28 September 2012

Fridays child is loving and giving

Books: Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon (2012)

After Michael Chabon had two successful books under his name –The Mysteries of Pittsburg and Wonder Boys – it was Jonathan Yardley, book critic of the Washington Post- that perhaps influenced Chabon to write beyond what he had already accomplished with his two previous novels.  Already, the authors work was known for its complex language, recurring themes, especially nostalgia (themes both Peter Straub and Stephen King have been using for decades as well), fatherhood, Jewish identity and divorce. He also has a fascination with gay or bisexual characters (same as John Irving does). So  he needed someone to point out, as most people do, that you are capable of doing so much more if you’re willing to take the leap.

Yardley, while a huge supporter of Wonder Boys, felt Chabon was too preoccupied "with fictional explorations of his own ... It is time for him to move on, to break away from the first person and explore larger worlds." Chabon admits it was this criticism that chimed in with his own thoughts and he began to explore other aspects of fiction, embracing genre stuff that he loved just as much as standard fiction. But it was a discovery of old comic books that ignited his passion of the past that helped him achieve something that was beyond even him, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.

Since then, Chabon has enjoyed a bit of freedom of risk with his work, which included the kid’s book about baseball called Summerland and the alternate history novel The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

His newest novel is Telegraph Avenue (adapted from an idea for a TV series pilot that he was asked to write in 1999 apparently), and is about two long-time friends, African-American Oakland lifer Archy Stallings and white Berkeley denizen Nat Jaffe, who own Brokeland Records, a used record store that carries mostly Jazz and Soul vinyl’s and is slowly going bust, despite it being a community institution. To potentially add the final nail in their coffin, a huge megaplex fronted by Dogpile Records is set to be constructed nearby. To add even more drama to the novel –after all, it’s hard to build a story on just that premise- he spins that minor fuss into a complex story of two families that are at a crossroads that goes beyond the commentary about a small businesses facing increased competition from corporate takeovers (by setting it in August of 2004, Chabon is also able to sidestep the extra layering of what downloading of music did to retail stores in later years). Also included is Archy's and Nat's wives, who run a midwife practice together, Archy's blaxploitation-era movie-star father and the dad's gun-moll girlfriend, and other imagined Oakland locals such as jazz-organ veteran Cochise Jones, former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Gibson Goode, and 90-year-old kung fu master Irene Jew. 

Also added is the relationship between Nat’s son Julian (he goes by Julie) and Archy’s illegitimate son Titus –who walks back into his life like a cold wind off San Francisco Bay. Julie, who has been harboring Titus since his arrival a month earlier, is in the throes of first love, while Titus –occupied by his estrangement from his father and other adult failings in his life- is indifferent. He screws Julie, but does not consider himself gay. I was actually surprised Chabon did these scenes, for some reason. I'm pleased, in many ways, though.

The novels themes of race, politics, infidelity, community, nostalgia, regret, and midwives figure prominently in the story, as does Quentin Tarantino, an oddly 12-page sentence and, for some reason, a  cameo appearance by future president, Barack Obama. Still, while the book peters out a bit towards the end, it is still a wonderful tome for readers who love language; metaphors and (perhaps) a love of old jazz records. Chabon is a hugely talented writer, and there are times that make me wish I could write this well, to come up with the perfect similes and analogies and metaphors that wrap you up like a good sweater on a summer day when the wind blows in the City by the Bay.

27 September 2012

The Burden of Rowling's 'Vacancy'

I'm unsure why anyone would call JK Rowling's newest novel, The Casual Vacancy, a "daring leap." For me, I applaud any popular author who boldly decides to do something different. With the huge success of her Harry Potter franchise, the British born author could have done anything. Or nothing.

Instead of diving into the same genre, instead of going to the well one more time, Rowling took a left turn into proper adult fiction -even at a time when Young Adult fiction written by established adult authors are all the rage. 

For me, the idea that Rowling went and did not what her fans wanted, but what she wanted is very liberating for me in a field of popular fiction that has de-evolved over the last 45 years. I've seen too many authors who found success in one genre -in particular, fantasy- and then thought that writing in another genre was better. Ann Rice found a huge success with her vampire series, only to discover that when she wrote novels that did not pertain to that universe, her fans ignored her. While her witches series was successful, it did not match the sensation of Lestat. 

