Thursday, December 27, 2012

2012 in Reading Material

As always, the goal was to read at least forty, and as usual it was more like thirty-five.  Oh well.  For three weeks in October I didn't have glasses, and one of the books I read was motherfucking Ulysses, so I think I get a pass on this year.

Drop me a line in the comments and recommend stuff I should check out in 2013. Happy New Year!

Douglas Adams - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Douglas Adams - The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
J.G. Ballard - The Crystal World
J.G. Ballard - War Fever
J.G. Ballard - Empire of the Sun
Seamus Heany - Beowulf
John Gardner - Grendel
Mark Holden - The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-time
Douglas Adams - Life, the Universe, and Everything
Douglas Adams - So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
Douglas Adams - Mostly Harmless
Gore Vidal - Julian
Clive Barker - In the Flesh
Clive Barker - The Inhuman Condition
Clive Barker - Cabal
Jane Austen - Pride and Prejudice
Jane Austen - Sense and Sensibility
J.G. Ballard - Crash
J.G. Ballard - The Day of Creation
J.G. Ballard - Concrete Island
Homer - The Illiad
Homer - The Odyssey
Martin Amis - Money
Martin Amis - London Fields
Martin Amis - The Information
Harry Blamires - The New Bloomsday Book
James Joyce - Ulysses
Peter Straub - Ghost Story
Stephen King and Peter Straub - The Talisman
Stephen King and Peter Straub - Black House
J.R.R. Tolkien  - The Hobbit
Ray Bradbury - The Illustrated Man
Ray Bradbury - Something Wicked This Way Comes
Ray Bradbury - The October Country
Ray Bradbury - The Martian Chronicles

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Forever Came Today

It's been two days since the Connecticut shootings, and I still can't look at the news without feeling like the floodgates are about to burst wide open.  26 innocent people.  20 of them children.  That's 20 families who will remember every detail of that unbearably ordinary morning for the rest of their lives.  20 families who probably already had gifts wrapped and stowed away in the attic.  Those gifts will never be opened, and from now on Santa's red coat will be stained a grotesque shade of scarlet.  Lifetimes of hope cut short with a few pulls of a trigger, so many little candles blown out by the draft from a window that never should have been opened.

America is long overdue for serious bipartisan dialogue on guns and mental healthcare.

But the question I wish more people were asking is this: what's wrong with our culture that we create so many people like Adam Lanza, the Aurora shooter, the Virginia Tech shooter, and the Columbine kids?  Easy access to guns doesn't help, but we're not the only First World country where civilians own guns, and Canada and Switzerland don't have this problem.  And yes, we're grossly desensitized to media violence, but kids all over the world are watching the same movies and playing the same damn video games.  So what is it about America that's turned us into a breeding ground for psychos?

In America it's easy for sick people to act out their urges, but why do they have those urges in the first place?  What's wrong with our collective psyche that it nurtures those fantasies and brings them to a boil?

No, I don't pretend to have any answer.  All I suggest is that we seek out the source of the problem instead of just treating the symptoms.

My heart and thoughts are with the victims.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Killing Time in the Territories

I grew up on Stephen King, but until recently I never checked out The Talisman, his 1984 collaboration with Peter Straub.  Last month I read it back-to-back with their 2001 follow-up Black House.  This marked a rare occasion where I enjoyed the sequel more than the original.

One of the things I love about King's fantasy works is that his worlds don't seem like they were created so much as discovered.  As he uncovers places like Delain and Mid-World line by line, they operate so consistently within their own fantastic logic that they feel absolutely real.  In The Eyes of the Dragon and the first four Dark Tower books, we aren't being told a story so much as getting a report from someone who has his eye pressed to the magic keyhole.  Unfortunately, as I read The Talisman, I felt like King and Straub were just making it up as they went along.  The Territories, the parallel universe in which half the book's action takes place, seemed like an anything-goes dreamscape where the authors took license to dump whatever they wanted.

Despite their efforts at providing back-story, the characters weren't sufficiently realized.  I never really liked Wolf.  The way he constantly barked his name (in the vein of Gollum's habbit of making a swallowing gollum noise in his throat) was just obnoxious.  On that note, I couldn't suspend my disbelief long enough to buy his name.  Really, guys?  A wolf named Wolf?  Was his mother just out of ideas at that point?  Also, good guys aside, Morgan Sloat was a sorely underwhelming villain.  Whenever he made an appearance, I imagined him at a support group with Dr. Evil telling him that he's "just not evil enough."  Sorry Morgan, you're the Diet Coke version of Randall Flagg.

