Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Favorite Songs of 2009

A quick entry for the holidays! 

I'm no music critic but I know what I like!  These are my favorite songs for 2009.  I'll leave it to others to write about their merits (or lack thereof . . .):

"While You Wait For The Others" – Grizzly Bear, Veckatimest

"Cannibal Resource" – Dirty Projectors, Bitte Orca

"Hey, Snow White" – New Pornographers, Dark Was The Night

"1901" – Phoenix, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix

"Valiant Brave" – Ganglians, Monster Head Room

"Wake" – Antlers, Hospice

"Skeletons" – Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz

"Middle Cyclone" – Neko Case, Middle Cyclone

"The Tenure Itch" – The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart, The Pains Of Being Pure At Heart

"Daniel" – Bat For Lashes, Two Suns

"Feel It all Around" – Washed Out, Life of Leisure EP

"Introducing Palace Players" – Mew, No More Stories

"Horchata" – Vampire Weekend, [single]

"Summertime Clothes" – Animal Collective, Merriweather Post Pavilion

Friday, December 18, 2009

Sometimes I Buy a Comic Just for the Art: First Thoughts on Avatar

You hear the word "spectacular" used a lot in movie reviews these days.  Usually its hyperbole.  Or an empty term used by a lazy writer.  But I can think of no more apt a word than "spectacular" to describe James Cameron's Avatar

Spectacular is derived from the word, spectacle, which, according to my American Heritage College Dictionary, means, "something of a remarkable and impressive nature" and "a public performance or display, especially one on a large or lavish scale."  That's Avatar.  It is pure spectacle.  It is beautiful and stunning and unlike anything I've ever seen on a movie screen. 

That's the only way to really appreciate Avatar, by the way -- at the theater.  Don't wait for Blu-Ray, or HBO, or whatever.  See it on a BIG screen and in 3D.  It's worth it.  Really.

Yes, there are many things you can complain about in Avatar:  The retread story.  The (ironically) two-dimensional villain.  The many weak spots in the plot.  The thing is, I kinda' expected those things going in.  I figured there would be simple narrative with stereotypical characters.  But, you know what?  The story isn't half-bad and the characters are all well-performed.  And while there isn't exactly thematic subtlety in the film, it doesn't hit you over the head with a "message," either.  In short, the story does everything it needs to do so that Cameron can showcase his dazzling, awesome, groundbreaking visuals.

I was thoroughly delighted by Avatar.  It was worth my money and my time.  So much so, in fact, that I'll be going to see it again.  Because there aren't too many opportunities these days to sit in a movie theater and see something truly and unquestionably spectacular.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of the Decade (Part 2)

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (2004) – Susanna Clarke. Heralded as the greatest new fantasy since Tolkien, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was a refreshing, stand-alone epic about two feuding magicians in Victorian England. Though it was not as good as Tolkien (ha!), Clarke’s book was a lively, imaginative tale and one of the most engrossing books of the decade. There are unforgettable images in this book, from Mr. Norrell’s amazing library of magic books, to Strange’s eternal column of darkness. Vivid and inventive, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell begs for movie treatment and for a sequel.

Iron Council (2004) – China Mieville. Mieville returns to New Crobuzon to tell a tale of anarchists who seek to change the city’s political structure but are exiled into the wastelands of Bas Lag. The story in Iron Council is almost as good as the one found in Perdido Street Station. But here, Mieville’s prose has improved. It is still uniquely thick, and cluttered with the multi-syllabic, but in Iron Council it approaches poetry.

A Princess of Roumania, The Tourmaline, The White Tyger, The Hidden World (2005-2008) – Paul Park. Together, these four books comprise the Great Roumania quartet, the best example of a multi-volume fantasy in years, maybe decades. Much was made of the first book, but by the time the fourth arrived, Park’s work was being overlooked. In fact, I don’t think any of the four books won any major awards. That’s a shame because Park fashioned one of the most original and moving fantasies I’ve ever read. In it, our world is an illusion, a story in a book. Miranda Popescu has been hidden in our pages for years, but when the book is destroyed, she returns to the real world of a nineteenth-century, Roumanian-dominated Europe, where, of course, she must fulfill her destiny. Park’s story is terrific and highly imaginative: there are vampires and shape-changers, radioactive debris and time-tunnels, and one amazing gun that fires demons as bullets! This is the fantasy series I most want to re-read. Together, these are great books, featuring some of the best cover art (by John Jude Palencar) of the decade.

Counting Heads (2005) – David Marusek. Looking for strong, heady science fiction? Look no further than the books by David Marusek. His first, Counting Heads, showcases one of the most fully-realized futures in the genre. Marusek’s work is reminiscent of Bruce Sterling in its careful extrapolations, but where Sterling sometimes lose control of his plot, Marusek spins a strong and satisfying tale, even if (as of December, 2009) it has yet to fully close. In more ways than one, Counting Heads is the future of Science Fiction.

River of Gods (2005) – Ian McDonald. Some will argue that River of Gods is the best of the decade’s science fiction novels. I’ve made the case for Harrison’s Light, but River of Gods is still an amazing accomplishment. In it, McDonald has fashioned a fascinating future India in which rogue AI’s are hunted by special police, a third gender has been biologically developed, and the skirmishes for scarce supplies of water have created a delicate and vicious political scene. River of Gods is bravura storytelling and unabashedly, joyously science fiction on every page.

Galileo’s Dream (2009) – Kim Stanley Robinson. I’ve blogged about this book just recently so I won’t write much more here, other than to say Kim Stanley Robinson has integrated two of his specialties into one book: He combines alternate history with the future of the solar system. It’s as if he folded The Years of Rice and Salt into his Mars trilogy. Amazing! Galileo’s Dream is one of Robinson’s best books, which obviously makes it one of the best of the decade.

 Bonus! The Best Non-Genre Books of the Decade.

(Sorry, no time for descriptions. Though I will say that The Road is the best book (of any genre) I read this past decade. In fact, it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. Some say it might be science fiction (it is post-apocalyptic). If so, consider it the best SF book of the past ten years and add it to the list above. Oh, and the Wallace title isn’t a novel (it’s a collection of essays), but, really, I’m going to make a list of best books of the 2000’s and leave Wallace off? No way!)

The Corrections – Jonathan Franzen

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay – Michael Chabon

Consider the Lobster – David Foster Wallace

The Plot Against America – Philip Roth

The Brief History of the Dead – Kevin Brockmeier

The Road – Cormac McCarthy

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz

The Savage Detectives – Roberto BolaƱo

James Tiptree Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon – Julie Phillips

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Best Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of the Decade (Part 1)

(Holiday obligations are leaving little time for writing. Sorry for the lack of links this time around.)

Here’s part one of my list of the best science fiction and fantasy novels from the past ten years. All these books come with the highest recommendation. I’ve listed them by date of publication.

Look to Windward (2000) – Iain M. Banks. Released a year before the September 11th terrorist attacks, Look to Windward may be Banks at his most prescient. Terrorists threaten a major population center in the Culture, the utopian society that rules most of the galaxy. But the Culture is always one step ahead and hardly threatened by a band of small-time plotters, no matter how determined. (If only reality was this clean and simple.) Look to Windward is the most controlled and thoughtful of Banks’s books and easily his best Culture novel.

Perdido Street Station (2000) – China Mieville. This is the book that put China Mieville on the map. Perdido was a big, sprawling mash-up of fantasy, science fiction and horror—and arguably a masterpiece. There was, for a time, an effort by some writers (led by Mieville) to define a new sub-genre called the New Weird. It was equal parts Lovecraft, steampunk, and The Island of Dr. Moreau. It may have been a real thing for a time, just like Cyberpunk was in the Eighties; if so, Perdido Street Station was its Neuromancer. Whatever its label, though, this first tale of the fictional city, New Crobuzon, is also sui generis and one of the most important genre books of the decade.

Return to the Whorl (2001) – Gene Wolfe. Don’t read this book until you’ve read the first two books in the trilogy (On Blue’s Waters, In Green’s Jungles). Of course, the trilogy is a sequel, of sorts, to the "Long Sun Quartet" (which is a companion series to the five-book "New Sun" series). Got all that? This is a great book, but typical of Gene Wolfe. In other words, it’s dense and challenging. It’s emphatically not a casual read. I recommend it for the serious SF fan, only; someone who enjoys puzzling-out Wolfe’s hidden narratives. Is it worth the work? Absolutely. (And I can’t say that about some of Wolfe’s most recent novels.)

