Monday, 29 June 2009

Loops issue 1 (Faber/Domino 2009)

The independent spirit still thrives in the overwrought music and literature industries, both struggling to cope with pay-fatigue and other distractions away from their products, bigger and flasher with more flash images and snazzy coding. Oh, the independent spirit, it ebbs and flows that a DIY middle finger that deviates between sticking it up in rebellion and exploring the cavities of one’s nose with an awkwardness resigned to irrelevance. Oh, the independent spirit, a matador of such pride and ferocity and spirit, occasionally flagging up such works of wonder as issue 1 of Loops magazine. A co-project between Faber and Domino (recording home to Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, Lightspeed Champion), this is a threefold attempt at bringing forth the danger: 1) it’s a quarterly magazine of highbrow essays and short stories, something in short supply in the advent of the blog ‘review’ offered as a free pdf download guaranteed for eyesore 2) it’s a return to the type of music criticism that made Plan B (recently sadly defunct) so vital, that made Lester Bangs so vital, that made music blogs so vital 3) it’s an opportunity to sell some products that, quite frankly, need your cash because yes, Lily Gaga may have farted out another album and Martina Cole may have vomited out another thriller, but they don’t need your cash. Independents with the independent spirit like Faber and Domino do, natch.

Loops features some quality articles written by some interesting writers, some musicians, all from varied spectrums of the music listening platform, from blogger to musician to journalist to critic to fan. Nick Cave’s insane new book ‘The Death of Bunny Munro’ is included as an extracted from early on in its demonic road trip to the soul of tragic father figures. Chris Killen, another Canongate author, presents a bizarre dream sequence involving a narcissistic and sad Paul Simon fighting with Chevy Chase. Richard Millward, author of ‘Ten Storey Love Song’ a book drenched in musical psychedelic and Madchester verve, provides a retrospective on Spaceman 3, your favourite fuzz drone space rock band’s favourite band. Mystery music blogger Maggoty Lamb provides a scathing and insightful review of the last year in music journalism, destroying all sacred cows, dissecting the death of music journalism and its conquering by blogs and websites and people actually writing about bands they like rather than bands they think you’ll like with the biggest ad budget. James Yorkston describes a recent tour with humour, self-deprecation and humility, nailing the touring musician’s spirit with eloquence and heart. Susan Sontag has the best piece, a hilarious deconstruction of hip hop and its inherent campness, using its feelings of bravado and machismo to implicate rappers in the biggest homo-erotic undertones since... well... errr... the last one. Loops, at times, feels a bit too cleverly put together, like there was a list of ubercool cult authors and musicians... right, now, who can we get? But this is a small quibble in a publication well edited and commissioned and put together like a biannual labour of love. Music journalism, music criticism, just writing about love music, seems relevant again.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Ho! The Morally Questionable Cartoons of Ivan Brunetti - Ivan Brunetti (Fantagraphics 2009)

Satirical ‘former cartoonist’ Ivan Brunetti has been flying the flag for independent and underground comics for a while now, veering between the high brow cerebral stories and ironic filth. This collection of new one-panel cartoons and quips and visual one-liners, is a brutally funny and disturbing attempt to push some buttons, either uncomfortably or comfortably mired in taboo. The aesthetic of freaks, geeks, nerds and ugly men and women, all with dark pasts, dirty fetishes, sociopathic tendencies, and murderous habits all play out over 120 odd pages of frenetic cartoon violence, sometimes sexual, sometimes suicidal, sometimes offensive, but always funny. It’s hard to write a review of this book without putting up some of the images, but I think to take them out of the context of the book reduces the ‘hilarious’ impact of page after page of dick mutilation, rape and droopy breasts. You get the feeling that Brunetti is not to be taken literally, that these cartoons have been deliberately constructed to break taboos and to irk the sensible. Culled mostly from out-of-print work (Hee! and Haw!) and other anthologies, the contents are discreetly presented in an uninviting, funereal package of unglamorous black and white. The gallows humour of sexual fetish gone awry keeps us guessing as to how far Brunetti will take it, but also to who’d have bowed out by now, too shocked to continue to the end. It’s a funny book that plays with the idea of obscenity and censorship in a way that shows Brunetti to be the master of gag cartoons… especially ones about skull-fucking and severed dick lollies.

