Thursday, September 03, 2015

Whither The Morally Serious Potboiler?

The Guardian has concocted some perfectly geeky click-bait. Jonathan Jones says life is too short to waste on ordinary potboilers, and throws Terry Pratchett into said pot. On behalf of outraged Pratchett fans the world over, Sam Jordison retorts.

"Don't I look morally serious?"

I read some Pratchett in my 20s. I enjoyed it well enough -- a shade more than I did Douglas Adams, actually. Both traded in absurdities, but where Adams flew around like a perpetually deflating balloon, Pratchett's tack was to treat absurdities with the greatest intellectual seriousness. If a world is flat, and the universe governed by sprites, etc., this is how the physics of it has to work. Add human foibles, and comic shenanigans ensue.

I might pick up another Pratchett book, before I finally join him as daisy fertilizer. Hard to say, really. Right now when I'm in the mood for the sort of thing Pratchett did well, I'm more inclined to pick up something by Charlie Stross.

He's younger, for one thing -- at this point youthful (and I'm speaking relatively, understand) writers serve the dual purpose of keeping me at least superficially informed of the contempo state-of-being, while assuring me I still retain some connection to the passions that drove me in my youth toward the person I am today. Plus, Stross is hip to the whole Cthulhu scene.

What I'm not going to do is make a case that both these guys should be avoided in favour of work less potboilery. Life is short, dammit. Read what excites you -- and let the rest of us know about it!

Charles Stross' site is here.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Highly Recommended: LARB Long-Reads

Summer seems to bring out the best in the Los Angeles Review of Books. They've put out a bunch of long-reads that are composting in my consciousness, on topics of lifelong appeal.

Neal Stephenson is someone I've read and ... kinda ... enjoyed. Although, to be honest, he's someone I've returned to again and again out of hopes he'd grab me and scramble my view of things the way he did so thoroughly when I read Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, back in the day. Cryptonomicon retained some of that power, but in the tomes that followed I resorted to a whole lot of speed-reading. He seems like a writer in pursuit of something, though what that something is, I couldn't say. I read, but I clearly do not attend.

Not exactly "Captain Obvious"

"We hear a lot about how big [Stephenson's] ideas are," says Peter Berard, "but get little substantive engagement with these ideas, especially outside of science fiction circles." Berard takes a significant step to address this deficit, in Neal Stephenson's Ideal Forms, over here. In the process, he uncovers some peculiarly Stephensonian tropes, including "The armed WASP."

Madeleine L'Engle, with grand-daughters.

"Madeleine L'Engle uses intergenerational encounters to complicate our sense of time," says Jonathan Alexander, who goes on to add,

"Recent work by queer theorists, such as Elizabeth Freeman and Jack Halberstam, traces how contemporary neoliberal understandings of time orient us toward productivity, watching the clock and our bodies (think biological clocks) to make the most of the time we have and contribute to the maintenance of society. L’Engle’s approach to time is not 'queer' in its questioning of normative orientations — after all, these are books concerned with the maturation of young people into pretty standard (and heterosexual) notions of functional adulthood. But time for L’Engle is queer in the sense that it hardly ever moves in a straight line in her novels. Everyone, no matter how old or seemingly 'mature,' is caught in time, dealing with the complexities of living and loving." 

Alexander's Late L'Engle: Wrinkles of Time, Redeemed is over here.

Grant Morrison's belief in magic is, I would say. a great deal less metaphorical than L'Engle's was. If you read his impassioned autobiography/history of comics, you'll see how it has prompted him to write some of the most remarkable and subversive comic book storylines of the past 30 years. The Multiversity, his latest for DC, has met with more than a few critical shrugs of dismissal -- e.g., Gregory L. Reece wishes he'd listened to the advert banner. William Bradley argues this is an egregious mis-read of what Morrison is up to, and hails The Multiversity as "the smartest book DC Comics has published in years" -- over here.

One of the tensions Bradley explores is whether a comic book can be both subversive, and a smashing commercial success. My inclination is to say, "Um, yeah," and move on. For some artists in the trenches, however, this is a soul-rending conundrum -- Bill Watterson, of Calvin & Hobbes fame, would be the poster-boy of this existential condition; Charles M. Schultz its antithesis. Not surprisingly, the two had a history of taking subtle digs at each other in interviews. Luke Epplin uncovers it all in a terrific piece, Selling Out The Newspaper Comic Strip, over here.

