Text-to-Screen Ratio: The Rum Diary Trailer

September 3, 2011

Long-time readers of this blog will remember that a couple of years back, I wrote a review of the Hunter S. Thompson novel “The Rum Diary,” a novel originally started by the famed gonzo journalist in 1959 and published almost 40 years later. At the time I showered it with a great deal of praise, comparing it favorably to early Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and it’s aged quite well over time. It paints a vivid portrait of the city of San Juan, is full of stories of drinking and journalism (the latter almost always affected by the former) and generally sits on all of my reading pleasure zones.

My enjoyment of the book has been tempered somewhat in recent years however, by the fact that a film adaptation has been lingering in development hell since before Thompson’s death – at one point becoming so gnarled that the Doctor himself termed the project a “waterhead fuckaround.” Nick Nolte, Benicio del Toro and Josh Hartnett all were signed at various points, but dropped off as the film went through multiple rewrites and two producers. Over time, this film has taken on the reputation of a Duke Nukem Forever or Daikatana to me, the project that seemed to have promise but lingered so long that all anticipation had long since atrophied to a stub capable of feeling only echoes of its previous joy.

The last time it came up in the news – around the same time as another Hunter S. Thompson project, the feature article “Prisoner of Denver,” had been optioned as a film – it came up the film was supposed to come out in September of 2010. That obviously did not happen, but I wasn’t expecting it to given the years of disappointment. At the time, I said something along the lines of: “I’m an eternal cynic on this film making it to the big screen, given that two incarnations were killed in development, but it’s more concrete than anything I’ve heard in years. Show me a trailer, then we’ll talk more.”

Well? They’ve finally shown me a trailer:

So let’s talk more. Leaving aside the fact that there’s still no date given for release beyond the vague promise of “this year,” I’d say that the trailer hasn’t restored my anticipation completely but it does make me feel much better about the finished product. The atmosphere of the trailer captures the vibrancy of San Juan life which made the book such a vivid read, and also presents the right scenes: news rooms, carnival, ratty apartments, parties with big money. There’s a few more hallucinatory aspects (likely to appeal to the Fear and Loathing audience) than expected, but that can’t be faulted as “The Rum Diary” novel was full of moments of borderline madness via late-night rum binges.

Cast-wise, I can’t find too much to dock it for at first glance, mostly because in all its versions the film has retained Johnny Depp playing the Thompson doppelganger Paul Kemp. Between the Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas film and readings in the Gonzo documentary, Depp has a grasp of Thompson’s voice honed through a long-time friendship, and there’s no other man* I trust to play the Doctor or his alter egos. On the topic of extras, Amber Heard (soon to appear on NBC as the female lead of The Playboy Club) certainly seems to have the sultriness and raw appeal that Chenault exuded in the novel, Giovanni Ribisi and Michael Rispoli have the degenerate scruffiness of Moberg and Salas respectively and the always dependable Aaron Eckhardt looks the part of consummate fixer Sanderson.

*Apologies to Bill Murray, but Where the Buffalo Roam has not aged well at all.

It’s story-wise that I have some concerns though, as the tone of the trailer appears to be going for something more overtly adventurous than the source material. It seems to have an almost caper-like atmosphere, putting Kemp and the San Juan Star staff in a position to bring down the real estate deals of Sanderson and his cronies, rather than the sense of pending disaster and near-existential crisis the book centered around. And of course, the omission of Dr. Gonzo-esque Fritz Yeamon is a decision whose impact is impossible to predict – reportedly he wasn’t in Thompson’s original draft of the book, but he was such a vibrant, destructive force in the finished product that absence will color everything.

But of course, you cannot judge the film based on the snippets of the trailer, so I’ll say in summary that it makes the film look very entertaining with at least some grasp on the source material, and I’m certainly going to be first in line to see this when it eventually premieres. And as to that premiere, I’ll quote the Doctor’s own words as to its continual delay: “If you don’t Do Something QUICK you’re going to Destroy a very good idea. I’m in the mood to chop yr. fucking hands off.”

More on this story once we get an actual release date.


Book Review: The Heming Way

August 3, 2011

The Heming Way: How to Unleash the Booze-Inhaling, Animal-Slaughtering, War-Glorifying, Hairy-Chested, Retro-Sexual Legend Within… Just Like Papa!

By Marty Beckerman

Published May 27, 2011

Infected Press

90 pp.

