Book Reviews

Haunt / Long-Form Religious Porn / Angel Meat, Three books by Laura Lee Bahr

The story goes, Laura Lee Bahr wrote Haunt, didn’t know exactly what to do with it, asked writer John Skipp to read it, following which he founded Fungasm Press solely to publish it. (He’s since published other writers under this Eraserhead Press imprint.)

To put it inadequately, Haunt (2011) is like if J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition were a ghost novel. A woman named Sarah While has (probably) been killed. One of the suspects (we think) is a guy named Simon Would. And there’s a guy named Richard who is usually addressed in the second person. And the book has a Choose Your Own Adventure motif:

Does he…

Burn it?

—OR—

Bury it?

—OR—

Bring it?

I’ve read Haunt twice and still don’t know whether I can recommend it— though I plan on reading it again, which has to count for something. I think the novel is center-less—“center,” as in, “the center cannot hold,” the kind of center that we hope the universe has, which it probably doesn’t. So why should a novel be expected to have one? Because novels are supposed to bring order to an orderless universe, except when they’re not, which may be the centerless center of Haunt, and determining that one way or the other is why I’ll be giving it a third read.

Long-Form Religious Porn (2015) does have a center, a gruesome sex-rooted double-murder, from and around which the realistic novel’s memorable characters pursue their lives in a Los Angeles I recognize as the one I live in—it’s The Great Los Angeles Novel, really, with chapters as sturdy and startling as your favorite short stories, but the outlaw sex scenes ensure the novel won’t get broader attention until Bahr has published a few more books.

Angel Meat (2016) is as thematically varied a book of short stories as a Harlan Ellison collection. It (weirdly) opens with a thought-provoking parable of positivity, and travels through horror, crime, science fiction, a traditional story of a young-ish person who’s hit the wall of life and has to figure out his next move, and a moving, presumably autobiographical first-person story (essay?) about traveling to a family reunion. With that last story, it’s like she’s coming out from the forbidden castle and introducing herself.

I have to direct particular attention to Angel Meat’s two science fiction stories, “Blackout in Upper Moosejaw” and “The Cause”—they both seem to take place in the same future where people have to adjust to the priority of automation—a theme, of course, that science fiction has been exploring since its beginnings, and Bahr’s takes on it holds their own with the genre’s best. –Jim Woster (Fungasm Press, fungasmpress.com)

I Brought Down the MC5 By Michael Davis, 345 pgs.

This was a bit of a shocker to see this pop up in 2018, considering I knew the author had passed away in 2012. Whatever the back story is, let’s be glad this is here. The book traces Michael Davis’s history growing up in 1960s Detroit. Michael later became caught up in rock music, going from just attending shows to getting up on stage. Although he would become best known for being the MC5’s bassist, we now have the background of how he got there. Post-MC5 there were various projects, the most notable being his stint with Ron Asheton in Destroy All Monsters. Davis is brutally honest in how a lot of his life decisions were fueled by drugs and alcohol. In later years, he became more involved with painting. Life seemed to settle down a bit for him in later years, with his last marriage most likely assisting with that situation. What’s more intriguing are some of the stories not told, the major one being his reunion with Wayne Kramer and Dennis Thompson in 2003 for a tour. Was this redeeming for him after being kicked out of the band originally? I guess we will never know. This is still a fascinating story I highly recommend any fans of the band check out. –Sean Koepenick (Cleopatra, cleopatrarecords.com)

Inhabit: Instructions for Autonomy,75 pgs.

Inhabit: Instructions for Autonomy started out as a zine, later republished as this cute little volume. The zine version is fantastic; however, this edition is both updated and visually cooler. There’s nothin’ wrong with the black-and-white photocopied zine aesthetic, but in book form it’s slicker and printed in orange and green monochrome images and text. It just looks really rad, okay?

That being said, the associated website is, in the most eloquent of terms, really fucking cool, and in fact, a visit to inhabit.global takes you straight to the digital version of the text, which is not, as many digital texts are, a shitty, grainy PDF with no attention to the fact that people are actually going to read this, but an interactive iteration of the text. It also carries the same visuals as the book and comes in Spanish and French!

Inhabit themselves are an anonymous network of all types of radicals involved in all types of projects across the country; their main goal is providing tools for autonomous living within, though eventually without, the structures already in place. Instructions for Autonomy, then, is exactly what it sounds like: a call to action, an idealistic manifesto, and, well, instructions for autonomy. What I like about the book, though, is that, unlike many tonally similar radical texts, it provides real, concrete starting places for personal revolutions. So you can’t kill every racist cop in your hometown, that’s okay. Start by creating a “hub,” to use their word, of people who support each other, and resolve disputes internally. Take care of each other. So we can’t tear the healthcare system apart insurance office by insurance office, well, educate yourselves and each other about our bodies and how to take care of them.

