Leslie West's Mountain-ous riffs.

OK, that pun is awful, sorry. Anyway, I don't think this is gonna be a very long entry, but I wanted to talk about something that I checked out recently that exceeded expectations.

Everyone knows the song "Mississippi Queen", I'm sure. It's one of those old classic rock songs that people hear and recognize immediately and can sing along with the choruses and all that. In this particular case, I'm sure there are plenty of irony merchants out there who are stoked about the cowbell that's in it. And in all sincerity, the cowbell actually is pretty cool. But personally, I just like that song because it's a thick, pounding monster of a riff. It appeals to me in the same way that a lot of early 70s proto-metal does. And I'm sure there are people out there who would think, "Fuck yeah, 'Mississippi Queen'! Who did that song?" As you guys have probably figured out by now, that's something that never really troubles me. I always know who did a song. And "Mississippi Queen", I could tell you without trouble, was by Mountain.

Mountain's leader was a guy named Leslie West, who started out playing guitar in the 60s garage group The Vagrants. When they broke up in 1968, he joined forces with Felix Pappalardi, a bass player most famous at the time for producing Cream's second and third albums. The two of them, along with the drummer for The Remains, made a solo record for West, entitled "Mountain." This arrangement apparently worked out well for West and Pappalardi, as they decided to turn their one-off arrangement into a full-time band, also named Mountain. I'm assuming the name came from West's physical appearance--he's a big, heavy guy--but I really don't know. Anyway, with West singing and playing guitar, Pappalardi playing bass and producing, Corky Laing on drums, and Steve Knight on organ, Mountain made their first record, "Climbing," and opened the album with "Mississippi Queen."

There's nothing I can really tell you about "Mississippi Queen" that you don't already know. I mean, that riff! That cowbell! Those awesomely stupid lyrics! That raunchy guitar sound! It's an awesome song, and we all know it. And last week, I had it stuck in my head. So I decided to do a blog search. Now, I talked in my Comus post from yesterday about the blogs that are out there. Some are focused on psych, some on prog, some on garage, some on proto-metal, but whatever you might be looking for, if it dates anytime from the early dawning of rock n' roll to 1980 or so, you can probably find a blog where the full album was posted. You just have to know how to google the right terms, and believe me, that's a skill I've long since learned. So I punched the appropriate terms into a google window, found a blog post with Mountain's "Climbing" LP in it, and as a bonus, Leslie West's "Mountain" album. Then I downloaded them both, burned them to a CD-R, with "Climbing" up first and "Mountain" following it (yes, they both fit on one CD), put it into my CD player, and hit play. And I got to listen to "Mississippi Queen," and it ruled.

For me, the act of doing all that just to hear one song was worth it. I didn't know what else I'd hear on the CD, but I've downloaded plenty of proto-metal stoner-boogie albums, not to mention garage, psych, surf, and whatever other genres might apply here, where the song I got the album for stands head and shoulders above anything else on the album. I was fully ready for an awesome song followed by over an hour of disappointment. It still all would have been gravy, because of just how awesome that awesome song is. But I got lucky--both "Climbing" and "Mountain" are excellent albums.

Oh, sure, there are some duds; anytime a band made an album like this back in the early 70s, they'd try to throw in a couple of ballads, hoping for airplay, and these Mountain albums are no exception. Hell, neither is "Black Sabbath Volume 4", and that record rules. That said, not every slow song on these Mountain albums is skippable. The Jack Bruce-penned "Theme From An Imaginary Western" follows "Mississippi Queen," and though it sounds completely different, it's still an excellent song. Steve Knight gets a chance to shine here, as well as on "Silver Paper", another slow, melodic jam that rules just as much in its own way as "Mississippi Queen." The acoustic track "To My Friend," which begins the second half of the album, is pretty limp, and provides a good example of a skippable track on this album, as does "Laird," which follows it. However, "Sittin' On A Rainbow," which follows these two relative duds, is awesome, with West laying down a propulsive guitar riff over a percussion-heavy rhythmic groove. There's plenty of cowbell here, too, and this song is definitely the equal of "Mississippi Queen," despite being considerably less known.

Leslie West's "Mountain" album, the one that started it all, is if anything even grimier and heavier than "Climbing." Opening track "Blood Of The Sun" doesn't have any organ on it to get in the way of West's high-gain rhythm guitar, and his howling R&B vocals are of an intensity that he almost never approaches on the Mountain album. Now, not every song on here is a slab of stoner-boogie jamming; "Blood Of The Sun" is followed by "Long Red," a slower ballad that nonetheless is built on a heavy foundation. But for the most part, these songs are dirty rock jams, and a lot closer to the whole proto-metal sound that one would expect from the band that produced "Mississippi Queen" than some of "Climbing" would indicate. In fact, various internet writings I can find about Mountain mention that organist Steve Knight was added to the band in order to increase their commercial potential. I guess they knew that what they'd produced on West's solo "Mountain" was too heavy to be commercial. Far as I'm concerned, though, it's exactly what I was looking for. In fact, while in terms of "Mississippi Queen" itself, it's "Climbing" that I had to get, if I'd been looking for a more generally awesome proto-metal album, "Mountain"'s the one I would now reach for. Songs like the slow, groovy "Blind Man," the riff monster "Dreams Of Milk And Honey," and "Baby I'm Down," a track rewritten by West and the band Clutch as "Immortal," a song on Clutch's album "Pure Rock Fury." I'm not particularly a Clutch fan, at least at that point in their career, so I have no idea how the rewritten version of the song turned out, but this original is awesome.

"Mountain"'s closing track, "Because You Are My Friend," is very reminiscent of "To My Friend," from "Climbing," as it is an acoustic ballad. That said, "Because You Are My Friend" works much better as a change-of-pace album closer than "To My Friend" did as a momentum killer in the midst of "Climbing." It's funny; now that I've heard both "Mountain" and "Climbing" a few times, I can tell you that, if I had it to do over again, I'd have put "Mountain" first on the CD-R I burned. It's a much heavier and more consistent album, and it would probably be pretty awesome, when I'm in the mood for some serious cowbell-laden proto-metal crunch, to play "Mountain" all the way through, then hear "Mississippi Queen" right on the heels of that. As it is, I'm sure there will be times when I put this CD on, listen to "Mississippi Queen," and then skip right to track 10. Of course, "Climbing" has some pretty great tracks on it too, so it's not like that's always the best course of action. Either way, these are a couple of great records, and if you always thought of "Mississippi Queen" as a good song by a one-hit wonder, you should revise your estimation with the quickness.

Mountain - Sittin' On A Rainbow
Leslie West - Blood Of The Sun



Comus's sinister weirdness.

I'm known to comb various blogs that focus on 60s and 70s psych/garage-related music, and while most of the stuff I come across is shit I've never heard of, I occasionally locate some mysterious hard-to-find album that I've been hearing about for years. Unlike myself, a lot of these blogs post mp3s of entire albums, something I am loath to do (not that only posting 1 or 2 songs keeps me out of trouble with the RIAA, but it makes me feel better about what I'm doing, and seems to at least keep the trouble to a minimum). Many times over the past few years, my first chance to hear the music of these bands has been due to some blog posting the mp3s of an album that is impossibly rare, ridiculously expensive, or most frequently, both.

Recently, one of those blogs gave me the opportunity to hear a record that I've long wondered about, that being Comus's "First Utterance". People speak of it, seemingly in hushed tones, as an incredibly frightening record, sounding both anachronistic and utterly alien. I downloaded it having no idea what to expect; after all, plenty of records that I've been told about over the years have let me down, and nothing seems more likely to do so than a record that is supposedly scary. It's hard to do terror right, and a lot of books, movies, and even albums that I've come to looking for scares have left me only with gross-outs or vague feelings of letdown.

See, I don't know why it is--and trying to figure it out would surely not lead me to any healthy conclusions--but I love to be sincerely frightened by a work of art. It's an experience I enjoy. I like horror movies that scare me, which is why I consider "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" a masterpiece (I shouldn't even have to say it, but of course I mean the 1973 original, directed by Tobe Hooper), "Maniac" surprisingly good, and "Last House On the Left", which continually kills its own mood due to use of inept comic-relief passages, an ambitious failure. On the literary side of things, it's H.P. Lovecraft who has been most successful at frightening me, though Stephen King has done a pretty good job at points himself. The closest I've ever come to being frightened by a work of music was my experience with "Through Silver In Blood" by Neurosis, which gave me nightmares once when I tried to listen to it while falling asleep. Bad idea.

Anyway, Comus sounds a lot different than Neurosis. In fact, it sounds very different from pretty much any album I've ever owned. The closest reference point I have here is Joanna Newsom, who uses anachronistic instrumentation and a voice that sounds like it came unspoiled from the Scottish highlands (or the deep woods of the Appalachians) 100 years ago to create fundamentally modern music. When I listen to her sing in her yowling tones and play her harp, I can hear elements of music from hundreds of years in the past, but her songwriting style is very much in the modern vein of pop-based singer-songwriter music, and her lyrics are generally about normal experiences that 21st century Americans go through on a regular basis. She writes about sad things, like her dog dying, or relationships ending, or being too depressed to get out of bed. Her songs are ones I can relate to.

Comus may use similarly anachronistic instrumentation, but their emotional perspective is completely different. In fact, I'd say that it's fundamentally alien, not only to modern people, but probably to any normal human from any point in history. Their songs are written from the perspective of solitary wood-dwelling hermits, who may not even be completely human. They sing about rape, murder, and insanity, generally from the perspective of the person committing whatever crime is being discussed. When female vocalist Bobbie Watson sings, the vocals are surprisingly angelic and pretty, and her lead vocal on the album's longest song, "The Herald", combined with that song's more arcadian musical and lyrical tone, makes that song the most pleasant the album has to offer. However, "The Herald"'s 12 minutes are atypical of the record as a whole, and when bandleader Roger Wootton handles the vocals, as he generally does, things are far more disturbing.

Wootton's voice is as bizarre and, to the newcomer, off-putting as Joanna Newsom's often is, but does not establish the human connection with the listener that Newsom at least strives for. Instead, he mixes his bizarre voice with disturbing lyrical subject matter to create the impression in the listener's mind of a demonic woodland creature with murder on its mind. In the album's opener, "Diana", Wootton sings over a churning groove about how the title character, Diana, better keep her feet up, because he's coming to get her. The song details a chase through a night-enshrouded forest that sounds like something out of an H.P. Lovecraft story. In fact, several points on this album make me think of the moment some hapless Lovecraftian protagonist stumbles into a clearing in the woods where degenerated humans frolic around a bonfire, playing primitive music and engaging in some disturbing custom like human sacrifice. "Drip Drip" is a good example of this, musically if not lyrically. The words tell a story of a post-murder body dump. Wootton uses ornate descriptive language to tell of the burial of a freshly murdered body. "I carry you to your grave, my arms your hearse," he sings, in a line that will doubtless evoke recognition in Opeth fans reading this entry. It is obvious just how profound an influence Comus has had on Opeth's lush, acoustic soundscapes even without catching this particular lyric, but realizing that Opeth used a Comus lyric for an album title just makes it that much clearer.

The song starts out with a slower, more stately tempo, as acoustic guitars, hand drums, and violin back Wootton's only vaguely human vocals. However, as it proceeds, things get more frenzied. I've heard a lot of people in recent years use terms like "psychedelic folk" and "freak folk" to describe artists like Devendra Banhart or the aforementioned Ms. Newsom, but those artists never sounded nearly as freakish or psychedelic as Comus do to me during the middle section of "Drip Drip." Guitars strum frantically, violins churn out speedy runs of higher and higher notes, drums are pounded and rattled... it's a full-on acoustic freakout. I like it for the same reasons that I love the modally-based raveup sections that artists like the Yardbirds would include in the middle of their more interesting garage-rock tunes. Things sound like they're going to spin out of control, and they very nearly do before the tape appears to slow down and the entire frenetic jam session winds downward into a still upbeat but more controlled coda.

"Song To Comus" follows "Drip Drip" and discusses the band's apparent patron saint, the Greek god of revelry and "nocturnal dalliance." The song tells of said Greek god playing music that enchants a young maiden. At first, she's bewitched, and enjoying partying with Comus, but then he rapes her and takes her virginity. It's creepy, to say the least. This song, which at seven and a half minutes is medium-length for Comus, is a pretty decent summation of the album as a whole. Beginning with some rather sweet music, it only opens itself up into its full and frightening glory after it's gotten a little ways into the proceedings. Sure enough, by the time the song is two-thirds over, the band is playing frantically once again. It's not the freakout of "Drip Drip"'s climactic passage, but it's close. And right at its peak comes this disturbing lyrical passage: "Comus rape, Comus break--sweet young virgin's virtue take. Naked flesh, flowing hair; her terror screams they cut the air... but no one hears her there." Immediately after Roger Wootton bellows the final line of this verse, the music drops almost completely out, and the band plays a very soft reprise of the first verse, Wootton whispering the words in a way that highlights their sinister nature, one that the listener could have missed the first time. There's no missing it now.

