Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: What is Your Dangerous Idea?

What’s this, then?:  John Brockman runs the Edge Foundation, which seeks to get scientists, philosophers, sociologists and whatever the hell Douglas Rushkoff is (but mostly scientists) to put forth new ideas in a form which is accessible to a non-specialist audience.  Every year a question is posed to Edge Foundation thinkers.  2006’s was “What is your dangerous idea?”  108 responses to that question form this book.  The responses range from a handful of sentences to a few pages long, and touch on religion, the nature of the self, politics, evolution, medicine, economics, and just about anything else you can think of.

Well, s’it any good?:  Yes, it’s compulsively readable.  Because each of the ideas is presented to briefly, it’s easy to find yourself repeatedly saying “just one more,” until there are no more.  It helps that the ideas themselves are interesting.  “The Human Brain Will Never Understand the Universe” is followed by “The World May be Fundamentally Inexplicable.”  If that sounds like a downer, check in with Ray Kurzweil in his “The Near-Term Inevitability of Radical Life Extension and Expansion.” Rushkoff pushes for “open-source currency,” which might be the idea in the book with the best balance of zaniness and real potential as food for thought.

What’s the best bit?:  The best part might be the way the book is organized.  Essays which follow one another are not necessarily on the same topic but on related topics.  There is a sense of conversation that would be lost if the essays were arbitrarily lumped into sections or chapters.  I do wish more of the chapters directly disagreed with one another.  For a book on dangerous ideas, a surprising number of authors seem to be pushing scientific orthodoxies.  Not that thinking about the implications of neuroscientists’s understanding of mind as a material phenomenon is not useful but it lacks the gonzo charm of an idea like mathematician Rudy Rucker’s “Mind is a Universally Distributed Quality,” a kind of 21st century animism.

Anything else?:  As I thumb through the index again, I keep coming across other entries that I could reccomend to you guys.  This really is a good little pop-science book, and there are other books resultant from Edge questions, like What Are You Optimistic About, which I’d be willing to give a quick read.

Published in: on December 30, 2011 at 11:23 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances

What’s this then?:  How do you not grab a book with a title like The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances.  This is a collection of short stories (and essays) by Peter S. Beagle, the author of The Last Unicorn.  There are five of Beagle’s fantasy stories, two early, realistic fiction pieces, and three journalistic pieces.  I do have to say I wish there had been more of the fantasy material and less of that other stuff. The pieces are all about relationships of some sort whether between a talking rhino (who thinks he’s a unicorn) and a philosophy professor, a young man and his werewolf girlfriend, or a father and his daughter, hence the “odd acquaintances” of the title.  I do like the idea of doing a retrospective which is also themed, but maybe more stories with less of a focus would have been better.

Well s’it any good?:  Yup.  I wouldn’t put it on your must read list per se, but if you’re looking for a collection of fantasy stories not of the elves and wizards type, or you’re curious about Peter Beagle, then this is well worth checking out.  Beagle excels at putting emotionally viable characters in his weird situations, which is an ideal formula for making fantasy believable.  Beagle is also a master of understatement.  He tends to present the fantastic in a straightforward way without the slightest sense of “wink wink nudge nudge.”  It works very well with these stories, but unfortunately, its easy to forget to be impressed with understatement.  If you do read these stories, please do take the time to note that Beagles playing it cool on purpose.

What’s the best bit?:  Probably “Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros” which is the story the book’s title refers to. Professor Gottesman is not the most friendly sort but somehow he finds the friend he wants in a philosophically inclined Rhino.  If this kind of thing sounds charming to you, then you’ll probably like Beagle overall.  There’s “Come Lady Death” which is a noted predecessor to Neil Gaiman’s depiction of Death in Sandman.  Its a good story with a bit of a Twilight Zone twist at the end, but, again, stated quietly.  “My Daughter’s Name is Sarah” is a realist piece Beagle wrote early in his career, but is a good example of Beagle’s (even then already well developed) skill with characters’ emotions.  The journalistic pieces stuffed in the back are ok, but somewhat out of date, and not really required reading.