Check out more Fantagraphics books, some of the best in the funnybook business.

Joe Simon and Jack Kirby - The Best of Simon and Kirby (Titan 2009)

Comics were so much more innocent in the 60s, during the ‘Golden Age.’ They oozed nostalgia, Americana and an innocence depiction of good versus evil. The only shades of grey were the suits the superheroes wore in their everyday guises. Everything was black and white, good and bad. Well, in Marvel’s case, everything was primal American flag colours versus green and khaki, symbols of Nazism and communism and pure evil. Marvel has always held a patriotic view of its all-American heroes, lacking the egoes, gold complexes and macabre elements of DC’s more nightmareish grey areas. Most heroes in the Marvel canon operate in the same red, white and blue costumes, spandex representations of their patriotic selves.

So, who were Joe Simon and Jack Kirby? Well, thanks to them we have superhero films and we have Marvel’s successful characters and we have the popcorn powerhouse of good and evil told in the fantastical. They were pioneers. Meeting in 1939, where Joe was an editor and Jack was a staff illustrator, they developed the costume, Blue Bolt, a mix of science fiction and derring-do. Football star, Fred Parrish, struck by lightening fights the nazis and the underground forces of the Green Sorceress. Blue Bolt set the tone for the slew of comic book heroes fighting nazis, developed by Jewish refugees practising wish fulfillment in their art, a device told beautifull in Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Joe Simon and Jack Kirby went on to develop the all-conquering Captain America for Timely Comics, a character who eventually ended up frozen and resurrected in the modern-age as a Marvel character, a super soldier with a belief in truth, justice and the American way. Simon and Kirby rocketed to fame, launching hit after hit, spanning sci-fi, superheroes, horror, even romance, with industry-beating characters like Manhunter, Captain America, Sandman. They set the standard for superhero action.

And now Titan has lovingly collated some of their best issues spanning their most versatile genres for this new collection. With issues from the Fly, Stuntman, Fighting American, Bulls Eye, Private Strong, we are treated to some of the most memorable and lovingly regarded comics America ever produced before eventually commanding the entire market with the template Simon and Kirby created. This is the perfect introduction to their brand of imaginative yet simplistically themed good ol fashioned funnybook stories. Definitely worth picking up for anyone wanting to know their comic book history, for any Americana nostalgia freaks and for anyone who likes a good yarn about the never-ending battle between good and evil.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The Kominas - 'Wild Nights in Guantanemo Bay' (2009)

It's two thousand and fucking nine people... Iran is imploding, the BNP is exploding and we're all still doing the running man like it's 1988. Who the fuck is Lady Gaga? Who the fuck are the Kominas? Cos they'll poke---her------face...

Anger, destruction, energy, synergy, polemic, ire, fire- want one? Remember when music was exciting AND relevant and it made the hairs on your prickly skin stand up to attention as the righteous music caused revolutions all over your body, convulsing you into a spastic frenzy. Remember the first time Public Enemy melted your brain? Asian Dub Foundation made you dance for justice? Remember remember? Well, the Kominas do, and they're coming for you people. Formed after the book The Taqwacores, that launched a niche North American muslim punk movement, The Kominas are leaders through their buzzsaw guitars, wry lyrics and bombastic fascination with Bollywood conventions and overdramatised acting. 'From Dishoom Bebe's hilarious anecdotal Indian gangster to 'Sharia Law in the USA's anarchists, this is a funny no-frills batallion stomp through American foreign policy of the last 8 years and its inadequacies... but the difference is... you can mosh to it. Relevant and melodic, The Kominas destroy any stereotypes anyone holds about muslims with their riotous funtimes rock'n'roll party and polemical hardnosed rhetoric that tears apart att he very fabric of our society. Hip hop smashes in with references to Slick Rick and Brand Nubian. The Dead Kennedys, NOFX, and Disposable Brothers of Hiphoprisy. In songs like Wal Qaeda Superstore, parallels are drawn between Walmart and the oil industry in the Middle East, criticising and defending and detracting and redacting all at once. Look, this is punk fire, with 12 tracks of high energy contemporary political rock'n'roll, it's not for the faint hearted or apathetic, it's one to get righteously moshed out to and get out there and do something.