There's plenty more of this kind of stuff here, from "The Bite", a tale of the pursuit and eventual hanging of a Christian, to "The Prisoner", which details a pre-modern incarceration in an asylum from the point of view of the incarcerated. I haven't yet listened to it in the dead of night with the lights off, to see exactly what sort of effect it can have on me when I give it the optimum conditions with which to work, and I'm not sure I'm going to. I see way too much potential here for this album to scare the shit out of me, and I don't really know if I even want to subject myself to that. As it is, even listening to it right now, at 3 PM on a sunny afternoon, it's vaguely disturbing. That said, it's also an excellent example--certainly the best I've encountered thus far--of psychedelic folk. It can be enjoyed on many other levels besides that of the fright factor, and I will certainly continue to do so.

Comus - Song To Comus
[And for the record, since I know that this record commands a high price, there is a blog out there with the album in its entirety posted. If you're good with Google, I'm sure you can find it.]



You're living all over me.

Last night, it was after 2 in the morning, and I was about to go to bed. I'm the sort of person who likes to listen to music while I go to sleep, and I couldn't decide what I wanted to hear. I was paging through the mp3 directories on my computer, when I happened upon the remastered version of "You're Living All Over Me" by Dinosaur Jr. I've owned that album in one form or another since 1990, and I've probably listened to it a million times. But sometimes, the old shit is what sounds the best, and with that in mind, I put it on. Sure enough, it sounded great. As I lay down to go to sleep, I started thinking all these thoughts about that album, about how much it means to me and why, and I had some ideas for a blog entry. But it was late, and I was tired, so I decided to put it off til morning. That's something that has often worked against me in the past; what is inspired last thing at night might be really hard to even remember first thing in the morning. But I think I remembered what I wanted to say this time, so I'm going to at least give it a shot.

When I hear "You're Living All Over Me", I'm always reminded of walking on a country road on a sunny spring afternoon. It's a very specific country road, that being the one I lived on back when I was in high school. I used to walk on that road a lot back then, always listening to my Walkman. When I was 14 years old, it was one of the few uncomplicated pleasures of my life. My home life was monotonous stressful hell, I barely had any friends, and none that I felt like understood me as I really was, and school was a drudge for any number of reasons. I used to long for those hours that I could spend walking away from my house in the afternoon, getting past the house where the obnoxious neighbor kid who was two years younger than me lived and out to the area on the road where there were few houses and none that were occupied by people who knew me. The worst part was always having to turn back at a certain point, because I was getting tired and I had to head home at some point. I knew it had to happen, but it was never fun.

I first heard Dinosaur Jr. on a summer afternoon broadcast by the local university station. They played their raucous cover of The Cure's "Just Like Heaven" (included as a bonus track on the 2005 reissue on Merge), and as much as I love the original version, I was blown away by the screaming guitar noise all over the Dinosaur Jr. version. But I didn't really fall in love with their music until a friend of mine made me two different mixtapes that, between them, contained two songs from "You're Living All Over Me". The first of the two was "Raisans", and in order to fully explain why it had as much of an effect on me as it did, I have to be honest about some embarrassing early teenage shit that was going on in my life at the time. See, I had a crush on this girl, this girl who actually lived about a mile down the country road I lived on, though that was just a coincidence. I'd actually seen her at the swimming pool first. By the way, maybe memories of going to the pool as a teenager are only traumatic for me, but my God... I haven't owned a bathing suit since I was about 18, that's how crappy it was for me. Anyway, let's not dwell on that. Let's get back to my dumb early-teenage crush on this girl.

I had a thing for her for over a year without ever saying anything to her. I don't think we ever actually had a conversation throughout my two years of having a crush on her, in fact. I was a total social retard at the age of 14--which is not to say that I'm not now, but I'm not as bad as I was then. Anyway, maybe I would have gotten over her after spending all of ninth grade having a ridiculous unspoken crush on her, but then she was in my 10th grade biology class, which started it all up again. This was the point at which I heard "Raisans" for the first time. It was (and is) an awesome song on a purely musical level, so that probably helped it have such an intense effect on me. J Mascis's guitar sound was loud, noisy, distorted, and at the same time incredibly melodic. He could obviously play guitar very well, and therefore was able to avoid the rudimentary power chords that a lot of guitarists I was listening to at the time used exclusively. Instead, he used more complicated chords that integrated higher notes. Maybe they were melodies or harmonies, I honestly don't understand guitar playing and music theory in general well enough to know. All I know is that the chords J used on "Raisans" sounded fuller, thicker and more melodic, even though they had enough distortion on them to also evoke a wind tunnel. Something about the combination of melody and noise has always done it for me, but now that I think of it, it's entirely possible that Dinosaur Jr. were the first band I ever heard that combined those elements in a really effective manner.

"Raisans" starts with an instrumental version of the chorus, used as an intro. The verse is probably the most conventionally catchy riff in the song, but what really catches my attention about this early section of the song is what happens between the first verse and the chorus that follows it. There's an instrumental bridge there, which starts with a relatively quiet part featuring an undistorted single-note melody from the guitar, then comes out of that into escalating chords. Halfway through the last measure before the chorus, the bass and drums stop, and it becomes clear just how many tracks of guitar are on this song. As one track of guitar lets a chord ring and another repeatedly hammers on a note, Van Halen style, a third track, the loudest, features a total disintegration of the riff. It sounds like J stopped playing anything resembling a chord, instead grabbing the neck of his guitar with one hand and punching the strings repeatedly with the other. It amounts to a noisy derailment of the entire song, but it only lasts one or two seconds before the bass and drums come back in and the other guitar tracks join in with them to go right into the chorus. The song regains its footing momentarily here, playing through the chorus with a melodic roar, only to once again stop completely at the end of the chorus. This time the guitars cut off along with the bass and the drums, and there's a second of silence, into which drummer Murph places a short tom roll. Once the tom roll ends, the whole band goes back into the song, now playing a completely different verse that sounds more like a bridge. This one flows into another quiet, instrumental pre-chorus, over which Lou Barlow plays a tape of an old man muttering unintelligibly. On this album, Dinosaur's second, Lou had managed to exert some creative control over the band, and in addition to writing two of the album's nine songs (one of which, "Poledo", should probably have been on the first Sebadoh album instead), his big creative contribution to the album is the use of these tape loops, which show up in several other places on the album as well. The distorted, unintelligible tape loop (sole audible line: "You're killing me," repeated several times) turns what would have been a quiet, reflective moment into something much weirder, which served to emphasize the dark undertone of the song's lovelorn lyrics.

Remember I mentioned that this song blew me away at a time when I was over a year into an unrequited crush on a girl I'd never spoken to? Imagine how lines like "I'll be down, I'll be around, I'll be hanging where eventually you'll have to be" sounded to me from that perspective. "Hey," I thought. "This guy understands me. He handles his crushes in the same way I do." Standing around waiting for a girl you have a thing for to walk by and, inevitably, not notice you. I could relate to that. At another point in the song, J says, "My eyes peeled open, cemented to her face." Staring at a girl who has no idea you exist from across a (class)room, looking away whenever she looks in your direction only to look back the second she turns away. Yeah, I could relate to that too. I look back now and feel like the whole thing was incredibly stupid, but I also realize that it's far more common than I knew at the time. J Mascis was expressing a mentality that a lot of socially awkward teenagers have exemplified over the years. I didn't know that then, though. I thought I was the only one, at least until a Dinosaur Jr. song came out of nowhere and said things I could relate to.

And what about the rest of that song? Well, after the Barlow tape loop came another chorus, then an absolutely blazing solo. J's solo on the "Just Like Heaven" cover chewed up Roger O'Donnell's keyboard solo on the original and spit out a flaming ball of noise, but it was still melodically the same solo. The solo on "Raisans" was solely a product of J's own mind, and it took up about a minute of the song's 3:30 length. J bent notes all over the place, hammered on the strings for a second, at one point managed to cause a note to dissolve into naked distortion before bringing the solo back together with a gorgeous melodic run, then reached the end and held the last note for 5 seconds as it soared from the left speaker to the right and back. The song had one last chorus, the "I'll be down, I'll be around" bit, only this time, J changed the last line, singing "Now you'll have to decide the fate of my sanity." That sounded so cool to me at 14--girl, you gotta be with me or I'm just gonna go INSANE--but again, looking back on it now points out a dark undertone that I just couldn't see at that age.

The other song that my friend put on a mixtape for me was "Little Fury Things", and this is the one that most reminds me of afternoon walks down a sunny country road. Part of that might have something to do with the rarely-seen video for "Little Fury Things", which I caught on 120 Minutes one of the only times it was ever played. I taped it and watched it over and over again, as was my usual practice where videos by my favorite bands were concerned. The video contained a bunch of footage of the members of Dinosaur Jr. walking around a pastoral countryside, and maybe that infected my impressions of the song, but honestly, I think the song just has that kind of sound anyway. Maybe the band members picked up on that too, and that's why they used that footage in the video. Who knows. Anyway, "Little Fury Things" had a more abrasive sound than "Raisans", at least at first. Starting with a guitar sound created by combining one track of incredibly distorted guitar with another track of a slightly less distorted guitar being played through a wah-wah pedal, "Little Fury Things" kicked off with a bang, and Lou Barlow increased its abrasiveness quotient by screaming incoherently over the intro. What brought things back to that "sunny afternoon on a country road" feel was the chorus that came next in the song, almost jarring in its very lack of the noise that started the song. On the choruses of "Little Fury Things", J Mascis harmonizes with Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth, whose voice is actually more prominent in the mix than J's. The choruses and the second verse of the song are melodic and undistorted enough to almost sound like a ballad, which makes the non-sequitur lyrics about a rabbit running away and J crawling after it even weirder. I just looked up the lyrics to this song a second ago on the internet, and while I'm sure there's no official lyric sheet out there for this song, the consensus is enough to make it clear to me that I've been misinterpreting them all these years. I thought there was some more discussion of an unrequited crush in this song, but really, I guess I have no idea. Either way, the melodic nature of the song's middle section creates an interesting contrast both with the harsh beginning and the noisy end, in which the chorus is played twice in a row. On the second one, Lee Ranaldo drops out, and J sings by himself even as a track of noisy guitar fades in behind him, changing the feel of the previously melodic chorus and making it hark back to the intro.

These two songs were enough to convince me that I would love the entire album they were from, and once I was able to borrow "You're Living All Over Me" from my friend and dub a copy for myself, I found that this was the case. As I mentioned before, Lou Barlow's song "Poledo", which consisted of lo-fi acoustic snippets and tape loops, didn't really fit in on the album. However, his song "Lose", which he once described as containing every good riff he'd written over the course of two years, was a perfect fit for the album. His lead vocal turn on the track freed J up to lay down plenty of scorching lead guitars, even during verses, and he did plenty of it, while Lou's thick, melodic bassline carried the rhythm of the song. The many changes that the song indeed contained kept things interesting, throwing riffs at you so quickly that some of the best fly by before you even have time to get into them. It's almost a shame that he put so many into one song; some of the riffs that get 5 or 10 seconds of the song leave you wanting a lot more. That said, it's a great track, one of my favorites on the album.

Really, though, almost all of them are favorites. "Sludgefeast", which emerges from the tail end of "Kracked" with a feedback wail, is a slow, mostly instrumental dirge, on which J gets plenty of chance to throw around bent, distorted, scorching guitar noise. That's kind of the motif of the album, but this song features more of it than usual, and a lot less vocals, though they are there; "I'm waiting," J sings. "Please come back. I've got the guts now to meet your eye." This is another one of those weird unrequited love songs that, as a nervous, passive teenager, I could relate to very much. The highlight of the song comes after J goes through its one verse a second time. "Please wanna hang around," he begs the object of his affections, but a short time later, as the verse ends, the bass, drums, and rhythm guitars all drop out of the song, leaving nothing but a swirling haze of distorted guitar. It sounds like a rampaging swamp monster or something, and listening to it for the first time, it'd be no surprise if you figured the song had ended, trailing off into a wall of noise. It's as if J has given up on his crush of the moment. She didn't want to hang around, and he's thrown his guitar down in disgust, leaving it to generate random trails of fuzz. But after 10 or so seconds of this, the band comes back in, playing at double speed and giving the song a powerful, rocking coda. J plays a much more coherent solo, and the song fades out.

"Tarpit", later in the album, really does fall apart at the end. It's another slow one, with J crooning what really does seem to be a love song to a tarpit, though after my confusion about "Little Fury Things" and the rabbit, I really don't want to assume I know what he's actually talking about here. Anyway, this is another track where Lou Barlow asserts himself through tape loops. Over the song's long coda, J croons something that sounds like "pave my face", over and over, as layers of feedback and distortion pile up around him. It soon becomes clear that, rather than playing these layers, J is still just playing the song's final riff. Meanwhile, Lou has accumulated a bunch of tapes of guitar noise, perhaps from Dinosaur's famously loud live sets, and is now playing all of them at once. Quavering loops swirl around each other, getting louder and stranger until finally the rest of the band drops out and the loops take over for the last 20 or so seconds of the song, tumbling over each other into an apocalyptic soundscape that ends abruptly, as if Lou just reached over and pressed stop. Immediately, "In A Jar" begins. This is the poppiest song on the album, and the transition between the noise fuckery of the coda to "Tarpit" and "In A Jar"s overt catchiness is both jarring and somehow perfect. J uses this pop backdrop to mix lyrics from what seem to be the point of view of a stray dog with bizarre, grotesque images of scabs and gore. Lou gets in a disruption of his own, playing a tape loop of a man screaming over the transition from J's midsong solo into the final chorus. They may be capable of overt pop moments, but Dinosaur Jr. are not content to let a pop song slip by without a couple of bizarre disruptions.

