I have to admit, I have not done any reading for pleasure since I quit writing in 2021. I have completely lost the plot, so to speak. I have been reading, but it’s either books for work, school, or self-help stuff, none of which I would want to review here. (TL;DR read Measure What Matters, High Output Management, and Radical Candor for the first one.) And when I am on a trip, I usually grab the latest copy of The Economist and read it cover to cover, which might not be your cup of tea.)

Ignoring those books, here’s a rough list of what I did manage to read since the fall of 2021. This doesn’t include re-reads, of which there were a dozen or so. (A bunch were mine, and I re-read Small Town Punk every other year or so.)

Predator: A Memoir, a Movie, an Obsession by Ander Monson

I read Monson’s book Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir back in 2020, and it was the kind of book I loved because it was such a great reading experience and hated because I wish I would have thought of the idea first, and now feared I would subconsciously copy when trying to write something out. It could be classified as perfiction ala Raymond Federman, but the voice of it was nothing like Federman and was more contemporary, yet still a bit weird. Predator, which is a memoir this time, is a strange combination of a film studies book and a memoir, in a different style than the previous, but still weaving between the two, and also something I wish I would have thought of first.

The bullet is that Monson was obsessed with the movie Predator as a kid, and watched it constantly, until it bled into the fabric of his early life. I did the same thing with a few movies, most notably RoboCop, so I get it. But Monson also had a traumatic childhood, losing his mother at an early age, bopping around as a borderline truant in the upper peninsula of Michigan with friends who would later join militias, then getting in trouble for computer hacking. I think that Midwestern not-the-cool-kid thing resonates with me, which is what drew me in to this obsession.

He claimed to have watched the movie 146 times, and practically dissects it frame-by-frame. While he covers the surface themes quickly, like the general zeitgeist of 80s action movies with tough guys (who might or might not be gay) he stumbles upon several interesting angles. One is that the quickie novelization of the book was written by Paul Monette, who is better known for winning the National Book Award for his nonfiction memoir about growing up in the closet. Monette died of AIDS in 1995, and published Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir the year after the Predator novelization. The book details his own experience and the loss of his long-time partner, who passed from the disease in 1986. Most people would posit that these muscle action movies were secretly homoerotic, which juxtaposes oddly with the fact that the book was written by a gay man. That’s one of about 17 different tangents that Monson goes off on as he goes through the film, and all of them are equally as interesting.

The book is simply amazing in how it weaves these contrasting narratives together, each which is interesting, but all together made it even more engrossing. This is by far the best book I’ve read in a while.

The Nineties: A Book by Chuck Klosterman

Chuck Klosterman is another author who writes these things with incredible resonation with me, and make me upset I didn’t write the same damn thing first. I think I’ve had a 90s book sitting on my hard drive for years and can’t pull it together, but Klosterman did, so. There are a lot of rants in here that I’ve similarly covered here in the blog or on my old podcast, and I think one of the common threads is that GenX is largely forgotten because the generations before and after us won’t shut up, and we didn’t live up to our catchphrase slogan as “slackers” because we actually got jobs and did stuff.

There were a few things he undersold or theories I found to be off. Like he largely dismisses Y2K as a big nothingburger, but as a person in tech who probably sat through a cumulative year of meetings about it starting in like 1993, it was a big thing to some of us. (Aside: I think I tried explaining Y2K to one of my teachers in the late 70s and they wanted to put me in therapy.) I think one of the most frustrating things about Klosterman’s books is I always wish they were a conversation and I could add more to it. I could blog about them here, but then it would look like I’m ripping him off.

Good book, though. It does peter out towards the end, but so did the Nineties.

LaserWriter II: A Novel by Tamara Shopsin

Multiple people told me I had to read this. I did, but it didn’t click for me. As a person who lived in New York in the late 90s and spent a big chunk of time unjamming LaserWriters for a living, it seems like it should. I barely remember this book, so let’s move on.

Lago by Ron Jude

This is an incredible photo book where Jude goes back to his childhood home of the Salton Sea area in the desert of Southern California to try to do the detective work to find out who he is. The photos are absolutely mesmerizing, a contrast of tack-sharp focus and minimalist detail, wandering a palette of browns from the sand and desert vegetation. The landscape is familiar to me, but the composition and grouping resonates in amazing way. It’s like his lens for looking at the scrub brush of Salton City is captured in such a way that I can imagine looking at my own childhood landscape in the same way. This wasn’t a cheap book, but I come back to it constantly, and it was worth it.

