Book Reviews

Fear of a Nørb Planet: The Complete Maximum Rocknroll Columns 1994-1998 By Rev. Nørb, 288 pgs.

I subscribed to Maximum Rocknroll in December. Before that, my tenure as a reader of the venerated mag coincided roughly with Nørb’s term as columnist—I started reading faithfully around 1993 and dropped out in 1998 or 1999—when I became smitten with Louisville post-rock and Ebullition emo. It’s wild to read these columns again after more than twenty years. I have memories specific to loads of them: the exact chair in the Elvis Room where I sat after buying the new issue, diving directly into Nørb’s column to see what ridiculous tangent would be the through line around which he’d base that month’s particular rantings (still a habit with this mag—sorry, Dale).

The contentious stuff first: Part of Nørb’s thing has always been pushing boundaries. Anyone familiar with his deeply parenthetical style already knows this. In the height of the mid-‘90s furor regarding Tim Yohannon’s strict guidelines on what was/wasn’t punk (and the subsequent aftershocks, which yielded the formation of Punk Planet, HeartattaCk and Hit List zines to cover music falling outside of Tim’s umbrella), Nørb was the hyper-caffeinated burr under the punk establishment saddle, throwing around references that are by no stretch of the imagination politically correct. Prior to this tome’s arrival, I wondered how Nørb would deal with these topics. Go figure—he apologizes in the intro, saying he took things too far. Rather than expurgating his un-P.C. passages, he leaves them in here for better or worse.

With that said, “LOL” is so overused it doesn’t mean anything any more. But as I reread these columns, I found myself laughing out loud. A lot. So much so, in fact, that beginning on page fourteen, I made a mark above each column that had me genuinely laughing (no chuckles, no snorts—this is the laugh tally, you understand). Between pages fourteen and 288, I laughed out loud thirty-nine times. Thirty-nine times! (Page 250 got me three times and page thirty twice, for the record.) I can’t remember a record or comedy special that’s made me laugh as much. I mention this to emphasize the fact that the good Reverend doesn’t have a mean bone in his body. Dude’s a comedian, mining the dissonance between the freedom and rules of the punk scene for all their absurdity.

Nørb’s previous book The Annotated Boris alleges to be a book of gags about Boris the Sprinkler’s lyrics, but is actually one of the funniest and saddest books about being in a band I’ve ever read. Similarly, Fear of a Nørb Planet alleges to be a collection of columns, but is in fact a time capsule to heady scene years (I’d forgotten all about Nick Fitt and his MRR column). It’s one of the greatest comedy works of our time—and everyone knows the best comedy is based in the humdrum, the mundane. Nørb spins the everyday into gold. A triumph. –Michael T. Fournier ($14.98 to Bulge, bulge.biz)

Fetch: How a Bad Dog Brought Me Home By Nicole J. Georges, 314 pgs.

To be honest, I’ve never had a dog. People are often shocked when I say that, as if dog ownership is a universal experience. Now, I’ve had several cats. (This is when dog owners typically roll their eyes.) But I can still relate to Nicole J. Georges’ hair-pulling experiences with Beija, a troubled shar-pei/corgi mix she rescued when she was sixteen years old. She struggles to integrate the fearful dog into her life while she grapples with the trials and tribulations of growing up. Although Georges’ illustrations are effervescent and her words are scalpel sharp, the narrative feels overly familiar.

Many comics readers grumble about the glut of superhero stories published every year; however, the same can now be said about graphic memoirs. On my shelf, I spot Art Spiegelman, Alison Bechdel, Marzena Sowa, Adrian Tomine, David B., Marjane Satrapi, and Yoshihiro Tatsumi, to name a few. This isn’t to devalue the work or the experiences of these talented writers and artists, but to acknowledge why Fetch did not resonate with me. I’m honestly burned out on the banal nature of the genre and the tropes of human-animal relationship stories: person attempts to change animal; animal changes person instead.

