Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Month in Review and of Things to Come

In looking back on all the blog post I didn't make this month and the notes I took that nothing came of none stood out more than my reading plans for this summer and how to make sure I'm more productive in my reading from June to August than I have been in previous years.  Perhaps I should have taken my own advice and implemented it earlier: as in January.  

This has been a super slow reading month.  Rather pitiful in truth.  I managed all of two books, BADASS by Ben Thompson and Breakable You by Brian Morton.  I've read about half of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi and nothing else.  Breakable You certain stunted my interest in reading, but Maria assures me it has great movie potential so I'll keep my fingers crossed for that.  Bacigalupi I'm gonna put down for a bit, but I need to explain that.  The Windup Girl is like nothing I've read before (in part because I don't read enough science fiction).  There's a good chance I'll be saying it's the best book I read this year, come December, and for that reason alone when I finish, I'm determined to leave comments.  That said, it's not a book that I would say is for me, or possess the traits and qualities that I personally look for as universals in books that I enjoy.  The short version explanation of that last sentence is that I like the intimacy of characters more so the the vast creation of the world people live in.  The Windup Girl is amazing, but it may end up being the most challenging book I get through this year and while that's not a bad thing, it is a thing.  

What I've been reading aside, I've been writing a lot this month and that more than anything has soaked up what used to by my reading time.

If anyone reading my blog has managed to read if for over a year (congratulations) then you will know that I hate the word February: the worst word in the English language.  Aside from that fact that no one says it properly, myself included because it's just too much work, and that it's not even English, it's also really short.  I'm gonna reinstate my reading goals for this short, horribly, named month of Latin derivation.  I plan to finish The Windup Girl, A Model World by Michael Chabon, Occulations by Laird Barron, as I seem to always read something by John Fowles in the winter I'll crack open Daniel Martin.

(That last one is really, Really BIG.)

Wish me luck.    

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Beer and a Picture!

You don't have to tell me how sexy that assemblage of Belgian styles ales is.  I'm aware.  Last night I took part in a belated birthday celebration of a good friend, who happens to a heck of a beer brewer himself.  After a completely unrelated health scare, we were all even more ready to relax and accept a chalice of something strong and brown.

 It's hard to find beer that is both good, and something Erik hasn't had before.  I managed with four of the above.  Well, the Corsendonk was terrible, but at least it was new to everyone (and never to be repeated).  Okay, it wasn't terrible but too insubstantial to justify drinking.

Allagash Black, my one ringer and non-Flemish offering, was expectedly awesome and as good as it was, it was near forgettable compared to the trappist offerings that remained.  Achel, Koningshoeven, and Westmalle, were nothing short of transcendental, to run the risk of sounding melodramatic.  I'll spare you the particulars on each in hopes that you may discover the goodness within on your own.  If you look carefully at the picture you'll see that oak aged Isid'or.  Really hard to find and completely worth whatever price it's being sold for: it-will-not-be-cheap.       

Concerning pictures, people tell me all the time to add them to the blog; book covers and such to accompany commentary.  Readers, ironically, like pictures and I'd probably get more views and looks, but don't hold your breath.  I have my reasons.  But that picture above, it's too good to not share.  

