Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Sun & the Moon & the Rolling Stones by Rich Cohen (Book Review)

The Sun & the Moon & the Rolling Stones
By Rich Cohen
Published by Spiegel & Grau, 2016
Price: $18 

The Sun & the Moon & the Rolling Stones is a relatively brief microcosmic biography of the band focusing mostly on the years from its formation to their artistic peak with Exile on Main Street. The years after that are portrayed thru its effects on the life of the author who was assigned to cover them on their 1994 tour for the hack auteur Rolling Stone Magazine. These bits can be a bit intrusive because if you're like me, you don't really care about the impressions or life of a "journalist" that wrote for that shit magazine that is now the size of a manila folder. But overall, even those sections of the book are entertaining if not very enlightening.

To me, the book went into about the right depth for a semi-fan like me. Don't get me wrong. I LOVE a lot of Stones songs and own a lot of their albums, but I think it's a shame that they outlived their prime. So I'm a fan of their best work. I think they were the closest rivals to the Beatles but fell a little short.

By the time I was getting into music seriously it was about the time this book starts. I actually saw the Stones on that 94 tour at the Astrodome in Houston. The same year I saw Nine Inch Nails in their prime 3 times. The Stones were old even back then and I don't really remember it blowing me away. I just remember a tiny little band on a monstrous stage they were too big to fill.

I haven't delved that much into the biography of the band so the info in this book was informative but I doubt a real hardcore Stones fan would find anything of value in it. It's cursory with its subject. The author gets too involved and subjective, especially with his erotic hero worship of Keith Richards. He puts so much praise on the guy for his survival skills and toughness that I felt he should just call up Keith and ask if he would like to have sex with him. It was that over the top.

 Another very subjective call that Cohen makes time and time again is his belief that the Rolling Stones were more important and wrote better songs than the Beatles. I thought that was a joke. The Beatles would have existed with or without the Stones. The Stones would not have existed without the Beatles. The Stones would have never started the British Invasion. They were always following in the footsteps of the Beatles until the debacle of  Her Satanic Majesties Request. I always got the sense that the Stones knew they were inferior to the Beatles. Cohen lambasts such classics as "Tomorrow Never Knows" and "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" and writes that they sound dated now. I guarantee you children nowadays know the Beatles or someone like Elvis. If you said "Rolling Stones" they wouldn't have a clue.

The book was entertaining and kept me reading but someone that has read a lot of books about the Rolling Stones should give it a pass. It's more like a biography written by a fan boy.

My Grade: B

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Dark Tower (Movie Review)

The Dark Tower 
Directed by Nikolaj Arcel

11-year-old Jake Chambers doesn't have a very happy life. His dad is dead and his stepdad doesn't love him. He's been in and out of therapy but it doesn't seem to help him. He's also getting bullied at school. On top of all these real world problems, Jake suffers from nightmares and visions at night. He dreams of children being used to power a weapon aimed at The Dark Tower, an edifice that protects the universe from demonic and hellish powers. He dreams of the Man in Black and the gunslinger that hunts him, Roland Deschain. He spends most of his free time making drawings of the things he sees. Of course everyone, including his mom, thinks Jake is crazy. When Jake finds a gateway to the world he's been seeing in his visions, he finds that everything he thought might be just his imagination is all too real. He soon becomes a companion to the Gunslinger on his quest to kill the Man in Black and maybe even save the entire universe in the process.

I guess I'll start out with what I liked about this movie, which isn't much. Probably the ONLY thing I thought was first rate was the young actor Tom Taylor as Jake Chambers. In actuality, I would say HE is the main character of this movie, not Roland. The role calls for a lot of range, from childish innocence to terror to despair to playfulness. He does it all without getting too Anakin Skywalker grumpy moody.

I probably had some negative feelings about Idris Elba being cast as Roland since in the books, the gunslinger is white and to me I picture Clint Eastwood from the Man With No Name trilogy, cowboy hat and all. To me, in this movie, Roland comes across more as an amalgam between Blade and a leftover character from Rogue One. Especially his costume design. It doesn't feel like the Old West. I'm not saying he shoulda been riding a horse and spitting chewing tobacco. Just put on a hat dude.

