Tuesday, May 19, 2015

God of Bug Eater Flipbook

God of Bug Eater FlipbookGod of Bug Eater Flipbook by Mo hitotsu no kenkyujo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I ordered this little thing straight from Japan. And, in classic Japanese fashion, the package arrived neatly wrapped and protected, with the book in a small cellophane bag, and included in the bag was . . . a package of eyeglass wipes?!?

OK, I've come to expect weirdness from Japan. After all, have you ever watched one of those crazy Japanese game shows? Or those creepy Japanese McDonald's commercials?

But . . . eyeglass wipes? What the heck do eyeglass wipes have to do with this book? WHAT?

What the heck does God of Bug Eater even mean? I . . . I . . . I need to have a seat and calm down . . .

There. Better. Now breathe. Okay.

If God of Bug Eater is a "good" translation, then this is a very strange title for a book, to say the least. If it's a case of bad "Engrish," then it's the most serendipitously surreal title since . . . ever.

And I love it! This book is concentrated strangeness, a 4"X1.5"X1" brick of weird. Move over, Mieville, vamoose, VanderMeer, there's a NEWER weird in town!

After failing my saving throw versus the confusion caused by my glass-wiping "visitor," I was hit by another round of confusion: Was this a large matchbook? Is that what I ordered?

Well, no and no. The book comes in this very clever little slipcase. Yeah, a sturdy little slipcase that looks an awful lot like a matchbook. What you see in the photo on Goodreads is the slipcase, not the book itself. It's encrusted with all sorts of Japanese characters that I can't read, but one side provides this lovely little translation: "You and I will always be together. Be one with me, and we'll become a pretty-colored forest."

"Forrest" is my real name, incidentally. I was named after my grandfather, Forrest. So reading this invitation, had me a little creeped out (keep in mind my mental association of all things Japanese with those McDonald's commercials . . .). In fact, I thought it might be an omen. Would I pull the little flip book out and then be PULLED IN?!?!?

Why, yes! I was pulled in. Pulled in by the novelty of the flipbook and pulled into a universe where a bug eats its way through your book right before your very eyes. And I mean, eats a physical hole through your book. It's entrancing and delightful. Then, watch in numb horror as the "god" eats . . . well, I don't want to give it all away.

Let's just say that the quote on the box is the most fitting summation of the story. There are no cliffhangers here. Let's also say that this book is a wonderfully complete artifact. Every detail points back to the theme presented on the slipcase. It is, as John Dewey would point out, entirely engaging, but evocative of something much more than the sum of its parts: something much more simultaneously creepy and cute than I can even put into words.

In other words, it is a little treasure. And I am chaining it to my bookshelf with my most precious books!

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Monday, May 11, 2015

Rhinoceros

RhinocérosRhinocéros by Eugène Ionesco
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A libertarian manifesto, of sorts; not in the strictly political sense, or in the philosophical sense of free will versus determinism, but in the broader sense of one who values personal liberty and freedom above all else in or out of the political arena. I just saw a fantastic rendering of this play put on by the theater troupe at the high school where my wife teaches. I wasn't certain that they could pull off a play that demands such a high level of skill from its actors and director, but they did it, and they did it well. The lead actor, playing the part of Berenger, brilliantly portrayed the transformation of Berenger from a waffling, unsure drunk to the morally certain, but crushingly alone last-man-standing, after the inhabitants of his town slowly choose to turn into rhinoceroses.

Afterwards, having been near the edges of the audience and having had one of the "rhinoceroses" brush up against me (they wander around among the audience for much of the play), I remarked to my wife that I felt like the absurdist (and strongly existentialist) play was a sort of audience-participation episode of the Twilight Zone. And since TZ is my favorite television show of all time, that was the highest compliment I could give it. Reading the play may not lend the same intensity, as this was written "for the stage, not for the page" (as my daughter so frequently characterized Shakespeare when she was a child). But the blueprint is there, and a well-directed group of actors can really plunge the audience into the middle of the angst.

