Book Reviews

Bull Loving Truth, The By Ian Lawrence Campbell Swordy, 138 pgs.

The morning of my thirty-fifth birthday I picked up this book and read the first sentence: “Moving back to New York at 35 was harder than expected.” Instantly hooked, within twenty-four hours I had finished it. You might remember Ian as Pone, bassist for the humble legends of Brooklyn: Bent Outta Shape. The Bull Loving Truth is Ian’s personal tale as they shed the innocence/naivety of the suburban youth experience in exchange for punk and radical politics, and later the highly conceptual art world. The parts which recount the tales of Bent shows and tours are all you hope they’d be. They’re magically nostalgic, documenting a time that feels all too long ago. For those of us who branched out and discovered what this DIY network of friends truly is in the ’00s, this is our history. And, amazingly, it reads like all the classics you ever wished were your life. Starting off like Lanky meets On the Road, and then ending like a mashed up millennial Just Kids meets The Razor’s Edge. The Bull Loving Truth is your companion piece to reflect back on who you were in 2005 and who you are now. You don’t have to read it on your birthday, but it definitely helps for maximum results. Here’s a small nugget that felt particularly revealing, “Transformation is not shapeshifting. You don’t get to choose what it looks like on the other side. Or who you are when you get there.” Pick it up and absorb this heart-felt ode to the old times, the magnetic people who are unfortunately no longer with us, as well an open-ended discussion on who we have yet to become. –Daryl (Self-released, $10, woodenchain@gmail.com)

Collected Cyanide Milkshake, Thee By Liz Suburbia, 176 pgs.

As the title might tip you off to, this is the complete collection of Cyanide Milkshake, which is extremely convenient to anyone trying to track down all the back issues. Though there were only eight issues (including the mysterious lost first issue which Liz explains in comic form), having the work gathered up in one place is awesome. Not only does it show you the progress of the artist, but also how her expression and thought process changed over time—and most importantly—there’s no extreme cliffhangers in the serialized comics. Be relieved that you can read each installment of Girl-Boy Adventures all in one go, instead of waiting with bated breath for whenever the next issue comes out. My favorite reoccurring comic in Cyanide Milkshake is Ulster & Penny. It’s the tale of two rambunctious dogs who are constantly getting into trouble and looking super cool while doing so.

Liz’s style is detailed, yet simple with bold line work and lots of heavy spot blacking. She says in every issue: ”You can do the same thing! All it takes is some printer paper and a Sharpie!” Well, that and a modicum of Liz’s talent and humor. As far as the actual content goes, I’d recommend that you take the notice “Contains adult content” to heart. Nothing in the zine ever bothered me or got under my skin, but quite a lot of this book was not safe for work and I found myself covering up parts of pages when I was reading it in the break room.

One of the other things that I really appreciate about Liz’s work is her vulnerability and dissection of the punk subculture. Though at first I thought this kind of expression was only happening in the intros for each issue, you can see it permeate throughout. Even something as subtle as a character in All Dogs in a 7-Eleven telling her friend to live with their decisions in something as small as a Slurpee flavor choice echoes back to her ethos. There’s certainly very much of the artist in the art, and that’s one of the key components of quality to me. While I find her thoughts on how punk as a subculture could be better very refreshing, I also appreciate that they’re paired with such awesome art.

I’ll leave off with another endorsement for Ulster & Penny. Those two are just so adorable and rad and even dangerous at times! I’d love to have a poster of the two of them going to a punk show—especially the frame with Ulster getting the back of his paw X’ed out by the person at the door while Penny looks on with a five dollar bill in their mouth. So awesome. –Kayla Greet (Gimme Action)

ConeBoy By Clive Parker-Sharp, 363 pgs.

I will start with what brought me to the doorstep here, but I will stress that this wasn’t what kept me in the room. The author is a drummer who spent time in Athletico Spizz 80 and Big Country. But other than some passing musical references within the book, that fact should just be a launching point. This book is about life choices.

When these choices start to involve drugs, it becomes hard to see through the haze. I am not preaching now, just stating the facts as presented in this story. Elbeth is the initial focus in ConeBoy, with her son Colin taking on the mantle more towards the end. This book poses more questions than it answers in a lot of ways. The decisions made by the characters are clouded by chemicals and it ultimately destroys the lives of anyone in its circle. Hope, dreams, and expectations are shattered with no escape in sight. Fame shifts the tone abruptly once Elbeth’s son is born. How he copes with what life has dealt him is admirable at first. Then it becomes sad with a tragic finish that seems ripped from a tabloid TV soundbite.

