Tuesday, December 27, 2016

RIP Carrie Fisher

Dammit. 2016 has been an absurdly bad year for personal heroes and icons of mine and nearly everyone I know. This time though, the death of Carrie Fisher at only 60 years old is particularly hard to process.

I loved her. I mean it, as a small child I loved her and even today I do because of what she meant to me then. It's a love like the kind you share for an old friend, someone who inspired you through all of the turmoil life threw at you.

Her quick and razor-sharp wit influenced my own acerbic and self-deprecating nature.

Carrie Fisher practically started it all for me. Star Wars has been a part of my life since almost my first memories. She was the first badass woman I can remember seeing in film or anywhere outside my own house. My mom is very much like Carrie: funny, fierce, and fiery.

I found out later that Carrie had bipolar disorder. Her writing and interviews were always entertaining and honest. She was open about all of her struggles and I always found her inspiring for that.

This one really hurts.

RIP Carrie, and may the Force be with you always.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Give all the toys to the little rich boys

In the spirit of the season, let's blast the Kinks' "Father Christmas." That's an annual tradition in our house, so why not do it here too.

Happy holidays to all of you little elves and Krampuses.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

It Came From the '90s: Against the '70s

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

"The kids of today should defend themselves against the '70s."

Fewer lyrics better encapsulate growing up in the '90s than those in Mike Watt's "Against the '70s" (shrewdly sung by Eddie Vedder). We teens and young adults of the decade were often subconsciously measuring ourselves against the mustard-yellow, shag-carpeted "Me Decade." We expended an awful lot of energy raging against and fetishizing the 1970s.

The '70s provided several underpinnings of the '90s, including of course the notion of authenticity. In the '90s it was enormously important that we be, above all else, authentic. As authentic as Bowie or Springsteen or Scorsese were in their '70s work that we idolized. We were utterly obsessive about not selling out, about keeping it real. Maybe it's because so many Gen Xers were born in the '70s that we looked to that decade to make sense of our own.

What we and our Gen X heroes of the '90s found in the '70s were like-minded spirits whose art imparted on us that, yes, we could make something out of this mess we called life. We collected influences from the decade that birthed us—Hunter Thompson, Debbie Harry, Jim Carroll, Marvin Gaye—because they brought us back to our roots. When you're born into such a politically and culturally tumultuous, yet also creatively fruitful decade—the gas shortage, the hostage crisis, Watergate, Andy Kaufman, punk rock, Vietnam, Death Wish, the birth of hip hop, Summer of Sam—you can't help but be branded by it all. We '90s kids were our influences.

While we reveled in '70s nostalgia, we also challenged it in order to cut our own paths. When we heard Vedder sing, "It's not reality, just someone else's sentimentality, it won't work for you" in "Against the '70s," we nodded in agreement: the Boomer ethos sure as hell wasn't going to work for us, not by a mile. We were looking for more, or less, or maybe something in between. We'd know it when we found it, just check back with us later.

Today when we see the video for Smashing Pumpkins' "1979" we're nostalgic for both our '70s zipper blues and our '90s loser spirit because the two share a lot in common. Along with other '90s work like Dazed and Confused and The Ice Storm (both the book and film), "1979" uncannily captures a certain type of growing up that many (but certainly nowhere near all) of us experienced from the '70s through the '90s. Restless, in the land of a thousand guilts in post-'60s America, we meandered aimlessly through suburbs and cities, "forgotten and absorbed into the earth below."

We were born of the wood-paneled basements and burgeoning mall culture of the 1970s. Those years were just another part of our DNA. In the '90s we became more aware of our past and we held those memories closer—some recalled from our own experiences and others we couldn't possibly remember but had absorbed through popular culture. The '70s'  influence on the '90s showed us a way through adolescence and young adulthood. It also gave us something to push back against. We positioned ourselves both with and against the '70s in order to discover who we were and what we might become.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Barely Making a Dent: More December 2016 Books

In which our narrator tries to read his way through the endless stacks of books that are slowly overtaking both his bookshelves and his life.

Currently reading

I'm still reading China Mieville's Kraken, and slowly I might add. It's a lot of fun, filled with as much crazy sci-fi/fantasy fun as Mieville can pack into each page. But its that density of information and jargon that's slowing me down. Plus it's December and we're rushing towards the holidays so I'm busier. Finding time to read before I pass out each night is tough right now.

Recently read

I did polish off Ed Brubaker's most recent (and possibly final?) trade paperback collecting the last five issues of his terrific 1970s spy/thriller series Velvet. This one's been a personal favorite of mine for the last year or two and I'm sad to see it end. But is it actually ending? I suppose I could Google to find out but I think it might just be going on hiatus until Brubaker has time to return to it. So the story wraps up, for the most part, but certainly leaves us wanting more. Brubaker has become a modern master of crime and noir fiction, and with Velvet Templeton he's given us one of the most kick-ass, competent, intelligent, sexy, and fun female characters in fiction over the last few years. That she's a woman in her forties only makes her more unique in our current popular culture, where woman over forty aren't usually the stars of books or films or television series. They're usually only given the mom roles.
Stacy London: stylist extraordinaire. Or is she actually...

...super-spy Velvet Templeton? You decide.
I have to mention the art, too. Brubaker's frequent collaborator Steve Epting turns in the best work I've seen from him yet. He's one of the few artists working in comics who understands that a photo-realistic style doesn't have to equal stiff and dull. There's a dynamism to his work, even when Velvet's just standing still lighting a cigarette (and that happens often because she smokes like a chimney in this book). Like a lot of books Image publishes, Velvet seems like a no-brainer for television adaptation. I'm not sure if style guru Stacy London can act, but she could certainly pull of the 1970s fashion. I mean, she has to be the inspiration for Epting's character design, right? Or maybe I've watched far too many episodes of What Not to Wear.

Recently and not-so-recently acquired

Michael Chabon's 1999 short-story collection Werewolves in Their Youth has long been a hole in my personal Chabon collection. Maybe the only hole. The only other book of his I don't own at this point is Gentlemen of the Road, but I did read that one years ago. Still, I need to get a copy for the shelf, and also reread it. Completist tendencies are real, people. Werewolves was released the year before I discovered Chabon through The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but it didn't hit my radar for a few more years. I picked up a copy this week and might do a Chabon binge soon with his new novel Moonglow followed by Werewolves. I've always found his short fiction and essays just as insightful and entertaining as his novels, so I have no doubt I'll eat this one up too.
The lunatic acid-trip that is Fletcher Hanks' Golden Age comics.
Turn Loose Our Death Rays and Kill Them All! Have you ever seen a title more magnificent than that? I doubt you have. This is a mammoth book collecting all of eccentric cartoonist Fletcher Hanks' work in comic books from 1939–1941. I'm tearing through my PDF review copy (thanks, Fantagraphics!) and it's some seriously weird fiction. I'll be reviewing it for Sequart soon.

I've had Colson Whitehead's National Book Award for Fiction winning The Underground Railroad in my reading pile for months now but haven't found the time for it. I've read so much praise for it that I really want to devote time to it when I'm not as distracted (so, that would be never, right?). Maybe I'll tackle it after my Chabon-athon.

As noted in a previous post here, Stephen King's outrageously long door-stopper of a book It is also in my pile. The book is so big I think I can only read it at home. To transport it around in my messenger bag would likely cause me some serious bodily harm. I can't wait to read it but I have no idea when I will start reading it.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

It Came From the '90s

I really think I knew the girl in the blue-striped leggings.
If you've been paying attention around here then you know I'm one of those misanthropic Gen Xers, a 1990s kid raised on a combination of irony and sincerity. I spent most of the decade in school (high school and college). I listened to a lot of grunge and punk rock. I wore flannels and corduroy paints from thrift stores that were at least one and often two sizes too big because that's just what you did. I worked odd jobs in retail during those school years and went through a series of dating misfires. I spent a summer as a cater waiter that wound up being the most cinematic of my life. I met and began dating my wife during the decade.

The links in the previous paragraph prove I've written about my time in the '90s a lot around here. I wasn't intending to do that when I started the blog. It's turned out to be a fruitful period to excavate for my writing though, so I keep finding myself drawn back to it. This is likely out of some attempt to make sense of it. If I can better understand who I was then, maybe it'll help me figure out who I am now.

Consider this then the short introduction to a series I'm calling "It Came From the '90s." It's going to be a broad feature, with topics ranging from any and everything from that decade that I want to write about. One post might be thoughts on a movie from the decade, another about how I felt during a moment in time, or maybe an observation on a cultural or societal touchstone that left a giant impact on all of us back then. The narrative mode might flip between first-, second-, or third-person depending on the topic. The essays will be both micro and macro, but whether I'm writing about something that actually happened to me or something that occurred in the world in, say, 1994, you can be sure it'll all be personal.

Programming note: You might find the occasional post in this series discussing something from 1989 or 2000, for example. We all know that decades actually spill over their boundaries by a year or two on either end. The reason you might remember something from 1989 as being so '90s is because that moment in time shares more in common with what happened in what we consider the '90s than it does with what we consider the '80s. So don't be alarmed if I write about the awesomely formative kid-geek experience of seeing Batman in 1989 or about the depressingly formative young-adult experience of the 2000 presidential election. Those posts will still deal with very specifically '90s attitudes, ideas, and emotional experiences.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Writing Roundup: Holiday Horror and Classic Sci-Fi

Olivia Hussey, the original Final Girl, in Black Christmas (1974).
How do you celebrate the holiday season? If you answer with anything other than, "Why, watch Black Christmas, of course!" then you need to reconsider your priorities.

Okay, I understand we all have family obligations this time of year. Still, I implore you to take some time out and watch this 1974 cult classic, considered by many to be the birth of the slasher film genre. I wrote about it for The After Movie Diner this week, but the long and the short of it is this: I've seen an awful lot of slasher movies in my lifetime (I'm a child of the 1970s and 1980s, after all), and while several have been as good as Black Christmas, none have been better. I've long held John Carpenter's Halloween as the gold standard for horror/slasher movies, but now I'd slot Black Christmas in right alongside it. Amazingly I hadn't seen the film before this year. Oh I'd been hearing about and have meant to see it since I was a teenager, at least. Why it took so long is beyond me, but thank goodness I finally saw it. A taut, suspenseful, terrifying thrill ride of a film, it set an awfully high bar for the genre, one that most of its predecessors would never equal.

If you follow this blog then you know I recently reread Ursula K. Le Guin's masterwork of science fiction, The Left Hand of Darkness. I contributed an article about the book as part of Sequart's Sci-Fi Week. All this week, in the buildup to the release of Rogue One, Sequart is publishing articles and essays on any and everything related to sci-fi. Check back with them every day this week for new content.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Barely Making a Dent: December 2016 Books

In which our narrator tries to read his way through the endless stacks of books that are slowly overtaking both his bookshelves and his life.

The new, six-foot tall bookcase is assembled and in use, each of its five shelves now packed tightly with books. It's a sight to behold. Sometimes I even catch myself staring at it for several minutes, basking in it's elegant majesty. I've always associated being a serious bookaholic with having at least one fully stocked, enormous bookcase that serves as the perfect representation of your reading life. Finally achieving this goal feels like the culmination of decades of book nerdery.

It's certainly helped to organize our books; between it and a smaller bookcase positioned next to it, we can keep the majority of our books in one room now. Of course I filled the new one with our best books—you know, the ones you want on display to wow visitors with your impressively eclectic tastes. Rearranging and re-shelving everything helped me realize there are even a few books—like, two or three—that we should give away or try to sell. See? Progress!

Recently acquired

Moonglow by Michael Chabon. This is my most eagerly anticipated book of the year. I wrote a little about my love of Chabon's work way back in the early days of this blog, but I barely scratched the surface of my intense love for his work. The man writes the most beautiful sentences and I could read them all day. He has a way of describing things I've often felt but haven't put into words myself. All good writers can do this, but he's easily one of the best at it. In the meantime I'll write about Moonglow in a future "Barely Making a Dent" post. The book is vaulting ahead of all the other books in my reading pile, so I hope to start reading it in the next few weeks.

Recently read

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. This was a reread, but two decades later. Intelligent, thought-provoking, and essential; it's a science fiction classic for a reason. I've written about it for Sci-Fi Week over at Sequart, so look for that during the week of December 11–17.

Power Man & Iron Fist: Heroes for Hire (Epic Collection, Volume 1). This is 450 pages of pure, Marvel bronze age goodness. Do you love '70s solid gold hits like Coffy, Enter the Dragon or Starsky, and Hutch? Then this is your jam, too. You'll learn why your nerd friends exclaim "Sweet Christmas!" You'll witness Chris Claremont develop Colleen Wing into the most bad-ass samurai detective you've ever met. She and Misty Knight practically steal the book right out from under the titular Heroes for Hire. Still, this is where Luke Cage's and Iron Fist's legendary and highly long-running partnership began and you need to read it.

Currently reading

Kraken by China Mieville. I'm not too far into this one yet but it's great fun, if a little convoluted at times. I'm a fan of Mieville's style of "weird" fiction and this one keeps getting weirder with each chapter, which is a good thing. Plus there was a GG Allin reference already. Why not, right?

Sunday, December 11, 2016


Is interrupting each other simply what we're meant to do? Is anyone really listening anymore? Every passing year we all seem more like those lunatics screaming over and around each other on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

We constantly interrupt ourselves, for god's sake. Finishing a thought in your head is nearly impossible. "The kids need new winter clothes...wait, where are my glasses...what was that she said earlier...when the hell am I ever going to find time to see Rogue One...?" And on and on, again and again, ad infinitum.

The scary thing is we're basically wired now to do this and we barely even notice. It's like somewhere along the line we were networked to our computers and devices without realizing it, and the interface is now so seamless that we don't know where the electronics end and we begin.

This is all mostly just sound and fury, signifying nothing. We're knee-deep in it now, no going back. Oh sure, we can try to go off the grid—Elvis has left the building—but then how the hell will we know what happened with Cameron, Joe, Donna, and Gordon in season three of Halt and Catch Fire?

Face it, we're fully assimilated at this point. Might as well binge-watch something, in that case.

Friday, December 9, 2016

It Came From the '90s: Not For You

This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.

Generation X. Alternative Nation. Slackers. Kids in flannels.

In the early and mid 1990s, teens and young adults of a certain age were given all of those monikers, and several others too. Full disclosure, I was one of those kids. Every generation goes through a period like that—when they're the up-and-comers trying to break free of the previous generation, A period of endless media and societal fascination leading to unfair stereotyping and marginalization.

Pearl Jam's "Not For You," from 1994's seismic blast of an album Vitalogy, seemed to be directly addressing this divide between the members of Gen X and their elders. Vitalogy was the most anticipated album of the year. Kurt Cobain killed himself that spring, leaving Pearl Jam alone at the top of the rock mountain, whether they wanted to be there or not. They were the biggest band in the world during those few years. They used this platform to fight Ticketmaster when no one else would. To broadcast their own FM station, Self-Pollution Radio, out of Eddie Vedder's house, where Vedder played DJ spinning his favorite records and an all-star lineup of Seattle musicians dropped by to jam with the band live on air. Throughout it all they were building a fan base of dedicated, like-minded kids and young adults who could relate to their music's themes of alienation, isolation, resistance, indifference, and so many more.

In '94-'95, "Not For You" seemed to annoy some listeners—let's be honest, mostly critics—who felt Vedder was singing directly to them. Why would he be telling his audience that this is not for them? He wasn't. He was actually singing to the masses that didn't really understand the cult of Pearl Jam, nor did they care to. Instead they wanted to exploit the band and their audience. The song was a manifesto to those who got it. And if you didn't get it, you could still mosh to it, at least.

It scores a indelible scene in the 1996 documentary Hype!, which chronicles the explosive musical youth movement known as "the Seattle scene." Set against footage of the band playing the song for a Self-Pollution broadcast, then shifting to shots from various locations across Seattle and Washington state, then back again to the studio where the band is now joined by friends and fellow musicians like Lane Staley, Krist Novoselic, and the Soundgarden boys.
All that's sacred comes from youth
dedication, naive and true
with no power, nothing to do
I still remember, why don't you...don't you...

Listening to Vedder sing those lyrics in the bridge, within the context of the film, only further underscores the trajectory of grunge's explosive early years and then its over-saturation and decline. Like most youth movements—and all these years later I still have no doubt that it was indeed a movement—what began as something pure was quickly chewed up and spit out by media and cultural forces beyond the alterna-kids' control.

The lesson seemed to be that certain things, such as a song like "Not For You," were worth protecting, and worth holding onto. They helped get us through those transition years between childhood and young adulthood. In the two decades since, they continue to remind us that we were once the new kids, the ones people looked at suspiciously. We were the ones with no power, and nothing to do. Yet we were still seen as a threat to the established order.

I still remember. Why don't you?

Monday, December 5, 2016

Joan Didion

Joan Didion turns 82 today. As an essayist, novelist, and cultural critic, Didion has long been one of the finest chroniclers of American life over the course of the last half of the twentieth century and beyond.

There is much I could write about Didion, a writer whose work has affected me deeply over the years. I'll save that for another day, when I have more time to write. For now I'll just share this from her seminal essay, "Goodbye to All That:"
I had never before understood what “despair” meant, and I am not sure that I understand now, but I understood that year. Of course I could not work. I could not even get dinner with any degree of certainty, and I would sit in the apartment on Seventy-fifth Street paralyzed until my husband would call from his office and say gently that I did not have to get dinner, that I could meet him at Michael’s Pub or at Toots Shor’s or at Sardi’s East. And then one morning in April (we had been married in January) he called and told me that he wanted to get out of New York for a while, that he would take a six-month leave of absence, that we would go somewhere.
To anyone who's experienced a year like that, or a series of years like that, this essay and in fact so much of Didion's writing perfectly encapsulate the experience. The times when anxiety is omnipresent and despair becomes your shadow, walking alongside you everywhere you go, 

At Literary Hub today, Emily Temple has a nice synopsis of what makes Didion special, along with this rare clip from a 1970s interview with Tom Brokaw. Temple closes her short appreciation with:
At the end of the interview, Brokaw asks Didion if she feels optimistic about the future. 
 “The future of what,” Didion says, sly.
“The future of Us,” Brokaw clarifies.
“I don’t know,” she says. “I hope so.”
 More than 30 years later, I hope so too. Happy birthday, Joan.
Happy birthday indeed, Joan. Your words have been inspiring and frightening and comforting and so many other adjectives to so many of us, for so long.