Terry Brooks broke into the fantasy genre with his Shannara series back in the late 1970's. After completing that series, he tried his hand at other dark fantasy, only to find his audience was not as receptive (and he seems to have retconned his World/Void trilogy into the Shannara legend). He now publishes exclusively the Shannara series, which includes prequels and sequels and has expanded to well over 25 novels.

Nature adorers a vacuum as the saying goes, and I think authors need to expand their universe in ways the reader needs to accept. Rowling choice to set a side another series of novels set in the Harry Potter universe and write something that will appeal only to adults is a brilliant move.

It may succeed, it may fail. But the burden, as I see it, is not on her, but the adult fans of her Harry Potter series. We need to step-up and (until she decides to return or never return) that Rowling is writing books she wants to write. That she won't let her fans dictate what she'll produce next.

I find that very striking and acceptable. 

No one has to read The Casual Vacancy (I will), but we must consent to the idea that Harry Potter may be finished for good. And Rowling is at a point in her life that -whether this passes or fails- she has enough money NOT to care what people will say about this latest novel.

So you, the fans, should not care as well.

Thursdays child has far to go

21 September 2012

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Romantics by Gideon Defoe (2012)

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Romantics is Gideon Defoe’s fifth novel in his hilarious series and follows previous adventures with scientists, whaling, communism and Napoleon but, luckily for you all, it doesn’t require you to have read those books.

Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin (pre Mary Shelley) are whiling away the hours on Lake Geneva, desperate for something to break their boredom.  Cue the Pirate Captain and his motley crew… and Jennifer; surely they must have an adventure for the three novelists.  Being charged with the task of “adventure-on-demand” proves quite taxing for the pirate captain, who resorts to some hair brained schemes to satisfy the adventure-thirst of his new found companions.   However, after some scratching around and general tomfoolery, the Pirate Captain finds a bizarre code to decipher, tattooed to his belly no less.  

While this series is very silly, and even a bit of “a one trick pony” as described in the “About the Author” at the back of the book, but you’ll be surprised at how well realized the Pirate Captain is, as well as his unnamed crew. This fifth novel is perhaps the most complex, introducing Lord Byron, Percy Shelley and Mary Godwin (before marrying Percy) and surpasses the last book with page-turning silliness and brilliant wit. 

Note: Up until this fifth book, the American publisher's issued the books in hardcover. For this fifth one, they decided to publish it only in trade paperback (I'm sure it was an economic issue, but still). I obtained this from Britain, because I like keeping the set.

12 September 2012

Bent-Con 2012 Releases Guest List

The organizers of Bent-Con 2012 just released the list of guests attending the convention November 30, December 1 and 2 in Burbank, California. Headliners include Christopher Rice, Jane Espenson, David Gerrold, Phil Jimenez and Wendy Pini, as well as a stellar lineup of special guests and speakers. Now in its third year, Bent-Con promotes and celebrates LGBT and LGBT-friendly contributions to the fields of comics, gaming, sci-fi, fantasy and horror, as well as LGBT fans of pop culture and genre entertainment.

Already the author of four NYT best-selling novels, Christopher Rice has been an openly queer author since the publication of his first novel, A Density of Souls. Christopher will be reflecting on his already impressive career, as well as previewing his new novel, his first supernatural horror work. Christopher is the son of best-selling novelist Anne Rice and the late poet and painter, Stan Rice.

From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Caprica, Jane Espenson has brought hundreds of hours of excellent genre television to fans everywhere. Her webseries, Husbands (co-created with Brad Bell), about an alternative, humorous world where gay marriage is just as legal as straight ones, just premiered its second season on the web. Jane will be discussing her work on Husbands, her hit TV series Once Upon A Time and the first gay male Slayer joining Buffy: Season 9!

Best known for his work on Wonder Woman, artist and writer Phil Jimenez has also worked on Tempest, Infinite Crisis, New X-Men, The Invisibles and the much celebrated The Amazing Spider-Man cover featuring President Obama. Phil will be talking about his career as an openly gay comics artist, as well as previewing his latest work, Fairest, a spin-off of from Vertigo’s popular Fables series.

