Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Map of Fog


I just got the copies of my zine Map of Fog back from the printer. I'm selling them for $2 each, shipping included. If you've got a zine or a chapbook and you send me a copy of it, I'll send you a copy of Map of Fog in trade.

Map of Fog is an attempt to show San Francisco from my perspective. It's got five non-fiction stories in it. One story is about a suicide's corpse I had to cover up while I worked at a fancy hotel in the Financial District. Another story describes a man going into a seizure on the subway, and the reactions of the people around him. There's an article about a few sites in my neighborhood, the Sunset--generally one of the most ignored and overlooked parts of the city. There's an interview with a friend of mine who got stabbed three times, which put him in the emergency room with a collapsed lung, a sliced eye, and nerve damage in his leg. And there's the written result of me eating a half-eighth of psychedelic mushrooms and then sitting down at a computer to type about the experience.

Here's an excerpt from the suicide story:

It takes about fifteen seconds to get from the back of the ballroom to the front of the hotel, if you’re in a hurry. I must have had a hundred different thoughts during those fifteen seconds: what would the body look like?; would there be blood?; would I faint or throw up?; would we have enough equipment to be of use?; should I take advantage of the option Ron had granted me, so long ago, to refuse to be a part of the whole operation? While my mind raced, my body seemed to be shifting somehow, too. My heartbeat grew to fill my ears with heavy pulsing, so that all the sounds around me came piercing through a wash of dull noise. I could feel the wind against my face, as if the air had thickened and I was physically pushing my way through it. The world around me seemed to slow a little. I felt almost like I was walking under water.

The zine has 24 pages, 18 pictures, and more than 10,000 words. It'll probably give you about an hour's worth of reading time, depending on how fast you absorb text.

If you want a copy, you can order one by clicking the Paypal button below (PayPal charge is $3).





Saturday, November 1, 2008

YUM YUM I CAN'T WAIT TO DIE, by Sam Pink



I ordered a copy of YUM YUM I CAN'T WAIT TO DIE from the Jaguar Uprising Press back in July. Months went by, and I never heard anything about it or about the five bucks I paid for it through paypal. Then, after a period of self-imposed internet abstinence, I went to Sam Pink's blog and read that he'd printed up a limited number of copies of the chapbook on his own, and was mailing them free to anybody who'd email him their address. I emailed him my address, but I wasn't sure if I'd emailed in time to get a copy. Then I read on Bradley Sand's blog that TTB had posted a warning about ordering from the Jaguar Press Website. I went to TTB's blog and saw the post, which also recommended emailing him directly about Sam Pink's chapbook. So I emailed TTB. I still hadn't heard back from Sam Pink, and I figured he'd already sent out all of his copies and wouldn't have a copy to send to me. I asked TTB to send me a copy.

And then, on Halloween, I got two packages in the mail. One was from TTB, and the other (post-marked a week earlier) had no return address. My first thought was that the anonymous package held more hate mail from Fred Woodworth--maybe he was sending me another burned-out lightbulb or something--but when I tore it open, I found a copy of YUM YUM I CAN'T WAIT TO DIE inside. After months of doubting whether I'd ever get my hands on a single copy of YUM YUM I CAN'T WAIT TO DIE, I suddenly had two copies. I was excited.

Essentially, both versions are the same. The Jaguar Uprising Press version shows more human-effort in its construction--the cover is a glued-together construction-paper flag, and the binding is hand-stitched--but the Sam Pink copy is on higher quality paper, printed instead of photo-copied, and looks generally cleaner. I also noticed a few typos in the Jaguar Uprising version that had been corrected by the time Sam Pink printed his own.

Probably nobody really cares all that much about that stuff, though, anyways, so I'll limit the rest of this post to a review of the text--which is almost exactly the same in both versions.

DISCLAIMER: If you're the type of person who thinks that analytical reviews of literature somehow lessen the pleasure of reading, you might want to stop reading this review now. Also remember that this review merely reflects my own interpretations, and I don't really know shit about anything.

For anyone familiar with Sam Pink's blog, YUM YUM I CAN'T WAIT TO DIE is more of the same, but better. It's better because it feels more cohesive, more polished, more focused. The edge apparent in the writing on the blog is sharpened, honed like a razor.

For those not familiar with Sam Pink, this chapbook is an excellent introduction. Sam runs through the gamut of emotional tones common in his work, and explores a lot of his favorite themes. His writing, to me, feels like masterful satire. I say that because his writing seems inherently confrontational--it attacks things we hold in reverence--but it's generally handled in a light-hearted way, more of a "poking of fun" than a "scathing condemnation".

Oftentimes the attack incorporates juvenile humor, especially humor of the "toilet" variety:

Today I went out to a restaurant and got some coffee.
A girl walked by and went to the bathroom.
I could hear her peeing.
It turned me on and I felt weird about it--weird because I hardly knew her.
And getting turned on by someone urinating is a special thing--something that should be reserved for marriage.


And also, a lot of the time, the writing focuses on violent subject matter:

The next time we have sex I am going to rub my facial hair into your neck and chest until red lines form and then I'll connect the lines so they make a pretty picture and remember that I am only going to be alive for another thirty-fifty years and in the meantime I will change everything into something that retains the marks of my intervention.

In most cases, Sam hones in on something our culture considers sacred (in both of the above cases, I see the sacred object as "romantic intimacy"), and skewers it. What makes this skewering entertaining, is the generally affable (and if not always "affable", then rarely darker than "neutral") tone it's delivered in. We don't get the sense that the narrator is malicious, despite the often macabre actions he describes. We get the sense that the narrator is a nice guy, somehow, even when he is describing violent action. In the latter example above, we'd probably feel less attachment to the narrator if he used more aggressive language: The next time we FUCK I'm going to GRIND my STUBBLE into your neck and chest until red WELTS form...

But just when we're tempted to dismiss Sam's narrator as a nice, if somewhat troubled, guy, we get glimpses of a deeper, less dismissable pathos:

Sometimes I have to go to the bathroom or a private place when I am public so I can clench both of my fists and grind my teeth and kneel down and press my face against the ground until the energy goes away.

And that element of earnest pathos keeps the stakes higher in this world. It is the yin that balances the yang of Sam's humorous satire.

Speaking of yin yang, YUM YUM often drifts into a philisophical tone that reads like something from a taoist poetry book:

Wherever I stand the world feels my weight.
The world pushes back.
Wherever I stand the world holds its breath.
Because my hand is around its windpipe.
I am meditating on the idea of a cleaved earth.


But he balances that deep tone with silly absurdities:

Some people are such assholes that saying, "Look, again, I'm sorry I cut off my thumb and glued it to your baby's head because I thought you'd like him better as a unicorn" means nothing to them.

Hopefully my gratuitous inclusion of quotes is also helping you get an idea of the format of the book. This is no narrative, there is no plot. It's closer to an amalgamation of thoughts, and the writing reflects that by stripping down its delivery, leaving out excessive prose. Because of that stripped-down nature, YUM YUM feels very dense with ideas. I've read the book three times now, and I still find new gems each time I pick it up and flip to a random page. In fact, I think the nature of this chapbook encourages a more "dip in and out" approach--if you sit down and read it straight through you'll probably finish it in half an hour, but you won't be able to absorb a quarter of its brilliance. I wonder if the sparse print on each page is Sam's attempt to deal with this possibility--lessen the "words on the page" ratio to make people slow down, to increase the frequency of the pauses for page-flipping that the reader must take. When I first saw YUM YUM I thought it was just an example of un-economic layout (I'm a total cheapskate myself, and I'm about to publish a zine with an average word-to-page ratio of 400 to 1, while YUM YUM is probably closer to 100 to 1), but after spending time with the book, I'm beginning to realize that the openness of the text might be an example of form-following-function.

In the end, all of this analysis is peripheral to the point of the book for me, anyway. YUM YUM I CAN'T WAIT TO DIE is worth reading because it's compelling and disturbing and fun. If you're interested in getting a copy, try following the links at the start of this post, to TTB or Sam Pink's blog. Maybe they've got a few spares lying around. If you like it as much as I did, you might find yourself thinking about it and trying to understand why it works so well, which is what I've been doing for the bulk of this review. Chances are you'll be able to come up with better answers than me, but before you think you've got it all figured out, keep in mind these words from Sam Pink himself:

The message is always the same.
I am not trying to solve anything or help in any way.
The message is always the same.

