Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Birth of Tragedy/The Case of Wagner

The Birth of Tragedy/The Case of WagnerThe Birth of Tragedy/The Case of Wagner by Friedrich Nietzsche
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You say “Tomayto”
I say “Tomahto”
You say “Potayto”
I say “Potahto”
Tomayto, Tomahto, Potayto, Potahto
Let’s call the whole thing off

You spell “Apollonian”
I spell “Apollinian”
You say “Dio-nice-ian”
I say “Dio-niss-ian”
Apollinian, Dionysian, Hegelian Dialectic
Let’s call the whole thing off

You say “Wagnerian”
Nietzsche says “Wankerian”
You say “Romantic”
Nietszche says “Pedantic”
Romantic, pedantic, whatever, Wagner was a wanker
Let’s call the whole thing off

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The Web of the Chozen

The Web of the ChozenThe Web of the Chozen by Jack L. Chalker
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First off, a special thanks to the anonymous Goodreader who sent me this book. It arrived right before Christmas, and I didn't open the package until Christmas day, thinking that one of my kids had ordered it and had it shipped directly to my place (we had all the kids home for Christmas). But when I opened the envelope on Christmas day and asked who got me the book, I was rewarded by confusion and blank stares. So someone who is not my child or my wife sent this to me. I had a few conversations with a different people about this book, so I can't chase it down *exactly*. But someone was generous, and I thank you!

Now, on to the text.

The Web of the Chozen is, above all, a novel of ideas, like any well-behaved science fiction book is. It was well-written, by and large, and I really enjoyed the narrative voice of Bar Holliday, the narrator. Bar is a star scout, sent to explore new worlds. He's different from most of humanity, who have now become mind-numbed cattle whose only ambition is to return to their Creatovision. The interstellar civilization, sponsored by a group of corporations, is just too boring for Bar Holliday. So he was assigned to be a scout, the one way out of the malaise-stricken utopia of humankind.

But Bar is in for some surprises.

And so are you. I'm not going to give away any spoilers. Suffice it to say that Bar stumbles on a world named Patmos where his entire conception of himself and of humanity is . . . turned inside out, I guess, is the best way to put it. The book is full of transformations and begs the question, what does it really mean to be human? For that matter, what does it really mean to be at all?

The book isn't without its problems, and the primary issue I had with the book, unfortunately, repeated itself several times - Chalker threw me out of my willing suspension of disbelief not once, but several times. Bar Holliday simply knew too much about what was happening to himself and the world around him, and I couldn't make that leap, not in the first-person narrative voice, anyway. This shaking of my walls of unreality happened again and again. I suppose I was inured to it by the end of the book, but I found it quite jarring, which lessened my enjoyment of the book a great deal.

One thing that this discomfort did for me, though, was caused me to think about what is it exactly that allows us to suspend disbelief or prevents us from doing so? And why is it different for each person? I'm certain that other readers might not have been bothered by Holliday's borderline omniscience as I was. But what makes the difference? A more subtle approach would have worked better for me, even if Chalker had interspersed a few pages of transition at key spots in the novel. It would have added a few thousand words to the whole text, but it would have felt much more natural, as a result. Maybe this is the fault of an overly zealous editor or a publisher that wanted to keep the word count under a certain number for production purposes, I don't know. In any case, I need to think about this whole subject a bit more carefully. What would an "acceptable" leap have looked like to me? Would I take an even larger leap and be okay with it if the tone or voice was different? Was it the presentation or the logic itself that I found fault with subconsciously?

So many questions . . .

