Sunday, June 28, 2009

More books I've read in 2009

Despite what my sister the literary snob will tell you I do still read and enjoy books. I just haven't had a s much time to read since I changed jobs. (I used to do most of my reading at work, on company time.) And now I have even less reading time since I've started working out during the free time I have.
But I do still read and here are a few books I've finished recently.
ICON: A HEROES WELCOME Back in the early 90's Milestone became the first all-black comics publisher. I liked some of their stuff -- like Static -- but I loved Icon. He had a lot in common with Superman, I guess, he was from another planet and all. But he was also a shapeshifter and when he landed on earth in the 1840's to a family of slaves, he altered his appearance to look like his adoptive parents. Now he's a wealthy lawyer. A poor girl named Raquel convinces him he needs to use his powers to help people -- and also take her on as his sidekick, which he does. Thus was born Icon and Rocket. I remember trying to convince people to give these comics a try back on those early internet forums and people always assumed I was black cuz I read these comics, despite the fact that I've been caucasian all my life. I just love great comics.
I wanted to see if Icon was as great as I remembered, and I'm happy to report it holds up very well. As usual my favorite part of the series is not about the superheroics but about the relationship between the characters, specifically Icon and Rocket, and how they help each other grow. Icon gets her to see how much growing up she has to do and she shows him that his conservative views about the world are not how things are in her reality. Dwayne McDuffie is one of the best writers in comics today and I'll pick up anything he writes. Even this early in his career he was a master at getting you to empathize with and relate to his characters. This is the page right after Raquel tells her boyfriend -- the inaptly named Noble --- that she's pregnant, and he says "How do you know it's mine?"
I read Dai Sijie's "Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress" a couple years ago and loved it. It was such a powerful look at how important books are, and why people willingly risk their lives and their freedom to read them. It was also a love story with an unexpected twist.
I had high hopes for this one by the same author but I only liked it. A Freud-obsessed young Chinese man who has been living in Paris returns to China to try to get the girl he's a had a crush on since college out of jail. Her name is -- no kidding -- Volcano of the Old Moon, and she got in trouble for selling a photograph to a western media outlet. A bribe to the judge doesn't work -- he wants a virgin, and Muo sets out to find one, but there aren't many and he travels around interpreting dreams to finance his search. This was a satire on Chinese justice (if you can call it that) and since I don't know much about China and I found the main character hard to relate to, I didn't love this book.

I always have high hopes for a new Russell Hoban book, even though "Linger Awhile" didn't do much for me. Neither did "My Tango With Barbara Strozzi". A woman with some major issues -- most pressing an abusive ex-boyfriend -- tries to begin a relationship with a writer, but she keeps breaking up with him to return to her creepy old art professor, and even though the two are together again at the end, I have no reason to believe that they will be for long. As usual, plenty of great asides about art, literature and music make this book worthwhile even though the narrative is a disappointment.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Bare feet and black oaks

Everything reminds me of something else.

I wanted to write about my first concert, Black Oak Arkansas at Charleston County Hall in the Summer of '72. Then I remembered that it wasn't actually my first concert, that distinction belongs to B.J. Thomas, whom I saw with my Dad at a high school auditorium in Wilmington, North Carolina. I don't remember much about it, other than being shocked at one point when Thomas took off his jacket and said "All right, time to raise a little hell."

So, thinking about the first concert I went to sans parent got me to thinking about WCSC radio and their brief trip underground. Back in those days of course there was no FM -- much less XM or Sirius -- your choice was between staticky Top 40 and staticky country and western. WCSC was a top 40 station, never as popular as the other top 40 station WTMA. And for a while in an attempt to lure listeners they did what they called "going underground". When the sun went down, they put away the Osmonds and Jackson 5 records and started playing Led Zeppelin and Uriah Heep. Still staticky of course. I think I may have been the only person in Charleston who listened to this underground AM station, and I say that because before the Black Oak Arkansas concert they gave away a BOA picture -- no free tickets, no other cool swag, just a picture. All you had to do was answer the question "How many guys are in the band Black Oak Arkansas?" I had seen a picture of them somewhere and I ran to the phone, called, got through and said, "Six."
And the DJ said, "That's the correct answer, but it's not the answer I'm looking for." So I hung up, sat down and tried to figure out how the hell that was possible. It took me a couple minutes but I eventually remembered that earlier the DJ had said something on the air about there being "twice as many as a trio" in the band in question. So I called back, got through (probably woke the guy up) and said "Twice as many as a trio." And he said, "You win."
(Maybe the reason I was the only person who listened to this station was because they made you jump through hoops to win a crappy unframed picture.)

