Saturday, April 25, 2009

Others bite the dust

Two more books I didn't finish:

I was actually looking for Nugent's American Nerd but it was checked out. The shelf did have David Anderegg's Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them (2007) which I flipped through and figured it might be an OK substitute. Then while standing in the aisle I noticed on the cover after the author's name is "PhD" which can't be a good sign. (In fact in the book he constantly reminds us of his degree and his clinical practice - an unappealing mix of insecurity and marketing aggression.) The jacket bio lists as one of his main accomplishments that "he has been quoted as an expert" by several magazines. Again this should have been setting off screaming Spidey-sense. As you might expect Anderegg writes in a glib, soundbite style that tries to be light but also serious - the kind of thing that tosses off flat jokes and then unleashes supposedly dire statistics and studies.

The book isn't really about nerds or geeks. Anderegg says he wants to see how "kids" learn the stereotype so that it can be combated. The best I can determine is that he thinks America's low rankings in math and hard science education is because those subjects have been determined to be the domain of the nerd/geek, people view nerds/geeks in a negative way and therefore few kids study math & science. Maybe he makes a more convincing argument later in the book but I doubt it. He's a bit unclear about all these "kids" he works with. What ages and what does he do? In general usage "kids" seems to encompass anything from about a one-year-old up to early 20s (at the college where I work the employees frequently call the students kids). Anderegg also uncritically assumes that a stereotype is a negative thing - perhaps not dead wrong but most people pushing a change also are pushing stereotypes, just ones that they consider positive.

A bit more substantial is John Thorne's Serious Pig: An American Cook in Search of His Roots (1996). Thorne is generally considered to be one of the country's best food writers and indeed based on this he's not a bad writer. It's just that what he's writing about is not only not what I expected but not anything worth my effort; others obviously feel differently. The book is a collection of essays where he discusses a dish or other food topic and then a recipe or way to prepare it. So far so good except that it opens with a long (loooong) bit about houses where he's lived or visited and other parts go into detail about his Maine neighbors, Maine habits, Maine architecture, Maine highways. This is so far from anything remotely interesting to me that I'd literally rather read the dictionary.

Even the food parts tend to be overkill. For one thing Thorne is that type of person who's pushed connoisseurship to an irritating extreme - one of the first pieces goes into detail about numerous types of potatoes, where he found them and then concludes with four-page description of how to fry them. Now I'm geeky enough that in theory this should be worthwhile but really it ends up as just a list of useless variety names and gosh nobody at all cares what farm he buys his potatoes. And four pages on frying isn't an triumph of detailed writing but simply a failure to understand what's important.

Or for instance his stance on barbeque is all detail about the meat being the most important part, not the sauce, but as with so much else Thorne comes dangerously close to preaching the One True Way. He's not completely wrong but it's a kind of arrogance typical of many foodies who claim to have found the real path and that certain types of food shouldn't be done certain ways. But to paraphrase the Duke, "If it tastes good, it is good."

Friday, April 24, 2009

Some comics links

* Dateline: Silver Age is a blog of nothing but enlarged images showing newspaper headlines from SA comics. Isn't the Internet wonderful?

* Similarly, Quotes On Comics is self-explanatory (and addictive).

* A blog post about new MLA rules for citing graphics.

* Why the NYT bestseller list for graphic novels doesn't really work. (Short version: difference between book trade and direct market.)

* Roasted Peanuts is Peanuts strips with analysis - and more interesting than that sounds.

* Good interview with Alan Moore on the forthcoming LOEG. But then isn't Moore one of those people who always does a good interview?

* GQ of all places has a top-notch list of the "20 Graphic Novels You Should Read (After Watchmen)" (though I can't help but wonder if there's something in Fun Home that might have frightened them off). Too bad it's in that almost unreadable slideshow format that too many websites use - can't we just get the list without having to click click click?