Anything Else:  It’s very hard not to think of Neil Gaiman while reading Beagle.  Indeed Gaiman has admitted his indebtedness to Beagle.  Both excel by making strange circumstances tangible through understatement.  And the student may actually surpass the teacher in some ways.   Both can amuse and charm, but only Gaiman can chill or shock.  Beagle, though, is much, much better at being poignant, so there’s your reason to go out and read him.

Published in: on November 7, 2011 at 8:50 pm  Comments (2)  

Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: H. P. Lovecraft’s Book of the Supernatural

What’s this then?:  It caaaaame from the bargain biiiiinnnn!  H.P. Lovecraft’s Book of the Supernatural is a quick cash in on the market of people who buy anything Lovecraft sight-unseen (i.e. me).  It takes Lovecraft’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” and mines it as a source for a collection of classic horror stories that influenced Lovecraft.  Any story which Lovecraft mentions in passing is fair game.  Although pieces by such luminaries as Edgar Alan Poe and Bram Stoker are included, they are not necessarily the pieces you would expect, since again this collection is on the cheaper side, and its the second of its kind (after H.P. Lovecrafts Book of Horror).  So, where the first got Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan, which Stephen King has called the best horror story ever, this book has to settle for “The Novel of the White Powder” (which is pretty good except for roughly five pages of after the fact explanation after the climax has occured and there is nothing scary left to happen).  Each story is preceded by a snippet from Lovecraft’s essay on the story or at least the author in question.  There are also illustrations which seem randomly placed and largely unrelated to the stories.  They resemble Stephen Gammel’s illustrations for the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, only not quite as good.

Well, s’it any good?:  If you find it in the bargain bin, and you like traditional ghost stories, pick it up.  Most of the stories are from the late nineteenth century and have that certain verbose nature and tendency to digress for waxings philosophical.  I’ve been working on the book all month in fits and starts since the style sits so uncomfortably with me, but at least now I see where Lovecraft gets it.  Most of the stories are pretty standard ghost stories, and so they don’t have as much ability to shock as they once may have, but there are a couple strange gems.  In particular, evil fungi, evil wallpaper, and an evil health tonic seem to point towards the development of Lovecraft’s “cosmic horror.”

What’s the best bit?:  The story about the evil wallpaper is –surprisingly or appropriately? — the best story in the collection.  It’s Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper,  which tells in the first person (of course) the story of a woman convalescing with “nervous agitation” or some such 19th century disorder who is slowly driven mad by her unsettling (and potentially supernatural) wallpaper.  One critic noted that it “may be a ghost story; worse yet, it may not.”  Other winners in the collection are “The Novel of the White Powder,” William Hope Hodgson’s “The Voice in the Night” (the evil fungus story, and Arthur Conan Doyle’s “the Voyage of the Pole Star” (a pretty standard ghost story, but well told).

Anything else?:  The thing that strikes me about this collection is that the failures are good ideas limply told.  The minor successes are standard ideas well told.  Thebest stories are good ideas well told.  In the spirit of Halloween, I will admit that one of my great fears is that when I write fiction I (will) fall into that first category.  Which, I suppose, paradoxically, makes the worst stories in this collection the most frightening.

Published in: on October 31, 2011 at 7:10 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reviews of Books You May Have Heard of: Weird New England

What’s this, then?:  Well, having recently been taken to task over my loose use of the phrase “books you’ve never heard of,”  I’ll admit that I’m not exactly diving through the bargain bin for this one.  But I thought it would be cool to fit a non-fiction book into my whole creepy October theme, here.  So, Weird New England is a collection of New England based folklore and esoterica.  This ranges from the weird but true, like outsider art installations and the umbrella cover museum in Peaks Island, Maine to the let’s say less provable stories of ghosts, haunted places (the abandoned Danvers mental hospital) , and a robot hitchhiker.  There’s a whole series of these for different regions of the country (and two or New Jersey) and I believe they’re all more or less similar, so you can learn what’s weird in your neck of the woods.

