Archive for April, 2009

Bring Out Your Dead: Donald Westlake, Blossom Dearie, J. G. Ballard

Posted in Parker, Rotten with tags on April 27, 2009 by davehurwitz

I seemed to have turned a corner somewhere.  I can remember a time when it felt like I did nothing but attend weddings.  Now it’s funerals.  With no belief in the hereafter to gladden my heart, funerals only serve to drive home the message that someone I liked and cared about has been cut out of the world.  What’s more, a good memorial service displays every unguessed facet of the departed’s life.  The childhood I never saw.  The achievements I never heard of.  The other friends I never met until now.  I’m left with the uncomfortable feeling that I never knew the deceased at all, that I never asked the right questions, that I missed something, and I’ll never find it now.

Donald Westlake

Donald Westlake

Then there are the deaths I read about.  The ones that are not so much a personal loss as a ‘a loss to the jazz world’ or ‘a loss to literature.’  In this respect, the last four months have been pretty bad.  Mystery readers lost Donald Westlake (and his evil alter-ego, Richard Stark) on the last day of 2008.  I have written about Stark / Westlake previously, and that piece seems a more fitting tribute than anything I could do here.  While I never met Westlake or either of the people described below, I mourn their passing in small way.

Blossom Dearie
April 28, 1924 – February 7, 2009

If you’re my age, you’ve heard the voice of Blossom Dearie, whether you know it or not.  You heard it every Saturday morning, courtesy of Schoolhouse Rock.  Dearie was the voice (and piano) behind “Figure Eight” and “Unpack Your Adjectives.”  While Dearie often

Blossom Dearie

Blossom Dearie

asserted that her piano playing was superior to her vocal work, it’s her voice I most enjoy.  Girlish almost to the point of squeakiness, but tinged with a humorous cynicism, it brought a breezy sophistication to all of her songs.  Her mischievious streak frequently displayed itself in ironic show tunes like “To Keep My Love Alive” or “Always True to You in my Fashion.”  Before educating the masses via television, Dearie was a fixture of the late 50’s early 60’s jazz scene.  Though she went on to establish her own label, Daffodil Records, the recordings she made in those early years for Norman Granz at Verve (accompanied only by drums and an upright bass) are, in my opinion at least, her best.  My Gentelman Friend and Once Upon a Summertime are particular favorites, and either would make a good introduction to her work.  Dearie never retired, performing regular gigs in New York and London well into the new millennium.  I always hoped I’d be able to see her on stage, some day.  I never did.

J. G. Ballard
November 15, 1930 – April 19, 2009

Ballard has been called the inheritor of H. G. Wells, and I can see the similarities.  Both were concerned about the impact of technology on human beings, and both were unsympathetically observant of their protagonists’ shortcomings.  Still, I can’t help thinking that the oddly prudish Wells (oddly, that is, for an advocate of free love) would have been horrified by the comparison. 

J. G. Ballard

J. G. Ballard

Crash, Ballard’s most infamous novel (not to be confused with the tedious Paul Haggis film of 2004) deals with the sexuality of cars and car crashes.  Later works explored equally disturbing themes.  In both High Rise and Running Wild, homicidal psychosis erupts in posh gated communities.  The peaceful bird sanctuary of Rushing to Paradise devolves into a cult.  Cocaine Nights and Super-Cannes investigate our psychological needs for crime and violence.  Ballard’s last two novels were so controversial that they received no U.S. publication, and I wound up ordering both from overseas.  Millennium People details an absurdist terrorist movement among London’s professional class.  In Kingdom Come, a postmodern ad campaign turns a suburban shopping mall into a fascist breakaway state.

Although Neil Gaiman recently described Ballard as “terrifyingly normal”  in person, his biography is fully as interesting as his books.  Born in British controlled Shanghai, Ballard spent part of his childhood in a Japanese internment camp during World War II.  Later, he abandoned the study of medicine to join London’s literary avant-garde, editing Ambit, the literary magazine founded by pediatrician Martin Bax.  In 1964, Ballard’s wife died unexpectedly of pneumonia (not, as myth and rumor would have it, in a car crash) leaving him to raise three children on his own.  His work has been filmed by directors as diverse as Steven Spielberg and David Cronenberg.  One final book, an account of his losing battle with cancer, has yet to be published.

In one respect, the deaths of artist are not so final as the deaths of others.  The University of Chicago, which began reprinting Westlake’s Parker novels last year, has accelerated its publishing schedule.  Two more, The Mourner and The Score, are out already, with an additional four to appear throughout the year.  Sadly, Daffodil Records seems to have closed its doors (or at least its Internet portals), but not before reissuing some of Dearie’s back catalog.  The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard, weighing in at twelve hundred pages, is slated for a September release by W. W. Norton.  Though none of these people will ever create anything new, there is a lot of their work that I still have yet to enjoy.  It’s not what I would choose, if such things were up to me, but it will have to do.

Dave Hurwitz

And The Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks

Posted in Book Review with tags , , on April 21, 2009 by davehurwitz


For average readers

3 out of 5 bloody knives For fans of the Beats

I just finished reading And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, by Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. Overall, the book read like most books by these two authors. It was penned in 1945, long before either had become famous. But when I read it, I did not know this. I took it simply as another text by the beat authors.

Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, William Burroughs, New York 1953.

Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, William Burroughs, New York 1953.

The story alternates, with Burroughs writing as Will Dennison and Kerouac writing as Mike Ryko. I listened to it on audiobook, so I didn’t have the benefit of flipping back to check this fact. Instead, it became obvious as the story moved along.

Jack Kerouac and Lucien Carr probably the same month Allen met Jack for the first time,  late Spring 1944,  Columbia College Campus.

Jack Kerouac and Lucien Carr probably the same month Allen met Jack for the first time, late Spring 1944, Columbia College Campus.

All Burroughs’s chapters had the character mostly in his apartment, sardonically commenting on the lunacy of the other characters. Felt like typical Burroughs. There’s even a scene of him shooting up. In contrast, Kerouac’s chapters were manic and misdirected, a pale shadow of what On the Road would become. Ryko goes to a bar, drinks, then another bar, drinks, then back to someone’s apartment, and drinks. The only semblance of his plot was an attempt to join the merchant marine and ship out to France (where he and Phillip Tourian wanted to jump ship and run to Paris).

The title was apt, because I knew that Mike and Phillip would never make it to their ship. They would be “boiled” just like the hippos. The title (according to the afterword) was inspired by a random snatch of a radio broadcast overheard by Burroughs and Kerouac. Kerouac said that Bill always remembered weird things like this. Another theory, which was mine until I read the afterword, was that it came from a cut up.

I found the book a little more interesting because I’m a big Beat fan. If you’re not, then you’ll probably be bored by the text, which rambles. The only interesting bit is the relationship between Phillip Tourian and a much older man named Ramsay Allen or just Al. Al met Phillip when the boy was 12 and he was somewhere in his 40s. He then devoted his life to following the young man (then somewhere in his 20s) in hopes that Phillip might reciprocate his love.

Al is painted as pathetic, trying once to sneak into Phillip’s apartment and just stand near him till dawn. Often, the girlfriends didn’t like Al, and he had to walk behind the group of friends like a stray dog.

The story ends abruptly. One minute we see Al lounging around an apartment with Ryko and Phillip and the next Phillip is ringing Dennison’s buzzer to announce, “I just killed Al and threw the body off a warehouse.” It then shows Phillip and Ryko meander through several more bars until they finally part, and Phillip turns himself in.

Only in the afterword did I learn that this was based on a real murder in 1945. Phillip Tourian was Lucien Carr and Al was David Kammerer. The murder made big headlines at the time. Lucian Carr apparently introduced the three key Beats together (Kerouac, Burroughs, and Ginsburg).
Kerouac and Burroughs wanted to try their hand at the story and wrote the fictional version of tragedy. (Carr, obviously, was against it). They shopped it around to several publishers. All passes. Kerouac, reportedly, said that the book wasn’t sensational enough for the popular fiction of the time or well written enough for the literary market. He then sat on the book for years, often alluding to the Hippos text like it was some kind of Holy Grail.

The afterword also seems to treat this book like the second coming. Its publication was blocked by Carr’s estate until all the principals died. Honestly, the novel’s not bad, but not that good either. Even Kerouac admitted that it didn’t make press at the time.

Chris Kalidor

The Future Is… Cluttered

Posted in Random Weirdness with tags , on April 12, 2009 by davehurwitz

Young as I look, I have an old man’s attitude toward technology.  To me, a cell phone is just an annoyingly portable land line.  A computer is just a glorified typewriter impersonating a stereo system.  When I look at any new bit of tech, I see the older toys that inspired it.  I don’t (perhaps can’t) see it for what it is, or what it might become.


William Gibson's newest novel

William Gibson’s newest novel

William Gibson never had this problem.  Just about every serious reader my age remembers the 1984 publication of Neuromancer, the novel that defined (or maybe even created) our expectations for a computerized future.  Somehow, Gibson saw the pokey little machines of last century and made the fantastic leap into cyberspace, a term which he himself coined.  For that achievement, he earned science fiction’s triple crown of awards (Hugo, Nebula, and PKD) and cult status as an oracle of the near future.

Gibson is still writing.  While the world at large is catching up with Neuromancer, Gibson has lost interest in the future, turning his energies to defining our rather peculiar present.  In Spook Country, Gibson explores the possibilities of Locative Art, digitally rendered images tied to a specific GPS location and viewable only with the aid of a clunky VR helmet.  Examples from the book include the corpse of a virtual River Phoenix outside the Viper Room, a hotel carpeted with flowers, and a giant squid whose skin surface is composed of ever-changing TV and movie grabs, destined to hover outside a Japanese department store.

Another piece, which is alluded to but not directly described, is an apartment where every object has been annotated, often more than once, by the resident.  In a modern example of life imitating art, Spook Country itself is heavily annotated on a website called NodeMagazine, named for an as-yet-unpublished and possibly fictitious magazine in the world of Gibson’s book.  (I get a headache just thinking about it.)

