Monday, February 28, 2005

Wow, so the 77th annual Academy Awards just wrapped up mere minutes ago, and I thought I'd jot down some quick impressions. Yeah, I thought about doing the "liveblogging" thing but frankly Tom The Dog and others do it much better than I would've anyway, so go read their takes, too.
Besides, the computer and TV are in two different rooms, and I'm a very, very lazy man.

Anyway, the Oscars --
The Good:
Million Dollar Baby, yeah! A poetic little movie that gets better the more I think about it, and much more polished than a solid but flawed film like "The Aviator" that just screamed "Oscar bait." Great to see Eastwood recognized for his incredibly taut, effective storytelling. Not an ounce of fat on this movie, and it's great to see a relatively small pick beat out an epic. I can't argue with Morgan Freeman as Best Supporting Actor or Best Actress Hilary Swank, who just broke my heart in M$B. (I have to wonder if after the show fellow nominee Annette Bening was waiting for Swank with a lead pipe; this is the second time Bening's lost Best Actress to Swank.)
• Woo hoo, Best Supporting Actress Cate Blanchett! My favorite thing about "The Aviator" (although Leonardo DiCaprio was excellent too), and one of my favorite actresses, great to see her finally get a golden dude. Her Hepburn act in "The Aviator" at first comes off as an awful parody, but then you remember that's how Hepburn really was, and it works. She brought the humanity of Kate to life and did an amazing job, I thought.
• Can't argue with the coronation of Best Actor Jamie Foxx, who blew me away and pretty much everyone else in "Ray." But he also gave the night's finest speech, humble and sweet-natured. It's not his fault all I could think of while watching it was, "This man starred in 'Booty Call' and now he's won an Oscar?"
• I would've loved to see "Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Mind" get more than two nominations and in the Best Picture arena, but it was still worth it to see screenwriter Charlie Kaufman win an Oscar at last. My favorite script man by far lately, every single movie he's written I've enjoyed (even the oddball "Human Nature"), and "Sunshine" is his best yet.
• Clint Eastwood's mother is still alive! Ye gods!

The just OK:

Chris Rock was a mixed bag as host. He was frequently hilarious, but too often he was a bit strident, and he kept using his "stand up comic" voice so I felt like he was yelling at me. I did love his "interviewing ordinary black folks" segment and some of his jokes really hit home, but overall I felt he used race a little too much and it didn't have the ease of his stand-up work.

The Bad:
• Good lord, can whomever decided to not give out all the awards the old-fashioned way with nominees walking up to the stage be shot? That was the worst fiasco in Oscaring since Rob Lowe danced with Snow White in 1989. Awful, awful presentation. Having the nominees stay in their seats while a presenter gives them the awards from the aisle just reeked of game show cheesiness ("Who Wants to Be An Oscar Winner?"), and was insulting to the nominees. Even worse was having all the nominees up on stage for a "cattle call" in some categories, so you could watch the poor bastards be humiliated when the other guy wins and then stand around awkwardly. Terrible, terrible decision on the producers' parts, and I can't believe it saved much time at all. I hope next year they go back to the regular way of doing it and treat all nominees equally. Y'know, the Oscars may not be the greatest thing in the universe, but they're usually kinda classy, and snipping that sense of class to save time seems cheap.
• Speaking of saving time, as usual, that middle hour or so just dragggggggged. They always talk about saving time (and this year's show, at just over 3 hours, was pretty quick), so instead of giving out Oscars in the back row, I don't see why they don't relegate some categories like the best live and animated short feature categories to the technical ceremony. Yeah, it's great to honor this work, and I don't think they should be dumped entirely, but you know, 99% of the audience has never seen and will never see any of these short features -- hell, I don't even know where you can see 'em in theaters -- and removing that would certainly cut 15 minutes out of the show, easily.
• Bizarro stage design this year, and the "video floor" looked really awkward.
• Wow, all five of the "Best Song" nominees this year were dull as dishwater. And were they paying Beyonce by the song or what?
Yo Yo Ma. The man does nothing for me.

In general, I'd give this year's ceremony a "C+," even though I'm pretty happy with most of the winners, this year fell short as entertainment on its own. It felt rushed and inelegant too often, and lacked any of those big surprises that can often make up for a sloppy show. No shocking winners or Michael Moore speeches to talk about the next day. In the end, some great movies were honored, but as a show, this one won't be winning any awards for me. I'd rather watch "Million Dollar Baby" again.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

"Now is the winter of our discontent." Richard III Act I, Scene I

So yesterday I finally managed to get down to the world-famous Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, which was holding a Media Night for its 2005 season and its new production of that tale of treachery and general bad behavior, "Richard III." Yep, it's fun being a media dude sometimes. Another reporter, his wife and I trekked the 2 hours south to Ashland, and enjoyed the play heartily, which features a reptilian, noxious performance by James Newcomb as the titular king (and yeah, that's Laurence Olivier from the 1940s movie above, but I just love the goofy Vulcan-crossed-with-King look he's got going on).

As an appreciator of Shakespeare since my high school days and a frequent visitor to the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival when we lived down that way, I always felt vaguely stupid for not having been to Ashland — particularly after we moved to Oregon three years ago. It's only probably the most famous Shakespeare festival in the United States, with a grand Elizabethan recreation theater (unfortunately only open for the summer season, so we saw "Richard III" in a very nice but less historic theater instead) and acclaim far and wide. I've always meant to go to Ashland. In high school my Shakespeare class even took a trip up there and for some inane reason I can't recall 15 years on, I didn't go. Then, once we moved up here Avril and I kept meaning to go, but then she got pregnant and then we had a kid and so on and so forth... Anyway, it felt good to finally check something off the mental checklist by taking the good folks at OSF up on their media day.

"Richard III" isn't my favorite Shakespeare play (that title would go to "The Tempest," "A Midsummers Nights' Dream" or good ol' "Romeo and Juliet," depending on the mood) but it's justly famous for its unsparing portrayal of power gone mad. The play is burdened by too many characters at first, endless factions of royalty skirmishing with each other and palace intrigue galore, but all you really need to know is Richard hates everyone and will stop at nothing to gain power and crush his enemies. It's the kind of play that sinks or fails on the performance of the actor playing Richard, and Newcomb did a great job of it last night. (I particularly liked his use of crutches in playing the deformed king, which gave him a lurching, spider-like appearance.)

The marvelous thing about Shakespeare is that you never quite absorb it all - whenever I see one of the plays I only feel like my brain gets 40%, tops, of the Bard's words. Perhaps those layers of meaning are the reason the dude's still read and seen 500 years after his time.