Well, s’it anygood?:  Sure.  I mean its just good fun.  I’m not sure its the kind of book that was intended to be read cover to cover, but then again, I’ve done so several times.  It’s sort of a coffee table book for paranormalists, ghost hunters, urban olklorists and other weirdoes.  There are pictures of some of the places and items in question and illustrations of the more fanciul stories.  The book sometimes prints locals’ accounts of legends in part or full.  The combination of the tellers’ utter sincerity in telling their stories and the fact that those stories happened in places you might be amiliar with makes them more creepy than any horror iction, because even if youremain skeptical you have to admit that someone more or less like yoursel (maybe even rom your home town) had some unexplainable experience.

What’s the best bit?:  Well, the book contains the Doc Benton story and the Panarchy ghost, which are pretty cool for you Dartmouth people.  The Dover Demon is always the story that sticks with me, which probably has to do with a phobic reaction to Grey-like aliens rom watching too many episodes of Sightings as a kid.  New England apparently has several legendary groups of inbred mutants like the Melonheads and the Frog People (who maybe influenced Lovecrafts “Innsmouth Look,”  which Stephen King kind of has now that I think of it).  I suppose whatever grabs you most will depend on your curiosities, fears and locality.

Anything else?:  This book really makes me want to get out and explore some of the weirdness out in my backyard.  Technology is connecting people from different places more that ever — which is awesome — but things like the Travel Channel make it easy to orget that where you are right now is pretty cool.  Every place has its own stories, and October’s as good a time to remember that some of them are horror stories.  The uncanny, or in German, the unheimlich, is all about eeling not-at-home at home.  This perhaps explains why Lovecraft and King are often local color writers as well as horror writers.

There is now a Weird Massachusetts book, and I know a certain fellow who it’d make a great Christmas gift for.  He lives, incidentally, just north of Dunwich.

Published in: on October 27, 2011 at 12:42 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth

What’s this then?:  Now that’s a good question.  Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth is a comic written by Grant Morrison with art by Dave McKean.  It is about Batman dealing with a breakout at the Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane, where his foes traditionally go after being found not guilty by reason of insanity.  Batman’s journey is echoed with the story of how the asylum’s founder Amadeus Arkham went mad.  The work is filled to bursting with symbols and deeply strange, so the more one tries to describe it the harder it seems to do so — much like a dream.  Between Morrison’s script which owes huge debts to C.G. Jung and (God help me, here he comes again:) Aleister Crowley, and McKean’s surreal art and disorienting panel layouts the effect is something like a fever dream put on paper.  In fact, last night I considered rereading it before bed, but thumbing through it and feeling a bit feverish myself I decided I didn’t have the guts for it (I gave it a quick reread by the light of day instead).   The book was, so the cover tells me, the best selling graphic novel of all time as of 2004.  For a book this weird and creepy that has to a be a fluke (and probably relates to its being a Batman book released shortly after Dark Knight Returns and Tim Burton’s Batman).