My other major beef with the book is its shallow understanding of human behavior.  At one point, the book's 12-year-old protagonist Jack Sawyer is sexually propositioned by an adult male.  He then recalls previous instances of being groped by adults in California, and compares them with his recent encounters with "Eastern gays", the implication being that homosexuality and pedophilia are synonymous, and that gay men routinely hit on underage boys.  I find that incredibly offensive.*  Also of note is the supporting character Richard Sloat, Jack's scientifically-minded best friend.  Throughout the story, foolish, rational Richard denies the existence of the Territories, even after he's been transported into them and personally interacted with their inhabitants.  He walks around uttering there's-no-such-thing-as-magic like a mantra, the big mean scientist who would stand with his arms folded while Tinkerbelle perished.  Guys, scientists aren't like that.  Most people who enter the scientific fields do so out of an inherent sense of curiosity, not because they don't believe in fairies.  If presented with evidence that magic exists, they'd be all over that shit like white on rice, eager to learn everything about magic there was to know.  Richard's character gives the story an anti-intellectual flavor that left a bad taste in my mouth.

However, while the first book didn't do anything for me, I did get a kick out of the sequel.  In Black House, we're treated to a localized murder mystery with a supernatural bend, complete with the sense of place that is the hallmark of the authors' work.  The characters are three-dimensional and attractive (I liked the literary gang of biker-brewers particularly), creating a well-defined community dynamic.  Moreover, the connections to the Dark Tower universe reminded me of the delicious intrigue that made that story arc so much fun.**  All in all, I enjoyed this one, but only enough to make up for dragging myself through the first one.

Bottom Line: Read these books if you must read absolutely everything by these guys.  But if you're a first-timer looking for a place to start with either one, there are plenty of better choices.

*I'd like to make it clear that I'm not accusing King of being a gay-basher.  His anti-bigotry credentials are well-documented, not the least of which being that his daughter Naomi is an outspoken lesbian.  In short, do I think King is homophobic?  No.  Do I think The Talisman is homophobic?  Yes.

**Of course this was written before King essentially told us to go fuck ourselves with the last three books in that series.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Another 12 Tracks for the Yuletide

A few days ago I put together a playlist for the holidays.  As is the case with any mixtape, there were plenty of great songs that unfortunately didn't make the cut.  I would have just made the list longer, but how can you avoid the obvious 12-track template when compiling a Christmas soundtrack?  Anyway, I realized I had enough leftovers for a second list.  Besides, you only get to listen to this shit once a year.

I didn't like The Boss when I was a kid.  This was mainly due to the fact that Springstein was my parents' music, something to be endured on long car rides home from the ski resort, not to be played of my own accord.  I also have a natural aversion to the word "boss" and songwriters who romanticize their high school years.  I'm old enough to admit I was wrong.

The natural follow-up to the Springstein song.  Joan's kick-ass version is the other bookend to the chill rendition by Bowie and Crosby.

Goth rock interpretation of one of the most beautiful melodies in songwriting history, almost as cool as the one by Trans-Siberian Orchestra.

I don't want to live in a world without Muppets.

This is my absolute favorite song from a film full of catchy songs.  It makes me want to march down the street with a pitchfork.
Faith and the Muse are a counter-cultural force to be reckoned with.  They've dabbled in too many genres to list here, but they're best known for their early European revivalist work.  They contributed this cover of an old English drinking song to the Excelsis holiday compilation on Projekt Records.

It's not Christmas without at least one song by Frank.  You've probably heard this one so many times that the lyrics just fade into background noise.  Listen to it again.  It's about wishing it was possible to revisit your past.  If Christmas was a big deal in your family when you were growing up, the holiday season is a direct link to your childhood.  However, as you grow older, you move to a new city, your hometown changes, loved ones pass away, and that White Christmas seems more and more distant.  What's the upside?  It's still there in your dreams.

Yet another thing it's not Christmas without.

Another great song from the Excelsis compilation.  Audra's singer/bassist Bret Helm is also the founder of the cool music blog Life On This Planet, where he loves to put together lists like this one.

What the hell are they saying at the beginning?  Does it even matter?

This song would be perfect, but whenever it plays I can't help but hear Beavis and Butthead singing along with guitar noises. 

Cheech and Chong - Santa Clause and His Old Lady
Ma-ma-mamasita, donde esta Santa Clause?