Friday, February 25, 2005

...So I am deep in my bachelor life, as Avril and Baby Peter have fled to New Zealand until mid-March or so, while I remain behind to pay the bills. It was tough saying goodbye to them Monday. The 13-hour plane right went OK and they are safe and sound in Auckland now. Meanwhile, I keep fretting that Baby Peter will forget who I am in a month's time, and won't let me tickle him anymore.

Of course, there are benefits -- I tore down all the babyproofing in our house, no longer having to trip over gates and barricards everywhere. I can leave books and magazines and drinks wherever I please without worrying about Peter eating them. I can watch "Lost" without having to worry about someone having a crying fit during it! I can eat what I wish, turn up my David Bowie CDs and leave knives on the kitchen floor if I am so inclined.

But all on all, there's more to miss than to savor. It's the first extended solo "Nik time" I've had since Avril and I shacked up in 1998. While I'll dig catching up with reading and movies and playing with the cat, by mid-March I will likely be a nervous, hollow-eyed wreck, eagerly awaiting the chance to change diapers and chase a toddling boy around the sofa. You can't really break the family habit. This is what it's like to be domesticated, I guess, but it really ain't all that bad.

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

OK, I meant to post this yesterday on the actual Presidents Day, but rather unmanned by the awful death of Hunter S. Thompson and other stuff, it got delayed. Anyway, pretend it's still Presidents Day, let's get historical!

I am a bit of a presidential history buff, and my low opinion of the current yahoo in the Oval Office hasn't dissuaded me of my unnatural interest in the men who've held his job before. I'm less interested in the politics, although that's part of it all, than in the personalities and events each President has dealt with, and have read a few dozen books and biographies of them. So, in honor of the holiday, here's my Presidents Who Fascinate Me and Those Who Don't So Much lists.

Top 10 Presidents Who Fascinate Me:

1. Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) An endlessly fascinating personality, cowboy, author, soldier, environmentalist, explorer and adventurer, who manages to be both highly complex and very basic at the same time. He was "larger than life" in a way very few Presidents have managed to be. I highly recommend Edmund Morris' "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt," one of the best presidential biographies I've ever read. He brings this thrilling character to life.

2. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) Entire cosmologies have been devoted to Jefferson, yet he still eludes pinning down. Perhaps the smartest man to ever be President, yet clueless in other respects. Endlessly interesting once you get to know him.

3. Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-1969) Having just finished the first three books of author Robert A. Caro's megalithic biography of LBJ, I discovered how interesting this highly forceful man was. His is a Shakespearean story -- all his life wanting to be President, rising from dirt-poor poverty to enormous Congressional power. Incredibly arrogant yet immensely talented at dealing with power, he only becomes President when Kennedy is assassinated -- and then loses everything to a little war called Vietnam. Hubris takes a fall, and he's dead by age 63.

4. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857) An abject failure as President, and a truly tragic figure who's always been oddly interesting to me. His son was killed on the way to inauguration day and left him shattered; his wife went insane. He was drafted for the presidency and hung out to dry by his party, baffled by the Civil War looming on the horizon.

5. Bill Clinton (1993-2001) Fifty billion right-wing conspiracy theorists can't be wrong, they love this guy! Besides, whether or not you agree with him politically, Clinton's story of rising from nothing to become President is quintessentially American, and his flaws and appetites even more so.

6. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) Although he's encrusted by the burdens of legend now, underneath it all is a frontier character and a most unlikely president, who ended up being the one man that could save a union torn asunder. Probably the one president I'd most like to meet, given a chance in some mythical time machine.

7. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945) Sheer force of will beat the Depression, beat the Nazis and beat polio. Sure, he got more than a little mad with power, and probably shouldn't have run for four terms, but his courage is unforgettable.

8. Richard Nixon (1969-1974) Pure evil is always fascinating.

9. Warren G. Harding (1921-1923) Widely regarded as the worst of our presidents, despite or perhaps because of his failures of character, unsuitability for the office and general incompetence, he remains an interesting case study in "getting in over your head."

10. Andrew Jackson (1828-1837) By many accounts the first bona fide sociopath to become President, Jackson loved killin' Indians in his youth, fought in duels and generally was a wild man. Yet he also was the founder of the modern Democratic party and idolized by zillions in his time.

Our Dullest Presidents

1. William Henry Harrison (1841) Caught pneumonia at his inauguration. Died 30 days later. Borring!

2. Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893) The grandson of the other Harrison, his nickname was "the Human Iceberg." Not a people person, then.

3. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) Yeah, he won World War I and all, but this former president of Princeton and moralist just never quite appealed to me.

4. James K. Polk (1845-1849) Actually a pretty effective president, but deadly dull individual who was so uptight he never vacationed. Claim to fame is having a song by They Might Be Giants about him: "Austere, severe, he held few people dear..."

5. George Bush I and II (1989-1993, 2001-?) If you can't say anything nice...

Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Still feeling dark clouds about the fatal end of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, and what a horrible way to go. As mentioned in my post earlier today, I did have the fortune to meet the man once, and it was a typically Gonzo occasion that inspired this little column I wrote for The Daily Mississippian all the way back on May 2, 1994. (Bizarrely enough, fellow blogger H, who commented below, also happened to be at the same event in New Orleans!)

My weak words don't hold up so well 11 years on, I guess, but for those who are interested, here's the impression I had of my meeting Hunter S. Thompson:

*Note horrible attempt at hip haircut on my part and utter disdain on HST's part.

