Thursday, December 14, 2006

Status: Sleepy

Yep, I'm still around. I finished my final exam about 3:00 today and then headed off to work. All in all, I think it was a good semester for me. I did well grade-wise, but aside from that I feel like both of the classes I took this term---Ethics and Collection Development---were classes that I'll take with me the rest of my time in school and as a librarian. With all the rote memorization I had in my first two classes it was nice change of pace. From what I've heard, I'm probably back to memorization with my classes for the spring. We'll see, though. That's a few weeks away.

I have a few snippets coming up over the next few days, along with reviews for Joe Meno's The Boy Detective Fails, a Doom Patrol collection, and a collection of Emily Strange comics. But tonight I want to spend some quality time catching up with a friend I haven't seen in awhile. A good friend of mine named Sleep.

Until then,


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Nothing To See Here

I'm taking a break from the blog for a bit while the fall term finishes up with a full load of projects and final exams. If you're looking for lit events, check out Beltway for things in D.C. and the events page at the City Paper for Baltimore. I pull from a few other places they don't, but between the two it should give you plenty of options.

I should have a nice pile of reviews to post up after my break. I'll be back in 10-12 days. In the meantime keep reading, keep writing keep happy.


Friday, November 24, 2006

Review: Jack Absolute

For inspiration for his series of historical thriller/adventure stories author C.C. Humphreys reached back into literary history to a comedy popular in the late 1700’s, a play by James Sheridan called The Rivals. A comedy of mistaken identity and romance that ends in a heated duel, The Rivals was immensely popular both in Sheridan’s native England and in the colonies that would become the United States a few years later. It was even a favorite of George Washington.

Humphreys takes the main character of the “The Rivals”----a quick witted British soldier of wealth named Jack Absolute---and fleshes him out with codebreaking skills and knowledge of and sympathies for the natives of North America. At the starting point of the novel Jack Absolute, Absolute himself is pushing past middle age and trying to grow beyond his youthful days of wild adventure. He’s shifted his focus from pioneering and soldiering in the Americas to running business ventures in India, both to make some money and to renew honor to his family his own disreputable father lost decades earlier.

But this is also the midway point of the American Revolution. Absolute is pressured to drop his business activities by the British General Burgoyne, who wants to employ Absolute’s skills in codebreaking and espionage as well as exploit Absolute’s contacts with the native population of the Americas. With his Mohawk friend Até in tow, Absolute sets out to convince the various tribes to join with Britain in suppressing the revolt of the colonials. Along the way he trips through the battle of Saratoga, falls in love with the beautiful daughter of a colonial businessman and, finally, uncovers the main plot. Through his codebreaking Absolute learns of a secret organization called the Illuminati that seeks to cause destruction and demoralization on both sides of the conflict in the colonies, enabled them to pick up the pieces and rebuild the society with their own ideals.

Humphreys handles the historical aspects fairly well for what is essentially a pop-novel. We here state side don’t often read things from the Brit point of view of the Revolution, and he does a good job getting across those feelings. Seperatists, rebels, traitors….many of the same name calling and finger pointing that occurred then occured again during the US Civil War. The battle details don’t shy away from portraying death and violence, but do so without glorifying it or making it excessively gory. Appearances by minor historical characters like James Sheridan, General Burgoyne and Benedict Arnold add some thin layers of authenticity and color to the tale. Even the Illuminati plot makes some nice references to Masonic Rites and to the societal revolt in Bavaria led by Adam Weishaupt.

You do have to suspend a bit of disbelief when it comes to Absolute himself. All of his narrow escapes and fantastic skills reminds me of no other character more than James Bond----not surprisingly this novel was subtitled the 007 of the 1700’s when it first appeared in the UK a few years ago. He openly supports the ideas of the colonials but can’t separate himself from his loyalty to the crown. This unique fence sitting makes his perspective on the revolution fresh in that he sees villains on both sides of the conflict and provides a nice layer of complication to both is character and the direction of the novel.

The weakest aspect of the novel is that it tries to be all things to all people. The Illuminati plot lot functions like a mystery; while Humphreys works in some nice red herrings when we finally get to the master of the diabolical plot it is somewhat of a letdown (I won’t say exactly why, since that would spoil the ending). The historical aspects are nicely done, but probably don’t dig deep enough for someone wanting a full portrayal of the times and all the issues involved in the Revolutionary War.

The main reason---really the only reason---to read this novel is to watch Absolute in all his exploits: slick escapes colonial jails, codebreaking, sword duels. No matter how improbable they all are, they sure are fun to read.


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

A Rant on Reviews via Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon's new novel Against the Day, came out today. It's a good thing none of the stores in my immediate area had it in stock. I'm enough of a fan that I probably would have dropped the $35 if I found it on the shelf. Instead now I can wait a bit, at least until I get a coupon to cut the cost a bit. I know I'll buy it, though. I have a short list of novels I count as vastly important to me and Pynchon's the only one to have written more than one.

The literati hasn't been very receptive. The reviews thus far of Against the Day have been mixed at best, but two of them in particular jump out at me as two different ways of doing reviews.

