Friday, September 14, 2018

The Big Blow by Joe R. Lansdale

(hb; 2000: novella)

From the inside flap

Galveston, 1900.

“Local fighter, future legend, Jack Johnson versus a professional street fighter brough in to put the black upstart in his place.

Galveston, 1900.

“Whorehouses, gambling, racial tension, the intersection between myth, history, legend and reality.

Galveston, 1900.

“The hurricane of the century is coming to destroy it all.”


Review

Lansdale’s stripped-to-the-bone, perverse and violent tale is─for this reader, anyway─a perfect read. Lansdale deftly sketches out his characters’ actions and motivations,  and the results when these characters collide, with each other. When Mother Nature, in the form of a hurricane, hits the shore, Blow becomes  a darker, headier brew of the aforementioned bluntly stated elements and characterization. This is one of my all-time favorite books, not for those who require pretty, drawn-out and pleasant stories.


#

According to a May 31, 2018 deadline.com article, Reinaldo Marcus Green is preparing to direct the forthcoming film, scripted by Oren Moverman. 

White American Youth by Christian Picciolini


(pb; 2017: memoir)

From the inside flap

“As he stumbled through high school, struggling to find a community among other fans of punk rock music, Christian Picciolini was recruited by a now notorious white-power skinhead leader and encouraged to fight with the movement to ‘protect the white race from extinction.’ Soon, he had become an expert in racial philosophies, a terror who roamed the neighborhood, quick to throw fists. When his mentor was arrested and sentenced to eleven years in prison, sixteen-year-old Picciolini took over the man’s role as the leader of an infamous neo-Nazi skinhead group.

“Seduced by the power he accrued through intimidation, andswept up in the rhetoric he had adopted, Picciolini worked to grow an army of extremists. He used music as a recruitment tool, launching his own propaganda band that performed at white-power rallies around the world. But slowly, as he started a family of his own and a job that for the first time brought him face to face with people of walks of life, he began to recognize the cracks in his hateful ideology. Then a shocking loss at the hands of racial violence changed his life. . . and Picciolini realized too late the full extent of the harm he’d caused.”


Review

Picciolini’s chronicled journey from lonely boy to violent racialist leader to reformed, mature man is engaging, tight and hard to set down─even at its darkest, White is a humane, timely and gripping take on the point of view of a (former) white-power agitator, who escaped his almost-certain destruction before it almost engulfed him. This is an excellent memoir, one of my favorite books read this year.

Rogue Cop by William P. McGivern


(hb; 1954)

From the inside flap

“The story of a good cop who was caught in the numbers racket.”


Review

Rogue is another tough-guy-with-a-good-heart tale, told in a taut, raw and unflinching way. When Mike Carmody’s brother─a fellow cop, who is not on the take─is targeted by a mobster (Bill Ackerman) who pays for Mike’s dirty deeds, Mike must figure out a way to save his brother, as well as himself. Of course, there is a fair amount of fist fighting, tense one-liners and gunplay, even as McGivern underscores this fast, short action play with humanity and the silver lining of grace. This is an excellent, burn-though read, one worth owning.

#

The resulting film was released stateside on June 17, 1955. It was directed by Roy Rowland, from a screenplay by Sydney Boehm.

Robert Taylor played Det. Sgt. Christopher Kelvaney. Janet Leigh played Karen Stephanson. George Raft played Dan Beaumonte. Steve Forrest played Eddie Kelvaney. Anne Francis played Nancy Corlane.

Robert F. Simon played Ackerman. Vince Edwards played Joey Langley. Anthony Ross played Father Ahearn. Alan Hale Jr. played Johnny Stark.


Star Wars: Outbound Flight by Timothy Zahn


(pb; 2011)

From the back cover

“The Clone Wars have yet to erupt when the Jedi Master Jorus C’baoth petitions the Senate for support of an ambitious mission: to contact intelligent life and colonize undiscovered worlds beyond the known galaxy. But government bureaucracy threatens to scuttle the expedition before it can even start─until Master C’baoth foils a murderous conspiracy plot, winning him the political capital he needs to set in motion the dream of Outbound Flight.

“Or so it would seem. The evil Sith Lord Darth Sidious has his own interests in the Outbound Flight. Yet even he is not the mission’s most dangerous challenge. Once under way, the starship crosses paths with the forces of the alien Chiss Ascendancy and the brilliant mastermind known as ‘Thrawn.’ Thus what begins as a peaceful Jedi mission is violently transformed into an all-out war for survival.”


Review

Outbound is good, fun read. It has solid, steady character and plot build-up, lots of starship battles, and personal and political scheming, elements that flavor, structure and set up future Star Wars tales. Of course, there’s Jedi action as well. This is worth reading, maybe worth owning for a few bucks.

