Friday, January 04, 2008

Fave Books of 2007: Part One

I'll be getting into my fave DVDs and movies of 2007 in the next few days, but reckoned it best to kick off with my favorite books of the year. After all, we're all readers in this tribe, yes?

It's been a great year for reading and books, and this off-the-top-of-my-head list of my fave book experiences of the year shouldn't be taken as a 'best of' list -- I've not stayed abreast of the new fiction out this year, and though I'm omnivorous as a non-fiction reader, my interests are too peculiar and personal to even pretend I could possibly generate a "best of" reading list most readers would recognize.

But having read two-to-three books per week this past year, I can say with certainty that these were among my favorite reads, revisits and discoveries of the year!

New Works

Book of the Year! Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark

Book of the Year? It sure is to this diehard fan! Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark is Tim Lucas's valentine to cinema, and among the most stunning movie books of this or any year.

As Mark Martin commented on this blog after my umpteenth enthusiastic post about its pending arrival and revelatory publication, "You're gonna make that book pregnant." Knock it up, baby! I couldn't have been more excited about a book than I was about Tim Lucas's long-awaited Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark, and I couldn't have been more satisfied with the book itself, which somehow exceeded all expectations -- and that's saying a lot, since I've been waiting for a book like this for at least 40 of my 52 years of life.

It's literally a dream book -- I mean, one of those books I had dreamed all my life might, should, someday had to exist -- and that's just what it was for Tim, too. Thankfully, Tim and Donna (who designed this masterpiece) Lucas made Tim's dream come true, and by doing so created the book of the year!

As I've discussed here ad infinitum, Bava's films had a potent, indelible impact on my own life, and definitely impacted my creative life in more ways that I can count. It's somehow appropriate that Tim's expansive biography has arrived at a time when almost the whole of Bava's directorial work is available on DVD, and for the first time as it was intended to be seen: uncut, widescreen, and in their original language(s) rather than cut, dubbed and pan-and-scanned. I Vampiri/The Devil's Commandment, Caltiki The Immortal Monster, Black Sunday, Gli Invasori/Erik the Conqueror, Black Sabbath, The Whip and the Body/What!, Blood and Black Lace, Planet of the Vampires, Operazione Paura/Kill, Baby.... Kill!, Knives of the Avenger, Diabolik/Danger: Diabolik, Bay of Blood/Twitch of the Death Nerve, Baron Blood, Lisa and the Devil/House of Exorcism -- these and others have been central cinematic experiences for those of us who scoured TV Guide, Castle of Frankenstein, drive-ins, nabes, grindhouses, 16mm catalogues, conventions and video stores for decades, seeking any nugget of Bava gold that might surface, under any number of titles, languages or versions.

Mario Bava's life and times covers the whole of Italian cinema from its inception (via the pioneer work of his father Eugenio Bava) to the present (via the work of Mario's son Lamberto and grandson Roberto), and is so much more than the scope of Mario's films as a director, marvelous as many of those films were and are when screened today. As Tim points out (and chronicles in loving detail), Mario was a cinematographer and special effects magician for as many years before he began his directorial career as he was involved in film after his 'official' directorial debut with Black Sunday (1960) -- and it's the rich illumination of Mario's family and personal life, as well as the cinema achievements and the films themselves, that makes All the Colors of the Dark such a powerful, moving read. And the illustrations, the eye-candy -- astounding! Astonishing! Intoxicating! From the rare family and behind-the-scenes photos to the abundance of fotobustas, lobby cards, inserts and one-sheets from around the world, this tome is a feast for the eyes on every single turn of the page. A more delicious, delirium-inducing treat for lovers of Bava's work, of Italian horror (and all genre) films, cannot be imagined; Bravo, Tim and Donna!

Like Ulrich Merkl's Winsor McCay Rarebit Fiend tome (see below), Mario Bava: All the Colors of the Dark is simply stunning as an art object and book -- it could not be more comprehensive, beautiful, or worthy of revisiting endlessly. Also like Merkl's comparable masterwork, Tim and Donna have elevated the realm of self-publishing, of following one's most heartfelt interests and obsessions to ultimate fruition, to a new level. Like Merkl's book, Tim's Mario Bava book simply would not exist had it been left to the vagaries of traditional author/agent/publisher economy: no publisher would have gone for this ride. They would have had a million reasons not to, if an agent managed to find a home for this book in the first place (highly unlikely, if not impossible). Publishers who do produce similar labors of love (FAB Press) weren't an option; Tim really had to do this himself, and Donna (his beloved wife) was the ideal partner in every imaginable support in the venture.