Michiko Kakutani opens her review in the NY Times with this:

Thomas Pynchon’s new novel, “Against the Day,” reads like the sort of imitation of a Thomas Pynchon novel that a dogged but ungainly fan of this author’s might have written on quaaludes. It is a humongous, bloated jigsaw puzzle of a story, pretentious without being provocative, elliptical without being illuminating, complicated without being rewardingly complex. (NY Times, 11/20/06)

Steven Moore chose this approach for his review in the Washington Post:

Pynchon fans will accept this gift from the author with gratitude, but I'm not so sure about mainstream readers. While Against the Day isn't as difficult as some of Pynchon's other novels, its multiple story lines test the memory, and some folks may be scared off by the heady discussions of vectors, Brownian movements, zeta functions and so forth, not to mention words and phrases from a dozen languages scattered throughout....Not for everybody, perhaps, but those who climb aboard Pynchon's airship will have the ride of their lives. (Washington Post Book World, 11/19/06).

To me, a reviewer should principally do three things: 1) Summarize the main ideas, 2) write briefly on the good and bad points, and 3) suggest who would like it and maybe even who wouldn't. Kakutani, for whatever reason, chose to slam the novel in her opening paragraph. While she moves on to some interesting (and balanced) analysis of the strong themes and weak characters, many would abandon reading the rest of the review after that opening. Between this and the bad review they gave Only Revolutions, I may start thinking that a bad review in the NY Times means its the perfect book for me.

More critical analysis is certainly needed in reviews, but so is the understanding that tastes in books have ranges far greater than your own. Moore suggests other viewpoints, hinting that the audience for this novel is probably limited but that there is an audience nonetheless.

Would I be bitching about this if Kakutani raved about the novel? Probably not. I admit, I am slightly defending one of my literary idols. But Kakutani's method here is one I see in reviews all the time and it's really been bothering me lately.


Monday, November 20, 2006

Events for the Week

Listing of fiction and poetry events in the DC and Baltimore area for 11.20-11.26. Feel free to email me if you know of other events you feel should be listed here.

20 Monday

1 PM The Mid-Atlantic Mystery Writers of America's "Mystery Monday Lunchtime Series" hosts a discussion with Maureen Corrigan, book reviewer for NPR's "Fresh Air" program and a Book World mystery columnist. Chapters Literary Bookstore, 445 11th St. NW DC. 202-737-5553.

7 PM Drawing on her Palestinian-American heritage, the cultural diversity of her home in Texas, and her extensive travels throughout the U.S., Asia and the Middle East, “wandering poet” Naomi Shihab Nye uses her writing to attest to our shared humanity. Ms. Nye will deliver the Friends School Class of 2000 Lecture. Friends School of Baltimore, 5114 N. Charles St., Baltimore, Md. 410-649-3200

7 PM Naturalist writer Barry Lopez, author of Of Wolves and Men and the National Book Award-winning Arctic Dreams, discusses and signs the new anthology Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape: 45 writers and poets define words that describe America's land and water forms. Chapters Literary Bookstore, 445 11th St. NW DC. 202-737-5553.

7:30 PM The Folger Poetry Series presents a reading by Tess Gallagher, author of the collections Dear Ghosts and Moon Crossing Bridge. $12. Folger Shakespeare Library, 201 East Capitol St. SE DC A reception and signing follow. 202-544-7077.

21 Tuesday

7 PM Kinky Friedman reads from and signs The Christmas Pig: A Fable. Olsson's Books-Penn Quarter, 418 Seventh St. NW DC. 202-638-7610.

22 Wednesday

7 PM A Space Inside, with featured reader Eugenia Kim. Riverby Books, 417 E. Capitol St. SE DC. 202-543-4342.

23 Thursday

No readings, so go load up on waldorf salad and yams. Happy Thanksgiving!

24 Friday

Fridays at 8 p.m.
Ends Sunday, February 18
52 Fridays reading series continues with a Featured poet and open mic. Load Of Fun Studios, 120 W. North Ave., Baltimore, Md. 443-318-4762.

8 PM Bee Free Friday: a featured artist/open mic event showcasing the area's spoken word artists. $5 before 8 PM, $10 after. Teavolve, 1705 Eastern Ave., Baltimore, Md. 410-327-4832.

25 Saturday

5 PM Novelist Wayne Karlin and peace activist Lee Swenson read from and discuss their contributions to the new anthology Veterans of War, Veterans of Peace, edited by Maxine Hong Kingston. Busboys and Poets, 2021 14th St. NW DC. 202-387-7638.

26 Sunday

2 PM The Enoch Pratt library presents a discussion with the author Pearl Cleage on her book Some Things I Never Thought I'd Do. Enoch Pratt Free Library, Edmondson Avenue branch, 4330 Edmondson Ave. Baltimore, Md. 410-396-0946.

3 PM Kaza Kingsley reads from and signs her new young-adult fantasy novel, Erec Rex: The Dragon's Eye. Barnes & Noble-Rockville, 12089 Rockville Pike, Rockville, Md., 301-881-0237.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Danielewski on Segundo

Episode 79 of the Bat Segundo podcast show features an interview with Mark Danielewski. As always, the intros to his shows drive me crazy with the all-too-cute, faux shock-jockey. But once you get to the interview itself it's quite entertaining and informative. Definitely helps enlighten some aspects of Danielweski's new novel Only Revolutions, which I ranted about a scant two days ago. You don't need to have read the novel to follow the conversation, and I actually might suggest listening to it before reading it.


Sunday, November 12, 2006

Review: Only Revolutions

About six years ago Mark Danielewski put out one hell of a first novel called House of Leaves. Blending pieces of horror and pomo fiction, it delivered complicated techniques and ideas in ways that were very accessible. The novel became more than a cult following; it became a NY Times bestseller. Despite it’s accomplishments, HoL wears its influences like tattoos on sleeveless arms: Lovecraft, Straub, Delaney and especially Borges. It was easy to see where Danielewski’s ideas and styles were coming from.

