Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Sweet Sainted Mother of Elzie Segar!

Thanks, Cartoon Brew, for the full tank of high-octane nightmare fuel!

Check out the full-size edition of this vintage photo, taken at the premiere of "Hellzapoppin'." If you dare! (It gets bonus points for the gentleman in blackface, standing to the left of Wimpy.)

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Stoppard Must Go On

In a New York Times article about theatrical interruptions and mishaps, Ethan Hawke and Martha Plimpton discuss what it was like to see Richard Easton collapse during the second preview.

Meanwhile, "Coast of Utopia" director Jack O'Brien has moved on to a trilogy by Puccini.

Stoppard's translation of "Heroes" has opened in Los Angeles with Len Cariou, Richard Benjamin and George Segal, but the first review is not positive.

The Salisbury Playhouse is performing "Indian Ink."

Blackburn and the Re-Titled Post

When I was mentally composing this entry last weekend, before 32 innocents were destroyed in an orgy of bloodshed and madness, I planned to title it “My Favorite Serial Killer.” Gosh, that doesn’t seem like such a clever idea any more.

But I still want to point people to the re-issue of one of the best books I’ve ever read about murder and violence in America, Bradley Denton’s remarkable “Blackburn.” It’s a serial killer book like no other: horrifying and hilarious and heartbreaking and spookily perceptive. It ranks beside Thomas Harris’s “Red Dragon” and Peter Straub’s “The Throat” as a thriller that moves beyond its need to thrill and becomes a genuine work of art.

Too many movies and books, from David Fincher’s excellent “Se7en” to James Patterson’s horrible potboilers, depict serial killers as evil geniuses, planting arcane clues while driven by psychosexual compulsions that only the most brilliant minds in forensic science can hope to unravel. And that’s a crock. Most real-life serial murderers and spree killers are pathetic, not charismatic, Ted Bundy notwithstanding. They’re sucking voids of terrible need, so fixated on their selfish concerns that they barely realize the outside world exists. Finding the mental focus to do the Monday New York Times crossword puzzle would be a challenge to most.

Denton's Jimmy Blackburn is smart, but he's no genius. He's been damaged by the world, and he's done a lot of damage on his own. What makes him worth reading about is his belief in how the world should work and his frustration at how it doesn't work that way. As with Harris's Francis Dolarhyde or Straub's Fee Bandolier, he's a character worthy of our empathy, despite the inexcusability of his actions.

To help promote the new edition of his novel, Denton has posted three Blackburn stories: "Blackburn's Lady," "Blackburn Bakes Cookies" and "Blackburn and the Blade." I recommend them all, though I have some reservations about the last one. (It contains explicit supernatural elements, and, in my opinion, Blackburn and the occult shouldn't mix.) I also recommend that you read the novel first and the stories later.

Maybe nobody’s in the mood for “Blackburn” right now, and that’s completely understandable. But it's a book that shouldn't be ignored. It tells the truth, even if we don't want to hear it.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

No Ho Zone

This is the first Imus-related cartoon that has made me laugh out loud. Don Asmussen is a frickin' genius. Find the full strip here.

Speaking of pale people adopting hip-hop vernacular, here's a snippet from the acknowledgments page of the ARC for Michael Marshall's forthcoming thriller "The Intruders": Mad props as always to my ho, Paula, and to the shortie, N8. Y'all be clutch.

Wonder if that'll be changed in the final edition...

Your Own Private "Utopia"

Interested in a private concert reading of "The Coast of Utopia" for you and 89 of your closest friends? You might win one if you attend the Shotgun Players Annual Silent Auction Fundraiser on June 9.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

The Stoppard/"Lost" Connection

For the subset of "Coast of Utopia" fans who also regularly follow ABC Television's "Lost," the identity of the mysterious, one-eyed Russian "Other" must have set off mental klaxons of recognition. He's Mikhail Bakunin, whose namesake can only be the anarchist philosopher in Stoppard's epic.

Over at the Powell's Books Blog, J. Wood, author of "Living Lost," provides some interesting details about and possible connections between the two Bakuni.

My 310th Chronicle Piece

In looking for the Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. interview I posted that week, I explored The Chronicle's database of published articles and discovered that, since March 29, 1987, I've contributed 310 articles, most of them book reviews. Yow.

So, I've been doing this for a little over 20 years now. In the early days, many of those reviews were for single books. Given the paucity of space, I now rarely do any stand-alones, instead covering three or four books at a time. Estimating conservatively, I've probably read 600-700 books for The Chronicle.

My latest review covers new books by Guy Gavriel Kaye, Jon Armstrong and Mike Carey and John Bolton.

Let's see if I've got another 310 reviews in me.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut Is Dead. So It Goes.

I can’t remember which Vonnegut novel I read first. It might have been “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater.” I know I read “Slapstick” on my own in high school and “Breakfast of Champions” as part of a senior-year English assignment. (Given how some local educators are currently freaking out about “Kaffir Boy,” I can’t imagine how the school authorities ever allowed “BoC” on the reading list. But it was the Seventies…) I read “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “Mother Night” and “Cat’s Cradle” in college or soon after. With the exception of “Slapstick,” which really is a terrible novel, I enjoyed them all.

I think Vonnegut’s black humor appeals to readers on the cusp of adulthood because it confirms their growing suspicions that life is absurd. They tend to regard their ability to perceive it as such as a hallmark of sophistication and intelligence. I know I did.

When you read Vonnegut later in life, after you have some experience under your belt, you still see and appreciate the absurd humor, but now it’s tempered by anger and regret and a longing for a universe that makes some kind of sense. “Slaughterhouse-Five” was still funny when I read it again at age 44, but this time it was heartbreaking, too.

In most of his novels, Vonnegut’s narrative strategy is unusual. He has no interest in conventional suspense. He tells you the beginning and the ending of his story, then fills in the middle. It’s a difficult trick, but he usually pulls it off.

We all have stories. In a sense, we all know how they’re going to end. As with Vonnegut, it’s how you fill in the middle that matters.


Here’s an interview with Vonnegut I conducted for The Chronicle back in 1990. It’s not bad, especially considering how punchy I was from sleep deprivation following the birth of my daughter a few weeks prior:

In conversation, Kurt Vonnegut sounds and looks pretty much as one would expect from reading his fiction.

Bushy-haired and spaniel-eyed, the author of "Slaughterhouse Five" sits at a conference table at The Chronicle, appearing weary but agreeable. He speaks softly, punctuating his sentences by tapping his glasses against the tabletop. You can never tell what might set off a wheezy bark of laughter.

The subject at hand is his new novel, "Hocus Pocus" (G.P. Putnam's Sons, 302 pages, $21.95), the digressive defense of Eugene Debs Hartke, a Vietnam-era public relations officer-turned-physics teacher and reading instructor. Soon to stand trial for leading a bloody prison break, Hartke reflects on the forces that turned him into a "genius of lethal hocus pocus."

The book is a sharp-toothed satire of American life and values, casting a jaundiced eye on war, education, race relations and Japan's influence on the U.S. economy. Recounted in Vonnegut's patented mix of unadorned prose and absurd humor, it's the kind of writing that's a lot more difficult to achieve than it looks.

"I got about two-thirds of the way through it when I said, "No, this is wrong. This isn't working,' " Vonnegut says. "It upset my publisher a lot, but I started all over again."

Vonnegut claims there are two kinds of writers, swoopers and bashers. Swoopers push their way through the first draft and then go back to fix things. Bashers like himself, however, "get page one right, then page two right, and so on . . . It's painful. It's not a comfortable way to make a living."

While other Vonnegut books have come under fire from self-appointed censors, "Hocus Pocus" contains not a single dirty word. Vonnegut claims that the squeaky-clean language ensures that readers won't miss his more important social observations.

"I think a lot of justified political protest in the '60s was ignored because it was coupled with obscenity. Although it'll probably happen anyway, I don't want someone to throw my book away because of offensive language. But it's also a playful joke. Here I am, nearly at the end of my career, and it's fun to leave out all the dirty words."

Set at the dawn of the next century, "Hocus Pocus" refers a number of times to Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey." Vonnegut says he is mocking the film's optimistic view of life in the future. "It's more hocus pocus. Naive people have been led to believe that just as we came to the New World, next we're going to take advantage of all these other great real estate opportunities in space. We're not going anywhere, ever. Not in this form."

Asked whether there is any subject he would never dare satirize, the man who has managed to find humor in war, mental illness and nuclear holocaust nods gravely. "What happens to children," he says. "In "The Brothers Karamazov,' Ivan collects newspaper clippings about the abuse of children. That's why he hates God, and that's why I hate God. The saintly Alyoscha kisses his brother Ivan, and that's Dostoyevski's answer to the problem." Vonnegut chuckles sardonically. "Not for me. I'm still pissed off. I just can't bear what happens to children."

Vonnegut's sense of encroaching doom made him give up public speaking for a time. At the behest of his publisher, though, he is now accepting a limited number of engagements. "You hate to tell young people about the state of the Earth," he says. "They're going to have to lead their lives, and optimism would be useful to them." Judging by its title, his upcoming collection of speeches, "Fates Worse Than Death," won't be brimming with sweetness and light, either.

Asked to grade "Hocus Pocus" on the report card he created in "Palm Sunday," his 1981 collection of autobiographical essays, Vonnegut says emphatically, "An A. Particularly in view of my age. It's a pretty good book for a 67-year-old. Male writers are customarily dead or at least burned out by 55. So I consider myself lucky to still be writing."

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Seven Lessons Learned during a Midwestern Spring Break

1. When you check into the Country Inn in Northfield, Minnesota, the clerk will neglect to inform you that the train tracks run directly behind your suite and that you will be awakened at least four times in the night by the piercing shriek of a locomotive whistle.

2. Despite the presence of bumper cars and an indoor log flume ride, the Mall of America isn’t all that much fun; rather, it is exhausting, depressing and more than a little scary. I’m only glad that the connection between “Peanuts” and the amusement park has been severed. I could not have handled being accosted by someone in a seven-foot-tall Woodstock costume. (And why have they chosen to depict Paul Bunyan as the Brawny Paper Towel Dude?)

3. Minneapolis has a really cool museum devoted to the history of milling, usually not a topic that inspires great enthusiasm in jaded urban sophisticates such as myself. We learned about the Great Flour Dust Explosion of 1878, another of those undeniably-tragic-yet-somehow-laughably-ludicrous disasters like Boston’s Great Molasses Flood.

4. It is apparently impossible to get a decent breakfast in Springfield, Illinois. We looked high and low and honestly couldn’t find anything better than the Best Western’s continental breakfast (individual boxes of Froot Loops, high trans-fat pastries), served in the lobby in front of a TV tuned to Fox News.

5. The city’s Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum is awesome, though.

6. Richard Stark’s Parker novels are the Platonic Ideal of vacation reads. This time I carried “The Seventh,” a.k.a. “The Split,” with me. I also read Matt Ruff’s “Bad Monkeys” on the plane out. (Still making up my mind about that one.)

7. If you’re browsing in Subterranean Books in St. Louis and spot someone who looks exactly like editor and short-story writer Kelly Link, you should say hello, because it’s probably her.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Stoppard and Politics

Stoppard was one of 10 European literary heavyweights who signed a letter urging action by the EU to end the genocide in Darfur. The Mail & Guardian has a good article about how Bob Geldof worked to shape the letter and achieve consensus among the likes of Harold Pinter, Vaclav Havel, Gunter Grass and Umberto Eco. (Stoppard reportedly objected to one phrase as "otiose.")

Stoppard also met with Havel and other key dissidents from Czechoslovakia's Charter 77 protest movement to discuss its legacy.

Meanwhile, Carlin Romano in the Philadelphia Inquirer examines Russian intellectuals past and present through the lens of "The Coast of Utopia."