ISBN 0-970-06294-X

Reviewed July 31, 2011

In my time as a book critic, I’ve heard a lot of arguments about the dominance of white male authors in the popular culture – and if you had to pick the male-est of those authors, it would without question be Ernest Hemingway. Famous in literary circles for his sparse prose, tragically flawed protagonists and views on the generations lost from the war, Hemingway is also an author repeatedly criticized as overly masculine, misogynistic and homophobic. Still others have accused the Hemingway image as being a construction entirely apart from the man himself, with F. Scott. Fitzgerald biographer Matthew J. Bruccoli declaring the man his own greatest fictional creation.

But is that really such a bad thing? Not according to Marty Beckerman, who leaps to Papa’s defense in his parody/self-help book “The Heming Way.” Compared to the way we live today in our world of wireless Internet connections and malt beverages, the attitudes of Hemingway – a man who drank eight different types of alcohol for breakfast, sought the great adrenaline rush of hunting both beasts and men, and was so proud of his way of life that he was the only one who could end it – seems a marvelous alternative. In mapping these extremes, Beckerman not only delivers a brief and hilarious biography of the author but artfully twists it into a critique on modern society.

Beckerman lays out the case for Hemingway as “a great writer, a great hunter, a great fisherman, a great womanizer, a great drunkard, and a great man – but mostly a great drunkard” by regaling the reader with tales of the author’s exploits. He tells you how to hunt like Hemingway (pick your guns well, cook what you kill, don’t bring women along), how to drink like Hemingway (on safari, in wartime, and with your hungover ten-year-old son) and how to pursue women like Hemingway (marry often, swapping out as their psycho levels rise and they lose their taste for your beard and vomiting friends).

The humor here comes from the extremity of viewpoints presented, as well as how over-the-top Beckerman gets in embracing those viewpoints. He presents Hemingway in his own words and then almost immediately illustrates the flaws in those words with even more quotes, but never dares to question them even as they grow absurd. Of course Hemingway’s drinking burdened him with massive health problems, but how else could he reach such heights as shooting himself in the legs during a fishing trip? And of course Papa’s “outward misogyny” was just an offshoot of the harsh realities of war, not repressed homosexuality! (So what if there are eight or ten quotes to the contrary, the man’s balls overwhelm those!)

It would be easy to dismiss the book as nothing but a list of Hemingway jibes, but Beckerman’s commitment to the format is impressive. Much as he did in the excellent 2008 political dissection “Dumbocracy,” Beckerman backs up his jokes with considerable research, regularly sourcing Hemingway’s own writing as well as a variety of biographies and scholarly studies. The format, reminiscent of a Cracked article, also earns its laughs by inserting some biting comments underneath Hemingway photos periodically inserted into the text. (Particular favorite: Hemingway’s quote “Love is just another dirty lie” followed immediately with his wedding photo and the tip “Do not include the previous quote in your vows.)

And even as parody, there’s a sense that it might be sitting on something deeper. that Particularly as the book heads toward the end, there’s an odd seriousness that emerges from the parody, almost a rant taking over as our modern sense of safety is compared to Hemingway’s style. In fact, in some passages, it almost seems like he’s seriously viewing that style as the lesser of two evils:

“And we’ve become rich in the currency of cowardice. We have so many things and so few experiences. We are desperate to live as long as possible, not as large as possible. We are so afraid to say goodbye to the world that we never say hello. We are numbed in our high-def, wi-fi cocoons, eager for materialistic possessions – the newest, fastest, shiniest gadgets – instead of a fitting end to a life well-lived. If Papa hadn’t killed himself out of despair in 1961, he would kill himself out of disgust today.”

It’s impossible to say what Papa would have thought of this book (though based on history, he’d likely knock the author on his back with one punch) but the end result would probably have involved a laugh and six shared drinks. Beckerman has kicked a breath of fresh air into the Hemingway mythos fifty years after Papa ended his life, and “The Heming Way” should appeal to fans of its source material and anyone looking for a good joke. It’s well-researched, incredibly funny, and just the impetus you’ve been looking for to bring Wild Turkey and six grenades on your next fishing trip.


Book Review: Dreadfully Ever After

June 15, 2011

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After

By Steve Hockensmith

Published March 22, 2011

Quirk Books

320 pp.

ISBN 1-594-74502-1

Reviewed June 14, 2011

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a franchise in possession of good fortune must be in want of more success. Certainly you can say this is true of “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies” – taking what could have been a throwaway idea of meshing classic literature with today’s popular culture, Quirk Books managed to transform it into to a startlingly good novel that played its source material for just the right level of comic effect. They capitalized on this success with involvement in other classic authors (though the narrative success hasn’t been as strong there) and a potential movie installment that still holds a lot of potential but is sadly bogged down in development hell at the moment.