Well s’it any good?:  You’re just full of trick questions today, huh?  I certainly loved the book after my first reading, but Grant really plays into the hands of anyone interested in psychoanalysis or the occult (i.e. me).  Stepping back for a moment, do I think it’s that good?  I’m not so sure.  The one word to some it all up might be maximalist.  Morrison’s script (printed in the 2004 edition) contains elements of symbolism that Dave McKean was not even able to include, when so much was already there.  The story is filled fit to burst with reference to the Shadow or the Tarot or Psycho or anything else.  It is, perhaps, a little overwrought.  McKean restrains some of Morrison’s more ham-handed moments but then makes the art more vague, impressionistic, and surreal.  Another artist might have rendered Morrison’s weird story with realist art, to help us understand the weirdness.  Or McKean could have made a normal script spookier by illustrating it his way.  But instead, the team layers weird on weird.  McKean’s panel layouts can be a little chaotic (intentionally so, I think), and Morrison’s script jumps in setting a great deal.  The combination of the two can make things a bit hard to follow sometimes.  I never read the comic without reading the script, so I’m not sure, actually, how it stands on its own.  I tend to think that the struggle to understand enhances the irrational, nightmarish quality of the piece, but I could see how very rational people, or people who like linear narrative would loathe this book.  I will say that as a piece of horror, it succeeds.  It relies a bit on gross-outs and some shocks of a fairly extreme sort (Morrison notes in his script that the 80’s DC Who’s Who book indicated that Amadeus Arkham’s wife and daughter were murdered.  He later went mad when the stock market crashed in ’29.  Morrison tends to think the former would be quite enough and goes to quite great lengths -perhaps more than is necessary- to convince us so), but again the sheer mystical-dreamlike illogic off the piece is what drives the horror.

What’s the best bit?:  Batman plays a word association game with an Arkham psychiatrist, which leads him to have a flashback to his parents’ murder.  The marquee on a theater the Wayne family is leaving reads “Bambi.”  That pretty much tells you everything you need to know about this book.

Anything else?:  This is a young Grant Morrison, and try as he might he’s still in the shadow off Alan Moore.  The idea off building up meaning through shifting connection of recurring symbols, the idea that events in one time echo in other times (but mostly in the same place), and the use off one character’s captions to reflect on what’s going on with another character, and of course the interest in magic are all Moore staples that occur in this book.  Morrsion gives at least one direct “take that!” to Watchmen in his script, but also drops a reference to Watchmen‘s use off the phrase “the abyss gazes also.”  I think, despite what Morrison may tell you, he’s got a soft spot for crazy old Moore.  Morrison’s psychologically vulnerable Batman is also an attack on Frank Miller’s hypermasculine, highly violent, ultraconservative Batman.  Morrsion does not contradict himself on this point, I suspect because he genuinely does not like Frank Miller (but then I might just be reading myself into things).

Published in: on October 17, 2011 at 4:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: Dreams of Terror and Death

What’s this then?:  Through October, we’ll keep a vaguely horror theme in the book reviews, I think.  Dreams of Terror and Death is a somewhat embarrassingly titled collection of H.P. Lovecraft’s “dream cycle” short stories published by Del Ray.  In short, the book contains all of Lovecrafts stories that either deal with dreams or connect to his novella The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, which is also included here.  For the uninitiated: Lovecraft is probably the most famous and most important progenitor of modern horror fiction in the early Twentieth Century.  Stephen King is known to be a great fan of his work.  Lovecraft might be most well known for his establishing a shared setting for his stories in a fictionalized New England and for creating a whole bestiary of cosmic monsters that fans refer to as the Cthulhu Mythos.  The major Cthulhu Mythos stories are covered in a different Del Ray collection.  The stories in Dreams of Terror and Death are from Lovecraft’s lesser known setting of the dream land of Kadath which kind of lays tangent to the Mythos stories and overlaps with his New England macabre stories.

Well, s’it any good?: I guess there are a number of ways to answer this.  Do I review Lovecraft’s writing overall, or his dream stories, or this collection?  Let’s do each in brief.  Lovecraft is known for his purple prose and for his obsessions with certain words (“squamous” didn’t show up much in this collection, but “eldritch” did a couple of times, and “bas relief” was all over the place).  There’s a particular Lovecraft style that is hard to describe exactly, but if you know his work you can recognize it easily enough.  You’ll either find it charming or annoying and I know of no reliable test to determine which camp any reader will fall into.  That being said, in terms of stories, Lovecraft is great.  He has produced a number of little gems of the horror genre.  Lovecraft, I think was a man frightened of the world, and his ideas will creep into your head and lie their dormant to awaken some night when the stars are right.  If you’re already a Lovecraft fan, but don’t know the dream stories, they offer something different.  Though they often contain the macabre material Lovecraft is known for, and do occasionally include his monsters, their greatest and defining strength is, well, the dream-like quality.  Stories like “Dreams in the Witch House” have a trippy and disorienting quality.  In the stories that take place in Kadath, Lovecraft build up a fantasy world truly alien to our own world or even most fantasy worlds.  In the Dream Quest he sets a tale of high adventure, which isn’t his strength but has charm in the high level of its strangeness.  If, for some reason you already know Lovecraft’s dream stories but don’t have them all then this collection is a nice one stop shop.