The Years of Rice and Salt (2002) – Kim Stanley Robinson. Another timely book, depending on your point-of-view. The Years of Rice and Salt is a grand alternate history in which the Black Death wipes out most of Christian Europe, leaving the world to be settled and advanced by Muslim nations and China. The book came out in early 2002, shortly after 9/11. The alternate time line allows Robinson to explore the strengths and weaknesses of different cultures and religions. The Years of Rice and Salt is one of Robinson’s strongest and most thought-provoking books. But he’ll surpass it before the decade ends.

Bones of the Earth (2002) – Michael Swanwick. Here is Michael Swanwick having fun in a delightful tale about time travel and dinosaurs. It’s full of old-fashioned “sense-of-wonder” and adventure but with good characters and strong plotting. I love the way Swanwick dismisses the paradox of time travel: “Step on as many butterflies as you wish!” (Rather than spend pages of explication, Swanwick efficiently establishes time travel as possible then moves on with the fun part--the story.)  Still, time travel has its many dangers (and so do those dinosaurs!).

Light  (2002)– M. John Harrison. Light may be the best science fiction novel of the decade. Harrison perfectly melds big ideas, SF tropes and world-building with some of the strongest characterization you’ll find in (or out) of the genre. What struck me about Light was the fact that much of the story—the struggle of the characters to discover themselves, to overcome their self-imposed obstacles—works regardless of the SF setting. There’s no science fictional crutch, here. Light is the one SF novel of the past ten years I most look forward to re-reading.

Cloud Atlas (2004) – David Mitchell. Here’s a book with SF at its core—literally. There are six nested narratives in Cloud Atlas, two taking place in the past, two in the present and two in the future. They fit perfectly into one another and my jaw dropped while I read Mitchell masterfully connect them. This is one of the most unique books of the decade.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Best TV of the Decade

It's that time again.  Time for lists and more lists.  Best books.  Best movies.  Best comics.  Everyone's got a list.  I used to rant against lists.  (It seems that Entertainment Weekly's got a "best of something" issue every few months.)  But blogs are a great place for lists.  Plus it is December and the last year of the so-called "aughts" . . . . So, in the best spirit of "if-you-can't-beat-'em-join-'em," here's my first list for the month:

Best TV of the Decade:
(Note: This is not a top-ten list.  Why limit--or force--myself to ten entries?)

1) The Wire.  Hands-down, the best show of the decade. (Any list that doesn't have The Wire in the top two or three slots is worthless.  (So there, Hollywood Reporter!))  The Wire is the most accomplished and satisfying show I've ever seen.  Yes, I love Twin Peaks (which I still consider the most daring, innovative and mesmerizing show of all time) and although The Wire never challenged me like Twin Peaks--wow!--did it ever engross me!  Over five seasons, The Wire told a Dickensian story of drug-dealers, junkies, cops and politicians in Baltimore, Maryland.  It managed all at once to be tragic and hilarious, thrilling and thought-provoking.  The acting, directing and writing were pitch-perfect.  And the characters!  Oh man, the characters.  Who can forget Omar and Bunk and McNulty and Stringer Bell and Bubbles and Freamon and Ziggy, etc. etc?  No character was a stereotype.  There were no heroes or villains, just realistic people trying to survive in a desperate environment.  The Wire, with its intricate, finely-tuned plots remains the best example yet of what can be accomplished in the medium of television.

2) The Office (British version).  The first series to skewer the "genre" of reality TV and lampoon the kind of people who seek an easy road to "fame;" the 12 episodes (and two-hour finale) of The Office told a complete and satisfying story of what happens when ordinary people are put on extraordinary display.  The star of the show (and "the show") was the smarmy, self-centered, fame-seeking, David Brent, played to heartbreaking and hilarious perfection by Ricky Gervais.  Brent thought he deserved to be on TV, thought fame would solve all his problems. But his bid for fame turned out to be sad and delusional (not unlike what has happened with many recent reality "stars" and wanna-be's).  Like The Wire, The Office took full advantage of television's strengths, not so much with extended narrative (as in The Wire) but with the medium of television, itself.  The "idea" of the documentary--the presence of the cameras in the workplace--was as much a part of the story as the characters.  The Office was innovative and refreshing, and it paved the way for so much of what is on TV today.

3) The Sopranos.  There is much to like in The Sopranos, but what really strikes me is how series creator, David Chase, developed such complex and flawed characters.  The stories on The Sopranos delivered thrills and intrigue, certainly, but it was the characters who, for me, provided lasting entertainment.  Chase found ways of making their psychological states--their internal conflicts, rationalizations, and avoidance--the stuff of high drama.  He was also lucky (and savvy) to cast James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano.  Together, Chase and Gandolfini shaped the most fully-realized TV character of all time.  To be sure, there were other brilliant performances and memorable characters on The Sopranos, but Tony will always stand out among them.  (Oh, and let's not forget that brilliant series ending.  It goes on and on and on           )

4) Mad Men.  Intricate plotting (like The Wire) coupled with complex characters (like The Sopranos) easily makes Mad Men one of the best shows of the decade.  And the series may have many more seasons to go; I don't doubt Mad Men will appear on many "Best TV " lists for the next decade.  Mad Men has brilliantly explored the idea of different "identities" found in every person (the work persona, the home-life persona, the persona you only reveal to yourself).  These identities compete for control in the show's main character, Don Draper (aka Dick Whitman) but are also evident in the show's other wonderful characters, particularly Peggy Olson and Pete Campbell.  Mad Men is also about the sharp cultural shifts happening in the United States in the early sixties and while sometimes the show is too obvious in the way it highlights the differences between "now" and "then," it does provide a valuable look at unique moment in time: that still-point between the conformist, propagandized Fifties, and the radical, authority-defying Sixties.  With season three, that still point has passed.  The series has clearly reached a turning point and all signs indicate that it will redefine itself.  What will Mad Men of 1964 look like?  I can't wait to see.

5) LOST.  Finally, network TV gets it right!  A long, complicated, mind-bending mystery!  From the beginning, LOST was about questions ("Guys, where are we?").  Could a show with such a strange premise and huge cast possibly keep its secrets and keep viewers satisfied?  The X-Files tried and failed.  So did Alias and Heroes.  Somehow, though, LOST managed that most difficult of balancing acts: it simultaneously delivered satisfying answers while withholding complete narrative closure.  Over LOST's five seasons, layers of mystery have been stripped away to reveal glimpses of a grander structure.  There is a sense that the characters (and the audience) are getting closer to the truth.  In fact, the greatest pleasure of LOST is piecing together clues from episode-to-episode and sensing the bigger picture come into view. Still, we have yet to see the whole picture and there is a chance that everything could fall apart.  There's a lot at stake in the upcoming final season of LOST.  Big revelations are due, but can they possibly meet viewer expectations?  I think the creators of LOST know what they're doing (a rarity for ongoing network serials) so I'm expecting surprising and satisfying answers.  I've got my fingers crossed, anyway.

OK, that's five shows.  There are many other great series from the past ten years and I'd like to discuss them all, but time and other obligations prevent me.  Still, I'd be remiss if I didn't at least mention these other noteworthy series from the 2000's.  They are:

The West Wing, Deadwood, Big Love, the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica (the last few seasons of Galactica make it one of the worst shows of the decade so let's just pretend they never happened!), Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars, and The Office (US version).

Of course, there are many series I've failed to see.  Shows like Arrested Development, The Shield and House have consistently garnered great reviews.  Their absence here says nothing about their quality.

Bonus!  Best Single Episodes of the Decade (in no particular order):

* "Blink;" Doctor Who 
* "The Body;" Buffy the Vampire Slayer
* "17 People;" The West Wing
* "The Return of the Fellowship of the Ring to the Two Towers;" South Park
* "Out of Gas;" Firefly
* "Training;" The Office (UK)
* "The Constant;" LOST
* "Pilot, Parts 1 & 2;" LOST
* "Here Was a Man;" Deadwood
* "33;" Battlestar Galactica
* "You Can't Go Home Again;" Battlestar Galactica
* "Hush;" Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Technically, this aired in December of 1999, but I can't let such a great episode be overlooked.)

That's it for now.  More lists to come!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Notes and Notions (November, Part 2)


The best thing about the newly remastered release of U2's Unforgettable Fire CD (and there are many great things about it) is the clean, crisp version of track 9: "Elvis Presley in America." This is one of my favorite U2 songs, but I never enjoyed it as much as I do now. Previous versions were muddy and flat and the otherworldly effect of the song was lost. Not anymore. To me, the song is endlessly captivating. Bono's voice rides the waves of accompanying music, rising into clarity one moment then dropping into ambiguity the next. His cryptic, improvised lyrics move from the meditative to the highly emotional. The result is a hypnotic song that is simultaneously ethereal and raw. Outstanding.

