Christopher Farnsworth's Blog, page 16

January 20, 2011

Stuff you can read while still looking busy on the computer at work. You're welcome.

Someone takes Ferris Bueller's Day Off waaaaaaaaay too seriously. (Via TMN.)

Sometimes people surprise you: thousands of Egyptian Muslims act as human shields to protect Coptic Christians from terrorism.

A Koran written in Saddam Hussein's blood. I am totally figuring out a way to work that into one of my books.

Comics: the literature of outcasts.

The life of a working girl.

Pitchfork vs. Louis CK.

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Published on January 20, 2011 23:00 • 58 views

It's hard to make people laugh.

Scratch that. It's easy to make people laugh, especially in America. I read once how Europeans tend to think we're brain-damaged because of our habit of adding a chuckle to every minor interaction, as if a cashier telling you, "Have a better one" is a hilarious bon mot worthy of Dorothy Parker or Oscar Wilde.

(I try to think this speaks well of us as a culture — we're always looking for a reason to smile at other people. Yes, the Zoloft is working, thanks for asking.)

But it's hard to make people laugh genuinely. Think of the last time you told a hilarious story at a family gathering, and just when you got to the punchline, your Uncle Bob turns and says, "Huh. How about that. Anyway…"

Or imagine the last time you tried to say something funny about politics and got blank stares. That sound? That was the sound of people not laughing. Not even to be polite.

So I have great respect for comedians. They stand unprotected in front of a crowd of drunks who paid money after a hard week and expect to laugh, goddammit.

The best comedians say stuff that challenges, unsettles, and provokes. They force you to face the truth, and only the fact that you're laughing keeps you from throwing your beer bottle at their heads, because you sure didn't pay your $20 cover at the Chuckle Hut to think.

Patton Oswalt does this, and he makes me laugh so hard I have trouble breathing. He's one of the best comedians working. And now he's written a book: Zombie Spaceship Wasteland.

This can be disastrous for a lot of comedians. Written down, most comedic routines are stripped of their timing and emphasis and gestures. They're reduced to a steaming pile of not funny, in other words. (Don't take my word for it. Take a look at a transcript of, say, one of Dane Cook's monologues.) I'm somewhat ashamed to admit I didn't realize this until I'd bought both of Dennis Miller's books of rants from his old HBO show.

Oswalt, God love him, jumps over that mineshaft. The essays inside the book offer memories and events that shaped the sensibility that Oswalt expresses on stage. From them, it's clear that he's a writer first. And this book is filled with incredibly good writing. Anyone who's seen or heard his routines knows he's got a gift for imagery and language, but here he puts it to work in prose that's often painful, funny, and heartbreaking within the space of a few sentences. From "Take a bow, you coke-soaked ogre" to "The coffee tasted like pants" to "If the victories we create in our heads were let loose on reality, the world we know would drown in blazing happiness."

Many reviews have talked about the moments in the book that are quite sad. There's a sense of surprise in these comments, as if comedians aren't people who are frighteningly tuned to the despair and pain of the world. There are only two options when you're smart enough to see some of the mundane tragedies that most of us ignore like cemeteries on the way to work — like the checkout girl who's teaching customers to use the self-serve grocery registers that will eliminate her job. Or the guy who puts his heart and soul into a fetish magazine that will only ever be taken out for a few furious and shameful moments, then crammed under a mattress or into a garbage can. Or the guy sitting alone on a Saturday night having dinner at the KFC.

You can either drown in the pain of that, or you can find a way to laugh.

With this book, Oswalt shows us how he learned to look for the funny parts — the joy — where there might be nothing but anger or contempt and sorrow. He has amazing sympathy for his subjects, if not always enough for himself. But he recognizes that everybody is trying to pry a little happiness from their lives, and he shows his respect for the effort, even when he cannot tolerate the methods.

And he throws in dick jokes, too. So you know. Something for everyone.

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Published on January 20, 2011 11:29 • 103 views

January 14, 2011

The first thing that popped into my head when I read the headline about the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords: "Go up and look your legislator in the face, because someday you may have to blow it off."

That's what a militia leader told his followers in Idaho back when I was freelancing for Boise Weekly. The paper's intern, a friend and former classmate of mine named Michael Carroll, had been sent to a militia meeting. They were a growing force in Idaho politics at the time, and both Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth and Superintendent of Public Instruction Anne Fox had their active and vocal support in the elections.

Mike came back with that quote. The paper ran it, and he was immediately the center of threats and accusations. The militia leader claimed he was misquoted. But there were plenty of people in the militia movement who agreed with the sentiment.

