Saturday, April 29, 2006

COMICS: Essential Godzilla? Why yes, it is

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingOne of my favorite guilty pleasures in comics is Marvel's short-lived "Godzilla, King of the Monsters" title from the 1970s. It ain't high art, but it was a blast at age 9, and the entire 24-issue run was recently collected in one of Marvel's fab black-and-white "Essential" volumes, perfect for us grown-up comic fans with a nostalgia jones to feed. While "Essential Godzilla" suffers a bit more than some series might from lack of color, at $19.99 for the entire series in one book, it's a stone-cold giant-monster groove. I tore through it in a few hours and ended up with dreams of having radioactive fire-breath.

The series came at an odd time for Marvel Comics, when they featured many merchandising-born comics such as "Micronauts," "ROM" and "Star Wars." With a kind of "anything-goes" sensibility unlike most of today's comics, "Godzilla" was a lighthearted romp through the giant monster genre. Read in one Big Gulp-sized 400-page go, it's a parade of lizard-chasing fun, although I admit you might have kind of had to be there to totally appreciate it without nitpicking. It's vintage 1970s Marvel.

One of the things I love about the "Godzilla" comic is the fun the creators have with the basic stereotype of "Godzilla comes to town, stomps town." Old greenie spends the entire series stomping around 1970s America, flattening towns like Salt Lake City, Seattle and Las Vegas, apparently not killing a single person in the process. But as the title ran through its run, the creators go out in wild directions. Some don't quite work (Godzilla fighting cattle rustlers in Wyoming springs to mind, although it did bring us the priceless panel like the one below), and there's a long-winded battle with aliens that drags down a few issues. But it's terrific fun to watch Godzilla meet up with Marvel heroes like the Fantastic Four, The Avengers and the Champions. (Thor and Godzilla wrestling at the Empire State Building is a particularly iconic moment.)
Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting
Doug Moench's scripts are a bit thin on characterization and heavy on repetition, and Herb Trimpe's art can sometimes get rather static (particularly with the humans – he draws a great Godzilla though). And the title might just have the most annoying supporting character in comics history with Rob Takiguchi, a spoiled brat 12-year-old Godzilla-lover who runs around telling everyone Godzilla is just misunderstood, and who is usually crying salty tears when he appears. Yeesh! But the title also boasts the hard-edged wisdom of its Javert, SHIELD Agent "Dum Dum" Dugan, who wears a bowler hat that radically clashes with his slick spandex jumpsuit, is usually chewing on a cigar and muttering crusty asides about "stinking monsters."

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingThe best sequence is the multi-part storyline where Godzilla is shrunk down to the size of a rat. Let me repeat – Godzilla shrunk down to the size of a rat? How is that not comics gold? Even better, the "shrinking gas" used on him slowly wears off and he grows larger, resulting in scenes like this where Godzilla runs around New York City wearing a trenchcoat and hat. In disguise, you see. Genius!

It's a shame the series ended just as the creators were loosening up enough to do wacky stuff like this, but then again, there's probably only so far you can take Godzilla as the star of his own comic. Either way, if you're at all a fan of the big mean lizard, "Essential Godzilla" lives up to its name as a '70s time capsule and an entertainingly goofy series in its own right.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

MOVIES: 'New York Doll' will rock your world

Click hereArthur Kane is the kind of guy that could be anybody – tall, balding, vaguely bashful and yet kind-eyed, the man in the tie riding on the bus to his anonymous job. He’s a devout Mormon who works in the genealogical libraries of the LDS church.

But once upon a time, he was a member of the pioneering glam-rock band The New York Dolls, and his nickname was “Killer.”

“New York Doll,” a great, gripping documentary feature, tells us the story of the rise and fall and rise again of Arthur “Killer” Kane, who lost a life as a rock star only to find a gentle kind of peace, and a final redemption. It’s a must even if you’re not a fan of the New York Dolls or even know who they are. It’s about trying to get a second chance at your past without giving up who you’ve become in the years since.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingKane was the bass player for the Dolls, who burned bright and fast through two albums in the early 1970s. The Dolls were trashy, brash and ballsy, and when their debut album hit in 1973 it helped bridge the gap between Rolling Stones-style bluesy rock and the glittery glam and metal of Bowie, KISS and T-Rex. Their quasi-transvestite look and attitude-filled gutblasts like "Trash," "Frankenstein" and "Personality Crisis" paved a road that later proved hugely profitable – one shot in "New York Doll" compares the Dolls' look with the '80s hair metal acts that made millions ripping them off, such as Poison. The Dolls broke up acrimoniously early on, and two of the five founding members later died of drug-related causes.

