Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Wild

Now comes the time of year I sit chained to my desk running sales reports and ordering endless cartons of textbooks. My horizon is an expanse of plaster-white drywall papered over with lists of vendor information and posters that were funny when I first walked in the door six years ago. It's a living, just sometimes a claustrophobic one. So, naturally, I think about the wilderness.

The thread that runs through all of these is not the beauty of the natural world, or its freedom from the depredations of the civilized– Chris McCandless perished on an Alsakan preserve well traveled by hunters on ATVs; of the eight who died summiting Everest on the one day in 1996, five were a part of guided expeditions organized like a theme park ride; and the Alaskan gold rush is the very backbone of Jack London's tales, there are few things more civilized than the pursuit of filthy lucre– what unites them is what it means to be stripped bare in the wilderness. What animates them all is the understanding of full exposure to the uncaring world, what it means to live and possibly thrive in that place where the line between living and dying is held by small decisions and the will and the skill to keep making them. That is what Krakauer writes most adeptly about and he is at his best with his own accounts.
Into the Wild 's most riveting chapter relates Krakauer's solo expedition across the Stikine Ice Cap in the Alaskan panhandle to assail the unclimbed nordwand of the Devil’s Thumb. Every page is a vivid vista of cold and lonely terror. McCandless himself is of least interest, it’s the sense of kinship with him and his final days that Krakauer finds that redeems the account of a young man so ensconced in America’s suburban womb he had to become a shiftless drifter to find the cold and indifferent heart of the world. It is the presence of that magnificent and dreadful truth that blows from the pages of Into Thin Air, the mountain will shrug you off without ever knowing you were there. Your best efforts might end with watching your life slip through black and frozen fingers.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Books spied on the train: Empire Falls, by Richard Russo. Nicolae, by Tim Lahaye and that other guy. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by You Know Who.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Kit Marlowe & Co.

I want to take a moment to talk about this blog's namesake, Christopher Marlowe. Dubbed "The Skald" by some, he's widely famous as the greatest writer in the English language. Son of a cobbler, Marlowe was one of the premiere secret agents & assassins employed by the Spymaster Frank Walsingham, catspaw of the Faerie Queen Gloriana. While initially famous for his many tragedies, it was his play "The Commedy of Doctor Faustus" that truly brought him into history's bosom. In the play, the medieval alchemist Faust forges a pact with the Devil (personified in Mephistopheles) for 24 years of demonic service, at the end of which, his soul is forfeit. Like the later Punch & Judy shows, however, Faustus slips free of his contract-- not, as in many tellings of the tale, by recanting & appealing to God's Mercy, but rather through abject slapstick violence. Literally slapstick, as Faustus chases the Mephistopheles about with a club. The last we see of our eponymous Marlowe in life is as an arrest warrant for Blasphemy is issued for him. He appears before a closed council, but ten days later is attacked. A consummate knifefighter, Marlowe disspeared with only a note taunting the authorities, signed "Tamburlaine" (after the character from one of his plays). It is believed that Marlowe surfaced for a brief time using the name "Frank Bacon" & again writing under the pseudonym "Bill Shaxbeard" but after that-- nothing. To learn more check out this article.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Quick, everybody! Moral panic!

I want to take a minute to talk about Christian Fiction. It was Slacktavist's Left Behind reviewing that put the subject in my mind. Did you have a Jesus-enough upbringing to browse a Christian Bookstore at some point or another? Well, I did. & some of the books are kind of lodged in my head. Like Frank E. Peretti's books This Present Darkness & Piercing the Darkness. These books alternate between a small town congregation struggling against "evil" in one chapter-- then in the next, the same events are taking place but there are angels with flaming swords & crystal wings fighting against devils reeking of sulphur. I mean, while Pastor Hank is trying to convince people not to be swayed by temptation, or whatever, Tal the Captain of the Hosts is stabbing the Baal of the Demons & trying to clear the minds of the people from diabolical influences. They are kind of cute & hilariously quaint: the "evils" that the angels & the good people of the town are confronting are adorable straw men of New Age philosophy & liberal conspiracy. I mean, the wicked & cruel ACLU & their demonic patrons come to town just because the preacher man performed an exorcism on a misbehaving kid...who was, of course, genuinely possessed. In the sequel we find out that Transcendental Meditation (which as we all know is in danger of taking over the word to create a New World Order) will cause you to drown your baby as a pagan sacrafice to Satan. You know, that kind of thing. Pretty much what you'd expect. Except every so often you'd run into a book like Children in the Night by Harold Myra, which somehow is called a Christian book & is even published by Zondervan. isn't? At...all? I mean, themes of Mercy & "Light" are present, but this is a fantasy novel set in a lightless subterranean Underdark-- there is no mention of Jesus or anything like that. I mean, it is as Christian as Tolkien or Wolfe, sure, but no more. Still, there you have it! I'm not even going to mention Christian rock like Mortal or Christian metal like Seventh Angel. I wouldn't know anything about that.