JAR OF FOOLS, by Jason Lutes


Before reading Jason Lutes's Jar of Fools, I'd always thought of magicians as showy, desperate nerds... like Criss Angel. This book put magicians in a new light for me, a light shared by con men, cafe workers, and other down-and-outs, which is actually a pretty big step up in my mind. The principal magician-type dude in this story is Ernie, aka the Amazing Ernesto. He's a depressed alcoholic trying to cope with a broken heart--the heartbreaker being his ex-girlfriend Esther, a disgruntled, depressed cafe barrista. Ernie's also plenty messed up by what happened to his older brother, an escape artist who drowned during his last attempt (which is, depending on how you look at it, either a failed escape, or the most final and successful escape possible). Al Flosso, or Flosso the Magnificent (he's a magician too), serves as Ernie's main friend, but only when he manages to remember who Ernie is. The rest of the time Flosso dwells in geriatric senility; usually forgetfulness, but sometimes vivid memories that temporarily supplant reality. A homeless confidence man and his daughter round out the rest of the cast.

Jason Lutes says his work has been most influenced by European and French comics, and that's apparent on every page of Jar of Fools--this book is a lot closer to Tintin and Snowy than Batman and Robin. That means, among other things, you get more panels per page, and a generally slower pacing, than what you'd find in the typical superhero piece. And that's a good thing for this type of story. It gives little incidences the chance to sink in, to reach greater emotional depths than they would otherwise be able to reach. In conversations the reader gets to watch as a character hears something, thinks about it, and then responds; this opens up the idea that the characters are cognizant, capable of thought, aware of and affected by the world around them. On the bottom half of page 52, for example, you get seven panels, only three of which include dialogue. The other panels, the one's lacking words, provide dead-air, space that reveals the sense of disconnectedness provoked by what has been said.

The artwork itself, a meticulous blend of cartoon simplicity and surprising realism, is also more in line with European comics. The settings are lavishly detailed and very real looking when shown, but that's probably less than half the time (if an average page has 10 panels, maybe four will include background). The rest of the panels focus on the characters, which are often drawn in pretty simple terms, especially in the beginning of the comic. During moments of stress or high emotion, a character's face receives extra attention--frown lines, tendons standing out in the neck, bags under the eyes, etc.--which heighten the drama for the reader. Another technique used to this effect is the inclusion of character shading--in most panels a character's face shows no shadows whatsoever, but in especially poignant moments the shadow-work is elaborate. Usually this works pretty well, but sometimes it feels a little heavy-handed (page 40 panel 4, for example).

Despite the similarities with European comics, much of what Lutes draws is marked by novel little details that seem like they've been pulled straight from the real world: the way rainwater slides down the outside of a window (page 13 panel 10), the way light coming through a rain-wet window paints the figure of a person inside (page 30 panel 6), the way thick glasses refract and distort the image of the eyes behind them, the way creases run across the bulby end of a nose when the nose is wiped (page 139 panel 6). The art is chock full of these visual authenticities, which make the world Lutes draws a richer place. It shows that he's a talented observant, as well as a talented artist.

Despite Lutes's skill at translating visual aspects of the real world to his page, each page also reflects the artist's hand--you are very aware, throughout the book, that every image was drawn by a human being. Again and again Lutes chooses to draw multiple panels in which one character remains static, and you can see how the image inadvertently changes in tiny little ways despite the fact that the person is intended to be perceived as constant. Pass through at a normal reading pace and you might not note it, but if you pause and look, it reveals the meticulous dedication the artist had for his subject.

The plot differs from traditional American comics, too; if anything, it's bohemian. These are characters who are defined by their inability to succeed in conventional society--they are united by the fact that they can't successfully conform. That can be tricky to portray without resorting to, or stumbling up against, cliche, but Lutes does a good job of sidestepping the stereotypes. Each character feels fully fleshed out, actualized. Their responses to the world around them are consistent, and reveal a lot about who they are as individuals. Of course, Lutes doesn't pick the most varied group of people to work with--they're all white, they're all members of the underclass, they're all depressed or vulnerable in some way. The two who stand out most from these unifying characteristics are Al Flosso and Claire, the con man's kid. But even these two are largely defined by the same thing: their longing for lost relationships.

In the end, the solidity Lutes gives to his characters stands as both the greatest strength, and the most notable weakness, of the work. The characters compel us to follow them, to watch them, and to be interested in them; they drive the story. But the story is split amongst so many solid characters that Lutes feels compelled to wrangle closure for all of them in the final pages, and he doesn't manage to do it. The way he twists the plot to accommodate the entire cast feels contrived, and a bit disappointing when compared to the quality of the rest of the work.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

FURIES OF CALDERON, by Jim Butcher


Another book lent to me by a friend, with strong endorsement. I resisted it for the first 200 pages, somehow uncomfortable with a world in which every character (save one: the protagonist) possesses magic powers. I also had a bit of difficulty engaging with Butcher's prose; it felt a bit lifeless to me in the start. But by the time I got to the first major encounter, the first encounter to bring together all of the principle characters, I was hooked. I finished the last 250 pages in two days, devouring chapters ravenously, at times so wrapped up in my own mind's view of the events that I ceased to be aware of the actual world around me. It was almost like a hypnotic state, the story blooming within my mind so vividly that I saw specific images from the book more clearly than I saw the book itself, clutched before my blurring eyes. Every few dozen pages I'd snap out of my trance, and see the words on the page, so tiny that I had trouble reading them. And then I'd sink back into the story, completely unaware of the act of reading, which had seemed so strenuous just a moment before. I can't remember another reading experience like it.

I think that FURIES OF CALDERON serves as an excellent example of writing that garners its power from plot and character, more than from artistic use of language. There are 7 central characters, and each of them is vividly realized, especially in regards to their motivations. Butcher does such a good job of this that he is able to pit certain characters against other, to bring them into harrowing conflict with one another, and still have the reader sympathize with each and every one of them. It leads to an unusual mind-state for the reader, because the reader doesn't really feel disdain or contempt for any main character--the reader doesn't really want any of the characters to suffer--and yet the characters are attacking each other ruthlessly. Who do you root for in a situation like that?

Butcher is also good at writing battle, and physical struggle. When I read an R.A. Salvatore book a few weeks ago I remember feeling impressed by that author's handle of physical altercation. Butcher is just as good. He's got a rich imagination to pull from, and it yields a varied harvest, so that you never really feel like you're seeing an action repeated. Each sword thrust feels unique.

Butcher's imagination serves him well with his handling of magic, too. Furies--basically elemental spirits--are key to the world where this novel takes place. Individual furies bond with people--every civilized person except the protagonist has at least one fury--and give them powers relating to the element they represent. Water furies, for example, have powers relating to healing, to scrying (seeing and hearing things going on in a removed location), and perception of the emotional states of others. Furies can also manifest themselves in physical form, and therefore be used as attack animals of sorts. Also, a person's ability to interact with their fury is affected by the presence of the element--deprive a water-bonded person of liquid, and they can't call upon the powers of their fury. It's a concept with a satisfying sense of logic, and a lot of imaginative potential. At the same time, it seems to offer so much potential that it can be hard for Butcher to control the plot; the possibilities are so blown open that it's hard to introduce meaningful difficulty for the characters to strive against. Butcher deals with this problem in two main ways: by endowing certain furies with greater powers, so that certain people are more powerful than others; and by setting limitations on a character's ability to call upon his or her fury--summoning the fury is physically draining. Even with these controls, the power and capacity of the furies sometimes undermines the sense of tension needed to make the story compelling. In the climatic battle, for example, a principle character (Bernard) never really brings his power to bear. Butcher tries to make the battle compelling by making it seem desperate for the protagonist's side, but the reader is left feeling like the stakes aren't really as high as they seem to be, because Bernard's power isn't being used. Butcher tries to explain Bernard's lack of involvement by showing him as exhausted, but the level of exhaustion he suffers seems to come too quickly, and too conveniently, to feel believable (generally, though, physical exhaustion, injury and exertion, are another aspect that Butcher handles really well; he really makes it seem like the characters are going through excruciating physical tests in the course of the story, and that they are really being driven to call upon all of their internal fortitude and determination in order to continue).