So, yeah. It’s idealistic but I needed it, and I think a lot of us do. Sometimes we need to be reminded of the good that’s out there, the fight that’s always taking place, and our part in it. I loved Instructions for Autonomy, because amidst all the fucked-up stuff that’s happening, it reminded me there’s a lot more that I can do besides sit at home and occasionally wear a lot of black and attend a protest. I can exist, at least in part, in ways that are directly antithetical to the system at large, and it’s a better life. –Jimmy Cooper (inhabit.global, for distribution, hello@inhabit.global)

Look Back and Laugh: Journal Comics By Liz Prince, 416 pgs.

Maybe you’re like me and became familiar with Liz Prince’s comics through Razorcake. She always did a great job of weaving stuff from the punk scene into her short comics here. Her graphic novel Tomboy is fantastic, too—she writes and draws honestly about growing up battling pressures to conform to gender norms, and the longer format of the graphic novel allows her narrative writing to shine.

I was interested to see how her skill with both short and long form stuff would come together in Look Back and Laugh, a collection of her diary comics originally offered as incentives to her Patreon subscribers. The answer, I’m happy to report, is Liz Prince is killing it here.

Throughout Look Back and Laugh, Prince has an uncanny knack for style and pacing. She’s aware of how accelerating or decelerating action can occur through the number and style of her panels—or sometimes through the elimination of panels altogether. Take her comic from October 24 as an example: set up as an equation on the page, she and her husband Kyle, dressed in autumn clothes, are paired with a plus sign. The couple is paired with a rake, shovel, and dustpan. To the right of an equal sign are fifteen bags of leaves. The cartoon of an entire day spent in the yard of their new house, ridding their lawn of seasonal detritus demonstrates how much work the day took not as a task, but as a math problem (emphasis on the last word): There’s no border to their equation, just the yawn of repetition for each of the fifteen bags, the repetitious cycle of bending over to stuff leaves into bags. Contrast this pull pager to that of October 17, wherein Prince lies on the bottom of the page, surrounded by a border, looking funereal as the weight of her depression literally holds her down in the coffin of a panel: with so many words comprising her self-reflection, there’s nowhere for her to go, and no way to get up. Both days are different—but dazzling.

The heavier entries contrast with both the more everyday topics—like hanging with her cats, going out to eat, shopping for seltzer—and the hilarious (I’ll never hear Hall And Oates the same way again) and momentous (buying a house, or, for all the wrong reasons, the 2016 election). A year encompasses a spectrum of emotions, obviously, and in less expert hands would not have come across with such a level of pathos and daring. But Liz Prince is unafraid to take risks, to put her life on display in creative and brave depictions, making her art and storytelling some of the most compelling reading of recent memory. –Michael T. Fournier (Top Shelf Productions, topshelfcomix.com)

MDC Al Schvitz: Double Life in Double Time By Alan “Al Schvitz” Schultz, 190 pg.

MDC is one of those bands I’ve always registered as a low-level hum in the background: I’m aware of them, but haven’t spent much time with their catalogue. I remember that I saw them play the Elvis Room in New Hampshire back in the ’90s, but mostly because friends were psyched they got to open for a national touring band. I have one of their records which I bought for a buck at a punk flea market, but have never listened to. That’s it.

I preface this review with my ignorance of the band and their catalogue because, often, books like this require some sort of awareness of the group/musician in question. Not this one, though. Foreknowledge is not a requirement for reading Double Life in Double Time, which held me rapt from start to finish.

Author Alan Schultz—“Al Schvitz” while playing drums for MDC—spent time in San Quentin on drug charges. His prison narrative is grounded in the present of 1995, where he kills time by writing a band memoir. He discusses his band the Stains morphing into MDC, and relocating from Texas to San Francisco. As he recalls his past, his anecdotes dredge up recollections of prison, or out-of-the-ordinary events behind bars—interrupting the narrative.

The book, whether discussing time in a cell or in the van, is comprised of motion and tedium. Being on tour is great, certainly, but not when the hands on the clock won’t move during a day-long drive, and especially when that drive is rendered moot by a show cancellation—not entirely unlike watching and waiting for a chance to exercise in the yard, which is then cancelled. In addition to the tedium of repetition (and vice versa), Schultz describes being in motion throughout both narrative threads. He’s moved from cell to cell, facility to facility, even as he describes being brought across the Atlantic to tour with Dead Kennedys, or one of the band’s umpteen U.S. tours, playing Rock Against Reagan shows and beyond.

