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Monday, October 31, 2005

Halloween

Hope everyone had a good All Hallow's Eve. Mine was pretty quiet. I spent it wearing my leather mask, listening to Skinny Puppy (there's no other music more suited to Halloween) and handing out candy to kids in football jerseys way too old to be trick-or-treating. But it's better I get the candy out of the house, so I doled out the Paydays and Reese's Cups in large handfulls.

I did do a couple of things over the weekend that were quasi-Halloween related.

Saturday night Miss L and I ventured to the AFI theatre in Silver Spring, Md. They were running old silent horror movies and using musicians to play new scores for the films. We saw Der Golem, an old German movie based on the Jewish Folktale the Golem. Music was written and performed by Baltimore's own Yeveto, a quartet composed of guitar, bass, keyboards, percussion and cello. Kind of an interesting mix of indie and experimental rock with chamber music and film scores. Edgy, gritty but often still melodic. The style often reminded me of other indie-rocker instrumental groups like Mogwai and God Speed You Black Emperor, but the overall sound was more diverse and dramatic. Their material complemented the film nicely, and I'll be curious to see what non-film score work they develop.

Last night took a very different turn. One of my co-workers, a 50-something self-described bear of a man, is obsessed with Cher. Okay, more than obsessed. Somehow he also holds the talent of imitating her singing voice. Last night he made an appearance at a bar dressed in full Halloween witch regalia, belting out such Cher winners as Dark Lady and Half Breed. For each song, you got a free drink from the bar. So by the end of the evening CherBear was pretty lit, prancing around the bar and enjoying himself like I've never seen. It was nice to see him so comfortable and relax, even if the music isn't my typical taste.

Tomorrow is day one of NaNoWriMo. Unless I really get into a flow, I don't actually expect to pull together a full novel in a 30 days. Not even the short novel of 50k words most are shooting for. I'm pretty much aiming for an average of two pages a day, a more realistic goal for my normal writing speed. If I get that much I'll be pretty happy with myself. The website is interesting. There are number of forums set up so people can ask quick research questions from all the members, as well as forums for people just to bitch about their lack of progress. In some ways, the website almost seems designed to give you more ways to avoid writing. But we'll see how it goes.

I'll probably be posting complaints and updates at various points over the month. I may or may not keep a running word count here, just to stick my face out completely for public ridicule.

Excelsior.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Albinism in Literature

With NaNoWriMo right around the corner, I'm cramming in some last minute research before I actually start writing on November 1. Probably not terribly surprising to anyone who reads here even somewhat regularly, the basic plot is a dark fantasy/horror with some light experimental touches. At least that's the hope.

I decided awhile ago that my main character will be an albino. But I want to treat this character differently. Albinos in literature and art are often used as thematic props, with little or no depth and little relation to what ablinism really is. So part of what I want to do is make my character as real as possible, and I'll do that partly by poking fun at some of the other books out there that use albinos in more stereotypical ways. My character is a literature student, so it would be important to him to be aware of all this. Here are the ones I've stumbled across so far:

Albino Knife by Steve Perry
Moby Dick by Herman Melville
The Elric Saga by Michael Moorcock
The Invisible Man by HG Wells
The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester
The DaVinci Code by Dan Brown
The Likes of Me by Randall Beth Platt
Ghost Boy by Iain Lawrence
I Sent for You Yesterday by John Edgar Wideman
The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper
Maia by Richard Adams
White Jenna by Jane Yolen
Bulletproof Soul by Steven L. Shrewsbury
Skels by Maggie Dubris


Strangely, I've read most of these over the years. The few I haven't, I'll try to snag at the library. If people know of others, please email me or reply to the post. All help appreciated!

Special thanks to Albinism in Popular Culture.

Excelsior.

Friday, October 28, 2005

Tales of the Blue Bear

When I was a little kid, about ages four and five, one of my best friends was another boy named Brendan. He was, and quite possibly still is, the best storyteller and most convincing liar I've ever known.