After I finished this book, I did a little research on Jim Butcher. The most interesting thing about him, for me, is how hard he had to work to get his career as a fantasy writer going. This is a New York Times best-selling author, arguably the type of author who can command the most attention from the mainstream publishing industry, and yet he had to struggle for years to get his first book in print. In the end, after submitting his first novel far and wide for two years, and receiving nothing but rejections, Jim started studying the industry, and attending conventions, and trying to make personal connections with agents and publishers. Finally, he engaged an agent in a conversation, and she agreed to handle his book--even though she'd rejected it earlier when he sent it to her through the mail. That book went on to become a best-seller, and still he had to struggle to keep his career going. It boggles my mind how hard it is to get your shit published in this industry, and it blackens my mood to hear that so much of what results in you getting published has to do with schmoozing, instead of your actual writing.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

THE ROAD, by Cormac McCarthy


I started reading this book late one night, got through a dozen pages before going to bed. The next day I read while at work, and then after work I went to a park and kept reading, and that evening I finished it off. It's an easy book to get through in a day, partially because it's not very long (the version I had was 256 pages, but the font is big and it seems to be double spaced), but also because the writing is very stripped down and easy to take in. Quotation marks, commas, and other punctuation marks are almost nonexistent; descriptions are kept short and simple; the text doesn't dip into too many intangibles or abstract ideas, and when it does it makes little attempt to elucidate. It might take a reader a few pages to get accustomed to McCarthy's style, but if you can get through those first few pages you can get through the rest of the book without problems--McCarthy is as unchanging as stone.

Except for a few awkward and ridiculous 'literary' moments--the flashback scene where the man has his last conversation with his wife before she commits suicide, for example--McCarthy wields his words with unquestionable authority; there are no signs of faltering or a weak grip on the plot. He manages this, in my mind, through an iron-fisted dedication to just a few types of sentences. He never loses his authority because he never takes risks; every sentence McCarthy writes sounds like every other sentence he writes; there is no change in tone or approach; moments of tension result from what is happening in the plot, not from a different use of words. The good thing about this is that the reader feels confident in McCarthy as a storyteller, and is willing to give himself over to McCarthy's story. We have little cause, for the most part, to question why he is using the words he is using, and because we don't question we don't step out of the the world he is creating. (Another book that works in this way, which stands out in my mind, is POST OFFICE, by Bukowski.)

I think this concept is a good one to keep in mind for my own writing. I'm working on a novel now, and I end up struggling, sometimes, with decisions relating to how much information the reader needs in order to go along with the book. My novel is about a kid who joins a wrestling team, and it's often difficult for me to gauge how much the reader needs to know about the rules of wrestling in order to appreciate the story. That leads to moments where I'm trying to explain too much, which weakens the narrative flow, which pulls the reader out of the story. McCarthy's writing hardly ever has this problem because he hardly explains anything; his words are focused instead on describing action. With THE ROAD it becomes a little monotonous at times, because the actions are so limited in scope (searching for food, hiding, and not much else), but the story is short enough that the monotony doesn't have much time to develop. Maybe that's a rule I should apply to myself: when in doubt, err on the side of action instead of explanation.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

THE THOUSAND ORCS, by R.A. Salvatore


After my recent disappointment with the DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT, I felt tempted to give up on the Dungeons and Dragons world all together. But I still find myself primarily interested in adventure-oriented stories (after all those literary texts in college), and I can't forget how much I enjoyed reading fantasy novels when I was a kid. So the other day, killing time in Aardvark Books, I wandered over to the used paperback sci-fi and fantasy section, and came across THE THOUSAND ORCS, by R.A. Salvatore. I bought it, and read it, and liked it a lot better than the Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman novel I'd been so bored with this summer. (One quick aside: the Weis and Hickman novel was their first, while THE THOUSAND ORCS comes after Salvatore's been writing a book a year for more than a decade, so the comparison isn't really fair.)

One of the things that Salvatore does really well, and which Hickman and Weis didn't manage in their book, is maintain a sense of connection between all of the different scenes. I remember reading DRAGONS and feeling like it was just one thing after another without a logical progression, sort of like a series of unrelated events in random order. With Salvatore, the plot flows in a cohesive way. There are different groups in different areas doing different things, but they're doing those things during the same time span, in the same world, and their actions affect each other, their paths eventually cross.

Come to think of it, this technique of multiple inter-related story lines seems pretty common in page-turner novels. It's a format that lends itself to cliffhangers--one chapter brings a certain character to the brink of some important event, like a shocking discovery or potential disaster, and then the next chapter takes up with a different character, so you plow through that chapter to find out what happens to the first character in the following chapter. Cliffhangers make the pages turn.

Another thing Salvatore does well is action, especially battle. He's got a great imagination for sword fights, and huge skirmishes, and he makes each one compelling and unique.

But probably the most standout aspect of Salvatore's writing, what really seemed interesting and unique, was his handling of different races (in the fantasy context, race refers to dwarf, elf, halfling, human, etc.). Especially with dwarves. You get the sense of a distinct living beings, with a distinct culture and way of behaving, a distinct view of the world. There are individuals within that race--they're not all the same--but their individual personalities exist within a larger cultural context. This race-related sensibility allows Salvatore an angle that brings a lot of interest to his character interaction, especially because of the variety of races comprising the principle group. It's fascinating to watch how the characters form bonds outside of their own groups.

Despite all the good things about the book, I don't see a R.A. Salvatore binge in my near future. ORCS was a good fantasy book, and it reminded me of why the fantasy genre had captured my imagination as a kid, but I don't think I could sustain the same level of interest in another such novel right now. I get the feeling that they've got too much in common, that they're even pretty formulaic, to keep me interested forever. I guess that's true of most pulp, adventure-based books. I can't imagine myself subsisting on a diet of detective fiction alone, either.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

TRAVELS by Michael Crichton, and THE FRANK BOOK by Jim Woodring



There's a funny connection between two of the books I read most recently: THE FRANK BOOK and TRAVELS. On the surface they're quite different, and they're pretty distinct at a deeper level too, but both books share a fascination with perception and with the act of observing, especially with how these things relate to the mind. TRAVELS, which is a collection of writings about events in Michael Crichton's life, starts out focusing on the author's tourist trips to foreign locations, but the latter half of the book becomes increasingly concerned with the author's experiences with psychic phenomena, such as seeing auras and visiting the astral plane. FRANK chronicles the events of an anthropomorphic cartoon who lives in a bizarre, often hallucinogenic world, a world populated by only a few distinct individuals, each of whom possesses a dramatically different vision of the things around them. In TRAVELS Crichton discusses what he learns about himself by visiting exotic places--he has a frightening accident while scuba diving, he comes face to face with an elephant--he sees things and experiences things and they change his perception of himself. In FRANK the same 'change through experience' thing happens, but on a different level. We see the title character go through experiences--falling into a mystic, eye-ringed well; playing with a devil's toy--that physically change the shape and appearance of his head, and his mind within it. In TRAVELS the change is mental, and explicitly described; in FRANK the change is physical, and shown to us rather than told; but in both situations the characters radically change their heads because of defined experiences.

One thing worth noting about this is that TRAVELS, being autobiographic and word-based, is an author talking about himself, describing his experiences; while FRANK, being a fantastical comic, is an author drawing pictures of a fictional character that is 'other' than the author. In one book the author explains and tells, in the other the author shows. In one work the author's presence is blatant, un-ignorable, even to the point of irritation (Crichton often comes across as self-obsessed and neurotic, effete and intellectually-snobbish), in the other the author is rarely considered, but his presence, his preferences and what they reveal about his personality, can still be discerned if carefully watched for (if only in the preference he shows to certain characters, the way he makes the cards come up for them).

It's funny how similar themes can appear in such radically different forms.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Comics Smorgasbord

I've been reading more and more during the last few weeks. It's gotten to the point where I stay up late reading, and the first thing I want to do when I wake up the next morning is grab a book. I've even been late to a few appointments because of this, and I've been putting off writing, and I've been sitting indoors a lot more than normal. I think it springs from boredom and some dissatisfaction with my life, and a desire to escape. Sort of like a substance abuser, with books as the substance.