Side-note: Outbound is set five years after the 2001 film Star Wars: Episode I ─The Phantom Menace.


Saturday, September 01, 2018

Digging Up Mother: A Love Story by Doug Stanhope


(hb; 2016: memoir)

From the inside flap

“Doug Stanhope is one of the most critically acclaimed and stridently unrepentant comedians of his generation. What will surprise some is that he owes so muchof his dark and sometimes uncomfortably honest sense of humor to his mother, Bonnie. It was the cartoons in her Hustler magazine issues that molded the beginnings of his comedic journey, long before he was old enough to know what to do with the actual pornography. It was Bonnie who recited Monty Python sketches with him, who introduced him to Richard Pryor at nine years old, and who rescued him from a psychologist when he brought the brand of humor to school. And it was Bonnie who took him along to all of her AA meetings, where Doug undoubtedly found inspiration for his own storytelling.

“Bonnie’s own path from bartending to truck driving, massage therapy, elder abuse, stand-up comedy, and acting never stopped her from being Doug’s genuine number one fan. So when her alcoholic, hoarding life came to an end many weird adventures later in Arizona, it was inevitable that Doug and Bonnie would be together for one last excursion.

Digging Up Mother follows Doug’s absurd, chaotic, and often obscene life as it intersects with that of his best friend, biggest fan, and love of his life─his mother. And it all starts with her death. . .”


Review

Like Stanhope’s often harsh, honest and X-rated humor, Digging is not for those who are easily offended by sex, drugs and human-based darkness. While his jokes─often sourced in real-life experiences─possess such qualities, they also have an underlying sense of decency and compassion that make them truly funny and resonant, even if they are disturbing.

The first hundred pages, about Stanhope’s serial debaucheries and upbringing, are more serious than funny. (He did not get into stand-up until later in life, relatively speaking.) That is not to say it is worth reading, far from it─it is a focused, blunt and engaging read that spares no one, especially Stanhope himself. This is a worthwhile read that effectively interweaves bleak humor, touching dedication and gravitas about our baseline impulses and graces.

Saturday, August 25, 2018

Children of Nazis by Tania Crasnianski

(hb; 2016. Translated from the French by Molly Grogan.)

From the inside flap

“In 1940, the German sons and daughters of great Nazi dignitaries Himmler, Göring, Hess, Frank, Bormann, Höss, Speer, and Mengele were children of privilege at four, five and ten years old, surrounded by affectionate, all-powerful parents. Although innocent and unaware of what was happening at the time, they eventually discovered the extent of their fathers’ occupations: these men─their fathers, who were capable of loving their children and receiving love in return─were leaders of the Third Reich and would later be convicted as monstrous war criminals. For these children, the German defeat was an earth-shattering source of family rupture, the end of opulence, and the jarring discovery of Hitler’s atrocities.

“How did the offspring of leaders deal with the aftermath of the war and the skeletons that would haunt them forever? Some chose to disown their past. Others did not. Some condemned their fathers; others worshipped them unconditionally to the end. In this. . . book, Tania Crasnianski examines the responsibility of eight descendants of Nazi notables, caught somewhere between stigmatization, worship, and amnesia. By tracing the unique experiences of these children, she probes at the relationship between them and their fathers and examines the idea of how responsibility for the fault is continually borne by the descendants.”


Review

Crasnianski’s short-chapter recountings of what happened to the families of key high-level Nazis in post-war years is deft, tightly edited, near-impossible to set down and easily accessible to (even) casual and squeamish readers─Crasnianski provides enough visual details to allow us to picture what she is saying, but she does not dwell on anything long enough to be gratuitous about it. Saying this is a fun read is too much of a stretch, given its subject matter, but it is a fast-burn and relatively painless one. It is also a book I hope to re-read in the near future, and possibly own.

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut

(pb; 1959)

From the inside flap

The Sirens of Titan is an outrageous romp trough space, time, and morality. The richest, most depraved man on Earth, Malachi Constant, is offered a chance to take a space journey to distant worlds with a beautiful woman at his side.  Of course there’s a catch to the invitation─and a prophetic vision about the purpose of human life that only Vonnegut has the courage to tell.”


Review

Titan is one of Vonnegut’s wilder tales─a sometimes unfettered, brutal satire about religion, politics and the class system, lensed through a science fiction framework. While it is less tightly edited than other works he has written─it runs a bit long, maybe thirty to fifty pages─it is still a good, funny and stinging take on the nature of the tools of social control, as well as human nature: worth reading, this.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Dietland by Sarai Walker

(hb; 2015)

From the inside flap

“Plum Kettle does her best not to be noticed, because when you’re fat, to be noticed is to be judged. Or mocked. Or worse. With her job answering fan mail for a popular teen girls’ magazine, she is biding her time until her weight-loss surgery. Only then can her true life begin.