As a storyline, the original idea still stands up on its own merits – by my estimation at least – and so I was heartened to see that it hasn’t succumbed to the plague of success and sequel dilution. Quirk followed the innovation of “PPZ” with a surprisingly competent prequel novel in “Dawn of the Dreadfuls,” and has now bookended it with a direct sequel in “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After.” And much like its predecessors, “Dreadfully Ever After” continues to strike the right balance and turn out an end product that works both as an adaptation and as a stand-alone zombie narrative.

Timing-wise, it evenly spaces the three books apart, being set four years after the events of the original “PPZ.” In the time since that installment, the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy has become strained under the forced retirement of Elizabeth’s blades – “quieted by that force more powerful than any warrior” as it said in the first book’s close – and her ambivalence towards having children. Before she and Darcy can come to any sort of resolution, a stray zombie child gets its fangs into Darcy’s neck and appears to seal their marriage to end with his decapitation. However, Darcy’s aunt – the vengeful Catherine de Bough – claims to have access to a remedy, and all it will require is Elizabeth to not only surrender care of Darcy but risk her honor and her very life to cure him.

“Dreadfully Ever After” comes from Steve Hockensmith, author of the “Dawn of the Dreadfuls,” and as such the book maintains the narrative coherence of the last installment. The action moves to London – now a segmented city to defend its nobility from dreadful attack, with parks and manors on the other side of a wall from slums and plague – and continues the intersection of Victorian nobility with the deadpan unmentionable dispatch. The series’ trend of introducing outlandish humor also continues, with some occasionally gratingly silly bits like casting the “dandies” and the “fops” of London’s aristocracy as rival gangs and dreadfuls chasing an Irishman to replace greyhounds chasing a rabbit. And again, much like “Dawn of the Dreadfuls,” it remains a step behind the original “PPZ” without the benefit of Austen’s original text to modify – the language is still designed to emphasize the incongruous manners with shambling hordes, but feels like it’s straining a bit to reach the original’s heights.

Yet in many ways, “Dreadfully Ever After” feels better than “Dawn of the Dreadfuls,” as if Hockensmith has learned from experience and avoided that book’s failings. The overly obnoxious version of Mrs. Bennet is almost completely absent save for the last chapter, and out of the new characters none of them match the cartoonish quality of the first installment’s Lord Lumpley. In addition to Darcy and Lady Catherine several characters from Austen’s original text return, and are used in a way that strengthens the story – particularly the addition of Lady Catherine’s daughter Anne, Darcy’s intended bride who’s even more unsettling than the dreadfuls.

And while it’s not adapted Austen level anymore, there’s still passages that describe the zombie horde in proper, almost poetic detail. A scattered zombie horde is “fresh next to rancid, rag-shrouded beside fashionably clothed, all united in the democracy of death,” and a particularly accurate swing of a ninja’s sword splits “the skull and neck open… like the blooming of some viscous red blossom.”

Hockensmith’s real achievement beyond this is that even after two books in the series, he’s found some new ground to cover. Rather than try to force Elizabeth through a personal grinder yet again, the book mostly uses her story to drive the plot and focuses its narrative energy on her sisters Kitty and Mary. Free of Lydia’s flighty influence, Kitty is trying to find out what sort of person she is, and it comes to a surprise that she doesn’t like being seen as silly as much as she once did. And Mary, having erected further walls as her sisters are married off, manages to have a few chinks in her armor thanks to an unusual ally. These two were mostly supplemental to the tribulations of Elizabeth, Jane and Lydia in previous installments (and in the original Austen novel, if I’m not mistaken), but here they feel like real characters with legitimately interesting romantic arcs – especially considering the two talk their feelings over in between splitting the skills of dreadfuls.

But that’s not the only way “Dreadfully Ever After” gets into the minds of the dreadfuls. In spending time with Darcy as he fights off the undead taint sweeping through his body, the book actually broaches relatively untouched ground in zombie literature by showing how the undead see the world and depicting how painful warring with its compulsions can be – dreams filled with steaks garnished with fingers, every life form all the way down to spiders emitting a radiance you just want to reach out and touch. And a late chapter focused on average zombie Mr. Crickett in his pursuit of a meal fit for a king is a bit of a stylistic departure, but one that’s the funniest part of the book (and evokes fond memories on my part of the game Stubbs The Zombie).

It’s not a novel that will win over any new fans – and if you were turned off by the concept at the start this won’t be what lures you back – but as a third installment to the saga of the zombie-slaying Bennets “Dreadfully Ever After” makes a very respectable close. As someone who was a curious observer and turned into an involved reader, I’m satisfied to see that Hockensmith was able to turn it into a trilogy, and flaws aside it’s a set I’m pleased to have sitting on my shelf.


