Saturday, July 30, 2011

Book Reviews-Barack Obama and The Jim Crow Media, Gotrek and Felix, Island and more

Barack Obama and the Jim Crow Media
by Ishmael Reed
This is a collection of Ishmael Reed's writings on the phenomenon of Barack Obama (and black people in general and black men in particular) as viewed through the lens of the US media. Reed argues that white supremacy still remains a potent force in American society-especially the media. Many of these essays were previously published at Counterpunch or at Konch, Reed's personal site. 

A recurring theme of Reed's non-fiction is that the segregated media tells lies about black people. This causes great ignorance among everyone, because those lies are rarely if ever challenged (there is no black CNN/MSNBC/FOX) and often become received wisdom-even among black people. Reed views it as one of his highest responsibilities to tell the truth and shame the devil.

And he does just that, wading into such controversies as the Gates-Crowley incident (Reed is contemptuous of both of them), the general whiteness of such shows as Morning Joe, the misguided Black In America CNN series, Obama's (and the media's) love of dishing out "tough love" to blacks but not to other ethnic groups, the racial blindness and just plain racism of some feminists and leftists, historical and current links between Blacks and Irish, the double standards around which people can say racist things about other people (why does Buchanan still have a job at MSNBC), the ridiculousness of David Mamet, racial tropes in The Wire, the writers and producers of Precious and many other things.

Reed is the sort of writer, who while discussing Hillary Clinton's tears during her presidential campaign, asks sarcastically if Mrs. Clinton wept about her husband's execution of Ricky Ray Rector. Reed is a favorite writer of mine. He's been on the front lines of activism and writing for a long long time. I don't always agree with him but he does always challenge, provoke and make you bring your A-game when you disagree.

Gotrek and Felix: The First Omnibus 
by William King
Warhammer is a role playing game. It is also a shared writing universe that provides the background to this game. The Warhammer world is similar to our own circa 1375. Many of the stories in the Omnibus take place in or around a country roughly equivalent to the Holy Roman Empire.

The stories' heroes are of course Gotrek Gurnisson, a proudly pugnacious and somewhat bigoted dwarf and Felix Jaeger, an idealistic and rather loquacious warrior-poet-author-casanova who is a Renaissance man. Felix was a radical student who was expelled from university for dueling. Shortly afterward he helped start (and lead?) a tax revolt against the Empire. This turned into a riot during which Gotrek saved Felix's life. In return Felix swore an oath to follow Gotrek, record his deeds and his hopefully glorious death. For you see, Gotrek is no ordinary dwarf warrior. He is a Slayer-a dwarf who feels that he has so hopelessly tarnished his honor that he can only restore it by the death of a great number of his enemies and his own.
"I am a dwarf. My honor is my life. Without it I am nothing. I shall become a Slayer. I shall seek redemption in the eyes of my ancestors. I shall become as death to my enemies until I face he that takes my life and my shame".
Dwarves take oaths very seriously. And Gotrek, even among dwarves, is considered insanely stubborn and unyielding. So, though Felix realizes that anything dangerous enough to kill Gotrek will probably kill him shortly afterwards, he keeps his promise to share Gotrek's adventures throughout the worlds of Man and beyond.

Although the two become friends they would never admit it. Felix is often irritated by Gotrek's general dwarfish obstinacy and thinks lusting after your own death is retarded. Gotrek, though infrequently kind in his own way to Felix, generally doesn't like humans and doesn't mind saying so-rudely, repeatedly and with great relish. Gotrek values taking the traditional or lawful (by dwarf standards not human) action while Felix is more interested in doing what is right, regardless of the law. This is pretty good adventure writing. Both heroes are extremely dangerous adversaries. If you harm one the other will certainly kill you, no matter the cost, as many of their enemies have discovered. This book is not Michael Moorcock or Robert E. Howard quality but was much better than I expected. The First Omnibus has three novellas. This is easy reading with a surprising amount of humor to balance out the grimness.

by Richard Laymon

Richard Laymon's (1947-2001) work is something of an acquired taste. He was perhaps the Tarantino of horror fiction before Tarantino became a household name. Sometimes while reading his work I wonder about Laymon's home life growing up but people who knew him well said that he was always cheerful, fun and likable. It's interesting to me that someone who was evidently quite normal could write such viscerally disturbing stories. That's skill. He's not always my cup of tea.

