Sunday, February 25, 2018

February's Reads

Daphne Du Maurier - Rebecca

Daphne Du Maurier's most celebrated novel, basis for the Hitchcock film of the same name, will probably always be pegged as a gothic romance.  There's a lot more to it than that.  It's also a Golden Age murder mystery and a story about the quest for identity.  The afterward in my edition brings up an interesting theory about the characters of Rebecca and the unnamed narrator reflecting dual aspects of the author's persona.

Christopher Hibbert - The Borgias and their Enemies

People tend to favor Hibbert's book about the Medicis over this one.  In all honesty, if you're already familiar with the Borgias, it isn't going to offer any newfound insight.  It is however good for a straightforward review.  If someone asked me who the Borgias were, I'd tell them to watch the Showtime series for a sense of authenticity (if not necessarily accuracy), then read Hibbert's book to set the facts straight.

Elmore Leonard - Rum Punch

Elmore Leonard is one of the most celebrated writers of dialogue in the American literary pantheon.  Quentin Tarantino has cited him as one of the three greatest influences on his own writing style.  In fact, this book was the basis for Jackie Brown.  I spent a few days sipping Negronis and Aperol Spritzes on a leather couch in a bar called Yeah! reading it.

Jerry Hopkins - Thailand Confidential

Jerry Hopkins is the American journalist who wrote the famous Jim Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive.  In 1993 he moved to Bangkok and never came back.  This very informative and entertaining read is a catalogue of his experiences, observations and accumulated wisdom.  I read it after booking a flight to Thailand in March.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

February on the Turntable

I've been obsessively collecting vinyl for years.  Here are some of my recent scores...

My Bloody Valentine - Isn't Anything

Kevin Shields is an aural genius.  The man picks up guitars and creates sounds the likes of which no one has ever conceived.  That combined with a beyond-obsessive attention to detail when it comes to recording technique has produced some music that is truly sublime.  When he announced last November that he was going to release all-analog vinyl reissues of Isn't Anything and Loveless, I immediately pre-ordered.  Isn't Anything marks the transition away from their early The Cramps-meets-The Birthday Party psychobilly, and into a refined distortion-powered indie rock, paving the way for their subsequent masterpiece Loveless.  It's a great fucking record, and now it sounds better than ever.

My Bloody Valentine - Loveless

This, in every sense of the word, is the big one.  It took over two years to record in nineteen different studios to the tune of a rumored £250,000, making it one of the most expensive records ever produced.  And my God, was it worth it.  It's not only the quintessential shoegaze record, but it consistently ranks in the Top Albums of All Time list in every magazine from Spin and Rolling Stone to your self-published neighborhood hipster zine.  Shields went back to the original master tapes to create this version of Loveless entirely in the analog domain, a process that, like its original recording, turned into a multi-year ordeal.  As always, his perfectionism paid off with interest.  If you want to hear guitars make the sounds of love, sleep and sex, get this one immediately.

The Chameleons - What Does Anything Mean? Basically

The Chameleons were a post-punk band from Manchester who, by all rights, should have been as big as Joy Division and The Stone Roses.  Their debut album Script of a Bridge is universally hailed as their masterpiece, and rightly so.  However, it seems that What Does Anything Mean? Basically (along with everything else they ever recorded) is doomed to stand perpetually in its shadow.  However, that's not to say this isn't a good one.  If not wholly different, it's a natural post-Script, with that same slick production, suave vocals, stonking drums and pristine wall-of-sound guitar.  I found this one in the sale bin at Radiation Records.  Despite never having heard it before, and my resolve not to spend any money, I ended up going back for it.  Very glad I did.

The Cure - Three Imaginary Boys

The Cure's debut album was never my favorite, but when I found it in the sale bin at Radiation, I had to get it.  I was surprised how much this album had grown on me.  I was also surprised how different the track listing was on the UK edition.  The singles like 'Boys Don't Cry,' 'Jumping Someone Else's Train' and 'Killing an Arab' that made the album such a hit in the US (released as Boys Don't Cry) are absent, and in their place are five tracks I'd never even heard before.  Personally, I think it flows better this way.  When I first got into The Cure, I was after their darker material like Faith, Pornography and Disintegration, and this one didn't do much for me.  Now I look at it as a solid pop-punk record not too far from the Buzzcocks, that launched the career of a band that would continuously reinvent itself over the next four decades.