Column: Reading List for Summer 2011

May 31, 2011

Welcome back everyone to The Lesser of Two Equals! After a two-month hiatus (reasons for which I explained in prior posts) punctuated only with the occasional review, I’m once again trying to restore some sort of regularity to the blog’s coverage. It remains a rocky slope depending on what I have the time and energy levels for, but out of a mixture of stubbornness and loyalty I refuse to let the digital equivalent of dust gather on these pages. Multiple efforts are going on behind the scenes to continue offering some form of coverage, both what you’ve loved before and a few new tricks you might also like.

And coincidentally, those efforts happen to overlap with Memorial Day and the anniversary of one of the most popular features on The Lesser of Two Equals in years past (2009 and 2010 to be more specific), that of the summer reading list. As the name implies, this is where I go through my bookshelf and recommendations and dig out a variety of titles that I’ll try to work through over the summer, whether I’m on the top of Beacon Rock or lounging by the Willamette River or ensconced in my fantastic new reading chair. And once again, I like to flatter myself that I’ve selected a bumper crop this year of books worth reading, worth talking about, and quite possibly worth reviewing in greater detail.

Incidentally, regular readers might notice that this year the reading list has been cut from ten titles to six, and there are three reasons for this. First, in the past two years at least half of the list has gone unread for one reason or another, leaving me with little to say about the titles by Labor Day, so this time we’ll just take out the pretense that I’ll get them done. Second, with a second blog I’ve decided to split the workload by also doing a summer viewing list of the first seasons of five shows I’ve never watched in detail. And third, most of what I have on this list are pretty damn long or dense titles, so on average this probably still equates to reading ten books this summer.

(Though I couldn’t quite bring myself to cut the list down to five. Old habits die hard.)

1. The Unread Classic: “Catch-22,” Joseph Heller

Having recently just polished off Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “A Hundred Years of Solitude” – a book so inspired and wide-spanning that I literally don’t feel qualified to review it – it’s about time to dip back into my backlog and pick out an established masterpiece that for one reason or another I’ve never gotten around to reading. This summer’s target happens to be Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22,” a book I acquired from a friend moving to New York and whose bookshelf I had the privilege of picking clean.

The obvious critical acclaim for the title is a main reason for its selection, but another one is that – rarely for me – I know absolutely nothing about this book. It’s another one of those titles that I somehow missed all of the English classes that would have discussed it, and any mention of it in the various critical essays I read in my spare time, to the point where I don’t even know the names of the main characters or direction of the plot. Even the definition of the term has been somewhat fluid for me – I feel like I know what it means but I wouldn’t feel comfortable using it in conversation without double-checking Wikipedia.

And personally? I find that very exciting. My own innate curiosity keeps me from going into a lot of things cold, so I can’t wait to see how this one holds up.

2. The Second Installment in a Long-Term Investment: “A Clash of Kings,” George R.R. Martin

Earlier this year, my old friend Ben Kream encouraged me to start investing some time into George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, considered to be one of the most seminal works in the fantasy genre. I moved away from fantasy literature as I entered college, despite a long-standing high school relationship with the works of R.A. Salvatore and Terry Goodkind, but his unbridled enthusiasm for the series and desire to talk shop with me about it was enough to hook my interest. And the fact that HBO was preparing a lavishly produced show about it meant it overlapped with my burgeoning TV criticism, so I decided that the first title “Game of Thrones” would be worth my attention.

I did, and it became one of those rare books I stop reading only because I realize the coffee shop I’m in is about to close. It was everything that was promised – full of interesting and nuanced characters, a completely new and yet intricately detailed world, nothing in the way of black and white morality – and I plowed through it with great enthusiasm. I’m ridiculously behind on the show – only about three episodes in at time of writing – but have already been consumed by its atmosphere and performance and will probably have more to say about it once I clear some other shows out of the way.

With a second season of Game of Thrones already greenlit by HBO and the fifth installment “A Dance With Dragons” to be published this July, the series clearly has no sign of slowing down and it’s high time I make a serious effort to get caught up. I’ll likely wait until the first season wraps to get started as I don’t want to taint any of the remaining episodes with knowledge of what comes next

3. The Much-Nagged-About Graphic Novel: “100 Bullets,” Brian Azzarello

I tend to take recommendations for reading whenever I can, recognizing as I do that the amount of media I consume makes it almost certain that something is going to slip through the cracks, but every so often a recommendation keeps getting ignored no matter how many times it’s pushed upon me. “100 Bullets” certainly falls under that category – my brother Neil has been pushing this noir/pulp inspired graphic novel series on me for at least a year now, claiming it’s apparently a series tailor-made for my tastes. Recently he splurged on a complete hardcover set for his birthday, and he’s promised to send it to me once he finishes rereading it.

