Book Reviews

No Gods (Or: Peace without Fear or Bombs)

By Chari, 122 pgs.

Paressa is a twelfth grader at a public school in Canada. She worked at an ice cream shop until she got upset at the owner, who can’t run a business. Later he’s murdered in the alley behind a gay bar. Paressa gets a job at the library. Her coworkers like Bauhaus and The Cure. One of them is knowledgeable in the dark arts of buzz cuts. Paressa shaves her head. Principal Whyte is sympathetic. Sort of. Why, he asks Paressa, do you have to be a weirdo? She’s like, “Listen pal, I’m myself, and you’re a tool.” Principal Whyte loves Jesus a whole lot. He ain’t ashamed to crack on the loudspeaker and roll out the prayers. Paressa doesn’t hate the big guy in the sky, but she does have integrity, and you’re not supposed to spill the Jesus in a public school.

What happens next is Paressa and her friend, Wendy, decide to challenge Whyte by having Paressa run for student council president. And things go wild from there. We get Clash lyrics. We get shapeshifting cutie dudes who straddle the jock/punk line. We get cool librarians and Canadian history.

Author Chari is a bit of a mystery. What I know is that they have another book, All I Care about Is Music, and it’s part one of five in a series called Songs of Youth. This book, No Gods, is part two. There’s not a big reason for a thirty-something manbaby like myself to read about a teenage girl getting into punk, but I think I’d dig No Gods if I got it as a kid because I remember being really into Charles Romalotti’s Salad Days, which is broadly similar. –Jim Joyce (Sabba-Too-Jee Books, 260 Adelaide street E., Box 62, Toronto, ON M5A 1N1, Canada)

Palaces

By Simon Jacobs, 248 pgs.

Stunningly literary, a bit horrific, and punk as all hell, Palaces by Simon Jacobs is just a little bit unforgettable. At first glance, it seems like your run-of-the-mill crust punk love story: a couple runs away from it all, have only each other in some weird little New York squat, loses said New York squat, and runs away from it all again… You get the picture. After this relatively “normal” beginning, Palaces rabbit-holes into a surreal trip through space and perception.

Richmond punks John and Joey hop on a train and chaos ensues in a series of abandoned mansions full of wolves, rooms painted like assorted gore and viscera, lost children, and the same knife, over and over again. Part fever dream, Palahniuk-esque horror novel, and meditation on relationships and distance, Palaces defies all expectations and demands to be seen. It doesn’t care what you think. Action-packed sentences both drag on and draw the reader in; it left me lost but desperate to know what was going on. Clocking in at just under 250 pages, the novel is unexpectedly dense. It’s less the kind of book you read on a lazy Sunday afternoon and more the kind of thing you read and tell all your friends just how deep and enlightening it is, when in reality you had no idea what was going on for the majority of the book.

That being said, even if it’s a bit confusing and dense, it’s a hell of an adventure to take. It would be deeply enjoyable to fans of books and movies like Cloud Atlas, Cat’s Cradle, or other works that make you work for your intellectual bounty. Jacobs creates an atmosphere you can’t help sinking fully into, even when it makes you want to vomit or turn away. Unraveling the truth of this work is rewarding and absolutely worth it, but I’m also a gigantic nerd for that sort of thing, so maybe take my words on the matter with a grain of salt. –Jimmy Cooper (Two Dollar Radio, twodollarradio.com)

Recipe for Hate

By Warren Kinsella, 304 pgs.

Named after a Bad Religion song and album and based (albeit loosely) on true events, Recipe for Hate is perfect for those who like murder mysteries, punk rock, and kicking Nazi ass. The narrator, Kurt Blank, is a stand in for the author in his youth, even playing in the same band, The Hot Nasties, whose Invasion of the Tribbles 7” is real and available on Spotify.

Though Recipe for Hate is aimed at teens, the second novel in what is now dubbed The X Gang series, will be geared more towards adults, understandably so after the gorefest Recipe for Hate entails. The novel opens on X and Kurt playing a show with the Hot Nasties before it all goes wrong. At first, it seems like the kind of endearing, nostalgic novel you might get out of Frank Portman, but it becomes clear very early on that this is not the case. Kurt and X realize too late that the Hot Nasties’ singer, Jimmy, is nowhere to be found. They find him in the alley in a crucifix position with a barbed-wire crown of thorns, and so the mystery unfolds as more gruesome murders come about, local white supremacist groups are discovered, and the cops, unsurprisingly, do absolutely nothing.