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Monday, January 26, 2015


WeathercraftWeathercraft by Jim Woodring
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There's really no halfway about it. You are either going to love this or hate it. In some alternate universe, Albrecht Durer and Robert Crumb dropped bad acid and had a love child. Jim Woodring is his name, and he has brought his observations from beyond the veils of our reality. They are not for the faint of heart or for those who are looking for robust plotting. All the characters are despicable in one way or another, and even Manhog's attempts at do-goodery are vain debacles that result in the same meaninglessness that existed before his failed attempts at charity. Like a sort of reverse-Fisher-King, Manhog's self-sacrifices come full circle as hell, rather than redemption, are reborn from his faux-repentance. This is an irreverent, surreal, utterly meaningless work that is striking in it's bizarre beauty and shocking amorality. You say you don't care? Neither does Woodring. But he doesn't care with panache!

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

All My Friends Are Dead

All My Friends Are DeadAll My Friends Are Dead by Avery Monsen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My daughter asked for this for her 21st birthday. Of course, I peeked . . . okay, I'm lying, I read the entire thing in about 10 minutes. This is, in essence, a book for existential children . . . or child existentialists . . . or cynical adults who don't like to read but like grim humor in the form of a children's book. If Sartre had had children (did he? I don't know, but I suspect not), he would have read this to them at bedtime every night. Because any night could be your last . . .

PS: I liked the glue entry the best. Yes, there's really a glue entry . . . and it's funny . . . and morbid . . . just go read it!

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Saturday, January 17, 2015

Fatale, Vol. 3: West of Hell

Fatale, Vol. 3: West of HellFatale, Vol. 3: West of Hell by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I admit it, my background as a writer has influenced my enjoyment of this volume a great deal. I started as a short-story writer and themed anthology editor before turning to the novel form. I just felt like a more natural short-story writer. It came quite easily to me, maybe because I was raised in the MTV generation and have a short attention span. Or, perhaps it's because I am a slow reader and a slow writer. Or maybe I'm just lazy.

Whatever the case, I can appreciate a good short-story, well-told. I particularly enjoy a story told as an episodic series of short vignettes that challenges the reader to read between the lines, to tease the story out of their own subconscious through the use of subtle cues. I've used this trope several times, sometimes with great success, sometimes not.

The beauty of the short story is that it frees up the author to focus on style and immediacy and forces her or him to do away with the fluff that is so much a part of many a bad novel. This is a big turn-off to many novel readers. Don't believe me? Try to get a short-story collection published. I dare you. It can be done, but finding a willing publisher for a short-story collection is much, much more difficult than finding a willing publisher for a novel. So, yes, it's pretty difficult.

What Brubaker and Phillips have done here is create a series of stories about a type, almost a Jungian archetype: The Fatale.

Yes, you will see your beloved Josephine here (for those of you wise enough to read the previous two volumes in the series), but you will also meet Mathilda and Bonnie, who may or may not be the same person as Josephine - this is never made clear. And whether they are three separate persons or one-in-the-same doesn't really matter. What matters here is back-story and beauty, and there is plenty of each here. In West of Hell we learn that this world is not what you think it is. And you dare not know the truth. The truth will only kill you or, worse yet, let you know of its presence while allowing you the dubious privilege of life.

My only complaint here is that some of the information was leaked a bit earlier, in the first two volumes. But not all of it. Too much too early would spoil the surprise of it all, but would add something to the feeling of sheer menace that peeks around the corners in other volumes. Still, I can see how the choppy nature of this narrative adds to the flavor of the series as a whole. Not only do we get to peek around the corner at what lurks there, we have moments of stark revelation when we can get a good look at the face of horror in full, though it surreptitiously slides back into the shadows before we can fully figure out what it is doing, what it wants, and where it is going.

The artwork, as always, is beautiful. But this volume is particularly well-structured in a cinematic sense. Take, for example, the image of Jo approaching her vehicle, a 1930's coupe, on a desolate desert highway at night. She has just seen the face of evil, a physical manifestation of her nightmares. She gets in the car and drives off down the highway, past a railroad crossing, disappearing into the night. And standing on the railroad tracks, waiting, hoping to be hit by a train, stands Nelson, Jo's erstwhile lover, staring down the light of the train as it approaches him, promising release from his sorrow, the sorrow brought on by Jo's departure.

Hitchcock couldn't have done it better.