His new novel Only Revolutions is quite different. While there are certainly influences that show through----WS Burroughs, EE Cummings, Walt Whitman, Jack Kerouac----OR feels more like his own book, like Danielsewski’s managed to cover up all the seams and make the material and concepts really his own. Unlike most reviews that focus on plot, this one inevitably has to focus on other concerns like style, concept and structure. So be forewarned. I write very little about what actually happens in the book plot-wise in and when I do, I do it without caring about giving things away like I normally would. Because, honestly, in a book like this it really doesn’t matter.

But what is the book about, you might ask?

In short, Sam and Hailey are two wild souls who meet and fall in love with each other. They circumnavigate the U.S. together in true road novel fashion, blasting down highways and dirt roads with complete abandon, caring little about anything save the thrill of speed and jars of honey the carry around for sustenance. Through the magic of fiction both characters remain sixteen years old forever, removing any sense of responsibility from them and imbuing them with an overpowering sense of freedom. The main conceit of the tale is that Sam and Hailey exist in different points in time; Sam’s story begins with the Civil War while Hailey’s opens with the assassination of JFK. The story is told from both points of view. Following the publisher’s forward, eight pages of Sam’s story are to be read first, then the volume needs to be flipped over and upside down and read in reverse for Hailey’s story.

Page 8, Sam's Story

This flip-flopping between time periods creates connections between events in time---all listed as marginalia---hinting at similarities between events occurring around the two main characters. The Civil War and the JFK assassination, for example, were both times of great political, cultural and societal change and linking these two events separated by 100 years suggests a cyclical progression to our nation. Danielewsi makes great use of dialects and cultural references of each period, and at times even mimics voices of writers from the day. Sam’s story, for example, starts in a lilting poetic voice that reminded me a lot of Walt Whitman. When we get to the 40’s and 50’s, the language is more jumpy and recalls beat poets and early rock and roll lyrics. I found, quite by accident, that it’s a novel that works much better when read aloud (although with all the sex I don’t suggest reading it aloud on the metro).

Page 8, Hailey's Story

It’s a structural masterpiece, with most of the structural conceits referencing circles. What occurs in Sam’s story on page eight also occurs on page eight of Hailey’s story, but with her own perspective and in her own time with its own cultural references giving a back-and-forth, spinning around feeling with the novel. The letter “O” is highlighted in different colors throughout the book, and there are constant references in the text to cyclones, tornados, gyres and twisters. If you choose to disregard the publisher’s suggestion and read Sam’s story straight through, when things end you’ll also find yourself back at the beginning when Hailey’s story starts on the last page of Sam’s. Even the act of physically flipping the book back and forth has an inherent circular motion. The book is precisely 360 pages long, equal to the number of degrees in a circle. Although the prose at first might seem loose and very WS Burroughs, it’s actually very controlled. Each segment on each page---meaning each half page---has exactly 90 words. After you’ve read each eight-page segment you’ve read 720 words and made yourself spin around two full times.

Much of the structure that happened in HoL---the intersecting storylines and the marginalia---could have been done in hypertext. I remember thinking as I read it that it probably should have been done in hypertext and that Danielewski put it into a standard novel form to sell it. But OR stresses the book as a physical artifact: the pages, the cover, the text. Each time you flip the book over to read the other side of the story D doesn’t just remind you that you are reading a book but forces you to interact with it. Book-ribbons to help mark your place in both storylines are not only helpful but increase the physical interaction with the book.

There are a few parts of the story that slowed down for me. For some reason I have yet to figure out, the two spend an inordinate amount of time working in a diner in St. Louis. With all the constant wild motion, they suddenly seemed trapped standing still for so long. From St. Louis they bounce through court-houses trying to get married---remember they are always sixteen---and ultimately get lost in the mountains during an ice storm. The last thirty pages are particularly powerful as we flip the book back and forth, seeing and feeling the reactions of Sam and Hailey as they see their loved one freeze to death in their arms.

I don’t know if my review here does the book justice. In fact, my thoughts on it probably muddle Danielewski’s skill more than enlighten it. Taken individually the techniques he uses are not particularly new; I’ve seen most if not all of them done before in poetry and experimental short fiction. But he stretches these techniques to the limit by applying them to a novel and creates a new fictional experience. OR is a novel that’s bound to launch the academic careers of many a literary theorist as they sit down to interpret everything Danielewski is doing.

If all of this sounds confusing to you, parts of it are. If you are a reader who looks only for the familiar, this is not the book for you. If, however, you are like me and enjoy being truly surprised by a writer’s invention I suggest picking it up for yourself. Ride along with Sam and Hailey. Run with them, revolve with them, forget any preconceptions of what fiction should be and enjoy the freedom of reading something entirely new.


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Apologies, and a Picture for No Good Reason

I apologize to those of you using a newsreader to track my ramblings. Apparently going back and adding in meta-tags re-posts the material, making it look like I had 48 posts in one day. Now I have my industrious spurts, but not that industrious. I'm working up some reviews of a few things, which should be up soon. In the meantime I leave you with the below image, taken from issue 46 of the DC Comics title Doom Patrol, written by Grant Morrison and art by Richard Case and Mark McKenna. I'm re-reading the issues in newly printed trade paperback Musclebound, which prints issues 42-50 of the series. If you don't know Doom Patrol, it's one of the wackier things DC ever put out. It's a superhero book, but a book with villains like the New New New Brotherhood of Dada. Re-reading this stuff is a true guilty pleasure.


