Thursday, October 12, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 053: Carnacki, The Ghost Finder”

Since I was a little kid, I’ve suffered from insomnia. In the late, late hours of the night, I usually read, and a few years ago, my wife bought me a back-lit e-reader. (It’s a fancy, name brand machine, but I don’t like to play favorites…) I don’t have to turn on a light to read (which can wake the boss up,) and I still get to immerse myself in creepy worlds and gothic adventures when all the world is quiet and dark. My most recent bout of sleeplessness took me back to an old friend, the supernatural detective, Carnacki!

William Hope Hodgson – Carnacki, The Ghost Finder (1913)

William Hope Hodgson was a prolific British writer and all around interesting character, whose massive body of work I’ve only really sampled through his supernatural detective character, Carnacki. The book that I read, Carnacki, The Ghost Finder, collects six of this character’s stories, which had originally been published in a couple of different magazines of the day. (Because there are only six stories, I am assuming that the version I have is a digitization of the 1913 work. A second edition came out in the 1940s, a couple of decades after Hodgson’s death, which had three additional stories that I’ve never read. But that’s pretty cool, in the sense that there are more Carnacki tales for me to read someday!)

Each Carnacki story is a framed tale in which a first-person narrator, the cleverly named “Dodgson,” receives an invitation to visit his friend, Carnacki, who feeds him and a few select individuals a nice dinner, then regales them with the details of his most recent mysterious encounter. Carnacki is some kind of professional investigator who specializes in weird (we would say “paranormal”) cases. He is armed with a deep knowledge of obscure lore, a keen analytical mind, and a small arsenal of specialized equipment with which he busts ghosts and solves complex mysteries. (Considering the fact that these stories are over 100 years old, Carnacki himself seems remarkably modern in his choices of equipment and his methods.) At the close of each story, and after revealing as much of each mystery as he is able, Carnacki ejects Dodgson and his other guests with a jovial, “Out you go!” and the tale ends.

The stories are well told, including wonderful details, strange situations, some moments of genuine suspense, and they can even be downright creepy at times. (Reading them at 3:00 in the morning might help amplify the mood---I recommend it, if you can manage it.) Without giving away too much, Hodgson, does “Scooby-Doo” a tale or two, having Carnacki’s investigations reveal not a ghost or demonic presence, but mundane human trickery, but despite this occasional (though always well written) twist, I find every single adventure in this collection entertaining. And, as I said, Hodgson’s writing is so strong, and his details so well stated, that the reader can at times actually feel Carnacki’s panic and be swept up in the terror of the situation. (The only other author that I’ve read in the last few years who creeped me out as well as Hodgson was Poe, especially in The Fall of the House of Usher, where the sense of decay and otherworldliness really got to me one night...) Hodgson is good is what I’m saying here.

Probably my favorite stories in this collection are “The Gateway of the Monster” and “The Searcher of the End House.” The first, “The Gateway of the Monster,” finds Carnacki investigating a room in a haunted mansion where the door slams, repeatedly of its own accord and the room seems tempest tossed each morning, and where anyone who attempts to sleep in the room is strangled in the night. In the course of his investigations, Carnacki cracks out an electric pentagram of his own design, which he sits inside of on the floor to protect himself from supernatural forces. It’s a weird story. The other story, “The Searcher of the End House” has Carnacki investigating his mother’s house where strange sounds have begun to occur in the middle of the night, doors are opening and closing, and strange, misshapen, wet footprints appear in various rooms. This story actually moves into some interesting multi-dimensional directions with different characters perceiving different phantom forms. It’s a great, weird tale.

If you’re a fan of Clive Barker or the Saw films, these stories will probably not be gruesome or disturbing enough for you, and the language and pacing are a bit old-school. However, I really enjoy this book. The mysteries are odd enough to keep a reader guessing, and the supernatural elements are well described and, at times, wonderfully freaky. I should mention that people who are sensitive to animal cruelty will not enjoy a few of the stories here, as dogs and cats tend not to survive the tales once they are introduced. But if you can stomach that type of unpleasantness and enjoy weird, paranormal mysteries, Carnacki will be right up your alley!

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Sunday, October 8, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 052: Ranma ½ Volume 1”

I’ve been at this book review gig for about eight months now, and it’s an absurd crime that I haven’t reviewed a single transgender martial arts comedy comic yet… Slacking. That’s the only thing I can call it…

Rumiko Takahashi – Ranma ½ Volume 1 (1993/2001)

Rumiko Takahashi is probably most well known in the United States for the animated version of her classic fantasy series, Inu-Yasha, but more rabid fans of Japanese comics and animation will recognize a variety of her works: Lum – Yurusei Yatsura, the Mermaid Saga, Maison Ikkoku, One-Pound Gospel, and my favorite, Ranma ½. The Ranma comic has spun off into animation, a number of video games, tons of novelty merchandise, and is a recognized classic, but does it hold up? Is it still funny today? Let’s take a look and see if we can figure out what makes this series tick.

At the beginning of the first book, we’re introduced to the Tendo family (a father and three daughters,) who run the “Tendo Martial Arts School of Indiscriminate Grappling.” Without a son as an heir, Mr. Tendo and his friend, Genma Saotome, another master, have hatched a plan to keep the Tendo School in business once Mr. Tendo gets too old to continue teaching. Tendo has pledged one of his three daughters to Genma’s son, Ranma. Unfortunately for Mr. Tendo, he hasn’t seen his friend since before Ranma was born, and when the Saotomes arrive at the school, Mr. Tendo gets a nasty surprise: Ranma is a girl not a boy, and Genma has, apparently, been turned into a giant panda.

After a tearful discussion, it is revealed that Ranma and Genma were training in China at an “accursed” training ground, trying to perfect their skills. The dangerous training ground is actually haunted by the spirits of various people and animals that have drowned in the numerous pools there, and if anyone happens to fall into one of the haunted pools, they become possessed by the spirit of whatever drowned therein. In a mishap, Ranma fell into the pool of the drowned girl, and so whenever he is splashed by cold water, his body transforms into the female form of the girl who drowned in the pool. He has to be splashed with warm water to turn back into a boy again. Genma, we are told, fell into the pool of the drowned panda and suffered a similar fate.

Yes, the concept is silly, but it’s still fun. Mr. Tendo, still keen on fulfilling the arranged marriage, pledges his youngest (and toughest) daughter, Akane, to Ranma. Of course, neither Ranma nor Akane are fond of the idea of an arranged marriage, and instead they seem to spend most of their time fighting with each other. As the daughter of a martial arts master, Akane is unusally strong and fierce, and Ranma, being a chivalrous young man (half the time), won’t hit a girl, so he spends most of his free time at Dr. Tofu’s getting patched up after Akane inevitably thrashes him. It is a testament to Takahashi’s storytelling ability that I find the budding relationship between Akane and Ranma charming instead of annoying, considering how little tolerance I have for romance stories, but Takahashi knows how to temper her romance with some fantastically entertaining characters and absurd situations, making this series humorous enough to keep even a cynic like me interested.