Enclosed: One (1) ACME Doof-Warrior Apparatus

And, finally, I am greatly chuffed to see Isabel Ortiz highlight the resemblance of Mad Max: Fury Road to Chuck Jones' Road Runner shorts, in her piece The Cartoon Bodies of "Mad Max: Fury Road" over here.

While composing this post I had to fight the urge to end every paragraph with, "Highly recommended." Yup -- they're all highly recommended. So put down that timeless classic you vowed to finish this summer, and read these timely distractions instead!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Unpacking U.N.C.L.E. — Phase Two

With incredibly cool guns -- and a young David McCallum!

Five years ago our family watched the entire TV series, and loved it (see Phase One, here and here). The trailers for Guy Ritchie's attempted movie reboot looked fairly promising, so it was a sure bet we'd make a family effort to see the flick on opening weekend.

And so last Saturday found the four of us parked before the silver screen, humming the Jerry Goldsmith theme song while we waited for the lights to dim and the movie to start ("waiting like a communicant," is how James Wolcott describes the mood).

Cue the first critical disappointment: no Jerry Goldsmith theme song.

Considering how the movie (and soundtrack) exults in so much lavish 60s pop ephemera that it risks comparison to Austin Powers, this absence is inexplicable and gets the movie off to a rocky start. Nevertheless, I was determined to give Ritchie and Co. every possible advantage, so I took a deep cleansing breath and settled in for the duration.

When Armie Hammer stomped in as a Terminator-style Ilya Kuryakin, I reminded myself that the Impossible Missions Force never used to solve their conundrums in a series of lengthy chases and fiery explosions -- something I mostly overlook whenever I sit down for a Mission: Impossible movie. Still, an Ilya prone to room-wrecking fits of rage took some getting used to.

Henry Cavil brings a wry detachment to Napoleon Solo that more-or-less works, though Robert Vaughn's sly and unshakeable sense of amusement at the endless absurdities was dearly missed, as was his boyish, "Give me a kiss, we might both like it," manner of seduction. And Hugh Grant's turn as Mr. Waverly raises everyone's game so appreciably, I wished he'd somehow been grafted into the earlier two-thirds of the movie.

The truth is I just wasn't feeling any of it -- until about the halfway mark, when a scene of such perfectly framed comic hijinx occurs, it highlights the potential that's been lying untapped beneath the film the entire time.

So Ritchie's movie gets a "meh" from me. My wife thought there were enough scenes like the one I alluded to to recommend the movie on the whole. My older daughter found it largely amusing, but was underwhelmed by Alicia Vikander, whose occasional attempts at a German accent would have benefited mightily from an afternoon of Hogan's Heroes.

The younger daughter loved it, however -- her first concern leaving the theatre was that Ritchie might blow the sequel as badly as Abrams did his second Star Trek. Given the box office results, she probably doesn't have any reason to worry.

"We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when..."

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Problem/Solution: Permanent Stickers On Book-Jackets

During a recent foray into the States, I spotted some remaindered books whose prices were, despite the eroded state of our Canuck-Bucks, too good to pass up.

So far so good. However, there seems to be something in the national character of the US that insists on labeling the dust-jackets of remainders with permanent stickers. I tried all the usual tricks of the trade, including applying lighter fluid to the glue. This used to be a sure-fire (giggle) last resort that always did the trick. Today's glue is sterner stuff, alas, and just smears out.

In the case of the E.L. Doctorow title, I had a difficult decision to make: keep the now-gummy dust-jacket, or discard it and read the naked hard-cover? I often opt for the latter, but this meant carrying around an overly-somber pitch-black book. Who wants to read that? On the other hand, who wants to read a gummy-covered book that picks up fingerprints, lint and cat hair?

As I pondered my options I recalled an older gentleman who used to audit several of my university philosophy courses. He fastidiously papered over every one of his textbooks, using butcher's paper -- even the Penguin paperbacks. Inspired, I now retrieved some paper grocery bags, a pair of scissors and a Sharpie and got to work.

Et viola! I now possess a book with a cover that entices (well ... it entices me, at least).

Most gratifying of all, I've replaced the pandemonious puffery of his peers with a little of my own. Everybody wins!

Friday, August 14, 2015

While My Guitar Not-So-Gently Weeps: Rocksmith 2014

I recently turned the corner on a half-century of years, and, under the urging of my younger brother, awarded myself an inexpensive aid through the inescapable mid-life crisis -- my very first electric guitar, and amp.

Commence humming "Also Sprach Zarathustra"!

