The Bookshelf

Book Review: Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary

Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary. Behind-the-scenes Diary of How They Made the Decade's Greatest Movie!Close Encounters of the Third Kind Diary. Behind-the-scenes Diary of How They Made the Decade’s Greatest Movie! by Bob Balaban
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re looking for an in-depth history of the production of the classic Spielberg film, this isn’t it.

Instead, it is exactly what the title promises, a transcription of the diary kept by actor Bob Balaban during the time he spent working on CE3K. While there are some behind-the-scenes tidbits of movie magic — for example, I never knew that the curving mountaintop road where Richard Dreyfuss’ character Roy Neary nearly runs over a young boy in his truck, and then moments later gets his first good look at several UFOs, was in fact built on a soundstage — the book really is just Balaban’s personal experiences on location and on set. Fortunately, he’s an engaging writer, and there is a certain wistful innocence about the the time he’s describing, when it was still very unusual for actors to have to react to objects that wouldn’t exist until the visual-effects teams constructed them months later.

The most charming aspect of the book, however, is the growing friendship between Balaban and his costar, the famed French director and actor Francois Truffaut. Balaban plays Truffaut’s interpreter in the film, and he filled a similar role in real life, helping Truffaut learn his English lines and generally navigate an American film production that was shooting in very American locations. I’ve always had the sense that Truffaut was fundamentally a kind man, and I was pleased that Balaban’s descriptions of him support that impression. One moment in particular stands out to me, when Truffaut befriends some young boys on a Wyoming street corner and passes the time with them tossing pebbles at an old candy bar wrapper, the language barrier between them completely negated by Truffaut’s inherent warmth and openness.

Highly recommended if you’re a fan of the film, or of Truffaut.

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Review: Runnin’ with the Devil

Running with the Devil: Managing Van Halen Straight to the TopRunning with the Devil: Managing Van Halen Straight to the Top by Noel Monk
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Noel E. Monk managed the rock band Van Halen from its breakthrough in 1978 to the end of its first incarnation in 1985, when lead singer David Lee Roth left for a solo career and Monk himself was fired. Prohibited from publicly telling his side of things for many years, Monk is finally free to dish the gossip, and the result is this quick-reading memoir with the apropos subtitle “A Backstage Pass to the Wild Times, Loud Rock, and the Down and Dirty Truth Behind the Making of Van Halen.” (I don’t know why Goodreads claims the subtitle is something else. )

There are enough gossipy tidbits here to appeal to prurient interest, but if you’re a VH fan (or even just a fan of rock music in general), none of that will surprise you. Promiscuous sex, drugs and booze, trashed hotel rooms, and dickish behavior are hardly unique to this particular band. The basic outline of their rise and fall will seem familiar too: hard-working and talented young musicians break through, rise to immense heights, and then are undone by substance abuse and clashing egos. The thing that really distinguishes this book, however, is Monk himself. He’s led quite a swashbuckling life, before and after Van Halen, and he’s by turns funny, opinionated, and brutally honest. He doesn’t shy away from the really nasty aspects of the Van Halen story — Alex Van Halen comes off looking especially bad, in my opinion — but this isn’t a hit piece, and Monk never sounds like a guy with an ax to grind. He very obviously loved this band and loved the time he spent with them. But they weren’t always easy to deal with and the way things ultimately end up between the members of Van Halen and Noel Monk are downright heartbreaking.

My one complaint with Runnin’ with the Devil is that it leaves the reader hanging on certain matters. It is to Monk’s credit that he stops talking about Van Halen at the moment his involvement ended, rather than speculating on events he didn’t directly witness. But of course the band did continue in a new form, with Sammy Hagar as lead singer (Monk doesn’t think too highly of that era, or of David Lee Roth’s solo efforts), and there were a lot of unresolved personal matters at the time of Monk’s departure as well. What happened with Eddie and Alex’s alcoholism? And Michael Anthony’s as well? If you’re curious about those subjects, you’ll have to find another book. But if you want a powerful evocation of life on the road for a young band just arriving on the scene, as well as a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how things went wrong in only a few short years, this one is highly recommended.

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Review: The Questor Tapes

The Questor Tapes
The Questor Tapes by D.C. Fontana
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the years between the cancellation of the original Star Trek television series and the franchise-reviving feature Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Trek‘s creator Gene Roddenberry wrote and produced a number of made-for-TV pilot films that he hoped would lead to a new series and a regular gig for him. None of them sold, but they all at least made it to the airwaves and many are fondly remembered today. Probably the best of them (and the one I personally think would’ve been most interesting as an ongoing series) was The Questor Tapes, the story of a highly sophisticated android searching for its creator, a mysterious genius who’s gone missing. Along for the ride is a young engineer who was a protege of Questor’s creator and helped to assemble the android, and whose assistance Questor now requires to successfully navigate through society and those ever-confusing human emotions.

