Saturday, October 28, 2006

What I'm Reading -- The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas

Scarlett Thomas is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. I absolutely loved Popco and reviewed it earlier this year. This time Thomas is writing about a mysterious book that could be cursed. Everyone involved in the book ends of dead or missing. Ariel, a graduate student working on studying the book’s author, ends up with the only remaining copy of The End of Mr. Y. Her professor at the university goes missing, but Ariel decides to read it and solve the mystery. Thus begins a wild adventure which partly takes place in this world and partly in a parallel universe made up of thoughts, evil children, trains fueled by fear and the god of mice. This is an incredibly bizarre and trippy book and I did not realize it would become a Sci-Fi Adventure story when I started reading it. Thomas has to lay down a lot of background information into religious beliefs and especially thought experiments by people like Albert Einstein, so that the story makes sense. The characters are very well written and Thomas presents a smart female lead character similar to her heroine in Popco. The End of Mr. Y is a thoughtful, weird and raw novel. This is highly recommended, though it is not an easy read by any means.

Monday, October 23, 2006

What I'm Reading -- The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation by Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon

Two veterans of the comics industry decided to create a graphic novel version of the 568 page 9/11 Commission Report. Every time I read about this somewhere it seems like I see a new controversy over it, so let me take care of those right away.

1. There is no bias here by Jacobson and Colon. They are just putting the original report in a more readable format. This is a paraphrase of the whole report and the authors did try to quote it as often as they could. Also, the Foreward is written by the Chair and Vice Chair of the 9/11 Commission, so this is a legitimate document.
2. This graphic novel is not intended to fix any of the problems of the commission. This is just a digested version so any biases and mistakes the commission made comes out in this book as well.
3. Some have said that the drawings are made to make some people look better than others and that there is some inherit racism in how the terrorists are drawn. I did not pick this up at all, but others may see it differently.

I was incredibly excited when I heard about this and I was not let down. Reading many of the details of the 9/11 Commission Report is incredibly interesting. The art is quite good and helps move along the commentary. They also organize the information so that it is easier to understand. In one section, the reader can see a timeline of September 11, 2001 from the perspective of each hijacked plane. The authors cover this sensitive material with great maturity. This is a great read, though it is obviously sad and alarming.

What I'm Reading -- Adverbs by Daniel Handler

Daniel Handler, who writes the Series of Unfortunate Events as Lemony Snicket, has written another novel for adults. Adverbs is not quite a series of short stories, but close. Handler puts together a bunch of snippets of lives of characters that eventually cross paths. The theme of the book is all about defining love. Handler unfortunately explains this over and over and over. I did not find many of these snippets very interesting or realistic. I did think a couple of the stories are quite interesting, but it was just not consistent enough. This is for those who enjoy Hander’s style of writing in the Unfortunate Events series and are more interested in the language used to write a story than in the actual story itself.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Music Review -- Continuum by John Mayer

John Mayer’s third full length studio album has received almost completely positive reviews from music critics. Actually, if it were not for these reviews I would have written this a week ago and proclaimed this one of the worst albums ever. Since I figured I was missing something that was obvious to others, I gave Continuum a few more listens.

Mayer was admittedly in a weird place in his career when getting ready to record Continuum. He had created two popular and well-done pop albums with Room for Squares and Heavier Things. His writing was much deeper than most popular artists and it worked well with the acoustic pop of RFS and more mature Adult Contemporary sound on Heavier Things. In 2005, he created the John Mayer Trio and moved from singer-songwriter mode to blues/soul mode on Try. Continuum is a mix of Mayer letting out his blues/soul side, while still attempting to create accessible pop music.

Unfortunately, it does not work so well. Mayer’s lyrics just don’t resonate the way his earlier works did. Waiting on the World to Change (“We keep on waiting/ Waiting for the world to change/ One day our generation/ Is gonna rule the population”) and Belief (“Everyone believes/ And no one’s going quietly”) are so vaguely political that they don’t really mean anything. Many of the other songs are about heartache and losing love, though most of them show little depth. The theme of bittersweet relationships runs throughout the album and occasionally scores a victory like I Don’t Trust Myself with Mayer singing, “No, I’m not the man I used to be lately/ See, you met me at an interesting time/ And if my past is any sign of your future/ You should be warned before I let you inside.” This is a brilliant song in the soul tradition and Mayer lets the subject of the song know he wants what is best for her, but it is not necessarily him.

Musically, the album is completely solid. The only misstep is that his voice just can not handle the chorus of Vultures and give the song the smooth falsetto that it needs. Mayer uses bassist Pino Palladino and drummer Steve Jordan from his Trio and the three are great together. My biggest problem besides the lack of quality lyrics is the production. Mayer and Jordan produced it together. They employed a slick sound that is often too tinny making some of Mayer’s guitar and vocals sound really corny. Never have the blues sounded so shinny and unthreatening.

There are some wonderful moments here and I Don’t Trust Myself, The Heart of Life and Stop This Train are definitely standouts. I’m glad I listed more closely to it. Overall though, it is still a big disappointment. This will probably appeal to many of his Adult Contemporary fans, but Mayer is too talented to create this uneven and poorly produced album. Of course, remember that there are dozens of critics who disagree with me.

1.75 out of 4.00 on the Vin Swanson Scale.

Saturday, October 07, 2006

What I'm Reading -- The Fate of the Artist by Eddie Campbell

Campbell uses various forms of art to communicate his story in this brilliant graphic novel, The Fate of the Artist. One day, Campbell, an obsessive artist, is discovered to be missing. Campbell’s many quirks are explained as his wife and daughter fill in the responding police officers. The author uses these conversations, odd bits of history, children’s drawings and newspaper comic strips to tell the story of Eddie Campbell. The character’s bizarre behavior on the surface can seem like a stream of random musings, but this is really a look at perceptions of reality. Through the eyes of family members and fans of the character’s art, several layers of life and art are explored. Campbell gives no conclusions or signs to let readers in to any reasons behind his behavior. Instead he presents a humorous, but sad portrayal of everyday life clashing with creative art. I don't know if some readers will appreciate this grahpic novel's strange way of telling the story, but this really is an amazing read.