Yesterday I wanted to get out into the city, to visit some places I used to frequent, and do some people watching. Sort of an attempt to get me outside and away from books. So I jumped on the downtown train right after work, planning on getting off on Powell. Instead I got off at Civic Center, wandered over to the Main Branch of the San Francisco Public Library, and checked out ten graphic novels.

In some ways, graphic novels are like a more potent "escapist" substance. They're easier to engage with than prose form writing, because of the pictures, and they're shorter than novels--jump into a new story a finish it in less than an hour. Instead of taking a day off from the vice, I was going on a bender.

The first comic I read was A MAN CALLED KEV, by Garth Ennis. I read it standing in the aisles, before I even got to the check out desks. Ennis's PREACHER series was one of the best of the VERTIGO line, I think. KEV has a lot of similar aspects to it, including extreme violence and crude humor, but it's missing a lot of what made PREACHER great. First of all, the topic is more mundane. PREACHER had all kinds of religious and metaphysical wierdness going on, with a Texas Tough Guy angle, and an old Western feel. KEV is just a black comedy, with lots of gore, about a retired S.A.S agent with incompetent enemies. PREACHER had its share of crude humor too, but it also had some poignancy to it, especially in its portrayal of the friendship between Custer and Cassidy. KEV is noticeably lacking in anything poignant, its just blood and sex jokes.

After finishing A MAN CALLED KEV, and shoving it back on the shelf, I went to the check out with the other ten books, and then got out on the street. It's kind of ironic that San Francisco's Civic Center, with so many of its grand structures (like the library and City Hall), is surrounded by some of the sleaziest streets in the downtown area. I left the library, with its natural light and clean-lined architecture, and its massive selection of books, and the first thing I saw on the street was a young pimp-wannabe trying to hit on some fat hooker while she threw her trash out into the street.

From there I went on up Market, and then took a right on Powell. Smack in the middle of one of San Francisco's tourist epicenter. While I walked up Powell I crossed in front of Rasputin music, which brought to mind COMETBUS 51, a stellar issue giving a history of some of the local Bay Area businesses, such as Rasputin. Apparently, the guy who started the business is a real wacko.

Up at Union Square I took a seat and cracked open DUNGEON, by Joann Sfar. I'd seen it around in a few places before, but never picked it up. On the back cover there's a blurb saying the series has been a "best seller in several countries." I wonder which countries those are. In any case, it was a pretty good read. The cover art made me think it might be oriented toward a young audience--it even seemed a bit sloppy to me at first, not nearly as sophisticated as the some of the stuff you see other artists produce, but as I worked my way through the comic I came to appreciate the Sfar's whimsical style, and the obvious care she puts into her backgrounds--but the comic had enough substance to keep me interested. Like PREACHER, DUNGEON hits a few poignant notes relating to friendship, and like PREACHER it often uses violence for humorous effect, but in most ways you couldn't find two more different comics. I also give the series credit for embracing so wholeheartedly a setting generally ignored by the market.

Once I'd turned the last page of DUNGEON, I put it back in my pack and started up Stockton, the market street for Chinatown. I stayed on that all the way through to Columbus, in the Little Italy section, and stopped in at Buster's for a cheese-steak sandwich. While I ate my sandwich, I read the first volume of A JEW IN COMMUNIST PRAGUE, by Vittorio Giardino.
The copy I'd picked up from the library was the most battered book on the shelf, and that combined with the look and tone of the comic made me assume it was an older work. Turns out Giardino published it in the 90s, not so old after all. AJICP is pretty classic in its feel. The art is meticulous and the story's delivery makes me think of a few European literary novels, like CRIME AND PUNISHMENT, but not as dark. I also found the story compelling: imagine that the government is set on making things hard for you, that you've been singled out for no real reason, and with no way to control it. One day, out of the blue, there's a knock at your door. Your father opens the door and police rush in, accost him, and ransack your house. All of your mother's attempts to find out what's going on are met with scornful indignance on the part of the authorities. Meanwhile, she's fired from her job and not allowed to pursue work. Two years later you find out that your father has been declared guilty, without trial, of counter-revolutionary activities, and sentenced to a ten years in prison. Meanwhile you're prohibited from continuing your studies, and forced to earn money for your family, at the age of 13. It all might sound like some cold-war propaganda story about communist countries in the 50s, but keep in mind that the exact same things are happening today, and that the American government is doing them. We've got prisoners in Guantanamo who have been detained for more than six years now, and still haven't had charges made against them. It's the same fucking thing.

I finished the first volume of A JEW IN COMMUNIST PRAGUE in Buster's, and then went to Washington Square to read the second. Giardino is masterful in his artistry, especially in his depiction of the protagonist growing older, though I did feel like he overdid it with the protagonist's mother. I also felt like the art might have been a little overdone--we don't need a full background for every shot--and it sort of feels like it outweighs the story in points. The second volume sort of reminded me of the movie Les Quatre Cents Coups.

The North Beach Branch of the SF Public Library system is just a few blocks down from Washington Square. I walked up to it and dropped off the comics I'd already read, and then I found a coffee shop and started reading THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, by Jason.
I've read a few other comics by Jason, like THE LEFT BANK GANG, and I really like his work. He's got a very simple art-style, drastically different from Giardino, but it works well for his subject matter: finding relationships in the city. THE LIVING AND THE DEAD takes that "finding-relationship" theme into the realm of zombie horror, but does it in a pretty light-hearted and humor based way. Jason is clever, but not in an overly showy way. His books are good stories, nice to read. I finished THE LIVING AND THE DEAD, and then read I KILLED ADOLF HITLER while riding public transit home.

When I finally got home, I started reading IT'S A GOOD LIFE, IF YOU DON'T WEAKEN, by Seth. If this was a true memoir, I'd call it one of the best memoirs I've ever read. Instead it's an account of Seth's life, including his quest for meaning and his battles with loneliness, bent around a fictional plot-line of him researching a failed cartoonist from the fifties. A lot of the story is delivered in monologues as Seth walks around his city, or in staged dialogues with his friend Chet. That sort of "neurotic/hyper-aware/depressed artist" stuff can be a pretty tedious, ego-driven form of solipsism, but Seth manages to defray such effects by imbuing his character with genuine appreciation for his friends and the other good things in his life. In the end, he brings the book to a profound and masterfully understated moment of resolution, in which we're given reason for an optimism tempered by our acknowledgment of life's difficulty. The art-style in the book, a distinct nod toward strip-art from the 50s, also works as an interesting second-layer of meaning by paralleling the art the author has found so heartening. Great book.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

NEVERWHERE, by Neil Gaiman


Neil Gaiman made his name with the Vertigo comic series SANDMAN, a dream-centered epic that inflected traditional mythologies with 90s goth culture. In the end SANDMAN ran for 75 issues, later collected into 10 graphic novels, and it was celebrated by everyone from Norman Mailer to Stephen King. I've got friends that are crazy about Sandman, but my own experience with the series has teetered between mildly entertained and just plain bored, and I quit slogging through it after the 8th graphic novel. The fact that I spent so much time with the title character "Dream," and then gave up in the story that concerns his death, shows how tedious the series had become for me--all that time together, and I couldn't even finish for the sake of closure.

Since SANDMAN, Gaiman has gone on to work in novels, and he's had a lot of success in this field as well. I'd been curious to see how the man stood up on his own, in a less collaborative medium than comics (which is often a baby shared by a writer and artist), and I got my chance to read NEVERWHERE, Gaiman's first novel, when a co-worker started reading it in the office, and raving about it daily. Once he'd finished the book, he handed it off to me.

One of the things I found most interesting about NEVERWHERE was how much it reminded me of SANDMAN. I'd assumed there'd be significant differences between Gaiman on his own, working with words alone, and his collaborations with artists in a visual format, but I was wrong. Part of this might arise from the fact that Gaiman rarely worked with one artist for very long; excepting Dave McKean, who did the covers, SANDMAN saw a new artist every few issues. That might mean that the artists had less involvement in the story or the characters--the artists might have dressed SANDMAN up in different clothes, but it remained Gaiman's baby alone. Another thing that might be responsible for the similarity is Gaiman's rudimentary use of words; he's hardly a stylist, more of an idea man who uses words simply, in order to express those ideas. The final thing that really draws the two works together is the fact that so many of the ideas in the novel are the same as those in the comic. Both works, for example, show an adoration of female characters, often presenting them as powerful and mysterious while the male character's are either inept or wily. Both works portray reality as a mere illusion, and those who can't see past that illusion are shown as vulnerable and weak. Both works feature villains that munch on rats. It goes on and on.

