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)


Saturday, August 5, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 041: Octopus Girl”

I spotted this book at a comic convention back in 2006 or 2007. It ended up being even weirder than I thought it was going to be…

Toru Yamazaki – Octopus Girl (Vol. 1) (2006) [Translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian]

I’m a fan of Japanese horror comics, particularly ghost stories. Something about the cultural relationship between Japanese writers and the world of the supernatural inspires them to produce work that is as strange and as creepy as horror can get. Well, Octopus Girl is certainly creepy, but what Yamazaki has created here is more of a satirical spoof of the horror genre than a true horror comic---but it’s also kind of brilliant.

The premise is this: a young high school girl named Takako is terrorized by the mean girls at her school, who tease her and beat her and nearly drown her and call her “Octopus Girl.” (“Tako” is Japanese for “octopus.”) Somehow, after a particularly vicious attack, Takako finds herself cursed and transformed into an actual octopus. (She still has her human head but instead of a body, she has tentacles sprouting out of her neck.) In this octopus form, Takako essentially goes crazy and kills all of the girls who tormented her, then escapes into the sea.

Eventually, Takako learns to control the transformation between her human and octopus forms, and sets off on a series of bizarre, extremely violent, crazed adventures involving sea witches, a girl who was transformed into an eel by a mad scientist, a vampire granny, a psychopathic toddler, and so on. Along with the violence and gore, there are also some interesting meta-moments in these stories. For example, when the plot starts to get too silly, the “cursed hands of the readers” reach into the comics’ frame to throttle the characters, and when Takako spends too much time on a sideline thought, the foot of the comic artist himself kicks her back into engaging with the plot of the story! It’s very clever and very funny. In addition, Yamazaki’s black and white line art is excellent---allowing him to parody “shojo” style romance comics and then turn around and fill the frames with gushing blood. His ability to create disgusting and disturbing scenes is perhaps a bit too far into the “yucky” even for my taste at times. The mood is an unholy marriage of Tom Savini splatter-gore mixed with a Garbage Pail Kids sensibility!

So there you go… If you like disgusting, creepy, gory, violent, insane, silly, juvenile, horror comedy, then Octopus Girl might be right up your alley. If you are a nice person, a kind person, someone who believes in morality and decency and not cutting humans into ribbons and eating them, I’d probably avoid this book. It’s not particularly SCARY (I’ll get to scary Japanese comics when I get to Junji Ito), but it is very clever, demented fun---if you have a strong enough stomach…

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


Wednesday, July 26, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 040: Carmilla”

I could be wrong on this, but it seems to me that most people believe Dracula was one of the first vampire stories, or that Stoker invented the vampire genre out of whole cloth, but Dracula wasn’t published until 1897. Before that there were a number of classic vampire stories that are still good today, including John Polidori’s The Vampyre (1819), Rymer & Prest’s Varney The Vampire, or The Feast of Blood (1847); and the novella that I’m looking at today, Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), probably the best written and most entertaining of the lot!

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu – Carmilla (1872)

Le Fanu, despite the French sounding name, was an Irish writer, known for telling ghost stories, and Carmilla COULD technically be placed in the ghost story category. Before Hollywood got a hold of the vampire genre, according to author’s like Paul Barber (who wrote the excellent book, Vampires, Burial, and Death), the rules of vampirism were less defined. But, most vampire beliefs throughout Europe and the Middle East cut the monster as more of a nighttime shade or ghostly visitor than as a solid creature. The flashy vamps from Twilight wouldn’t even be recognizable as vampires before the 1900s. Folklore vamps were not glamorous, not even physical, necessarily. A person would die, probably from tuberculosis or some other wasting disease, and then their family members would see the person, at night, in their rooms, and feel a pressure on their chest, and then become sick themselves. Someone would then suspect that the illness was caused by a vampire, open the coffin of the recently deceased, see the natural signs of decomposition (a ruddy complexion, sometimes blood on the lips or on the floor of the coffin, etc.), but not KNOW that these are the natural signs of decomposition, and perform a gruesome ritual on the corpse, in an attempt to stop the spread of the disease. It wasn’t particularly effective, but the stories stuck.

Anyway, so Carmilla was published over two decades before Dracula, but was already a fully formed, Hollywood-ready, vampire story. (In fact, the story HAS been filmed at least half a dozen times, and inspired a couple of really great Hammer films, including the absolute classic, The Vampire Lovers (1970) with Ingrid Pitt as Carmilla.) Le Fanu’s story has a subdued lesbian element to it (played up in the Hammer versions, of course), has a vampiric transformation into a cat-like monster when the vamp is attacking, has a “discovering the coffin” scene, and even a knowledgeable old doctor who knows what’s causing the young woman’s illness---the dreaded oupire! It’s a story that anyone who has watched a vampire movie in the last hundred years will instantly recognize, but with that said, Le Fanu is an excellent writer and his pacing and stylistic details make this a very enjoyable read. It’s quick, it’s not boring, and it’s got some fun, suspenseful moments in it.

One interesting bit, which makes this story a bit different from our modern Western vampire tales, is the inclusion of a rationale for how the vampire in the story came to be. For readers of Anne Rice or of novels like Salem’s Lot, we know that vampires are caused by someone being bitten by another vampire, dying, and then being reanimated as a blood drinker. In Carmilla, there’s really no indication that people who die from the vampire’s attack come back as vamps themselves. Instead, it is suggested that the original vampire was created when a woman, through rather tragic circumstances, committed suicide. Her unholy death corrupted her soul and changed her into a creature of darkness. It’s an interesting take on the vampire legend.

Overall, I’d say this book would be appreciated by people who like non-sparkly vampires, who appreciate a good, gothic setting and Victorian pacing, or who are just interested in the historical development of the vampire story. The descriptions of the transformed Carmilla attacking the young heroine for the first time are quite good, and the details of the “opening the coffin” scene are perfectly gruesome, and seem right out of a Hammer classic. Le Fanu, as I mentioned, is a spectacular writer, and he knows how to create mood and atmosphere. Despite the story being nearly 150 years old, it definitely still holds up!

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


Saturday, July 22, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 039: Principia Discordia”

I am ashamed to say, this was my first time reading one of the most famous, most influential, most hilarious works of alternative religion ever created, the Principia Discordia, the “holy book” for a religion based on the worship of chaos, disorder, and pranks…

Malaclypse The Younger / Rev. Timothy Edward Bowen – Principia Discordia (1965/2014)

Discordianism is either a parody of religion or a very silly religion based around the worship of the Greek goddess of chaos and disorder, Eris. It was (probably) started in the late 1950s or early 1960s by Greg Hill and Kerry Thornley, (I say “probably” because Hill admits that his memory might be wrong on the dates.) Hill and Thornley claim to have received a revelation from the goddess, in the form of a mystical vision, while drinking late one night at a bowling alley. From this humble beginning, the Discordian faith went on to inspired novels (like Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson’s Illuminatus trilogy), plays, music groups (like The KLF---see my review of the book, KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money, for more on THAT fascinating story), and a seemingly endless list of pranksters and antisocial types who continue to proclaim faith in the goddess to this day.

Hill and Thornley, after communing with the goddess (through their pineal glands) created the Discordian Bible, the Principia Discordia. The history of the book is complex, having gone through a number of different “editions” from a hand Xeroxed first edition to various reprintings with content being added and removed with the various editions. Hill, in an interview included with my edition of the book, calls the Principia a “collage,” and you can see this in both the visual style as well as in the way ideas from a number of sources are smashed and jammed together to create a unique, though chaotic, whole (just as Eris would have wanted it!)