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The Shooting Star

The Shooting Star (Tintin, #10)The Shooting Star by Hergé
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my first Tintin adventure. I've seen the movie, been regaled with images of Tintin (the best of which are these Tintin meets Lovecraftian monsters mash-ups, and heard praise heaped upon Herge's head as a pioneer of the comic art. I'm not disappointed, but I'm not wowed either. Herge is no Winsor McCay, but his influence can be seen in Jean Giraud's work, which means that Herge was, at a minimum, influential on today's comic arts.

The Shooting Star is a strange mix: Surreal science fiction which, at the time, must have seemed outrageous, all built on a skeletal plot that is overly predictable and must have been hackneyed, even at the time it was first published. That's not to say that the book is not likeable, I liked it quite a bit, but the tissue-thin plot left me wanting even more strangeness than Herge provided. I'm not one to shy away from reading or writing plotless narrative, so long as there's enough excellent characterization, clever turns of phrase, beautiful sentences, or bizarre devices to keep my attention. I kept hoping for this while reading The Shooting Star, but it came up just a little short of my hopes. Still, a worthwhile read.

In the meantime, I'm waiting for someone to do more than mere covers of Tintin/Cthulhu matchups. Someone should do a kickstarter and do the whole thing as a series of graphic (and I do mean graphic) novels. I'd be first in line to buy in!

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Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Fatale, Vol. 4: Pray for Rain

Fatale, Vol. 4: Pray for RainFatale, Vol. 4: Pray for Rain by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I graduated high school in '87. After the glam rock of that period (which I despised - I was more on an Anthrax/Motorhead/Metallica kind of guy), the whole grunge scene just seemed pretty flat to me, like it was so anti-poser that it became it's own kind of posing. While I liked that first single by Nirvana (you know the one I'm talking about), I didn't much like anything else they put out. And while Pearl Jam had its moment and Soundgarden made a more lasting impression, with Alice in Chains showing several moments of pure brilliance, I just really didn't get into grunge like many of those around me. In fact, after a short time, I really hated it.

So I naturally recoiled at a story wherein a major part of the plot was centered around, you guessed it, a grunge band in the '90s.

And now you're wondering "why did you give it 5 stars"?

Because my dislike for the whole grunge scene played directly into Brubaker's nefarious plans for me. My sense of internal unease only grew as I read this distressing tale. Josephine, the titular Fatale herself, is stricken with amnesia after being stricken by . . . well, I don't want to give that away. She finds herself at the mansion of a one-hit-wonder grunge band who are down on their luck until she shows up. But what kind of luck does she bring? Good at first, then bad, in spades.

Jo, we find, is a sort of vortex, a center around which death and despondence swirl like bees around a hive. From the band to a cop-turned-serial-killer to a mysterious hell-spawned someone, Jo is the center of everyone's attention, whether they want her to be the center of attention or not. This vortex, by the volume's end, has become a maelstrom.

Honestly, I didn't think that Brubaker could throw me for a loop like he has this time around. The previous volumes of Fatale were already so strange and shrouded in mystery, that I was lulled into a sense of jaded security. I thought "okay, we'll just watch how this thing plays out as we approach the last volume. What other surprises can he throw at me that he hasn't already thrown?"

And then . . . "Wha? Who? Really? But . . ."

That's an exact quote.

I'll spare you the full spoiler, but let's just say that while I expect someone to die in every volume, one of the someones who died this volume was most definitely *not* someone who I expected to die, especially in the way this person was bumped off. Those who have read the previous volumes will know who I'm talking about, and . . .

OK. I'm getting esoteric. I'll stop. But be warned, if you haven't read Volume 1 and Volume 2, you will be thoroughly confused. If you have read them, you will be thoroughly confused and utterly horrified.

And that's just where Brubaker wants you.

Embrace the dark.

