The Chris vs. Twilight Drinking Game



Those of you who follow me on Twitter have seen me liveblogging a reading of Twilight (which I wrapped up this week, just in time for–sigh–the new issue of Anita Blake), and while it certainly drove me to drink, that’s not necessarily a bad thing! Sure, it’s not like anyone actually needs an excuse to down a bottle of fine Irish whiskey today, but on the off chance that you want to stay pop-culturally aware, I’ve provided the necessary incentive you’ll need to get through the book with my Twilight Drinking Game!

Enjoy! Or, as is probably more apt in this case, tolerate!

Book Review: Sunnyside, by Glen David Gold

Like Glen David Gold’s last book, Carter Beats the Devil, Sunnyside is a work of fiction that draws heavily on real-life celebrities and historical figures to tell its story, but where Carter focused on the title character and his sequence of seemingly impossible escapes that tie in with the changing shape of entertainment in the 20th century, Sunnyside goes a bit earlier. Focused largely on Charlie Chaplin, it tells the story of the rise of Hollywood and the strange ending and aftermath of the first World War, weaving Chaplin’s struggles in with those of two other characters.

One of them, Lee Duncan, starts the book as an aspiring actor who at one point auditions for the Four Minute Men, the volunteers who would give propaganda-laden speeches to movie audiences in the four minutes it took to change reels.

On page 208, he meets the judges:


(Click for a larger image)


And on page 216, they react to his performance:


(Click for a larger image)


Sunnyside is the single greatest work of fiction ever published in the English language and you should buy it immediately.

ISBook Club: Hunt at the Well of Eternity

It probably won’t come as a surprise to anyone that I’m a fan of classic pulp novels, to the point where I even spent a summer when I was twelve writing an adventure novel of my own starring a character called–wait for it–Christopher Sims, a stage magician and escape artist who hired himself and a merry gang of sidekicks out as ill-defined “adventurers,” which mostly involved plots cribbed from Gen 13, of all places.

Embarrassing as it was, it was an attempt to capture the thrills and pacing that I recognized back then as being from Raiders of the Lost Ark, but that I’d eventually come to understand had its roots a little further back.

So when Dr. K told me that Charles Ardai, founder of the Hard Case Crime imprint, was starting up a series of pulp-style adventure novels, I was pretty excited. And then I found out that they starred a character named Gabriel Hunt and were therefore called Hunt For Adventure.

And that is rad.

Thus, Dr. K and I both picked up the first installment, Hunt at the Well of Eternity for the first installment of our cross-blog book club, and the totally awesome Glen Orbik cover gave us some pretty high hopes.



Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work out as well in practice.

There are at least six Hunt adventures planned with a rotating roster of writers, and the first one comes from the pen of James Reasoner, and while he turns in an effort that captures the zippy nature of the adventure serial–full of cliffhangers and set pieces that move the story from New York to the Everglades to Mexico City to the Guatemalan Rain Forest–it’s not great. To be fair, though, it’s often flawed in the same way that the original pulps are flawed.

The biggest problem is Gabriel Hunt himself, who is barely characterized beyond the standard Champ Goodguy action hero, complete with chiseled jaw and kung fu grip. He’s smart but not too smart, strong but not too strong, and good-hearted enough that he can bag the love interest with no trouble but not so altruistic that he feels bad about killing the one-dimensional bad guys he runs across. In fact, his most distinguishing quality is his affection for his pistol, a revolver dating back to the Old West that seems impractical enough that its use counts as characterization. Played right, it could show an attachment to the past or a romantic ideal of adventure on the frontier, but there’s none of that to be had here. Instead, Reasoner–who, to be fair, was probably trying to turn in a lean, stripped down adventure in tune with the pulps that inspired the series–goes to the generic:

The heaviest thing he put in the bag was his old Colt .45 double-action Peacemaker with wel-worn walnut grips. Legend had it that the gun had once belonged to a notorious Western shootist, although the owner changed from Billy the Kid to Bat Masterson to Wyatt Earp depending on which Old West expert you talked to.

