The Bookmarked series, in case you were wondering, is a new line of books from IG Publishing in which lesser-known authors meditate on the impact that various works of literature by better-known authors have had an impact on their lives. Tackling Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in the second volume of the series, Curtis Smith takes a cue from the subject of his investigation and offers what might best be termed an “unstuck in time” reading of the novel. Bouncing from point to point and theme to theme throughout Vonnegut’s novel gives Smith the opportunity to touche on a wide range of topics, including (but not limited to) Ayn Rand, Genghis Khan, SpongeBob SquarePants, PTSD, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and the ancient Stoic theory of Ekpyrosis, which holds that the universe is destined to be consumed in flames only to recreate itself from the ashes. Yet even as Smith’s musings careen from one topic to the next, he never loses sight of the thread that holds them all together. Indeed, if the central question of Vonnegut’s novel was how to write about a massacre, the central question of Smith’s extended essay is how to write about a book about a massacre. The big difference, of course, is that where Vonnegut could only conclude that there’s nothing sensible to say about a massacre — nothing, that is, beyond the plaintive Poo-tee-weet? of singing birds — Smith finds that there’s plenty to say not only about Vonnegut’s novel in particular, but also about writing in general, and its place in our efforts to make sense of the chaotic world around us. We are capable of great savagery, it turns out, but our saving grace is that we’re ultimately a kind, compassionate, caring species. So, yes, we are doomed time and again to witness and sadly participate in conflagrations large and small, but we’re also party to the kindness and curiosity that allow for new life to emerge from the destruction we wreak. In this engaging take on Vonnegut’s classic anti-iceberg novel, Smith comes down solidly on the side of humanity, for better and for worse.
My discovery of Matt Shonkwiler’s What a Time to Be Alive was entirely serendipitous. I’d posted some music on another blog of mine, he liked it enough to follow the blog, I appreciated the gesture enough to check out his website, I listened to his music, saw that it was free, and downloaded it. Now I’m following the guy on Twitter, and he’s following me. We’ll never meet, never talk, never do more than maybe click on links that we post on Twitter. At best, one of us will re-tweet a link the other has posted. If so moved, one of us might might “heart”something pithy the other has said. Thus are alliances forged in the age of social networking. Thus is the nature of the new friendship.
I mention all of this not because it’s the first time I’ve discovered an artist in this fashion, but because it’s also more or less the subject of Shonkwiler’s EP. As he explains in his liner notes, “What a Time to Be Alive covers the struggles of being a 20-something in the middle of growing up and failing relationships, all while navigating a sea of misinformation in the digital age.” These struggles are captured eloquently in the opening lines of the EP’s opening track: “I don’t want to go back again/Rating every girl I see on a one-to-ten./Like a lab rat, I hit the pleasure button ’til I blacked out.” Other songs build on this theme. “Lie, Lie, Lie,” for example, begins with a musical phrase reminiscent of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and goes on to observe that much of our postmodern guilt over our shortcomings as humans has little to do with real life and everything to do with television. Yet as oppressive as the mediated world may be, Shonkwiler also finds hope in “real life” friendships, as in “Grow Up or Throw Up” in which friends old and new serve as a grounding force in a world where we’re all forced to wear masks of one kind or another. Of course, donning such masks is inevitable — just as it’s inevitable that the friends of our youth must all eventually move onward and upward and out of our lives.
Musically, What a Time to Be Alive mixes light electronica with acoustic guitars, and Shonkwiler stacks his vocals to produce pleasant harmonies with a relaxed, indie DIY vibe. The longest song on the EP runs just over three minutes, and most of them barely break the two-and-a-half minute mark. In other words, no ostentation here. Just simple, heartfelt songs for the generations struggling to make sense of our brave, new mediated world.
What a time to be alive, indeed.
If gross-out humor has a tragic cousin, then Lavinia Ludlow is a master of the form.
Her new novel, Single Stroke Seven, begins with the protagonist, Lillith, castrating a drug-crazed former coworker in self-defense and then blasts off into a stratospheric series of riffs on trying, failing, and trying again to follow one’s passion in a world dulled in equal measure by the nine-to-five demands of corporate adulthood and the empty nihilism of prolonged adolescence.
At twenty-seven years old, Lillith is staring the future in the face, and her encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture and music history won’t let her forget that all of the musicians she admires had made their marks by the time they were her age. That they died before turning twenty-eight, moreover, is of little consequence to her since she sees little difference between dying and reaching the milestone of her next birthday.
Adding to the drama is the fact that Lillith’s main band, Dissonanz, includes three man-children who can’t get their act together long enough to rehearse so much as a single song, let alone get a gig. That they’ve been together for over a decade only adds to her ennui, and even side gigs — like playing for a post-Riot Grrrl punk band fronted by a psychopath who’s sleeping with the man for whom Lillith secretly pines — complicate her life exponentially.