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Libraries and Writers

I'll have to give my library system credit. They're under a mandate of sorts to embrace new technology, and they've now taken on audio clips of interviews with authors dubbed Bookcast. So far they seem to be writers of pop-oriented material who happen to live in the area (Melanie Jeschke, Donna Andrews, Caroline Kettlewell, and Christine Anderson). It might be a nice way for local authors to promote their projects. The interviews are all conducted by Sam Clay, director of the Fairfax County Libraries and are pretty light and fun.

I do have a few problems with it. The link is located well down towards the bottom of the front page of the library website; with something new they really need a banner promoting it. I'd like to see them perhaps tapping a little more deeply into the local writer community as well. Otherwise it will probably only get as much attention as the blog (which they do a nice job with) and myspace profile (which I don't see the point of).


Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Happy Halloween

Although we all dressed up like pirates at work today, the above mask is what I'm wearing tonight to scare all the princesses, frogs, superheroes and ninjas coming to my door tonight for candy. Despite the Hannibal Lecter quality, the mask came to me through my grandpa. It's a standard mask for pilots during WWII, used to help stave off the freezing cabin temperatures when you're flying in high altitudes.

Hope everyone does something fun and scary tonight.


Friday, October 27, 2006

When Ethics Slips In

The story I've been working on the past few weeks is a sf/horror rewrite of the Poe classic "The Masque of Red Death". I have it in the back of my head to do a full collection of Poe rewrites at some point, and I started with this one because I think it's one of Poe's weaker stories. I love the basic concept of the story and the allegory quality it has, but so much of the tale is told not shown. Aside from changing the setting and a lot of the surrounding circumstances, I'm trying to crack it open and impart a lot of the same type of information through scenes instead of narration. For the most part, I've really only been striving for creepy horror story about a disease destroying the population of Earth, but somewhere along the line metafiction and my recent forays into ethics have slipped in.

One little trick I often do when I just need to figure out the real subtext for a story is to stick two characters who are completes opposites in a room together and see what happens. In this story, those two are prince and the nut who comes to the part dressed as a plague victim. I've been working on the exchange between the two the last few days, mostly scribbles on scraps of paper when I had a quiet moment at work. I just finished typing it up, and somehow I eneded up with a four page debate between the two over the purpose of art. Not really sure where it came from, except from the ethics books I've been reading lately (particularly John Gardner's On Moral Fiction. Somehow I need to compact the four pages down to about 1/4 of a page. 1/2 a page at the most. We'll see how it goes.

Completely unrelated, but I finally bit the bullet and upgraded to the new Blogger Beta. Over the next few days, I'll be backtracking through all my old posts to add the meta-tags. It'll be tedious, but they aren't much use if they aren't used for everything I've written here.


Thursday, October 26, 2006

Review: The Beast Bowl

I was a little bit mystified when the magazine sent me Tom Chaikin’s novel Beast Bowl to review. I book featuring talking animals is cool, but a book featuring talking animals that play a giant football game every year? It’s no big secret that I’m not much of a sports fan, so I wasn’t sure I was the right person to read it. Despite that, I cracked open this young adult book, Chaikin’s first published novel, and had a hard time putting it down.

The basic premise is fantastic. Every year animals great and small from across the world set aside their natural differences to compete in a dramatic game of football dubbed the Beast Bowl. To the animals that compete---everything from powerful lions down to hopping kangaroos---playing in the Beast Bowl means respect throughout the animal kingdom. When the coach for the East Team retires, the team’s quarterback---an idealistic chimpanzee named Sammy the Slinging Simian----takes up the challenge to keep the team going. Along with his best friend Carl the Elephant, Sammy travels from Africa to the United States to recruit an out of work college football coach to run their failing team. There’s only one problem: speaking to a human will break one of their most sacred laws of the animal kingdom and may mean banishment for the two travelers. For Sammy and the East Team to succeed animals and man will have to learn to trust and respect each other for the first time in hundreds of years.

The only real weakness of the novel is John, the human coach recruited by Sammy and Carl. Early on, he is framed by his employer to cover up the unethical recruiting practices of the college. We are told by a few he’s one of the best coaches in the world but we never really get to see why until the end. I also had a hard time believing that he would leave his wife and daughter at home while he trotted off to Africa to coach a football team of animals. It could be argued that Beast Bowl is not John’s story but Sammy’s and we don’t need that much depth in John to tell the real tale. But with a little tweaking this could have really been both Sammy’s and John’s story and would have been made all the more powerful for it.

Fortunately, Sammy’s story is really compelling. His motivations to save his team are clear and quite well done and the way he sneaks across continents is quite clever (I won’t give it away, because it’s one of the true pleasures of the novel). The sport aspect is also handled very well; from the quick thinking tactics of a quarterback to the severe body blows of a lineman Chaikin writes with enough knowledge to satisfy the pickiest of sports fans and yet uses enough humor and dramatic flair to appeal to readers who don’t know the difference between a safety and a field goal. It has great appeal to teens. Nearly every time I was reading it in a public place some teenager, both boys and girls, came up to me and asked me if it was good and what it was about. Most seemed really excited by the idea of a sports story with talking animals.