I'd really like to think that I'm in a different place, mentally and emotionally, than I was back when I first got into Dinosaur Jr. The truth is that I'm probably not as far from who and where I was then as I'd like to be. Regardless, this album has an enduring appeal for me that probably will never go away. I don't relate to the dysfunction of the lyrics as much as I once did, though I still do a little bit, but either way, it's the juxtaposition of melody and noise that makes this album the most appealing for me. And besides, it's one of the only good memories of high school that I have left.

Dinosaur Jr. - Little Fury Things
Dinosaur Jr. - Raisans



Will Haven and the sound of stress.

I've been feeling awful lately. I can't really stand to be around people for very long, don't really like having conversations or any form of social interaction. I feel crappy when I'm alone, too, though, because even though I feel unsafe when talking and interacting with others, I am lonely. I go through periods like this on a semi-regular basis, and have ever since I was a teenager. I don't know what causes them or what makes them go away. It's the dead of winter and freezing cold right now; maybe that has something to do with it. Whatever causes it, it's an awful feeling. I don't understand it enough to make it go away, but one thing I have figured out is what drives the seemingly contradictory desires at the heart of it. The times in my life when I feel like this are the times when my self-esteem is at the lowest. I want to have people around, I want to feel like I am appreciated and cared for, but I am so afraid that I won't be, that interactions with people will lead to negative rather than positive reinforcement, that I refuse to interact with people at all, out of fear that my worst-case scenarios will come to pass. This leaves me spending weeks, even months, at a time feeling terrible and afraid of the one thing that might possibly make me feel better. I'm shy and standoffish even at the best of times, but at times like this, I turn inward so much that I spend most of my time silent, looking down, terrified of initiating any contact with someone else. Even as I'm at my quietest and most withdrawn, though, I feel like screaming. I feel like I'm going to explode. It's such a visceral feeling that it makes my teeth ache and my back hurt.

I downloaded the first Will Haven EP a while back, at a point when I was downloading way more music than I had the time to listen to. It sat on my hard drive for months, and I didn't pay it any attention, even though I've been curious about them ever since their mid-90s beginnings. I finally listened to it for the first time last week, not really sure of what to expect. I knew that they were on a good label, and were often lumped in with other heavy post-hardcore bands of the same era, such as Quicksand. Really, though, I wasn't even sure that I'd like them.

As it turns out, my current emotional state seems to have made this the perfect time to discover Will Haven. Their music is similar to Quicksand in some ways, though not entirely so. For one thing, it has a more focused style, forsaking Quicksand's variance of tempo and overt melodic sections for a steady midtempo pound. For another, Will Haven is heavier than Quicksand ever wanted to be. The guitars are more distorted, and the riffs seem designed to get heads banging. The most obvious difference here, though, is the vocals. Singer Grady Avenell screams almost constantly, sounding not tough or angry but upset, as if he himself is about to come apart.

Truthfully, Will Haven seems like the kind of band that one would have to be in the mood for; their unrelenting pound seems hypnotically brutal to me in my current mental state, but might just seem monotonous if I'd first heard it on a sunny afternoon in May when I was happy with the state of my personal affairs. I'm sure I'd have respect for Grady Avenell's truly intense screamed vocals no matter when I heard them, but I'm not at all sure that the steady midtempo grinding of his backing band would keep my interest under other circumstances.

It's really doing it for me right now, though, and I think that probably has a lot to do with how bad I'm feeling right now. I don't know what stress feels like for other people, so I can't speak to the universality of my experience, but I do know that, for me, stress feels like a steady mental and emotional pressure coming from all aspects of my daily life. It feels like I'm being slowly but surely ground down by an uncaring world. And on the outside, I may seem stoic and unaffected by this feeling, but on the inside, I'm screaming.

Will Haven sounds like I feel right now. The way they play their midtempo riffs not only creates an ideal musical environment for moshing, it also generates a steadily building intensity, as on songs like "Choke", the opening track on this EP. None of the riffs have more than three or four chords, and all of them have the same form of head-nodding propulsion to them, but somehow the changes between them combine together to keep things building. Overtop of this musical background, Grady keeps screaming, managing to communicate volumes of anguish in each bloodcurdling howl. Finally, after several runs through variations of standard verse-chorus-bridge song structure, the volume drops as the rhythm section stops playing and the guitar player kills the distortion and strums a few quiet, ringing chords. It feels like a culmination of all of the tension built during the song thus far, but of course, once the band kicks back in, all of that tension comes back like it never went away. Moments like this are used rarely in Will Haven songs, but are one of the things they do best, using the breaks in the steady pounding to make that pounding hit all the harder when it does return. And it always returns.

"Veg" is probably the best song here. It's sorta weird for me, because this record is something I've been listening to as a reflection of my inner emotional state. This song, though, is pretty obviously about vegetarianism. The only lyrics on the whole record that I can understand come during a quiet part on this song, when I hear Grady mutter "...factory farms." That's cool, I guess, but it really doesn't have anything to do with the reasons I keep playing this EP over and over. I have been choosing to ignore this brief insight into Will Haven's lyrical subject matter. It doesn't matter, really. What matters is the visceral jolt this song gives me. The quiet parts that begin the song and occur about halfway through are the best tension-breakers on the entire album. The first heavy riff in this song sounds monstrous after the near-inaudible guitar intro. This song also has the best chorus on the album, mixing a standard three-chord intense midtempo riff with a chugging interlude that breaks up the pounding with an even more intense variation on the theme. The second quiet part here comes after the second chorus, and when the band kicks back in, it nearly blows your hair back. The band plays one more verse, Grady screaming over it all, then makes as if to go back into the chorus, only to have everything drop out except for the guitars, which strum a high chord slower and slower as the song fades away. It sounds like the song is a car, and it's just been driven off a cliff at 100 miles per hour. It feels sort of anticlimactic, but that feeling works here, somehow.

"Both Ways", which comes towards the end of the EP, is another of my favorite moments, mainly because it's Grady's most intense vocal performance. I mean, the whole album is intense, and he's screaming his head off pretty much the whole time, but he never sounds quite so fired up as he does towards the end of this song. At one point, there's a long instrumental break that trails off into just bass and drums carrying on the riff as the guitar first feeds back and then starts strumming single, undistorted chords. When the distortion finally kicks back in, Grady screams like every other scream on the album has just been a warmup. He sounds like his throat is going to explode into a million pieces while you're listening to the song. It's insane.

Considering how much I've been playing this EP lately, I'm almost glad that I haven't been hanging out with many people. I recognize that the monotony of tempo and the constant intense screaming might get old for some people after a while. Right now, though, I'm not one of those people. Right now, the more I hear this EP, the more I want to hear it. It just sounds right, somehow.

Will Haven - Choke
Will Haven - Veg



The real first Feist album.

When you're someone like me, by which I mean an obsessive collector of many different styles and genres of music, it can be easy to become unfamiliar with albums in your own collection. When I was younger, this wasn't true, because I didn't own that much stuff yet, so everything I purchased or otherwise obtained got a thorough enough hearing for me to at least form an opinion of it. That hasn't been the case for quite a while, though, so it's not all that surprising that I'm only now getting to know the first Feist album.

Before I go any farther, let me explain that I'm not talking about the 2004 release, "Let It Die", that first brought Feist to the attention of the musical community. That's the album a lot of people think of as her debut, and it's the first one she recorded for a major label, but there's another that predates that album, and that's the one I'm here to talk about.

"Monarch", which appears to have been self-released, came out in 1999, and has quite a different sound than the two major label Feist albums. I didn't pay any attention to Feist until the release of her 2007 LP, "The Reminder", about which I wrote on this blog around the time it came out. Back around that time, I downloaded her other two albums, "Let It Die" and "Monarch", and burned them both to a single CD, but I don't think I listened to either of them all that much at the time. Neither really left an impression on me, and I didn't go back to either of them until recently when a friend and I got into a conversation about Feist. I was singing the praises of "The Reminder", but my friend had only ever heard "Let It Die", so I told her I'd email her one of my favorite tracks from "The Reminder". When I did so, I sent along a track from "Monarch" as well, as I vaguely remembered that album sounding quite a bit different from either of the two more recent Feist albums.

The track I picked from "Monarch" was its opening track, "It's Cool To Love Your Family". At the time, I was just thinking of it as "Family", as that was the name my mp3 carried, and the name that the song is referred to by in at least half of the online references I can find. I chose it to send to my friend because it was first on the album and therefore was the only song from it that I really remembered. But when I played it before I emailed it to her, I was drawn to it, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, unlike the more recent Feist albums, it featured electric rather than acoustic guitar. The riffs Leslie Feist was playing on that electric guitar, combined with the solid rhythm section backing her up, made her sound much more like an indie rock singer-guitarist than the more acoustic-based songwriter she'd seemed to be on "Let It Die" and "The Reminder". I may have liked her songwriting on "The Reminder" a lot, but I can't pretend that a more electrified, indie-based sound isn't more attractive to me than the softer acoustic one she had on that album. That right there was enough to kindle a sudden interest in "Family", and in "Monarch" as a whole, more than a year after my initial acquiring of the album.

But what really drew me in was the song itself. The verses were catchy and upbeat, but it was the chorus that really caught my attention. Feist's repetition of (what turned out to be) the title line, "It's cool to love your family," really stuck with me. As I mentioned a couple days ago in my entry about Ms. Marvel, I spent about a week's total time at my parents' house over the last month or so, during that time we call "the holiday season." It was stressful and discomfiting, and I felt very ambivalent about the entire thing. A song with a chorus about how it's cool to love your family is bound to set off a torrent of mixed emotions inside me at any time, but I'm particularly vulnerable to it now. The rest of the lyrics to the song seem like a pretty straightforward tribute, at least over the course of the first two verses, in which Feist pays tribute to past ancestors (even as she teases herself, just a little bit, for bragging on them). But then in the last verse, there's something else going on. She sings: "In the Copenhagen city morgue, the dead sleep in metal slips, called at last. And someone loved them once, and someone loves them still. Someone misses them, and someone always will." She's saying that family is something we'll always have, even when we've got nothing else. Family is our tie to the world, to something outside of ourselves that we'll always belong to, always matter to. And maybe you can see exactly why I'd say this, or maybe you can't, but the truth is that even contemplating that concept makes me feel weird and upset.

But that's not Leslie Feist's fault. She's written a really good song here, and I'd say that its ability to elicit an emotional reaction from me only underscores that fact, no matter how ambivalent an emotional reaction it is. There are elements of the song's music that enhance its power, particularly the juxtaposition of Feist's rather rocked-out electric guitar with a string quartet that adds an extra layer of melody to the song's later verses. This juxtaposition is a pretty accurate summation of the entire album, at least its musical elements, which is something I learned when I was drawn by my enjoyment of "(It's Cool To Love Your) Family" to listen to the entire thing.

That opening track, while excellent, is hardly the only highlight that "Monarch" has to offer. In fact, other than a couple of less-than-stellar tracks at the end, it's excellent all the way through. "It's Cool To Love Your Family" is followed by two quieter tracks. "Onliest" is one of the only ones here with acoustic rather than electric guitar used as the rhythm instrument. This song is a quiet, mournful ballad, and in it, I can hear the sound that made up most of "The Reminder". Songs like "So Sorry" and "How My Heart Behaves" can trace their roots directly back to this track. It's followed by "La Sirena", a dark and moody track that uses reverbed-out electric leads to create the sonic impression of a hot summer night. Over these leads and a subdued rhythm section, Feist sings the chorus: "You are the end of me." This song sounds like a passionate moment between two lovers, and succeeds in creating a palpable atmosphere.

It's followed by what is pretty much my favorite song here, and definitely the most straightforward rocker on the album. "One Year A.D." makes a convincing case for Leslie Feist as a secret, unsung guitar hero. The band plays this one in a power-trio format, and Feist cranks the gain and reverb on her guitar to get a classic Fender Twin sound not too far from that of Dick Dale in his mid-60s prime. She doesn't rip off any double-note surf leads, instead delivering an excellent double-tracked solo mid-song, in which the two tracks harmonize with each other, then lead into a fired-up bridge. After the bridge, the guitars drop out completely, and Feist sings a verse quietly over the rhythm section playing quietly. This all just sets her and her guitar up to come back in louder than ever, and the song drives forward into a powerful climax, complete with reverb-spring noise. It's the sort of track that makes me sorry that I never got to see Feist leading an electric power trio, playing basement shows back in the day before anyone knew who she was. I don't even know that such shows ever took place, but I sure hope so.

Anyway, the next song on the album is the title track, and it represents an abrupt gear change. Feist doesn't play guitar at all on this one. Instead, the string quartet that played on the album's first two tracks takes over, laying down complex, multilayered melodies over a rocking rhythm section for the first two and a half minutes of the song. At that point, though, the bass and drums drop out completely, leaving the string quartet to move through a series of classical-sounding melodies before finally coming back to the song's main melody, over which Feist sings the chorus again, finally bringing the rhythm section back in for the final minute of the song. It's a moving moment that might very well have worked on either of her two subsequent albums, but actually doesn't sound much like anything she's attempted since.