Colson Whitehead - 'Sag Harbor' (Harvill Secker 2009)

The fourth book by Colson Whitehead seems to be the one that'll finally break this hilarious writer out from the cult following that nurtured his flights of autobiographical fancy. Set in the titular Sag Harbor, a Hamptons for blacks in upstate New York, Whitehead introduces us to changes that ending up shaping urban culture and vomiting it out into the mainstream. Sag Harbor is a safe haven for middle class black kids. They spend their entire summers there, get to hang out with fellow African-American children and pound the streets safe from 'the streets.' They lead innocent lives and try to come to terms with the duality of their existences. For they are predominantly the only blacks in their classes and schools and thus have to partition part of themselves for school and parts of themselves for Sag Harbor. And thus it becomes a mythical, mystical, nostalgic setting for growing up. Benji, our main man, and his twin Reggie, earn money in cooking jobs, stalk the beaches for nudists and scare off any white people who try to beach themselves on their sections of the beach. For this is theirs, apart from the 'man' and away from 'whitey. Benji's a Converse-wearing, Smiths-loving, Dungeons & Dragons-playing nerd whose favorite Star Wars character is the hapless bounty hunter Greedo- out of sorts with his peers and contemporaries, who despite their lack of exposure to urban black culture are still rocking out to Afrika Bambataa and the Zulu Nation, scolding Benji when he informs them of where their samples come from (in this case, the Kraftwerk-sampling 'Planet Rock). The other boys, especially twin Reggie, seem more at ease with their sense of identity than Benji does and this pervades the rest of their 3 month unsupervised holiday in the summer of 1985. Essentially a coming of age novel, Benji's narrated story tells of his first kiss, the removal of braces, BB gun battles, slinging hip insults and deconstructing the myth of what it means to be black and what it means to be Benji. Filled with nostalgia, summery vibes, oodles of pop culture and hilarious self-deprecating narrative, 'Sag Harbor' is a warm and funny piece of literary comedy that is laidback like the summer it depicts and staunchly proud of its identity. A warmer and funnier read you won't find this summer.

Buck up you publishing fucktards

Look publishers, excuse the profanity but I feel a sense of release this morning. All this digital publishing isn’t destroying print books. People are reading less, yes, but that’s probably cos they’re getting dumber. People are reading blogs, tweets, profiles, news stories online, email etc etc etc… the world is getting smaller and more mobile but that doesn’t reduce anyone’s need for a good story, you idiots. So continue to put out good stories. Don’t think that publishing is an extension of lowest common denominator media like Big Brother or Kerry Katona’s Latest com or Strictly Come This Way Talentless Pricks. To the celebrity biogs and the ghostwritten books and the franchise series told in short chapters so they’re easier to commit to screenplay we say AWAY AWAY AWAY.

I had this realisation today because in a sea of books today, I saw my first e-reader. Yes, I was reading ‘Sag Harbor’ bu Colson Whitehead, someone was reading a Barack Obama book, someone was reading David Foster Wallace, another- James Lee Burke… and in the sea of manuscripts and pages and covers and art, I saw someone using an e-reader. She was dressed in a suit, wore glasses (well if you do everything on a screen like watch shop work read, say hello to speccy-vision) and snatched up nose trying to concentrate on scrawling electronic ways that pixellated the more her tired commuter eyes squinted. I manipulated some commuter dodging just to sit next to her and see what she was reading. And you know what it was? Yes, she was going through her electronic slush pile. She was an agent. It stands true… the rule that the only people using electronic readers are tired agents glued to ploughing through slush piles trying to find, in this economic apocalypse, a new Dan Brown or Sophie Kinsella.

So yes, printed books aren’t dead. I’m yet to find a real-life person sat with their electronic reader, reading for pleasure.

And you know who agrees with me? The editor of Granta. Read his article about print here. Also Dave Eggers is in on the action, declaring at a conference that if anyone wanted to email him about the death of printed books, they should email him.

Well, I did…

And here’s what he said (I hope he doesn’t mind my repeating this, it seemed like a pro forma reply):

Dear Person Needing Bucking Up,

Hello and thank you so much for writing. I feel honored that you would take the time to reach out and in many cases tell me your very real struggles with writing and work and the future of the printed word.