But Chaikin delivers more than a sports story. The tale shifts into a court trial of sorts, and its s trial that causes the animal world to reconsider how they interact with the human world. Well plotted and delivered through memorable characters, Beast Bowl comes together as a clever and thoughtful parable on mankind’s responsibilities to both the natural world and each other.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Review: Quick Fiction Number 9

Okay, I admit it. I really only picked up issue 9 of Quick Fiction because Kim Addonizio's in it. But I have to say, I found myself impressed again and again by all the work in this pocket-sized lit mag.

Billing itself as a venue for stories of 500 words or less, I started reading with a little bit of skepticism. For about a little over a decade now publishers have been printing teeny-tiny short stories----sometimes dubbed short-shorts or flash fiction----in books and lit mags. They are damn tough to do well, so I often find them fun to read once but not offering much reason to come back to them again and again. More than one time I've wondered if publishers and editors started the trend mainly to publish more authors and, hopefully, get more readers.

The stories in this particular issue ran the full gamut of short fiction: traditional stories with a beginning, a middle and an end, anecdotes, and formalistic experimental pieces. Some, like John Ellingsworth's "One Novel as Auto-Summarized by Microsoft Word, Reducing 31,000 words to 24, Losing None of Its Nuance Nor Delicious Homoeroticism, and Gaining Even a Kind of Terse, Sad Poetry, the Author Thinks" are just goofy fun. Sue Allison's "Second Chances in the Old People's Home" is more traditional but manages to dig into some surprising layers of character for such a short space. Not surprisingly, Addonizio's "Crash" approaches things like a short narrative poem, building image after image to shoot a pretty grisly scene at the reader. While the short lengths of all the pieces suited my current (ie short) attention span, I found myself marking phrases and re-reading pieces more than I have in some time. The editors have exerted real quality control here, publishing work with real purpose behind it and not just putting out short pieces to be quirky or trendy.

For fellow writers, this is a great market if you have a real talent for tiny, tight fiction. With the quality so high the competition would be pretty stiff, but I'd be more than honored to find my own name---my real name---in the contributors list someday. Not likely, since my stories seem to get lengthier the more I write, but you never know.


Saturday, October 21, 2006

Tech Stuff

I've been slow to update things here lately because I've been playing with audio software. Ever since the summer when I hit the Balticon SF Convention, I've had it in the back of my mind to add some sort of podcast component for the space here. Not every day or even every week, but maybe on a montly basis. Instead of reviews or random rants I plan to use them for personal essays dealing with art, writing, etc. For example, the one I've been playing with the last two weeks is all about the brief but very odd relationship I had with John S. Hall, frontman for the band King Missile. It started out in email, and then phone. It got really strange and pretty much ended when we met in person.

But I'm getting away from my point here.

I have a pretty good first podcast set up, content-wise. And I've worked in some musical clips as background that I think work pretty well. What's been bugging me is the low quality of the recordings of my own voice. If anyone out there who's done a little experimenting, I'm looking for a cheap microphone (preferably under $30) that can plug into a USB or firewire port. Any suggestions appreciated.

If Miss L lets me work on my laptop tonight after she goes to bed, I should have some new reviews up here soon.


Friday, October 13, 2006


I took time away today from studying, researching and writing to head up to North Bethesda for the annual SPXPO. Although essentially a comic book convention, It is a con with a twist. SPXPO specifically supports indie publishers and creators, and is also the home of the Ignatz awards---quite a big deal in the cartooning community.

Populated with the large bearded fellows who make up so much of any comic book con, SPXPO also hosts punk rock types, indie rock kids, aging hipsters and even a few open minded guys and gals in suits. Rows and rows of tables hosted by dealers, publishers, writers, artists and cartoonists stretched out in every visible direction in the conference room. Although there were a few examples of super-hero and fantasy comics, the wares were mostly made up of indie-spirited producers creating unique visions. Visions of true to life stories, retellings of epic myths like Gilgamesh, clever surrealist expeiments, and even text-heavy comics explaining the lives and thoughts of major philosophers. Big name indie presses---Fantagraphics, Drawn and Quarterly, Top Shelf---were all there but it was more made up by dozens and dozens of smaller publishers I've never heard of.

I was a little but overwhelmed by it all.

In fact, I was so overwhelmed after making one full lap around the room I walked back out. Not to leave, but to get my bearings. I pulled out my handy dandy brochure, circled tables I knew I wanted to check out and then strolled back in, armed with somewhat of a purpose.

I wandered and met Craig Thompson, who is every bit as nice as he seems in his own comics. Rob G of Gigantic Books was also pretty cool, although in a very different way. I even got to play a little on a computer demo for some comics-creating software that uses clip art and pre-packaged shapes for panels. Even though I had no idea what I was doing it was still fun.

It was really too crowded to do much browsing of new titles, so I took a lot of notes for my next trip to Atomic Books. In the end, I only bought two things. One was the most recent issue of Mome, a great ongoing set of anthologies pulled together by a certifiably wacky team of cartoonists. I also picked up a collection by Paul Hornschemeier, whose book Mother, Come Home still sits as one of the most devastatingly beautiful stories I've ever read.

