Featured Book Reviews from Issue #86: You want innovation? Get into experimental jazz.

Gun Needle Spoon
By Patrick O’Neil, 248 pgs.
Heroin memoirs tend to fall into two dicey camps: one the one hand, there are narratives written which glamorize the drug. On the other, we see tales of survival, which often and easily become nothing but tales of didactic caution. It’s a rare writer who’s able to pull off a book-length discussion of drug time without coming across as either show-offy or preachy. Patrick O’Neil is such a writer.

O’Neal logged time and miles working for Flipper and T.S.O.L. in their halcyon days. I admit that this, initially, was the hook that got me reading. There’s relatively little time and ink spent on these experiences, though, focusing instead on the time in which O’Neil developed a heroin habit, and the day-to-day which he went through to feed it. Perhaps this sounds like an odd choice—indeed, O’Neil hints throughout at how much fun he had on the road, how he’s copped dope and had crazy times in pretty much every major city in the country—but it’s one of many well-conceived and -executed choices that the author makes throughout the book.

Certainly, this memoir would have tilted into different territory had the author spent time detailing the early stages of his habit on the road with punk bands in the ‘80s. Rather than doing so, omitting details puts readers in the position of imagining the hi-jinx that came with touring alongside acts legendary for the chaos they brought to the road, kinda like omitting a shot of Gweneyth Paltrow’s head in a box at the end of Seven: whatever a reader can imagine is likely to be more impactful than simply being shown. It’s a neat trick, and one that O’Neil uses throughout his book to gripping effect. In addition to cutting out the tour times, his method of storytelling uses a similar structure: he recollects his life, largely spent in San Francisco, through a series of dated vignettes. These are written throughout in lean prose: O’Neil’s not the kind of writer who worships at the altar of Hemingway, say, or Raymond Carver, making cutting words an exercise in masculinity, but neither is he wasting a single syllable. Again, it’s all about choices: he has a keen sense of just the right detail to illuminate a scene or sentence.

The importance of the dates on the vignettes he provides becomes apparent as he moves through the narrative. Aside from the aforementioned band stuff—and aside from the overdose of his old friend Will Shatter of Flipper—there’s no historical context here. Why would there be? O’Neil and his girlfriend, after all, wrap themselves in the cocoon of feeding their habit daily. The dates are meant to illuminate omission, and the scenes which are included become increasingly harrowing as O’Neil immerses himself more fully in desperation: as a reader, I’m just waiting for the hammer to drop as he becomes increasingly desperate and begins robbing neighborhood stores where he’s recognized as a regular, even banks. But the vignettes are just pieces of the day-to-day. All the days skipped, the ones the author does not provide, are likely just as gnarly and damaged and ultimately pathetic. But rather than stacking them, O’Neil understands that letting the reader realize and ruminate on the press of shivering days and stick-ups is more effective than a grocery list. It must have taken some restraint to make these omissions—as a similar restraint must have been employed to cut all the tour stories—but the strategy is dazzlingly executed.

Since he’s emerged from the depths to write a book about his time as a junkie, there’s a time limit on the whole thing, a fuse which O’Neil realizes the readers aware of. To that end, he starts the novel with the day he’s caught, an implicit nod to the reader: if you’re reading, you know as well as I do that things don’t end well. Let’s get to it.    

The omissions, the prose, and the patience with which he tells his frequently disturbing tale all add up to a whole greater than the sum of its excellent parts. Patrick O’Neil is a fantastic writer, and this is a hell of a debut. –Michael T. Fournier (Dzanc Books, 5220 Dexter Ann Arbor Rd., Ann Arbor, MI 48103, dzancbooks.org)

Crate Digger: An Obsession with Punk Records
By Bob Suren, 191 pgs.
Bob Suren is someone I consider a friend. I wish he was living here in Los Angeles and not Austin, but this place is expensive, and I wouldn’t wish these rents on anyone. I first came into contact with him around 1994 via Sound Idea mailorder and a zine he used to put out called Heavy Rotation. I strongly urge you to seek these zines out. You will be glad you did. I have nothing but deep respect and admiration for the man. Not only is he a walking, talking encyclopedia of punk rock knowledge, he’s, more importantly, a great person, as you will discover reading this book.

A couple years back, Bob’s life changed drastically and he was forced to clean house and start from scratch. Selling off a massive record collection, as well as zines and flyers he collected for over three decades, he has since set out on a new journey, but he’s also taking some time and looking back on the past and putting it all into perspective. This book is about that.