* And Judge Dredd goes to the prom!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Forgotten fiction Pulitzers

NPR recently posted "Our Unscientific List Of Least-Known Fiction Winners" for the Pulitzer and it's a solidly least-known selection. I've only even heard of two - Cozzens' Guard of Honor (which I own but haven't read) and Guthrie's The Way West (have a copy of his The Big Sky). Of the rest there are only five authors with names recognizable to me. (Cozzens of course was the recipient of Dwight Macdonald's withering essay that almost completely demolished his reputation - more effectively than Twain's famous attack on Cooper did. Some have argued recently that Macdonald was working more from political than aesthetic motives, not quite addressing whether that matters.)

It certainly would be a worthwhile project to read all of these, in fact to read all the fiction winners in order. I'm not about to do that but how much of this really does have any kind of lasting value? Or did they benefit from the mood of the times, behind-the-scenes manipulation, locked juries or any of numerous other causes. McCarthy's award for The Road--generally considered one of his weakest works--is often viewed as really being for his career and not that particular work. In the notorious Ellington and Pynchon cases the mechanics of the Pulitzers came straight to the front but most of the time even the names of the jurors tend to be obscured. (If they're on the official Pulitzer site I can't find them.)

Since they're so high profile the Pulitzers are easy to attack but the track record isn't really that bad - maybe not as substantial as the National Book Awards (or adjusting trans-Atlantic-ly the Bookers) but certainly far ahead of such continual embarrassments as the Oscars or Grammies. Some of these forgotten titles likely deserve to be forgotten but I bet it's likely that quite a few of the older ones aren't even available in many public libraries due to their generally aggressive policies of thinning their collection (university libraries tend to take longer views). But hey isn't the Internet going to cure all this?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Steve Ditko

I was going to wait until after reading the Bell biography and some other odds 'n' ends for a massive Ditko post, the kind of thing with such shattering critical insights that you'll weep with joy at being alive to witness it. But after seeing the Jonathan Ross documentary and almost immediately a new Ditko screed it seems like worth just starting part one.

The more interesting part later but this blog has just posted Ditko's "Toyland", a long prose rant about, uh, well something. He doesn't like Joe Quesada apparently and believes "either Marvel Comics is Marvel Comics or Marvel Comics is not Marvel Comics". I'm going out on a limb and say he's dead right about that last. Everything else of course seems to be typing, highly motivated to be sure, even though he appears to have moved from Rand to Korzybski (& everything I know about the latter came from Van Vogt and Burroughs so it's safe to say I know nothing about him).

"Toyland" can be compared to his recent release titled Ditko, Etc... (2008). (There's been another this year and one more due in a few months.) "32 pages, all new art" the cover tells us and inside is mostly single-page posters attacking the U.N., the idea of compromise, the comic book business, comic book fans, compromise again, and some stuff that makes little sense at all. What else to make of a character called The Negotiator in something called "Peace in Our Time" that apparently is fully conscious of the Chamberlain reference. It's that bad, gray-area compromise again. There's even a little poster to explain the difference between force (coercion) and violence (damage) though the "why" is left hanging. As Neil Gaiman says, "I wind up reading them as something closer to classic American outsider art. They move more into the realm of just sheer beautiful, wonderful, straight-from-the-heart American barking madness."

Gaiman was actually talking about Mr. A and makes that comment in Jonthan Ross' In Search of Steve Ditko, a 2007 BBC Four documentary that's fascinating but also appears to have been a rush job. (Ross did a short piece for The Guardian at that time.) As you might expect, the documentary is an overview of Ditko's life and work, trying to explain to probably-uninterested viewers why Ditko was so important and giving some context. There are interviews with Gaiman, Alan Moore, Stan Lee, Mark Millar, Ralph Macchio, John Romita and others. The visual look is well-designed with an anchor setting of comic book cover enlargements (about eight feet high) and a nice pool-of-light approach to the talking heads. Ross says he's a huge fan and his enthusiasm comes across.

