Thursday, April 26, 2007

Firmin by Sam Savage

"Sometimes the books were arranged under signs, but sometimes they were just anywhere and everywhere. After I understood people better, I realized that this incredible disorder was one of the things that they loved about Pembroke Books. They did not come there just to buy a book, plunk down some cash and scram. They hung around. They called it browsing, but it was more like excavation or mining. I was surprised they didn't come in with shovels. They dug for treasures with bare hands, up to their armpits sometimes, and when they hauled some literary nugget from a mound of dross, they were much happier than if they had just walked in and bought it. In that way, shopping at Pembroke was like reading: you never knew what you might encounter on the next page -- the next shelf, stack, or box --and that was part of the pleasure of it."

I just finished reading "Firmin," from which this passage was taken.

I first heard about the book thanks to the Lit-Blog Co-op (you can read what they have to say about it here.) I read a couple of the posts about the book and went on to other things. It was only a few weeks ago, when I saw the book at Barnes & Noble in the staff recommendations with a 10% discount sticker on it that I thought: well this might be worth a try.

The book is the story of a rat, Firmin, born in the basement of a used book store in Boston's Scollay Square. The square is only a short time from being bulldozed and covered in concrete. In the short time he has, Firmin discovers books and writes his own in his head (he can't speak or write, so this is the only way he can do it.) He desperately wants to reach out to humans, he wants to communicate. His efforts to cross that gap make up the majority of the book.

The story is all about the love of books and how it can both make one feel more in touch with the world while, at the same time, increasing one's alienation.

I knew I would love the book when I got to the paragraph above. It reflects some of my same feelings about used books stores. (I imagine it's a pretty common feeling among book lovers.)

This was Sam Savage's first novel. He's got to be in his late 40s, at least, which makes me selfishly happy. You can hear an interview with Savage from The Bat Segundo Show. He sounds like an interesting man. You can also check out his Web site, The Old Rat, which includes some poetry and other writings.

Two movies born from Japan

Trailer for the film All Gods Children Can Dance. It's based on a Haruki Murakami story from "After the Quake."

Trailer for "Paprika," the new anime by Satoshi Kon. Kon is the creator of "Millenium Actress," "Tokyo Godfathers" and the TV anime "Paranoia Agent." From the trailer I have no idea what is going on, but after his other films I have all confidence that it will be worth seeing.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Faust on writing or "Does this novel make me look fat?"

Back in the comments on an earlier post, I asked Joe Clifford Faust whether he started out writing shorter works or novels when he was getting started writing. He turned this into an interesting blog post and I promptly forgot to mention it here. So I'm correcting that now. Check out Faust's post called Size Matters. He talks not only about his start in writing, but also the advantages and disadvantages to the different sizes of story. Here's a quote:

I know this belies all of our notions of bigger is better, but bigger is also harder, but that's the way it works with writing. Bigger is easier because the smaller you get, the more important each word becomes. It has to bear a greater weight, a greater burden, and must be sufficiently powerful to contribute in the most efficient way possible.

Therefore, at one end of the spectrum you have the novel, which allows you to stretch out with words, with story, with subplots and characters and place and theme. It's a leisurely walk in the park. Wordwise, then, a novel is easier to write than a play, which is easier than a short story, which is easier than poetry, which I suppose is easier to write than something like a tombstone epitaph. And note that by the time you get down to writing poems, you're the watchmaker, sweating over every word with a pair of tweezers and a jeweler's loupe, praying that what you're assembling will keep time and have the desired impact.

As for me, I'm still trying to work on short stories, though maybe I should go back and read my three Nanowrimo "novels" and see if there's anything salvageable from any of them. I'm thinking probably not, but it never hurts to look.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Call of the Weird by Louis Theroux

I hadn't heard of Louis Theroux when I was sent this book. Subtitled "Travels in American Subcultures," the book is actually a followup to Theroux's work on documentaries and TV series like "Louis' Weird Weekends" and "When Louis Met..." I've since found a few things on YouTube. Theroux is charismatic and funny. In his shows, he seems to let the people he meets just be their odd selves without trying to force funny into the situation.

