Movie diary, 7/17/08-7/30/08.


Two movies last night. First, "Bad Boys II". Watched it at a friend's house with a bunch of people, and the remote was broken, so he couldn't turn off the subtitles. Which was a blessing in disguise, since the temptation for all of us to spend half of the movie yelling incredulously at the screen was pretty much irresistible. Let's get this out of the way first: Michael Bay is obviously insane. The guy's directing is like the end result of giving a $100 million budget to a 14 year old boy who doesn't like anything except tits and explosions. And rap music. He's a huge fan of ridiculous tracking shots in which a camera slides forward unfettered by walls, windows, the fact that it's moving through a microscopic hole, etc. There were shots in the movie where girls in thongs or super-short skirts that showed half their asses walked by and the camera got distracted and just followed their asses for 5 or more seconds. Seriously--horny teenage boy shit. Then there was the scene when Will Smith and Martin Lawrence busted into the house of some crazy Haitian drug dealers. The house was one of those beautiful crumbling piles from a century ago, and they proceeded to fill it full of holes. The scene that really blew my mind, though, was where Will Smith ended up in a living room with his back to a fireplace and the Haitians in the next room. There were doors to the room on either side of the fireplace, and Bay did this ridiculous tracking shot where he started out focusing on Will Smith, then went sideways at a rapid clip, through the door, around to focus on the Haitians, through the other door, back to Will Smith, back through the first door... and it continued for at least three full revolutions, each of which took maybe 5 seconds. It was almost making me dizzy. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned all the slow-mo shots of clips dropping out of pistols and stuff. Seriously, Michael Bay's a hack, but he's fascinating in his hackness. I can't watch a movie he works on without constantly thinking "What the fuck possessed him to do that?"

Another thing that must be discussed when talking about "Bad Boys II"--there's something called the Bullet-Deadliness Quotient, which I actually got from a character in a Christopher Brookmyre novel called "One Fine Day In The Middle Of The Night" (highly recommended, by the way). A low BDQ movie is one in which bullets are flying everywhere and the good guys run across an open space while a dozen dudes with machine guns are firing at them and none of them gets hit. John Woo makes low BDQ movies. A high BDQ movie is one in which, if anyone shoots anyone, it's rare, and it's probably going to fuck the person up bad, if not kill them. "Reservoir Dogs" is a good example. Anyway, "Bad Boys II" is one of the lowest BDQ movies I've ever fucking seen. It was pretty much impossible to suspend disbelief for it, honestly, especially when you factor in all the other ridiculously deadly things that happen in the movie--like Haitians throwing cars off the back of a stolen tractor-trailer at Will Smith's car. Then you've got people driving through houses and public buildings... just sheer craziness. And no innocent bystanders ever die, no good guys ever get hit (except when Martin Lawrence takes a bullet in the ass at the very beginning of the movie), nothing bad ever really happens. Except when Will Smith or Martin Lawrence decides to take out a bad guy, and in those instances the bullets are suddenly dead-on accurate and extremely lethal. How does that work? Well, what did you expect, directorial consistency? From Michael Bay? Puh-LEEZE.

The other movie I saw last night was night and day from "Bad Boys II"--"Kissing Jessica Stein". It's about two mid-20s women, Jessica and Helen, who have both been traditionally hetero, and are both feeling lonely and unfulfilled in their current situations. Helen decides to try swinging the other way, places a personal ad with a Rilke quote, and Jessica, a Rilke fan, decides to respond. So then they end up in this weird relationship where neither of them is really sure what the hell they're even doing or whether they really want to be doing it. But it's really sweet and adorable in a lot of ways, too.

There were times when this movie felt a little too "Sex and the City" for me--i.e. the stories of comfortably middle-class women in New York City, working easy jobs that pay well and give them room for the artistic expression they want out of life. Hell, there are even points where characters quit jobs to become artists, and keep living in the same way--which strained my sense of disbelief to the breaking point, especially in an NYC setting. That shit isn't even possible in smaller, less expensive cities like the one I live in. I was able to forgive the movie for this, though, because ultimately, the story was well told, the characters were developed nicely and had multiple dimensions, and there were no easy choices made in the plot of Jessica and Helen's relationship. There were a few different points in the film where it was set up as if some Hollywood cliche was about to happen, and every time I was like, "Oh no, don't ruin it!" And every time, the movie went in a totally different direction than I expected, and the result was much better than what I would have predicted.

Honestly, the last 20 or 30 minutes bummed me out quite a bit more than was rational. I think maybe I'm not in the right frame of mind these days to watch movies about romantic relationships and not start examining myself and my less-than-perfect romantic life through their prism, so I think that accounts for my reaction at least somewhat. That said, the ending was definitely not what you'd expect from a Hollywood movie about the evolution of a relationship. It wasn't a total downer, either. On the whole, it avoided easy resolution on multiple levels, and I think it's a very well put-together little film, even if there are quite a bit of unexamined class issues percolating under the surface. I can let that slide in this movie, even if I can't in "Sex And The City", because the writing in "Kissing Jessica Stein" was way better.


I watched "The End Of Suburbia" earlier today. I tried to watch "The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh" first, and while I liked the first 30 minutes of it, my DVD player spit it out after that. My DVD player in my room is becoming unreliable--it's really hard to get it to close long enough to load a disc. I have to hold the drawer shut with my hand long enough for it to read the DVD or it just opens right back up and stays open. I think maybe a cross between this problem and perhaps an issue it had with the DVD of "Strange Vice" that I got from Netflix caused it to suddenly pop open in mid-film. Either way, I was fucked then, because I don't have a remote for my DVD player, which means that all I can do is hit play, stop, and eject. So I would have had to start the movie over, and it would probably have popped out at the same point, and I would have wanted to hang myself with frustration. My roommate will be in bed by 11 PM tomorrow or thereabouts, and I can watch the entire movie on the living room DVD player then, I suppose.

Anyway, where concerns "The End Of Suburbia", I'll give it this much--it was put together well. However, there's no doubt in my mind that I am not the target audience for that movie. As often happens when I watch rock-music-oriented documentaries, I did not learn a single thing that I didn't already know from this movie. Tellingly, at the beginning of the movie it lets you pick between a version with "some coarse language" and a "clean" version. The only "coarse language" I caught was James Howard Kunstler saying "clusterfuck" and "shitstorm" one time each. The fact that the movie gave you the option to avoid these mild swears leads me to think that it's mainly intended as a teaching tool. I'm sure it would blow the mind of anyone who doesn't already know all the stuff about peak oil and the problems with suburbia, etc, that the movie explained (assuming they were willing to believe it at all). For me, though, it was like a review. As I said, I didn't hear a thing that I didn't already know. As a result, I got bored by the middle of the movie and started cleaning my room while watching it. I certainly don't think it was bad, but I don't think it was that great, and I really don't think there was any point in my watching it.


Tonight, "The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh", in its entirety this time. I've discovered that the problem with this movie is not my room's DVD player but the DVD itself, as the living room DVD player had a hell of a time playing it as well. I could at least get the menu screen to appear in my room--downstairs, it reverted to playback-only mode, and although I got through the entire movie without incident, and got the menu screen to briefly show up after the movie was over, it glitched before I could watch the 30 minutes of interviews included as an extra on the DVD. On the third try, the player locked up completely and I had to turn the power off and back on twice to even get it to eject the DVD. So yeah, something's wrong with that copy of the movie. I suppose I should email Netflix and let them know.

As for the movie itself, well... I loved it. I'm a fan of the whole Argento/Bava Italian horror/giallo stuff in general, and while I've seen some movies in that genre made by lesser-known directors that were basically crap ("Torso" comes immediately to mind), "The Strange Vice Of Mrs. Wardh" was far from crap. Also, in a genre known for its convoluted-to-the-point-of-incomprehensibility plotting, I understood the plot the entire way through. There was one hole, which I won't mention in the interest of avoiding spoilers, but it was minor and in no way detracted from my enjoyment. Now, I feel less than totally confident in using the term "Grand Guignol" to describe this movie, as I'm still not quite sure I understand all that that term entails, but I got the sort of feel from it that I've always imagined Grand Guignol-type stuff to have: gory and bloody, but also infused with a very carnal sensibility, and a definitely sophisticated underlying tone, almost art-house in its construction and overall look. It wasn't that sort of trash-art feel that I get from a movie like "Driller Killer", which seems to pick up its more artistic elements almost by accident. It was more like the movie had a connection to the history of Italian art, with some almost statuesque set pieces appearing at points throughout the movie. This all stood in direct contrast to the scenes of brutal, bloody murder, in which the killer would slash at women (often scantily clad) with a razor blade. I found the female characters in the movie more believable than slasher-movie victims often are, too, as a lot of them fought back hard against the killer. However, I wouldn't go so far as to say that the film had a feminist sensibility, at least not intentionally--there were plentiful scenes of women walking around naked, taking showers, etc. Some of the victims of the killer were naked when set upon, in fact. And at other points in the film, for example during an early scene when Mrs. Wardh (played by the stunning Edwige Fenech) has sex with a paramour, there's a lot of gratuitous female flesh on display. The best example of this is probably the early party scene, in which two dancing women, wearing dresses made out of paper, are set upon by a male party guest, who tears one of their dresses. The other woman laughs at her embarrassment, and suddenly the two are fighting on the floor, making short work of each other's clothes, after which they're both rolling around naked for at least a minute while the other party guests encircle them, leering. This scene had nothing to do with the plot, and it reminded me of some of the weirder, more gratuitous scenes in Russ Meyer's "Beyond the Valley Of The Dolls"; in fact, the movie's direction generally came off like a collaboration between Meyer, Argento, and ... maybe Roger Corman? And Andy Warhol? Whatever, the point is that it was fascinating and original. It had a lot to offer in terms of plot, gore, scary scenes, artistically oriented set pieces, and, um, gratuitous female flesh.