As Lillith struggles to balance her musical aspiration against the real-world need to hold down a job and pay bills, her life increasingly turns to shit — quite often literally. At one point, for example, a porta-potty explodes on the front lawn of the dilapidated home she rents with her band mates. Throughout the rest of the novel, other forms of excrement, bodily fluids, and organic matter splatter across every surface imaginable, so much so that I’m comfortable reporting that Chuck Palahniuk has nothing on Lavinia Ludlow.
Yet for all of its — grit, for lack of a better word — Single Stroke Seven is a novel with heart. The title refers to a basic drum pattern, but it’s also a metaphor for everything Lillith is searching for. Teaching percussion to earn extra money, she transcribes the pattern onto a sheet of manuscript paper for a young student who responds to the image with pleasure. “I like this one,” he says. “They’re all holding onto each other so no one’s lonely.”
Ultimately, this is what Single Stroke Seven is all about — searching for meaning in a soul-sucking world and hanging onto friends (even if they’re losers) because the alternative is unbearable.
In the postscript to his stand-alone short story, “Clowns,” FP Dorchak, author of five novels including Sleepwalkers and Voice, explains that he wrote the short story in 1987 and only recently rediscovered it. One imagines him opening a drawer somewhere and stumbling upon the old manuscript. Maybe the letters are the dot-matrix approximations of the alphabet we thought were so high-tech back in the ‘eighties, or maybe they’re the smudged and smeared characters from a creaky Remington or Underwood. Whatever the case, the story was presumably sitting in the darkness, lying in wait for a long time before fate brought it back into the light — a fitting image, it turns out, as the story begins with a toy clown springing to life with plans to violently wake a young boy from his sleep. From there, needless to say, things gets a little creepy. The story itself is short (“very short” as the title page notes), but it’s also the stuff of nightmares. It’s easy to imagine “Clowns” in the pages of Weird Tales or as a “TZ First,” the forum that the old (and much missed) Twilight Zone magazine once dedicated to first-time authors. The good news for fans of Dorchak’s fiction is that he plans to gradually bring more of his shorts out over the next year or so on his Wailing Loon imprint and then gather them together in a single collection. Given the intense creep-factor of “Clowns,” the proposed collection is bound to terrify.
Books about the Beach Boys tend to focus on Brian Wilson, depicting him as the “mad genius” behind the band’s music. Such accounts trace his evolution from a surf-pop wunderkind to the architect behind the masterful Pet Sounds album, then dwell almost lasciviously on the mental breakdown surrounding the recording of the long-deferred Smile album before turning to his struggles with addiction, mental illness, and the troubling relationship with the Svengali-like therapist who took over Wilson’s life. While such narratives are certainly valid, they tend to ignore other members of the band—in particular Carl Wilson, the youngest of the brothers who formed the heart of the band. In Long Promised Road: Carl Wilson, Soul of the Beach Boys, Kent Crowley aims to correct that.
Less of a counter-narrative than a complementary one, Crowley depicts Carl Wilson as the emotional and musical center of the band, particularly during the years when Brian’s contributions were negligible. In Carl’s early childhood, he was a somewhat reluctant partner in his older brother’s musical machinations, only singing along with Brian under duress and as a result of maternal intercession. Yet as the band started coming together, Carl’s talents as a guitarist and his natural ear for music made him Brian’s closest confidant and later ensured his role as the band’s musical director as the oldest Wilson brother drifted further out of the picture.
As Crowley makes clear throughout the book, a combination of talent and compassion allowed Carl to hold the Beach Boys together through some of the band’s leanest years. Yet even in these lean years, Carl emerges as somewhat of a creative dynamo, crafting some of the finest, albeit most obscure, music the Beach Boys ever created. Indeed, part of the heartbreak of reading Crowley’s account of the band is seeing Carl’s desire to push the band ever forward on the artistic front while personal, financial, and cultural concerns gradually transformed the band into a nostalgia act built almost entirely on the legend of Brian’s genius.
Needless to say, Brian Wilson casts a long shadow in Beach Boys lore. While Crowley’s extensively researched and emotionally sensitive biography can’s fully extricate Carl from that shadow, it succeeds in shining a well-deserved spotlight on the brother whose love for his family and the beautiful music they created together kept the band alive when the rest of the world appeared to have given up on them.
If you’re looking for a somewhat off-the-wall gift for that special somewhat off-the-wall person on your holiday list this season, Contemporary Krampus may be exactly what you’re looking for. Curated by Mike Drake, this volume offers a wide range of contemporary depictions of Krampus, the “Christmas Devil.” Along with paintings and drawings that range from charming to creepy, Contemporary Krampus also includes brief bios of the artists who produced the works. While the typesetting is a little odd (with text running almost to the edge of the page) and the bios are somewhat uneven (reading like they’ve been taken directly from the artists’ webpages without any editing), the art is what makes this volume particularly enjoyable. With that in mind, here are a few samples…