Sicario

Sicario is Denis Villeneuve’s critically-acclaimed crime thriller about Mexican cartels and narcoterrorism. I went into the film only knowing that Benicio del Toro was in it, that it had done well enough in its limited-market launch to green-light a sequel along with the wide release, and it was “intense.”

I’m a little curious about Villeneuve, because he’s slated to be in the chair for the upcoming Blade Runner sequel. Given the state of Hollywood, this can only end in disaster, but it’s still something I will watch car-crash style, for the same reason I always click on the comments section of an article on a school shooting, and never, ever should.

Sicario was not what I’d call “intense.” It actually rolled out slowly, with an interesting yet convoluted story of inter-departmental confusion, where the protagonist junior FBI agent played by Emily Blunt gets dropped into a mysterious interdepartmental task force run by Josh Brolin, with del Toro as a “special advisor” to some unnamed agency. The bits of the backstory are slowly put in place as the team goes to get the big cartel boss, antics ensue, etc.

The film largely plods down a single set of rails, a quiet journey punctuated with the occasional intensity of a gunfight or explosion. It was oddly muted for a blockbuster movie though, and did not stray far from the central plot as far as b-story or subplot. It was refreshing in the sense that it did not follow the Save the Cat formula religiously, and trot out Blunt’s love interest exactly on page 30 of the script. But for a 121-minute movie, it did plod on endlessly.

My main issue with the movie is that it was designed as a sort of Zero Dark Thirty of Mexican narcoterrorism, which makes me question its value. I’m not saying this stuff doesn’t happen in real life — it does — but I feel like this movie unconsciously enforces the stereotype of Mexicans/bad Americans-with-guns/good. It seems like the kind of thing Donald Trump fans would point at as evidence that we need to build that wall. It wasn’t gung-ho about it, like a straight-to-VHS Chuck Norris movie of 1986 would be about the evils of Communism. But there was an underlying tone there that seemed to reinforce this.

And like I said, this stuff does happen. There were hostages in Iran, ala Argo, but that movie (which I thought was well-done at the time, until I really thought about it) reinforces this stereotype that everyone in Iran is a flag-burning terrorist, when really, almost everyone in Iran is just a person, nothing more. It makes me uneasy that a huge stable of American films, when viewed from a distance, are nothing more than American propaganda. If that’s what people want, and that’s what they pay for, fine. But when thinking of an art form with so many possibilities and so few slots for screen time, it makes me question the value of the work.

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Review: Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography by John Gruen

I’ve been on a modern art trip lately, trying to learn more about art and artists. I never learned anything in school about art, and other than maybe Jackson Pollock and a bit of Damien Hirst, I don’t know anything.  But I enjoy modern art in the sense that I want to figure out how the artists get famous, how their personas develop, and how they go from throwing paint at a wall to being a part of history.

I recently read Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography, which I picked up used for a couple of bucks on Amazon.  I know next to nothing about Haring, but I found the book fascinating.  First, it was a real slice-of-life thing, because the book came out I think in 1991, but right after Haring died.  It’s got that 1991 feel to it, the cover and design that makes it look like a rushed-to-print book by a division of MTV made to cash in on the GenX craze, or maybe a Douglas Coupland cash grab of a bunch of Polaroids (I guess he really did do that, though.)  I’m not saying the book was bad from that aspect; it’s just very interesting how book design can become extremely dated, and looking at a book from 1991 or 1992 can immediately pull you back to that era.

My big takeaway from the book was the vision of late 1970s New York.  I’ve discussed this before, but living in Indiana with no connections to NYC meant I had a very specific and jaded view of the city.  When I finally visited for the first time in 1998, it completely changed that vision for me, but I was never sure if this was the Giuliani cleaned-up-Manhattan image and I missed that old New York, or if my vision of the city was completely wrong.  (It’s probably a bit of both.)  Either way, this mythical city still knocks around in my brain, an island sculpted in my head from images in Ghostbusters and Taxi Driver, peppered with horror stories from my stepmother, who grew up there.  I envisioned a post-apocalyptic city with burned-out buildings, crazed murderers high on PCP roaming the subways, and mad Wall Street executives always wearing suits and making millions.

When I moved to New York in 1999, it was completely different, but little things reminded me of this alternate universe. Like I’d be in a subway, and find an old sign in a forgotten passageway that hadn’t been changed, one of the white background ceramic signs with the old school font in black letters, and it would make me think of the French Connection-era BMT tunnels, the low-rise turnstiles that people jumped over when they didn’t have a token.  Or they’d tear down a storefront in Times Square to install some new Disney-Time-Warner-Viacom monstrosity, and for a brief period, the ancient, worn signage from the 60s or the 40s would appear, a labelscar of the long-missing sign for an automat that later became a heroin dealer mecca, and then got boarded up and later turned into a place that sold Statue of Liberty t-shirts.  Even on a hot summer day, when the smell of an ancient New York would waft up from a broken underground transformer or air shaft, I’d briefly get transported to this ancient Manhattan in my mind, the city of The Ramones and Son of Sam and Bernard Goetz.

Haring’s book reminded me of this from his beginning, the guerrilla art projects where he used chalk to draw murals on the subways, in those black portals set in the ceramic-tiled walls, the place where they normally pasted up ads.  He’d get out of a train, rush to one of those, and draw an intricate image, something he could dash off quickly, but that looked so right in the train tunnel, the images of UFOs and babies and dogs.  I love those old drawings of his, but even more, I love the mental image of the old graffiti-covered trains pulling into the station, the ones with real straps to hang onto, and Haring jumping out with a stick of chalk to swim through the river of New Yorkers and etch out the image.

