence dies and what it means to several characters and the nation at large is examined over a span of almost forty years.
The first story, “Low Men in Yellow Coats” is set in 1960 when a somewhat odd old man moves into the same apartment building with young Bobby Garfield and his bitter, widowed mother. Next to King’s usual well-written depictions of childhood crises (real ones, not just the ones we think important when still a child) there are clear links to his vast “Dark Tower” series and various fantastical doings. There are also first loves, family lies and sudden irrational violence. It is the most overtly supernatural story in the collection but it also sets up the world as Mysterious place. Strange connections and loyalties will be forged in childhood that will follow children into middle aged adulthood.
The second tale, “Hearts in Atlantis” is about the awakening of several students at University of Maine (including some from the first story) to the nature of the Vietnam War and birth of the counterculture. Some students are swept up in the coming social storms already sweeping America in 1966 and are carried off to parts unknown. Running through the story is the destructive effects of one dorm’s addiction to the game of hearts.
The third and fourth stories, “Blind Willie” and “Why We’re in Vietnam”, dissect the aftermath of the Vietnam War and psychic damage wrought on some of its participants. One veteran tries to atone for the sins he’s committed and another is haunted (perhaps literally) for the sins he failed to prevent. The naiveté and almost sweet innocence of the early sixties has been smothered with remorse and the need to do penance. Again, characters participating or mentioned in the earlier stories are woven into these ones. People who were minor characters become major, becoming fulcra for destiny changing events.
Realistically the connections between the characters are fantastical. Too many coincidences and improbable meetings across too many years happen to properly mimic reality. What they do, though, is cry out how much what we do impinges on our fellows, be it good, bad or merely unintended. Someone steals a baseball mitt at age eleven and it comes back several times over the ensuing decades to haunt different people. Another person, known in childhood, turns to radical politics and her image, real and imagined, travels across the years and the continent. No one escapes the consequences of his or her actions and no actions fail to have an effect beyond their original intentions.
The book is brought to a circle in the final story, "Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling," with the return of Bobby Garfield as man now in his fifties. For almost forty years he has borne the weight of his actions and friendships and at times they seemed ready to break him. He is brought back to
The Atlantis motif comes from a Donovan song and for King is the sweet and charmed sixties before the Vietnam War and the cultural revolution turned the country into some sort of madhouse. By the book’s end some characters come out and explicitly say that for a bright moment it looked liked the people, particularly the baby boomers, were ready to change the fundamental nature of the country for the better. King then reminds us that they failed, and became stockbrokers and speculators and self obsessed and Atlantis sank beneath the sea.
I’ve never looked back at the sixties (particularly as a seventies kid) with anything less than low-level contempt for the smelly hippies I see in the news clips. I remember a professor, who had been active the anti-war movement, telling me that the big protests stopped the minute the draft ended. I’ve also seen clips from the local paper where SI Community College kids talked about how they shouldn’t go to war because they were the nation’s future, unlike the working class kids getting drafted. For me, Altamont’s a better vision of the times than Woodstock. There was a lot more self preservation and interest than universal brotherhood than people like to admit to at times.
That being said, King does a good job at making a case for innocence lost and people making valid stands for real beliefs. By focusing on characters who are pretty straight or at least uninvolved in the shifts in society starting to occur, he shows the incremental steps, sometimes taken just to get close to a girl, sometimes taken for fairly noble reasons, that in the end bring them into the post-Atlantis America.

Next - "Floating Dragon" - Peter Straub

Friday, February 17, 2006

Cheney Got a Gun (and I'm the man who hates puns)

I'm still working on the "Hearts in Atlantis" review. I guess I'm stuck between giving away too much of the book and assuming everyone's familiar with the book. Oh, well, I'll figger it out.

Meanwhile, the Dick Cheney stuff is making me all mental and frothy. Sure they should've told people a little sooner. That they didn't doesn't make it any less NOT A BIG DEAL. The VP shot his buddy. Isn't that bad enough on its own?
There's a war going on, the Australian Wheat Board's been shown to have been involved with $20 million (and no, I don't know if that's in the less valuable Aussie dollars) of UN Oil-for-Food kickbacks, Iran's going nuclear, Hammas is taking over. You get my drift, right? I mean, what the heck is going on?
Also, I love that Cheney gave his only interview to Fox. First, cause I like Brit Hume, and secondly because who was he going to give it to, David Gregory at NBC?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Great Debate