But In Search wasn't completely thought through. For one thing the chronology is a bit off - it jumps from Ditko's apprenticeship straight to Marvel without mentioning his start at Charlton. When Ross gets to Charlton later he mixes that period up with some of the DC work and the independent Mr. A. Not a huge problem but it just feels sloppy. There's also way too much emphasis on film and TV adaptations, probably so the TV show can use clips of all these instead of comic enlargements (though it's great to see something from 3 Dev Adam) but this is all very tangential to Ditko and takes up time that would be better spent elsewhere. Ross makes another other odd emphasis when he tries to talk about creator freedom at Charlton which makes me think he hasn't actually read much from that company (and doesn't even mention Ditko's stint at Warren). Admittedly The Question does show some of Ditko's worldview but it's not like he or any other comic creator was doing radical, ground-breaking work at Charlton. There are even a few mistakes, the oddest when Ross says that one theory about Ditko leaving Marvel is because he didn't want Parker to graduate college. I immediately thought he means high school and sure enough literally seconds later Macchio says "high school". Did Ross or the editor not notice they were contradicting each other in probably half a minute? Or was there not time to change?

One of the most interesting moments is when Ross gets Stan Lee to admit that he deep down believes that he's the sole creator of Spider-Man. Lee's argument actually makes sense and leaves the question even more open than it had been before. Basically he claims that the person who thought up the character is the true creator and anybody else is just the illustrator or assistant. So if Lee's idea was a high school kid named Parker who got bit, Uncle Ben, burglar, etc then he probably should be called the sole creator even if Ditko came up with such key elements as the costume and webshooters. On the other hand, if Lee's idea was something like let's have this kid superhero with spider powers and that's all then yeah the two are co-creators. But this just means we'll never really know unless there's documentation in the Marvel offices (and how likely would that be to ever come out?).

The end of In Search is a bit odd. Ross and Gaiman (the latter oddly says he's Etta Candy to Ross' Wonder Woman - that's an image I didn't want in my head) visit Ditko's NYC office and when he declines by phone to see them they just march right up to his office (off camera) and spend almost half an hour. (If Ditko is so easy to find then why haven't fans photographed him on the street?) After returning, the two won't say anything except they liked Ditko and had a nice time. As Ross says, "Although you might feel a little bit let down, I'm afraid that's tough. I'd rather respect the wishes of a reclusive 80-year-old genius than bow to the baser instincts of my beloved audience." At first that seems fair enough but y'know not really. Huge parts of TV are turned over to vicarious experience but this should be something different. If Ross isn't going to even tell us what he discussed with Ditko then why even include the build-up? It's just a taunt and an unacknowledged break of the contract that he's in this with the viewer, that if we're on (let me get flowery here) a voyage of education and discovery then we should be equals. For Ross to say I learned something that you can never know - well at best that's bad manners and at worst it's arrogance. For all we know he didn't learn anything new - in fact that seems most likely.

But back to the start of the post. Ditko's worldview seems to be the main reason so many people are fascinated by him. It's not that the comics & SF worlds are exactly lacking in right-wingers (even not counting libertarians) but Ditko seems bizarre even by those standards. Gaiman's outsider comment isn't far off the mark but the temptation for so many is to read everything in light of this. If nothing else it should make for entertaining TV - let's look at the whacko genius. Too bad he won't leave the cave to dance for the camera. Oddly enough one thing this reminds me of is Moore's Promethea, an inventive, surprising and lushly gorgeous work about utter bullshit. If there has to be some kind of beginner's guide to magickal thinking I suppose that's better than the stuff that clogs up bookstore shelves but it's still a lot of effort expended on oddball personal beliefs. If nothing else Moore is certainly wrong but Ditko seems mainly naive and misguided even if he's screaming that out as loudly as he can.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Should we listen to what musicians listen to?

Simon Reynolds posted an piece in The Guardian on how musicians have directed us to other albums, writers, films, etc. Though this surely happened to me at some point I can't think of what it would be - mostly I picked up recommendations and references from critics and reviewers. I definitely remember some review that had an off-handed mention of how Derek Bailey albums could quickly clear a room and then spent three or four years trying to find one of them. (The ECM Music Improvisation Company release in case you're curious. The others weren't exactly common items in early 80s Alabama.)