Even if he doesn’t (and if you’re reading this Neil I hope you’ll mind your promise) it’s clearly past time for me to get started. I’ve never been a huge comic fan as I have an aversion to stories that extend and retcon themselves past the point of coherence, but I have enjoyed several enclosed graphic narratives like Watchmen, Preacher, V for Vendetta and The Goon to name a few.

And also, given that he bought hardcover versions, I’m fairly certain that Neil might literally beat me over the head with them until I hunker down and start reading. I like being hit with recommendations, but there’s a limit.

4. The Posthumous Offering from a Master: “The Pale King,” David Foster Wallace

As I mentioned in last year’s list, the wordy mammoth of “Infinite Jest” is one of the rare books I’ve never been able to work my way through. I don’t know if it’s the impressive length, the voluminous footnotes or the niggling doubt that I’m not smart enough to be reading this, but for some reason I’ve just never been able to reach the singularity between pages 250-300 where the book becomes virtually impossible to put done. I thought about putting it back on this list after it failed to be cleared from the deck in 2010, but experience has taught me that it probably won’t be finished this summer either – at least not given the already impressive demands on my time.

However, I’ll still be spending some time with the late David Foster Wallace this summer thanks to “The Pale King,” released only a month and a half ago thanks to the efforts of Wallace’s friends, editors and agents. Described as Wallace’s “vocational memoir” and assembled from the final manuscript as well as hundreds of sketches and loose notes, the book has been critically acclaimed despite (and possibly because) it exists in such a fractured state. It’s apparently not the next “Infinite Jest” – not that anyone was expecting it to be such – but it’s apparently still possessed of Wallace’s innate brilliance to the point that few readers have said it’s a book worth avoiding.

Beyond being free of the overwhelming reputation and scope of “Infinite Jest,” I’ve got a personal reason to want to read this as well. Posthumous works of beloved authors are a particular point of interest for me (see my review of Gilbert Sorrentino’s “The Abyss of Human Illusion,” which I’m fairly certain no one ever has) because I find them a fascinating window into the creative process of an author and an opening for constant speculation on where the story could have gone. And given Wallace’s unequivocal genius and tragic emotional problems, his swan song should have plenty of both.

5. The Anticipated Reread: “Anansi Boys,” Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s always been one of my favorite authors – endlessly imaginative, good-humored and always the sort who seems to have the glow of something undefinable gently held between his fingers – and lately, he’s been popping up in the news with surprising regularity. First, a rather startling event earlier this month regarding Minnesota’s state budget where House Majority Leader Matt Dean called Gaiman “a pencil-necked little weasel” for taking a $45,000 speaking engagement at a library (money Gaiman donated to charity afterwards) which got large numbers of his fans up in arms. He’s also penned a recent episode of Doctor Who called “The Doctor’s Wife” which I haven’t seen yet (I’m still on the David Tennant years) but which was very well-received and apparently translated some of Gaiman’s best themes to the world of the Doctor.

So given that he’s been so much on the radar lately, I figured it would only be fair to devote this summer’s reread slot to one of his titles, namely 2005’s “Anansi Boys.” I first read this back in 2008 when I was part of the late Madison book group ‘The League of Literature and Libations,’ and seemed to enjoy it more than the rest of the group. With three years gone past, the details have faded from memory but the overall positive feelings have not – I found the book incredibly funny and moving at the time, containing a pastiche of mythology and fantasy that paired very well with ideas on family and destiny.

And given that the book is a spin-off of Gaiman’s legendary novel “American Gods,” this will also serve as an appetizer for that book in the fall. I thought about adding it to this list instead but quickly dismissed it, given how epic-heavy this summer’s list is.

6. The Authorial Introduction: “The Diamond Age,” Neal Stephenson

Beyond the obvious goal of picking out interesting titles to read, one of the main things I try to use my summer reading list for is to get caught up on some of the authors I’ve always meant to read. Neal Stephenson’s one who’s been on that list for several years – a science/historical fiction author who’s garnered vast critical respect in both fields, and with an impressive knowledge of physics and computer engineering. I’ve owned copies of “Cryptonomicon” and “Quicksilver” for some time now, though their impressive length and breadth (and “Quicksilver” being part of a trilogy) have been helpful excuses for me to not get started with them.