Sunday, January 22, 2012

BADASS The Birth of a Legend by Ben Thompson

This is without doubt the most awesome book I'll read this year.  From Kali to Skeletor, Thompson explores what makes icons of bassitude in our culture.  His research will astound you (the works cited pages are jaw dropping), the academic presentation will convince you, and the humor and over-the-top exploits of all those included will keep you laughing and referring back to specific passages long after you've finished reading.  
The book is divided into four sections: Gods, Goddesses and other Celestial Kickass Beings, Heroes Heroines and other Over the Top do Gooders, Villains, Sorcerers, Antiheroes, and Merciless Bastards, and Monsters, Fiends, Hellspawn and Worse.  Personalities mentioned span the range of mythological beings, fictional characters, Biblical titans, and silver screen showstoppers.  The most immediately catching issue is the inclusion of some characters in certain categories.  Gilgamesh is presented as a bad guy--and perhaps rightly so--while Dirty Harry and Diomedes, and all those they killed in the stories that fashioned their awesomeness are 'heroes.'  The best and most interesting of grey area came in the first section involving deities where all were presented as neutral in terms of morals.  
I've gained new respect for Zeus and Thor, the former of whom I always thought to be boring while the latter had never previously impressed me.  While it's nice to be given reason to appreciate old hats, better still was the discovery of so many unknown-to-me badasses.  Rama, Oya, Bradamant de Clairmont and others all left their mark.  Additionally Thompson provides a ridiculous amount of information of similar beings of different cultures, regional variations on popular myths, background and context that is nothing short of staggering.  
Not everyone lives up to the title (and it is with no small measure of fear that I call them out).  You're only as badass as the opponent you take out and so Mr. T, King Minos, Professor Moriarty, Finn McCool, and Captain Kirk came up a bit short, not because they weren't awesome but because they were being held in the same light as Beowulf, Darth Vader and Sir Mordred.  Other's like Surt have unrealized potential because we have to wait until Ragnarok to see them in their full glory, by which time we'll all be dead…  I'll send a message through the proper channels to the author (not my blog) but we need a definitive measure: that's right, a NCAA basketball, single elimination Clash of the Tightest to determine who is the baddest badass of all time.    
I couldn't read it straight through; it's not that kind of book.  A chapter here and there, a lot of laughs in between and some truly inspiring exploits and you'll be tempted to craft the legend of your own personal badass on paper.  I plan to read the other book in this series.  I hope Thompson writes many more with more of the non-traditional badasses like the previously mentioned Moriarty.  Even if you're not a fan of humor sites such as cracked I can't imagine someone not liking BADASS.  Oh, and as for the tournament I suggested, all smart money bets point toward Samson who not only "pulled it (a lion) apart with his bare hands like it was a piece of paper made out of beef" but also managed to kill a hundred men with a donkey's jaw bone and The Archangel Michael, aka "The Chief Justice of Wrecking Evildoers' Faces" who wasn't content to "curbstomp the the Prince of Darkness into the ground with a sandaled foot" but proceeded to power-bomb the arch-nemesis of the three abrahamic religions spine-first into a fire hydrant.  Internet humor, pop culture awareness, and video games knowledge will increase your enjoyment, but all you really need to do is read the words on the page to be blown away by BADASS The Birth of a Legend.  

