Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Lost Generation in Paris

The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Pablo Picasso! Henri Matisse! Ernest Hemingway! F. Scott Fitzgerald! Sherwood Anderson! T. S. Eliot! Djuna Barnes! Ezra Pound! Georges Braque! Ford Madox Ford! Jean Cocteau!

All of these artists and writers were bumping into each other in Paris in the 1920s, often at Gertrude Stein's apartment, the famous salon at 27 rue de Fleurus. (And if you're wondering who the hell Alice B. Toklas is, she was Stein's longtime partner and lover, and calling it an autobiography but yet it was written by Stein was Stein's idea of a joke.) 

I'll be honest and say I was keen to read this book because I had hoped for some delicious gossip about these famous people, and while there were some good stories, Stein's writing was more difficult to read than I expected. This was my first Stein book, and I would describe her style as a conversational stream of consciousness that frequently turns into babble.

Here is a good example of her style: "This was the year 1907. Gertrude Stein was just seeing through the press Three Lives which she was having privately printed, and she was deep in The Making of Americans, her thousand page book. Picasso had just finished his portrait of her which nobody at that time liked except the painter and the painted and which is now so famous, and he had just begun his strange complicated picture of three women, Matisse had just finished his Bonheur de Vivre, his first big composition which gave him the name of fauve or a zoo. It was the moment Max Jacob has since called the heroic age of cubism. I remember not long ago hearing Picasso and Gertrude Stein talking about various things that had happened at the time, one of them said but all that could not have happened in that one year, oh said the other, my dear you forget we were young then and we did a great deal in a year. There are a great many things to tell of what was happening then and what had happened before, which led up to then, but now I must describe what I saw when I came."

I did not change anything about that quote -- you get a sense of Stein's run-on sentences and her laissez-faire punctuation. Often when I was reading this book I felt as if I was listening to a confused storyteller, someone who just kept talking and talking and rambling and trying to convey a message, but that they themselves had forgotten what the message was. 

There were some nice quotes and turns of phrase, such as: "[Stein] was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, of a very respectable middle class family. She always says that she is very grateful not to have been born of an intellectual family, she has a horror of what she calls intellectual people." But I had to slog through quite a few pages before I found a quote worth marking.

So, why would someone read this book? Maybe you would be brought to it, as I was, by the Woody Allen movie "Midnight in Paris," which had scenes that were inspired by this memoir. Or maybe you want to hear more about Picasso and Matisse and Hemingway, which were my favorite parts of the book. Maybe you want to read about Paris during World War I, and how empty of men the world had seemed then.

For me, I'm still fascinated by the Lost Generation and will read more Hemingway and Fitzgerald, but I may have had my fill of Stein for now.

Helluva Writer: An Interview with Jason Brant

Today's guest is Jason Brant, author of the West of Hell trilogy.

Was Gehenna your first published work? What have you written besides the West of Hell trilogy?
Gehenna was the second piece of fiction I published. It was also the second work that I'd ever written. Before January 2012, I'd never attempted fiction.

My other books include The Hunger trilogy, The Gate, The Dark, and the brand new Asher Benson series.

What made you decide to go the self-publishing route?
I've never submitted anything to a publisher or an agent. Screw that.

I have zero interest in writing a book, waiting six months to get an agent, waiting another six months to find a publisher, then twiddling my thumbs for a year while it's produced. For all of that bullshit, I would get a lofty 15% royalty for a novel that I produced.

Self-pubbing has allowed me to write and release seven novels and three novellas in two years while keeping 70% of the royalties my work earns. I'm not tearing down people who go the traditional route, but it's definitely not for me.

West of Hell is infinitely more polished than 99% of the self published books out there.  Did you hire an editor or do all the toiling yourself?
I'm much too stupid to edit my own work. My brain automatically fills in missing words. Only my wife and editor can see my unedited manuscripts - they already know I'm 'special'.

What was the inspiration behind the West of Hell trilogy? Are you a fan of weird westerns?
The first book was initially going to be called Zomboys and would have been purely a black comedy. As I got a few chapters in, the humor, while still there, was rapidly taking a backseat to the violence and biblical undertones. When I did some research on scripture that seemed to hint at the dead rising, I ran with the idea.

How much was etched in stone when you started? Any big changes to the story occur during the writing process?
I'm a pantser. I come up with a handful of characters and then throw them in a really screwed up situation. Most of the time, I have no idea how my novels will end or who will survive. I'm just as surprised as the readers when certain things happen.

If money were no option, who would you cast in a West of Hell movie?
Hmm. That's tough. Viggo Mortensen or Karl Urban would be great as McCall. Katee Sackhoff or Rhona Mitra as Karen. A guy can dream, can't he?

Favorite western movie?

Favorite western novel?
The Dark Tower series. Does that qualify? I think those books hit just about every genre possible.

