Paris; November 13th, 2015.

It’s times like these that I really question the value of the continuation of the human species.

I have just heard about the attacks on Paris.  I was blissfully ignorant until half an hour ago, when I stepped away from my keyboard after hours of writing and revising to check out the news, my e-mail, social media, et cetera–and, of course, I didn’t get past the news.  The human sickness rears its head, the most diseased organs of it blatantly showing in our open wounds.  My mouth hung open in…what?  Surprise?  Disbelief? Despair?  Anger?  All of them. Nausea, above all else.  The first wave of it hit halfway through the first article I read.  My dinner, eaten in comfort in my writing nest, started to kick against the back of my throat.

It keeps happening. Again and again and again.

Or maybe just “still.”

Maybe this is the new normal.

Maybe, in one way or another, it always has been.

First, I want to…I don’t know what.  Offer my prayers to the vast cosmos?  Send my deepest condolences through Twitter?  Cry into the drink I just poured myself to numb the raging things inside my body?  Find every Parisian in the world and hold them, falling to our knees sobbing against each other’s shoulders?  What, if anything, can I do?  Donate my next pathetic royalty check to…where?  Amnesty International?  This is just too big for me.  There’s no verb I have at my disposal that would seem strong enough.  Our powerlessness in the face of this tragedy unites us.  We cannot resurrect the dead.  We cannot rewind time.  We cannot go back and fix the errors of history.  We can only mourn and cry and drink and wake up and try again, tomorrow.

Tomorrow, oh, shit, tomorrow…

I fear for tomorrow. I have visions already brewing in my head.  Tomorrow.

I think of the mosque bombings after the Charlie Hedbo shooting.  Makeshift bombs and grenades crashed through mosque windows, thrown by who-knows-who in an attempt to accomplish…something.  But what?  And why? Directionless anger?  Lust for revenge?  These things are inside of us, I know.  They’re inside of me, too.  But I’ve never thrown a bomb into someone else’s church service.

Tomorrow.  Tomorrow may be a very bad time to be a Muslim. Has anyone even claimed responsibility for the attacks, yet?  I don’t believe so.  Do we even know the political or religious beliefs of the attackers?  I haven’t heard.  But what do you think the assumption will be?  What do you think everyone is thinking, right now?  When people start looking for someone to blame, where do you think the fingers will point?

So, Muslim brothers and sisters, stay inside tomorrow.  Lock your doors and board up your windows.  The huns are coming.  Get ready for the talking heads across the so-called “civilized world” to start giving people permission to attack you.  You know.   You’ve seen it, before.  Get ready to hear the question “does Islam promote violence?” for the millionth time this decade.  Get ready to have the actions of under 1% of your total population make a political sideshow out of your day-to-day life.  This is the new normal.

Tomorrow.  Tomorrow, an unmanned drone will drop bombs on people eating lunch.  It’s estimated that the bombs are far more likely to kill civilians than militant/terrorist threats.  It’s estimated that as many as 90% of the casualties to date, of drone strikes, have been civilians. A woman sweeping the floor is dead seconds later.  The floor is gone.  Nothing is left.  This is the new normal.

Tomorrow we will get the final death toll.  It will be difficult to imagine and harder to stomach.  You will look at the number of the dead and realize it’s larger than your entire social circle.  You will stare at the number and realize that it’s you and everyone you love…your whole family and all of your friends.  The funeral business is booming.  So many graves.  How do we always end up digging so many graves?  This is the new normal.

And, in the end, what are we going to do?

Drop more bombs?  Send in an army?

Who digs the grave for the woman in Afghanistan?

Who digs the graves for all the soldiers?

Still.  Again.  Still.

Where does it end? Drop the bombs, breed the terrorists. They don’t grow out of the cracked desert like weeds, you know.  They crawl out of rubbled streets and poverty.  They search for meaning in a world that refuses to give it to them.  They build up resentment and anger and hatred, not unlike some of our homegrown “mentally ill” mass shooters, until something comes along they can hang onto.  They put on the uniform.  They join the club.  Someone puts a gun in their hands and tells them they can change the world.

Picture, if you dare, a few thousand James Holmeses walking around, hoping to change the world.

Tomorrow looks pretty grim.

There’ll be more murder, I guarantee that.  In Paris, in Afghanistan, in Colorado–there’ll be plenty more murder and it’ll keep on coming for a very long time.  The death toll will shift and change and the headlines will look different depending on who dies and where, but don’t worry, the funeral business will keep booming. Bombs will drop.  People will die.  Young men with old Kalashnikovs will pour lead into crowds of people…and bombs will drop, again.

I’m sick to my stomach. Mankind is a wretched animal.  We’re all just rabid pit dogs, gnashing our teeth, hungry to tear each other apart. Or, worse, we’re the victims, the losing dog, the one at the end of the fight with its jugular torn open.  We’re just people struggling to live our lives, hoping that things will be better tomorrow and never knowing when a bomb will fall out of the sky or a man will open fire on a theatre or someone will throw a makeshift explosive through the window of our temple.  We’re both.  We’re the winning dog and the losing dog.  Even our victories are defeats.  Nobody proved that like Bush.  “Mission Accomplished,“ yeah, right.

And here we are, again, digging graves.  Again.

Still.

And now what?