Gabriel didn’t know if any of the stories were true. All he cared about was that the revolver was a fine old weapon in top-notch shape, and that it packed plenty of stopping power.

Or, to put it another way, “Here’s something kind of interesting that might have a cool story behind it, but we’re going to be pretty vague and we don’t really care about it anyway. Deal with it.”

Which brings us to something else that stuck out: Despite the fact that he’s listed as the author–presumably to make sure that the installments of the series are racked together at the bookstore–the books are done in third person. And it’s even stranger when you considering that when you sign up for the Hunt For Adventure mailing list–which you can do pretty painlessly at their website–you get a letter that is written in first person, with a bit of highly endearing tongue-in-cheek humor that’s missing from the book itself.

Considering that the books are already written to follow Hunt and his thoughts, one would think it would be a (relatively) simple matter to cast the hero as the narrator, but instead there’s just another layer that separates the reader from what’s already a pretty bland character.

Also, I was a little surprised to find that the books are set in the present day, rather than that nebulous era from ’33 to ’49 when Doc Savage ruled the shelves. It wasn’t really a disappointment, and if there was a slight letdown, it probably came more from my expectations going in than there being anything wrong with it. Still, I think there’s something to be said for the fact that globe-trotting adventure and exploration doesn’t quite have the same zing when you throw in GPS satellites and cell phones, but it’s something Reasoner sidesteps by setting most of the book in the jungle, where dude has like zero bars.

Which isn’t to say that the books are completely without merit; they’re perfectly fine for light reading and there’s a lot of potential, partly because Hunt is such a blank shorthand for hero that you could throw him into basically any situation at this point. Reasoner even makes a rare stab at self-awareness in what is unquestionably the best line of the book:

“I learned to use a bullwhip when I was a boy. A friend of my father’s taught me.”

“A friend of…? Wasn’t your father some sort of classics professor?”

“Trust me,” Gabriel said.

The idea of Gabriel Hunt getting bullwhip lessons from an aged Professor Henry Jones, Jr. not only casts him as the spiritual successor to the pulp hero, it also does more to make me like the guy than just about anything in the book other than the covers. It’s a fun nod, and that kind of humor is something the book could really use.

I’m not saying that I necessarily want Hunt to be constantly talking about smoking Goloka root with the Strongs or visiting his Uncle Clark’s house in the Arctic, because really, Jess Nevins has enough to do without me getting him to explain that stuff, too. But at the same time, casting him as the ultimate descendant of the pulp heroes–or the latest member of the Wold Newton family–would be more fun than the blank slate we’ve got now.

That said, this is just the first installment, and while I’m no fan of waiting for things to get good, the sample chapter for the second novel–Hunt Through the Cradle of Fear, by Ardai himself–is a damn hoot:

“Go,” he said again, shooting a glance over his shoulder toward the stone wall where Sheba crouched, clutching the shreds of her dress to her chest. “Now!”

First of all, Sheba. Awesome. And second…

Gabriel leveled the Colt at DeGroet as the man limped forward. “You might as well put that away, Hunt, unless you plan to throw it at me. I know it’s empty.”

“How do you know that?” Gabriel said.

“Because you haven’t shot me with it yet.”

Gabriel considered that for a moment, then returned the gun to his holster, snapped it shut. He kept the scimitar raised and ready to strike—but he didn’t swing it. He had some skill with a blade, could even wield an unfamiliar one like this one with some hope of success, but only a fool would try to attack Lajos DeGroet with a sword. A suicidal fool.

Now see? That’s what I’m talking about. He might have the most improbable name I’ve ever heard, but Lajos DeGroet is at least as exciting as the time Christopher Sims was imprisoned in the Amazon sex dungeon.

What? I was twelve!

Flagrantly Unsafe For Work

Before we get started tonight, it’s probably worth noting that this one’s gonna be a little raw. In fact, the contents of tonight’s post should probably be considered Flagrantly Unsafe For Work, even for a website known for throwing a critical spotlight on the work of Jim Balent.

So seriously, if you read the ISB at your job or anything, it’s probably best to just wait ’til you get home for this one, and if you’re under… let’s just say 23, this one is totally not for you. No foolin’.