A couple of other weird notes--since having a recent conversation about the Italian penchant for dubbing all of the audio in their movies, I did some studying of the lips of the characters in this movie, and discovered something really strange: Conchita Airoldi, the actress playing the character Carol, delivered all her lines in English. Sometimes, despite the audio track, I could tell that she was speaking the exact words that were appearing at the bottom of the screen in the English subtitles. Meanwhile, Edwige Fenech, George Hilton, and the other actors she was speaking to were all speaking Italian. And speaking of subtitles, they were horribly done where grammar is concerned and contained some really basic translation errors that could have been confusing if I weren't paying very close attention. The worst: a line spoken by Conchita Airoldi to George Hilton about Edwige Fenech, in which Airoldi's use of a pronoun is translated as "him" instead of "her". At other points, the sentences made no grammatical sense, and you had to rearrange them in your head. It was as if they translated each word, but left the grammar the way it was in Italian, which is a very different sort of language than English. They didn't do this a lot, but when it happened, it was really apparent.

Oh, and one final note--the creepy organ-based instrumental psychedelic music that was used for a soundtrack was stellar. I would totally buy a CD of it, if one existed. In fact, I should try and find out. I know soundtrack albums were made for some of those old giallo movies...


I've had "Pan's Labyrinth" from Netflix for something like a week, so I decided to go ahead and watch it. It was a good movie, and I found that I was really interested in all of it, but the way the Spanish Civil War elements of the plot were handled belied the amount of running time spent on them. When I think about the main plot of the movie, the Spanish Civil War elements seem like background, window dressing, just the addition of flavor and really a McGuffin to place the main character, Ofelia, in the setting of the film, rather than anything all that important to the plot. And yet, there's a considerable amount of time spent on the soldiers and the rebels and their conflicts, so I'm pretty sure writer/director Guillermo Del Toro was attempting to tie the plot of the fantasy storyline to the Civil War elements--in an allegorical fashion, I would assume. The fact that he didn't really succeed in this for me, that the story seemed to me to be about a little girl on a fantasy quest and not really about the Spanish Civil War at all, does not make the movie a failure in my eyes. On the contrary, the fantasy quest elements are entertaining, original, and multi-layered. There are several opportunities to engage in blatant cliche, and the movie avoids all of them. And of course, the technology used to bring the monsters and other fantastical elements to life is used brilliantly, and creates a beautiful movie that has an element of otherworldliness even as almost all of it takes place in locales that are recognizably on Earth. The Spanish Civil War elements establish enough of a narrative to let us know what's happening and why it's happening as we're watching it, but in some ways it is too bare-boned to completely make the audience care about what's happening. Perhaps it seems that way to me because I'm from America and don't even know the history of the Spanish Civil War all that well; perhaps no further establishment of the situation would even be necessary to a Spanish audience. I'm willing to ignore that entire question, really, because I certainly enjoyed the parts of the movie that were more dedicated to those plot elements, even though sometimes I couldn't quite see the way they tied back in with the fantasy-quest storyline.

The thing that impressed me the most about the movie, though, was the ending. Without giving away anything, I'll just say that it was ambiguous and leave it at that. However, I liked the ambiguity, the way it lets the viewer decide what they think really happened. It fit well with several other points during the movie, in which the plot went in a completely different direction than a fantasy-movie vetaran would have expected it to. The ending of the Spanish Civil War plotline was viscerally satisfying, too, even though it was hard to see the situation at the end as anything but temporary. I question whether this movie would be as enjoyable for anyone who came to it looking for something other than a fantasy movie. That said, I feel like it is an interesting and original fantasy movie, and therefore it's certainly worth watching for anyone who enjoys that genre. Those who are looking for significant commentary on the Spanish Civil War, though, might find it a bit wanting. Still, though, a very good movie.


Books I have recently read.

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson
I discovered Neal Stephenson with "Cryptonomicon", which was published almost a decade ago now. It blew me away with its epic length, its fascinating, multi-layered plot, its occasional moments of unexpected, gut-busting hilarity, and its clear, incisive writing, which was often put to use in explaining complicated scientific concepts in easy-to-follow terms that any layman (including me) could easily understand. The combination of all of these factors made "Cryptonomicon" so enjoyable to me that I soon began to tell people that Neal Stephenson was my favorite author, an assertion only given further weight when I devoured his back catalog and found it all to be outstanding (particularly "Snow Crash"). A few years after "Cryptonomicon", Stephenson released the sprawling Baroque Cycle, a trilogy that served as a prequel to "Cryptonomicon" and stretched to nearly 3000 pages in combined length. If anything, I may have enjoyed this trilogy even more than "Cryptonomicon"; it was obvious that his writing style was maturing, that he was reining in his tendency to go off on tangents while still utilizing such tactics on occasion (much more judiciously now), and that his word choices were becoming even better, his writing style even more clear than it had been before. His widely discussed switch from composing on a word processor to writing longhand with a fountain pen no doubt had something to do with his occasional restraint, but also avoided damaging his propensity for the epic explorations that drew me in in the first place. Now, with "Anathem", Stephenson expands even further on the maturation process that was obvious in "The Baroque Cycle", as well as mixing the cyberpunk futurism of earlier works like "Snow Crash" and "The Diamond Age" with his more recent studies of science's past in "The Baroque Cycle".

"Anathem" takes place on a planet called Arbre, which is much like Earth as far as environment, but has a somewhat different history. It takes place in what seems at first like a monastery in a lot of fundamental ways, but soon reveals itself through details to be quite different. Rather than focusing on worship of any god, the inhabitants of this monastery--which is co-ed and does not require celibacy of its inhabitants--devote themselves to studying principles of science and mathematics. They engage quite often in what we here on Earth would call Socratic dialogues, and discuss and work with a lot of important principles that come from our own scientific past--although on Arbre, things like Platonic forms and the Pythagorean theorem are named after different philosophers.

Almost immediately after the book starts, Apert begins, which is a 10-day ceremony at the beginning of each year in which certain inhabitants of the cloisters all over the world (and there are many, though "Anathem" revolves around one in particular) are allowed to interact with the outside world. The main character in "Anathem" is Erasmas, who is a Decenarian, also known as a Tenner, meaning that the gates of his area of the cloister open only once every 10 years. This book takes place in the year 3790, and therefore, during Apert, Erasmas sees the outside world for the first time in 10 years. Other inhabitants of the cloister get out every year (the Unarians), still others only every hundred years (the Centenarians), and there is even a part of the cloister that sits atop a nearby rocky crag, where the inhabitants are Millenarians; in other words, their gates only open every thousand years. The first third or so of the book (aka 300 or so of its 900 pages) merely deals with the events that occur during and surrounding Apert. This portion of the book is very entertaining, and we learn a lot both about the mathic world (for this is what the cloisters are called in the world of "Anathem"--maths) and the world outside, which is the sort of technology-saturated world that one can imagine existing on Earth in another century or so of unchecked development. However, it's hard to tell where the overarching plot of the book is taking us. In fact, such a thing doesn't become clear until halfway through or thereabouts, and at that point, Stephenson leaves off the considerable world-building that he's done in the first half of the novel and begins a more straightforward adventure/problem-solving plot that takes us through the rest of the novel. I don't really want to reveal anything that this later plot entails, as I would feel bad spoiling the first half of the book even though there is much that comes after it. Suffice it to say that all of this is very enjoyable and quite picaresque at points (much like parts of the Baroque Cycle). Some may feel that the earlier, less plot-oriented sections of the book are too long and involved, but on the contrary, by the end of the book it becomes obvious that all of the setup that goes on towards the beginning is essential in order to make the reader completely understand what happens in the end.

By the end of "Anathem", I felt every bit as blown away as I had when finishing "Cryptonomicon", "Snow Crash", and the Baroque Cycle. Stephenson once again builds up an entire world that I end up spending weeks immersed in, and when it all ends, it's hard to let go. It does help that he seems to have fixed his previous problems with abrupt endings that plagued some of his earlier books--he supplies us with a dozen-page epilogue that ties up all the loose ends the main plot left hanging--but still, it's always tough separating from one of these epic novels. "Anathem" is without a doubt one of the best books I have or will read this year, and I'm sure I will go back and reread it multiple times in the years to come.

Kill Whitey, by Brian Keene
For a quick-n-dirty gore/horror read, it doesn't get better than this. Brian Keene returns to the territory of "Terminal", an earlier novel of his in which he explores the world of down-on-their-luck working-class Pennsylvanians. "Terminal" has been hailed by some as Keene's best work, but I've honestly liked everything else I've read by him better. The idea was good--a broke-ass yo-boy with terminal cancer decides that the only way to provide a legacy for his wife and young son is to rob a bank--but the execution didn't work too well. Keene spent too much time in "Terminal" on setup and exposition, and devoted too little of the book's length to the action--the part when the bank actually got robbed. I suppose he might have been trying for depth of character, but instead it just felt contrived. The middle third of the book was a boring slog.

Thankfully, he fixes these pacing problems in "Kill Whitey". Furthermore, the plot is less cliche and better executed. The book begins with Larry, the narrator, and three of his friends ending up at a strip club after getting off the night shift at a local warehouse where they work. Larry finds himself smitten with the most beautiful stripper in the club, who we soon learn is an illegal emigrant from a former Soviet republic, forced to work in the strip club in exchange for passage to the U.S. by the Russian mafia who got her here and who run the club. The big boss at the club is a scary motherfucker named Whitey, so called because all of his hair is dead white, which makes him look rather frightening. Due to his infatuation with a stripper who doesn't know he exists, Larry starts spending all of his free time at the strip club. Then one night, a surprising chain of events unfolds that brings him into contact with Sondra, the stripper, and also puts Whitey on his trail. Whitey is a tough customer, and he isn't going to stop pursuing Larry until Larry kills him. The problem is that Whitey is exessively, and in fact unnaturally, hard to kill.

All of this gets into motion during the first fourth of the book, and from there it's a nonstop thrill ride. Larry tries to escape Whitey, Whitey just keeps coming. Larry beats the hell out of him, stabs him multiple times, even shoots him... he just keeps coming. There's plenty more to come, of course, but I don't want to spoil too much of the book for you, so let's leave it at that in terms of plot.