This novelization of the Questor film skillfully adapts an open-ended pilot into a satisfying stand-alone story. Some of the ideas in the story are overly familiar today, if not outright cliche’d, and Roddenberry’s, shall we say, outdated attitudes about sex and the human female are occasionally a bit jarring to modern eyes. (Every woman in the story has a smokin’ body and gets her wardrobe described in great detail, and the female character with the most prominent role is possibly a prostitute.) But if you keep in mind when this was written — 1974 — it’s a short and brisk read that’s perfect as disposable entertainment for a summer afternoon. Star Trek fans will find it particularly interesting because Questor is so clearly a forerunner of the Commander Data character from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which made its debut over a decade after Questor. Roddenberry wasn’t one to let go of a good idea…

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Review: Billy Connolly’s Route 66

Billy Connolly's Route 66
Billy Connolly’s Route 66 by Billy Connolly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Billy Connelly is a Scottish musician, comic and actor who, in 2011, rode a three-wheeled motorcycle from Chicago to Los Angeles, following the fragmented remains of the legendary Route 66. Naturally, the whole adventure was filmed for a British television series, and this book reads like what it basically is, i.e., a transcription of that series, complete with lengthy dialog between Connolly and the more interesting people he encounters.

As someone who has long dreamed of making a similar journey, this book was a bit sobering. Connolly makes it sound as if there are more ghost towns along the Mother Road than thriving tourist traps, a stark contrast to most of the literature on the subject. He’s also pretty harsh in his opinions of the greasy-spoon-style “road food” that I tend to enjoy. And yet the things he does enjoy along the way are enticing, from his encounter with an Amish furniture maker to his wonder at the Grand Canyon, and these make the moodier passages worth enduring.

One thing to note: Connolly has lived in America for many years and loves this country, but he is not American. Nor is he Christian. But he is opinionated, and he’s not the sort of person to soft-pedal his opinions, which some readers may find a bit off-putting. Personally I found his outsider’s perspective and blunt revulsion at some of the more excessive, fanatical, or just plain weird aspects of American culture rather refreshing. His writing style — assisted by cowriter Robert Uhlig — is more serviceable than poetic, but he can get philosophical from time to time. The overall impression is something akin to spending a couple hours hearing your colorful uncle tell you all about his vacation over a pint.

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Contribute to a Great Cause, Get Yourself a Great Comic

My long-time Loyal Readers may remember me blogging a couple years back about the writer Bill Mantlo, who single-handedly scripted the entire run of one of my favorite childhood comics, The Micronauts, as well as creating Rocket Raccoon, the crowd-favorite character from Guardians of the Galaxy. Briefly, Mantlo was an immense talent who was struck by a hit-and-run driver in 1992 and left in a tragically sad situation that continues to this day.

Well, my pal Jaquandor remembered, and yesterday he directed me to a Kickstarter campaign he’d somehow run across. Dynamite Entertainment and Mantlo’s collaborator Butch Guice are raising funds to reprint another one of Mantlo’s projects, as well as contribute to his ongoing medical care. Here’s the promo video for it; take a look and consider giving what you can. I know I will…

 

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Review: Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?

Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?
Superman: Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? by Alan Moore

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A recent discussion with a friend regarding what I disliked about the film Man of Steel led to us reminiscing about the Superman comics we’d grown up with, which led in turn to him recommending this collection of stories from the 1980s that I somehow missed back in the day.

Briefly, in 1986, after decades of publication and hundreds of issues, DC Comics announced plans to reboot Superman… to toss everything that had come before and start over at issue #1, the destruction of Krypton, Ma and Pa Kent finding the baby in the crashed spaceship, the whole thing. But before that new series debuted, the publisher saw an opportunity that’s rare in ongoing comic-book titles, the chance for closure, to provide a definitive ending to the classic era of the Man of Steel… or, as he was once known, the Man of Tomorrow.

The two-part tale that lends its title to this collection, “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” (originally published in Superman #423 and Action Comics #583), is flat-out brilliant. Written by comic legend Alan Moore (Watchmen) and structured in the form of a flashback (from the futuristic year of 1997!) narrated by Lois Lane, the “last” Superman story tells of Kal-El’s old enemies and allies coming together for one final confrontation, with fatal consequences for many of them, including — apparently — Superman himself. While there are plenty of deaths and an overall elegaic tone, the story never gets too heavy, and it ends on an absolutely perfect note, quite literally with a wink and a smile. For older fans who loved the Superman of an earlier era, it’s a wonderfully satisfying, nostalgic conclusion. The art by Curt Swann and George Perez is perfect as well, clean and bright, a touch old-fashioned perhaps but very pleasing, and exactly the way I remember Superman comics looking when I was a kid.

Rounding out this trade paperback are two additional stories by Moore that are unrelated but have a similar tone and theme to “Whatever Happened.” In “The Jungle Line,” originally published in DC Comics Presents #85 with art by the great Al Williamson, Superman has been infected by an extra-terrestrial fungus. Delusional and not trusting himself to fly safely, he drives south, intending to die well away from anyone who might be hurt by his super-powered death throes. But the jungle he finds himself in is home to another denizen of the DC universe, the hideous but kindly Swamp Thing, who makes telepathic contact with the stranger in his realm and tries to help him fight the ravaging hallucinations.

Finally, in “For the Man Who Has Everything” from Superman Annual #11 (art by Dave Gibbons), the Man of Steel is held captive by a telepathic alien plant that grants the illusion of the victim’s greatest desire… in this case, a “normal” life on an unexploded Krypton. While his friends Batman and Wonder Woman fight to save him in the real world, Kal-El comes to realize the “life” he’s living is nothing but illusion…

Taken together, these four stories all form an interesting meditation on the core of the classic Superman’s character: his desire for a normal human life as a husband and father balanced against his superhuman nobility and sense of duty. Unlike more modern superhero stories, which would present these ideas with clenched jaws and grim self-loathing, these tales have a lighter touch, more humor and optimism, and a sense that, while Superman may wish he had a different life, he’s not all that unhappy with the one he’s got, because he’s serving a purpose. It’s a refreshing change from the modern superhero idiom, and a lot of fun to read.

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Review: Batman: The Doom That Came To Gotham

Batman: The Doom That Came To Gotham
Batman: The Doom That Came To Gotham by Mike Mignola

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am amazed by the seemingly infinite flexibility of the Batman mythos. I’ve read Batman stories set in the Victorian era and the far future, seen him teamed up with (or placed in opposition to) characters as offbeat as the monster from the film Predator, and of course he’s been interpreted through cinematic visions as wide-ranging as Adam West’s, Tim Burton’s, and Christopher Nolan’s, and yet, somehow, it almost always works. In The Doom that Came to Gotham, the Caped Crusader and his rogues’ gallery of regular sidekicks and villains are transplanted into an HP Lovecraft story, and it works very well indeed.

The year is 1928, and the globetrotting adventurer Bruce Wayne has just discovered the remnants of the overdue Cobblepott Antarctic expedition… as well as the tentacled thing they found in the ice that apparently drove them all mad. Wayne destroys the monster with explosives — or so he thinks — and returns to Gotham City, the home he hasn’t seen in 20 years. But he soon encounters a talking dead man and a demon called Etrigan, who warns him that an old debt is coming due. An ancient evil from before the time of men is waking up, and if Wayne can’t find a way to stop it, humanity is doomed…

One of the pleasures of an “alternate history” tale like this is seeing how familiar characters and tropes get reworked in service of a new framework, and in this case, the reworking is clever, organic to the story, and frequently surprising. (This story contains the most logical explanation behind The Penguin that I’ve ever encountered!) But I suspect this story would also be effective if you didn’t know a thing about Batman or his usual sidekicks and adversaries. Co-writer Mike Mignola is the creator of Hellboy, another series that draws heavily on Lovecraft’s dark tales of Elder Gods and cosmic dread, and this story is an effective pastiche of those. It’s a taut, spooky yarn that effectively ratchets up the dread panel by panel until the climax, which casts a whole new light on the eternal question of whether the Dark Knight’s true identity is Bruce Wayne… or the bat.

Mignola did not do the artwork in The Doom that Came to Gotham, but the general look will nevertheless be familiar to fans of Hellboy, although it’s less stylized. Rendered mostly in a subdued palette (except where fire is involved), with nice detail overall and a suitably squirmy look to the creatures, the art contributes greatly to the final effect of the story.

Overall, a highly satisfying read.

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Nearing Midnight…

Those of you who may still be out on this All Hallow’s Eve, still flitting from shadow to shadow in search of candy or mischief, or maybe just a tingle down the spine to break up the monotony of your tame and fenced-in little suburban lives, so modern, so clean and above all, so predictable, had best be making for home soon. But be wary… even in this modern 21st century, you may encounter something you do not understand… out there… in the dark…

“If I can but reach that bridge,” thought Ichabod, “I am safe.” Just then he heard the black steed panting and blowing close behind him; he even fancied that he felt his hot breath. Another convulsive kick in the ribs, and old Gunpowder sprang upon the bridge; he thundered over the resounding planks; he gained the opposite side; and now Ichabod cast a look behind to see if his pursuer should vanish, according to rule, in a flash of fire and brimstone. Just then he saw the goblin rising in his stirrups, and in the very act of hurling his head at him. Ichabod endeavored to dodge the horrible missile, but too late. It encountered his cranium with a tremendous crash—he was tumbled headlong into the dust, and Gunpowder, the black steed, and the goblin rider, passed by like a whirlwind.

 

The next morning the old horse was found without his saddle, and with the bridle under his feet, soberly cropping the grass at his master’s gate. Ichabod did not make his appearance at breakfast—dinner-hour came, but no Ichabod. The boys assembled at the schoolhouse, and strolled idly about the banks of the brook; but no school-master. Hans Van Ripper now began to feel some uneasiness about the fate of poor Ichabod, and his saddle. An inquiry was set on foot, and after diligent investigation they came upon his traces. In one part of the road leading to the church was found the saddle trampled in the dirt; the tracks of horses’ hoofs deeply dented in the road, and evidently at furious speed, were traced to the bridge, beyond which, on the bank of a broad part of the brook, where the water ran deep and black, was found the hat of the unfortunate Ichabod, and close beside it a shattered pumpkin.

Happy Halloween, kids…

"The Headless Horseman" by Chris Beatrice

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A New Book That Is Relevant to My Interests

Confession time: I’ve long had this odd little fascination for… brothels.

Oh, stop! I don’t mean it like that. My interest is purely academic. Well… mostly academic. When you grow up in strait-laced Utah, you can’t help but feel some attraction to the seedier side of things, especially when the notorious flesh-pots of Nevada are only a few hours away. (The Mustang Ranch outside of Reno had a near-legendary quality among my peers when I was in my early twenties; I remember much discussion of taking a little road trip… of course, it never happened, but the idea occupied a large patch of real-estate in our imaginations for a time.)

Seriously, though, youthful rebelliousness and licentiousness aside, I really am interested in the history and sociology of the whole phenomenon, especially in the context of how puritanical American culture tends to be, generally speaking. Basically, there are certain underground economies that flaunt traditional morality and that flourish in spite of — or maybe because of? — the country’s surface-level propriety, and these never really go away despite periodic attempts to stamp them out. I’m intrigued by that dichotomy, and by the hypocrisy of a society that’s unwilling to legitimize these economies even while so many individual Americans privately embrace them. So naturally a new book by Jayme Lynn Blaschke called Inside the Texas Chicken Ranch, which is just out today, has been on my radar for some time.

The Chicken Ranch (I don’t know why these places are always “ranches,” but that’s the way of things) is probably the best-known brothel in America, thanks to its being immortalized in the stage musical and Dolly Parton/Burt Reynolds film The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, as well as that staple of classic-rock radio, ZZ Top’s “La Grange.” Jayme himself is a native of the La Grange area who grew up hearing tales of the infamous “home on the range,” and spent years researching the real story behind the legend, followed by further years trying to find a publisher for his book. I’m really delighted for him that he’s finally succeeded. Here’s the book’s official promo:

As I said, Inside the Chicken Ranch is on the market as of today, available from all the usual outlets, including Amazon and direct from the publisher. Congratulations, Jayme, I can’t wait to read it!

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The Dark Came Down on All Hallow’s Eve…

From A Breath of Snow and Ashes, the sixth volume in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series:

The dark came down on All Hallows’ Eve. We went to sleep to the sound of howling wind and pelting rain, and woke on the Feast of All Saints to whiteness and large soft flakes falling down in absolute stillness. There is no more perfect stillness than the solitude in the heart of a snow storm.

 

This is the thing time, when the beloved dead draw near. The world turns inward, and the chilling air grows thick with dreams and mysterry. The sky goes from a sharp clear cold where a million stars burn bright and close, to the gray-pink cloud that enfolds the earth with the promise of snow.

 

I took one of Bree’s matches from its box and lit it, thrilling to the tiny leap of instant flame, and bent to put it to the kindling. Snow was falling, and winter had come; the season of fire. Candles and hearth fire, that lovely, leaping paradox, that destruction contained but never tamed, held at a safe distance to warm and enchant, but always, still, with that small sense of danger.

 

The smell of roasting pumpkins was thick and sweet in the air. Having ruled the night with fire, the jack-o’-lanterns went now to a more peaceful fate as pies and compost, to join the gentle rest of the earth before renewal. I had turned the earth in my garden the day before, planting the winter seeds to sleep and swell, to dream their buried birth.

 

Now is the time when we reenter the womb of the world, dreaming the dreams of snow and silence. Waking to the shock of frozen lakes under waning moonlight and the cold sun burning low and blue in the branches of the ice-cased trees, returning from our brief and necessary labors to food and story, to the warmth of firelight in the dark.

 

Around a fire, in the dark, all truths can be told, and heard, in safety.

 

I pulled on my woolen stockings, thick petticoats, my warmest shawl, and went down to poke up the kitchen fire. I stood watching wisps of steam rise from the fragrant cauldron, and felt myself turn inward. The world could go away, and we would heal.

 

No point here, nothing much to say, just a piece of writing that I found especially lovely and evocative. And enviable…

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