Also interesting about the similarities between SANDMAN and NEVERWHERE are what they reveal about Gaiman himself. We get the sense, from reading these stories, that Gaiman likes to play a bit rough--he's not afraid to kill a character, even a central one, with little explanation or compensation. I get the feeling that this is one of the things that his fans like about him--they see this as evidence that Gaiman doesn't pull punches. Gaiman also uses clever humor as a tool, or an easy way out: "Varney connected his crowbar with the dwarf, who instantly stopped bouncing and darting, and instantly began lying insensible."

One notable difference between SANDMAN and NEVERWHERE is that as the novel progressed, it became more interesting, while the comic completely lost me by the end. I think that part of this comes from Gaiman's passage concerning "the ordeal" that Richard (the protagonist) has to go through, which is a passage that carries a lot more power than much of the rest of the book that preceded it. Before this passage Richard comes across as a bit of a lovable buffoon, endearing but not especially interesting. After the passage he becomes more than that--he's faced a truly harrowing experience, an experience the reader can relate to with more emotion than a cleverly described blow with a crowbar. We actually respect him, and feel like he merits our concern.

Maybe this improvement toward the latter half of the book relates to the fact that NEVERWHERE started out as a television program that Gaiman later adapted into the novel. In the start he was mucking about, playing with a new medium, establishing the story and the characters. In the middle it loses its sense of direction. But by the end Gaiman had a stronger idea of where to take the story, and he gave us more meaningful plotting.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

RANT, by Chuck Palahnuik


This is the second Palahnuik book I've read--the first being CHOKE--and I see a lot of similarities between the two. Both focus on counterculture individuals, and their rebel friends, who are notable for some quirky behavior or activity they engage in. In the case of CHOKE the protagonist cruises Sex Addict Anonymous support groups for casual partners, and gains money by staging choking incidents in restaurants, and then taking advantage of the compassionate feelings provoked in those who save him. In RANT the main character has a penchant for receiving bites from animals, especially from venomous spiders and rabid mammals. The book also incorporates and expounds upon an underground activity group, known as Party Crashers, who participate in a modified form of demolition derby that takes place on public streets.

Acknowledging the possibility that some of his other books are different in nature, I'm coming to the conclusion that Palahnuik is an idea man. The allure of his writing doesn't lie in eloquent diction, richly fleshed-out characters, or a well-crafted plot--all of which are generally considered synonymous with good writing--it lies in the innovative ideas he generates. In RANT this is particularly apparent--the book is chock full of ideas, but the plot is pretty sparse, and the characterization of the protagonist is so nebulous that you never get a very clear image of him, only a glimpse of his animal-bite scarred arms and his tar-blackened teeth.

Part of the reason RANT reads more like an idea log than a novel results from the way the story is told. Instead of a conventional narration, RANT is written as an oral biography--in other words, the text is broken up into multiple first-person accounts, snippets taken from fictional interviews. A few chapters are just one person's voice, uninterrupted, describing an event, and these are invariably the chapters that work best, that have the most time and space to develop into something intriguing, and to occasionally approach profundity. The bulk of the rest of the novel is short little paragraphs--one person saying one or a few sentences, immediately interrupted by another person with their own line or two--in an approximation of an interview-heavy documentary. Palahnuik tries to use this delivery to unique effect, by alternating between two sources describing two separate events for example, but the overall result of this approach is a general cheapening of the reading experience. At its best it feels like a gimmick, at its worst it feels empty and repetitive--it actually blocks you from engaging with the story.

(Other authors have attempted the multiple-person narrative with greater success--Irvine Welsh's breakout novel TRAINSPOTTING is an excellent example, with each character's tone immediately recognizable, unique, and authentic. Palahnuik, in contrast, relies on lame little tricks to endow his accounts with individuality--like Neddy Nelson speaking in a relentless stream of questions--and rather than achieving a group of voices, he only reinforces the contrived feel of the novel.)

Beyond exposing the cardboard nature of his characters, Palahnuik's oral-biography approach also succeeds in sabotaging the book's sense of plot. There isn't any one narrator in the book that was present for all of the events, except the protagonist Rant Casey, and he's only allowed one sentence. What we do get is a bunch of people talking about Rant's country childhood, and a bunch of other people talking about Rant's time in the city later on. Unfortunately, the former section, dealing with Rant's childhood, feels more comprehensive and important than the latter section, in which the events that purportedly make Rant significant enough to warrant a biography occur. The outcome of this is that the reader is given an inflated expectation of who Rant is, and then there's no payoff, no significant achievement as an adult to satisfy that expectation. It feels unbalanced, and poorly connected. Also confounding is the fact that the incidents from Rant's childhood seem to be more easily traceable in time than the incidents in his later life, despite the fact that the childhood is deeper in the past and therefor harder to remember. The people repeat each other, but don't manage to build much on each other's statements, and we're left with a satisfying sense of who young Rant was, and what he did as a child, but only a vague and frustrating idea of who Rant was as an adult, and what he did then. If I pause and think about what happens in the book, I wind up with a paltry amount of events to use as the basis for a novel. As if he became aware of this during the writing of the novel itself, Palahnuik throws in some crazy time-travel stuff near the end, seemingly just to stretch the plot out a bit more.

Despite its faults, RANT is still a decent read, owing largely to the wealth of ideas Palahnuik packs into it. From using spider venom as a erectile aid, to dividing society into separate daytime and nighttime populations, to leaving behind traditional media in favor of direct brain-boosted experiences, RANT is chock full with intriguing notions. If only he'd had more than a paper-thin story to wrap around those ideas, this could have been a much better book.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

WOLF MOON, by Charles de Lint


An interesting book. It's a high-fantasy story, but it draws its power from familiar sources, namely a person's need to be loved, and their fear of rejection. The main character harbors a dark secret--he's a werewolf--which has kept him on the run for most of his adult life. His running leads him to an inn where he's accepted and cared for, and where he finds love. The story's antagonist, fueled by a fascistic arrogance and a hatred of werewolves, and aided by a magical ability to manipulate people, exposes the man and frames him, leading to his rejection by the inn folk, and his betrayal by his lover. The scene in which that betrayal happens was remarkably well realized--it actually affected my heart rate, got me all stressed out.

I suppose that the idea of using mundane issues as the core for Fantasy and Sci-Fi is nothing new, but it does seem like certain books (the DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT book I read a few months ago comes as a good example) don't subscribe to that approach, and suffer because of it. And there are different levels of weight that you can give to the mundane factor, too. In WOLF MOON it dominates the story. You could very well tell the story in a different setting, completely omitting werewolves and magic, and have it work equally well.

Another interesting thing about WOLF MOON is the level of attention it gives to relatively few events. I've read books that come across as a string of separate events, each event influencing the others to a certain extent, with the final sum of events reaching the double digits. In WOLF MOON only a few things happen, but they're explained in rich detail that fills pages. At times, especially when de Lint focuses in on character thoughts, the level of detail becomes bothersome, boring. But for the most part, it's rewarding to have each event thoroughly envisioned.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

THE VIRGIN AND THE GIPSY, by D.H. Lawrence


I just finished reading THE VIRGIN AND THE GIPSY. It's the first D.H. Lawrence book I've read, and here's what I noticed about it.

Lawrence writes in a fussy sort of way that brings to mind other English authors of his era, especially E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. His focus on women and their relationships with men, especially with how those relationships are tempered by social mores, also makes me think of Jane Austen (though Austen writes a tighter noose of propriety, and her dialog is much sharper). The vagueness of his descriptions, their allusion to something larger and more abstract, seems characteristic of Modernist British writing. Here's an example:

"Yvette went pale, and very distant. Her pride, that frail, precious flame which everybody tried to quench, recoiled like a flame blown far away, on a cold wind, as if blown out, and her face, white now and still like a snowdrop, the white snowflower of his conceit, seemed to have no life in it, only this pure, strange abstraction."

From this passage you can see how Forster uses multiple adjectives, and makes several small passes at whatever thing he is trying to describe. By doing that he lessens the force of individual words--they aren't allowed to hold as much weight as a word used by itself, and therefor they seem less forceful. It's like impressionist painting, in which several loose brush-strokes are used, resulting in a looser and less distinct representation of an object. Oftentimes whatever is being described is left conspicuously ambiguous, like the "abstraction" in the above paragraph--we never really learn what comes to replace the pride in Yvette's face.