Stephen Shore: Uncommon Places: The Complete Works by Stephen Shore

Stephen Shore was a New Yorker who had never seen the country, and decided to drive across it with a large-format camera in tow, and find beauty in the obscure and forgotten areas between the two shores. He absolutely preserved the history of this time not by taking pictures of events or famous architecture or the usual landscapes, but by wandering roadside motels and tiny towns and gas stations. In some ways, the subject matter at first glance might be the kind of thing you’d quickly shoot with your phone and forget: a plate of pancakes, a parking lot, the back side of a brick warehouse. But when you look closely, the composition is absolutely perfect, the way your eye wanders through the pieces of the puzzle. The more you examine each picture, the more details you see, the more things captured. The faded tones and the sepias play wonderfully against the old cars and wood-panel hotels. Like Jude’s book, it’s less about the content in the picture and more about the filter in Shore’s brain that put the content there and what it tells us. It’s an absolutely wonderful book, and probably my favorite photo book I come back to constantly.

Novelist as a Vocation by Haruki Murakami

I have to admit that after getting through 1Q84, I was pretty much done with Murakami. But this book is more memoir, and a very inspirational one. He details his road to writing, how he writes, his rituals and how he comes to ideas. This is a series of essays and not so much a how-to book, but there are many good ideas to be gleaned from it. I think he is pretty polarizing about certain things, and it’s definitely not “I can write and after reading my book, so can you!” But it was an interesting read.

I think one of the things he mentioned that rang true to me is that being a career writer is less about writing one or two books, but about having the endurance to keep writing books year after year. And maybe that hit me because I read this after quitting writing, and maybe I need to take his advice.

Strange Circumstances: 34 Stories by Keith Buckley

The weird thing about reading Keith’s stuff is that this is his second book, but I’ve been reading him for thirty-some years in discussion boards and internet posts, so any of his writing immediately has a decades-old familiar voice to me. Full disclosure: I helped him publish his first book, The Orphic Egg Caper, which was a surreal pulp crime novel, of which the biggest crime is that nobody read it and they really should. Strange Circumstances is a collection of shorter stories and flash fiction, ranging from pulp to absurd sci-fi to satire. This is a great introduction to the weirdness to be found in his work. The kicker is I know he’s sitting on thousands of pages of this stuff that needs to get out, and I wish he could get to a bigger audience to put some sense of urgency on him that he needs to keep editing and stop spending all day generating AI images of Cthulhu getting a high colonic and messaging them to me.



flu, rom-com dreams, unix history, holiday mall-walking

I think I have a bit of the flu right now. It’s the weirdest one, because I don’t have a lot of symptoms (congestion, throat, fever, etc) but I have been horribly underwater, unable to think, achy, and all I want to do is sleep. And of course this happens immediately before our Q4 deadline, when I have half a hundred things that have to ship. Last night, I slept about eleven hours, and felt like it was maybe three. I think I’m on the back half of it, and maybe if I waste the weekend sleeping, I’ll be over it.

* * *

I had this amazing yet disturbing dream – I plotted out the entire outline of a chick-flick rom-com, and it was an absolutely bulletproof story for that genre. And I remembered all of it when I woke up, and wrote it all down. It’s not a bad story idea at all if I was into that sort of thing, but I’m 80% sure it’s actually the plot of something I subliminally watched on a plane fifteen years ago. I’d have to spend a few weeks watching the entire Emily Blunt filmography to research that I wasn’t plagiarizing Richard Curtis. And what’s worse is if the thing ended up being entirely successful by ten orders of magnitude more than anything else I’ve written.

* * *

I’ve been reading UNIX: A History and a Memoir by Brian Kernighan, which has been fun. I’ve had a copy of the K&R C book since forever – I actually had the first edition, sold it to buy groceries or whatever back in 1992 or so, and then bought the second edition when I was in Seattle. Kernighan is one of the Bell Labs folks who was around when unix first came to life in the late sixties/early seventies. He wasn’t the inventor of unix, but he arguably came up with the name, and he co-wrote that definitive C programming book. Anyway, the memoir is actually half about his personal time at Bell and half the beginnings of that operating system’s development.

