Sunday, January 23, 2011

Warren Zevon Should Be 64 Today, Goddamn It

Note: Warren Zevon's date of birth was 1/24/47. This post went up a day early. Stupid typing fingers. Carry on.

I'm not a big fan of Judd Apatow, and I'm no fan at all of Adam Sandler, but there's a moment in their movie "Funny People" that really moved me. It's when Ira Wright, played by Seth Rogen, is flipping through an iTunes playlist he's made for dissipated comedian George Simmons, played by Sandler. At this point of the movie, George believes he's terminally ill. The two are bantering back and forth, joking about the inappropriateness of Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" and a selection from "Dirty Dancing."

Then Warren Zevon's "Keep Me in Your Heart" comes up. And suddenly, nothing's funny any more, not in the face of that beautiful song written while Zevon was dying from mesothelioma, a kind of lung cancer he believed might have come from playing among the carpet remnants in his father's store when he was a child.

With no dialogue, Rogen and Sandler play the moment perfectly. Faced with Zevon's croaky baritone and poignant lyrics, they're overwhelmed by the song's urgency and with just a few glances convey how it cuts too close to the bone.

OK, boys, now you've got my respect.

I don't think there's a late 20th-century American rock singer/songwriter who speaks to me as deeply as Warren Zevon. He lived hard, screwed up, made a comeback, died too young and was always underrated. I've written about him before,  and I don't intend to get all "I bought 'Bad Luck Streak in Dancing School' on vinyl, man!" today.

But if you're unfamiliar with the man's work or know him only from the fun-but-overplayed "Werewolves of London," there's a huge catalogue of great songs by him, just waiting for your discovery. If you're a long-time fan, you know exactly what I'm talking about.

Either way, check out some of the clips below.

Excitable Boy

Lawyers, Guns & Money

 Part #1 of Zevon's Last Appearance on Letterman

My Shit's Fucked Up

Keep Me in Your Heart

Friday, January 21, 2011

Books You Oughta Read -- "Set This House in Order"

I'm a sucker for a good story about multiple personality disorder. Or, as I've learned that it's now called, dissociative identity disorder.

The best non-fiction account on the subject that I've read is "When Rabbit Howls," by Truddi Chase and the Troops. The best depiction of the disorder in a comic book has to be in Grant Morrison's "Doom Patrol" (whose super-heroine with MPD, Crazy Jane, really kindled my interest in the topic).

The best novel I've read about MPD/DID has to be "Set This House in Order: A Romance of Souls," published by Matt Ruff in 2003. It's a marvelously constructed book: smart, heartfelt and full of surprises.

"Born" only two years before the story begins, Andy Gage is the alternate personality that deals with the outside world, with more than 100 other souls hidden away in the imaginary house he's constructed within his head. Through his workplace, he meets Penny Driver, another multiple, one who doesn't quite suspect that she has any alternate personalities. When some of her souls ask Andy for help, he finds himself vulnerable to his own long-suppressed secrets, ones that threaten to destroy the safe interior landscape he's built for himself.

It's hard to write about something as complicated and as emotionally fraught as DID, which usually has its origins in horrific childhood abuse. But Ruff manages to suggest the impact of Andy's and Penny's backstories without letting them become grotesque and exploitative when finally revealed. The novel's subtitle marks, I think, an important distinction. "Set This House in Order" is ultimately a hopeful book, one that overrides the seeming outlandishness of its premise and reveals something true about identity and love.

Ruff, by the way, is also the author of "Bad Monkeys," another twisty tale of identity, which I reviewed favorably in my Chronicle column back in 2007. If you haven't yet discovered him, you're missing out.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Review -- "Mr. Toppit" by Charles Elton

I have a soft spot for novels about adult children who have been screwed up by the artistic legacies of their famous fathers. Jonathan Carroll's "The Land of Laughs" is one of the best of that bunch, and I'm now enjoying "The Unwritten," the Vertigo Comics series written by Mike Carey.

So when I saw "Mr. Toppit" by Charles Elton, I figured it would be right up my alley. And it is, mostly. Although I can't recommend it without reservation, this first  novel does have its charms.

When semi-successful children's author Arthur Hayman is run over by a cement truck on a London street, the first person to offer him comfort is Laurie Clow, an awkward American tourist on a break from all the domestic drama back home. Before Arthur's family -- wife Martha and offspring Rachel and Luke -- have a chance to convene at the hospital or to even learn that Arthur has, in fact, passed away, Laurie has begun taking control of Hayman's posthumous career.