Fear and Loathing in New Orleans, with apologies.
Well, I finally made it down to the Big Easy weekend before last. And what a wonderful town it was. Went down there with Melanie* for the dreaded “meet-the-parents” ritual (which came off very well, thanks for asking). We went to Jazzfest ‘94, an annual musical extravaganza at the New Orleans fairgrounds — tons of music, people, beer and booths hawking everything from dashikis to handmade jewelry to exotic knives. There was aural candy for any taste, from Boz Scaggs to Dr. John to Jimmy Buffett.
While wandering around the booths, Melanie and I found a little book tent. Exploring the place, I found a notice announcing some of the authors who’d be doing book signings at the tent that day. Among the names was the familiar one of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson.
The Doctor! Father of the esoteric, reviled and idolized field of Gonzo Journalism! One of my personal literary idols and a true crazy man to boot. I convinced Melanie that it’d be a nifty thing to let me go and meet him, to get the Doc to sign a just-purchased copy of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. I’ve always been a fan of Thompson’s bizarre anything-including-the-kitchen-sink style of reporting, the coverage of events ranging from the history of the Hell’s Angels to the 1972 Presidential campaign — his style so out there that half the time you lose sight of the line between fact and fiction.
So we went to the booth about 2:45 or so for the 3 o’clock signing. There was already a sizeable line for this unpublicized event. Melanie took my camera and got a good spot in the shade while I met a burly gent named Gil who proclaimed that Thompson was “the king of all things Gonzo!”
Melanie enjoyed the shade and met some Canadians while I listened to Gil hold an impromptu belching contest and slowly watched the sun burn me a nice shade of obsidian. Thompson finally showed around 4:30, large bandage wrapped around his left hand and a beer in his right. Enormous beetle-like sunglasses obscured his eyes completely. I crumbled into a pile of charcoal under the sun’s onslaught and the line inched forwards.
At this point, the Jimmy Buffett** show was about to kick off. Thompson signed books at an agonizingly slow pace — rumor had it he was deeply distraught over Richard Nixon’s death that Friday. It seemed odd, that a man who once compared Nixon to Adolph Hitler should be so broken up over his death. His “periodic medical breaks” over his hand — treated by the administration of several strange vials of liquids — slowed things down even more.
There was the wit in line who called out, “Dr. Thompson! How do you feel about Nixon?”
Thompson answered in his trademark indecipherable mumble, “I loved the man.” And that was all he had to say on the subject.
I finally made it to the front of the line, several shades darker than I’d been at the start, and handed over my book for him to sign. In my best fanboy mode, I stammered out to him how much I enjoyed his work.
Thompson shook his head a bit spastically, and muttered something about “bats” and “gummo wedder t’day nahw eh?” He scribbled “to Nick [sic] - HST” with a ballpoint pen, and then immediately afterwards took another extended medical break. The smell of that joint was nearly overpowering.
There’s nothing quite like meeting your idols – if only to discover that they’re just as screwed up as the rest of us. I’m not saying I regretted meeting HST — in fact, I got a rather masochistic joy out of it, sunburn and all. And Melanie, bless her, wasn’t terribly irate about spending two hours indulging her companion’s whims.

*2005 annotation: A former girlfriend who wised up shortly therafter, and I am sure has gone on to wonderful things in her life.
**In hindsight, I really didn't care much for Jimmy Buffett.

Hunter S. Thompson, 1937-2005

"I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence, or insanity to anyone, but they've always worked for me."
Hunter S. Thompson

What a terrible piece of news to hear. The suicide of Hunter S. Thompson may be the most shocking public death for me of someone I admired since Kurt Cobain, and has left me and many other fans of the man's writing aghast, and wondering why?

Like many a young punk journalist of the last 25 years or so, Thompson was a huge influence on my way of thinking. His free-wheeling hybrid of fiction, nonfiction and hyperbole was so unique that they had to create a new genre for it -- "Gonzo" journalism. He was a combination reporter, gadfly, lunatic and modern-day H.L. Mencken, and through the 1970s, his talent was white-hot and unassailable. After that, yeah, the quality of his work began dropping off, and frankly little written after 1985 or so is equal to what came before. My own writing's never come within a mile of HST, but I think the thing he taught me the most is the value of unpredictability, in my own work and in the people I edit.

Thompson's "Hell's Angels," "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" and "Fear And Loathing: On The Campaign Trail '72" and the overlooked but tremendous two books of his collected letters are all required reading for anyone who wants to make their living with words. But I never wanted to hit Las Vegas with a trunk full of ether and guns and be like him; I'm a lightweight self-abuser, and I was happy to be an armchair freak, someone the real Thompson probably would've dismissed with a grunt.

Thompson lived such a crazy life, so full of ridiculous excess that far too many of his fans thought that was the key to his talent rather than hard work. You never knew quite how much of his drug using, gun shooting and insanity was hype, and how much was reality. I never expected Thompson to die quietly in his bed, but at the same time, he made it to his 60s, and we all halfways figured he was immortal. Nothing else could kill him, so he killed himself. What made him do it? Will we ever know? Was it illness, terminal cancer eating at his guts; had he finally gotten so sick of the whole mess of life that he wanted it over? Like Cobain, you're wondering, why did he do this damned stupid thing, what was in his head telling him to pull that trigger? Suicide is the ultimate black, the void that doesn't answer back.

I met him once, briefly, in New Orleans in 1994, and had him sign a copy of "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas." There's even a goofy picture of me with him somewhere; his head and hand is shrouded in bandages, which seems so utterly HST I couldn't make it up. That strange day was grist for a column I wrote once, one I'll have to put up here sometime this week. It was a day like Thompson himself, unpredictable, rude and a bit disappointing, but I'm glad I met him at least once, to see if the legends were true.

There weren't many like Thompson. He left us in the most violent, brutal way a man can, with questions, anger and strange dark thoughts left behind. We'll scrutinize the tributes, eulogies and pointless investigations that'll follow, trying to find a clue somewhere in there. I don't think we will. The books are left behind to speak to us, and although I won't be able to read them now without a wince of grim feeling at how Hunter's story ended, I'll still read them. They're bigger than the man.

Adios, Raoul Duke, the good doctor, and I'm wishing for a gentler life for you on the other side.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

One, two, Quick Comic Reviews!

Batman: The Man Who Laughs
A nice re-telling of the Joker's first appearance and encounter with the Dark Knight way back in 1940's Batman #1, revved up for a gory modern sensibility. I always liked the Joker's very dark first appearance, where he appears from nowhere and starts announcing he'll kill various prominent Gotham City people at midnight. What struck me about that story is that the Joker was truly scary, and didn't even smile in every panel. This isn't quite as classic as that golden oldie, but writer Ed Brubaker puts a good spin on it with great art by Doug Mahnke. It nicely captures Batman's horror at his first real encounter with utter evil, and the Joker's mass murdering malice is well portrayed. Gruesome as heck at parts, and a nice addition to "young Batman" type tales. Yet it doesn't really add anything new to the characters, like the obvious inspiration of Alan Moore's "The Killing Joke." Strip away the modern trappings and it's the same story as Batman #1 was. A decent read, but at $6.95, though, a little inflated for the price, methinks. I still wonder at the end of it, though, considering how many people the Joker has killed in the comics over the years, why didn't Batman just toss him off a cliff and be done with him? Grade: B-