I have a few thoughts to share, though unfortunately in this space I can?t detail all the reasons I think we have a fighting chance at keeping newspapers and books alive in physical form. But before I do blather for a few paragraphs, I should apologize for sending you a mass email.

As you probably know, in May I gave a speech to about 100 people in New York, and I didn?t foresee it getting out there on the web. (Shows how much I know.) And I really didn?t expect this email address to be given out.

Again, though, that was my lack of foresight. And I?m an infrequent emailer, so I?m unable to respond to most of the (plaintive, beautiful,

heart-ripping) emails that have been sent to me these past few days. So I apologize for not being able to answer your email personally. Or at least not in any timely manner.

Anyway. I would like to say to you good print-loving people that for every dire bit of news there is out there, there is also some good news, too. The main gist of my (rambling) speech at the Author?s Guild was that because I work with kids in San Francisco, I see every day that their enthusiasm for the printed word is no different from that of kids from any other era.

Reports that no one reads anymore, especially young people, are greatly overstated and almost always factually lacking. I?ve written about youth readership elsewhere, but to reiterate: sales of young adult books are actually up. Total volume of all book sales is actually up. Kids get the same things out of books that they have before. Reading in elementary schools and middle schools is no different than any other time. We have work to do with keeping high schoolers reading, but then again, I meet every week with 15 high schoolers in San Francisco, and all we do is read (literary magazines, books, journals, websites, everything) in the process of putting together the Best American Nonrequired Reading. And I have to say these students, 14 to 18 years old, are far better read and more astute than I was at their age, and there are a million other kids around the country just like them.

These kids meet every week at McSweeney?s, and things at our small publishing company are stable. We?re a hand-to-mouth operation to be sure, but we haven?t had to lay anyone off. To some extent, that?s because we?re small and independent and have always insisted on staying small and independent. We take on very little risk, and we grow very cautiously. It?s our humble opinion that the world will support many more publishers of our size and focus. If you can stay small, stay independent, readers will be loyal, and you?ll be able to get by publishing work of merit. Publishing has, for most of its life, been a place of small but somewhat profit margins, and the people involved in publishing were happy to be doing what they loved. It?s only recently, when large conglomerates bought so many publishing companies and newspapers, that demands for certain margins squeezed some of the joy out of the business.

Pretty soon, on the McSweeney?s website ? ? we?ll be showing some of our work on this upcoming issue, which will be in newspaper form. The hope is that we can demonstrate that if you rework the newspaper model a bit, it can not only survive, but actually thrive. We?re convinced that the best way to ensure the future of journalism is to create a workable model where journalists are paid well for reporting here and abroad. And that starts with paying for the physical paper. And paying for the physical paper begins with creating a physical object that doesn?t retreat, but instead luxuriates in the beauties of print. We believe that if you use the hell out of the medium, if you give investigative journalism space, if you give photojournalists space, if you give graphic artists and cartoonists space ? if you really truly give readers an experience that can?t be duplicated on the web ? then they will spend $1 for a copy. And that $1 per copy, plus the revenue from some (but not all that many) ads, will keep the enterprise afloat.

As long as newspapers offer less each day ? less news, less great writing, less graphic innovation, fewer photos ? then they?re giving readers few reasons to pay for the paper itself. With our prototype, we aim to make the physical object so beautiful and luxurious that it will seem a bargain at $1. The web obviously presents all kinds of advantages for breaking news, but the printed newspaper does and will always have a slew of advantages, too. It?s our admittedly unorthodox opinion that the two can coexist, and in fact should coexist. But they need to do different things. To survive, the newspaper, and the physical book, needs to set itself apart from the web.

Physical forms of the written word need to offer a clear and different experience. And if they do, we believe, they will survive. Again, this is a time to roar back and assert and celebrate the beauty of the printed page.

Give people something to fight for, and they will fight for it. Give something to pay for, and they?ll pay for it.

We?ll keep you posted throughout the summer about our progress with this newspaper prototype, and any other good news we come across.