Island is about a horny inexperienced wimpy teenager named Rupert, who finagles an invitation to a cruise with his indifferent girlfriend Connie, and her much more attractive sisters and mother, along with their husbands and boyfriends.
However the yacht explodes and the entire party is stranded on a deserted island. Only the island is not deserted. Someone is killing the members of the party one by one. Rupert has a chance to become a hero and protect those who are still alive.
This is written in first person which usually I don't like. Rupert describes the events in his journal, that is when he's not leering at Connie's female relatives. Did I mention that Rupert is obsessed with sex? There are a few plot twists which I saw ahead of time and one big one which I didn't see but which certainly lived up to Laymon's wicked reputation. YMMV. Proceed with caution.

Rip it Up
edited by Kandia Crazy Horse
Rip it Up is a collection of interviews,essays and articles concerning the experience of Black musicians within rock-n-roll as well as critical analysis of what "black rock" or "white rock" is. The book explores such ideas and historical experiences as ripoffs, musical segregation, the desire for many groups to have their own cultural expressions. It examines how music that was called "rock-n-roll" in the fifties changed to music called "rock" in the sixties and seventies while generally forcing black musicians to pursue other endeavors. This is not just some sob story of white exclusion because as many musicians and critics make clear the black audience can be astoundingly conservative and even reactionary musically. Radio program directors and record company executives can be extremely prejudiced.

Kandia Crazy Horse is one of today's foremost music and film critics as well as being a huge Allman Brothers, Funkadelic and Lynryd Skynyrd fan. She states that she uses the term "black rock" in quotes because she still has no idea what it is. She chose the book's title in homage to such people as Little Richard (it's a song title of his) Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Louis Jordan and others. Kandia writes:
"The hope for this book is that its spotlight on such obscure classics as America Eats Its Young will serve as a primer on some of the key figures who have made not just rock history but pancultural history...Nevertheless thirty-odd years after the death of Jimi Hendrix, perhaps the greatest ever guitar revolutionary this planet will see, the notion of a black guitar hero is still inconceivable to many-or at least to record executives and other power players in the rock biz."
The book is full of fascinating information (did you know the backup singers for Lynyrd Skynrd's Sweet Home Alabama were black women) and tons of interviews with such people as Slash, Little Richard, Vernon Reid, Venetta Fields, Lorraine Grady and Lenny Kravitz. The essays are dead on as well-in particular Lester Bangs' introspective "White Noise Supremacists" which examines some individuals' simultaneous holding of generally progressive views about society and their racist loathing of anything remotely "black sounding" in music. And of course there are people who are racist as heck in general but love anything "black sounding" in music. People are complicated.

Murder Machine
by Gene Mustain and Jerry Capeci
Although John Gotti was the most notorious modern mobster and later, mob boss in America there were people in the Gambino Crime Family that even John Gotti didn't want to tussle with. One such man was Roy DeMeo, a soldier in the Gambino Crime Family who became one of the primary executioners that then Family Boss, Paul Castellano used for his dirty work.
DeMeo was a completely evil man whose primary concern, like that of every other successful gangster was in earning enough money to kick upstairs to his captain and ultimately to the boss. To this end he muscled his way into any business that made money-from prostitution to auto theft to drugs to abuse of children to extortion, bookmaking, strip clubs, adult magazines/films-DeMeo wasn't picky.
In this DeMeo was aided by a small trusted crew of associates (one of whom was nicknamed "Dracula"(!) ) who along with him are believed to have murdered between sixty and two hundred people, while operating out of Canarsie, Brooklyn. Roy not only killed for his Family, the Gambinos, he did "favors" upon request for other Families and reportedly even regular citizens who wanted someone to disappear.