Another thing the passage reveals is Lawrence's stitched together writing style, in which a comma is dropped in after every few words. You rarely get a straight-ahead sentence; usually you're jolting over all these little speed bumps. It reminds me, in a way, of the later writing of Celine, with it's two or three word clumps divided up by ellipsis. Celine uses the technique to create a strobing series of glimpsed images, while Lawrence seems to use it for the impressionistic brush strokes mentioned above, but the feeling the reader gets while reading them is somewhat similar. And Lawrence seems to use the resultant rhythm of this constant self-interruption as a way to advance the writing itself. Another example:

"And thence, for a long time, they stayed in the mud and dark and dampness of the valley, often with sheer rock above them; the water brawling on one hand, the steep rock or dark trees on the other./Till, through the darkness of overhanging trees, they began to climb, and Leo changed the gear."

It seems to me that Lawrence is using the repetition of "dark" and "trees" deliberately, as a way to connect one paragraph with the other. We hear it in the las sentence of the first paragraph, hear it in a disjointed, interrupted, repeated way, a way that goes back and restates part of what has already been said, which makes the words stand out in our minds. Then, in the next paragraph, the words are repeated again (though "dark" becomes "darkness"), provoking in our minds a small sense of familiarity, a recognition, that makes the connection between one paragraph and the next more explicit than proximity alone.

Another passage:

"She was truly simple in what she said. It was just what she thought. But it gave no hint of the very different feeling that also occupied her: the feeling that she had been looked upon, not from the outside, but from the inside, from her secret female self."

The narrator's intimate knowledge of the internal workings of his characters, which the characters themselves don't consciously know (as is illustrated above), is another one of the things that stands out to me about Lawrence's writing. The protagonist in this book, Yvette, is a rather dizzy girl, which makes it less surprising in regards to her, but it holds true for all the other characters too. Lawrence's creations are motivated by feelings and compulsions they have no awareness of, and no control over. They are the pawns of their own secret desires. I'll end this post with another passage showing this, specifically in the context of a man bound by social mores, and resentful of those less worried with propriety. It's one of the most compelling, in my opinion, found within the entire book:

"The rector looked at her insouciant face with hatred. Somewhere inside him, he was cowed, he had been born cowed. And those that are born cowed are natural slaves, and deep instinct makes them fear with prisonous fear those who might suddenly snap the slave's collar around their necks./ It was for this reason the rector had so abjectly curled up, who still so abject curled up before She-who-was-Cynthia: because of his slave's fear of her contempt, the contempt of a born-free nature for a base-born nature.:

Friday, August 1, 2008

Thieves Jargon



I've had another story published, this time by Thieves Jargon. It's currently at the top of the homepage for their 171st issue, but they update the site every Friday so you'll have to look in the archives if you don't make it there before the week's over. Thieves Jargon is a cool site, and they've published a lot of compelling, hard-edged writing. I only found out about them a month or so ago, when they had issue 168 up. Rachel Hale Drew's "The Goat," from that issue, enslaved my mind for the time it took to read it (beware if you're tender-hearted--it's a brutal story). They also feature a cool piece of art by a different artist each week, which is more of an art-connection than a lot of literary journals have.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Gardening Books



With all the environmental, economic, and social damage that our hyperconsumerist capitalist system has caused, I'm coming to believe that the best way to resist the system is to reduce our dependence on it. Perhaps the most effective way to do this is to try and take control of our most basic needs, food being one of them. With that in mind, growing vegetables might be the most radical action we can commit in America today. In an effort to act on that belief, I've started mucking about with vegetables in my own meager backyard.

I live in a building in San Francisco's Sunset District. Before this area was covered over with asphalt and concrete, it consisted primarily of sand dunes, which don't support much plant life. Couple the poor soil quality with the general lack of sunlight--this area is notorious for its fog and cold, especially in the summer--and you've got very challenging conditions for agriculture. A few months ago I planted a few broccoli and tomato plants, only to reap meager crops. Hoping to gain whatever advantages I could, and thereby improve my yield, I've started reading books on gardening for growing tips. The two books pictured here are the first I've finished.

THE ORGANIC HOME GARDEN: HOW TO GROW FRUITS & VEGETABLE NATURALLY, by Patrick Lima, details the author's experience with organic agriculture. The bulk of the book is informational in its focus, but you get enough tidbits here and there to piece together an idea of the author's life, and it's a pretty interesting story. He mentions living in a city with his partner (who happens to be the guy who took the pictures for the book) working as a waiter and just getting buy. On a whim, Lima plants a few things in his backyard, and he becomes so excited by the concept of growing his own food that both he and his partner go out to the country and squat on some land. They don't have a car, or a house, or even a tent, and they end up passing the snowy winter by living off dried beans and rice in a canvas dome, reading gardening books all the while. When the summer comes they clear land and start planting. Twenty years later, they're still there, still growing food. That's a pretty radical story for a book aimed at a mainstream audience.

A lot of the information in the book concerns itself with soil quality. You get the feeling that turning organic matter into compost, and using it to improve the soil, has made up the majority of his life's work. And it's interesting to read about such a long-term pursuit, especially when our modern lives seem to be shrinking our attention spans into shorter and shorter sections. I get impatient when I have to wait 15 minutes for a bus, but Lima's spent days, weeks, months, for Twenty Years, just helping things rot.

There's also a lot of info on individual plants, how to plant them and care for them, how to work with the seasons. Most of it doesn't apply to me, cause the Sunset doesn't have a summer, or a winter either. Just continual fog and cold.

The other book, CROPS IN POTS by Bob Purnell, takes the fertilizer and pesticide approach to growing things. I'd originally been interested in the idea of growing things in pots because I saw it as a way to get around my soil quality issues--just fill the pots with decent soil and you're ready to go--but this book states that a plant will use all the nutrients in a pot full of soil in just a month or so, while its growth period might last a lot longer. Purnell's solution is to dump in fertilizer, which doesn't appeal to me because doing that causes the very environmental damage, and dependence on our economy, I'm trying to minimize by growing some of my own food. The book spends more time on arranging for visual appeal than it does on growing for food purposes. In the end, it was a waste of my time.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

DESPITE EVERYTHING: A COMETBUS OMNIBUS


After I finished high school, I spent a few years bumming around, riding greyhound and hitchhiking, picking up disposable jobs and crashing in flophouses/communes/hostels. Eventually, it got kind of boring. Without committing to a location, you limit the sorts of things you can experience and achieve. Picking up and leaving every few months makes it hard to get beyond a shallow relationship with a place and the people living there. That's the conclusion I came to, anyway, and so I decided to drop anchor in San Francisco, and see what I could build.

Aaron Cometbus, who's been writing the Cometbus zine for more than 25 years now, doesn't seem to feel the same way. He's spent the bulk of the last three decades as a perpetual roadrunner, and Cometbus is largely dedicated to the chronicling of his experiences. This huge tome (600+ pages) collects selections from Cometbus 24-43, plus a smattering of stuff from the earlier issues.

At it's best, Cometbus makes for compelling reading, and I'd even go so far as to say that certain issues represent for me the pinnacle of zine or other periodical achievement--you couldn't put together a better magazine. At its worst (like "The week I rode the bus a lot: a greyhound hell journal" from issue 27, in which Aaron spends almost every hour, for a week long period, either sitting on a bus or waiting in a greyhound station) the zine feels monotonous, pointless, and utterly boring; similar to what aimless traveling had become for me, and why I gave it up. The whole book is kind of a grab bag, with certain issues that I really enjoyed, and other issues that came across as Aaron just feeling obligated to put something out, and raking together a pile of crap for that purpose.