Less than a year later, Timothy McVeigh parked a bomb outside a federal building in Oklahoma City and murdered 168 people, including 19 children.

The militia movement didn't force McVeigh to do what he did. Nor was Jared Lee Loughner's killing spree caused by anything he read on the Internet or saw on TV. There are plenty of people capable of holding violent ideas without resorting to violent action. Most of those militia members back in Idaho, as angry as they were, never did more than talk a lot of shit.

And unlike McVeigh, Loughner hasn't yet proudly claimed credit for the horror he committed. Although I imagine that's not far off.

Still, Loughner's attack echoes of 1995 to me, and sure enough, there have been people denying his tactics, but not the sentiment. One asshat who runs a comic-book retailer was dumb enough to say it explicitly. Other people have been more careful in their language. And some have just been batshit crazy, like the folks who believe it was all part of some Satanic Illuminati ritual.

The novelist Walter Kirn said it best, just a few hours after Loughner's identity was revealed to the public:

All these assassins are self-anointed knights templar of the collective shadow realm, not secular political actors in extremis.

Over the past year, I've done some deep reading into conspiracy theories as part of the research for The President's Vampire. I've been fascinated by them since I was 12 years old, when I began to notice the intersection between the conspiracy theorist's shadowy realm and the all-bets-are-off universe of the paranormal.

Spoiler alert for anyone who thinks they're going to find out the real killer of JFK in this blog post: I don't buy a single one of them.

But all of the feverish speculation and bad logic inside those pages has come spilling out again in the past week.

Some of the people I know who believe in a New World Order, 9/11 as an inside job, or the Illuminati say this makes me naive; that I don't know just how far the government will go to carry out its vicious agenda.

Actually, I know exactly how far it will go. There's ample evidence that U.S. agencies helped deal drugs, funded terrorism, supplied arms to dictators, toppled democratically elected foreign leaders, spied on U.S. citizens, and even helped Nazis escape justice after World War II.

But I also know how government actually works. I've clocked far too many hours in government meetings and plowed through metric tons of government documents. Most conspiracy theorists talk like they've never sat through a county commission hearing. I have. When I worked in Boise, there were only three men on the county commission. That meant two of them talking in the hallway about county business was technically a violation of the open meetings law. All three were Republicans. You'd think they would have been able to do everything in secret, without a single leak.

Not so much. One of them hated the guts of the other two, and there wasn't a decision made — no matter how trivial — that didn't get a full and tedious debate.

If three people cannot get a decent cover-up together at the local level, where nobody cares, how likely is it that a group of a few thousand elites would be able to hide the secret history of the world?

It's also useful to consider Robert Anton Wilson's Strange Loop theory: any conspiracy powerful enough to commit global crimes and cover up all evidence is also powerful enough to have manufactured the evidence that led you to believe in it in the first place. In other words, if you know about the Illuminati, it's only because they want you to know about the Illuminati.

Loughner, by all available evidence, is one of those disturbed individuals like McVeigh who mistakes the structures on paper and in e-mails for reality. It's not as uncommon as you'd think. His online rants about grammar and the gold standard have a long history in American politics, stretching back almost to July 4, 1776. Conspiracy theory seems to be a part of our national DNA. People are always willing to accept the easy solution, to find the boogeyman under the bed.

Take a look at the anti-vaccine movement. For the most part, these are people dealing with a heartbreaking illness in the best way they know how, despite all the evidence that says they're wrong. But they say the evidence is manufactured by a worldwide conspiracy out to suppress the truth.

Is that likely? No. But it gives us someone to blame. And for some reason, in our politics and our lives, we need that. I am consistently amazed by the people who will not believe a word they read in the New York Times, but take an anonymous chain e-mail as gospel.

In my books, I chalk every bad thing in the world to an occult force called The Other Side, the ultimate, anti-human enemy with limitless hatred for us all. Unlike the conspiracists, I don't believe that's real. I don't believe I have all the answers. I don't know what causes autism. I don't know what made Loughner decide the world would be a better place if he killed a bunch of people.

But I wish I did. It would be comforting to know where the source of all evil was, so we could at least put a name and a face to it.

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Published on January 14, 2011 11:29 • 172 views

January 5, 2011

2011 is here — yes, I know, it's actually been here for a while — and thanks to Richard Feliciano, I've got a brand-spanking-new website to go in with the new year.

For those of you I haven't already bombarded with the news, THE PRESIDENT'S VAMPIRE, the sequel to BLOOD OATH, will hit stands April 28, 2011. If you can't wait that long, there's a preview included in the paperback edition of BLOOD OATH, available March 1. Even more bloody mayhem included, I promise.