I've been a campfire strummer and classical finger-picker of modest ability throughout my adult life. I took piano lessons for five or six years as a child, so I can read music. I've hopefully got another decade of reasonable finger dexterity ahead of me. How difficult could it be to expand my skills as a guitarist?

Well, it's not without its challenges. But in this era of digital innovation there are ingenious ways and means of breaking through them. I was particularly curious about a program called Rocksmith 2014, which bills itself as "The Fastest Way To Learn Guitar."

Not me -- in case you're wondering.

Some years earlier I'd played a bit of Guitar Hero with my godson (who absolutely demolished me), and wondered, "Why couldn't this be done with a real guitar?" Ubisoft obviously had the same thought, and programmed their game to play to spec.

It's an interesting experience. My first reaction was, until they come up with a Devin Townsend or Steven Wilson song package, the default song selection mostly rates a "meh." I am grateful for the inclusion of "The Spirit of Radio," of course, but whether the player does or doesn't like the songs hardly matters. None of them get played in a recognizable manner anyway, at least not until the player advances to that level -- which, in my case with "The Spirit of Radio," won't be for a very, very long time.

Wait, correction: my actual first reaction was, "Where's the literature?!" Rocksmith does not have a user's manual, which originally threw me into a panic. It's an inspired move, however -- kids want to get going right away, of course, and Ubisoft has designed their program with that in mind. And I have to say, the game navigation is impressively intuitive. You queue up the game, plug in your guitar -- and you're off to the races.

My third thought was, "This is the fastest way to learn guitar -- maybe." There are caveats. Rocksmith encourages players to register for their 60 Day Challenge, the basic idea being you commit to playing this game for an hour a day in an uninterrupted 60 day stretch. Of course, sixty hours devoted to guitar practice of any stripe should get you pretty nimble, no matter what the program.

The other caveat is the player will learn to read tabulature, not standard notation. Is that a big deal? Mm, probably not, but piano players will find the less elastic muscles in their brains getting an unexpected workout.

What impressed me most at first blush is Rocksmith's immediate insistence on playing past the fifth fret. For a campfire strummer, that's the equivalent of pulling off the water-wings and getting thrown into the deep end of the pool. And, as with the metaphor, the experience is both bracing and exhilarating. You've got to get comfortable with the entire length of the guitar neck -- no point in delaying that, so just do it. It is, or should be, easy-peasy technique, but the business of jumping from seventh to twelfth to fourteenth, then back down to seventh again is something that requires practice. And Rocksmith noobs will get plenty and plenty of practice (60 hours in two months, if they follow through).

But the final caveat is pretty much what I expected -- there are elements of play and learning that an actual flesh-and-blood teacher can address and impart with greater speed and efficiency. So, to that end, I have the number of a recommended instructor. I'll give him a call, and hopefully come September school will once again begin for yours truly.

Friday, August 07, 2015

On The Road

I am on the road for another few days. I am thinking about this post, though. Flash-back with me, if you will.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Sex, With E.L. Doctorow

E.L. Doctorow died last week Tuesday, at the age of 84. I've scanned my library to see how many of his titles I have. Seven, it turns out -- and I've given away five others. I did another inventory of sorts, and concluded he is probably the most partially-read author taking space on my shelves.

Not the send-off a lifelong Man Of Letters might hope for, but on deeper consideration it's not so bad, either. Sometimes a back-handed compliment remains a compliment nonetheless.

I've read five of his novels and one collection of short stories to completion, and made a bold start on all of the others. My first Doctorow novel was the mass-market paperback release of Billy Bathgate. I enjoyed it well enough, at the time, but also had some serious issues with it -- serious enough to initially relegate Doctorow to a second-tier of contemporary American writers, the sort I was inclined to "attend to the buzz, not the work."

His status evidently changed.

In Billy Bathgate, Doctorow's prose tilts toward the lyrical, a mode that either sways or dissuades, depending. Nowhere is this more evident than in his sex scenes, of which the book has two. I've gone and transcribed them elsewhere for you, but first a word of warning -- no illustrations, photos or gifs are involved, but if words alone can trigger the alarms of your employer's ISP, Doctorow's words will surely do it. NSFW, in other words, but over here I shall keep the discussion of them relatively prim.

Alright -- once again, NSFW  -- but if you feel you must, off you go: scene 1 and scene 2.

