Saturday, April 25, 2015

Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath

Iron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black SabbathIron Man: My Journey Through Heaven & Hell with Black Sabbath by Tony Iommi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Black Sabbath's Master of Reality was the third album I ever bought. I think I was 11 years old. I had somehow developed a liking for rock music, maybe through my dad's penchant for '60s surf-music, I don't know. I had heard about Black Sabbath and was intrigued when I saw the album, I think at a K-mart. I had the money, so I bought it.

Mom was not terribly pleased.

But she didn't do anything rash about it. I just knew that if I wanted to listen to it, I had to do so at a low volume on my little red and white candystriped record player. Not that the equipment *could* be played loudly. It couldn't. But I leaned into it and did my best to damage my hearing with that little record player.

Needless to say, I was blown away. Tony Iommi became a bit of a guitar idol, okay, more like my Guitar God, as a young man plunking away on an old $25 Sears and Roebuck electric P.O.S. I loved the power and simplicity of what Iommi played. There was no need for technical prowess - his guitar simply SEETHED.

Eventually, I became older, though I never grew up. I remained a Black Sabbath fan, especially after Ronnie James Dio, one of the all-time great singers of any genre, let alone heavy metal, joined the band. I'll admit that their music, Dio-era Black Sabbath, that is, pulled me through some hard times. Rather than driving me toward suicidal thoughts as an admittedly depressed teenager, they drove me away from such thoughts.

In 2000, Iommi released his first (official) solo album. It was good, not great. I didn't mind. All musicians have up and down albums. After all, they are writers, too. While touring in support of this album, he came up to Madison, not for a concert, but as a guest of the local hard rock station (which has gone downhill in the meantime, I must say), WJJO. There was a call-in-question period in the middle of the day. I took a long lunch break and spoke to one of my childhood idols.

The conversation was brief, but he was a very pleasant man to talk to. I thanked him for his music and let him know that he might have saved my life as a teen. I asked him about the rumor that I had heard that he had a stint with Jethro Tull, which he affirmed, noting that he had recently gone to Ian Anderson's wedding. I then asked him if he'd ever get back together with Ronnie James Dio,and his response was "never say never". This made me very happy, and I was delighted when, quite a few years later, they did reunite as the band "Heaven and Hell".

So when this biography came out, I added it to my TBR list. I'm not much of one for biographies, honestly - my wife is the biography reader in the family - but I had to eventually pick this one up.

This isn't a beautiful, meaningful book by any means. But I enjoyed the heck out of it. Iommi's writing style is much the same as I discovered in talking with him and in watching countless interviews with him - casual and candid.

Yes, there is a great deal of craziness in there. The accounts of him and the others spray-painting Bill Ward with gold paint (with Ward's doped-up consent) and the other pranks that the band members played on each other were 2 parts hilarious, 1 part terrifying.

That old trifecta: "Sex, drugs, and rock & roll"? Yeah, it's the real deal. And Iommi talks quite candidly, at least about the drugs and rock and roll. Thankfully, he's more guarded about the sex, which is fine - I don't want to know. But to say that his life was anything less than bawdy, raucous, and sometimes downright dangerous would be selling things short. The man and his friends were over-the-top nuts, let there be no doubt about it.

Still, I can sense, both from the book and from my brief conversation with him years ago, that he is, overall, a nice guy!

Besides, Iommi promises, on the last line of the book:

"I will never set fire to Bill Ward again."

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Friday, April 24, 2015

Prophet, Volume 2: Brothers

Prophet, Volume 2: BrothersProphet, Volume 2: Brothers by Brandon Graham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While Prophet, Volume 2: Brothers retains the forms of its predecessor volume, it does not retain its substance. The artwork continues to be surreal and sometimes breathtaking, but the storyline is much more "standard" than volume 1, and I fear, just a little, that it is slipping back toward its superhero roots (in the unsubtle and, frankly, silly original Prophet series).