Largely through Laurie's manipulations, "The Hayseed Chronicles" become a multimedia phenomenon, inspiring new illustrated editions and a BBC miniseries. Of the Haymans, it is unstable Rachel who most enjoys the spotlight, while irritable Martha retreats from it completely. Luke, who shares his first name with the series' young protagonist, can most clearly see celebrity's alluring double edge.

Elton, a former literary agent, worked for the estate of A.A. Milne and knew well the story of Christopher Robin Milne, perhaps the ultimate ambivalent literary inspiration, who eventually grew tired of answering questions about Winnie the Pooh and that damned 100-Acre Wood. In Luke Hayman, Elton captures what it might feel like to be famous for nothing more than being the apparent namesake of a character beloved by children worldwide.

Unlike "The Land of Laughs" or "The Unwritten," there is no supernatural aspect to "Mr. Toppit." The eponymous character is a shadowy figure who haunts "The Hayseed Chronicles" without appearing until the last page of the fifth, final volume. And "Mr. Toppit" itself feels incomplete, somehow lacking the narrative cohesion that would make it succeed completely. Elton creates interesting characters and writes individual scenes with a sure hand, but "Mr. Toppit" ultimately measures as a near-miss.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Late to the Party -- 5 Neat Things I Only Recently Discovered

One problem of being a critic is that you can lose sight of interesting material that doesn't conform exactly to your expectations. There's so much stuff out there that it's often impossible to keep track of books, comics, movies or TV shows that are not right in front of you but that you would really enjoy if someone would simply push you in the right direction..

The folks at the AV Club offered their own take on this dilemma a little while ago, but I have my own selections and undoubtedly thought for this article idea first. Ahem..

The Umbrella Academy
I would normally be wary of any comic created and written by a rock star, since most such books would reek of "vanity project." But "The Umbrella Academy" by My Chemical Romance member Gerard Way, with art by Gabriel Ba and covers by James Jean, is actually pretty great.

Imagine the X-Men crossed with the Doom Patrol, add you've got some idea of what the Umbrella Academy is all about. There's time-travel, an approaching apocalypse, hit-men who dress as cartoon characters and a disbanded group of superheroes with a lot of excess emotional baggage. "The Umbrella Academy" has the weird whimsy of Grant Morrison at his most accessible but manages to remain true to its own hinky vision.
So far, there are only two collected volumes, "Apocalypse Suite" and "Dallas," though a third arc, "Hotel Oblivion," has been announced. I hope it comes to fruition soon.

I've grown tired of bad-ass bald guys in Vertigo books, but the shaven-headed protagonist of Jason Aaron's "Scalped"  isn't a retread of Grant Morrison's King Mob or Warren Ellis's Spider Jerusalem.

Dashiell Bad Horse returns to South Dakota and starts working for Chief Lincoln Red Crow, the local crime boss obsessed with opening a new casino that will supposedly improve the lot of every Oglala Lakota on the rez. Turns out, though, that Bad Horse is working for the FBI, and his superiors aren't above blackmailing him into stepping outside the law for their own purposes.

This is American noir of the bleakest sort, and Aaron keeps everything off-balance by continually upping the stakes and revealing new depths to his characters. After a while, it's easy to lose track of who the good guys really are, but that's rather the point.

It's unclear how long Aaron plans to spin this story out, but there are six collections available and seventh due in February. You can read the first issue of the series here.

Hark! A Vagrant!

Kate Beaton's online comics are a marvel, and I can't recommend them highly enough. They're literate and silly, knowing and well constructed. Favorites to sample include "Wonder Woman," "Dude-Watching with the Brontes," The Great Gatsby," "Mystery Solving Teens," and, especially if you're a Bowdoin College grad, "Henson and Peary."

Beaton has started selling to Harper's and The New Yorker, and now she has a book deal with Drawn + Quarterly, which is the best news of the year so far. And don't ignore her Twitter stream, upon which she posts links to sketches that are more personal but just as amusing as her more polished offerings.

Everybody thinks they can do a new twist on Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," but few adaptations add anything really fresh to the endeavor. Watch the cold opening of the 2007 BBC six-episode series written by Stephen Moffat and starring James Nesbitt, though, and I defy you not to want more.