Kane stumbled along himself for a long time post-Dolls, in failed metal acts and movie bit parts, until the day he discovered The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He’s a guy who only finally grew up in his 30s, and who at 55 has the kind of relaxed peace only someone who’s been through real hell can appreciate.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingIn his quiet life, working with elderly women at the LDS library who can hardly believe he was a “rock star,” Kane ambles along, until one day he gets a call. The Dolls were brought back together in 2004 thanks to British singer Morrissey, of all people, a huge fan who speaks candidly about the Dolls’ influence on him and asked the Dolls to reunite for a London concert. Kane hasn’t played bass professionally in years, but he’s long dreamt of the notion of the “old band” reuniting. The way it all unfolds in “New York Doll” is true to life, yet surprising and real.

What’s remarkable about “New York Doll” is its empathy. “Wild rock star becomes Mormon” could’ve been a joke, but Kane’s conversion is presented as an honest transition for him by director Greg Whiteley. Watching Kane shyly attempting to re-connect with the rowdy Jagger-esque Dolls lead singer David Johansen 30 years later, it’s like watching a high school reunion where you run into the buddies you used to party all night with.

I won’t spoil the ending of ‘New York Doll,” only to call it bittersweet and strangely fitting. Like the best documentaries, “New York Doll” almost seems a magical accident of timing and access. It’s kind of a heartbreaker, like all the very best rock songs are. Seek this rare gem of a film out.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

LIFE: T-minus 6 Months

Image hosting by PhotobucketWell, it's official. We bought our tickets today for a one-way trip to New Zealand exactly 6 months from yesterday; we leave the American shores for good (?) Oct. 23. So unless we want to punt a couple thousand in plane tickets, this pretty much makes it graven in stone that we're on the way. You can't actually hear the freaking out but it's going on; Avril has already moved from scared to excited although I'm dwelling more on denial at the moment. You get sucked into the day-to-day drudgery of things that you kind of forget that "everything will change" quite soon now... and there's a million and one things to do between now and October. We must have the mother of all yard sales. A few dozen friends I'd like to visit. A cat to find a home for (anybody?). Must learn proper use of "bloke" and "mate." Oh, and at some point must really think about getting a job.

And on Wednesday, I have to get fingerprinted by 'the man' as part of the FBI Records Check I need to complete at part of my visa approval program, to make sure I don't have any violent or dissident history in my past. Only two speeding tickets between 1990-2006 that I can recall; they don't count it as murder if they can't find the bodies after all. Thankfully, Avril has been the one navigating the lion's share of bureaucracy and immigration forms I'll have to navigate as I wend my way toward (eventually) dual citizenship, which Avril and P already have. I am a man of the world!

Sunday, April 23, 2006

…OK, I don't really consider fart jokes the highest form of humor, but honestly, how can you not laugh when your 2-year-old son walks up to you, a loud BRRRAPPP erupts from his diaper, and he promptly says: "Butt make music!"


Saturday, April 22, 2006

COMICS: Quick Comics Reviews!

Yeah, I know, not much posting lately. Mucho work projects, including a fairly top-to-bottom redesign of the paper we're premiering Sunday. And I've got a cold. Achoo. Anyway, a couple quick comics reviews to prove I'm still worthy of being listed on the Comics Blogotron™ Listing Service

Image hosting by PhotobucketIdentity Crisis #6 (of 7) – Wish this didn't all feel so much like work. DC's latest universes-spanning crossover ought to be better than it is. It's got a lot of debts to the 1980s "Crisis on Infinite Earths," but little of that project's heart. Both projects boast a cast of zillions, dozens of tie-ins and spectacles like entire Earths being crushed together in the cosmos – yet "Infinite Crisis" lacks' the old "Crisis" series' grandeur. It feels hastily plotted, with too many tangents, no clear goals, and no moral beyond "heroes used to be better citizens" than they are. It constantly deflates its own argument with such overwrought characters as a retro Superboy who wants to bring back "good heroes" yet turns into a psychopathic killer himself. You need a flow chart to follow this series, the most new reader-unfriendly comics event in years. (As someone who's been reading comics for 24 years, I still got lost in a few parts.) In addition, the art, which started off nicely, has devolved into a hash of rushed fill-in guest artists and sloppy inking. There's still nice moments – Batman acting like a human being again instead of a total lunatic, the geeky thrill of dozens of brightly clad heroes gathered together – but little real heart. It imitates the original "Crisis" without pushing anything in new directions. The final scenes of this issue are a blatant attempt to evoke the death of Supergirl in 1986 – and it's as synthetic as a photocopy. Grade: C