The second half of the album is a bit spottier than the first half, but it starts out well with a slow, emotional track called "That's What I Say, It's Not What I Mean". This is yet another example of Feist's talent for writing sincere, straightforward lyrics that cut to the heart of emotional matters. "You don't have to worry about me," she sings in the first verse. Then follows that line with the song's title: "That's what I say; it's not what I mean." In the second verse, she plaintively asks, "When will a time come that I could hear a sad love song that doesn't speak to me?" Damn. Yeah, I've been there.

"Flight #303" isn't a bad song, revisiting the power-trio lineup with a poppier version of earlier upbeat tunes. However, for me it's marred by the jaunty backing vocals (which appear to be Feist herself, using double-tracking to transform her voice into a backup vocal trio), which appear on the choruses of the song chanting "three-oh-three" to a tune I find slightly cloying. Once again, this is a track I wish I could have heard live; live, there wouldn't have been four tracks of Feist singing, just a less-annoying single lead vocal. I wish that were the choice she'd made for this song while in the studio as well. And by the way, I wish she had stuck with lead guitar instead of having the song's solos played by electric piano.

"Still True" begins with Feist by herself, singing and playing her reverbed-out electric guitar. When the rest of the band comes in, the presence of the same electric piano that played the solos on "Flight #303" bothers me a bit, but it's not as jarring or annoying as it is on the previous track. However, as good as this song is at doing the slow, loud, dramatic thing, I feel like it would be a lot better with a louder electric guitar playing the song's rhythm chords through that same high-gain reverbed-out Fender Twin sound that showed up on "One Year A.D." That said, this song is too good for any production or instrumentation choice to have that much of an effect on it.

"The Mast" mixes acoustic and electric guitars together for a sound that somewhat resembles that of "La Sirena". However, where that song sounded sensual in nature, this one is more emotional, expressing a yearning desire for a deeper emotional connection with a seemingly casual lover. I can't really relate at this point to the specifics of the circumstances the lyrics describe, but the music communicates a deeper feeling that I've felt plenty of times. "New Torch" closes the album, and has a vaguely Eastern sound to it, using the string quartet in a much different fashion than it's been used elsewhere on "Monarch". By itself, it's not one of the best songs on the album, but in its place as the final track, it's perfect, its instrumental coda creating the perfect finale for the album as a whole.

One interesting thing that I've learned as a result of unearthing my CD-R of the first two Feist albums--I really don't think that much of "Let It Die". I'm glad it wasn't my introduction to her music, for if it had been, I may never have listened to anything else she's done. Where "The Reminder" was concerned, I liked songs like "My Moon, My Man" and "Brandy Alexander" the least, finding their jaunty pop, complete with adult-contemporary production sheen, offputting. However, "The Reminder" also featured songs that reminded me somewhat of Nick Drake, such as "The Park" and "The Water", and more conventionally soft-rock tracks that still had enough emotion to save them in my eyes, such as "So Sorry" or "How My Heart Behaves". "Let It Die" has some decent stuff on it, most notably its opening trio of "Gatekeeper", "Mushaboom", and the title track, but as the album progresses, it gets more and more on my nerves. "One Evening" and "Leisure Suite" are like "My Moon, My Man" only a good bit worse, and while the Ron Sexsmith cover ("Secret Heart") is OK by me, the Bee Gees and Blossom Dearie covers ("Inside And Out" and "Tout Doucement" respectively) are damn near insufferable. There's a bunch of overproduced treacle to wade through on the latter two thirds of this album if you want to hear the actually quite good jazz ballad closer, "Now At Last", on which Feist demonstrates her aptitude as a torch singer. Mostly, it just doesn't seem worth it to me. Maybe the problem is that I've got it on a CD with "Monarch", which is a record that definitely strikes a different mood than "Let It Die". Really, though, I think no matter what context I hear "Let It Die" in, I'm always going to find it an uneven and mediocre offering.

Not so "Monarch". Oh, no indeed. It's a shame that neither of the major labels who've issued Feist's two higher-profile albums have seen fit to reissue this album in a more easily obtainable version. As it is, I'm going to have to content myself with my burned copy, because you can bet that I'm not going to pay the $500 it currently commands on Ebay. However you obtain this album, though, it's definitely worth having. And as much as I like her most recent album, I kind of wish she'd done more like "Monarch". Its 10 songs are over all too quickly, if you ask me.

Feist - It's Cool To Love Your Family
Feist - One Year A.D.



Disorganized rant concerning "Ferris Bueller's Day Off".

"Ferris Bueller's Day Off" is a movie that I've been fascinated with since I was 12 years old. I think about it a lot and it pops into my head at random times. In fact, it popped into my head this morning while I was getting ready for work. I was thinking about one of the charges often leveled against this movie by its detractors--that the behavior of the movie's main characters makes no sense. "A bunch of high school kids skipping school to eat at fancy restaurants and visit museums? Absurd," they say. I can see the merits of this argument on a purely rational level, but the movie has always convinced me so thoroughly of the characters' sincerity that I've never been able to buy into this argument. This morning I finally realized why that is.

See, Ferris Bueller, as a character, is not what he seems. He comes off in the movie like some charismatic big man on campus, a mysteriously powerful student who commands the universal respect of other students and causes endless frustration for the faculty who, nevertheless, are unable to stop him. He seems like some kind of preppy high school superhero. What I realized this morning, though, is that he's a nerd. No, seriously, there's so much evidence for it. Look at the Rube Goldberg devices he constructs around his parents' house to fool any potential investigators (including his own parents) into thinking that he is actually at home sick. Look at who his best friend is--Cameron Frye, the brilliant yet neurotic child of wealthy, remote parents, who has learned to come down with psychosomatic illnesses whenever he gets too stressed out. The movie makes clear that all the kids love Ferris--so why does he hang out with Cameron instead of, say, the captain of the football team?

I was not one of those kids who overcame my nerd-dom while still in high school. Hell, I haven't overcome it now. I may have wished to grow up to be Ferris as a 12 year old seeing it for the first time, but that doesn't matter. If I'm anyone in this movie, I'm Cameron. That said, I had friends like Ferris--friends who were nerds in middle school, who lucked into a perfectly timed growth spurt, who learned how to charm women and get along with jocks, who were able to skirt the edges of trouble but never really get busted, who manipulated the system so that high school was a blast for them. They may still have gotten good grades, but they didn't make a fuss about it, so no one pointed out to them that they'd seemed a lot more nerdy back when we were all in sixth grade. And they made a good life for themselves in high school. They ended up like Ferris Bueller.

And when they wanted to hang out, they hung out with guys like me. We had been their friends since back when they were no better off than us, and they could talk to us about stuff they couldn't talk to the preps and the jocks about. That's who Cameron is for Ferris--a guy who speaks his language. Thus the two of them making goofy "Hey batter" jokes at a baseball game, and poking fun, through gestures, at stock traders.

Sloane Peterson, Ferris's girlfriend, is another example of what I'm talking about. People get blinded by the fact that the actress playing the role, Mia Sara, is gorgeous. But that's not the predominant characteristic of Sloane as a character. She's friendly, she's obviously intelligent, she's sensitive and caring. And she's up for whatever silly crap Ferris wants to pull at any given moment (see the taxicab scene for evidence).

I don't know where I'm going with all this, really, but it's just something that I was thinking about. I will admit that on some levels, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" indeed makes very little sense. The time sequence of the movie, for one thing, is all fucked up. How does Ed Rooney end up on a bus full of schoolchildren at 6 PM? That said, I think the characters are very real, not at all contrived, and I like that the makers of the movie weren't afraid to create people who didn't just fit into a stereotype. Even if one of them creates Rube Goldberg devices that so clearly would not work in real life.



Brian Reed's Ms. Marvel.

I've developed a bad habit, where comic books are concerned, of letting a significant portion of my regularly purchased titles build up months and months of backlog before I read them. I suppose it's because I was having trouble keeping up from month to month, and constantly found myself reading issues and not knowing what was going on. Then I started pulling out every issue since the beginning of a particular story arc and rereading all the old ones before reading the newest one. This helped with dense, complicated storylines, like those Brian Wood often writes for DMZ, but with my more standard superhero titles, left me sick of the early issues of certain titles before the final issues of the arc came out. Whether I was just reading a certain issue once and trying (usually failing) to remember all of its significant plot points until the next issue came out, or rereading the entire arc from the beginning over and over, I wasn't having a satisfying reading experience. So I started letting a bunch of the titles I regularly buy pile up for months at a time. More often than not, it was the superhero titles, with their tie-ins and complicated, long-running plots, that built up for the longest. And sometimes I find myself sitting in my easy chair in my room, looking down at the box of unread comics, thinking, "Am I buying too many of these? Would I miss any of these titles if I stopped getting them?"

I got an answer decidedly in the affirmative this week, at least where one title is concerned. I started picking up Brian Reed's Ms. Marvel title back when the first issue came out. I picked it up because Reed collaborated with Brian Michael Bendis on the then-recent Spider-Woman: Origin mini-series. I enjoyed the series, and any author with a link to Brian Michael Bendis is a guy whose other work I will check out. I was not disappointed--in Reed's Ms. Marvel, a character I usually thought of as a pointless also-ran, I found an update on my teenage connection with Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man. As a kid, I related to Peter Parker, because his experience with being a superhero was extremely similar to my pre-teen experience with being smart. He had this power, it enabled him to do really well in one area of his life, and it either did nothing for him or actively got in the way in every other facet. He was a superhero who had constant girl problems, was seen as a wimp by everyone he knew in his civilian life, got pushed around by his boss, and was always broke. Plus, he had trouble connecting with a regular group of friends, because he didn't have the social skills necessary for smooth interactions. Either he was nerding out about science stuff that he'd always loved, or he was too focused on Doctor Octopus or whoever to even tune fully into the conversations of his friends. This stuff can be a strained metaphor at points, but it's similar enough to work, at least for me. As a pre-teen and an early teenager, I related to Peter Parker like crazy.

I still see myself in some of his adventures in the rebooted title Ultimate Spider-Man, as written by the aforementioned Bendis, but it's in a sense of looking back. I can remember how rough high school was, and on that level, I can relate to his adventures in that title. But the still-running original Spider-Man title has been tweaked and screwed up to an extent that I can't see anything of myself in it. I still read it, though I question myself more and more often as to why I bother. Either way, as much as I enjoy them (well, at least one of them), both of these titles are pretty far from something I relate to at this point in my life.

This is where Ms. Marvel comes in. She's one of Marvel's most powerful characters, but she's always been under-utilized; she's existed for over 30 years and only occasionally had her own title. At other times, she's had a leading role in team-up titles, but it's usually been temporary. Mostly, she's a character some writer or another will bring in to defeat some super-powerful baddie they've created, and then after that issue, she'll fade away again. Brian Reed started his Ms. Marvel title by acknowledging this fact, and turning it into a narrative hook for the story. His Ms. Marvel is a woman who doesn't really know what she's doing with her life. During the Marvel alternate-reality whole-universe tie-in House Of M, Ms. Marvel, always one of the most powerful superheroes in the Marvel Universe, was seen as the greatest hero on Earth. Although everything went back to normal after a week, Ms. Marvel--Carol Danvers--remembers this week in an alternate reality, and feels compelled to try and live up to the life she had during the House Of M event. She laments in the first issue that she's tired of doing some big powerful world-saving thing, and then "spending the next six months sitting on her couch eating Ben And Jerry's." Brian Reed has taken an under-utilized character and turned her into a poster girl for the ennui-filled underachieving thirtysomethings that a lot of Generation X kids have grown up to be. No doubt I am one of those, which has a lot to do with why I relate so heavily to this version of the Ms. Marvel character.

One of my favorite single pages in any comic I've read in the last three years since I got back into comics comes from Ms. Marvel #10. The plot of the issue is the sort of plot that all truly good superhero comics have: some ridiculous, unrealistic sci-fi device forces our hero to confront and engage with a flawed element of their own character--the sort of element that is common to regular people everywhere. In this issue, an alternate-universe version of Carol Danvers, going by Warbird (a name Ms. Marvel used for a brief period in the late 90s), shows up in this universe with the full intention of killing Rogue of the X-Men. The Ms. Marvel that we've known for the entire comic tries to stop her, only to have alternate-universe Warbird freak out on her. Warbird, it turns out, is still angry over something that Rogue did to her a long time ago. The alternate-universe plotline gets pretty crazy and hard to explain (though it's easier to follow when you're actually looking at the pages of the comic and can tell the two different Carol Danvers characters apart), but the subtext is much easier to understand: has Carol made the right life choices? Should she be where she is? Should she be doing more? Was she right to forgive Rogue? Is she a good friend to the people who look to her for friendship?