One of the things that I love about Cometbus (and this might seem strange given my general lack of interest in fashion and tv and other mediums focused on visual communication) is the sense of design it showcases. A lot of punk zines are ashy nightmares, just a bunch of crappy pictures/text pasted together and poorly xeroxed. Cometbus shows a more sophisticated visual ascetic. Admittedly, part of the superior visuals in Cometbus relates to the fact that the zine is pressed instead of photo-copied, which means the pictures are pretty clear and not the gritty headaches you get when you xerox a color shot. But it goes beyond mere print quality. Aaron often laid articles out in a way that reflected the article's topic--a visual echo of the textual meaning. For example, a lot of the first-person anecdotes are handwritten, which further enhances the idea that we're reading about a personal experience--how one unique individual (unique down to his handwriting, which reflects individuality more than a uniform computer/typewriter font ever could) experienced one event. Aaron also uses borders and inserts and graphic approaches to tie an article together over the course of several pages, to help you know you're still on the right piece when you flip the page. And sometimes Aaron uses creative visual approaches to completely break away from the orthodox left to right, up to down way we read a story, like in his account of Greenday's first tour (in issue #25), which starts in the lower left corner of the page and snakes around a map of the United States, visually taking us along on the journey. All of it's done in a way to make the most out of the black-and-white format.

Another interesting thing about Cometbus is its representation of the punk culture. This book starts with an issue in which Aaron decided to stop focusing on music (no band interviews, no show reviews) and instead start focusing on the lifestyle. By doing that, he ends up framing punk-life in a broader way, a way that can be recognized as similar to other counter-culture movements (like the lost generation and the beats and the hippies). There are certain things that I view as more-or-less unique to the punk ascetic, like its appreciation of obnoxiousness and irreverence, its affection for childhood interests (sugary cereals and toys), its fascination with urban grit (dumpstering and homeless people), but there are a lot of other things that you'll find in any culture that arises as a conscious response to the mainstream. Instead of communes you get punk-houses; they look different but are pretty much the same thing. As Aaron travels from place to place, he meets up with like-minded people and experiences things with them. In the end, this fostering of a sense of community might be the most important thing about Cometbus.

Part of the community aspect in Cometbus comes from Aaron's travel accounts, but another part comes from his inclusion of columnists and guest writers. A few people turn up again and again, in issue after issue, and they add a lot to the zine. Anna Joy comes across as a cynical genius in some of her pieces; very funny and entertaining, and appreciated for her feminine (in a hard-edged way) input. Richie writes clever weirdness that brings to mind modern favorites of mine, like Sam Pink but not as dark. Here's a Richie poem, to give you a taste:

"birds"
a sunny summer's morn
the birds twitter prettily
so
i go inside
and
get my gun
and
kill them

Some of the one-shot contributors are great, too. The piece on train-hopper graffiti ("Who is Bozo Texino" in issue #27) comes to mind.

All in all, I'm really enjoying this book. It's been a chance to see some of the older Cometbus gems I missed out on, and I've still got several hundred pages to go. There's some crap in here, to be sure, but when it's good Cometbus gives you something that no big-budget book or magazine can offer: the purest (editor-free) connection with a stranger that writing can offer.

It's even got me thinking of putting together a zine of my own. I'll post info on this blog if I manage to get anything together.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

RONIA, THE ROBBER'S DAUGHTER, by Astrid Lindgren


As I read this book, I found myself comparing it to THE REPTILE ROOM, another book aimed at children which I read only a few weeks ago. THE REPTILE ROOM is a product of today, while RONIA feels like it comes from a different time. Technically, RONIA isn't all that old--it was first published in 1981--but it comes from the pen of a woman born in 1907, and it reflects certain values and interests, and an approach to children, that aren't in keeping with our current mores.

For one thing, RONIA is written with a harder hand than THE REPTILE ROOM. That book, second in A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS, is rather maudlin in tone, a mimicry of Victorian tragedy. The tragedy in this book, the level of pathos it deals with, is decidedly more sincere. RONIA, which tells a sort of friendship-based Romeo and Juliet story with two people drawn together despite their warring families, is unflinching in its portrayal of how a parent's prejudices can hurt children. When turmoil unsettles the relationship between Ronia and her father, it is real turmoil. The emotional pain is not handled with kid-gloves; it is given raw and red.

Part of the reason the pain feels so much sharper in this book than in THE REPTILE ROOM relates to the solidity of the characters in each work. Ronia and her companions feel more complicated, more rounded, and more real than the three Baudelaire children and Count Olaf, which are so simple that their identities are basically explained by a single repeated action (for example: the oldest Baudelaire kid is a girl who likes to invent and ties her hair up with a ribbon when doing so, and that's pretty much all you need to know about her). The conflict Ronia experiences isn't simple, it doesn't have any truly easy answers, and its eventual resolution feels believable but not cheap.

I'm tempted to think that this reveals something about the changing nature of our relationships with children. Astrid Lindgren gives the impression, in RONIA, that children are capable of handling authentic difficulty and tragedy. She gives them credit that Daniel Handler doesn't really give to his audience with the Lemony Snicket books. The fear of being rejected by a parent because of the parent's deep-seated prejudices, which comprises the conflict in RONIA, is a real fear for a lot of kids, and Lindgren allows her audience to face that real fear. She doesn't protect them from it; she gives it to them straight, no pandering. It shows a lot about what she thought kids were capable of, and it reveals a respect for children that I think we might be losing.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT, by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman


Back before I reached my teenage years, when I started concentrating on punk rock and being cool, I read a lot of fantasy novels. I was particularly fond of the Dragonlance series, based on the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game. Dragonlance was huge in scope, with a new book coming out every few months (eventually passing 190 in number), and story-arcs usually playing out over three or more books. The very first book, the one that started it all, was DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT.

It's been at least fifteen years since I've read anything from Dragonlance, or even thought much about it, but I've recently become somewhat nostalgic for the old days before I turned into a grumpy old loser. I decided to pick up a copy of DRAGONS OF AUTUMN TWILIGHT, in hopes of revisiting a part of my youth. The library didn't have a copy, and I couldn't find one in any of the used book stores in town, so I was compelled to do something I almost never do: I went to the bookstore and bought a copy new.

I read the book over the course of the last week, and reading it has shown me that you can't go home again.

To put it plainly, the book isn't very good. It consists of an overabundant series of events, one after another after another, cobbled together in a way that doesn't give much sense of significance to their order. It's like the authors came up with a bunch of scenarios, and then rolled dice to decide on their chronology. Within a few dozen pages I was bored, and my level of interest wavered between bored and mildly interested for the next 440+ pages.

The writing itself is far from artful, too. Generally the description is plain, and limited. Most of the prose focuses on action, and the action rarely amounts to anything exciting. Here's the first fight, for an example:

"The goblin dove at Flint, hoping to knock him down. Flint swung his ax with deadly accuracy and timing. A goblin head rolled into the dust, the body crashing to the ground."

Ho hum, right? There isn't any spice to the writing, or any compelling imagery. In fact, the actions are described in a fairly vague way: Flint swings his ax and a goblin head rolls. We aren't shown the ax as it makes contact with the goblin's neck. We aren't given details relating to what the ax looks like, how heavy it feels in Flint's hand, what it feels like when it makes contact with the enemy. We aren't even given a description of the goblin, here or before, that gives us any developed idea of what it looks like. It seems to me that the writing is relying on the reader's familiarity with scenes of this type, a familiarity gathered from reading other books and watching movies. The book depends upon the reader's previous knowledge to supply a mental image of the goblin. If we've never heard of a goblin before, we're not going to learn what it is from this book.

And that's the main beef I've got with the writing in general. It's a bare bones, stripped down account of a series of actions. It's like a basic script, and we're expected to use the script to make a full movie in our minds. But if we're just going to imagine things on our own, with only flimsy prompting on the part of the book, why use the book at all? Why not turn to a better book, one that gives us the mind-movie already fully produced?

So I'm done with Dragonlance. I'll leave it to my past. I still haven't given up on fantasy fiction altogether, though. I remember enjoying some of the Conan stories, so maybe I'll see if my current mind still likes them. Or maybe I'll give the HOBBIT a go.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS #2: THE REPTILE ROOM, by Lemony Snicket


I tried reading the first Harry Potter book a few years ago, and didn't take to it. The other recent series to be aimed at kids but embraced by a wider audience is this one, A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS by Lemony Snicket. I found a copy of THE REPTILE ROOM, the second book in the series, abandoned with a box of books on a street corner near my house, and took it home. Yesterday I cracked it open at work, and two hours later I was finished. All in all I liked it, and I'll probably read others if they find their way into my hands, but I'm not really planning on hunting them down.