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Sunday, January 4, 2015

The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is

The Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-IsThe Edge of the Sky: All You Need to Know About the All-There-Is by Roberto Trotta
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I first heard about this book on NPR, I thought "How clever: the current state of cosmology using only the 1,000 most common words in English".

The book was more clever than informative, with a couple of notable exceptions. For the most part, I found the "dumbed down" descriptions to be confusing because of the wordiness needed to end-around some fairly useful scientific jargon. I don't know that reading this as a neophyte would do much more than frustrate the reader and send him or her off to more rigorous works.

That said, if you have a working knowledge of questions and theories surrounding such phenomena and ideas as dark energy, the Doppler Effect, cosmological inflation, the theory of multiverses, and the Higgs-Boson, then the book does provide a new way of looking at these problems. The section on how dark matter was inferred is absolutely brilliant in its simplicity. Then again, the section on multiverses might make a creationist out of the most avowed atheist (incidentally, and it doesn't matter here, but so you know, I am not an atheist, though I have very many very good friends who are and with whom I have fascinating, lively, and respectful conversations about cosmology, among other things).

But I don't think Trotta's point in writing this was to tell "All you need to know about the All-There-Is" to those who already have a working knowledge of the current state of cosmology (again, using only the 1,000 most common words in the English language). I had understood from the interview that I heard with the author that he intended this to be for those who had no knowledge whatsoever of current theory in the field. While this book is a good review for those already "in the know," I think that the initial goal was not met, and might be impossibly ambitious.

The book itself is a beautiful little artifact, I must admit. It is small, but seems substantial. the only thing that could have improved it was dotting that gorgeous indigo cover with actual glow-in-the-dark star dots. I'm not going to lie - that would have pushed the book up into four-star-territory for me. I'm a sucker for glow-in-the-dark anything. Just not a sucker for books that don't quite live up to their stated aims. Close . . . but not quite.

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Thursday, January 1, 2015

Pursuit of the Millenium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages

Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle AgesPursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages by Norman Cohn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pursuit of the Millenium is a well-documented history of anarchic millenarian movements in the Middle Ages that might have been perfect if it weren't for some fairly obvious auctorial bias.

Cohn starts with an excellent thesis and documentation about how the fervor of the Crusades, particularly among the poor, set the stage for later millenarian cults. The 2nd Crusade, in particular, set the stage for later messianic movements by using the non-canonical "Sibylline Prophecies" as pretext for invading the Holy Land and killing a lot of innocent Jews, Muslims, *and* Christians (almost always representatives of the Catholic church) along the way. These prophecies, forged at a much later date than their authors' claimed that they were written, were composed mostly by monks to elaborate and integrate the eschatological pronouncements of the Revelation of John into a world-view that saw an "Emperor of the Last Days," either a reflection of or a resurrected Charlemagne, as the key figure that would usher in the final judgement of the world and an era of peace and prosperity for believers. These apocryphal writings informed, to some degree or another, all the millenial movements that came after the 2nd Crusade. Common themes were the rise of a righteous earthly ruler who would lead the fight against the Antichrist (first in the form of the Saracens, later in the form of the Pope) and his minions, resulting in their utter destruction.

In most cases, this "phantasie," as Cohn calls it, led to instabilities in the social order, revolution, violence, and, much of the time, the extermination of anyone identified as an enemy to the movement. Think religious terrorism is of modern provenience? Think again! The methods and agenda of the anonymous author of the Book of a Hundred Chapters, written in the mid-15th-century, would make Daesh squeamish. He even claimed to have used alchemy to invent explosives with which to overthrow the kingdoms of Europe. Car bombs before there were cars!

Cohn's writing throughout is solid and, at times, downright poetic. Take, for instance, this paragraph about the flagellants, those who felt that by lacerating themselves with metal-barbed whips, the world would be bettered by their suffering penitence:

A chronicler remarked that during the flagellant processions people behaved as though they feared that as a punishment for their sins God was about to destroy them all by earthquake and by fire from on high. It was in a world which seemed poised on the brink of the abyss that penitents cried out, as they beat themselves and threw themselves upon their faces: "Holy Virgin, take pity on us! Beg Jesus Christ to spare us! and: "Mercy, mercy! Peace, peace!" - calling ceaselessly, we are told, until the fields and mountains seemed to echo with their prayers and musical instruments fell silent and love-songs died away.