I also thought about the reverse racism going on in Hollywood these days. I read an article that mentioned Akiva Goldsman's opinion about people being against his casting of Elba. He said "racist assholes should go fuck themselves!".  Now, if you don't know, Akiva has written a LOT of shit movies...the worst being Batman and Robin. He's also responsible for unleashing the Divergent series, and the 5th Wave, so you can't really trust his judgments.

We know what would have happened if in the Dark Tower novels, Roland had been black and they cast a white actor in the movie. There would have been protests, backlash all over Twitter and the internet about "white washing". But if you give a black man a white man's role, its not controversial, its "cutting edge", "cool" etc. Elba will probably be up for an Oscar for this part.

To me, I think Elba is overrated. Everyone seems to want to make him the next Denzel Washington, but really the only part I've seen him play is a dope smoking don't give a shit about alien lifeform readings on an alien planet just go fuck Cherlize Theron ship captain from the worst sci-fi movie of all time, Prometheus. Some people want him to be the next James Bond. Why? Because he's black?
He does an ok job with Roland, but there really isn't very much to play....maybe a flashback scene to him and his dad (the dude from the Allstate commercial) making a last stand against evil armies and a big battle scene where we see nothing. You don't really get a sense of the history between Roland, the Man in Black, and Midworld.

The worst casting of the movie was Matthew McConaughey as the Man in Black. He lacks any sense of menace and it's hard to see him as evil since he's wearing the exact same outfits he wears in the Lincoln Continental car commercials. He just comes off as weird and creepy, like some guy you'd catch peeking in your bathroom window. And he has two weirdly nerdy scientists that help him with his evil plans who seem oddly out of place in the setting. The Man in Black reminded me too much of a poor man's Darth Vader.

The production values of the movie reminded me of something you would see on HBO. Like they had 5 guys that played the monsters and they would just recycle them in different shots. Makeup was nonexistent. They wrapped a lot of the creatures faces in cloth probably to save money on effects shots. It would have been a lot more interesting to give Roland's gun a cool sound when it fired, but instead it was just the same old six shooter sound. To me, the whole film felt like a bad 80s B-movie with a relatively cheap 21st century budget.

As far as the script of the movie, I heard a lot of conflicting things about when this movie takes place. I read that it was a prequel to the books, an adaptation of the 1st and 3rd novels, and that it happened AFTER all the novels. I will tell you this, I read the first novel the week before the movie came out and it helped me understand the backstory a lot more between Roland and The Man in Black. There was maybe one flashback in the movie whereas there were several in the book. It also helped me understand what had gone on in Midworld before the movie began.

I've been around a while and I have to say out of all the movies, tv series, etc made from Stephen King works, there's probably only been about one or two that I actually enjoyed. It's really kinda sad. This movie definitely falls in the sucks category. Even if you think the movie is bad, please give the books a chance. In fact, skip the movie and read the first Dark Tower book instead.

My Grade: C 

Friday, August 4, 2017

The Dark Tower I : The Gunslinger by Stephen King (Book Review)

The Dark Tower I : The Gunslinger
By Stephen King
Published by Viking Penguin Books, 2003
Ebook Price: $8.99

The plot of The Gunslinger is pretty straightforward. An ancient pistol bearing warrior named Roland Deschain is seeking revenge on The Man in Black, an evil sorcerer who destroyed his family and country. The world through which he seeks him is in a state of decay and mutation (whether magic or radiation induced is not clear). There are vestiges of our world in Roland's, for example the song "Hey Jude" by the Beatles is mentioned and there are buildings and machinery in ruins that have somehow slipped between our world and his.