One thing I did find incredibly well-done in this book, and it's not something that is generally a strength for Keene, is the characterization of Larry and, to a lesser extent, the other major characters in the book. We learn early on that Larry's life is relatively empty; other than his work buddies, his parents, and his cat, he doesn't really see anyone. This makes him a prime target to fall in love with a stripper, which he very quickly does. All of this is eminently plausible, and Keene pulls it off because, in contrast with what he did in "Terminal", he doesn't belabor the point, or give us too many scenes of angst-ridden brooding to drive it home. Larry tells us of his situation, and then moves on with the story, but it's believable and easy to relate to, and it informs his actions throughout the rest of the book. This newfound ability to provide a character with real depth, which also showed up in "Ghoul", another of Keene's most recent works, is a welcome addition to his skill set, and one that will hopefully help him continue to improve the way he already has over the last couple of years. I loved "Ghoul" every bit as much as "Kill Whitey", and I haven't read "Dark Hollow", "Dead Sea", or the soon-to-be-released "Ghost Walk" yet, so I'm not ready to declare "Kill Whitey" Keene's best work. But it is easily the equal of anything else I've read by him, and stands head and shoulders above anything he was doing three years ago. This is a writer to watch. If he's this good now, less than a decade after his first book was published, imagine how good he could be in another 10 years.

The New York Four, by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly
This is an original graphic novel by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly, the team that brought you Local. I loved Local, and was glad to get this new tale from them, especially when I saw almost immediately that it had a very similar feel. It's the story of four girls who've moved into Manhattan to be freshmen at NYU. It especially focuses on Riley, a girl with overprotective parents who has learned to live on the internet rather than in real life. I hate to say it, because I could tell how pathetic it w...more This is an original graphic novel by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly, the team that brought you Local. I loved Local, and was glad to get this new tale from them, especially when I saw almost immediately that it had a very similar feel. It's the story of four girls who've moved into Manhattan to be freshmen at NYU. It especially focuses on Riley, a girl with overprotective parents who has learned to live on the internet rather than in real life. I hate to say it, because I could tell how pathetic it was as I was reading it, but I really related to the way Riley quickly developed a text-message only relationship with a boy who stuck his email address into her jacket pocket during a show. I could also relate to the way that all of the girls found their lives becoming much more complicated than they ever expected as they got more into the groove of college life. Same sort of stuff happened to me, and sometimes it was very hard to maintain focus on the things I was actually there to do. The way the story ended made me really sad--I saw the opportunity for an upbeat ending, and I assume Wood and Kelly did too, but they went in a very different direction and left things quite open-ended... though not looking like they're headed in a very good direction. I wonder if they're planning a sequel? I wouldn't mind if they did one, but in a way I think this version of the story was pretty perfect by itself.

The Devil You Know, by Mike Carey
This is an excellent story from a writer who has made his name writing graphic novels. In "The Devil You Know", Mike Carey makes clear that his skills transfer well from the graphic arts to pure writing. The main character in "The Devil You Know" is Felix Castor, an exorcist who lives in an alternate version of our world where ghosts, demons and zombies are facts of everyday life. Castor is similar to John Constantine of Hellblazer in his gruff personality type, love of cigs ...more This is an excellent story from a writer who has made his name writing graphic novels. In "The Devil You Know", Mike Carey makes clear that his skills transfer well from the graphic arts to pure writing. The main character in "The Devil You Know" is Felix Castor, an exorcist who lives in an alternate version of our world where ghosts, demons and zombies are facts of everyday life. Castor is similar to John Constantine of Hellblazer in his gruff personality type, love of cigs n' booze, and mastery over supernatural manifestations. In this book, he's hired by an archival library to exorcise a ghost that has been haunting the library for a couple of months and is growing steadily more violent. Generally, when hired to exorcise a ghost, he does the job without worrying about why the ghost is there in the first place. But this time he gets curious, and starts trying to figure out where the ghost comes from. And that's when the trouble starts. Before the whole thing is over, he's run afoul of Eastern European mob figures, unscrupulous fellow exorcists, a paranoid zombie who still retains his original intelligence and extreme focus, and a lot of other fascinating characters, not all of which are paranormal in origin but all of which have the potential to be very dangerous. This novel is 500 pages long and yet I was swept right up in its quickly moving wake, enjoying every minute of it. I could definitely see similarities to the work of other English writers of dark-fantasy comic books, such as Alan Moore and Warren Ellis. However, Carey's distinct voice outshines his influences and makes this, his first prose novel, well worth seeking out. He's apparently got a sequel out now in hardcover, and I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for that.

Running With The Devil: The Best Of Hail Saten, Vol. II, by Brian Keene
I've been reading Brian Keene's writing since 2001. Halloween 2001, actually, because on that day, the bookstore where I work had a signing featuring half a dozen horror writers. None of them sold too many books, which was honestly par for the course back then--we were in a shitty location. But because we weren't all that busy, I had time to talk to the writers that were there. I was wearing an Emperor shirt, and Brian Keene and I ended up talking about metal for 20 minutes. He struck me as a really cool guy, and I bought the book he was selling that day--"No Rest For The Wicked: Redux", the second of three versions of his first short story collection. It had some horrific editing mistakes in it, and not all of the stories were great, but I could see some real talent there, and over the next few years, I kept up with his career as he got a mass-market deal with Leisure and released "The Rising", the zombie novel that brought him to widespread attention. When "The Rising" was released, he came back to the store for another, more well-attended signing, and in the years since then, he's made it back down a few more times. I feel like I've gotten to know Brian a little from our time hanging out during those signings (and, a couple times, afterwards at the bar). We don't agree about everything--sometimes he likes bands I hate, and sometimes I hold political views he thinks are crazy--but I really like him. He's a good dude.

I think that bit of personal history has something to do with my enjoyment of these collections of blog entries that he releases every so often. I can hear his voice in the way the entries are written, and sometimes I know the stories I'm reading from hearing them from him one of the times we hung out. They're engaging in the way Brian is engaging as a person; sometimes he's a bit rough around the edges, and sometimes he's a bit harsher than you might like him to be, but he's always honest and he's always sincere, and in the end, no matter how brusque he might be, the fact that he's a really good guy always shines through.

I don't think the fact that I know him and see him in these entries is the only reason I like them, though. Brian's good at telling stories, and he has a lot of interesting ones to tell. "Running With The Devil" dates from the time period when "The Rising" had first become successful, and covers the next year or so in his life, including the book tour he did for the sequel to "The Rising", "City Of The Dead". Some truly nutty things happened to him on this tour, and in addition to all of that, he had a lot of serious issues on his mind, relating to his personal life. The journal entries he wrote during that time are written with emotions close to the surface, so they aren't just interesting stories--they're stories you can relate to. I don't know what happened in Brian's life around that time; he doesn't say in the book, and we never discussed it in person. It's not important, though. His struggles with religion, his responsibilities and obligations to his family, his relationships with friends and fans, and his idea of who he is as a person are all easy to understand. We've all been there. We all know what it's like to suffer, and to be unsure of your place in the world.

"Running With The Devil" is like getting a letter from a good friend going through a hard time. It makes you worry about what's going down with him, even if there isn't anything you can do to help. And it makes you see your own life in a slightly different light. Some of the stories crack you up, and some of them might make you sad, but in the end, it's just good to hear from Brian. It's good to know that good people are out there fighting the good fight. I'm glad he's able to tell his stories in an engaging, eloquent manner, and I'm glad he puts these collections of often-ephemeral blog writings out there in a more permanent form. I enjoyed reading them, and I'm sure I'll come back to this book in the coming years.

The New Fear: The Best Of Hail Saten, Vol. III, by Brian Keene
Picked this one right up the second I finished "Running With The Devil". In some ways, it was a relief after the sense of emotional and metaphysical struggling that dominated that book; "The New Fear" seems to come from a more balanced perspective, a slightly less turbulent point in Keene's life, than did its immediate predecessor. This book is less focused than "Running With The Devil" as well; if it has a theme, said theme is Adam Senft, Keene's fictional narrator...more Picked this one right up the second I finished "Running With The Devil". In some ways, it was a relief after the sense of emotional and metaphysical struggling that dominated that book; "The New Fear" seems to come from a more balanced perspective, a slightly less turbulent point in Keene's life, than did its immediate predecessor. This book is less focused than "Running With The Devil" as well; if it has a theme, said theme is Adam Senft, Keene's fictional narrator in his novel "Dark Hollow". Originally, he'd planned a marketing campaign around that novel that involved him pretending to be a real author named Adam Senft on the internet, only revealing the hoax when "Dark Hollow" was released. However, after that novel lost its initial publisher, delaying its release by about two years, Keene gave up on this plan. So, shortly after the book begins, the Adam Senft conceit is thrown by the wayside in favor of general stories about book tours, horror fiction industry whackjobs, and the trials and tribulations of living on several isolated acres in rural central Pennsylvania. He mixes these stories with advice for aspiring authors, generally delivered in a curmudgeonly tone reminiscent of his personal heroes Hunter S. Thompson, Howard Stern, and Spider Jerusalem (who is actually a fictional character created by Warren Ellis). The tone of this volume of blog entries is remarkably even, especially for the notoriously manic Keene... until the very end, when something quite shocking and unexpected occurs. I don't want to ruin it for you, so I'll say no more than to mention that the last 50 pages or so change the tone of the book completely. One starts to see the rest of the book in a completely different light. And if anything, this is why I didn't give this volume five stars, like I did "Running With The Devil"--knowing what I learned at the very end, I found myself wishing that the big reveal had come earlier. I guess at this point I have no choice but to wait for Volume 4. And believe me, I will be doing so anxiously.

Dark Hollow, by Brian Keene
I don't generally get on a one-author kick. Usually, no matter how much I enjoy a book, once I've read it, I'm in the mood for something else, another style. And yet this is the third Brian Keene book I've read in a row, and the fourth this month. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the first two of the three in a row were collections of blog entries; the switch from non-fiction to fiction might have been enough to keep my interest from waning. That doesn't seem all that likely, though--"Dark Hollow" is, out of all of Brian Keene's horror novels, the closest in setting, characterization, and events, to his real life. Adam Senft, the narrator, is a midlist author living in semi-rural central Pennsylvania. He and his wife have tried to start a family but have been traumatized by multiple miscarriages--Adam is starting to seriously question his faith in God, both as a being that exists at all and as a being that is benevolent rather than uncaring or actively hateful towards his creations. Adam has been banging out contractually obligated sequels to his surprise-hit first novel for a while, and has finally reached a point where he can focus on what he really wants to write. He wakes up every morning, walks his trusty dog Big Steve, and then sits down and writes all day, while smoking lots of cigarettes and drinking a ton of coffee. If you, like me, have read "Running With The Devil" and "The New Fear", you'll recognize this guy. In fact, at the end of "The New Fear", Keene admitted that he'd written "Dark Hollow" as a sort of therapy in order to purge the traumas that had happened in his life during the time period immediately before and during its writing. In this way, it's no more about a satyr living in the woods behind a small central Pennsylvania town, kidnapping and bewitching the women of said town and forcing the men of the town to take up arms against it, than "The Rising" was about a zombie apocalypse, or "Terminal" was about a bunch of no-future yo-boys robbing a bank, or "Ghoul" was about three suburban kids dealing with a monster coming to life in their neighborhood cemetery.