Prior to his YA debut, Kinsella published several nonfiction books about Canadian politics, including one about the Canadian far right, Web of Hate. Some of the events in Web of Hate formed the basis for this novel, but a lot of the violence and actions taken to counter it are a bit far-fetched and don’t seem realistic even within the convoluted plot of the novel (notably, the events that didn’t actually happen).

Recipe for Hate, though it falls flat at times, is increasingly relevant, with more “alt-right”ers and neo-Nazis coming out of the woodwork every day. The book takes place in 1979 but the ideologies represented within did not seem at all unrealistic for 2018. It’s certainly a novel for troubled times, and a scathing critique of—not even critique, call to arms against—white supremacists in religion and in power. The cast of punks and other sundry misfits Kinsella creates is fun, and it’s a solid portrait of life in a town without too many punks. Give it a shot when you want something engaging and just a little out there. –Jimmy Cooper (Dundurn Press, dundurn.com)

We Are The Clash: Reagan, Thatcher, and The Last Stand of a Band That Mattered

By Mark Anderson and Ralph Heibutzki. 374 pg.

I’m ambivalent about The Clash. They have some good songs, and I feel like they’re a band I should be crazy about, but their sloganeering leaves me empty. Plus, it’s 2018 and I still can’t get through Sandinista!

We Are The Clash chronicles the band’s final chapters: longtime drummer Topper Headon gets kicked out for substance abuse problems in 1983 right before The Clash play Steve Wozniak’s US Festival for a cool half million dollars (exactly half of what Van Halen makes the next day). The show is the last one for Mick Jones, who is summarily booted after the show and replaced with two new guitarists, ostensibly so Strummer, who’s not much of a player, can be an unencumbered frontman. Jones’s ousting coincides with longtime manager Bernie Rhodes becoming an even more McLaren-esque presence, calling the shots in the studio as the now five-piece Clash 2.0 struggles to deliver a follow up to Combat Rock, the group’s most commercially successful record. To that end, Rhodes tyrannically dictates the band’s songwriting, and enlists a bunch of ringers to play on Cut the Crap, the hot mess of an album producer Michael Fanye infused with bloopy canned beats. (I went back and listened to the record for the first time in more than ten years. It’s still awful.)

Despite the presence of two authors on the cover, I’m assuming it’s Anderson who writes mostly about The Clash because of his previous work, the excellent DC-centric Dance of Days. There’s little objectivity in his delivery, as he describes, in sometimes purple prose, the new songs and performances the revamped band runs through. On the flip side of the coin, I assume it’s mostly Heibutzki who writes about the socioeconomics of the times: Margaret Thatcher, still stinging from a series of defeats at the hands of the Labour party years earlier, goes all-out in her offensive on British coal miners, who strike in protest. On this side of the pond, Reagan is elected and nearly goads the Soviet Union into war.

I might be wrong about the roles I’ve assigned the dual authors. Regardless, the biggest failing of the book is the tenuous relation of the aforementioned socioeconomics to the story of the band: often, the political stories seem to run parallel to The Clash, with no real connection. Granted, this makes the occasional intersections powerful: the realization that The Clash, champions of the people, don’t play a benefit for the miners until very late in their struggle was a shocking one. Still, a ton of time is spent on these topics, especially on the miners’ strike—more connection would have helped the book feel cohesive.

But somehow that lack of cohesion kinda worked. It’s Joe Strummer who’s at the core of this book, trying like hell to write new songs, realizing he’s cut off a limb by booting Mick Jones, and living with the pressure of being the titular figurehead of a group whose power has waned drastically. There’s a palpable feeling of dread and foreboding throughout We Are The Clash as the band prepares to deliver the crap (sorry) which will fall into the CBS Records punchbowl. Give it up for the authors: they make me feel bad for Strummer as he disappears to Granada. And the book’s great triumph is its depiction of The Clash’s busking tour: the five go on the road with no money and play their songs acoustic around England for seventeen days. This sounds like the corny last resort of a band trying too hard—and the authors’ comparing Strummer to Jesus adds to this—but I got online and listened to some of the audience tapes of the busking, and they kinda rule. In fact, a lot of the live stuff of the era is pretty good.