To summarize:

In scene 1 our titular hero is an adolescent guttersnipe who, now in the employ of gangster Dutch Schultz, has largesse at his disposal. He throws a party for his neighbourhood peers in a tenement boiler-room. At evening's end, when the others have either left or passed out, he finds that Rebecca, a young prostitute he's employed in the past, appears to view him, for once, as an object of desire. She initiates sexual congress, which concludes to their mutual satisfaction.

In scene 2 the slightly older Billy has Dutch's (significantly older) moll, Drew, to himself. A weird but understandably tense attraction has been growing between Billy and Drew, and in the privacy of New York State's farmland they no longer constrain themselves. They indulge in an initial, brief coupling in the car. Then Drew, completely naked, scampers into the woods, with the also-nude Billy in tow. They descend to swamp-level, where they cover themselves in mud, then walk hand-in-hand "like fairy-tale children [toward] this still pond as black as I had ever seen water to be and of course she waded in and bid me to follow and my God it was fetid, it was warm and scummy, my feet were in wet mats of pond weed, I treaded water to keep my feet from sinking and couldn't crawl back out fast enough but she swam on her back a few yards and then came crawling out on all fours, and she was covered with this invisible slime" -- invisible slime which, in the ensuing sentences, proves itself the Cambrian equivalent of KY Jelly.

Twenty-five years ago, whenever I discussed the book with others who'd read it, I argued that scene 1 persuaded, while scene 2 was an affront to any reader possessed of common sense. There were obvious reasons why Doctorow wrote it, and kept it there -- "fairy-tale children," Milton's Adam and Eve, only primordial and morally suspect from the git-go, a lampoon of Puritan America's own myth of origin, I get it, no mas! -- but Manhattan's brightest editors are paid the big bucks to challenge such self-indulgent impulses. Aren't they?

Twenty-five years later, having consumed or significantly sampled the bulk of Doctorow's work, it's evident this was simply his default mode. He was always pulling this shit. And especially with the sex. So much so that I imagine it amused him to hear of readers like myself getting their noses out of joint on the matter.

Anyway, Billy Bathgate was deposited in my used-book trade-in box, until a prof assigned The Book of Daniel as mandatory reading. It surprises me not at all to see The Book of Daniel mentioned more frequently and with more passion than any other Doctorow novel (including Ragtime) in reminiscences of the man and his work. That book knocked me on my ass, took my breath away -- it's the only Doctorow novel I recommend without reservation. It struck me when I was young and super-impressionable, and it's the sole reason why I've made a point of picking up everything else Doctorow's done.

In the main I tend to favour his essays, which are subtler in their mischief.

He wrote a loving eulogy for Abbie Hoffman, for example, elevating Hoffman's frequently egoistic street theatre to that of the Divinely-ordained biblical prophets. Doctorow's own dialogue with his inherited Abrahamic religion (and its offshoots) was deeply engaged and nuanced -- moreso than Hoffman's ever was. But Doctorow's unfeigned admiration for Hoffman came to mind as I recently perused the work of the West Coast Underground Comix artists.* Crumb, Deitch, Rodriguez -- these fellas and their cohort run the left-wing gamut, for the most part. But first and foremost and above all else, these guys are, to a man, robustly phallocentric in their critiques of what they deem the Dominant Culture.

It struck me, then, that this might well have been the effect Doctorow strove for. We may never know if Doctorow had any facility for stippling or cross-hatching, but he certainly flung around words like so much india ink. And he definitely had a hippie-dude's pornographic sensibility -- sex scenes aren't just scenes, alright? They're theatreDudes all think with their dicks, man. And chicks, well ... I'm just telling it like it is. You don't like it, look away. Can't do it, can you?

So what if he couldn't be the singular East Coast Underground Comix artist -- he could still be Manhattan Island's ... what -- "bad boy of lit-fic"? That's no fun, there's no "x"! "Lix-fic"? At immediate blush I simply can't recall if any of his protagonists summoned the wherewithal to issue oral stimulation, but hey -- why not? Let's just say it's so and make it so.
"I could be a randy nutter,
Get my gal to fetch the butter,
If I only drew a frame..."
L'chaim, and God rest, dude. You kept me reading long after I set your peers down for the last time.

*Underground Comix -- I can't decide if this subterranean preoccupation of mine is a curiosity, an obsession or a vice. Decide for yourself, why doncha: here is my on-line resource. The initial launching pad is relatively SFW. After that, proceed with caution.

And the late D.G. Meyers seems never to have troubled himself with Doctorow. He had some pertinent thoughts on sex and the novel, however.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Promissory Notice

I'm pulling together some thoughts on the late E.L. Doctorow. In the meantime, here are some links you might dig.