The Thing #5 – Best new comic Marvel's put out in years, featuring a delightfully old-school charm thanks to writer Dan Slott ("She Hulk," "GLA"). It's got that '80s "Marvel Two-In-One" vibe combined with a bit of John Byrne's "Fantastic Four" run, and fine detailed art by Andrea DeVito. Funny, densely plotted (a real pleasure in the age of $3 comics that take two minutes to read) and big-hearted, this issue takes ol' Ben Grimm back to the Yancy Street neighborhood and shows you never quite outgrow your past. How good is this comic? Good enough nobody's apparently reading it and it looks to be cancelled with #8. Well, fudge. Buy it while you can. Grade: A-

Moon Knight #1 – Everybody likes Moon Knight because he looks cool and he's Marvel's version of Batman, only crazy. But nobody really buys Moon Knight comics (he's much like Ghost Rider in this regard). The best of them were a brief spell back in the '80s. Here's another try to rejuvenate the franchise, with writer Charlie Huston and artist David Finch. Surprisingly, it's not terrible, even if the first issue has a plot you could write on a Post-It Note and leave room left over for grocery lists. Mostly about mood and tone, this issue sets up Moon Knight as a lean, mean avenger who's suffered some kind of mysterious total breakdown. Little else, but it's well done of its kind – David Finch's grimace-heavy art doesn't appeal to all, but it reminds me of a young Barry Windsor-Smith and is passionate, moodily colored and works well here. It's all set-up, but enough to make me come back and see if following issues deliver a story worth reading. Grade: B

Image hosting by PhotobucketMarvel Zombies #5 (of 5) – This sleeper hit miniseries is a gory, guilty pleasure that takes the hoary "let's imagine our heroes in an alternate universe" cliché and breathes new – well, undead – life into it. It's a world where the heroes were all infected by a zombie plague, becoming immensely powerful flesh-eating terrors. It's a ridiculously goofy idea, but damn if this wasn't some of the most fun I've had reading comics in months. Writer Robert Kirkman, who also does the Image Comics zombie road-trip series "The Walking Dead," tweaks all our superhero ideals into twisted, hilarious distortions. Spider-Man eats his Aunt May, but he feels really bad about it; Iron Man may be ripped in half, but he's still hungry. This series just kept topping itself with the gruesome humor, and the final issue delivers a suitably twisted "Twilight Zone"-esque finale. (And some more great one-liners – "Hulk eat Rhino's head. Head not so good. Hulk regret it.") Much better than it sounded like it would be, and by far the best zombie superhero series ever. Bonus points for the excellent covers parodying famous comic covers, only with zombies. Because zombies make anything better.Grade: A

Thursday, April 20, 2006

MUSIC: The Pixies and Beastie Boys
get the 33 1/3 treatment

I admit, my music tastes weren't real cool in 1989. It was the start of senior year in high school, and "edgy" for me was Depeche Mode. One of my big thrills my senior year was going to a Billy Joel concert. I bought a T-shirt. Heck, I still have a soft spot for "We Didn't Start The Fire" today, but these days my music radar is a bit broader than it used to be. In 1989, I had no clue that I missed out on two of the seminal albums of my time – The Pixies' roaring manifesto Doolittle, and the Beastie Boys' psychedelic mix tape Paul's Boutique.

I actually got The Pixies' Doolittle by mistake in 1990 as part of a record club I was in … didn't know quite what to make of this clattering, screeching CD, and it took me a few years to get into it. Paul's Boutique I didn't discover until the mid-1990s, when the Beastie Boys finally lost the frat-boy image after hip-hop blasts like Check Your Head and Ill Communication. Now, both of these two very different albums are high up in my list of Desert Island CDs.

So hats off to Continuum Books' fab 33 1/3 music-criticism series, which examines the Pixies' and the Beasties' 1989 slabs of sound in two new books. Each slim 100-page-or-so book in the series dissects a particular CD, like liner notes on steroids. The Pixies book by Ben Sisario and the Beastie Boys book by Dan LeRoy are both swingin' samples of the series' rock-geek eye for minutiae and big-picture grasp of the trends and visions that go into the albums we love.