Monday, January 25, 2010

How I Saved Comic Books One Afternoon.

(Kitty Pride by Alyz.)

The way I see it, there are two problem facing comics at the moment; well, two main ones, anyways. The first is a subject near & dear to my heart, & to the shriveled up plums that serve a lot of my compadres as blood-pumpers: comics are...sort of insulting. Alienating. Not all of them! Some of them, enough to call it a trend, an institutionalization, a status quo...they are...well...I am going to throw out two loaded words here: misogynist & racist. Now, it is getting better on both counts, but we're still dealing with stuff like The Seige's varient cover. In which the joke seems to be that Deadpool (a fourth wall breaking character, thus making this a little more editorial) seems to think hip hop is hilarious. & that women make excellent accessories. Now, I'm not telling you anything new. Heck, minority characters have gotten a raw deal all across the media, & are really only now starting to break into the mainstream. & sometimes, comics can really excel at giving people a voice, an avatar. Sometimes not. Now, with regards to the standard of the portrayal of women (by which I mean more than just in refrigerators) is a little less steller. Still, you've got people crying out for feminism to take comics by storm. Sometimes it even does! Heck, Girl Wonder took on the lack of a Stephanie Brown Robin memorial case-- & if you don't know what I mean by that...ugh. In summary, there was a girl Robin for a minute. You know, ROBIN, as in, Batman's sidekick. What, you didn't know there was a female Robin? RIGHT. See, she was killed off in a particularly brutal matter, & unlike the other Robin (Jason Todd...yeah, there have been a bunch of Robins), who Batman moped over & made a little "Never Forget, Never Again" costume memorial...Stephanie was just left out in the cold. Erased, forgotten. Well, Girl Wonder took them to task for it. Yay. Then, besides the wins & the losses, you get weird results like...Gail Simone is back on Birds of Prey! Yay! is Ed Benes! Less...yay. I don't know-- I do think that Bird of Prey was a sterling example of non-offensive cheesecake in its heyday, so I'll let it slide...

What is the other problem facing comics? & how do I propose fixing them? I'll tell you about it later!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Comics. On the INTERNET?

You might very well be hip to webcomics. Good for you. I find though that a lot of people who read webcomics real the couple-panel joke comics. Things like cryptically url'd XKCD & Dinosaur Comics. That being the case, I figured I'd put a quick list together of some of my favorite longer-form comics. Some of these range in tone from soap opera to Dada, but they share the fact that there are longer arcs, a rise & fall of narrative. These are culled from the list I keep; they may suit you, & they may not. You may have heard of them, you might not. Some are pretty popular, others less so.

Homestuck is the current amazing & surreal MSPaint Adventure story line, which really soared in the now complete Problem Sleuth. Minus is about magic & extinction. Dresden Codak is an amazing exploration of time & transhumanism &, well, everything. Gunnerkrigg Court is about a spooky school. Kukuburi is about a dreamworld. The Meek is filled with Emperors & naked girls. Family Man is about religious scholarship...& werewolves. Daisy Owl is cute & has space babies. The Abominable Charles Christopher is about a Sasquatch. The Loneliest Astronauts is about space, & people you don't like. Looking for Group is a parody of online & tabletop gaming. Order of the Stick is a Dungeons & Dragons spoof. Dr. McNinja is a parody of everything awesome. Minion Maze is another DnD homage. Oglaf is a NSFW parody of fantasy in all its forms. Bad Machinery came out of Scary Go Round which came out of Bobbins. Questionable Content is a soap opera that doesn't betray you.
Textbook season makes me talk faster for some reason. All of a sudden I'm like a secondary character in His Gal Friday. We're all newsies up in here today.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Words (now New & Improved, with Pictures!)