The whole series is clever combination of  conspiracy thriller and horror with a comedic edge. The ending doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but I guess they were hoping for a second series. "Jekyll" is hard to find at your local video store, but it's easily available through Netflix.


Yeah, they're the cute, almost twee, couple in those Holiday Season Hyundai TV ads, but they've been around YouTube for a couple of years now. Good originals, clever covers, joyful videos and Nataly Dawn is freakin' adorable. And they've gathered more than 60,000 book donations for the Richmond School District, so don't be hatin' on them. Their covers of "Mr. Sandman" and "September" are especially good and worth checking out.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Gores Is Gone

I haven't read deeply into the body of work produced by Joe Gores, the Bay Area crime novelist who passed away this week. But I liked the few of his novels I did try. Oddly, I believe only one of them, "Contract Null and Void," was from his signature "Daniel Kearney Associates" (DKA Files) series.

Two stand-alones from the mid-90s have stuck with me, though, both of them clever tales of revenge. "Menaced Assassin" combines murder and paleontology, as a college professor seeks justice for his wife's killing. "Dead Man" also features a bereaved husband, one who rebuilds himself after the death of his wife and children to infiltrate the Mob as an accountant.

Although he won an Edgar for his first novel, "A Time of Predators" and wrote scripts for many detective TV shows, including "Kojak" and "Magnum PI," Gores is probably best known for his association with the quintessential hard-boiled detective, Sam Spade. In the Eighties, Gore wrote, "Hammett," in which the author of "The Glass Key" himself becomes embroiled in murder mystery. In 2009, he was authorized to pen a "prequel" to "The Maltese Falcon," "Spade & Archer."

Gores was a writer who understood the everyday realities of the private detective game but still managed to find deep wells of humor and suspense in it. His clear-eyed vision of the trade will be missed.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Ten Books I'm Looking forward to in 2011

There are always plenty of books out there that I would be happy to read, had I enough time and energy. But a handful of upcoming titles fill me with genuine anticipation, whether I'll have the chance to review them or not.

Started Early, Took My Dog -- Kate Atkinson
I'm already nearly a 100 pages into the latest by "Case Histories" and "When Will We Have Good News?" An impulsive purchase at a mall, the rescue of a small dog and a search for a client's natural parents lead to violence and other unforeseen complications. According to Atkinson, this is likely to be her last Jackson Brodie book for a few years, so enjoy him while you can.

A Drop of the Hard Stuff -- Lawrence Block
Lawrence Block is among the last of the great  crime fiction traditionalists, and he's returning to Matt Scudder after a long hiatus. This new entry in the series jumps back in time to when Scudder was still struggling with his alcoholism. That strategy worked well in "Before the Sacred Gin Mill Closes," so we'll see whether Block can construct another satisfying flashback.

Satori -- Don Winslow
You wouldn't think that Trevanian's "Shibumi" calls out for a follow-up after 30+ years, but Winslow, author of "California Fire and Life"  and "The Death and Life of Bobby Z," has decided to resurrect Nicolai Hel. Will Winslow be able to emulate Trevanian's tongue-in-cheek tone in the midst of all the super-assassin hugger-mugger? I'm certainly intrigued.

The Wise Man's Fear -- Patrick Rothfuss
Rothfuss's "The Name of the Wind" was one of the most intriguing fantasy debuts of the mid-2000s. Fans have been impatiently clamoring for more ever since, and finally a new installment is ready. Middle volumes are notoriously tricky, but Rothfuss managed to sidestep many of the high fantasy pitfalls with his first book, so perhaps he'll be able to beat the sophomore slump.

Flashback -- Dan Simmons
After three big historical novels, Simmons returns to science fiction with a near-future thriller. A new drug allows users to re-live their favorite moments from the past, and one ex-detective strives to break his addiction while investigating a murder. Simmons does "hardboiled" well, and this book might given him a welcome chance to stretch those muscles.

Fuzzy Nation -- John Scalzi
The author of "Zoe's Tale" channels H. Beam Piper, for reasons that aren't quite clear but which will undoubtedly prove amusing. Note: Ewoks and Fuzzies are not related.

