Quickie Review: THE EYES OF THE CAT

The Eyes of the CatThe Eyes of the Cat by Alexandro Jodorowsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pure impulse buy at my local comics shop. I’ve been on a Jodorowsky kick lately (I’m working my way through his films and have already read The Incal and some of The Metabarons) so this shouldn’t surprise anyone.

The first graphic novel collaboration between Jodo and Mœbius gives us twenty-four full page illustrations with minimal dialogue, as part of Jodo’s attempt to do something unconventional while trying to subvert commercial constraints. (He says as much in his introduction to this 2013 edition.) While the story is short enough to warrant grumblings about the collection being overpriced, it has everything you’d expect from any Jodorowsky/Mœbius tale in Métal Hurlant magazine: surrealistic sci-fi illustrated by a master. On top of that… again, we’re talking about full page Mœbius here, so while the collection could’ve (should’ve?) been cheaper, I was happy to pay what I paid.

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Quickie Review: EL TOPO

I have a theory that there aren’t enough trigger warnings in the world when it comes to describing classic cult Mouvement panique films. But in the case of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s legendary 1970 “acid Western” El Topo, let’s try.

For anyone who intends to watch this film, then TW: depictions and descriptions of extreme violence, rape, genital mutilation, incest, child abuse, ableism, sexism, racism, some trans… eh, fuck it, I give.

No, this isn’t a go at trigger warnings. It’s an acknowledgement that this is a film made at a time and place where ideas such as, say, using part of your film budget to make fake dead animals when you could just go kill some real ones were considered ludicrous–oh, which reminds me, TW: animal cruelty.

El Topo is precisely the kind of art that causes critics of all kinds to have to choose sides: Is the film easily dismissed for its depictions of sacrilegious, violent, depraved, misogynistic, and generally unsavory behavior, or is it an artist’s expression, whose license allows, even demands the right to strategically depict sacrilege, violence, depravity, misogyny, etc. to be utilized as tools? Either way, the promise of this movie has been fulfilled–I have been thoroughly mind-fucked. I can only imagine what it would’ve been like to have seen it during its heyday as the “first midnight movie.”

When you consider the world and the characters Jodorowsky created for El Topo, from the surrealistic representations of spiritual seekers and gurus as gunfighters, to the graphic (and I mean extremely graphic) metaphors about both the noble and depraved state of men, women, society, organized religion–might as well just say, “the whole world”–and then consider the questions the film puts forth about problems of mindfully attempting to navigate this condition in a spiritual manner… well, that’s the mind-fuck.

Interesting note: I’m not going to say Jodo had any influence on Bruce Lee of all people (although it’s a line of thought worth pursuing one day, given that Jodo’s work really did influence a LOT, cf. Jodorowsky’s Dune), but Jodo shows a progression to enlightenment similar to the progression Bruce Lee outlined at the end of his unfinished film The Game of Death, expressed as the need to symbolically defeat representations of old belief systems. (Except, where gunfighting is merely the symbol Jodo uses, Lee attempts to show the close integration of the martial and the spiritual.)

Anyway, did the character of El Topo manage to navigate his path and achieve enlightenment? All I can say is this: at first, I thought this movie was about a particular man’s search for spirituality gone horribly wrong. Instead, it’s about man who, with conviction, devotion, dumb luck, by hook and by crook, actually does manage a measure of enlightenment. His response to that enlightenment is horrific… but utterly and completely understandable.

Mind. Fucked.

Quickie Review: STORIES FOR NIGHTTIME AND SOME FOR THE DAY

Stories for Nighttime and Some for the DayStories for Nighttime and Some for the Day by Ben Loory
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s no way a reader and writer like me was going to pass up a story collection from someone whose work appears in The New Yorker, The Antioch Review, decomP, Monkeybicycle, PANK, et al., and whose book is blurbed by Ray Bradbury and Gary K. Wolfe!

I get the accusations about the book being “gimmicky”. I get that some readers require characters to have things like names other than The Man, The Woman, or The Octopus. I get that the structure of these stories can seem repetitive. While the language, characterization, and descriptions of setting are stripped-down, it’s done so strategically. There’s still enough sense of character and place for relatively whole stories. Stories that are as instructive as any fable, complete with a moral–but which are as subject to interpretation as any myth.