Ultimately, with Georges’ Fetch, the narrative moves at a sluggish pace, for she quickly sidesteps more gripping topics (her relationship with her parents, for example), and instead focuses on the minutiae (and clichés) of dog ownership. Fetch, however, does offer a gateway for readers unfamiliar with the medium: the dog lover looking for a new read, the parent who naively believes comics are all spandex and uppercuts, the jaded punk searching for fair representation. In that sense, Fetch serves to bridge the divide between mainstream literature and comics. But for those of us who frequently traverse said bridge, Georges’ graphic memoir is uninspired. –Sean Arenas (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

Henry & Glenn Adult Activity & Coloring Book By Tom Neely & Others, 112 pgs.

Here we have the newest continuation of the ongoing Henry and Glenn saga, which speculates on a universe where Henry Rollins and Glenn Danzig are mature enough in their masculinity to realize their feelings for one another and enter a homosexual relationship. The joke has been taken to some extremes before, and now you can take it home as a series of oversized, uncolored gag panels that you can color in yourself. The art is split between the original author and guest artists providing a page or three. I guess I’m not surprised that a joke like Henry & Glenn has sustained. If you were a fan of the joke the first time, the gags in this book are pretty good, but nothing you haven’t seen already. It’s more Henry & Glenn, you know? I can’t imagine anyone would be convinced on the “franchise” if this was their first purchase, though. –Bryan Static (Microcosm, 2752 N Williams Ave, Portland, OR 97227, microcosmpublishing.com)

Live at The Safari Club: A History of harDCore Punk in the Nation’s Capital 1988-1998 By Shawna Kenney and Rich Dolinger, 123 pgs.

The past few years there have been more than a fair share of books about the music scene in Washington D.C. Live at The Safari Club is a bit different, though. This coffee table- style book covers the scene at The Safari Club in the late 1980s through the ’‘90s. The authors, Shawna Kenney and Rich Dolinger, were part of the scene, with Kenney being a primary booker at the venue when she was only eighteen.

The book follows an oral history outline, with individuals sharing their experiences. Some of the names were familiar to me: Alec MacKaye (Ignition, Faith), Tim Owen (Jade Tree Records), Sean Brown (Swiz, Dag Nasty), and Mike McTernan (of Damnation AD, who for some reason friended me on Facebook even though I don’t know him, who was also in Damnation AD). Others were local scenesters or members of more obscure bands whose names never appeared on my radar, even though I was in the hardcore scene during part of this time (albeit in Indiana). Individuals give accounts of the history of The Safari Club, how shows started there, violence, epic performances, conflicts with the owner, and the venue’s eventual closure.

In addition to the oral history, there are numerous, great, black- and- white photos of the bands that played there: Krakdown, Token Entry, Ignition, and many more. The photos are truly the highlight of the book, as they’re given a large spread and capture the action and power of these shows.

There are problematic areas with Live at The Safari Club, however. The hardcore scene was, in the late ’‘80s and early ’90s, a predominantly white, male environment (even more than it is today). In almost all the pictures, I was shocked to see virtually no women and only a handful of people of color. I understand that the club and scene was what it was. Still, it would’ve been nice to hear about race or gender issues in the scene. How was it to be a woman at a venue that specialized in macho, aggressive music? Additionally, there were blacks and Asians in photos but very little talk about race. What were their experiences like?

Another concern is that while the title of the book states it covers the years 1988-1998, there is very little mentioned about the club after the early ’‘90s. This was especially disappointing, as I got into hardcore about ’’95 and would’ve loved to hear about the bands from that time.

While this is a very well-packaged book with cool photos, it fails to fully capture the history of The Safari Club, a venue that, while very interesting, is just like a lot of others that once existed. Many of us had them in our cities, but I wanted to know what made this one special. The lack of depth keeps Live at The Safari Club from living up to its full potential. –Kurt Morris (Rare Bird Books, 453 South Spring Str., Ste. 302, LA, CA 90013)

The Sarah Book By Scott McClanahan, 233 pgs.