“But when Plum notices she’s being followed by a mysterious woman in colorful tights and combat boots, she finds herself falling down a rabbit hole into the world of Calliope House, a community of women who live life on their own terms. Reluctant but intrigued, Plum agrees to a series of challenges that force her to deal with the real cost of becoming ‘beautiful.’ At the same time, a dangerous guerilla group begins to terrorize a world that mistreats women, and as Plum grapples with her personal struggles, she becomes entangled in a sinister plot. The consequences are explosive.”


Review

Dietland is a good, entertaining Fight Club-esque take on the beauty industry and the cultural norms that drive and derive from it. It is slightly gentler in its feminine tone and delivery than Fight, making Dietland its own distinctive novel, more than a sly, subversive knock-off of the aforementioned Chuck Palahniuk work─worth reading, this.


#

Created by Marti Noxon, the resulting television show debuted on the AMC television channel on June 4, 2018. The first season ran for ten episodes, with a second season most likely to follow.

Joy Nash played Plum Kettle. Tamara Tunie played Julia Smith. Robin Weigert played Verena Baptist. Rowena King played Cheryl Crane-Murphy.

Adam Rothenberg played Dominic O’Shea. Erin Darke played Leeta Albridge. Ricardo Dávilla played Eladio. Julianna Margulies played Kitty Montgomery. Campbell Scott played Stanley Austen. Kelly Hu played Abra Austen.



The Gun by Fuminori Nakamura


(hb; 2003: novella. Translated from the French by Allison Markin Powell.)

From the inside flap
“On a nighttime walk along a Tokyo riverbank, a young man named Nishikawa stumbles on a deadly body, beside which lies a gun. From the moment Nishikawa decides to take the gun, the world around him blurs. Knowing he possesses the weapon brings an intoxicating sense of purpose to his dull university life.

“But soon Nishikawa’s personal entanglements become unexpectedly complicated: he finds himself romantically involved with two women while his biological father, whom he’s never met, lies dying in a hospital. Through it all, he can’t stop thinking about the gun─and the four bullets loaded in its chamber. As he spirals into obsession, his focus is consumed by one idea: the possessing the gun is no longer enough─he must fire it.”

Review
Like Toru Narazaki in Cult X, Nishikawa─The Gun's protagonist is an unfocused young man whose life is a narcissistic, nihilistic void. When he finds the gun, his slow, downward spiral accelerates.
I admire Nakamura’s obvious talent: even in a depressingly familiar tale like this, it shines. Unfortunately, as is the case with Cult X, I did not relate with Nishikawa’s lazy apathy nor his fetishistic fascination with the gun. (This leads me to wonder, again, if this is an age thing─I am in my late forties─or is this an era-specific cultural thing?)
Gun is not an entirely disappointing book. It has scenes that are good, but ultimately it feels pointless, an overlong writing exercise with an unlikeable character whose fate is mapped out for the reader early on. While I did not expect nor require a happy ending, I did not care about Nishikawa or his doomed trajectory enough to appreciate Gun the way other readers might.
Gun, with its promising flashes of clever insight, is best borrowed from the library, or purchased for a low price. If you want to check out Nakamura’s other works, I would recommend The Thief, its thematic counterpart The Kingdom and my favorite of the bunch, Evil and the Mask.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Star Wars Omnibus: A Long Time Ago. . . Volume Five by various writers and artists

(pb; early 1980s, 2012: Collects issues #86─107, “the final twenty-two US-published issues of Marvel Comics’ Star Wars series)

From the back cover

“All your favorite Star Wars characters─Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewie, the droids, and others─are bringing peace to the recently liberated galaxy after Return of the Jedi. Even without the oppressive Empire, the young Republic is finding that there are still troubles to confront, and battles to be won!

“Collected here are issues #86 through #107, the final twenty-two US-published issues of Marvel Comics’ Star Wars series from the 1980s.”

Overall review

This last stretch of original Star Wars comics is uneven in quality. Many of the issues sport a familiar, singular plot structure: An alliance character goes on a diplomatic/rescue mission, is betrayed another trusted character, and encounters Imperial troops. The writers try to wring out as many variations of this plotline as they can, but it is clear they are running dry, creatively speaking. I sympathize with them, it must have been difficult trying to maintain fresh action-oriented tension after the fuzzy warmth that is Return of the Jedi.