Another thing I liked was that Haring, right when he appeared in NY for art school, stumbled upon William S. Burroughs and his Nova Express conference.  He attended, and later befriended Burroughs.  But one of his big takeaways from the conference was the memetic quality of cut-ups, and that’s when he started using common, repetitive imagery in his street art.  He came up with the baby and the dog, and repeated these symbols, much in the same way Burroughs did with images within his cut-up trilogy.

I also like how Haring would often get approached in the subways when drawing, by people wondering if he worked for the MTA, or had an art grant, or if the drawings were ads for something.  And to cement that artist-patron relationship, and take the memetic thing a step further, he got some buttons made of the little baby drawing, and later the dog, and when someone stopped to talk to him, he’d give them a button.  These became extremely collectible in the art world, a badge proving a meeting with the artist.  It makes me think I really need to print up some buttons.

The end of the book, and the death of Haring, was sad.  But it was a fun read, and still has me thinking of that old New York.

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Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel, the latest Wes Andserson flick, last night.  I don’t like watching movies like that on opening weekend, because they draw the baby boomer intelligentsia Berkeley crowd, the ones that never see movies and then laugh at the wrong places at the stupid pre-trailer ads that I’ve seen a thousand times and hiss at trailers for blockbuster summer tent-pole movies and generally drive me insane. But, we’re in the dead period of films, post-Oscars, when all of the turds are released until the next holiday weekend, so I’ll go see almost anything that isn’t some Jesus freak epic (which is about everything right now.)

Anyway, just a few short notes on this, not a review.  This film has incredible production design, absolutely flawless stuff.  It was shot in Germany at some abandoned gothic department store, and then supplemented with models — not CGI, not stock footage, but little scale models that have that quirky, awkward look like a bizarre story book.  The whole thing had that Wes Anderson absurdity to its look, like even the warning sign in the back of the decrepit 1920s spa talking about electrical treatments for liver toxins made you laugh out loud.  That was great.

The script had an interesting bookend shell game: a girl goes to a statue in tribute of a famous author; cut to the old author reading from his book; cut to the young author staying at this hotel as it is in decline and talking to the old proprietor, who has dinner with him and tells the tale of his youth and the hotel in its heyday.  I liked that quirky twisting of the plot.

Unfortunately, I thought the actual plot itself was a bit too Wes Anderson, too cookie-cutter.  No strong b-story, and just plodding along on this stock adventure.  There were lots of twists and turns and some good humor.  But the 99 minutes seemed to drag a bit in the middle, and the whole thing was a fluffy cake, pure sugar without a lot of weight at the bottom of it.

Acting was great, an absolutely solid Ralph Fiennes as the lead, with Tony Revolori (relatively unknown?) as the young hotel owner, F. Murray Abraham as the older version. But one of Anderson’s key tropes is to have the usual gang pop in with minor roles.  It always gets a laugh to see Owen Wilson or Bill Murray show up with a single line or two, but the cameos have gotten to the point where they almost annoy me.  Marching on Jason Schwartzman in a funny hat (or whatever) does not make a film.  It’s a chuckle, but it’s getting predictable.

Overall though, a pretty good one, especially if you’re into his stuff.  It’s no Life Aquatic, but the design though, is worth the price of admission.

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Review: On the Road (film)

So I got infected with the Kerouac bug late, toward the end of college, when I fell out of the computer thing and suddenly needed to read everything I saw to learn how to write.  I locked into On the Road and loved it.  It wasn’t cool to love it – I don’t know what it was cool to read at that point in time, because I’ve never been cool.  But I liked the way the central character of the book wasn’t Dean or Sal as much as it was the blacktop-twisted terrain that made up the country between the two oceans, the open road, and how the change of seasons and passage of time was reflected in his prose.  There was also something I liked about the bond between friends, and the way these people lived on the fringes of a society that at the time was straighter than a stainless steel ruler.  I know everyone thinks of beatniks as 60s creatures, and maybe Kerouac as a 50s rebel, but this book was written about the late 40s, in the strange vacuum after the war, when a nation struggled to redefine itself, and quickly slid into a cold war.

So I read a lot of Kerouac in the mid-90s, although I later got pulled into the Burroughs maze and then elsewhere, but I used to read OTR every time I travelled, be it a flight to the midwest, or a trade show in LA.  These voyages were far, far removed from what Kerouac did, but there was something relatable, the crossing of a continent, the worship of a road map, the feeling of watching the world pass you by, 65 miles an hour at a time, while you meditated and ruminated on the thoughts in your head.  And during those early years of my voyage into literature, Ginsberg was still knocking around, and he and Francis Coppola were screwing around with the idea of making this great book into a movie, which made everybody cringe with fear.  I remember them doing some blind casting call in New York, and the rumor mill churning with names like Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp.  And there was a part of me that wanted to see the film, especially since I did like Coppola’s work, and spent far too many times watching Apocalypse Now over and over and over.  But there was a much bigger part of me thinking, “don’t fuck this up.  Don’t make a hipster doofus Gap commercial out of this great book.”