Listener -- Warren Ellis
Few details are available about the second novel by the co-creator of "Planetary" and "Transmetropolitan." His first novel, "Crooked Little Vein," didn't quite live up to its promise, but Ellis knows his way around a

Other Kingdoms -- Richard Matheson
Matheson's recent output hasn't matched the standards of his early classics, but I keep hoping that he'll muster some more of the mojo that powered "Hell House" or "I Am Legend." This latest novel is set in England after World War I and involves fairies, witches and the like.

Embassytown -- China Mieville
Mieville is hit and miss for me. I lost patience with "The City and the City" but really enjoyed last summer's "Kraken." "Embassytown" promises more "New Weird" weirdness, so I'm eager to see what Mieville has come up with this time.

iZombie -- Chris Roberson with Michael Allred
I'm done buying monthly pamphlets, but I liked the sample first issue I received of this on-going Vertigo series. Allred's art is always awesome, and I trust Roberson to do something interesting with the overworked "The dead are back!" scenario. The first collection will be available later this spring.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Books You Oughta Read -- The Rat on Fire

When I travel, I often like to take along a book with some connection to my destination. Back in November, I was headed to Boston, so I read "The Rat on Fire" by George V. Higgins while I was shuttling between Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine.
If readers today remember Higgins at all, most know him for his first novel, 1972's "The Friends of Eddie Coyle," and the movie adaptation starring Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle. It's truly a great and game-changing crime novel – grimly honest, bleakly funny and eminently quotable. (My favorite line: "This life is hard, but it's harder if you're stupid.") In contrast to "The Godfather" with its sleek and confident Mafiosi, Eddie Coyle is an unlovable, small-time Irish mope who barely comprehends the forces he's set in motion against himself.
Before he became a novelist, Higgins was an attorney and a journalist. Some critics called "The Friends of Eddie Coyle" an overnight success. Higgins would reply, "That was one hell of a damned long night, lasting seventeen years..." He wrote 14 unpublished novels in those 17 years and eventually destroyed them all.
Dialogue was Higgins' forte, and he wasn't afraid to employ it in huge swathes of rhetoric that run for pages at a time. His 1981 novel "The Rat on Fire" is as good as example of this strategy as any of his books. The book runs a little over 200 pages in paperback, but I'd bet there's not more than 25 pages of descriptive narrative in the whole thing.
Lawyer/talent broker/slumlord Jerry Fein wants to get rid of the buildings he owns, because most of the tenants refuse to pay rent and keep damaging the apartments. The tenants won't pay rent, because the buildings are rotting away and full of rats. The only way to break this impasse might be to hire someone like arsonist Leo Procter, who isn't adverse to setting rodents on fire and sending them up through the walls to spread the flames. What Procter doesn't know is that agents from the attorney general's office have him under surveillance, hoping to catch the fire marshal Procter has been bribing.
Now that we're in the middle of another recession, "The Rat on Fire" seems more relevant than ever. Everyone in it – cops, crooks, politicians – worries that they don't have enough money and is convinced that the System is irredeemably broken. There are no good options anymore, and all you can do is tell stories about how unfair it all is.
Higgins's dialogue is often described as realistic, but it's really not. Nobody, short of Shakespearean actors, spouts the kinds of soliloquies that Higgins constructs. But Higgins knew exactly how Bostonians spoke in the Seventies and Eighties, and there's never a false note in his characters' diction and their references to local customs and landmarks.
 In 1999, Higgins died of a heart attack just short of his 60th birthday, but he managed to publish 27 novels. As a Chronicle reviewer, I have covered only one novel by Higgins, "Sandra Nichols Found Dead." It was a good later work, but not great. But having read "The Rat on Fire," I'm looking forward to going back and discovering more of them.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

2010: Look Back in Peevishness

What did I write in 2010? Not many blog posts, that's for damn sure. As far as book reviews went, I probably contributed one or two fewer to The Chronicle than usual.

Round-ups are supposed to appear every six weeks, but there were some extended gaps, due to a frequent lack of space on the newspaper's part and sometimes a lack of concentration on mine. Here are the titles covered the past year:

January 24 -- Peter Straub's "A Dark Matter"," "Things We Didn't See Coming" by Steven Amsterdam and "Northwest Passages" by Barbara Roden.

March 7 -- Dan Simmons' "Black Hills," "Horns" by Joe Hill, "The Extra" by Michael Shea and Kage Baker's "Not Less Than Gods."

April 25 -- "Expiration Date" By Duane Swierczynski, "Blockade Billy" by Stephen King, "Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror" edited by Ellen Datlow, and "Planetary: Spacetime Archaeology" by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday.

