Thursday, August 27, 2009

Old Friends

Two massively nostalgic books from when I first started to love reading, both of which I've gone a few years since revisiting. Satisfying, breezy stuff (Westing Game's occasional weird relationship with racial identity excepted), and the Adams reminds me that I haven't reread any of his books in years. Time to restart down the diminishing-returns road of the Hitchhiker's Trilogy (sic)? Or, for that matter, to revisit Raskin's entire ouvre? PERHAPS!

Oh, and if you guys haven't read these? Do. They're swell!

Friday, August 21, 2009

"Revenge," protested the sensitive tycoon, "me?"

And here we have something beautiful. A sprawling, epic detective story, told in a marijuana haze, mixed with Los Angeles smog, paranoia, and all smushed together by the soft hands of Thomas Pynchon.

The year is 1969, and Doc Sportello, a private investigator, is trying to help out his ex-girlfriend. See, Shasta needs Doc to look into a problem involving the man she's having an affair with, Mickey Z. Wolfmann, the hotshot real-estate mogul with his fingers seemingly in every potential lot in town. So Doc lights a joint and decides to do it. Only then Mickey Z. goes missing, along with Shasta, murder ensues, and Doc finds himself immersed in a ridiculously complex conspiracy so deep that it may or may not date back to the sinking of Atlantis and Lemuria.

Doc watches Looney Tunes, drinks Mai Tais and Tequila Zombies, smokes fine Hawaiian weed with his lawyer, Sauncho Smilax. He worries about Richard Nixon, rolls a joint of Vietnamese marijuana, drives down to the beach, tries to buy the Pussy-Eater Special. Pieces of the puzzle become illuminated, involving dentists, a mysterious schooner, a colony of zomes. The mystery seemingly seeped into every pore of Los Angeles, and beyond. But maybe that's just the weed talking.

Doc runs into, helps out, sometimes shares a joint with, people named Bigfoot Bjornsen, Dr. Buddy Tubeside, Jason Velveeta (a very sad pimp), Leonard Jermain Loosemeat, FBI Special Agents Borderline and Flatweed, Blondie-san, Scott Oof, Asymmetric Bob, Trevor "Shiny Mac" McNutley. He gets an erection when women hold eye contact. He uses a ouija board to find drug connects when the city is dry. He's the kind of PI who just goes with the flow, and trusts that if he smokes an after-breakfast joint and gets in the car, he'll end up where he needs to be. And he does, again and again and again.

But Doc's worried. It feels like something terrible is just on the periphery. The sixties are about to come to an end. This thing called the ARPAnet is around, in computers, connecting you to different worlds of space and time. People are sprinkling PCP into their weed, and Charlie Manson feels everywhere. But then Doc smokes a joint, some rare Hawaiian blend, and he remembers to quit being such a bummer. And then he steps out into the haze of Los Angeles, and it swallows him up.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

There Is A World Inside the World

So way back when I wrote a post or two about the type of fantasy that might appeal to non-fantasy fans. The type of novel that is not about swords and knights and magicians and orcs but is rooted in literature as much or more than in Tolkien (not that there's anything wrong with that). Whatever I said before, ignore it. This is that book.

John Crowley's Little, Big (Originally and alternately titled the more telling Fairies Parliament) follows, in non-chronological order, four generations of the Bramble-Drinkwater family. They all live (with a few exceptions) in a house in upstate New York with that was designed to be many houses in one. They are related to all of their neighbors, whose surnames are (telling) things like Flood, Juniper, Mouse, Cloud, etc. They have a set of special tarot cards that has been passed down from generation to generation, that tells of their role in the "Tale" (always capitalized), a story that is both their story and the entire worlds. And they may or may not have access to the world of the fairies, a world inside of our own (making it smaller) that is also infinitely larger than our own (and may or may not exist). Meanwhile, they are architects and teachers and farmers and drug addicts and soap opera writers. They fall in love and have children and are turned into trout. And they are unknowing frontline participants in the brewing war between Faery and Human. I think.