I may have been depressed at times while immersed in reading this book. Sometimes I had to gasp for air for a minute after a couple of passages. But at no point did I wish for actual page numbers to glance at since ConeBoy was intensely gripping for the duration. Thought provoking and definitely worth seeking out. –Sean Koepenick (Box Productions, furryrecords@yahoo.com )

(Intentionally Blank) By ThomasMundt, 161 pgs.

This book of short stories is so wordy, so packed with prepositions, English 101 writerly words, pompous adjectives, and otherwise omit-able words it’s maddening. It’s also consumed by the author’s own perceived cleverness, which he projects onto the voices of his diverse variety of characters, making them not so diverse after all. I found it nearly impossible to read all the way through.

Out of a sense of duty, I managed only by reading completely on autopilot until the very end of its 161 pages. Occasionally, I tried line-reading it, noticing words I would delete. Finally, I got to the end, but I’ll be damned if I could tell you what a single one of the stories was about. I couldn’t stay present in them at all. Take this sentence for example: “they believe that because if you were not there to watch history happen than it did not happen but know that this is not true and we must go on about our business.” Definitely the worst sentence in the book but not by much. You could open anywhere and find a similar monstrosity of the English language. If that’s not enough, there’s little dialogue, arc of story, or even plot. Many of the stories seem like someone sketching out a character to put in a story. And sketching. And sketching. And sketching! And then it’s over. No story.

Still, as maddening and amateurish as Intentionally Blank seemed to me, Mundt is a pro. I was shocked to find Tolsun Books is not a vanity press. Also, every one of these twenty-two stories was published somewhere else before collected here. I guess the joke’s on me. –Craven Rock (Tolsun Press)

Night Moves By Jessica Hopper, 185 pgs.

Jessica Hopper has been a prominent figure in music journalism for a hot minute now, but Night Moves is a diversion from that M.O.—though it has all the trimmings of good music journalism, i.e. rich descriptions of songs, musicians and culturally relevant figures, and shows, which ultimately serve the work incredibly well—it is first and foremost memoir. Night Moves is a loving portrait of Midwest punk and punk-adjacency, with warm sketches of the people and places Hopper encountered. The novel is tinted with the glow only time can provide, even the disappointing, difficult moments remembered with fondness.

The hard times do not dull this warmth; if anything they represent the “Minnesota Nice” phenomena of Midwesterners seeming all the more welcoming in spite of the brutal winters. And Hopper too waxes poetic about “these Midwestern states, so sturdy and dirty and loving you back” (emphasis mine), her stories told with near reverence for the Midwest (Chicago) in vignettes. They do not have to be long to invoke deep emotion and the well-worn (but certainly well-loved) poetics punks so often fall into. A slim volume, Night Moves packs several years into their most intense and fiercely beautiful moments. It is an exercise in microcosm, each brief encounter telling more of the story than it seems its fair share should be. Perfect for folks who love Chicago or the Midwest at large, lament the winter, or just need to wax nostalgic for a moment. –Jimmy Cooper (University Of Texas Press, utpress.utexas.edu)

Not My Idea: A Book about Whiteness By Anastasia Higginbotham, 64 pgs.

The fourth in Anastasia Higginbotham’s “Ordinary Terrible Things” series, aimed at making difficult topics accessible to children without being condescending or inaccurate, Not My Idea: A Book about Whiteness follows the story of a young boy who sees a police officer shoot a brown person with their hands up. Throughout the narrative, adults around him

Nothing Means Nothing By Johnny Salas, 104 pgs.

As I look through this collection of photos that Johnny Salas has shot documenting the semi-professional wrestling scene in Phoenix, Ariz., I keep hoping to see a photo that will reel me in and help me understand what he loves about that world. As it stands, I feel like an outsider passing through on my way to somewhere else. The layout could use some improvement, as some shots are marred by the heart of the image disappearing into the gutter, sometimes the photos are too dark, and the paper these are printed on tend to flatten the image. While there are some decent photos, such as the skull faced wrestler stalking the area outside the ring, there are others that I have no idea why they were chosen, such as the one where we see the back of a wrestler and the left side of his opponent, but the story of what is happening is hidden between the two of them and not in view. You could argue it’s the mystery, but this image is not compelling enough to contemplate. I feel that Salas should have spent more time building up his images, getting more comfortable, and documenting a couple years longer. Some heavy editing and a better layout could also work wonders. –Matt Average (Tolsun, tolsunbooks.com)

So Many Doors By Oakley Hall, 320 pgs.

The publishing company Hard Case Crime specializes in pulp mysteries, new and reprinted. It upholds the tradition of pulp magazines and paperback originals by adorning each of its covers with a garishly colored painting featuring a woman dressed to get sex. (As a joke, it even did this when it reprinted Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel The Valley of Fear—it attributed the public-domain novel to A.C. Doyle.)