The big problem with making OTR into a movie, regardless of director or producer, is how to condense this non-novel work into a flat, linear, two hour film.  We’re talking a 320-page book that consists of five parts, three giant roadtrips, and a hell of a lot of internal monologue and plotless “kicks” that relies a great deal on observations of a backdrop, rather than the plot-driven arc of a modern novel, which half the time is based on the formulaic plot arc of the typical movie, anyway.  Really the only two ways to do it is to try and compress and consolidate the scattered bits of adventure within the trips, making it into one or two action-packed blazing-fast roadtrips, or do a completely nonlinear, art-film collage of images and snapshots of the journeys, and hope that enough people who read the book would go to see it, and that you didn’t get skewered alive by people who are so ADD-addled that a Transformers sequel is not plot-driven enough for them.

So, I saw the movie yesterday, not really planning on it, because I honestly didn’t even know it was out yet.  And… it didn’t suck.  But it wasn’t incredible, either.

First, the film looked great.  Visually, it was astounding.  Walter Salles did a lot to capture The Road, the huge fields and pastures and ribbons of blacktop and canvasses of clouds and snow and rain and sun and everything else that makes America between the two coasts America.  And it was, for the most part period accurate.  I had fears they would recast this into a bunch of hipsters in the 2010s driving around in old ratted-out Ford coupes and saying “Daddy-o” a lot, some kind of Tarantino wet dream of old mixed into new.  And it wasn’t that.  It was the old Hudson and the old New York and San Francisco and Denver, done in such a way that it captured 1949 exactly.  I’m sure you could go over this frame-by-frame and find a doorknob that wasn’t manufactured before 1967 somewhere, but for the most part, it looked great.  And it was uncanny how some things fit the narrative so exactly.  Like there were many scenes were Sal and Dean were out on the fire escape of the Harlem coldwater flat, catching a smoke, and it looked and felt just like that famous picture of Kerouac on the roof of a New York apartment.  This all got nailed so exactly.

The acting was decent.  All of the main roles were competently done.  Garrett Hedlund was a decent Moriarity.  Tom Sturridge did okay with Ginsberg, and didn’t play him as a crazy zen hippy freak, but rather the Ginsberg he was before he devoted himself to that persona, when he struggled with who and what he was, which I really liked.  The only “known” actor to me was Kirsten Dunst, who you’d think would curse the whole thing, but she made a pretty believable Camille.

But…  something was missing, in a huge way.  The film just plodded along, from scene to scene, from season to season.  I could do it without a plot, but the touchstones weren’t there, something was missing from the movie, and it just had no soul.  If you didn’t have the book practically memorized going into this, you’d be hopelessly fucked. And if you did, you’d recognize the little scenes, and be able to piece it all together, but it would be like eating nothing but bread for dinner.  Even if it’s the best artisanal sourdough whateverthehell bread fresh out of the oven, and looked and smelled incredible, you’re still eating 137 minutes of bread and nothing else.

There were slight jabs at an agenda that bothered me, too.  I mean, when you put some distance to it, Neal Cassady was a stone cold asshole, a prick to the nth degree, dropping babies into every inviting crack he could find from Atlantic to Pacific, stealing and hustling and scamming and screwing and swindling from shore to shore and back.  Free to be you and me, but to anyone with a social conscience, this is pretty cringeworthy behavior.  And there’s been a small cottage industry of calling attention to this, led by Carolyn Cassady.  She wrote a book of memoirs called Off the Road, which painted the sordid picture of Neal and crew being a bunch of drunken assholes that left her and other women behind to fend for themselves.  And I’m not choosing sides here — I think she’s got a valid opinion here and think she’s entitled to it, and hearing about this side of the story made me that much less interested in Neal worship.  (I never read Off the Road either, and it’s possible it’s completely different than what I’m mentioning here.)  Anyway, the film threw in a few jabs of Camille yelling and screaming at Dean and throwing him out, which I guess is in the book anyway, but it seemed like they hung on that a bit to give that viewpoint a little more press.

The one thing that I really, really liked about the film was Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee aka William S. Burroughs.  There wasn’t a lot of time to this story on the screen, but Viggo was dead on Burroughs, the speech and mannerisms and quirkiness, walking around his beaten Louisiana swamp ranch, croaking about revolvers and orgone accumulators.  The slight downside was Amy Adams cast as his wife; she simply did not fit into the movie at all as a drug-addled Joan Burroughs.  She’s a great actor, but far, far too perky and cheery to do something like this.  But Mortensen – man, he was incredible.  There was a scene with him sitting on the floor with a toddler Billy Burroughs, helping him draw and color on some construction paper, drawling on about vampires and sharp teeth to drain blood from people.  It was absolutely, positively brilliant, and made me wish there was a whole new reimaging of Naked Lunch with him taking over for Peter Weller.

Kristen Stewart played Marylou, which is sort of the butt of many jokes, and her lack of acting ability.  And honestly, she wasn’t bad.  She wasn’t incredible, and she certainly did not look 16, but she filled her minor role well.  And you get to see her tits.  Oh yeah, don’t go with your mom to this one — lots of sex, lots of fucking, and a couple of scenes of dudes kissing dudes, so this one won’t ever get shown in the midwest.

Overall, it could have been much worse.  Instead, it just wandered.  I guess that’s what the book did, too.  But books can wander like this a lot more than films, so what are you gonna do.  I’d give this a weak 6 out of 10, but honestly, the best you could possibly do for a commercially viable product is probably scraping the bottom of an 8.