From the title of the book you may think this is one of those obsessive discography type books where the writer gives you all the details, major and minor, about any particular record. While Bob could certainly do that, he made this more real and captured why these records and this music connects and becomes so important to him. This whole punk thing is much more than just music. There are reasons why people change the way they live their lives after seeing and hearing a band like Black Flag (way before the reunions of present day), opposed to something like hearing REO Speedwagon, where it’s just some song on the radio that gets played a bunch.

The majority of the chapters of this book are named after a classic punk record. Sometimes it is about the record, but most often it’s Bob recalling a memory of the time that particular record entered his life. Such is the chapter about Minor Threat’s Out Of Step EP. While he does give some background on the band and the record, it’s mostly about the first time he heard it via a friend playing the tape in his car stereo while they were skating.

By far my favorite is the Toxic Reasons chapter that tells about his time working for a local independent television station as the master control operator. Out of boredom one Saturday night, unbeknownst to the main boss, he played Target and Flipside videos in place of the usual infomercials. That became a regular thing for a short while. Then there’s the chapter about driving down with a few friends and his sister to Miami Beach to see the Ramones. A lot of great stuff is in here, and it sticks with you because it’s something you will be able to relate to.

In between are chapters about his record store, Sound Idea, which grew out of the mailorder. His store hosted shows for local and touring bands in the back room. It was also where he and a bunch of locals put together the fanzine Burn Brandon, where he ranhis record label Burrito (not only releasing records of his own band Failure Face and Murder Suicide Pact, but also Cult Ritual, F, Gay Cowboys In Bondage, Terrorain, the legendary triple CD set Really Fast), and hosted his podcast, Punk Rock Record Party.

Along with the punk rock fun, he includes chapters of personal life, friends made along the way, and going through a painful divorce, along with the fallout that goes with it. He writes chapters that will inspire you, make you laugh, and then the next chapter will break your heart. As much as this book is about punk music, it’s also about life, and how obsessiveness can make you miss out on it.

Reading this book brought back a lot of memories, forcing me to do some self-reflecting, and reminding me why this music was so important for so many years. I did not want this book to end, so I stopped reading this for a couple weeks before finishing off the last four chapters. Even before doing so, I went back and re-read some of the chapters, skipped ahead, and then went back to where I originally was. In essence, I’ve read this book many times. You might, too. –M.Avrg (Microcosm, 2752 N Williams Ave., Portland, OR 97227  Microcosm Publishing.com)

Hawaiian Shirts in the Electric Chair
By Scott Laudati, 116 pgs.
Perhaps it is because I don’t live in New York, perhaps it is because I’ve never been on a coke binge, perhaps it’s because I am a woman but I simply could not relate to Laudati’s poetry.He does not sing the body electric but rather passively bemoans his failed encounters with the opposite sex. He does not measure his life out in coffee spoons but rather in lines of coke. The word choice is sparse and to-the-point.

Structurally, the poetry is naught more than run on sentences broken into separate lines with no apparent rhyme or reason. A good friend of mine once told me that poetry must be read aloud. This treatment did little to improve the experience. The narrator in nearly every poem seems to long for, to ache for, and to crave the attention of the women around him while simultaneously and equally despising them. For example within the poem Mick and Keith pt 1, the narrator proclaims “I hated gallery openings / there / were usually a few / girls, sure, / but they were / “artists / waiting / for inspiration,” belittling any ghost of an identity these women may have had and again reducing them to lusty experience, stating later “the girls brought / the cocaine / and they lay / on their / backs / pretty easy.”

Admittedly, though, it may be difficult for an individual to respect others when they lack self-respect themselves, which is confessed in the lines: “but I kissed her anyway / because / I’m easy.” I am unsure if the misogynistic undertones throughout the collection were unintentional or simply my interpretation, but I could not ignore them; the women represented are nothing more than purveyors of sex and pain and trouble.

As much as it may want to be, it is not Bukowski, it is not Beat poetry. There is no social commentary with enough substance to stick nor any true insight to the “underground” culture alluded to multiple times to be worthwhile. Instead, what I found was one horny motherfucker dripping with desperation. –Ashley Ravelo (kuboapress.wordpress.com)

I Know What I Am: The True Story of Artemisia Gentileschi, Part 1
By Gina Siciliano, 72 pgs.
This is the first installment in a trilogy of an intensely powerful historical graphic novel about a female painter, sexual assault, and her pursuit of her attacker during the Italian Renaissance. Didn’t know that there were many, or any, female painters in the 1600s? I didn’t. To say the occupation favored males is quite an understatement. Certainly, there were women painting—they just weren’t talked about. Their lives were rarely documented, their works rarely celebrated, and their talent seldom promoted. Fortunately, Artemisia Gentileschi’s artwork and story survive. Her father, Orazio, was a fairly well-to-do artist at the time. He was heavily influenced by the stark new baroque works of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