Still, I'm interested by this whole adults-reading-kids-books phenomena, and I had that in mind while I read it. It's been years since I've read another book aimed at kids. What is it that makes them catch on with older readers? What is it about kid's books that sets them apart from adult fare? I'm not sure if I know everything that defines or typifies a kid's book, but I noticed the following in THE REPTILE ROOM:

Simple Characters and a simple plot: The principle characters in this series seem to be the three Baudelaire children, their banker Mr. Poe, and their nemesis Count Olaf. Each of these characters is identifiable by just a few key things: the oldest kid is a girl who likes to invent and ties her hair up with a ribbon when doing so; the middle child is a boy who wears glasses and likes to read; the youngest is a baby with four sharp teeth, who likes to bite things and participates in conversations by spouting gibberish. That's pretty much all there is to them, and the plot is designed in a way that continually touches on and reinforces these basic traits.

Narrator who is a character: The aforementioned Lemony Snicket, who tells the story, also interacts directly with the reader. Usually, this interaction consists of warning the reader about the depressing nature of the book, and recommending that the reader put the book down and not read it at all. His narration generally borders on conversational, and he segues away from the plot here and there to explain a word or phrase, or describe a related-but-uninvolved situation. The narrator also speaks in a rather prim, archaic tone which brings to mind the narrators from Victorian novels by authors like Charles Dickens.

Repetition: Much of what happens, and much of the way those happenings are described, follows patterns that repeat throughout the book. Usually this repetition is focused on things that don't hold overriding importance to the plot, but rather affect the mood and feel of the story. For example, the three children often discuss what's happening and what they should do about it, and the baby always participates in these discussions by blurting a single multi-syllable word of gibberish, which the narrator interprets for the reader (example: "'Meeka!' Sunny said, which probably meant...").

There's more to note, but I'm clocking out from work now, so I'll end this post here.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

THE LADY IN THE LAKE, by Raymond Chandler


I was very impressed with the other Chandler book I've read--THE BIG SLEEP. With this one, not so much. The plot is a little too convoluted, the descriptions a little weak, Marlow's thoughts a little strange at times, and the conclusion more than a little disappointing. It was still a decent read, but I had high hopes for this book, and it didn't measure up.

In all honesty, THE BIG SLEEP didn't have the most airtight plot either. That book felt to me like it wrapped up the story halfway through, fumbled around for a bit, and then worked the preceding events into a continuing story. But it was still a joy to read, and the bulk of that joy comes from Chandler's descriptive style, and his clever use of simile. He manages it at points in LADY IN THE LAKE, with lines like "The minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips," but the quality of his simile isn't consistent throughout--a lot of other similes in the book are left reaching, they don't really grab hold.

What is consistent, what really does hold up throughout this book like it did in the other, is the quality of the dialogue. Chandler crafts conversations that are better than anything you'd hear in real life, and it leaves you wishing people were as witty as they are in his books. Here's a favorite example of mine from LADY: "I thought they cleaned this town up," I said. "I thought they had it so that a decent man could walk the streets at night without wearing a bullet proof vest."/"They cleaned it up some," he said. "They wouldn't want it too clean. They might scare away a dirty dollar."

What really works against this book, as I've already mentioned, is the plot and the conclusion. A lot of what I've come to admire about good detective fiction is the power of logic, and the ability to act logically, that so many of these detectives possess. But Marlowe doesn't strike me as completely logical in this book, especially toward the end. A lot of the time I was left guessing about why he was doing things the way he did. The decision that brings the story to the lake for its final scene is a good example. It left me with a bad taste in my mouth after I turned the final page.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Neighborhood Life


I recently wrote an article for a website called Neighborhood Life, and it just went online this week. I've published a few other journalism pieces here and there, but this was the first piece I pitched, researched, contacted and interviewed sources, wrote, and got paid for. The best thing about it was having an excuse to talk with people involved in a project I was interested in. I'm planning on pitching other stories to neighborhoodlife.net, and maybe I'll try to get motivated enough to pitch to other places too. If nothing else, it's a way to stay busy and make a little cash.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Walking

For a little over a week now I've been walking to and from work every day. I started walking because of a flat tire on my bike, which I still haven't gotten around to patching, and I've kept walking because I'm really enjoying it. I've always liked walking; it's my favorite way of getting around. I like having the time to think, and to take in my surroundings. Sometimes I wonder if the human mind is better suited to walking speed, and if we diminish its capacities when we exceed a walking pace. In a car, the world blurs by and we take in only a fraction of what surrounds us. Walk the same block you normally drive, and you'll notice a million things you'd never notice while sitting behind a wheel. Many of those things will seem big and obvious--that house is painted purple; they've got a tombstone in their front yard, etc. Even the speed of a bicycle cuts down on what you can see. And because walking is such a basic ability--we learn to walk far before we learn to ride a bicycle or drive a car--it demands less attention from the mind, leaving you free to observe more and think more.

Another good thing about walking is that it's great exercise. I honestly think that our sedentary lifestyles cause tremendous harm to our bodies, and walking is a way to limit that damage. Sixty years ago most of the human race depended on hours and hours of physical activity as a regular part of its life, and our bodies need that activity to maintain proper functioning. By removing that activity, by reducing the physical effort used in getting around and acquiring food and all that, we've removed an essential component to the maintenance of good health. Eating a salad for dinner and going on a half hour run three times a week is not going to do it; we need to be more active more of the time. Walking is a great way to reclaim some of our lost physical activity.

People think they're wasting time by walking, or that walking takes too long, but the truth is walking generates time. The more you walk, the healthier you'll be and the longer you'll live.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

THE THIN MAN, by Dashiell Hammett


I've only read one other novel by Dashiell Hammett, THE MALTESE FALCON, but I liked it so much that it (along with THE BIG SLEEP by Raymond Chandler) threw me right into the pulp-mystery reading binge I've been on for the last few months. Unfortunately, most of the books I've read since those first two haven't been nearly as much fun, and I'm starting to think I got confused at the start: it's not that I love mystery writing (in fact, I'm hardly interested in figuring out who-dunnit by the end of the book), it's just that I love Hammett's writing.

So I finally came back to Hammett with THE THIN MAN, his last novel, and I savored every blessed page. While I read I found myself wondering what it was that Hammett does with words that makes those words so fun to read. By the time I turned the last page, I had a few ideas.

First of all, Hammett is clever. His descriptions are always unique, unprecedented. He somehow finds a way to say something, in simple language, in a way it hasn't been said before. And on top of that, he says it in a way that feels more accurate, more perceptive and true, than the bulk of what most other people manage. He isn't using any special arsenal, any esoteric vocabulary, but the way he uses his words is masterful.

Here's an example, in which he's describing a dog's feelings, that sort of gets at what I'm trying to explain: "Asta liked Macaulay because when he patted her he gave her something to set her weight against: she was never very fond of gentleness."

Now, most people who spend time with dogs probably know that a lot of dogs are like this--they like to lean against you hard, to feel solid contact. Noticing this is not in itself especially clever, though it does seem (at least to me) especially true. But Hammett's way of phrasing it--"something to set her weight against"--is clever. I don't think many people would express the idea in this way. They might say "Dog's like to lean on you," but they probably wouldn't phrase it "they like something to set their weight against." They might say "dog's like to roughhouse," but they probably wouldn't come up with "they aren't fond of gentleness." Hammett manages to say what many know, and that those who don't know can still recognize as probably accurate, in a way that most wouldn't think to say it.

Another great thing about Hammett's books is the characters he peoples them with. The protagonists are especially compelling, and Nick Charles (from THE THIN MAN) is the best I've read so far. He's exceedingly competent and smart, yet still tough enough to dodge bullets and throw punches. And he's got a sense of humor, which makes him more like-able than Sam Spade (from THE MALTESE FALCON, who comes across as a little too eager to give the Limp-Wristed Levantine a slapping).

Because of these great characters, we get a lot of great dialog. Hearing Charles navigate conversations away from what he doesn't want to tell, seeing him drop hints for other characters to pick up, and hearing him cajole and tease his wife, is where a lot of the fun in book comes from. Hammett peppers his dialog with subtle innuendo and charm so effectively that it makes real-life talking dull by comparison.

I could go on about Hammett's story pacing; his short, punchy chapters; his stripped down, lean prose--all of that deserves mention, but it's time for me to clock out of work, and go home.