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Movie reviews: Flight, End of Watch

I go to the movies every damn weekend, and I see some occasional good movies, a lot of okay ones, and a fair number of bad ones.  I never write this shit down, and maybe I should.  I just don’t want to turn into a movie reviewer and have to remember how many stars I gave what; I just want to remember that I saw a movie in the theater so I don’t rent it six months later and then find out ten minutes and six dollars later that I already saw and hated the damn thing.

Here’s the last couple of weeks:

Flight

Denzel Washington is an alcoholic airline pilot who manages to land a crashing plane without killing every person on board, antics ensue.  This movie was a straight down the middle C for me, because it had some suspense, but it was so goddamn formulaic, it was ridiculous.  Also, it made me go home and fall into a deep k-hole reading NTSB incident reports, which probably wasted a week of my time.

Denzel is a good actor, but I wouldn’t call this performance mind-blowing.  The theater was crowded as fuck though, the temperature was 96 degrees, and they must have shown 90 minutes of trailers.  We were all awarded with some nice full frontal of Nadine Velazquez, though.  (At least Denzel had access to a perfect landing strip at the beginning of the movie.)

I heard little about this movie going into it, and expected more involving the plane crash, but that part of the movie ends quickly, and you go into this long-form alcoholic denial trip, which was okay, but I’ve already seen that after-school special.  I’d give this a strong three and a half stars out of five, and it’s a good rental, but you probably won’t catch this one on the plane.

End of Watch

There was nothing to watch this weekend, so we went and saw this.  I hate to harp on a movie for being plotless, since I basically write plotless books, but this was a plotless movie.  It’s basically a character study about these two cops driving around south central LA, with a lot of detail about their respective wife/girlfriends, a small amount of detail on inter-office politics at a police station, and a largely wooden story about Mexican cartels.  The whole thing is shot to look like it was taped on video cameras as part of a school project, like a “found footage” thing.  But this combined with the generic suspense of the story made me feel like I was doing tape tracking of raw footage for COPS episodes.  Seriously, about an hour into it, I got this weird disassociated feeling, and thought “am I still watching a movie?”  It sort of felt like I was sitting through a TV show I had no interest in.

Takeaways to this: Jake Gyllenhaal could totally play Paul Ryan in a biopic if he got the right hairpiece.  Anna Kendrick looks suspiciously like Adam Scott (Ben on Parks and Rec) and that always bothers me.  I won’t spoil the ending, but it’s stupid.  2/5.

 

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Review: Editorial by Arthur Graham

I’m sick of plot. I mean, I’m sick of the unshakeable, so-called undeniable truth that books have to have three acts, a hero’s journey, twelve points, three trials, or whatever the hell archaic structure every hack writer regurgitating genre fiction on the kindle tells you that you must have in order to sell books. Maybe you do have to make something a blatant rip-off of the same exact script mainstream Hollywood has been green-lighting for the last two or three decades in order to sell millions of copies to bored housewives in flyover states, but that doesn’t mean it’s what I personally want to read.

That’s why Arthur Graham’s latest, Editorial, interested me. This novella, recently re-released by Bizarro Press, doesn’t follow the template of every vampire romance thriller the make-money-fast crowd is hawking online. It’s a clever bit of meta-fiction, which starts with a collection of vignettes that are seemingly unrelated: a narrator talking about his days as an orphaned youth, a drifter with a Kafka-esque phase shift into a snake, a world 470 years in the future where global cooling has shrunk the seas and made formerly underwater areas the new waterfront property. There’s also the metafictional appearance of an editor, working on his own science fiction story, which is (or isn’t?) the story you’re actually reading.

It’s admittedly hard to focus while in the first dozen or two pages of Editorial, as I found myself thinking, “where is all of this going?” But the stories start to bleed into each other, in an almost dream-like fashion. I then realized that each story was a ring, and as you passed through the first circle, that ring contracted, telling you just a bit more truth about the interconnectedness of the different pieces.

In my previous failed career as a computer scientist (damn you, Calculus II!) my algorithms classes talked greatly about the concept of recursion, or the repeating of items in a self-similar way. For example, when given a huge list of numbers to sort, us humans like to iterate through the list, start at the beginning and go through it in a linear way, comparing numbers and switching items. That might make sense to us, but it’s an incredibly inefficient way of doing things. Instead, you could define a procedure that compares the first item in the list to the rest of the list, passed into the same procedure. That means that the list minus the first item is sorted the same way, which involves taking its first item out, and sorting the rest with the same procedure, and so on. Eventually, you reach a point where you have just one item, and the base case comparison is obvious, and then you blast through this huge stack of partially completed sub-steps until everything is solved.

Editorial works in the same way. It’s asking the eternal question of what is truth and what is real, but the first half of the book involves a lot of busy-work in setting up all of these self-referential calls. (And I by no means am saying the writing is sub-par or ineffective; there’s a good deal of sharp prose and character building contained throughout.) But once you get past the halfway point, you start to hit the essential truths, the point where those recursive calls hit their base cases and make you start saying “yes! exactly!”

