Friday, August 29, 2008

Love Is a Hot Gun

As zine makers never tire to state, making a zine is in itself an awesome thing, and every person who takes the time to write, put together and share his or her creation with other people deserves to be praised. This said, it’s also true that too many zines are not all that interesting. Between poorly chosen subjects, navel-gazing perziners, and just plain bad writers, I sometimes wonder why I waste my time reading so-so stuff instead of a good book. Luckily once in a while I discover something truly different that manages to both entertain and inform. American Gun Culture Report goes even beyond that, as editor Ross Eliot tackles a controversial subject in an original, thought-provoking way. The subject, of course, is gun control; the role firearms play within society and culture; and how they relate to power, violence, and politics. More importantly, Ross wants to show that not all gun owners are your stereotypical supporters of the status quo or racist paranoiacs. As he writes in the premiere issue of AGCR, “there should be no contradiction between advocating for human rights as well as gun rights.” (To get the idea, you only have to check his web site out and have a look at the photo gallery, featuring a seemingly out of place bunch of gays, Goths, and other strangely clothed people at a shooting range in Portland).
I was born and raised in Italy, and Europe has been for years an anti-gun environment. My father was a police officer, and in my family we all knew where he kept his pistol, but the place was strictly off-limits and I never even dreamed of touching it. For the last 16 years, then, I have lived in Japan, a country where firearm ownership is severely restricted. They put you in prison even if you own a modified toy gun. Indeed, the general opinion here is that the strict national laws must be thanked for the very low rate of violent deaths. With such a background, you can imagine the attitude with which I approached this zine (let’s say “open but skeptical”). Also, I keep thinking that the USA is in many respects an extreme country with extreme social conditions, and what can be considered acceptable and even necessary for people living there – “we have a moral right and responsibility to defend ourselves and our families against harm” (Wild West style) – is a little out of place in our countries. But Ross really does a very fine job of balancing all the different points of views. Another thing I noticed is that in the span of three issues, he has somewhat expanded the scope of AGCR from a strictly-gun-talk zine to a place where social and political issues are thoroughly explored. And of course there is the writing: AGCR currently boasts some of the most interesting, articulate, wickedly funny writers in zinedom. And no, Ross didn’t have to point a gun to my head to make me write such a good review. Order AGCR and find for yourself.

American Gun Culture Report
Issues #1-3, $3.00, $10.00 for a 4-issue subscription, 52 pages

Friday, August 22, 2008

Back to the Roots

I’m a hardcore townie and could never live in the countryside, let alone engage in such activities as gardening or growing my own vegetables. This of course does not mean that I don’t enjoy reading about people who lead that kind of life and more generally embrace a more sustainable lifestyle. I actually envy them because I’m conscious that they are fundamentally right and it is people like me who are ruining our dead old planet.

Enter Dan Murphy and Trace Ramsey, two nice guys who like to get their hands dirty and rant about their life choices. Dan describes himself as a “gentleman farmer” (“but just because it sounds cool,” he adds) and his zine The Juniper as 1) the journal of a budding horticulturist; 2) a flippant response to the Man’s agenda; and 3) a heartfelt attempt at knocking some sense into society. The two issues I have (#9 and #10) are rather slim but they are very worth reading. In issue #9, for example, he writes about his experience working as the assistant farm manager of an organic farm near the University of Idaho. What I like the most, though, is Dan’s attitude, his down-to-earth approach and especially the lack of preaching. He is the first one to admit his faults and all the things he could do more or better, and in doing this he helped me feel more comfortable with my own contradictions.

Even Trace is actively engaged in supporting local and organic farms. He has been putting out his zine Quitter since 2005. After publishing five issues, he has decided to collect the whole lot into a 40-page hand-made book and he was kind enough to send me copy #35 (I know because each copy is numbered). The object itself is a little jewel, with a great color cover and color and b/w illustrations throughout. And then there’s the writing, of course. Put it simply, I believe that the best writing is the kind that 1) manages to be engaging regardless of the subject; 2) makes me think; and most of all 3) makes me feel like I want to take highlighter and pen and cover the pages with comments and orange marks. Quitter managed to do all these things.
Trace writes what he calls creative non fiction, and through the years has developed the ability to put common words together in original combinations. He manages to be sophisticated in a natural, unassuming way. At the same time, he anchors his rants with stories taken from his memories. Sometimes he will write something like “I was born with an extra pair of ribs” and the reader (or at least a dumb reader, such as myself) will search for hidden meanings until he realizes that is the plain truth. Apart from the autobiographical notes, the common theme that returns in all the five issues is Trace’s decision to “quit” the kind of world that humankind has turned into a huge pile of garbage. Quitting a job he hates and translates into “someone else’s hopes and mortgage and car payments;” quitting unconscious consumption; temporarily quitting the civilized world in order to live for three months in “solitary confinement” in a forest and study the breeding habits of a small songbird… What he will not quit is fighting to “preserve the history of (…) an idea that would often be considered irrelevant by the dominant culture,” and writing “for an audience that is resilient in its opposition of being taken for granted.” What can you ask more from a zine?

Back to Dan, he publishes another zine, Elephant Mess, that couldn’t be more different from The Juniper. I’ve got issue #19 that is supposed to be a kind of celebration (it is subtitled “Nice Things – The Ten Year Anniversary”) but the general mood is rather gloomy. As much as The Juniper is a call to go out and do stuff, this one is the occasion to explore darker places. It’s all about things that hurt, old wounds that never heal, and longing for solitude. As Dan himself admits, “I enjoy the reactions I receive when I routinely embody pessimism.” Luckily Dan doesn’t seem to take himself too seriously, and the overall effect is often amusing. Another major difference is the writing: The Juniper’s plain, direct style is replaced here by a more convoluted prose, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Even though Dan thinks he often sounds like an imbecile, I found this a rewarding reading experience. If you want to know 101 more things about Dan, you can have a look at his blog (listed below).

The Juniper and Elephant Mess
$2 each, Dan Murphy, P.O. Box 3154, Moskow, ID 83843, USA, ,

$15 plus shipping. Trace Ramsey, 160 A. W. Buckner Rd, Siler City, NC 27344, USA, ,