Thanks for listening for now,


P.S. The email address you wrote to ? ? was a new one I set up to give to the attendees of the Author?s Guild. I won?t be able to check it very often, as I?m slow with email to begin with.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Jhumpa Lahiri - Unaccustomed Earth (Bloomsbury 2008)

Jhumpa Lahiri's subjects are niche, quietly dysfunctional Bengali American families in Massachussets falling apart either through marital ennui or cultural identity issues, but the pain and emotion and expanse of delicate subtlety steer her characters to the core of the human condition. The deservedly Pulitzer-award winning debut short story collection, 'The Interpreter of Maladies' was a beautiful account of the above, but at the same time, so much more. Her writing is clear and concise, yet descriptive about the small movements, the lingering stares, the paths of loneliness and solitude and the companionships of families. 'The Namesake' was a bigger project, taking the same themes and translating them to a broad pallette, a full novel that spanned England, India and America, made into a superb film by safe pair of hands, Mira Nair. Now, 'Unaccustomed Earth', a new short story collection. It spans 5 stories and 1 novella in 3 movements, each one beautiful and delicate and full of nuance and quiet implosions. In 'Unaccustomed Earth' the first story concerns a grieving father and daughter as they dance around the silence of their stoic relationship, as he bonds with his new grandson and she watches him slowly move on with his life, unable to do so with her own, their secrets building up fortresses around them. In 'Only Goodness' a sister mothers and sisters and befriends her younger brother, building their secrets into a wall against their parents, one that results in his battles with self and identity and alcoholism while she tries to escape their quiet life in Boston's suburbs, both burdened by a simple secret that captures them both. In 'Nobody's Business' a man pines for his roommate as she conducts a clandestine affair with a mysterious man, full of secrets, trying to mind his own business as the affair unravels spectacularly and involves him. The novella, 'Hema and Kaushik' spans three significant times in the lives of star-crossed friends/lovers Hema and Kaushik as they move from awkward teenage crushes to death and disappointment to an eventual rekindling of their burdgeoning romance in Italy 20 years later. Each story deals with small secrets and big secrets and how they become anchors around necks, about how everyday events create stigmas that change lives, about whispers and lies. It's a beautiful piece of work, each story chillingly emotive (chilling in their power and nuance), everyday objects and events are described in new ways. The affairs with married man, the slow burn of mixed race relationships, secrets, learning to move on after losing a loved one or the relationships between parents and their adult children- are all themes that build into a fine piece of work, a work of a true master of their craft.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Patrick Neate - Jerusalem (Penguin)

‘Jerusalem’, the new book by Patrick Neate is the final part of a loose trilogy about myth and stories and Africa and London featuring his usual mix of sardonic side-swiping worldviews versus ultra slick language versus marvelling in the power of storytelling. Featuring familiar characters from ‘Musungu Jim and the Great Chief Tuloko’ and ‘Twelve Bar Blues’, the book is an expansive universe of different timelines and countries. In London, ultra-cool tastemaker Preston Pinner discovers a rapper called Nobody, who he feels he can mould into a chart-beating superstar. Nobody turns out to be less malleable when he is revealed to be an illegal immigrant and a sharp tongue and a strong sense of racial history. Meanwhile, Preston’s dad, an MP, travels to Zambia (for which read Zimbabwe, with its tyrannical post-revolution Prime Minister, dodgy politics and tenuous diplomatic relations with other countries) to free a business tycoon accused of espionage. Musa, our happy-go-lucky witchdoctor from previous books, minus one foot, languishes in jail and dreams of a Bristolian gentleman on a search for the core of Britishness in the early 1900s, extracts of whose diary pepper the present-day action throughout. It’s a broad canvass that purports to get to the heart of Britishness and as well as discussing the very nature of ‘cool’ and tastemakers who decide our trends, and white man’s burden in Africa, and the nature of history and the folk tales of Africa that tell the same stories that have been retold for years and years. Such a broad canvass and there are some amazing ideas in the book, written well from sentence to sentence, employing a hip slick sensibility and a fast-paced writing style, but the broadness makes the whole project feel bitty and unfinished in places. Which is a shame because in here are some great ideas that struggle with each other for space, struggle with each other to be the big ‘theme.’ There is a lot written about the nature of identity, who we are and what masks we hide behind and what we consider to be home. It’s a great ride throughout, featuring a good finale to the story of Jim Tulloh (from the first two books), but sometimes struggles to keep its ‘big theme’ at the forefront. As a discussion of Britain and this green and pleasant land, it manages to be more successful as the scenes in London echo louder than the MP abroad faux-pas-a-rama. Musa remains as enigmatically batshit crazy as ever and is always fun to read. Patrick Neate is certainly one to always watch as his work is always interesting and this is definitely an ambitious project, definitely worth a read, and definitely hunting down Sway’s track, posing as Nobody, for 'Jerusalem.'