Doom Patrol #9
Why am I still buying this book? Am I the only one? I must be a masochist, and an enormous Doom Patrol fanboy, because it really just ain't very good. It did get a little better after the abysmal first few issues featuring Super-Gay Vampire Man from the JLA storyline introducing the "new" Patrol, but, really, this is more of John Byrne's played-out comic reinventions. I liked the "battle-bots" parody last issue and do enjoy Byrne's penchant for mutilating Robotman in hideous fashions each issue, but this is probably my last issue. It features a guest appearance by Metamorpho, but of course the Doom Patrol here is so stupid it takes them the entire issue to figure out that's who it is. Must break the habit. Grade: C-

Essential Luke Cage, Power Man Volume 1
Hah ha, I had to buy another hefty "Essential" phone book this week. But who can pass up 500 pages of vintage 1970s blacks-ploitation superhero comics starring Luke Cage, suckah? Truth be told, I'm only 10 issues into this book collecting the first 27 issues of "Hero For Hire"/"Power Man," but it's "good bad comics" so far, if that makes any sense. All swagger and guts, Luke Cage is a great character, even if he's written into some godawful sub-"Scooby Doo" type mystery and detective stories here. He also manages to get his shirt torn off in pretty much every single story. The two-issue storyline featuring Dr. Doom (!) vs. Luke Cage is nearly worth the $15 this hefty tome will set you back, if only to see Cage calling Doom a "sucka!" There's some wildly uneven art so far and like I said, not much in the way of great plots or villains (unless you count D-list losers like "Senor Muerte," a man who actually wears a roulette wheel on his chest, or "Black Mariah," who looks like Martin Lawrence in "Big Momma's House"), but gosh darn it, Cage is a fun dude. These "Essential" books are like potato chips for comics fans, I guess. Not very nutritious, but heck, they do the job. (Some truly awesome vintage Luke Cage comics covers can be seen over here at writer Steve Englehart's Web site.)

Saturday, February 19, 2005

...Those of you with an aversion to baby photos, zip on ahead to your next Internet page experience today. For it is Baby Peter's first birthday, and there was much rejoicing in our household. Hurray!

So how do you sum up a year of strange and hilarious and heartwarming new experiences? Well, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, and since I could easily write 40 books about what it's been like with the little man in our life and not scratch the surface, I'll let the images do the talking. It's 12 Months With Peter!

Happy birthday, my boy!

Friday, February 18, 2005

It's time to do the video review thing!

‘Metallica: Some Kind of Monster’
I don’t dislike Metallica, but neither am I a huge fan of the venerable heavy-metal band, who have sold nearly 100 million records in their 20-year-plus career.
Yet for 2 1/2 hours, I was steadily fascinated to learn all about their lives.
The warts-and-all documentary “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” draws you in, with its humane, focused and nonjudgmental look at the world of Metallica.
What’s it like to be a pounding headbanger at age 40-something, still knocking out heavy riffs but balancing being a rocker with your family, as well as leading a multimillion-dollar corporation?
Directors Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky probably didn’t realize what they were getting into when they decided to film a documentary about Metallica in 2001, as they started sessions for their “St. Anger” album.
What they got was a band on the edge of breaking up and a movie that stretches over two years. Longtime bassist Jason Newsted has just been kicked out as the movie begins, and the remaining trio can barely stand each other.
In fact, they’ve even retained their own $40,000-a-month staff psychologist to hold weekly group therapy sessions.
But then lead singer/guitarist James Hetfield goes into rehab, leaving drummer Lars Ulrich and guitarist Kirk Hammett reeling and the band’s entire future in doubt. They wonder if they’re even still relevant now that they don’t have to struggle for fame.
It’s all brutally honest, often funny and as good as the best TV reality show — it’s “Metallica: The Real World.” The boys of Metallica treat their home of San Francisco as their own personal playground, yet despite their riches they’re not entirely happy.
Heavy metal is a music based in anger, and we find the band trying to channel into that without being the wild, callous men of their youth. You can feel them struggling to incorporate touchy-feely therapy-speak into their hard-rockin’ lives, like trying to learn a new language.
The movie goes on too long — at nearly 2 1/2 hours, it could’ve used a good half-hour of trimming and focus.
Yet most of it remains fascinating material, as the band comes across as likable if screwed up, and we’re the voyeurs enjoying it all.
The best music documentaries interest you whether or not you’re a fan of the band, and “Some Kind of Monster” definitely does that.
***1/2 of four
I've seen some horrible things in my time. But rarely have I seen anything to compare to this: the new look for Bugs Bunny.

Seriously. Take a look at that image above, with the "old" and "new" looks. This new hellspawn looks like the demonic offspring of Bugs, a Transformer and the creature from "Alien." "What's up, doc," indeed...

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Boy, Ray Charles is everywhere these days, isn't he? Not bad for a man who's been dead nearly a year. Winner of eight Grammy Awards, a movie of his life up for seven Academy Awards, the best-selling album of his career hot on the charts...

So it's kind of weird, though, that I never really paid much attention to Ray Charles until recently. We all have cultural blind spots, and Charles was one for me. I thought of him as the guy from the cheesy '80s Pepsi commercials, an important part of early rock 'n' roll but not one that was really relevant to me. But then I checked out "Ray" starring Jamie Foxx, and was really blown away by it. Great music biography with, as everyone keeps saying, an utterly revelatory performance by Jamie Foxx (this is the man who starred in "Booty Call"?). But Foxx's performance wouldn't have a lot of relevance if it weren't for Charles' extraordinary life, where he faced down blindness, racism, bad businessmen and more. Anyway, one of the great things about "Ray" is the constant sounds of Charles' music, which seems much more modern and fresh than I would've imagined.

I picked up a nice Ray Charles greatest hits set recently using some credit we had, and we've been enjoying it a lot. There's a real joy and passion to the man's work, and you can feel his fingerprints on many of the artists that came after him. The bopping bounce of "Mess Around" or "Hit The Road Jack," the more soulful feel of "Unchain My Heart" or "I Got A Woman" -- the man could play. Yeah, in his later years he kind of coasted on his elder statesman status (the 2-CD hits set I got only features one track from after 1980), but when he was in his prime -- wow. One of the things I dig about pop culture, is that there's always something new to discover. Ray Charles wasn't on my radar for a long time, but that just means I have that much more material to enjoy catching up with. Sing it, brother!

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

100 things I like about comics, eh? Alan Doane by way of Fred Hembeck's classic 1980s strip has thrown down the gauntlet to us bloggers, asking us 100 things we likes about dem comics. (Check out Alan's list here here - 56k users beware, and Fred's here.)