So for all my ambivalence about the band, all my skepticism about their motives and perceived poses, We Are The Clash made me re-immerse myself in the group’s work, and made me reconsider them. Joe Strummer is depicted as deeply flawed, sincere, and, most of all, deeply human. It’s that humanity—and the enthusiasm of the authors—which courses through the book, and made me consider and reconsider the band, despite my own skepticism. Which is something. –Michael T. Fournier (Akashic, akashicbooks.com)

Collected Writings: Life Sex Fandom By Johnnie Jungleguts. 212 pgs.

I admit to being initially put off by this one: A quick flip through revealed a ton of blank space, which I thought didn’t bode well for the content, especially after realizing some of the author’s collected musings are culled from Facebook. But! After only a few pages my mind was changed. The author is a gamer (actually, a “gaymer”—I looked it up!), a fanboy and an essayist, among other things. It’s this broad palette that gives Johnnie’s writing such impact: A book of funny statuses from Facebook would quickly be relegated to a novelty. But these provide quick blasts of levity amongst essays about the author’s volunteer work on a Bolivian animal refuge, witchcraft, and his twenty-four consecutive hours playing Final Fantasy VII. The blank space he leaves on some pages just emphasizes the heft of his longer prose pieces. The sum of these disparate pieces is a deeply personal reflection of identity. Thoroughly entertaining throughout as he pinballs from subject to subject, with absurd humor a strong hook to pull in skeptics and acolytes. A complete trip, and well worth seeking out. –Michael T. Fournier (Closing, closingstore.bigcartel.com)

Lords of St. Thomas By Jackson Ellis, 180 pgs.

Sometimes a quick, straight-forward book hits the right nerve. Lords of St. Thomas can easily be finished in two or three sittings, but author Jackson Ellis’s simple prose is evocative. It makes an impact in the short time one spends with it. This book is written as a piece of historical fiction based on the real town of St. Thomas, Nev. which existed from the 1860s in the Mojave Desert’s Moapa Valley up until the 1930s when the construction of the Hoover Dam eventually covered the town with Lake Mead. The plot centers around the Lord family—whose story is told in a flashback by the youngest member “Little” Henry Lord. Henry is in his mid-seventies and going back to his hometown during one of the periodic dry periods when Lake Mead has retreated enough to expose the remains of the town’s streets and foundations. He has not been back to the town site since the day in 1938 when he and his Grandpa, the elder Henry Lord, loaded up a boat from the family home’s front porch and burned down the house on their way out of town.

The elder Henry, a mechanic in St. Thomas, is based on the real final resident of St. Thomas. In the book he is the patriarch to a family that includes his son Thomas, Thomas’s wife Ellen, and the younger Henry. Grandpa Henry is a reserved, caring man, but also intensely stubborn and resistant to change. The submersion of St. Thomas was not a quick event, but rather a gradual death that began in the 1920s when the first surveys and land purchases began to occur for the eventual dam. Many of the events that play out in the novel stem from Henry’s refusal to acknowledge the impending change in his family’s life the rising lake will bring, regardless of his protestations and willful denial. While Henry’s stubbornness in the face of the inevitable forces of nature, time, and the government does have a bit of admirable underdog scrappiness in its Quixotic nature, the willful blindness and unyielding nature he goes about battling the (literal and figurative) tides of change, unfortunately ripples out in ways that fatally affect his family.

Ellis crafts a story that often brings to mind parts of To Kill a Mockingbird. Both stories focus on child characters who are living out their last days of idyllic innocence under the pall of a force bigger than themselves, soon to settle on their lives and change them irrevocably. Although this is a book marked by heavy loss, it is nonetheless still a refreshing read. –Adrian Salas (Green Writers Press, 139 Main St., Suite 501, Brattleboro, VT, 05301)

Make a Zine By Joe Biel with Bill Brent, 158 pgs.

This is the twentieth anniversary of Make a Zine, now on its third edition. The book is, theoretically, about starting “your own underground publishing revolution” (that’s the subtitle). Throughout the book author Joe Biel shares his experience of creating his first zine and coming up in that community, as well as lessons he’s learned. In addition, there are some good nuts and bolts material here: organization, layout and type, postage, distribution, et cetera. However, those foundational issues of how to create a zine are all in the second half of the book. The first half is a mishmash of random things, including the history of publishing, zines and the corporate world, libel, copyright, and zine communities. The last one really tripped me up. It came off as overly negative with zinesters airing their grievances about the community they supposedly loved so much. If I were someone just getting into zines, after reading that chapter I’m not sure I’d want to be any part of that community.