The book also contains a lot of reptilian imagery, characters turning into snakes, or really being snakes, which at first seemed like a curious choice. But there’s this constant return to Ouroboros, the serpent eating its own tail, which you see prominently on the book’s cover. It’s the same as these concentric, ever-constricting pieces within the book, the archetypal representation in Jungian psychiatry of the human psyche. Since Plato, different mythologies use this idea of a snake eating its tail as the central force in the creation of life. Editorial struggles with the basic idea of if this character is alive or being created by the editor. It’s ultimately the same question we’ve always been asking.

Writing style? I’ve seen other reviews throw around mention of Vonnegut, and the book contains little scribbles and drawings similar to what V used in Breakfast of Champions.  It reminded me a bit more of Slaughterhouse-Five, probably because of the unconventional plot.  It goes blue a bit, which is fine by me, but if you’re the type who attends regular book burnings, you might not be cool with a dude who was once a snake hooking up with another dude at a truck stop, so be forewarned.

Editorial isn’t an easy read. I mean, it’s not Ulysses, but it isn’t Twilight, either. It’s a challenge, but a rewarding one, and my only regret is that I have so much difficulty finding this type of book amongst the seas of detective murder mysteries and YA romance stories.  Anyway, check this one out.  It’s available in print and on the kindle.  Also stop by Arthur’s web site at http://arthurgraham.blogspot.com/ and give him a holler on facebook, too.

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And So It Goes

I just finished reading And So It Goes, Charles J. Shields’ biography of Kurt Vonnegut, and have mixed feelings and unchecked nostalgia.

The mixed feelings part: the book was somewhat lopsided, but I liked it more than most of the reviewers.  Like someone reviewed it “and so it goes – into the trash”, and I didn’t have that bad of a reaction to it.  I do think Vonnegut probably deserves a more scholarly approach, something that carefully studies all of his books, analyzes their meanings and connections, and focuses less on his life.  That was the main criticism from many reviewers, that Shields didn’t “get” Vonnegut’s work, and dwelled on stuff like his assholishness and extramarital affairs.  I don’t know if he “got” it or not, but he didn’t spend the amount of time on it I would have liked.

That’s not to say Vonnegut wasn’t an asshole.  There’s plenty of examples covered in the book, from the extended divorce-or-not-divorce antics with both of his wives to the various affairs and infidelities.  There’s also all of this business about Knox Burger.  Burger was one of Vonnegut’s early champions, someone who, as the editor at Collier’s, got his short stories published; later, when at Dell, he got his books put out there.  When Burger was thinking about quitting Dell and taking the great leap into being an agent, Vonnegut whole-heartedly encouraged him to do it, and said he’d totally jump ship from his representation and come over to him.  So Burger quit, and Vonnegut told him he couldn’t do it.  There are several other examples of this kind of indecisiveness, and maybe Shields just cherry-picked some of the worst incidents and framed them to draw a morbid picture, but it’s all the kind of stuff I didn’t think about when reading Vonnegut’s fiction the first time.

I think that’s what bugged me about Vonnegut’s post-Timequake career, and this book.  I first read Slaughterhouse-Five as a college freshman, sitting in the IMU building on the Bloomington campus (which, coincidentally, Vonnegut’s dad helped design) and that metafictional construct of mixing himself and fiction into the same story line made me think that in some weird way, I knew him.  I didn’t know anything about him outside of his books; there was no wikipedia back then, and maybe he was in the New York gossip papers, but he wasn’t in the news out in Indiana.  I didn’t hear about the divorce news or the struggle he went through to write Timequake, and being oblivious to that stuff left the persona of Vonnegut much more impressive to me.

When I first started writing in 1993, Vonnegut was one of the writers I took a serious deep dive on.  I bought every Laurel paperback edition I could get my hands on and plowed through them all quickly.  My favorite was Breakfast of Champions, and I probably read it once every year or so, especially when I’m sick of everything else and just need something quick and decent to straighten my head again.  That said, Vonnegut was one of those lithosphere layers of literature for me, something I could easily consume and that would leave an impact on me, but all of the books blended together and didn’t have the forever scarring effect that a more difficult read might.  Nobody else wrote like Vonnegut, which meant his stuff was unique, but it also meant I couldn’t descend further into his madness.  I read the core canon of his stuff, then moved onto other things, occasionally dipping back in to reread a book out of nostalgia.

But at some point, Vonnegut started to lose his charm to me.  I think part of it was the balance between his fiction and his hashing out his personal life in the form of metafiction, until it got to the point (maybe around Palm Sunday) where there was no story and he was just throwing out straight memoir.  By then, he moved, in my eyes, from metafictional genius to cranky old man.  Timequake tried to turn this on end, with this strange twist of exploring determinism with the gimmick of time being stuck in a mobius loop, but he ultimately got dragged into this sea of autobiographical misery.  Everything he did after that was either re-releases of stories that were originally published before he his his stride, or old man rants on the state of politics in the Bush era.

So to read a whole book that contains only these personal life details was somewhat depressing.  The part of the book up to the publishing of Slaughterhouse, the bits about his struggle to find an audience, were compelling.  But after that, it feels like the back half of the book was nothing but Vonnegut waiting to die, which was incredibly depressing.  It’s not that Shields did a smear job on him; the content made it unavoidable.

Oh well.  Maybe I need to re-read some of his old books to get this out of my head.