And disappearing people was DeMeo's specialty. As a young man DeMeo had trained as a butcher. He took those talents into his work in the Mafia. Rather than shooting someone and leaving their body to be found by the authorities DeMeo and his men would often arrange to kill someone and completely dismember their corpse so that it would never be found. They became quite blase about this, often ordering out for pizza while chopping someone up. Roy and his crew did not care about killing men, women or children. The paranoid Roy once shot a teenage vacuum cleaner salesman who he thought was a Cuban hitman while crew members killed women for both personal and business reasons. Other Mafia members moved very carefully around the hyperviolent Roy who neither forgave nor forgot insults. The Gemini Lounge (DeMeo's Headquarters) became known in mob circles as a place where you checked in but never checked out.

Murder Machine details the growing tensions between DeMeo and his immediate supervisor, capo Nino Gaggi, who thoroughly despised DeMeo but eagerly took money from him. Ultimately when DeMeo's unsanctioned violence and auto theft rackets attracted too much attention, the Family leader (Paul Castellano) decided DeMeo had to go. He put out feelers to Gotti about doing this but Gotti begged off. Gotti was heard on tape saying "DeMeo had an army of killers".

Ultimately however Paul told Nino to handle it and Nino ordered DeMeo's own crew to do it. Roy DeMeo was found in a car trunk. Ironically, by ordering the removal of the violent but generally loyal DeMeo, Castellano unwittingly made his own downfall that much easier, as an emboldened Gotti ordered Castellano's murder shortly afterwards. Much of this story became known via Nino's turncoat nephew, Dominick Montiglio, who was a courier between Gaggi and DeMeo. This book provided a fascinating look into the 70's-80's world of the street level Mafia.

Red as Blood
by Tanith Lee
I first read this as a kid and completely missed the deeper feminist or political reinterpretations of classic fairy tales and legends. I'm glad I did because frankly I may not have read it if I knew the deeper meanings ahead of time. It's different reading this book as an adult. I like Tanith Lee a lot; she's a favorite writer. Lee mostly gets categorized as a horror writer but that category is far too reductive for her. She's an intensely descriptive writer who loves words. She places tons of analysis and allegory in her stories. They can be enjoyed on many different levels. It's rare that Lee goes for the gross out. She is a serious author with a lot of important ideas.

In this collection Lee uses classic stories as tropes to explore some contemporary issues or in some cases to pull the curtains back and show the even deeper horror that was just hinted at in the versions we know. In many of the stories the person we think of as the bad person may well not have been the bad guy. This is most deftly done in the title story "Red as Blood", a retelling of "Snow White" in which we find out that the Witch Queen/Stepmother may really not be the person who's trying to do harm.

Lee has written a LOT over the years and I unfortunately have yet to read all she's created. Her prose can best be described as almost biblical but in this collection she deliberately simplifies and shortens. Again although a few of the stories have now quite obvious feminist meanings, like any master writer Lee's work stands above that. She can and does write effectively from various POV. You may enjoy this collection more because of that but even if you don't you should check it out as Lee's primary concern is art, not politics.

TR: Another of our favourite stories is Sabella, which has been described as a fantasy/horror/science fiction novella. What is your opinion on genre categories, such as these?
TL: Genre categories are irrelevant. I dislike them, but I do not have the casting vote. Writing is writing and stories are stories. Perhaps the only true genres are fiction and non-fiction. And even there, who can be sure?
TR: With this in mind, might we mention The Tales of the Sisters Grimmer. What was the inspiration behind these?
TL: I rather like turning all stories around. As a child, my mother told me lots of fairy stories, many her own invention. She too tended to reverse the norm, as for example her tale where the prince ended up marrying the witch -- this one I stole from her -- with her complete consent, to use in my children's book Princess HynchattiRed as Blood was my first concerted excursion into turning all my personal favourites around. When I am fascinated by something, I like to play with it.
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