By the end of the issue, Rogue is unconscious in a hospital bed at the X-Men headquarters, and Beast asks Carol to leave. She feels responsible for Rogue's condition, and hates that Beast is angry at her about it. And as she's leaving, she's trying to figure out how she feels about what has gone down, and more generally, about herself as a person. The third-to-last page of the issue is the one that hit me hardest:

(art by the late, lamented Mike Wieringo)

The first time I read the line "I try to believe... that I am a good person," I'm pretty sure I cried. It's a simple way of putting it, but really, it cuts to the heart of the matter: I have trouble believing that I am a good person. There are things that I am good at in life, but they've never really helped me feel like someone who is worth being around. There've been points in my life where I've been suicidal, where I've been firmly convinced that I'd do the people in my life a big favor by just dropping dead, and not troubling their lives anymore. When I feel that way, it's because I struggle with the same question. Am I a good person?

Over the course of the last two pages, Carol comes to a positive conclusion, and determines to start facing up to her fears. In fact, this is the rest of her monologue from the last two pages of the issue: "The last time I ran away, I went into space. And I stayed there for awhile. It's so beautiful out there, so peaceful... it makes me want to scream. Part of what I love about outer space is that there's nobody else out there. And when you're that alone, you forget what makes you human. Yeah, space is beautiful. But it's also a means of running away. And I'm not going to run away from anything ever again." Pretty powerful stuff. Although I can't relate to the idea of hiding from my problems in space, I've certainly hidden from them in a lot of other places, both physical and mental. I try to stick to that same pledge, not to run away from things, but it doesn't always work. But I keep trying.

Anyway, that issue of Ms. Marvel was enough to make me a fan for life, or at least as long as Brian Reed is writing the title. It's stayed good since then, even though at some points the issues have been more straightforward fighting bad guys and such, with less time for introspection. Despite all that, recently I let something like 8 issues of Ms. Marvel pile up without having read them. Some of them were tie-ins to big-universe-wide-tie-in-event of the moment, Secret Invasion (which was better than the inane World War Hulk, but not much). Those issues suffered from some of the same problems that Secret Invasion's main title had--too many huge double-page spreads of 80 characters fighting, plenty of action but corresponding lack of plot advancement, and convoluted details that the reader needs to follow across multiple issues of multiple titles in order to completely understand--though they were better than some of the Secret Invasion stuff I read. However, the issue that immediately followed the multi-issue Secret Invasion tie-in arc, #31, blew me away. It's called "Family", and once again, Brian Reed used a big elaborate unlikely sci-fi plot device to confront an issue that we all have to deal with sometimes. By way of example, here's a page from the issue:

(art by Marcus Marz)

Once again, the trouble Carol Danvers has with relating to her family has to do with that incident that happened between her and Rogue a long time ago. I wasn't reading comics back when it happened and don't pretend to understand the logic behind what happened, but apparently it involved Rogue sucking out all of Carol's feelings? Actually, I'll let her Wikipedia entry do the explaining:

"In Avengers Annual #10 (1981), Ms. Marvel is found by Spider-Woman, floating in the water below the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California. Carol is literally mindless, having had her mind wiped clean by parties unknown. It is ultimately revealed that Carol was assaulted by the mutant Rogue, who ambushed her and used her ability to absorb others super-powers via physical contact to permanently steal Danvers' powers and memories.

Spider-Woman contacts the X-Men who try to reverse the damage done to Carol by Rogue. Ironically, Rogue's attack has failed to erase Danvers' subconscious, which allows Xavier to completely restore Danvers' memories and personality, though he is unable to restore Danvers' emotional connection to most of her memories."

So we have a convenient sci-fi explanation for Carol's inability to feel much of anything for the members of her family (as well as the reason that the alternate-universe Warbird back in issue #10 couldn't stand to forgive Rogue for what she'd done). And that's fine, as far as it goes, but it wasn't the sci-fi explanation that led me to relate so heavily to this issue.

The holiday season just ended, as you well know, and between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, I spent about a week staying at my parents' house. I only really see my parents on these holidays, and it's been that way since I first moved out over a decade ago. I'm pretty much fine with it, and in fact, I have a lot of trouble dealing with going back to their house when I do it. I don't have any excuse not to go, and it seems like cutting off that form of contact with them without an obvious reason would cause more trouble than it would be worth, but I never have that good of a time when I'm back at their house. Regardless of the fact that I never had some mind-draining mutant attack me and steal my memories, I feel very similarly about my family to the way Carol feels. Who are these people? What place do I have in their lives? Why don't I feel a damn thing when I'm around them?

It isn't that Carol doesn't have a good reason to have lingering resentments towards her family, though. Later in issue #31, she sits by the bedside of her comatose father, and talks to him as if he can hear her. I have to wonder whether she'd have been able to say them if her father were conscious, but we all know how that goes. Anyway, she talks about how most of her memories of her father are of him yelling at her, about how his descent into alcoholism as she grew up made it hard for her to have a relationship with him, and about how she wishes she felt like he'd ever been proud of her. She feels like she wasn't what he'd wanted from a child, and that it doesn't matter what she's accomplished--it wasn't what he wanted to see his daughter accomplish, so he could never be proud of her. Then she says something else I could really relate to: "I don't know why I even care. I've lived a lot of my life without you in it."

Again, simply put. But again, cutting right to the heart of the entire issue. I think about that question a lot--why do I still care what my parents think of me? I certainly don't think they respect the things I wanted to do with my life, and I don't think they see the things I've accomplished thus far, meager though they may be, as worthy. And as I've grown older, I've come to see that they aren't even necessarily nice people. Yet, after all this time, I still care what they think. Even as I go on, at least 11 months out of the year, living my life without them in it, I wish, and on some deep level, I hope, that they will approve of me. I don't know why I care. But I do.

I'm not sure how much of a basis, if any, there is in prior stories about Ms. Marvel to support Brian Reed's interpretation of her as a character. For all I know, he completely reinvented the character. If he did, though, I am glad he did, because his stories about her have come to mean a lot to me. She may be one of the most powerful superheroes in the Marvel comics universe, but we're not so different, she and I.


Books I've read recently (3 month edition).

Spook Country, by William Gibson

"Spook Country" follows the lives of three different characters over the course of a few months. Those characters are Hollis Henry, former singer for a semi-famous rock band who is now writing an article about locative art for a European magazine called Node; Tito, an illegal immigrant from a large family of Cubano-Chinese criminals who often do work for Russians; and Milgrim, an Ativan addict who is capable of translating Russian and has been kidnapped by the sadistic spook Brown, who seems like he might be an FBI, CIA, or DEA agent, but might be something a good bit worse than that. These three characters spend most of the book having no involvement with each other, but the common thread that ties them together is a conspiracy involving tracking a package. I can't really explain further without giving away the whole book--as with "Pattern Recognition", Gibson has woven the narrative of "Spook Country" in a manner that throws the reader right into the thick of things with no backstory given and requires them to figure out all the necessary information they need in order to understand the plot of the book from subtle details scattered along the way.

This form of narrative can be frustrating to some people, but I'm the sort of person who derives a strange enjoyment from such things, so I looked at it as a challenge and ended up enjoying the book immensely. I felt like it was easier to figure out than "Pattern Recognition" also, but that might just be because I came into the book expecting a complex plot that I had to figure out, and so was better prepared to deal with what was presented to me. When compared to early Gibson work like "Neuromancer", "Spook Country" seems very different, both in plotting style and in the sort of speculative fiction that it even represents. "Neuromancer" was a noir novel set in a future dominated by cyberspace, and its dystopian tone, which fit well with its noir/crime plot, helped establish the template for what would be called cyberpunk. "Spook Country" is not cyberpunk at all, and takes place in the present day rather than in the future, but with its plot that's constructed around the use of cutting-edge technology and the unraveling of a complicated puzzle, it retains much of the same noirish dystopia and futuristic outlook that were such a big part of "Neuromancer". In so doing, "Neuromancer" proves that William Gibson, despite now writing in a very different style than he once did, is still on the same mental track as always. And as always, the work he produces as he journeys down that track is excellent and well worth any time invested in it.

Fifty To One, by Charles Ardai

If I were the type who only gave books five-star ratings when they were obvious classics of English literature, I'd give this book maybe three stars at the most. Thankfully, I'm not that type. I'm giving this book five stars, and that's because it was a tremendous joy to read from the first page to the last. There's a bit of a gimmick to it--in this, the 50th book released by Hard Case Crime, publisher Charles Ardai writes a book about Hard Case Crime if it existed 50 years ago, and titles each chapter after one of the 50 books Hard Case Crime has published. In fact, he even titles the chapters in chronological publishing order. In order to pull off this trick, he had to find a way to fit titles like Zero Cool and The Murderer Vine into the flow of the story he'd constructed, and it speaks volumes for Ardai's talent that he was able to do this seamlessly, in a way that never distracted one iota from the story itself. After seeing how well he pulled off this somewhat gimmicky concept, and made it work just as well as any other Hard Case Crime title that he's released, I'm anxious to check out more of Ardai's work (he's released two Hard Case Crime novels under the name Richard Aleas).

The book itself is a story about Tricia, a girl who comes to New York City from her small-town home in South Dakota, and finds herself with no job, no money and no place to stay. She falls in with a troupe of dancing girls and a disreputable pulp paperback publisher, Charley Borden, almost by accident. Her job as a dancer has her working at a mob-run nightclub (and telling everyone her name is Trixie), and Borden gets her to hunt for a loose-lipped mobster who is willing to tell his life story to her, have it fictionalized, and turn it into a cheap paperback. One of his competitors is making plenty of money off another cheap mob memoir, and Borden wants a slice of that pie. Tricia makes a game effort to find such a character, but soon despairs, and instead decides to pen a completely fictional account and pass it off to Borden as a memoir. After all, he's offered her $500 for such a manuscript, and she could use the cash. When Borden publishes the book, though, he and Tricia are in for an unpleasant surprise--a mobster has, in the last month, committed the exact robbery that Tricia described in her novel, and the mob are sure that Tricia and Borden know who and where he is.

Things take off from there at a breakneck clip, and they don't slow down until the novel reaches its end. No one is willing to believe Tricia's vehement assurances that she made the whole thing up, and soon she's caught between two rival mob factions, the police, and numerous other shady characters, all with their own agendas to pursue. All she wants to do is get all these people off her back, but it seems that, in order to do so, she, Borden, and Borden's secretary, Erin, are going to have to locate the missing money and get it back to the mob boss from whom it was stolen, before his patience runs out AND before the police catch up with them.

If that seems like a waste of a five-star rating to you, if you're the type who can't stand to read anything that hasn't been (and probably never will be) canonized, then you should probably give "Fifty To One" a miss. But if that sounds like your idea of cheap, pulpy fun, then you're going to be all over this book just like I was. Those of you in the latter category, preorder this now (I read an advance copy--its actual release date is 11/25), and those of you in the latter category... loosen up.

The Merchant's War, by Charles Stross

Fourth book in this series. Picked it up as soon as it was out in paperback. Some of you may remember my frenetic flight through the first three books in the series back in the spring. I was waiting with bated breath for this one, and as soon as I pulled it out of the box at the bookstore where I work, I bought it and started reading it. Well, I finished the stock order first, but it definitely bumped the other book I was reading back to the back burner. And now at least one and possibly two Charlie Huston books have jumped into the queue ahead of that one as well. Cherie Priest, I promise I will get back to your book soon!

Anyway, about this book. I know I wrote in my reviews of some of the earlier books in this series about how they sometimes seem like they're just getting going when they reach the end and it's time to pick up the next book. Well, this book doesn't so much feel like a beginning as a middle. Stross has established about half a dozen ongoing plot threads, and he switches back and forth between them every 10 pages or so. Miriam Beckstein, the character around which the series was originally built, has become not so much secondary as part of a larger ensemble of main characters. What's really interesting about it all is that Stross has now spent so much time telling the story from the point of view of differing characters that he's established reader sympathy for at least one and sometimes multiple characters on each side of the main conflict in the story. And there aren't just two sides, either--depending on how you look at it, there are at least three and possibly as many as five. The three main worlds in the story--the modern United States, the medieval Gruinmarkt, and the steampunk-ish New Britain--have been joined by an uninhabited fourth world that appears to be post-nuclear holocaust. Unless it's something else entirely. All kinds of crazy stuff is going on, it's all fascinating, and the ending of this book had me groaning in frustration. I can't WAIT to know what happens next! The fifth book in the series is coming out next spring in hardcover, and even though I've only bought the first four once they were out in mass market, I think I'm going to have to make the jump to the more expensive format. I just can't wait an extra year to find out what happens in this series.

The wait from the fifth book to the sixth looks to be at least a year, possibly more like 18 months. That one is going to drive me nuts. I'm thinking I'll start over at the beginning and read all six of the books in sequence at that point, though. As it is, having taken my first extended break in reading the series inbetween books three and four, I found myself a little fuzzy on some of the details involving less important plotlines and more minor characters. I'm sure that this series will work best if it's all read as one continuous experience. Too bad I got into it before it was finished.