Hands down, book of the year -- perhaps the decade.

"R-A-G-G-M-O-P-P -- Ragmop!"

Rob Walton's Ragmop: A sadly overlooked graphic novel classic, revised, expanded, completed and the funniest comic of the year!

There were lots of stellar graphic novels out this year, but one of my personal favorites barely earned a nod from the wasteland that passes for the comics marketplace these days. Rob Walton's Ragmop -- another self-published magnum opus of 2007 -- was launched as a comic series back in the 1990s, and suffered a premature termination in the wake of the direct market distribution implosion, just shy of Rob's planned finish line. But now it's complete, in print, and highly recommended to one and all.

Taking up the challenge anew in 2005, Rob got back to work on his sf political/theological comedic epic, and thank God he did! In its final published form, Ragmop stands as the most hilarious graphic novel of 2007 in a sea of predominantly somber works, as well as a crazyquilt guerrilla attack on the whole of Western Civilization. The scope, breadth, heart and gutbuster audaciousness of Rob's antic epic bowls me over. That he sustains this giddy highwire (and absolutely savage) social satire over almost 500 pages is truly a feat of brilliance, and it's as current to 2007 -- more relevant, in fact -- as it was when Rob launched this Bob Clampett-like space-and-time voyage in the 1990s.

What else can I say? Hell, I love Ragmop!

Get Bit While You Can: Dream of the Rarebit Fiend

Get your copy while you can -- soon to be sold out forever! Ulrich Merkl's phenomenal, definitive Winsor McCayRarebit Fiend collection, another knockout example of the power of self-publishing in the 21st Century.

Ulrich Merkl's ravishing, absolutely definitive Dream of the Rarebit Fiend collection is jam-packed with much, much more than "just" the most complete collection of Winsor McCay's seminal comic strip available anywhere on Earth. It's also a comprehensive overview of McCay's life, career and the context of the times in which one of our greatest cartoonists created this still-amazing strip, which essentially poured the foundation for the whole of 20th Century comics (and, as Merkl demonstrates, much of its art, cinema and visionary works).

  • I covered this marvelous book in-depth -- including an exclusive interview with Dr. Merkl! -- back in July of this year; revisit that post, please, for more info and a peek at the art.

  • If you've the time and inclination, here's the link to a lively audio slideshow, based on the book, demonstrating the influence of McCay's work on many famous films (covered in further detail in the book, folks)!

  • But -- the book is almost gone! Quick, get yourself a copy while you can -- exclusively available from this link -- you won't want to miss this, if you can afford this once-in-a-lifetime book.

  • The book was announced as 'sold out' around Christmas, but I wrote Dr. Merkl and he replied:
    "My U.S. stock will last until March, and when it is sold out, I'll still have 100 books here in Europe, if someone needs it badly, but the shipping cost is terrible, about $80.00 per copy (rather than $19.00 now from the U.S. stock).... The regular price to the U.S. is $114.00 + $19.00 packaging, handling, shipping = $133.00... Many thanks!" You've been alerted -- a Myrant service to those who care -- good luck!

    Don't Flinch: Interrogation Dues

  • If you've the chops, here's a book excerpt and a powerful interview with Fear Up Harsh's author/soldier -- recommended listening.

  • Fear Up Harsh by Tony Lagouranis and Allen Mikaelian was the most human, disturbing, confrontational US military Iraq War account of the year, and that's a sobering thought given the clusterfuck of books on the subject that hit the shelves (and my reading table) in the past 12 months. "Something really bad happened here" -- understatement of the decade -- is what baby-faced U.S. Army interrogator Lagouranis was first told in his initial briefing at Abu Ghraib, and so begins this snapshot of the ordeal: for Lagouranis and his notion of self and God and country, for the 'detainees' and prisoners in his grasp (and worse still for those others 'worked on'). So begins this harrowing insider's account of perhaps the grossest "miscalculation" of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz/Rice new foreign policy paradigms, post 9/11.