Raconteur, rabble-rouser and famed author, all in one package, David Gerrold has over 50 books, several hundred articles and columns, and over a dozen television episodes to his credit. His greatest achievement is the adoption of his son, considered “unplaceable” by the foster care service. He chronicled his experiences as a single, gay father in his Hugo- and Nebula-Award-winning novel The Martian Child. He’ll be talking about his life, his work and whatever else he damn well wants to.

Elf Quest creator and long-time fan-favorite Wendy Pini brings her creative effervescence and charm to Bent-Con! Her Masque of the Red Death—a graphic tale loosely inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s short story—recently caused censorship and controversy on Facebook. Her latest event, the eagerly anticipated Elf Quest: The Final Quest, recently made its web-comic debut on the popular BoingBoing website.
Others special guests include:

Marc Andreyko, (writer, Manhunter, DC Universe Presents)
Brad “Cheeks” Bell (actor and co-creator of Husbands)
Amber Benson (Tara from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, actress, author and filmmaker)
Andrew Chambliss (writer, Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Once Upon A Time
Mars Homeworld (Lovecraftian writer and composer behind Dead House Music)
Patrick Fillion (artist and publisher of Class Comics)
Drew Greenberg (writer of Warehouse 13 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
Tom Lenk (actor and playwright)
Joe Phillips (artist, illustrator and sculptor)
Jeffrey Riddick (producer and screenwriter, Final Destination and Day of the Dead)
Kerry O’Quinn (legendary creator of Starlog and Fangoria magazines)
Quentin Lee (producer and director of Ethan Mao and the upcoming slasher flick Chink)
Travis Richey (Inspector Spacetime and creator of Untitled Webseries about a Space Traveler Who Can Also Travel in Time)

More information about these and other guests is also available at bent-con.org. Bent-Con is November 30, December 1 and 2, 2012, at the Burbank Marriott and Convention Center in Burbank, California. Tickets, room reservations and updated information is available at bent-con.org.

10 September 2012

Books: One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper (2012)

Back in 2009, I read Jonathan Tropper’s fifth novel This Is Where I Leave You. I enjoyed that enough to go out and read his four previous novels. But as I read the last one sometime in 2010, I realized that Tropper could be categorized under “Lad Lit,” a sort derivative take on the popular female authors who get called “Chick Lit” writers. Both, in a way, are insulting, yet both styles cover somewhat the same ground, with dysfunctional families and main characters that have sitcom wit when it comes to zingers.

This is not bad, because not every book you read (or I read) has to have some literary weight behind them. After all, I love Stephen King and most, if not all his novels, are considered pop-fiction. And only on occasion, do I veer off into the literary fiction of say Michael Chabon (and while I own a copy of highly acclaimed 2001 novel The Corrections, I’ve still yet to crack it open).

I do believe that This Is Where I Leave You to be his best comedic book, so I was hoping that what he started in that novel would continue into One Last Thing Before I Go. While I liked it, I found myself irritated by it as well. The main character, Drew Silver (who apparently only goes by the name of Silver –even his family calls him that. Who does this?) is so unappealing, so depressed and so irritating, I cannot understand why anyone –even his own father, a rabbi, wants to spend time with him.

The plot has Silver being a divorcee, a former one-hit-wonder rock star, a bad father, a bad husband, a bad friend, yet somehow makes everyone love him all the more. As if his life wasn’t complicated and messed up enough, he develops a tear in his aorta that is life-threatening unless surgically repaired. But Silver, being the life-long screw up that he is, isn’t sure that he wants to have the surgery that will save his life. His daughter, who is eighteen and off to Yale at the end of summer, gets pregnant by the neighbors’ son. He is in love with a girl with whom he has never spoken and who plays acoustic sets at the local bookstore café. The highlight of his day is when he ogles college-aged girls lounging around the pool near his apartment, The Versailles, a place where divorced men go to become fat and depressed.

Part of my problem with the book, beyond the whole sitcom-ish aspect where people have unbelievable banter, is I saw myself in Silver. Being unemployed for a year sort of makes you look at life in a very depressive way, and Silver (as in silver lining the tear offers) now has a choice, either to continue on with his troubled life that seems not to be getting better, or let nature take its course. Maybe if one is depressive, they should avoid this book?