There are people who will tell you that artist conceptions of characters, places, & things from books ruin the thing. That "your imagination" is better than anything some artist can supply. These people are speaking errant nonsense. Fiction is based on taking someone else's imagination & uploading it into your skull. Straight up using other people's ideas. & you know what-- pictures, illustration, whatever-- visual art is a legitimate addition to that.

Now, I realize I am speaking to the choir here, a little. Heck, who hasn't read a comic book? Where words & pictures are indelibly wedded. So let me take this & twist it around a little to specifically talk about science fiction, fantasy & horror. I mean, these are the genres where you imagination is really asked to do the heavy lifting. Heck, half the time the monster in horror is suggested only in metaphor, half-glimpses, or as a non-Euclidean squamous beastie.

These are zones where letting your imagination go wild pays off big. If the writer suggests the creature to you, then you are left to fill in the blanks with the emotionally appropriate imagry, right? If you are afraid of spiders, the creature is more arachnid. Afraid of swimming? Piscine. Toothy maws can be lupine, shark-like, or filled with grinding human teeth. So it seems like artists are better off leaving well enough alone-- right?

I'm not convinced. Especially when there is a good artist on the scene. Sure, a hack can ruin something alien & beautiful; it is a worry. The risk is there, but if it pays off...well, now we're talking! David Lynch makes the Third Stage Guild Navigator a giant naked mole rat grasshopper thing, & ugh, how much more creepy is that then what Herbert actually lays out? The right artist can take a thing & make it solid. I'm sure there is something tied up in mirror neurons & visual memory, right? Neuroscience or something.

I think the reason I'm chopping at this here is: intertext linkages. Sure, sure, people can mention this book or that book & seem erudite as hell. Good for them. Artists can take the context & spin it into another medium. I'm not talking college art show here. People like Alan Howe & John Lee-- Sorry, I mean John Howe & Alan Lee, my brain is always conflating the two-- defined how people think of J.R.R. Tolkien's work. They were so successful at this that they were called into the movie to be the primary visual innovators. Between the two of them making pictures they managed to define the canon. You think you know what a balrog looks like? Go back & re-read the passage & see just how sparse the description is in the primary source. Yeah, I said primary source; this is what I mean by multimedia intertexuality!

Why is all of this on my mind. A couple of reasons, stemming from Wayne Barlowe, the artist whose book Barlowe's Guide to Extraterrestrials is pictured above. First thing: I looked at the picture of an Alzabo in Barlowe's Guide to Fantasy (& a creature in The Book of the New Sun) a while ago & said "Huh. I guess it is red." I'd totally missed it. & secondly, because I've seen illustrations, like the one of Gorice XII from The Worm Ouroboros, will make me pick up & read a book I would probably never have noticed twice. So. I've been thinking about it, is all.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Nelson Algren

"The intensity of his feeling, the accuracy of his thought, make me wonder if any other writer of our time has shown us more exactly the human basis of our democracy. Though Algren often defines his positive values by showing us what happens in their absence, his hell burns with passion for heaven."

Thank you, New York Times, for my lead-in. Deeply important to my father, I heard about Nelson Algren long before I ever had the chance to read him. By 1989, all of his work was out of print. And without a copy at our local library or in our house, that was pretty much it for me. It's painful to have to remember days before the internet.

Studs Terkel, Warren Leming and others founded the Nelson Algren Committee to commemorate their friend, in part, by restoring his legacy. Everything of his was rightfully put back into print. Neon Wilderness was my primer, first purchased at our downtown store. Subsequent gift copies, along with Never Come Morning and The Man With The Golden Arm, came later. It is hard to talk about why I love him, only to repeat that I do over and over until asked to leave the room. 

"not walls, nor men / brutal, remote, stunned, querulous, weak or cold / do crimes so massive, but the hideous face / stands guilty: the usurpation of man over man."