Schultz’s wry tone is an odd pleasure in the context of prison memoirs. I went back and re-read passages from some, particularly In the Belly of the Beast, as comparison. None of the sharp brutality of the other volumes is present here. Whether discussing using prison envelopes as currency or booking punk tours on payphones with a dialer, Schultz is an affable narrator, addressing the reader directly throughout like a correspondent delivering an extensive epistle.

I had a blast reading this one; MDC’s marathon laps through the punk world make for no shortage of anecdotes, connections, and namedrops. But Schultz’s recollections of time in prison are equally engaging, and cleverly connect, reinforce, and shade throughout. Recommended. –Michael T. Fournier (Manic D Press, manicdpress.com)

Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl By Andrea Lawlor, 354 pgs.

The very first thing I have to say is that Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is, very, very simple: this is one of the best books I’ve read in the last year for sure, and probably ever. This book absolutely slapped. It was slow and meandering, and the plot wasn’t really… a plot, per se, but goddamn.

The novel takes place in several sects of the ’90s alternative scene, including riot grrrl punk, gay cruising and clubbing, and punk. Its narrator and main creature feature, Paul, is a Midwestern shapeshifter hell-bent on love and lust. Though the premise seems like a venture into thinly veiled pornography, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl is a foray into the very nature of gender and sexuality. Paul himself doesn’t know where he really lies in gender, even though any body he could possibly want is a body he could have. His nature is completely malleable. He lives much of his public life as a young gay man of the type folks would call a twink now, but only because he can’t tell anyone about his ability. When he has the opportunity to be anonymous, he often does so as a woman, a much more butch man that he fronts as, or any number of other personalities.

Everyone’s gender is fluid. I should say, rather, that everyone’s gender presentation is fluid. A young boy might act more traditionally masculine around his friends as a front, or a teenage girl might put on a dress she normally wouldn’t even consider wearing to impress a teenage boy on a date. Others change their gender presentation on the daily simply through dress and attitude, and sometimes it’s more subtle than that, a look here, a few words there. All gender serves, at the end of the day, is as a series of “tells” that send signals to other people about the gender of the sender, and Paul is a hyperbolized representation of that. Paul tells the reader that it’s okay to be confused, to be ever-changing, to contain multitudes, and of course, to enjoy it, to enjoy life in all of your and its form. And yeah, Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl gets steamy. Enjoy that, too. –Jimmy Cooper (rescuepress.co)

Shadow Warrior, The By J.E. Klimov, 409 pgs.

Although the fantasy genre is something I probably hadn’t really dug into since The Elfstones of Shannara, I was really impressed with the first book I read in this trilogy—The Aeonians. All of the characters were fully formed within the novel. The story followed a logical path, but not without some twists and turns along the way. For the second book in this series, the author goes for a somewhat darker turn. But the descriptions of the countries and the humans (and non-humans) within are presented in startling detail. I’m not going to give away all the secrets here. There are species described that leap off the page in some spots. But if you want to read a novel with a truly engaging story line, I would suggest picking this up and diving in head first. You will be rewarded handsomely for your efforts. –Sean Koepenick (Silver Leaf, SilverLeafBooks.com)

Silence Is the Noise, The By Bart Schaneman, 154 pgs.

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of reading Bart Schaneman’s essays and books. His ability to capture a geographic place and bring it alive has always struck me as the most powerful aspects of his writing. In his latest fiction work, The Silence Is the Noise, Schaneman once again brings to life the characters’ surroundings, this time in western Nebraska. Given that Schaneman is from this area and worked at the newspaper in Scottsbluff, I’m sure that much of this story of a cub reporter for a small town Nebraska newspaper is based on his personal experiences.

The reporter, Ethan Thomas, gets a big story when an oil company starts pumping fracking water into the ground nearby, causing earthquakes. Thomas has just returned to his hometown after living in various cities and tries to figure out his place in life. He stumbles through understanding how to handle a big story, being back in his old hometown, and in a relationship with someone who desperately wants to leave Nebraska.

It is in the relationship between one person to another as well as one person to their environment that the book finds its strength. The connection between Thomas and his editor, who guides him as he starts his journalism career, is heartening. This relationship, as well as the one between Ethan Thomas and his lover, Lucy, drives much of the story.

Yet there is another relationship that carries on throughout these pages. It is the relationship we have with our environment: the sky, the grass, the air, and everything that surrounds us, especially for those living in rural settings. These relationships—interpersonal and environmental—form the foundation of the one question that is overarching in The Silence Is the Noise: how do we connect back to those places we once called our home? How do we handle the memories and feelings we have of a place verses who we have become in the years since we left that place?