I'm going to pass on posting the graphics for 'em all, but here's 100 reasons I've been reading comics for more than 20 years now with no stopping in sight --

1. Spider-Man. Still the best superhero ever created, by gum!
2. Dave Sim's Cerebus, #25-200 or thereabouts before it got all wacko
3. Peter Bagge's "Hate"
4. John Byrne's "Fantastic Four" #242-244, the "Galactus dies" trilogy
5. Will Eisner's "A Contract With God"
6. Alan Moore's "Swamp Thing"
7. Alan Moore's "Top 10"
8. Alan Moore's "Watchmen"
9. Um, OK, about everything else Alan Moore has ever written for comics, just to keep him from taking up 40 spots on the top 100.
10. Tintin
11. Harvey Pekar's "American Splendor"
12. Peter David's "But I Digress" columns
13. Joe Matt's "Peepshow"
14. The Black Panther, one of those Marvel Comics characters I just like, regardless of who's telling his stories
15. Marvel Team-Up, the 1970s-1980s series in which Spider-Man met a different hero every month
16. "Batman: From the 1930s to the 1970s," the massive hardcover collection and first "comic book" I owned until it fell apart from hefty reading
17. "Animal Man" by Grant Morrison and Chas Truog
18. Charles Burns
19. "Doonesbury"
20. Alex Robinson's "Box Office Poison"
21. Anything by Dan Clowes
22. Rick Veitch's "Bratpack" and "Maximortal"
23. "Batman: Year One" by Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli
24. Paul Chadwick's "Concrete"
25. Old-school team-ups between the Justice League and Justice Society
26. The Flaming Carrot
27. "Stuck Rubber Baby" by Howard Cruse
28. Evan Dorkin
29. "Weird Science" and "Weird Fantasy" by EC Comics
30. The Hulk as written by Peter David
31. "The Cowboy Wally Show" and "Why I Hate Saturn" by Kyle Baker
32. Matt Feazell's "Cynicalman"
33. "Beg The Question" by Bob Fingerman
34. The Doom Patrol, the classic version or Grant Morrison's version
35. Marvel Comics' "Star Wars" #58, the first comic I remember buying myself
36. Miracleman
37. "Maus" by Art Spiegelman
38. "Stray Bullets" by David Lapham
39. Brian Michael Bendis, most of his work
40. "The Walking Dead"
41. "Uncanny X-Men" #161-200, Marvel Comics
42. "Hellboy"
43. Daredevil, just as a character, and especially when Miller or Bendis are writing him
44. "Justice League" as written by Grant Morrison
45. "Ultimate Spider-Man"
46. "Starman" by James Robinson
47. "Buck Godot - Zap Gun For Hire" by Phil Foglio
48. James Kochalka's "American Elf" (visit the Web site!)
49. Adrian Tomine's "Optic Nerve"
50. Marvel Comics' "What If?" (the classic version)
51. "Y: The Last Man"
52. "Squadron Supreme" by Mark Gruenwald
53. Will Elder
54. "The Book Of Frank" by Jim Woodring
55. Any of Marvel's gigantic and gosh-darn affordable "Essential" black-and-white reprint volumes
56. "Preacher" by Garth Ennis
57. "Sandman" by Neil Gaiman
58. "Mad" by Harvey Kurtzman and pals, the first 25 or so issues
59. "Amazing Spider-Man" #226-252 by Roger Stern and company. "Nothing Can Stop The Juggernaut," woo-ha!
60. "Superman: Tales of the Bizarro World" trade paperback
61. Jason Marcy's autobiographical comics,
62. "Sin City" by Frank Miller
62. "The Adventures of Little Nemo in Slumberland" by Winsor McCay
63. "Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend," also by Winsor McCay
64. "Secret Wars," the first one, by Marvel Comics, a guilty pleasure. (C'mon, Hulk picks up a MOUNTAIN RANGE!)
65. "Mr. Monster" by Michael T. Gilbert
66. "Through The Habitrails" by Jeff Nicholson
67. "Tales from the Beanworld" by Larry Marder
68. "Superman" by John Byrne, the first dozen issues or so
69. "Mysteries in Space," a beaten-up Fireside paperback collecting dozens of cool 1950s and 60s DC sci-fi comics
70. "Quantum & Woody" by Christopher Priest
71. "Crisis on Infinite Earths" by DC Comics
72. "Kingdom Come" by Mark Waid and Alex Ross
73. The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers
74. "Alpha Flight" by John Byrne
75. "The Essential Spider-Man" Vols. 1-6
76. "Love & Rockets"
77. "Amazing Heroes," the 1980s comic magazine
78. Any wacky "World's Finest" comics starring Superman and Batman from the 1960s
79. "Yummy Fur" by Chester Brown
80. "Transmetropolitan" by Warren Ellis
81. "The Authority," first 20 issues or so
82. "The Spirit" by Will Eisner
83. "The Slings & Arrows Guide To Comic Books"
84. Ambush Bug by Keith Giffen (it's time for a revival, dammit!)
85. Charles Schulz's "Peanuts"
86. "Weapon X" by Barry Windsor-Smith
87. Mysterio.
88. EC Comics' "Piracy" #1-7
89. Chris Ware
90. "Understanding Comics" by Scott McCloud
91. Dr. Fate. He just looks neat.
92. "Avengers" by Roger Stern, circa 1982-1986
93. "Lethargic Lad" by Greg Hyland
94. "DC: One Million" (well, I liked it)
95. "Tom Strong"
96. Troy Hickman's "Common Grounds" or "Holey Crullers" as I still think of it
97. "Alias" by Brian Michael Bendis #1-28
98. "Superman from the 1930s to the 1970s" hardcover collection, which I checked out from the library so often as a kid I had it memorized
99. My time in small press comics from 1990-1998 or thereabouts, and all the cool people and comics I discovered then
100. The comics blogosphere, which despite its flaws is still a pretty nifty place, and has done a lot to ignite my passion for comix old and new.


Sunday, February 13, 2005

So I came home from work yesterday and my boy walked right out of the kitchen, around the corner and up to Daddy. It still shocks me every time to see him walking like an actual human being, and he's really taken to it in the last month. When the New Year began, he was standing some, stumbling and "cruising" from spot to spot a bit, and now here he is, realizing walking's actually a way to get around.

Peter's first birthday is this coming Friday, which is kind of cool and kind of sad all at the same time. How did it zip by so danged fast? He's as fun as a barrel full of monkeys, true, but part of me wishes I had somehow videotaped every single second of the last year (well, except for some particularly nasty diapers) so I could remember it all. Already it's hard to recall what he was like a few months ago.