Caught Stealing, by Charlie Huston

This short, fast-paced hardboiled crime novel was an absolute blast from beginning to end. I was already familiar with Charlie Huston's work from reading the first three of his Joe Pitt novels. That series, beginning with "Already Dead", tells the story of a rogue vampire living in a modern-day Manhattan in which vampires, zombies, and other supernatural creatures exist under the noses of unsuspecting normal citizens. I came into "Caught Stealing" expecting similar hardboiled stylings, and was not let down. There's nothing supernatural going on in "Caught Stealing"--it's the story of Hank Thompson, a bartender in Manhattan whose hopes for being a professional baseball player were dashed by a teenage accident. Since then, he's been drinking, trying to forget. He's now in his mid-30s, and bartending has led him to fall in with some less than completely law-abiding types. This book begins with a couple of Russian mobsters beating him up so badly that he has to have surgery to remove one of his kidneys. This means he's going to have to stop drinking, which will be easier said than done at the best of times. These are not the best of times, though, as more random criminals begin showing up in Hank's life, generally wanting to beat the shit out of him for not knowing where something they want is. They don't tell Hank what it is that they want--they figure he should know. He doesn't know where it is or even what it is, but this doesn't stop the parade of thugs and mobsters from repeatedly beating the crap out of him. I thought that Philip Marlowe got beat up a lot in the Raymond Chandler novels, but seriously, that was nothing compared to what Hank endures in this book. After about a third of the book, he finally figures out that the thing that the people who keep beating him up are all looking for has something to do with the cat his neighbor asked him to keep while he was out of town. At first, though, he plans to just give up the information these people want, and try to go on with his life. When friends of his start getting hurt, though, he gets mad. And when he gets mad, he decides to get even.

This book is the sort of pulp crime novel that is harder and harder to find in modern times, the sort of thing that Hard Case Crime is trying to singlehandedly revive (to some measure of success, or so it appears. Good for them). However, it's more brutal than anything from the golden age of pulp crime fiction (that being the mid-20th century), and there were definitely multiple parts in which I kept having to put the book down and cover my eyes (or clutch my back) for a moment before going on. Therefore, I wouldn't just wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone who loves pulp crime stuff--make sure you've got a strong stomach before you dive into this one. If you do, though, you absolutely cannot go wrong with this entertaining dose of pulp crime. Black humor, plot twists, chase scenes, and gunplay aplenty are what you will find here. Apparently there are two sequels to this book, and I'm going to be hunting them down with the quickness. If my experience is any indication, you really can't go wrong with anything by Charlie Huston.

Four And Twenty Blackbirds, by Cherie Priest

This entertaining dark fantasy novel tells the story of a girl named Eden, who lives in the dark, swampy American South and comes from a hazy family background that leaves her unsure exactly what her racial makeup is, and has apparently also given her the hereditary talent of being able to see and communicate with ghosts. At first, she's a young girl, and we don't really know what significance the ghostly communication has, but then a young man convinced he's receiving messages from God tries to kill her. As the book goes on, Eden grows up, and she starts becoming curious about her true heritage. Her aunt, who has raised her (her mother died in childbirth), tries to keep her from looking into things, but this just feeds her curiosity more. Finally, she starts digging in earnest, and what she discovers launches her onto a quest with very high stakes.

This book takes a while to lock into its main plot, and for at least the first half or so, I didn't understand where it was going at all. However, this approach works well for Cherie Priest, and gives her the leeway to spend more time developing character and painting a lovely picture of the witchy old South. Most of this book takes place in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with some of the later sections set in Georgia and Florida, and all of those places are quite a bit further south than my native state of Virginia. Nonetheless, I recognized a lot of the areas, if not physically then spiritually, as the same sorts of forgotten pockets of rural eccentricity that I spent most of my childhood living in. I enjoyed this tale immensely, and look forward to its sequels, but I have to figure that at least a little of my enjoyment comes due to the fact that I too am a child of the American South. I have to wonder how well a reader from Boston, or Paris, could connect with this book. Hopefully they'd still enjoy the dark fantasy plotline, but there's rich background detail here that I really hope is not lost for those who don't instinctively recognize it as immediately and intimately as I do.

The Little Sleep, by Paul Tremblay

Mark Genevich has narcolepsy in the worst way. He falls asleep midsentence. He has vivid hallucinations that he can't always tell from reality. He walks around and has conversations in his sleep, often fooling others into thinking he's awake. He suffers from attacks of cataplexy, aka "sleep paralysis". And he works as a private detective, which for him generally means taking cases that consist of finding data on the internet. However, now he's been hired by a pretty young contestant on...more Mark Genevich has narcolepsy in the worst way. He falls asleep midsentence. He has vivid hallucinations that he can't always tell from reality. He walks around and has conversations in his sleep, often fooling others into thinking he's awake. He suffers from attacks of cataplexy, aka "sleep paralysis". And he works as a private detective, which for him generally means taking cases that consist of finding data on the internet. However, now he's been hired by a pretty young contestant on "American Star", who also happens to be the daughter of the local District Attorney. Only, he's not sure exactly what she's hired him to do. See, he was asleep through most of their meeting. But he has some pictures of her in various states of undress that were left on his desk, so he figures someone must be blackmailing her. Working on this small amount of information, Mark begins digging into the case, but soon he begins to question even the little he does know. He figures he must have stumbled onto something, though, because thugs are following him around and roughing him up.

This book's plot focuses on the bizarre case Mark Genevich has found himself tied up in, but the real focus of the book is the tragic figure of Mark himself. Disfigured in an accident at the age of 21 and suffering from narcolepsy ever since, Mark lives a shadowy half-life of what he calls "little sleeps", and tries to delude himself that he is self-reliant, and doesn't need his mother as a caregiver, even as she stays at his apartment multiple times a week and gives him rides anytime he needs to go anywhere. He covers his confusion with lots of snappy witticisms, but underneath, he's melancholy and often frustrated, and this case only adds to his stress level. Paul Tremblay does a great job of bringing the character of Mark Genevich to life, and arouses a great deal of sympathy for him in the reader, especially since the reader recognizes early on that there's no miracle waiting for Mark--he's stuck stumbling his way through life for the foreseeable future. Mark's condition is sort of a metaphor for the human condition, though, and I know that's a really hackneyed thing to say, but I'm serious. His struggles with the constant neurological urge to fall asleep, and all of the problems that come with it, are much more obvious and physical manifestations of handicaps and burdens that all of us carry throughout our life. The fact that Mark always finds a way to muddle through, to keep going in the face of some pretty intense setbacks throughout the book, make "The Little Sleep" somewhat of a positive, uplifting tale, even despite the persistent melancholy of its main character, and its dark tone throughout.

This book is an excellent new wrinkle on the classic hardboiled detective tale, with nuanced plotting, character depth, and profound emotion threaded throughout. Anyone looking for a 21st century spiritual successor to Raymond Chandler should check this book out ASAP.

Every Last Drop, by Charlie Huston

To start with, let's establish something: this is the fourth book in a series. The series is about Joe Pitt, who is a vampire. At the beginning of the series, three books ago, he lived in Manhattan, and existed as a rogue, surviving by doing jobs for Manhattan's warring vampire clans, and always making sure that all of them felt indebted enough to him to keep him alive. A lot has changed since then, but the predominant feel--that of a gritty PI novel in an NYC setting, only with vampires--has not. Beyond that, though, I don't want to discuss plot specifics, since I don't want to ruin any details for anyone who hasn't read any of the books in the series yet.

While I enjoyed this book as much as I have the first three of the Joe Pitt novels, I felt that this one was weaker than those three if only because it didn't hold up on its own as well as they did. "Already Dead" and "No Dominion", the first two, were easily read as standalone stories, and featured central conflicts that were resolved in an end-of-book climax that was satisfying to the reader. The same is true of the third in the series, "Half The Blood Of Brooklyn", though that one seemed a bit short, and felt a bit underdeveloped in the middle sections. "Every Last Drop" is back to the more fully developed feel of "Already Dead" and "No Dominion", but the climactic scene of the main plot thread is not the conclusion of the book, and isn't dramatic enough to be anyway. The conclusion turns out to be an advancement of a subplot from "Half the Blood Of Brooklyn" that's barely been touched on, except during main character first-person reverie, for most of the book. In the other books in the series, there are definitely moments that require the reader to have read the earlier books in chronological order, but that said, there is also a plot that could be viscerally satisfying to anyone who picked up the book with no prior knowledge of the series. This is definitely not true of "Every Last Drop". Both the main plot of the book and the subplot that ends up taking over the main plot at the climactic moment are integrally tied up in events of previous novels in the series. I felt when I was reading it like I wasn't reading something that completely justified its existence as an independent novel in the series. Perhaps the problem is that the books in the series have all been short, between 200 and 250 pages, and "Every Last Drop" is 252 pages long. Maybe the publishers wouldn't allow Charlie Huston to put all of the plot developments, as well as actual conclusions to these plots, into one book. Perhaps it's been split in two due to length. If that's the case, the other half better be along as soon as possible, because the ending of this book resolved nothing, and left me with even more unanswered questions than did the ending of "Half The Blood Of Brooklyn". I certainly did enjoy every minute of it as I was reading it, but still. I wish I got more of a definite ending from it.

Stick, by Elmore Leonard

Every now and then I'll pick up an Elmore Leonard novel after months or years of not reading anything by him, and without fail, my reaction is always, "Why don't I read this guy's stuff more often?" I never really considered it before this book, my dozenth or so Leonard, but now that I have, I must credit Elmore Leonard with the distinction of being in my top 10 or so favorite authors. He's a brilliant wordsmith who is able to both keep it simple and stay out of the way of the story he's telling and interject amazing turns of phrase that catch your attention when you read them and make you think "that was perfect". The way he does these two seemingly contradictory things is by reserving the clever turns of phrase and snappy lines for his characters; his ear for dialogue is uncanny and the characters in his books speak like modern, updated, real-life versions of the characters that dispensed a constantly flowing stream of snappy patter in the screwball comedies and films noir of the mid-20th century. As I said, they're more realistic as characters than the ones that appeared in those films, but they're still colorful and unique, still the sort of people you wouldn't expect to run into more often than once every 10 years or so--and yet they're 100% believable. The man is a master and I can't believe I haven't ever gotten onto a serious Elmore Leonard kick and devoured his entire bibliography. Maybe the problem is that such a thing would take months, since he has so many books; then again, I can't imagine ever getting tired of reading his stuff.

"Stick" is named after its main character, Ernest Stickley, who's just been released from a Detroit prison after doing a 7-year bit for armed robbery. He shows up in south Florida because that's where his ex-wife lives now, and he wants to see his daughter for the first time in 7 years. Once he arrives there, he runs into Rene Moya, aka Rainy, a guy he knew in prison, and Rainy offers him a cut of a $5000 delivery job if he'll accompany Rainy on the ride. What Rainy doesn't know is that part of the arrangement the guy who hired him made with those the delivery was going to was that they'd kill the delivery men. Stick sees Rainy get blown away and takes off running, barely escaping with his life. He thinks about stealing a car to get enough money together to split town, but instead he inadvertently gets hired as a chauffeur by a rich stock-player type guy who fancies himself a tough customer and gets his kicks employing ex-felons. What Stick soon learns is that this guy is a good friend of the man who got Rainy killed, and who still wants to see Stick dead too. And that's when things get REALLY complicated.

In fact, let me tell you, if you pick up this book to read sometime soon based on this recommendation, you will learn almost immediately that I've simplified the plot a great deal. It's much more convoluted than that. There are more than just two sides, or even three sides, to Stick's story. And there are all sorts of peripheral characters that make the story even more entertaining--lonely trophy wives, bored female stockbrokers, drug dealers with drug habits of their own, ex-con butlers and limo drivers who trade in stock tips. It's a fascinating cast and one that makes this novel an obligatory inclusion in the subset of mystery/crime fiction Dave Barry once very accurately referred to as the "Bunch of South Florida Wackos" subgenre. If you've enjoyed Carl Hiaasen, Tim Dorsey, or the crime fiction efforts of Dave Barry, check out Elmore Leonard and meet the first and best writer in that style.

Bad Monkeys, by Matt Ruff

This book was fun to read while I was reading it but didn't really seem to have that much to it once I'd digested the whole thing. The author says in the P.S. section in the back of the book (which, yes, means I have the trade paperback and not the hardcover--too lazy to fix it, so you're gonna have to deal) that the main character, Jane Charlotte, was inspired by his reading of a Philip K. Dick biography and learning that Dick had a twin sister, Jane Charlotte, who died when they were babies. T...more This book was fun to read while I was reading it but didn't really seem to have that much to it once I'd digested the whole thing. The author says in the P.S. section in the back of the book that the main character, Jane Charlotte, was inspired by his reading of a Philip K. Dick biography and learning that Dick had a twin sister, Jane Charlotte, who died when they were babies. That's interesting and cool, but I don't know if this book quite lives up to all of that. See, there's one thing about the book that's pretty much accepted without questioning throughout that I just can't accept. That's the idea of "Bad Monkeys".

Let me explain. Jane Charlotte starts the book out captured, in a psychiatric observation wing of a Las Vegas penitentiary. She's telling a psychiatrist the story of how she ended up in jail, and that story is what becomes the entire book. Immediately, we're made very aware that Jane Charlotte is a classic unreliable narrator. She reminded me a whole lot of Kevin Spacey's character in "Usual Suspects". I kept hearing his voice in my head while I was reading this book, saying "Back when I was in that barbershop quartet in Skokie Illinois..." If you've seen the film, you know what I mean. And if you haven't, I shouldn't say anything further, lest I spoil it for you. Anyway, like I said, Jane Charlotte is an unreliable narrator. Almost everything she tells us throughout the book is questionable, and very little of it adds together into a coherent picture. Ultimately, at the end, you expect the entire thing to collapse like a huge house of cards, and maybe it does--I'm not saying. No spoilers for you. What I AM saying is that neither the narrative of the book as a whole nor any characters within the book's narrative ever question the idea that people are inherently good or inherently evil, that they are that way because of predetermined circumstances and that nothing that they do or that happens to them will make the slightest difference, throughout their entire life. This book comes from a very Calvinist perspective, whether the writer knows it or not, and I don't like that. No matter how unrealistic and humorously intended this book is--and rest assured, it is both things--it's still not lighthearted enough for me not to trip, again and again, over the to my mind faulty assertion around which the entire book is based.