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Your Holiday Shopping List, Should You Choose To Accept It

It’s almost Christmas!  Or it’s almost Hanukkah, and maybe it’s almost Kwanzaa (not sure), and it’s definitely almost the Firestorm, if you worship Satan.  But it’s definitely that time of year where you spend your hard earned money on carefully thought-out presents for all of your family, and maybe get a fruit basket in return.  And a week from today, the criminally insane will converge on local big box stores to beat the shit out of each other to get a crappy DVD player made by slave labor in China out of toxic plastic, that will work for roughly 37 minutes before exploding.

So, you looking for some gifts that aren’t made by children in sweatshops that might actually promote an artist and maybe make a person think?  How about some books?  Here’s my list of books I’ve read lately that aren’t big-6 published, written by people without a massive marketing budget:

  • Small Town Punk by John Sheppard – This is probably one of the best self-published books I’ve ever read.  All of John’s stuff is awesome, and maybe I’m biased because I published Tales of the Peacetime Army.  Make sure to get the original 2002 edition, and not the 1997 abortion. (It’s not in print, but there are many copies floating around for $5, which is the best five bucks you could possibly spend.)
  • Mostly Redneck by Rusty Barnes – I only know him as a friend-of-friend through Timothy Gager, which was enough for me to put down the cash.  This is 18 short stories of hard living in rural Appalachia, and each one is so precisely crafted, with absolutely no waste.  He’s got a way of really haunting you, getting something wedged very deep in your head in a thousand words.  Great stuff.
  • Treating a Sick Animal by Timothy Gager – Speaking of, check out Gager’s latest collection of flash fiction.  It contains 40-some shorter pieces, each just as lethal as the last.  What’s even more amazing than the quality of his writing is the tremendous speed at which he turns out this precision work.  He’s probably written four stories better than anything I’ve ever done in the time it takes me to finish this post.
  • How Some People Like Their Eggs by Sean Lovelace – Lovelace is a writer in Indiana (he teaches at my sister’s alma mater of Ball State) and he has a blog that almost entirely talks about nachos.  There’s two things I like about this chapbook, aside from the quality of the prose.  One is that Lovelace has a way of coming up with very unique forms, twisting and clever structures that make me think, “god DAMN why didn’t I do that?”  (Example: the titular piece is a list of how famous people like their eggs.)  The other thing I like is that this is a real damn chapbook: a carefully designed, really printed on quality paper chapbook.  It’s not just a POD 6×9 trade paperback, which is awesome.
  • Johnny Astronaut by Rory Carmichael and I, An Actress: The Autobiography of Karen Jamey by Jeffrey Dinsmore – These are both kindle reissues of the Awkward Press editor’s earlier novels.  He’s added bonus materials to both, and priced them at 99 cents each, so they’re well worth the look.
  • Between Panic and Desire by Dinty W. Moore – This is truly awesome creative nonfiction, the telling of a person’s life in hilarious autobiographical sketches, knitted together in a way that tells more than the whole story, and then breaks to throw in some quiz questions or go off on a different tangent.  It’s like a mix of Vonnegut at his best, but replace the aliens with tripping acid at the top of the World Trade Center.
  • Powering the Devil’s Circus, Redux by Jason Jordan – A collection from the editor of decomP, this is a dozen stories and a novella of experimental work, with plenty of mention of metal, which I of course like.
  • Tomorrowland by Grant Bailie – The UPS guy literally showed up with this one as I was typing this post.  It’s a collection of interwoven stories, and looks promising.  I loved his books Cloud 8 and Mortarville, so this looks awesome.
  • Fistful of Pizza by Jon Konrath – Most importantly, buy my damn book!  Nine twisted stories, and it’s only 99 cents on the kindle.  Break in that new Kindle Fire by reading about a parody of the Ben Hur chariot race, filmed with small breed dogs around a set designed like a 1970s Times Square filled with heroin addicts and pornographers.  Also available in print for you luddites.

I’m sure I forgot a few others, but check these out – thanks!

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Review: Lost in America by Colby Buzzell

It appears that someone over at HarperCollins saw my previous review of Colby Buzzell’s first book, My War, that I wrote last March, because they sent me an advance copy of his latest, Lost in America: A Dead-End Journey, which is coming out in September.  I remember looking for more info on him after reading My War, and not finding much, except for an article at Esquire, and some blog posts about how he got called back up for IRR duty, but got discharged before going back to Iraq because of PTSD or alcohol abuse or whatever they call it these days.  So I was happy to hear he had another book coming out, and I was curious to see how it went.

I mentioned in my other review that I’m always skeptical of these people who do a successful blog and then turn it into a book, which was all the rage a few years back.  It’s not that I think this is good or bad; it’s just that when people blog about their life and the biggest moment in their life and turn it into a good project, when you ask them to do a second book, it’s almost always garbage.  I mean, Citizen Kane might be the best movie in the world, but if it came out in 2011 and made bank, you know they’d do a CK2 with reporter Jerry Thompson played by Ted McGinley or some shit, and they’d do it in 3D, so there would be all these scenes of Chuck Kane throwing glasses of water or shoving spears into the audience.  (“Wow, that sled was coming right at me!”)  And half the time, the second book by a blog-to-book author is this whiny tome talking about the huge letdown of having to do talk shows and meet famous people and go to dinner parties and get their URL plastered on the sides of busses.  So I was seriously curious what would happen in this book.