It's not clear what The Man in Black's purpose is except that he seems to delight in laying traps for Roland, whether they are physical, mental, or spiritual. Roland believes that the Man in Black's latest attempt to ensnare or torture him is the arrival of a young boy named Jake Chambers. Jake appears to be from our version of Earth. Apparently, the Man in Black pushed him in front of a car back in our reality and killed him and Jake awoke in Roland's world. Jake's memory has been mostly lost so he doesn't really know why or how he got there. Having no other reasonable options, Jake decides to accompany the Gunslinger on his quest to kill The Man in Black. What makes Jake really conflicted is that he begins to have the feeling that Roland, the supposed good guy, is simply using him as a tool or plans to sacrifice him in order to kill The Man in Black.

Even though I really like his books, it has been a LONG while since I read a Stephen King novel, probably the last one I read was Dreamcatcher way back in 2001! But knowing the new Dark Tower movie was coming out sorta galvanized me into reading this first book in the series.

What I really liked about this first volume was that it did not reveal too much  about Roland's past or why Jake appeared, what The Man in Black's ultimate aim is, or what happened to Roland's world. I ENJOYED the mystery of it all. It reminded me a bit of George RR Martin's Game of Thrones novels. The worldbuilding is done in little pieces as the action is taking place. Heroes and events from an earlier time are alluded to or mentioned but it's only gradually over time that Martin begins to flesh out the backgrounds of the various families and conflicts. Essentially, what led up to the current events.

Stephen King does the same with the Dark Tower and Roland. Every once in a while we get flashbacks to a young Roland to see the world he grew up in and which is now long gone. We get mentions of a woman he once loved, and the chaos and deceit that brought about the downfall of his homeland. But in the end there aren't a lot of info dumps or explicit information given. I think this first novel's function is really like an overture to an opera. This is the Gunslinger, these are his motivations, his quest. This is what his world is like, this is the atmosphere, these the overarching conflicts. I think it's really going to take off in the succeeding installments. It's so short, just think of this volume as an introduction to the series.

The setting and ambience of the first book was really great. King reminds me a little of HP Lovecraft in that respect. There are horrible creatures existing in Roland's world and the sense of danger inherent in that and the melancholy of a world's lost glory really inform the novel. These are not Dungeons and Dragons monsters. Also, as in so many of King's works, they may not look scary, but the humans in this first book that the Gunslinger encounters can be just as bad or worse.

I definitely see this first book as just an introduction to a much bigger world and will for sure read the next volume in the series.

My Grade: A- 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Destination X by John Martz (Graphic Novel Review)

Destination X
By John Martz
Published by Nobrow Press, 2013
Print Price: $15.95

Sam Weems's grandpa was a botanist who went on a exploratory mission to a planet called "Destination X". While there he encountered an alien life form with whom he instantly fell in love. Sam grows up hearing the tales of the planet and the alien and becomes obsessed with going there himself. Problem is, scientists on Earth think his grandpa's story is a figment of dementia and old age brought on by the cryogenic sleep he was under on his spaceship. Sam becomes an astronomer and dedicates his life to proving his grandpa was telling the truth!

This short graphic novel, or more accurately, graphic novella, had some good elements to it, but overall the writing and art just weren't anything special. The art style is very reminiscent of the Dilbert comic strip and only uses black, white, and purple to tell the story. If you like that cartoony style, then you should be ok with the art here.

As for the writing, it didn't seem thought out very much. I never understood why everyone thought Sam's grandpa was crazy. After he encounters the alien, he is shown running back to a spaceship where another crew member is asking where he's been. Did Sam not tell the other astronaut he had seen an alien? Wouldn't they have been obligated to investigate right then and there? And if Sam's grandpa made it back to Earth, how was the location of Destination X lost? There were some other things that didn't make much sense but I can't delve into them without giving spoilers so I'll leave them alone.

This is maybe a book worth checking out from your local library but not a recommended buy. Also, there are a few cuss words and some mature themes in the book, so don't let the cutesy art mislead you into thinking this is a book for kids.

My Grade: C-

Octavio's Journey by Miguel Bonnefoy (Book Review)

Octavio's Journey
By Miguel Bonnefoy
Translated from the French by Emily Boyce
Published by Gallic Books, 2017
Print: $14.95
Ebook: $7.99

Don Octavio has had to struggle his whole life with a dark secret. No, he didn't murder anyone. He didn't sleep with his sister. He didn't ruin anybody's life.