It’s a fun read, because it makes me think of how quickly things changed in that period. They first started hacking together their system on a PDP-7, which had something like 32K of RAM. They had to write everything in assembly language, because there wasn’t a C language yet, and there weren’t portable libraries yet, which made later moving unix to the PDP-11 an overwhelming task. A dozen years later, my Commodore 64 had double that amount of memory. Six or seven years later, the computer I first used to learn assembly language had eight times that memory, and was considered largely obsolete at that point. (The C335 class had a cast-off lab of old Atari 520 ST machines, which were maybe five years old, but felt more like fifty, compared to the NeXT and SPARC workstations everywhere in Lindley Hall. It was nice learning assembly on the Motorola 68000 though. I don’t remember the details, but the 8086 seemed bizarre in comparison. The 68K had more registers, and they were all general purpose; the x86 had a bunch of specific registers, so like some were specific pointer registers you only used in addressing. Or something. Anyway, this was thirty years ago, and I never used assembly again.) Anyway, it’s fun to read about these guys writing an OS that’s now used everywhere, on a machine that’s slower than the alarm clock sitting on my desk.

The one weird thing about that book is that Kernighan has probably sold millions of programming books over the years, mostly through Prentice-Hall, but this book was self-published on KDP. It looks okay, but it’s definitely published on KDP. It makes me wonder why he didn’t get an agent to swing him a deal and maybe get more publicity on the thing. It does seem to be highly-ranked at the moment, and I hope he does well with it, but it is curious.

* * *

Not much else. Writing has been slow because of the flu. Mall walking has been increasing as the temperatures slowly drop. (Nowhere near as bad as the midwest, though.) It’s nice to see the holiday stuff slowly start to fill the stores. Macy’s is packed with new inventory; JC Penney seems to be well-stocked. Sears is Sears. The one in Concord has a sad display of trees in the basement, and not much stock on the floor. I still find it funny that I thought of Sears as The Enemy for years when I worked at Wards, but now I feel oddly emotional when I’m in the holiday department. It reminds me a lot of being in Four Seasons over thirty years ago, putting up the fake trees and telling people that no, we did not have any Nintendos in the back room.

I have a much bigger post in me about the Wards thing. But one interesting bit I found out is that one of the guys who worked full-time in the automotive department who I always liked working with managed to stay until they locked the doors on the last day. And then, oddly enough, he jumped to Sears, and went down with the ship when they closed almost twenty years later. So that’s interesting.

general reviews

Paul Auster – 4 3 2 1

Paul Auster’s new book, 4 3 2 1, was a slog. It had a payoff in the last dozen pages, but it took some effort to stay with this for the other 850.

I’ve been reading a lot of Auster recently for some reason, and in the last six months have probably read at least six of his other works. So I threw his latest, still in hardcover, on my wish list for the holidays, and got a copy. I started wading through it a few weeks ago, and initially thought it was a heavy piece of dead tree, but the deckle edges and thick paper add to it, and it felt like it was maybe a 400-page book, but it’s really double that. And I remember twenty-odd years ago, a certain thousand-page book filled with footnotes made the news because of its absurd length and thickness and heft, but now it seems like 600+ page works are becoming pretty common.

Anyway, 4 3 2 1 is the story of a young man named Archie Fergusun, starting with his grandfather’s arrival at Ellis island. The big twist is that the story follows four different instantiations of Archie’s life, and detail how he would have grown, matured, and ended up if little circumstances had changed. It’s basically four parallel books, each with the common characters of parents and aunts and uncles and so forth, but as the back story changes, the four lives fork into much different directions. Each chapter is numbered 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 and so forth. It’s like an extremely complex choose-your-own-adventure, where you are watching each branch of a tree unfold in completely different realities.

So, simple example, without too many spoilers, is that one Archie has a dad who struggles in the appliance business, has brothers who run the business into the ground, and he goes from job to job as the family lives in semi-poverty. Another has a dad who strikes it rich in the same family business, and the brothers go fuck off to different states as his kingdom flourishes, affording that Archie a much more lavish wife, but a mother who also is “encouraged” to close up her photography store and become a bored socialite drunk, and Archie is much more resentful toward his distant father who is always working. You end up with four very different Archies, all born in 1947, but heading into different versions of the turbulent Sixties, becoming involved in different angles with the youth movement of the era.