More than anything, this series is about the laughs, and Takahashi’s command of tone and absurdist sense of humor serve her well. The story is filled with bizarre characters, who usually want to kill Ranma or to date Akane, or in a few cases both. The transgender humor, in which Ranma is constantly being splashed with cold water and transforming into a girl at the least opportune time, is also very funny, particularly when some character who Ranma is fighting can’t seem to understand that the boy he was just trying to murder is also the girl he’s trying to woo! In subsequent volumes of the series, we also learn that Ranma and Genma were not the only martial artists to fall into the haunted pools in the accursed training ground, which adds to the farce.

Ranma is a fun series, and this first volume gets cracking right off the bat. It’s an interesting mix of absurdist humor, touching romance (not too overbearing), and a little bit of weird martial arts, although this is definitely not the focus in the first book. Takahashi’s lines are very clean, and she manages a fair amount of humor just from the facial expressions she draws. There is a tiny bit of nudity in the book, but it’s very cartoony, and not particularly offensive. (There aren’t any explicit sex scenes or anything, just a couple of “embarrassing” bathing moments and such, nothing too racy.) The characters are quirky, the battles are bizarre and fun, and the goofy twists in the story are entertaining, even after reading the book at least a half-dozen times. Inu-Yasha may be a more complex, more fully realized story (and I’ll probably review that series eventually, too) but Ranma ½ is still a lot of fun and worth the hour or less that it’ll take most people to read it.

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Sunday, October 1, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 051: The Status Civilization”

Robert Sheckley – The Status Civilization (1960)

As I mentioned in my review of The Robot Who Looked Like Me, Robert Sheckley is one of my favorite authors. He was particularly adept at presenting vicious social criticism under a veneer of humor and absurdism, which made his critiques more tolerable than they would have been if he’d just been cussing from a soapbox on a street corner. The Status Civilization, a particularly poignant work, is a serious warning disguised as a science fiction novel. In these pages Sheckley skewers class stratification, religion, morality, and standardized education by turning the traditional meanings of these concepts on their heads. It’s dark and funny and suspenseful, and once the dust settles, it actually has a lot to tell us about the construction of meaning in our own society (even though it was published over fifty years ago!)

Our “hero,” Will Barrent, awakes on board a transport ship heading for a prison planet. He is told that he is a murderer, but because all of the prisoners on board the ship have had their memories wiped, he doesn’t remember committing the crime. The planet, Omega, is rigidly stratified along class lines, and the quickest and most sure way to climb the ladder in Omegan society is by killing other citizens. Though Barrent moves rapidly up in social rank, mostly through a series of strange incidents that are always just out of his control, his personal disposition puts him at odds with the prevailing ideologies of Omegan law.

For one thing, he keeps having disturbing urges NOT to kill, except in self-defense. He is also visited by a local priest who chastises him for not coming to Black Mass often enough. (The worship of Evil is the state mandated religion on Omega.) And, in complete defiance of the law, Barrent refuses to become addicted to any drugs! According to the judge who sentences Barrent for not being an addict, drugs are an important part of their society. The judge says, “I will tell you that an addicted populace is a loyal populace; that drugs are a major source of tax revenue; that drugs exemplify our entire way of life. Furthermore, I say to you that the nonaddicted minorities have invariably proven hostile to native Omegan institutions” (p. 46). [I would argue (whether we’re talking about alcohol, pot, opioids, or any of the thousands of prescription mood modifiers out there) that this is just as true today!] Non-compliance with the required addiction policy, in conjunction with Barrent’s general lack of enthusiasm for Omegan social conduct, eventually marks him for death by the state.

Through Sheckley’s humorous reversals, (evil is good, murder brings social advancement, addiction is the essence of happiness,) each of the social morays that most people hold sacred are twisted, tested, and usually found lacking. The pace of the story is also lightning fast, with a real PULP ADVENTURE feel. (The story was originally serialized in Amazing Science Fiction Stories magazine.) It’s got it all: humor, suspense, adventure, and some seriously intense social commentary. Few authors can write an exciting adventure story that ALSO makes you think---but that’s exactly what Sheckley does here.

Barrent’s journey of discovery on Omega, from amnesiac prisoner to privileged citizen to hunted quarry, is exceptionally entertaining and well worth the read. I suppose SOME sensitive types might find parts of this book offensive, particularly the religious critiques, but the story doesn’t have much in the way of gore or sexual content or even dirty language. Those looking for a fast-paced sci-fi adventure will find a lot to enjoy here, but for those who like something a bit deeper, this book really shines. 1984 may be the classic work dealing with conformity and social programming, but THIS book is not only funnier, but may actually present a more haunting message about societal control. It’s a book that NEEDS to be read and understood---today, RIGHT NOW, by as many people as possible. Sheckley’s predictions are moving closer and closer to coming true, and maybe, if we can understand HOW social programming works, we’ll be more capable of resisting when we see it’s actually happening! Read this book…

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Friday, September 22, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 050: Amphigorey”

For my 50th review (!!!) I thought I better do something special, and in my world, there isn’t really anything more special than Edward Gorey.

Edward Gorey – Amphigorey (1972/1980)

Way back at the beginning of the Read a Damn Book project, I reviewed Gorey’s “The Gashleycrumb Tinies,” which is an ABC-style book of the various ways that children can be dispatched and released from this mortal coil. The art is absolutely chilling, consisting of remarkably detailed, black and white images of sad little faces either just about to meet their ends or having just left us. (It’s not a work for the faint of heart...) The only truly unfortunate thing about the book, thought, is how quickly one comes to the end of it. Luckily for us, Gorey wrote and illustrated a GREAT MANY little books, although as it says in the introduction to Amphigorey, the earliest of those works “are now difficult and often expensive to come by” (n.p.), which is why poor people (like me) need reprint collections.

Amphigorey includes fifteen humorous, horrifying, and beautiful works, most of which are comprised of black and white illustrations with obsessively detailed backgrounds full of freakish, repeating wallpaper patterns or looming shadows created by tight-knit, extreme cross-hatching. The tone of most of Gorey’s works is pseudo-Victorian or Dickensian, with weird, vaguely British sounding place names (like Chutney Falls, West Elbow, and Hobbies Odd), bizarre characters (Miss Skrim-Pshaw and Dick Hammerclaw), and a costume department that stopped buying new clothes in about 1929.

A couple of the books are in the ABC-style mentioned above, and some are comprised of odd little limericks with accompanying macabre illustrations, and some of the best works in the collection are freakish, unsettling short-stories, usually involving at least one untimely death. One extremely creepy “story,” called “The West Wing,” has no words at all, but is instead a series of strange set pieces inside of an old house. One illustration is a just a room with peeling wall paper, in another a body is lying on a floor, in another what looks like a sheet or blanket is floating a few feet off the ground in the air, and in yet another is a darkened doorway with just a hint of some legs visible. It’s very eerie and enjoyable (if you’re into that sort of thing.)

All of the works in this collection are entertaining in their own ways, but there are three that stand out as truly exceptional for me. The most brilliant of these pieces is “The Object Lesson,” which is an exercise in stream-of-consciousness absurdity that, despite being disjointed to the point of nonsense, somehow creates a delightfully haunting mood. It’s not a traditional narrative by any stretch just a series of tangentially related scenes that when taken together produce an uncanny effect. Here is one particularly lurid section, which takes place over the course of five separate pages/images:

“Meanwhile, on the tower, / Madame O___ in conversation with an erstwhile cousin / saw that his moustache was not his own, / on which she flung herself over the parapet / and surreptitiously vanished” (n.p.).

Why they were on the tower is never explain, nor is the reason that the cousin had someone else’s moustache, or why this would cause Madame O___ to throw herself off the tower. It’s strange and uncanny and wonderfully well illustrated. To me, this tale, which strings together one nonsense event after another but still manages to be completely unsettling and creepy, is the height of artistic perfection. (This may say more about me than it does the work, but I don’t think so.)

Another great story in this collection is “The Willowdale Handcar” in which a trio of young-adults hops on a handcar they find at the train station and proceeds to ride the rails for months and months, watching a series of bizarre things happen, like buildings burning down, figures creeping through fields in thunderstorms, and various glimpses of different people’s lives falling to ruin. Again, nothing is explicitly stated, just hinted at and suggested, but the overall tone is somehow both humorous and haunting, especially considering what happens at the end!

The third rather unforgettable story here is “The Curious Sofa,” which is subtitled “A Pornographic Work,” although not a single naked body or explicit act is actually depicted in the tale. It’s a masterpiece of suggestion and innuendo, with exceedingly pregnant lines, like the following:

“Colonel Gilbert and his wife, Louise, came in after dinner; both of them had wooden legs, with which they could do all sorts of entertaining tricks. / The evening was a huge success, in spite of someone fainting from time to time” (n.p.).

For most of this tale the tone is rambunctious and humorous, populated with flapper women sporting pixie cuts and pearl necklaces and men with handlebar moustaches, all apparently enjoying themselves. However, towards the end of the story it takes a dark turn, and ends with a surprise, horrifying twist. It’s sick, but in the most inexplicit and inexplicable manner possible.

Gorey was a genius, a truly talented master of both expressive line art and of crafting a tale that could entertain or cut to the bone. His works are unlike anything else I’ve read, landing somewhere between adult fairytales and penny dreadful grotesqueries. Amphigorey itself is a remarkable collection, which will endlessly entertain anyone with a taste for the uncanny---but I should warn potential readers that the gruesomeness and heartbreaking tragedy of many of the tales may be a bit much for some sensibilities. If you consider yourself a fan of horror or of extremely dark humor, then Edward Gorey is the creator for you, and if you haven’t read anything by him yet, then this collection is the perfect place to start!

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 049: Dead to the World”

I felt kind of bad after I wrote the review for Club Dead because it wasn’t very positive, and I really do like the Sookie Stackhouse books, so I thought I’d better move along to the next book in the series and see if it might be a little more fun---and it is… (Thank goodness…)

Charlaine Harris – Dead to the World (2004/2005)

Dead to the World is the fourth book in Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse series, and by this time in the series, most readers will probably have a pretty good handle on who the characters are. Unlike the previous book, which is rather downbeat and particularly brutal, this book is much more humorous and entertaining, while also having a couple of solid, intriguing plotlines, which Harris quite deftly weaves into a well-crafted, coherent story.

Like all the other books in the series, this novel is told from the point of view of Sookie, a psychic waitress who is just getting over a passionate, though short, relationship with a vampire named Bill. Things start getting weird pretty quickly in this book, however, when Sookie spots a half-naked man running barefoot in the snow on her way home from work on New Year’s Eve. She recognizes the man after a few seconds as Eric, a rich, powerful, and ancient vampire who runs a business empire out of Shreveport. Unfortunately for Eric, he has been hexed by a group of witches and can’t remember who he is or what’s happened to him. Sookie, being a good citizen, takes Eric home, contacts the vampires who work for him, and agrees to keep him hidden from the witches who are trying to find for him. Stuck with a tall, blond, god-like vampire in her care, Sookie quickly begins to have “adult” thoughts, and all manner of hilarity ensues.

This book leans pretty heavily on the “romance” angle, as the now single Sookie rather quickly falls for the “helpless” Viking vamp. And, in this book Harris has a (rather explicit) good time describing the couple’s budding romance. (I would NOT recommend this one to younger readers or for people who have an aversion to erotic adventures.) Let’s just say, things get steamy (in a slightly necrophiliac sense.) Throughout this series, Sookie is beset by a plethora of potential suitors, and by the end of this book I think she’s already racked up a solid half-dozen men, vamps, and other creatures who have stated their interest in her. Of course, part of what makes this series popular is the big question: Who will Sookie end up with? (I’m not a big fan of romance novels on principle, but I do like Harris’s characters, so watching them jockey for position can be pretty fun.)

The second important storyline in this book is the disappearance of Sookie’s brother, Jason. Because he’s a troublemaker, the police are less than excited to go looking for him, and Sookie suspects that Jason might have been kidnapped by the witches that hexed Eric. Wrapped around Eric’s amnesia, Sookie and Eric’s romance, and Jason’s disappearance are a number of crisscrossing plotlines, including a war between the witches and the supernatural creatures of Shreveport, a strange community of shape-shifters living outside of Sookie’s hometown, and a psychotic, jealous were-lynx who thinks Sookie is moving in on her werewolf.

One of the best parts of this book is the character, Pam, Eric’s second in command, but she gets to take center stage in many scenes in this novel since her boss is incapacitated. Pam is described as looking just like Alice from Alice in Wonderland, but is supposedly several hundred years old. In this book, particularly in the battle between the witches and the monsters, you get to see Pam go seriously hardcore and show a vicious and somewhat twisted sense of humor, which is quite fun. Pam is one of my favorite characters in the series, so it was fun to see her featured so heavily in a story.

To sum up, I really enjoyed this book. There are several mysteries to solve that keep Sookie in suspense, the tone is more entertaining and fast paced than the previous book, with a lot more humor (and NO rape scenes), and each of the storylines contributes to the novel as a whole this time (unlike some of the previous books, where the opening mystery has little to do with the main story.) The characters are more fully realized in this book, as well, mostly because Harris has had three previous novels to flesh out who they are. Of the first four books, Dead to the World has been my favorite on this reread through the series. The balance between humor, horror, mystery, and romance is just right, and it makes me look forward to reading the next novel---although it might be a while before I get to it. I’ve got a few other things to cover first!

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Thursday, September 14, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 048: Gregory”

I don’t remember how I found this particular book by Marc Hempel (who would later go on to do a stint illustrating Neil Gaiman’s “The Kindly Ones” storyline in the brilliant series, The Sandman,) but Mariah and I both loved Gregory, instantly. The book was put out by Piranha Press, which looks like a neat, indie publisher, but was actually a division of DC Comics. We have four of the little Gregory books, and as far as I know, that’s all that Hempel did before moving on to “bigger” and “better” things (like his short-lived but hilarious series, Tug & Buster for Image Comics.) I could sing the praises of Hempel’s assorted works all day long, but for this review, let’s just stick to Gregory

Marc Hempel – Gregory (1989)

Gregory is the story of a disturbed little boy who lives most of his life in a cell in a psychiatric facility, barefoot, with his arms restrained by a straight-jacket. He is incapable of speaking in full sentences, preferring to scream inarticulate grunts and guttural syllables, punctuated by the occasional, “I Gregory!” His best friend is a dirty rat that pops out of the drain in the floor of his cell, spouts interesting comments, and is then smashed flat by one of the orderlies at the facility, only to be reincarnated again a short time later as the same rat. Gregory is sub-intelligent, eats moldy cheese off the floor of his cell, and is terrified of almost everything---but for the most part he seems pretty happy.

What Hempel does so well in this VERY dark book is turn almost everything in the story on its head. Gregory is stuck in a straight-jacket, but in one short scene, his jacket pops open. He immediately strips naked, accidently slaps himself in the face several times (he isn’t used to controlling his floppy arms), sticks his hand down the drain and gets it disgustingly dirty, and ends the mostly wordless sequence cowering in the corner of his cell with the straight-jacket partially put back on. Though most of us would pine for freedom, Gregory retreats into the comfort of the familiar after exploring the unknown. (This sentiment seems completely TRUE to me…)

Throughout the book, people keep trying to “improve” Gregory’s situation. His therapist is driven insane by his lack of verbal progress and runs screaming from the room. A group of “pet therapists” show up, and Gregory is mauled by the cat that was supposed to provide him a little comfort. In one particularly disturbing sequence, Gregory is removed from his cell, taken out of his straight-jacket and given the “proper” medication for his condition, so he doesn’t injure himself. This, naturally, leaves him a drooling vegetable, without any of the life or energy that make’s Gregory who he is. Herman Vermin makes an impassioned plea for Gregory to be returned to his normal cell and mental condition, but because he’s a rat, none of the doctors understand him, and he’s smashed to death with a broom. Hilarious!!! Like I said, it’s a dark book. However, when not being bothered by those looking after his “best interests,” Gregory appears to be genuinely happy with his life.

A large part of the success of the book is Hempel’s stunning black and white art. Combining a thick, rough line with what appears to be either pencil or possibly charcoal for shading, Hempel conveys a dark and disturbed mood, which works perfectly with the existential angst saturating the storyline. But the characters, to me, show echoes of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, especially in the facial features, (although this book is nowhere near as MEAN as the Peanuts stories were.) I’ve always been amazed and jealous when an artist can convey a huge amount of meaning in just a few lines, as Bill Watterson, Schulz, and Hempel certainly can. There’s also something jarring in that juxtaposition of simple, cutesy imagery and dark, disturbing subject matter that I think really helps push the overall mood and tone.

In the end, the book is brilliant. There are several extended sequences where the artwork alone tells the story, others where the dialogue can be hilarious but you see almost nothing that’s happening. Some sections show us Gregory’s perceptions of the world, which makes clear how detached he is from reality (but it’s his MIS-perceptions that help keep him happy!) And there’s even a strange, “experimental” section where a person trying to READ the comic is interrupted by another person who keeps asking questions about what’s going on. It’s weird and funny and completely unexpected. My one negative note is that there is a section in which Herman Vermin is reincarnated as a homosexual, and that short storyline is somewhat insensitive to the LGBTQ community, (although, to be realistic, the LGBTQ community hadn’t really moved into the open yet in the late ‘80s.) In addition, I suppose especially sensitive people who have family members who have been diagnosed with some forms of mental illness might find this entire book offensive, but my family is very familiar with mental issues, and I still found the book to be extremely funny. Gregory’s thoughts and reactions seem very REAL to me, and the tone, while dark, is also somewhat positive and “up.” If we could just let Gregory be himself, instead of trying to FIX him and make him “normal,” then EVERYONE would be better off, especially Gregory.

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 047: Cured”

I became a Cure fan back in high school, right about the time the band recorded a rerelease video for their song “Boys Don’t Cry” to promote their Standing on a Beach (1986) hits collection. By my sophomore year of high school (1987) I was ratting my hair up and wearing button down shirts with cardigan sweaters and had built a shrine to The Cure in my bedroom out of posters, magazine clippings, and t-shirts, which was so impressive that people from different schools in the area would come to look at it. (It was a little weird.) Anyway, flash forward to me being an old man, (I no longer rat my hair), who is still a massive fan of the band, as is my wife. My older daughter, on one of her shopping flings to Portland, Oregon, spots a new memoir by one of the founding members of The Cure, and she buys it for us. (Thanks Frankie!!!) Cured – The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys.

Lol Tolhurst – Cured (2016)

Cracking into a book like this, a candid look at a band that I’ve idolized and loved for three decades, can be a fearful experience. I’ve read autobiographies before that actually diminished the authors some in my eyes, but this book doesn’t take any luster away from my heroes. There are a ton of anecdotes from the history of The Cure in this book: formative moments, family history, run-ins with the law, riots at concerts, crossovers with performers from other bands---the types of things one would expect (and enjoy) in a band member’s autobiography, but what this book is REALLY about is Tolhurst’s personal journey from childhood to Cure-hood and beyond. It’s a somewhat tragic story, but with a solid redemptive ending, which, in the face of all the bullshit going on in the world right now, was nice to read.

Tolhurst’s writing style is conversational, and he knows how to tell a story. He includes an impressive amount of detail, while sticking to the backbone of his tale, which is, ultimately, his battle with alcoholism. You could say that this was a “typical” alcoholics’ tale, the fun leads to despair and such, except for the fact that Tolhurst was a founding member of one of the most important rock and roll bands of the last forty years, and his story is inextricably intertwined with the story of the band.

For most people, Robert Smith IS The Cure, but as Tolhurst points out in this memoir, The Cure is not a solo project, and the evolution of the band has always been a product of Smith's collaborations. From the original formation of the band all the way to their status as world class superstars, Tolhurst was the OTHER original collaborator, a link that connected Smith and the band back to their roots in a small town, south of London, called Crawley. Without Tolhurst, there might not have been a Cure, and even if there were, it wouldn’t have evolved the way that it did. (The underappreciated album, The Top, was JUST Smith and Tolhurst when they started doing the demos, and it marks some of their best work and most original songs: “Let’s Go to Bed,” “The Walk,” “The Caterpillar,” “Upstairs Room,” “Shake Dog Shake,” and “Give Me It” are all brilliant and come from that album.)

What Tolhurst also does well, besides tell a good story, is point out the humanity behind the superstars. A lot of people forget that the PERFORMERS we see in music videos or in concert or even appearing on television shows (like South Park, remember?) are personas. Beyond the concert footage, beyond the albums and the photo shoots, the people in a music group are HUMANS, with lives and worries and personalities (that sometimes conflict), and that working together and touring together for months or years at a time can be extremely difficult. Some people seem to be born to it. Robert Smith, who is the only full-time member of The Cure who has continuously toured and performed with the band since 1976---and continues to even as I write this---seems to be born to the life, but he’s a rarity. For Tolhurst, the strain and the emotional toll required…lubrication. He turned to alcohol and drugs to help get through the incredible stresses of life in a high-profile band, but the “self-medication” got out of control. It’s a familiar story, sure, but the backdrop for his narrative (life with The Cure) is fascinating.

The book is good. Well written, interesting details, with a quirky tone. There are a ton of Cure anecdotes in here that any fan will enjoy, and there is a solid redemption narrative for people looking for a bit of a pick-me-up in our dark and dreary times. The story does dip several times into the “sentimental” pool, which I usually don’t care for, but if we think of it in Tolhurst’s terms, it’s the only way this book could have been written. He lost family members, he lost friends, he (very sadly) lost a daughter, lost his association with the band (and the only identity that he’d ever really known because they had been The Cure since they were teenagers!), and he almost lost his own life on several occasions. There’s no way to tell this story without getting a little emotional, so I’ll forgive him. And yes, Robert Smith comes through it all like a hero, and I still love The Cure!

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

“Read a Damn Book List (with Chit Chat from Sept. 2017)” by Richard F. Yates

About seven months ago, I decided to start writing reviews of the various books that I read. Since 2013, I’ve been making Reading Lists, so that the people who read my stories or enjoy my art can see “where I get my ideas.” (I steal them, of course…) Unfortunately, as I was getting ready to post my 13th reading list, I did something stupid, had to reformat my tablet, and lost the entire list… (I’m better with paper and ink than electronics.) So, instead of trying to remember what I’d read and recreate it (not possible), I went in a different direction.
My rules were simple: read a damn book, cover to cover (no skipping bits,) and then write an honest review. If I’d already read the book at some time in the past, I still had to read it again before putting fingers to keyboard. RE-reading is actually much cooler than most people think. There are a lot of words in most books, and no one can remember them all. In addition, if it’s been a long time since you read a book, YOU might be different now, even if the book isn’t, so what you take away from the rereading may be different than what you got from the book the first time—or second or third… Sometimes books get better—and sometimes they don’t.
The BENEFITS of writing reviews are numerous. First, I like to share stuff that I enjoy with other people. It makes me feel good, and I often read old or obscure or forgotten books that a lot of people don’t remember or might not have heard of, and I’ve made it my policy not to keep these things hidden for myself. I like to share. Another benefit of writing a review is the boost you get to understanding. (Writing IS thinking.) It’s important for people to analyze and consider what they take in instead of just passively consuming it. If you love a story, ask yourself WHY you loved it? If there was something about it that made you uncomfortable, what was it? What elements made the book really work, and where did it fall short? The secondary result of this type of reflection, especially when you bother to write these thoughts out, is that others, whether they’ve read the book or not, can benefit from an honest examination of a text. Does the book sound like it’s worth reading? Was there something going on in the book that I totally missed last time I read it? “Literary analysis” sounds like a scary thing (and I know most people HATE writing papers), but it’s what I was trained to do, and I love doing it.
Since I started doing these reviews (back in February), I’ve finished 46 books. Some of those books were short, but some seemed EXTREMELY long to me, even if they weren’t. (I read slowly—even MORE slowly if the book isn’t keeping my interest.) Either way, 46 is a lot of reviews, and unfortunately, my reviews were getting lost amidst the drawings and photos and poems and stories at The Primitive Entertainment Workshop where they were originally posted. They were getting buried rather quickly because I post anywhere from 3 to 7 items per day at the Workshop, sometimes more. To help keep the reviews above water, I started a new site, Read a Damn Book, which is ONLY for the reviews, but even there, with all those words stacked one on top of the other, most people probably don’t go all the way back and read the reviews of the earliest books very often. And thus, I have created this “Table of Contents” thing, so people can quickly and easily see which books have been reviewed and click on the ones they want to see. (Consider it a public service.) Enjoy!
001 – Scientific Progress Goes ‘Boink’ (Calvin and Hobbes) by Bill Watterson
002 – Dada: The Revolt of Art by Marc Dachy
003 – This Ain’t No Disco by Jennifer McKnight-Trontz
004 – The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey
005 – The Atomics: Spaced Out & Grounded in Snap City! by Mike Allred, Martin Ontiveros, J. Bone, Chynna Clugston Flores, and Lawrence Marvit
006 – Dead Until Dark (Sookie Stackhouse) by Charlaine Harris
007 – Doctor No (James Bond) by Ian Fleming
008 – The Amazing Spider-Man: Hooky by Susan K. Putney and Berni Wrightson
009 – The Willows by Algernon Blackwood
010 – Snake ‘n’ Bacon’s Cartoon Cabaret by Michael Kupperman
011 – The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
012 – All This and Snoopy, Too (Peanuts) by Charles M. Schulz
013 – Getting Even by Woody Allen
014 – Krazy & Ignatz (Krazy Kat) by George Herriman
015 – Martian-American War by Daniel T. Foster and Michael J. King
016 – Howl and Other Poems by Allen Ginsberg
017 – Spy vs Spy: Casebook of Craziness by Antonio Prohias
018 – We Must Remain Focused When Waiting for Thunder by Jesse Reno
019 – Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them by J.K. Rowling
020 – Madman Volume 1 by Mike Allred
021 – The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
022 – The Far Side by Gary Larson
023 – Please Kill Me – The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil
024 – Krazy Kids’ Food! by Steve Roden and Dan Goodsell
025 – Duchamp by Janis Mink
026 – Unsolved Mysteries by Joel Levy
027 – Swag – Rock Posters of the ‘90s by Spencer Drate
028 – The Robot Who Looked Like Me by Robert Sheckley
029 – Flaming Carrot’s Greatest Hits by Bob Burden
030 – Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book by Shel Silverstein
031 – KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money by JMR Higgs
032 – Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
033 – Living Dead in Dallas (Sookie Stackhouse) by Charlaine Harris
034 – Metropolis by Osamu Tezuka
035 – The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
036 – Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
037 – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
037a – Fear and Loathing… (Revisited!) – [Guest Review by Shane Grove]
038 – The Dot and The Line by Norton Juster
039 – Principia Discordia by Malaclypse The Younger / Rev. Timothy Edward Bowen
040 – Carmilla by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
041 – Octopus Girl by Toru Yamazaki
042 – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
043 – Club Dead (Sookie Stackhouse) by Charlaine Harris
044 – Super Aces by Mark W. Counts and Michael J. King
045 – The Book of Hallowe’en by Ruth Edna Kelley
046 – Spiders (Little Fears) by Peter Edwards
047 – Cured by Lol Tolhurst
Before I decided to write individual book reviews, I would publish LISTS of the books that I was reading. Some of these, especially towards the later lists, started to have mini-reviews of the more interesting books. To me, they’re still interesting to look at, even if they aren’t quite as substantial as the full reviews. (Meanest thing I wrote: “I liked the cover.” That was the entire review.)
In addition to book reviews, I’ve also started writing VIDEO reviews. Part of what I like about books is that the reader has to participate in the work in order for the story to come to life, whereas a film or television series really just jumps out at you. Still, there are certain shows (films, television programs, documentaries) that I really enjoy, and because I like to share stuff that I enjoy… Heck, why not?
And that’s about it for now…
—Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 046: Spiders”

As a busy writer / artist / editor / husband / father / and apprentice screen-printer, I don’t actually spend a lot of my free time surfing the web or cruising social media. When I do spend time online, I want to KNOW that I’m going to get an enjoyable experience, and Little Fears, a great cartoon-a-day site, is ALWAYS fun. In addition to his online creations, the artist has also put together a few books of his cartoons for readers to enjoy (available in both physical and electronic formats.) Spiders is his most recent collection...

Peter Edwards – Spiders (2017)

Little Fears is a fantastic site with a recurring cast of regular characters and a GROANER sensibility. Each day, Edwards posts (at least) one cartoon, drawn with paint pens over a different public domain photo. Accompanying each cartoon is a short story, usually in the form of a dialogue, and often with a goofy pun or what my family would call a “Dad Joke” as a punchline, or if Edwards is in a spooky mood, the tale might have a gruesome or creepy twist. I’m fairly certain Edwards considers these posts flash fiction, but to me, they seem like cartoons with extra words. (Six in one hand, half-dozen in the other?) Between the simple but always cool images and groaner jokes, and regardless of what category this art form might fall under, Little Fears has become one of my favorite online destinations.

Spiders, which is the third Little Fears collection, contains 94 individual cartoons, and includes some of my favorite of Edwards’s drawings. The Spiders that he draws, and who appear frequently in this collection, are hilarious to me---so round, so sinister with their glowing red eyes, so six legged! Brilliant... There is also a red eyed squirrel with blood dripping from his fangs, and creepy clouds and creepy flowers and a creepy light bulb, etc. And although Edwards’ art style is composed of apparently simple lines, the style can be extremely expressive, even haunting...

As for the overall tone of this book, it’s mostly jokes and groaners, and that’s great. If you have ever grabbed a Far Side collection and just flipped through laughing at the (sometimes dark) humor, then this book will be right up your alley. The recurring characters, like Sprite, Red, Yuffie, Spectre, Fuen, and Cloud, each have their own personalities, which adds to the fun once you get a feel for them. (Also of interest, though not necessarily related to this book, Edwards has started doing little videos for many of his cartoons, and hearing him read the various voices is a real hoot! I recommend looking the videos up online if you want to add yet another dimension to your Fears…)

The book is fun, has a few recurring / running themes that make it more than just a joke a day collection, and has extremely cool artwork (of which I am extremely jealous!) There are maybe one or two jokes that some of the little kiddies won’t get or might find uncomfortable in here, but there’s certainly nothing worse than what they watch every day on YouToob! Something else to consider, it’s super-cool to support independent artists, and as Edwards has self-published each of the Little Fears books so far, you’ll get the satisfaction of having contributed to a NON-corporate form of entertainment! You should buy this book for that reason alone! But there’s also this to consider: you can pillage some spectacularly awful jokes from this book to break out at parties, guaranteed to make you the unforgettable guest of the evening!!! It’s a quick read, immensely entertaining, and with fabulous artwork created by someone who obviously loves what he is doing. Get it now!

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Sunday, September 3, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 045: The Book of Hallowe’en”

Fall is almost upon us, and my favorite holiday is already in the air. But what’s really going on with this great, spooky, crazy day dedicated to ghosts and monsters and candy? (And how much has the holiday changed in the last 1,000 years???) Let’s find out.

Ruth Edna Kelley – The Book of Hallowe’en (1919)

I did some searching, and couldn’t find out much about Ruth Edna Kelley, except that she was a librarian, and that she put out one of the very first book-length examinations of the history of Halloween. I started reading this book, almost half-heartedly, but I liked the cover and love the topic, so I thought, “Why not?” And within the first ten pages, as Kelley is tracing the Celtic elements that contribute to our modern holiday, she writes this about the Druids (the Celtic priests):

“Their chief god was Baal, of whom they believed the sun was the visible emblem…To Baal they made sacrifices of criminals or prisoners of war, often burning them alive in wicker images” (p. 9).

And I went, “WHAT?! Baal? He was a middle eastern god, Canaanites and all that. What the hell was he doing in northern Ireland? This lady doesn’t know what she’s talking about…” So I did some research, and I discovered that the worship of Baal spread throughout the middle east, into north Africa and Europe, although in some areas, instead of Baal, the god was called Beil or Bel---and I knew that BELtane was one of the Celtic holidays in which fires were lit and sacrifices offered…so I suddenly thought, “Maybe this lady DOES know what she’s talking about. I’m going to start paying a bit more attention here.”


For those who are interested in cultural history, religious practices, the history of magic, and how to seriously throw down at a party, this book by Kelley can seriously help you out. Kelley writes about the regional superstitions and practices from a great many places: Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, France, the Roman Empire, the Scandinavian lands, and points out the elements that most likely contributed to Halloween. Many of these cultures believed in supernatural creatures, like fairies, goblins, demons, and various gods, as well as believing in the possibility that the spirits of the dead could, on certain nights, communicate with or even walk amongst the living. (Usually, daybreak will dispel any supernatural effects.) Kelley looks at the regional versions of these beliefs in wonderful detail, often quoting from poems or stories that illustrate the beliefs in question.

Catholic conquerors, who would later come into these pagan lands, often attempted to overlay Christian symbols onto pagan beliefs, but in doing so would still managed to keep the spirit of the old superstitions and festivals alive, and the Catholics even added some of their own weirdness to the mix with practices such as “souling.” It was believed by Catholics that some spirits, who in life were not good enough to go to Heaven, but who were also not evil enough for Hell, would be trapped in Purgatory until such time as their souls were purged of sin and released to go upstairs. One thing that could help was praying for the souls of those trapped in Purgatory, and at some point, “soul cakes” were invented, either as a bride to get people to pray for souls trapped in Purgatory or as PAYMENT for praying for those souls, and children would, during the “Hallows” festival, go door to door either begging for soul cakes or for money to buy soul cakes, and for each cake that the children ate, a corresponding soul was believed to be released from Purgatory to fly to Heaven. (Weird!)

Another interesting thing that Kelley points out is that for many cultures, the presence of fairies or ghosts or other supernatural creatures during the fall festival meant that you could use their magic for various fortune-telling rituals. Most of the cultures that Kelley discusses had rites or spells that can be used to determine when someone would be married, what their future spouse would look like, if they would have good fortunes over the next year, or if they were likely to die before the year was out. (Some of these rituals remain today in the form of games, like bobbing for apples.) It can be pretty shocking as a reader in our modern era of science and good sense to see how earlier ages believed so much in magic! (Cough! Cough! Clears throat…) But Kelley does a VERY thorough job of examining these rituals and beliefs, pointing out the differences in various regions, and showing how they have led to our “modern” celebrations…

Oh, and about that idea of “modern” Halloween... It might be of interest to some of you to know that Kelley doesn’t mention the phrase “Trick or Treat” at all in this text. The book was published in 1919, and Trick or Treating didn’t become a THING in the United States until the very late 1920s or 1930s, and that was only in a few areas. In fact it wasn’t until after World War II that the practice of dressing up in costumes and going door to door asking for candy really took off. Before that, Halloween in the United States was mostly kids pulling pranks---and Trick or Treating was invented, primarily, to BRIBE kids not to destroy or set fire to anything for the night. (None of this comes from Kelley’s book, of course. I recommend reading David Skal’s Death Makes a Holiday (2002) if you want a history of All Hallow’s Eve that cover the evolution of the holiday throughout the 20th century!)

So, to wrap up, Kelley’s book is excellent if you’re looking for a thoroughly researched history of pagan and occult practices in Europe over the last thousand years or so. What Kelley really does well, is that most of her assertions are actually backed up by snippets of poems or stories from the region in question that illustrate her point. (Again, being a librarian means she knew how to back up her argument with primary sources!) The edition that I have (my wife bought it off Amazon for me for my birthday) has no publication information and one or two typos, but nothing so egregious that it made reading difficult. In addition, it should be pointed out that Kelley occasional indulges in some very outdated language that comes across as a bit racist (particularly in the short section where she discusses African-American folk beliefs), but if we consider WHEN this book was written, it’s not particularly surprising, and the few somewhat racist moments don’t really interfere with the argument that Kelley is making---but I did cringe a few times while reading, and the language may upset some particularly sensitive readers. Overall, the book is well written, extremely well researched, and entertaining, and I found myself reading sections of it aloud to my wife, who was also entertained by the weird practices and beliefs that some humans have held---way, way back in the deep past---back before we KNEW any better. Right? Back when people thought that the forces of nature were controlled by gods who needed to be placated and sacrificed to in order for them not to be angered, and so they wouldn’t send horrible, natural disasters to destroy our cities… Glad that kind of ignorance is all over, aren’t you?

---Richard F. Yates
(Primitive Thoughtician and Grand Hoohaa of The P.E.W.)

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 044: Super Aces”

Again, FULL DISCLOSURE, this is an Art Horse project, and as such was created by friends of mine. The book I’m looking at for this review is a superhero story set during an alternate history version of World War II: Super Aces!!!

Mark W. Counts & Michael J. King – Super Aces (2017)

Super Aces is a comic book that is the same size and format as the previous Art Horse work I reviewed, Martian-American War. The book is very nicely printed, 8.5 by 11 inches in size, and about 20 pages in length. (According to several sources I read, most comics are 6.63 by 10.24 inches, making Super Aces slightly larger than a standard comic---although how the comic book size standard was decided, I have no idea…) The book was written by Mark Counts and penciled by him, then passed to Michael King for inking and layout. It’s in black and white and the artwork has strong, bold lines and a great, Golden Age look and feel.

The story is set in an alternate history version WWII, and opens with our hero, “Hawker” Houston, in an aerial dog-fight over Burma. This is an origin story, so although Houston survives the confrontation (which is quite spectacular even BEFORE our hero gets super-sized), his plane takes so much damage that he has to ditch, and he wakes up from the crash in a strange laboratory! The images are big and bold, and the pace of the story is very similar to classic Golden Age books---Captain America, in particular, comes to mind. (If you haven’t seen the documentary, Comic Book Confidential, yet, there’s a great reading by Jack Kirby of Cap’s origin story in that film, which is set to the images from the comic. It’s great stuff, and reminds me of this book---or vice-versa!) From here, our hero gets the “sci-fi” treatment, and is reborn as The Flying Tiger!

I love the sinister “secret experiment” elements of the book, and I appreciate that the Nazis are CLEARLY the bad guys (as it should ALWAYS be!) The overall tone and mood are entertaining, especially for an old-school comics reader like me. If I have one complaint about the book, it’s that it’s a bit too short. You get a fun opening battle, and then the scenes where our hero becomes SUPER, and then…that’s about it. The reader is definitely left wanting more. I’ve read a ton of Golden and Silver Age comics (usually in reprint), so I know that the stories in those books were short and episodic, and this book keeps to that tradition, but I hope the next issue comes out pretty soon! Now that we know who our hero is, how he came to be, and who he’s getting ready to fight, we’re totally ready to watch him get in there and get his hands dirty!

Overall, it’s a fun indie comic with a classic feel and very bold art. The mood is entertaining, in that Jack Kirby-esque, simpler-times with simpler-pleasures sort of way, and the story works well as an introduction to our character. Hopefully, Mark and Mike get the opportunity to produce the next issue sometime soon, so we can see our new hero go kick some Nazi butt! (Until then, we can go read some of the other alternate history books by the Art Horse crew…) Super Aces itself will appeal to fans of indie comics, fans of alternate history stories, and to people who enjoy classic, Golden Age atmosphere. If you’re looking for a long, epic tale, you might want to wait until the collected graphic novel comes out, but if you want to support independent artists and storytellers, this book would be a great place to start!

---Richard F. Yates

P.S. – If you are going to be in the Portland, Oregon, area on the weekend of September 8th, 9th, and 10th, Art Horse will have a booth at the Rose City Comic Con! Come on by and check out the Super Aces book, along with all the other great independently produced books and shirts and other swag! If you CAN’T make it to the convention, check out the Art Horse website! AND make sure you visit Mark Count’s Facebook page to see his steampunk sculptures and other art!!!

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 043: Club Dead”

I’ve been reading some difficult things lately, some long, obtuse, heavy works (which I’m having a rough time working through), so I thought I’d set those aside for a bit and tackle some lighter fare. I grabbed the next Sookie Stackhouse novel on my shelf, which I hadn’t read in a few years, and thought that would be a fun break from the paranormal drudgery… Maybe not…

Charlaine Harris – Club Dead (2003)

Club Dead is the third book in the Sookie Stackhouse series, and like the other two books I’ve reviewed by Harris, it’s a very quick read, even for someone as slow at reading as I am. The primary plot involves Sookie’s boyfriend, the vampire Bill, who has secretly compiled a computer database of most of the vampires who are living in America. For some reason, a bunch of vampires really want this database, and Bill is eventually kidnapped---and Sookie has to use her psychic mindreading powers to find out who nabbed him. The plot on this one isn’t too deep.

The main plus for this book is the introduction of a new love interest for Sookie (I believe this is the fourth serious contender for Sookie’s affections) in the form of the werewolf/surveyor, Alcide Herveaux. Alcide is hired as a bodyguard, basically, to accompany Sookie as she searches Jacksonville, Mississippi, for her kidnapped boyfriend, and although there seems to be some chemistry between the psychic and the werewolf, the relationship has some serious hurdles to overcome if it’s going to amount to anything. Alcide’s character is funny and likeable, and he seems like a generally nice fellow, despite the fact that he spends a few nights a month running through the woods killing animals.