Speaking of remastered disks, another great new release is The Stone Roses' self-titled CD from 1990. (Actually, now, the more precise title is The Stone Roses 20th Anniversary.) I love all the songs on the disk, but I'm especially pleased to hear the rousing, "This is The One," in crisp, remastered clarity.

I haven't seen nearly enough films lately.  But all that's going to change!  The holiday season is upon us and there's a slew of movies that I'm eager to see.  First among them is Avatar.  I know, I know: there's a lot of James Cameron backlash out there right now.  Apparently the Avatar trailer doesn't live up to the hype (or the promise of the 3D technology). But talk about griping!  What do movie fans want?  They're disappointed with the Avatar trailer?  C'mon!  It's breathtaking.  Plus, if I'm going to plop down ten dollars to see a movie, I know James Cameron is going to deliver.  Nobody gives you a better bang for the buck.   Sure, Avatar will feature the same old Cameron cliches--a simplistic romance and a heavy-handed message about corporate greed.  But so what?  The special effects, the action, the attention to detail--film and genre geeks everywhere should be celebrating.  I think Avatar will be exhilarating.  It will also be one of those rare films that must be seen on the big screen.  There's no waiting for the DVD with this one! (For an in-depth profile of James Cameron and more info about Avatar, check out this New Yorker essay.)

More TV:
As long as Glee can provide episodes as great as "Wheels" this past week, I'll be eager to tune in.  But while "Wheels" shows how good Glee can be, it also underscores how uneven the series is.  Some episodes are cartoonish and slapstick with flat characterizations and buffoonish performances, others (like "Wheels") are captivating, well-acted, and moving.  Clearly, series co-creator, Ryan Murphy, is the real talent here.  He wrote "Wheels" as well as being co-writer on the season's other outstanding episode, "Preggers."  I hope he gains more creative control on Glee as the series goes along.  Of course, Glee will eventually face the dilemma of all "high school" shows:  Do the characters graduate or stay in high school forever?  The premise of the show demands the latter (it's all about high school glee club, after all).  But the young actors who play the students are already looking too old for their roles and certainly by season two it will be hard to accept them as teenagers, let alone high school students.  I guess we'll be seeing "community college glee" in the next few years.  (Still, right now I'd rather watch Glee, with its 25-year-old high school kids, than FlashForward or the god-awful V. Ughh.)

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Notes and Notions (November, Part 1)

I've had my nose buried in a book.  And not just any book, but the late Roberto Bolano's epic masterpiece, 2666.  I wish I had blogged about my reading experience, as 2666 was one of those books that, because of its length, takes a significant amount of time to complete. It took me six weeks to make it through the five separate "books" that make up the whole of 2666 and it would have been useful to note the various connections I noticed as I read and also to comment on how I thought the various pieces the larger work were going to connect.  Ah, well, a missed opportunity.  Of course I recommend 2666 without reservations, but be warned, this is a demanding book.  If you've read (and liked) other works by Bolano (especially The Savage Detectives) then make sure you carve out some time for 2666.  (By the way, there is a major Twin Peaks reference in the book--deliberate and direct--that comes at the half-way point in the story.  For days I thought Twin Peaks might have been a significant influence on 2666 and while I do think Bolano was attempting (in the third book) to emulate a Lynchian mood through his writing, I think the nod to Twin Peaks was just Bolano's way of acknowledging the genius of Lynch.)

Before reading 2666, I read Kim Stanley Robinson's Galileo's Dream.  This is Robinson's best book since his "Mars trilogy" of the 1990's and the best science fiction book I've read this year (so far).  Robinson seems to be channeling Gene Wolfe in the telling of his story as he reveals a surprise narrator well into tale.  This narrator also undermines a basic assumption I (as a reader) had made about the mechanics of Robinson's well-developed time-travel tale.  If it sounds like I'm being coy, I'm really trying to avoid spoiling the details. Galileo's Dream was great "hard" science fiction, an eye-opening historical account, and a poetic blending of science and spirituality.  Galileo's Dream shows why Kim Stanley Robinson is one of SF's most important voices.

I am rapidly growing weary of Flashforward which has put the soap-opera aspect of its story well ahead of its mystery.  I don't care about the melodrama! The most exciting thing about last week's episode was ABC's teaser for the new season of LOST. (You know what would be great?  If the characters who have seen the future realize said future is immutable and so, because they have a guaranteed six months to live, lead fearless lives.  Imagine jumping off a building and knowing--somehow--you'll survive?  Or that you can walk through traffic and not be harmed?  At the very least I'd like to see the characters get bolder with their actions, see them willing to take more chances as their certainty about an unchangeable future grows.  This week's episode supposedly deals with suicides and we can only hope the writers will touch upon these ideas.  But I'm not holding my breath.)

Fox will burn off the remaining episodes of Dollhouse in December and January.  Say good-bye to the most challenging SF show on TV.  (Whedon promises closure.  So there's that.)

Cartoon Network's Clone Wars is fun to watch and more exciting than the three Star Wars prequel films (I'm not the first to say that).  But the problem is, we can't forget the prequel films!  We know that Anakin is doomed, that he will betray the Jedi, and that all his battles in this series are for naught.  And why does the show insist on making the clone troopers unique individuals with sympathetic personalities?  We know they, too, will be re-programmed and lose their individuality.  I love the show but I always have a sour taste in my mouth after each episode. Does George Lucas even care that viewers might contemplate the larger narrative of Clone Wars?  Probably not.

Twin Peaks:
It's pretty rare to have Twin Peaks news these days.  But, as the twentieth anniversary of the show approaches, we may be seeing more.  Anyway, the big news right now is the upcoming book of photos by Paula K. Shimatsu-U.  According to the press release (which you can read here), the book, Northwest Passages: "contains a treasure trove of rare and unpublished photos from Paula's personal archive. It's all here, from deleted scenes, intimate portraits, photos that ended up as key props within the show to official publicity shots and cast and crew having fun on the set."  I looked up Shimatsu-U on IMDB and see that she was credited as "unit publicist" on Twin Peaks as well as assistant to Mark Frost.  My hopes are up for this book!

Ok, that's all I have for now.  More notes and possibly a few notions to come.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Original Art

I don't have much original comic art.  I do have a few cherished pieces, however, that are rather unique.  After writing about my Art Spiegelman sketch, I decided to open my own online gallery at the website, Comic Art Fans (  I posted a few pieces from my collection and one in particular got a lot of attention.  It was my X-Men page by John Byrne.  Here it is:

This piece was done for promotional purposes by Marvel Comics back in 1977.  It saw publication in at least one comic:  Avengers 165 (Nov, 1977).  John Byrne started as artist on X-Men 108 in December, 1977, one month after the Avengers title went on sale.  This makes my drawing one of Byrne's earliest official X-Men pieces.  It also makes it valuable.  I've already had a few people inquire about buying the drawing (and they made some very nice offers).  Apparently, an original piece like this is highly sought after.

Byrne's drawing is bold and dynamic and it's a great portrait of the entire team. The X-Men are in action and ready for battle!  Cyclops, a strong central figure, leads the charge.  Three X-Men flank him on each side.  The piece features Banshee (upper left) who left the team shortly after Byrne joined the title.  It also prominently features Phoenix (bottom right) and Wolverine in his original costume.  The composition is notable:  Phoenix and Banshee balance the two corners, while Storm's black cape balances Nightcrawler's dark costume.  Her cape also isolates and highlights the commanding presence of Cyclops.

This is a finished piece of art but it contains some obvious blemishes: There is a splotch of white-out on Nightcrawler's thumb, a place where Byrne obviously made a fix to the figure.  There is also a smudge of ink just below Nightcrawler's hand.  Finally, there is a cryptic note on the bottom right, written in blue pencil: "Pos 50%" along with a scribble that may be someone's initials or sign-off.  (This is probably a note to the colorist or someone else involved with the printing of the piece.)