*****

There is no easy answer. There is no answer, at all, in my opinion.  Sometimes force needs to be met with force.  I believe, ladies and gentlemen, that we are at war–I may be a far-left liberal, but I’m not delusional–but what can come out of said war except for more war?  How many people will we bury before it’s all over?  How many civilian casualties will go uncounted in dusty countries?

How do you stop young men from killing people?

My drink is empty. The above question haunts my mind. Across the globe, from the littlest (and 294th) mass shooting in the United States to the largest terrorist attack in years, young men are killing people and we don’t know how to stop it. They act alone, as in Aurora, or in large tribes, as with ISIL.  We can’t bomb them all.  We certainly shouldn’t end up bombing over 700 civilians just to get 20 of them.

My heart is so ragged from thinking about the world.  My heart is a broken flag hanging from an abandoned ship.

I think often of Heart of Darkness.  A “novella” technically, but also fierce philosophical journalism.  It’s an acute observation of our nature.  Joseph Conrad might’ve written fiction, but every damned word was true.

I remember the scene on the river when all the ships starting firing cannonade into the treeline. “Shelling the bush,” I believe it was called.  It was blind-firing, utter and rampant destruction wrought of paranoia and policy. The corresponding scene in Apocalypse Now, I think, was the carpet-bombing of the Vietnamese forest.  The corresponding news article in Bush-era America was the “targeted” bombings in Iraq.  And, now, the drones–90% of the dead are innocent, remember.  90%.  We’re just shelling the goddamned bush.

Still.

And wasn’t Osama Bin Laden our own Kurtz?  Worked for us for long enough until, one day, he didn’t, anymore.  Until, one day, he became the teeth at our throat.  And when we hunted him down, finally…what did we expect?  A superhuman creature, demonic and virile, waiting to eat our soldiers?  No.  An old man, half-dead, with dry, cracked lips, on the run, locked away, barely able to rasp out his last words.  “The horror” indeed.

And still, here we are.

Still.

We’ve been fighting this war since I was a child and we’ll still be fighting it when I’m dead.  I know that much, now.  I’ve come to terms with it.  The new normal.  “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow…”

I can write no more.

I have just watched updates on the Paris situation online and I can write no more.  I can barely string two words together.  The face of mankind is hideous to me, tonight.  I want neither to serve it nor even to look upon it further.

Beautiful Paris, to gaze upon such ugliness…

I am sorry.  I am so sorry.  I hope there is a beautiful humankind waiting for you, tonight, a beautiful humankind riding along in ambulances and working double-shifts in hospitals and working the sirens on firetrucks.  I hope there is a beautiful humankind there to hold you when the dust settles.  I hope there is a beautiful humankind waiting to help you recover, tomorrow.  I hope it lifts you up in its arms and lets you cry on its shoulder, that it listens to your stories, that it looks through old photographs of your loved ones and is there to cradle you through tears of mourning and remembrance.

I hope this, for you.

And tomorrow, I hope young men prove me wrong.

But I’m not sure they will. I don’t have the faith left in me, tonight, to be sure they will.

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Misery and Death and Everything Depressing, by C. V. Hunt

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Dark.  Grim.  Hilarious.

Misery and Death and Everything Depressing is a short story collection by C. V. Hunt, whose uncanny talent of weaving dark humor with bleak plots and tormented characters gives even the grimmest tale a smirk.  For horror fans, the stories The Quarry and No Room for a Child will surely satisfy, combining genre tropes with excellent characterization and strong descriptions.  More literary fans will find Human Contact as a strange, skin-crawling examination of isolation and loneliness in the modern age–similar to Last Woman on Earth, a meditation on the same with quite a different ending, though perhaps the weaker of the two stories.

The strongest story, however, is Baby Hater.  It holds the perfect combination of humor, extreme human behavior, and a plot that unfurls into a beautiful tapestry.  I couldn’t stop laughing, chuckles and full-on guffaws teased from my lips by a bleak, sadistic narrator who, as the title suggests, isn’t a fan of children.  Of course, who really is?  The story only gets more amusing and still darker as the narrator’s original plan begins to slide sideways, running right up to a very satisfying climax.

The first and last stories in the collection are, in my opinion, the weakest.  The punchline of the first (To Say Mother Teresa Was Shocked When She Woke Up In Hell Would Be An Understatement) falls a little flat, the title possibly being the strongest point of the piece.  The last story (The Last Entry) is fine, but compared to the rest of the stories in the piece seems like a poor choice to end on.

All in all, Misery and Death and Everything Depressing is a stellar collection of stories.  Baby Hater alone is worth the purchase.  I consider the other stories as bonus material at this price ($2.99 for the e-book as I write this).  If I’d known ahead of time how good these stories were going to be, I’d have shelled out the extra $7 for the paperback.  C. V. Hunt has created some amazing work, here.  You should buy it.

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The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero

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This book was in my top 5 list before I even finished reading it.  The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero, is charming, creepy, thrilling, and amazingly well-crafted.  If you feel the need to continue reading my opinions and insights, by all means do, but I actually recommend leaving now and just picking up a copy.

The book is a haunted house book.  No, wait, that’s not quite right.  It’s a book about dreams and visions and pseudo-science and murder most foul, and it takes place in a haunted house.  Also, there’s a secret society.  There’s a number of plot threads and interesting asides woven into the tapestry of the novel, but somehow they never seem to confuse each other or run amok, instead falling into a balance and clarity that many authors would struggle to achieve between so many things.  Everything in the plot supports everything else.  It’s delightful.  By the turning of the last page, you’ll realize that none of it was accidental and all of it was necessary.  There’s no fat to be trimmed.  It all makes sense at the end.