Buzzell’s assignment was to take the great American road trip, to retrace Kerouac’s footsteps and head across the country and report what was going on in that big space between New York and LA.  He was told to “write a love letter to Kerouac”, and fortunately, he didn’t really do that.  I was hoping this would not turn into some overly academic circle-jerk that treated the Kerouac journey as authentically as Olive Garden turns out Italian food.  In fact, very little time’s spent talking about Kerouac, finding parallels between his work and the world today, or pondering why Jack looked for kicks.  That was all quickly brushed aside as Buzzell set out in his ’64 Mercury Comet, driving east and looking for his own version of kicks.

There are some strange parallels that Buzzell doesn’t consciously ponder here.  Kerouac and friends set out on their travels partly as a reaction to the Iraq of their generation, which was World War 2.  Jack struggled with the death of his father, and Buzzell talks greatly about the memories of his mother, who died from cancer right before he started his trip.  And like Kerouac’s attempts to reconcile his place in humanity, Buzzell wonders about his recent marriage, his new child, and how all of those pieces are supposed to fit together.

Probably the biggest takeaway from the book is that the middle class is dead, and the middle of America is a prime example of it.  He stumbles through various jobs at day laborer places, talks to people living on minimum wage, hangs out with guys stripping Detroit buildings of their copper pipes, and sees firsthand the abject poverty and lack of any hope in places like Cheyenne, Omaha, and the former motor city.  It’s like his own version of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, except I thought her book was a pretentious slow-pitch to the NPR crowd, while his was more authentic.

Is this pure journalism?  No.  But that’s the struggle, and one that he acknowledges: you need some kind of plot or gimmick or device to provide forward motion in a book like this, and he struggles through the 297 pages to find that.  You can’t just load up a car in San Francisco and say “go!” and write down each place you stop for gas and call it a book.  There could have been many different ideas that would have propelled the book more, that he mentions but never returns to.  Like, what if he would have taken that book advance and drove from SF to NY and stopped at every VFW in between, hoisting beers and asking the patrons what they thought about America?  What if he did try to only survive on the money he got from those shit jobs?  What if he tried to look up every army buddy in his platoon, John Rambo style, and see what they made of their lives?  What if he pulled a Hunter Thompson and searched for “the American Dream”?  He has his motives and he ends up doing the work as far as remembering his mom and his past, but it’s not a focused effort toward any one thesis.

The writing in this book seemed a bit better than the last.  I don’t think he’s completely found his voice, and I found some clunkiness in places, but for every point where he violated the show-don’t-tell rule, there was another point with incredible detail and clarity.  Some of the best examples of this were his depictions of Detroit.  It’s easy for outsiders to simply say “Detroit == Somalia/Bosnia/Tripoli/whatever”, but there is some strange duality in the old houses versus the abandoned stores, the proud residents and the scared whiteys.  He explores a lot of the urban terrain, which is something a bit cliche now that every hipster doofus in a fedora is out wandering abandoned warehouses with their digital SLR, but it’s coming from this guy who was in the shit, who had the crazy experiences in Iraq and knows what real devastation is like.

This book is sure to piss off some people, because Buzzell isn’t easily pigeonholed.  He’s got some strange allegiances, like his odd infatuation with Wal-Mart and views on Fox News.  He didn’t drive a hybrid, instead choosing an old dinosaur V-8, and instead of being fiscally responsible, he spent his nights blackout drinking.  It’s not like his last one, where it’s easy to pitch it and say “read this if you want to know about Iraq”.  There are a dozen other books about cross-country driving or exploring the underbelly of poverty that I’d recommend over this one.  And yeah, the message is not cheery, from an economic standpoint. But this one was a good read, and I’d love to see what he knocks out next.

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World War Z

A nuclear warhead. It isn't the best anti-zombie weapon.

I just finished reading World War Z, which means I’m like three years late to the zombie party, right? Well, fuck you. I was like fifteen years early. I was memorizing the locations of balconies and gun-selling sporting goods stores in shopping malls in case of a Romero-like outbreak that would require me to hole up in the Scottsdale Mall probably around the time most of the country was still obsessed with the artistic masterpiece of Baywatch.

Really, it all started in high school with Faces of Death movies, and then segued into those classic Troma movies, Surf Nazis Must Die being a favorite, even though it wasn’t even a horror movie as much as it was a dystopian disaster movie filmed for like $17. (“Who rules the beaches?” / “The surfers!” / “Who rules the surfers?” / “The surf nazis!”) In college, I got into death metal, and every other letter I’d get from some freak in rural Georgia or Sweden or Japan would include a giant list of horror movies I was supposed to worship. So me and Ray spent a whole summer renting every conceivable horror movie we could find in our shithole Indiana town. This was limited somewhat by the fact that I worked two full-time jobs and during the week slept in two shifts of two hours each and pretty much walked around like a zombie, minus the brain-eating part.

Seems like some comparative lit class I took in college had a professor that told us that zombie movies were really about the communist scare. That still true? I don’t know. The Brooks book seemed to be pretty left-wing in some aspects, like the strange parallels between the zombie wars and Iraq/the war on terrorism. In both, you’ve got a military trained to fight the cold war in Germany, armed up for a giant thousand-tank battle, and a stealth bomber isn’t going to do much when you’re fighting an enemy with no radar, i.e. a zombie or an insurgent. But it’s appealing to right-wingers in the sense that it’s almost like military armament porn for chapters and chapters, descriptions of battles and weaponry and tactics and whatnot.