Thankfully, some of the vestiges of volume 1 remain: the very alien life forms reminiscent of Matt Howarth's cult-classic '90s title Konny and Czu; the use of a veritable guild of artists and writers (some the same as in the first volume, but also including newcomers Fil Barlow, Helen Maier, and Boo Cook), rather than a single writer and artist; and the premise that a slowly-gathering army of clones of John Prophet will re-establish the Earth Empire.

Let me emphasize that phrase "slowly gathering". This is why this volume didn't receive my highest rating. I am fine with slow story lines (heck, I read Moby Dick and loved it), but the meandering nature of this story weakened it a great deal. The first volume had the excuse, and a good excuse it was, that the disorienting feeling that one got from reading the book could be viewed as the submersion of the reader's consciousness into John Prophet's own confusion at awakening from a thousands-of-years slumber into a wholly different universe. But that's behind us now. Now, the story is focused ("gathered?") primarily on the original John Prophet, known as Old Man Prophet, from whom the army of clones (or near-clones) has descended.

Volume 1 was more diffuse, with the stories of the different clones getting more or less equal playing time. In Volume 2, Old Man Prophet gets the lion's share of attention, while the tailed(!) John Prophet (Farel Dalrymple's "baby") gets a little vignette in the middle. Frankly, I liked the more diffuse volume, as it felt unlike a "standard" comic book, with a much more complex multivariate narrative that I found surreal and intriguing. I guess I find the linearity of this volume a little disturbing! Then again, "linearity" doesn't really fit so well - the narrative tends to meander, but not enough to break away into true surrealism. It's in an uncomfortable interstitial space between bold and bland. If you're going to do weird, go big or go home!

I will be very interested to read Volume 3. If the series returns to the substance, and not just the forms, of Volume 1, I am in for a treat. If it continues too much further down this path, well, I am forgiving, but only to a certain point.

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Monday, April 20, 2015

The Einstein Intersection

The Einstein IntersectionThe Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I would be a liar if I said I could map out the plot to this novel in any kind of linear fashion. One read through is definitely not enough. So, is it even permissible to give the book my highest rating when I cannot, admittedly, lay the plot out in a plain diagram for you?

Oh, heck yes!

This book will play tricks with your mind, no doubt. But if you enjoy strange dreams that hold their own internal logic - unexplainable in the waking world, but somehow making perfect sense to your sleeping self - you might just love this novella. When I finished it, I felt like I had just woken up from a very deep, sad, meaningful dream, still slightly intoxicated and a bit confused.

I even struggle to clearly outline who or what the main antagonist, Kid Death, is. I seriously considered the following options as I read . . .

1. Alternate personality of Lobey, the main character
2. Computer generated "being" enabled by ancient humans
3. Supernatural being
4. Result of bad head wound to Lobey

. . . and concluded that none of them were correct, though each of them could have been.

And this seems to be at the heart of what Delany has written here: A Godelian "possibility space" that cannot be deciphered from within, but must be understood on an intuitive, subconscious level by the reader, who is completely outside of the character's possibility space. The reader is, in essence, the "Einstein Intersection," encompassing the possible limits of what the characters, plot, and setting fundamentally are because she or he is beyond the limits of the internal understanding of those in the book. Though this can be the case for just about any book, Delany is particularly deft at getting the reader "into" the book and world, through the use of bread crumbs strung along to pull the reader "out" of their own metafictional reality, convincing the reader that she or he can understand the book's world on its own terms. Again, though, the reader, being a real human being, is, in reality, above all that and is capable of objectifying the text as a piece of fiction. This doesn't mean that the reader will or can fully understand what is "going on," because that would imply that the reader fully encompasses what is in Samuel R. Delany's head. Rather, reading the novel is a lot like having a conversation with a native speaker of a foreign language that one is in the early stages of learning: The reader "understands" some of the vocabulary and the easier stretches of grammar, without knowing the nuances of the language and, most importantly, without knowing what the speaker is feeling or thinking in any meaningful way.