Douglas Coupland has some thoughts on this business with Greece.

Locke Peterseim brings Sullen, Bitter, Grumpy and Cynical to Pixar's never-ending Inside Out party. Full disclosure: I was a puddle when it came time to say goodbye to Bing-Bong. And I'm completely on-board with Peterseim.
"'Cynical'? Oh, he's just up around the bend!"
"Follow your bliss" was a common bit of advice back in the 80s, when I was avoiding coming-of-age. Here's a fella doing exactly that. Make of it what you will.

And finally, Ahmed Best, the guy who played Jar Jar Binks isn't just a cool interview -- he'll kick your ass, if that's what's needed.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Pan-Am Coverage

Watching CBC Television's evening coverage of the Pan-American Games has been a disappointing experience. What's worse, it's not (just) a matter of their reduced budget allowing for little more than a Handycam and Bixi bike. No, I've had to conclude the fault is almost entirely my own.

"Merde! Shot-put in 20 minutes!"

Canada's public broadcaster has endured sea-changes galore in my lifetime. I can recall the summer of '76 and the Corporation's coverage of the Olympic Games quite well, because my mother allowed me unfettered access to the television so long as I helped her shell peas and trim beans for canning. Back then, CBC devoted its entire broadcast day to the games, delivering the events in real time, and repeating the entire cycle again and again, until the dawn delivered a new roster of events.

Forty years later, evening coverage is limited to two hours, with a single host holding down a desk and clipping through our national accomplishments in the various events. Video coverage rarely exceeds the 90 second mark. The format works best with races, particularly the short ones, but short-changes the longer events rather badly. Just one example I would have enjoyed seeing covered the old-fashioned way: Canada's loss to the Dominican Republic in Women's Volleyball was reduced to three punishing volleys in 88 seconds, providing the viewer with no sense of either team's depth.

Of course, we are encouraged to go on-line, or store the actual event coverage via PVR, or, better yet, install their Pan-Am Games app on our phones. Alas, I opted for the least expensive cable package, so no PVR. As for the app, my phone already behaves like a Cockatoo on a speed jag -- the last thing I want it to do is whistle and chirp at every shot-put result and lawn-bowling victory.

That's just how it goes, when you're a man out of time...

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Joining The Frygian Evangelists

Northrop Frye, coming into focus in 1929.
"There are winners and losers every time intellectual capital changes hands," says Michial Farmer. "The upside of that process is there are always figures from the past waiting to be rediscovered and repurposed for a new generation." By interviewing Claude le Fustec, author of Northrop Frye & American Literature, Farmer joins her in giving the Canadian man of letters a nudge toward contempo rediscovery and repurposing.

As do I -- to the extent I can.

When I was concluding my university studies in the late-80s, Frye's influence in theory circles was already well on the wane, as Derrida and Lacan were in the ascendant. Out of all his texts, only Fools Of Time was required reading -- for a course in tragedy and comedy. And our prof was among the more elderly cohort.

She was a spirited thing, however, entirely hip to the Reader Response revolution that was just beginning to flush out the Prescribed Archetypal approach favored by her peers -- she even required us to keep response journals she would later peruse (and grade -- she was apparently a little hazy on the course of implementation). But any appreciation of Shakespeare pretty much required an appreciation of Frye's appraisal of how the Bard's plays worked. In this, Frye was good at what he did -- thanks to him I finally learned that the Wheel of Fortune was something of magnificent narrative significance, and not merely a gaudy contraption of light and noise spun by the son of Polish immigrants in "America's Game."

But that's pretty much where it ended for me and Frye, until I moved to Toronto. I finished my studies in the University of Toronto, where Frye was still delivering lectures between doctors visits, in the final few months of his life. A classmate encouraged me to drop by, give the old man a listen, but I resisted. Nor is that a cause for regret -- even in his prime, Frye's delivery was a soporific (quibblers should consult the digital record).

So not exactly an ideal launching point for an adult history spent wrestling with the man's ideas. But when I began working at the book store, a co-worker lit up when I self-identified as Mennonite (because where else would I start?). Said he: "Hey, that's cool -- I'm Catholic!" Another less-than-promising launching point, perhaps, but after I confessed to some ambivalence toward my religious heritage, my new friend admitted to similar misgivings about his, but said Frye's work reinvigorated his relationship to the religion his ancestors had bequeathed him. "You have got to read him, man. Seriously -- there is no going forward without Frye."