I did appreciate the range of individuals who chimed in throughout the book, however, including zinesters from wide backgrounds (and our own Todd Taylor). In addition, chapters of Make a Zine are written by a few other authors including Katie Haegele, Stephen Duncombe, and Fly. The DIY Comix chapter by Fly was especially good, as it was thorough on every aspect one might want to know on this topic. That’s generally how this book runs, though. There are some strong portions that should be essential information to those new to the zine scene. However, the material that is more about the scene and its politics don’t seem to mesh well with the sections I believe to be more important. Perhaps the next edition will correct these issues and make it more consistent. –Kurt Morris (Microcosm Publishing, 2752 N. Williams Ave., Portland, OR 97227)

This Is Memorial Device: An Hallucinated Oral History of the Post-Punk Music Scene in Airdrie, Coatbridge and Environs 1978-1986 By David Keenan 304 pgs.

Memorial Device’s big break came in 1986 when Sonic Youth requested them as opener for their U.K. tour. Unfortunately, the experimental Scottish post-punk band had already broken up. On the upside, this near-miss preserved Memorial Device’s status as unsung heroes in the dying Glasgow suburb of Airdrie, and the memories of the scenesters in this fictional oral history have remained vivid. The first-person accounts have a gravity that’ll ring true to anyone who had an epiphany the first time they saw some local kids making feedback onstage.

The local scenesters are all here. The older guy with the good drugs and better records. The sexy, sad couple with the noise band. The hanger-on whose invisibility is wearing on him. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that every one of these small-town misfits is so poetic, but it’s a pleasure to read and easily succeeds in conveying a little world that is universal in its specificity.

Author David Keenan is an accomplished music writer, and the man behind England’s Hidden Reverse, a biography of the scene around goth/industrial bands Coil, Current 93, and Nurse With Wound. In This Is Memorial Device, he applies his journalistic chops to an impressionistic oral history-style Rashomon that goes for the heart, telling a story that’s as much Please Kill Me as it is A Brief History of Seven Killings. This Is Memorial Device should please record geeks looking to branch out from punk history books, and bookworms with a soft spot for music and a love for narrative voice. –Chris Terry (Faber & Faber)

Smoke City By Keith Rosson, 309 pgs.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably wondered in the past eighteen months exactly when life became an absurdist novel. Daily, outrages and improbabilities stack higher and threaten to topple. Razorcake contributor Keith Rosson knows this, and mirrors the funhouse in his excellent sophomore novel Smoke City.

Check it out: talented artist Michael Vale is stuck working a fast food job after a meteoric rise to fame yields both a crippling drug habit and a fall from painting grace. In the height of his fame, he cheats on his wife. Some years later, she dies young. Vale quits his fast food job, sells his last remaining painting for a fraction of what it’s worth, buys a beater, and drives to the funeral. Along the way, Vale picks up hitchhiker Marvin Deitz, who’s on a quest of his own. He’s the reincarnation of the executioner who killed Joan of Arc. Since setting flame to her pyre, he’s lived life in body after body, the predictability of life’s rhythms dulling him to the present day. In his current incarnation, Deitz owns a record store stocked with rare jazz records owned by his previous iteration. His landlord, a wannabe Boston gangster, is slated to raze the space Deitz has been renting. It’s then that Dietz sees a tabloid show in which a woman claims to be Joan of Arc’s reincarnation, and the unlikeliest of buddy narratives begins.

If all this discussion of reincarnations sounds a little far-fetched, don’t worry. It gets weirder: Across the world—particularly in California—a series of human spirits manifest. They jam up traffic as people crowd around to gawk and shoot footage to post onto their feeds. These spirits, dubbed “smokes” by the media, are oblivious to the goings-on of the material plane. That is, until Marvin Deitz engages with one.

Rosson is a gifted writer. Throughout Smoke City, he maintains distinct narrative voices, incorporating media reports and journal entries to add heft and credibility to a story that in lesser hands might not pack as much punch, or sound remotely feasible. Beyond the stylistic elements, though, what Rosson does here is create a cast of cantankerous, difficult characters—then he brings readers around to liking them. Marvin Deitz becomes an executioner because it’s the family business, and repents his decision for lifetime after lifetime, dying in unjust wars and living normal, humdrum existences. Vale believes the hype about himself and becomes a cliché, throwing away his talent in the process, then selling rights to his work to the highest (and only) bidder for pennies on the dollar, a move that stokes his daily flames of rage. But by the end, I found myself rooting for them both.