And right after his birthday, he and his mom take off for mom's homeland of New Zealand for nearly a month! Gah. At first I was all excited about being a swinging bachelor and eating pizza every night and watching "Baywatch," but it will still be terribly tough not seeing my little dude every day for so long. He's changed so much just in the last few weeks, by the time they return he'll be tap-dancing and playing basketball. This is why people have more than one kid, I guess, so you can keep remembering what it's like before it ends.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Ha ha, I beat Fred Hembeck! (OK, not literally -- but apparently, I beat him mathematically. Unfortunately, you're looking at a guy who managed to flunk college trigonometry not once, but twice, so I'll let Fred explain it to you -- scroll down to his WE'RE NUMBER 939,990!!! post. I'll be sitting here clutching my aching head.)

(And thanks for the plug, Fred ol' pal!)
...Yeah, it's been that kind of week, but I suddenly remembered this morning that I do indeed have a blog. Here are some Quick Comic Reviews!

Concrete: The Human Dilemma #2 (of 6)
Wow. This is one of the best comics I've read in months. As a follower of Paul Chadwick's saga since it started in 1987, I've grown to really enjoy the characters of Concrete, philosopher-trapped-in-a-stone-body, and his friends as he ambles through a strange life. But this issue blew me away in its surprising change to the status quo, and genuine changes to the character's relationships. By equal turns sad, sexy and thoughtful, it's a remarkable turning point for Concrete. Chadwick's writing is eloquent without being pretentious, and his art continues to be dreamlike and crisp. Several "Concrete" tales are already in my top 25 list of comics of all time -- and this one, if it continues the quality of this issue, might be the best one yet. Grade: A+

New Avengers #3
I feel guilty liking this so much because the general feeling in the blogosphere is that I shouldn't. But so far, Brian Bendis' reimagining of the Avengers is holding my attention, and I'm eager to see what's next. It's straightforward superhero comics, but given a (so far) nice little twist. This issue is mostly character moments, with some excellent dialogue for Luke Cage, Spider-Man and Captain America as the new team of Avengers is officially formed. And while the idea of adding Wolverine to the Avengers horrifies many, at this point I'm genuinely interested in seeing how Bendis manages that next issue. Bendis' biggest flaw as a writer IMHO is his inability to pull off endings as strong as his beginnings, so I'll be interested in seeing what comes next. Grade: B+

JLA Classified #3
Batman kicks Gorilla Grodd in the gonads. What more do you need to know? Hyperdrive superheroics galore as Grant Morrison wraps up his three-part return to the Justice League. Pure fun, and an adrenalized joy to read. Nobody else should be allowed to write the JLA. Grade: A-

Wanted #6
In which Mark Millar ends his so-called "supervillain Watchmen" epic with a splutter, and a giant upraised middle finger to the very audience he's trying to reach. Cynicism and lazy storytelling masquerading as "edgy," and a very disappointing conclusion to a somewhat intriguing miniseries. Telling your audience they're lazy stupid cows as you break the fourth wall is the kind of ending a 17-year-old Goth kid would pull off, so this is just rotten sloppiness. Millar can be a good writer (See: "Ultimates"), but too often lately he strikes me as the kid who jams a safety pin in his ears and proclaims that he's punk rock. It's all trying too hard. And after this, can we officially place a ban on anyone trying to compare their work to "Watchmen", please? Grade: C

Tuesday, February 8, 2005

Do you like paintings of couches? Well, who doesn't? Good luck to my mother-in-law, Sylvia Siddell, who has a new exhibition of her paintings, "Couch," opening today (well, tomorrow, but it's today there). If you happen to be in Auckland, New Zealand, stop on by!

My father-in-law Peter doesn't have an exhibition to plug, but I'd feel guilty if I left him out, so go see his web site too!

And for that matter my sister-in-law Emily does not have her own Web site but here is an online interview anyway featuring her fine creations.

Aren't they all artistic?
Quick Comics Reviews!

Essential Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man Volume 1 (whew!)
When it comes to bang for your buck, I can't pass up the hefty Marvel "Essential" volumes, phone-book sized black and white reprints of classic comics. Why, for the $17 this 600-page book costs, I could get a mere 4-5 padded, "decompressed" current comics! Instead, in this sucker I get the first 31 (!!) issues of "PPTSS" (as we nerds called it), Spider-Man's swinging second ongoing title from the days when he didn't have 42 ongoing comics and miniseries a month. Back in the late '70s when PPTSS started, a second Spider-Man title was a revolutionary idea. This book, from the title, focused a little more on the "Man" side of "Spider-Man," with a hefty focus on Peter Parker's college life.

I was in fanboy heaven reading this volume, several issues of which I'd missed the first time around. Are they perfect comics? No, but they're good solid fun, from the days when Petey was a single struggling college student living in a ratty apartment, not married to supermodels and in the Avengers. Creatively, PPTSS was often in the shadow of the better-written "Amazing Spider-Man" parent title, but this book's still a lot of fun.

OK, it's dated '70s funk in a lot of ways -- take the Hypno-Hustler, a one-shot disco-themed villain who was named the worst Spider-Man villain of all time. There's also my personal favorite, the steroid-pumped stereotypical Southern redneck "Razorback," a man who loves CB radios and wears a giant pig costume with an electified mane. You can't make this stuff up. The "Razorback" saga, a four-parter oddity that features Spidey tangling with cultists and perhaps the strangest Spider-Man villain of all in the cosmic-powered Warlock foe "Man-Beast," might be the book's storytelling nadir. But then again, how you can not dig lines like "This is just like I heard back in Hog Country!" Where's the Ultimate Razorback miniseries, darn it?

But there's also pretty good stuff in here, camp value aside. The White Tiger, an old "Kung Fu" hero, becomes a member of the supporting cast, and one of the first Hispanic superheroes of note. The book's highlight, though, is the sprawling storyline from PPTSS #25-31, featuring Spider-Man being accidentally blinded and guest-starring Daredevil, a story which led right into the first appearance of Carrion, an evil clone who was actually pretty scary before "evil clones" led to some of the worst Spider-Man stories ever in the 1990s. This hefty book also includes guest-apperances by The Champions, Moon Knight and The Inhumans. Any fan of 1970s superheroics or Spidey will dig it, and if you don't, I just can't help you, true believer. Bring on Volume 2, when PPTSS started to get really good!

Sunday, February 6, 2005

Liven up your Saturday with a quick video review!

