If you wanna skip a crazyperson rant and just read book reviews, scroll on down to the dotted line. Otherwise indulge me as I puke forth venom from my acrimonious craw.
I’m sure that everyone’s now aware that Amazon.com is selling something called the Kindle, a “wireless reading device.” It’s being hailed as “revolutionary,” “simple to use,” doesn’t require monthly wireless bills, holds 200 titles, is light enough to hold up with the crack of your ass if you have moderately strong glutes and a disposition toward weird behavior, and all kinds of other gizmo-freak-pleasing features. They’re pushing this thing so aggressively that you can’t look up any regular book without them cramming “Hey, y’know, this thing is available for the Kindle, the Amazing New Wireless Reading Device!” right down your throat. Amazon is touting this product with all the misplaced pride of a lunatic gloating over a bucket of dung. And, like baby sparrows, the public (most of whom seldom actually read) seems to be opening wide their throbbing little gullets for this thing as if a “wireless reading device” actually is a new and revolutionary product.
Does anyone really need me to point out that we’ve had wireless reading devices pretty much since, ohhhhh, bipedalism? A cave painting is a wireless reading device! Every paperback you own is a wireless reading device! Simple to use, no monthly fees… and guess what, budreaux, if you drop one of those mamajamas on the street you’ll still be able to read the motherfucker and won’t be out $359, plus however much money you’ve pumped into it buying titles. And for that base price you can buy a whole ton of books, especially if you hit library sales. And you’ll still be able to read ‘em in 10 years, by which time the Kindle will have been replaced by the next Gizmo O’ The Month (probably the SegwayKindle, The Book You Can Ride!)
If I can indulge my inner Unabomber for just a minute, let me lay out a pet conspiracy theory of mine (and, kinda, George Orwell’s, although I hate to implicate him for what might just be some old-man, things-were-better-in-my-day, get-off-my-lawn paranoia on my part).
One of the great tragedies of mankind was the burning of the library at Alexandria, and frankly I think we’re on the cusp of a repeat. This time, the fire will be dimmer and slower… only as bright as a cathode ray tube. And things like the Kindle are, appropriately enough, kindling. Short-sighted and trend-happy humans are investing way too much faith in e-books, Kindle versions, and an upcoming Google project that’s gonna bitchsmack the publishing world like something bubonic. Yeah, it’s “convenient,” it’s nifty gimmick-wise, it’s probably even fun, but there are so many drawbacks to this, it’s insane.
First and most obvious, the incredible impermanence of computer-based stuff. Ever try to retrieve something off of one of those old-school five-inch floppies? If you can find working hardware to load the disc anymore, then good luck finding the software to read it. Even 3.5’s aren’t standard equipment anymore. Still got Atari cartridges laying around? Yeah, I bet. But your Atari doesn’t work anymore, does it? You can but gaze whistfully at that Blasteroid cartridge and remember what fun was like. Well, the same thing’s going to happen to most of these e-books and e-journals in a decade or so. The media will change (CD-Roms are already quaint now, and hey, remember the zip-disk?) and the web will change and all that shit will be inaccessible. If you’d’ve gotten paper, though, you’d still have it. I’ve got pulp magazines from the ‘30’s, printed on the cheapest paper possible, and you can still read ‘em, no problem. Here's proof I scanned myself. Wireless reading device, no batteries required, will still work after society crumbles and the zombies take over.
Second, and more sinister, is the “Winston Smith Factor.” With e-books and e-journals there need be only one master copy on a hard drive somewhere that everyone will access. This makes it easy to change history, just by dicking with the master copy. If some agenda-driven fanatic wants to say the Holocaust never happened, or erase Charles Darwin’s facts, now they can. It’ll be a Wikipedia-world, where Big Brother is a convenient download.
To top all of this off, Kindle books and e-books are still expensive, even though you’re getting NOTHING. No product - you’re just paying for “access” which they can take away whenever they want in the case of e-books - and yet they charge you like it’s costing them something beyond author royalties and “publisher” profit. No ink, no paper, no transport, no distribution, no brick & mortar storage space, minimal staff (hey, it eliminates jobs, too - no wonder corporations are pushing this junk) and yet it costs you almost as much (or more if you count paperbacks) as the real thing.