But the plot isn’t the best reason to read the book.  The characters are much better.  The prime narrator, A., is a curious, studious gent with a smirking sense of humor who is one of the more lovable narrators I’ve read in some time.  Quite the stand-up guy, on the whole.  Niamh is an energetic, frenetic partner who, though mute, has rather a lot to say.  I was utterly charmed.  Rarely do I worry for characters in fictional works, which has proven utilitarian in the current climate of literature and television, in which even seemingly essential characters are pruned regularly…but these guys had me tensely clutching the book, white-knuckled, holding my breath and sending out a silent plea to the author “no!  Please don’t!” which I consider a tremendous statement to their strengths.

All of this is delivered through diary entries, letters, security camera feeds, a home video camera, excerpts of magazine articles, faxes, etc… throwing out usual narrative delivery for other modes.  At first this comes off as a little “gimmicky,” but after a couple pages I stopped noticing entirely.  Many reviewers have related the delivery to that of House of Leaves, but I wouldn’t make that comparison per se.  House of Leaves is more of a serious-minded work, firstly, and secondly it requires you to rotate and twist the book, to read things in mirrors, etc… whereas The Supernatural Enhancements asks only that you keep reading, and has about as many visual elements/illustrations as Nos4a2.  Maybe a couple more.  And though there are cryptograms, ciphers, and puzzles…all of them are entirely optional, and most are solved for you by the narrators.  Except for the very first one.

My final note on the book is also perhaps the most important: Edgar Cantero writes great prose.  It is a difficult task to try to meld the poetic dread of Lovecraft with the pacing demands of a modern novel, but Mr. Cantero pulls it off marvelously.  His word usage is brilliant.  His choice in descriptors, metaphors, etc… are amazing and occasionally even stunning.  The rhythm of the writing is entrancing.  In terms of sheer aesthetics, in terms of quality prose…I should use the word “astonishing.”  Read the book if for no other reason than to experience what Edgar Cantero can do with the English language.

Now go.  We’re done here.

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On Horror and Meaning

A lot of people write about horror as something divided into the two categories of dread and terror, or terror and horror.  I often find myself thinking these terms don’t really tell the whole story, don’t really capture the breadth of horror.  Dread, here, refers to anxiety, psychological tension, or the sensation that something is going to happen. Horror, by comparison, refers to that which is gut-punch fear, the witnessing of the graphic crime, the description of the act itself, the grueling nature of the pain.  I believe that there is a lot more to horror as a genre than these two things, and that the make-up of horror relies on a wider palette than just the use of these tools.  I think, when talking about horror, it’s equally important to talk about meaning, about symbolism, context, and character development.

I am hard to shock, and generally not a fan of the grotesque.  It isn’t overly difficult to describe a troubling scene in detail, having done it myself a few times.  The right word selection, the right phrasing, the timing, these are things of instinct and structure, of research and implementation.  Often, scenes of the grotesque rely too much on mere-shock, something becoming quite pedestrian, these days.  Using the proper word might make the audience uncomfortable with a scene, and indeed discomfort is often important to the genre, but what is the meaning of any of it?  This is an issue I’ve had with several horror authors (though authors are still so far beyond the Hollywood system of torture-porn I believe they should give themselves a pat on the back just for existing): the gruesome descriptions don’t have the support of meaning, appealing instead to the gut-level, the instinctual.  I either don’t care about the characters, or don’t see the link between the characters and the horrors they experience.

What do I mean by that?  Let’s deal with some examples from multiple media.  In The Shining, for instance, we get to witness many layers of madness and struggle as they unravel.  Jackie Boy has some issues he can’t work through, alcoholism for one, slowly crumbling to them over time, losing it bit by bit until the very last frayed lash of his psyche finally snaps and the rest of him plunges into darkness.  I barely notice the haunted hotel as anything but metaphor, in his section of the story, an extended underpinning for his unresolved conflicts and uncontrollable vices.  Maybe even an excuse.  Wonderful.  After letting me watch his collapse, Mr. King could’ve written virtually any horrific thing in the world, and I would’ve read it and believed it. It had been earned, deserved.  The character and plot had been built up to the point where it established meaning, consequence, symbolism.  Or take, for another example, the Silent Hill games, informed through the character Alessa, which have monsters and settings of tremendous literal and symbolic meaning.  An abuser becomes a monster, a walking wasteland, spreading foulness everywhere it goes.  Besides being a terrifying visual, the backstory of it, the symbolic meaning as it relates to the character, is fantastic.  By pairing the gruesome with something cerebral, something emotional, it becomes not only a monster, but a statement.  It informs us.  This is what was done to me.  Wonderful.  Well-earned.  It has meaning to the characters involved.

In a way, (whilst the mind is on video games) Spec Ops: The Line skirts the boundaries of horror. It never goes full-horror, being in its medium a third-person shooter, but it brings the same kind of meaning.  You hunt a monster.  You do what has to be done to survive, to find him.  You do these things even when they are monstrous. When finally confronted with the face of the monster you sought, you realize you aren’t any better, that you’ve stared too long into the abyss.  It’s like looking in a mirror.  Heart of Darkness.  Nietzsche.  Context, character development, meaning. Without seeing the beginning of the character, half-honorable and driven, searching for this monster of a man, we can’t possibly appreciate the slow decline, the degeneration, the grotesqueries. It only means something if there’s a foundation of character, story, and symbolism.