There are other problem as well. The writing shows some of the characters─Luke and Leia especially─to be petulant, in a distinctly adolescent way. With all these characters have gone through, surely they have matured beyond such behavior? Not according to these writers.

Also, the artwork runs from barely tolerable to godawful.

That said, a few of the issues were fun, well-written and light, and there was an admirable mix of diverse alien types. I especially like Plif, a hoojib.

Bottom line: Is Volume 5 worth reading? Only if you are a die-hard, completist Star Wars fan. If you decide to read it, borrow it from the library before buying it, unless it is really, really cheap.


Story arcs/issue #s

The Alderaan Factor” [#86]: While embarking on a diplomatic mission to the desert planet Yinchor, Leia is betrayed, meets a fellow survivor from her home world, and tangles with Imperials, led by the nasty Governor Wessel.


Still Active All These Years” [#87]: Rik, Chihdo and Dani accidentally turn on a doomsday device on Shawken, impelling Luke, Plif and Kiro to shut it down.


Figurehead” [#88]: On an unfamiliar planet (Herdessa), diplomats Leia and Mon Mothma (“leader of the Alliance of Free Planets”) discover Herdessa’s heinous secret─it is a slave-based economy. When some of the slaves revolt, Leia tangles with Lumiya, a cyborg security/battle droid who used to work in the service of the Empire.


I’ll See You in the Throne Room!” [#89]: Luke aids an anti-Imperial revolution on Solay (“brilliant planet of ten suns!”). While doing so, he falls in lust with a flighty young woman (Mary) and learns an unexpected lesson about people, and what they are willing to do to achieve their goals.

This issue is one of my least favorite entries in this collection. Skywalker comes off as a rock-dumb boy who has never seen a pretty face. Usually my irritation with his character is limited to groaning at his sometimes-condescending attitude toward others.


The Choice!” [#90]: Luke returns to Endor with Kiro─wounded  in issue #87─as well as Rik, Chihdo, Dani and the hoojib Plif. There, along with other Alliance of Free Planets members, wrestle with the problems of forging an interplanetary body.


Wookie World” [#91]: Chewbacca’s homecoming on planet Kazhyyyk is a bitter and violent one: he, Han and Lando discover that it─recently freed from Imperial occupation─has fallen prey to brutal slavers, led by Knife (a Nagai) who hold Chewie’s family hostage. (His family: Mala, his wife; Lumpy, his son.)

This issue features the first appearance of corpse-pale slave trader Knife, a Nagai.


The Dream” [#92]: This is one of the more sexist, at-times soap operatic issues in this anthology.

Luke and the gang try to help Prince Denin [from the planet Naldar] restore his capitol, occupied by the Imperials─and a Jedi Knight named Flint, last seen in the “King-Sized Annual #3” issue. Not only that, Luke is plagued by nightmares reminiscent of those he experienced in the 1980 film The Empire Strikes Back.


Catspaw” [#93]: Leia, Han and Luke try to solve the mystery of who is killing the feline-biped aliens of Cantros Seven, a capitol city in a distant part of the galaxy.


Small Wars” [#94]: When an Ewok’s jealousy sparks an armed conflict between the Ewoks and the Lahsbee, Leia and the gang try to defuse it─unaware there is a Hiromi plot behind it. (The Hiromi are tall, cricket-like aliens.)

This is an especially fun, silly issue.


No Zeltrons” [#95]: Han, Leia, Admiral Ackbar and some Zeltron male assistants visit Kabray, a planet, to woo more possible allies. Once there, they find that the Nagai─slave traders─have dominated Kabray.

Meanwhile, Luke, Kiro and Dani head to planet Kinooine, in search of a scouting party who have not checked in at their appointed time. Luke also battles a sword-mistress, Lumiya, who bears a long-burning hatred toward him.

This is one of the better issues: it has a lot of effective humor; its storytelling balances tone, character and storytelling in an admirable way, with a cliff-hanger finish.


Duel with a Dark Lady!” [#96]: Luke crosses his light saber with Lumiya’s electric whip, is imprisoned by her and Den Siva, is rescued by Kiro, and battles Lumiya─whose true identity is revealed, someone familiar to Luke.


Escape” [#97]: On Kinooine, Luke and Kiro, with Lumiya as their prisoner, try to elude Imperial and Nagai soldiers, and rescue Dani from Den Siva. (Lumiya, in the last issue, revealed that she used to be called Shira Elan Colla Brie, last seen in issue #63, “The Mind Spider”).

Meanwhile, the leaders of the Alliance of Free Planets decide to go to war with the Nagai, after the latter race’s slaver activities are exposed.


