Thursday, March 30, 2017

Ultimate Voyage by William Gilkerson

Published by Shamballa in 1998, William Gilkerson’s Ultimate Voyage is a masterpiece. To tag something a masterpiece in these cynical times leaves me open to criticism by the pundits in our ever-increasing negative culture, but it is a masterpiece. Great tales of the sea, written by knowledgeable authors are not uncommon, although finding them requires focus and determination. I don’t recall how I came upon a listing for this book, but my first edition hardcover is something I’ll never part with. Gilkerson himself is a respected artist and historian whose other fine books include Pirate’s Passage, The Ships of John Paul Jones, Scrimshander, and An Arctic Whaling Sketchbook. He was previously a feature writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Most of his books are non-fiction tiles relating to nautical topics. William Gilkerson wrote and illustrated Ultimate Voyage. This is a tale of five young mariners who build a small vessel, Alembic, and embark upon a journey of discovery. It can be interpreted as a coming of age story, and that would be correct, although Gilkerson has accomplished something that exceeds a simple analogy for youthful travails. There is that, and there is his vast knowledge of the sea, his comprehension of the human condition, and his uncanny ability to connect it all. The illustrations are stunning and complement the narrative. Shamballa did it right in their design. Inset with a color plate prior to the title page, the chapter illustrations are offset in either blue or black and white. The endpaper illustration is blue. Gilkerson’s carefully crafted prose and illustrations will transport you to a Renaissance world where the salt-spray of the sea and the cry of gulls over a harbor are at your fingertips. Gilkerson’s prose is leisurely, confident and alive with images. This is the type of story that a reader can take their time with, savoring each sentence as the story unfolds. Ultimate Voyage is a treasure for lovers of sea tales.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Batman: Odyssey by Neal Adams

Originally published in 13 separate issues, this magnum opus was written and drawn by Neal Adams. That’s over 300 pages of outstanding, explosive artwork combined with a wild but compelling storyline. A lifetime of high-energy and critically acclaimed experience went into this amazing graphic novel, with “novel” being the keyword here. Batman: Odyssey is unlike any Batman story you’ve ever read before, although astute readers will likely recognize traditional elements from the era of the Silver Age Batman. Adams proves himself again and again The Master of sequential art, and this sprawling epic pays tribute not only to Batman’s rich history, but to the very essence of pulp fiction entertainment. The premise is simple enough – Batman tells several stories that reinforce his early struggle but ongoing, firm belief that he should never intentionally kill a criminal. That’s the premise, but the narrative structure challenges the reader by its non-linear approach. Adams employs flashbacks exclusively, with an ongoing framing sequence that reminded me of the Greek chorus in the plays of Sophocles. In this case, Batman is providing commentary to an unknown listener who is revealed only in the final pages. Each anecdotal tale he recounts is part of the jigsaw puzzle that makes perfect sense by the conclusion. There are also plenty of guest stars. Dick Grayson as Robin (this takes place out of modern age continuity), Deadman, Ra’s Al Ghul and his daughter Talia, Man-Bat, The Riddler, The Joker, and others are featured. Superman’s appearance in the conclusion is breezy but fun. In fact, Adams seems to have enjoyed himself writing and drawing this amazing story. There are numerous references to Batman’s cultural impact, including a sly nod here and there to the famous 1966 Batman television program starring Adam West and Burt Ward. All of this is accomplished with a sense of affection for the characters and their history. Adams even has Bruce Wayne wearing a Green Lantern T-shirt. At about the halfway point, we are introduced to the Hollow Earth section of the story, and it’s here that Batman and others are flying around with dinosaurs. This is where Adams took some heat from today’s synapse challenged armchair fanboys turned critics who clearly suffer from articulation issues. There is nothing new about Hollow Earth stories, and possibly Adams takes his inspiration from Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Hollow Earth stories of Richard S. Shaver. These sequences are wacky, imaginative, and at odds with Batman’s usual turf of Gotham City. Or is it? In fact, Batman and Detective Comics in the late 50s and early 60s were overloaded with aliens and monsters from all sorts of alternate universes, and in my opinion Adams has simply re-imagined that once common plot device. Batman’s encounter with a giant cyclops monster near the end is a treat. The “Underworld” is at the heart of Batman’s odyssey, and derives from the author’s interest in the expanding earth hypothesis. Consistently throughout the narrative, Batman is exploiting this idea that he should never take a life, and it’s eventually revealed that he went to great lengths to maintain that position. What appears shocking one moment might prove to be a duplicitous red herring the next. The artwork is pure Adams all the way, fluid and detailed when it needs to be, and I have always been a fan. The pages are awesome. The story is unique and ambitious, and Adams deserves credit for his imaginative approach. Humorous at times, while confounding and thought-provoking, Adams never loses sight of the fact that sequential art is meant to entertain.  Altogether, Batman: Odyssey is a fantastic graphic novel. Kudos!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Cannibal by John Hawkes