While undeniably the height of human advancement technologically, this is still all part of the new dark ages. How much of history comes from letters people wrote, diaries they kept, contemporary newspapers and periodicals, etc.? Now we’ve got e-mail and websites that have the shelf-life of yogurt. It’s convenient, it’s fun, you can do some neat things with it (like this-here thing I’m writin’ - yes, I’m aware of the irony of posting an anti-technology rant on a blog, but I never said I wasn‘t an ass), but it’s all robbing from future historians and, therefore, everyone else. Those who don’t - or can’t - learn from the past… will get its old tricks pulled on them by those who did.
On the good side, though, by 2100 we’ll have found the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (they’ll probably have turned up sometime in 2004), and our grandchildren won’t have to be embarrassed. Whew! Forget I said anything.
Anyway, here are some reviews of books you might want to check out… ON PAPER, goddamnit.
Here Comes A Candle - Frederic Brown. (Millipede Press, 1950)
Oddly-constructed, brilliant crime novel in which a disturbed loser named Joe Bailey is racked by internal conflict as he tries to choose between his romance with a nice girl and a life of crime that could make him rich, but also ruin him morally. On top of this dilemma, Joe is plagued by the idea that he caused the death of his father, and also a morbid fear connected with the nursery rhyme “Here comes a candle to light you to bed, here comes a chopper to chop off your head.” Eventually Joe has to make some tough decisions, but whatever choice he makes will still leave him vulnerable to his own quirks, as well as the forces of fate. Brown intersperses interludes of “mixed media” into the novel, telling certain sections in the form of radio, film, or stage play scripts, or even sportscasts and newspaper clippings. An interesting experiment, and masterfully handled. It works as a crime novel on one level, but is also a metaphorical, literary novel exploring the psychological conflicts in mankind - good vs. evil, love vs. sex, ambition vs. morality, what’s really most crucial toward satisfaction and fulfillment, and how the past (or at least perceptions of it, which aren’t always valid) can shape (or warp) the present and future. Brown handles all this complexity without even a hint of pretension; in fact, it feels a bit like he’s playing it all as a very black joke. Recommended. ****
Gun Work - David J. Schow (Hard Case Crime, 2008)
Horror novelist Schow turns to hardboiled crime in this action-packed post-Tarrantino novel, in which a gun expert named Barney tries to repay his old friend Carl, who once saved his life. Carl calls Barney down to Mexico to help free his wife, who’s been kidnapped. Barney provides excellent and expert assistance, but unluckily for him the whole shmear is a set up and Barney is captured, tortured for months, and nearly killed. He survives and, with the aid of some luchadores, seeks vengeance. Schow’s typically-hip prose is sometimes too smugly impressed with itself and some of what’s supposed to be badass just comes across as geeky. Some of the gun-worship, for instance, reads as much like a woman describing a Dior gown as it does a guy describing a firearm, and you’ll likely roll your eyes at some of the faux-macho prose-posturing, because he’s just trying too dadgum hard. Other times, though, it works exactly the way Schow wants it to, and sections of the book are intense and unputdownable. Others are comic-bookish action blitzes that feel like the climax of a Mack Bolan Executioner novel… but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some of Schow’s strange obsessions pop up again and I got a little déjà vu (he has a thing about people with modified, missing-finger hands), but mostly I was glad to have something to read from a guy I wish was more prolific. Despite a few shortcomings, it’s a great (and very harsh and harrowing) revenge tale with a good cinematic feel (if Robert Rodriquez hasn’t already bought the screen rights, he should) and a reminiscent-of-Spillane climax. It’s also probably the most violent Hard Case Crime book to date. *** ½
The Woods Are Dark - Richard Laymon (Leisure, 2008, originally 1981)
Richard Laymon’s second novel (now finally complete instead of the heavily-edited version released in 1981) is a chaotic backwoods horror piece in the Hills Have Eyes vein. Unwary visitors to a small town are abducted and chained to trees in the woods, to appease a tribe of cannibalistic savages called Krulls. The Krulls eat anyone (even each other), wear human skin and use bones as tools, and (because this is a Laymon novel after all) are preoccupied with violent, nasty sex. Laymon doesn’t flinch from rape scenes, and even the civilized people we’re supposed to be rooting for quickly give in to primitive urges and start raping and slaughtering. There’s not much plot or even much suspense to this; it’s an experiment in seeing how much gore and depravity he can fit into a brief amount of pages, kind of like a story from an old shudder pulp. Laymon pours it on thick, but somehow it doesn’t work quite as effectively as most of his later novels, even though it’s still well within his formula. Still, Laymon fans will be happy to have this author’s-intended version available, and it’s a good, fast read for anyone into hardcore horror. ***
Duma Key - Stephen King (Scribner, 2008)
Decent King horror in which a man who lost an arm and suffered a brain injury in an accident moves to an island in Florida to recover. He discovers that he has an amazing talent for painting… and that his paintings have some amazing powers. And it’s all tied to something that happened to one of his neighbors (now an Alzheimer’s patient in her 80’s) when she was a little girl. And the thing responsible is stirring to life again… and it’s incredibly evil. This is perhaps King’s best work since Bag of Bones, but it does still have a few of the traits that taint his later works -- a bit too much repetition, too much cheesiness and schmaltz in the characters, too much “magic,” and it could be improved by shedding about 200 pages (which could probably be done by taking out all the references to the "shells talking under the house")… but for the most part, it’s a good story and for the first half or so it’s un-put-down able… and even when it starts to flag it’s not painful or anything. The ending, however, is the most incredibly stupid thing he’s done since It. I actually get a little concerned about him when he can’t realize that such ideas are just idiotic. You feel a little bit cheated when you’ve read all those pages and then you get handed this oh-Jesus-Christ climax. But the first 2/3rds of the book were good enough to make me glad I gave Big Steve another chance, after not reading him for a few years.