Click here
LeRoy's Paul's Boutique volume will hit the spot for Beasties fans, many of whom still consider the Beastie Boys' madcap second CD their best. LeRoy establishes the revolutionary sophomore record Boutique was. The Beasties made their name with loud, thrashing proto rap-rock like "Fight For Your Right To Party," but the leering goons in the early videos weren't really who they wanted to be. Paul's Boutique was the response to those who thought they'd pegged the Beasties as one-hit wonders – a still-remarkable collage of samples, slick multi-referential rhymes and an ever-shifting soundscape. A tune like "Sound of Science," built almost entirely of riffs by none other than the Beatles, still kicks it today.

LeRoy painstakingly reconstructs how Boutique came to be. He builds a pretty strong case that Boutique can be considered a strong collaboration between the Beasties, the Dust Brothers and reclusive producer Matt Dike, who had assembled the sample-filled bones of some of the songs on his own even before the Beasties came along. That helps explain why Paul's Boutique doesn't sound quite like anything else the Beasties ever did. It also pretty much bombed in 1989, coming nowhere near the success of the Beasties' License To Ill and only gaining its current shining reputation over time. LeRoy provides a guide to some of the arcane samples peppered throughout the album, noting it's "impossible … to comprehend in its sprawling totality." Paul's Boutique is a gorgeously dense piece of work, and LeRoy explains how post-1989 changes in sampling laws mean nothing like it will ever quite happen again. Given the confines of a 128-page book, LeRoy can't be utterly encyclopedic about the disc — and sometimes a broader picture of the Beasties' influences and inspirations is lacking – but he is pretty darned solid at showing the voices and ideas that went into it.

Click here
The Pixies, unlike the Beasties, didn't become truly famous until they'd broken up. Their "prickly kind of pop," Sisario notes, wasn't ever Top 10 material, but influenced many (notably Kurt Cobain, who idolized the band). Their second album proper, Doolittle, is a jagged, glistening knife of a listen, strangely sunny despite the loud-to-soft howls of frontman Charles Thompson (aka Black Francis) and titles like "Debaser," "Gouge Away," "There Goes My Gun" and "Mr. Grieves." Seventeen years on, Doolittle – originally titled Whore – still sounds fresh and fiery. Sisario shows how the Pixies' unique alchemy rocketed them to "next big thing" status, and how they soon imploded in the usual ego and fame struggles.

Sisario really manages to capture some of Thompson's elusive personality as he road-trips with him around his Eugene, Ore., home. He illuminates some of the thinking that went into the songs that became alt-rock anthems, and he goes after Doolittle's twisted lyrics with a scholar's eye. It might spoil the mystery of the songs a bit for some, but I found it fascinating to learn that, say, "Crackity Jones" is about Thompson's demented former roommate. Few secrets of Doolittle remain untold under Sisario's probing. Sisario heavily examines the influence of Surrealism on the Pixies' voice – Thompson ate up filmmakers like Buñuel and David Lynch, and his frenzied lyrics captured a kind of senseless joy and pain. Or, as Thompson himself puts it, the appeal of the Pixies lay in their "sex and death vibrations." Sisario's sharp analysis and exploration of Doolittle makes this 33 1/3 tome a must for Pixie-heads.

Both books suffer a tiny bit by not having the full bands' cooperation – the Pixies' Kim Deal refused to talk to Sisario, and only Mike D of the three Beasties spoke on the record to LeRoy. Yet that doesn't really matter too much. These 33 1/3 books aren't meant to be an all-inclusive band biography. Both authors bring to their task an easygoing yet authoritative voice. Reading these books, it's like it's 1989 all over again for me, and I can pretend I'm finally kinda sorta hip.

Monday, April 17, 2006

LIFE: Peter is the Egg-man

Image hosting by Photobucket
...Happy Easter to all and all a good night. We missed Roseburg's big Easter Egg Hunt at the park yesterday (and it was raining anyway) so we did a mini hunt for Peter in the front yard this a.m. between showers, hiding plastic eggs with chocolate candy inside all over. He got quite into it, lots of "found that!" and "there egg!" Then he wanted to do it all over again once he found all the eggs. (Note our season-inappropriate recycling of his Halloween bucket as the Easter basket.)