But this does not mean that there aren't connections being made. Some aspects of the conversation are carried from one person to the other by way of the subconscious absorption via context, others by the intuitive reading of body language; communication that is not formally spoken or, in the case of reading Delany's novel, the evocation of feelings and thoughts, some rather complex, that arise from the author's prose. In other words, I can't get into Delany's head, but I can have some notion of what he's getting at, regardless of whether I fully understand the entirety at once or not.

What, then, do I think Delany is getting at with The Einstein Intersection? I think he's getting at the tenderness of human longing and the co-mingled loneliness and pride in being "different". I think he's sharing, on a very visceral level, how lonely one often feels when one is not "in the norm" but acknowledging that walking alone can be, in some small way, a victory march over "normalcy". Lobey, the main character is, if nothing else, vulnerable and, to some extent, innocent. But he is also powerful, able to plunge through death and hell for the sake of (misplaced? spurned?) love.

That's a story worth struggling to understand.


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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Citizen Science: NPDG

I've always been a fan of science, but not much of a scientist. As a kid, I hated math and, well, math, as they say, is the language of science. I learned to love math through a fantastic teacher in college and even made it through Calculus II (well, I passed, at least - by far the toughest course I had in 7 years of university). But I never had the self-discipline or the "knack" to be a great scientist. Still, I love science, or at least admire it a great deal.

So when I read Marcus Wohlsen's book Biopunk: Scientists Hack the Software of Life, I was very excited to become a participant in this whole science thing. Problem is, as any university can tell you, science costs money. Lots of money. At least for the stuff that "matters". Plus, my time is limited. Just about any spare time I can get goes into my writing, and I don't have a lot of spare time. Not nearly as much as I would like, anyway.

Now, I don't recall exactly where I heard about the University of Oklahoma's Natural Products Discovery Group. Some random place on the interwebs, but I don't remember where. But when I heard about their soil collection project, which plumbs the Earth - literally - for new drugs to improve our lives, I had to participate. It was easy, free, fun, and I feel like I'm making a difference. So here's to science and the awesome scientists who make discovery a democratic exercise! I am proud to call myself: A Citizen Scientist!

Me and my dirt, about to save the world:




My soil sample being prepped for shipment. No, that's not a bag of weed. No, really, it's not. Trust me, it's just dirt. Dirt that might save you from dying one day. Quit making fun of me!:


Monday, April 13, 2015

Ed vs. Yummy Fur

Ed vs. Yummy FurEd vs. Yummy Fur by Brian Evenson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For years, I've listened to speculative fiction authors complain about being stuck in the "genre ghetto". There's a strong sense of underdoggery among spec-fic authors that may never go away. The chip on their shoulders seems pretty well ingrained. The same might be true of artists and writers of comic-books, though I've heard far less complaining from those I know in that end of the market. They seem to delight in the fact that they are not beholden to any sort of academic criteria for the work that they do. For the most part, they are resigned to the fact that making a living as a cartoonist is riding the razor's edge of the cost of living. And I get the feeling (anecdotal - I don't pretend to any real evidence) that most cartoonists simply don't care much about what the academic world thinks about them.

This book may change all that.

I encountered this book while attending the Heartland Fall Forum as a "regional author". I was between signings and wandered the exhibition hall lusting after many, many wonderful new books, some of which had not yet been officially published. In the midst of this dream-like paradise, I found myself at the table of Uncivilized Books. I knew something of their work, having read Incidents in the Night, vol. 1 previously. What I did not know, and what took me totally by surprise, was that Brian Evenson had done a formal analysis of Chester Brown's Ed the Happy Clown.

"This is the Brian Evenson that I know?" I asked.

"The one that translated Incidents in the Night," Tom Kaczynski, "chief" of Uncivilized Books said.

"I've published a couple of Brian's stories in anthologies I've edited."

"Oh, cool."