I felt that "Terminal"s Tommy O'Brien was somewhat of a weak characterization, and that "The Rising"s Jim Thurmond was better but still not perfect. However, "Dark Hollow"s Adam Senft stands with "Ghoul"s Timmy Graco as Keene's best and most three-dimensional characterization yet. As I pointed out, Senft is basically an alter ego for Keene, and that helps, just as Timmy Graco was an alter ego to Keene's 12-year old self. However, there's a good reason writers are exhorted to write what they know; it helps them bring stories to life. Because, see, it's not plot that's most important in fiction. Especially in genre fiction, most plots are the same few stories told over and over. We, the readers, care because of how vividly the characters are brought to life, and how much we come to care about those characters. There are as many possibilities for unique characters as there are people in the world today. In fact, probably more. They are the difference between bad books, decent books, and great books. Because of how vivid a character Adam Senft is, and because his wife Tara, his neighbors Merle, Dale, Cliff, and Cory, and even his dog, Big Steve, are nearly as vivid, "Dark Hollow" is a great book.

Despite my downplaying of the importance of plot, storytelling is still important to any novel, and Keene handles it well here. The action scenes are riveting, and there are some serious scares at certain points during the book. There's only so much originality he can bring to the basic framework of this storyline, but he manages to do so, providing a lot of relatively obscure detail concerning rural Pennsylvania folk magic, aka "powwow", and further expanding upon his Labyrinth mythos, which he's touched on in several of his books, most notably "The Rising" and "City Of The Dead". The antagonist in "Dark Hollow" being a satyr, there's a good bit of sex-based activity woven into the basic horror of the book, and in a lesser writer's hands this could get embarrassing quickly, but Keene manages to add in the lurid details without ever overdoing it and forcing the reader out of the story with sophomoric lewdness.

In the end, I don't know how this book could possibly be improved. SPOILERS START HERE: Even Keene's rather depressing tendency to end all of his books on a very downbeat note is tempered here. The world doesn't end, and not everyone dies. Things don't come out wonderfully either, with everyone living happily ever after. Truth to tell, I think he strikes a very proper balance between totally downbeat and the sort of cheesy, implausible upbeat ending that a lot of lesser horror fiction reaches for--probably the sort of thing that inspired Keene to make so many of his endings so dark. To a great extent, both in this book and other recent work of his, he has stopped engaging in his tendency to overcompensate for those sorts of endings and struck a balance that can best be described as... realistic. The ending of "Dark Hollow" is about as plausible an ending as one could imagine for such a storyline. It's every bit as good as the book that has preceded it.

And you know what? Now I'm just excited to read more of Keene's books.



Crawling in the dark.

This morning, my clock radio woke me up with the "New Rock" (i.e. "alternative rock" back in the 90s, which has now become mainstream and can't be called alternative anymore) radio station, as it usually does. The song it was playing was "Crawling In The Dark" by Hoobastank. Now, back in 2001, before the horror that was "The Reason" hit the airwaves and convinced everyone with tastes less mainstream than the average Nickelback fan that Hoobastank was as terrible as their name, I was a big fan of this song. In fact, I even bought their self-titled first album (at the time bargain priced at Tower, costing me all of $9). And for the most part, I liked it, especially "Crawling In The Dark", which was the sole reason that I bought it. I had liked Incubus's "Make Yourself" album (in hindsight, the only solid record they ever released), and "Crawling In The Dark" reminded me of the better songs on that album, but with an element of Quicksand-ish post hardcore mixed in. Honestly, it was right up my alley. But for various reasons, most notably the terrible band name and the aforementioned beyond-awful power ballad that finally secured their fame, Hoobastank fell out of favor with me. Ultimately, even for me, the guy who is often willing to champion bands in the face of universal revulsion, the stigma became too much, and I forgot about Hoobastank.

Hearing "Crawling In the Dark" on the clock-radio this morning, though, I found myself, still half-asleep, singing along under my breath. Between my less than full wakefulness and my recently vulnerable emotional state, the song was able to penetrate all of my defenses and connect with me on the same level where it hit me back in 2001. Actually, maybe even on a deeper level. They may not be brilliant, deathless examples of the form, but nonetheless, the lyrics really hit home for me this morning, waking up from an uneasy sleep after going to bed depressed. "Help me carry on, show me it's OK to use my heart and not my eyes to navigate the darkness", the singer says during the second verse. Then, in the chorus, "Is there something more than what I've been handed? I've been crawling in the dark, looking for the answer." No matter how cliched some of the turns of phrase here may be, they're a pretty accurate encapsulation of how I've been feeling lately.

The other thing about "Crawling In the Dark" that I haven't considered in a long time is just how good of a song it is. Granted, there's a bit too much production sheen overlaying the whole thing, and some of the lead guitar lines are fed through rather gimmicky effects--the kind of thing that you can imagine someone found by tinkering around with one of those huge effects racks that prog-rock worshipping guitar geeks think can stand in for actual talent. But despite all of that, it's a really catchy song. The chorus is driven by a melodic yet rocking riff, and the bridge has some real intensity to it, which brings things into the song's final chorus with enough energy to give it a powerful climactic effect. As mentioned before, Incubus were able to write quite a few songs like this around the time of their "Make Yourself" album, but "Crawling In the Dark" nixes Incubus's funk/rapcore influences in favor of a post-hardcore feel, particularly noticeable on the chugging, stop-start riff that follows the second chorus.

After hearing this song when I woke up this morning, I went digging for my copy of the first Hoobastank album. It's been so long since I had any desire to hear it that it took me 15 minutes to locate the obscure resting place in which it had finally washed up. It didn't have a jewel case anymore--scavenged in order to sell a caseless promo I received from a magazine and thought I could get a few bucks for--but I still had it, stuffed into a plastic sleeve along with its cover and tray card. Whatever had compelled me to single out this particular CD for the indignities it had suffered, it still survived somewhere in the darkest depths of my collection. And I'm glad it did; back in 2001 I thought it was a pretty solid CD. If "Crawling In The Dark" had been the only song on the record that I liked, I may very well have sold it soon after purchasing it, but I'd actually liked quite a few of the songs on it. Track 4, "Pieces", was a particularly good one, emphasizing the post-hardcore elements of Hoobastank's sound in order to create a chugging uptempo track that, with different vocals and production, could have fit in on an At The Drive In album. "Better" is a slower, groovier track, but showcases some of the same post-hardcore influences, combining them with an infectious chorus. "Up And Gone" is quite similar to better, though it's a bit more mainstream-sounding; it's still got enough energy and power behind its sound to be good, though. In fact, in my memory, the only bad songs had been the last two--an atrocious ballad called "To Be With You", which apparently represented foreshadowing too subtle for me to pick up on, and "Give It Back", which attempted to inject that whole Incubus/Chili Peppers funk influence that's absent elsewhere on the album back into Hoobastank's sound and fails miserably, at least at being a good song. Listening to it now, I'm not as charitable as I once was; "Pieces" is still awesome, and of course "Crawling In the Dark" is too, but "Running Away" is pretty ballady, moreso than I remember, and some of the other songs don't rock nearly as hard as I'd thought they did back then. Really, only about 50% of the album still sounds good to me at this point. That said, I can't take anything away from "Crawling In The Dark". It's an excellent song. Time may have proven it to be the exception rather than the rule where Hoobastank is concerned, but that's OK. I don't have to love everything they've done to have sincere affection for this particular song. And I do. I'm not ashamed. I'll probably be ripping it to my Ipod before the day is over. And honestly, I might even rip two or three other songs from this album too.

Hoobastank - Crawling In the Dark



If I could, I would let it go.

Lately things have been a bit touch and go where my emotional state is concerned. At the worst point, I had to call a friend of mine at nearly 2 AM to come over and talk with me until I calmed down. We sat on my porch til 4 AM and I talked about all the things I want out of life and am not getting, and of course she had no answers for me. But I felt better afterwards, just getting it all out.

Tonight I was bored and ended up watching some stuff that's been sitting on my DVR for months. Specifically, I saw the "Stadium Rock" episode of "The 7 Ages Of Rock", a program originally produced for British television that was aired on VH1 Classic back in December. I recorded all 7 episodes but only watched the first two back when they came on. I pretty quickly became convinced that these were just recapitulations of things I already knew, and that my advanced knowledge of the history of rock music made watching these programs a waste of time.

But tonight I was bored and since I've been emotionally fragile lately, it seemed like a program about rock music was a good one to watch and stay pretty emotionally neutral about. The first episode I saw was about heavy metal, and it was exactly what I was looking for--something kinda cool, something about music I really liked, something that didn't stir up any really strong emotions in me. Then I watched the episode about stadium rock, thinking it would be even less engaging and less about music that I liked. I wondered if I'd get bored before the end and turn it off.

What I wasn't thinking about was the fact that a bunch of bands I've really liked over the ages have been hugely popular, and that a lot of what connected with me about them was the sort of emotional sincerity and intensity that made them work for a lot of people. I've never been the sort of dude to make a big connection with Queen or Led Zeppelin, but there was a big segment of the episode about Bruce Springsteen, and that kind of sandbagged me a bit. Hearing songs like "Rosalita" and "Born To Run", even in the background during voiceovers, got me a bit emotional.

But nothing could have prepared me for the emotional wallop I'd receive when they started talking about U2. Now, I don't really listen to U2 much anymore. Even though they were one of the first bands I was seriously excited about as a kid--probably when I was about 11 years old--I've lost a lot of my enthusiasm for them over the years, and I don't really even think they've made that many good records in recent years. For me, their prime ended after "Rattle and Hum", and while "Achtung Baby" and "Zooropa" are still pretty good, even those records are 15+ years old now.