And maybe I'd be able to let that slide if the story was better. In fact, I probably could. But it's just not that great of an entry into the madcap humorously-intended probable espionage genre. Maybe the problem is that I read a much better entry into that same genre, Warren Ellis's "Crooked Little Vein", in the very recent past. Or maybe the Calvinist viewpoint of the entire book bothers me more than I let on. But either way, I just didn't take all that much away from this book. It's a fun read, good for a day's entertainment, but no more significant than that. And in the end, it feels like a meal of mostly empty calories. It's the opposite of the sort of books that make you feel, once they're finished, like you have to wait a little while before you can move on to another one. As soon as I set this book down, I was immediately hungry to pick up something else.

One final note--some of the descriptions of Ruff's other books that I have read in various places seem more interesting to me than the premise of "Bad Monkeys", and he's a talented enough writer that I'm definitely open to picking up other books of his in the future. I just don't think this book is the best example of what he has the potential to do.

Downtown Owl, by Chuck Klosterman

I appear to have completely missed adding this book to my list back when I was reading it. Now it's been a week and a half since I finished it and I have to try and write the review from memory that isn't as fresh as I generally like it to be when I write these. Oops. I will try to do my best.

Chuck Klosterman's commentary on pop culture is something I've enjoyed immensely ever since he started writing it. It helps quite a bit that his first book, "Fargo Rock City" (a terrible title forced on him by his publishers--I much prefer his original one, "Appetite For Deconstruction"), was a social history and serious criticism of glam metal from the point of view of a fan who'd been a teenager during the era of glam metal's dominance. I'm 6 years younger than Klosterman, but boy could I relate. I still think "Fargo Rock City" is the best of his pop-culture related nonfiction, and find his individual essays to vary in quality, sometimes quite widely. But I've always been most interested in work of his that shows its connection to his personal life. His book "Killing Yourself To Live" was ostensibly about rock deaths but spent much more time on his troubles with romantic relationships. I could relate to that. His monthly column in Esquire is sometimes based entirely on some silly whim he's fixated on that week, and as a result they swing wildly from genius to ridiculous (as does his collection of these essays, "Chuck Klosterman IV").

Now, with "Downtown Owl", Klosterman has chosen to plunge into the world of fiction. He inserted a 30 page short story at the end of "Chuck Klosterman IV", and while I liked it a lot, many of my friends who read it were weirded out and let down by it. They may well feel the same way about "Downtown Owl", a novel that is structured much like the movie "Magnolia". Several characters who are almost completely unrelated--the only connecting factor between them being that all of them live in tiny Owl, North Dakota, population 3,000--make their way through their daily lives, having pointless adventures and discussing meaningless minutiae of their daily lives at great lengths with those around them. Sometimes these vignettes are hilarious--especially those from the point of view of Mitch, the third string quarterback for the high school football team--and sometimes they are unexpectedly poignant--especially those form the point of view of Horace, a 70-ish retired farmer. They add together to give us a sense of Owl as a place, not just geographically speaking but culturally and spiritually as well. We start to see how living there would be for us, even if none of the characters Klosterman explores really represent our own lives, or the slots in Owl's culture that we'd fit into. At some points, I personally felt connected to all of Klosterman's main characters (the third is a young teacher named Julia who has moved from Chicago because Owl's high school was willing to give her a job with no experience), and at other points, I couldn't relate to them at all.

The most important point I must emphasize about "Downtown Owl", though, is this one: Klosterman is able to create multi-faceted, interesting, and relatable characters in this story. A lot of people have accused him, both as a writer and as a person, of being unsalvageably self-absorbed, and if that were really true, I'd expect the retired farmer, the high school quarterback, and the young teacher from out of town to all read like the same basic person. Nothing could be further from the truth; all of these characters are different, all of them are fleshed-out, and all of them keep the reader's interest throughout the book. This is essential to "Downtown Owl"s success as a novel, in fact--where plot is concerned, it's generous to say that it has one at all. It's more like a collection of character studies and set pieces--some of which are hilarious. This is the kind of thing that I enjoy when I'm reading fiction, and I tore through this book in a day and a half. Some of my friends will no doubt hate it, and that's their prerogative. However, anyone who finds themselves consistently liking what I like will almost certainly love this book.

War As They Knew It: Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, and America In A Time Of Unrest, by Michael Rosenberg

I've read a lot of biographies over the years, and a lot of non-fiction books about my particular cultural talismans: underground music, unashamedly liberal politics, and football. This book is about the latter, and I haven't read as many football books as I have read books about the other two things I mentioned. I'm particularly green in the area of college football, which I didn't really follow at all until 5 or so years ago. Therefore, a book about Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler, coaches for Ohio State and Michigan, respectively, and about their ten-year rivalry between 1968 and 1978, is going to cover a subject I don't know very well. I certainly learned a lot from it, and I did enjoy it at least intermittently. However, I'd be lying if I said that "War As They Knew It" gave me everything I'd wanted and expected from it. Some football books that I've read over the years have captured my imagination and brought me back to them over and over (here let me give a shoutout to "America's Game" by Michael MacCambridge and "The New Thinking Man's Guide To Pro Football" by Paul Zimmerman--the latter was my favorite book when I was 11 years old), but I don't think "War As They Knew It" will be one of them. My relative unfamiliarity with Woody Hayes and Bo Schembechler may be one reason why, but honestly, I think Michael Rosenberg's writing left a bit to be desired in terms of being engaging. Also, at times, I felt like he was leaving rich territory unexplored. There was some discussion in the book of the radical political environment that Ann Arbor, Michigan, constituted in the late 60s, and even a bit of focus on John Sinclair and the currently-noteworthy Bill Ayers. However, if the book was really going to go into depth where the connection between the football rivalries of the time and the concurrent political climate on college campuses was concerned, it needed to do a bit more than it did.

Really, though, I may be being too harsh. As a book about Woody Hayes, Bo Schembechler, the way they ran their football teams, and the storied rivalry between the two of them and their two programs, "War As They Knew It" delivers. I enjoyed the blow-by-blow accounts of the games between the two teams in each year, and the in-depth discussion of the players who had important roles in one or more games. In particular, I was touched by the story of Michigan placekicker Mike Lantry, a Vietnam veteran who walked onto the Michigan team in his freshman year and earned a starting position, only to miss a crucial field goal to lose the 1974 Ohio State/Michigan game for the Wolverines. The crushing defeat, which was broadcast on national television, was the end of his college football career, and his solitary walk to the sideline after the kick, caught on camera, became a symbol to thousands all over the country. The author reprints sections from many of the letters that Lantry received after the game, and as someone who has struggled through some pretty tough times in my life (as we all have at one point or another), I could see exactly what so many related to in Lantry's experience. The author brought this moment to life for me, and this might have been my favorite section of the entire book.

I also appreciated the deep insight into the personal philosophies of Hayes and Schembechler, though. I found Hayes in particular to be fascinating, even though I disagree with many of his views about life, deriving as many of them do from a relentlessly military-oriented outlook. Hayes was a big Ralph Waldo Emerson fan, and many of the Emerson quotes scattered throughout the text were just as disturbing to me as Hayes's conservative political views, when they were discussed. Schembechler was not quite as doctrinaire as Hayes, but certainly as conservative. The author discussed these views without commenting on whether or not he agreed with them, and kept things relatively even by sometimes discussing the politics of John Sinclair or Bill Ayers in an equally non-judgmental light. Nonetheless, one of the biggest impressions I came away from this book with was the idea that I'd never want to discuss politics with either Hayes or Schembechler. That said, I respect both of them as leaders in the sport of football, and I hope to someday get a chance to check out some of the archival footage of their coaching days. I think I might end up finding that stuff more interesting than this book, which was a decent read on the whole, but just not quite what I wanted from it.

Mainspring, by Jay Lake

[This review contains spoilers] You know, I can't say I hated this book, but I was definitely disappointed in it. It starts out from an interesting premise--a story set in an alternate universe where the planets revolve around the sun on visible brass tracks, like clockwork. The problem is not with the world that is created from this concept, which is a very interesting alternate universe steampunk fantasy type thing. The problem is that the story just wasn't all that engaging. Oh, it started out well, but even the beginning s...more You know, I can't say I hated this book, but I was definitely disappointed in it. It starts out from an interesting premise--a story set in an alternate universe where the planets revolve around the sun on visible brass tracks, like clockwork. The problem is not with the world that is created from this concept, which is a very interesting alternate universe steampunk fantasy type thing. The problem is that the story just wasn't all that engaging. Oh, it started out well, but even the beginning set up the story in a completely different manner than I expected. I assumed that, since a universe like this would end the debate over whether there were a creator, there would be conflict between those who believed in an active creator and those who believed in an absent creator. And there is, but there's a problem--we're told immediately who is right and who is wrong. This is due to the book beginning with a clockwork angel, the archangel Gabriel, appearing to main character Hethor Jacques and tasking him with an epic quest to save the world. From then on, we know that those who believe in an absent creator are the bad guys and those who believe in an active creator are the good guys. The story plays out in exactly this manner, with a very one-dimensional moral structure. Characters are generally just flat placeholders; not even Hethor himself shows much of any dynamic characteristics. The story meanders along in a manner that gave me the idea that author Jay Lake had done no advance planning where the plot was concerned. It seemed like he was just making it up as he went along, and feeling free to discard huge plotlines if they bored him. The book really lost me about a third of the way through, when Hethor was derailed from his (very interesting) time aboard a pirate airship. From there, we heard nothing more about the ship or its quest. Instead, we follow Hethor over the brass wall that divides the world into the Southern hemisphere, where things just get weirder and more random. His romance with a pygmy woman who seemed like a cross between human and an evolved chimpanzee, which dominated the later parts of the book, seemed pretty strange to me as well. It was a bit off-putting, in fact. Really, the farther along things went, the less interested I was, and the last fifth or so of the book seemed like one big deus ex machina, which admittedly fit with the book's plot but felt like no less of a cheat for all that. The series continues with a book called "Escapement", but Hethor's story is at an end after "Mainspring", and the second book apparently follows up on several minor characters from various sections of "Mainspring". I don't know where Lake could have taken Hethor's story after the end of this book, so it makes sense that this is how he's chosen to follow this book, but at the same time I think it points out just how unimportant his characters are to the story he's telling. I'm sure the world-building fans out there could find a lot to enjoy here, but as someone who reads primarily because I enjoy reading about characters, I found little to like here, and can't imagine that I'll be checking out the sequel.

Special Topics In Calamity Physics, by Marisha Pessl

When I was 14 years old, I read in a lot of places that "Catcher In The Rye" was the essential book for a disaffected teenager to read and feel a little bit less alone or whatever. I read it, and I liked it at the time, but when I look back on it now, what stands out to me about it is the inarticulate nature of Holden Caulfield. I guess when I was 14, quotes like "Don't ever tell anybody anything. If you do, you start missing everybody" meant something profound to me (or at least I was young enough and impressionable enough to feel that I was SUPPOSED to get something profound out of them, and bullshitted my way into believing that I had), but these days, all I can think is how many better ways Caulfield could have expressed himself. I'm sure J.D. Salinger knew a much more sophisticated way of getting his point across, but was just interested in capturing the mindset of an angry teenager than in using the best words possible. Maybe this makes "Catcher In The Rye" more universal or something, though I tend to think these days that it's more overhyped than anything else. Either way, it's very different from "Special Topics In Calamity Physics", a book that comes a lot closer to my own experience as a teenager.

Narrator Blue Van Meer is about to enter her senior year of high school as the book begins, and her narrative style, peppered as it is with wordy asides, constant quotes (generally, though not always, from fictional sources), and visual aids (capably drawn by the author), marks her as a precocious student of the first order. Blue's mother died when she was a young child, and since then, her father, Gareth, has been moving from one town to another at the rate of once per semester or thereabouts. He's an authority on certain intricate facets of political science, which allows him the ability to make his living by guest lecturing at one college or another, never putting down roots anywhere. One might wonder what he's running from, but as the novel begins, it's not a question that Blue herself has ever asked. Instead, she sees herself as the Dr. Watson to Gareth's Sherlock Holmes, and the way her narrative is overflowing with quotes from and stories about her father, it's obvious to the reader that Gareth has become her only major influence in life, as well as a sort of personal hero. Blue seems to have adopted many of Gareth's values and viewpoints without ever really analyzing them. What she doesn't realize is how unusual this has made her.