It is in that dichotomy that Schaneman weaves his tale and takes us along for the ride. He does so in a story that cuts out the fat and moves along quickly (something I always appreciate). I’ve been to similar wide open places Schaneman describes in this book. Places where the openness of the environment affects your emotions and the sky just seems to roll on forever. While I don’t know if I would ever want to live in such a place, Schaneman makes me want to see that environment and meet the characters in The Silence Is the Noise. And the ability to want to live inside the setting of a book is one of the most powerful things a writer can accomplish. –Kurt Morris (Trident Press, 940 Pearl St., Boulder, CO 80302)

Smash! Green Day, The Offspring, Bad Religion, NOFX and the 90s Punk Explosion By Ian Winwood

If you have even a passing interest in pop punk, you probably know at least a little about the sad demise of Lookout! Records a few years back.

Remember what a big story it was?

Lookout! made wheelbarrows full of money on Green Day’s back catalogue after the band jumped to a major label with Dookie. Label honcho Larry Livermore was overwhelmed after a time: the imprint he had started as a tiny operation in a bedroom and had morphed from a labor of love into a full-fledged business. It wasn’t fun for him anymore. So Larry handed the reins over to his partners, who mismanaged the label’s coffers to such an extent Lookout! couldn’t pay royalties to its bands. The whole operation folded when Green Day came to collect.

In Smash! Green Day, The Offspring, Bad Religion, NOFX and the 90s Punk Explosion, author Ian Winwood says that since departing for the majors Green Day “have honored (their) contract (with Larry) and have made no efforts to reclaim the music released on Lookout! Records.”

This is the exact opposite of what really happened.

I was already deeply skeptical of Smash! by the time I got to the above passage. It’s funny, because in the credits Winwood cites none other than Larry Livermore as a key source. Indeed, there was a whiff of familiarity to a lot of the Green Day stuff herein because I’ve read both of Larry’s books—including How To Ru(i)n A Record Label, which discusses Lookout! having trouble paying bands. This book is about capitalism in punk—how, in the wake of the titular bands’ records sales “anyone forming a punk band did so with the knowledge that in doing so it was possible to become wealthy.” But there’s a cost largely unexplored here. Lookout! threw money around like a major label and paid the consequences—none of which the author mentions, or, if we’re to believe him, even knows about.

Some of Smash! is unintentional comedy, like when Winwood, with no trace of irony, says “if any band in (his) book has been short-changed of the respect owed to them, it is the Offspring.” He earnestly discusses their chances of entering the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, then, some chapters later, actively argues that “Pretty Fly (For a White Guy)” is not a novelty song.

If your idea of “punk won” is counting money rather than ways in which punk rock empowered marginalized people, created community, and fomented social change, then by all means, dig in. Otherwise, I read this so you don’t have to. –Michael T. Fournier (Da Capo, dacapopress.com)

Thirteen Nocturnes By Oliver Sheppard, 255 pgs.

I’m going to come in right at the start and say I am not the biggest poetry fan, which is odd because I’ve written it on and off for a large portion of my life. But poetry by other people has never engaged me quite as much. So I cringed when I saw a poetry book was sent to me to review. Not only was it poetry, but it was 255 pages of poetry. Yikes.

But I was glad to be proven wrong. 1) The amount of poetry in this book is far less than 255 pages. 2) I actually liked some of these poems. Nocturnes are poems inspired by the night and these are certainly darker in nature. Amongst the poems, author Oliver Sheppard places pull quotes, old drawings from the early twentieth century and before, as well as quotes from other authors. In addition to this extra material, the actual thirteen nocturnes only comprised a sliver of the pages. Much more material was related to part of the book titled “The Void Cantos.” These were poems often more experimental in nature, but still bearing a darker tone.

What I appreciated most in these poems was the ability they had to evoke feelings associated with night, darkness, and solitude. They also evoked memories. For example, Nocturne No. 9, with its references to the death of summer and awaiting winter, reminded me of times living in rural Indiana and surviving the winters that dragged on for long periods. I appreciate any form of art that can tap into my thoughts and feelings and Sheppard obviously has that ability.

My concerns and frustrations with Thirteen Nocturnes is twofold. First, it’s too long. I think this would’ve been more effective as a chapbook limited solely to the nocturnes and without the extraneous quotes, artwork, and “The Void Cantos.” Second, the language used is, on occasion, hard to follow. Sheppard may use phrases and words that harkens back to the Middle Ages. In this, it makes it difficult for the reader to truly be embraced in the lyricism, as I had to look up what certain words meant.

In the end, if someone can get me to enjoy some poetry, that’s a positive. But Sheppard still has a way to go to make me a fanatic of the style. –Kurt Morris (Ikonograph Press, ikonographpress.com)