Picture me wearing levis with long hair, a beard, and a rucksack full of books strung over my shoulder. That person, that edgy and mouthy bohemian, encountered The Cannibal by John Hawkes. This book comes back to me every few years, re-discovered amongst a stack of dusty literature, its dark visions very much alive, the prose resonating across time: “Beyond the edge of town, past tar-covered poor houses and a low hill bare except for fallen electric poles, was the institution, and it sent its delicate and isolated buildings trembling over the gravel and cinder floor of the valley. From there, one day in the early spring, walking with a tree limb as a cane, came Balamir, walking with a shadow and with a step that was not free, to fall under the eye and hand of Madame Snow. All of Balamir’s demented brothers, in like manner, had been turned out to wander far from the gravel paths, to seek anyone who would provide a tin plate or coveted drink.” The academic community has tagged The Cannibal as postmodern literature, which is a convenient and necessary way of labeling the heavy narrative. The Cannibal never follows a traditional novel format. Its parts are fragmented, and dense with analogy. The three opening sentences set the stage for a frightening vision of post-war Europe. I have read numerous theories on this novel’s meaning, and all of them are correct, but none of them are satisfying. I believe that’s because the novel itself is unsatisfying, but perhaps The Cannibal offers the strongest condemnation of Imperialism in post-war literature. What I know of the author is simple enough; a man of letters who spent his life in the academic community. I am fond of another of his books, The Blood Oranges, which is far different in structure and tone to The Cannibal. The plot switches back and forth between 1918 and 1945. Madame Snow is the only connecting character, a cabaret singer, a boarding house owner. She is everything and nothing, which might be the point. The tenuous plot of assassinating the American overseer during the German reconstruction strikes me as anti-militarism. The overseer’s motorcycle a symbol of industrial strength, at once appealing and pathetic. Germany in the wake of WWII was grimy, desperate, and murderous. But so, too, are the allied societies that rose against Hitler’s quest for global domination. How much has changed and how much is the same? In The Cannibal Germany is reconstructed and the true “nation” restored; the madmen line up and return to the insane asylum. There are many brilliantly written passages that are surreal but reflect an uncanny picture of modern life. I view The Cannibal as a piece of social criticism, satirical and unpleasant. Trust that mine is the minority view. Academicians have written thesis after thesis on the book’s meaning. I don’t have that much strength. I love The Cannibal for the quality of its writing and the relevance of its many themes, but ultimately its vision is disturbing. That’s why this book is important.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Transcendental by James Gunn