It's too bad I have to work tomorrow, because otherwise I would go back to take in the panel discussions happening throughout the day. With topics like web comics and selling your first book, I think it would have been a lot of fun. There's always next year.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Review: Fortress of Ice

CJ Cherryh’s newest novel Fortress of Ice marks her return to high fantasy as the fifth book in her acclaimed Fortress series. It’s been sixteen years since the final moments of Fortress of Dragons and Cefwen now sits on the throne as the just ruler of a tenuously united kingdom. He begins to look toward a future filled with the promise of good things he sees in his two sons: Aewyn, the fifteen-year-old rightful heir to the throne, and Elfwyn, an illegitimate child of Cefwyn and the dark sorceress Tarien Aswydd. Raised by the good witch Gran, Elfwyn grew up unaware of his noble lineage. But at fifteen Cefwyn claims Elfwyn and takes him to live at the capitol, where he becomes fast friends with his half-brother. As much as Elfwyn enjoys his new life the dark side of his parentage constantly pulls on him to release some powerful magic that could destroy everything Cefwyn worked so hard to create.

Eflwyn’s character, teetering so desperately between two very different paths, will draw in readers through a dramatic and sometimes magical coming of age story. Much of the early parts of the book rely on political intrigue and constant references to history of the land; fortunately Cherryh wisely includes a short introduction that provides a quick summary of the back-story for readers new to the series. The remaining action focuses on Elfwyn and his search for his own path. The action overall is well plotted and fast moving, and Cherryh's controlled prose works effectively alongside her ideas. Where I feel like the book falls apart, though, is at the ending. When finally confronted with the true evil behind all the dark plotting, the conversation might as well be this:

Evil Person says, "You will bow before me and further my plans to bend the kingdom to my mighty will. Hahahaha!"

Elfwyn responds with, "Screw you, jack!"

Cherryh's approach is not quite that simplified, nor as bluntly snotty, but you get the idea. At no point is Elfwyn really tempted or confused by the evil. Sure, there are points at which he's manipulated but it's made pretty clear that he's not under control of himself at those moments. It never enters Elfwyn's mind that the evil way is better, that he or even the kingdom could be better off if he--ahem--went to the dark side. It all makes the real struggle of the novel---the internal struggle for Elfwyn to find out who he really is---pretty mundane. To her credit, I think Cherry's main intent was to create a compelling commercial novel, and Fortress of Ice will definitely satisfy anyone looking for a fast read. But anyone looking for fantasy to do a bit more needs to look elsewhere.


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Review: The Squirrel Mother Stories

With characters drawn in clean, cartoony lines and colored in soft pastels, you might think Megan Kelso’s comic strips would sit comfortably on the Sunday Funnies page somewhere between Cathy and Family Circus. But her new book The Squirrel Mother Stories collects comics of a different variety. Not different so much because Kelso tackles more serious subjects, delivers thoughtful dialogue, or creates memorable characters. While she certainly does all of these things Kelso’s real skill lies in the way she lets her stories grow seemingly on their own. Instead of ending each tale with a sudden quip or an obvious “Aha!” moment, these fourteen stories, ranging from fiction to memoir to historical essay, build slowly, panel by panel. You are never quite sure which direction she’s going, but when Kelso gets you to the last panel everything suddenly makes sense.

“Meow Face”, for example, shows us how the heart-wrenching story of a young girl being purposefully locked out of the house by her own aunt becomes the singular moment that defines the girl’s adult life. Two separate but related pieces---“Publius” and “The Duel”---start out as simple character studies of historical figures like Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, but develop into thoughtful explorations on not just our history but where society is now.

The complexity and depth Kelso delivers in such a small space puts her writing more in the league of short story authors like Alice Munro. Her approach can be a little too subtle at times(I had to read some of the tales a couple of times to fully get what was going on). The point of her tales can be a bit difficult to follow for anyone just looking for a fun read, but those readers willing to dig into the layers of subtext will find a unique vision well worth experiencing. Kelso’s bio lists a novel-length work coming out in 2007 and I can’t wait to see what she’s able to do with more space.

**Special note: The faded quality of these images is the fault of my camera and my low quality image editing software. Someday I'll invest in a scanner, but not today. For better quality images, check out Kelso's own website


Friday, September 22, 2006

Review: An Open Entrance to the Shut Palace of Wrong Numbers

When most people hear the word Surrealism they think of the powerful visual images created by the painters who followed the practices of the group. Dali’s melting watches, Magritte’s businessmen with their bowler hats standing amidst a perplexing landscape…It’s understandable, because so many of the images are startling, fun, dirty, and childlike. Often all at once. But most of the core members of the Surrealists, including the group’s self-appointed leader Andre Breton, were poets. They played and experimented with many of the same ideas in text that the painters explored on the canvas.

One of the few American-born Surrealists, at least one of the few that I know of, is Franklin Rosemont. Although best known for collecting and editing material for books like What Is Surrealism, Rosemont is a poet, essayist, thinker and cultural provocateur in his own right. His most recent book An Open Entrance to the Shut Palace of Wrong Numbers collects a series of short essays using the theme of wrong number phone calls as a framework.

We’ve all had them. Those irritating telephone calls that break us away from whatever we happen to be doing----reading, writing, sleeping, watching t.v.----and end up being a complete waste of our time. The only thing worse is a telemarketer. How and why could this little piece of life experience be worth exploring? Rosemont sez:

Any sudden ringing of the phone inevitably arouses one’s sense of anticipation, but in a Wrong Number it is an unknown voice that speaks, and it utters the unexpected. The recipient of the Wrong Number finds himself/herself to be the unwelcome intruder between two unknowns. The voice that calls and the name it pronounces remain forever faceless and formless for the one who answers. Despite their brevity, therefore, Wrong Numbers are acute moments of derealization…..The Wrong Number is an essentially irrational experience, all the more disturbingly so because it is also concrete. (Rosemont, 10)

For this reason Rosemont entered into an experiment tracking all the wrong number phone calls he received for close to thirty years. I do stress, however, that he admits his study is not very scientific. Many of his notes were scribbled on scraps of paper, a number of which have been lost. Others were scratched out late at night with the lights off and remain, to this day, completely unreadable. Some of his notes just briefly describe the call while others show Rosemont acting on things, trying to coax the stranger into an even odder conversational experience. After defining the basic purpose of his book a series of personal essays, commentary and critical theory move on to expose and explore his idea more deeply.