That’s what is often  missing from the dialogue of terror versus dread, from essays on horror.  Themes, motifs, development, build, crescendo.  Symbolism!  Let me be discomforted by the distorted and warped things birthed from damaged psyches, let me be thrilled by the growing despair, the long fall, the unraveling madness.  Once in a while, instead of having the protagonist-as-victim, have the protagonist-as-perpetrator, let me feel morally uncomfortable.

Seeing, or reading about, the top of someone’s skull erupting in a burst of squelching brain matter and red mist has become fairly blasé.  Barbed wire wrapped around your arms and legs, pulled tighter with each tick of the clock unless you cave in to the antagonist’s demands…overdone.  Shock has out-shocked itself.  Shock has, in effect, taken the joy out of shock.  Shock value has no value.  We need meaning.  We need these things to be earned by the story.  If you start splattering people on page 5 and rocket off from there, we may end up wondering what the point is, or if there even is one.  We may grow rapidly emotionally detached from the book, film, or game.  We may shrug it off and move on.  Nobody wants that.

If you build it up, use meaning, use symbolism, take the character down bit by bit, slowly…when the shit finally hits the fan, the readers will be along for any ride you take them on.  Show us what or who the character loves, show us pre-existing conflict, show us some struggle, give us context for the content.  Then take it all apart.  Off-the-cuff example: Gail has a gambling problem, struggles with it, fights about it with her husband off and on, might’ve lost them some money some time ago, but she’s recovered, did gamblers anon, settled down, got a new place, got a dog, they’re rebuilding their lives, but she fucks up, has one of those awful days, one of those whiskey days, takes off for a weekend, racks up debt, runs away…except you can’t really run away, can you?  Soon, their dog is hanging by its entrails by the tree at the end of their street, its eyes in a mason jar on their front porch.  What about her parents?  Husband?  What happens next?  Give someone a life before you take it away.  Earn gore.  Earn terror.  Instill meaning.  The audience will be gut-punched by the dead dog (people love dogs), but now it has more narrative force behind it.  As a symbol of her recovery, for instance, or an omen of what’s to come.  You kill the same dog on page one, well, then it’s just a dead dog, isn’t it?  Even if you go into detail about the dog’s history immediately afterwards, it’s too late, you’ve already wasted the image.  I just opened the book, saw a dead dog, and reacted.  The reaction is spent.  Taking five more pages to tell me how great the dog was and how important the dog was to its owners…well, it’s already dead, so I guess that sucks?  Start the book with a heated argument, husband asking where she’s been, her saying it’s not his business, husband storms off, dog keeps her company with its soft, glassy eyes (the kind of eyes that love her even when she knows she’s fucked up)…all of a sudden I already want that dog to live.  Find the symbol, find the metaphor, find the character development, use those things as tools to build tension and plot, to earn terror and gore.

Or, go the monster route: if you’re just throwing monsters are a protagonist, why?  Is it Lovecraftian, where the monsters represent the vastness of the cosmos, the objective irrelevance of mankind?  Are they metaphorical for the protagonist’s (or antagonist’s) psychological issues, physical deformities, insecurities, phobias?  Are they mythological?  What are the important areas of the myth, to you?  What is your interpretation?  Do they exist to compel your characters to act a certain way, or to live in a certain setting (any monster-based apocalypse, for instance)?  What relationship do the monsters have to the story?  What relationship do they have to the characters?  How do they affect the setting?  What are they doing?  What rules govern them?  If you’re throwing monsters into the mix, you should have a very intimate understanding of why.  If you’re throwing monsters into the mix because they are cool, that is an acceptable reason, but you need to pay attention to what that means for the narrative, the characters, and the setting.  Don’t waste your monsters.  Make them mean something.  Otherwise they’re just prop pieces with claws.

You can’t batter a character who isn’t fleshed out. There’s no meat to tear off, no blood to spill.  Hollow characters crinkle like the dried husks of dead roaches, and when they blow away, nobody cares.  Graphic violence takes time and energy to read.  Nobody wants to read the paragraph-long description of the wounds a boring character sustains.  Nobody wants to read 5 pages of gore every 15 pages of plot and character development. It’s tedious.  There, I said it.  I finally just came out and said it: gore is tedious.  Turn the abuser into a walking wasteland, doing to the world what he did to his victim’s psyche.  Curse your characters.  Curse your monsters.  Make the world a nightmare.  But don’t just do that.  Focus on earning it.  Focus on making it mean something, either to your characters personally, or the reader symbolically.  Focus on context, on setting, on character development.  Let dread and horror be the goods you buy with the earnings you’ve made on meaning and development.  Use symbolism.  Create depth.  Make your horror about something.

Just one man’s opinion, but clearly a passionate one.

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The Peripheral by William Gibson (Review)

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Today, we’re going to review The Peripheral, by William Gibson.  I think we can probably begin with the TL;DR version of this review: go out and buy this book now.  If you’re a fan of neo-noir, cyber-thrillers, cyberpunk, or general sci-fi, you should already own it.  If you’re not really a genre-fan, but you have an appreciation for watching well-crafted characters unpack their struggles in the wake of a difficult plot, you should also buy it.