The magic is present throughout the novel but is an undercurrent, an afterthought, the kind of magic more often found in Rushdie or Marquez novels than in Rowling or Jordan. This book, actually, may best embody the actual definition of Magical Realism, in that it is excellent examples of both. Crowley's style is highly literary, with roots in classics and poetry (every chapter is starts with an epigram, often from Shakespeare or Ovid or Aristotle, and is told in many short, named sections). The magic of reading this book unfolds slowly over time, and it has little hidden treasures (like tracking which words are always capitalized, no matter their use, words like Somewhere and Tale and There) and trying to keep track of the sprawling family (a task that recalls both great fantasy epics and Marquez's 100 Years of Solitude). The book bears a jacket quote from Harold Bloom, but is shelved with other speculative fiction (presumably. I actually couldn't find it at Barnes and Nobel, and I first heard about it via a believer interview with Crowley, which dealt largely with publishers inability or ineptitude at classifying and marketing his books). The point is I recommend it very highly for magic lovers, romantics, and all high level readers in general. Don't let the fantasy part fool you. Please.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Buy the ticket, take the ride

Hi gang.

When I was a wee lad I read Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It was, and remains, the funniest book I've ever read. When the movie came out, I made my Dad take me on opening night. We were practically alone in the theatre. The movie was...?

I just didn't get it--how could this hilarious book turn into such a depressing, confusing mess of a film? Where was the humor? Why did Hunter speak in a voice that rendered his hilarious words incomprehensible? What happened?

I learned something from the Fear and Loathing film, something that was confirmed by Gonzo--it is hilarious fun to read Hunter's words...but to watch him living out a life of debauchery and violence is actually quite depressing.

Hunter walked the walk and talked the talk, but alienated almost everyone in his life, and died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Not fun. Not funny. Good to learn from the greats; I'll make sure not to become a sexagenarian coke addict who can't pump out 1500 words a month, even with a $120,000 yearly salary.

And yet...I love Hunter. And so do all the people in his life, even if they hate him. He did it his way--let's hope that Hunter and Frank Sinatra and Sid Vicious are all hitting the skull pipe in heaven and finding ways to fuck with us earthbound squares.

I'm gonna sip on some rum now and re-read some Fear and Loathing...if you hear squealing laughter, it's either me or your acid just kicked in. Either way...Hot Damn!

Sunday, August 9, 2009


Wow, Andy Lampl. Good call on this one. I have almost nothing to say (it's still really fresh, just finished it a few minutes ago), but this was really incredible. Just a rush of style and pain and rumination on love and death and God and grief, and I could not have loved it more. Y'all oughtta read this (though I have a sense I'm really late to the party on this one.)

Spooky, Scary!

A town built on incest and worm worship.

Giant rats.

Post apocalyptic beach parties.

Eyeballs in hands.

Killer laundry equipment.

A boozing--oozing blob man.

Killer war toys.

Killer trucks.



Skyscraper torture games.

Killer lawn-mowers.


Killer kids.


Mom dies.

Quitting cigs.

The Boogeyman.

Yep. Tool rocked last night.

A Clockwork Orange.

O my brothers, my droogs, beautiful devotchkas, I meant to take a viddy at this book in the old mestos of high school. But I did not, feeling a malenky bit sick from drinking my milk plus synthemesc. Lactose intolerance, you see. Now, however, I've been corrected, O my brothers. With the clips on the skin of my forehead, pulling my glaz-lids up and up and up, unable to shut my glazzies or wipe away the sleepglue, I have consumed this so called A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. Real horrorshow, fellow malchicks. Some real ultra-violence, a little of the old in-out-in-out, chilled moloko plus drencrom, flowing red red krovvy and kicked in litsos, and all at the heighth of literary fashion. Horrorshow indeed.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

There are two kinds of people in the world: those who divide everything in two, and those who don't

This, guys, might be the book for those of you curious about graphic novels but a little gun-shy about the world of superheroes, the dense cross-referencing of Sandman or Watchmen, and not sure of where to start on some of the alt-comics (Crumb, Pekar, etc.) scene. It's lean, beautifully economical, incredibly readable (I think I read it in about a day and a half, in transit and pockets of spare time) but I suspect there's a lot of hidden depth here -- the NY Times review makes reference to a color scheme that I'd not paid much attention to that serves as about as good an example as any of how comics can communicate in ways unmatched by any other medium.

Anyways, all this to say it's elegant, it's dizzyingly smart, it's self-contained, it's beautiful. And it's narrated by the dead-at-birth identical twin of the main character. WHAT'S NOT TO LOVE? Read it!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Complicated nostalgia

So I read this book back in high school and remember being totally dazzled by it... He came up briefly in Nixonland (as a writer for the Chicago Daily News, he wrote of Daley's attempt to strong-arm his way into the '72 convention after the disaster of '68, "This is America, and someday Richard Daley may be able to earn a place inside the Convention Hall, just like Jerry Rubin. If the Mayor is willing to be patient and to work within the system.") and I thought, hey, let's revisit that!