I pick up the book and thumb through it.

"Seriously? He's doing some serious analyses in here. What is this?"

"It's a new series we're releasing where smart people take a serious look at comics."

"Holy crap . . . No one's done this before."

"Not really, no."

"Holy crap. This is so good."

"Maybe it's something you'd be interested in? Here's my card" (he draws his business card right before my eyes with a cartoon likeness of himself that is extremely accurate). "Why don't you propose an idea sometime, if you'd like to give it a shot."

"Holy crap."

And I'm still holy crapping. How appropriate then, that Chapter 1 of Evenson's analysis should be entitled "Scatology," while Chapter 2 is entitled "Sacrilege"? This is the sort of thing you would expect from an independent, pseudo-underground comic in the tradition of Crumb, et al. But an academic analysis of scatology and sacrilege?

Oh, yes!

It's not for the squeamish, to be sure. It's stunning, in both the best and worst senses of the word, throughout. But the fecal and penile humor, mixed with blasphemy, is only half the story.

What we have here is an outstanding structural analysis of how Yummy Fur, the mini-comic, turned into the serial comic, which eventually turned into the graphic novel (there's that "n" word, screaming for legitimacy!) Ed the Happy Clown, not by accretion, but by a process of elimination, one that I won't elucidate here, but one that Evenson delineates with such precision that it seems to be statistically perfect, yet without any numbers other than page numbers and panels.

Furthermore, there is a brilliant Marxist analysis of how the means of production, including format, deadlines, etc., informed Chester Brown's decisions regarding what should be cut, kept, or added to as the comic progressed through its various forms and as Brown himself moved from a hobbyist to a professional comic artist. The beauty of it is that, unlike most Marxist analyses of literature, the analysis does not draw attention to itself and avoids all the hackneyed Marxist terminology that, frankly, bores me to tears.

This really is a groundbreaking book.

The more I think about it, the more inadequate I feel to rise to the challenge of the invitation the publishers gave me. This type of work would take me years, though I suspect it took Brian a matter of months. He's just that smart. I'm not. I have to work a lot harder to sound as intelligent as Brian Evenson.

I best get to work!

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Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Wool Omnibus (Silo, #1)

Wool Omnibus (Silo, #1) (Wool, #1-5)Wool Omnibus (Silo, #1) by Hugh Howey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before I read this, I . . . er . . . siloed myself off from other reviews. Now that I'm finished, I'm glad I did. The sense of claustrophobia and restrained liberty was complete, as a result. But I'm a middle class American living a life of relative freedom when compared to most of the world today, and definitely when compared to the world of Wool. There were times, many times, when I had to remind myself to breathe! This is the amazing thing about the book - the way it captures you and slyly leads you from plot point to plot point without you knowing you are being shepherded along by the author. It's much like . . . well, like living in a dystopian world where you don't know anything about what is beyond your immediate reach, while someone, someone else does. Someone who you might know. Or maybe not. How would you know? The plot is really the unveiling of masks, nothing fancy, nothing elaborate. It's a very workman-like plot, and I guessed a few things before they were revealed. But I was along for the ride like a child locked in a car seat with a lollipop. The writing is just that smooth.

But what I really enjoyed were the characters. Jahns, Lukas, Juliette, Bernard. These were maybe not entirely believable all the time (Peter's "conversion" was off-putting, though necessary), but each character was identifiable enough and warm enough that it was fairly easy to willingly suspend my disbelief.

And what can one say about Juliette? She is strong, determined, yet vulnerable. Smart, but prone to mistakes. Her heart is crusted on the outside, but soft in the middle. She is, in a word, "human". I greatly enjoyed getting to know her.

And Lukas was one of the most believable characters I've read in a long time. "Conflicted" is the word that comes to mind when I think of Lukas. He wants to do what's right, but is torn between the logic of duty and the freedom of his heart. I felt like I related to him a great deal, like there is some of Lukas in me. That's the kind of connection I felt while watching him move, tentatively and naively, perhaps, to an emotional space that was simultaneously sad, bold, and endearing.