The Sarah Book is a horror novel for people who are more scared of marriage than zombies. Scott McClanahan loses his wife to a divorce that was her idea, then stares into the abyss and writes about it at length. Wait, no. It’s a novel, narrated by a guy named Scott McClanahan. I know this because at one point the narrator has a conversation with a slowly dying dog. There’s also a wedding gift holy Bible being set aflame on a whim and a fair amount of feces, plus suicides both imagined and botched.

If you’ve heard the band Reigning Sound, you know that they’re not doing anything radically innovative. Yet, from five instrumental tracks from five bands, a fan would know which track was Reigning Sound’s. McClanahan’s prose is like that.

To choose a paragraph at semi-random: I told her that I loved going inside after midnight and watching all of the people of the world shop. They were the people who the rest of the world didn’t want and they were the ones that didn’t belong anymore. They were the people with amputated arms and they were the people in wheelchairs and they were the people with face tattoos and scars. I was a scar too. I was a giant human scar. And then I felt serious and I said, “Walmart is more than a store. Walmart is a state of mind.”

As the composer of this novel, McClanahan fucks up only once (never mind how, you may not notice it), and I’ve never been so grateful to be pulled out of a story: Oh, right, he’s not The Seer, he’s just a schmuck with an Underwood.

The Sarah Book is an abyss book, but McClanahan isn’t nihilistic. He spent many hours staring into this abyss so we only have to spend a few hours. Our old hope is burnt off like sugar cane and new hope is (if all goes well) harvested. –Jim Woster (Tyrant Books, nytyrant.com)

Everyone Loves You Back By Louie Cronin, 253 pgs.

Here is the backstory, as I understand it, to this highly satisfying novel: Sean Carswell, co-founder of Razorcake and Gorsky Press, taught a college course focused on producing a novel. The class solicited and reviewed manuscripts, chose one, and saw it through the entire production process until publication. One of the manuscripts was submitted by Louie Cronin, who has worked for years on NPR’s beloved “Car Talk” radio show. This submission was ultimately selected because one student cajoled her classmates to give the manuscript a read, eventually winning over the entire class. This backstory is not important for appreciating the novel, but I think it is important for reasons I’ll get to.

Everyone Loves You Back follows Bob, a radio technician working the late night jazz show on a Boston radio station. There are also a number of charming and well-developed secondary characters, such as Riff, the hippie/jazz aficionado and radio host; Irene, a co-worker whose affections Bob tries to balance with his own desires for Leonie, a Harvard dance professor in his Cambridge neighborhood; plus, a rich collection of other quirky neighbors and co-workers that Bob has to navigate. There is also an army of aggressive squirrels, encouraged by one of Bob’s loopier neighbors, and various trees that figure into the novel’s narrative arc.

On one level, the novel is about transitions and the ways in which we all work to navigate changing terrains. The radio station is under new management and the jazz show is on the chopping block, so Bob and his co-workers (new and old) must work to juggle principles, paychecks, and priorities. Meanwhile, in his rapidly changing neighborhood, Bob lives in the house he grew up in, surrounded by Harvard professors and well-heeled upper-middle class eccentrics all trying to simultaneously preserve and promote what they think the neighborhood is and should be. The novel pivots between these two backdrops, combining subtle humor (the narrative thread about an elaborate health insurance scam is wonderful) and sharp insights.

On another level, the novel is about social class. Those transitions in the radio station and neighborhood are ultimately informed by class dynamics. This is most clearly illustrated in Bob’s dilemma between dating Irene or pursuing the more polished (read: bourgeois) Leonie, which would entail Bob’s moving up in the class hierarchy. For me, it is Cronin’s portrayal of these class tensions and disconnects that really animates the novel. Cronin clearly has her working class sympathies, but she is never heavy-handed in her descriptions nor does she fall back on simplistic narrative devices (e.g., “know your place” or “working stiff wins the princess”).