We were on an impromptu trip up to Portland yesterday to get our city fix (and take Peter to the swell Sesame Street exhibit at the Portland Children's Museum). I did the visits to Music Millennium and Powell's and picked up plenty of books and CDs -- at MM, I scored "Talk Normal: A Laurie Anderson Anthology" which I've been meaning to get for years, a copy of "Pet Sounds" by The Beach Boys to replace one I lost years ago; "The Covers Record" by Cat Power, and Bloc Party's "Silent Alarm" CD, which is excellent, full of windmilling guitar riffs. Then at the finest bookstore in all the land, Powell's, I scored paperbacks of Haruki Murakami's "Underground" and "Sputnik Sweetheart" (I loves the Murakami); "Mystery Train" by Greil Marcus, a legendary music-criticism book I've been hunting for; "The Rough Guide To Elvis"; "Why Orwell Matters" by Christopher Hitchens which looks intriguing, and "Never Mind The Pollacks" by Neal Pollack because I find his satire amusing. That's the problem with living in a town with not much in the way of book or music shops – when I get to a town that has 'em, I blow a few paychecks. Ah well...

We also stopped in Woodburn for a big tulip festival. Despite the fact the fields were half-mud due to the constant rain lately, it was nifty and Peter got to pose fetchingly in the tulips. I'm sure the rain will stop eventually... July isn't that far off...
Image hosting by Photobucket

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

ETC.: The roof, the roof is on fire

...And now for a brief break in my non-posting. Work has risen up from the primordial depths and chewed a hole into my innards, and Toddler Peter is at Level 5 in toddler neediness at home, so I'm pretty likely not to post much this week. Besides several major projects going on and new reporters to train, this weekend we had a series of electrical problems that ended up with multiple power outages and fire trucks outside putting out the power lines on fire while we were trying to get out Sunday's paper. We don't just print the news, we make the news! Today we're shutting down the entire office for several hours while an ancient transformer is replaced. Last week I had 10.5 hours of overtime! See the blood, sweat and tears that goes into this newspaper? And ink?

I'm also depressed because our former cat, Luna, had to be put to sleep yesterday. About a year or so ago we gave her to a friend of ours because it turned out a toddler + two cats wasn't working out for us, and we didn't want to give up our other cat Kudzu. Anyway, Luna was old when we got her from friends who couldn't keep her back in 2001, and after we gave her to our friend Chelsea she started declining, ending up being diagnosed with diabetes and liver/kidney problems. She made it to 14, not young, but still bummed she had to be put down... Luna was a pain in the butt sometimes, extremely affectionate and skittish at the same time, and much more of a hassle for us to keep than the placid Kudzu, but I'll miss her a bit all the same.

In any event... Thanks kindly to everyone who wrote in for my blog-iversary last week -- after a complicated series of mathematical equations, geopolitical surveys, alphabet games and asking Toddler Peter for advice, I am hereby awarding Ash with a copy of my soon-to-be-created Great Songs I've Heard In 2006 So Far CD. Look for it in the mail, Ash!

To keep you occupied while I fight powerline fires and sit in the dark waiting for the power to come back on, here's a couple recent reviews I did for my buddies at BlogCritics --
• The essayist Hal Crowther is one of my favorite Southern writers. I look at his new book, "Gathering At The River: Notes From The Post-Millennial South." Them's good writings!
• Hey, ever heard of the Beatles? Here's a look at the new remastered box set, The Capitol Years Vol. 2.

Tonight we take Toddler Peter to the circus. Hurray!

Friday, April 7, 2006

Happy Blog-iversary to Me

Image hosting by PhotobucketThat's right – party down with Elvis (in Baghdad no less), it's my blog-iversary! It's been a whopping 2 years since I finally decided to take the plunge and start the blog thing, and to my surprise, I'm still here. I've written 585 posts since my gloriously inept first post April 7, 2004... not every day, but at least a few times a week. It's been fun, and I hope the handful of you that like reading it have dug it. And to the dozens of viewers a week looking for Nicole Kidman pictures and "Dawn of the Dead" stills, my most popular Google searches, I salute you. (Oddly, nobody ever looks for "Nicole Kidman as a zombie" photos.)