Much of the text in the book is credited to “Malacylpse The Younger,” supposedly the son of a wandering Discordian Saint (the Elder Malaclypse), and a host of interesting characters, such as saints, popes, and philosophers. There’s even an evil deity, Grey Face, responsible for turning the world against Eris, who is really just trying to have a good time. In-between odd theological musings, thinly veiled social and religious critiques, and outright absurdity, you’ll find some genuinely fulfilling belly laughs. (My favorite bit: “Remember: KING KONG Died For Your Sins.”) There are interconnecting stories, modified Greek mythology, Discordian religious procedures, sections of fake “Holy Books” (like the Book of Uterus,) biographical bits from Thornley and Hill’s lives (although their names are never mentioned in this work,) and quotes and quips from pop culture figures, like Neils Bohr, John Lennon, and General George Custer. The tone is hip, 60s/70s underground comedy, possibly comparable to things like Monty Python, Firesign Theatre, or National Lampoons. It’s very funny, very silly, and (for someone like me) very inspirational.

I’m impressed that such a thin book (the original text seems to run a mere 75 pages) could have such a long-lasting cultural impact. There are still Discordian Societies active today, and as we’ve learned from the KLF book, the Erisian, chaotic principle seems to have struck a solid chord with a number of creative individuals over the last several decades. There are certainly things about this book that more up-tight humans (particularly religious individuals) will find offensive, but it doesn’t seem any more morally corrupt than your average television show (not counting the news, which is so sick and disgusting anymore, that I just can’t watch it.) For those who want the TRULY over-the-top, offensive, Discordian craziness, that can be found in the Illuminatus books, which follow the Discordian principles to several logical extremes. (I’ll have to review those books soon.) Meanwhile, this edition of the Principia Discordia is easily available through online booksellers, and it’s well worth the price of admission for the rollicking good time the reader will find inside. Maybe it won’t convert you into an Eris worshiper, but if nothing else, it’s a fun, clever read. If all goes WELL, however, it just might inspire you to start your own religion. (I’ve already started writing a new Holy Book…again…)

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


Thursday, July 20, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 038: The Dot and The Line”

I have cool friends, and sometimes those cool friends give me cool things. I recently became older (than I ever was), and on the day we celebrated my surviving for this long, two friends of mine, Mark Counts and Mary Counts, handed me a few books! (ALWAYS a cool thing.) One of those books, which Mark described as one of his favorites, was The Dot and The Line by Norton Juster. I had read the classic kids’ book, The Phantom Tollbooth, (also by Juster) but I’d never even heard of THIS one! How does it hold up, you ask? Let’s find out…

Norton Juster – The Dot and The Line (1963)

The Dot and The Line is a kids’ book, in the sense that it is a short book full of illustrations (you know, like most of Edward Gorey’s work.) The story centers on the obsessive infatuation that a straight line has for a dot, but the consummation of the line’s interest is thwarted when the dot reveals that she prefers a free-spirited squiggle to the straight-laced, commonplace line. The story is witty and humorous, and full of interesting, mostly adult-leaning inside jokes, which I found to be pretty clever. For instance, when the line’s friends (all the other lines) suggest that he finds “a nice straight line and settle down,” the hero of the story ignores them, and thinks about how perfect the dot is. He says she’s “36-36-36,” no matter what direction you look at her from: top, side, or straight on. (This is, of course, a clever nod to the 36-24-36 that are supposed to be the “perfect” dimensions for a female, but this is nonsensical for a dot because, in mathematics, a dot is a single point, 1-1-1, from any vantage point. What kid is going to get THAT joke?) There are several clever jokes like this one in the book.

Moving on with the story, eventually, after brooding and daydreaming for several pages, the line decides to take drastic measures, and figures out how to BEND himself, forming an angle. Once this skill is mastered, he learns to form himself into a multitude of shapes and patterns of remarkable complexity---and then he returns to the dot and wins her away from the anarchic squiggle, who is too uncontrolled and chaotic to compete with the line’s subtle, rhythmic constructions.

It’s a fun story, and the illustrations are interesting and very clever. There are also a number of nods to adult sensibilities, but nothing outright NAUGHTY. I’d say this would be a fun book for people who like math and/or sly humor OR who are able to read between the lines! (Ha! Had to do it!)

But here’s where things get weird. I’ve read a lot of conspiracy materials and listened to tons of podcasts about secret societies and hidden symbols, and I have to say this: There are a number things about this book that suggest it could be a Masonic / Illuminati / Conspiracy text. (Come along with me for a few seconds on this one…) First, the book jacket says that Norton Juster is a 33 year old architect, at the time of publication, living in Brooklyn. In the Scottish Rites of Freemasonry, the 33rd degree is the highest level of initiation that a member of the craft can reach. (Interestingly, Burl Ives was a 33rd degree mason!) Next, architects design buildings, and masons construct buildings. (Is Juster DESIGNING young masons' minds through this text?) Also, Brooklyn is in New York, and New York was known as the “Empire State,” which is thought by many conspiracy theorists to be the Home Base from which Masons will take over the world. There are also a number of drawings in the book that (before computers) would have required the use of a compass and protractor to create, and the compass and protractor (or at least a square) are frequently used as symbols for freemasonry. Last, the line character wins over the dot with his show of controlled complexity, convincing the dot to give up on chaos in favor of order, and one of the primary concepts that Freemasons believe in (if my conspiracy literature is correct) is “ORDER OUT OF CHAOS.” When the world is about to go up in flames because of political, economic, and military strife, the citizens will reach out to the Freemasons and gladly take the ORDER that they offer in exchange for personal freedom. New World Order!

So---was Norton Juster attempting to sway young minds towards acceptance of the Illuminati Masters by conditioning them through the use of a clever children’s story? OR have I just read too many pages of Robert Anton Wilson, and I’m now seeing conspiracies and symbols even when they aren’t actually there??? Either way, The Dot and The Line is a fun book, witty enough to keep adults interested, but simple enough to entertain even young readers. I recommend giving it a read, (if you can find it,) if you want something quick and fun to chew on (and if you don’t mind having your brain pushed just a tiny bit closer to acceptance of the New World Order!) Personally, I’m rooting for the anarchic squiggle. If all it takes for that flighty dot to leave you is a quick show of FLASH, let her walk… There’s always another dot out there waiting!

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


Monday, July 10, 2017

“Read a Damn Book - 037a: Fear and Loathing (Revisited!)” by Shane Grove

[Read a Damn Book gets its first GUEST REVIEW, thanks to Northwest educator, Shane Grove! Hopefully, this will be the first of many guest reviews on RaDB, and interestingly, Mr. Grove decided for his initial review to tackle Hunter S. Thompson. He assures me that he finished the book and wrote his piece BEFORE looking at my review, so he wasn’t corrupted by my petty opinions! Thanks for playing, Mr. Grove! Maybe you’ll have time to review a few more books before you get back to molding young minds in the fall!? ---RFY]

My first interaction with anything Hunter S. Thompson related came in my late teens in the form of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, the “classic” Johnny Depp cinematic effort.  I’d heard from a number of different people about the quality of the movie and the quality of Depp’s performance.

I can’t remember if I rented the movie from Blockbuster (was that still a thing?) or if I was locked into the crippling movie pirating addiction that I continue to suffer, but either way it was a short lived experience.  I recall thinking to myself how ridiculously-all-over-the-place the movie was.  I didn’t care for the acting.  I didn’t care for the cinematography.  I didn’t care for much of anything and turned the movie off before the completion of the Circus-Circus Merry-Go-Round scene.  And that was the end of it for me.