The style and stage of the writing is very familiar Auster. Like I said, I read Moon Palace and Invisible right before I read 4 3 2 1, and they all bled into each other. One thing I like about Auster is he has a familiar field he often works with, and I don’t know if the events are based on his own life, or just random things he keeps coming back to. I mean, it’s a known thing that he went to Columbia, and then moved to France, and both of those happen frequently in his stories. 4 3 2 1 has no shortage of these themes, and his modernist portrayal of New York in the Sixties is deep within his canon here.

Auster is also big on using a “gimmick” of some sort to frame his traditional writing about the city or his youth and bend it around into a meta, postmodern structure. This was a big thing in the four-part narrative of Invisible, and this one uses a different approach to take this even further. I don’t mean that a “gimmick” is a bad thing — it’s something I’m always searching for when I try to write something nonlinear or outside the narrative box like this. So it’s interesting to see what he used and how he extended it into such a big book.

Did it work? Yes and no. I didn’t read anything about the book going into it. I read 1.1, thought okay, it’s a story about this kid, his dad, his grandpa, etc etc. Then I read 1.2, and thought, “why the hell is he telling the same story but just changing one or two things?” It was like someone singing a song where the second verse is the first one with a few words changed. Then 1.3 came up, and I had to stop and go read the wikipedia article to see what the hell was going on. And I have to admit, for my no-attention-span brain, it was hard to keep the four stories straight. Like I’d be reading, and then think “wait a second, is this the rich Archie or the poor Archie? Is Amy the stepsister or the girlfriend in this one?” There are four casts of characters, all with similar names, but all different people. It’s a big investment. And I got about 200 pages into it and thought I needed to just quit and go read something else. But I stuck with it, just forcing myself to read 50 pages a night, or get to the end of the next chapter, and eventually, about 400 pages in, it caught me.

I really want to talk about the ending, but it’s such a huge spoiler, I can’t. I’ll just say that it’s enough of a payoff that I was happy with it, but I could also see that it would really piss off some people, especially those who invested so much time in the reading. Some reviewers were really unhappy with this; Michelle Dean from the Los Angeles Times also called it “a slog” and “a bad joke.” I had the opposite reaction, but yeah, some people didn’t like it.

I’ve often wondered about Auster’s end game, not to be morbid about it, because it took him seven years to write this book, and he’s recently talked about how he’s been out of ideas. At 70, I’d expect him to keep kicking for a while, but what does that mean — another book, maybe two? Like I said, this is a bit morbid, and maybe driven by my own birthday last week and the constant thoughts/fears about how much more I’ll get on the page, especially since I am tragically out of ideas and beating the same dead horse for the last few books.

Anyway. Interesting book, good stuff, but obviously, a heavy investment. If you haven’t read Invisible, you might want to start there, but maybe put some space between the two books, so you don’t get hopelessly confused like I did.


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.


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.

general reviews

Everybody Wants Some

I just finished reading Ian Christe’s book Everybody Wants Some, a history of Van Halen. I heard about this on the Talking Metal podcast, which is abuzz with news of this original-lineup reunion, minus Michael Anthony on bass, replaced by Eddie’s 16-year-old kid. Weird. Anyway, Christie wrote one of the 700 “history of metal” books that came out a few years back. When he was writing, he got in touch and wanted to stop over and photocopy all of my old zines, but we never hooked up, and actually I never read the book. So I picked up this one, touted to be the first definitive biography of the band, and got to work.

I’m going to start by saying the book is not that great, but it’s up in the air how much this was the author’s fault, and how much of the blame goes on the subject. The history of Van Halen starts with this whole interesting SoCal garage band culture, and these two Dutch kids teaming up with an outspoken Jewish son of an opthamologist, and then hits this mid-point where they are on top of the world and the whole thing implodes. But then the second half of the book is all of these years of dicking around with Sammy Hagar, and toward the end, it’s Eddie locked in a home studio, with a third of his tongue cut out from cancer, his parents dead, his wife gone, about 800 attempts at rehab, three fired/quit singers, a hip transplant, and a brother with fucked-up, inoperable neck trauma.