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Helen Walsh - Once Upon a Time in England (Canongate 2009)

Helen Walsh's broody, moody and quite frankly depressing 'Once Upon a Time in England' is a brutal deconstruction of a family falling apart. Set in and around Warrington from the 70s to present, it follows the Fitzgeralds: Robbie is a working man's club singer extraordinaire guilted into giving up his dreams of singing for a living when beautiful wife Susheela is the victim of a violent rape at the hands of local racists. Their existence folds in around the rape, which she keeps secret and its ensuing effects on the rest of their lives. She grows agoraphobic and aspirational, trying to keep up with the neighbours, a sallow shallow bunch of ladies who lunch, while Robbie gives up his dreams and good looks to work excessively in factories, wiling away broken pipe dreams into the shopline. Their celibate lives drive Robbie to bathroom distraction and later, affairs, while Susheela drives herself to Manchester to spend afternoons sampling the secret delights of spicy curries, something Robbie hates. One secret begets many others. Their children, a writer and a space cowgirl, experiment with homosexuality and drugs and soon the separate lives they all lead become burdens around their necks during uncomfortable family time. The secrets they hold are powerful macguffins that affect their lives over many decades. The spiral of the fallout from Susheela's initial rape creates a catalyst of broken dreams and broken promises as the Fitzgerald family slowly implode in the confines of their suburban prison. Walsh is a fine writer, honest and descriptive and able to keep track of her four main protagonists, colouring each in with regret and misery and even mystery. Eldest son Vince is a quiet enigmatic talent while Ellie is a spacy but boisterous force. Susheela has her secrets and rigid constructs of life, while Robbie is a regretful broken man. This is a tiny microcosm of northern suburban life, both unflinching and willing to run its characters through the mill, and it's this honesty that keeps it powerful throughout. Again, another Canongate triumph.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett - Tank Girl vol 1 and 2 (Titan Books)

Tank Girl is one of those seminal texts, like The Watchmen, that launched hundreds of copycats, heavily marrying zeitgeist and comic, a sign of the times, though set in an apocalyptic future. Tank Girl was a hilarious cynical street-smart riposte to comic book machismo and paternal attitudes to women in pictoral form. Tank Girl spawned Gorillaz, eventually. Tank Girl was the late 1980s deconstruction and destruction of prissy New Wave New Romantic MTV dross by giving his a DIY post-punk apocalyptic missile up its arse. And at the centre of it was a punky drunky ignorant feral skinhead called Tank Girl, a girl with a tank. Simple. With its whipsmart dialogue and bizarre scattershot scenarios barely forming a loose arc, she destroyed her way across Australia, whether it was road-tripping with Easy Riders Jack Nicholson and Peter Fonda (in this case, volume 2) or delivering colostomy bags to the wetbag Prime Minister, she was always interesting, unintelligible and sardonic. Set in Australia, featuring monstrous hideous personified kangaroos, who fleeted between dangerous and love interest, she battled and fought. These remastered editions from superlative Titan Books, retell he whole story in black and white, with essays by the creators and funs, featuring never-seen-before clips and snapshots of the era that creative Tank Girl, even featuring baby-faced Damon Albarn and Hewlett hanging at art school. The artwork is stuffed with pop culture references, very British references (despite the Outback outset) and spiky slightly obscene images of scantily clad men and women, shagging, raping, fighting and getting blitzed. The disorganised nature of the stories make it a riotous read, never boring and never succumbing to the weight of its own universe, by being so open it can literally be taken anywhere. It’s dated slightly, especially stylistically, and in the actual references, but the structures the one-liners and the format are as fresh as ever, and completely punk. Worth picking up these lovingly compiled new volumes for the extra bits and bobs.