So yeah, don't think about U2 much. And for that reason, it's easy for me to forget just how amazing some of their classic anthems are. As a function of the whole "stadium rock" narrative that the program was constructing, the focus first turned to U2 when Live Aid was being discussed. I have long known that this was the beginning of U2's fame, but as I was only 9 when Live Aid happened, and since I didn't get really into them for a couple of years after that, I've never seen their Live Aid performance. I've heard about it, though, and I know the story: in the middle of an incredibly long performance of the song "Bad", Bono climbs down from the stage, pulls a girl out of the crowd, and hugs her. They slowdance for a minute, and he climbs back onstage and finishes the song. As described in Eamon Dunphy's U2 biography, "Unforgettable Fire", it's apparently a very moving moment, but I'd never seen it. Well, in the middle of this British TV show about stadium rock, there it was: about a minute of the U2 Live Aid performance, including the hug. And suddenly, watching it, I was bawling.

I know to a lot of people Bono is synonymous with overblown pretension, and I know that a lot of people see his attempts at sincerity as out-of-control egotism. I've never really thought that. In fact, I've always felt that, after "Rattle and Hum", Bono kind of freaked out at his own emotional openness during live performances, which is why U2 changed so dramatically at that point. He pulled back because, once they were as famous as they were, it was fucking draining to open himself up for 3 hours a night in front of 50,000 people or so. So he created all these characters and turned the performance into a stage show, and that was cool, I guess.

But for me, the earlier era of U2 is much better. It takes so much more guts to just go for it, to write songs about really intense emotions and then put them out there for everyone to hear, and it's even more impressive than that to perform them live without winking, without ever attempting to belittle the emotional connection that someone might have with a song but instead to maybe even accentuate such a thing. That's what I see in Bono hugging a girl in the front row at Live Aid. But I feel like I haven't explained why I see this adequately enough to make it clear to anyone else. So let me try to expand on all that.

After watching that stadium rock episode, I came up to my room and started working on cleaning it. Part of me has been feeling lately like the messiness of my room is keeping me from functioning very well while I'm in it, specifically preventing me from getting any writing done. So I've been planning to clean it for a while, and I was still kind of antsy after freaking out a little bit due to that unexpectedly affecting U2 footage. It seemed like a good thing to do to burn off some nervous energy and hopefully focus my thoughts and emotions a bit. But I wanted to listen to "Bad", so I grabbed the vinyl copy of U2's "Wide Awake In America" that I once bought for a quarter at a sidewalk sale and put it on. I've owned that EP for years, and I don't think I've ever listened to it before tonight, but I guess I knew when I bought it that there would come a point when I would want it. That foresight came in handy tonight.

As I cleaned my room, I kept playing the first side, the live side, over and over. Just "Bad" and "A Sort Of Homecoming"--about 12 minutes total. I probably heard it 10 times while I was cleaning my room. And I got a bit choked up while listening to "Bad" the first time through, but I figured I'd be OK after that. However, I kept getting emotional about it over and over throughout the night; I'd be OK the 7th and 8th time through but then get upset all over again during the 9th listen. I still wanted to hear it, though, and this is why: because I relate to it. I know from having read U2 biographies as a kid that it's about crappy subsidized-housing tenement neighborhoods near where Bono grew up, and specifically about the sort of drug abuse that happens in places like that, where drugs at first seem like the only escape from your crappy circumstances but soon become the very thing that's keeping you in those circumstances. Nonetheless, though, I see myself in the lyrics. A lot of songs that people write to express concern about the drug problems of other people sound to me like they could just as easily be expressing concern about depression. Drug addiction, after all, is often a symptom of insecurity, low self-esteem, or hopelessness, and so is depression. When Bono sings "If I could, through myself, set your spirit free, I'd lead your heart away--see you break, break away into the light," he's talking about wishing he could help someone break their addiction, but he's not being specific. The addiction could be cocaine, but it could also be feelings of depression, which, let me tell you, are just as addictive in their own way as drugs. See, depression becomes easy after a while. It's easier not to try and make your life better. It's easier to keep turning back to the same self-deprecating explanations for why things don't get better. It's hard to find that courage, to break away into the light. Sometimes it's fucking impossible. And while your friends and loved ones might wish they could do it for you, you can only do it yourself.

The music has a role to play here, too. "Bad" is based around a really simple song structure, in which The Edge plays a really simple rotating guitar riff and the rhythm section builds up to crescendoes, then quiets back down afterwards, several times. The song's most intense buildup, about 2/3 of the way through, coincides with a part of the lyrics in which Bono starts listing all of the bad feelings that the person he's singing to gets trapped in: "This desparation, dislocation, separation, condemnation, revelation, in temptation, isolation, desolation." When the buildup reaches its crescendo, he sings "Let it go!" It's a very powerful confluence of music and lyrics, and I've always gotten goosebumps from it, but at the same time, it's not that simple. Sure, "let it go, and so fade away" is an awesome idea where depression and hopelessness are concerned. One would like to be able to let go of addictions to negative substances, be they physical or emotional. But I feel like, in writing "Bad", Bono was smart enough to recognize that this is not an easy thing to do. Hence all of the comments about "If I could, I would"; he knows he can't. The song is a gesture of solidarity, at most, an expression of concern and an attempt to let the person it's directed to know that they are not alone. But he can't save them--letting them know that he cares is the most he can do.

And I feel like this is the context in which the hug exists. Coming as it does right after the big crescendo I mentioned before, coming after the last time in the song that he says "Let it go", the hug is just an extension of the supportive emotion that the rest of the song expresses. I know from the Dunphy book that he was doing this at pretty much every show during that era, that "Bad" had become a centerpiece of their live sets, and that, since they were typically playing much smaller venues than Wembley Stadium, where the Live Aid performance happened, it was pretty easy for him to wade into the crowd at that point in the song and hug someone. And doing so is more than just a physical act--it becomes a greater symbol, a hug for one person in the crowd because there isn't time for him to hug everybody. But I've always understood the gesture to mean that he wishes he could.

When I was in my mid-20s, Andy Greenwald published a book called "Nothing Feels Good", about the then-burgeoning emo culture. At the time, Dashboard Confessional was the biggest of the emo groups, and Greenwald's book focused heavily on them. Although I didn't like Dashboard Confessional too much, I was still interested in what the book had to say, because I grew up in the earlier, underground version of the emo culture. Funnily enough, it was Greenwald's book that got me into Taking Back Sunday, and led me to like a lot of the more mainstream emo bands that I'm into now. But anyway, the reason I brought this book up is because Greenwald talks extensively in the book about the way teenagers experience music, and how he felt this was affecting Dashboard Confessional's fanbase. He himself found the overwhelming sincerity and emotional openness of Dashboard Confessional's music a bit off-putting, as if it was a bit tasteless to just let it all hang out that way. However, in his experience writing about the band and their predominantly teenage fans, he found that the same elements of their music that bothered him were often the most important elements to Dashboard Confessional's teenage fans. He ended up concluding that, because the teenage years are tough times, emotionally speaking, full of experiences that have extensive effects on a person's psyche, that teenagers relate to music that is dramatic, sincere, and open, because they're trying to figure themselves and their own emotions out, and haven't really learned how to cover them up and tamp them down enough to experience them more tastefully. By extension, he figures that one's emotional landscape generally settles down by the time one enters adulthood, and teenage music fans who wanted the open displays of emotion that mark groups like Dashboard Confessional calm down and no longer look for this sort of thing in music.

Ever since reading that book, I've been hyperaware of the fact that I experience music in a manner Greenwald would describe as teenaged. I'm 32 years old right now, but I'm still having a lot of intense emotional experiences on a day to day basis that are hard to deal with. I'm still looking for music to make an overt, sincere connection with me on the basis of those very emotions. Maybe there are a lot of adults out there whose lives become calm and sedate once they hit their mid-20s or so, but it hasn't happened for me yet, and I wonder a lot of times whether it ever will.

I think the fact that it hasn't is a lot of what makes me still love U2's "Bad", still connect with the overt dramatics of their Live Aid performance of that song, and still think that the sincerity of early U2 is something to be appreciated in their music from that era, not something to sneer at and look down on. This is probably also why I still have a lot of sympathy for a guy like Bono, even though these days he seems like more of a laughingstock than anything for most of my peers. I don't really like what U2 releases anymore, but I'll probably always have a place in my heart for their first 8 albums or so, and I'll probably always respect them, and Bono in particular, as artists.

It seems to me that for a lot of people, it's easy to get cynical about Bono and plenty of other performers like him (Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance, another band I unabashedly love, springs immediately to mind). It's easy to look at the elements of U2's music and performance that I've always seen as sincere and emotionally-motivated gestures as pretension, egotism, and a desire to be worshipped. I think the difference between what other people see in Bono and U2 and what I see in them really derives from where we are in life. It's easy to be cynical about music, and about musicians, when you don't need it, and you don't need them. It's the difference between what for them is background entertainment and what for me is often a virtual lifeline--the thing that is saving my life on that particular day. At times like the one I'm currently going through, a song is sometimes the only thing that makes me feel OK enough to keep on living. Maybe if I could have a little more emotional distance on the subject, I could better evaluate whether Bono is sincere or just pretentious, whether "Bad" is an incredible song or just overblown melodramatics writ too large.

I don't know if I'll ever get there. But really, I don't mind that much. If I need these songs to save my life, so be it. At least I can always count on them to be there, to give me a virtual hug at my lowest moments.

U2 - Bad (live, from "Wide Awake In America")
U2 - Bad (at Live Aid--full performance)



Movie diary, 7/10/08-7/14/08


So last night, I saw "Glengarry Glen Ross". All I knew about it was that David Mamet had written it, and that a lot of awesome actors were in it. That was enough for me, as I've always enjoyed Mamet's writing, and it was not a disappointment. As with a lot of Mamet's work that I've seen, it just seemed like a showcase for a bunch of really well-drawn characters to have a lot of interesting and believable conversations. The way the incident that will become the hinge on which the plot turns is first brought into the movie is pretty subtle, and made a lot of sense to me. I was surprised and a bit upset by the twist ending, too. Al Pacino ended up not being in the movie as much as I expected due to his top billing, but the parts he was in were some of my favorites. As a friend of mine commented when I mentioned that I'd seen the movie, "that's a scenery-chewing movie." Pacino is always liable to chew some scenery, and he does a great job of it while he's onscreen. Also, I have to give props to Jack Lemmon, who gave a subtler but ultimately more affecting performance. Pretty great movie, on the whole. I'm gonna have to check out more of Mamet's stuff in the near future.