And guys, there is a lot to like still. The book's a revised version of Greene's diary that he kept through 1964 on the advice of a journalist he hoped to emulate. A lot of it just feels universal (driving around listening to music, trying to get with girls, tight-knit groups of friends, etc.) and some of it is delightfully period-specific (the onset of Beatlemania). It's a really great snapshot of an era and a moment in life, basically.

Of course, some of it feels a little uncomfortable in light of more recent events -- Greene was dismissed from the Trib for having a sexual encounter with a 17 year old (age of legal consent, BUT also a part of a story he'd written, plus he was married) and the Reader, for a while, wrote scathingly of his coverage, claiming that he wrote puff pieces without doing actual research or getting facts-on-the-ground. Which makes the whole thing a little bittersweet (and a little factually dubious) now, and a lot harder to take in. Why is life so COMPLICATED?

Indians: They're Just Like Us! (Or: Pat Reads A Pulitzer)

In terms of form, I tend to be drawn to really stylistic work, really poppy stuff like Saunders or Thompson or (I'm just now discovering, post to come) Foer. It seems oddly more honest, somehow, to leave your stories in the hands of raving maniacs, simpletons, awkwardly-voiced bureaucrats, or (as in Asterios Polyp, my other current read) identical twins that died in the womb but stuck around to narrate their brother's story.

All of which is to say that Jhumpa Lahiri is not right in my wheelhouse -- a blend of first-person and third-person narratives, most of them with a limited omniscience, telling straight-up realist stories. But guess what? It's good! It can lean a little far into "let's get excited about food" prose, but there's a rich depth to the characters and the stories, spinning large emotion from relatively small arcs. Best, I think, are "This Blessed House" (a funny little explosive piece about a couple finding an endless trove of Catholic trinkets in their new home), "Sexy" (a brutal dissection of a brief and intense affair), and I think "When Mr. Pirzada Came To Dinner." But hey, it's all good. Will I seek out more Lahiri? Probably not until I've got more Foer under my belt at least, but she's all right, lads and ladies.

NIXON: Now more than ever!

Exhaustively detailed, expansive in scope, Rick Perlstein uses Nixonland to dig deep on what the 60s were, like, all about, man (i.e. a widening cultural split with increased polarization accelerated by mutual distrust and spiraling violence... wait, what did you think they were about?) and on how Nixon, that fresh-faced impish prankster, found the fault lines, jammed a wedge in, and pried the nation apart to claw his way to the top.

It's surprisingly balanced, phenomenally precise, and makes you want to watch every scrap of documentary footage about the Chicago Seven you can lay hands on.

It is also, not coincidentally, staggeringly overloaded with parallels to today (looking at the stumbling, increasingly ugly face of a desperate conservative minority, at the persistent use of mischaracterization and strawmen to reframe debates that barely exist to begin with, etc.). Perlstein ends the book saying we're still living in Nixonland, but within the first thirty pages you can't help but feel like this all sounds very familiar...

Pat's back from vacation, so here comes a glut

Summer reading! Gang, given the glut of theatre folk on this blog, I gotta say, if you can read The Devil's Candy, you really ought to. A fascinating, incredibly detailed look at the rambling catastrophe that is the making of a film, as Julie Salamon tracks Brian DePalma's film adaptation of Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities. I don't know whether I prefer this to the book it makes reference to (the existence of Charlotte Simmons unfortunately mutes a lot of my original enthusiasm for Bonfire and Wolfe comes off as a bit of an opportunist here) but it's a rip-snorting fun and fascinating read. You'll see the predictable studio-bigwigs-ruining-everything narratives, but you'll also see the best depiction of batshit insane actors (Melanie Griffith gets a heaping extra bowlful of kudos on that count; Tom Hanks comes off pretty nice, but clearly is not wild about the people around him) that you can find, directorial hubris, and a generalized sense that making a movie is perhaps the hardest thing anyone could do, ever, and only a madman would do it for the crazily dumb people at the top of the chain. Guys, it's great! If only to read scenes that oh-so-subtly show you Melanie Griffith trying to jump Tom Hanks, and him gingerly trying to sidestep her come-ons. Awesome!