Algren is significant. Like Twain, like Vonnegut, I read Algren and read about how to live. Amidst private and public failures, neglect and despair, ruin and isolation but to go on, with hate, love, anger, humor, charged with the collective responsibility of other foundlings. It's like a tribe of outsider founding fathers, strangers to the country whose ideals they advance and make legend, even as their countrymen drift towards another future.

Friday, January 15, 2010

eBook thieves: Ninjas of intellectual property

A couple days ago The Association of American Publishers put out a press release called "New Study Documents Epidemic of Online Book Piracy" (which, strangely, now appears to be absent from their site...) It referenced an independent study by internet-monitoring web service Attributor declaring that “nine million illegal downloads of copyright-protected books were documented during the closing months of 2009”. Nine million? Really? In just the end of 2009?

My surprise (and skepticism) comes not because nine million sounds like too many people to me, it sounds like too many people for me not to know any of them. With all the news stories about illegal music downloading, those numbers, crazy as they may be, made a degree of sense because it seems like virtually everyone I have ever known, from kindergarten on up, downloads music illegally. Its ubiquity is a given. But illegally downloading books? I don't think I've ever heard of anyone within six degrees of separation from me downloading books from the Internet. Granted, my sample is skewed by the fact that I work in the book biz and am surrounded by people who really, really like books and almost certainly prefer bound piles of paper to PDFs. But still. Who are these people?

One clue, from the AAP’s release, is that it says Attributor “looked at illegal downloads of 913 popular titles.” 913 popular titles is the key phrase here maybe. So maybe it's just limited to the fanbases of a handful of megauthors? Or just one guy downloading Dan Brown's Lost Symbol 9 million times.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

In the Land of Invented Languages

In the Land of Invented Languages, which bears the exhausting subtitle Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language, is, for me, that rare, rare bird: the popular nonfiction book that doesn't feel like a magazine article stretched past the breaking point. Arika Okrent, the author, has an undeniably fine touch when it comes to outlining both the interesting technical features of these invented languages, and the interesting features of the weirdos who devote their lives to these things. It's kinda like Word Freak, for, well, word freaks.

The premise of the book is a breezy revue of the highlights of constructed languages through the ages, starting with the Lingua Ignota of medieval abbess and weird spiritual polymath Hildegard von Bingen, and winding up, eventually, with the Klingon language created by Marc Okrand from (very bare) seeds planted by James "Scotty" Doohan. I preferred the earlier stages of the book, which were more historically distant, more rooted in utopianism ("Hey, let's invent a language that will end all war!"), and just plain more exotic (e.g. Blissymbolics). But the latter parts of the book are by no means a letdown, and I'd recommend it in a heartbeat to everyone I know who is particularly tweaked by thinking about people thinking about language. In the Land of Invented Languages is neither too technical to be accessible to those with only a casual interest in the subject, nor too light to be interesting to those with a more serious and abiding curiosity about conlangs (and natural languages too).

I wish we weren't in the midst of gearing up for the Spring textbook season, because I would love to sit all day typing about constructed languages and this terrific book about constructed languages, but alas, it is time to pay the piper.


I keep coming across these really awesome fake designs for TV shows as x, popular cartoons as Y. And now: big-budget movies and TV shows as Atari 2600 games.

My problem (aside from spending my day seeking out these ridiculous things) is that they're always for non-literary entertainments. Books, people! They are media. Just once I'd like to see a Tumblr post about 20th century novels recast as 80s sitcoms. Or something.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