Last night New York's public radio station, WNYC, sponsored a debate on was the American public deliberately misled about pre-war intelligence. Participating were ex-Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fl), David Korn, Washington editor of The Nation, Ann Wedgwood of various Pentagon advisory groups and Christopher Hitchens (yeehaa), columnist for Vanity Fair and the Atlantic.
It was a fascinating debate, less so for the content, which was great, than for the ability to observe the audience. It was held at the Center for Ethical Culture on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. It's pretty much in the heart of one of the country's wealthiest and most liberal neighborhoods.
Now I've been to townhall meetings with Mayor Giuliani in Bushwich and Washington Heights and I never saw any measure of real rudeness. Not so last night. It started slowly, but by the end of the evening there were cries of fascist and f-you aimed towards the two pro-war speakers (Wedgwood and Hitchens).
The event was being taped for a radio show. Presumably they'll beep the cursing but the general notion of audience disrespect will remain. I only saw this at Giuliani town halls from specific radically aligned people bent on disrupting the assembly. Last night there were all sorts of folks contributing to the catcalling.
When I left I overheard one matron complaing that the pro-war speakers were condescending. My girlfreind simply said, quite politely, more or less, "So was the audience".
The debate itself was pretty good and valid points were made all around. I still don't think we were lied to but I do think poor interpretations of information were made. But listen for yourself. You can hear it next Wednesday online at 10am EST on

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Stephen King - "Cell"