Friday, January 20, 2012

Breakable You by Brian Morton

This is a rather simple story of people falling apart and trying to put their lives back together.  I'm not sure any of the characters are successful in this endeavor.  For all of the novel's overwrought descriptions of previously described material, wholly unbelievable characters, and general repetition it's very hard to focus on the story.  
After a few decades of marriage Adam Weller, a successful writer, decides to leave his wife Eleanor for a much younger woman.  He willing runs to a younger and more beautiful woman who he knows is using his fame to further her own status.  He also knows that this new woman will leave him sooner than later.  (On an unrelated note, if I just said, "He left his wife for a ho," everyone would have known what I meant without the need to sound semi-formal and use too many words to explain the obvious.  End tangent.)  Maud, their daughter and youngest of three children is on the cusp of finishing her dissertation and getting her Ph. D. when she starts a powerful and bizarre relationship with Samir a man whose past difficulties follow him everyday.  
Adam is an unmitigated, self-serving, bastard and the book's most acceptable character though a minor one.  He has no scruples in breaking up with his wife for the most base reasons or stealing the work of his friend to use for his own end.  Throughout the course of the book he doesn't change or grow and only flirts with development before obstinately sticking to his identity.  Eleanor suffers greatly but does find ways to cope with the unexpected arrival of two new men in her life.  
Maud, the book's main character, is the center of so many problems.  Early on we are told she has suffered two previous 'breakdowns' or 'episodes' but are never told what that means or what they were in relation too.  The references were unnecessary and forced and served to undermine the significance of book's final events as Maud's life hits new undiscovered low points and instead of adding credibility to the way things unfold these premature references to her breakdowns only robbed her real moment collapse of any power it may have had.  
Maud, for all her supposed instability, is smart, focused, on a solid path in life and gorgeous.  She's tall.  She's hot.  She knows it.  Samir is short and rather plain though her mental equal.  A woman such as Maud would never exert half the time or energy in gaining his favor, and that was first strike against her credibility.  Hot chicks don't take rejection well because the world is their oyster.  They certainly don't go to such dire measure to win the attention of a guy who goes out of his way to offend her by giving him random blowjobs in public places just so he might be nice to her.  (Actually, no woman does that…)  Their courtship is short and involves him essentially giving her the finger while she performs oral sex at every possible opportunity.  All of this is done voluntarily.  Sadly, I don't live in this world… 
Samir is only slightly more of an unbelievable nightmare than Maud.  His past is ugly and horribly sad.  Even when we learn of his first marriage and loss of a child and his torment it was hard to accept a man being moved to tears of sadness every time a gorgeous woman offers sexual favors.  Samir is an 'Arab,' a word my Iranian friends assure me is derogatory.  Samir ate pork sausage for breakfast one day so I'm assuming he wasn't a practicing Muslim but there is no 'Arab' ethnicity so I have no clue what Morgan means by using the word but he constantly references Samir's 'Arabness.'  Maud is a Jew, which by the way actually means something.  The implied conflict between the two is empty and feels like the same 'Hail Mary,' desperation, smoke-and-mirrors attempt to conjure conflict as Maud's breakdowns.  
The presentation is highly repetitive and in scenes between Maud and Samir we get to see things in separate chapters through each characters eyes with almost no new meaning added.  The dialogue, while well written is mundane enough to make me question it's inclusion.  People just talk about everyday normal stuff that doesn't do anything to move the story forward.   
Morton also has a nasty habit of drawing attention to his writing, which serves to take the reader out of the story.  "And now all that was over.  Adam had a new muse, or at least a new fuckmate.  She used this term bitterly, for the shock effect, even though she wasn't even speaking it aloud and was shocking no one but herself."  Dare I say--Wait for it…--'shocking?'  Thank you for having your characters explain your though process in writing this passage.  "She was eager to see Samir again and return to their sexual carnival.  That was how she thought of their encounters."  That first sentence was so good I can't believe Morgan couldn't be satisfied and leave it alone!  "They had spent the afternoon on the couch, though, come to think of it, he couldn't quite remember whether they'd actually, technically, made love.  They'd done something, but he couldn't quite remember what."  I don't even know what that means.  Perhaps if we replace 'made love' with 'bad acid trip' I could make sense of this, but when people aren't drugged they definitively know whether or not they 'technically' made love or not.  No matter how pleasant having sex is, it isn't that subtle.  "She wasn't pleased with herself for being so snitty, if that was a word."  No comment… (I can't help it!  ARGH!!! It's not a word and making me question word worthiness doesn't make it okay!)    
There's a baby, there is a meltdown--a character's not my own--there are a couple of deaths, people go their separate ways and try to move on.  There may have been some tangible connection between Maud's slightly self-indulgent philosophy studies with the plots events or character's lives but I couldn't stop rolling my eyes at characters actions to find deeper meaning.  Morton's over reliance on italics in dialogue doesn't help either and eventually any nuance he may have had easily turned into a nuisance. 
There is nothing particularly bad about this book: the writing is solid, even the dialogue is well done if only uninteresting.  The characters perhaps try too hard at everything they do and are incredible to the point of unbelievable but even if you can get over this you have to deal with prose inconsistencies.  You have to take the good with the bad however it's the disparity between the two and the erratic variability of their appearances that make the reading difficult.  I leave you with this:  
"The sky was gray and grave and grim and the river was dull and humped and hunchbacked, yet she found all of it stirring, because the day was anything but bland, but at the same time as she was glorying in it, in the large-souled moodiness of nature, she had to keep glancing down to make sure that she wasn't about to step in dog shit, and she tried not to think of this as a metaphor for the human experience."  pg 231 
I feel bad having re-written that passage; at least I can say it wasn't original to me.  If you have no problems with that paragraph you'll enjoy this book much more than I. 