But I'm surprised Reynolds didn't mention the Mt Everest of such consumer guidance: the legendary list that accompanied Nurse With Wound's first album. (For details check Audion and TGK.) This of course is the one exception that I haven't followed musician suggestions since like so many fellow travelers I've been tracking much of this down for years. The NWW List defines a sensibility and even though it's got way too much Euro-noodling for my taste it's still been useful to find stuff I'd otherwise never heard about or wouldn't have bothered to follow up (there's a TON of this stuff out there).

Monday, April 20, 2009

3/4s of 24

The new season is three-quarters finished and I have to say I've been enjoying it though any feeling of weight or seriousness the show might have had during its glory days of Seasons 2-4 are long gone. Not that it was actually serious then but just felt like it should be. Now it really is just pure pulp/Saturday serial storytelling: Jack framed for murder by an improbably convoluted and utterly implausible method! Tony racing to stop missiles in their final launch countdown! Jack infected with an incurable disease! Terrorists capture the White House! The First Daughter is Machiavelli reincarnated! At several points through the season it's been unclear where the story can go next but so far they've managed to come up with a series of linked arcs that build on each other, probably a better idea than trying to find one huge story that can last a full season and also one that keeps viewers from getting bored.

And of course there have been some well-done cliffhangers, last Monday's being one of the most unexpected. I'm thinking there are three possibilities: Tony saw a way for some easy (more or less) money, Tony has all along been working for the shadowy Big Bad Guys, or Tony is now going deep undercover to expose the Big Bad Guys. And it wouldn't be the first time this season we've seen an FBI agent's death faked. None of the possibilities really work in the story - there's far too much unpredictable for it to have been planned. But I also get glimmers that the show writers might be about to pull everything into a grand scheme where all the elements click into place. Wishful thinking because one thing you can say about 24 writers is that they've never been that smart.

In some moment of synchronicity I came across this in a new Alan Moore interview (which should be read in the context of the borrowed characters in LOEG):
The excellent Charlie Brooker, our English TV columnist, came up with a theory about “24,” which I think was one of his guilty pleasures. He didn’t know why he kept watching it, but he did. And he had a theory in the first series – there was a scene in one of the early episodes where [Jack Bauer] nods off briefly in a laundromat or something, and Charlie Brooker’s theory was that everything since then has been his dream. And in a postmodern move, the makers of “24” have cunningly blended Kiefer Sutherland the actor with Jack Bauer the character, so there are loads of people from Kiefer Sutherland’s previous screen career suddenly turning up in “24.” He played an FBI agent called Jack in a film opposite Dennis Hopper, who turned up in “24.” Lou Diamond Philips, who he’d been with in “Young Guns,” turns up in “24.” And I think that Charlie Brooker ended up saying he imagined that the next episode was going to involve Jack Bauer and the entire cast of “Lost Boys” battling it out on the set of “Flatliners.”

Sunday, April 19, 2009

J.G. Ballard (1930-2009)

He's unlikely to get much notice in the States - the obituaries I find are mostly British (such as Telegraph, Guardian and even NME). Ballard (which incidentally is pronounced buh-lard) was a major writer by almost any standard. When I first encountered his work in high school it was a revelation that science fiction, indeed any kind of fiction, could be this, well, different. (Despite "science fiction" being where bookstores shelved his work, Ballard was at best only tangentially a SF writer.) Even then I first read the almost conventional novels like High Rise and Concrete Island. It would be a few more years before I could find the really knotty stuff like The Atrocity Exhibition, Crash and the early short stories. (This September we're finally getting a US edition of his complete stories, seemingly the same as the long OP British one.) Certainly it was the forthright seriousness that appealed to me at the time but also the wild formal invention (Donald Barthelme tended to remind me of Ballard), the SF tropes, the sense of humor so strange it almost wasn't humor, and the feeling that this was art undeceived by convention. Of course today weighty seriousness isn't really that important to me but despite his apocalyptic tendencies and attraction to destructively wayward behavior I've never felt Ballard was that grim. His work felt like somebody who was always just amused without having gone through the used-to-be-disgusted phase. I did read Empire of the Sun and thought it was fantastic but nothing after that (eight novels according to Wikipedia) and now I'm much more familiar with his peers such as Moorcock, Aldiss, Zoline, Sladek, Stableford, Spinrad, etc who were embarking on the same beyond-SF project though with vastly different methods. Ballard was also one of those endlessly quotable people as any flip through the Re/Search collection shows:
"Everything is clean and shiny but oddly threatening."
"Remember, the police are neutral - they hate everybody. Being law-abiding has nothing to do with being a good citizen. It means not bothering the police."
"Art exists because reality is neither real nor significant."
"Sooner or later, everything turns into television."