So I watched "Driller Killer" last night. I had thought I'd seen it before, and I guess I saw part of it, but it became obvious to me about halfway through that I never finished it. I think this is because I first saw it in 2001 or so, when I was watching a whole lot of 70s-era American and Italian horror movies, and I expected it to fall into a similar style. Therefore, the fact that it's such a strange movie really threw me and I couldn't get into it. Now that I'm watching a lot more 60s era Corman movies and 70s "New Hollywood" stuff on a regular basis, I feel like I have more of a context to understand this movie in. It reminded me of those two styles mixed together, really--the subtlety of narrative of early 70s New Hollywood, with the grotty low-cost sensibilities of Corman, except even grottier. It felt like the movie was made for about a thousand bucks. The analogy I would draw is this: if "The French Connection" is the Rolling Stones, "Driller Killer" is the Godz. In other words, so raw and unschooled that it's barely recognizable as descended from its influences. But, as anyone who knows me by now might guess, this all means that I loved it. I did, I fucking LOVED it. It drew me in from the very first scene, with the old guy in the church grabbing the main character's hand, which made no sense at all in the context of the movie or anything else but did a great job of setting the mood. The very last scene in the movie actually didn't do it for me, I must confess, because it seemed really unrealistic. It fit with the narrative a movie viewer might construct in their mind, but there were tons of holes in the logic of it. However, the rest of the movie was so great that it didn't really bother me at all, in the greater scheme of things.

You know, it almost doesn't even feel like a horror movie. Granted, dude kills people with a drill, but I didn't feel like the movie was about that so much as it was about the really bleak underside of trying to live as a starving artist in New York city in the 70s. The movie captures the city at its absolute worst, and while, due to a lot of the artistic stuff going on there at the time, it's easy for me to romanticize that period of New York's history, "Driller Killer" brought home the fact that it could sometimes be a pretty terrible place to live. Even before the main character snaps and starts killing homeless people with a drill, the movie makes clear that the whole city is somewhat menacing to people who have to live there. The band that moves into the apartment house and practices at all hours of the day and night with impunity is another sign of just how badly the whole place is falling apart. Actually, although it's much more of a straight up horror/slasher movie, I get a lot of the same vibe from the movie "Maniac", which has its killer wandering the streets and subways of New York at night too. In a lot of ways, it feels like the decayed environment in the city is what lets the killers in both movies get away with their crimes for so long.

So yeah, pretty great movie. Oh, and by the way, I tried to watch the commentary, expecting the notorious drunken Abel Ferrara ramblings to be funny, but instead the shit was excruciating. Basically like a drunk friend of yours is sitting on the couch next to you watching the movie and loudly reacting to everything that happens on screen without ever telling you much of anything that you can't figure out on your own. I lasted about 5 minutes with the commentary track--though I did watch his commentary over the lesbian shower scene, and whoever said it was super creepy and lascivious was right.


Saw "Sunshine" last night. My main thought coming away from that movie: fuck space. Space is scary. I guess it's just my fear of heights taken to the ultimate extreme; in space, I may not fall from a great height and splatter, but I may very well just hang there forever, which in a lot of ways is even worse. It's like falling into a bottomless pit, only it's infinitely cold and there's no air to breathe. Even if you get stuck in a spacesuit or even a malfunctioning spaceship, it's just a question of time. I don't ever want to go anywhere without air to breathe and ground to stand on.

So that's what "Sunshine" brought home to me, which I suppose speaks well for the job it did making clear what it would be like to be in space. It also made the movie into a horror movie for me, whether or not that's what was intended. The plot was pretty bleak anyway; the space mission in the movie happens because the sun is going out and plunging Earth into a permanent ice age. The crew of the ship needs to drop a huge nuke into the sun to bring it back to its former strength, or else the Earth will eventually become uninhabitable. Then, once they get most of the way to the sun, they detect a distress signal from an earlier mission that tried to do the same thing--a ship presumed lost 7 years earlier. The crew decides to try and rendezvous with that ship, and from that point, the entire mission slowly starts to unravel.

The story is very well told, and the spaceship environment is created realistically, without any gratuitous "wow!" moments or cheesy sci-fi effects. It's definitely the most plausible space movie I've ever seen, and it's made moreso by the way the characters casually use all of the technology without trying to over-explain any of it. In the end, all of the outer-space trappings of the movie become background, and it is revealed to be a subtle, character-driven movie about the way people function under stress and deal with things going wrong when they have a mission to carry out. I think this is a lot of why I like "Sunshine" so much. A lot of times, science fiction movies are primarily about setting and technology, maybe with some mystery or epic-quest type plotline thrown in. This movie is primarily about the people that inhabit it, and that puts it head and shoulders above the typical space movie. Highly recommended.



The last couple months in book reviews.

This is gonna be a long one, because I neglected to make any of these posts for a while. My bad. Also, these reviews originally appeared on goodreads.com, and may contain some stuff that's out of context due to the venue transfer. I haven't gone over them, just copy-pasted, due to time limitations. If anything's weird or nonsensical, I apologize.

Maggie Cassidy, by Jack Kerouac
** spoiler alert ** It's been a long time since I read a book by Jack Kerouac. When I was younger and first read "On The Road", "Dharma Bums", "The Subterraneans", "Visions Of Cody", and the several others of his that I've read, I loved his stuff. But as I've gotten older, and the distance between me and the last time I read any Kerouac has grown, the criticism that the guy comes in for in certain circles has gotten to me a bit, and I've found myself wondering at times whethe...more It's been a long time since I read a book by Jack Kerouac. When I was younger and first read "On The Road", "Dharma Bums", "The Subterraneans", "Visions Of Cody", and the several others of his that I've read, I loved his stuff. But as I've gotten older, and the distance between me and the last time I read any Kerouac has grown, the criticism that the guy comes in for in certain circles has gotten to me a bit, and I've found myself wondering at times whether or not he's as awesome as I remember. Well, I've got a few Kerouac books that I've picked up over the years that I still haven't read yet, this being one of them, and for whatever reason, a couple days ago when I hit up the bookshelf in my room for something new to read, my eyes lit upon "Maggie Cassidy". This book tells the story of Kerouac's first serious relationship, which happened when he was in high school, and I remembered liking the first chapter when I picked it up several years ago and read through it in a bookstore. I thought I'd probably enjoy it if I picked it up again now, since it isn't one of the weirder, less linear Kerouac books--like "Visions Of Cody", which I struggled a bit with, or "Desolation Angels", which I've owned for years and still haven't made it through. The opening few chapters are a pretty straightforward story about Jack Duluoz, Kerouac's literary stand-in, going to a New Year's Eve dance with his friends. It's told in third person, and has that lyrical mix of straightforward description and stream-of-consciousness rambling that is so intrinsic to everything I've read by Kerouac--it sucked me right in. I knew I'd enjoy the book from there. Of course, it soon changed; once the scene described in the opening chapters of Duluoz/Kerouac stumbling and howling down the road to the dance with his friends had ended, the book switched to first person and became a heartfelt narrative about young love as told by a much older man looking back. There's a wistful tone that carries throughout the book, often taking the form of stream-of-consciousness digressions into the then-unknown future of the characters, in which Kerouac laments the sad times that would come to befall them all. The transition between chapters 4 and 5 is particularly poignant, marking as it does the transition between third-person omniscient narrative and first person. At this point, and at many other times in the book's narrative--especially during the stream-of-consciousness ramblings, seemingly inspired by memories of a happy time now lost--I was forcefully reminded of what I always loved, what I still love about Kerouac: the way he does such a great job of making you relate to the way he feels, of showing you the depths of the love and feeling in his heart, of putting you in there with him and reminding you of the things in your own life that relate to the things he's feeling as he writes. Kerouac was a French-Canadian drunk and an over-emotional drifter who never amounted to much on any material scale, who bounced around and crashed on couches even as he was gaining serious literary fame, who sponged off his mom all his life, and who died before he hit 50 because he just couldn't quit drinking. But boy, he had so much emotion overflowing within him, and he did such an uncannily great job of putting it down on paper, I for one can't hold an ounce of it against him. I just wish he coulda lived 30 more years to write a whole bunch more books and maybe be around making TV appearances when I was growing up so I could see him instead of always having to hear his voice on old recordings, talking over the end of a Jawbreaker song or tracks he recorded with Zoot Sims in the 50s. Reading "Maggie Cassidy" made me sorry that he isn't some old man sitting on a porch in Massachusetts right now. I'd love to have an 8 hour conversation with Jack Kerouac right now.

But OK, that's all a shame but let's talk about the book a bit. Its only real weak point, so far as I can tell, is that he never put enough into telling the factual details of his relationship to Maggie Cassidy for me really to get the idea of what had happened that drew him to her so intensely. He actually tells more than shows the emotion he felt towards her, which makes me wonder if he was really right when he mentions towards the beginning of the narrative that she was his first and only real true love. Shouldn't there have been more emotion flowing through the passages that related to her and their relationship, if that was really the case? I don't know, maybe the 20 years it had been since the events of the book faded some of those emotions a bit, but the places where his love really shines through in this book's storytelling are when he talks about his father and his boyhood friends. The wistful tone I mentioned earlier comes out a lot during these points, as he once makes a reference to the death of his father and at a couple of other points to the sad fates of his boyhood friends; it's obvious to me that by the time he was writing this book, he looked at the time it described as a wonderful time in his life, much better than where he was when he wrote it, and something that he regretted taking for granted back when he had it. Something he wished he could have back, but knew he never could. And the ache of his heart comes through in his beautiful words, at points making me tear up in sympathy with him.