When a story ends, so endeth the lesson. And while the lessons might not be profound necessarily, I think that’s the point. The lessons are truths we (should) all know. What’s profound is how Loory illustrates these truths with a mix of the real and unreal. Loory deftly places his character and the reader in all sorts of fantastic worlds. And what they find there is what we find here: the Kabat-Zinn truism of, “Wherever you go, there you are.”

I know some writers and critics in speculative fiction for whom this would absolutely stick in their craw. And some of those folks intersect with those I know who don’t much enjoy short stories, let alone short-short fiction. They tend not to be people I drink with, anyway.

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Quickie Review: NOW: CHICAGO XXXVI

Now: Chicago XXXVI is probably as cohesive as you can expect an album recorded piecemeal on the road in hotel rooms and backstage green rooms can be. It’s a musical experiment with interesting results. Ultimately, it’s the kind of album that happens when you let the members of the band be themselves, instead of playing assigned roles. Cool things happen when you don’t force Jason Scheff to sing like Peter Cetera, or Lou Pardini like Bill Champlin. Or when Keith Howland and Tris Imboden don’t have to play like Terry Kath and Danny Seraphine.

They’ve actually tried the “be yourself” approach in fits and starts over the decades since the original lineup suffered the loss of guitarist Terry Kath. In that way, this record reminds me a lot of Hot Streets and Chicago 13–and no, that’s not a slam!! Sure, if you bought those albums in the late ’70s expecting Terry Kath, then Donnie Dacus was inevitably going to disappoint you. But if you listened with your nostalgia-brain instead of your ears, you wouldn’t have heard the (okay fine, the admittedly few) hidden gems in those albums.  Hey, I get it. I wanted to shout, “Blasphemer!” the first time I heard “Look Away” done without Bill Champlin, but I learned to live with it, but I didn’t want to quickly came around.

You can read the historical context of those two albums elsewhere. Suffice it to say that, better or worse, those albums were where Chicago was in the “Now” 1978 and 1979. A new guitarist and a different producer with different musical backgrounds and styles that had to be absorbed by the band. Problem was, they conflated their “Now” with whatever they hoped might keep them relevant and on the radio–which weren’t necessarily the same thing. But who could blame them?

The difference with Now: Chicago XXXVI is that it doesn’t feel like Chicago is cramming everyone’s style into a mold using a screwdriver and a plumber’s helper. Of course, it helps that the individual band members (along with Hank Linderman) were “supervising producers” for different tracks–guys with, collectively (especially with the two most recent additions Lou Pardini and Walfredo Reyes, Jr.), at least as much experience in the recording industry now as Phil Ramone had in ’78 and ’79. But this time, the album clearly embraces everyone in the band, and you can hear the difference. It end product really sounds like work from the sort of “musical collective” Chicago always touted themselves as being.

Instead of simultaneously trying to please the jazz-rock/oldies crowd while playing disco-, synth-, or country-pop, or whatever the hell “the kids” are into this decade, you’re going to hear musicians show you decades of writing and playing chops. And so you’ll recognize some of the old Chicago horn vocabulary, but you’ll hear new phrasings, too. You’ll be reminded of those old segues in non-4/4 time signatures and maybe a bit of a multi-part suite, but no 14-minute jazz/rock jams (although I’d buy a whole Chicago album of just that). You’ll hear a ballad, but no “You’re the Inspiration” knock-offs. You’ll hear different musical styles blended together, from hard rock to bossa, and a couple of spots with a tasteful hint of dubstep. Because a lot has gone on in music between 1969 and 2014, and they know all about it.

What you definitely won’t hear is the ghost of Terry Kath or the ghosts of “…the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties, and Today”.  You will hear guys who lived and learned their way through all of that, musically, and they’re going to tell you all about it.