This story begins with the Cenci family in Rome. They were an extremely wealthy clan, headed by a tyrannical father named Francesco who locked his daughter Beatrice in a tower for three years. To quote Siciliano on Beatrice: “her story spread quickly amongst a counter-reformation society that popularized notions of fantastic suffering and triumphant martyrdom.” To free herself from the tower, she conspired with a guard to murder her father by pushing him off a balcony. The Cenci family was found out, put on trial, and publically beheaded—Beatrice being last. Shortly after this event, Caravaggio and other renowned painters started including imagery of decapitations in their work. One of his most famous pieces, Judith Beheading Holofernes, is a scene that Artemisia took on later in her career.

The biggest tragedies of Artemisia’s life were being raped by her father’s friend Agostino Tassi and being sexually assaulted by another of his friends, Cosimo Quorli. While I’m no fan of the bible, the story of Judith is heavy in female heroism in which she seduced a general, got him drunk, and cut off his head in order to save her people. In Artemisia’s Judith Slaying Holofernes, she depicted herself as Judith and Tassi as Holofernes. Not only was she believed to be a freak of nature—a woman who could paint well—it was completely unheard of to have one who pushed feminism and a woman’s perspective in their work. A strict hierarchy existed in the art world at the time: painters started with still life, then portraiture, and only if you were extremely talented, you were allowed to do biblical works. Artemisia was so skilled that she was painting biblical scenes by the age of sixteen, possibly younger. She cathartically depicted these events of sexual assault again in her painting Susanna and the Elders.

I Know What I Am covers the early portion of Artemisia’s career, the back story of her family, and influences (including stories of fights, murder, and exile involving the thuggish badass Caravaggio). Part one ends with her sexual assault which left me feeling as vulnerable and alone as she must have felt. The graphic novel contains sixty-six pages of hand-drawn and hand-lettered panels, executed solely with ball point pens. There is extensive research pumped into this project—which is made evident with quotes from translated historical documents spoken by the characters—and painstakingly accurate depictions of the architecture and clothing of the time period. Images of large-scale oil paintings by Caravaggio, Orazio, and Artemisia are also meticulously recreated in pen. Siciliano’s talent is undeniable. Both her art and story telling are equally captivating. –Kayla Greet (Mend My Dress Press)

Soy, Not Oi! Volume 2
By (All New) Hippycore Krew, 312 pgs.
This is a punk vegan cookbook (If you just groaned and rolled your eyes after reading the word “vegan,” go to sleep for 10,000 years and then come back to this review). But this isn’t just a punk vegan cookbook. Almost twenty-five years ago, Soy, Not Oi! Was published. It had over 100 pages of recipes and essays and fun illustrations of punk vegetables, and it talked about social change while still being funny. It started out as anarchist cookzine, and eventually became something closer to a book. At 312 pages, Soy, Not Oi! Volume 2 is, without question, a hefty book. The Hippycore Krew who made the original still compiled it, and Eryc Why (if you read Razorcake’s Webcomic Wednesdays online, he’s the author of Big Black Bear) is still the illustrator. There are over 200 recipes from a ton of contributors, and it’s easily put into chapters like “Breakfasts,” “Saucecore,” and “Brewing”—Yep, a whole chapter on how to brew yourself at home. A lot of the recipes also have a “recommended listening” at the top of each recipe, which is perfect. Are you making red lentil chowder? Then the playlist is “BAD BRAINS, ALL DAY!” The cookbook ends with a memorandum to Joel Olson, the editor of the first Soy, Not Oi!. All proceeds that would go to contributors are going to his family.

When texting my friend Samantha, she sent me a photo of her apartment just scattered with piles of cookbooks. That photo alone made me anxious since I’m not much of a cook. I find making food intimidating because it’s fucking food we’re discussing here; the lifeblood of being a human! So for me, this is the perfect cookbook because it feels like my trusty friend, the zine, and is full of recipes from people I would probably hang out with. Plus, there’s this one illustration of a cute fat straight edge fish that makes me so happy I forget how scary using an oven is. –Donna Ramone (Culture At All Costs Publishing, 3457 Cooper St., San Diego, CA 92104, soynotoi.com)

By Z. Rider, 321 pgs.
When playing with familiar horror tropes, authors can easily fall prey to clichés. That’s what I thought was happening in Suckers. I mean, it’s called Suckers, so it must be a vampire book, right? And how tedious is it that a bat bites the main character at night in an alley? Haven’t we all seen that before? Then the main character has to fight off a sudden thirst for blood. How original.