About halfway through the novel, I started feeling a sense of dread, anticipating all the clichéd ways in which things could go off the rails for Bob. But I realized that Cronin respects her readers, assuming them to be intelligent enough not to need tired plot twists nor spoon-feeding shallow social commentary. The prose bounces and flows with an elegant pleasure that is impressive for a first novel. Ultimately, the novel is highly satisfying even though there are few resolutions and numerous strings left untied. Because, you know, that is life: we are always in transition and we’re always navigating social class.

And here is the thing: I don’t believe this novel would have ever been published by a large or even medium-sized commercial press. No one dies, commits adultery, is raped, suffers a mental breakdown, uses magic, fights monsters, or any other device that publishing companies find marketable today. Writing this review underscored for me how uneventful the story arc seems at first pass, but damn it, this novel works incredibly well. It is one of those novels that will linger with you for a long time, that you’ll encourage your friends to read, that you’ll gift at the holidays. It needs reading to appreciate, and kudos to that one student in Carswell’s class who took the chance and championed this gem all the way through the production process. –Kevin Dunn (Gorsky Press, PO Box 12024, LA, CA, 90042)

Mother of All Questions, The By Rebecca Solnit, 176 pgs.

Amnesty International annually releases a report documenting human rights violations for that year. Though not annual, Rebecca Solnit’s books operate in roughly the same way for women’s rights.

The Mother of All Questions takes those violations and offenses that populate our social media, removes them from that bustle, and reminds us of them in an isolated setting, adding her always welcome insight—not that I always agree with her (she just had to go and bring up Hemingway).

“Isla Vista.” Remember what that refers to? What if I add “UC Santa Barbara?” Starting to come back to you? Remember the hashtag that grew from that event? That’s one of the recent-past events that reading this book will more firmly affix to your memory.

The central essay is the almost fifty-page “A Short History of Silence,” about the different silences that our society demands of women, men, and children. She also writes about the year 2014, “a year of feminist insurrection against male violence.”

The above paragraphs may make it seem like The Mother of All Questions is a nutritionist-prescribed platter of raw vegetables, but really, it’s your favorite vegan meal. It’s the curried cauliflower soup I had at Ahimsa in Long Beach last weekend. –Jim Woster (Haymarket Books, haymarketbooks.org)

Painted Gun, The By Bradley Spinelli, 267 pgs.

The Painted Gun starts out as an overly traditional detective novel—an investigator on the skids sits smoking in his office in 1997 San Francisco, a client sends him an odd package, and he says, “It isn’t my birthday, and I don’t believe it’s the first of April,” and later he gets slapped around and the slapper says, “Don’t get smart with me. I don’t like smart guys,” and the investigator says, “What, they make you feel dumb?” and the slapper slaps him again.

The odd package is a portrait of the investigator that the investigator never sat for. The client wants him to find the artist. So is this a meta detective novel? Are we going to be examining the detective genre itself? Are the clichés there for a reason? Or is Spinelli amusing himself with what D.A. Powell calls “stinking dead usages of the past?”

The novel morphs into a conspiracy thriller. Fans of ‘70s films will perhaps recognize the root of the conspiracy from a movie whose title I’ll leave out, since I’m sure neither Spinelli nor his pre-publication readers have seen it (or read the book it was adapted from), and in Spinelli’s hands, the premise is arguably more plausible anyway (and if you don’t watch ‘70s films, it’s new to you).

And the mystery behind the portrait has a satisfying solution. But the novel’s early prose is an incongruous candy-floss foundation for what follows, including Latin American political history.

The book has a great minimalist moderne cover by Meghan Carey Kates. –Jim Woster (Akashic Books, akashicbooks.com)

Placement of Character By Bryan Polk, 318 pgs.

Bryan Polk’s second novel starts out promising and enjoyable. It’s the tale of a brother and sister, Mason and Eileen Jarman, who live in Denver. Both are in their mid-thirties and trying to figure out what they’re doing with their lives. It’s a struggle that many thirty-somethings face as their peers start pairing off and having children. This inability to find meaning while simultaneously flailing about in life is a subject in literature (both fiction and non-fiction) that has interested me since I read Douglas Copeland’s Generation X about fifteen years ago.