William Gibson writes fantastic characters.  The sci-fi genre is full of massive space-operas and overwrought narratives, often putting the characters in the backseat to the setting or just throwing fifty one-dimensional cut-outs at the reader.  Historically, weak characters have been a go-to criticism for genre fiction.  William Gibson doesn’t have those, or, at the least, has so few of them as to be statistically unimportant to the books he writes.  Ever since Neuromancer, I have loved the intriguing and often subtle ways he reveals his characters inner-stories, whether it’s as simple as when a character excuses herself to the restroom or as complicated as the web of lies they tell to distance themselves from an alienating world, it all comes off as believably human and poignantly deep.  The Peripheral continues this trend.  The characters are unfolded and unpacked in wonderful ways, stunning ways.  Their relationships, simple or complex, are revealed and spotlit in admirable, potent prose.  One of the less-subtle examples:

The protector had a thin white elastic cord.  She pulled it on, settled the eye-shaped steel cups over her eyes, and sat in pitch darkness, while Macon positioned the soft tips of the thing’s legs on her shoulders.  “When do you start printing?” she asked him.

“Printing the circuitry already.  Do this headset stuff tonight.  We pitch an all-nighter, might have it together tomorrow.  Now hold really still.  Don’t talk.”

Something began to tick around the ring-shaped track, headed to the right.  She pictured the stuff in Conner’s yard, humped over with morning glory vines, and imagined him never joining the Marines.  Failing the medical, for something harmless but never noticed before.  So that he’d stayed here, found some unfunny way to make a living, met a girl, gotten married.  Not to her, definitely, or to Shaylene either, but somebody.  Maybe from Clanton.  Had kids.  And his wife getting all the morning glory cleared away, and everything hauled off, and planting grass for a real front yard.  But she couldn’t make it stick, couldn’t quite believe it, and she wished she could.

And then the laser was right behind her head, still softly clicking, and then beside her left ear, and when it was back around the front, it quit clicking.  Macon lifted it away and removed the eye shield.

The stuff in his yard was still there.

The cast is full of dynamic and intriguing characters, from the more intrinsically relatable Flynne and Netherton, to the increasingly alien, such as Lowbeer or Daedra.  And, of course, the entire gamut in between.  Watching these people unpack before you, interact with each other, act and react to their changing world, and struggle to exist on their own terms was a reward all on its own, but Gibson also offers us a stellar setting and complexly believable plotline.

Gibson, for anyone who is somehow unaware, has always had a reputation for interpreting the cultural meaning and narrative trajectory of our technology.  This book continues that reputation.  The two examined settings are in the 2030’s and 2100’s, and somehow it all seems to make sense, with most of the technology from both eras traceable back to our current one.  The culture makes sense.  The stepping stones seem easily visible from where we currently stand, as if this technology should be available ten years from now, and maybe less if you’re a big fan of Raymond Kurzweil.  Of course, that makes sense considering one of Gibson’s better-known quotations:

I’m not trying to predict the future.  I am trying to use science fiction to somewhat understand an unthinkable present.

It works.  Through the lens of the setting and plot, we’re challenged to consider our technological culture, and the society  built around it.  Of course, there’s also The Jackpot…but I won’t spoil that for you, since you’ll be reading about it soon.

The plot couldn’t exist without the setting, the technological culture of the setting, the strange way it all makes sense to today.  Again, I shan’t spoil it for you, but I will say that the complexity of it all is the sort of complexity you’d expect to come out of a machine with so many moving parts and so much data.  It’s tightly paced, woven around the characters seamlessly, and incredibly intriguing.  The ending isn’t your typical thriller-ending, either, which I appreciated.  It’s much more believable than your typical high-octane series of reveals and action sequences.

I will say that it begins, as these things often do, with a witness to a murder.  Except, at the time, she isn’t aware she’s a witness, or even that it’s a murder.  Part of the reason for that is that the crime happens somewhere around seventy years in the future, and she was just playing a video game.  After that, things build up, revealing decisions made for personal, political, social, and economic reasons that begin to spiral out of control, and at the center of the intrigue…a broke freelancer in 2030, and a washed-up publicist in 2100.

Worth every minute.

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The Art of Asking, by Amanda Palmer

The Art of Asking
(You can click on the picture to buy it.)

The Art of Asking (by Amanda Palmer) is a very transformative read.  Or, at least, it was for me.  I have always been one of those types of people who has trouble asking for things, or being vulnerable, or opening up in any way that doesn’t involve art (acting and/or writing, in my particular case).  This book broke me down a little bit, made me question myself and the way I go about things, and opened my eyes to a lot of possibilities that I hadn’t been open to, before.  I highly recommend it for any artist or, hell, just any human, really.  As much as Amanda Palmer has to say about art and money and internet economics, it all pales in comparison to what she has to say about just being a human being.  (Buy the damned book.)