Some 15 years later, I fell into a discussion with Rick Yates about quality this and that, as we sometimes do, and Fear and Loathing came up as a literary effort.  Rick and I have, in the past, ran pretty closely to one another regarding the quality of cinema and literature, but he was baffled when I told him F&L was one of my least favorite movies of all time.

So, because of my respect for Rick’s opinion of literature, I decided to give Fear and Loathing a shot as a novel, rather than a movie, producing a rather different outcome.  I sat down and read it in about 5 hours spread out over two days (thinly veiled brag).  At only 200ish pages, I was willing to give it a power-read and get a quick impression.

First, I told myself I wasn’t going to view this book as a political statement.  Thompson spends a good amount of the book’s commentary on his ideals of righteousness and how the world has moved on from the world he may still want to live (being the 1960’s and the time when ‘uppers’ were still in instead of ‘downers’ brought on by Nixon).  And he is a master of this viewpoint.  But I wanted to view the book from strictly a literary standpoint.  Because I’d had such a visceral reaction to the material so many years ago, I wanted to just ask myself when I’d finished, did I enjoy this book?

30 or 40 pages into the novel, I could already tell that I wasn’t going to have the same experience I’d had a decade before.  The writing was well structured.  I don’t know if that was because I’m 15 years older than I was or because I’d just finished the classically unstructured and confusing Neuromancer.  But either way, I was pleasantly surprised.

Thompson was much easier to follow and his characters were gripping and showed surprising depth.  Despite the fact that he jumped in and out of different narratives, it was rather easy to follow, which is something I’ve come to value in literature as I age.  I was continually baffled at how much of the story was actually true.  Some of the work-arounds they use to get out of situations are so incredibly clever (such as the scene near the end with Alice the maid or the disposal of the teenage artist, Lucy), that my knee-jerk reaction is claims of falsehood.

Once I looked back and got over this outrage, I realized it didn’t matter.  Either it was a true retelling of just an outrageous series of interactions, or a brilliant piece of fictional journalism.  Either way, bravo, I thought.  His ability to put me in that area of unknowing, I realized, is the backbone of Gonzo Journalism.  How much is real?  How much is made up?  I found myself caring less what was non-fiction or fiction the more I read.  I was simply enjoying the story.

My favorite parts of the book dealt with how casual Thompson was with such serious situations interspersed with almost unimportant details to wash out the brutalness of the stories.  Raul Duke and his Attorney sit at a restaurant where Thompson writes:

“We wound up at a place called The Big Flip about halfway downtown.  I had a ‘New York Steak’ for $1.88.  My attorney ordered the ‘Coyote Bush Basket’ for $2.09 . . . and after that we drank off a pot of watery ‘Golden West’ coffee and watched four boozed-up cowboy types dick a faggot half to death between the pinball machines.”

I mean, just brutal, but so casually stated, between how much his steak was and their conversation as they shuffled back to the car.

This is what I left Fear and Loathing with, the feeling that little details were as important as the big details.  Everything had to be carefully deconstructed by the reader to get the full effect from this novel, which I feel, especially comparative to my experience with the film 10 years earlier, I have.  I, surprisingly, and I’m sure to Rick’s delight, loved the book.

---Shane Grove


Saturday, July 8, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 037: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

As I packed my bags in preparation for a 20 hour drive from southern Washington State to Las Vegas, I thought to myself, “Why don’t I reread Hunter S. Thompson?” I figured it would put me in the proper frame of mind for the week I was about to spend in Sin City, and to be honest, I think it worked quite well. The first day of the drive, I and my three passengers made it to Reno, Nevada, and they all decided to hit the casino when we landed. I, however, hadn’t slept much during the drive (being the driver and all) and decided to stay in the hotel room and read until I crashed for the night. And while they were out losing money and drinking, I was having a great time laughing and reading the exploits of Thompson and his “attorney,” Oscar Acosta, in the decadence capital of the U.S.A.!

Hunter S. Thompson – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971/1989)

For those who haven’t read this book or seen the film version (1998---directed by Terry Gilliam and starring Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro) the premise is pretty straight-forward: a reporter, on assignment to cover a motorcycle race in Las Vegas, takes massive amounts of drugs and terrorizes around the city with his partner, who claims to be his attorney (and in real life, Oscar Acosta WAS a lawyer and political activist.) The events described in the book are outrageous and offensive and frightening and unbelievable and hilarious---and might have even been partially true (in some respects.) Thompson was well known for his journalistic style (often called “Gonzo” journalism) in which he would paint himself as a primary character in the story he was covering, barely touch on the issue he was sent to investigate, make scathing observations about society, commit any number of atrocities, and then flee the scene. And this book is the gold standard by which this type of journalism should be judged. We never learn who won the motorcycle race---because it doesn’t matter. What Thompson eventually decides he’s actually covering is a deeper topic: What happened to the American Dream?

One of the dangers of suggesting that this book is nothing but complete, drug-soaked craziness, is the danger of discounting Thompson as a writer of little substance, and I think that would be a massive a mistake. Thompson was a brilliant observer, and keen intellect, and a relentless fighter for the rights of individuals over the horrifying forces of oppression and authoritarianism. He was also one of the best, most poetic, most intense writers of the last 100 years, and if you think I’m full of hyperbole, check these passages out, from page 68 of my copy of this book, as Thompson considers the counter-culture movement of the 1960s, which had high ideals and a sense that they were on the verge of initiating a new age of love and peace and understanding:

“There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning….

“…We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave….

“So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark---that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

By 1971 when this book was written, Thompson had already realized that the idealism of the 1960s was dead, that the tide of progress was reversing and rolling away. And it kept right on rolling. And here we are now, in 2017, and we’ve almost boomeranged back to 1925 (the year the Scopes Trial decided that teaching children proper science was more important than pandering to the whims of religious fanatics who wanted their fictions taught in schools instead of reality…)

In my view, Thompson is essential reading. This book will definitely be too visceral for some, too many drugs, too many body fluids, too many anti-authoritarian acts, too many lies, but his sentiment is sincere. Thompson was a crusader, an explorer. He delved into realms (of the mind AND of society) that would be too dangerous for most of us to risk, but the wisdom he brought back from these journeys can be extremely illuminating. Beyond the “party,” beyond the felonies and fraud, beyond the laugh-out-loud terror, what this book does is show us who we are in our bones. Every ideology is challenged and every motivation that we have MUST be reexamined after reading an author like this (and Pynchon and Twain and Alan Moore.) When a concept is taken to its extreme---as with the Large Hadron Collider---it explodes, and we can then look at the debris and see for ourselves what is true and real. Thompson, who committed suicide in 2005, is greatly missed, and we could sure use his keen observations and cutting wisdom today… At the VERY least, we still have his books.

---Richard F. Yates

P.S. – Hunter S. Thompson and I were both born on July 18th. It doesn’t really mean anything, but at least I have that little bit of connection to smile about!


Sunday, June 25, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 036: Watchmen”

You’ve probably heard of Watchmen. You’ve probably heard that it changed comics forever. Maybe you’ve even seen the film version… But to actually READ the book, that’s something else entirely…

Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons – Watchmen (1986/2005)

Alan Moore is, possibly, the most famous comic book author of all time. He’s also well known as a practitioner of magic, as having a famously bushy beard, and for his extreme anti-Hollywood stance, going so far as to demand that his name be completely removed from the film versions of Watchmen, V for Vendetta, From Hell, and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen…(and I kind of get that last one.) But why? Why go so far out of the way to distance himself from association with (and even any of the ROYALTIES from) these big-time productions? According to Moore, it’s because he wrote those stories as COMICS, utilizing the strengths and techniques of that medium, which he sees as being extremely different from film.

