In the first two parts of Jeff Lemire's "Essex County" trilogy, emotional ghosts lurk a stark landscape and the ability to differentiate what is real and what is part of the psychological landscape is as difficult as it is jarring.
Lemire's two graphic novels "Tales from the Farm" and "Ghost Stories" draw their inspiration from the creator's hometown in Ontario, crafting personal narratives of the people who live there that are impossible to separate from the land itself. Lemire's pen renders the town and farm land in the bleakest black and white, with lines that are like gashes in the character's souls. Their pasts are reflected in their faces, craggy and broken like the earth they walk on it's a stylistic triumph of sequential illustration.
In the first volume, orphaned Lester goes to live on his uncle's farm. Disinterested in that life, Lester retreats into a comic book fantasy, dressing as a superhero and playing war against invading aliens. He secretly befriends the rumored to be brain damaged former hockey player Jimmy Lebeuf, even though his uncle disapproves, and the two embark on a play fantasy mixed with frank conversation. For Lester, it's the backdrop to a year-long psychological process during which he must come to terms with his mother's death and his uncle's inability to comfortably transition into the role of a parent.
In the second volume, Lemire turns his attention to brothers Lou and Vince Lebeuf , Vince's wife and their brief and disastrous foray into theworld of hockey disastrous physically and emotionally, tearing them apart and scarring them well into old age. Lemire reveals their history through the displaced point of view of the now elderly and decrepit Lou, whose memories mix with his depressing present day to have him grapple with everything that has come before and what little follows.
Lemire also addresses the real and thematic relationships between the stories in the two volumes, tossing hints as to the ways in which they intertwine. It's a raw portrayal of emotions and relationships and the damage souls that lurk within any of it, complete with a poetic and mystical backdrop that suggests, at times, Ingmar Bergman.
The works are doubly admirable for the integration of hockey as a centerpiece to the drama, built on admirable scholarship of the game, a sincere understanding of its relevance to Canadian culture and a skillful presentation to those who have little knowledge or interest of the game before they pick up the book. Most of the story in "Ghost Stories" takes place in a hockey arena Lemire takes the physical decimation that the game heaps on its players and applies it metaphorically to the way rough lives are lived in the rural lands he chooses to portray.
I have high hopes for the third volume and imagine we shall see more examples of Lemire's keen understanding of the path of time not as a line, but as a pulsating blob that we continually move in and out of, with the different parts of it seizing upon us repeatedly at different moments, no matter how vigorously we might sway to avoid them.
Rough Guide to His Dark Materials By Paul Simpson (Rough Guides)
Though it's huge in Great Britain, Phillip Pullman's young adult fantasy trilogy dubbed "His Dark Materials" is of less apparent fame in the United States. That might change with the December release of a film based on the first novel in the series "The Golden Compass." To those who have read and enjoyed the series, the irony of the film's release during a holiday season celebrating the birth of the centerpiece of Christianity is not lost the books are renowned for their stance against organized religion and Pullman is very high profile atheist in his native country.
Pullman's novels are quite different from other modern works of fantasy for many reasons, but one of the major ones is that not only is it not derivative of Tolkein in the slightest, but Pullman has actually exhibited a public disdain for Tolkein's work. Similarly, Pullman has registered a strong dislike for C.S. Lewis and isn't shy about spelling out the reasons why religious dogmatism aside, he cites offensive sexism. While some authors might not deserve this audacity, Pullman has the writing chops to justify his criticisms he has a long and varied career in children's literature, with a writing style that is highly literate, demanding something of his readers while never reaching obscure heights. His series of Victorian mysteries featuring the heroine Sally Lockhart speak to his fantastic abilities, his penchant for human stories within genre frameworks and his talent for spinning exciting yarns with a command of language that Lemony Snicket and others can only dream about .
Pullman takes his cues from the masters the trilogy, for instance, is his reworking of Milton's "Paradise Lost." His books are littered with references in the realm of literature, art, music, philosophy, religion and though you don't have to pursue these in order to enjoy them, they do create levels of adoration that a person can build on
as they would some of the best narrative works of art. To read
Pullman at the age of 16 is different from that reading 10 years later and so on there are always new bits of knowledge, new depths of meaning to be pulled from the work. But where to begin in your scholarship?
Enter "The Rough Guide to His Dark Materials."