Amanda is a very conversational writer.  At times I forgot I was actually reading a book.  I felt like I was being spoken to, that I was involved in a give-and-take, that I was listening to someone spill the beans on their life and their philosophies and their hopes and triumphs and downfalls and…but, of course, that’s just a part of how Amanda Palmer interacts with her audience.  She’s phenomenal at it.  (And it’s a part of the aforementioned philosophy, which after reading the book I was certain was something I wanted to revisit in my own life.)  The writing is engaging precisely because it doesn’t feel like writing.  Having read a number of memoirs in the last year, I have to say that the memoir portion of this book was the most engaging auto-biographical reading I’ve done to date.  I felt like I was being entrusted with something, something with eye contact and authenticity and vulnerability, and I think perhaps I was…in a distant, artistic kind of way.  On that count alone I recommend this book.  The words, much like Amanda’s voice, seem to clasp you by the face and pull you in and whisper “Me, too.”

Content is critical to these kinds of books (read: non-fiction, memoir, essay, etc), and this book has plenty of it.  The Art of Asking is, at once, an exploration of art, artist, audience, philosophy, economics, and memoir.  The content is its honesty and its forthrightness.  The content isn’t a “how to” instructional for crowdfunding or art or expression.  It isn’t a “For Dummies” on Kickstarter, indigogo, or becoming cult-famous.  It’s much more intimate than all of that.  It’s an overflow of experience and opinion, of personal philosophy and personal success and personal failure.  If you’re looking for an educational experience you’ll have to be open to taking it personally, not professionally.  But if that sounds like your bag (and/or if you’re an AFP fan) then the content is 100% for you.

I cried reading this book.  Sometimes out of empathy or sympathy, out of sadness at the state of the world and oh such people in it, and other times out of sheer joy and gratitude.  As I said, it was rather transformational.  I went into this book feeling very grim, unanchored and lost, on the tail end of what I’ll admit was a pretty shit year, isolated and distressed and not knowing what to do about it or who I could turn to for help.  Moreover, I was pretty convinced that there was nearly nobody who would care if I did.  I’m not good at vulnerability.  I’m not good at trust.  Sometimes I’m not even that good at being authentic.  Art is how I’ve always parsed my internal life, but lately I’ve found myself on very shaky footing and questioning if I’ve ever been much good at any of it.  Going into this book, I was doubting the utility and meaning of my existence and the potential for any happiness in my years to come.  Coming out of this book, I have a much firmer grasp on how things got this way, and I’ve been reminded of how exquisitely different I used to feel on these topics.  I feel very much like someone has bent down and reminded me that it’s okay to get hurt and be vulnerable, and that it’s okay to trust people and be disappointed, and that it’s okay to open up to other humans.  A significant part of my 2015 plan involves incremental steps towards doing that, and I feel that I owe a tremendous debt of thanks to Amanda Palmer for being the person who, in some distant way, gave me permission.

So, yes.  Thanks.  Keep being awesome.

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Lauren O’Connell, Demos Vol. 1. (Review)

demovol1

Lauren O’Connell is a fantastic folk and country artist with tremendous musical flexibility.  If you haven’t checked her out on YouTube or Bandcamp, you should do yourself a favor and give a little listen.

Demos Vol. 1 is…well, it’s exactly what it’s called.  These are demos, most of them prety lo-fi and straight-up, and that’s something I actually really appreciate in these genres.  If I wanted to listen to highly-produced jam sessions, I probably wouldn’t be listening to a largely acoustic album.  If that’s a sticking point for you, maybe try one of her other albums (Quitters and Covers are the only ones I can rightly vouch for).

Getting over that hump, however, this album is wonderful.  Most of the tracks are l0w-key instrumentation with a heavy focus on lyricism and vocal work, but that’s not to say instrumentation isn’t important and/or doesn’t serve as a tremendous underscore to these powerful songs.  For instance, the lower key instrumentation of “I Would Rather Be Gone” does a great job of filling the song, without detracting from the power of the lyrics and the voice singing them.  That song, by the way, is what initially attracted me to the album — after some recent upheavals in my life, I just couldn’t stop listening to it.  It’s a very honest, authentic piece of work.

The rest of the album turns out to be just as good.  Whether it’s cover work, such as her covers of Neko Case (“Deep Red Bells“) or Neutral Milk Hotel (“Oh Comely“), or her originals (“Bystander” or “I Would Rather Be Gone,” for instance), Lauren O’Connell always comes out sounding real and honest, with an excellent voice for folk and a great command of her audience.  I loved the album.

You can purchase Demos Vol. 1 here, for the low price of only $10 USD (or more!).

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Review: When Paris Went Dark, by Ronald C. Rosbottom

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Facts never tell the entire story. A list of dates, times, characters, and events may lead to some detached kind of awareness, but it falls short of capturing real “truth.” This book, however, details in great depth the daily lives of both Occupier and Occupied. Here, the dry and meaningless facts are joined by memoir, essay, poetry, biography…an in-depth look at the human beings who lived on either side of the conflict. Historical caricature is dismantled to reveal honest humanity, authentic suffering, doubt and anxiety, a full-bodied portrait of people caught in a tense, difficult time.

The presentation is wonderful, the facts spliced perfectly with the human narrative, bringing to light new considerations and perspectives on history. The book is informative and expansive, giving context and meaning to facts that otherwise may seem detached from genuine human experience. It shows the world that was as rich, dubious, and complicated as the world we currently inhabit. It brings in the innumerable shades of gray so often ignored when discussing these trying situations. Several times I was brought to tears by the overwhelming weight of the choices people had to make, and make daily, in those dark days. Facts are easy to swallow and judgments are easy to make from our perspective, now, but this book does an excellent job of reminding you that the facts are only part of the story and that judgments are easy to make when you’re not the one who had to do something.