Every couple of years I find a Stephen King book I haven’t read and that gets decent reviews, I read it and then blow through a couple of other books of his I haven't read yet. Last time it was "The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon". This time it's "Cell". Overall the experience was worthwhile and it did trigger me to start reading more unread King books. I'll talk about "Cell" a bit later, but first I want to ramble about King.
The first Stephen King book I read was “The Shining”. I remember hearing radio ads for it on WPLJ with actors depicting the scene where Danny reminds the demented Jack about dumping the boiler. I think I got a paperback from my Aunt Karen. It was the silver covered one with the little faceless depiction of Danny. When I re-read "The Shining" a few years ago I was struck by the economy of the thing. There's no single wasted word and no single bit of fat.
I really latched onto him in high school after friends told me to check out "'Salems Lot". I read it freshman year and can remember being freaked out. Particularly when I was listening to Black Sabbath with headphones on and came to the end of "Children of the Grave" when Barlow was driving out Father Callahan. Spooked me silly.
I quickly plowed through "Night Shift" and "Danse Macabre". Stories like “Gray Matter” and “Night Shift” were great. They reminded me of Lovecraft in a more readable idiom. “Danse” was my first foray into reading non-fiction about horror and the genre’s history. I presently have a decent shelf worth of such books but his was the first.
Then I hit "The Stand". That's the one my friends really told me to read. I was primarily a science fiction and fantasy reader up until then so the fact that it was a post apocalypse story got me geared up. I dug into in eagerly. The beginning was cool (I still have images of the making a way through the car clogged tunnel under the Hudson River in my head). Flagg has the makings of a great villain and Trashcan Man is a ball (I planned to write blast, but dang do I hate puns). All sorts of fun stuff.
Half way through I stopped. I couldn't bear it anymore. The book wouldn't end. There was way too much water treading and none of King's early books' tightness. I put it down and didn't try him again for a bit.
I read "Dead Zone" and revived my love for his work. Then I read "Firestarter" and lost hope again. I left him alone for some time after that. Nothing that came out looked particularly interesting. I remember reading "Pet Semetary" one night and being struck by how bloated it seemed for such a short book. It had a nifty concept, but too many words of no account.
Next came “Skeleton Crew”. Even though I’d long before read “The Mist” in Kirby McCauley’s “Dark Forces” anthology (truly one of the single greatest collections of horror stories – if you don’t own it, get it at once. Actually, I almost can’t believe you’d be reading this if you don’t already possess it. But then what do I know?) along with a few others of the book’s stories, I loved “Skeleton Crew”.
“Christine” and “It” held no appeal for me at all. The former sounded stupid and the latter looked liked it suffered from the worst case of Standitis imaginable. At some point I read "The Tommyknockers" on what must have only been a bet with myself. I remember seeing an interview with King a few years ago. He talked at length about his drinking and drugging and reflected that he had little memory of actually writing the book. If only as a reader I had the same sort of luxury. His novels really weren’t cutting it for me anymore.
Then came "Misery". I had sworn him off after “The Tommyknockers”, but a guy at work really recommended it. Peer pressure subject that I am and hoper against hope that King hadn’t written another piece of crap like “Pet Semetary” I checked it out. And I was blown away. Here was a Robert Bloch style non-supernatural horror story as well as an interesting critique of the writer’s relationship with readers. I was 22 and it struck me as mind-blowing. In retrospect it’s still pretty damned cool and creepy.
Later that year I somehow read “It”. It’s just way too long and it’s got some pretty crappy bits sprinkled way too liberally among the good stuff. Too often scenes feel repeated, but not for effect. Sure it’s scary (sometimes), but not enough to carry its vast weight.
I stayed away for 10 years until I got stuck on federal grand jury duty in 1999. I read “Carrie” simply to pass the hours and I remembered why I had liked King in the beginning and saw why he’d become a bestseller so quickly. I loved the style he told it in and I loved his teenage characters. And it was short. Pared down. Primal. Very cool.
Since I had time on my hands I decided to be daring. I decided to give “The Stand” another shot. Hey, it had been 18 years or so and the book had been revised. What could go wrong? Well…. So I only made it about half way before I cried “Uncle”. I couldn’t take it. I just couldn’t.
I didn’t read another Stephen King book until 2001. I read several reviews of “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” and was intrigued. More importantly, it was short. I’d seen “Needful Things” and “Insomnia” and just couldn’t imagine reading either one. How much could anyone really have to say about the devil making bad deals with the people of Castle Rock? But “The Girl” sounded interesting. Very interesting.
I went to my local used bookstore (Barrett Book Traders, Staten Island’s only one) and scrounged up a copy. I read it in a day or so and that was that. My tastes had matured enough that I didn’t always need gore and King was in control of his wordy bloat. For those who don’t know, it’s about a young girl lost in the woods and trying to survive. Her only lifeline is a small radio on which she listens to Tom Gordon playing ball. There’s much more of course but that’s enough.
I remember arguing with my friend’s wife of the time. She like it but thought the girl seemed far too grown and I didn’t. Or at least not so much that it ruined the book. I liked the book enough to defend it staunchly. I also liked it enough to pick up a battered old copy of Richard Adam’s “Shardik”. I can’t thank King enough for the recommendation.
From there I went on a spree. “The Dark Half”, “Insomnia”, “Bag of Bones”, all went down in rapid succession. The first two were simply great and the last has some of his best writing but is bogged down a bit by a not-that-spectacular ghost story. But, oh, the parts about a writer suffering from loss, writers block and the mechanics of keeping his career alive are at turns heartbreaking and fascinating.
At the end of that run I felt I’d come to terms with my immediate dismissal of his long books and sort of matured into a place where I could appreciate what he was doing in those books. I also didn’t need just thrillers and horror books anymore (but I do still love them) and neither did Stephen King (but he still writes them). The long, detailed characterizations he presented were there for a palpable reason, not just for King to luxuriate in his own writing.
I’m definitely on the side of the growing literary movement pushing for the reintroduction of plot to story telling. King’s been doing it all along but what’s always made his books work so well is his ear/eye for the details of real life. Just because he’s got monsters and goons in his books doesn’t mean they can be literary. In fact making them literary only makes them more resonant with the reader. I find the outrage
That was a couple of years ago so a few weeks ago I read his little mystery, “The Colorado Kid”. It’s well written and it’s incredibly ambiguous. Heck, that’s the purpose of the book. Some things aren’t meant to be known and others are simply unknowable. From the reviews on Amazon it’s clear a lot of folks hate it. I didn’t.
Which brings me to “Cell”. One day everyone using a cell phone or within close hearing range of one being used is hit by The Pulse. At first it drives them into homicidal rage and then over a few days changes them into something far, far different.
Our hero, Clayton Riddell, is stuck in Boston when the wheels fall off the world. Most of the book is about his journey to find his wife and son back home in Maine. Along the way he acquires traveling companions and gains insights into what’s going on. While there’s a hint of “The Stand”’s post apocalyptic setting and people finding their footing amidst society’s debris, there does seem to be something taking place. I don’t really want to go into it because it would give too much away and sitting a few days out from finishing “Cell” it’s the ambiguities he played with in “The Colorado Kid” that come back and they're best left unrevealed.
In my short review on the lamentable FightLikeApes forum I wrote that the characters seemed too familiar. There’s there the plucky teenage heroine and the geeky teenage genius as well as the avuncular old scholar. But it doesn’t matter. They seem appropriate to the book’s undertakings and Clay is interesting enough to serve as its focal point.
“Cell” is also bloody and messy in a way King hasn’t been in a while. It’s a short punchy book that gets to where it wants to go quickly. I know I said I’ve come to terms with his longer writing but I do appreciate a quick, bloody read once in a while.
So yeah, check it out of the library or pick it up at Barnes & Noble for 30% off the cover price. It’s gotten me set off on another King reading spree so just think of what it could do for you.
By the by, I’m almost done with “Hearts in Atlantis” and I’m planning to tackle “From a Buick 8” afterwards.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Is this worth it?

So I've decided, once again, to attempt to set up a blog. Is it going to be worth it? What purpose will it serve? I'm not sure. I do like that I'm posting short book reviews on the decrepit Fight Like Apes forums and now I'll have a better place to put them. But what else? Will there be any other purpose to this site? I don't know.