To begin my authorial introduction, I’ll be starting with Stephenson’s 1995 novel “The Diamond Age,” a novel dealing with nanotechnology and artificial intelligence. Yet another book I don’t know terribly much about, but one that’s certainly shorter than the other novels I mentioned and has the distinction of winning the Hugo and Locus awards the next year. And based on the first line, a novel I can already tell is geared toward my tastes – I can be picky about my literature, and I know any novel that contains the opening “skated over to the mod parlor to update his skull gun” contains at least some appeal.

(And upon reflection of the list, I realize this now makes three of the six entries on the list are directly or indirectly tied to the name Neil. I’ll try to play a little After the Gold Rush when reading the others to keep it thematically consistent.)

So, that’s the vast plate I’ve set for myself this summer. What’s on everyone else’s shelf?


Book Review: Unfamiliar Fishes

May 4, 2011

Unfamiliar Fishes

By Sarah Vowell

Published March 22, 2011

Riverhead Books

256 pp.

ISBN 1-594-48787-1

Reviewed May 4, 2011

If Sarah Vowell has a knack for anything, it’s for digging the most interesting things out of topics that most casual readers wouldn’t even take a second glance at. A self-described “civics nerd,” she can expound on topics ranging from the lunchroom at Carlsbad Caverns to the “sad sack quality of Canadian chronology” to the diary of President Garfield, and still manage to pull out connections to real life and other history that makes her theories a joy to experience. Her last book, “The Wordy Shipmates,” found dynamic personas in the stereotypically staid environment of Puritan New England, discovering the lively debate that shaped the earliest cities and states in America.

Now in her latest book, “Unfamiliar Fishes,” she’s moved from the first states to the last one, seeing how the American spirit of colonization and conversion shaped the fate of Hawaii’s people and culture over the last century and a half. And while the topic’s a bit denser and darker than her earlier work, “Unfamilar Fishes” is another satisfactory addition to the canon further cementing the fact that no one’s writing about history quite like Vowell, and that no one else is making it such an accessible read.

Vowell’s titular “unfamiliar fishes” are the ‘haole’ foreigners who manipulated Hawaii on its path to becoming the fiftieth member of the United States, beginning with the New England missionaries who sought a “bloodless conquest for Christ” in converting the native population and ending with those missionaries’ grandchildren handing the land over to America after overthrowing the last queen. She traces the path of Hawaii’s lost independence through decades of foreigners setting up shop, the diseases and conversions they brought with them, and how the seeds of revolt were sown by the commercial desires of settlers and the gradually decaying base of the monarchy.

In my review of “The Wordy Shipmates” I noted the shift from her travelogue/essay format to a more formal academic feeling, and “Unfamiliar Fishes” does continue the structured approach to her work. While she bounces from past to present in mixing in her own real-life experiences, the narrative remains mostly chronological and straightforward as it goes through Hawaiian history, with regular callbacks to earlier points of importance tying it all together. She’s said she sees her work as a form of journalism, and it’s clear she’s done her research – she dips liberally into the letters and memoirs of the original missionaries, and supports it with the stories told by Hawaiian museum tour guides and scholars.

However, at the same time the book also feels much more unfocused and at times scattershot than “The Wordy Shipmates,” possibly as a consequence of the wider timeframe. With decades of letters and regime changes to cover there’s less time to focus on the story’s more characterful players, as she did with presidential assassins or Puritan colonists. Vowell’s thought process, while always charming in the random connections she makes, shows a bit of strain to maintain the same era while at the same time jumping from the Polynesian Triangle to Voltaire to President McKinley. Given the wide swath of time and generational cast involved, it also wouldn’t have hurt to include family trees of the royalty and missionaries to show just how intertwined this saga was.

That said, these changes don’t do anything to dilute Vowell’s inimitable style or just how readable she makes American history. Vowell has an innate grasp of analogy – she can see a Bible verse on helping Macedonia to the high-fructose corn syrup of American colonization – and an open mind to both sides to see their similarities, as the earliest days of missionary contact becomes “the story of traditionalists squaring off.” And while they are fewer than in other books there are a few figures of particular interest in the history of Hawaii – standouts are Henry Obookiah, one of the earliest Hawaiian converts to to Christianity, and adventurer turned prime minister Henry Murray Gibson – and she makes sure that we spend enough time with them to stand out as characters. Long-time readers of Vowell will also be gratified to see the scenes of her recurring travel partner nephew Owen, now eight years old and with his own own interesting quirks: his goodbye over the phone happens to be “I love you! Don’t die!”

There’s a sense from Owen that he’s been infected with his aunt’s somewhat macabre sense of fascination in American history, and “Unfamiliar Fishes” is yet another example of why Vowell’s unique perspective on history remains infectious to readers as well. It’s a reliable choice for fans of her earlier work and anyone looking for a primer on Hawaiian history – maybe not the best book for the island’s beaches but certainly something to have on hand for the long flight in, so you can understand there’s far more to these islands than sun and garish shirts.


Book Review: Machine of Death

April 23, 2011

Machine of Death: A Collection of Stories About People Who Know How They Will Die

Edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo and David Malki!

Published October 13, 2010

Bearstache Books

464 pp.

ISBN 0-982-16712-1

Reviewed April 23, 2011

It’s impossible to look at “Machine of Death” and not see it as anything but unequivocal victory for the Internet. Not only was it based on an idea from a widely popular webcomic and assembled by a wide pool of bloggers, webcomic writers and other web-centric contributors, but it was also the subject of a widely blogged and tweeted campaign to buy the book on the release date and shoot it to the top of Amazon charts. And not only did it succeed in that goal, but it earned a vitriolic response from Glenn Beck that only managed to garner it more positive exposure and healthy sales past the release date.

That’s a fantastic success story for marketing in the age of Twitter, but even if they’d cut all that organizing out it wouldn’t change the fact that “Machine of Death” is a wonderfully solid collection of short fiction. In soliciting the best stories from the Internet talent pool, the editors of “Machine of Death” – Ryan North, M. Bennardo and David Malki! – have inspired a wide range of mediations on what’s really important when your ultimate faith is hanging over your head, mining psychological trauma for stories that oscillate almost seamlessly between the funny and the tragic.

Each of the stories is focused on the same broad concept: the existence of a machine that can take a blood sample and infallibly predict how that person is going to die. However, the prediction is laid out in the vaguest of terms, only one word or short phrase such as “cancer” or “friendly fire” or “while trying to save another.” Each prediction is purposely vague – it doesn’t say, for example, whether the subject will commit suicide or die as a result of someone else’s suicide – but it comes true in a fashion that leaves no doubt as to the efficacy of the machine.

Obviously, many of the stories are internally focused, dealing with the specific reactions to the knowledge. In some stories, the subjects will be rendered utterly paralyzed by the choice, trying to avoid any and all incarnations of what could kill them and yet still fall prey. Still others will dive into their fates – “fire” leads to firefighters, “robbery” leads to police officers – and others will embrace it joyfully to the point of psychosis (“Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions,” Jeffrey C. Wells). There’s also stories about those who built the machine, such as John Chernega’s “Almond” or Tom Francis’ “Exploded,” which get into the heads of those who build or maintain the machine, and do a masterful job in showing how being so closely tied with an inanimate doomsayer would break you down psychologically.

But even more than the individual impact, the best interpretations of “Machine of Death” come up when it expands to consider just what would happen to a society where such machines are commonplace – even moreso since no two stories share the same interpretation. Would it be like Camille Alexander’s “Flaming Marshmallow,” where it’s mandatory for everyone to have their blood tested in high school and the results completely replace the high school cliques of jocks and nerds with crashers and bullets? Or could it be like Douglas J. Lane’s “Friendly Fire,” where a new breed of domestic terrorists devote their lives to its destruction, haunted by what the knowledge of death did to their loved ones? Much like death itself, the possibilities are endless, and the stories get better the more they expand their scope.

The sheer breadth of ideas means that there’s stories for every taste, but here’s some particular favorites of mine: Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw (of “Mogworld”)‘s “Exhaustion While Having Sex With a Minor,” which offers some excellent irony and political satire; M. Bennardo’s “Starvation,” which uses the concept as a springboard for a haunting wartime tale of isolation; and Erin McKean’s “Not Waving But Drowning” which mixes the adolescent, societal and ironic sides of the concept in a very interesting way. Bonus points for creative formatting go to “Love Ad Nauseam” from Sherri Jacobsen and “HIV Infection from Machine of Death Needle” from Brian Quinlan, the latter of which is so wonderfully succinct Hemingway would nod approvingly.

The timeline to enrage Glenn Beck by purchasing it might be long past, but that only takes away one of the many reasons why “Machine of Death” is worth reading. It’s alternatively dark and funny, always creative and varied enough that at least one of the stories will be worth your attention. Who’d’ve thought an offhand comment by a green tyrannosaurus could yield this much depth?

Extra Credit:

  • If you want to take a look at the sample stories, the publishers are offering it through Creative Commons on their website. Several stories are also available as free podcasts.

Book Review: Extra Lives

January 13, 2011

Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter

By Tom Bissell

Published June 8, 2010

Pantheon Books

240 pp.