Thursday, April 16, 2009


WFMU's blog just ran a piece "10 Things I Hate About NPR". For me it's not that all are appropriate but that I've never found anything of interest in All Things Considered and whatever else non-musical is on NPR. When I tune to the public radio station if there's talk of anything other than music I'm instantly off. Partly it's because any kind of broadcast journalism is a very inefficient and far too frequently superficial method for learning news, at least for me. I can get far more out of a news website or actual paper in less time than a regular broadcast. And it doesn't help that the NPR tone always reminds me of undergraduates pretending to be deeply serious.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Amazon Incident

The most interesting thing about The Amazon Incident (anybody reading more than a few months from now will have no idea what I'm referring to - and deliberately not explaining) is that that almost everybody who's written about it wanted to be shocked and offended. They clearly had no interest in what really caused this (which quite possibly had happened before with nobody noticing or affected titles that nobody felt worth raising a ruckus about). Even when the first reports appeared and nobody really knew what was happening it was pretty obvious that this was simply a glitch of some kind. But it's easy to see that didn't really matter from the people who pointed out how arbitrary and silly the exclusions were. They were actually proving this wasn't something deliberate but instead had already decided it was some odd kind of intentional political action and in true true-believer fashion wouldn't see the evidence in front of them. The most amusing, or sad, response has to be the self-flagellation of the former Soft Skull publisher who claims "the books that were de-ranked were de-ranked because it is always the outsider whose books get de-ranked and 'mainstream' society and the capitalist institutions that operate within it, whether my old company or Amazon, must self-police ruthlessly in order to guard against this kind of thing happening." Well so much for any political reality or reason: pump our super-egos full of steroids and welcome fear into our minds. And as Mr Soft Skull seems to have overlooked but so many other people pointed out (though again trying to show how unreasonable a deliberate decision would have been), large numbers of the books weren't outsider at all but published by huge corporations, written by famous, wealthy and award-winning writers, taught on campuses and even best-sellers.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Avant-garde film & poetry

So I'm working on a review of the new release in the Treasures from American Film Archives series that focuses on avant-garde film. One thing I haven't decided whether to include is how so many AG filmmakers have opposed having their work available on video because of their ideas about the purity of the film medium. Even DVD isn't immune: there's a guy who claims to have run scientific tests that "prove" films on DVD are inferior to VHS. The filmmakers aren't completely wrong but this attitude sounds like poets refusing to allow their work to be translated into another language and if that sounds completely ridiculous that's because it is. Poems are going to lose far more in translation than seeing a 16mm AG film on DVD (though it's arguable that a translated poem can gain something in replacement while that could never happen with video).

I think two factors are at work here. First and most obvious is that poetry has a long and valued history of translation, not just works but entire forms such as the sonnet and sestina have come from other languages. AG filmmakers frequently called the shots and given the opportunity for a wider audience far too many show a circle-the-wagons mentality. Second, the filmmakers tend to lack a sense of how distribution and marketing (in the broadest sense) work or at best only in a very limited arena. Poets understand publishing, running magazines, selling, reading, etc and there's a wide if half-submerged support network. AG filmmakers won't get into Blockbuster any more than most living poets will get into B&N but they also don't seem to understand that there are alternatives. I'm not talking about Bruce Conner releasing his films on an insanely expensive DVD that was only available through a gallery. [I've since been informed that this is not quite correct. The gallery DVD was available for a donation to a charity - Conner apparently got no money from it and the donation could be as low as $20. The retail DVD has two films for $50. Certainly expensive but whether it deserves an "insanely" is your call.] That's art world thinking and should be fought at every opportunity. While most might need a lab to do the film transfer there are various possibilities ranging from many of the indie labels to burning your own DVDs.