Alien Vs. Predator
With a title like “Alien Vs. Predator,” you know not to expect Shakespeare.
Still, this monster mash-up of two venerable science fiction/horror movie franchises is not as bad as it sounds. Unfortunately, it’s not as good as it could be.
We join a team of scientists and adventurers hired by millionaire Bishop (Lance Henriksen) to investigate a strange structure found under the ice in Antarctica.
Little do these people realize they’ve stumbled upon a base created by the Predator race dating to the beginning of human civilization. And the Predators are coming back, with the even worse race of Aliens in tow.
There’s good potential in “AVP,” including the idea that Predators and Aliens have had a bloody relationship going back thousands of years.
Unfortunately, all this intriguing set-up basically boils down to a thin video game-style “hunt-and-shoot” storyline, lacking the slick style of the first two “Alien” movies or even the brawny machismo of the original “Predator.” With its PG-13 rating, it feels tamer than the truly scary original R-rated films.
The human characters are all fairly bland stereotypes, lacking the presence of Sigourney Weaver or Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Director Paul W. S. Anderson (“Resident Evil”) also shows a singularly inept eye for staging action, shrouding scenes in heavy darkness, utterly played out “Matrix” homages and rapid-fire editing that makes it impossible to tell what’s going on in some scenes. When did it become so hard to film two monsters brawling with some simple elegance?
Diehard fans of the series might be irked by some of the liberties taken (did Aliens only take a few seconds to “erupt” from their victims in the original films?), but as a matinee-style adventure, “AVP” is light enough to go down easily. I liked the bond formed between a female heroine (Sanaa Lathan) and a frightening Predator.
Still, the imaginary “Alien Vs. Predator” movies fanboys probably have had playing in their heads for years all would likely have been more original and professional in the end than this half-hearted cash-in.

Friday, February 4, 2005

This meme's making the rounds, courtesy of beaucoupkevin (who does quite a funny blog I keep meaning to link to one of these days). Because question-and-answers are fun!

1. Total amount of music files on your computer:
Embarassingly low amount, around 20-30 files at any given time. In my defense I keep taking the mp3s I've downloaded and burning them onto discs, as my home iMac has a really tiny amount of free space and my work G4 I try not to abuse.

2. The last CD you bought was:
Picked up Loretta Lynn's "Van Lear Rose" for $9.72 at WalMart (I know, I shouldn't patronize the beast, but they have cheap cat litter) the other day. Really enjoyable, listening to her reminds me of how much Lucinda Williams, a personal fave, was inspired by her. Lynn's voice pairs well with Jack White's crazy blues guitar on this record.

3. What is the song you last listened to before reading this message?
"Across The Sea" from Weezer's "Pinkerton" CD, currently playing on the car stereo.

4. Write down 5 songs you often listen to or that mean a lot to you.
It changes every five minutes, but off the top of my head today* --
"You Know You're Right," Nirvana
"Oceanographer's Choice," The Mountain Goats
"Starman," David Bowie
"My Son Cool," Guided By Voices
"Mr. Blue Sky," ELO
*Subject to change depending on mood.

5. Who are you going to pass this stick to? (3 persons) and why?
Hell if I know who'll answer it, but Dave Hitt, Rob Rogers, Jason Marcy, Lain Hughes, if you're reading it, go nuts!

Thursday, February 3, 2005

Interesting to see "comic book grandfather" Stan Lee's recent victorious lawsuit against Marvel Comics covered tonight on 60 Minutes 2, even if it was the third segment on the program (the hunt for the new monkey species in the Amazon segment was nifty, though). Lee recently won a judgment against Marvel for failing to pay him adequately for creating Spider-Man, which of course has gone on to make a kajillion dollars in the movies lately. Like most mainstream coverage of the comics medium, though, the show was more interesting in what it omits and forgets to include rather than what it includes in pithy 15-minute segments.

F'r instance, you'd never know that Lee wasn't the SOLE creator of Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, X-Men et cetera from the program. Not once was it mentioned that there were, y'know, artists involved as well, who at the very least merit co-creator credit. Spider-Man's artistic father and a heavy producer of many of the webbed dude's signature looks, styles and characters, Steve Ditko, wasn't mentioned even once. I kind of wonder if Ditko in his customary silence is fuming at all about Lee's cash windfall here. In fairness to Lee, he might well have brought Ditko up and had his name cut out in the interviewing process -- geez, the guy interviewing Lee was a bit of a tool, wasn't he? But the piece clearly felt tailored to fit the program's view of "little guy takes on the corporation," and apparently they couldn't bend that enough to admit that while Lee is unmistakably a HUGE part of comics history and without him we wouldn't have a Spider-Man, Lee didn't exactly do it all by himself.

Thursday update: You'll find far more coherent and thoughtful bloggery on Lee's appearance by Tom, Mark and Heidi. (Tom is a little more antagonistic of Lee than I might be; on the other hand, having just read Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones, at this point I'm inclined to view the comic book industry as one big screw-job to creators by publishers since time immemorial. So it goes....)
Here's a movie review, the first four-star movie I've seen in 2005: Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby."

"She knew one thing about herself. She was trash.” With that line, which says so much in a few short syllables, I had a feeling I was going to love Clint Eastwood’s tight, taut and devastating boxing movie, “Million Dollar Baby.”

That’s because it feels real, lived in and substantial in a way so few movies seem to these days. “Million Dollar Baby” lands a knockout punch to join the pantheon of great boxing movies from “Rocky” to “Raging Bull,” but in the end, it’s also so much more than that.

Nominated for seven Academy Awards, “Million Dollar Baby” stands as a highlight in Eastwood’s legendary career, and it’s his best directed movie since “Unforgiven.”
It’s the tale of boxing trainer Frankie Dunn (Eastwood), and his janitor/best friend Scrap (Morgan Freeman), who run The Hit Pit, a rundown gym in the back corners of Los Angeles.

Boxers come and go through Frankie’s gym, where he trains them to the best of his ability only to find them leave for flashier management in the end. Enter Maggie (Hilary Swank), a thirty-something waitress from a white-trash background with dreams of becoming a women’s boxing champion.

Frankie refuses to have anything to do with her — “I don’t train girls,” he says with that Eastwoodian snarl — but she’s tenacious, and before he realizes it, Frankie becomes her trainer, manager, and substitute father figure. Maggie has the stuff to take her all the way to the top, and it’s her shot. But fate might keep her from making that final play. And I’ll say no more.

With the language of a fine short story, “Million Dollar Baby” uses boxing as a metaphor for life. Freeman’s character narrates the movie, and his warm velvety voice is as welcome here as it was in the same fashion in “The Shawshank Redemption.”
Indeed, redemption is a powerful part of this movie, too.