The most surprising part of the book comes at the end, at a point when I thought I never would really understand his feelings for Maggie, after the relationship was basically over. For the last two chapters, the last 5 or 6 pages, he switches back to an omniscient third-person narrative voice, and tells the story of himself, 3 years after the rest of the book's events, back in Lowell working a crappy job and having one last reunion with Maggie Cassidy. It isn't the same, and the second he picks her up in his borrowed car, he knows it isn't the same, and it comes through so clearly just how disappointed he is, to have permanently lost the connection they once had. It reminded me of a lot of my own heartbreaks, my last pitiful attempts to salvage relationships that were beyond repair. Maybe Kerouac is better at describing lost love than love in full flower--God knows I am, so I can hardly criticize him for it--but it was only on the last page, in the last paragraph, when I really understood how he felt about all he'd had and all he'd lost with her. The 20 or so pages before it had been way less powerful than the beginning and middle sections of the book, and I was expecting the ending to kind of peter out, so when it suddenly brought itself together and hit with great force, I was stunned. Not so much pleasantly as just powerfully. And I'm glad it ended powerfully, even if it did once again cause me to choke up a bit.

Reading this book has made me want to tear back into the other Kerouac books I have, both that I've read ("Visions Of Cody" and "The Dharma Bums" in particular) and that I haven't read ("Big Sur" and the long-despaired "Desolation Angels"), but I think what I may actually do next is pick up Gerald Nicosia's "Memory Babe", a huge and supposedly definitive critical biography of Kerouac that I've owned since the day I bought "Maggie Cassidy" and never read either. I think I might like to see what someone other than he himself would say about the great events of his life. And then, of course, I'll probably go ahead and read a few more of his books.

City Of Saints And Madmen, by Jeff VanderMeer
This is excellent stuff. Jeff VanderMeer takes influence from the baroque, surreal fantasists of yesteryear, such as Mervyn Peake, Lord Dunsany, or even H.P. Lovecraft (in his less horrific moments), and combines this influence with the more modern elements of steampunk and urban fantasy that can be seen in authors like China Mieville. Out of this mix, he has created his own world, which mostly focuses on the city of Ambergris, a sprawling riverside land that has fallen into functional anarchy after decades of benign neglect by its rulers. In these four novellas, Ambergris is the true main character, rather than any of the people who appear in the stories, and it's the unique elements of Ambergris--the "mushroom dwellers", Albumuth Boulevard, famous composer Voss Bender, Hoegbotton and Sons, etc.--that give this book its narrative unity, despite focusing on completely different characters from one story to another. "Dradin In Love" starts things off with a tale of an apostate priest who has come to Ambergris in search of a job and finds love, in the form of a woman he spies through a third-story window. We are first introduced to Ambergris through the naive and quite possibly insane eyes of Dradin, and what we see colors our opinion both of the city and of Dradin himself. The second story, "The Hoegbotton Guide To The Early History of Ambergris by Duncan Shriek", is completely different in tone, purporting to be a historical overview of Ambergris and maintaining that tone throughout the main text. Said main text is subverted, however, by copious footnotes in which we learn more and more about the character who authors the historical overview, Duncan Shriek. His feuds with other historians and personal place in the history of Ambergris is slowly illuminated through these footnotes, and they make an already interesting fictional history far more entertaining. The third story, "The Transfiguration Of Martin Lake", combines elements of the first two stories, switching as it does from art criticism penned by Janice Shriek, giving a detailed analysis of the major paintings of Martin Lake for yet another Hoegbotton Guide, to a narrative about the life of Martin Lake, specifically an episode that sheds light on why he painted the things he did in the first place. Finally, we end with "The Strange Case of 'X'", a shorter story with an atmosphere of creeping horror and an entertaining if somewhat predictable twist ending. This is the least substantial of the four stories here, and although it is entertaining, it's not as fascinating as the world-building and the mysterious twilight atmosphere of the three preceding stories.

Apparently "City Of Saints And Madmen" is now available in a much longer and more expanded edition, with 700 pages instead of 200. I have this version on order and look forward to reading the additional content when it arrives. However, for now, I'm quite satisfied with the shorter edition that I read, and feel that it stands on its own as a significant and entertaining work.

Addendum, 5/24/08: Not long after finishing this original version of "City Of Saints And Madmen", I obtained the expanded 2006 edition, which features something like a dozen extra stories and other miscellaneous pieces tacked on (as mentioned above). All of these works were added as an "AppendiX", purporting to be a collection of documents found in Patient X's room after he disappeared (fear not, that is not a spoiler for "The Strange Case of 'X'"). Some of these were even better than the four original novellas, in particular "The Cage", a story that purports to be written by Ambergris-based writer Sirin. This one scared the crap out of me, I don't mind telling you. Some of the more surreal and meta- stories included in the Appendix, such as "King Squid", a fake scientific monograph, and "The Exchange", a story published as an illustrated booklet, each page of which features copious annotations by "X", were interesting not only as stories themselves but also as artifacts that had greater meaning in the context of the rest of the book. Vandermeer was already moving towards these multiple-level conceits with some of the original stories, especially "The Hoegbotton Guide To The Early History Of Ambergris, by Duncan Shriek", but he takes them to a higher level with some of the stories attached in the appendix, and as a result, I can now say with authority that a reader won't get the full experience of reading this book unless they read the expanded version.

The Velvet Underground And Nico (33 1/3 Series), by Joe Harvard
So hey, this book was really good. It has thus far been my opinion that the books in this series that stay away from straightforward writing about the album they're dealing with are more memorable and enjoyable, but this book turns that opinion on its head. And by the way, that's not to say that I haven't enjoyed the more straightforward installments that I've read--in fact, I thought Andrew Hultkrans's take on Love's "Forever Changes" was damned good. But Harvard's "Velvet Underg...more So hey, this book was really good. It has thus far been my opinion that the books in this series that stay away from straightforward writing about the album they're dealing with are more memorable and enjoyable, but this book turns that opinion on its head. And by the way, that's not to say that I haven't enjoyed the more straightforward installments that I've read--in fact, I thought Andrew Hultkrans's take on Love's "Forever Changes" was damned good. But Harvard's "Velvet Underground And Nico" is the first time I've read one of these books and felt like I've really learned something. Maybe it's because a lot of the writing about The Velvet Underground is more focused on mythology than actual history, or maybe it's because Joe Harvard focused on Lou Reed's literary influences (Raymond Chandler! Hubert Selby Jr!), which no other Velvet Underground-focused account that I've read ever has, but I felt like there was a lot of new information here. It really enriched my enjoyment of this album, and it probably helps that I agree with Mr. Harvard that this is the VU's true masterpiece and the only place where they fully got it right. I have friends who feel like Nico drags the whole thing down, and other friends who don't get the drone-noise chaos of "European Son" or "Black Angel's Death Song", and I don't know if said friends would turn up their nose at this book, since it doesn't fit with their own analysis of this album. But since it fits with mine, I didn't have any trouble with that part of the book. And since Harvard did a great job of collecting a lot of stray bits of information from dozens of accounts and personally conducted interviews into an account that probably contained a good bit more factual information than has been present in any previous Velvet Underground discussion, I feel that his book is an important addition to the canon of VU-centric discussion, regardless of whether you're someone who agrees with the author and myself that "Velvet Underground and Nico" is their best album.

And by the way, if you don't, you need to listen to it again. And again and again and again. Maybe you should do that anyway--you know, just in case.

MC5's Kick Out the Jams (33 1/3 Series), by Don McLeese
This book doesn't talk much about the contents of the actual "Kick Out The Jams" album--though don't get me wrong, there are a few pages devoted to it. What it mostly focuses on is a social history and biography of the MC5 and their place within the broader context of the late 60s rock scene. In the absence of a major MC5 biography, this book does a great job of providing at least the skeleton of such a thing, though it can't go but so far in 120 half-sized pages. The suppressed documentary "The MC5: A True Testimonial", of which I've seen a bootleg copy, supplies more of the visceral rush of what the MC5 were all about, which it can of course do due to its inclusion of archival performance footage. However, McLeese's little book contains information that wasn't to be found in the movie, and besides, the movie isn't publicly available anyway--unfortunately due to the rampant egotism of Wayne Kramer, who needs to chill out already. In fact, "Kick Out The Jams" ends with a heartfelt plea for "A True Testimonial" to be released, one I fully agree with. Even if it were widely available, though, this book would still be an essential companion to it. As it is now, it's an absolute must read for any fan of the MC5. I only wish it were twice as long.

Shriek: An Afterword, by Jeff VanderMeer
I finished this book while on a road trip, over a week ago. At this point I don't know that I can really set down everything I have to say about it accurately--this review would have been more detailed had it been written when the book was still fresh in my mind. That noted, I did like this book a lot. It used some of the layered, metafictional techniques that VanderMeer used in "City Of Saints And Madmen", and acted as a sort of sequel to that book. "Shriek: An Afterword" is...more I finished this book while on a road trip, over a week ago. At this point I don't know that I can really set down everything I have to say about it accurately--this review would have been more detailed had it been written when the book was still fresh in my mind. That noted, I did like this book a lot. It used some of the layered, metafictional techniques that VanderMeer used in "City Of Saints And Madmen", and acted as a sort of sequel to that book. "Shriek: An Afterword" is a biography of Duncan Shriek, the character introduced to us in "City Of Saints And Madmen" as the author of "The Hoegbotton Guide To The Early History Of Ambergris". Existing in "City Of Saints" as more of a voice than an independent character, we are given only hints as to the story of his life. Meanwhile, his sister Janice Shriek is introduced in the story "The Transfiguration of Martin Lake", as an art critic writing critical pieces about Lake's most famous paintings. Now, with "Shriek", we're given a great deal of detail into the lives of both of these characters, as "Shriek" is a biography of Duncan, written by Janice, and heavily annotated by Duncan. At the time Janice is writing her manuscript, Duncan is thought to have disappeared into the underground world of the gray caps, the original inhabitants of the city of Ambergris, where both this book and "City Of Saints" take place. However, Duncan obviously returns at some later point, as he's available to annotate his sister's manuscript. But where is Janice? And where has Duncan been? And what of the gray caps? All of these questions and quite a few more, some of which are left over from "City Of Saints And Madmen", are answered in "Shriek: An Afterword", even as yet more questions are asked and left unanswered. And the whole thing is fascinating, at the same time telling a more exciting and unified story than "City Of Saints", with its many layers, ever tried to tell, and also continuing the metafictional experiments of that book through the layered narration of Janice and Duncan, who often disagree on fundamental points of the story.

I don't think I'd really advise pitching right into this book after finishing "City Of Saints"; that's what I did, and midway through "Shriek", I found myself needing a break from VanderMeer's stylized, baroque writing techniques. However, it's every bit as good as "City Of Saints", and essential reading for anyone who enjoyed that novel.