I bought the drawing from John Byrne in New York City at a comic convention in November, 1981.  He had recently left X-Men to start work on The Fantastic Four.  Byrne was doing sketches.  He was charging $20 per figure and he had a bold, hand-written sign in front of him that read: "No X-Men."  I really wanted a sketch but none of the Fantastic Four (by themselves) seemed that interesting.  When I got my chance I requested a Dr. Doom sketch, which Byrne happily produced.  As he was packing up to leave he pulled out a few pieces from his portfolio and asked for offers.  One was a nice inked drawing of Kitty Pryde.  He held it up but nobody in the packed crowd said anything.  He put the drawing away and pulled out the X-Men drawing.  Again, nobody offered any money.  Everybody seemed afraid.  Who could guess what he would want for such a piece?  Byrne looked around and shrugged.  He seemed kind of frustrated.  Just as he was slipping it back in his bag, I yelled out, "Forty dollars!"  He pulled it right back out and said, "Forty dollars. That sounds good."  I handed him the money and he handed me the art.  I figured I got a great deal -- seven characters, and all of them X-Men!  Had he been doing X-Men sketches (and he emphatically wasn't) it would have cost me $140 to get an equivalent drawing.

I brought the art home and had it framed.  It has hung on various walls in various homes for the past 28 years.  Even though I lost my interest in the X-Men comic long ago, I still have a strong attachment to my original John Byrne X-Men drawing.  And I'll tell you, it was the best investment of forty dollars I've ever made.

Monday, October 19, 2009

At Half-Price Books . . .

So I'm looking through the graphic novels and comics at Half-Price Books. Lots of stuff I don't want or don't like. Plenty of Marvel and DC compilations, most from the last few years or so.

I see a copy of Swamp Thing volume 1. I have that already. Hmm, volume three of Y The Last Man. Have that, too. There's a copy of Fun Home. Got that last week. Oh, is that a copy of Maus? It looks different from my copy at home. Maybe it's a first edition . . . . Why, it sure is. Hey, it's signed! ("For Brett" but oh well.) And there's a sketch by Art Spiegelman!!

It's mine! (And for only eight bucks!)

I love Half-Price Books.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

BFI's New Star Wars Book

BFI (British Film Institute) has released Star Wars, the latest volume in its "Film Classics" series. Star Wars was announced years ago (2002 to be exact) and when it failed to appear I assumed the title had been canceled. Happily, the book (by Will Brooker) is finally available.

In case you don't know, the BFI books are compact, focused studies (usually around 100 pages) written by film scholars and accomplished critics. These reliable authorities deliver fresh insights into the thematic and aesthetic qualities of particular films and always provide convincing arguments for a film's "classic" status. For cinephiles, a BFI book is the place to go for quick (but substantive) analysis.

I haven't read Star Wars yet, but after a quick perusal it looks good. Here's a sample of what Brooker has to offer: "Star Wars reveals the clash between [George] Lucas's pleasure in the exterior, reflective surfaces of objects, and his enjoyment in taking them apart and customising them; his admiration for raw documentary and his obsession with polished high production values; his nostalgia for classical Hollywood adventure and his interest in abstract formalism." (p. 10)." If you like this kind of film analysis then this is the book for you!

There are a number of great books in the BFI library--studies on Blue Velvet, Blade Runner, Eyes Wide Shut, The Right Stuff (and my favorite, Groundhog Day). I recommend all of them. But there are still many great films that need the BFI treatment: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Magnolia, Apocalypse Now, The Natural and Adaptation (to name but a few). We may never see them but we can hope!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Extemporaneous Comments on the new TV Season

I've been watching TV.

New Shows:

Flashforward (ABC) - Two episodes in and I am intrigued but not enthused. The "flashforward" is a cool concept and there are many story ideas to mine from it. But the show is rather flat and I wonder if it can sustain its premise for very long. We all know there will be another flashforward at some point (season finale?), but, if so, it has to be something different from the last one. How will this show evolve? I can see it becoming stagnant real fast if it isn't willing to take some risks. The producers are clearly influenced by LOST and I hope they look to that show as an example of how to expand a story and keep their concept fresh. I'm staying tuned for now.

Community (NBC) - I heard good reviews and liked the first episode. But the show is trying too hard to be funny and not hard enough to be inviting. Chevy Chase is good and so is lead actor, Joel McHale, but the rest of the supporting cast looks like it could come from any sitcom from the past 30 years. And the storylines seem recycled, too. I'm on the cusp of tuning out.

Modern Family (ABC) - I watched the first episode and laughed a few times but this was another one of those shows that didn't click for me. I guess I'm growing tired of the documentary style sitcom even though I like Parks and Recreation and The Office (see my comments below). This show might be very good over the long haul but I don't have the time to commit right now. Already tuned out.

Bored to Death (HBO) OK, here's a show I like. Bored to Death is about characters. The show takes time to let its characters think and interact. In other words, it's slow. But that's why I like it. Unlike network programs that urgently rush huge casts of characters on- and off-stage in hopes that audiences will see something they like, HBO lets shows like Bored to Death find their own rhythm. Bored to Death features a dopey, likeable Jason Schwartzman whose character is at an age where he is struggling against the responsibilities of adulthood. The grown-up world isn't the one from movies and books. Schwartzman is naive and sweet and he's fun to watch as he tries to maintain these qualities while also being a hard-boiled "private eye." I don't know if Bored to Death will last more than one season, but I'll take what I can get. (In other words, I'm tuned-in for the duration.)

Glee (FOX) - I really shouldn't like Glee. It's contrived and predictable. It features some of the most tired sitcom plotting you're likely to see. (A faked pregnancy? Really?) But I find myself laughing at Jane Lynch who totally nails her competitive, tough-coach persona. And I guess I'm a sucker for musical numbers which can, when done right, add a magical quality to the otherwise mundane. Glee has enough magic to make me overlook its flaws. (For now.) I'm tuned in until I wake up and think straight.

Returning Shows:

The Simpsons (FOX) Still great. And after twenty years! The Simpsons may have lost some of the cleverness and brio of its heyday, but there's still inspired humor on the show. The opening episode featuring "Everyman" was a wonderful example.

Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO) There's lots of hype about the Seinfeld reunion this season, but even before this plot kicked into gear (in the third episode) the show remained unconventional and unpredictable. In short: brilliant.

Parks and Recreation (NBC) Here's a show that's improving with time. The first season (of only six episodes) had some nice moments but seemed scattered. The new season is letting the characters become more grounded. I like the budding romance between Leslie (Amy Poehler) and police officer Dave (Louis C. K.). It shows how the characters on Parks and Recreation (like those on like The Office) are people and not just caricatures. That's what makes it work for me.

The Office (NBC) This is still a wonderful show. Steve Carell deserves recognition for his portrayal of office boss, Michael Scott. Maybe someday he'll get that Emmy. The show is working like a well-oiled machine but I think it's starting to show its age. The Pam/Jim storyline lost its edge a long time ago. Their hindered romance was once the driving force of the show. Without it, there's a narrative vacuum. I keep expecting some new drama to enter the lives of Pam and Jim but they keep moving happily along. (They've both been promoted, they're getting married, they're having a baby. Great! But where's the drama?) And one other thing: It is getting hard to believe that a "documentary" is still being "filmed" at Dunder Mifflin. Will this documentary ever be shown? Or do the producers hope we, the audience, have forgotten the premise of the show? (In the fictional world of the British version of The Office, the documentary we "saw" being shot on the first 12 episodes was supposedly shown. Could this ever happen on the US version?)

Dollhouse (FOX) I always thought this show had much to offer and the second season is living up to the promise of the first. There are many wonderful concepts at play in Dollhouse, among them the ideas of portable and manufactured identities and the importance of memory as a defining aspect of personality. Despite its formulaic plot structure (Mission!/Danger!/Fight!), there is a sophisticated level of storytelling going on here that makes Dollhouse one of the most rewarding science fiction shows in some time. (Though there is one flaw in the Dollhouse scenario that has become almost laughable--the constant failure of the "imprinting technology" which is used to program "actives" for their missions. Said tech fails almost as often as the Enterprise transporters on Star Trek. And just like those glitchy transporters, the buggy tech in Dollhouse is usually the root-cause for drama from episode-to-episode. It is starting to strain credibility that the Dollhouse managers aren't running a full diagnostic review of their unreliable and highly dangerous technology.) Sadly, the ratings for Dollhouse are abysmal. I hope we see the full run of 13 episodes ordered by FOX and that Dollhouse creator, Joss Whedon, plotted this arc with some resolution. I doubt Dollhouse will be on in 2010 and so, for now, I'm watching it like I would a mini-series: I know I have so many episodes and then it's over. I better enjoy it while it lasts.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Comics Reviews

All-Star Superman, Volumes 1 & 2 – Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely

There’s a whole lot to like in All-Star Superman. Writer Grant Morrison essentially distills decades of Superman lore into a 12-part series (collected here in two volumes). The story begins as Superman exposes himself to a lethal dose of solar radiation and soon realizes he has only a short time to live. He decides to tie-up various loose ends in his life: We see a dramatic confession to Lois Lane, a visit to (and from) the Bizarro world, multiple encounters with Lex Luthor, a reminiscence in Smallville, and various other story bits from the Super-universe. Morrison doesn’t cheat with his “Superman is dying story” either; he provides an elegant and moving resolution that is quite effective. There are many great moments in the series—some large and super-heroic, others small and tender—all exquisitely rendered by artist Frank Quitley and colorist/inker Jamie Grant. This is a beautiful comic to read and to look at.
All-Star Superman is a self-contained tale with a satisfying over-all arc. But there is a fractured nature to Morrison’s writing style that can be disorienting. Morrison deliberately elides in his telling—skipping over or leaving out crucial parts of the plot, assuming readers will fill in the blanks. I read All-Star Superman pretty fast and will admit to getting tripped up by the story in a few places. Clearly a closer read (or re-read) is required to get everything out of the book.

