Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Big Hands 6

Just a quick post on a funny, free publication I picked up while in San Francisco, Big Hands 6. Weighing in at just about ten pages, this chapbook by Aaron L. Smith offers a frenetic set of musings on everything from the Moravians who settled Greensboro, NC, in the 1750s to breaking up, drunk uncles and sharing the gun collection one has inherited from one's father with the man with whom one's mother wishes she were in love. (Needless to say, the Freudian implications of this last issue alone are reason enough to give the author's work a second look.) Throughout the proceedings, Smith demonstrates a refined sense of self-deprecating wit and sophistication, as when he observes that reason he admires the Moravians is that they "fully grasped the indisputable suckiness of life here on Earth in ways that modern Americans simply cannot." Overall, a wild, clever read with a punk-rock, do-it-yourself, underground aesthetic -- well worth picking up if you can find a copy.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Off Kilter

First there was the house inspection, then the radon test, and by the time it was all over, it was time for me to get on a plane to fly out to San Francisco to give a paper at this year’s Popular Culture Association conference. The only problem was that the flight was delayed by about five hours, and the plane didn’t land until three in the morning. A scant five hours later, I was discussing the relationship between humanity, Daleks and television in front of a room full of strangers, and shortly thereafter, I received a message from my real estate agent stating that my roof needed fifty new slates, an oil tank had to be removed from my basement, my house had two cracked joists, and conditions in several spots on my porch were “conducive to rot.” Amidst all of this, I had the opportunity to read Linda C. Wisniewski’s memoir, Off Kilter, and have never been more thankful for the power of other people’s misfortunes to put my own concerns into perspective.

Writing in a style reminiscent of Frank McCourt, Wisniewski conjures the ghosts of a troubled and emotionally fraught childhood throughout the majority of her memoir so that she can exorcise them in the final chapters. As we walk with Wisniewski through her childhood, we come to cringe at every approach of her surly, eternally discontented father, to pity her long-suffering mother, and to admire the long journey the author has made from her small-town roots in upstate New York to the life she has made for herself in the present day. Indeed, what emerges most clearly throughout the memoir is the author’s ambivalence toward the economically depressed Amsterdam of her childhood: steeped in old-world Polish tradition, the town is both home and alien to her, the ground zero of an identity forged in self-conscious embarrassment and, ironically, the proving ground for the confident and self-sufficient woman she would become. Expertly balancing pathos and triumph, Wisniewski never wallows in self-pity. Rather, she gathers strength from her setbacks and finds a renewed sense of purpose with each curve life sends her way. In this sense, Off Kilter is a fine testament to the resilience of the human spirit and to the healing power of the written word.

Monday, March 17, 2008

While She Was Working

Although this space is usually reserved for book reviews, I'm willing to bend my own rules and review a CD just this once because this one deserves attention. While She Was Working by Scot Sax offers a fun and lighthearted peek into the mind of a working musician. If his name sounds a little bit familiar, it may be because of the Grammy-winning and (for a time) inescapable "Like We Never Loved at All" by Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, which Scot co-wrote. Then there were his various bands, Wanderlust and Feel chief among them, which earned Scot a loyal following with songs like "I Walked" and "I Am the Summertime," a fan-favorite from the American Pie soundtrack. Now that he's on his own, Scot can generally be found producing tracks for and touring with up-and-coming bluesy, folksy, breathy pop sensation Sharon Little, performing with his own traveling Saxploitation circus, or hosting Open Milk Night, which is, hands-down, the best open-mic series in the Philadelphia area. In short, the man never stops working, and it's a minor miracle that he managed to find the time to record the six quirky tracks on this CD.

Scot's previous musical outings found him exploring the ups and downs of life as an aspiring pop star. In 1995's "Stage Name," a track from Wanderlust's Prize, for example, Scot promised to take the fifteen minutes of fame that the rest of us would surely squander (a la Darva Conger) and do something remarkable with them. Later, with Feel and "Until They Close the World," he took on the guise of the quintessential rock hero who wouldn't stop rockin' until they... well, did what the title of the song suggests. And though Scot is now well into his [a-hem] mid-thirties, he's more or less keeping up his end of the bargain. Sure, he's not going after the brass ring of super-stardom anymore, but that's what gives his latest outing its magic. What we get with While She Was Working is a great-sounding, unpretentious snapshot of what a singer-songwriter does with his free time: have fun writing more songs.