The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare And How It Changed America, by David Hadju
This is an interesting and informative history of the panic revolving around comic books in the mid-50s, going back to the origins of the comic book medium for essential backstory and sociological context, but concentrating on the crime and horror comics of the 40s and early 50s that were instrumental in creating the comics-as-encouragement-for-juvenile-delinquency scare. I would have liked a little bit more detail about the specific content of some of the titles that caused such an uproar--"Crime Does Not Pay", the EC horror line, and the original incarnation of "Mad" are the only comics described in any kind of detail, and even then I would have liked more. However, the story of what actually happened--the book burnings, the court trials, the comics code, and the fallout from said code--is all told in great detail, and it's an interesting story. Also, Hadju discusses the deeper social implications of the comics that caused such a panic in adults of the time, and the likely underlying sociological causes of that panic; fear of children and teenagers as autonomous persons with their own desires to carve out independent identities in society and to escape from the conformity of their elders. His thesis has a lot of merit, and can probably explain a lot of other incidences in which the parent culture seeks to suppress and/or censor youth interests--look no further than the video game controversies of today.

Any comic book reader would probably enjoy reading this chronicle of an important era in the history of the comic medium. And it'll probably make you want to dig up some old EC horror comics (fear not, they're all being reissued in deluxe hardcover graphic novels, even as we speak).

Why Should I Cut Your Throat? by Jeff VanderMeer
This sadly inconsistent essay collection reflects little of the talent that makes VanderMeer's fiction so great. I picked it up in order to read the lengthy essay detailing the publication history of "City Of Saints And Madmen", and while I enjoyed that one a lot, it gave no real indication of quality from essay to essay throughout the rest of the book. Strangely, although the essays were pulled from around 15 years of VanderMeer's career, era in which each essay was written had no ref...more This sadly inconsistent essay collection reflects little of the talent that makes VanderMeer's fiction so great. I picked it up in order to read the lengthy essay detailing the publication history of "City Of Saints And Madmen", and while I enjoyed that one a lot, it gave no real indication of quality from essay to essay throughout the rest of the book. Strangely, although the essays were pulled from around 15 years of VanderMeer's career, era in which each essay was written had no reflection on the quality of the essays either. The first one in the book, a convention report from 1990, was the oldest, and it was deeply flawed, but some of the later writings in the book were just as flawed, while one of the few essays in which VanderMeer did display the talent I've seen in his fiction (an essay on the state of horror fiction in the mid-90s) was also one of the earliest essays collected here. The section of the book that I felt was weakest was the section in which he reviewed books. Perhaps this just has to do with my own tastes as a reader and reviewer, but I felt that he was way too quick to nitpick and turn negative, to write a bad review of something that he seemed not to have that big a problem with. It was as if something had to be transcendently excellent to get a good review out of him. I'm the sort of person that prefers to read good reviews of books/music/movies/whatever, so that I'm pointed towards things worth looking for. VanderMeer seems to be the type of reviewer who finds it far more enjoyable to pan books for their shortcomings, no matter how hard those shortcomings have to be hunted for. And I mean, he may be right (though the one book I'd read that he negatively reviewed, Iain M. Banks's "Look To Windward", is in my humble opinion far better than he makes it seem), but still, I don't know that I'd collect my negative reviews for an essay collection.

On the whole, I'm not sorry that I read this book, I just wish it had been more consistent. Perhaps next time he publishes an essay collection, it will be, but considering that I didn't necessarily even like the most recent essays in this one, I have my doubts that that will be the case.

The Family Trade, by Charles Stross
I was extremely impressed with this book. Now, despite having given it 5 stars, I will admit that, on a purely technical level, Charles Stross is not the best composer of words into sentences/paragraphs/chapters I've ever read. In fact, there were a few points during the book at which his actual prose style approached mediocre. However, none of it was enough to detract from my enjoyment of the story herein, and the story knocked my socks off so completely that I have no objection giving the guy 5 stars even though Jeff VanderMeer is a better writer and I only gave "City Of Saints And Madmen" 4 stars. This is the sort of person-from-modern-society-gets-dropped-in-alternate-reality story that I love, and Stross is probably the first writer I've ever read that nailed it completely. At least, as far as I'm concerned. I think the decisive factor for me is that the main character of the book handles getting dropped into an alternate reality in a lot of the same ways I'd probably handle it. Her thought patterns were similar, her behaviors made sense, etc. I read this and thought over and over again, "Yes! Yes! Exactly!" and not "Why did you do that?" like I often think when reading books like this. Therefore, it was a blast, and I plowed through it in maybe a day.

The Hidden Family, by Charles Stross
Jumping straight into this book the second I finished "The Family Trade" felt particularly natural. Throughout "The Family Trade", I felt like I shouldn't be as far into the book as I was--it still felt like it was just getting rolling when I was less than 100 pages from the end. This turns out to have a lot to do with the changes Charles Stross made to this series between when he started writing it and when he sold it. I learned in an interview he gave Locus magazine that he'd originally planned to make this series four giant novels. Currently, it's projected to be six novels--and at the end of the sixth novel, we'll be at the end of what he originally planned to be the second novel. He expects to write another series at some point in the future that will encompass his original ideas for the third and fourth novels. So basically, this six-book series consists of relatively tiny chunks of what he'd originally planned. The interview goes on to make clear that "The Family Trade" and "The Hidden Family" were the two halves of what was originally intended to be the first book--meaning, I suppose, that the second book was originally going to be twice as long as the first. So, my feeling that "The Hidden Family" was merely the second half of "The Family Trade" has a logical source--originally, it would have been exactly that.

I haven't talked much about the storyline in these books, and I don't really want to, as I hate it when I read a review of a later book in a series and it spoils the ending of the first or third book in the series. Therefore, let's stick to bare bones--Miriam Beckstein, a divorced journalist of independent means, learns that her adoption as a baby came about as a result of her having been brought into modern America by a traveler from an alternate reality, and that she herself can travel back to this alternate reality with the aid of a certain talisman. There, she is the daughter of a rich merchant clan who can "world-walk" from their world to hers. But the world she comes from is trapped in the middle ages on a sociological level, and her family expects her to submit to the role of demure merchant-princess who marries for status and wealth, not for love. She, of course, has other ideas.

So this leads to all kinds of fun stuff--gunfights in medieval worlds! Multi-level courtly intrigue! Corporate piracy! And always, the undercurrent of a woman used to having equal rights struggling to maintain these rights and squirm out from under the thumb of her literally-medieval family. This book, like the one before it, is a blast.

The Clan Corporate, by Charles Stross
Charles Stross's Merchant Princes series has its first less-than-stellar entry in "The Clan Corporate". I would have to say that my review here, though, is merely an indication of how much I've grown to love the series and its characters over the course of my frantic weeklong immersion in its first three books. After all, the reason I felt that this volume was less outstanding than the two that came before is because events of the story have caught up with our protagonist, Mirian Beckstein, and she's allowed much less room to maneuver and get into exciting situations than she was in the first two volumes of this series. "The Clan Corporate" starts what would have been Stross's longer second volume of this series, and it appears for most of it that the jaws of the medieval-thinking trap have closed over Miriam, and that her defiant liberation may be at an end. The way the novel ends gives some hope, but it's less than clear. Meanwhile, we've got a great deal of sympathetic frustration to look forward to over the course of these 300 pages. While Stross's storytelling is no less amazing and his prose maintains enough quality to earn the title of "decent" throughout (though never "great"), he's telling a less satisfying story in this volume. And for that reason, I found it particularly frustrating to reach the end of the volume and realize that the fourth in the series, "The Merchant's War", won't be in paperback until September 30th. I feel I can wait 3 months for this book, rather than pay 4 times the cost for a hardcover instead of a paperback, but it's going to be a near thing, and I have no doubt that I will be jumping on the Volume 5 hardcover as soon as it's released. I always tell myself that I'm not going to jump into these lengthy, multi-volume series until they're finished. I should never have violated that particular guideline in this case. As much as I'm loving these books, it's driving me crazy that I can't blast through all six of them at once.

Which, I suppose, is a good review for Charles Stross, even if it is a source of frustration for me.

Die Trying, by Lee Child
This is a fast-paced crime/espionage novel that straddles the line between the hard-boiled detective and secret agent/spy genres. What those two subgenres of the mystery genre have in common is often their one-man-against-the-world scenario, and in this novel, Child's long-running protagonist Jack Reacher is that one man. That said, although he's the main hero, it's obvious by the end of the novel that he couldn't have gotten through the adventues he's had without help from several other characters, most notably female FBI agent Holly Johnson. Kudos to Child for writing a strong female character instead of giving in to the easy temptation that years of "I'm helpless without you, my hero" leading females have created when writing this sort of genre fiction.

The story begins with Reacher stopping to help a woman on crutches carry her dry-cleaning, and almost immediately getting kidnapped along with her by several mysterious gun-toting thugs. This all happens in the first three pages, setting the pace for a book that moves at breakneck speed throughout. Reacher soon learns that Holly Johnson is the daughter of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and has been kidnapped by a right-wing militia as part of a plot to secede from the United States. Reacher has been swept up into the situation merely by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. From here, things just get crazier and more hectic, with all sorts of twists and turns as Reacher and Johnson try to break out of captivity and struggle for power with their kidnappers. There were points towards the beginning where I couldn't believe that the book was going to stretch to its 400+ page length, as it seemed to be hurtling towards a climax that would occur much quicker than the time it would take to reach the end of the book. However, Child managed to sustain the pace throughout without ever making it seem like he was complicating the plot unnecessarily, which is a tough line to straddle when writing this sort of fiction.

I read this novel as part of a book club, and when the book club got together and discussed it afterwards, there were several members who said that their credibility was strained by a few different scenes in which Reacher or Johnson would pull off near-superhuman feats of strength or agility, or even just succeed in the sort of bare-bones improvisation that always saved MacGyver and The A-Team. I agree that some of these things seem a bit hard to believe when I look back on them, but at the time I was reading the book, I had no trouble suspending disbelief. This speaks well for Child's ability to captivate the reader, and tell an entertaining enough tale that highly-improbable feats are accepted in the moment by the reader. Or at least, accepted by me. Those other people in the book club who didn't get pulled along by the story, well, I don't know what their problem was.