All quibbles aside, Morrison has written what is probably the best Superman story ever. And his greatest accomplishment here is that he finds a perfect balance between the alien and human qualities of the character. Let’s face it: Superman’s “super-ness” can, at times, make him distant and affectless. After all, how does one relate to a character who is essentially a god? Through the impending death scenario and elegiac tone to the story, Morrison has found a way. He succeeds at making Superman sympathetic and relevant while still maintaining an alien aspect to the character. (In the end, despite all his trials and sacrifices, we never fully know who or what Superman is.) In All-Star Superman, Grant Morrison restores mystery and possibility to one of the best known characters in comics. That’s no easy feat. In fact, it sounds like job for . . . (well, you get it).

The Walking Dead, Volume 1: “Days Gone By” – Robert Kirkman & Tony Moore

I heard good things about this comic so I thought I’d give it a try. Alas, despite its zombie premise, the story was lacking. Writer Kirkman chooses to focus on his characters and their responses to disaster and tragedy rather than re-visit tired old horror tropes. That’s fine, but if Kirkman’s ambition is to transcend the zombie story he has more work to do. The story, about police officer Rick Grimes and the small band of survivors with whom he joins (after a sudden mass zombie attack) relies on interpersonal conflict and character introspection to fuel the drama. But the plot lacks urgency and Kirkman’s attempt at complex character interaction isn’t enough to make it compelling. As it is, Rick meets his fellow survivors and they discuss whether they should stay near Atlanta or move away to the less dangerous countryside. There’s a lot of talking, much of which is repetitious. A brief trip into the city for guns provides some welcome thrills but, for the most part, the story stalls as the characters spend time getting to know one another. There is personal conflict between Rick and his former partner, Shane, but the “surprise” ending (which was nicely foreshadowed) was too abrupt. I’m sure the consequences of this ending are further explored in Volume 2 of The Walking Dead but it would have been nice to have an epilogue in Volume 1. Though I am ambivalent about this series I do see a lot of promise in The Walking Dead. I’d happily read the next couple of volumes, but I’d need to see a stronger story and more sophisticated characterization to go any further.

Richard Stark’s Parker, Book One: The Hunter – Darwyn Cooke

The eponymous protagonist of Parker: The Hunter is a pretty simple character in a pretty simple story: Parker is a hard and violent man who sets out to track down the men who double-crossed and left him for dead during a heist. But simplicity doesn’t keep Parker from being a magnificent rendering of a good, old-fashioned revenge tale. Darwyn Cooke has chosen to adapt the Parker story from a 1962 pot-boiler by Richard Stark (a pseudonym for Donald Westlake). While Parker may not be sympathetic (he tramples everyone who stands between him and revenge) you still root for him because he is brash, daring, and has the odds stacked against him.

The straightforward tale is predictable, of course, but what makes Parker worthwhile is Cooke’s beautiful art. He manages to convey effortless movement from panel-to-panel with his fluid, cinematic style. His composition is bursting with energy and motion, befitting the nature of his hard-boiled tale. Cooke’s stylized character are, essentially, idealized renderings of 1960’s stereotypes—there’s the angular, chiseled looks of Parker, the curvy allure of Parker’s girls, Lynn and Rose, and the pillowy physique of Parker’s nemesis, mob middle-man Mal Resnick. Illustrated in black, white and grey on thick, creamy paper, Parker is a high-quality hardcover and a sensual delight.

Asterios Polyp – David Mazzucchelli

The real highlight of my recent comic reading is David Mazzucchelli’s Asterios Polyp – a superb and unforgettable work of art in which Mazzucchelli displays complete command of his medium. Asterios Polyp is the name of the main character, a middle-aged architect who has lived a passive, listless life—one that is haunted (psychologically) by the presence of his dead-at-birth twin brother, Ignazio. The story begins when Asterios’ home burns down. Left with nothing but the clothes on his back (and three small, but meaningful possessions) Asterios sets out to start life anew and contemplate the various ghosts of his past. His journey of self-discovery alternates with flash-backs about Asterios’ early years and his relationship with, and eventual marriage to, an artist named Hana.

As the story of Asterios and Hana unfolds, Mazzucchelli tackles big philosophical ideas like the nature of identity and the concept of duality. Asterios’ dead brother, Ignazio (the story’s narrator), informs the heart and soul of the book. Asterios cannot move forward in his life, cannot achieve anything of substance until he resolves his “relationship” with the shadow-presence of Ignazio. Doing so is no easy task. Asterios is haunted by alternatives: What if he, and not Ignazio, had died at birth? Whose life is he really living? Can he share his life with a dead doppelganger? Mazzucchelli explores these exhilarating ideas with aplomb. In fact, there’s such a richness to Asterios Polyp, such a masterful control of the material, that I’m finding it difficult to find adequate words to describe the book.

It is clear that Mazzucchelli is at the top of his form. He has harnessed the power of comic story-telling to merge words and movement and abstract concepts in such a way that no other medium could do his unique ideas justice. And it is a book to return to: Heady with ideas, superbly structured, and so delicately layered—so perfectly executed—it demands multiple readings. Asterios Polyp is a masterpiece and one of the best books I’ve read this year.

(For more about Asterios Polyp, check out Scott McCloud’s review here. The book’s deep themes and layered concepts have inspired some to begin annotating the work. This is really the tip of the iceberg; I expect to see much more writing about Asterios Polyp in the future as there are so many puzzles still to solve. Curiously, I haven’t seen anyone talking about the riddle of Asterios’ last name (which we learn was cut in half by an “exasperated Ellis Island official” when Asterios’ father immigrated to the US). What is his true full name? I’m sure I know. The clues are there in the book. Hint: There’s lots of reference to Greek mythology in the story. Follow that lead.) [Whoops! Spoke too soon! A reviewer on Amazon discusses the full name of Asterios Polyp. More clues there.]

Monday, September 14, 2009

Federer Moment

David Foster Wallace called them Federer Moments:

"These are times, as you watch the young Swiss play, when the jaw drops and eyes protrude and sounds are made that bring spouses in from other rooms to see if you’re O.K."

This happened to me as I watched Roger Federer play in the U.S. Open on Sunday. I've never seen anything like it. Take a look.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Novelization of a Film Not Yet Made

Next week we are going to be inundated with hype surrounding Dan Brown's new book (and follow-up to The Da Vinci Code), The Lost Symbol. This is one of those books that's going to be everywhere: the grocery store, the drug store, Blockbuster Video . . . everywhere. In fact, I suspect copies of The Lost Symbol will be especially prominent in places where you don't usually find books. Why? Because The Lost Symbol is a book written for the casual reader--someone who does not frequent bookstores, who does not read book reviews or magazine articles or any kind of non-fiction. Like The Da Vinci Code, The Lost Symbol will be a beach read, an airplane book.

Now, don't get me wrong. I like easy-to-read books from time-to-time. I find it relaxing to read a fast-moving story with simple characters. And if the book contains some puzzles and brain teasers and a dollop of historical conspiracy theory, even better. I read The Da Vinci Code and enjoyed it for its absurd "secret history" and wild theories. But for all its delights, I grew tired of the book's style. It read like a summer movie, complete with action scenes and silly dialog and contrived plot twists. There was an emptiness about it, like a flimsy set dressed with bright and shiny props.

So when I say you're going to see The Lost Symbol for sale at Blockbuster I really believe it. Like so many other bestsellers, it is written for an audience used to watching movies. It will have arch-villains and fast chases and big explosions--all easy to envision because we've seen these things hundreds of times in every formula thriller ever churned out by the big studio factories. There will be no ambiguity and little nuance. The Lost Symbol is a Hollywood book, a perfect example of how one medium has fully encompassed another.