June 27 -- Christopher Farnsworth's "Blood Oath," "I Am Not a Serial Killer" by Dan Wells, "Stories" edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio

August 8 -- "The Loving Dead" by Amelia Beamer, "Kraken" by China Mieville and Matt Kindt's "Revolver."

October 3 -- "Shades of Milk and Honey" by Mary Robinette Kowal, Charles Yu's "How to Survive in a Science Fictional Universe" and "The Fuller Memorandum" by Charles Stross.

December 5 -- "Dreadnought" by Cherie Priest, "The Dead Path" by Stephen M. Irwin and Catherynne M. Valente's "The Habitation of the Blessed."

I summed everything up in a "Best of the Year" column, although I prefer to think of it as a "Notable Books I Happened to Read and Like" list.

I also wrote a handful stand-alone reviews for The Chronicle:

"Known to Evil" by Walter Mosley
"The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest" by Stieg Larsson
"The Passage" by Justin Cronin
"Zero History" by William Gibson
 "Skippy Dies" by Paul Murray

What's up for 2011? I've almost finished reading the next batch of books for my January column, and I've got dibs on a stand-alone for Kate Atkinson's "Started Early, Took My Dog." I'm also going to make more of an effort this year to pitch to other markets. I'll let you know what happens.

Monday, January 03, 2011


Tharn: Stupefied, distraught, hypnotized by fear. But can also, in certain contexts, mean "looking foolish," or again "heartbroken" or "forlorn."Watership Down

Turning 50 didn't just kick my ass. It kicked my ass, hit it with a tire iron, dumped it into the trunk of a Chevy Impala, drove it out to the desert, made it get out and dig its own grave, then pulled a gun, grinned and said, "Hey, just screwin' wit' ya."
Maybe you could have deduced my midlife malaise from the utter lack of entries following my birthday in January. Wait, there was one, a rumination on the death of Kage Baker, one of my favorite writers, who died of a brain tumor in her mid-fifties. After that, I kind of threw in the towel, blogging-wise.
What was up? Well, the details don't really matter. Let's just say that I've worked nearly my entire adult life in an industry currently undergoing cataclysmic change. I've got aging parents and kids in college and high school. I've got gout and I've got a mortgage. Sometimes I feel like I've got plenty of nothing, but nothing is definitely not plenty for me.
It got to the point, almost exactly midway through the year, when I simply "went tharn," as Mr. Richard Adams might put it. Like a bunny caught in the headlights, I froze – creatively, emotionally and nearly physically. At least inside my own head, I couldn't move forward, and I definitely couldn't move backwards. I just stayed still and hoped that nothing would run me over or swoop down on me from a great height.
I started re-reading "Watership Down" this summer, partly spurred by Sawyer's fondness for it on "Lost" and partly because it was a book from a time when I pretty much only read for pleasure, when there were few deadlines, when I took the adventures of Hazel, Fiver and Bigwig at face value. I bought a used copy of the mass-market paperback, my preferred reading format, and reacquainted myself with the rabbits and their quest for a safe home.
Did you know that Richard Adams was 52 when "Watership Down" was published in 1972? He was civil servant for most of his private career and created the story as an entertainment for his daughters on long drives. The "Watership Down" manuscript was rejected by seven publishers before the small firm Rex Collings took it on, but it soon sold more than a million copies worldwide. It won the Carnegie Medal, and now its sales total more than 50 million copies.Adams went on to write "Shardik," "The Plague Dogs" and other well-regarded, best-selling books.
Adams turned 90 in May of 2010. He published a new story, "The Knife," just this year, in "Stories," edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio.
I haven't quite finished "Watership Down" this second time around. I don't particularly feel like rushing it. I can pick it up and put it down without losing the thread of the tale. In a lot of ways, it's simple story, but it says some important things: about perseverance, about friendship, about self-reliance.
I've begun to feel a lot better since this summer, and I've started to write more. It wasn't just Richard Adams and "Watership Down" that gave me a renewed sense of perspective about myself and my career at age 50. There were definitely other, more important factors. But the novel helped, not only through the wisdom of its story but by the example of its author.

Novelists can start their careers after 50. They can publish into their 90s. The Black Rabbit won't ever stop chasing you, but you can still give it a run for its money.
Move. Run blindly, if you have to. But move.
Don't go tharn.