In the meantime, here’s another picture of Destro:



As for just what he’s approving of, well, see below.


Continue reading

Book Review: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned in the handy go-buy-stuff sidebar to your left that I was reading through Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and since a couple of people asked what I thought of it, I figured this would be as good a place as any to respond.


So here’s the short version: It’s good.

Really good, in fact, which probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, given that Chabon won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2001 for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which in my opinion nobody with even a passing interest in comics–or just really good novels, what with that whole Pulitzer thing–should be without. But then, given that it’s the story of characters inspired by Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, Jim Steranko, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster set against the rise of the Golden Age and World War II, anyone who’s interested in my opinion of Chabon’s work has probably already read it.

So back to Yiddish Policemen’s Union: According to an interview he gave with NPR, Chabon was partially inspired by, of all things, Marvel’s What If?, but instead of that book’s shaky, half-baked premises that fail to deliver–and I’m looking at you here, “What If the Hulk Became a Barbarian?”–Chabon sets his story in a world where the State of Israel was overrun in 1948, and Jews searching for a homeland after the Holocaust were sent instead to Sitka, a Federal District created by the US Government in sunny Alaska. And when the novel begins, it’s November of 2007, two months before their sixty-year lease is up and the land reverts back to US control, sending the Jews of Sitka wandering once again.

Outside of that major premise, there are a few other references to the alternate history of the book, including a mention of Marilyn Monroe as Kennedy’s First Lady and the dropping of the atomic bomb on Berlin, but they’re brief, and generally without consequence other than to remind the reader that things are different in Chabon’s Sitka. What does matter, though, is the sense of incredible uncertainty that the setting lends to the novel: The characters might not all be living on borrowed time, but they’re literally living on borrowed land, and as the mystery at the center of the story deepens, there’s nothing certain for them to hold onto.

And that’s the world that plays host to the main character, Meyer Landsman, a homicide detective who’s about as far down on his luck as he can be. Even among a whole city of people about to be homeless, Landsman’s problems are pretty intense. In the grand tradition of the hard-boiled detective–a stereotype that Chabon seems to have a great time playing with in the way that he casts Landsman as a jaded, self-destructive hardass with a secret fear of the dark and the fact that we don’t even learn his first name until like fifty pages into the novel–his marriage has collapsed, he’s living on his own in a fleabag, and he wakes up to find an impossible case that’s just fallen into his lap.

It’s the classic private-eye setup that gives us a classic private-eye opening line that I’m just in love with:


Nine months Landsman’s been flopping at the Hotel Zamenhof without any of his fellow residents managing to get themselves murdered.


It’s a fantastic opening line, full of a bitterness that’s sharper than Spillaine and meaner than Chandler, and it just gets better from there. It probably goes without saying at this point that Chabon’s use of language is just incredible, shifting between complex religious imagery to the staccato one-liners of the hard-boiled detective almost effortlessly. It’s the latter that sticks with me, since that’s a genre I hold pretty dear to my heart, and there’s one line that just absolutely floored me.

It happens when Landsman goes to see his ex-wife–who is also his superior officer–after they’ve both been interrogated by FBI after Landsman’s off-the-books murder investigation leads him to be chased naked through the snow. They’d both been locked up for over a day getting the third degree from Government agents, and when he finally sees her again, it’s when he barges in twenty minutes late for his own suspension hearing:


Bina looked like hell, only hotter.


It’s a simple line, but man, it’s a great one.

Anyway, as you might expect from the above description of the events leading up to it, the plot is, to say the least, far-reaching. What starts as the murder of a junkie in a flophouse leads up through the ranks of organized crime, chess tournaments, national cover-ups, and all the way to the Messiah, with a brief stop at the impending Apocalypse for good measure. But as you read it, you realize that all that stuff’s just going on in the background: It’s not about that any more than it’s about what would happen if Jews were relocated to Alaska instead of Israel. It’s a story about Landsman and his unstoppable, unquenchable need to know, and the lengths that he’ll go to find things out.

And like I said: It’s really good.