Once “Dirty Harry,” Eastwood has slowly been reinventing himself as a filmmaker who dissects with a keen eye the true horror and cost of violence. Unlike last year’s “Mystic River,” which I frequently found manipulative and overwrought, “Million Dollar Baby” is spare, lean and ultimately far more effective.

The movie takes a startling turn about two-thirds of the way through, and it might leave some audience members behind. While it’ll undoubtedly be controversial, even offensive to some, the final act is what raises “Million Dollar Baby” from boxing movie to another level. Don’t let someone give its climax away to you — it’s unforgettable.

Eastwood, at 74, has been a legend longer than I’ve been alive, but he continues to improve in his autumn. His directing has grown immensely confident, yet warm and thoughtful. He takes a familiar story of the underdog made good, and brings it to unfamiliar places, and tackles a topical moral dilemma that hits all the right buttons.

I may have a soft spot for “Unforgiven” as his best movie, just because it’s got cowboys, but it’d be hard to not consider “Million Dollar Baby” a strong second place.

As Maggie, Swank might just have punched her way to her second Academy Award for Best Actress (the first was in 2000 for “Boys Don’t Cry”). She takes a worn-out idea — the spunky athlete who won’t give up and won’t be pushed around — and in subtle, effective ways makes her fresh, likable and worth rooting for.

But Eastwood’s character is the emotional core of “Million Dollar Baby,” a grim, haunted figure whose relationship with Maggie reawakens him. Eastwood’s never been a flashy actor, but in his way he tells more with the arch of an eyebrow than many actors do in an entire monologue. He won his second Best Actor Oscar nomination for his turn here. It’s great acting, and it looks easy.

Women’s boxing is at its core a pretty brutal sport, and Eastwood doesn’t flinch from showing the nasty side of it. The film is shrouded in literal darkness, with subdued colors.

Eastwood and Freeman’s characters have an easygoing charm, making you believe they’ve been cantankerous friends for decades. Their banter provides the film’s needed humor.

“Million Dollar Baby” goes to some pretty dark places, but it’s also the kind of movie that sparks debate and sticks with you long after the final image fades. It’ll break your heart in all the right places.
**** of four

Wednesday, February 2, 2005

From "the country is going to hell in a handbasket department":

The findings of this survey depresses me to no end. Among the findings that our up-and-coming generation of high school students believe:
A new survey of 112,003 students released today finds that one in three say the press ought to be more restricted -- and 36% think newspapers should get “government approval” before stories are published.(emphasis mine)

The calendar says 2005, but man, it suddenly feels a lot like 1984 in here....

Entirely unrelated, mucho gracias to all the Spatula Forum readers who led this little blog to pass the 10,000 visitors mark sometime in the last day or so. When I started this last April, I figured I'd get 1,000 looks in a year if that. Sure, most of you are looking for hardcore Muppet porn and free mp3s according to the SiteMeter statistics, but I'll take what I can get.

Pesky cold starting to evaporate (ACHoo!), so hopefully more regular posting starting tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 1, 2005

Bleaargh. Winter colds suck. It's more annoying than incapacitating, but still stinks to have my head stuffed up and my brain stuck in second gear. First cold I've had in a long time, though. Since I had surgery to repair a deviated septum 2 years ago, I've noticed I've been a lot healthier in general in the winter. So if your septum needs un-deviating, I heartily recommend a septoplasty.

Anyway, shockingly enough January 2005 is almost behind us. It's been a fast month. Baby Peter took his first official "step" just three weeks ago and can now walk across the room and has mastered the art of the pratfall.

Something I'm going to try and do at the end of each month this year is a wrap-up of Books I Read. Here's what sped through my shelves this January, with a few notes:

The Years of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate by Robert A. Caro. In a madman's errand, I somehow tore through close to 2,500 pages of Caro's three-volumes-to-date biography of LBJ last fall and winter. Enjoyed nearly every page though, and this last volume actually makes U.S. Senate parliamentary wheeling-and-dealing page-turning reading. Terrific political biography.
Men And Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem. Lethem is a novel writer but his short stories are hit and miss for me; this collection is slim but worth reading for "Super Goat Man," about a has-been superhero.
The Rabbit Factory by Larry Brown. The last novel by this late, great Mississippi author. Several thematically linked stories of tragic losers in the South, not Brown's best work but vivid and powerful intermittently. Still hard to believe we lost this fine author, too soon.
His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph Ellis. Actually read this for the day job, to review for the newspaper soon. It's a great short (under 300 pages) biography of Washington, who has become so iconic that you tend to forget he was a real live person once. Ellis does a nice job sorting out myth from fiction and trying his best to look at the elusive Washington himself.
Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem. Another Lethem, his first novel, a strange science fiction detective novel. While the mystery itself isn't particularly compelling, the characters and original setting make up for it. Any novel that features a gun-toting genetically altered kangaroo is all right with me.
Songbook by Nick Hornby (re-read), and also by Hornby, The Polyphonic Spree: A Hilarious And True Account of One Man’s Struggle With The Monthly Tide of the Books He’s Bought And The Books He’s Been Meaning To Read (phew!) I totally dig Nick Hornby's criticism, perhaps even more than his fiction ("High Fidelity," "About A Boy.") In fact, I've shamelessly ripped off this list idea from "The Polyphonic Spree," which is just a nifty read through a fellow book-obsessive's monthly reading over the course of a year, annotated extensively with his thoughts on the books he's read. "Songbook" is similar, except dealing with music, and I had to read it again after "Spree" just to keep getting my Hornby fix. Both are highly recommended for anybody who loves reading about other people's pop culture obsessions nearly as much as having their own obsessions.
The Neil Pollack Anthology of American Literature An amusing hodge-podge of literary parody of the Norman Mailer/Gore Vidal/Tom Wolfe style of journalism/fiction, it actually managed to keep the same one-note joke funny and fresh throughout.
The Making of the President 1964 by Theodore White (unfinished) Bought this for a quarter at the used book store, and enjoying it, but for someone weaned on more raw and personal modern political books, it's a bit dry sometimes. One I dip into now and again when I'm in the mood until I'm done.
Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book by Gerard Jones. This is pretty nifty, an insanely well researched look at the dawn of the comic book and the various mobsters, thiefs and characters who created them. Pretty much every superhero you know was created by Jewish men, from Superman to Spider-Man, and Jones does a great job tying their Jewish self-identity into what became the world of superheroes. Sometimes tragic, with many comic creators getting horribly ripped off by their publishers, but a must read for anyone interested in the hidden corners of comic book history. A book that needed to be written.