The other thing that I know won't go into the review is how so many AG films get called "poetic" or compared to poetry but I suspect this may be due to a confusion between the word "image" being used literally for a film and more abstractly for something else in poetics. For example, Shirley Clarke's film of various bridges around NYC could be labeled poetic - it's non-narrative with shots of bridges (both extreme long and close-ups) that are super-imposed with some visual manipulations. Similarities are brought out and aspects of bridges that might sometimes be ignored are foregrounded. But I'm not sure this is quite the same as poetic. Just compare to Hart Crane's The Bridge, the opening section of which has:
I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen

I'm not trying to "prove" they're different; that would be pointless. It's just that "poetic" is used too losely in film criticism.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Debord a French national treasure?

Oddly enough Guy Debord has been proclaimed a national treasure in France, albeit a dead one. Some people have commented that he would have hated this and perhaps that's true but considering that he managed to find a patron to fund his exploration of The Good Life I don't know how far Debord would actually go. Certainly he seems to have justified this patronage and his avoidance of work as an affront to bourgeois ideals and perhaps there's some truth to that but maybe I'm just too brainwashed by those ideals to believe entirely that this way of living was any kind of revolutionary act. He spent much of the last couple of decades of his life working on slim books that were mostly just aftershocks and on a wargame that by all accounts seems far less interesting or revelatory than many commercial games. Personally I've always preferred Raoul Vaneigem's work, mainly because it's more concrete and deals with the world as it is rather than the loose abstractions of Society of the Spectacle. Still, I did pick up the first volume of the English translation of Debord's letters and will post about that whenever I get around to reading it.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Taking of Power by Louis XIV

My review of the new Criterion DVD is up on the TCM website. It may be a bit too routine, focusing on the quasi-Brechtian aspect of the film (though from what I gather Rossellini wasn't nearly as interested in the political as in re-thinking the historical presentation) and as a result may not quite convey how much I liked the film. In fact I've been thinking about watching it again but have so much other stuff that probably won't for a few months. Maybe I should get some of Rossellini's other historicals from Netflix first.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Discworld one step closer

So this town in England renamed several of its streets after ones in Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels. What I didn't get reading this is that there aren't "several" but only two streets with the new names. I had images of entire swathes becoming home to the likes of Cut-Me-Own-Throat Dibbler. Checking a map the town already has Flinger's Lane, Dancing Lane, Football Lane (big on those lanes), Cavalier Way and one apparently called only The Batch so the overall effect isn't probably as striking as might be hoped. Another town nearby has a Cowpath Lane and a Harvest Lane and a Water Lane and a North Lane. See what happens when you don't have dozens of Indian languages to steal names from?

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Seven Years!

Today this blog hits its seventh birthday. Leading up to this was something I'd never done before: a post every day for a month. Sure some were a bit light, partly because I wanted something for that day and also partly because I was sick a couple of weeks and it was hard to focus. I'm suspecting now the posting frequency will drop down to the usual irregularity but transferring this over to Blogspot made a difference. It's much easier to save posts and write them at stray moments while the scheduling works much better than it did on my own server space.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Book covers

I'm on a mailing list for bookstore folk and every week they ask an author or book person several questions about their reading habits. One of these is to name a book they bought for the cover and the vast majority of answers are "none". This seems strange, so much in fact that I think most of them are lying. The feeling apparently is that if the pursuit of literature is a lofty activity then it shouldn't be sullied by anything as crass as packaging. The thing is, though, that true bibliophiles (admittedly not always the same thing as literature-seekers) love the physical object of a book, cover and all. That's why I can't really believe that most people actually in this business, actually writing, don't care about covers.