But why stop at whipping yourselves when you can help others to be repentant, as well? These flagellants were wont to destroy the inhabitants of entire cities at a time, likely whipped up into a frenzy of violence by their self-punishment. 'Tis better to give than to receive, no?

While Cohn starts out in a strictly Marxist vein, he branches out to other methods of historical analysis in the later two-thirds of the book. The history of the Brethren of the Free Spirit is fascinating, complex, and "layered" in a way that makes a very confusing movement understandable. Best of all, at this point, Cohn lays off on both the thick Marxist and thinly-veiled Freudian analysis, both of which show too much of their structural prejudices early on in the book. This section is really compelling history!

One of my biggest complaints about Cohn is his assumption that Luke's account in Acts Chapter 4 is an "Imaginary version of the primitive church". The only evidence I see of this is Cohn's say-so, which makes for very bad interpolative history. Luke was there. He saw it and lived it. There are other accounts that corroborate this evidence, too. Just because the millenial cults used this to further their own arguments for egalitarianism doesn't make it "imaginary". Furthermore, I don't know why Cohn is so adamant in distancing himself from this "phantasy". I wonder if it had something to do with the time in which Pursuit of the Millenium was originally published, 1957, at the height of the Red Scare. Perhaps Cohn was fearful of being outed as a communist for his analysis of these movements, which often pitted the poor against the rich, so he made certain that it was known that he did not believe that early Christianity actually practiced the commmunal order that they claim to have practiced. But he presents absolutely no compelling evidence to substantiate his argument.

The account of the Taborite movement is fascinating - reading it was like watching what was essentially a medieval hippie commune disintegrate from the inside out. The usual problem with these arrangements reared its head: No one wanted to work, but everyone wanted the benefits of work. The idealism of the movement sowed the seeds of it's own self-destruction, while economic reality caused them to blossom into oblivion. Here, Cohn is back on his game with well-reasoned arguments and a careful reconstruction of the foundation, growth, demise, and the significant influence of the movement on later generations of millenarians.

The beginning of Matthys' Anabaptist movement in Munster sends historical echoes even further down the hall of time to the opening of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia. Though the movements are not connected in any way geographically or chronologically, the methodology of both is strikingly similar. From the use of intimidation to the extremities of communal ownership to the fostering of ignorance (in the Anabaptist sects through the burning of all books that were not the Bible and in the Khmer Rouge through the execution of all intellectuals, doctors, etc), the analogs are shocking. Comparing the two would make for interesting research in social history. To whomever takes this as their doctoral dissertation in comparative history, you're welcome. Mention me in the credits, please.

While this is good history, for the most part, it is clear that Cohn really, REALLY likes Marxist analysis. That's fine, as it seems to suit the subject matter and the evidence, at least in the early instances of the millenarian movements. But I suspect that some people joined these revolts out of a sense of spiritual compulsion, not just because they were poor. Poverty is neither necessary nor sufficient to push a person into millenarianism, though it might be sufficient to foster the growth of such movements. The evidence seems compelling, but what evidence *isn't* being shown here? Cohn does not show the full deck of cards here, and I believe he is hiding a card or two up his sleeve. It's not blatant enough to accuse him of outright cheating in the game of presenting historical evidence, but it's enough to arouse suspicion in the reader who is paying attention.

Still, a solid historical work on a subject that could use a lot more attention, given the religious extremism we see both domestically and abroad. Alas, we may just be doomed to having to deal with false Messiahs and their violent movements again and again. After all, we've been doing it, in the Christian world, at least, for 1500 years now. And that is a lot of historical precedent to drag behind us as we try to move forward. At least Cohn's work here helps us to clearly see the sort of circumstances that lead to these extremist movements. Maybe it's enough to start to get a grasp on how to prevent them from spreading so quickly and becoming so violent. Maybe . . . maybe . . .