You know, I almost wish they put the live version of their classic “Introduction” (a bonus download track) at the front of the album. It would’ve been as appropriate a setup for this album as it was for Chicago Transit Authority.  Because I was definitely put through the changes. Might’ve cared more for some than others, but the more I listen, the more I don’t feel this is an album of old guys out to show you young tone-deaf idiots with your Garage Band app how it’s really done. Or, if that is the intention, that’s just not my takeaway. The songs do strike me different. I do feel moved.
Okay, so maybe this review wasn’t so quick. Sorry.  Might as well go song by song at this point…

  • “Now” might be my favorite song. Clearly, Earth, Wind & Fire rubbed off on them during those tours.
  • “More Will Be Revealed” is a straightforward Robert Lamm joint, almost sounds like something from that album he did with Gerry Beckley and Carl Wilson.
  • “America” reminds me of Chicago XIV (as does like the cover). Okay, maybe that is a (loving, little bit of a) slam. I’m surprised they passed up a chance slip in the line “We can make it better.” Not quite the best of this bunch, IMO. I give it a pass, because 1) I do like America and 2) it was one of the first efforts of this experiment.
  • “Crazy Happy” is a nice rock/trip hop mash-up. Modern, without sounding forced. 
  • “Free at Last” has shades of the Howland/Imboden Projectfinally!  And, I love the mini-movements throughout the song.  It’s the closest to classic jazz-rock Chicago without sounding at all dated. Probably my favorite track.
  • “Love Lives On” is the only real ballad on the whole album, and where Jason Scheff shines as he sings in a much wider vocal range than I’ve ever heard him do on a Chicago album.
  • “Something’s Coming I Know” is co-written by Gerry Beckley and Robert Lamm. I could just stop right there; that should be enough. The best horn parts are here, too.
  • “Watching All the Colors” sounds like pretty standard bossa fare that left me feeling a little meh.
  • “Nice Girl” — Keith Howland on vocals, singing in his range and not trying to squeeze out “Old Days.” What a concept! I could take or leave the lyrics, but the playing is top notch. Didn’t care for the ending, though. 
  • “Naked in the Garden of Allah” — if this and “America” were meant to be callbacks to Chicago V, then this succeeded way more than the latter.
  • The title “Another Trippy Day” made me think two things: First, “What, not …in New York City?” and second,  “Oh, god, here comes the cheese… they saved it for the last track.” I was wrong. Well, mostly. 
I have one nit to pick, though: The downloadable lyric book could really use another run with the spell/grammar check.
Now to find out if my mp3 purchase qualifies me to be entered to win a trumpet signed by Lee Loughnane.  I would play the fuck out of that axe!

Quickie Review: THE MEMORY GARDEN

The Memory GardenThe Memory Garden by M. Rickert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review is probably biased. I’ve been a fan of Rickert’s writing for almost a decade. As far as I know, I’ve read her entire published oeuvre, and have gone on record talking about how much I love it. I even had the pleasure of telling her face to face a few weeks ago!

A lot of Rickert’s shorter work is often populated by the walking wounded. Characters who are often terribly aware of whatever darkness (some kind of guilt, trauma, tragedy, maybe some secret) pervades their lives. It often isolates them, as those who might share that grief–well-meaning lovers, family, community–move on. And while sometimes (not every time) I’m left with a sense of a character’s transformation, of some tiny newfound strength or hope in the future, I would fear what tomorrow could bring them.

The difference in Rickert’s debut novel The Memory Garden, is that Nan and her friends Mavis and Ruthie made it through to the other side of their darkness. They lived past a shared tragedy some sixty years into old age. Not unscathed, of course. The damage to their lives is done, and they drift apart. But one way or the other and with varying degrees of success, they each soldiered on to eventually move into and through their own individual guilts and traumas–and occasional blessings, too. Nan was given the care of Bay, an unexpected, maybe even undeserved miracle. And Nan chooses to raise Bay, even if it meant doing so in the shadows of everything that came before. Even if it meant more secrets.

It’s the sort of situation one falls into once life becomes about more than survival.

The Memory Garden‘s peculiar cast of characters gathered under even more peculiar circumstances shows us what any of Rickert’s short story characters’ lives might be like sixty years after a given tale, about a time when the past will, despite whatever life you might have lived in the interim and whatever you’ve done to put distance between you and it, demand to be reckoned with. And this is, at least as far as my memory of Rickert’s other work goes, fresh ground.

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Quickie Review: THE INCAL

The IncalThe Incal by Alejandro Jodorowsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ll be honest, I finally got around to reading this classic only after having seen Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune. I’d heard of Jodo and his El Topo, and you can’t be any kind of comics fan without having at least heard the name Mœbius. Still, I came late to this particular party.

It’s absolutely true what people have said–you can literally pick out the bits that have been used in any number of sci-fi films over the past 30 years. I’d never read The Incal, but every one of Mœbius’s meticulously drawn panels seemed familiar. Jodo’s writing didn’t disappoint either–it’s a good example of a writer weaving his beliefs into a story while avoiding, IMO, turning the work into a tract.