Books and movies have always fed off of one another, or course. And big name authors from Thomas Harris to Michael Crichton have, in the past, essentially pitched films in the forms of novels. (In fact, Crichton's posthumous pirate novel is already being developed as a film.) But it always seemed that past best-sellers, be they Jaws or The Godfather or even Jurassic Park, were written for readers. Now I get the feeling that the audience for many popular books is viewers--people who want to "read a movie." Many books are certainly written that way (even the early Harry Potter books have a big-budget "CGI" feel to them--especially their finales) and so they end up being flat, forgettable, temporary entertainment.

I'm pretty sure that's what The Lost Symbol is going to be. And, yes, there will be a movie. It probably won't big a big hit. But that won't matter: The Lost Symbol will forever live as a rental movie, waiting for the masses at Blockbuster.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Out of the Dark and Dusted Off: Japanese Twin Peaks Board Game

(I wanted to write a proper entry this week but my schedule has been quite busy. Time for some pictures!)

This week I have pics of a stunning Twin Peaks board game.

Back in the day (the early 90's), the Japanese sure loved Twin Peaks. They produced a couple of nice laserdisc box-sets, some beautiful posters, a slick press book for Fire Walk With Me, and scores of other unique items. They also produced a couple of games based on the series. One was an Uno-like card game and the other was this sprawling board game: "The Game of Twin Peaks." Here's the box, measuring 12" x 19":

This box contains many game elements: plastic and cardboard pieces, two decks of cards, a spinner, and three (!) playing boards. I never did figure out how all this stuff worked together but I'm sure it was a damn fine game! Here is a display of all the various game parts:

This is the "map" playing board (it apparently shows a street grid of the town, overlaying a map of the the larger Twin Peaks territory). At 24" x 19" this thing is huge!

Next up is the character-chart board:

Here's the "rock throw" playing board and "mystery" log cardboard pieces (whatever they are):

A nice shot of the saw-blade spinner (which probably told you how many spaces to move), along with donut playing pieces and a bag containing plastic bottle pieces, pawn pieces and other items:

Here are all the cards laid out. The larger, character-profile and location cards are on the left. The smaller, suspect(?) cards are on the right:

The Cooper profile card:

The suspect cards:

One side of the instructions:

Whew! Some game! I'm thinking it's a cross between Clue, Chutes-and-Ladders and Monopoly! Do you think anyone ever played it?

Note: I had originally planned to post these pictures on the Twin Peaks discussion board at but for whatever reason I never got around to it. If you don't already know, is an indispensible site for Twin Peaks fans. Equally valuable is "Jerry Horne's" superb Twin Peaks archive site. Give that one a look, too!

Monday, August 24, 2009

Notes and Notions

(I used to call this type of post "Bits and Pieces." I like the new name better.)

Let's start with TV. Mad Men has returned for the third season. Set in the tumultuous year of 1963, this season has started slow. The various storylines (both new and old) have a deliberate pace and succeed at setting mood and tone as they slow ratchet the tension. At this rate it may be season's end before all this tension comes to a head. And speaking of tension, one can't really watch the new season without thinking about the world-shaking events that are soon to occur. The question is: When in the season arc will the Kennedy assassination happen? Will the writers wait for the end or place the tragedy in the middle of the story? Which is the best dramatic choice? Personally, I hope they deal with it sooner rather than later. Right now, watching Mad Men is like watching the first act of any Pearl Harbor story. We're just waiting for the bombs to fall.

I realize I've reduced the subtle and complex drama of Mad Men to rather simplistic terms. The show has never been a historical drama. It's a period piece and good one. The characters and setting are rich and the themes of identity and artifice are wholly integrated into the drama. But the atmosphere of the show has always had a fin de siecle quality. A way of life is ending. Big changes are coming. A modern audience can't help but think of 1963 in this way. I'm sure, then, that the writers will work hard to either make us forget the imminent changes about to befall the characters or satisfactorily make those changes part of the drama. Either way I'll be watching.

(One last note about Mad Men. The show has certainly made me less interested in HBO's True Blood, a series that has all the subtlety of a travelling circus. Compared to Mad Men, True Blood is nothing but melodrama and loud, horny characters. Let's face it: Where Mad Men is delicate, True Blood is gaudy; where Mad Men is nuanced, True Blood is coarse. What's more, True Blood has become increasingly superficial; there's just nothing to care about in the show. (Probably because it's not "about" anything.) I watch it now from a distance and with some impatience. Mad Men, however, fully involves me, emotionally and intellectually.)

Books: I recommend Palimpsest by Catherynne M. Valente -- a beautifully written fantasy about a magical city accessed through dreams. This one was wholly captivating. I also liked Positively Fifth Street by James McManus--an exciting, real world look at high stakes poker. Less interesting was World War Z by Max Brooks, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, and The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. All these books have gotten rave reviews and there is much to like in them. But World War Z lacked any narrative drive (you have to really be into zombie fiction to appreciate it); The Magicians featured a highly unlikeable protagonist who failed (in my opinion) to grow up by the end; and The Knife of Never Letting Go was aimed at a young audience and lacked any kind of subtlety (which is OK, really, but the first-person urgency of the narrative became wearing after a while).

Comics: I've read some great illustrated work over the past two months and I'm saving my reviews for a separate post. Look for it soon.

More on David Foster Wallace: We are approaching the first anniversary of Wallace's death. No doubt we'll be hearing more about Wallace's life and his last, unfinished novel (The Pale King) in the weeks to come. Wisconsin Public Radio has already put together a wonderful tribute which can be found here. Go give it a listen. I cannot recommend this program highly enough (the excerpt of Wallace's Kenyon commencement address alone is worth your time).

A few months ago I clumsily attempted to express what Wallace's loss meant to me. Recently, I found the perfect remembrance of Wallace by Sven Birkerts in Agni. I'm ending this post with his words. Where I stumbled, Birkerts dances:

"We are fortified by the work of our writers, by their specific books, but no less important is the sense we have, so long as they are alive, that they are with us, in our midst, engaged, taken up with seeing and thinking and processing--with writing. They make up an important part of the invisible but pervasive and perceptible sum-total that we recognize as our culture. When they die, we feel a terrible diminution, a suction of available energies withdrawn. As if suddenly we all have that much less purchase on reality. The air feels thinner and our gestures of thought feel heavier, more cumbersome, less part of a common purpose."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Overlooked Books

I just got back from a trip to Armadillocon in Austin and I realized I've been heading down for that con (off and on) for over 20 years! Armadillocon has always been a fun little SF convention with an emphasis on books and reading (which is why I like it so much).

I got to thinking about all the great books I've read in the past few decades and decided to put together a list of genre books that have been either overlooked or forgotten over the years. These are books that I consider top-quality science fiction. Most of them are out of print (but can readily be found online or at local used bookstores--I think I've seen most of these titles at my local Half-Price Books within the last year).

I have a few comments about each book but, to be honest, it's been so long since I read some of them that I can't remember a lot of plot specifics. I do know that each of these books was vastly entertaining. I know also that each provided a thorough sense of wonder, either by introducing me to some new concept or by providing such a well-built plot or setting that I couldn't help but react with awe. So, with further ado . . . .

Memoirs of an Invisible Man by H. F. Saint (1987). Forget the movie and check out the best invisibility story ever written. Nick Halloway is made invisible after a science experiment goes wrong. Even though he can't be seen, Nick learns that when the government is after you, it's pretty hard to stay hidden. This one is a real page-turner. I've always wondered why Saint never wrote another book. Was the name H. F. Saint really a pseudonym for another, better-known writer? I mean, the name seems awfully suspicious. (Does anyone else think of H. G. Wells when they see it?) Oh well. H. F. Saint--whoever you are, wherever you are--I love your one and only book.

Terraplane by Jack Womack (1988). This came out after the big "cyberpunk" boom when fans of that subgenre were looking for something new and original. Along comes Womack with a book that featured savvy tech agents from a corporate-dominant future travelling back in time to an alternate past where FDR was assassinated and slavery didn't end until the beginning of the 20th century. Add to that a wonderful jargon that demands a careful reading and you've got the first "post-cyberpunk" cyberpunk novel. Excellent.

Voyage to The Red Planet by Terry Bisson (1990). There's a heck of a lot of good Mars books out there but few critics mention this minor classic from Bisson. The book is a lighthearted look at a corporate sponsored trip to Mars. (Actually Disney has bought NASA and now wants to make a film on Mars. So of course they send cast and crew on location!) The book has great humor but also really good SF. And it has a wonderful ending. This one really belongs next to Robinson, Bear and Benford in the SF Mars library.