And apparently, Theroux likes a lot of the people he meets. That is the inspiration behind the book. He decides to take a "Reunion Tour" of people he met on his documentaries. He travels around the country trying to find the people he once talked to and see where they are now. He looks for Thor Templar, the UFO believer who claims he's killed 20 aliens. He looks for porn star J.J. Michaels. He talks to Ike Turner and pimp/rapper Mello T.

In many cases, these people have moved on. J.J. Michaels is working for Boeing and no longer does movies, though he still keeps a box of his films in the basement and says he'd like to do it again. Thor Templar has changed his name, dropped UFO business and is now selling items for "technoshamans." Theroux reunites with an Aryan Nations member he had bonded with over "Are You Being Served." The racist had been kicked out of the club for some obscure reasons. He meets with a former prostitute who's now found god, but still considers going back to the business.

In all his stories, there seems to be a theme of fantasy meeting reality. People seek out a fantasy, or follow the fantasies in their head, and later find out that the world is not always accepting or tolerant of their views. Many of these people find their worldviews don't hold up to the test, yet they blithely continue believing.

In the foreword to the American edition, Theroux says his aim is different from those authors who seek to follow, in Garrison Keillor's words, "the classic Freaks, Fatties, Fanatics & Faux Culture Excursion beloved of European journalists." He hopes to go more in depth, to see how people's lives turned out. I'm afraid he didn't entirely succeed. The book still seems like a tourist's view of typical American crazies and loudmouths. But what does save it is Theroux's actual interest in these people. He might think they are funny or crazy, but from his words you can see that he actually feels for them. He wants them to do well, to make a little corner of the world for themselves.

The book is a charming travelogue of unusual people encountering a more bland world. It doesn't offer profound insights, but it does offer a good time.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Houdini's greatest escape!

The only proper way this news event should end is with an empty casket.

And just to make this worthwhile, this page has pictures of Houdini's water torture chamber, the one everyone thinks he died in.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

A great film about fungus

ScifiJapan takes a close look at Matango (aka Attack of the Mushroom People). As they point out, the film can be looked at as an allegory for drugs or capitalism, but it's much more than that. It's a good movie that cares about its characters, even though most of them are unlikeable, and makes the situation feel real, despite the rubber mushroom suits.

It's one of my favorite movies. With this film and Gojira, one can see that Ishiro Honda is a great, and criminally underrated, director.

Also at the link is the full text of William Hope Hodgson's "The Voice in the Night," which was the inspiration for the film. I would also recommend picking up the Matango DVD, which has some great extras including a story read by the screenwriter.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril by Paul Malmont

I wish I hadn't waited so long to read this book. Professor Hex pointed it out to me way back in April of last year. Just from the description alone it has all kinds of things I like: pulp writers, Chinatown, rip-roaring adventure and fun. Now that I've read it, I can say it lives up to the hype.

The book concerns a moment during the pulp era -- the late 1930s, I believe -- when Walter Gibson had shown the Shadow not to be Lamont Cranston, when Lester Dent and his wife were desperately trying to have a child, when L. Ron Hubbard was head of a New York pulp writer's association, when H.P. Lovecraft was on his deathbed and when Chester Himes, Louis L'Amour and Robert Heinlein were working odd jobs and travelling the country. Slowly, all these pulp writers, and many more, are brought together to face the peril of the title.