Or maybe it's just because I've always been drawn to the covers. In high school I collected anything with a Frazetta cover and though his work now seems too static and too cramped I still like the sense of forbidding and mystery that his best work evokes, helped by a fairly imaginative use of color (imaginative for pb fantasy illustration, not by art world standards). Since then I haven't been able to resist at times some of those remarkable 50s/60s paperback covers (though I never go to collector prices) or well-done trade dress such as NYRB Classics or occasionally just a striking cover. I'm certainly not the only person to have an almost-Pavlovian response to orange Penguin spines. In one sense, yeah the covers and paper and type are the window-dressing but really not that much. They do have real effects on the way we read the book even if we're mentally trying to create an ideal that's independent of that.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

The Poison Ape and recombinant mysteries

Thanks to Kevin for a copy of Arimasa Osawa's The Poison Ape (1991, English translation 2008), part of a series focusing on a police detective nicknamed the Shinjuku Shark. The book gets off to a slow start, seeming like numerous other hard-boiled outings, but it slowly builds into something more substantial. The detective Samejima (he's the Shark) gets caught between a Taiwanese detective visiting Japan for mysterious reasons, an extremely efficient hitman (the Poison Ape) and a local detective with unclear reasons for running a stakeout. Running alongside is a secondary plot about a bar hostess who gets pulled into the hitman's plan.

Stated like this it sounds cliched and in fact it stays pretty close to genre boundaries but Osawa manages to keep the story not entirely predictable and to make the "unstoppable hitman" seem almost like a real person. He uses Shinjuku for local color and while I have no idea how accurate this or his descriptions of Japanese crime actually are, they don't seem fanciful. (OK, that's not entirely true: I've read Kaplan & Dubro's amazing Yakuza: Japan's Criminal Underworld.) The portrayal of an odd friendship between the Japanese and Taiwanese detectives as well as the hostess' unthinking alienation work on dynamics of race that remind me of some Miike films such as City of Lost Souls.

But what's interesting in another way is how mysteries have become so conventional and clearly defined that the main changes are settings and characters. For the traditional amateur detective form we can get them in almost every historical era and with detectives of assorted genders, races, classes, handicaps, eccentricities, etc. For The Poison Ape I wonder whether the stark, undecorated, declarative sentence style comes from genre expectations, from the original Japanese or from the translation. Not that I necessarily want a hard-boiled novel that reads like late Henry James (well actually I kinda do) but there seem to be unnecessary limits to the stories these writers are going to tell and how they're going to tell them. That's why I've always had reservations about James Ellroy, Andrew Vachss or the more thriller-ish Stephen Hunter. They tend to pile grotesqueries on top of violence until it seems more like boyish grossouts rather than storytelling, let alone Art.

I am being a bit unfair - innovation isn't usually very important and major work can be done with nearly obsessive attention to conventional demands and genre limits. Just check countless examples from Shakespeare to Dickens to Ed Brubaker. But with too many mystery and crime writers I get the feeling that they're too aware of the conventions and are writing to that, if indeed they're even capable of anything else. Not exactly a problem--we'll always need entertainment of some sort--but then again I personally like even my mindless entertainment to be a bit unusual.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Odds 'n' ends

* Are people who back into parking spaces always jerks?

* Just got Hammer Films: Icons of Horror Collection which has a sticker saying "Fan Approved Artwork!" Really? Did they honestly get any fan(s) to approve and why would they think this is an important enough selling point to create separate stickers?

* The Garfield Minus Garfield book isn't as good as the website because it also includes the original strips, removing some of its mystery.

* "Ad Agency Says It Wasn't To Blame For SyFy Rebranding" - Guess even these ad folk have some smidgen of sense.

* First reports from those Warner Bros 150 custom DVD titles are that at least some are older and less-than-ideal transfers. That $20 price is becoming even less attractive.

* It's National Poetry Month so visit Poem-A-Day.