Once when I was visiting him he convinced me dinosaurs lived under his house, and the little hill in his front yard came from a Tyrannosaurus rex bumping his head. The dinosaurs hid underground during the day but prowled the neighborhood at night; the only way to keep them at bay was to have a red-colored night light shining in your bedroom. Otherwise, you'd become a nice midnight snack for something large and reptilian. Now I knew dinosaurs were extinct. And I knew the probability that some small contingent of them living under Brendan's house was pretty small, but he told it so well I believed him. I used that damn red night light for weeks. He even had the ability to convince himself of ridiculous things. I remember one hot summer week spent digging a hole in his backyard because Brendan convinced us that we all wanted to go to China. And Brendan worked harder at it than anyone else.

The title character in Walter Moers’s fabulous illustrated novel The 13 1/2 Lives of Captain Bluebear is much like my old friend Brendan. Bluebear is, quite simply, a walking, talking bear with blue fur. A blue bear, as we are told on the first page, lives for 27 years and this novel is a first person account of Bluebear's first 13 1/2 lives. Each "life" is a stage in his growth and works like a fable with a little lesson. But don't worry. These aren't preachy little fables with some old man with aa long beard scolding you at the end. These are fables of monsters who fatten up their victims with fabulous food for months before eating them. Fables of city-sized, smoke belching battleships cruising the high seas. Fables of....

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The book opens with Bluebear's first memory: as a cub, floating with nothing more than a nutshell as his life-raft, he heads straight for a giant whirlpool threatening to suck him down into oblivion. Suddenly, he's saved by a boatload of liliputian pirates who teach him everything you could ever want to know about sailing. From there he enters into a lifetime (okay, 13 1/2 lifetimes) filled with humor and bizarre adventures. One part Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth and two parts Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, the novel mixes fantasy, science fiction, and tall tales into a wonderfully satirical cocktail you can't help but gulp down. Traveling through a land called Zamonia, a lost continent floating somewhere on the planet Earth, he encounters headless giants, pterodactyls who fly around saving people from otherwise certain death, and a giant spider who lures in its prey through fabulously convincing illusions. Many of the stories are improbable, in fact downright unbelievable, but Bluebear's wry and sly storyteller's voice, much like my friend Brendan's, makes you want to believe so much that you can't help but buy every little thing the hirsute adventurer is selling you.

There is much to entertain here; Moers’s wild imagination and fun wordplay have an almost childlike whimsy that remind me why exactly I love reading. Although much of the book walks the line between YA and adult, Moers works in enough depth to entertain the most disbelieving adults. The writing is definitely strong enough to carry itself, but coming from a comic book background Moers also includes black and white illustrations that enhance the whimsical nature of the story.

With so many little side trips to Bluebear's narrative, the story might frustrate those eager for an easy to follow, straght-lined plot. But this is not that kind of story. This is the kind of story you have to sit back and enjoy, no matter where it takes you. It does, eventually, tie together all the loose threads in a number of fun ways, re-using characters from past adventures and forcing Bluebear to use skills he learned earlier. This is truest in the city of Atlantis, where Bluebear becomes a professional story teller. Pulling from all his past adventures, his wild imagination and natural gift for drama Bluebear competes in slam-style competitions for money and fame. He's wildly successful, besting all challengers quite easily until he's faced with his idol, a half-man half-fox creature who returns to competing after a lengthy retirement

After developing a strong cult following both in Moer's native Germany and the U.K., there's now a movie in the works and a second book on the way. With the first book finally coming to the U.S. there are likely to be many more joining me in this joyous, guilty reading pleasure.