I think I love pulp writers as much as I do their characters and stories. I've read a biography of Dent, a collection of essays on the "Pulp Masters," and Gruber's "The Pulp Jungle." It's all exciting stuff. From reading all these stories and essays (as well as other reading from the time), I think I have a pretty good sense of the era and the characters involved. And Paul Malmont let me feel like I was right there in it. I could smell the cigarette smoke and taste the beer at the White Horse Tavern as Emile Tepperman and E.E. "Doc" Smith talked in one corner and Hubbard harangued Gibson for advice. He hits the spots that are legendary in pulp history: the Automat, the Street & Smith offices, Astounding magazine and John Campbell.

In capturing the time period, the book reminded me of Jeffrey Ford's "The Girl in The Glass," which is set in in the 1930s, though it is mainly focused on Long Island. It also reminded me of the pulps themselves, especially in the later "episodes" when Dent and Gibson subtly take on the characteristics of their famed characters, the Shadow and Doc Savage.

And it's not just the feel of the era. Malmont uses history throughout the story both as background for the events and as plot points. The beginnings of the Japanese invasion of China affect both the story and Chinatown. A huge unity parade plays an integral role, and though I haven't looked it up, I'm sure that parade happened almost exactly as Malmont describes it.

I can't wait to see what Malmont does in the future. For now, I think I'll go read some Doc Savage.

Black Gate and Sword-and-Sorcery

Black Gate magazine now has a blog and Howard Andrew Jones opens it up with a post on Sword-and-Sorcery. Of course, the genre interests me. I wrote up an entry about it at Encyclopedia Fantastica recently. In that entry I said:

Too often, the term Sword and Sorcery is used to describe epic or high fantasy,
those stories more influenced by J.R.R. Tolkien's work. Sword and Sorcery's root
texts are the work of Robert E. Howard, especially those stories about the
characters Conan and Kull. (In fact, some consider the Kull story "The Shadow
Kingdoms" as the first example of true Sword and Sorcery.) Unlike Tolkien's
work, Howard's stories are tied to single characters and rarely feature a
clear-cut morality. In fact, Conan's tales stem from Howard's belief that
barbarism will triumph over civilization, which is inherently decadent. Conan,
himself, often does things that are less than heroic (see The Tao of Conan for
more details on that.)
It could be argued that the gray morality of much
Sword and Sorcery is a defining feature of the subgenre. It also puts the lie to
the phrase "heroic fantasy," often used as a synonym for Sword and Sorcery.

Jones offers a different view on how S&S differs from epic fantasy. He puts it down to pace. He sees epic fantasy as fantastical travelogues, while S&S is more about a "somber, headlong drive."
It's an interesting take and I think pace is certainly among the defining characteristics of S&S. I think, however, it's only one aspect of what makes up S&S. But Jones isn't advocating a one-note genre either. His whole post -- which also talks about the influence of role-playing games and offers some recommendations of S&S authors -- is a thoughtful take on the genre. I'm looking forward to what else he has to say. (Jones has also had a few things to say in the past at, where he used to be editor.)

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A new Weird Tales

Weird Tales is getting a redesign and has a new editor. They're making an effort to buy fiction more on the cutting edge, more truly weird stuff. They want to be in the spirit of the original magazine, not a rehash. To get people to try it out, they making a special subscription offer of 6 issues for $12.

I've had a subscription to "The Unique Magazine" for several years now. I've enjoyed it, but I can't say any of the criticisms of it are wrong. Its pages have been filled with stories meant to duplicate the original magazine rather than follow its spirit. Even its covers were most often reprints of pulp covers. There's nothing wrong with this, necessarily. They often got some good stories and in some cases managed to get more surreal writers like Thomas Ligotti. But it wasn't the first magazine I looked to if I wanted to find something truly "unique." I'd be more likely to look online or read the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

I've never read the Silver Web, the magazine the new editor, Ann Vandermeer, published. From what I know of it, it focused on horrific and surreal stories. Should be interesting to see how that outlook translates to Weird Tales. I'm already interested in some of the stories in this next issue, stuff by Caitlin Kiernan, Richard Parks, and apparently seven new writers. I can't wait to get the new issue and see where it leads.