This struck me as odd -- I didn't know much about Frye the man, but I was certainly aware he self-identified as Protestant. If his theoretical POV had a catholic, if not Catholic, embrace, perhaps he was worth a closer look. So I committed my Sunday mornings to reading the copy of The Great Code I'd purloined from my father's library. Reading prompted note-taking, which prompted further, closer reading, which eventually prompted me to self-identify (when tipsy) as a Frygian Mennonite.

Prof. Farmer lauds Prof. Frye as "one of the most important writers on the relationship between Christianity and literature" -- a not-bad summary, but somewhat wide of the insight that seems to have taken possession of Frye's POV. One-sentence summaries are perilous, of course -- I can't do it, myself. But one insight Frye impressed me with is a sense of the immeasurably deep penetration the Christian narrative has achieved in Western consciousness. The comic cosmic narrative the New Testament writers espoused is, after 2000 years, inescapable -- at this point, western narratives embody or react negatively to this narrative, or work along the spectrum of these extremes. That's quite the "relationship," to be sure -- and Farmer and le Fustec do a terrific job of unpacking some of this as played out in US literature.

As they do touching on other elements in Frye's critical acumen. Looking over my notes, I see a heady variety of referential touchstones, sure to please listeners (such as myself) keen to play the egghead: Heidegger, Bultmann, Barthe -- "Rilke's contempt for allegory!" earns an especially enthusiastic emphasis from my ballpoint pen. And Derrida, of course -- I particularly dug the comparison of Derrida's late-in-life theory with Frye's earliest. It's just a suggestion on the part of Farmer and le Fustec, and a brief one at that, but it almost seems like Derrida's "end-point" is the rough equivalent of where Frye began.

Which, for you youngsters who've had enough of egocentric Reader Responses and Trigger Warnings for everything from The Great Gatsby to Bear In The Big Blue House, is precisely what recommends The Old Duff With The Odd Coif to your parched and starving brains. Take and read, kids; take and read.

"Read Blake, or go to Hell" -- Northrop Frye
Links: Michial Farmer's interview with Claude le Fustec podcastNorthrop Frye & American Literature, by Claude le Fustec, U of T Press page. Personally recommended: The Educated Imagination is probably the best place to start with Frye -- his public radio lectures are a compact and breezy intro to what he was about. If it's the religious impulse you're puzzlin' over, by all means dig into The Great Code and Words With Power. Farmer and le Fustec refer to Frye's notebooks, but, man, that's some heavy (and at times discomfitingly prurient) reading. Better to tuck into Marshall McLuhan & Northrop Frye: Apocalypse & Alchemy, by B.W. Powe (U of T Press page). McLuhan and Frye were contemporaries, of course, but Powe successfully portrays them as ideological and theoretical antagonists -- the Catholic vs. the Protestant, for starters -- who used each other to sharpen and hone their particular insights into the human condition and human potential. Powe's a super-sharp purveyor of their era, and a judicious parser of their various interactions. He's energetic and readable, and his book is highly recommended. And I just read Alec Scott's survey today -- you might like it, also.

Friday, July 03, 2015

El Capitan, The Easy Way

It takes most climbers three-to-five days to climb the impressive face of El Capitan -- an activity that is not for the faint-of-heart. Now Google's new Vertical Street-View allows us faint-hearted non-climbers a chance to explore El Capitan from the comfort of ... well, wherever you happen to be reading this.

Nuthin' to it...

The other easy way.
Anyhow, thanks for indulging. I'm hoping to get back to original(ish) content next week.

Friday, June 26, 2015

DEVO's Freedom Of Choice by Evie Nagy

Today's post is a bit of a "gimme" -- you know by now that I'm a sucker for the 33 1/3 publications, bad or good. In my estimation Erik Davis' treatise on Led Zeppelin's fourth album rates an "11 out of 10" (it truly is "one louder"). Most of these books are fair-to-middling. Nagy's is exceptionally good, however -- well-researched, plenty of juicy quotes from the people involved, first-rate reportage. I'd give this book a "9 out of 10."

Anyway: the elder daughter graduates this week, so activities and thoughts are a tad askew.