My Top Ten Films Adapted From Novels #3: Wonder Boys By Michael Chabon

Take one professor looking to find literary magic once again. A book editor with a predilection for trannies and talented but mendacious young male students. A pregnant mistress. A blind dog. Marilyn Monroe's missing jacket. And one disgusting yet compelling red robe. You've got Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys. Adapted by the current go-to guy of book adaptations Steven Kloves and directed by Curtis Hanson, Wonder Boys is perfect in its tone from beginning to end. The main character Grady Tripp is at a crossroads personally and professionally. In one weekend Grady Tripp must take the initiative to act on want he yearns for most or nothing will change for the better. To help Grady along his weekend odyssey are an eclectic group of confidants and acquaintances. The plot of the movie is something I enjoy a lot because there is no plot. Reminiscent of films of the French New Wave. It's structured around things just happening. Happenings created by affable and well-drawn characters. A high point for me in the film is when Grady and Crabtree break James Leer out of his grandparents' house and take him back to Grady's house. Besides being a possible lay for Crabtree, Crabtree sees potential in Leer has a writer. As they go off to get to know each other a little better, Grady is left only to contemplate. Enhancing the moment is Bob Dylan's Not Dark Yet. The song fits like a glove. When released in 2000, Wonder Boys came and went. Allegedly, Michael Douglas was disappointed that the film didn't get much recognition that year. I agree with him completely. With this film it is a question of where do I go? What is next? Have I fulfilled my potential? Will happiness ever shine on me? If these are questions you have maybe you are a Wonder Boy.

Friday, January 8, 2010

On The Joys Of Re-Reading

First things first -- Operation New Year of the New Sun proceeds at breakneck pace! Mordicai (the aforementioned MAN IN THE TRENCHES) has already kicked off the discussion, and a heady list of participants, over at his blog. Follow the link. It's like the Oprah Book Club with actual geniuses. Well, she did do Anna Karenina that one time...

With that out of the way, the topic of today's post is only tenuously connected to that great and noble undertaking of speculative fiction unearthing. As a gentleman with an interest in the written word, usually all that I can do is keep the number of books that I've read on my bookshelf and the number of books waiting to be read even. If I can keep fresh acquisitions from overwhelming me, it's a job well done. So, it's no surprise that I very seldom re-read a book once I'm finished. I read it, I ruminate over it for a little bit; maybe I yell about it. Gene Wolfe said, as I mentioned in my previous post, that "good" literature is literature that can be read and re-read with increasing enjoyment, and it's a thought that's always bugged me. Why, you could by that logic keep yourself occupied by going over Moby Dick until the end of your days, while every day new books are published and an unfathomable sea of works you haven't even heard of wait to be read.

Re-reading a well-loved book has turned me on to the virtues of doing so -- especially since New Sun is kind of a tangle. And it's not just that sort of... heightened attention to critical thinking. You know, the part of your brain that says "oh, I guess this whole thing is a weird Purgatory allegory." Now that I've untangled the knot of a plot and laid out neatly in my head, there's sort of a new pleasure. The bits of my gray matter that were responsible for collating plot points and tidbits of world-building are freed up. Like a 16th century rich dude, I am freed from the toils of labor to pursue fancy things.

Also fun is reverse-engineering what is now an indecipherable codex of sticky-notes and study tabs. I suppose it probably didn't make much sense when I put it together, either.

So, I put the question to you: What are the books that you find merit and enjoyment in re-reading? What are the books you come back to more than once, or many more times than once?

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

When is Jethro Cave gonna write a book?

Deluge of Internet

We have been flooded with online orders, overwhelming everybody. Especially Kevin, who was built for the job from spare parts. Racing to catch up, we are listening to Coltrane and shelving for the coming semester.

Our notable acquistions include Food Rules, the brand-new pocket-size Michael Pollan. There's this beautiful book on Marchesa Casati. And Portable Grindhouse, which makes me feel like I am eight again, searching the shelves of Crossbay Video. I want to take this book home and keep it under my pillow. Also, I have been restocking David Simon, out of immense love and respect for The Wire. Powered through the first and second seasons so far, can only anticipate three and beyond. In the meantime, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets!

Lastly, more Penguin clothbound classics. We have been keeping warm three titles for about a month when three additionals came in; I am working on finding a spot for all of them to form a circle together. A circle of loveliness.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Project Acoustic Kitty

Acoustic Kitty was "a CIA project launched by the Directorate of Science & Technology in the 1960s attempting to use cats in spy missions. A battery and microphone were implanted into a cat and an antenna into its tail. Due to problems with distraction, the cat's sense of hunger had to be addressed in another operation. Surgical and training expenses are thought to have amounted to over $20 million.

The first cat mission was eavesdropping on two men in a park outside the Soviet compound on Wisconsin Avenue in Washington, D.C. The cat was released nearby, but was hit and killed by a taxi almost immediately. Shortly thereafter the project was considered a failure and declared to be a total loss."