For Blue's senior year, Gareth has decided to finally settle down in one college town, where he will retain a professorial position for an unheard of entire year. The town of Stockton, North Carolina, is where he settles, and where Blue meets Hannah Schneider, the film teacher at her high school, and the Bluebloods, a small assortment of students who've created a social circle around Hannah. Despite her best efforts at avoiding such a thing, the Bluebloods and Hannah seem determined to bring Blue into their social circle, and eventually succeed. This fact is what drives the leisurely, meandering plot of the novel to its eventual conclusion. We know from the very first page that, at some climactic point in the narrative, Blue will find Hannah Schneider's body hanging from a noose (she tells us this in the first sentence, a la Donna Tartt's "Secret History"), but the book takes its sweet time getting to this point. Over its 500 page length, it spends a lot more time detailing Blue's wallflower-ish perspective on life, social interaction, and the people around her. We see her growing from the unquestioned assumptions of a child into the independent viewpoints of an adult, but "Special Topics In Calamity Physics" isn't really a traditional coming of age novel any more than it is a traditional mystery (though it incorporates elements of both).

Really, this is just a book about the inner life of an extremely interesting teenaged girl who has never felt like she belonged to any social group, and the unique perspective this fact affords her. I enjoyed the gripping final 100 or so pages, in which the mystery elements of the book finally take over and kick it into high gear, but I enjoyed the earlier periods, when Blue's social observations are the things we're hearing the most about, just as much in their own way. I don't really know how to explain my love for this book any better than that; what mostly happened is that I would come across some particular adroit observation, look up, and think, "Man... how can anyone not LOVE this book?" I'm well aware that opinion on it is extremely divided, and that people tend to either love or hate it, but I for one love it and would recommend it to anyone. I wish I could explain why better than I have--maybe my above comments will explain my reasoning to your satisfaction, and if so, I hope you will give this one a chance. I can't imagine how Pessl can possibly top this particular literary feat (her debut novel, written when she was in her mid-20s... which makes me feel like such a slacker), but I'm eagerly awaiting any further efforts on her part.

The Revolution Business, by Charles Stross

After flying through the first three books in this series one after the other and picking up the fourth soon after I finished the third, I was expecting to have to wait a little while (until next spring, in fact) to read the fifth in this six-book series. I wasn't looking forward to it, either; for one thing, when I read the fourth book after a few-month break, it was a little tough jumping back into the world of the Merchant Princes and being sure of exactly what was going on in every storyline. It didn't help that I was coming back in at a point in the series where a lot of different plots were moving in a lot of different directions, either. The unexpected miracle of receiving an advance copy of this, the fifth book, only a month after receiving the fourth, put me on much better footing to realize what was going on as soon as I picked it up. However, I'm now looking at a nearly two-year wait until the sixth and final book, so the plan is to start over at the beginning and read all 5 of the books I already have before finishing the series, whenever such an opportunity becomes available.

After the slight downturn of the third book in the series, the fourth book was a return to the excitement and awesomeness of the first two, and the fifth is more of the same. I don't really want to discuss plot details at this point in the series, since the whole thing is one long story and I don't want to ruin things for people who might read this review at a point where they are a book or two behind the curve. But I will say this--everything that was heating up in the previous volume is REALLY heating up now, and things are moving away from the seeming fantasy of the first couple of volumes into an obviously science fictional basis for this story's particular McGuffin, which I like. Stross has said in interviews that these six books were originally intended to be two much longer books, and that he has notes for what would have been two more much longer books to follow the two that eventually became these first six. At this point in the story, I can totally imagine what might be in store for those later volumes, and while Stross has no immediate plans to actually write them, I sure hope he does at some point. There are way too many possibilities left in this story for me to be satisfied with what will be explored and wrapped up in only one remaining volume.

That being said, I can't wait to see how this particular series ends. My only quibble is that I'm going to have to wait two years to do that. Boo.

The Brief, Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz

This book has picked up a whole lot of hype lately, and I know I'm not going to be able to derail that particular train all by myself. Honestly, I don't even want to, not completely. That said, I have a few minor complaints about it, and in the interest of not contributing to the hype, I'm going to go ahead and lay those out first.

For starters, the narrative voice didn't always work for me. Without getting too into the details and dropping spoilers, I will mention that said narrative voice switches back and forth from a more straightforward style into an exaggerated Latino-homeboy type of dialect. It's this latter that bugged me. It came off as trying too hard, like someone who hadn't been raised in the sort of urban/hip-hop culture that the narrative voice belonged to doing their version of said hip-hop dialect and just making it obvious that they hadn't really grown up speaking that way. Junot Diaz may, in fact, HAVE grown up speaking that way, for all I know. The problem is that he wasn't too convincing in his rendering of it. It felt like the narrator during those parts of the book was a Dominican version of Stuart Scott from ESPN. Or, if that reference doesn't make sense, Carlton from Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air. My other beef: the story being told here just seemed too easy, like a slow pitch hung up nice and easy right across home plate. It's like the book version of Tom Hanks playing "Forrest Gump." Admit it: the second you saw the trailer for that movie, you knew he was gonna get an Oscar. He's playing the slow-but-idiosyncratically-brilliant guy with a heart of gold. We all know that shit is Oscar porn. Well, would it be fair to say that a narrative about a struggling Dominican immigrant trying to find his place in the mainstream culture of America and reconcile that place with his Dominican cultural background is Pulitzer porn? If not, I guess it's too bad, because I'm gonna say it. The thing that surprises me about this book is not the Pulitzer winner sticker on the cover, it's the lack of an Oprah's Book Club sticker on the cover. Give it three years, I guess.

OK, those are my qualms. They are overpowered, to a great extent, by my enjoyment of this book's narrative, pace, characterization, and yes, even its voice at times (when said voice is not trying too hard). Oscar Wao is a character I can relate to, despite the fact that he is a Dominican immigrant, and I'm just a plain ol' white guy. He's a fat nerd who grew up around people who didn't understand his love for the things he loves. He never gets any attention from girls except for a rare few, who invariably move him immediately into the friend zone. He compensates for his lonely life by writing a lot. As he gets older, he just feels more and more alone, and gets more and more depressed. His family doesn't understand him, his mother is abusive to him, and eventually he grows positively suicidal. Even his best friend (the book's narrator) seems not to truly appreciate him until after he's gone. I hate to admit how much I understood where he was coming from. But I did.

The part of the book that was more alien to my experience was the part that dealt with the history of Oscar's family. A great deal of the book is devoted to flashbacks to the time when his family still lived in the Dominican Republic, to the life of his mother, his grandmother, his aunts and uncles, even his older sister (who returned to the D.R. for a while as a teenager). It goes into a great deal of social history about the D.R., much of it concerning the dictatorial rule of the D.R. by Rafael Trujillo, from 1930 to 1961, and the trouble Trujillo caused for the D.R. in general and Oscar's family in particular. While I related less to these sections of the story, I enjoyed them just as much as I enjoyed the tales about Oscar's life. In fact, since the trying-too-hard elements of the narration were toned down for these sections of the book, I may have enjoyed them a bit more.

This book was a quick, enjoyable read, and while I feel that at least some of its praise in mainstream popular circles comes more from the topics it deals with than its actual quality as a novel, I nonetheless thought it was a really good book, and would recommend it to anyone who thinks they can handle the Carlton-from-Fresh-Prince parts. Although much of the book is tragic in tone, in the end it is vaguely uplifting, and you could certainly do worse than to read a book that evokes sympathy for all the fat, out of place nerds of the world.

The First Quarry, by Max Allan Collins

Sometimes I lament the fact that the quick-n-dirty crime novel seems like a lost art, and that these days everyone wants to pad their opus out to 300, 350 pages, generally doing so by means of extensive romantic subplots. Then a longtime veteran like the always-reliable Max Allan Collins comes along to show me that I'm wrong, and it's oh so nice. Hard Case Crime can also be thanked for this genre's resuscitation, such as it exists at the moment (I'm hoping things are on the upswing--perhaps an economic downturn will spur public appetites for this sort of stuff), and for bringing back shorter lengths in smaller, cheaper sizes, between awesomely lurid covers. But if they didn't have a great pool of talent to draw upon, it'd all be for naught, which is why Max Allan Collins takes the vast majority of the credit for the greatness of "The First Quarry." I've been reading Collins's stuff since I was 12 years old; after reading several of his Batman comics from the late 80s simply because they were about Batman, I picked up "True Detective" from the library because I knew the author and it looked cool. It was my first adult crime novel, and I've been hooked ever since. "The First Quarry", unlike "True Detective", does not focus on a hardboiled PI but instead a Vietnam vet who has picked up a job upon his return from the war as a contract killer. Apparently Collins has a whole series of books about this character, and this tale of his first adventure is a flashback to a time before the first book in the series. I had never read anything else by him featuring this character, and it didn't hurt my ability to understand and enjoy the book in the least. In fact, for who share my ignorance of the Quarry character, this book might be the best place to start, as it goes into detail about his origin story, so to speak.

It's the actual narrative that takes up most of this short, quick read, though, and that narrative is lots of fun. Quarry is staking out a college professor in preparation for taking him out, and said professor is the sort to have lots of nubile teen coeds in and out of his house at all hours. This is proving troublesome for Quarry, since he never seems to be able to catch the professor alone long enough to do the job he was sent to do. While he's waiting, several new wrinkles that I won't spoil pop up, and before we know it, Quarry's running all over the states of Illinois and Iowa, leaving a trail of dead bodies and, uh, satisfied women in his wake. The ending gives us the sort of plot twist that novels like this often use, but it's unpredictable and packs a powerful emotional punch, so even though you can see by how many pages are left in the story that some bizarre twist is coming, it's still completely satisfying when it gets there.

This book was great. Collins has another Quarry title from Hard Case Crime that I'm going to be looking for in the very near future, and I'll be scouting used book stores for others in the series. If they're even close to this level of quality, I'm sure I'll devour them with gusto.

Agent To The Stars, by John Scalzi

This book is a fun sci-fi romp in which an alien race, having come to Earth, decide that the best way for them to introduce themselves to the human race is to hire a Hollywood agent. The book is told from the agent's point of view, as he attempts to juggle clients and movie offers while simultaneously seeking an original and appealing way to introduce these fundamentally friendly aliens to a culture that tends to think of aliens as hostile threats to our society. Heady issues, but the way Scalzi...more This book is a fun sci-fi romp in which an alien race, having come to Earth, decide that the best way for them to introduce themselves to the human race is to hire a Hollywood agent. The book is told from the agent's point of view, as he attempts to juggle clients and movie offers while simultaneously seeking an original and appealing way to introduce these fundamentally friendly aliens to a culture that tends to think of aliens as hostile threats to our society. Heady issues, but the way Scalzi deals with them is always fun and lighthearted. This novel is a revised version of his first, written a decade ago as a practice novel. He says in the opening author's note that he never intended for it to be published in any other format besides as a free version posted on his website, but that his increase in popularity over the past decade prompted a wider release for it. Reading it, you can tell that it wasn't intended to be some deathless work of serious art, but it indicates a solid level of capability present at the time of its writing in a rather novice writer. The other book I've read by Scalzi, "Android's Dream", is more accomplished but also rather lighthearted, but I get the idea that he's explored a more serious tone in his "Old Man's War" series. I'll be checking that one out soon, because so far I've gotten nothing but enjoyment from his work.

Ex Libris: Confessions Of A Common Reader, by Anne Fadiman

This short book was a quick and easy read, and author Anne Fadiman has an engaging narrative voice. While I could relate to a great deal of her stories about book obsessiveness, though, she sometimes got on my nerves a bit. Her fussy tone and obvious background as a child of privilege was intrusive for me, as someone who tends to prefer vernacular dialects, genre fiction, and trash art, and as someone who lives in near poverty and never expects anything more. Of course, part of my own near-impoverished status is due to my spending every spare dime on books with which to fill my house to bursting, so we have that (and many other things) in common. For that reason, and the reason that this book is far more about my similarities with Ms. Fadiman than my differences with her, I enjoyed this book in the end, even despite the elements of it that occasionally annoyed me. I don't know if I'd enjoy other writing on other subjects by her, but really, any book about how much someone loves to read is going to give me at least some amount of pleasure.

The Cold Spot, by Tom Piccirilli

This is not a typical crime novel, which isn't all that surprising considering the source. I've read a couple of Tom Piccirilli's earlier horror novels, and noticed the surreal, almost psychedelic narrative style he typically used. It made a lot of sense in the context of horror--sort of like a novel version of Argento's giallo horror movies. I wasn't sure how it'd translate to crime fiction, but I figured it'd be worth checking out. Turns out, it works really well. Actually, Piccirilli tones down on the hallucinogenic imagery and narrative choices, but when compared to typical crime fiction, "The Cold Spot" is still pretty unusual. I've read interviews with Piccirilli where he said that he got into writing crime fiction instead of horror because he felt that there were some truly existential veins of deep horror to be explored in the crime context. This story definitely has plenty of that going on. Chase, the main character, suffers tragedy after tragedy, and it permanently changes his outlook on life, driving him towards a position of misfit in mainstream society, as well as a dark outlook that spurs him towards acts of revenge and brutality. I don't want to explain any more than that. I just really liked this book. I like how fucked up and brutal and depressing it is. The existential horror that Piccirilli mentioned is definitely here, perhaps in even greater proportion than it appears in novels by Jim Thompson. A monster in this story would just get in the way of the fact that the humans are the real monsters here.