So, for this review, I reread the Watchmen graphic novel and rewatched the movie, and I have to say that I agree with Moore. The book is complex, with multiple overlapping storylines, which exploit the mix of textual elements and Dave Gibbons’ art, which is very detailed and expressive (the colors could take an entire scholarly article to discuss.) Having just rewatched the movie after finishing the book, it’s immediately obvious that the film had to exclude and simplify and change a MASSIVE amount of content in order to jam 12 comic book issues into 162 minutes’ worth of film. Which isn’t to say that the movie is bad. Some of the casting was excellent, and the special effects are quite impressive (especially the science fiction themed scenes with Dr. Manhattan), and the soundtrack was perfectly chosen adding a nostalgic element to the “historical” sections of the story. The movie was actually good---it’s just that the movie, even at almost three hours in length, can’t even come close to depth of Alan Moore’s story.

For those who don’t know the book or the film, Watchmen is an alternate reality tale that takes place in a dark and dreary mid-1980s (although there are frequent flashbacks to various decades and historical events in the 20th century), and the main premise of the story seeks to answer one seemingly simple question: What would have happened to the world if superheroes were real? The story is framed as a murder mystery with a “costumed adventurer” being murdered early in the first “chapter,” and one of the victim’s former team-mates suspecting that someone has decided to start killing “masks.” The book is grim and noir in style, with lots of rain-soaked scenes in dark alleys and seedy bars, and it should be noted that the atmosphere created by both art and text work perfectly together.

Beyond the atmosphere, what truly elevates this book above and beyond any other comic (before or since) is how Moore uses the superhero archetype to explore some extremely deep concepts, from media manipulation to obsession to the use of violence in the name of the “greater good.” The characters are complex, (no clear “good” or “evil,”) and most of them are deeply emotionally flawed. A character like Rorschach is sociopathic in his violent methods, but driven by an extreme dedication to justice and exposing the truth. Dozens of characters, even those who are peripheral to the main storyline, are explored throughout the book, like newsstand vendors and delivery drivers and security guards, so when horrible things happen to these usually cardboard characters, the tragic occurrences actually have meaning. Imagine that! A comic with emotional depth!

I should also mention that the story is extremely violent, nor is it very P.C. by today’s standards (reflecting the mid-80s culture in which it was written), and the story may actually be a bit TOO dark for many readers. Moore pulls no punches. Gibbons illustrates some scenes that are so gruesome they can turn a reader’s stomach. There is certainly a sense of existential angst so oppressive in this book that it should probably be classified as a horror story, as opposed to a superhero comic. HOWEVER, it is also absolutely brilliant. I’ve read this book three times now, and I caught nuances and details that I missed the first two times. (I’m certain that I’ll catch even more the NEXT time I read it.) The tension that this book creates is remarkable, and the tale, which mixes horror, political satire, time travel, murder mystery, nuclear armageddon, and superhero stories, all spread over five or six different sub-plots, comes together in a shocking and darkly satisfying climax (though I have to admit that the ending is not the happiest I’ve ever read.) Alan Moore, in an interview in 2009, said that if someone was only going to read ONE story by him, that Watchmen would be the one he would recommend. I concur. It’s dense and dark and disturbing, but so well done that I can’t think of any other book so complex yet so complete. It’s definitely one for the ages…

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


Monday, June 5, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 035: The Great God Pan”

Howard Phillips Lovecraft, the high priest of horror, was born in 1890. In that same year, Welsh author Arthur Machen unleashed The Great God Pan upon the world, and this novella has since become a classic of the supernatural horror genre and was a major influence on Lovecraft himself---but how does it hold up in our modern, gore-saturated world? Let’s find out…

Arthur Machen – The Great God Pan (1890)

This story takes place over the course of a number of decades, and is told from the perspective a handful of different characters, each one relating another dark piece in a series of unfortunate occurrences that culminate in a series of suicides and (possibly) murders. In the first chapter of the book, a scientist performs a surgery on a young woman (she volunteers for the procedure, but there is a certain creepiness to the relationship between doctor and patient that will make most modern readers cringe) with the understanding that the surgery will enable the young woman to see aspects of reality that normal humans can’t perceive. The operation is a success, but the patient is almost instantly overwhelmed by her visions and experiences a complete mental collapse from the sheer terror. The rest of the novella is an exploration of the effects and ramifications of this strange experiment.

It’s important for readers to remember that the book is well over a hundred years old, so no one should be expecting slasher gore or extreme sexual content. However, Machen still does a great job of SUGGESTING that horrible things are going on, without explicitly describing them. There is also a decent body-count for a book that’s this old, with suitably unpleasant crime scene descriptions of at least a few of the corpses. But what Machen probably does BEST is evoke a sense of the uncanny. The mood in many of these chapters is the equal of Lovecraft or some of Poe’s tales, and that’s a good thing, BUT the pacing of the story is a bit slower than what modern readers are used to. The story is a stroll rather than a sprint.

The version of The Great God Pan that I read was available as a free download for my e-reader, and it’s definitely worth the tiny amount storage space and the few hours that it will take to finish reading. The story is enjoyable enough that I’ve read it a few times now, and I believe that it’s a classic for good reason, as Machen establishes mood well, and this story runs the emotional gamut, from the nicely suspenseful to the downright creepy. (For horror, what else do you need?) Again, I have to admit that the pacing is probably a bit slow for modern readers, but at least the book is short and can be read rather quickly (unlike The Woman in White, which seemed like it took YEARS to finish.) Those readers hoping for Clive Barker style thrills probably won’t be satisfied, but if you like Lovecraft or Victorian gothics, or if you’re interested in learning where modern horror CAME FROM, then this book is essential reading---and frankly, I find it a lot more fun than modern torture-porn, like Saw or Hostel, which I don’t find entertaining at all.

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


Monday, May 29, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 034: Metropolis”

Osamu Tezuka – Metropolis (1949/2003) [Translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian]

Osamu Tezuka is one of the most famous comics artists that Japan has ever produced, but I’m not real sure how well known he still is today. Some people may remember Astro Boy (which I loved as a cartoon as a kid), or they might know Kimba the White Lion, who was borrowed by Disney and recast (and recolored) as the character Simba for The Lion King---and it’s interesting that Disney eventually borrowed from Tezuka because (as I’ve read) he was very influenced by Disney animation. In fact, there is a scene in Metropolis were a pack of giant rats attacks a factory---and all of the rats’ heads look just like Mickey Mouse! One character, Dr. Bell, gives the rats’ scientific name: “These animals are called Mikimaus Waltdisneus.” Yeah…

Metropolis is a strange book. It’s a science fiction tale which doesn’t bring to mind Fritz Lang’s film of the same name so much as it does Karl Capek’s R.U.R. (a play from 1920 in which a company makes robot slaves, and the robots eventually rise up and kill everybody…) In Tezuka’s book, the evil Duke Red and his group of villainous cronies, called the Red Party, are attempting to take over the world and are creating robot slaves to do their bidding. Duke Red, a master of disguise and clever as a snake, discovers a brilliant scientist, Dr. Lawton, who is working on “artificial cells” and kidnaps Lawton to try to force him to make an “artificial being” with super-powers that would be the ultimate slave/weapon. Once the being has been created, however, Dr. Lawton escapes with the artificial being, now called Michi, and attempts to raise Michi as his own child. (Oddly, the being called Michi is both male AND female. There is a switch down Michi’s throat that can be pushed to change Michi from a boy into a girl and back again. Other than one scene where Michi, as a girl, is able to hide from Duke Red for a few seconds, this fluid gender doesn’t seem to have much of a point in the tale.)

