Sunday, November 22, 2009

Crooked Little Vein by Warren Ellis

Crooked Little Vein
by Warren Ellis

Men who have sex with drugged ostriches are far from the strangest situation that private detective Mike McGill finds himself investigating. The underground, the disturbing, the depraved — all of it seems to find him, whether he likes it or not. Somewhat depressed and living in his office after his girlfriend leaves him, one morning he receives a visit from the White House Chief of Staff.

“You’re looking at me strangely, son.”

I smiled, shook my head. “It’s just what TV does to us. You say ‘chief of staff’ and I expect John Spencer from The West Wing, you know? I don’t suppose you’re a genial man of Chicago with a drink problem, right?”

“Hell, no. I take heroin, son.”

Within minutes, he’s given a handheld computer, half a million dollars in his bank account, and instructions to find the “other” Constitution of the United States. Traded for years in exchange for keeping secrets and power, it is the document composed by several of the Founders, detailing their real intent for American society. The White House would like it back and to put it into effect. One more thing: “You talk about this, the Office of Homeland Security turns you into pink mist. There will be Shock and Awe, you understand?”

He has no choice but to understand. When the first lead takes him to a Godzilla bukkake theater, he leaves not only a bit nauseous, but having met Trix. She’s writing a thesis on extremes of self-inflicted human experience. They team up, and over the course of their travels, each situation becomes more bizarre than the next.

At a little over 50,000 words, Crooked Little Vein is a quick, straightforward read. It’s the sort of book where you laugh through a grimace — “Ohh, that’s gross. Funny, but gross.” You want to keep reading, but the story goes beyond morbid fascination. Warren Ellis creates a narrative that’s both compelling and thought-provoking, asking all the while what the pursuit of liberty and happiness really means in the modern world.

“Look,” I said. “You don’t get to keep the parts of the country you like, ignore the rest, and call what you’ve got America.”

I’m a big Warren Ellis fan, with several of his graphic novel and his comics work sitting on my shelf, as well as being a regular reader of his various online alcoves. His work deals with the unconventional, ideas that seem like that product of an extremely active imagination, until you start reading the news stories he uses as research notes.

I’m also a big fan of things I like overlapping. The West Wing is one of my all-time favorite television shows. For years, Ellis has talked about his respect for Aaron Sorkin’s work, about how he’s the kind of writer who makes you want to chop off your own hands because you’ll never compare. Knowing that, the aforementioned reference and dialogue like this really made me laugh:

“CIA’s been running Aaron Sorkin for years. He leaks this stuff out under cover of fiction to test the waters. Every time he gets too cute we plant crack on him in airports. Or make him write Studio 60.”

(I wanted to love Studio 60, I really did, but he did kind of botch it.)

So while Crooked Little Vein may not be for the faint of heart, nor the sort of book you’d pass along to your conservative grandmother, I still wholeheartedly recommend reading it. When you’re done, get your mitts on Global Frequency or Desolation Jones, or read the weekly (and free!) FreakAngels. Welcome to a never-ending back catalogue and your latest addiction. You’re welcome.

Book # 4/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

This review also appeared on the Pajiba site itself on Dec. 8th.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other Things That Aren’t as Scary... edited by Ted Thompson with Eli Horowitz

Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other Things That Aren’t as Scary, Maybe, Depending on How You Feel About Lost Lands, Stray Cellphones, Creatures from the Sky, Parents Who Disappear in Peru, a Man Named Lars Farf, and One Other Story We Couldn’t Quite Finish, So Maybe You Could Help Us Out

Edited by Ted Thompson with Eli Horowitz

Yes, you read that right — The title of this book really is 52 words long. Much of the McSweeney’s stable delights in the strange, and this collection of short stories takes it to the level of unconventional tall tale. Even the dust jacket is a little bit different. On the inside is the beginning of a short story by Lemony Snicket, and readers were invited to finish it, fold up the jacket, slap a couple stamps on it and send it in. The winner was picked some time in 2006, with their story published in a later book. I love the idea of encouraging creativity in an unusual way, and I love that the proceeds from this book benefit the tutoring center 826NYC.

However, I didn’t necessarily love this book. I didn’t dislike it, but I was glad that it was a quick read. In a way, the book seems better suited towards late-elementary or middle school-aged kids. The stories have peril, but not in an overly adult way. Much of the stories are from a kid’s point of view.

Somewhat predictably, the ones I enjoyed more were ones by authors I’d already read. Nick Hornby, Neil Gaiman, and Jonathan Safran Foer have good contributions with “Small Country,” “Sunbird,” and “The Sixth Borough.”

Anyone who has attended college might award Gaiman the best quote in the book: “‘I am an academic,’ said Professor Mandalay, ‘and thus have no finely developed senses that would be comprehensible to anyone who has not ever needed to grade papers without actually reading the blessed things.’”

The two contributions that surprised me? “Grimble,” a 1968 story by Clement Freud, and “The ACES Phone” by Jeanne DuPrau. “Grimble” told the tale of a boy whose parents suddenly leave for Peru, but leave him a series of detailed notes on how to get by while they’re gone. The premise seems simple — as most of the plots in this book are — but it’s the one I enjoyed the most. “The ACES Phone” deals with a mysterious phone found in a park, and discovering the meaning behind the strange noises heard at the other end.

Enjoying this book likely comes down to personal taste. I’ll admit that I bought this book because it was on sale and had a ridiculous title that made me laugh, but I don’t typically read such whimsical, fantastical work. Still, it’s beneficial to stretch one’s reading wings now and then, and perhaps in a few years, I can pass the book along to one of my kids.