No, the science isn't perfect, and the deep history behind the whole setup was hackneyed. But Howey uses the setting, the situation, and the players so well that those minor annoyances soon melt into the background.

You've probably noticed that I'm not giving a blow-by-blow on the relevant plot points, that I'm being vague. This is intentional. I want you to be submerged in the silo, as well, so you can discover for yourself something about human nature, the need to control, and the need for freedom. I hope you'll jump into this world and struggle and hem and haw and backtrack and embolden yourself so that you can find your own way out.

You're going to have to trust some people to help you on your way out. You can't do it alone. Be careful who you choose as your friends, but once you've chosen them, trust them . . . and yourself. I wish you luck. Oh, and don't believe everything you see or everything you hear. The world isn't how it seems. But maybe you aren't how you see yourself, either.

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Sunday, April 5, 2015

Bronze Hugonaut

Some time ago, I took you into my inner vault of secrets, my Holy of Holies, my writer's hideaway. Like any place in space, this area is not static, but over time, usually with small, slight adjustments that accrete, rather than in one dramatic overhaul. Most of these changes are so slight as to be un-noteworthy, but once in a while, something seemingly small, yet dramatic, is adjusted, removed, or introduced.

While I was at the World Fantasy Convention in DC this past Autumn, I ran into the magnificent bronze sculptures of Vince Villafranca. One of my favorite things about conventions is the opportunity to see new art and to get to know the artists. I'm a hack when it comes to the visual arts, so I really appreciate the work and talent that goes into an excellent piece of art. Not to mention that one of my degrees is in Humanities, so I've got some professional training in assessing good art. But forget about academics, I love art for the sheer joy of discovering some new vista, another piece of beauty being added to the world.

Vince had previously been commissioned to sculpt the 2013 Hugo Award trophy. Say what you will about the Hugo and all the political imbroglio surrounding the award, this trophy is beautiful! You'll note, on the base, a little astronaut reading a book. This is what caught my eye at Vince's substantial display at World Fantasy, this little guy that Vince calls a "Hugonaut," quietly reading his book, travelling to other worlds beyond even those that he has already explored.

I didn't have the money, at the moment, to buy one, though I dearly wanted one, and I let Vince know that I wanted to know if or when he was going to cast another. He said he would let me know, and just to be sure, I contacted him via E-mail right after the show and started saving my money.

Fast forward to a few weeks before Christmas, when my wife and I were discussing presents for the kids and our budget for buying presents for each other. My wife told me my allowance to spend on her and said that she would spend the same amount on me. The numbers added up. I asked her if she wouldn't mind if this time, I used the money to get myself a little something I had wanted. She had heard me, a couple of weeks earlier, going on and on about the beautiful bronze sculptures I had seen at World Fantasy, so the prime had been pumped, so to speak, and she gave me the go-ahead.

The package arrived well before Christmas, but I wanted to wait, so I simply put it under the tree and waited. I told my kids that their mother had gotten me something spectacular, by which I meant she approved the purchase and I bought myself the gift. But I didn't tell them what it was. I was curious to see what they thought, being late-teen and adult nerds with a penchant for assessing good art themselves.

They "oohed" and "aahed" at the wonderful sculpture that emerged from the package. Now the Hugonaut sits in my reading area, keeping me company. I suppose it's bordering on idolatry, but when I need a moment for writing inspiration, I will just pick him up, heft him (solid bronze is not light, in case you didn't know), breathe deeply, and set about writing again. He serves as a sort of focus for my thoughts, a head-clearing totem. And here he is in three different views, courtesy of my sucky photography skills. In these views, he is sitting atop a steel six-sided die that my oldest son gifted me on Christmas the year before (a testament to my role-playing geekiness), which sits atop the notebook in which I am currently keeping thoughts and notes regarding the novel I am currently working on: