09-30-10:James Greene and Al Astrella Tour 'The House of Ackerman'
Uncle Forry & The Family of Our Choice
Here's an eighth grade memory that will probably explain a few things, or at least, will be entirely unsurprising.
Like many schools back in the (mumble-mumble)'s, our school had the requisite number of hippie-wannabe teachers. In this instance, the "wannabe" is not a derogatory term. These were men and women who had steady jobs teaching schools in a Los Angeles suburb, and looked pretty normal; they had to, to keep their jobs. But one guy would play Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band to his English class in the afternoons. One woman science teacher had us reading Silent Spring.
And then there was the English teacher who set up a field trip to the Ackermansion.
By this time, I admit, I was already so steeped in 'Lord of the Rings' that I was sick and tired of it. My parents didn't approve of that sort of literature. Their response was the old, "You're living in a fantasy world." As if the war in Middle Earth was any less petulantly stupid than the Vietnam War we could go home and watch on TV!
Though I was familiar with Famous Monsters of Filmland, I never read it much. I focused on the novels, really. Edgar Rice Burroughs, E. E. Doc Smith, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury — that's where I made my investment.
So when our teacher told us we were going on a field trip to a house in the Hollywood Hills, I had no idea what to expect. It was a hot, near-summer day, and smoggy as hell in Covina. Even if the drive was hellish, it was better than being in school. But what a weird field trip! Instead of going to some museum, or something we drove up a spiraling street in Hollywood and the bus pulled up outside a white mansion. But once we were inside, it was another world.
Talk about a Gateway Drug... this blew away all the little folders they handed out warning us about marijuana. Here was a house stuffed to the Gill-Man with books, posters, memorabilia, everything, to me — Forbidden! He might as well have taken us to the Playboy Mansion in terms of the verboten nature of what was within. Forrest Ackerman was a rail-thin, rangy guy who gave every one a Perry Rhodan novel. (Of course, I looked down on it as being beneath my taste, but still appreciated the gesture. What did I know?)
What I didn't know was that I'd never forget that tour, that it would imprint on my brain and become a room I would take refuge in, that some (mumble mumble) years later, I would be typing this in a room not unlike the one from which Forest Ackerman pulled those cheesy paperbacks.
And how could I know that this shrine would one day no longer be there to see, no longer be there to corrupt the innoccent youths in the forbidden pleasures of reading?
Thus, how could I resist 'The House of Ackerman' (Midnight Marquee Press ; June 6, 2010 ; $35), by Santa Cruz locals Al Astrella and Jim Greene? I couldn't, and here's why; it's a cheerfully cheesy photographic tour of the Ackermansion, a great history of its various incarnations (I visited Rev 1.0) and a vivid LSD-style flashback for anyone who has ever been there or dreamed of going there. Lots of color, lots of black and white, an introduction by John Landis. You'll know if you need this, and if you think you don't — you probably do.
09-29-10:Dan White Joins 'The Cactus Eaters'
Biting Off More than You Can Chew
Whenever an idea sounds good in theory, you know the facts will not work out so well. But humans are such an imaginative and theoretical species that we manage to ignore facts, and act on our beliefs even when it is clear that it's all going terribly wrong.
Thus, Daniel White's idea of hiking the entire Pacific Crest Trail, from top to bottom, sounded like a grand idea. He and his fetching girlfriend Allison ("not her real name") headed out prepared for anything, ready to explore nature and bond with one another. Until ... just about everything.
'The Cactus Eaters: How I Lost My mind — And Almost Found Myself — On the Pacific Crest Trail' (Harper Perennial / HarperCollins ; May 20, 2008 ; $14.99) is White's travel memoir of what transpired when he embarked upon his Grand Experiment. Not surprisingly, Dan's plans did not work out as expected.
As you might hope, 'The Cactus Eaters' is a mordantly funny look at what happens when a young man decides to embark on a journey for which he thinks he is prepared. But not long after setting his feet on the historic trail, White finds himself facing equipment and a relationship going downhill faster than he ever expected possible.
The pleasures of 'The Cactus Eaters' are immediately apparent. White writes smart, funny prose that involves the reader immediately in a patience-testing trudge that is much better read about than experienced in person. 'The Cactus Eaters' is witty and often laugh-out-loud hilarious. White is unsparingly unflattering to himself, but he never makes us wince. He's in complete control of how he writes about his characters, who themselves are completely at the mercy of the author-as-character's ill-advised plans. Here's a book where each step of the journey is a word, a sentence, a paragraph, that takes the reader into a collision between humans and their ability to put themselves into discomfort and danger.
For those of us who might, however briefly, entertain the notion of undertaking such a journey, 'The Cactus Eaters' has a wealth of practical and useful information. While White buys some expensive gear, he never gets round to field-testing it, which leads to problems that he encounters on the very first page. Those problems lead to rash actions that inspire the title. Now, unlike Tennyson's Lotos Eaters, White's experience is less "live and lie reclined/On the hills like Gods together, careless of mankind," and more extracting needles from the tongue. And this is just one of many missteps, so many, in fact, the journey seems to be comprised of a more missteps than, well, good ones.
Dan and Allison ("not her real name") are not the only characters you'll meet in 'The Cactus Eaters.' For a hike that stays mainly in the wilderness, there's a nice variety of personalities to enter the story, some of them human. But many readers will find that bears sort of steal the show, if not the food. White has a great time leading the reader into his own ever-narrowing obsession to complete his trek. It's a lot of fun to watch someone else suffer the results of their own mistakes, especially when the prose is so well turned.
Ultimately, White's journey does not have a dot-the-i ending, and while that's the perfect ending for this book, it may leave some readers craving more. 'The Cactus Eaters' has some aspects of nature-excursion non-fiction, but White does not have that particular mindset. He's not out there to find an elusive new species, or even an elusive truth. Truth hits White upside the head on page one, but that's just the warm up. That wrinkled photo of White gives a pretty good idea of any sort of revelation White experiences.
What's perhaps most striking about 'The Cactus Eaters' is that this book, which is so evocative of a journey, does a pretty damn good job of arguing against making a similar excursion. White is a smart and entertaining writer. He knows that readers want to read, not get off their chairs and walk 2,650 miles. By crafting an engaging and enjoyable reading experience about an actual experience that sounds pretty unpleasant, he naturally scores points with readers, who might, one hopes, be at least inspired to take a walk on the beach, or in the park, where water fountains will make the consumption of cactus unnecessary.
09-28-10:Richard Matheson 'He is Legend'
Running the Gauntlet
I've written often about Richard Matheson, who had an enormous influence on my reading life from the time I first hid behind the couch as a child to read 'The Shores of Space' to the time I purchased the Dream/Press 'Collected Stories,' which at this point is going to set you back at least a hundred bucks.
But my days of keeping up with every limited edition were themselves a limited edition, so I missed the Gauntlet Press version of 'He Is Legend' that came out last year and won Stoker Award. But just in time for Halloween, don't you know, you can now get a very nice trade paperback edition of 'He Is Legend' (Forge / Tor ; September 15, 2010 ; $15.99). It's definitely the sort of book you should leave out for your own children to find and read behind the couch.
Richard Matheson has been rattling around in my life for a long time. It started with 'The Shores of Space,' then continued through the man episodes of The Twilight Zone based on his stories, a creepy and haunting adaptation of 'I Am Legend' featuring Vincent Price as The Last Man on Earth, a fun and campy adaptation of the same material as The Omega Man and yet another spin taking the title of Matheson's work but draining it so thoroughly of life I never managed to watch the entire movie when it drifted by on cable TV. The movies haven't really done Matheson justice of late, so it's nice that this anthology is so superb. That's because as a writer, Matheson's unfiltered essence is as powerful now as it ever was.
'He Is Legend' is edited by Christopher Conlon, whom we first heard of in this column back in March of 2008, when Earthling Publications released 'Midnight on Mourn Street.' He also edited 'Poe's Lighthouse,' in which a variety of writers attempted to complete a Poe fragment. 'He Is Legend' is another smart idea; in the anthology, writers contribute stories of their own set in the worlds that Matheson first created, in novels like 'Somewhere in Time' and 'The Incredible Shrinking Man' and stories like "Duel" and "Button, Button." In itself this is a grand and smart concept.
Gauntlet Press Edition, about $60
But the power of this collection is due entirely to the influence of Matheson himself. It's not just in the original stories he created but his influence in the literature of the fantastic. His work cannot help but inform anyone who writes work that includes elements of the fantastic because the best-known examples of almost form of the fantastic are so often from Matheson.