Oakley Hall’s So Many Doors, a reprint from 1950, is no exception, but the novel doesn’t tell the story of that mythical creature the femme fatale, the woman with enough agency, even in the first half of the twentieth century, to compel good men to commit horrible acts they otherwise wouldn’t have. (Well, semi-mythical.)

Rather, the novel deconstructs the femme fatale, showing how men not used to thinking before acting weave their trouble around a woman who happens to have a fuller figure than other women. The woman at the center of the novel is named Vassilia; people call her V. We see her through the points-of-view of five different people.

The novel is pre-television slow. I’d been wondering whether my internet-jittered brain can still enjoy such a novel—and it can—though occasionally, in the middle of a paragraph, it would ask from the backseat, “Are we there yet?”

“He passed a water truck and two motor graders working up on a levee, and then beside the road a bulldozer and a pick-up truck were drawn up together. Two men were bent over the bed of the pick-up, in which engine parts were spread. Baird pulled off the road behind them and got out. A cloud of dust caught up and settled over him, and he wiped his sweating, dusty face on the sleeve of his shirt. The cat skinner and the mechanic nodded to him. The cat skinner wore a sweat-soaked singlet and a striped cap, and his face and arms were burned black. The mechanic, in stiff, greasy overalls, squatted and hunted through his tool chest.”

So Many Doors is not a pulp novel, or even really a crime novel, though it’s not out of place on Hard Case Crime’s roster. It opens with an accused murderer in his cell, refusing counsel from his court-appointed attorney, and ends with a twist I didn’t see coming. The novel is great California literature—it takes place in the Central Valley down to San Diego County, and from the Depression to post-WWII—and it deserves whatever readership this reprint will give it. –Jim Woster (Hard Case Crime, hardcasecrime.com)

131 Different Things By Nick Zinner, Zachary Lipz, & Stacy Wakefield, 248 pgs.

I’m a sucker for books about New York City. Especially books that explore the life and times of punks or beatniks, either in the present or the past. Thus, 131 Different Things was right up my alley. Author Zachary Lipz writes about Sam, a bartender at a dive on the Lower East Side, who discovers his former love, Vicki, is back in the city. He looks for a possibility to connect with her, but first he has to find her.

Throughout one long night, Sam and his friend Francis seek out Vicki at gay bars, nightclubs, and dominatrix joints throughout Manhattan, but keep coming up short. Along the way they’re fueled by alcohol and drugs, pizza, and brawling. There are lots of music (and punk) references, whether it’s to Black Flag or the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

The reason I’m a sucker for books about NYC is because I believe in it as a city of possibilities. You can watch your favorite musician play at a dive bar, get hit on by a bartender, see someone step in vomit on the subway, and fall in love. And 131 Different Things definitely displays the sentiment that anything is possible. With every bar that Sam and Francis go to, something unexpected occurs.

Interspersed throughout the book are color photos taken by Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs. They accent the action to some degree, but don’t directly relate to it. They primarily show people in party situations or just being weird. Some pictures are of dogs, others of musicians. While I didn’t think them to be necessary to the story, I did like how they broke things up. Yet, they would’ve been better if interspersed more through the story instead of in blocks at the end of each chapter.

The book is also designed by Stacy Wakefield. These three—Wakefield, Zinner, and Lipz—are frequent collaborators. Their experience with one another shows, as they make the complete package tie together well.

On the whole, I very much enjoyed 131 Different Things, primarily because I like books about NYC and punk and people trying to find someone or something and seeing the adventure that happens along the way. This book provided all of that. Still, I can’t help but think it could’ve sufficed just as well if it had been tucked together as a small paperback novella. As it stands, thirty dollars seems a lot for a book that is good, but not great. –Kurt Morris (Akashic, 232 Third St., Suite A115, Brooklyn, NY 11215)

Beauty Found in Darkness By Kent Grosswiler, 128 pgs.

An experimental juxtaposition of haiku and illustrations. I struggle to fully grasp the presentation. You can start from either end of the book and then must flip it over in the middle. One half just seems to use the haikus once on the left page and then repeat the same one on the right page with an illustration. The other half uses a different haiku for the prose and illustrations. It’s a little confused. There’s also one repeat illustration, but I’ll chalk that up to an error. I’m not sure if I’m qualified to review what is ultimately poetry, but there are a few zingers in there. The illustrations really steal the show, to the point where I question if including the original prose haikus really adds anything at all. I can’t doubt the books sense of graphic design, because generally speaking it’s a very cohesive vision. –Gwen Static (Nix Comics, nixcomics.com)