More features will be added to the site as we get closer to the launch date — including an original, untold tale of Nathaniel Cade, as well as previously classified files on his persistent enemies in the Shadow Company.

For everyone who's read the first book already, thanks so much. It's going to be a great year.

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Published on January 05, 2011 12:33 • 336 views

December 24, 2010

(A regift. Originally published December 22, 2009. Merry Christmas.)

As someone who was not really fond of the holiday season for years — long story with familiar elements: divorce, family tension, bills, et cetera — I'm sort of surprised how many of my favorite movies are Christmas-themed. It starts with Die Hard, which is still one of the great action flicks of all time, where John McClane hands out whupass from a seemingly bottomless Santa bag in some of the best set pieces leavened with humor ever done.

Then there's The Sure Thing, an underrated and underappreciated movie that was John Cusack's first starring role.

Cusack plays a desperate college freshman traveling to L.A. to get laid. Directed by Rob Reiner, this could have been just another 80s teenage sex comedy. But the brilliant script by Steve Bloom and Jonathan Roberts is filled with sharp dialogue and smart scenes, like this one, delivered with veteran timing by Cusack:

Then, when I met my endlessly wonderful wife, I discovered her Christmas tradition: watching The Ref, with Denis Leary, Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis. It's a deeply strange, unsentimental and still very funny look at how the holidays are almost always improved by an armed intruder.

When it comes to  more traditional Christmas movies, Scrooged is one of the only takes on the Dickens classic that I can stomach, even with all the souvenirs of another decade it includes, like Bobcat Goldthwait, "a top-of-the-line VCR," David Johansen, and such. It has Bill Murray, and his performance can outshine any number of trouble spots. His dry, matter-of-fact delivery grounds every moment, no matter how strange or maudlin, right down to the dirt floor of reality. And if you don't tear up at his closing monologue, well, you're dead inside.

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But my all-time favorite Christmas movie — and one of my all-time favorite movies — is Love Actually, which features a cast of mostly British actors being so ridiculously beautiful, smart and charming you wonder why all our lives can't be a Richard Curtis movie.

With a cast that includes Liam Neeson, Hugh Grant, Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Colin Firth, Laura Linney and more, there are too many great scenes to list. Seriously, just go pick up the DVD. But here is my favorite:

Oh, and I'm also pretty fond of the line where the kid says, "All right, Dad. Let's go get the shit kicked out of us by love."

Merry Christmas and God bless us, every one.

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Published on December 24, 2010 06:00 • 74 views

December 23, 2010

Sleepless by Charlie Huston — Maybe the best book of the year, despite a shocking lack of vampires. My original thoughts on it are here, and you'd be doing anyone a favor by getting it for them as a gift. If you want to wait for the paperback, you even have a built-in excuse for being late: "Dude, sorry, but the book didn't come out until Dec. 28th."
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn — A master class on pacing, character and place, all contained in a fantastic suspense story about the sole survivor of her brother's massacre of her family.
Peanut Butter Snickers — I missed these, and they're back. Man, now all I need is a McDLT and some Crystal Pepsi, and it is on.
Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods — Spend some time inside the head of one of comics' most intriguing writers.
PvPonline — One of the best daily comic strips anywhere. Scott Kurtz has near-perfect comic timing, and best of all, anything you buy from his store has a built-in excuse as well. However, it's well worth the wait. Also highly recommended: The Rack: Year One and Lydia.
Everything WondermarkI wore a Wondermark T-shirt to Comic-Con, and even die-hard geeks stopped me to say, "That is awesome. Where can I get one?" (For those who don't know, a geek admitting that he does not have a T-shirt as awesome as yours is like eating his heart in more primal cultures.) So yes, check out Malki's books, but really, get the nerd you love superiority in soft cotton form.
Venture Bros. Season 4, Vol. 1 — Even better when paired with a Brock Sampson Action Figure. Hint, hint, hint.
If you can't manage any of the above, it's probably enough to show up at your family's place showered and reasonably attired, stay away from the spiked eggnog, and let your weird uncle talk about the UN troops occupying Topeka as much as he wants. And then you can say, "Merry Christmas, Mom," and really mean it.
If that's too much to ask, get everyone you know a BLOOD OATH coffee mug.
UPDATE: Oh, and if you want to help someone who really needs it instead of blowing cash on impulse buys in the long line at check-out, then I recommend a donation to Save The Children. Don't put it in someone else's name, though. Really, people hate that.

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Published on December 23, 2010 09:30 • 40 views

December 15, 2010

Today, the legendary Beau Smith has a nice little bundle of awesome hitting stores with his usual bone-powdering force, and just in time for the holidays.

Wynonna Earp: The Yeti Wars is a great thrill-ride. I'd even go so far as to say it's the finest graphic novel featuring a hot descendant of Wyatt Earp, a Southern-fried Dr. Moreau, man-eating Yetis and beer-drinking Bigfoots ever written.

And I'm not just talking smack here. I've also lent my dubious credibility to the book in an introduction that you can get absolutely free with your purchase of the rest of the graphic novel.

Putting aside my attempt to sound like a used-car salesman, what I loved about this book is how it explodes with a love of what makes comics great and insane. Beau crams enough high-concept craziness into a story to qualify as Grant Morrison with a Southern drawl.

Check it out while you're in your local comics shop today. It's absolutely perfect for the comics geek in your life.

And for those of you looking for words without pictures, I've got some other book recommendations up at the website of the great Tattered Cover bookstore in Denver. There were a couple I'd forgotten — hey, blame the NyQuil — but I'm listing them here:

* THE ARK — Boyd Morrison. I met Boyd while our tours overlapped this summer. Anyone who's a fan of high-adrenaline thrills and scary-close future science should check this out. He's been called the heir to James Rollins, and it's not just hype.

* MFA IN A BOX — John Rember. Technically, this one isn't out yet, but you can pre-order and beat the rush. With MFA programs in creative writing multiplying like tumors these days, my former teacher John decided there were plenty of people telling writers how to write. What's far more challenging — and far more dangerous — is figuring out why to write. There are dark things lurking at the bottom of all of our souls — worse than vampires, I promise — and if you sit in front of the blank screen long enough, they begin to swim for the surface. This book will tell you what to do when they break through.

And on that cheery note, have yourself a merry little Christmas and happy holidays. Now go buy some books.

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Published on December 15, 2010 10:06 • 80 views

December 9, 2010

* Neil Gaiman linked to a blog post I wrote. Now all I've got left on the list is 1) Snort the ashes of silver age comic books with Grant Morrison, 2) Watch Warren Ellis feed the horde of fetish-masked Internet minions he keeps in his basement, and 3) Invoke the wrath of Alan Moore.

I'd like to be cooler about this — more like, "Yo, Neil. 'Sup?" — but that's clearly not going to happen. It's a problem I have. I've interviewed billionaires, gang-bangers, murderers and Neo-Nazis. I've been within restraining-order distance of many celebs. None of that caused my heart rate to go above 60 BPM. And yet, I piddle myself like an overexcited puppy when it comes to people whose work has had an impact on my life. (Seriously, I'm still embarrassed about how fanboy I went when I got to talk about "The Great Darkness Saga" with Paul Levitz.)

Fortunately, the people I have met — Charlie Huston, David Mamet, Beau Smith, Mark Waid and some others — have all been very gracious about my hopping around them like a labrador about to go for a walk.

* Speaking of friends and well-wishers, my very funny friend Mayrav has a new column up.

* Amazon now gives authors BookScan sales info. Because we didn't spend enough time constantly checking our sales rank before.

* Dirk Gently coming to TV. Hopefully, we won't have to wait too long for this to migrate to the U.S.

* Randy Michaels, the former CEO of Tribune Co. who resigned after complaints of creating a frat-house atmosphere at the L.A. Times' parent company (and not, we repeat, not for his gruesome incompetence), wiped his hard drive on his way out the door. Thoughtful of him.

* Robert McCammon's The Wolf's Hour, which obviously had a very big influence on me and the genesis of Blood Oath, is now available in a special illustrated edition.

* Oh, and for those looking for the regular dose of nerd content: THUNDER Agents. It's awesome. You should read it.

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Published on December 09, 2010 10:02 • 58 views

December 8, 2010

There's a post on Cairo, Illinois on BoingBoing this morning, which led to some fascinating reading about how the city basically died, and how some punks tried to bring it back to life.

Photo by Claudette Roulo

All I knew about Cairo was  a couple half-remembered facts from college (history major) and the dark, brooding scene set in the town in Neil Gaiman's American Gods. Other than that, zip.

It turns out Cairo is one of many broken cities in the great interior of the U.S., a hollowed-out shell of a place where people seem to be hanging on more by habit than anything else. This is becoming all too common (see: Methland) as industries abandon the heartland for cheap wages overseas, army bases and defense plants are closed, and agriculture becomes increasingly concentrated into the hands of a few corporate owners.

Cairo had another problem, however: evil. Cairo was broken as much by racism as it was by economics.