Excelsior

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Four and Twenty Blackbirds

For as long as she can remember, Eden Moore has been gifted with the ability to see ghosts. Three dead sisters, all distant relatives of Eden, visit her quite frequently, watching over her and offering their cryptic advice. Much of it confuses young Eden, until she is attacked by Malachi, a distant cousin who believes Eden to be the reincarnation of their voodoo priest of a great grandfather. The three ghosts guide her through a forest and mine shaft, allowing Eden to escape harm and putting Malachi in jail. Not suprinsingly, Eden wants to know why this cousin she never met wants her dead. Raised by her aunt, it's natural that she would turn to her for answers. Although she seems to know a good bit about it all---Malachi, the great grandfather, the dead sisters, Eden's dead mother--- she refuses to tell Eden anything, claiming it's all to protect her niece. This is but the opening chapter to Cherie Priest's Four and Twenty Blackbirds, a horror/dark fantasy romp through the mansions, swamps, and cellars of the southern US.

The story jumps ahead twenty years; Malachi escapes imprisonment and makes another attempt on Eden's life. When her aunt still won't tell Eden anything, Eden conducts some research that leads her to a long-deserted home for troubled teens, an antebellum mansion, a new age bookstore and, finally, to the deep, dangerous swamps of Florida. The deeper she digs, the more frantic the ghosts become. At the core of Eden's story lies an ancient family curse, a curse connected to her great-grandfather and his search for eternal life. Set in Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, much of the book pulls from the traditions of the southern gothic horror tale. Family secrets, incest, ghosts, voodoo magic much of it is familiar territory. But despite some of the reliance on overused motifs author Priest pulls it off, and mostly through Eden.

Although she'd probably drive me crazy if I ever met her on the street, Eden’s a fantastic character. She's the kind of person who sends food back in a diner not once, not twice, but three times. The kind of person who sits on the outside seat on the bus and refuses to scoot over for anything because, dammit, that other seat’s for her purse. Not at all likable in real life, but it makes for a fabulous character. So often characters in a first novel sit back and just let things happen to them. But Eden is a doer, a person who runs out to find what she wants, no matter the consequences. Things are rarely slow down in this tale, because Eden is constantly pushing and prodding to find the secrets behind her family.

From the horror angle, the writing is deliciously spooky. Whether it's an abandoned building, a dank, claustrophobic swamp, or the latrine at a summer camp the layers of detail and near-Faulknerian language suck you into her world. Priest also knows the difference between dancing ghostly images off in her corner of the eye and putting something ghastly right in front of you, and she knows when to use which method. She's certainly not breaking new ground here, but it's a wonderful page turner and after seeing so much bad horror and dark fantasy over the past year it's refreshing to see someone who can deliver a good story with a strong central character and truly evocative language. Fast-paced, ghastly fun from a writer of real promise.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Tipping the Tree

Last week I sent in a review of the new L. Timmel Duchamp book Alanya to Alanya to Strange Horizons. It's a pretty good book, very political, and in the review I make some assertions linking it to Feminist SF, particuarly the Feminist SF written in the early 1970's. Along with Kelly Link and one or two other writers, Duchamp has been linked to a undercurrent trend in SF revitalizing feminist themes. Considering Duchamp also admits the heavy influence in the book's afterward section, I felt it a pretty good link to make in a book review.

Stange Horizons liked the review, and liked the links I made. But they wanted something more specific--metions of specific writers, stories or novels to tie into Duchamp and the themes of her new book. I know a little about the Feminist SF, but mostly the big names. Octavia Butler. Ursula K. LeGuin. And, of course, the grand master of it: Alice B. Sheldon, aka James Tiptree, jr. But I didn't feel informed enough to start making links to specific works.

So I've spent the last few days in my local library, combing through about 30 years of short fiction, book reviews and criticism. It's an interesting little subset of SF, and if there's one commonality at all it's that men and women see the world and think differently and the differences need to be explored and celebrated. Some stories go so far to suggest---ok, more than suggest---that if our societies were based more on the female-style of thinking instead of the power driven male style, the world would be a better place. With so much out there, it's a little daunting at the moment for me to choose which author, much less even which story, to focus on. But I'm thinking Tiptree is the way to go. A number of the basic ideas in Duchamp's novel seemed pulled right out of Tiptree, although Duchamp expands on puts her own stamp on them. I'm sleepy, and my brain is still a little muddled, but hopefully I'll get it done within the next day.