The closest analogy I can make off the top of my head is Brian Wilson's "Busy Doing Nothing" from the Beach Boys' low-key 20/20 album. But the comparisons don't stop there. Throughout the CD, the influence of British Invasion bands is evident, and all of the tracks bear strong hints of The Beatles, The (latter-day) Kinks and David Bowie. I also detect faint traces of Daniel Johnston (the subject of the 2005 documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston) and even Bob Carlton (a.k.a. Carl Bobton), one of Scot's Open Milk faithful. Overall, an excellent (if brief) collection of songs.

Sunday, March 16, 2008


Reading Jason Tanamor’s second novel, Anonymous, I am reminded of the passage from Homer’s Odyssesy in which Odysseus blinds Polyphemus, the Cyclops who has been eating the wandering hero’s crew. Before blinding the Cyclops, Odysseus says that his name is “Outis,” which translates to “no man” or “nobody.” As a result, when Polyphemus is blinded, his cries for help go largely ignored by his countrymen, who have more than a little bit of trouble understanding the one-eyed giant’s cries that “nobody” has attacked him. Thus, in a series of deft moves, Odysseus demonstrates the power of anonymity, a power which Tanamor explores throughout his appropriately titled Anonymous. Yet where Homer is content to present us with a single hero whose anonymity is only temporary, Tanamor presents an entire cast of nameless characters whose anonymity remains intact throughout the entire novel. As a result, we never know where we stand with these characters, and we’re never quite sure who to trust. Not that this is a bad thing. Reveling in the vagaries of unreliable narration, Tanamor proves himself a master of the existential mystery: the question is never whodunit, but who is the “who,” and how do we know that the “it” ever really got done?

While Tanamor’s writing may find its deepest roots in classical mythology, the most palpable spirit haunting Anonymous is that of Chuck Palahniuk. The novel is dedicated to “Chucky P,” and every page drips with Palahniuk’s unflinching fascination with the grotesque and disturbing-yet-true details of life in postmodern America. Moreover, the structure of Anonymous closely follows that of Haunted, Palahniuk’s disquieting parade of mangled freaks and the vices that frequently lead to their undoing. Where Palahniuk uses the occasion of a writers’ retreat to give his own unreliable narrators an opportunity to show off their prowess at cock-and-bull one-upmanship, Tanamor’s storytellers find themselves in jail, pleading their cases to one another through a network of drainpipes and empty toilet bowls. There’s “Unknown,” the con artist imprisoned for impersonating Brad Pitt’s manager. There’s “Ambiguous,” who killed his own child as payback for his wife's infidelity. There’s “Nose,” who insists he’s not psychotic. And then there’s the unnamed narrator of the novel who obsesses constantly over the woman who gave him herpes. They all have reasons for doing what they’ve done, they all have an astounding capacity for rationalizing the worst of crimes, and they all have stories to tell.

If there’s one criticism I have of Anonymous, it’s that I wish the book had been typeset professionally—or at least with a stronger eye for design. Set in what appears to be double- or perhaps 1.5-spaced Times New Roman, the book has a self-published appearance that may deter the casual reader from further investigating Tanamor’s prose. Tighter spacing, a less-common typeface (like Baskerville or Bodoni), and slightly smaller indentations at the start of each paragraph would go a long way toward giving this novel a more professional sheen. Aesthetic concerns aside, however, fans of Chuck Palahniuk (and especially of Haunted) will find a kindred spirit in Jason Tanamor.

Thursday, March 6, 2008


A cult of hooded villains powered by violent blows to the crotch. A lizard demon named Charles. An elfin medicine man known only as Zen. Welcome to the bizarre world of Innocent, a recent graphic novel from King Tractor Press.

Part Captain Britain, part Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and part Highway to Heaven (in a weird, brutal, absurd kind of way), Innocent is the story of a fallen angel who teams up with a bald, burly sociopath to set the world right. Yet where the divine duo of the early-eighties morality drama rarely found it necessary to parse the shades of gray that linger between good and evil, the basic tension that drives Innocent forward is that the title character is anything but that which his name implies. Yes, he can sniff out evildoers with uncanny precision, but his methods for bringing said evildoers to justice borders on… well, evil. As the fallen angel eventually laments, “It’s hard to fathom peace while looking through bloody eyes.” Wry commentary on American foreign policy, perhaps?

Equal parts magic and mayhem, the book reads like a frenetic walking tour through the graphic styles of classic indie comics from the late-eighties and early nineties. As the duo’s adventures progress, clean line drawings give way to wispy, ghost-like sketches and then to a style that borders on manga. This, of course, is because each chapter has been drawn by a different artist, the effect of which is to put a new visual spin on the main characters every twenty pages or so. In other words, we get to see Innocent evolve through a number of incarnations as his adventures continue. And continue they do.

Or at least I hope they do. The graphic novel ends with a cliffhanger in which the fallen angel’s life hangs in the balance. On one hand, it can be argued that this strategy robs the overall story of its natural arc; we’re not getting a graphic “novel,” technically, but an installment of one. On the other hand, however, by raising more questions than it answers, this volume does a nice job of planting the seeds for many adventures to come and certainly left me wanting more.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

The Prisoner: Miss Fredom

I came to The Prisoner somewhat late in life. I was well into my thirties, and (as is the case with many of my fondest discoveries) I stumbled upon the mind-bending sixties spy drama quite by accident. In its infinite wisdom, the local PBS station had decided to air the entire run of the series in the space of two weeks, and I happened to be an insomniac. And so it was that I was inducted (or perhaps abducted is a better word) to the weird and wonderful ultra-planned-community-slash-prison that is The Village.

Although the original series was fairly short-lived, it remains a cult favorite to this day -- thanks in part to the fans who kept the series alive in the underground public imagination, and especially to the likes of Andrew Cartmel whose new novel The Prisoner: Miss Freedom (Powys Media, 2008) thrillingly brings the series back to life. Of course, those in the know would expect little less than a masterwork from Cartmel, whose work as a script editor for Doctor Who led to some of the most far-out episodes of that series, and this, his latest work, lives up to and perhaps exceeds Cartmel's reputation.

From the beginning, the reader is catapulted into the nightmarish world of The Village, and the opening strains of The Prisoner theme song are all but audible as the narrative moves forward. The premise this time around is that a serial killer has arrived in The Village, and only Number Six knows the full extent of his vicious past. Add to that an attempt on the part of parties unknown to rescue Number Six, the sudden appearance of a beautiful new female inmate known only as Number 666, a tango contest, and Number Six's participation in a creative writing class, and you'll start to get a sense of the tangled web Cartmel has woven.

Yet to simply say that Miss Freedom is a taut and thrilling spy novel only scratches the surface. What shines through most clearly in this novel is Cartmel's fine-tuned dry wit. A master of cunning juxtaposition, Cartmel frequently manages to fire off sentences whose apparent contradictions and playful punning reveal nothing short of a Pynchonesque sense of the sheer absurdity of life. For example: "It is the most extreme and totalitarian regime. They reduce human beings to mere numbers. I suggest we send agent 59/06 to put paid to their plans." Or this one: "The mission was breathlessly imminent, and since Granger's military experience had thoughtlessly failed to provide him with jump experience, it was imperative to go on a crash program." A "crash-course" in parachuting, hey? Clearly a sublimely twisted mind is at work here -- or at least a mind that is capable of appreciating the sublimely twisted world of words in which we live.

Without a doubt, The Prisoner: Miss Freedom is exactly what die-hard fans of the show have been waiting for-- a witty, fun, terrifying romp through the streets of the Village with Rover in hot pursuit. Cartmel is a masterful storyteller, and his dry humor keeps the story percolating through plot twist after plot twist. Thanks to him and Powys media,The Prisoner is back and better than ever!