I picked up this book, at first, to do research for a project I’m working on. I opened the book hoping to get a general idea of the mood of the time, to pick up a few choice details to enhance the realism of my project, and to search for any themes that ran through the reality of the time. Now that I’ve put it down, my perspective on it is very different. I have been crushed and inspired, destroyed and repaired, I have been brought face to face with the humanity of a terrifying and complicated time, and in it I found something closer to the truth of what happened than I’ve ever found, before.

I highly recommend this book to anyone curious about the occupation.

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Review: Modern Man, EP by LEGS OCCULT.

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The whole album is sick and vibrant with exactly the kind of authenticity we need right now.  The lyrics and music contain an artistic honesty arranged with meticulous care, and the listening experience showcases amazing, if under-recognized, talent.
The rock’n’roll intensity of the title track, Modern Man, is thrumming with energy, sex, doubt, need, and pain, is the sort of song that people could write essays about.  I know because I almost did (actually, I did, but you’ll never read it).  With lyrics that simultaneously evoke unbridled sensuality and painful nihilism, and a maddening guitar part both simple and driving, it is a song in both mourning and celebration of a flawed, troubled existence.  It is a hell of an anthem, a gritty fist-pumper for the neo-punk set.
The second track, Love’s Dark Sisters, is a sparse, emotional track supported by the beautiful but attenuated vocals of Allie Sheldan, who does a phenomenal job of selling a song underscored by remorse and anguish.  The song doesn’t need decoration.  Stark poetic descriptions and simple line construction serve to create an emotionally rich piece of music, accented perfectly by austere instrumentals that ebb and flow like waves from a midnight ocean.  Here is someone who can sing some blues, and the jarring vocals and stabbing lyrics make sure you know it.
The final track, Supernatural, is probably best described by the words “unbelievably” and “sexy.”  Twisting, chunky riffs wrap around coiled vocals, giving the song a sleek, sensual dynamic that kicks in at the beginning and doesn’t let up.  Again, bluesy vocals are well-supported by excellent guitar work to create a dark, sublime experience.  Perfect dirty day dream music.
LEGS OCCULT does you the added favor of letting you pick how much money to give them (as little as $3 Canadian, you cheap ne’er-do-wells) in exchange for these gorgeous tracks, so I highly recommend taking the time (and the cost of a artisanal coffee) to make the purchase.
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Message from 2139

Full Piece Here.

Body Text:

Hey, guys, I was just grabbing my mail yesterday when I found this thing.  It was inside a beaten-up envelope smudged with ashes and what looked to be the blood of the innocent.  It had a variety of stamps on it, and the address read ‘WHEREVER THE PEOPLE ARE,’ which further confused me because I’m not sure how the mailperson decided my apartment was such a place.  I opened it up and what I read astounded me.  I want to clarify that this is 100% totally not a hoax, flim-flam, trick, prank, or deception.  This is also DEFINITELY not a farce or a satire on the tragic relationship our culture has with corporate power structures and neo-conservatism.  This is, again, a totally legit document that was delivered to my door for reasons unknown to me.

It reads:

“Greetings, 2014.  My name is Columbus Jesus Webster, and as I think this memo into existence it is the year 2139, I sit in my comfortable cubicle under the watchful gaze of my supervisor.  I am writing you to discuss the way of life we have, now, so that you will have a greater understanding of how your actions might affect the future.

I understand that in the year 2014, you still have the vestigial power aggregate known as ‘The United States Government.’  I am pleased to inform you that such a power structure no longer exists, though we still have a House of Representatives and a Corporate Senate.  The House represents the various interest groups within a company (those of us interested in longer lunch breaks, for instance, as 20 minutes is a very short time), and the Senate comprised of representatives chosen by the Executives after a rigorous application process.  Since the establishment of this system in 2086, we have solved the national healthcare issues that currently plague you.  The corporation is now responsible for 0% of a citizen’s healthcare!  All health-related costs must come directly from the employee’s pocket, except when forbidden by our religion.  Those medical services and goods forbidden by our religion are illegal to purchase, but they are legal to sell and, indeed, our leaders accrue profits from their sales.  I hope that sounds as attractive to you as it does to me.

The official religion of our country (now known as The United Companies of Conglomo) is one you are only vaguely familiar with, now, called ‘Conservatism.’  The scripture, a series of ancient bumper stickers and corporate pamphlets pasted together over the pages of a book from some inferior religion (I believe at some point the book was called ‘The Bible,’ though most of it is now unreadable—save for certain parts of ‘Leviticus’), is primarily concerned with issues you have not yet resolved.  For instance, I understand that you are currently embroiled in debate over birth control.  The corporate senate has resolved that issue — women are disallowed from deciding whether or not to have a child.  An Executive, analogous both to your “employers” and also your “priests,” will inform a woman when she is and is not going to have sex or become pregnant.  When it is time for her to be pregnant, she will continue working through the maternity process (as no leave is given), before finally retiring from her job to be a full-time care-unit for the child.  This usually occurs between the ages of 30-35.  The concept of female autonomy has been dealt with, as well: no female is autonomous.  As males are a superior sex, they are given preference for all jobs, corporate positions, and religious roles.  This also means that our divorce rate has declined spectacularly from your era, as it is nearly impossible for women to hold jobs, and therefore they are entirely dependent on their Household Heads (“husbands” they were called in your time.)