Coming soon, I should have a review up for Cherie Priest's ghosty novel, Four and Twenty Blackbirds.

Excelsior.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Anne Rice: Changing Gears

Best known for her widely popular novels involving vampires, witches and mummies Rice leaves the Goth behind her and explores the mysteries beneath the childhood of Jesus Christ in her newest novel, Christ the Lord. At age seven, Jesus and his family leave Egypt to return to their home and find themselves caught in the middle of a revolution after the death of the first King Herod, then ruler of the portion of the Roman Empire that included Israel. Rice does a fabulous job developing and weaving layers of historical detail. From political upheavals to Jewish ceremonies to proper weaving technique, I was quite surprised by how smoothly she creates the atmosphere of the times.

Although the historical and cultural details are authentic and well done, it is the character of Jesus that drives this novel. Jesus feels like a typical seven year old boy, but he’s a boy suddenly discovering abilities no one else possesses. With but a thought he brings clay birds to life, makes it snow, and even resurrects a dead playmate. Strangely….and as a comics fan I mean this in the best possible sense…this concept reminded me more of X-Men comics than anything else. There’s many a mutant hero who bumbled through the early days of his or her power, and that unique form of self-discovery is always full of possibilities.

Stunned by these odd happenings he turns to Joseph and Mary for answers. When they are not forthcoming he’s forced to hunt out clues through local legends, rumors and a strange spirit who visits and taunts him in his own dreams. Told in the first person from Jesus’s point of view, the strength of the novel weighs heavily on Rice’s ability to make him believable both as a child and as the son of god and she does a winning job with it. The wisdom of all things religious fills Jesus completely, but he’s na├»ve of day-to-day events. It’s almost charming when he can’t understand why a young girl he used to play with suddenly prefers at age twelve to learn about weaving and raising children. Fully developed and likable, Rice’s version of Jesus is not only believable, but probably her most memorable character since Lestat.

My only complaint about the book would be her use of language. Her prose style is very plain, very direct and lacks a certain poetry I’ve seen in some of her other work. That said, it probably makes it more accessible to a general audience. It’s difficult to say how well this book will do for her. Many of her vampire fans may not follow, because the subject matter lacks a lot of the flashy, gothy glamour many of her other works have. But breaking out into a different area widens her audience, and since she handles the story with a sense that’s both bold and reverent she just might pull it off.

Excelsior

Friday, October 14, 2005

Best of the Year

The National Book Award Nominees (very happy for both Didion and Vollman, btw) aren't the only big announcements for the week. The mag I review for pulled together the "best" for the past year. As explanation, most of my fellow reviewers are librarians, and the reviews are supposed to be adult books that a teen reader might like. The “best” are books the mag covered in the past year, and can be anything. Like normal, this year is dominated by fiction, but there are also a couple of graphic novels, a memoir, and some other non-fiction. All are judged equally, regardless of style, format, or genre.

Basically, anyone who reviews can nominate a best book. Once nominated, someone else reads it and either supports it or turns it down. If supported, the person who nominated it makes a short presentation to the group, and then there’s a vote. I seconded a few, turned down a few, but the only book I nominated is Anderson’s graphic novel, King. The whole nomination thing’s giving me a little more perspective on these awards. Even though my name is loosely attached to the list, I’ve only actually read three of them. Aside from Anderson’s, I read Will’s Choice, The Memory of Running, and Star Wars: Visionaries, all of which I give high marks to. But the others I have no idea about, aside from what other people have told me. From what I gather, our system is not that different from many others. In some ways, I'm quite proud of how diverse it is and pleased it's not all best sellers.