The early parts of the book unfold like an autobiography as he tries to explain why and how this concept became so important to him. We first see Rosemont as a teenager hitchhiking from Chicago to San Francisco in the early 1960’s so he could take in the Beat Poetry scene. From there we learn about his early exposure to Surrealism, his first correspondences with and even meeting important Surrealists like Claude Tarnaud, Nicolas Calas and Breton. Later we get a few hints on Rosemont’s founding of the U.S. arm of Surrealism in Chicago (which, according to this website anyway, is still doing quite well, thank you very much). Written with a very light tone, these sections draw a fun portrait of the art world of the time.

The whole idea of the wrong number phone call really works quite well as a metaphor for Surrealism. What’s often left out in a definition of Surrealism is that it involved a lot more than the exploration of dreams. It was a direct reaction to the ideas of rational thought that dominated so much of the 19th century; the Surrealists felt rational thought was all fine and good, but it only told part of the story of this thing we call reality. As a group and individually they explored Gnosticsim, mythology, spirituality, random chance and anything else they could get there hands on to get them and their audience thinking and feeling in a different way.

As Rosemont’s essays move forward they start connecting wrong numbers to seemingly anything and everything they possibly can: Bugs Bunny, Marxist theory, Noir films, bebop jazz, alchemy, H.P. Lovecraft, Jacques Vache, etc, etc. It’s interesting and fun for a time. His overall approach is pretty light and humorous for the most…but it does wear on you after a time. The repetitive nature of the book probably makes it better to read in small doses and not 50 or so pages at a time like I did. I definitely plan on keeping this book on my shelf and will probably even look for some of Rosemont’s poetry. As for recommending it to others, it’s an understatement to call it a niche book. But if you like oddball cultural theory you might enjoy it. If nothing else, it makes you appreciate the Surrealist movement a little more and gets you looking at your own life in a slightly different way.

As a final aside, I will say the day I started reading this book I was visiting Miss L in Baltimore. While I was there she received two wrong number calls in the same day, one on her cell phone for someone named Tony and another on her home phone from a lawyer’s office seeking someone regarding their past jail time (Miss L swears to me she’s never spent a day in the clink). In the past week I received six wrong number calls myself, one of them received on my cell phone while writing this review. Coincidence? Probably. But I can’t honestly remember the last time I received a single wrong number, much less six so close together. I will admit to maybe just not paying attention, but it’s enough to make me think that there just might be something to all of Rosemont’s odd little ideas.

Dial carefully.


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Ethics and Art

I apologize for the scatter-brain nature of this post. This issue is new to me, and I'm still exploring my thoughts. Any comments are welcome and appreciated.

I signed up for the ethics class this term with the expectation that it would push me and my thoughts in directions I'm not used to going. So far, it hasn't been a disappointment. We've read things by Rilke, Sappho, St. Augustine, Martin Luther King, Jr, and the United Nations. Two key things seem to pop out of virtually everything we read and discuss.

1. Ethics develops out of contemplative thought both prior to and following your own actions.

2. Rights are not granted by a government, a religion or any other instituion. Each and every person needs to be viewed as an equal in regards to rights and the level of respect they should receive.

Which all makes sense in a touchy-feely, happy-go-lucky kind of way. It's nice to theorize about, but difficult to put into practice within your own life. Since the class started I've found myself questioning how I view people and why. I've also been writing a lot more in my journal.

One of the key documents we've read is "Towards a Global Ethic", put out by the Council for a Parliament of the World's Religions. There core purpose is to push for a system of rights based around the religions of the world, to create a recognized system for institutions to follow not matter what God, or Gods, they believe in---or even don't believe in.

The document reads like a legal document. It begins by listing the rights each and every person has just for being alive, and then breaks down the responsibilities different facets of society has to uphold the balance of rights. Things like the right to the best education possible, the right to own property, the right to raise a family are all key points that are clearly explored. But one short paragraph above all continues to stick with me.

For artists, writers and scientists, to whom we trust artistic and academic freedom. They are not exempt from general, ethical standards and must serve the truth.

The obvious angle of these two short sentences is simple: don't purposefully lie. But I don't know if it's enough to stop there. Artist need to seek out the truth and express it however best they can. This can take many forms...showing examples of inequalities in the world, showing methods for improving mankind and the world around them, or even just creating quiet beauty to bring calm contemplation to those willing to slow down enough to experience it.

Is it enough to write material that's just fun and entertaining? The piece I'm working on now is basically an sf/horror rewrite of the Poe classic "The Masque of Red Death". If I get this one to work, I actually have it in the back of my head that I should do a full collection of Poe rewrites. But if the pieces aren't about anything, if they aren't challenging pieces of the world that I see and feel are wrong do I have any business writing them down? A month ago I would have said sure, no problem. But now I'm not so sure.

We'll be doing a lot more reading over the term, but to help myself along I checked out the John Gardner classic On Moral Fiction from the library today. While I don't expect Gardner to give me all the answers I'm searching for, I hope he will at least help me start asking and exploring some better questions.