As a jobholder, my life is very easy.  As long as I do not get sick, I make a steady, almost uninterrupted wage.  I live and work in the same building, in the arcology known as Google Town.  My rent, utilities, groceries, insurance, maintenance fees, holo-bills, neural-net access, and various et cetera are all drawn automatically out of my paycheck, which rarely ever varies.  With what money I have left over, I often go to the Google-Plex or stop by the bookstore Barnes & Google to make a purchase.  It is the only bookstore in the entire arcology, as holo-reading, auto-reading, and never-reading have replaced most people’s libraries.  I occasionally visit one of the many Google-owned pubs in the area.  My personal favorite is Any Google in a Storm, where Google employees receive a 20% discount, and every customer is a Google employee.  The staff is also comprised only of Google employees.

After dealing with the issue of women’s rights (they have none, of course), the next people we dealt with were those of the “lesbian gay bisexual whatever” persuasion.  It was decided that, generally, these people were workplace disruptions and anti-Conservative, and that no employer would have need of them.  The more Orthodox corporations (those who adhere most closely to our scriptures and listen most attentively to our singular news station), herded their homosexual populations out into the streets, where the unmaintained buildings have fallen into disrepair and destruction (much like your current “Detroit,” a city I’ve read about in my history texts.  I’ve heard that the people who lived there destroyed it, despite the hard work of a virtuous political system.)  Google is less orthodox in their observance of our religion, and so there are a number of homosexual people who live in the lower levels of the arcology.  They are kept away from the general population in case they decide to force their agenda on us.  I sometimes feel bad for the homosexuals, as many of the apartments on the lower floors are no larger than a closet, but I know it’s for the best for everybody that they stay there.

By the year 2014, you are probably aware that racism hasn’t existed for half a century, and any remnants are really more related to class.  The correlation between race and class isn’t so much a byproduct of hundreds of years of abuse and dehumanization as it is, say, pure coincidence.  Things have continued in much the same way since your time!  While a decent percentage of our working and ruling class populations are ethnic/urban/etc, most of the minority population lives out on the streets with the homosexuals and the unemployed non-ethnic proles, scavenging the desolate landscape beyond the walls of our arcologies for food and goods.  This isn’t to be conflated with racism, of course, because the ethnic/urban members of our working and ruling classes, as the exceptions to the rule, prove that anyone can achieve greatness (though it is admittedly more likely if you’ve inherited it through generations of substantial wealth).  I’m sure the Executives don’t even see color, anymore.  Though, to be honest, the Executives don’t see much of anyone.  They only receive reports on advancements and output and make decisions based upon those.  So, I suppose what I meant, is that the Supervisors don’t see color, anymore, since they’re the people watching everyone constantly.  They judge us all based on our merit.  No one here is a racist.

As you can gather, we now live in a perfect world, where our corporate benefactors have resolved many of the social and economic issues you now struggle with.  Of course, the unions had to go immediately (but they were already well on their way), and we’ve turned Saturday into a work-day to make sure that profit margins remain acceptable, but these are minor costs to pay for such a comfortable lifestyle.  On my day off (Sunday, when we celebrate the rhetoric of our founding fathers, like Bill O’Reilly), I sometimes peer out of my bullet-proof window and look down on the proles meandering the desolate unemployed streets, burning fires in hollowed-out garbage cans and living in half-collapsed warehouses, and think about how grateful I am to live in this wonderful era.

Okay, my supervisor has just left.  The real reason I am writing this is so you will STOP THIS MADNESS.  My paychecks are very irregular, with random deductions made for ‘improper neural-net usage’ and ‘profit-risk analysis,’ and often I take pay cuts for reasons I never learn about, only to have my wages return to normal weeks later.  The employees are powerless.  We can do nothing to stop these things from happening.  We have no real representation.  The House elections are all bought and rigged!

This world is not what it should be.  I can feel the walls crushing in against my body.  I smell oppression everywhere.  I smell it in the stale scent of air conditioning.  I smell it on the Super 200 suit my supervisor wears.  I smell it in the artificial parks they’ve constructed, since going outside is too dangerous for employed citizens to do.  It’s awful, and it’s all around me, the reek of it, the constant rancid stench.

The proles are restless.  They have begun carrying signs, scavenged poster board mounted to long sticks and metal poles, and even with the security squads patrolling the street I get the sense that things are not safe.  It seems that despite their most rigorous efforts in their stop-and-frisk policies, the police can’t maintain control!  I suspect it is only a matter of time before bloodshed is incipient, and I will not stand for it!  Or, rather, I hope you won’t stand for it.  You see, I really need this job, and I can’t afford to lose it, so I won’t be doing anything.  I’m scared.  I’m hoping that there are some of you in the year 2014 who are less scared than I am.

Luckily, an underground fringe organization called ‘Scientists’ has informed me that not only is global climate change real, but that The United Companies of Conglomo’s decisions have opened a rift back through time.  I only hope that I can get this memo through the temporal rift back to an era when people can still change things.

Please, do whatever you can to stop this nightmarish place from existing!

GOPspeed.”

Super-weird letter, right?  Well, anyway, I’ve got this really important yoga thing tonight, so…I think I’m just going to throw it out.  I just wanted to show people in case, I don’t know, someone else felt like doing something?  Whatever.  #livingforthepresent.

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