The big list this year (in no particular order) is:

Can't Stop, Won't Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation by Jeff Chang


The Children's War by Monique Charlesworth


Dear Zoe by Philip Beard


Freedom Rising: Washington in the Civil War by Ernerst Furguson


The Good Man Edward Jae-Suk Lee


King: The Complete Edition by Ho Che Anderson


The Lost German Slave Girl by John Bailey


The Memory of Running by Ron McLarty


My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult


Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro


Ophelia's Fan by Christine Balint


Pardonable Lies: A Maisie Dobbs Mystery by Jacqueline Winspear


Sky Bridge by Laura Pritchett


Star Wars: Visionaries


The Summer We Got Saved by Pat Cunningham Devoto


Sunny Ward of the State by Sonja Heinze Coryat


Will's Choice by Gail Girffith


Excelsior.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Future is Now

At least in D.C., anyway.

Future Washington is a new anthology edited by Ernest Lilley, editor for the SFRevu. The volume collects 16 SF tales all based in Washington, D.C.

It's a great idea, one I've actually had myself. I've dreamed of putting together a Fantasy/SF/Horror mag in which all the stories have to take place in the D.C. area. Ideally showing areas, people, and events not normally portrayed in fiction and movies. There's a lot of weirdness in this area, and few writers really play with it beyond the typical stories involving lawyers, politicians or ex-millitary guys with walls full of machine guns. Perhaps if I ever get more publishing clout, it's something I can pursue.

It's a little bit of a letdown that they didn't pull more from local talent. As far as I know, Brenda Clough is the only local writer (she lives down in Prince William County, and teaches at the Writers Center of Bethesda, Md.) represented. Allen Steele has a sister in D.C. (no, I'm not some crazy Allen Steele stalker....I used to work with her in a local art museum), but I don't think that counts. And it's certainly not because there's no SF talent in the area. There's quite a bit, although primarily in the short form. But with such a good idea at play, and notable writers behind them, Future Washington is bound to have some real gems in it. I'm sure I'll do a review when it comes out, so keep looking.

Excelsior.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Catching Up

I've been sick the last several days with a pretty nasty respiratory thing. And while I'm much better today, I still get hit with some pretty frequent coughing fits that feels like a little gremlin with a pickaxe is trying to dig his way out of my chest. So I've fallen behind on a lot of things, both in real life and here. Most importantly, I just realized that I missed the 1st birthday of this here blog. As of October 5, I've been typing in entries on writing, art, and life in general for one year. I feel like I should say something more important, more meaningful. But I won't. At least not today.

In the meantime, I've added two new links to your right, under other blogs. First is Matt Briggs, an author currently based in Seattle, Washington. He was kind enough to send me info on his readings for his new novel Shoot the Buffalo when he was in the area over the past couple of weeks and I've been reading his blog ever since. Not suprisingly, a lot of it right now focuses on his novel and all the trials and tribulations related to it, and his comments are pretty thoughtful.

I've also added Mumpsimus, a blog maintained by Matt Cheney that I discovered through the Lit-Blog Co-Op. His blog is SF/Fantasy oriented, but it's SF/Fantasy that includes writers like Ishiguro who really walk the line between styles. So it may be of interest even if you're not a hardcore SF person.

Lastly, take a listen to Tom Vitale's story on NPR about The Paris Review. The story covers a little bit of their history, their new direction, and what the recently ousted editors are now up to (they're starting their own new mag based on what they feel the Paris Review should still be doing). It's a pretty big story if you have any interest in lit mags. You'll need either Real Player or Windows Media Player to listen to the story.

Excelsior

Friday, October 07, 2005

In Defense of the Avant Garde

Author Ben Marcus contributed a thought provoking essay to Harpers titled Why Experimental Fiction Threatens to Destroy Publishing, Jonathan Franzen, and Life as We Know It (printed only in part online...you need to buy the mag for the full essay). The title is tongue-in-cheek; Ben Marcus, a long-time supporter and creator of experimental fiction, reacts here against comments author Jonathan Franzen published in various places over the past year or so.