Tropper was working on a new drama for Cinemax called Banshee, and maybe trying to write a book and launch a series divided his time too much. Somewhere during the writing process of this book and getting a series commitment, the book fell between his earliest work, because while it does have some moments, it nowhere near where he landed with This Is Where I Leave You.

01 September 2012

Books: The Shining by Stephen King (1977)

In the summer of 1980, when I was 17 and finished my junior year of high school, I stumbled upon Stephen King. I was not sure then or even now, if I was aware of him. Much of the early parts of the 1970s remain stored away in my brain. It’s funny, in some ways, how much I don’t remember my childhood, versus King, who is obsessed with his time as child, growing up in post-World War II 1950s where everything seemed full of possibilities. 
Of course King’s life was never easy, being brought up by single mother after his father abandon the family. Still, it seems, those halcyon days spark a lot of his fiction.

Anyways, I picked up a paperback copy of The Stand (that was, at the right, the original mass market version) at the Eagle Grocery Store my mom shopped at. After the break-up of her second marriage, money was tight and mom –always a frugal shopper learned during the time after the death of my father in 1968- needed to shop economically, as three of her four children were still living at home. Sure, Jewel and Dominick’s were well shopped, but Eagle (and Butera) offered food cheaper.  

Since I earned an allowance, I decided to buy the King book (it was probable all of 3.95 or 4.95 back then, but I also think Eagle discounted the books maybe 10%). As I’ve mentioned before, the mass market version of The Stand was something like 817 pages (why this memory stays planted in my head, while others don’t, is odd, don’t you think?), which would be the longest book I had ever read since I graduated to novels in middle 1970’s – I do remember reading Jaws and some of the Bantam Star Trek novels that came out then –mostly because I wanted to emulate my older brother. So that would have been around 1975 and making me about 12 then; not sure I understood some the whole meanings of those books.  

I remember loving that book, and have since then read it a few more times and at least twice when King released the expanded version in 1990. But after I read The Stand, I went back and got ‘Salem’s Lot, which I read next and then The Shining –which I wanted to finish before the movie version came out at Christmas 1980 (which was and still is a huge disappointment for me. Still, just recently, I was reading an article on Kubrick's film version and got a better understanding of why he did what he did by deviating from the novel so much). Funny part, it was well a year or two later before I got around to King’s first book, Carrie

So why did I pick-up The Shining thirty-two years later and re-read it again? I’ll admit part of the reason is that King will be releasing a sequel this January. I wanted to re-familiarize myself with the Torrnace family, even though I still remember the basic structure of the book.  And part of me is curious if the forth coming Doctor Sleep will revisit some of the hopes and dreams his mother Wendy had for Danny 35 years ago when The Shining hit the bookstores. 

I mean, when King and Peter Straub released Black House in 2001, which was the sequel to their 1984 novel The Talisman, it was designed to be very stand-alone-ish. The readers of Black House did not have to read the first book to understand the sequel –even though, in many ways, Black House seemed more of a continuation of his King's own Dark Tower series (events in that book effected the later series).

I still think The Shining represented some the clearest understand of psychology of terror that King became enamored with during that period – much like ‘Salem’s Lot and The Stand, were as well. It’s some of his best writing he did before the 1980’s where alcoholism and drugs tempered his abilities. Yes, he’s a pop-fiction writer, but he knows pacing, has a way with words and languages and understands the human condition better than most writers of the last 40 years. 

Long before I finished this book, I began to wonder who King would bring back for Doctor Sleep. The novel is set 35 years later, meaning Danny is 41. His mom Wendy could be, theoretically, still alive. Dick Hallorann could be too. He’s 61 in The Shining, so he would be 96 in this sequel. I wonder, like Paul Edgecombe in King’s The Green Mile (who got something from John Coffee), can people with this shining live longer? But it’s possible that Dick is long dead, and so, maybe his mother.

The plot, however, may seem to indicate that Dan is all alone:

The sequel has Dan Torrance as a middle-aged man who drifted for decades in an attempt to escape his father's legacy, and who has eventually settled in a New Hampshire town, working in a nursing home, where his remnant mental abilities provide comfort to the dying. With the aid of a cat that can foresee the future, Dan becomes "Doctor Sleep." But he encountered Abra Stone, who has the shining even more powerful than Dan’s, he must protect her from the vampire-like people known as The True Knot.