Like most bloggers, I think, I didn't quite know what I was going to do when I started this egocentric pastime... Personal journal? random media rants and raves? comics reviews? cute photos? All of the above, it turns out, plus thanks to the good folks at BlogCritics, I found a venue to spread some of my more polished (well, somewhat) writing to even bigger audiences. I've surprised myself by how much I've written, actually – I wasn't sure what I'd do, since my day job also involves words and the media. But the blog has actually helped me produce writing for work, such as my movie reviews and music reviews. See, blogging helps your job! I don't know how much longer I'll keep this up -- until it feels like hard work, I guess -- but hopefully will continue on as we get ready to move to New Zealand this fall.

So to celebrate the day, I've got a challenge for you, the reader. I don't really do this for the kudos; I've been writing since I was knee-high to an ant, and this is just one of the outlets I use to fend off Demon Boredom, but it is nice to get the feedback. Those of you who make regular comments are the icing on the cupcake of my blog, so to you reg'lars and any of those "lurkers" out there who read but never comment, here's your chance to blog me — feel free to leave a comment right down below and lurk no more!

And, for incentive, I will randomly pick a couple of winners from anyone who comments below to receive incredibly cool prizes, such as a CD of My Favorite Songs I've Heard In 2006 So Far and.. um... other stuff. So comment away, and thanks again for reading.

Thursday, April 6, 2006

LIFE: Countdown, 6 Months...

Image hosting by Photobucket...So I've been in the throes of a slightly mild freakout, if that's the right word for it, these last few weeks since we returned from New Zealand, and as we get ready to move there for good in just (urk!) six months' time or so. There's a sense of disconnect being back here in Oregon. I feel antsy, like Peter bouncing in his crib. It's not that I'm not looking forward to the Great Migration – but the enormity of it all is inching beastlike into my brain and it's simply hard to relax sometimes. There is much involved with packing up everything you own and either selling it, storing it or moving to the other side of the world with it somehow. From the purely physical to the emotional to the "spiritual" for lack of a better term, the doubts and worries flutter in some days.

It all feels oddly like the last few months of high school, or my final semester in college – the sense you're ABOUT to do something grand and complicated and exhausting, but it's not quite time to do it yet. You spend about half the time being freaked out about the future and the other half nostalgic for a past you haven't left yet.

I will miss the idea of being able to drive five days and still being in America (even if I don't exactly do that every day), petting my cat (anybody want a cat?), seeing my parents and brother more than every couple years, mowing our lawn, reading The Oregonian A&E section on Fridays, cheap bookstores and comics and music, and about a zillion other things. NZ is wonderful but I may feel claustrophobic sometimes, I fear.

Good thing is there's lots of others doing this. Curiously enough, some friends of ours who live in a town just up the road are also moving to NZ this fall – they're like our mirror image, Amy's a Kiwi, husband Brian is American, and their three kids, and they're finally doing this big adventure themselves in September. They've kindly offered us to poach a bit of space in their shipping container as they've got a lot more than we do to get over there. Hard to imagine there's two families in the same county having the same story right now! Or take this family, who went over from Seattle to NZ with Small Family in Six Suitcases as the title of their blog says. Amazing! And we thought we were minimalists!

There's plenty of angst and drama ahead in the coming six months, I know... We'll deal with it, and there's far worse fates than moving to New Zealand. I've always been of two minds; part of me loves the traveling and changing jobs every few years and having lived in Oregon and Nevada and Mississippi and California and New York and so forth, and part of me is perfectly happy to sit in my comfortable chair with my comfortable cat and comfortable books and the view of the hills and trees outside our living room, rather than plunge into unknown territory again... But then again, you don't get the stories without doing the adventures, do you?

But hey! Friday is my second blog-iversary! Yes, two entire years of blathering without end. Return here for pithy insight and valuable prizes tomorrow!

Tuesday, April 4, 2006

BOOKS: Kurt Vonnegut's last words

Image hosting by PhotobucketI've always had a bit of an affinity for Kurt Vonnegut. We share the same birthday – Nov. 11. But we also share a kind of bemused black humor about the chaos and craziness to be found in the world around us. Of course, Vonnegut is about three thousand times the writer I am, but y'know, we try to find common ground. Did I mention we have the same birthday?

Vonnegut is nearing his 84th year, while I'm just closing in on 35, though, so he's seen and done far more than I have. His latest, possibly his last, book is "A Man Without A Country," a brief, bittersweet collection of essays that serve a bit as memoir, a bit as a screed against what Vonnegut calls the "proud, grinning, jut-jawed pitiless war-lovers" that have taken over America. If a man who lived through the Dresden firebombing (135,000 died) of World War II, the Great Depression, and more, considers this the worst of times, what hope is there? Yet it's not all cynical curmudgeon grumblings, even if Bush is compared to Hitler at one point. There's still his trademark black humor, and a solid sense of outrage at what Vonnegut sees as us losing the chance to "become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of." (Most of the material in "A Man Without A Country" was written for "In These Times" and can be seen here on their own Web site.)