The upshot of all this is that Conlon was able to get some incredible contributors. Stephen King is joined by his son Joe Hill for "Throttle," based on "Duel," which you'll find in collected stories. Mick Garris, best known for his work as a writer and director of King adaptations is himself a very powerful short story writer (see "The Answer Tree" from 'Silver Scream' if you doubt me), and he brings in a prequel titled "I Am Legend, Too." F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack is now a popular favorite, and you can recognize his an upside-down version of his origins in Matheson's Theodore Gordon from "The Distributor." So Wilson's "Recalled," which finds Gordon as "an old fart" is especially well-informed and fun. Nancy Collins offers a novella-length "Return to Hell House," while in "Quarry," no less than Joe R. Lansdale takes on the Zuni devil-dolls that threatened Karen Black in the "Trilogy of Terror" movie, based on Matheson's "Prey." In "Two Shots from Fly's Photo Gallery," John Shirley follows up on 'Somewhere in Time,' with a rather different vibe.
You get the idea; great stories, great writers and great inspirations. Note that the stories tend to be longer and meatier than you might expect, which is all the better. Tor has deigned to produce a handsome, eminently readable volume on the inside, with a generous font and leading. It makes a difference to this reader at least. On the other hand the cover is so bland that it took me a while to figure out that there was an image on it. But with Matheson and a list of contributors like this, it is, as ever, the words that matter.
09-27-10:Susan Casey Catches 'The Wave'
In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean
The ocean is our most intimate, immediate, physical contact with the infinite. Standing on any shoreline where the ocean extends to the horizon, we can see and feel the immense power, the unknowability of what lies before us, and by extension anything.
Yet there's a feeling that we do knows the ocean, that it is of our planet, that science and culture have long captured everything about the waters that surround us. Susan Casey's new book 'The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks and Giants of the Ocean' is the perfect way to connect, as a reader, with the beauty and danger of our infinitely unpredictable planet. Casey writes gripping prose, finds a cast of engaging characters, and paces her book with exciting scenes that will literally immerse readers in a world few ever suspected might exist.
'The Wave' begins in the middle of a storm in the North Sea, in February of 2000 when the RRS Discovery, en route from England to Iceland to measure sample ocean water and test for changes in salinity, oxygen and other factors, found itself being slammed by waves that some thought could not exist. Months later, the data they collected while their computers and crew were being tossed around showed that they had encountered the largest waves ever measured by science. Waves this large had long been dismissed as exaggerations and legends. But the ocean clearly had surprises in store for us.
Casey's book then takes the reader to Hawaii, where tow surfers ride the biggest waves they can find. We meet Laird Hamilton, one of the inventors of tow surfing, and one of the most enjoyable characters to walk out of life and into the pages of a book. You've probably seen his photo if you've ever glanced at a surfing magazine to check out a photo of a surfer flying across the face of an enormous breaker. You'll get to know him and the sport of surfing a lot better in this book. His story is, like much of the book, quite amazing.
'The Wave' is an utterly and constantly enjoyable work of non-fiction. Casey's prose is peerless. She knows when to turn on the poetry and when to dial back and document the astonishing sights she travels around the world to see. The book is excellently paced, with cliffhanger chapters that alternate between her examination of the tow surf culture and her look at the science and business of big waves.
Casey is an interesting writer, and she manages to make whatever she is looking at as fascinating to the reader as it is to her. She digs deep into surf culture and examines the society and personalities that drive it. She's not enamored or everything she sees and everyone she meets. This becomes quite clear when she attends a glitzy awards show in Anaheim. But even there, she finds the kind of grounded passion that makes her whole enterprise so captivating.
'The Wave' is not simply about surfing giant breakers, however. The primary focus is the existence of what are called rogue waves, huge giants that come out of nowhere and capsize ships. For this part of the investigation, Casey talks to scientists and manages to get enough science in to make the book informative, but not so much as to slow down her considerable momentum. But she goes farther as well, talking to the folks at Lloyd's of London, the weather forecasters and even salvagers. Everywhere she goes the reader will be riveted. Casey writes great descriptions of the jagged landscapes and oceanscapes she visits and populates them with people you'll enjoy knowing.
The unknowability, the unpredictability of the ocean and indeed the elements of our planet informs every part of this book, including a backbeat of impending drastic climate change. Here, Casey really shows her skills by getting the reader to see as the scientists see; that is, with uncertainty. We are truly confronted here with a simple planet that is, in the final analysis, infinitely unpredictable, just as are the personalities who inhabit it. 'The Wave' hints at the profound changes to come, but lets the reader surf the giants, live in the now, in the overwhelming nature of nature.
New to the Agony Column
12-09-13: Commentary : Jean Ferry and Edward Gauvin Hail 'The Conductor' : Swatches of Undone Reality