Anyway, that was not the only piece of BOA memorabilia I owned. I read in either Circus or Creem magazine that if you wrote to the Oaks they would send you the deed to one square inch of land in Arkansas, which I of course did. And that was when I learned that being a landowner did not impress the ninth-grade ladies.

So, I went to see Black Oak Arkansas at County Hall, which led to a fight with my father cuz I wanted to go barefoot like my friends Bruce and Buddy; he wanted me to wear shoes. He drove us to the show and I had a great idea. He was going to pick us up too by which time it would be too dark to see my feet, so I shoved my shoes up under the back seat intending to retrive them on the ride home and be properly shod by the time we crossed our threshold.

How was the show? Eye-opening. In my neck of the woods, over the ear was still considered long hair. These guys had long-flowing manes that they swung around like nothing I'd ever seen before. They also played things I'd never thought of as musical instruments -- like washboards.

Tom Waits's voice has been described as sounding like "(H)ow you'd sound if you drank a quart of bourbon, smoked a pack of cigarettes and swallowed a pack of razor blades. . . . Late at night. After not sleeping for three days." And if you screamed at the top of your lungs with a voice like that you'd sound like Jim Mangrum, BOA's lead singer. I honestly don't know if I liked the concert or not. But I do think now that these guys don't get near the credit they deserve. They basically invented southern rock and paved the way for Skynyrd and everybody else. (Don't even talk about Gram Parsons or Poco or the Eagles that's not southern rock; that's Southern California rock.)

And of course my Dad was a lot smarter than I gave him credit for. I should have wornm shoes cuz I stepped on a lit cigarette and blistered my foot. Then when I got back in the and reached up under the seat my shoes were gone. He'd taken them out of course. My punishment -- besides the burnt foot -- was that I was not allowed to go to the next concert which just happened to be the greatest concert ever in Charleston. I'll tell you about that some other time.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Cleaning out my cell phone camera

Here's something I'd never seen before today -- a man steam cleaning a telephone pole:

Whenever my co-worker Dallas has to work and I don't I love to torment him by sending him pictures of me drinking beer at the beach.

He's off next week but no chance of retaliation. He's not smart enough to take a picture with his camera, much less send it to me.

As I've mentioned before it has somehow become a tradition at family gatherings to take a picture of me with my niece Emily even if no other pictures are taken. This is from lunch on Tuesday, with Emily, my mom and my sister.

My sister spent the whole lunch taunting me for not reading much lately, but when I saw this picture and said I looked like Poopdeck Pappy, she did not know who he was. Now what literate person in America does not recognize Popeye's father?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Quote from today's NY Times

"These people are not seeking a revolution. We don’t want this regime to fall. We want our votes to be counted, because we want reforms, we want kindness, we want friendship with the world."
ALI REZA, a young actor who watched a long river of protesters march silently in Tehran.

I know how you feel, Ali. That's how I felt all during the Bush years.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Imagine all the possibilities

One of my fondest memories of ancient Sunday mornings was walking home from church -- that was the deal I negotiated with my parents: I didn't have to go to Sunday school, but I would have to find my own ride or walk home --- just in time to watch "Make a Wish" a trippy wordplay-filled mental exercise disguised as a kid's TV show hosted by Harry Chapin's brother Tom. I love to wallow in nostalgia but I've had a hard time finding any "Make a Wish" video. I would totally buy the nonexistent DVD set. Here's enough to give you a taste of what this show was like.
Did you ever wish you were a bull? Think of it. Imagine all the possibilities and make a wish:

Art (Continued)

Now we've actually come to the end of the art section of my book collection and you would think that we'd be venturing into autobiography, but we're not -- not yet anyway; there's still a lot of art books left to look at. Howzat? Well, I actually have four book collections -- I have my regular books, I have autographed books, I have almost an entire bookcase of unread books, and I have books that won't fit on any of my shelves except this one (picture missing cuz Kim took the camera to Florida)

my topless bookshelf and that's where I keep the -- what else?-- oversized collection.
So let's look first at autographed art books.In my day , kids usually start off reading DC comics -- Superman, Batman, Flash, those guys -- and then when they got a little older they graduated to the more mature (or at least somewhat less hokey) Marvel comics group -- Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Silver Surfer, those guys. Of course I did it just the opposite. I started out reading Marvel and I read very little other than Marvel until I became an adult and started discovering how much I had missed by turning my nose up at DC Comics. One of the things I missed was the art of Nick Cardy, who is probably most famous for his work on Aquaman and Teen Titans (his Wonder Girl was so sexy it's amazing she made it past the Comics Code Authority). And actually now that I think about it, I didn't really miss out on all of Mr. Cardy. Some of those early 70's DC covers were so compelling and so beautiful I just had to buy them and hope Stan Lee didn't see me doing so. And those covers were all by Nick Cardy -- well, Nick Cardy or Neal Adams, damn, maybe I liked DC more than I thought. Covers like these:

This book has lots of Cardy's comic art, but also movie posters and book covers and some fine art too. He's a talented artist -- and a nice guy, too. He signed my book for me at the 2002 Heroes Convention in Charlotte.

