Saturday, December 01, 2012

Books Read in 2012: "Anansi Boys" by Neil Gaiman

Listened to this as an unabridged audiobook -- and Totally. Worth. It. Lenny Henry's performance is amazing. A pitch perfect reading of the whole book. It's a very nice follow-up (but not quite a sequel) to "American Gods," which I read on paper and enjoyed quite a bit as well. Read the book, by all means, but listen to it if you can.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Books Read in 2011-2012: "Dangerous Visions" edited by Harlan Ellison

I started this book way back in the summer of 2011 -- some of the stories were part of my Month in Shorts attempt that fell apart in July of that year -- and for whatever reason (I've since forgotten), I set it aside. I finally finished it (them?) this fall.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Books Read in 2012: "What Should I Do With My Life" by Po Bronson

This is a story of a man who woke up one day and asked himself the question, "What should I do with my life?" He decided that he should travel around the world and talk to other people who had asked themselves the same question, pass judgement on them, and tell them what they should be doing better. 

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Four More Years

While I'm happy that Obama was re-elected, I can't help but feel that the victory is a little bittersweet. The right is going to double down on the whack-a-doodle for the next two-to-four years. It ain't gonna be pretty.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Books Read in 2012: "Inside Scientology" by Janet Reitman

Books Read in 2012: "Counter-Clock World" by Phillip K. Dick

So-so. Starts with an interesting premise: The dead are coming back to life. Not as zombies, but because time has started to move backwards. A new industry -- Vitariums (or Vitaria?) -- has come into being, whose job it is to un-earth the "deaders" as they become "old-born". From there, they are reunited with families or other interested parties. 

One of the Vitarium owners, Sebastian Hermes, who was once dead himself, un-earths the Anarch Peak, a religious figure who died a quarter-century earlier, and whose reemergence may cause complications for the current leadership of the church he founded. 

As with a lot of Dick novels, it's long on premise, short on execution. As time moves backwards, people now socially ingest "sogum", which would seem to be a kind of fecal matter (it's not made clear how they do this, but one can imagine), and eventually produce complete foods that they disgorge from their mouths in private, and ultimately return to the supermarket. They put on rumpled clothes which gradually become clean as the day wears on. They blow smoke back into cigarettes and cigars, which grow longer and longer, then are replaced into packs. And the old-born move backwards in time, getting younger and younger, until eventually they become infants that need to be implanted in wombs and reabsorbed into a woman's body, to ultimately be broken down by a sexual act. 

There's a lot you can do with a world like that. There are a lot of implications for social mores and conventions, for religion and philosophical and theological thought. That would seem to be the centerpiece of the resurrection of Anarch Peak, perhaps the first in what will prove to be a long line of religious leaders to come back, all now armed with first-hand knowledge of the after life. Once he's back, what will that mean for the church he left behind? Will he resume its rule? Will he correct its misconceptions? And what will it mean for other religions as their adherents wait for their own leaders, teachers, and messiahs to return? 

Unfortunately, the story becomes a back-and-forth tug-of-war between various factions to claim the body of the Anarch before it can be publicly know that he's returned, and not much more. There's also that wrinkle that the un-dead can die again, so these inconvenient figures from history that come back can be eradicated.

Oh, the Erads! Right. Latter-day librarians whose job is now to eradicate information instead of collect and catalog it. Why, as time moves backwards, it would really be necessary to manually destroy historical works as opposed to revise and correct them, I don't know. As part of the larger world that Dick may have conceived, maybe it was explained. Here, the Library is a powerful and entrenched institution that seems to derive its power from all of the information it controls -- and which it is systematically destroying. Which wouldn't seem like such a wise idea in the long run. But there you go.

And once again, look at all of the much cooler covers that once existed.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Books Read in 2012: "The Mugger" by Ed McBain

Read this on the Kindle, where the cover is completely irrelevant, but this one still seems blah compared to the others below.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Books Read in 2012: "Tales From Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made" by David Hughes

More like "Tales From Pitches for Movies That Never Should Have Been Made." Other than Neil Gaiman's "Sandman" comic series, I can't think that any of the movies featured in this book would have been worth watching.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Books Read in 2012: "Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things" by Randy Frost and Gail Steketee

Hit frightening close to home in spots. I wouldn't classify myself as a "hoarder," but a "pack rat"? Definitely. 

Finished this, and within 24 hours, 2 boxes full of over 60 books were packed up and on the way to the thrift shop. 

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Books Read in 2012: "The Stand" by Stephen King

This took most of the summer to get through, and I can't help but feel a little underwhelmed.

It's a novel that has a reputation that precedes it, and there are a lot of people who absolutely LOVE it. I can see why: The premise of a super-virus that wipes out 99% of the planet's human population is a strong one. But that may be why it didn't resonate with me, because that premise made me think that the greatest nemesis that the survivors would face wouldn't be a Walkin' Dude out west, but our own savage natures. Despite the looming apocalyptic showdown, the return to normalcy among the survivors who congregate in Boulder comes a little quick.

I've tried reading King on a couple of occasions, and I can't say that any of them have been "Aha!" experiences where I finally, once and for all, understood why he's so popular. My personal theory is that I came to him too late. If I'd read "Carrie" and "The Shining" when I was 12, it would have upended my world. But I didn't, and I guess I'm more critical than I should be when I read his stuff.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Books Read in 2012: "The Ten-Cent Plague: The Great Comic-Book Scare and How It Changed America" by David Hajdu

I listened to this one as an unabridged audio book. 

I was never that much of a comic book reader growing up—I'm not sure why not—but even I learned somewhere along the way about the Comics Code Authority that had once existed. I never paid it much mind, since it was one of those things that was a given growing up, like ratings on movies or not seeing cigarette commercials on television. I'd heard about hearings back in the 1950s, but there were a lot of hearings back in the '50s, and I assumed that this was just another in the mix. It was, in a way. Just as Joseph McCarthy and his ilk saw Reds lurking around every corner, so some culture warriors saw debauchery, degeneracy, and delinquency lurking between the covers of the comics that exploded in popularity among America's youth. 

Hajdu does a pretty decent job of bringing the clueless, like me, up to speed on how comic books came to be, deriving from the comic strips that ran in newspapers early in the 20th century, and grew into an art form of its own. While superheroes, like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, all make appearances early on, and continue to be what most people think of when they think of comic books, the enormous popularity of crime and romance titles were what caught the attention and the ire of some well-meaning people. Juvenile delinquency was on the rise, or so it seemed, and something, as always, needed to be done. A search for the root cause led some to these drawings and word balloons as virtual blueprints of how to commit assorted crimes. Any kid who acted in a dangerous, reckless, or even vicious way was found to have read these insidious things and they must, of course, be the explanation. (That kids who acted in safe, sane, and kind-hearted ways also read these "insidious" things didn't seem to explain anything.)

Enter Frederic Wertham and his dubious psychological research, which found its greatest publicity in his book "Seduction of the Innocent". Whatever anyone thought they needed to know about the ten-cent plague could be found in the book. In a time of witch hunts and loyalty oaths, the war on comics began in earnest...for the sake of the children, of course. Hearings, censorship, and book burnings came soon after, followed by ruined lives and careers in an industry decimated by a lot of clueless people with good intentions. 

The one publisher that Hajdu follows more than any other is William Gaines of EC Comics. And while EC received a high degree of scrutiny, especially once they introduced their line of "horror" and "terror" titles, I wonder if he makes a mistake in following their saga too closely. Many of the writers and the artists who worked on the comics of the time agree that there were some titles and some publishers that went too far, publishing stories and illustrations that were beyond crass and vulgar. EC tried, through the efforts of Gaines and editor Al Feldstein, to at least be clever in their presentations, aspiring to O. Henry-like twists and ironic turns in the resolutions of their stories. Their scrutiny may have been unfair, and Gaines may have been vilified out of all reason, but it feels like Hajdu stacks the deck a little bit, and some of the people who may have crossed a line get off easy because he'd rather make the case for these martyrs to the cause of free expression. It feels like something is missing, and that there's a better survey of the land of comics than what he selectively—though very ably and compellingly—presents here.

(P.S. - Here's a link to a 2008 appearance on C-SPAN by David Hadju, discussing the book. I haven't watched it yet myself, so...)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Books Read in 2012: "I'm Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Standup Comedy's Golden Era" by William Knoedelseder

I'd never heard of this book, but it popped up on some list of titles under $3 available for the Kindle, so I tried a sample. I whipped through that pretty quickly, so the few bucks weren't much of a consideration as I wondered what came next.

Written by a reporter who covered the comedy club scene in L.A. for the Los Angeles Times, the book focuses primarily on a period between 1972 and 1979, when a new and distinct generation of comedic talent broke through into the entertainment industry, and into television in particular. 

Johnny Carson moved "The Tonight Show" from New York to Burbank in 1972, and when he did, the local comedy scene took off in a big way as the scouts who used to look for talent in NYC looked for new standups a little closer to the new home. Back then, if you wanted to make it as a comic, you had to play for Johnny. There just weren't that many places for standup comedians to play on TV, so if you could kill the audience, if you could break up Johnny, and most especially if you could get the "OK" sign from him at the end of your five minutes, you had it made. You were blessed, and you were going to get work. You might headline in a real night club, or you might get a TV deal, or you might open for someone big in Las Vegas, and to kill on Carson was the surest way there.

But to get on Johnny's show, you had to be seen by one of his scouts. How to be seen by a scout? Enter Mitzi Shore. At around the same time as Carson's move to the west coast, Shore took over a ratty little club, "The Comedy Store", that her husband owned as a kind of clubhouse for him and his friends, and turned it into a showcase for young and emerging talent. Jimmie Walker, Richard Pryor, Freddie Prinze, Tom Dreesen, Jay Leno, David Letterman, Elayne Boosler, Richard Lewis, Robin Williams, Andy Kaufman—all got, if not their starts, then huge exposure in "The Store". 

If not THE Golden Era, it certainly was A Golden Era, for this generation, at least. The comics worked for free, grateful for a stage and mic to try their material in front of an audience, hopeful that a scout, an agent, or a network executive might be in the audience that night and like what they saw and heard. They often did. Jimmie Walker went on to "Good Times," Freddie Prinze to "Chico and the Man," Robin Williams to a one-shot on "Happy Days" that led straight to "Mork and Mindy". David Letterman's 30-plus-year career in late-night television is traceable back to his time at "The Store" and his work as emcee.

But not everyone was as lucky. A struggling comic named Steve Lubetkin makes recurring appearances in the story, never quite in the right place at the right time, never with the right material that fit the tenor of the time, never with the look or the delivery that got noticed, never with the breakout bit that made him the star he so desperately wanted to be. He seems to be a stand-in for Everyone Else, all of the others who took the stage at "The Comedy Store" or "The Improv" or "The Laugh Factory" and didn't get a TV pilot or a chance to open in Las Vegas. Most probably headed back to the real world and took straight jobs, regaling friends and coworkers with stories about knowing Jay or Dave back in the day. But some had things end tragically, like Lubetkin, who jumped from the roof of the hotel next door and to his death in the parking lot of "The Store." 

Lubetkin's death came in the midst of a walkout by the comics over a lack of compensation for their work for Shore. They argued that the dynamic had long since shifted from people coming to a club for some drinks and getting to see a comic to people coming specifically to see comics and getting to have some drinks. The comics were the draw, and while some had been able to parlay their sets at "The Store" to steady paying work, many had not. It struck Tom Dreesen as deeply unfair that a comic who had killed the night before, who had managed to make a room full of people laugh and applaud and buy another round, was reduced to begging $5 from one of the headliners for breakfast, especially after the members of that audience had paid a cover charge ostensibly to "cover" the cost of the entertainment. 

"Comedians for Compensation"—CFC—was formed as a way to bring the grievances to Mitzi Shore and to try and find a way to get the up-and-comers a little something—$5 a set as "gas money"—and to recognize the comics as talent worth compensating. Shore countered that the club was a showcase—a workshop or a college, even—where the comics could take their material, try it out, and hone it into something polished. That experience could lead to bigger and better work, and the cover charge and bar receipts helped her to cover her expenses in keeping the place up and running. 

The strike and its negotiations take up a considerable part of Knoedelseder's book, which, at the equivalent of about 170 pages, isn't that long to begin with. It's hardly a comprehensive history of that period, and I'd be hesitant to term it, or probably any era, as a Golden Era of standup. Certainly there were comics working on the east coast at the same time who were pushing their own boundaries; the eighties brought a boom in outlets for comedians, both on stage on and TV; and the nineties and early 2000s brought in an alt-comedy scene that remade things yet again. The generation that came before—Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Robert Klein, et al—could lay claim to the idea of a standup being a sui generis talent in itself. But it is hard to deny that, in that time and in that place, there was a considerable concentration of talent and ambition, and that it was shaped and nurtured by Mitzi Shore.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Books Read in 2012: "A Touch of Death" by Charles Williams

Another one of those instances where I bounced between the paper copy and the electronic one, with the latter spread over three different devices.

I liked this cover, too:

Aside from the cover, what did I think of the book? Quite good. Full of twists and turns, tightly plotted and suspenseful. I knew she'd screw him over, but the question was: How?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Books Read in 2012: "Books: A Memoir" by Larry McMurtry

It is, of course, ironic that I listened to this as an audiobook.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Books Read in 2012: "Let the Great World Spin" by Colum McCann

OK, technically I read the bulk of this in 2011, but I finished it this morning, so it goes into the 2012 pile.

We've got to draw lines somewhere, people.

That said, I enjoyed this quite a bit. A lot of people have said that this is really a post-9/11 novel, which I have to say I see only superficially. It's easy to draw parallels, and it may even have been the author's intent to use an event—in this case Philippe Petit's tightrope walk between the World Trade Center towers in 1974—as a nucleus around which he could explore shifting human relationships. Day to day interactions between people, even seemingly innocuous events, have consequences. Small, insignificant actions can have repercussions that last for a long, long time, positively or negatively. To have used 9/11, while an obvious choice, would have been just that: Obvious. It still carries too much emotional baggage as we all have our memories of that day, no matter how far we may have been from the events.