Monday, January 9, 2012

An Open Letter to Every Semi-Pro Band Everwhere Ever

Congratulations.  You've risen from the basement to the garage and now have landed at Spanky's bar in Midtown as the house band.  Your hard work has paid off, you're profecient at your instruments, your set pieces are impressive and you even have a following that borders on groupies and at least one aspiring roadie that your forty-four year old drummer calls, "Son."

As you've worked your way up to your current place of prominence you've acquired a few great pieces of gear that are inline with your status of 'semi-pro.'  You've got a handful of highly sensitive mics, a top-of-the-line PA that you bought on craigslist second-hand for a great deal and, of course, everyone has upgraded from starter instruments to the glory of their profession with enough amps and wattage to aurally shatter concrete.  You don't have a sound engineer and you, as a band member of "SKULLCRUSH," have never stood back and objectively listened to the sonic havoc you wreak.

This may come across as harsh and I don't mean to offend your musical sensibilities or pride, but you--the indiviual and the collective body of musicians that make up SKULLCRUSH--you sound terrible.  Allow me to explain.

It's a combination of factors: the quality of your gear and instruments, the size of the venue you're playing in, and primarily (I'm sorry to say) your conviction that even though Spanky's is only 2,200 square feet that somehow, someone there can't hear you.  The later is exponentially compounded as all members of SKULLCRUSH hold to this obscure and wholly untrue belief.  It's the proliferation of volume that make you sound terrible; nothing more.  The remedy is simple and you've heard it for years, but forgotten in light of your new found success.  The solution has been preached more often than the, 'practice and hard work will get you where you want to be' philosophy that you've so dearly taken to heart.

You: SKULLCRUSH, every-single-member-of-the-band; you're too loud...    

Sincerely with the Kindest Regards,

Chad Hull Esquire, concert goer and regular frequenter of Metro Atlanta's many small venues, blues bars, juke joints, and dives.  

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Books of the Year 2011 and of Things to Come

2011 has been the year of book buying.  With Borders going under and clearance sales all around me I bought more than twice as much as I read this year.  Finding a few more used book stores to spend time in didn't help either.  This trend will most certainly stop going into the new year and I'm okay with that.  