Johnny Cash Sings the Songs That Made Him Famous

Yet another score from the sale bin.  The second album by Johnny Cash has more to do with wholesome radio-friendly 50's country-pop than the outlaw star who played at Folsom Prison, smashed the Grand Ole Opry's lights and smuggled amphetamines in his guitar case.  It's still got plenty of great tunes like 'I Walk the Line,' 'Ballad of a Teenage Queen,' 'Guess Things Happen That Way,' 'Home of the Blues' and a cover of Hank Williams' 'I Can't Help It.'

Miles Davis - Birth of the Cool

I generally only allow myself to buy one record per week.  This time it was a toss-up between this one and Coltrane's Blue TrainBirth of the Cool is a compilation of tracks from three sessions his nonet recorded for Capital records in 1949 and 1950, marking a transition away from bebop and into the then-emerging cool jazz scene.  I don't know man, there's something about jazz that makes you feel cool just by hearing it.

Attrition - The Unraveller of Angels

I've been a fan of the Coventy band Attrition since I discovered them on Projekt Records in the late '90s.  Their sound is a strange brew of experimental electronic beats and the occasional wind or string instrument, with dark, surreal lyrics about love, sex, death and religious kitsch.  Frontman Martin Bowes delivers his vocals in a semi-spoken Cohenesque tone, often backed up by an operatic female singer.  It's eerie.  It's sexy.  It kicks ass.  You can dance to it.  Through a series of fortunate events, Martin and I have become friends over the last two years.  He and his wife Kerri (keyboards and backing vocals--the girl on the cover) crashed at my place while they were in Rome for a gig, and brought me this as a gift.  For a taste, check out 'Karma Mechanic' and 'One Horse Rider.'

Monday, January 29, 2018

January's Reads

I think one of the biggest surprises people get reading Frankenstein is how radically different it is from the story we've all heard a million times.  There's no description of how he creates the monster or the methods he uses to bring it to life.  Igor's not in there, nor is there an angry mob with torches and pitchforks.  The monster speaks perfect English.  And at no point does Victor scream, "IT'S ALIVE!"

I was already curious about this when I read the excerpts in New York magazine.  When I heard that 45's lawyers were actually trying to suppress it I considered reading it almost a patriotic duty, and downloaded it the day it was released.  Of course a lot of the stories are impossible to verify (and predictably the White House is denying everything), but nothing in this book is beyond the realm of plausibility.
Andrew Cullen and Ryan Anthony McNally - Decoding Italian Wine

Read this one if you don't know a fucking thing about Italian wine.  What you see is what you get: a beginner's guide.  It's all Nero D'avola, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.  Personally I would have preferred a bit more depth, but them's the breaks.  I dug the section on Italian cinema pairings.

This one came at the recommendation of my good friend, wine guru and Italian life-coach Marta Rezzano.  The way I evaluate high fantasy (or any novel that takes place in another world) is I ask myself towards the end: how real does this world feel?  My belief in this universe and its systematic magic never faltered, and I cared about the characters right up till the end.  My only complaints are that the story seems to lose the titular wind in its sails somewhere around the fourth quarter, and the ending felt more than a little anticlimactic.  Still, I'm intrigued enough to read the next one.

Shawn Levy - Dolce Vita Confidential

Excellent book about Rome in the post-war years.  Cinnecittà.  Fellini.  Paparazzi.  Sophia Loren.  Marcello Mastroianni.  Levy describes how Mussolini centralized the film industry to serve as a propaganda machine, then goes on to chronicle how after the fall of fascism the Marshall Plan helped facilitate its growth into one of the most dynamic movie production zones of all time.  If you're at all interested in Italian cinema or twentieth century Rome, I can't recommend this one enough.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

November and December on the Turntable

I've been obsessively collecting vinyl for years.  Here are some of my recent scores...