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The Strange Library

The Strange LibraryThe Strange Library by Haruki Murakami
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Indulgent" is the word that critics will use to describe The Strange Library, no doubt. Some readers have expressed their thought that Murakami is now famous enough that he can do whatever the heck he pleases (a'la Peter Jackson's mauling interpretation of The Hobbit), spurning the marketplace and readers who might enjoy his more carefully-crafted fictions.

I say "do as you please, Murakami". But I've been accused of being self-indulgent in my own writing, at times, too.

If you don't like what Murakami's done here, go do something else yourself. Want to prove you can do it better? Go ahead, prove it. But don't come whining to me when someone comes at you with the "self-indulgent" moniker. Because someone will,no matter what you write. Such is the nature of art. There will always be someone who hates your work.

I, for one, love what Knopf has done with this. This book (really a short story) is a keepsake. No, the plot isn't compelling, no, the characterization isn't deep, no, the language isn't immaculate.

But this is still a beautiful piece of art. If you're not a Murakami fan already, this book isn't likely to turn you into one. But if you enjoyed Kafka on the Shore, you're likely to enjoy this little tidbit, as well. The story isn't spectacular, but, taken as a readable artifact, Knopf has produced a beautiful piece of written and visual art, thanks to their hiring of Chip Kidd as Designer/Art Director for this little volume. This is the kind of artifact many writers only wish they could afford to produce, but they either don't have the requisite funding to do so or they don't dare spurn the marketplace for fear of losing marketability.

If I had the money, this is the sort of book-as-artifact I would love to produce.

And I say, keep on spurning, Murakami, keep on spurning.

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Forrest Aguirre's Writing Goals, 2015 Edition

It was a good year that saw the publication of Heraclix and Pomp and a couple of short stories. I was also able to finish my draft version of my space opera novel, Solistalgia, which is in Agent Kris's hands at the moment. I was able to attend Wiscon, the Heartland Fall Forum, and the World Fantasy Convention, as well as participate in a couple of readings/events to publicize H&P. All-in-all, a successful, productive year.

So what's ahead for this year? Heraclix and Pomp will come out in trade paperback sometime this Spring or Summer. I will, as always, be in attendance at Wiscon, as well. I'm certain that there will be more readings and events associated with H&P once we are out of our Wisconsin deep-freeze and the release of the paperback is closer. Unless H&P is considered for a World Fantasy Award (I would like another statue like the one in the corner of my writing area so I can use them as bookends) I am unlikely to attend WFC. But on that same weekend is the RPG convention that is becoming a rather big deal in the Midwest, Gameholecon, which is held about a half hour walk from my house. Being an old-school gamer, I'd be crazy not to attend.

As far as writing and promotion and such, my goals are pretty simple:

  1. Successfully launch the TPB version of H&P.
  2. Finish my current WIP novel, tentatively entitled The Simulacra. Incidentally, I am enjoying the heck out of writing this.
  3. Finish my top secret RPG supplement and find a market for it or publish it myself. This has been a fun pet project of mine. Time to finish it and find it a home.
  4. Have a few short stories published (there are two on the docket to be published this Spring already, so that's mostly done).
  5. Nudge, annoy, or stab Agent Kris enough that he sells either Panoptica or Solistalgia or both.
  6. Continue to blog, tweet, etc, and share "stuff" with the online community.
Now, if Agent Kris sells one or the other of the novels that are in the wings, all bets are off. That whole editing thing is a lot like real work. It sucks the very lifeblood from my soul. Hopefully, I'll be able to at least see to H&P's trade paperback inauguration before everything goes crazy all at once. I've been thinking, too - it's been a few years since I've sold a short story collection . . . 

So here's hoping to a productive new year. The fun has just begun. :)