Over the course of this strange story, the robot slaves created by the Red Party are abused by Duke Red, and Michi is also traumatized by various experiences, and the slaves and Michi eventually decide to revolt and go on a murderous rampage, killing and destroying everything in their path. Although the art style of this comic seems very kid-oriented to me, and according to a short note at the end of the edition that I have, Tezuka says that this WAS a kids’ story, there is still a lot of death and gruesomeness here. There’s even a one very creepy scene where a police detective (one of the main characters in the story) skins one of the Mickey rats and wears the creature’s carcass as a disguise to escape from the Red Party’s hideout!

Yeah, this story is dark, especially for a kids’ book, and it does tend to be a bit preachy. (One character at the end of the story has a monologue where he looks the reader in the eye and says, people will “wipe themselves out” if they aren’t careful!) It’s also not paced as well as some of Tezuka’s later stories, like Dororo, which is absolutely fantastic! But with all of this said, Metropolis is such an odd and creepy story that it’s worth reading just for the WTF factor. It has metatextual moments, lots of inside jokes (pay attention to what the characters in big crowd scenes are saying), and the art is clean and cartoony, which contrasts in an interesting way with the dark subject matter. Also, if you’ve seen the 2001 anime film and you’re hoping that the comic is similar, you might be disappointed. The comic is less coherent---simpler and less sophisticated in tone---and much goofier than the anime, but like I mentioned above, it is weird and fun. Give it a try if you get a chance, and get a glimpse of what comics were like in Japan way back in the 1940s!!!

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

Friday, May 26, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 033: Living Dead in Dallas”

Charlaine Harris – Living Dead in Dallas (2002)

This is the 2nd book in the Sookie Stackhouse series of vampire/romance/mystery novels written by Charlaine Harris. (I reviewed the first book in the series, Dead Until Dark, a few weeks ago.) This is my third or fourth time reading this book, and I still found it entertaining. I’m a bit burned out on vampire stories at the moment, but despite this fact, the characters in this book are like old friends or family members that I can stop by and visit every once in a while.

This particular book has two (essentially unrelated) story-lines in its pages, one of which is pretty interesting, while the other is somehow brilliant and flat at the same time. In the first story-line, Sookie (the psychic waitress) is sent to Dallas by a powerful vampire, Eric, to help the Texas based undead find out what happened to one of their missing vampire buddies. (It seems silly when I write it out, but the storyline comes across well enough in the book. You need to have the ability to suspend disbelief with a series like this, but if you can go with it, the experience can be fun.) The perps who have nabbed the missing vampire are a religious group, the Fellowship of the Sun, who are planning on sacrificing the abducted vampire in a weird sunrise ritual. Because vampires are tough to kidnap, they have enlisted the help of an ancient, child-molesting vampire, Godfrey, who has come to believe that he is TOO evil and so he must destroy himself. (Again, you’ve got to suspend some disbelief…) This storyline is pretty fun and satisfying.

The second plotline involves Sookie trying to solve the mystery of who murdered Lafayette, the gay cook from the bar. Part of this second storyline involves a creature from Greek mythology, a maenad---one of the handmaiden’s of Dionysus (a true party god!)---and this character, as presented in the novel, is one of my favorites in recent history. She is crazy, chaotic, and mysterious---a force of nature, like a little, naked tsunami, covered in blood and leaving bodies in her wake---a truly frightening and entertaining character!

The storyline involving the murder of Lafayette almost seems like a throwaway, isn’t that interesting for most of the pages that are dedicated to it, and it doesn’t have any connection to the Dallas plotline at all, but this bookend section DOES eventually let the reader spend some time with the maenad character, which is great. In fact, her scene is so fun that this otherwise flat element of the book suddenly becomes worthwhile, thanks to the few pages that are devoted to her! (This bookend plot structure, a storyline introduced at the beginning of the novel, which is then dropped while a second story unfolds, and then returned to once the main story is over, is pretty common throughout Harris’s Sookie books. Personally, I don’t mind it, but it is a bit clunky and might get irritating for some readers.)

As I mentioned in my review of the first novel, H.B.O. produced a television show based on the Sookie books, which they called TrueBlood (named after the of brand synthetic blood that many vampires in the series drink.) For the 2nd season of the H.B.O. show, the producers chose to change several key elements from the novel. Of these changes, two were actual improvements, and the third was a complete tragedy and infuriated me beyond measure. The first change, which ended up being extremely significant, was that Lafayette was NOT found dead in the back of a parked cop car at the beginning of the first episode, but instead lives and becomes a major character in the series---and this was a great move, in my opinion. The actor who plays Lafayette, Nelsan Ellis, was so charismatic that the producers just couldn’t bring themselves to kill him off!

The next change was that the ancient vampire from the novel, Godfrey, (called Godric in the t.v. show,) was dramatically revised, and again this was for the better. The child molesting Godfrey, despite his told-not-show past, is actually a rather flat character. He doesn’t do much or say much or make much of an impression. He does save Sookie from being raped in one scene, but he seems uninterested in what he’s done after doing it, and then disappears without make any real impact. However, the t.v. series makes some dramatic changes to Godfrey and reimagines him as the character Godric (played by Allan Hyde in the H.B.O. show) who is a truly fascinating character. He’s played as a powerful, ancient, but young-looking near god-like figure who has come to a point where he is tired of life after spending thousands of years on this planet. He appears to be a brilliant, wise, and sad figure who has seen it all and done it all, but now just wants it to end. His fascinating storyline almost makes up for what I’m about to talk about next…

The maenad, who only appears at the very beginning and very end of the novel, becomes a central figure in season two of the TrueBlood series, which seems like it would be a cool thing. But, unfortunately, the producers of the show had no idea what the fuck a maenad IS, so they just simplified her and turned her into a Satanic priestess. (Dionysus, who is a JUSTICE figure in Greek myths, has NOTHING to do with Satanism…) This decision was infuriating and ridiculous, and the only reason I can guess at for the producers to choose to go this direction was so that the show could have a bunch of ritual orgy scenes, which are pretty boring and do nothing to further the plot. (It should be noted that the t.v. show ALWAYS has more sex than the books---and that’s saying something because these books are definitely on the EROTIC end of the spectrum.)

Unfortunately, the long and nonsensical plot involving the priestess in the t.v. show quickly becomes very tedious, and almost makes the 2nd season unwatchable. If it weren’t for the pathos injected into the show by the Godric storyline, I would probably never watch that season again. As it is, I’ll wait a few years, then give it another try.

With that said, the novel is very entertaining and a quick read. Harris strikes a solid balance between the humor, the supernatural horror, the sexy bits, and the mystery-thriller elements, and the solid storytelling should pretty easily carry most readers through to the end of the book. Again, I wouldn’t recommend this novel for fans of realism or for people who are squeamish about violence or explicit sexual situations---but if you like vampires and mystery novels and psychic waitresses, Living Dead in Dallas will be worth the short amount of time it will take most readers to get through it.