Transcendental is a fascinating book by veteran science fiction author James Gunn. I was immediately struck by the world building that went into this because it seems so natural. I don’t think it’s easy to create alien species and alien worlds, but Gunn makes it look easy. Kudos to the author for this obviously well-planned and interesting book. The story involves Riley, described as a cynical war vet, who is contacted by a mysterious group and recruited to investigate the alleged existence of a transcendental machine and the source of a new religious cult. With an unwanted computer implant in his mind, Riley has no choice but to go along with the quest. Hurtling into deep space aboard a craft populated by others seeking “transcendence,” Riley meets a cross-section of galactic beings, and one attractive human female, each of whom has a fascinating back story. Gunn introduces these characters with a deft touch. I was caught up in a web of intergalactic deceit, although about halfway through the book I suspected this volume was going to be the first of several. I was right, and the sequel, Transgalactic, has already been published. I haven’t read it yet but I intend to. If Transcendental is going to be a part of a series that’s fine with me. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. There is less action in this story, but the general flow and suspense were sufficient to keep me reading. James Gunn tells a exciting tale without resorting to an indulgence of Space Opera action, although this is still a Space Opera all the way. I have read several of James Gunn’s science fiction novels and enjoyed every one of them. Transcendental is published by TOR and available in paperback and for Kindle.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Girl on the Via Flaminia by Alfred Hayes

Shown here is the 1950 Pocket Book paperback, listed as # 666 on the upper-right cover at the logo. It’s an actual pocket size and the cover painting is credited to John Northcross. On the first interior page an advertising blurb includes a quote by author Kenneth Fearing referring to The Girl on the Via Flaminia as “A timeless story, simple, vivid, dramatic.” Kenneth Fearing is forgotten now, too, although he lives forever on my bookcase in the poetry section. I’m confident that Alfred Hayes is unknown to most of you. In fact, I might never have encountered Alfred Hayes and this book if not for a film titled Act of Love and starring Kirk Douglas who turned 100 years old a few weeks ago. I’ve met Kirk Douglas twice and I am a fan. Act of Love, however, gets little attention. Released in 1953, Act of Love was based upon The Girl on the Via Flaminia. The are several other books bearing that title that are often confused with the Kirk Douglas film, especial An Act of Love by Ira Wolfert. To further confuse matters, Act of Love changes the location from Rome, Italy to Paris, France. Act of Love is an excellent film, one of Douglas’ best early films. The screenplay is credited to Joseph Kessel and Irwin Shaw, and Shaw himself was a powerhouse writer, and another of my favorites. The trivia keeps piling up here, but please be patient. In addition to the location, there are notable differences between the novel and the film. The film has perhaps one of the best surprise endings in a piece of dialogue spoken by Douglas, whereas the novel’s ending is ambiguous.  The Girl on the Via Flaminia is quite good. Hayes wrote in a clipped style that at times comes off as a Hemingway pastiche. Hemingway’s influence on post-war literature is something I’ve mentioned before. The market was glutted with novels about soldiers, and Alfred Hayes wrote another fine one titled All Thy Conquests which I’ll cover soon. The Girl on the Via Flaminia is about a soldier named Robert who meets and falls in love with Lisa in Rome during the occupation. Lisa was played by the lovely French actress Dany Robin in the film. The prose is never lush, and perhaps simplistic to the point of becoming mediocre. Hayes is redeemed by his intelligence. At the heart of the story lies this idea that Robert is a victim of circumstances that he can’t overcome, and so is Lisa. Robert and Lisa are involved, but in some way she is also distant from him. Robert is trying to understand Lisa and the world she lives in. When he looks at her mother, he thinks: “She stands there, Robert thought, like a collection of bad knowledge.” The mother tells Robert that he is a soldier and soldiers are always innocent, and implies the girls a soldier encounters are never innocent. Robert questions himself: “How do I know who these people are? How do I know what she is? How do I know I’m not being taken?” Alfred Hayes lived and wrote in New York and Italy, and his on-line bibliographies note his poem “I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night” later became a popular folk song by Earl Robinson. Joe Hill is the final bit of trivia linked to this disintegrating old paperback, and I’ll leave it to you, dear reader, to follow the trail of American history before it’s all lost like Joe Hill's ashes on the wind.