Evolution's Darling by Scott Westerfeld (2000). The closest thing to an Iain M. Banks "Culture" book not written by Iain M. Banks! Evolution's Darling is a sweeping space opera about an AI ("Darling," of the title) that gains sentience and becomes involved (in more ways than one) with Mira, an assassin whose job it is to kill an artist who works (possibly illegally) with AI's. Westerfeld has made quite a name for himself as an author of teen and young adult books (the Uglies and Midnighters series) but this book is explicitly "adult" (emphasis on explicit). But it is also a mature book, one that deals deftly with the themes of sentience and identity. This is high-quality SF.

On by Adam Roberts (2001). This is a book that has really stayed with me. The premise of the story is that, once-upon-a-time, gravity on Earth turned sideways. (I know, sounds weird, but Roberts includes a whole appendix that spells out the possible science behind the idea.) Anyway, the flat ground suddenly became a world-size vertical plane. (The book's opening line perfectly establishes this dangerous setting: "On Tighe's eighth birthday one of the family goats fell off the world.") The story echoes the books of Gene Wolfe in that it features a young male protagonist who finds himself on a journey of discovery, soon learning that the world is far more interesting, dangerous, and technological than he ever expected. The book's concept is quite unsettling. What if the world did turn sideways? Friends and family who live but a few miles from you would suddenly become inaccessible (if they even survived the initial disaster). This is one of those books you keep thinking about long after you've finished it.

OK, so that's five books. I see I have ten-year gap in my list. Not to worry, I've got more overlooked books to talk about. But they'll have to wait for another post.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

2009 Hugo Awards

The results for the 2009 Hugo awards can be found here. Here are some comments on a few of the winners:

Best Novel went to The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman. (I guess when you win the Newberry Medal, you better win the Hugo!) I can't offer much comment on the winning novel since I didn't read it or any of the other nominees. (Which is unusual since I typically have read 2-3 of them.) Much has been made of this year's list of mediocre nominees. Again, I can't comment specifically; but I can say that the best genre books of 2008 that I read were: The Dragons of Babel by Michael Swanwick, The Hidden World by Paul Park, Pump Six and Other Stories by Paulo Bacigalupi, Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams, Matter by Iain M. Banks and Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan. Surely one of these books at least deserved nomination! (Tender Morsels has been nominated for World Fantasy Award, though. So good news there.)

Best Short Story went to "Exhalation" by Ted Chiang. The best choice, absolutely. A stunning story.

Best Novelette went to "Shoggoths in Bloom" by Elizabeth Bear. A good story but this award should have gone to “The Gambler” by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Best Novella went to "The Erdmann Nexus", Nancy Kress. I haven't read it. I thought "The Tear” by Ian McDonald would have grabbed this award.

Wall-E won for best dramatic presentation, long form. I think this easily the best choice. The Dark Knight was also nominated. Another classic, yes. The best super-hero film of all time, yes. But Wall-E was superb science fiction. And that's where the Hugo should go.

Dramatic Presentation: Short Form went to Dr Horrible's Singalong Blog by Joss Whedon. A fine choice and an excellent DVD (the audio commentary, alone, is worth it). But I would have given the Hugo to "The Constant" from LOST-- the first great science fiction episode from the series.

Best Professional Artist went to Donato Giancola. Wow, I would have given this to Shaun Tan in a heartbeat.

Best Editor: Short Form went to Ellen Datlow. I would have given the Hugo to Jonathan Strahan for all the great work he did last year. I'll be rooting for him next year.

Best Semiprozine went to Weird Tales. Really? No Locus? Or Interzone? Or how about New York Review of Science Fiction? Hmmm.

So that's it. Not that exciting, really.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Review: The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Vol. 3

I've got to say that I'm pretty pleased with Jonathan Strahan's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 3. At least two-thirds of the book contains excellent short fiction. And the rest of the stories are very good, too. In fact, there are really only one or two entries that might qualify as clunkers. That's an amazing percentage, one you don't often see in "Best of the Year" anthologies.

I usually pick up Gardner Dozois' hefty Year's Best Science Fiction and dutifully make my way through it. In the end I'm amazed at how many stories strike me as mediocre. I always think, "If Dozois eliminated half the stories in the collection he'd really have the 'best of the year.'" Sure, the book would be smaller, but it would also be stronger. As it is, the mediocre (and downright bad) stories detract from the good ones.

Strahan gets it, though. And he's hit upon a great formula. Combine the year's best Science Fiction stories with the best Fantasy stories. Put it all under one cover you get a doubly strong book.

I think fans of good writing appreciate the rewards of both Fantasy and Science Fiction, especially as the line between the genres has been blurring of late. The effects of both SF and Fantasy are the same: a sense of wonder, the thrill of fully-realized worlds, the insightful perspectives on our own, everyday life. It really doesn't matter if a story fits some rigid genre definition as long as it's told well and has fully realized characters.

So Strahan's latest anthology is a good--no, a great--one. I won't review every single story here (I'm satisfied with commenting on the book as a whole). But I will point out a few stories that I think are particularly good: The best story in the book is "Exhalation" by Ted Chiang, a story of impending environmental doom in a closed universe. It is wonderfully written, from its science-fictional "problem-solving" approach, to its moving contemplation on the meaning of life. Bravo! Other outstanding stories include: “The Dust Assassin” by Ian McDonald, “The Gambler” by Paulo Bacigalupi, “Machine Maid” by Margo Lanagan, and “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss" by Kij Johnson. But there are so many other good stories here, including contributions by Robert Reed, Ted Kosmatka, Peter S. Beagle, Garth Nix, Michael Swanwick, John Kessel, and Kelly Link. (And, really, I could go on and list just about every author included but I'll stop here and let you to look at the table of contents for yourself.) This is very strong book.

Whether your taste tends toward one genre or the other you will find plenty to satisfy in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 3. And if you're a genre purist and only want to read SF or Fantasy (but not both), well, I still doubt you'll find a better collection anywhere else. Plus, who knows? You might discover good stories aren't limited to only one genre. Go ahead! Get the book and then select something different from the menu! You'll thank me later.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Out of the Dark and Dusted Off: Codex Seraphinianus

I've collected lots of stuff over the years. Books, comics, toys, movie memorabilia . . . stuff. Much of it is buried in boxes, deep inside dark closets. Most of it I see only when I stumble across it by accident.

So what's the point of having all this stuff? I like to look at it, sure. But I also like to share it.

Used to be, you shared your cool stuff with friends when they dropped by to visit. You'd say, "Hey, look at this amazing thing!" Or, "Do you remember this?" And you'd pull a book off a shelf or a toy out of a box and let your conversation cascade into nostalgia and shared passions.

So time to do some sharing. I think I'll pull a few things off the shelves and out of the boxes and show them to you.

Today I've got one of the most fascinating books I've ever seen. It's called the Codex Seraphinianus by Italian artist Luigi Serafini and it is really hard to describe with just words. You have to see it to appreciate it. Yes, it's an art book; but it is so much more. It appears to be an encyclopedia from an alien/alternate world, a book--an artifact--that landed on earth through some transdimensional rift. It seems complete, hermetic, and yet it teases with glimpses into something vast and strange and taunts with the promise of decipherability. The jacket copy on the Abbeville Press edition describes it as: "the accumulated wisdom of an imaginary, parallel world that is at once bizarre and at the same time strangely familiar and recognizable." I like to think of it as the kind of book Dr. Seuss would write if he lived in China Mieville's New Crobuzon.

Whatever. It's weird, compelling and unforgettable.

Here are some interior pages:

(These pictures really don't do the book justice--check out the links below for great images from the book and pictures of its various covers.)

You can find out more about this strange book on its Wikipedia page.

Also, check out this great article from The Believer Magazine.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Beautiful Dark: Chapters 9-12

I'm ending my review of Greg Olson's Beautiful Dark the way I began, by reviewing four chapters at once. Nice symmetry that.

To be honest I felt I was becoming a bit dependent on Olson's work to provide content for my blog. And I was afraid of becoming repetitive (if you've read my earlier reviews of Olson, you sort of know what to expect). So it's time to finish it up.