No, Don Octavio is illiterate. It is the secret shame that has shaped his life. He doesn't make close friends. He keeps to himself for fear of someone finding out he can't read or write. The only trips he makes to town are those to get essentials like food. He lives a lonely, solitary life in a shabby house on a Venezuelan hillside above the town of San Pablo de Limon.

Concealing his illiteracy leads to other complications. Octavio has a deep scar on his hand because whenever he is required to sign documents, he slices his hand open and feigns that he can't sign his name because of injury. A visiting doctor writes a prescription for Octavio to get some medicine and has to write it on Octavio's table because of course Octavio has no paper. He then has to pick up the entire table and carry it to town to the pharmacist. Of course, by that time, the writing has worn off the table and he isn't able to get his medicine.

Octavio would have probably lived his whole life and died never learning to read or write until an Obi-Wan like woman named Venezuela comes into his life. She makes it her mission to teach him to read and write and open his mind to a much larger world. Unfortunately, Octavio's side job as a henchman to a local burglar might bring it all crashing down.

This little book is covered in praise from French literary critics and also includes the inevitable "in the vein of Garcia Marquez" blurb which to me makes it already suspect. I'm not a fan of the "If you're a fan of (insert famous author here), then you'll love (insert current author here). To me, when someone mentions Marquez, my first thoughts are "magical realism" and "South America".

Bonnefoy does a good job of painting Octavio's world and you really get a feel for the town of San Pablo and the environment. Bonnefoy isn't quite as successful with the "realism" in "magical realism". I haven't read a lot of Marquez but to me, he would write somewhat realistically and then just have these brief moments of fantasy peppered throughout the book. Bonnefoy's approach is to start off realistic in this novel but as it goes along it becomes more and more surreal and by the end it has devolved into total fantasy.

That's where I got lost. Bonnefoy was doing such a good job at sketching the characters and the town and I was really enjoying it and wanted to recommend this book. But when the plot became more allegorical and symbolic it just seemed like an anti-matter black hole reversal of the book's first half. It would be kinda like looking at a painting that starts off photo realistic on the left side and as your eye moved to the right it became more and more abstract and then at its right edge was just blank canvas. To me, Bonnefoy should have decided to do one or the other, a totally realistic novel, or conjured up a complete fantasy. The contrast between the two halves off this novel just didn't work for me. But I guess, in his defense, this IS his first novel, so maybe he will get better. I doubt I try his next work though.

My Grade: D 

The Ambassadors by Henry James (Book Review)

The Ambassadors
By Henry James 
Published by Everyman's Library, 2016
Print: $25

55 year old Lambert Strether is on a quest. His "fiance", Mrs. Newsome, who happens to be rich if not beautiful, has given him the task of retrieving her wayward son Chad from the clutches of a femme fatale in Paris, France. It's an implied condition that if Strether cannot convince Chad to come home and take over the family business, there will be no marriage to Mrs. Newsome back in Massachusetts.

Strether arrives in Paris thinking that he will find Chad debauched by women, wine, and song but is greatly surprised to find him flourishing and in fact improved from the shallow boy he once knew. He is more of a gentleman with a sophisticated mind and tastes. The harpy destroyer of his innocence, Madame de Vionnet,  turns out to be an elegant and charming woman who is currently separated from her husband. Strether can't figure out if Chad is in love with Vionnet our her young daughter, or if he is in love with neither.

Ironically, the more time Strether spends in Paris hanging out with Chad and his coterie, the more Strether HIMSELF doesn't want to return home to the States! He begins to realize that he hasn't really ever had time to experience and enjoy life and maybe it's not to late to find a small bit of happiness in Paris among young minds and art.

Henry James himself ranked this novel as his best so I thought it would be a great place to try reading his work for the first time. Unfortunately, this book is from his "late period" which means its language is a lot more convoluted and dense and can be a bit hard to understand coming into it unaware as I did. The experience to me was closest to reading Shakespeare for the first time.  At points all through this book I would read 2-3 pages and the realize that I had no idea what had just occurred. And I consider myself an above average reader. A casual reader would lose interest in this book in the first few pages. As you start reading you catch the broad strokes of the action and you have to use context clues not to infer meaning from individual words but whole sections of text.