Node Magazine

Node Magazine

Also published in 2007, Halting State by Charles Stross pushes the idea of digitally augmented reality a few years into to the future, where it has become a fully realized, commercially exploited technology.  The VR helmet has been replaced with trendy glasses, through which users can view a wide variety of ‘overlays’ onto the real world.  Need directions?  Just type your destination on your nonexistent keyboard and follow the fat red path down the sidewalk until you reach the blinking building.  Bored with the scenery?  Log on to your favorite game and battle some orcs and goblins on your way.  Guy on the bus bench ahead of you look dodgy?  Click a virtual menu button and any criminal record should appear above his head.  Assuming he exists at all.

While all this might sound both useful and amusing, a moment’s reflection should cause you to reconsider.  Once this technology becomes widely available, the whole world becomes one big Philip K. Dick novel, where what you see and what is real are two very different things.  What’s worse, what you see has been created by Pixar, sponsored by Coca Cola, and jammed into you irises by Microsoft.  Reality itself gets painted over to the point where it is no longer visible, like a billboard entirely obscured by graffiti.  Except in this case, the graffiti is the advertisement.

I pay the bills teaching English composition.  My job is hard enough already.  I compete for my student’s attention with laptops, cell phones, iPods, and the lure of instant entertainment they represent.  Add augmented reality, and my job becomes impossible.

Halting State

Halting State

See that guy in the back row?  He’s watching a porno instead of listening to my lecture, but I can’t tell because only he can see it.  The dude next to him is drawing a Hitler moustache across my lip and emailing it to his buddy across the room, who is busy dissing me on RateMyProfessor.  The girl in the front row looks like she’s paying attention, but that’s just because she’s mapped Edward Cullen over me in real time.  Another student has turned me into a zombie.  Another is filling the air around her with butterflies and faeries, all of which are visible only to her.

Are you beginning to get the picture?

Do me a favor.  Once you’re done reading this, step away from the computer for a minute.  Go to a window, or better yet go outside.  Feel the wind on your face.  Look up at the sky.  The plain, ordinary blue sky.  No virtual dragons flying there yet.  No digital pterosaurs.  No mile high letters of fire advertising Jesus or hemorrhoid cream.  Just blue sky and fluffy white clouds.  Take a deep breath.  Enjoy it while it lasts.

Dave Hurwitz

Why are Fanboys so Thickheaded about Wolverine?

Posted in Rotten with tags , on April 4, 2009 by davehurwitz

I’m looking forward to the new Wolverine movie. Apparently, multitudes of fanboys are not. They have been tearing this movie apart since before it went into production. Why, you ask? Mainly because the costumes aren’t right. Yes, that’s it. And recently, to top it off, a rough cut of the movie has been leaked and is currently making rounds on the Internet.

Wolverine in yellow and blue spandex

Wolverine in yellow and blue spandex

The FBI, Motion Picture Association of American and 20th Century Fox are rabid to find out who exactly leaked a rough cut of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. They vow to prosecute that person “to the fullest extent of the law.”

There’s even talk of the fanboys boycotting the Wolverine movie (although some of this had to do with Fox’s holding up Watchmen in court).

Now, lets examine the costume problem. In the comics, Wolverine is dressed in his trademark yellow and blue duds with that pointy mask. This costume was fine for the 1970s when he first appeared (Incredible Hulk #180, October 1974).

Now, honestly, if you follow the wolverine character, would someone with his personality ever dress in something so ridiculous? The comics have a tradition to uphold, but once it jumps to film, they can update the outfit, as they did for the X-men movies.

What fanboys fail to realize is that by moving to film, a whole new audience is opened up to the character. And film is always different from the comics.

Let me give you a personal example. I’m a HUGE Fantastic Four fan. My car is an orange Saturn

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine

Hugh Jackman as Wolverine

Vue with the license plate THING F4 (All other iterations of thing, grimm, and Clobberin Time were taken). I have all the issues of FF from #32 and up. I’ve seen the horrific John Buscema years and the brilliant John Byrne issues.

So, of course, I was anxious to see the Fantastic Four movie. I had heard that originally it would be Peyton Reed doing a 60s spoof of the team, which might have been good. I knew that they couldn’t do any worse than the 1994 version made by Roger Corman.

So was I wowed by the final 2005 film. No. But it capture the sorrow of the Thing and the “family” dynamics of the team. I think they made a mistake with Doom, but ultimately the film worked as a whole.

There are certain limitations to each genre. Could a two-hour film sum up 400 issues of Fantastic Four history? No. But they were able to add elements in the film that the comics never could. Often, the issues of the FF I had the most trouble reading were the ones solely devoted to the family dynamics with little action. But the movie can have scenes that work. Chris Evans, though he didn’t look or sound like the Human Torch, brought to the screen the bravado and suave of the character.

So looking back to Wolverine. Yes, I’ve collected many of the comics, though I’m by no means a number one fan. However Hugh Jackman has certainly captured the character on screen. Although the X-men films fell down in several places, Wolverine remained the highlights.

2005 Fantastic Four

2005 Fantastic Four

An in terms of costumes, which do you think a real life Logan would wear? Come on, yellow and blue spandex?

Chris Kalidor