A group of punks took advantage of the rock-bottom price of real estate in Cairo, and has started a coffeehouse/bookstore there. They hoped to attract others, who will make their living off their Internet stores and occasional band tours, bringing money back into a town that desperately needs it.

Photo from Plan-It-X

It didn't work. They're trying to sell the place now, but they'll reduce the price for anyone willing to keep the effort going.

It sounds a lot like the time my college friends and I rented a run-down house our senior year with the hope of renovating it and turning it into our own Bohemian version of Walden. It ended with one of us in a mental institution — no shit — but in spite of all that, I still think the idea is sound.

Places like Cairo could be test labs for a new way of living. Instead of heading to the big cities upon graduation, all those lost Gen Y types might look to this as another model. Almost nobody in his twenties can afford to buy a house or apartment in LA or NYC, and the great mortgage clusterfuck has destroyed the chances of home ownership in most other places, too. Even rent is out of the question for a lot of people. But all over the country are these pockets of abandoned urbanism. It will take a lot of hours to rebuild the decayed infrastructure, but when you're 26, what do you have besides time on your hands?

As long as they have a broadband connection and access to lots of Time-Life DIY books, it's possible that a whole generation could find homes in places like Cairo.

Yeah, I know. Probably not. But it has to beat living with your mom.

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Published on December 08, 2010 10:42 • 42 views

December 6, 2010

Thanks to my friend Steve Lynch, I've got a piece in the Sunday New York Post about red mercury, a semi-mythical substance that's either a way to make H-Bombs the size of hand grenades, or a cure for impotence.

Doomsday weapon or herbal Viagra, the truth about red mercury hides in a tangle of rumor and speculation so twisted it makes the plot of "Lost" look straightforward. The apocalyptic goo has haunted us since the end of the Cold War, despite the fact that no one has ever proven it can actually do anything.

As tangled as the mythology is, red mercury had one big supporter to give it credibility: Samuel T. Cohen, the man who invented the neutron bomb. Cohen — who titled his memoir, Fuck You, Mr. Presidentdied in Los Angeles two weeks ago.

I didn't get to put most of what I learned about him in the piece due to space limitations, but according to those who knew him, he was truly a fascinating man. One of the physicists who helped build the A-Bomb at Los Alamos, Cohen dedicated much of his life to the idea that the right weapon could limit war rather than prolong it.

The neutron bomb was Cohen's solution to the stalemate of the Cold War. Looking at the Soviets' overwhelming superiority on the ground in Europe, Cohen designed the neutron bomb to limit the damage in the aftermath of an invasion.  A small warhead designed to be detonated above a battlefield, it saturated living things with lethal doses of radiation while leaving buildings and vehicles intact.

For his efforts, Cohen received a peace medal from Pope John Paul I – and vilification from nearly everyone else. Politicians feared it would escalate the arms race. No less than Nikita Kruschev called it a "capitalist weapon" for sparing real estate but killing people.

He believed his creation was "the most moral weapon ever invented," despite the nearly universal horror it evoked. And in some way, I do understand his confusion at the reaction the neutron bomb received. Blowing human beings to ash with regular nuclear weapons, or burning them with napalm, or shattering their skulls with shrapnel — surely all of that should be just as repulsive as killing them with gamma rays.

Almost nobody else saw it that way. Although President Ronald Reagan ordered 700 of the bombs built, they were never made part of the U.S. military arsenal and were dismantled after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

By the end of his life, Cohen had more or less given up on the idea of saving the world. He believed the only hope was for all nations to become so broke they wouldn't have the cash to fight wars.

Which, come to think of it, would be an interesting side effect of the financial crisis if it ever came to that.

But while Cohen was  a few orders of magnitude smarter than I am, I just don't think it would work. Despite — or because of — the Great Depression, we still had World War II. In prosperity or poverty, we always seem to have enough money to buy bombs.

What's even more puzzling about Cohen's obsession with red mercury is that it doesn't even matter if the stuff actually exists. As one of the nuclear scientists I spoke to, Dr. Frank Barnaby, told me, there's no way we can realistically stop more people from getting nuclear weapons. In the future, pretty much every nation will have access to the technology. In terms of sheer probability, it's ludicrous to think that terrorists will not get their hands on a nuke.

While that's not a very cheery thought for a Monday morning, it does make me wonder why Cohen fought so hard to warn people. Maybe he was just trying to give us something we could handle. Maybe by sounding the alarm over red mercury, he hoped we'd pay attention to the real threats that are already out there.


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Published on December 06, 2010 10:11 • 82 views