Here's a brief summary of the last four chapters:


Olson begins with a look at the long five years between Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway. He discusses Lynch's often overlooked television work on On The Air and Hotel Room. And he digs deeper to talk about a few rare Lynch projects—the four Twin Peaks-themed Georgia Coffee commercials which aired in Japan, the Log Lady introductions Lynch shot for the Bravo TV re-airing of Twin Peaks, Lynch's superb book of photography, Images, and the short film, Premonitions Following and Evil Deed (which Lynch shot for Lumiere and Company, a compilation of short films by famous directors using the original hand-cranked film camera of film pioneers, Auguste and Louis Lumiere). These projects deserve discussion and Olson makes sure to give each project its due.

Olson moves on to an excellent, albeit too-short, analysis of Lost Highway. Olson's take is straightforward: Fred Madison, in despair over killing his wife and being sentenced to death, creates the imaginary persona of Pete Dayton in order to escape from his (Fred's) real world hell. Olson does a great job of taking the seemingly perplexing and contradictory Lost Highway, with its multiple personas and interlocking worlds, and clarifying it into one simple tale about a man whose fractured mind cannot provide enough escape from his torment. "The reading of Lost Highway that answers most of its mysteries locates the film's base reality with Fred lying on his prison bed, living in mental worlds of desire and anger, love and revenge" (p. 450). The idea of escape into a mental world is a concept that has always been a feature of Lynch's work. One finds the idea as early as Eraserhead and as late as Mulholland Drive. (I also believe that the idea of mental landscapes—or living inside dreams—is the key aspect of the first thirty minutes of Fire Walk With Me.) In Lost Highway, Lynch explores the mental escape (or retreat) of his main character and how such escape is temporary at best. You can't trick your own mind for very long. Olson's keen analysis provides satisfying answers to the many puzzles of Lost Highway.


Olson's discussion of The Straight Story focuses on Lynch's interest in family and small-town values (Olson notes that these ideas have been present in other Lynch works, but often overlooked or misunderstood by critics). He discusses much of the film's story and well-drawn characters but rarely ventures into any deeper analysis, content to let the surface narrative of The Straight Story stand for itself. This is a fair and fine reading of the film. But I suspect that there may be much more to The Straight Story for the diligent analyst to uncover. I've always been fascinated with Lynch's aerial shots in the film (particularly the one which shows Alvin Straight crossing the Mississippi River); they imply a watching, perhaps angelic, presence. There is also the prevalent theme of death in the film (one could argue that Alvin dies in the first few minutes of the film; the rest of his story is a post-death journey in search of his brother "in heaven"). I'm very interested in Alvin as an unreliable narrator (he claims to have given up drinking but orders a single beer late in the film). And I'm most interested in Alvin's encounter with the kindly farmer on the big tractor who guides Alvin to Lyle's home at the end of the film. This farmer (seen only in a long shot) acts almost like a supernatural being whose presence somehow reignites Alvin's stalled tractor (hence, the farmer potentially functions as another "angelic presence"). I find The Straight Story a fascinating and rich film and was perhaps unfairly expecting more from Olson. I accept that not every film requires a deep reading but because Olson succeeded so well at unwrapping Lost Highway I thought he might apply similar analytical focus to The Straight Story.


There is just so much to say about Mulholland Drive. Perhaps this is why (rightly) Olson devotes a large portion of his book to discuss the film. Mulholland Drive has plenty to offer—superb performances, a complex and challenging narrative, rich and unsettling thematic content, and valuable commentary on the nature of Hollywood filmmaking. But on top of all this, Mulholland Drive also has a long and startling production history. Originally created by Lynch as a pilot for a weekly hour-long drama for ABC television, Mulholland Drive was rejected by the network and left abandoned for over a year before Lynch found the funding to continue filming and turn the TV pilot into a stand-alone theatrical film.

Olson bravely discusses the 88-minute TV pilot as he compares it to the final theatrical version. (I say bravely because David Lynch was furious that copies of the pilot were illegally produced and covertly distributed to anyone curious enough to obtain one.) But Olson forgets (or is unaware) that there were two versions of the TV pilot, the short version (at 88-minutes) and the long version (at 125 minutes). Lynch has called the short pilot the "butchered version" for it was a cut he was forced to make in order to appease executives at ABC television: "I whacked away to make this fat man fit in a real little phone booth, trying to answer their concerns about pace," Lynch told reporter Tad Friend ("Creative Differences," The New Yorker, 9/6/99, p. 67.)

It is the long version, with minor edits, that Lynch expanded to make the theatrical cut of Mulholland Drive. When Olson compares the short pilot with the film "to see how Lynch solved the creative problem of melding the year-and-a-half old pilot with the news scenes," (p 524) he is looking at what Lynch called "a garbage compactor thing . . . a nightmare." (Lynch On Lynch, revised edition, p. 280) Lynch's short version was never intended as a final product and was certainly not the version he "extended from pilot to feature." There is little value, then, in comparing the two; but Olson does so anyway. This seems like a significant misstep. Surely Olson must have known that the 88-minute pilot was produced under protest and never reflected Lynch's true vision. What could be learned from comparing it to the theatrical cut? Doing so provides little or no insight into Lynch's creative process. Olson's readers would have been better served had he compared the full pilot with the theatrical version. There, at least, we would have seen how Lynch took his complete, but open-ended, pilot and found ways to close the narrative into a satisfactory whole.

Despite this blunder, Olson provides an in-depth, thorough analysis of the Mulholland Drive feature. He expertly unpacks the various narratives of Betty, Rita and Adam Kesher, and clearly and precisely explains how these storylines are, in fact, strands of a single dream being experienced by despairing actress Diane Selwyn. "The narrative seems to be happening to a number of people, but . . . is actually the interior psychodrama of the Naomi Watts character's consciousness." (p. 527). Olson is clearly a great admirer of the film and he provides thought-provoking analysis. For example, he gives compelling evidence that the film's "narrator" is, in fact, the dead Diane. Despite my criticisms, this is still a highly rewarding chapter.


The last chapter of Beautiful Dark is a long and mixed one. Olson spends a great number of pages discussing various works that may have influenced David Lynch. He also includes a curious interview with Julee Cruise in which she recounts her artistic conflicts with Lynch. Cruise's remarks are sometimes bitter and read like gossip. Why did Olson include these comments so late in the book? Did he see a need to balance his glowing praise of Lynch with some differing views? If so, Cruise's opinions don't add much to our understanding of Lynch's collaborative processes and function as surrogate criticism. Olson moves on to discuss Lynch's online work at and the chapter drags as he provides tedious descriptions of Lynch's visit to France (did we really need to read a transcript of Lynch and Mary Sweeney conversing in French?). It is not until the last few pages that Olson provides a brief review of INLAND EMPIRE. Though short, what Olson gives us is quite good. He suggests (and I am liberally paraphrasing here) that Laura Dern's "Battered Woman" character has fractured into various selves who seek to be reunited. What's more, there is a "reincarnation-karmic justice" (p. 673) element to the film. All of this analysis is teasingly brief but Olson has opened some interesting interpretive possibilities. One hopes that he will soon return to writing about INLAND EMPIRE to flesh out his ideas.

As I've mentioned many times, Beautiful Dark is a significant and rewarding book and I think Greg Olson has done a magnificent job analyzing and interpreting David Lynch's many unique works. No Lynch library should be without it. But Greg Olson's esteem for Lynch may have occasionally handicapped him. Yes, I agree that David Lynch is a great director; perhaps one of the greatest in the history of film. But if one is going to explore the personal life of David Lynch one must be as objective as possible. For example, recently Lynch has been quite open about his view of Transcendental Meditation. Arguably, his public endorsement of the ideology invites debate. But here Olson seems hesitant to engage. (To be fair, Olson asks Lynch some pointed questions about his New Age worldview but never pursues these inquiries directly with Lynch or in his analysis of the man and his work.) This, and the fact that Olson never penetrates Lynch's emotional core to discover his views on love, marriage, and other life issues makes the biographical aspect of Beautiful Dark wanting. (Too often, Olson relies on the opinions of others—Isabella Rosselini, Mary Sweeney, Jennifer Lynch, etc., to round out his emotional profile of Lynch.)

Reading Beautiful Dark made me wonder about the ways we view artists and their work. Art inspires, provokes, and stimulates our minds. It can pump us up, make us want to share our passions with anyone who will listen. But should that passion extend to the artist? Can we—or should we—separate the work from the creator? And if their works have moved us—shaped our lives and careers—can we ever view the artist with objectivity?

I don't claim to have answers to these questions. But I do know that Greg Olson has written a passionate book about David Lynch's films. I also know that he has written with passion about David Lynch, the man. In the end he seems to have gotten half of it exactly right. As good as Beautiful Dark is, I feel I it gave me more insight about the art than it did about the artist.