So at the end of the book, I’m thinking “where the fuck is the high note here?” I mean, it talked about all of the times the VH brothers broke off and tried to reconcile with Roth, with both sides saying the others were poisoning the well. And yeah, they’re back together now. But there’s a chance they will be broken apart by the time the ink dries in the book, and meanwhile, only about 12 people even care. Meanwhile, Michael Anthony the human alcohol filter is set up as the fallen silent hero or some shit, with his bass tracks mixed down, some studio tracks played by EVH, his bass solo snipped from the live set, and finally being told he had to relinquish all rights to all songs and trademarks and take a huge pay cut if he wanted to tour. And next time around, he’s fired. All of the old metalheads identify with Anthony’s party lifestyle, and who gives a fuck if Eddie can eke out Eruption while he’s sitting on stage in a wheelchair looking like the fucking cryptkeeper.

The book had one fundamental flaw which was also a benefit: it appeared that Christie did not have access to any of the members of the band. Most of the quotes were lifted from interviews with magazines or on tape, and there was no buy-in from any of the major players. (I might be wrong on this, but it sure read that way.) So that means there wasn’t any new dirt I didn’t already know. But it also meant that someone didn’t come in with an agenda and bumrush the book. Anyone in the band’s history (with the exception of Gary Cherone, who isn’t big-headed about it, probably because he was in the band for like three weeks) would completely dominate something like this, and if you only know one side of this story, you don’t know any of the story. Case in point: go pick up a copy of David Lee Roth’s Crazy From The Heat book. Now, I love this book, because it’s Roth the showman and storyteller, laying it down and getting into some really crazy shit about the road, his family, and everything else. But when I read his side of the VH split story, I wondered, “how much of this shit is true?” It wasn’t that his story was unbelievable, but I knew there were two sides, and his was going to be giant and overdramatized. And so by not doing an official Van Halen family biography, he sidesteps that problem, but also misses a lot of juice that would have justified the reading time.

Aside from the subject matter, Christie’s writing tries a little too hard in places, and didn’t hold me. It was competent, but it wasn’t a thickly textured tapestry of incredible stories and details. And why treat a band with such fucked up and incredible history just like you would if you were writing a Jewel biography? There wasn’t enough depth to blow me away, and when you’re writing about a band that (at least back in the day) was supposed to blow you away, it just didn’t mesh.

That said, there was a lot of information about Hagar-era Van Halen, and it made me think back to the years I listened to the band, back in high school. 1984 was my introduction as a junior high kid, when it was all over MTV and pop radio. And then I got into 5150 and OU812, even though everyone else wrote off Van Hagar and went on to other, heavier things. While I was reading this book, I put OU812 on the iPod during my drive to work, and was surprised at how that set of tunes totally set the stage for the summer of 1988 for me. I loved my Metallica and VoiVod and Grim Reaper, but I also had that tape in the player quite a bit, and it still takes me back. Those songs are seared into my brain, and it’s always comforting to give them another listen.

Anyway. Just started reading a Houdini biography, and I’m trying to get off the bio kick to get back to some good fiction…


The Plot Against the High Castle

I just finished reading Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America yesterday. When I saw a ton of hipster types reading it on the subways a few years ago, I assumed it was some kind of anti-Bush screed. (And by some of the reviews on Amazon, a lot of people who read it did the same.) But it’s not, and it’s a nice little alternate history novel that involves a big twist or two going into WW2.

I’m a big fan of these sorts of alternate history plots, especially when it’s World War 2. I just re-read Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle a few weeks ago, and after a dozen or two google searches, found Roth’s book and decided I should check it out. Other similarly themed books would include Fatherland by Robert Harris, and maybe Ira Levin’s The Boys From Brazil, both of which I enjoyed. And there’s the PS3 game Resistance: Fall of Man, which takes the jagged alt-future and mixes it with a healthy dose of zombie-like beasts set out to infect and destroy the earth. Each of these books makes what we know as historic timeline turn into a different history by the change of a small event in the past, like someone not winning an election, or a war’s winner and loser flip-flopping. It’s always interesting to play the “what if” and read a story that starts with a stock set of characters and then switch it all up until you’ve got Josef Mengele running the research division of Procter and Gamble in the 1950s.