Could John Wayne kick the shit out of Clint Eastwood?
Yes. I should add though, that the awesomeness of watching those two throw down might make my head explode like that guy in Scanners.

What are you reading these days?
Just started 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill. Damn, that family can write.

Who would you say is your biggest influence?
King. I know, I'm a cliche.

What is your favorite book of all time?
IT or The Stand, depending on what day of the week it is. I swear, King isn't paying me for all of this ass kissing.

What's next on your plate?
I just finished Ravaged, the final book in The Hunger trilogy. If you liked West of Hell, that should be right up your alley.

Next up is my second Asher Benson novel, Blaze, which is about a snarky, alcoholic ex-soldier who can read minds.

Any words of wisdom for aspiring writers?
Get your ass in the chair and write. Don't talk about writing, or wish you had time to do it, just take a seat and put some words down. Don't listen to haters.

This is the best time, EVER, to be an author.

Embrace the grind.

West of Hell - The Whole Bloody Trilogy

Gehenna (West of Hell #1)Gehenna by Jason Brant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When the two men fighting in the street turn out to be undead cannibals, the tiny town of Gehenna is thrown into flesh-eating chaos. The only people who seem to keep a cool head are Karen, the prostitute with a heart of bitter gold, and Mad Dog McCall, an outlaw trapped in the city jail...

Weird westerns have always been an easy sell for me. Know what's even better than a weird western? A FREE weird western!

Gehenna is told in two parallel threads for most of the book. One thread follows Karen and the people at the saloon. The other focuses on Mad Dog McCall, an outlaw gunfighter who is locked up waiting for the Federal Marshals to decide his fate.

The gore level is extremely high, I'd say four and a half out of five exploding zombie heads. Head explosions, flesh being torn from bones, and all sorts of moaner-killing goodness, which leads me to my favorite quote from the book:
"You keep calling them 'moaners'."
"Well, they moan. A lot."
"But the best you could come up with was 'moaners'? What about 'the living dead', or 'the eternal hungry.'"
"I'm shooting them in face, not writing a book."

The ending was really similar to the ending of Those Poor, Poor Bastards but there are only so many ways you can escape a tiny western town crawling with moaners.

The writing was a cut above what I expected, especially from a self-published book. Brant did a good job making me care about characters I knew were doomed to be devoured before the story's conclusion.

No complaints, especially since I have the second installment primed and ready to go. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Tartarus (West of Hell #2)Tartarus by Jason Brant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With Gehenna in flames, Mad Dog McCall and Karen jump aboard the train heading west, toward the Tartarus River. Too bad there's also two criminals and a moaner on board...

The second installment of West of Hell picks up seconds after the first left off. McCall and Karen are on the train but so are a lot of passengers who think they are full of shit, a moaner that's already attacking people, and two criminals named Jones and Evans.

I'm happy to say Tartarus doesn't suffer from middle book in the trilogy syndrome. It's a satisfying installment on its own and is on par with the original. Zombies on a train, bitches!

The relationship between McCall and Karen is further developed, including McCall's past, and I'm happy to say they've neither fallen implausibly in love nor done the hokey-pokey, as it was called in those days.

As with Gehenna, the gore factor is high, maybe even a little higher than the original. Evans and Jones took some of the sheen off of McCall's armor and the hardened outlaw shoes that has a tender side. Karen continues to be a tough woman in a tough world.

Jason Brant's writing is quite polished. From now on, I'll cite him as an example of self-publishing done right. Not a typo nor grammatical error to be found. Not only that, he's a good storyteller and a good writer. I have no complaints.

Jason Brant has a great thing going with West of Hell. I'll be sad to see it end in the final volume, Sheol. Four out of five stars.

Sheol (West of Hell #3)Sheol by Jason Brant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An army of moaners a thousand strong converges on Sheol and Karen is the only one who can stop them. Too bad she's standing on a gallows and the last time she saw McCall, the moaners were upon him...

Sheol brings the West of Hell trilogy to a conclusion. Loose ends are tied up and the end was part awesome, part WTF? I half-suspected what was coming but it was still a surprise.

The amazing thing about the West of Hell trilogy is how far Karen and McCall end up from where they started, both location-wise and as characters. The murderous outlaw and the feisty prostitute go through one hell of a journey, pun intended.

As with the earlier volumes, the gore level is high. Moaners and regular people alike get shot, stabbed, and torn apart with frightening regularity. If possible, Sheol had even more tense moments than the previous two volumes. When an undead army is heading for your town, you can only gun down so many of them.

I can't stress enough how this series should be held up as an example of self publishing done right. It's tightly edited, well-written, and feels like a labor of love.

The West of Hell trilogy now occupies a place of honor high in my Weird Western hierarchy, right up there with the Dark Tower and The Merkabah Rider series. Four out of five stars.