Monday, August 3, 2009

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

After thirty pellets of pure mescaline, three sheets of blotter acid, a sprinkle of cocaine, two handfuls of reds, a little taste of adrenochrome, a few deep inhales of ether, and a bottle of fine rum, I'm feeling like this book is fucking fantastic.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Doing it For the Kids

As you may or may not know, I teach drama at a summer camp. One of my responsibilities there is to write and direct the camp show at the end of each four week session. The choosing of the camp show is always a harrowing process, involving many arguments between me and camp director Sylvia. But it always works out in the end, as this summer we ended up with two wonderful, canonical, stories, Around the World in 80 Days and The Wizard of Oz. So, as I set out to adapt these oft-adapted tales for a 20 page, hour long, camp show, I decided to read the original (I went through a similar process last year with Peter Pan).

Both of these stories were intended for children, at least according to Barnes and Noble, who only had the Jules Verne novel in the Young Adults Classics section (Whereas L. Frank Baum's novel got the B&N Classics treatment). While I think Wizard of Oz will turn into a better camp show (thanks largely in part to the, on second viewing, incredibly odd and campy movie version), the book pretty much sucked. While the story is a classic, and it has some good themes, its pretty boring. Dorothy is very much a little girl, and the major characters pend most of their time repeating what they want (i want a brain! what about my courage! etc etc). All of the action scenes are short and seem like afterthoughts...Dorothy is in Oz within the first 2 pages (it takes longer in the script I wrote, and that clocks in at a double spaced 22), the witch dies five minutes after Dorothy gets there, etc. Theres no danger, no struggle, just a lot of declaiming and a few didactic lessons (though there are some cool parts that were removed from the movie, especially the china people kingdom and the men with no arms who shoot their heads at people). Overall though, the story is much better int he movie, its told with humor, verve, and, well, color that is missing in the novel.

Around the World in 80 Days, on the other hand, is dull but enjoyable. The story is also one that is fixed in our canons, but the original has some stuff to offer...there is no hot air balloon (maybe the single most iconic image from the movies), and the chase is actually pretty exciting...involving evil brahims straight out of Temple of Doom, opium overdoses, and gunfights with Native Americans. Fogg is as straightlaced as they come, so when he punches a detective or proposes marriage, its an earned and enjoyable surprise, something missing from the Wizard novelization. From the Verne books I remember, its not as captivating or groundbreaking (or prescient) but its a good yarn, nonetheless.

Both these stories are stories that we know, that we've seen, that we could largely tell without the aid of the novel. Are they worth reading anyway? Maybe in the case of Around the World, but I'd leave the wizard to Judy Garland and Burt Lahr.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

The magic happens only AFTER the lights go out...

I first discovered this little guy in a used bookstore near Wrigley Field. It had a pretty spine, so I plucked it out. And to my surprise, it was a Haruki Murakami novel, which excited me. Plus, it had a beautiful cover, which titillated me. And the back-cover praise was written in this extremely pleasing, colorful rainbow font, which just sent me over the edge (given my strong feelings about rainbows and colors). So, all of the above immediately moved this novel, which I knew virtually nothing about (I didn't even read the inside flap, for fear of spoiling things), to the top of my reading list (that's truly all it takes. I'm really easy). And now it's done.

So, hmm. What to say. The first five-sixths were... disappointing, sadly. After Dark is about one specific night in Tokyo, from the hours of midnight to seven a.m., and the general underbelly-ness that happens during the time of darkness. Definitely a fine idea, but in execution, it didn't really pan out. The translation felt a little off, and Murakami kept giving these weird, superfluous hints about what was going on, when in fact, it was actually quite easy to make the connections on my own, without the author's finger-pointing and unnecessary highlighting. So, I don't know. It wasn't what I was hoping for. But then something weird happened. The final sixth sliver was oddly (bafflingly)... incredible. I don't know why, or how. But there was one specific page where I was like, oh wait, this novel is actually really really good. And for the last 30 pages, it just clicked, and it was exciting, and all-around kind of wonderful. So now I'm all confused.

I think A Wild Sheep Chase was better. And of the two Murakami novels that I've read thus far, I would recommend the one about the sheep. But still, After Dark has left me oddly satisfied, considering I was planning on ripping the shit out of it until I got to page 161.