Image hosting by Photobucket "A Man Without A Country," and its pointed political views, is kind of like sitting next to Vonnegut at a dinner party. He holds forth, eloquently and in his unmistakable style, on everything from writing (never use semicolons) to politics to the sorry state of the environment to a common theme of his in his books – loneliness and the utopia of an extended family. "Country" is filled with Vonnegutian (er, is that a word?) humanist insights, such as "Life is no way to treat an animal."

In his autumn, Vonnegut still seems timely. He's never taken himself too seriously, to his credit, and "A Man Without A Country" is a humble, yet opinionated work. "If I die — God forbid," he writes, "I would like to go to heaven to ask somebody in charge up there, 'Hey, what was the good news and what was the bad news?'"

It's fragmented, outraged, pessimistic and a little overwrought, but yet, it's still compelling reading, if not essential. Vonnegut's fiction such as "Slaughterhouse 5" or "Hocus Pocus" remains the place to start for novices – but "Country" serves as a summing up of this unique voice's views, a fine final epilogue. I only hope things aren't really quite as bad as he thinks they are.

Saturday, April 1, 2006

ETC.: Keeping the faith

...Oh thank the lord, it's Friday. Both my editor and city editor have been on vacation all week which basically means yours truly is theoretically in charge of putting out a daily newspaper. It's been pretty smooth, fortunately a slow week except for a political scandal or two, but I am ready for the weekend. Here's five things that kept me going this week:

Image hosting by Photobucket1. Hurray for death and despair! Season 5 of "Six Feet Under" finally came out on DVD this week, and we've been burning through it at Netflix. Not being rich enough to afford the HBO, since Season 3 ended we've been forced to wait for the DVDs. What a bleak and beautiful show this is. The first episode alone features dead housewives, miscarriages, senility and gay adoptions! If it hadn't been one of the best written and acted shows on the air, it'd be just too depressing to endure. Now we finally get to see the final season! (Yeah, I've heard about the acclaimed last episode, but now I can see it.)

2. I love that 33 1/3 music-writing series, but "33 1/3: The Replacements' Let It Be" by Colin Meloy might be my favorite in the series so far, despite not following the series' typical parameter of being about the creation of and analyzing some of the best albums of all time. Instead, Meloy, the frontman for the cult Portland band The Decemberists, delivers a sharp, funny and poignant memoir of growing up in Montana and how music, including the Mats, helped save his life. Full of great little details of what it was like to be oddball and growing up in the early '80s, "Let It Be" is a fine read even if you've never heard the Replacements.

3. Another TV show that I hadn't caught on air but can now see through the miracle of DVD is Seth Green's bizarro "Robot Chicken" series from Cartoon Network. A ramshackle ode to pop culture with random offensive short skits featuring animated action figures, it's great fun. Not every skit is a home run, but I ask, how can you go wrong with "The Real World: The Super Friends," featuring a suicidal Aquaman? Or a "Cannonball Run" takeoff that ends with "Ponch" from "CHiPS" getting decapitated? Glorious.

Hurray, I finally got in the mail the new super-sprawling box set "RT: The Life And Music Of Richard Thompson", 5 jam-packed discs covering 30+ years of music by England's finest modern guitarist. I've barely dipped into the massive set, which is extremely well done by Britain's Free Reed Records – besides the five discs, almost entirely devoted to rarities and live takes of Thompson's best, it includes a huge 160-page book, plus a free voucher for a sixth disc of tunes to add to the set. In terms of doing justice to its subject, it's just about the best box set I've ever bought (closest runner-up being the Velvet Underground's "Peel Slowly And See," containing pretty much everything that band ever recorded). I'll be listening to this a lot in coming weeks getting ready for my date with Mr. Thompson May 9.

5. Post-comeback Roy Orbison. Man, you can't go wrong with his lonesome late 1980s tunes like "You Got It," "Mystery Girl," "I Drove All Night" and more. I've been soaking up the Orbison with the spiffy new "Essential Roy Orbison" 2-CD set, which I just happened to review over at BlogCritics this week. Go here and read the review; I'll be sitting here in the dark with my sunglasses on.