What’s the best bit?:  My first inclination is to say “Pickman’s Model,” which is one of the all time classic horror shorts.  It was even a Night Gallery episode!  It hasn’t got much to do with dreams, though, and is included here, mostly because Pickman appears in the Dream Quest.  “Dreams in the Witch House” is great in its trippy quality, and is a great example of how science fiction and horror coexisted as “weird fiction” in the early twentieth century.  Lovecraft’s explanation of horrific phenomena draw on a (psuedo)science of higher dimensions.  “The Silver Key” is a really cool trippy time travel story, and “The Gate of the Silver Key” expands upon it, perhaps to its detriment.

Anything else?: These stories are really cool but not necessarily representative of Lovecraft’s more famous work.  I would reccomend something else.  If you’re already a little familiar with Lovecraft then check these out.

Published in: on October 10, 2011 at 1:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: A Night in the Lonesome October

What’s this then: A Night in the Lonesome October is a pretty light fantasy novel from Roger Zelazny, probably best known for his Chronicles of Amber and Lord of Light.  In it, Snuff, Jack the Ripper’s magical pet dog (yes, really) narrates the lead up to a supernatural battle in which one side wishes to summon Lovecraftian horrors to end the earth, and the other side wants to maintain the status quo.  The players of this game are all the stock figures of gothic horror: a vampre, a witch, a werewolf and so on.  Luckily, these characters, cliched as they could have been, don’t get too much stage-time.  Instead their animal familiars do most of the legwork in playing the game, doing research, spying, forming and breaking alliances and all that.  Underneath all the magical trappings and the humor and the bits of Lovecraft pastiche, there’s actually a pretty good espionage thriller here.

The book contains illustrations by macabre cartoonist Gahan Wilson.  I sometimes found Wilson’s art hard to “read” visually, because he likes to give odd, angled vantage points, but once I grasped them, I thought they did a good job of adding to the simultaneously creepy and goofy mood of the text.

Well, s’it any good?: It’s not a mindblowing philosophical work or anything (which Zelazny could have aimed for), but it is a very, very fun read.  I read it once about four years ago, and began thinking recently that it would be a nice fit for this little column.  I remembered it being kind of a cute, fluffy book but good enough.  On rereading it, I’m much more impressed.  The best things in this book are easily missed.  First, the spy game is well played and well played out.  Just about every twist and double cross you could imagine occurs, but if you pay careful attention they all make sense and you may even have guessed some of them by the time they occur.  Snuff is not always the brightest and its easy for the reader to see where they should give more notice to something Snuff takes for granted.  Of course, I don’t really know what its like to be a dog (magical or otherwise), but Zelazny’s depiction of what it may be like inside Snuff’s head rings true to what I do know about dogs.  Details of smell take on more import here than in perhaps any other book I’ve read.  Other reviewers have remarked on the book’s charm and wit.  The humor distracts — only for a moment — from a couple of truly creepy scenes.  But the fact that you have to stop to reflect on them makes them all the creepier. And perhaps there’s a sense that Snuff, being Jack the Ripper’s dog is a lot less perturberd by the wet slapping a sound of someone throwing a dead person’s liver  downhill then I would be.

What’s the best bit?:  This isn’t going to make much sense if you don’t know the plot (which I’m being careful to try not to spoil), but bear with me.  Snuff and his ally Graymalk the cat, reattach Cheeter the squirrel’s shadow to him after finding out it was taken by Cheeter’s owner Owen the druid.  The whole process is described, and as Snuff pulls the silver nails that hold Cheeter’s shadow down, the shadow starts to flap in the wind, since in this magic spell, its a physical item.  Where, in so many fantasy books, magic is used mostly to blow things up here it follows a dream-like semi-logic that seems more suited to myth and folklore.  There are other nice touches like this, from the way The Count (I’m sure you can guess who that is) moves, to Graymalk turning two dimensional while leaving the (Lovecraft inspired) Dreamlands.  This is again, one of those subtle things that could be easily missed, but I think fans of Neil Gaiman will be pleased by the type of magic portrayed in this book.

Anything else:  I like that this book has a sort of built in audience participation factor.  First of all, there’s the fun of trying to figure out the shifting alliances of the game.  Secondly, the book unfolds across 31 chapters, one each for each day of the month of October.  If you read a chapter a day there’s a sense of following the story in “real time.”  There have been experiments in doing this since, but Zelazny gave it to us in 1994, as the internet was just starting to come to prominence.  The fact that there’s a “game” built in the book adds in to its spirit of sheer fun.  The book is out of print, but you can probably find a used copy and since its early in the month, and the chapters are short, you won’t have too much catching up to do.  If you’re looking for a breezy Halloween-themed read, I recommend A Night in the Lonesome October.  Without reservation, I adore this book.

Published in: on October 3, 2011 at 11:34 am  Leave a Comment  

Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: Led Zeppelin Shadows Taller than Our Souls

I’m gonna give you guys a twofer on the book reviews this week, since I wanted to squeeze this in before Zeptember is over.  (as an aside, the wordpress spellcheck recognizes “twofer” as a legitimate word, but doesn’t recognize “wordpress” or “spellcheck”) 

What’s This Then?:  Shadows Taller than Our Souls is one of about a million books of widely varying quality about Led Zeppelin.  What sets this one apart is that its full of stuff.  There are tons of items that can be pulled out of the book.  My girlfriend started thumbing through the book and asked me “Is this a Led Zeppelin pop-up book” and after a minute of thought I had to answer “yeah, sort of.”  The stuff consists of reproduction ticket stubs, press releases, flyers and whatnot, some huge gatefold photos, and a cd (dressed up to look like a vinyl record of course) of an interview with Jimmy Page from the late seventies.  The text of the book is something of a cultural history of the band, it describes the production of each album and the reaction thereto.

Well s’it any good?:  I can’t help but think of this book as two things the text and the stuff.  You would think the stuff would be gimmicky, but I actually think its brilliant.  You can feel like some sort of archaeozeppelinologist (a profession which doubtless will exist in the far future) going through the stuff, seeing how design trends changed in flyers or who else gets mentioned in press releases and seeing how Zeppelin was moving with or against trends from 1968 to 80.  And if any band should get this kind of treatment, its probably Zeppelin since their physical presence (pardon the pun) was so important.  That being said I wish they had reproduced some of the physical artifacts the band (and/or their associates) created like the crazy wheel thing from the Led Zeppelin III vinyl cover or Jimmy Page’s scratching of “Do what thou wilt” on the edge of that same album.

As to the text, I have mixed feelings.  Charles Cross is very good at writing about music, and its obvious he loves Zeppelin.  He avoids all the tawdry “are they true or not” stories that fill most Zeppelin books instead to focus on the band’s work, and the fan reaction to it.  This approach fits nicely with the play archaeological record the book gives the reader so that the overall experience describes the history of the band as a cultural phenomenon.  That being said, if you’re anything like me (and I know I am), and you know the band’s history well, you probably won’t learn much from this book.  Even with all the pictures and all the stuff, the book is only about one hundred pages long.  Cross just didn’t have enough space to say much of anything interesting, which is too bad, because I think Cross is a better writer than he gets to display here. If we’re totally honest with ourselves, we have to admit that this is in fact a coffee table book for a hard rock themed living room.  If you’re okay with that, then this is a really fun coffee table book.

What’s the best bit?:  My favorite part was one of the pieces of stuff, a flyer for Zeppelin’s performance at Carnegie Hall.  The inside left page is an ad for Led Zeppelin II, the inside right just says that Led Zeppelin is playing Carnegie Hall, and gives the date.  The remainder of the page is blank white space.  The back cover gives the dates for several concerts conducted by Stokowski below a picture of the conductor.  It’s as though the Carnegie Hall advertisement department just did not know what to do with Zeppelin.

Anything else?: If you’re looking for a book with the mudshark story and all that good stuff, you want Hammer of the Gods.  If you want a more in depth book about the making of the music, look for a book called Dazed and Confused.  Charles Cross is well known for his biographies of rock musicians.  I’ve only read his Hendrix biography Room Full of Mirrors, but its very good, so on that I’ll give a tentative recommendation to the rest of his work.

Published in: on September 27, 2011 at 12:05 pm  Leave a Comment  

Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: 33 1/3 Led Zeppelin IV

What’s this then:  I almost feel like I should apologize for that mess of a title.  I’m not quite sure what to call this book.  It comes from the 33 1/3 series of books, in which a single author writes a couple hundred pages on a classic album.  The cover of this particular volume refers to Zeppelin’s fourth album (that’s the one with Stairway on it, if you didn’t know) only by the four symbols that appeared on the album cover, , and in fact they go to the pain of only referring to the album by those symbols throughout.  Everyone else, including any bookseller’s website just calls it Led Zeppelin IV.  So this particular volume sees Erik Davis, journalist of the weird, waxing philosophical and mystical about the brilliant and slightly spooky hard rock album.

Well, s’it any good?:  It has a sort of mad brilliance.  Davis is well versed in both legitimate academic criticism and high weirdness and here he’s not afraid to mix the two.  Theodor Adorno’s concept of the commodity fetish can appear right along side a discussion of Austin Osman Spare’s sigil magic without sensing any contradiction.  There is a gleeful abandon about the whole book.  Davis’s analysis is so patently goofy that you have to take it as tongue in cheek (he puns throughout the book, including a play on magnum opus and Crowley’s “Great Work”), but the sheer verve he does it with convinces you he’s right.  In fact, you get the sense he’s even starting to convince himself. If you’re willing to go with Davis’s serious goofiness (not to mention his goofy seriousness), and you happen to like Zeppelin, then this book is a load of fun.

What’s the best bit: There’s a theme through the book that Led Zeppelin IV  is an album concerned with physicality and space.  The lyrics are full of places real and imagined (California, the Misty Mountains, the levees of the Mississippi delta, a stairway to heaven, someplace called Evermore, so on).  And Zeppelin was one of the rock bands that popularized placing mics far from the instruments, so, as Davis points out, you hear the instruments reacting to the room, but more importantly, you hear the room reacting to the instruments.  Like, wow, dude.  It is kind of a stonery thing to note, but I’m really won over by it.  Zeppelin’s music was considered hard, heavy, rock — all metaphors of physicality, not to mention the noted … let’s say physicality of the band members and their on the road activities.

Anything else:  If Zeppelin isn’t your thing, then maybe you could try one of the other  33 1/3 books.  I can’t speak to their quality, since each one has a different author, but if they typically do this good of a job of matching author with subject, then I imagine you’ll be happy with the results.

If you like reading about weird stuff (magic, the paranormal, drug-stuff, cyberculture, etc) from someone who’s willing to just go with the crazies and have a little fun, I recommend checking out Erik Davis.  I’m a big fan of his work.

If its been a long time since you rock-and-rolled, I’d like to remind you that there’s only about a week left in Zeptember, and you should try and get a little in.  It’s good for you.

Published in: on September 26, 2011 at 11:57 am  Leave a Comment  

Reviews of Books You’ve Never Heard of: Deathless

What’s this, then?:  Deathless is Catherynne Valente’s fantasy novel about Stalinist Russia. Young Marya Morevna dreams of being taken away by a prince (even though there are no princes after the revolution), when she gets her wish, it’s Koschei the Deathless (a sort of demon/lich from Russian folklore) who comes for her.  Reviewers have been talking about this book as “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, but about Russia.”  Which I don’t think is entirely fair.  This is book is much more interested in serving as a critique, where Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, I think concerns itself primarily with being a novel and secondarily with its concerns about the meaning of Englishness.  Deathless is really fueled by its preoccupation with the love of fairy tales and its examination of fairy tale love.

Well, s’it any good?:  It’s the best fantasy novel about Stalinist Russia I’ve ever read.  The book is a joy to read, but by the sober light of day it seems a little more flawed.  Valente does a great job of making fairy tale elements work in a novel.  Every time Marya had to interact with her three sisters (of course), I couldn’t help but smile at the fairy tale repetition and variation that I knew was coming.  Most of the characters are fairy-tale characters to some extent, whether because they’re named tale characters, like Koschei or Marya or Baba Yaga, or because they’re the kind of stock characters you get in the fairy tales, like the three sisters or a dumb peasant boy who rescues a princess.  The problem is that fairy tales aren’t known for their great characterization.  Likewise, in Deathless, I felt like characters actions were more driven thematicaly than realistically.  The most interesting part is the romance between Marya and Koschei which points out that fairy-tale romances are creepy as fuck.  Koschei more or less kidnaps Marya (what does it mean to be swept off your feet?) which begins a cycle of Koschei dominating Marya, Marya leaving with another man, Ivan, Marya trying and failing to dominate Ivan (not because he’s indominatable, but because he’s too boring to let anything like that happen), Koschei coming groveling back, Marya dominating Koschei and so on.  The whole business is incredibly uncomfortable, and also kind of hawt in a bdsm sort of way (I really think its written that way intentionally).  I think the idea is that we let ourselves be taken by fantasy stories to escape the real world, but in doing so we’re just using culture to our own selfish ends.  Maybe.  The problem is, since I had a hard time reading what Marya’s and Koschei’s motivations were as a imaginary persons, I could never be sure I was piecing the thematics together properly since I didn’t feel like I had all the pieces of the puzzle. So, I just spent this whole paragraph complaining, but I have to reiterate that I enjoyed reading this book, and if you’re looking for a book about Russian fairy tale characters living in the Soviet Union (with added S&M) then this is it.

What’s the best bit?:  Chapter 23.  I guess the thing this book does really well is playing out the thought experiment of “what if fairy tale beings were real and lived under Stalin.”  Chapter 23 reveals that the narrator has all along been the domovoya (house elf) of Marya’s childhood home in Leningrad.  She explains how the inhabitants of the house starved during World War II and eventually the house itself crumbled (which also brings on the domovoya’s illness and death).  Most of the fantasy elements step into the background here and the chapter is a pretty chilling picture of life in Leningrad during wartime.  Near the end of the chapter the inhabitants of the house cook ration card stew (where you hold a ration card over a pot of water so you can boil its shadow to eat it).  This action, which, since some of Valente’s in laws lived in Leningrad at the time, I assume actually happened, nicely pulls together the idea that people may most need to draw on the world of magic and fantasy in the hardest times.

Anything else?:  Yeah.  If you get the chance, go read up some on Russian fairy tales.  They occupy this weird space of being mostly familiar but a little alien — mostly like the Grimms’ stories we all know, but way different in some of the small details (witches don’t fly on brooms but in a giant mortar and pestle).  That slight but manageable alien-ness gives them a certain peculiar charm.

Published in: on September 8, 2011 at 12:11 pm  Comments (2)