If you're not inclined to read the article, Franzen has printed in various places (most recently in an online chat at the NY Times) how experimental fiction, including historical works like Joyce's Ulysses, create a barrier between the mass reading public and authors and are at least partially to blame for the drop in overall sales of literature. Marcus even notes a recent short story by Franzen in which an author becomes embittered by following his pursuits of experimental fiction while his ex-wife enjoys a profitable writing career in Hollywood.

I'm not sure what more to write that Marcus doesn't already, but will include as a reminder that Franzen was the bloke that turned down the offer for his novel The Corrections to become an Oprah book. Just seems he's clamoring for the popularity, acclaim and money he missed out on and he's trying to place blame wherever he can.

Excelsior

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Politics and Art: Not Always the Best Partners

Ron Charles, Senior Editor over at Washington Post's Book World, wrote an interesting review for the new David Maine novel, Fallen. Not interesting because he makes the book appear good (which he does...it sounds fun) but because he includes two quick little political jabs that seem very out of place in the review.

Fallen is a retelling of the Cain and Abel story from the Old Testament of the Bible. When briefly explaining the mythic conflict between the two brothers and how it was at least in part instigated by God, Charles writes:

Why spark such deadly conflict between these brothers six thousand years ago (according to the Kansas School Board)?

Charles continues with:

But how to generate any dramatic tension with material that's so well known? Except possibly for George W. Bush and Michael Brown, everybody has a pretty good idea of what's going to happen...

I guess I just don't get it. I'm not sympathetic to the whole intelligent design movement, but the quick poke at those who are along with the jab at Bush and Brown seem not just unnecessary, they seem wildly inapropriate. I haven't read Maine's novel, so I can't verify 100% that there's little or no political content, but the review by Charles does not indicate anything of the kind. I'm sure he wrote it thinking it a cute comment that might bring a chuckle out of the average reader. And the average reader of the Post being at least a little left of center, I'm sure many did emit at least a minimal guffaw. I just wish Charles had used the ink on the page to write a review of what looks to be a solid book instead of working in his personal political agenda. That's what the editorial pages are for, not the book reviews.

If you want, you can read the full review here. If you don't already have a userid and password and don't want to sign up for one, try Bug Me Not.

Excelsior.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

Strange Lights in the Sky

Last night Miss L and I went to a fireworks display sponsored by the Kennedy Center. The display was designed by Cai Guo-Qiang, and chinese painter who's made a side career out of developing unique fireworks displays. The Kennedy Center developed a month long program of Chinese music and cultural events throughout all of October, and the fireworks last night kicked off the month.

Quite a number of people showed up. We arrived about ten minutes before the 9:50 p.m. start time, and the banks of the Potomac just to the side of the Kennedy Center were jammed tight, with people standing and sitting in lines all the way down to the bridge into Virginia several blocks away. The viewing patio at the Kennedy Center was likewise packed. There was a nice mix of people: families, adults, students killing some pre-party time wandering down from GWU.

The demonstration started when severall small boats pulling tiny platforms behind them tacked back and forth across the water. The platforms began shooting fireworks into the air above them as the boat continued their short journey, back and forth. The fireworks exploded above the boats as they moved, creating a dazzling line of color and light in the sky. One of the difficulties of the location is that the section of the Potomac the display was on sits directly underneath one of the main arrival patterns for airplanes coming into National Airport. The boats had to halt their air barrage from time to time when planes flew too low.

A good sized barge floated in the water directly across from the Kennedy Center to give us the finale, an "awesome tornado spiraling across and punctuating the sky". The barge shot off two barrages of exploding flowers of fire, explosions so loud I felt them reverberate in my chest and the echo that bounced off the buildings in nearby Georgetown was still pretty damn loud. But after those initial volleys they seemed to have severe technical problems. We waited it out for a good half hour, watching a police boat shuttling over to the barge, checking things out and then leaving the barge back by itself. I just hope no one was hurt. Despite the problems, it was quite a beautiful display for anyone who likes bright shiny objects dancing in the sky. And judging by the crowds, that's just about everyone.

Excelsior