Devo's Freedom of ChoiceDevo's Freedom of Choice by Evie Nagy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A four-and-a-half star rating, actually. Evie Nagy appears to have had unfettered access not just to the usual trove of archival goodies, but to the band members themselves, including Robert Casales ("Bob 2"), who died shortly before the publication of this book. In Nagy's hands, Freedom Of Choice is both centrepiece and launching-point for a considered exploration of Devo's musical, aesthetic and thematic modus operandi. This is a punchy and engaging survey of a band whose influence was much deeper than anyone originally suspected, and continues to spread to this day.

View all my reviews

Friday, June 19, 2015

Petroglyphs Provincial Park, Ontario, Canada

We took a day-trip out to Petroglyphs Provincial Park, an experience I'm still processing.

No pictures, however, as per the injunction. Walking toward the building that now protects these ancient carvings from the elements, it seemed the least we curious two-faced interlopers could do was turn off our cell-phones and leave the cameras pocketed.

We were fortunate to catch the coat-tails of a tour receiving a lecture from one of the park guides. The explicit significance of the petroglyphs, to the people who carved them, and the people who now return to them on various sacred quests, is a matter of considerable debate, as well as meditation and mediation.

The Ojibwe Learning Place on-site refers to the petroglyphs as "the teaching rocks." Many of them appear to refer to agricultural, medical, and life-cycle practises. Viewing these through my usual haze of poorly negotiated Anabaptist/not-so-Post-Modernist sensibilities, I was struck by just how deeply ingrained these indigenous concepts must have been. The people who gave shape to their expression worked with diligent observation of the materials at hand and the space they were in.

To give just one example, there is an indentation at the top of the slope where iron is clearly an element among the soft marble. When the snows melt, the sediment turns red, and runs in a rivulet down a narrow crevice on the face of the slope. The petroglyph carved on either side of this rivulet/crevice appears (at a superficial reading) to depict the menstrual cycle -- an apt metaphor for spring.

This "white" boy, the father of daughters, was struck by the obvious veneration these people had for what is truly elemental to human existence. I can't begin to contrast this with our culture's squeamishness toward the subject. We seem to be profoundly alienated from something (here's that word again) elemental. That can't be healthy.

More to be said, I'm sure -- or left unsaid, perhaps. It is a place well worth one's consideration.

Friday, June 12, 2015

"Would Reader's Digest Ever Condense SF Novels?" The Bitter Musings Of An Aging Reader.

Did you know Reader's Digest still publishes "condensed books"?

Man, those suckers used to be staples in weekender cottages and suburban bathrooms. I recall years when my parents returned from the annual Children's Hospital Book Sale with cartons full of these volumes. Reliable door-stoppers like Herman Wouk were rendered to more palatable page-counts. Quite the service, really.

Just a little tidbit of information I discovered this morning, since the question of their existence came to mind whenever I picked up something by Neil Gaiman.

It's not him -- it's me.
I've just pushed past the halfway-mark of American Gods, so the likelihood of completion is very high. But picking it up and opening the book is only always a conscientious decision on my part -- akin to picking up my guitar and practicing scales. Once I get rolling I usually find myself enjoying the activity. But more than 30 minutes of it is difficult to manage.

I'm not entirely sure what's going on, here.

A big part of it is readerly preference: as with Stephen King, I suspect a reader either loves Gaiman's work, or is indifferent to it. I've read (heard, rather) Gaiman's Anansi Boys, and pored through the first two volumes of The Sandman. He's clever with concepts, steers pointedly clear of prosaic pyrotechnics, yet still manages to evoke the surreal -- all very good reasons to become a Gaiman devotee.

And yet, no matter what the medium, I get impatient reading him. I don't, finally, invest myself in his characters. Once I've finished American Gods, I will almost certainly be finished with Gaiman.

Which is kind of painful to admit, because I pretty much adore the man's concepts. A war between the ancient pagan deities our ancestors imported from the homeland and the modern pagan deities we've created since is a kick-ass concept. But 500 pages is roughly 250 more than I'd care to read on the matter.

Blasphemy, I know. Gaiman's faithful don't just embrace the original content, but everything extra besides. They hardly need my aging eyes and addled brain among their august ranks. But if, say, Reader's Digest were to focus their quarterly efforts on Gaiman's catalogue, I might just join both companies.

Post-Script: Maybe Neal Stephenson is another "condensed books" candidate? And, hey: check out what this woman does with RDCBs. Pretty cool!

Friday, June 05, 2015

I Will Make You Reapers Of Men: The Gospel, According To Helfer & Baker's The Shadow

Part 1, Part 2. And now ...

12 figures in mourning; 14 including the Shadow's sons.