Reflecting back on books this year and last year I'm struck by how much food plays into my memory of memorable novels.  Bare with me...  I'll never forget--and hope to soon revisit--a most depraved Christmas Day dinner, comprised of more liquor than subsistence in Jerusalem Poker with Joe O'Sullivan Beare and Cairo Munk; two of Jerusalem's most powerful and wealthy sharing a paupers feast in the ghetto on a freezing cold night.  It was made special by way of circumstance and all they said and didn't say.  Equally powerful in my mind is a meal shared by The Deathless Man and Natalia Stephanovic infuriatingly unnamed grandfather in The Tiger's Wife.  The two of them and their waiter share a decadent dinner on a patio while the city they are in is currently being bombed out of existence.  I don't know why these things stick out in my mind as strongly as they do, but there you have it.  So, recommend me something with good grub and phenomenal imagery that takes me far away and chances are high I'll like it.
I read forty-three books this year which was off my repeat goal of last year's fifty; last year I was able to hit fifty-three.  Last year I said I wouldn't make this goal.  I was right in that the five-hundred plus page doorstoppers I've been trying to get through slowed down my progress.  Oh well; it's not as if I minded reading any of those books.  I did read nine books that were actually published in 2011 which is a big deal for me.  If I keep this up I may become one of the cool kids.  This was also a big year for what I didn't read.
There were three books I couldn't bring myself to finish.  I've said before I've no scruples in putting a book down, but I thought I'd gotten better about identifying my interest before picking a book up than to start and not finish three.  Slaughter House Five by Kurt Voungout, The Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley and The Dancing Girls by Maragret Atwood were decidedly not for me.  I can't see myself ever giving any of these a second chance.  I think I have a "Books I didn't finish" label but don't really care to link to those entries.    
Now on to the good stuff.
This is officially not a "Best Books of 2011" list.  As previously noted, I've only read nine books from this year.  As such, these are the books that stood out to me--enough to merit some special designation--at the end of my year of reading.  
Most Forgettable Reads
I should have put down The Hammer by K J Parker, and I never thought I'd say that about one of her books as everything else of hers I've read has been amazing.  In many ways the fact that I didn't enjoy it and finished this book is also they biggest surprise of the year.  
I also have to mention Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, Dark Mondays by Kage Baker, Summerland by Michael Chabon, Trader by Charles de Lint and The Mammoth book of Merlin edited by Mike Ashely.  All but the last of these books are by authors I love.  As a proviso I'll say, none of these were 'bad.'  Some were merely not special; others not for me.  (And in Chabon's defense, when you're Michael Chabon the bar is ridiculously high.)   
Biggest Surprise
Firebirds Soaring edited by Sharyn November not only has the most badass cover art of anything I read this year but is also the most, 'out of the blue, how-did-I-come-across-this-book?' piece of awesome that ended up in my hands.  I don't care if it's young adult, or adult fiction, science fiction or contemporary literary fiction: it was awesome and containted two of my absolute favorite short stories.  Ever.  I'm not sure if this anthology is being continued or not, but I am certainly tracking down previous installments in the coming year.  Yeah; I singled this one out...

I didn't know what to expect going into Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card so saying "Wow," feels appropriate.  I didn't know Arturo Pérez-Reverte could write a book like The Painter of Battles and considering how well he did it; I'm amazed we haven't seen more from him in this vein. The Dala Horse by Michael Swanwick (this link goes to the short story; not my commentary) isn't necessarily his best piece of writing, but it may be the most concise and powerful piece that embodies all of his awesomeness.  It's a beautiful fairy tale and it's diet science fiction all at once.  (Swanwick made a comment on his blog that the story was straight up Sci-Fi, but then said as soon as it's publish the matter is out of his hands and readers have the final word.)  It's whimsical and profound.  It feels real and lingers on the mind.  I always expect the amazing from Swanwick, but this story is really good.  
Best New Author Discovery
This is the hardest category yet considering the amount of repeat authors from last year I've read.  I going with André Aciman and Nicole Krauss (said as quickly as I can manage as to not dwell on the other names I left out.)
The Best Book I read in 2011
I said back in August that this category's winner would come from that month's reading.  E L Docotorw's Ragtime, Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chaing (which I should invent it's own category for), Of Love and Other Demons and Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, The French Luitenetn's Woman by John Fowles and Catherynne Valente all came out swinging, but the final choice still comes down to Krauss' Great House and Aciman's Call Me by Your Name.  I'm glad I had half a year to mull on this answer before stating my claim; I needed that much time.

Nicole Krauss is simply the most badass and subtly powerful writer I've come across.  Damn near everything else I've read pales in comparision.  I can't wait to check out her back catalouge.  

A surprising trend that has persisted the past two years: my 'best book of the year' have been written by a women.  A disturbing trend that has persisted is I haven't let comments for either of those books.  I don't know what that means, but in case of Krauss, everyone that has left comments for it makes mention of needing a second reading so I don't feel bad.  As I said last year in the case of Gershow, I enjoyed it too much, read it too fast, and didn't take any notes.  I will re-read both and leave comments for both at some point in time, that said Great House is not merely 'about a desk,' no matter what you read saying to that effect.  

Next year will be kinda lame; I'm gonna shoot for the same goals: fifty books read, a door stopper a month, and at least two commentaries a month.  Wish me luck.  Happy New Year.  

It's now time for champagne .