Supply and Demand” [#98]: Han is sent out to escort a princess and a child from Vandhelm, a planet where another secret Imperial battalion is holed up. This issue has a warm, fuzzy feel.


Touch of the Goddess” [#99]: Luke mourns Kiro, who is presumed dead. Han, Chewie, Lando and Luke revisit old─perhaps dangerous─”associates” in order to retrieve two statues, seen in earlier issues. Han shows how ruthless he can be.


First Strike” [#100]: The Alliance of Free Planets has its first official battle with the Nagai. The Alliance is aided by Fenn Shysa (former friend of Boba Fett), The Nagai are supported by Maccabree Warriors, seemingly indestructible robots.

Also: Han discovers a dark truth about his mentor and friend, Bey.


Far, Far Away” [#101]: Han, after having a serious argument with Leia, goes on a mission to help another royal family on another distant planet.


School Spirit!” [#102]: Lando and Luke return to Iskalon to tell Kiro’s people about his passing, and find out he is alive─and that the Nagai are stalking and killing his people.


Tai” [#103]: Leia and her Zeltron assistants take a Nagai prisoner, with unexpected results. Tragic ending to this one.


Nagai and Dolls” [#104]: Den Siva and some of his soldiers invade a fancy dinner on planet Zeltros, where Han, Leia and others are at. Luke and Plif are taken prisoner by stumble-about Hiromi hit-insects. One of the lighter, more humorous issues.


The Party’s Over” [#105]: Tofs─green-skinned burly aliens in pirate garb─take Luke, Plif and his former captors (Hiromis) prisoner. Luke, Plif and the Hiromis fight the Tofs.

In another part of the castle, the rest of the gang, along with the Zeltrons, deal with Den Siva and his race-mixed troops, as well as the Tofs. This issue, along with the next one, is also humorous.


My Hiromi” [#106]: Luke and his new friends, the Hiromi, assault a Tof ship in Zeltros orbit─and rescue Leia’s male Zeltron attachés.


All Together Now” [#107]: The Alliance work with a motley group of Nagai (Knife, Den Siva), as well as Fenn Shysa, Dani, Bey (Knife’s half-Corellian brother and Han’s mentor), Zeltrons and others. They attack a Star Destroyer commandeered by the Tof leadership. This is the final, optimistic-as-Star-Wars-gets issue of the original series.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Adjustment Day by Chuck Palahniuk


(pb; 2018)

From the inside flap

“People pass the word only to those they trust most: Adjustment Day is coming. They’ve been reading a mysterious book and memorizing its directives. They are ready for the reckoning.

Adjustment Day, the author’s first novel in four years. . . does what [Palahniuk] does best: skewer the absurdities in our society. Smug, geriatric politicians bring the nation to the brink of a third world war in an effort to control the burgeoning population of young males; working-class men dream of burying the elites; and professors propound theories that offer students only the bleakest future.

“Into this dyspeptic time a blue-black book is launched carrying such wisdom as:

“’. . .The weak want you to forgo your destiny
just as they’ve shirked theirs.

“'A smile is your best bulletproof vest!

“When the Adjustment Day arrives, it fearlessly makes real the logical conclusion of every separatist fantasy, alternative fact, and conspiracy theory lurking in the American psyche.”


Review


Adjustment, as other reviewers have noted, is a timely satire. (It brings to mind many of Kurt Vonnegut's more savagely funny novels.) It is a variation on themes he has written about before, especially in Fight Club─which gets a meta-mention, as does Palahniuk himself─and Rant; Adjustment's storyline shows poisonous hyper-masculinity taken to its logical, national level, as viewed through an especially American lens.

Like many of his novels, its puzzle-piece structure sports a journalistic-distant tone, with sly, absurd (and often blackly hilarious) one-liners, even as upheaval initially splinters his fictional America into three countries. There is the occasional ickiness and brutal violence, but to focus on that is to miss larger points: this is not far from where we are headed, tonally speaking, and Palahniuk is not one to shy away from veracities born of this world, which so often infuse his fiction.

Because of its puzzle-piece set-up, it took me a few chapters to fully “get into” Adjustment, but even then I was intrigued by it. Even on the rare occasions when I do not fully connect with Palahniuk’s work, I find his writing worthwhile, as─when it comes together─it is distinctively Palahniukian and thrilling.

This is worth reading, especially if you have a dark, wicked and unflinching sense of humor and are disgusted with our current political situation.

<em>The Big Blow</em> by Joe R. Lansdale

(hb; 2000: novella) From the inside flap “ Galveston, 1900. “Local fighter, future legend, Jack Johnson versus a professional str...