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Quickie Review: JAGANNATH

JagannathJagannath by Karin Tidbeck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This review is technically incomplete. I finished this book back in September (’13) but didn’t write about it until now (January of ’14). I felt I couldn’t write about it because I didn’t (and still haven’t) rated the story “Some Letters for Ove Lindström.” (I’m still too close to the subject matter of that story.)

I know almost nothing about the Swedish/Scandinavian myths and didn’t think I necessarily had to in order to see the heart of these stories. Nor could I tell which stories were translated and which were written in English. It’s testament to Tidbeck’s writing, I think.

The collection started strongly and ended with a bang. The stories that didn’t move me were generally the ones where Tidbeck revisits certain themes without, at least as far as I could tell, adding anything new. Those aside, the ones that did move me are positively gut-wrenching.

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Coca-Cola Comic Book Orgy, or Quickie Review: HORSE OF A DIFFERENT COLOR

Horse of a Different Color: StoriesHorse of a Different Color: Stories by Howard Waldrop
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

5 out of 5, with the caveat that I cannot be objective about this collection. Howard Waldrop is one of the few writers whose work I’ll buy the day it comes out, unseen and unreviewed.

If all Waldrop does is cleverly hide all sorts of historic/pop culture Easter eggs into most of his stories with barely any telegraphing, it would be a feat. Indeed, it’s a point of pride for me when I catch them. I immediately recognized bits of the Bird Man of Alcatraz in the story of the “Wolf-Man” of the same. But, here’s Waldrop’s trick: as always, there are moments I fail to spot the references, and it doesn’t affect my enjoyment of the stories one bit!

More importantly (to me at least), Waldrop’s characters almost always convey some sort of bittersweet piece of truth or wisdom that can only be gained from going around the proverbial block a time or two.

I did let a sliver of objectivity creep into my reading, but I won’t mention it here (you can find it in my story-by-story comments on the actual goodreads review page). It’s more of a technical quibble, anyway. Whatever.

Also, “Coca Cola comic book orgy” is now my favorite Waldrop line. If I had a band, I’d ask his permission to use it as a name.

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Quickie Review: North American Lake Monsters

North American Lake Monsters: StoriesNorth American Lake Monsters: Stories by Nathan Ballingrud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Plain and simple, if this collection doesn’t win the Shirley Jackson Award or the World Fantasy Award for 2013, there really is no f**ing justice in the world.

I hung on every word in this collection. I was enthralled by every story, something I haven’t felt since reading M. Rickert’s Map of Dreams. Ballingrud takes some rather standard horror tropes and gives the readers more palpable and disturbing reasons to fear them. In a lot of stories, the horror/speculative element serves as a possible pathway that can be chosen by a given character. What’s disturbing is that often times that pathway represents a viable, sometimes even a preferred, life option.

I found myself giving each story a 5* rating. But that isn’t to say the collection didn’t have it its… well, I’m so reluctant to say “flaws.” That’s much too strong a word, in my opinion. Let’s say, “Things that took me out of the story for a micro-second, of which I took note before re-submerging myself back into it.” There were two.

In the cover blurb, Maureen McHugh calls the collection “Raymond Carver territory.” There’s definitely a “K-Mart Magical Realism” thing going on here. The opening scene in “The Good Husband” would’ve made me think of “So Much Water So Close to Home” even if Carver wasn’t referenced in the blurb. One of the tiny, tiny problems I had, though, was being so effectively grounded in each main character’s POV–very Carver-esque characters–that I couldn’t help but notice when these characters, as they’re written, would think in un-Carver-esque terms. A construction worker seeing something “in a rictus of pain.” An ex-con encountering something “soporific.” A homeless man smelling “the ripe, deliquescent odor of river water.” (Maybe it’s more accurate to substitute “Raymond Carver” for “Gordon Lish,” but that’s another debate altogether.)

The other matter depends on how cynical a reader one is. What I might, and in fact DO, interpret as this collection being an examination of a singular theme from multiple angles might be interpreted by another reader as “the same story over and over again.”

I feel like I’ve given too much time to these issues relative to the actual impact on my reading experience. But it’s important to note that even despite them, the quality of the stories is such that I unreservedly give this collection a 5* rating.

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