The central theme running throughout is that of individualism versus conformity. Though the play is frequently cited as being "anti-Nazi," Ionesco says:

"Rhinoceros is certainly an anti-Nazi play, yet it is also and mainly an attack on collective hysteria and the epidemics that lurk beneath the surface of reason and ideas but are none the less serious collective diseases passed off as ideologies."

The play runs far deeper than a simple invective against one group. Rather, it questions *all* groups and the human need to belong vis-a-vis the need for human individuation. Ionesco is careful to make Berenger a complex character, who struggles with the decision of whether or not to become a rhinoceros, thus avoiding a pedantic forcing of the audience to hate the rhinoceroses. This is not a propaganda piece that ignores the psychological subtleties behind such a difficult choice. The situations portrayed pull forth feelings of tolerance, possibly even sympathy, for those who succumb to the allure of the crowd. One must ask, "what would I do in this situation, given all that is presented to me?" The question of who the rhinoceroses are is completely irrelevant:

People always wish me to spell out whether I mean the rhinos to be fascists or communists. Rhinoceritis is not an illness of the Right or the Left: it cannot be contained within geo-political borders. Nor is it characteristic of a social class. It is the malady of conformity which knows no bounds, no boundaries.

There are no easy answers: Tolerate the crowd, accept them, become one of them and accept their sociality, or resist them, become intolerant, and remain staunchly individual, and alone?

Before you answer, think about it. Read or see this play, then think about it. This isn't a decision you'll want to make in haste.

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Saturday, May 9, 2015

Beautiful LEGO

Beautiful LEGOBeautiful LEGO by Mike Doyle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a child, I'm certain that I swallowed at least one small Lego brick. I don't know that it ever passed through the digestive tract. More than likely, it's lodged around a corner in my large intestine somewhere, waiting to kill me. But I'm certain I'm not alone. A straw poll, solidly scientific in its execution (I asked friends and co-workers) shows that most males believe they swallowed at least one Lego during their childhood.

What are the archaeologists going to think?

"Clearly, this little plastic brick was interred with these remains to memorialize the ancients fascination with temple architecture. The building block would have been placed with the body before burial, near the navel (provenience substantiates this) to provide the erstwhile architect with a model to replicate the materials needed for temple building in the afterlife."

They'll never, ever guess they were used to make art. "Real" art. Substantial art. Serious art. The kind that Mike Doyle presents here, and which he produces himself.

In fact, I wish there was more work in the book of the same quality and construction as Mike Doyle's work. This guy is good. Really, really good. Take, for example, his piece Victorian With Tree. This thing was made with legos? That's insane!

Equally insane are Nannan Zhang's surreal, apocalyptic visions, which can likely be found somewhere here. Sorry, Zhang has 50 pages of photos here, all of them showing some fascinating constructions. I don't have time to go through all 50 pages to find a representative sample featured in Beautiful Lego. But if you winnow through it, look for "End of Days" and "Armageddon". You won't be disappointed.

There are dozens of artists featured in this book. I've just pointed out my two favorites. There's something here for everyone, from birds to spacecraft to mosaics to everyday objects. There's even a depiction of a frog dissection, which brought back some memories from high school (traumatic as they may be).

But it's in the architecture that these artists really show their chops. Whether faithful recreations of monumental architecture, or whimsical additions to the canon, the lego-constructed-buildings are absolutely spectacular.

We also get some great insight to the artists themselves through a series of interviews with some of the top builders. These builders love their medium. There is passion hidden in these little blocks.

Maybe we should bury Legos with our artistic dead.



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Saturday, May 2, 2015

Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell

Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in HellDiableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell by Brian May
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Let's get the obligatory cataloging information out of the way first, shall we?

Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell comes as slip-cased book, with a hologram of Satan and his minions going to war on the cover. It was compiled by Brian May (yes, THAT Brian May), Denis Pellerin, and Paula Fleming (No, not that Paula Fleming, whoever she is). Included is an "OWL" stereoscope for viewing the dozens of 3D stereoscopic photographs reproduced throughout. Contents include an introductory preface written by May, a section revealing "The Magic of Stereo Photography," detail pages including Diableries (dioramas taking place in hell, usually, and featuring Satan and his minions), a timeline, a section on "Peripheral Diableries," which don't quite fit into the formally-recognized diableries, a section giving instructions on how to take stereo photographs with your cell phone(!), a segment on the historical background of the diableries, which helps to contextualize them, and biographies of the men who sponsored and created the sculptures and photographs themselves.

What did I think of the book?

This book will be a family heirloom that will hopefully be passed down for generations long after I have joined the choir eternal. Yes, it's that good. Not just because of the content (which I will briefly discuss in a moment) but because it is an amazing artifact. A shrine, really, or an immersive space dedicated to the artists that created these scenes and the time in which they were produced.

The main character, as one would expect, is Satan aka Lucifer aka Old Scratch aka Mr. Nick (incidentally, my favorite portrayal of the devil is that of "Mr. Nick" by Tom Waits in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus). The setting, as one would also expect, is Hell.

What is unexpected is the whimsical ways in which the devil and his minions are portrayed. The vignettes portrayed in the diableries are as varied as life itself. We see Satan on his wedding day, at supper, in his laboratory, in a gaming room, walking in the park with Misses Satan, in a bicycle race, leading his legions to war, at the lottery, at the stock exchange (I found these last two particularly appropriate), at a regatta, at the wheat harvest, and on and on and on. These scenes are typically light-hearted, even zany (see, for example, "A Lecture by Miss Satan - Satan's daughter educates an audience of men - er, male skeletons - on the merits of the new feminism by standing on a stage, dressed in a man's suit, lifting a glass of champagne while kicking her leg up in a Can Can dance to the cheers of the . . . er, men . . . uh, skeletons . . . minions . . . whatever).

But let's not lose sight of the fact that this is a book about Satan. Remember? The Deceiver? The Father of Lies?

All is not as it seems . . .

Behind the thin veneer of raucous entertainment is a social commentary. When one understands the symbols used and some of the situations represented, the book takes on a more . . . sinister tone. The authors point out some points that hint at underlying messages about and in opposition to France's Second Empire (1852-1870), a period about which I knew almost nothing. Apparently, I am not alone. We are told, in the historical section at the back of the book, that most French schools skip right over this period when teaching French history. Thankfully, this section provides a great survey of the period, which I will not repeat here, so as to not spoil the fun.

It is in the biographies of the artists (there were several, with two, Louis Alfred Habert and Pierre Adolphe Hennetier being the most prominent) and the primary producers of the diableries, Francois Benjamin Lamiche and Adolphe Block, that we come to realize the impetus for referencing and disparaging the French Emperor, Napoleon III.

Napoleon was a notorious womanizer who admitted remaining faithful to his wife for only six months after their marriage. The many portrayals of Satan's dalliances with "Ladies of easy virtue" are really representations of Napoleon III. In one scene, a castle is represented which, to those who know the place, is modeled after a chateau gifted by the Emperor to one of his many mistresses. Satan leads his skeletal soldiers against some un-named enemy, the armies of whom wear the Prussian Picklehaube - a clear reference to the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and Napoleon III's defense of Paris. One of the more damning diableries is "Satan the Journalist" in which the devil is portrayed as a two-faced being, one face looking cruelly on, whip in hand, as a demon made from a pair of scissors (a reference to the extreme government censorship of the Second Empire) cooks up scandalous news beneath a bank of drawers containing "Lies," "New Mistakes" (per the label on one drawer), and absurd pieces of made-up news. The other side of his face looks approvingly on those journalists who write and disseminate trivial, vacuous news about celebrities and social happenings that will keep the masses distracted from any real problems in the Empire (the early equivalent of People magazine). Behind these purveyors of schlock, the allegorical figure of Truth is locked up, half clothed (i.e., not naked) in a cage.