Unfortunately, there isn’t much else in this book that I really find that interesting. I’m not a big fan of romance as a genre, so the love triangle (actually, it’s closer to a dodecahedron) between Sookie and her suitors isn’t my cup of tea, and the rest of the book is so brutal---and the “mystery” elements are so paper thin---that this is a really tough story to read. You have to wonder if something difficult was happening in Harris’s life when she wrote this episode. Sookie, during her search for Bill, is sexually assaulted at a bar, beaten severally in three different scenes, staked by a vampire hating fanatic and almost killed, is essentially raped by one character and literally raped by another character who we are supposed to find sympathetic, is cheated on by two of her suitors, and even has her favorite wrap burned by a jealous ex-lover of Alcide, all in under 300 pages. And, because this book is told in first person, this is all happening to the reader directly. It’s a harrowing experience to go through, and all for what feels like a throw-away story. The characters even admit that the computer database isn’t really that big of a deal, although it’s supposedly the reason that Bill is kidnapped and being tortured in the first place.

So with Club Dead, I would really only recommend it for people who really liked the first two books in the series and who plan to read the rest of the books. It’s not a very good mystery story, the romance elements are unfulfilling, and the horrible things that happen to the main character are sadistic and cruel, but without any big revelation or redemption at the end. If you’re planning on reading the whole series, and many of the later books are quite good, then this is a necessary step, particularly with the introduction of Alcide, who plays a bigger role later---but it’s a tough chapter in the saga. And I certainly wouldn’t recommend it for people with PTSD or who have lived through sexual assault. It’s a dark book, and not as funny or clever as the two books that came before or many of the books that come after.

---Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 042: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”

Have you ever pondered the DEEP questions, the ultimate questions of life, considered the vastness of the universe, or wondered if there was a purpose to…everything? These concerns are universal, and there is one book that I can think of that tackles them, head on. For my 42nd review, I just had to do The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the book that put “42” on the map…

Douglas Adams – The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe (1979)

Hitchhiker’s is rather well known. There was a BBC television series (1981); a feature film (2005) starring Martin Freeman, Zooey Deschanel, Mos Def, and Sam Rockwell; a radio show; comic books; countless memes; and even a text based computer game produced by Infocom back in 1984… There is no doubt that the book has had a lasting cultural impact. But have you read it? The actual book itself? (Many of you, I suspect, HAVE in fact read the book—but not all…)

For those who haven’t read this rather short novel, here’s a quick plot summary: Arthur Dent wakes up one morning with a terrific hangover, only to discover that his house is about to be bulldozed to make way for a new, high-speed bypass. As he is negotiating with the construction crew, attempting to save his home from destruction, a friend of his arrives, says that he is actually an alien, and that the Earth is about to be destroyed—to make way for a new, hyper-speed, galactic bypass. Luckily for Arthur, his friend, Ford Prefect, is a “hitchhiker” who can signal passing space ships for a ride, and the pair are lifted off of the planet just as it’s being disintegrated by a Vogon Constructor Fleet. Once the pair are “rescued,” Arthur and Ford share enough galactic adventures to fill, I believe, five books (or is it six? Or sixteen? It’s hard to tell.) But let’s just stick to this book for now…

What makes The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy brilliantly entertaining is Adam’s command of language. He is a master of sly and subtle humor, of interesting linguistic constructions, and of PLAYING with a reader’s brain. Here’s an example taken from early in the book as the Vogon ships approach Earth and prepare to destroy it:

“The great ships hung motionless in the sky, over every nation on Earth. Motionless they hung, huge, heavy, steady in the sky, a blasphemy against nature. Many people went straight into shock as their minds tried to encompass what they were looking at. The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t” (p. 30).

Adams uses a clever, Monty Python-esque, illogic as logic technique in his writing to taunt and confuse the reader, and these frequent, unexpected verbal sneak attacks are extremely effective at making me laugh. This novel is full of absurd situations, silly names (Arthur Dent, Slartibartfast, Fook, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Marvin the Paranoid Android, etc.), and brilliant observations. For example, Zaphod Beeblebrox, who is a two headed, three armed, swindler, crook, and con-man, and also the President of the Galaxy, is one of the main characters in the story, arguably responsible for most of the plot that takes place after Arthur leaves Earth. In a footnote, shortly after introducing Beeblebrox, Adams writes this:

“The President in particular is very much a figurehead—he wields no real power whatsoever. He is apparently chosen by the government, but the qualities he is required to display are not those of leadership but those of finely judged outrage. For this reason the President is always a controversial choice, always an infuriating but fascinating character. His job is not to wield power but to draw attention away from it” (p. 35).

This passage was published in 1979, on the doorstep of Ronald Reagan being elected President of the United States, but just try to tell me that it doesn’t fit the current political situation in the U.S. as well! Adams is a keen observer, spotting the flaw in American politics and pointing it out in an efficient and humorous way, and similar examples of social critique can be found throughout this text.

To be fair, I do have a few criticisms of this book, and the one major complaint I have is that the book is not complete. It doesn’t present a story with a beginning, middle, and end. There are a number of questions raised by the text, not the least of which is why “42” is the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything, but the book is obviously the introduction to a series of stories (not unlike Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring), and I don’t think it’s a completely satisfying read on its own. In other words, if you’re going to read Hitchhiker’s, be prepared to grab at least the next three or four books as well, if you desire any kind of resolution in your reading materials. These novels are all quite short and easy to read—I would imagine that someone who reads at an average speed could finish the entire series in a week or two. (In fact, even with my incredibly slow reading speed, I was able to read Hitchhiker’s, cover to cover, in one sitting the first time I read it. It might be the only novel that I’ve ever done that with!) But still, if you read a book, you kind of expect it to END at the end… Not so with this one.

The other complaint that I have with the book is that none of the characters in it, with the possible exception of Slartibartfast—and Ford Prefect, at times—are even remotely likable. Arthur is whiney; the Earth woman, Trillian, is given very little to do; Beeblebrox is an over-the-top egomaniac (which is funny at times) but spends most of his time fighting with everyone, and Marvin the Paranoid Android is so monumentally depressing that a computer system on a police spaceship commits suicide rather than listen to him talk. It’s been years since I read the next few novels, so the characters might just be a bit green in this book, but they are still pretty tough to relate to here. In fact, the narrator (voiced by Stephen Fry in the 2005 film) is probably the most likable voice in the entire book.

Overall, I still love this story, and obviously the lasting impact that the series has had on popular culture shows that I’m not the only one. Adams was a deft hand with a pen, and he created some of the funniest and wittiest sentences ever written in the English language. (I’m talking, up there with Mark Twain…) If you don’t care for Monty Python or clever British-style humor, or if you have no tolerance for science fiction, then I wouldn’t recommend this book. But all the hoopy froods with a twinkle in their eye and a Babel fish in their ear will definitely love this series. As for me, I’ve read it five or six times now, and it still makes me laugh…

---Richard F. Yates
(Commander in Cheap of The Primitive Entertainment Workshop)