Broken Summers - Henry Rollins (2.13.61 - 2004)
Absorbing journal entries chronicling Henry’s 2002 tour, then his plan to do a benefit CD of Black Flag cover songs to benefit the West Memphis Three, how he got the CD together, and the subsequent tour supporting it. Not only was this an excellent read, it sounds like there’s a CD and a couple of WM3 documentaries I need to seek out. Mission accomplished, Hank, and well done. *** ½
House of Leaves - Mark Z. Danielewski (Parthenon, 2000)
Utterly obnoxious experimental literary work that takes tricks from The Blair Witch Project and Nabokov’s Pale Fire, runs them through a process of typographic weirdness that’s not quite form-over-content but sometimes comes damn close, and spits it out as a symbol-rich, begging-to-be-interpreted horror story/object d’art that has just enough sex, profanity, and drug use to avoid being pretentious. Basically, a not-terribly-well-balanced guy named Johnny Truant finds a manuscript in the house of a dead old man and becomes so obsessed with editing it that he becomes insane. The manuscript - also obsessive, also possibly insane - is a study of a documentary called The Navidson Record, which is about a filmmaker’s house that contains shifting, infinitely-large, freezing dark rooms, stairways, and hallways, despite the fact that the outside of the house is small. He films explorations into these rooms, which become nightmarish. The problem is, the documentary doesn’t actually exist, and even if it had, the author couldn’t have seen it because he was blind. The book itself takes on characteristics of the house, expanding in some sections so only one or two words are on each page, or the words are printed at odd angles, in boxes, or backwards. There are also pictures, poems, letters, and words in color, and there are at least two stories going on -- the story of the film, and the story of Johnny’s editing, drinking, getting laid, becoming crazy, etc. Parts of it are interesting, and other parts are so boring and pointless they defy you to read them. Much of the book is about obsession, which is appropriate enough because reading it requires obsession as well, since it’s 700 pages of sometimes-technical detail. It’s sometimes brilliant, sometimes maddeningly tiresome, but (usually) worth the effort, since it will make you think. ***
Salad Days - Charles Romalotti (Layman Books, 2000)
Epic novel about a small town misfit who finds an identity in punk rock, manages to influence a few similarly-disaffected classmates, starts a band, joins another band, tours, gets somewhat famous, and then moves on (but not totally). It’s a great book for those of us who were small town punks (the first half being much better than the second - I wasn’t all that intrigued by the being-in-a-band stuff, but then I was never in a band, so, that’s probably why-for). There’s lots of familiar band-name-dropping to give you warm fuzzies. It's weird to have nostalgia evoked by a scene in which members of The Descendents fart in a restaurant, but, it happens. The book is overlong (it’s only 300 pages, but with wall-to-wall 9-point type) with too much time devoted to the tedious details of tour diaries (those can be fascinating, but only when it’s a real band). Also, the first-person narrator, Frank, is sometimes a pretentious wuss who spends too much time obsessing about chasing dreams and such. But, flaws aside, it’s pretty compelling reading for the most part, if you have a punk background. I’m not sure a regular solid citizen would get much out of it or understand Frank at all. Anyway, it’s a good read, and better than Romalotti’s Rash, which also wasn’t bad. The writing is sometimes a bit clunky and self-impressed, but there are also lines good enough to make you want to copy them down somewhere. ***