Book # 3/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

This review also appeared on the Pajiba site itself on December 24, 2009.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

No Compulsive Chronicles column this month:

However, you can read what I wrote for the RiVerSpeAK blog here

Sample quote?

"Want to know how you get better at your field? By doing it. Get your ass in a chair, your hands on a camera, or your feet on the street — Just go. Complaining and complacency is for the lazy, the lame. The boring. You’re not boring, are you?"

Cannonball Read Book Review #3 coming soon.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood by Jennifer Traig

Devil in the Details: Scenes from an Obsessive Girlhood
by Jennifer Traig

Obsessive girlhood? Judaism? Weird food rules? “The fumes from the bacon my sister had microwaved for dessert had tainted everything I owned, so now it all had to be washed.” Oh, I may have laughed out loud, but at the same time, I thought, That doesn’t seem SO unreasonable. Consider me sold.

For a long time, I couldn’t eat unless there were even amounts of food on both sides of my mouth. If I ate something with pieces — say, cocoa puffs — an even number had to be on the spoon. Gum? Split it in half. There were other rules too. By age 10, after years of not understanding what was so great about pork chops, I decided to ban pork from my diet. (Except pepperoni. Everyone knows that comes from the pepperoni tree.) To avoid hassle and slabs of bacon waved in my face, I started telling baffled strangers that I was Jewish. Now it wasn’t weird — it was faith. Eventually, the rule extended to anything I’d consider a pet, and shellfish? Forget it, that’s like eating sea bugs.

Throw in a side of lactose intolerance, and suddenly a whole system of separating meat from dairy seems just perfect, thank you. Also, could you arrange the food just so in the cabinets? And the dishes too? Jesus, just let me do it already. Ah, there, that’s better.

(Faux-Judaism does not prevent one from using handy phrases like, “Good Lord!” “Oh my God,” and “Jesus Christ on pony, what the hell are you doing?”)

However, I know I’m not an extreme case by any means when it comes to OCD. As a prime example of the condition, Jennifer Traig offers up her childhood for inspection. Aside from rigorous cleaning, arranging, and inescapable thoughts like, “What if I stab my mother?” she suffered from scrupulosity — a highly religious form of OCD.

Growing up in a mixed-religion household with a Jewish father and Catholic mother (“We supported her religious practice only when it involved tasty snacks for the rest of us.”), Traig found tremendous fascination with the endless minutiae of Jewish law. So many rules! Such structure!

Before long, she’s praying three times a day, using a Kleenex as a makeshift yarmulke, and food poisoning guests with an undercooked kosher dinner. Everything is an ethical dilemma, even finding somewhere to sit in her own home — “Food gets dropped on the upholstery all the time. To sit on these chairs is to sit on ham.”

The severity of her symptoms would fluctuate throughout her childhood. After therapy, the incessant questioning of rabbis to differentiate between Orthodox and Crazy, keeping her hands busy with tacky crafts, and the dry humor of her parents, she leaves for college feeling mostly okay. Life can be managed (possibly) without meltdown.

Reading the process is endlessly entertaining, as Traig writes in a great self-deprecating, yet sincere way. Devil in the Details is the sort of book where you end up reading whole pages aloud to anyone sitting near you, usually preceded by the phrase, “Oh, this is funny...” though the whole thing is. If you’ve ever been abnormally particular about anything, or felt impossibly different, you’ll relate. And if not, come see how it feels.

Book # 2/52

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 book over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

This review was also featured on the Pajiba site itself.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Cannonball Read: No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days

No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days
by Chris Baty

“The biggest thing separating people from their artistic ambitions is not a lack of talent, it’s the lack of a deadline,” Chris Baty writes in the introduction. “Give someone an enormous task, a supportive community, and a friendly-yet-firm due date, and miracles will happen.”

Each November since 2004, I have participated in the madness that is National Novel Writing Month, wherein I aim for a 50,000 word story, all while still managing to occasionally toss clean socks and a sandwich at my family. I’ve reached the goal every year except 2007, when I had a hungry 2 month old who hated his baby swing. That year, I wrote 25,000. For me, November is the time I force myself to sit down and try out new ideas, with the hopes that some of them might form a viable book one day.

I like to reacquaint myself with No Plot? No Problem! before beginning again. No matter how many times I’ve participated, the advice offered helps get my brain moving. Since I’m also participating in Pajiba’s Cannonball Read this year, the tips on time management are especially helpful. Now, will I actually ignore my DVR for the entire month in favor of a writing and reading extravaganza? Probably not, but I’ll at least quit watching West Wing reruns.

50,000 words seems like a short book, and it is, but some great titles (including this one) fall into that range: The Great Gatsby, Of Mice and Men, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are all NaNo-sized. There’s still plenty of room for plot, sub-plot and whatever characters one feels like tossing into the harried mix.

No Plot? No Problem! offers a week-by-week guide to the writing process, everything from the exciting initial ideas, the frustrating middle lag, and when the finish line first comes into sight. It’s funny, motivational and a quick read.

The most important thing the book stresses? “Exuberant imperfection.” The idea of National Novel Writing Month is to sit your ass in the chair and get it done. Banish your inner editor and embrace quantity over quality. Rewriting is for another day. When one gives themselves the freedom to try out any idea, any random or funny plot twist they choose, the result can be surprising, even great. And if nothing else, there’s that glow of accomplishment — “Look at what I can do.”

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have another 1,667 words to write.

For more information on National Novel Writing Month, now in its 10th year, visit

My feature on the Spokane-area NaNoWriMo group appears in the 10th issue of SPOKE(a)N(e) Magazine.

Book # 1/52 (while started in October, I finished reading the book November 1st.)

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends November 1, 2010.