Rough Guide is generally known for their travel books, though they do cross over into the arts on occasion they have plenty of music guides and a new, interesting film guide but they don't often devote themselves to one work. TWith Pullman, though, they have really captured a unique nook in that the quantity of the information does match the quality of the literature imparting it and it's aimed to an audience of young people who might find the fun guidance of a Rough Guide of good use in their reading.
The guide itself is as esoteric as the ideas in the book series you can find short essays on Christian communism, quantum physics, trepanning, Victorian England and more. They all have a part in the books, but so do talking polar bears thankfully, there is a section recounting our scientific knowledge of polar bears.
The guide is a wonderful reminder of all the things that make living in our world so damn interesting it's a 300-page compendium of the things that delight Pullman and plenty of other people, it's a signal that the world isn't lost, that people do still enjoy real knowledge and learning as part of their entertainment.
When the film comes out in December, it will best likely serve as an eye candy commercial for a great literary work. Hopefully it will serve as a step ladder for more people in our country to pick up these great books and this guide will be around when you spy something in the books and you just want to know more.
"The Rough Guide to His Dark Materials" can be found online at www.roughguides.com.
Various Artists "Dig For Fire: A Tribute to the Pixies" (American Laundromat Records)
One unexpected bonus of the new Pixies tribute album is the appreciation of the band's centerpiece, Black Francis, as a masterful songwriter. So much attention is paid to the way the band transformed rock instrumentation for years thereafter on the performance and the sound and the fascinatingly experimental musical choices that were made in the middle of rock songs that it's rare that they are thought of as crafters of great songs that anyone could perform.
It's not often a realization one has until the songs are performed by someone else if it is, as Mick Jagger said, the singer and not the song, then what's the point of listening to music at all? From Louis Armstrong to the Decemberists, it's nice when the songs contain their own life, exude their own timeless quality, and are assured of a long life far beyond the singer's span.
I just didn't expect that with the Pixies. I never really thought about it. It's easy to claim that the Pixies are a beloved band who, more than any other group, shaped the music that's now known by the "alternative" designation, but it's hard to qualify what that means to the songs. The answers and the proof are all on this collection.
There's a nice mix of people offering fun, new, reverent versions of the originals with those that turn the source material inside out, like Bedroom Walls' "Stormy Weather," whose precision outof tune clink clanks are just the remedy to revive one of the Pixies' lesser works as something interesting. Ditto for They Might Be Giants' "Havalina," which utilizes their typical accordion and odd instrumental arrangements to propel what was a originally a musical Post-It Note.
Joy Zipper's "Wave of Mutilation" offers a nice alternate world version of the song where Kim Deal might have sung the lead vocals thanks to a close approximation of vocals by singer Tabitha Tindale meanwhile, The Commons' "Here Comes Your Man" offers the same clunky charm of the original, cementing the songs' roots rock cred.
British Sea Power's instrumental version of "Caribou" is a creepy, warped, slow dirge of the Residents variety, giving an ominous performance of the Pixies' curious and thumping original diatribe from their earlier days in a strange way, each compliments the other and this is like the missing album closer. It certainly is apt considering the band covered "In Heaven" from the film "Eraserhead," which this cover version sounds like it might be on the soundtrack of. Coincidentally, there's a cover version of that by the Joe Harvard Band, who reinvents the curiosity as a psychedelic folk number.
OK Go performs the miracle of taking the "Sweet Jane" riff from "Gigantic" and paring it down a bit, actually downplaying the derivative quality it had and infects it with a modern feel good, easygoing vibe that is absent from the bashed out original and dig those crazy sound effects at the end! It's a wonderfully lovely reinvention.
PC Munoz offers "I Bleed" as a bit of techno funk and it works; meanwhile knife & fORK's lovely version of "Motorway to Roswell" already the prettiest song about a UFO crash ever committed to pop music resembles nothing so much as an '80s pop hit, upbeat, cheery and lush with synths.
By mixing up the songs in a stylistic playfulness, their power shines through. They sounded great when the middle-aged Pixies reunited recently to tour and rock once again, reclaiming the sounds they invented. Now acknowledged as a band as vital as any in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the songs can move on into our collective ears beyond their original context and they still rock, too.
"Digging For Fire" is available online at www.alr-music.com.