TPAA takes a softer touch with the changes, compared to other books anyway. The US doesn’t get involved in WW2, and a land that is becoming more isolationist and worried about fixing domestic issues before international voting in Charles Lindberg as the next American President, defeating FDR in 1940. He then signs peace accords with Hitler, and on the surface, shrugging off the thought of going to war. But many social programs are started that seem to target Jews, relocating them to remote rural areas to break up the strongly Jewish enclaves in large cities, and (voluntarily) sending off young Jewish kids to live in the countryside with farmers for the summer, and maybe teaching them to stray from their family beliefs. This quickly escalates into massive anti-Semitism riots and general chaos, with families fleeing to Canada, young men enlisting in the British army via Montreal to fight in France, and crews of Jewish vigilante police groups erupting in violence with the national guard and other non-Jewish vigilante groups.

Roth chose to write the book from the viewpoint of a young Jewish boy (also named Philip Roth) living in New Jersey, and he details the conflict in terms of this boy’s family, neighborhood, and apartment building. It’s interesting, because the cheap way to go would be to have these two-dimensional stormtroopers come in and lay waste to the high and mighty Jewish people that did nothing wrong and were entirely noble. But he spends time blurring the lines a bit, showing people within the family as not being entirely perfect. His dad is completely enamored by every word put across the airwaves by blowhard gossiper Walter Winchel (sort of the Jewish Perez Hilton of the 1940s.) The dad goes on these huge tirades and believes every word of Winchel’s reports; just saying the word “Lindberg” around him makes him blow a gasket. Philip’s brother Sandy enters the program to work on a farm in Kentucky, while his cousin Alvin joins the Canadian army, gets his leg blown off in France, and later ends up a low-level mafia henchman. His aunt marries a Rabbi that is a confidant of the Lindberg political machine; the downstairs neighbors get sent off to the deep south in the relocation program.

It was a real page-turner, although I thought he didn’t dive too deep in the alt history, and the ending slapped together far too quickly. Pretty much every loose thread is pulled back together at the end of WW2 to the actual history, with few explanations as to how that would happen. Much more of the book had to do with domestic policies and the slight changes among the population. For example, the war in Europe is mentioned, but hardly detailed. The Japanese conflict is only mentioned once or twice. If you’re looking for detailed specifications of what kind of jet bombers the Luftwaffe built with no allied bombers mucking up their factories, that kind of thing isn’t there. There are also strange “factual” errors, like that if Hitler and pals went unchecked for an extra few years and the US had no great military buildup, it’s unlikely the Third Reich would have still fallen in 1945. This book’s much more focused on how the already existing anti-semitism in the 1940s could have exploded if the political situation went south, and it does do a good job of twisting together existing political figures into the fabric of the story. That said, I found Roth’s writing itself to be somewhat clunky and tangled in places. There were more than a few times where I read something and had to say “wait, they’re in Kentucky now?” and had to backtrack and read forward and search to find the tiny reference he made to some huge plot device.

What’s weird to me is that if you research Lindberg or the anti-war far right movement (which has been forgotten by history), you see that a lot of the reasons they had for staying out of WW2 were the same reasons people now state for staying/getting out of Iraq. Read this speech he gave in 1941, and it’s just odd to think that he’s on the completely opposite side of the political spectrum from people giving the same speech today. And with that in mind, back up to the thing I said about people who reviewed the book saying “OMG BUSH PWNED!” – did they even read the book?

Anyway, worth checking out, but go with the PKD for a better-written book, or Fatherland for a more technical one.


High Fidelity – Nick Hornby

High Fidelity – Nick Hornby

I read this book about a year ago and thought “oh fuck! this guy has taken about every theme from my first piece-of-shit book Summer Rain and incorporated them into a novel that’s actually interesting, funny, and touching.” My first read made me both jealous and overjoyed. I kept the book around with a group of other novels that reminded me of what I needed to do during the eventual rewrite of Summer Rain. (other said books include John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, Rupert Thomson’s The Five Gates of Hell, some key points in On the Road, Shampoo Planet minus all of the generation X crap, and an ever-changing list of Bukowski fiction).

I’m rewriting Summer Rain now, for a lot of different personal reasons. Hornby’s book fell into my hands again, because I was too cheap to buy new reading material, but mostly because I wanted to keep thinking about Summer Rain, instead of buying some book about futuristic bug aliens that read minds and colonized the planet Mars or something. Reading his book kept me on track, and made me think much more about the new edits to my book. But, his story made me think of some other themes, and this is one that haunted me:

You can look back, or you can look forward.