If the cast of Smoke City can come to terms with what haunts them, than anyone can. That’s the message here: that giving up renders us powerless. As improbable as it might seem—any of it or all of it—with perseverance we might be able to get through, to let go of what plagues us like so many smokes, even though it might not be pretty or tidy. It might not sound like much, but I’ll take it. And so should you. Smoke City is a tour de force. –Michael T. Fournier (Meerkat Press, meerkatpress.com)

Safety in Numbers: My Journey with L.A. Punk Rock Gangs By Adam Wilson, 266 pgs.

It’s sometimes hard, even for someone involved in punk far enough back to have lived through it, to keep in mind just how different Los Angeles punk rock was in the 1980s. While the country’s current political climate skews so far right that it makes the “Reagan Revolution” seem like some liberal pipe dream, punk rock is far mellower than the scene’s so-called “golden era.” I don’t mean this in the pejorative—frankly I wholeheartedly prefer being able to see a random gig without having to constantly watch my back—so much as a reminder that things were much, much different then.

When L.A. punk’s initial 1970s salvo waned, a leaner, meaner “hardcore” scene developed, one fueled by younger adherents, more frenetic beats, and, for some, a yen to make its predecessor’s tongue-in-cheek violence more reality than fantasy. From this petri dish, L.A.’s first major punk gangs arose, and many more followed until things—to my recollection—reached its nadir in the late ‘80s, and it seemed like everyone at a gig was cliqued up. While a lot of great music and gigs were in the offing, it was also a very fucked up time where people often got hurt for no reason. It was an environment that infused things both with a jolt of adrenaline and a sense that, as the book’s title implies, safety might be found in numbers.

As author Adam Wilson points out mid-tome, many of these punk crews didn’t fit the stereotypical “gang” definition spoon-fed by film, TV, and lurid news stories: “We weren’t raised in Watts or East L.A. We all came from relatively safe neighborhoods in upper Los Angeles…. The reason we were so enamored by street gangs and the ghettos they came from was that we were spoiled, attention-seeking and mirroring. Nothing more, nothing less.” Nearly everything he recounts prior reflects this, both in his accounts of angry, fucked up kids doing angry, fucked up, dumb shit and in his descriptions of his younger self and his friends. This mid-point also marks when—like L.A.’s first wave gave way to something darker—his gang “mirroring” devolves into a much grimmer reality of ‘hood drama, drugs, violence, and deaths.

Another book by other authors was released a year or two ago, purporting to be about the city’s “deadliest” punk gang, by an imprint with a penchant for hyping the lurid and playing fast ‘n’ loose with factual information. True to form, that book is rife with salacious tales of murder, violence, and factional warring. Despite garnering much attention, closer inspection brings into question the veracity of its accounting—I know from personal experience that one incident it recounts did not happen as described and conversations about the book that have popped up, both personal and on greater social media platforms, indicate that other incidences might not have happened at all and some purported rivalries didn’t exist—and its reliance on bravado and an almost celebratory attitude towards the subject matter is disturbing and—rightfully so—controversial.

Unlike that book, Safety in Numbers reads more like a true memoir: straight-ahead storytelling, an aversion to the aforementioned bravado almost to the point sometimes being a little overly conciliatory in places (though I wholly understand the intent of Wilson’s effort is to dissuade those who might want to interpret things otherwise), and a genuine attempt to unravel what happened and why. A deft sense of “slow burn” plotting which includes the more mundane aspects of gang life adds to a deceptive normalcy that leads down a road where—like the author—readers ultimately, unwittingly find themselves in a world of crazy that seems sudden but—looking back—all the road marks leading there can clearly be seen.

Wilson paints clearly and concisely of a world few are aware, let alone have experienced. Those of us who do know it well will find his vision of it rings true and honest. Any errors that may be found in his words do not feel intentionally mendacious. It doesn’t read like yet another blustery brag-fest about how cool and dangerous he and his friends were, but rather like a true account of a kid whose life spun wildly out of control. He miraculously made it out the other side. It is a tale worthy of much attention and discussion. Wilson deserves maximum respect for plunging into a subject rife with landmines and managing to pull the hat trick of recounting his journey through one of punk’s darker corners without glorifying or trivializing it. Never thought I’d ever say this about a book covering this topic, but this comes highly recommended. –Jimmy Alvarado (Adam Wilson, adwilone93@gmail.com)