The great thing was that the more of the book you read, the more beautiful it becomes because your mind starts to get used to the style and is able to decode the meaning of the text. By the end of the book, the language and sentence construction no longer bothered me and I was able to greatly enjoy it.

I would say the main conflict of the book is Strether's regret. The fact that at 55, he starts to question his life choices and for the first time, he begins to think about what he wants to do with his life. Fortunately for him, within the confines of this novel, he discovers that maybe he still has TIME to sort out his future. Does he want to go home and marry Mrs Newsome, does he want to stay in Paris and get together with one of the other women he has met, or does he want to stay single? He's ended up middle aged, repressed, depressed, and dull,  but at least the author gives Strether the opportunity to make something of his inner life even at this late stage in his life. You'll have to read the book to see if Strether seizes the opportunity he's been given.

I read the new hardback edition from Everyman's Library which is cover price $25, but there are a ton of editions of this novel from many different publishers and there are even some free ebook versions on Amazon if you search. It can also readily be found in used bookstores.

My Grade: B+ 

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Men In My Life by Patricia Bosworth -- (Book Review)

The Men In My Life
By Patricia Bosworth
Published by Harper, 2017
Print: $27.99
Ebook: $12.99

When you see the title "The Men In My Life", and the subtitle of this book, "A Memoir of Love and Art In 1950s Manhattan", you might think it's going to be some sordid tell-all about drugs, booze, sex, romantic love, and great art. It's not. Patricia makes it clear that the "men in her life" refers to her dad and her brother, Bart, both of whom died before their time by committing suicide. As for love, the author never really seems to find it in this book. She tells herself she's in love. She tells other people she's in love. But I don't think she ever really learned how to give or receive that emotion, at least within the panorama of this book. It took her around 70 years just to work up to the point of writing about the deaths of her father and brother. Her dad and mom gave her and her brother all the material advantages in life because in his prime, her dad made a lot of money being a lawyer. But her parents were always cool and distant and seemed to be more interested in being movers and shakers in the social world than raising their two children.

Patricia is so sheltered from her Catholic upbringing that she marries the first man she has sex with, a untalented artist named Jason whose only attempt at painting art is an unfinished boob of a woman. Jason also beats her pretty often because he knows deep down he sucks as an artist and will never be anyone.

For most of the book, Bosworth just seems to be drifting from one profession to another, sometimes she works as a model, sometimes as a stage or movie actress, sometimes on tv. She always finds a way to get by without ever finding true happiness. When she scores a lucrative advertising model gig, she has to bail out because she can't bring herself to SMILE. Yeah, she's THAT depressed. Here's all this money staring her in the face and she can't even bring a fake smile to her lips.

Another time, acting seems like it might be her career, but when she realizes that she's never going to be a "star" she begins to lose interest in that as well. In the last bit of the book, she realizes that writing is going to be her thing, but I don't know how successful she's been at that either. I'd never even heard of her before reading this memoir.

I enjoyed the book and never got bored but by the end I felt that Bosworth has led a pretty sad life. It's been filled with experience but not with joy. Because of certain betrayals and judgments by her parents, the author learned to conceal her feelings behind a wall of what appeared to be happiness. She never seemed to figure out the complicated relationship between sex and love. Even towards the end of the book, I didn't feel like she figured out what she wanted to do with her life. I think even at the age of 84 she STILL isn't content. I think she wanted adoration, to be given attention not matter what she did.

What I admired about her was that she survived abusive relationships, the suicides of her dad and brother, fighting against all the negative feminine stereotypes in place in the 1950s, and her failure as an star actress, and just kept on going. At some point I think she decided to accept the fact that she wasn't going to be some world famous personality and that she was going to live a pretty ordinary life once she got out of her 20s. Just like the rest of us.

My Grade: B+