Death Proof (soundtrack)

I remember seeing Death Proof as part of the Grindhouse double-feature in 2007 at a tiny mom and pop theater in Philly.  The seats creaked when you sat down, the floor was sticky with popcorn and the bathrooms were wallpapered with old movie posters.  You couldn't have asked for a better setting.  One of the things I love about Tarantino is that in our age of Netflix and Hulu he's doing everything he can to bring back the fun of going to the movies.  A central ingredient of that fun is the music he picks for his films, and this is no exception.  '60s surf-rock.  '70s glam.  Soul.  R&B.  One of the chillest records I own.  I was given this as a gift by my friend Jennifer when she came to visit from Hawaii in November, and I don't think a week has passed without it getting a spin on my table.

Goblin - Greatest Hits

The late '60s saw the birth of the Italian giallo film.  They were violent, schlocky thrillers with erotic elements, crime fiction themes, murder mystery sensibilities and straight-up horror-flick gore.  One of the most pivotal figures in the genre was the director Dario Argento (who I was thrilled to meet at a signing on Halloween last year.)  His early films like Profondo Rosso, Suspiria and Inferno were as horrific and shocking as they were beautiful.  Goblin are an Italian prog-rock band that was frequently recruited by Argento to provide his soundtracks.  This pressing from '78 contains some of their best-known scoring.  The theme from Suspiria has its spot in the pantheon of horror film music between Psycho and Halloween, and it sounds fucking killer on vinyl.  Also of note, Goblin provided the soundtrack to the European version of George A. Romero's Dawn of the Dead (released as Zombi in Italy), also featured here.

Current 93 - Thunder Perfect Mind

Current 93 is an English band that has been recording consistently since 1984.  Having gone through numerous lineup changes over the years, the band is the musical vehicle of David Tibet, the group's singer, lyricist and only constant member.  Their sound is characterized by a strange brew of medieval-sounding string instruments and experimental electronic noise, with a lyrical preoccupation with esoteric Christian mysticism and surreal visions of the apocalypse.  Getting into this band can be a daunting task because if you include all the compilations, live albums, bootlegs and limited editions, the discography tallies up to about eighty.  Anyway, I was very happy when Tibet announced he was going to reissue Thunder Perfect Mind on vinyl.  In my opinion this is the crowning achievement of the band's folky material (with 1994's Of Ruine, Or Some Blazing Starre coming a close second.)  It's certainly the most accessible.  Throw it on, light the candles and see where it takes you.

Ennio Morricone - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (soundtrack)

This one was a Christmas gift from my parents.  Not much I can add here.  If you haven't seen The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, go watch it.  If you think you hate westerns, watch it immediately.  If you've already seen it, you know why Morricone is one of Italy's most celebrated composers.  All I know is that if I put this on while I'm brewing my coffee in the morning, I'm ready for my showdown at high-noon.  And 'The Ecstasy of Gold' sounds absolutely chilling.

And Also The Trees - Farewell to the Shade

And Also The Trees are a criminally under-appreciated band from Inkberrow, Worcestershire.  In their early days they toured with The Cure, and some of their early demos and LPs were produced by Robert Smith and Lol Tulhurst.  Unfortunately, as The Cure's notoriety spread and launched them into the mainstream, AATT retained a small but dedicated cult following.  One of the things I love about this band is their almost exclusive use of organic instruments, giving them the sound of a post-punk band with a classical sensibility (something echoed in the refined lyrics of Simon Huw Jones.)  Think The Cure meets Baudelaire with Nick Cave-style vocals.  If that sounds like your cuppa tea, this one's a pretty good place to start.  And if you ever get the chance to see them live, do it.

Friday, January 19, 2018

2017 in Books

I try to read at least forty books per year.  Unfortunately, as so often happens, life got in the way in 2017.  Hence this year's embarrassingly short list.