Here’s the deal: this book is about a guy named Rob who is in his mid thirties and lives in the UK. He runs a beat-up record store out of the way in some dark alley, and works with two other characters who are total music bigots. I mean they have 40,000 records in their house, they listen to walkmen constantly, they are making top 5 or top 10 lists all the time (top 5 blind performers, top 5 side one, track one openers, worst 5 bands, etc). Anyway, the book starts with Rob talking about his top 5 breakups. Why? He just got dumped. And now he’s 35, pissing away at some tiny shop, wondering what’s next.

Hornby’s got all bases covered here. He’s hitting you with the hilarious and screwed up antics of this small record store, sort of like a UK version of the movie Clerks or something, and you’re also getting the quite real and touching story of this guy trying to figure out what it all means. He messes around with an American folk singer woman, and tries to look up all of the women he’s dated in some self-masochistic ritual of trying to find out what went wrong.

Like I said, this all reminds me of what went on in Summer Rain – the main character got dumped, and he spent the better part of a summer trying to find out what path to follow in life. But what hit me more was how Hornby had detailed a lot of the strange emotional conditions that had led to my writing of Summer Rain. I became a writer because I got dumped by somebody, and needed to find something to do besides sending her emails about every 20 seconds and asking what was so wrong with me or what did I do or would therapy help or is this something that happened to me as a child. And Summer Rain became a vehicle for me – instead of looking up my old girlfriends and asking them what was wrong with me, I could animate them, and watch them interact with the other characters in my book, and find out what went wrong during the course of the novel. I don’t know if it exorcised any demons, but it kept me writing.

Anyway, it is a good book, and worth reading. End of book report.

I went to see the band Dream Theater on Saturday night. It was a totally last-second plan; I heard about it on the radio that afternoon, and it was only $20, and right down the hill from me, so what the hell. The club is called the Fenix, and it’s massively small for this kind of deal. As a dance club, it’s pretty huge, but get a couple of big-dick drum sets and about 28 tons of amps in there, and it gets small fast. They sold out of tickets (lucky I got down there around lunch to buy one before then), so it was wall-to-wall leather jacket in there. I went by myself, and didn’t really talk to anyone, but I got there just as the opening back started, so I missed any awkwardness there.

The opening band pretty much sucked – some amalgam of the most annoying and marketable parts of U2, Pearl Jam, and Blind Melon, or something. They weren’t horrible, but I didn’t find them too noteworthy, and if you listened to 5 seconds of both bands, you could tell that this was the doing of some record exec. I was standing by some fratboys that were really into this band, which sort of proves my point. Anyway, it wasn’t as bad as seeing the Cult open for Metallica, but it wasn’t like seeing Primus open for Rush, either.

[Editor’s note: the band I mentioned above was actually Creed.]

I’m really into Dream Theater’s first two albums and their EP. I got an advance copy of their first album long before it was out, and played the damn thing thin. I wasn’t into their second-to-newest album, Awake, and I didn’t know they had a new one. So there’s my problem – they played a lot of new stuff, and I didn’t know what the fuck was going on. Granted, it all sounded cool, but it was unfamiliar to me. After a LONG time, they did some stuff from the EP, then the first two albums, and I was into that.

The band’s pretty tight and all of the musicians are more than talented. It was weird to see them on such a small stage, but reassuring that so many people showed up. They did a lot of weird improv-melody type stuff. Long drum solo. Chapman stick. Lots of guitar. A keyboard player. Instrumental stuff. High-end operatic vocals. It was all there.

If you’re wondering why I don’t paint a broader picture, it’s because I am weird about concerts. It’s so anti-climactic in a sense, and although I recognize music perfectly, I can never remember the damn names to songs, let alone lyrics. So I’m not the kind of person that can memorize a set list and post it up here and talk about all of the exact technical stuff that went on. Either it was good, or it sucked. This concert was good. Not as good as the G3 tour, but pretty good.

I’ve decided I need to buy more CDs. And I need to get a new stereo someday. Hornby’s book reminded me that I was obsessed with the Beatles 5 years ago. Now, I don’t have any of their stuff on disc (I do have Revolver on tape). The White Album is this haunting return to this time when I lived in my tiny Mitchell Street apartment, hit on every woman that moved, and tried to program in C with every chance I could get. But, like Hornby taught me, you can look back or you can look forward….