But what’s the deal with the buzzing sound he hears when he’s got the thirst? And the worms squirming around in his eyes? And the news reports of people going crazy? That’s not typical vampire shit. And that’s why I kept reading.

Z. Rider does a fantastic job of playing off clichés and defying reader expectations every step of the way. Suckers follows Dan Ferry, guitar player in the sorta-famous-in-a-small-clubs kind of way band Two Tons Of Dirt. Dan gets bit and struggles with the thirst, fighting the urge to suck the blood out of all his friends and instead resorting to seeking blood donors on Craigslist. Along the way, Suckers turns out to be something completely different than a vampire story, something totally unexpected, while still keeping its footing in the horror genre.

It doesn’t hurt that the characters are incredibly likeable. Dan and his bandmate Ray have been rocking together for years, and it’s pretty clear that a little bit of bloodshed isn’t going to tear them apart. Z. Rider paints a compelling portrait of the life of a struggling band—the practices, the recording, the tours, the drama with a drug-addled drummer. The only frustrating element is that the book never shows the band on stage, never gets Dan and Ray in front of a crowd, in their element, rocking out with their proto punk-influenced rock‘n’roll. While that’s kind of a bummer, it’s also true to the tone of the story. Most of it is fairly confined, focusing on interpersonal drama and the impact of one friend’s sudden bloodlust.

In the end, this is a really satisfying read for a horror fan, not just because of the messing around with vampire clichés, not just because of the violence or the constant surprises, but because as the book progresses, these characters become family, and it’s hard not to become a fan of Two Tons Of Dirt (And Z. Rider, too). –MP Johnson (Dark Ride Publishing, PO Box 63, Erwin, TN 37650, darkridepublishing.com)

Swing State
By Michael T. Fournier, 238 pgs.SwingStateis author (and Razorcake contributor) Michael T. Fournier’s second novel. In this book, Fournier writes about three characters looking for a way out of Armbrister, their dying New Hampshire town. Entire chapters are dedicated to individual characters, with their stories eventually intersecting at the end of the novel. There’s Royal (Roy) Eggleston, the Afghanistan War veteran whose PTSD causes him to have a difficult time readjusting to life back in his hometown (and which causes him to think in short, staccato sentences). There’s Zachariah Tietz, an overweight, friendless teen who lives with an abusive father. And there’s Dixon Dove, a girl whose biggest claim to fame in town is that her brother is the star of the local football team and might have a chance to get out of Armbrister. She’s also a bully and small-time thief, but who hopes she can save money to make it out of town, too.

It took me a while to figure out which characters were which and that Dixon was a female, but after the first few chapters I started to pick up on who was who and their respective backgrounds. Additionally, the chapters for Roy were written in a different style than the other characters, in a manner that reflects his mindset due to the PTSD from which he suffers. It becomes easier to read after the first chapter or two dedicated to his character. Thankfully, the chapters for the other two characters aren’t written in the same style. These are the only real critiques I had of SwingState, with one exception.

The ending isn’t the happiest one. While I’m not necessarily a fan of unrealistic, everything-works-out-fine finales, I still hoped for some kind of resolution for the characters that might be a little positive, especially for Zachariah or Roy, for whom I felt a great deal of sympathy. While not wanting to give away the ending, let’s just say that it doesn’t appear the characters are going to make it out of Armbrister.

I understand and respect this no-holds-barred and realistic take on life in this environment, and appreciate the critique it’s making of the economic downturn and how it affects people so dramatically, but in the words of Harvey Milk: “You gotta give ‘em hope.” Even a slight glimpse of it would’ve been good. In my darker days, I probably could’ve gotten one hundred percent behind the way Fournier presents the ending. I suppose that says a lot of how I’ve changed as a person, but it’s hard to read about tough times for (primarily) sympathetic characters.

Fournier is a talented writer. I wanted to get back to reading this every chance I had, which is more than I can say about a lot of stuff I’ve been reading as of late. The way the characters become sympathetic and the background Fournier gives to each of them is seamless. His ability to also weave in chapters of Zachariah’s dream to be the creator of a reality dating show is perfect. It not only builds the depth of the character, but also makes it that much more painful to see the abuse he endures from his father and peers in school and. At no point did I say, “This is entirely unrealistic,” or “I don’t care about these people at all.” I wanted to see them all succeed because of the fullness of character the author develops and the great level of unfairness they endured.

This makes the ending all that much harder to swallow. The only thing I can hope for is that somewhere beyond the ending of this book, things can change and perhaps they’ll find their version of success—even making it to Concord, New Hampshire, would be wonderful. For now, this critique on the economic “greatness” of America stands as an honest glimpse into three personalities struggling to realize that dream. –Kurt Morris (Three Rooms Press, threeroomspress.com)