    Forced by circumstance, duty and the call of his commanders (and Commander in Chief) to think and act in ways once unthinkable, Lagouranis was soon under direct orders to join forces with his fellow soldiers to terrorize detainees and prisoners with increasingly abusive psychological tactics -- "fear up harsh," indeed. "If I'd gone ahead and cut Khalid's fingers off, where would that have led? What else would I have been capable of?" -- this is one of our new veterans of an unprovoked, preemptive war confronting the worst instincts of himself, of our tactics, our country's use of terror to wage a "war on terror." Under constant mortar fire themselves and trapped in the hellish hotbox complex that had once been Saddam's most infamous torture complex, Lagouranis and his countrymen used all means at their disposal to extract "information" from their brutalized, disoriented (and, Lagouranis acknowledges throughout, often innocent) Iraqis, settling into a methodical daily ruthlessness he ultimately found intolerable. It's the banality, the utter wrong-headed stupidity of these tactics ("...The result was that we were just inept. It was so typical of the army that is was laughable...") that rings loud and clear, alongside the wrenching depravity and desperation of our new national policy. It seeps deep, deep under the skin, into the marrow; what more don't we even suspect about what's being done in our name?

    Hence, this book: essential reading for every American citizen, particularly those most likely to refuse to do so and most likely to support such policies, sans an ounce of Lagouranis's courage and patriotism.

    Get Flocked!

    Fave new sf and prehistoric novel of the year: James Robert Smith's The Flock, the high-octane killer novel from our own 'Hemlock Man'!

    Technically, The Flock surfaced in the summer of 2006, but I didn't sink my teeth into it until after Marge and I moved into our new digs in Windsor (in fact, the hubbub of the major life change that culminated in the move kept this book off my reading table for months), so it's on my 2007 list, and long overdue some attention on the Myrant forum.

    It's Blackwater vs. tribal prehistoric birds -- the carnivorous Pleistocenian phorusrhacid Titanis walleri -- in the wilds of Florida, and it's a hoot. I've been a fan of James Robert Smith's writing longer than almost anyone on Earth outside of his immediate circle, having read much of his short fiction since the late 1980s (and back in the Taboo years, as an editor scouring Bob's submissions; I think I paid Bob for his first pro sale, for that matter, which I can also say about novelist Tom Sniegoski and a few cartoonists). This, his first published novel, is superficially in the Jaws and Carnosaur mold; if it's ever adapted to film, that's how it'll be taken, no doubt. But that misses the point, really.

    But what Bob accomplishes here (and the aspect that will be toughest of all to capture in any other media, save perhaps comics if it's ever adapted to that medium) is persuasively steeping the reader in the mindset of a pack animal's culture, ecology and literal pecking order amid life-altering conflict and crisis, and he does so with straightforward, yet always imaginative, efficiency. To my tastes, Bob's accomplishment ranks up there with my favorite Robert F. Jones adventure novels (Bloodsport, Slade's Glacier, The Diamond Bogo, etc.), but with (yum, yum) monsters. It's the unwavering intelligence, insight and empathy for the feral intelligence and ferocity of his predatory creatures that places The Flock amid my fave reads of 2007. I read a lot of fiction, little of it sticking to the mental ribs, but The Flock delivered and will be one of those I revisit down the road, for sure. Give it a read, you won't be sorry!

    [Note: Bob did his homework! Florida indeed was the home of the Pleistocene giant flightless raptor Titanus walleri, which paleontologist Pierce Brodkarb described as "larger than the African ostrich and more than twice the size of the South American rhea", and which Alan Feduccia speculated "probably arrived in North America from South America during or slightly before the Ice Age, crossing over the Central American land bridge" (both quotes from Feduccia, The Age of Birds, 1980, Harvard University Press, pp. 105-106).]

    Next installment: Zdenak Burian, Joe Hill, G. Michael Dobbs's Escape, Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls, Eiji Tsuburaya: Master of Monsters, Jon Savage's Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture and Jodi Picoult -- more fave books of 2007!

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