I don’t know why I didn’t become obsessed with zombies back in 1993 or whatever, but it’s probably because I’m always overly obsessed with things for a week and then it’s on to something else. I haven’t had my main computer for a week, and decided that would be a great time to take a writing holiday, partly because I’m burned out on this book I’m writing, and partly because I didn’t want to spend two weeks trying to recapitulate and resynchronize two computers’ worth of files and changes and additions and deletions after working on my spare computer for that week.

So I spent most of that time obsessed with the idea of building a PlayStation 2 portable. Not a PSP, but I mean buying a dead PS2 or ten, dremel-attacking the motherboard, scoring a surplus rear-view camera monitor from eBay, digging through my giant boxes of junk for some old camcorder rechargeable batteries I could repurpose, somehow duct-taping the whole business together into a little ball so I could waste infinite amounts of time playing SOCOM 3 instead of writing. A week later, and I realize this is the stupidest fucking idea I’ve had since I thought about building a serial killer-themed miniature golf course on my land in Colorado. Actually, that still sounds like a good idea. But you get the point here: I can only be gung-ho about this stuff for a week, maybe ten days. It’s why I don’t write five books a year.

I wrote a story about the zombie movie Burial Ground. It’s in Air in the Paragraph Line #13. I think it’s one of my best short stories ever. You have to go buy a copy to read it – I never put it anywhere else, and I haven’t posted a PDF of #13. If I had ten more stories like it, I’d bind them together in a little book and zap it straight to the kindle store. But I don’t, not yet anyway. But that movie, Burial Ground, is this bad/awesome Italian zombie movie that has a completely fucked and incomprehensible plot line, and although all of those horror movies have the one chick who somehow manages to get away, in this movie, the zombies totally win, and I like that.

Speaking of the dead rising, I’ve got new life and new batteries in the laptop. I’m writing this while sitting on the couch, and the battery is designed to hold 6900 mAh and it actually holds 7100. It was down to only holding 4800 and started freaking the fuck out and giving me a warning message that I should cut the shit and get to the Apple Store immediately. They sent my computer off to Tennessee (why? Apple’s just down the road.) and replaced the battery and the motherboard – I had a couple of random crashes, something with the video card. They don’t call it a motherboard anymore; they call it a “mainboard”. I think it’s some anti-sexism thing, like how you can’t say cables are male and female anymore, or how you can’t use master/slave in your tech writing. So I got freaked out by the whole thought of surrendering the machine and having it come back completely blank, but it’s fine now.

I remember one time in 1993, I stayed over at Ray’s when his parents were out of town, and we watched four or five zombie movies in a row, until they all melded into each other. (Actually, one was a vampire movie, called Vampyres, a bad 70s thing with some half-naked lesbian vampires that lured guys into their old house, then killed them and drank their blood. One of the dudes seriously looked like a late-70s David Letterman, and the movie used every conceivable excuse to get these two women out of their clothes and dyking out.  This was also before the whole vampire thing got co-opted by the cool kids and completely fucked over.  Go check it out on imdb and you can see a trailer that’s essentially three minutes of soft-core porn, prefaced by a stupid XBox ad.) Anyway, the next morning, Ray’s asleep and I knock open his door with my arms outstretched and walking slowly like I’m one of Romero’s Day/Dawn ghouls, and Ray wakes up and freaks the fuck out and immediately jumps out of bed and goes for a bat or a piece of wood or something he can use to bash my undead brains in with, until he realizes that the zombie apocalypse had not in fact arrived.

The only other time we got seriously freaked out by a movie was when we went to a midnight showing of Saw in the theater. I don’t know if it was because we went to the midnight show or because the theater was empty, but after the final credits rolled, the first words out of my mouth were “dude, we need to go to Wal-Mart and buy some guns and enough shit to board up every window of your house.”

One of the things I liked about World War Z was how the news of the living dead propagated around the world in such a distorted fashion. The whole book takes place as a series of interviews after the war is over, like one of those World War II/greatest generation books. And in every zombie movie, you’ve got this start-of-act-2 disbelief rap going on, like when the scientists land on the zombie island and the one idiot says, “what, is this a village of lepers?” and then gets eaten alive. There’s always that part where you are screaming at the screen “RUN YOU STUPID BITCH!” and you know if you were really there, you’d get the fuck up on the roof and nail shut every door and get the closest deer rifle and plant some 12-gauge slugs into the brains of the undead. But of course, you wouldn’t. You’d go to read what the hell happened on twitter to see if the zombie thing was real or just some viral social networking astroturf campaign to sell the new Nissan Sentra or some bullshit. News would get suppressed, or distorted, or spun. If the zombie apocalypse happened tomorrow, every idiot on Fox News would be blaming it on Obama. In WWZ, the outbreak spread through China because they kept their mouths shut. Israel was smart enough to close their borders, which of course made all of the Palestinians believe it was a big Jewish conspiracy. Etc. etc. It’s not like President Morgan Freeman is going to call a press conference to tell us all that we’re under zombie attack, and Bruce Willis is going to steer a nuke into the center of the zombies and save everybody as a shitty Aerosmith song plays.

So yeah, good book.  I was expecting something aimed at 14-year-olds, like a Mack Bolan book, but Brooks looked at a lot of different angles, and I enjoyed the hell out of that.  I’m not exactly going to retool and start cranking out genre fiction here, but I got at least a dozen good ideas thrown into the plot-o-matic over the whole thing.

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