As the book progresses, it enters a more surreal turn as Mason finds employment in character placement. As the book states, it’s a vocation that provides “real life depictions of characters for fictional novels.” The idea behind character placement is that someone wanting to write a novel can’t come up with things in their own imagination and so pays people to act out what might happen minus a script. I had many questions about how realistic this would be (is it possible to have all the conversations recorded for the author? Wouldn’t that ruin the ability of the actors to fully embrace their characters?)

At some point a headless spirit of a Colorado miner and a taking dog named Herman enter Placement of Character and that’s when I realized the book was the equivalent of Kurt Vonnegut taking a bad left turn. Vonnegut was able to tear down the fourth wall and make surreal science fiction accessible and almost believable. Polk, on the other hand, starts with a relatable tale of figuring out what you should be doing with your life. From there he tries to solve the existential conundrum through the interaction of spirits and an ending that is so ham-fisted that he might as well have written, “GET IT?! Do you get it? See what I did there?”

Polk writes well and understands how to make a story flow. His characters are interesting, albeit with some flaws (Mason seems to be a punk but is also very concerned with society’s opinion of him, which seems very antithetical to a punk ethos) and I would’ve been willing to follow them along a more realistic journey. That’s not to say I dislike this type of fiction—I can get down with Vonnegut and others like him who play with reality. However, I’m not sure I can follow along with a story where the evil intents of the spirit of a dead miner is thwarted by some punks who play They Might Be Giants and dance as “freaky” as they can. –Kurt Morris (Suspect Press, 1280 Sherman St., Denver, CO 80203)

Rooted By Idabell Allen, 320 pgs.

Think of this as a bit of Southern Gothic lit and a bit of Steel Magnolias if somehow a Stiv Bators analog was in the mix. Rooted takes place in the fictional town of Moonsock, Tenn. sometime in the late ‘70s. The sudden appearance of heretofore unknown grandson, junkie, and New York punker Slade sets off a chain of events, leading to upheaval of the carefully ordered façade that family Patriarch Grover McQuiston has built over time as one of the town’s most feared and respected citizens.

While Grover is the boss of the family, it is his wife Eleanor who is the soul of the McQuistons. Even with her family falling apart around her due to the erosions of time—such as death, tragedy, and estrangement—it is her unfailing belief in patient redemption which marks the solid foundation that centers the family, even after her death. Eleanor is willing to take anyone in need, from her ultra anxious and closed-off granddaughter Sarah Jane who was abandoned years before, to her instant acceptance of Slade who turns up at the family property by crashing a car into Grover’s prize cow Lucy at the end of a drug-fueled mad dash from New York City to claim an inheritance.

The novel shifts primarily between the viewpoints of Grover, Sarah Jane, and Slade. Each of these characters presents a different façade to the world. Grover is marked by a hard, demanding anti-sentimentality developed from years of trying to prove his worth as a respectable man. Slade is brash, crude, outspoken, and given to coping through addiction. Sarah Jane is painfully introspective and willfully sheltered to the point of near asceticism. Regardless of the surface differences, all three characters—and indeed almost all the extended members of the McQuiston family—are marked by two things: familial abandonment and long-term issues linked to secret traumas.

Allen steers the novel well in examining not just the corrosive aspects that mark the characters, but also redemption and hope. Her well-drawn depiction of the Mississippi River countryside of Moonsock conveys a sense of calmness that fortifies the characters through the peace they can experience in this natural Southern sanctuary. As best exemplified in Eleanor, there is also the strong thread permeating the novel of the power that familial connection has, even when frayed to near breaking points. While some of the family issues brought up in the novel seem like they probably can never be completely healed, it is worth the effort for the characters to push forward with forgiveness—if for no other reason than they recognize they are being dragged under by the weight of psychic burdens.

All in all, this novel is a well-structured read that rings true in its examination of the difficultly, tragedy, and sometimes tragi-comedy inherent in sorting out the complications of family. –Adrian Salas (Lowbrow Literary Press, 5050 Oakdale Rd., Westmoreland, TN, 37186, idabelallen.net)