I've been winnowing down my comic book collection lately. Most of the stuff I'm keeping is because of the creators -- writer or artists and sometimes (though rarely) a great writer-artist team. There are very few characters that I'll keep no matter what. Mike Allred's Madman is probably at the top of the list, Baron and Rude's Nexus is way up there and so is Paul Chadwick's Concrete. Concrete is the most intelligent, thoughtful, philosophical comic I've ever read. Former speech writer Ron Lithgow is imprisoned in concrete as part of an alien experiment, but the stories are about his interactions with people, especially with his assistant Larry and Maureen Vonnegut who was assigned to study him and with whom Lithgow is in love. Mister Chadwick is not prolific, but when he puts out a new Concrete book it's always worth waiting for. The last one "The Human Dilemma" really took me by surprise and I can't wait to see what happens next --- although I'll have to since as I said he's not prolific. I've never met Mister Chadwick though I hope to meet him someday. I bought this book directly from him by mail.

More soon.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

More books I've read in 2009

For a while when I was trying to figure out how to get published in Fantasy and Science Fiction I used to review every story in every issue. Here is my review of a Paul DiFilippo story from the February 2000 issue:
Stink Lines by Paul DiFilippo. A wonderful tribute to the good duck artist. An inventor named Gyro Gearloose creates a fog that makes word balloons, speed lines – and less popularly – readable thought balloons. A living comic book. It’s supposed to be confined to the Barksian amusement park Duckburg but is loosed upon the outside world. Gearloose – with help from his assistant L’il Bulb – eventually figures out a way to solve the problem while creating a much bigger one. A love story – all this was to impress a girl named Ginger Barks – that is laugh-out loud funny. A+
And most other stories I've read by Filippo got similar raves. So why was I reluctant to read Top Ten: Beyond the Farthest Precinct? Because I just don't believe there's anybody who can fill Alan Moore's shoes. So I had to wait a suitable length of time till I could be sure I was judging it on its own strengths and weaknesses and not comparing it (much) to Moore. DiFilippo's Top Ten is more lighthearted than . . . uh, that other guy's. The plot is incomprehensible --- something about robots gaining access to some cosmic time-stream mcGuffin, but the fun is in picking out background characters -- everybody from Snoopy to Tintin to Wonder Woman shows up in Neopolis. As it turned out I had no problem with the writer. DiFilippo was a worthy successor to what's his name, but I did have an unexpected problem with the art. Jerry Ordway's workmanlike art was just no match for the memory of Gene Ha and Zander Cannon.As you may recalll, I didn't love Tom Robbins's new book "B is For Beer" but I loved it enough to want to read more Robbins. So I picked this one up. I swear I think when Tom Robbins decides it's time to write a book he just sits down and starts talking to himself with a keyboard about whatever it is that's on his mind -- in this case what was on his mind was tanukis, tightrope walkers, soldiers missing in action -- and of course sex and religion. And that's a good thing, cuz it is always a joy to follow Robbins's mind as it meanders.

Monday, June 01, 2009

More Art books

Theodore Geisel had a long career writing and illustrating for humor magazines in the 20's and 30's long before he became Dr. Seuss. This collection of pieces is fascinating to me cuz it's interested to see how the good doctor's ideas developed over time. (For example, that animal pulling the plow -- sorry, plough -- on the cover looks a whole lot like the title character in my favorite Seussian epic "Horton Hatches The Egg". ) There are essays here, educational charts, tons of cartoons. Not all of it is polished or politically correct, but all of it is interesting -- and still funny after all these years.
Not many people can say they invented a genre -- Siegel and Shuster, Jimmie Rodgers are all I can think of offhand. Oh, and Reed Waller, whose groundbreaking "Omaha the Cat Dancer" introduced the world to a soap opera with hardcore sex and all the characters are members of the animal kingdom. A bunch of books sprung up to imitate this original. I believe the genre is called "Furries" but I've never been interested in any of the copycats. The original is amazing though. (And there will be more about Omaha when we get to the graphic novel section.)

BTW, one reason I've undertaken this project is to straemline my collection some. I'm taking them all off the shelves and revisiting each and every one of them. Some of them I realize have served their purpose here and can go live somewhere else for a while. Such was the case with the book "How to Draw Caricatures."
Caricaturing is one of many things I'm interested in, but this book doesn't hold much appeal to me, as I don't like the artist's style very much. So I let it go.

BTW, this should be the end of the art section but it's not. I'll explain why next time.