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


Sunday, May 21, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 032: Understanding Comics”

Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, comic books were HOT! Mainstream comics (Marvel & DC) were doing well, collectors’ prices were up, and the classic characters were on everyone’s mind. Tim Burton’s Batman film (from 1989) smashed box-office records and stayed in the local theater here in our small town for about a YEAR. Comic shops seemed to be on every corner---and there were about a million INDIE comics companies (Comico, Eclipse, Blackthorne, Caliber, First, Jademan, Fantagraphics, Renegade, Vortex, Kitchen Sink, Dark Horse…some are still going) putting out exciting books left and right. But for most comics readers---for almost EVERYONE---“comics” meant one of two things: either superheroes OR funny animals. Along comes Scott McCloud, and he says, DEFINITIVELY, no…

Scott McCloud – Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993)

According to McCloud, comics is not just men in colorful tights or mice throwing bricks at cats (see my George Herriman review for more on this topic.) Comics are a unique visual communications medium. The conceptual and abstract world of writing is added to the perceived and immediate world of visual imagery, but in a way that involves the reader on a deeper level than just watching a film or viewing a static, single panel cartoon or painting. With comics, the reader has to make the MOVEMENT from panel to panel happen in their own mind.

McCloud uses the following example: a cartoon panel shows a maniac chasing his intended victim with a wild, vicious look on his face and raised ax, poised to strike. The next panel is a shot of some rooftops, and a sound effect drawn above the buildings of someone screaming in pain. According to McCloud, when we as readers make that connection, from the panel with the maniac and his ax to the panel with the screaming sound effect, WE THE READERS are complicit in committing that murder. We connect the dots. We let the ax fall! Unlike in films, such as Saw or Friday the 13th, where we actually SEE movement, see the ax hit the head or the skin split open, with comics---THERE IS NO MOVEMENT unless we connect the action from panel to panel. Each individual panel just sits there, doing nothing, already all draw out from beginning to end, and we as readers have to understand the concept that one panel leads to the next and have to move our eyes from panel to panel, connecting each separate image in our heads, building the story as we go. Comics won’t do it for us, unlike a song on the radio or a television show, which keep going whether you’re paying attention or not.

Reading forces us to move from point to point and connect the images to make sense of what we are seeing, but words are COMPLETELY abstract, with no immediate image to anchor us (or unhinge us) like comics have. The experience of reading a comic requires effort on the part of the reader, but also gives the reader a visual starting point, a MOOD or SETTING in which the concepts can unfold. McCloud is one of the few people who have bothered to try and figure out how comics work---and how WE work so that comics can work.

The other important point that McCloud makes in this book is that comics are NOT just for superheroes. Comics are a medium with almost unlimited possibilities for expression or information exchange. From “How to Change a Tire on a Car” to the history of the Roman Empire, there are really no restrictions on the TOPICS that can be covered in comics. And, again, those indie publishers have often shown us just how interesting and free comics can be.

Hopefully I haven’t made this book sound too dry, because it’s not. The narrator, a simplified cartoon of Scott McCloud, is very funny, and the art is a brilliant mesh of various styles and examples from the worlds of art, psychedelia, optical illusions, and classic comics from throughout the lifespan of the medium---and did I mention that McCloud actually pulls all of this off in comic book form? That’s right, it’s a comic book about comic books!

Understanding Comics is a great book. I’ve read it at least five or six times, and each time through I feel like I’ve picked up something new. It’s funny and fascinating and worth your time, whether you’re a big fan of comic books or not. I’d recommend this book for anyone interested in design or visual storytelling or art production, as much of what McCloud discusses is how humans perceive the world and what we find tantalizing. This book might also be of interest for people interested in psychology and human cognition. AND, it should go without saying that if you are a FAN of comics, you NEED to read this book! Even though it’s over 20 years old, it’s still as relevant today as it was when it first came out!

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

Thursday, May 18, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 031: KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money”

Although I wasn’t ever a huge KLF fan---they had a couple of good techno songs, but I never bought their album---I LOVED the Dr. Who novelty song, “Doctorin’ the Tardis,” which the same artists released in the late 1980s when they were calling themselves The Timelords. So, when I saw that there was a book written about the band, I was immediately interested---and when I saw the word CHAOS in the title, I was sold. I grabbed the book for my e-reader, and read it rather quickly. (Reading this book inspired me to buy Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s conspiracy trilogy, The Illuminatus!) It was two or three years ago when I originally read this book, and since then, my fascination with the band has grown, and just recently The KLF have released a cryptic video suggesting that they are coming back! To be clear, this book is not just about that techno band who released “What Time is Love?” Get ready for totally insanity!

JMR Higgs – KLF: Chaos Magic Music Money (2012)

Twenty-three years ago, two fellows (Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty) had already been in the music industry for many years as performers and producers and provocateurs---they were involved with acts as diverse as the following: The KLF, The Timelords, The JAMS, Brilliant, Big in Japan, The Orb...and Drummond produced seminal works by Echo and the Bunnymen and The Teardrop Explodes, as well as starting the Zoo Records label.) These two guys, twenty-three years ago, took a million pounds (that’s British money) and burned it---on camera. According to Higgs’s book, they did it to try and get their souls back… How did they lose their souls? That’s a long story---better read the book.

This is a fantastically well written account of the lives of two maverick performers, which reads like a conspiracy theory novel and involves an unbelievable number of elements and actors: Discordianism, the goddess Eris, Lee Harvey Oswald, comic writer Alan Moore, a bevy of new wave and punk and alternative music performers, the Illuminati, authors Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea, Abba, rave culture, magic, Satanic rituals, the Dr. Who t.v. show, chaos theory, the art world...and more. I’m not kidding when I say that I read this book TWO TIMES in preparation for this review because the tale is so complex (and the story is interesting enough that I didn’t mind reading the book two times in a row---I really needed to, just to get enough of a handle on all the concepts to try and say something intelligent... I said TRY...)

It’s a fun story and bizarre as hell (if any of it is true…) The coincidences and connections that had to stack up for Drummond and Cauty to have ended up where they ended seem unbelievable. I hope it's all true!

I’m going to recommend this book for fans of conspiracy theories, fans of magic and magical thinking, fans of Alan Moore who want another perspective on his particular brand of genius, for fans of punk or post-punk or alternative rock or techno-dance music, for people who are interested in contemporary art, for fans of Dr. Who, for fans of The KLF, and for anyone who loves a page turning yarn! Higgs is an exceptional writer who finds connections in a sea of chaos, and this book is one of the best I’ve read in a long time… Let me repeat this: I’ve read it three times already, and I’m sure I’ll read it again!

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


Sunday, May 14, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 030: Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book”

Shel Silverstein – Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book (1961)

Most people probably know Shel Silverstein from his kids’ books: The Giving Tree, Where the Sidewalk Ends, A Light in the Attic---and these books are great. They are funny, clever, sometimes sad, sometimes a bit subversive, but family friendly. (Well, except “Dreadful” from Where the Sidewalk Ends, which starts with the line “Someone ate the baby…” That one’s a bit…dark.) However, there is also a decidedly ADULT side to Shel Silverstein, still funny of course, but much more in the counter-culture spirit. He actually won two Grammys, and he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. “WHY?” You might ask. Well, for writing classic songs like “A Boy Named Sue” and “I Got Stoned and I Missed It” and “Freakin’ at the Freakers’ Ball” of course! (The last two were both covered by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show!)

And no discussion of Shel Silverstein would be complete without considering his famous “Primer for Adults Only,” Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book. (Sadly, I purchased my copy from the children’s section of Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, Oregon!)

This rather short book (most people can probably read it in one sitting) was written and illustrated by Silverstein, and it almost looks like a kid’s book, but it ain’t. Disguised as Uncle Shelby, Silverstein provides an alphabet song with the letters out of order, tells kids to give “poor daddy” a haircut while he’s sleeping, suggests that drinking ink might be a good idea, and gives the reader this advice:

“K is for kidnapper / See the nice kidnapper / The kidnapper has a lollipop. / The kidnapper has a keen car. / The car can go fast. / Tell the nice kidnapper that your / Daddy has lots of money. / Then maybe he will / Let you ride / In his car.”

Dripping with irony and vicious humor, and with a high potential body count, this book probably isn’t for everyone. If you don’t find serious injury to children funny, I would definitely avoid. Most of the jokes are subtle by today’s standards---no foul language or Saw style gore---but that might be why the book works so well. Subtly is a lost art. These are jokes that build slowly and let the evil concepts simmer. Overall, I find Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book to be very funny. If you appreciate the DARK SIDE of life, if you like Edward Gorey’s evil little tales, or if you just hate kids, this book will probably make you smile. (Where the Sidewalk Ends is also very good, of course!)

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


Thursday, May 11, 2017

"Read a Damn Book - 029: Flaming Carrot's Greatest Hits"

I had the great pleasure of meeting Bob Burden once, back in 1988 at Golden Apple Comics in L.A. My uncle and I drifted into the comic shop, late, for a Burden appearance, and we got there just in time to see the man surrounded by admirers, with an old, dirty sock pulled over his hand with a few holes cut in it for his thumb and a finger or two to slip through. He was holding a pen with the sock covered hand and drawing on a page on table and saying something about how the sock kept his sleeve clean. After a second or two, Burden says, “I need a smoke,” and he got up and went out the back door---and everyone left. Since my uncle and I had just gotten there, we decided to stay and shop for a few minutes. (I found a few Flaming Carrot issues and a copy of Robot Comics #0, another Bob Burden classic.) After we’d browsed about the place for a bit, Burden came back into the shop and said, “Where the hell did everybody go?” I said that I guessed they thought that he was done so they left, and he just shrugged and said, “Oh well, what do you want me to sign?” And, to my surprise, he signed several comics, drew me a picture of Limbo Man on a clean sheet of paper, and we sat and talked for what must have been another half-an-hour, at least! He was incredibly funny, and just a great guy overall. In similar circumstances, I think a lot of artists would have gotten angry and left, but not Burden! He’s a stand-up fellow, just like his most fascinating creation: THE FLAMING CARROT!

Bob Burden – Flaming Carrot’s Greatest Hits (1998)

For those of you who aren’t familiar with F.C. Comics, the Carrot is, essentially, a mentally disturbed man who read 5,000 comics in one night on a bet, then emerged the following day wearing a carrot mask, flippers, and feeling compelled to fight crime---although, honestly, he seems to spend almost as much time chasing women as he does battling evil. This particular collection was the THIRD produced by Dark Horse Comics which reprinted the early, now incredibly difficult to find, independently published issues of Burden’s comic. Even if you’ve never read any Flaming Carrot stories before, this is a great place to start---a fantastic collection of tales. The stories include Carrot doing battle with a dead, flying dog, an army of cloned Hitler feet, various inter-dimensional monsters, and a mail-order jungle bride. There are TWO issues in this book (told as flashbacks while the Carrot dozes in a hammock) about The Mystery Men, a 2nd tier superhero group that Flaming Carrot supposedly belonged to back in the 1970s. (The Mystery Men eventually got their own film starring Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Hank Azaria, Greg Kinnear, Geoffrey Rush, Paul Reubens and a few others. It wasn’t as funny as the comics, but it wasn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen. That would probably have been Body of Evidence starring Madonna...)

These stories are very silly stuff, absurd to say the least, and quite fun. The first tale in the book, “The Dead Dog Leaped Up and Flew Around the Room” is possibly my favorite comic story of all time! (Definitely the best title ever.) However, Flaming Carrot is not for the thinned skinned, as the stories drift into some rather un-P.C. areas. Some would probably consider quite a few of the jokes to be sexist, and the final story, in which Uncle Billy orders a mail-order bride from an unspecified jungle, is pretty far over the line, but it’s also so silly that I think it’s safe to call it satire. There are also some awkward party sequences in these stories, and as these tales originally appeared in the 1980s, they tend to reflect the atmosphere and the attitudes of that era. (In one great scene, Flaming Carrot even puts on a checkered sport coat to go hang out in the hotel bar and try to pick up chicks!) Think Revenge of the Nerds meets Less Than Zero, maybe…but with more Nazis.

I love Flaming Carrot, and I think the humor holds up well, despite being over three decades old. Again, readers who are sensitive to sexist humor will probably be annoyed by much of the book, but for those who like alternative humor, odd characters, monsters, or really silly “adult” laughs, this collection will be right up your alley!

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


Thursday, May 4, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 028: The Robot Who Looked Like Me”

Robert Sheckley - The Robot Who Looked Like Me (1982)

Robert Sheckley has written some of my favorite stories of all time. He was a science fiction author (sadly, no longer with us) who started publishing in the 1950s, but who (unlike most science fiction writers) tended to write HILARIOUS stories. His logic is unassailable, and the topics he covers would suggest that he’s just your standard pulp sci-fi writer (robots with feelings, alien invasions, time travel, World War Three…), but for each classic trope that Sheckley tackles, he invokes a powerful twist that turns the topic on its head. His stories are clever, thought provoking, and sometimes extremely weird, like if Alice in Wonderland took place in a Post-Apocalyptic Theme Park.

I should be clear about one thing, Sheckley gets dark. His death toll is high. His characters can be deeply flawed. There are even bad words and naughty situations that creep up from time to time. (A quick look at WHERE these stories were originally published: Penthouse, Playboy, Cosmopolitan, etc…---real sick magazines---and one begins to understand the tone.) These are not children’s stories. For instance, in the disturbing but hilarious post-WW3 tale, “I See a Man Sitting on a Chair, and the Chair is Biting His Leg,” a man contracts a fatal, mind-altering illness, so he decides to retire to an underground city (which makes Vegas seem like Disneyland) where he can spend his remaining time gambling, fighting, and satisfying every sickening lustful appetite he can imagine. It’s dark. VERY dark, but somehow not as depressing as your average Philip K. Dick tale. Sheckley’s magic is his ability to make a sick, disturbing, fatal illness FUNNY!

If you’ve never read anything by Sheckley, this book would be a great place to start. The stories are fun, and he actually manages to hit some real high points in this collection. I loved the entertainment-gone-bad themed “The Never-Ending Western Movie,” and I think the dream-like story, “Zirn Left Unguarded, The Jenghik Palace in Flames, Jon Westerley Dead,” which is told is short, disturbing fragments, is among the finest, most poetic tales Sheckley ever told. However, if you’ve read some of his older stories from the 50s or 60s, or any of his crazy novels, like Dimension of Miracles or Status Civilization, this book will seem a bit tame. This collection is certainly entertaining and fun, but nothing here will completely destroy your brain like Sheckley’s wildest work can.

Like I said, this would be a great place to start if you’re new to mind-altering sci-fi comedy, and if you’re amused and want more, I recommend moving on to Status Civilization or the collection, Citizen in Space, which has my favorite Sheckley tale of all time, “Skulking Permit.” Really, if you can FIND anything by Robert Sheckley, grab it. He’s always worth reading!!!

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


Sunday, April 30, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 027: Swag – Rock Posters of the ‘90s”

Being born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, I actually came of age in the swampy breeding grounds of Grunge, although I was never really a fan of that STYLE of music, (it seemed more like metal than punk to me.) However, I ALWAYS loved the posters from this era, and this book includes a bunch of classic images that remind me that I used to be young!

Spencer Drate – Swag – Rock Posters of the ‘90s (2003)

I spent a lot of time at concert halls and other venues in the late 80s and early 90s (before I had kids), and we also had a local “punk” record store that was run by guy who LOVED rock posters, so I was pretty lucky, being heavily exposed to GRUNGE-ERA art when it was in its heyday. Frank Kozik, Coop, Jermaine Rogers, Tara McPherson, Brian Ewing, Jay Ryan, Art Chantry---these and another dozen or more big names from the artistic underground are covered in this book, and Chantry even wrote a nice, lengthy introduction on the history of concert posters. It’s a thick topic, but Chantry’s intro does an acceptable job of setting the stage for the rest of Drate’s book, which is essentially an alphabetical catalog of artists and designers responsible for some of the more noteworthy ‘90s music industry graphics.

Each artist/design team gets a brief intro and then examples of their artwork are presented for the reader to explore. Some of the bigger names get several pages worth of work, others get one poster and done, but the variety of styles and graphic design choices in this book are still pretty great. From hand-drawn comic book style images to modified photographs to bizarre cut-and-paste collages, the breadth of GRUNGE-ERA art was astonishing. It’s also interesting to me that the posters from this era were NOT just for bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, but many classic rock acts also still toured (Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Stevie Nicks, Bob Dylan, etc…) and sometimes these crusters even  played with the fancy NEW bands of the day.

Overall, I’d recommend this book for design fans, for rock ‘n’ roll history lovers, for kids who were too young to be conscious during the height of grunge, or for anyone interested in underground artists. Many of the designers presented here have web sites or even entire books devoted to their art, so if you see something you like within these pages, there’s plenty of OTHER materials to look for. Meanwhile, this collection is a great starter.

---Richard F. Yates

Sunday, April 23, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 026: Unsolved Mysteries”

When I was 12 or 13 years old, my parents got me a book called Mysteries of the Unexplained, which was a hefty encyclopedia of mysteries, coincidences, ghost stories, UFO sightings, and supernatural phenomena. I loved that book, but it presented a less than skeptical approach to most of the topics. The book I’m about to review, in contrast, is thinner than that old classic but much more balanced in its reporting…

Joel Levy – Unsolved Mysteries (2016)

Levy’s book is a well written survey of a handful of unusual topics, including mysterious locations, sightings of strange creatures, unsolved disappearances, and cryptic artifacts. Unlike my old Mysteries of the Unexplained book, this text presents the standard version of each story as well as the skeptical interpretation of the event or phenomenon, as well as the supernatural, conspiratorial or fringe theories in a section called “Far Out Theories.” Topics like “spirit orbs,” which are little splotches of light that show up in photographs, are pretty decisively explained as being caused by the flashes on cameras, but Levy also discusses the fringe beliefs, like that orbs are disembodied spirits or some kind of natural phenomena called “earth lights.” The fringe is still presented, but confined to a clearly marked section.

So if you are a huge fan of supernatural explanations or conspiracy theories, this book might not be your favorite. Also, the topics are covered VERY quickly, usually in four to six pages with lots of large text and photos. The majority of these subjects: Easter Island, Bigfoot, Area 51, Stonehenge, etc., require several books worth of information to cover thoroughly, and Levy realizes this, so he includes a section called “Further Reading” at the back of the book that suggests a number of additional texts that interested readers can look to for more information. And, my last complaint, there are some strange omissions from this book. There isn’t a word about the Great Pyramid of Cheops, or the Crystal Skulls, or Star Children… And WHY, considering the cover has the ALL-SEEING EYE on it, isn’t there a section on The Illuminati???

Overall, there are some interesting stories covered in this book, and lots of photos, which is cool. I like the inclusion of the skeptical explanations along with the wacky theories, as well, and the recent publication date means that the most recent research is usually included for each story. The book, however, is definitely a skimmer, just barely touching on each topic before dropping it and moving on to the next. If you are already a fan of Fortean topics, this book is going to seem too rudimentary, but if you’re looking for a starter text in WEIRD PHENOMENA, it might be worth picking up!

---Richard F. Yates

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

“Read a Damn Book – 025: Duchamp”

Janis Mink – Duchamp (2006)

Marcel Duchamp in one of the most important and most notorious artists of the 20th century, and oddly enough he really didn’t make that much ART. I’ve never really considered myself a huge fan of Duchamp, although I appreciate his sense of humor. Anybody willing to submit a toilet to an art show HAS to have a sense of humor, right?

What Mink does well in this book is explain some of what Duchamp was THINKING when he produced his art, and (as with Warhol) what the artist MEANT by his work is often more interesting than the finished product. The toilet wasn’t REALLY intended to be a beautiful work of art, it was meant as a CONCEPT and a CHALLENGE. The group that was putting together the show that this piece was submitted to supposedly had an open-door policy, meaning that anyone who paid the entry fee was allowed to show ANY two pieces of work that they wanted---but R. Mutt’s piece was rejected. (Duchamp submitted the work under a fake name, knowing that if he submitted it under his own name, the group would have to accept it.) The work of art was ACTUALLY intended to expose the hypocrisy of the group that was putting the show together, and supposedly Duchamp resigned from the organization when they rejected a paid member's submission.

Mink (using Duchamp’s journals and notes, as well as interviews and other sources) exposes the hidden jokes behind many of Duchamp’s most famous works. I’ve never been that moved by the art that Duchamp produced (except “Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), which was described by a critic in 1913 as “an explosion in a shingle factory,” and I also enjoyed his modified Mona Lisa postcard, in which Duchamp gives the old girl a mustache and beard!) Learning about the JOKES, bad puns, and clever concepts behind some of Duchamp’s works, however, is fascinating. He was a weird guy---deeper and much more clever than his individual pieces may seem at first glance. And he was apparently less interested in making art than he was in messing with people, and I respect that!

In contrast to all his humorous work, though, his final major creation is absolutely horrifying. “Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas,” is a “peep show” style diorama that he spent nearly 20 years constructing, and it is so unsettling, so disturbing and disgusting, that I really don’t care for it. The work itself looks to the viewer, at first, like an unmarked wooden door with two eye holes in it, but when the viewer looks through the holes, they are subjected to what appears to be a murdered corpse dumped in a field. A naked, pale torso, one bent leg, and the lifeless arm of a female figure can be seen laying in a grassy area. No face is visible, but the scene is still horrible, and to my sensibilities, it’s a bit TOO realistic (even though it is stylized) and horrific. Again, I’m a fan of horror movies and gothic literature and monsters, but REAL LIFE horrors make me very uncomfortable, and this work is very, VERY disturbing. It seems like such massive shift away from the playful, joke-filled, and more language oriented work that characterized Duchamp’s previous art, and I have even read one book that suggested the work was directly influenced by the Black Dahlia Murder, though Mink doesn’t mention anything like that here.

Still, Janis Mink has written an interesting book, and Taschen (the publisher), doesn’t skimp on the artwork or photographs. The book is short, though, much more of a survey or quick overview than a definitive biography (and Mink mentions several other books that interested readers can look for if they want to explore deeper), but I would recommend this one for readers who are interested in “modern” art, in conceptual art, or for those who wondered what was up with that TOILET that someone was trying to say was art!

---Richard F. Yates