ISBN 0-307-37870-5

Reviewed January 13, 2011

The medium of video gaming has always been a lightning rod for controversy, from the violence levels of “Mortal Kombat” to the sex scenes of “Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,” but in the last year two debates have raised the stakes in new ways. In April Roger Ebert, the grand high priest of film criticism, expanded on his earlier opinion that video games could never be art, delivering an in-depth argument that instigated so much debate online that he was later forced to admit he wasn’t qualified to make that statement. Second – and with far wider consequences – the state of California has taken its case for regulating the sale of video games to the U.S. Supreme Court, with a ruling still pending that could either cement games as a truly legitimate media or drive a stake through the industry’s growth.

Whatever your stance on either of these issues, there’s no disputing video games have become something more than quarter sinks for arcade-goers or time-wasters for the underachieving. In terms of technology, interactivity and storytelling, the potential for video games to do something more has never been higher, and these debates prove it’s time for a serious look at where this medium is going. And it’s for that reason that Tom Bissell’s “Extra Lives” should be required reading for anyone even remotely concerned with the discussion: it’s a well-rounded analysis of several of the most influential games of the last decade, a book that shows the most devoted of fans can also be the most incisive of critics.

Bissell takes several of the most popular titles from the last decade – Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV, BioWare’s Mass Effect and Capcom’s Resident Evil amongst others – and breaks them down in loosely connected essays that are equal parts specific criticism and broader industry analysis. His experiences in each game are discussed in detail, covering how well they tackle issues such as storytelling, character development, violence, immersion and problem solving. The book also incorporates stops at game developers’ offices and profiles of some of the industry’s most outspoken figures, including Gears of War mastermind Cliff Bleszinski and Braid auteur Jonathan Blow.

Fittingly for his topic, Bissell avoids a dry academic tone and goes through these games in a journalistic tone that blends research with personal experience. His analysis of each subject is engaging in how he express his reaction to games (he praises the immersion of Resident Evil‘s “shock of the new” and cites it as the first video game that had “gone straight for the spinal canal”), and also has the unsparing edge of the professional game writer (the game has a story that“collapses wherever thought arrives”). It’s criticism accessible to both the fans and the scholars, and one that’s willing to treat the medium seriously – I can’t think of any other source that can quote Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” in analyzing the plot of GTA IV.

And Bissell is nothing if not serious about his video games: as he illustrates in often unflattering detail, his gaming habits regularly hover on the obsessive wavelength. He admits in the opening chapter he missed all of Election Day 2008 because it overlapped the release of Fallout 3, and unapologetically cites 80 hours logged in Mass Effect and 200 in Oblivion. The final chapter equates his gaming with an addiction, as months of cocaine abuse was intertwined with endlessly playing GTA IV. Running through the money and opportunities lost, it’s entirely possible to see him as a poster child for the anti-gaming associations (and this coming from a 20-year gamer who has 80 hours of his own in Fallout 3 and Oblivion, and whose Xbox gamerscore is verging on 30,000 at time of writing).

But Bissell is no slack-jawed shooter fan taken in by gaming’s basic flash and violence – rather, he’s a researcher who’s fascinated by how something so basic as shooting zombies can stir him so mentally and emotionally. When a game has problems (poor vehicle sections, badly written dialogue) he weighs just how much they throw him for the experience, and when he finds a gaming theory unsettling more often than not he goes straight to the designers for an explanation. He treats the topic seriously, and by extension you take his arguments and emotions seriously, so when he reaches a conclusion on a factor like the choices made in Mass Effect‘s penultimate story mission his concluding passage resonates deeply:

“Thus the game took my own self-interest and effectively vivisected it. I literally put down my controller and stared at my television screen. When games do this poorly, or even adequately, the sensation is that of a slightly caffeinated immediacy. You have agency, yes, but what of it? It is just a game. But when a game does this well, you lose track of your manipulation of it, and its manipulation of you, and instead feel so deeply inside the game that your mind, and your feelings, become as seemingly crucial to its operation as its many millions of lines of codes. It is the sensation that that the game itself is suddenly, unknowably alive as you are.”

Even when its chapters feel a bit unfocused (many were published as magazine features and profiles and as such don’t quite form a whole), passages and opinions like these still manage to hit one as definitely as an unexpected sniper headshot in a Halo deathmatch. “Extra Lives” is full of these well-fleshed thoughts, and for this clarity and depth it’s earned a place on the top shelf of books written about this continually evolving medium. It’s impossible to say where gaming is going in the coming years, but it’s certainly going beyond what we expect, and it’s people like Bissell we should be listening to as it develops.

Extra Credit:

  • For demos of Bissell’s work, previously published chapters of “Extra Lives” can be found online in their original formats at The Guardian and The New Yorker.

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