If the superheros of the '80s seemed to be suffering from Messiah Complexes, it was little wonder: most, if not all, endured a death-and-resurrection story-line. Spider-Man took a two-week dirt nap, in J.M. DeMatteis' psychonautic 'stravaganza, Kraven's Last Hunt:

And, of course, rumours of Batman's final demise were greatly exaggerated in the concluding chapter of Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns. Soop might have won by a heart-attack, but Bruce Wayne's ticker returned to form once the body was committed to the earth.

But in both these cases, as in most others, the "death" in question was a ruse: Spidey got tranked by Kraven; Bats staged his own take-down, with one of those death-faking drugs common to serials of all stripes.

Was The Shadow's death a similar narrative sleight-of hand? In the final issue of The Seven Deadly Finns, Andrew Helfer gave readers of his letters column this to look forward to:

Readers searching the forthcoming pages for some glimmer of hope were treated to glorious scenes of The Master's corpse being subjected to indignity and abuse in increasing measure -- bounced down a Himalayan mountain...

...riddled with bullets, while being used as a shield...

...and finally decapitated by a helicopter:

While writer and artist ramped up the irreverence toward the title character, The Shadow's grieving agents were abruptly changing their tune and pointing their attitude in the opposite direction.

In the preceding episodes, The Master may have proven himself, again and again, to be a hard man, reaping where he had not sown, and gathering where he had scattered no seed.* But now that he's removed from the narrative, his disciples discover, for the first time, how pathetic their lives were before being enlisted in The Shadow's service, and how much worse they've become since his death. The betrayer feels this absence most keenly of all:

Wait: "My Little Pony"?
The agents decide to address the Shadow-shaped void in their lives by taking up his Uzis and committing themselves to his ways. It is a less-than-seamless transition.

The work continues apace, albeit via ever-chaotic means. The agents are faced with a singular crisis of identity -- without His, they don't have one of their own. Not one that agrees with them, at any rate.

The Shadow's head is eventually re-animated, his identity and unassailable self-regard very much intact. When joined to a Robocop-like body, he finally becomes the killing-machine he's always considered himself to be.

The Master's final act on the final page of the final issue is to recruit yet another of society's rejects. His sons' reaction is altogether reasonable:

The Shadow as Christ-figure is rich with ironies. For starters, his behaviour is pretty much of the Messianic variety that Jesus' original audience was hoping for -- ruthlessly violent toward all oppressors, and even the occasional innocent bystander, in the aim of re-establishing a more agreeable order. For these messiahs, transformation, if it occurs at all, is strictly superficial -- a precondition that's perfect for comic books, and cause for lots of impious fun when staged by the likes of Helfer & Baker.

For me there is a deeper and more pleasing irony present, in the Shadow-Messiah's most defining characteristic: his meta-cluelessness. His followers ascribe staggering powers to the man, and while he does prove himself a capable tactician as well as adept improvisor when the need arises, his continuous monologue of self-narration is frequently at odds with the larger narrative on display. Consider again how he kills Artimus Finn, the last of the "Seven Deadlies," unintentionally, by merely taking an elevator to the next floor:

The Shadow narrates the story as one where he is finally in charge of all fates. The story we read suggests his fate is assisted by no small dose of . . . luck? Or perhaps by an over-arching narrative design, of which he is -- by design -- ignorant? By this point, I start to wonder if Baker & Helfer weren't gearing up for a po-mo meta-meta-reversal, a la Chuck Jones' Duck Amuck.

"Are you IN ... genius?"
Jesus in the Gospels was, of course, a master at affecting meta-cluelessness. To take just one example from his Sermon On The Mount, here is how he cautions his listeners against considering themselves more compassionate than their Heavenly Father: "Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?" One imagines jokers like Helfer and Baker giddily spinning this insight into absurdist comedy -- "Or, if he asks not to drink of the cup, is never the less..."

But then this is indeed how the gospel writers (of Matthew and Luke, at any rate) very intentionally frame the proposition of God's perceived deficit of mercy. Whether one registers this frame ironically or not depends upon the ears of the listener.

The beauty of the Helfer-Baker Shadow-Messiah story-line lies in the reflection of the fun-house mirror they hold up to the canonical gospels. It's ridiculous fun, minus the ridicule. And that is why, in my near half-century of reading comic books, this series remains my favourite to date.

Pester your local independent comic book store for copies. Or go Amazon. Or grok on the HD glory of their digital enhancement via comiXology.

Scan of the original -- not a Comixology capture.