As I said, in the biographies, one finds the reason behind these scathing, if carefully veiled (they made it past the censors, after all!) accusations: Francois Benjamin Lamiche, who owned the copyright to the earliest diableries and who must have hired Hennetier and, later, Habert, was a bitter opponent of the regime. His son, Alphonse Benjamin, had died of typhus while en route to the Crimean War, and the government, it seems, did not notify the family in a timely manner. Or, at least, it is unclear when they were notified. Also, Lamiche was arrested, fined, and imprisoned for possessing and distributing obscene pictures and for having conspired with other Parisian photographers, to write a petition to the Emperor asking for an appeal on their collective cases. This backfired when the police used the petition to track down, investigate, and further condemn those who were already out of favor with the law. These experiences seem to have informed, to some extent, the negative, if obfuscated, lampooning of Napoleon III throughout the diableries.

Knowing all of this (and more - there is more, but I shall forbear . . .), the book still works on the level of pure enjoyment. The 3D images are spectacular (though headache-inducing if you look for too long), and the portrayals are mostly quite fun, with a wry, dark sense of humor throughout. For those of us who are trained historians, however, the book takes on deeper social meaning in light of the fantastic historical overview and bibliographies presented at the end. This book is a keeper - one of my "chained" books that I hope to never see leave my library (NO! You can't borrow it! Rawr!) except as I share the delight I've found in this artifact with friends and family who come to visit.

Before i go inviting everyone over, however, I should put a sign above the doorway into my house:

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate

Come on over . . . if you dare!

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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Chinese Art Book

The Chinese Art BookThe Chinese Art Book by Colin Mackenzie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'll admit it - when I first learned of this book from Hadrian's outstanding review, I got it from the library to do research for the novel I am currently working on. Being a bit of an art snob, though (I was a humanities major as an undergrad), as well as an art lover, I could justify taking the time to read the book (though, does one ever really have to justify reading anything?) as it did double duty as a research tool and as an object of sheer pleasure.

This book delivers on both counts. Phaidon, THE art book publisher, has produced a beautiful book, as always. Author Colin Mackenzie takes the book to the next level, however, by organizing the book not by time period or artist, but as distinct pairs of color plates that face each other, providing an amazing mental performance space in which the reader's brain can compare, contrast, make associations, and dissociate the images in a focused way that hints at some "Chinese" oeuvre (I use the term realizing that China is as culturally diverse a country as any other - and that these works come from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, with a few expatriate pieces sprinkled in for good measure). I've never seen an art book quite like it. Yes, there is a timeline at the end showing when each piece was created, and you'll get all the typical Sotheby's-esque catalog material, which will tell you everything you didn't want to know about the provenience, materials, etc. Mackenzie provides insightful, beautifully-written descriptions-cum-biographies-cum-histories to each piece of art. Reading it is an education. Knowing what I now know, I will have to go back and rewrite my novel. That's a pain I'm willing to suffer.

I also admit that, as an undergraduate, we spent perhaps a week in each of my survey courses on Chinese art, for a total of perhaps one month of study in four years of education. Now I wish I would have taken the occasional class focused solely on Chinese art. The artists of China were so far ahead of their European counterparts that the Renaissance, Dutch, Italian, or otherwise is such a late-comer to civilized art as to have wholly missed the race. Only now is the West catching up.

Or not.

Since I'm already being indulgent in this review (hey, it's my review!), I'd like to point out a few of my favorite pieces from the book. Note that links to pictures online do NOT do these works of art justice. The book's reproductions are much better:

A Thousand Peaks and Myriad Ravines by Gong Xian (surrealism in 1670? Yes!).

The Studio of True Appreciation by Wen Zhengming.

Travellers amid Mountains and Streams by Fan Kuan.

Original (or Primordial) Chaos by Zhu Derun (abstraction c. 1349).

And, finally, my absolute favorite, Nine Dragons by Chen Rong.

That's only five of the 300 pieces of art presented in this volume.

If I owned this volume, I would add it to my "chained book" list. I shall have to do so - save and spend enough money in the future to secure this priceless view of the past. I'm certain it's worth it.


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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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