William Gibson - Neuromancer
J. G. Ballard - The Drowned World
J. G. Ballard - The Drought
J. G. Ballard - High-Rise
J. G. Ballard - The Unlimited Dream Company
Margaret Atwood - The Handmaid's Tale
Margaret Atwood - The Blind Assassin
Jerry Toner - The Roman Guide to Slave Management
Astrid Lindgren - The Brothers Lionheart
Philip K. Dick - A Scanner Darkly
Philip K. Dick - Martian Time-Slip
Philip K. Dick - Ubik
Colleen McCullough - The First Man in Rome
Ingrid D. Rowland - Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic
Jake Morrissey - The Genius in the Design
Victor Lavalle - The Ballad of Black Tom
Paul Kreider - Uncorked: The Novice's Guide to Wine
Dread: A Head Full of Bad Dreams - The Best of Grey Matter Press
Corrado Augias - The Secrets of Rome

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Long Distance Drunks

Long Distance Drunks: A Tribute to Charles Bukowski was released last Sunday, on the twentieth anniversary of the man's death.  It features my story 'The Market-Frankford Line', plus a poem I wrote in '06.  It's available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble in paperback and ebook.

I'd had the idea for 'The Market-Frankford Line' for a while.  I knew it was a bit of a deviation from my usual material, but I felt it was a story that needed to be told.  When the folks at Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing (who'd recently purchased my story 'The Truth' for their Vonnegut tribute) announced that they were compiling a book dedicated to Bukowski, I thought it sounded like a good excuse to get it down.

I decided to employ some Bukowskian methods for the execution.  One rainy Saturday afternoon, I sat down with some cheap wine, classical music on the speakers (I think Beethoven, or maybe Mozart), and wrote the whole thing in one sitting.  A year later, here we are.

It goes without saying that if you're a Bukowski fan, I think you'll dig this one.  However, those of you who are rolling your eyes at the drop of the man's name and picturing a chauvinistic circle-jerk: you're the ones I REALLY want to read it.  You might be surprised, and pleasantly at that.

Anyway, you be the judge.

Monday, March 10, 2014

À l'intérieur (Inside)

One of the downsides to being a serious horror aficionado is that it's hard to find films that legitimately scare you.  Over time you grow desensitized to shock, and the more you see, whether you like it or not, you memorize all the tricks in the magician's bag.  There's also the sad truth that this genre attracts more than its share of incompetents with little to no imagination.  But your faith in the genre keeps you panning for gold in that river of mediocrity, searching for those elusive adrenaline rushes that made you fall in love with this stuff in the first place.  And once in a while, you're rewarded with something like À l'intérieur.

À l'intérieur (or Inside to the English-speaking world) is regarded as the current high-water mark of the new wave of French horror.  Browse any article with a headline like "Top Horror Films of the Last Decade" (or even "Top Horror Films of All Time"), and you'll see it listed, along with the prerequisite warnings about "extreme violence" and how you should avoid watching it while pregnant.  Believe me, they aren't fucking around.  This is one of the most relentlessly brutal movies I've ever seen.

The premise is relatively simple: a young pregnant widow (Alysson Paradis) is spending Christmas Eve at home, when her house is invaded by a psychotic woman (Béatrice Dalle).  The stranger, for whatever reason, feels that the unborn baby is actually hers, and is willing to use any number of sharp household objects to get it.  The violence that follows is so vivid and visceral that it raises the film to the level of psychological assault.  I like to think I'm a pretty tough guy when it comes to this stuff, but when the credits rolled, I didn't know if I should eat a salad, watch Beauty and the Beast, or go sob in the corner.

The primary function of art is to examine and explore some fundamental aspect of the human condition.  In the case of horror, the aspect is fear.  What do we fear?  Why are we afraid of it?  What can be done to overcome those fears?  Inside meets this criteria by striking full-force on a universal anxiety: the vulnerability of our bodies.  The directors take this concept to the extreme by telling the story through a woman in her third trimester, a point where the potential for trauma and the capacity for pain are at their zenith.  This is body horror at its most effective.

Congrats, France.  You just shocked me more than all the chainsaws in Texas.