Friday, September 15, 2006

Random Links

Brian K. Vaughan, comics author of one of my favorite series Y: The Last Man, is interviewed on NPR's Talk of the Nation for his new project The Pride of Baghdad.

The Shortlist for the Man-Booker Prize is up. Have many have I read? None.

File this one under the category of "Huh?" Talks of a film version of Saragmago's novel Blindness.

Some threads of homophobia at Marvel Comics are picked up on in a recent review on Super Underwear Perverts. The most telling paragraph:

The answer is spelled-out very clearly on the last page of the story, as the Crusader, having skipped his best-friend Curtis' funeral, is shown basking in the attention of two 'lovely', ring-conjured, extremely subservient Skrull ladies, who are climbing all over him and feeding him by hand. You see boys-and-girls, the skrull is a dedicated heterosexual. As are all the other superheroes and supervillans of this tale, and so they get to survive to fight again, no matter how stumbling, bumbling, sexist, selfish, insane, evil, murderous or downright psychotic they might be.

New Litmag Temenos looks promising, and they are searching for new work!

Because Brad Meltzer doesn't have enough money, his new book is now advertised on a Nascar.

Jeff at And I Am Not Lying for Real writes on the growing phenomenon of scarification. Warning for those apt to get quesy: some of the images are graphic, bloody and disturbing.

Google joins the ALA with a new page on banned book week (starting on the 23rd this month). It's a terrifying reminder seeing all these titles listed together and why people fear them.

The Sobol Award offers $100k for the best new unpublished, unagented novel. Worth a shot if you have a book taking up space in the sock drawer.

The Nation writes an excellent article on how librarians are defending various citizen rights tied to information. Just one of the reasons I'm moving into the field.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Review: Stagger Lee

It’s Christmas Eve, 1895. In a sleazy bar in St. Louis, Lee “Stagger” Shelton just shot and killed Billy Lyons for touching his Stetson hat. This is the simple beginning to the ever-evolving urban legend of Stagger Lee. The story was picked up and used in song lyrics by old blues masters like John Hurt. From there it passed from mouth to mouth on the streets, prisons and bars all the way on to musicians like folk singer Arlo Guthrie, R&B artist Lloyd Price, contemporary post-pop maestro Beck, and postpunk songwriter Nick Cave. The legend of Stagger Lee changed with each interpretation, with each artist turning the story into tales of redemption, revenge, violence and even justice (note that some of the following images are links; clicking on them will take you to a slightly larger version of the same image for those interested).

click image to open large version

Writer Derek McCulluch and artist Shepherd Hendrix have joined their talents to turn this odd legend into an unusual and gripping graphic novel. Part cultural essay and part dramatic narrative, their book mixes fact, critical interpretation and fictionalized accounts to tell a more believable version of Stagger’s story. The main plot focuses on the courtroom drama of Stagger’s trial, while side stories of political intrigue, racism and romance broaden and deepen the already rich themes. The black and white artwork done by Hendrix, with its straightforward, realistic approach, works well alongside the pseudo-documentary style of McCulloch’s narrative.

Click image to open large version

McCulloch occasionally breaks up the story with looks at different song lyrics and versions of Stagger’s legend; while these can get a little distracting, those willing to work through them will find them both informative and enlightening. One interesting aspect is that white artists always portray Stagger as the villain; black artists would sometimes portray him that way, but others would show Stagger as a man defending himself or even a victim of circumstance. Some versions even feel shockingly similar to today’s image of the hiphop gansta. Hendrix’s artwork becomes more cartoony during these essay sections, highlighting the over-the-top interpretations many musicians put Stagger through.

Click image to open large version

In reality we know very little of what actually happened. The only hard evidence comes from a small newspaper article in a St. Louis paper and Stagger’s arrest record (check out the Wikipedia Article for more details). The rest of what we know come from the songs. Much of what McCulluch puts into narrative----the court trial, the political scandal, a love story between a prostitute and a piano player who puts the story to song----are pieces of fiction based loosely on the real events. If done in a traditional novel this mix of fact of fiction would probably garner comparisons to authors like Don Delillo.

Click image to open large version

But since we are dealing with comics here the most appropriate comparison seems to be Will Eisner himself. Like Eisner, McCulloch is experimenting within the medium of comics. And much like Eisner, with experimentation come some small stumbles, particularly in regards to pacing. But these small stumbles don’t overcome what is otherwise a thoughtful and memorable work that examines the truth behind an unusual urban legend as well as offering a well-informed lesson on the importance of our national stories and how much we can learn from them.


Monday, September 11, 2006

Gargoyle Turns 30

If that book cover looks like a big party, it is. Longtime DC litmag Gargoyle turned 30 last month, and yesterday's party at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, Md. was held to celebrate both the mag's 51st issue as well as its move into middle-age. Readers for the landmark event included Sarah Browning, Virginia Crawford, Sunil Freeman, Jennifer Gresham, Tod Ibrahim, Reuben Jackson, Gerry LaFemina, Nathan Leslie, Lyn Lifshin, Mel Nichols, Sam Schmidt, Ross Taylor, Venus Thrash, and Angel Threatt.

I don't know if it was because of competing lit events like the Poets Against the War reading in downtown D.C. or the opening of football season, but the turnout was odd. Out of roughly 35 people, I'm pretty sure I was one of maybe three people under forty. It was still fun, though. After everyone had their jokes at poor Gargoyle's expense----everything from "You can't trust anyone over 30" to "Gargoyle doesn't look a day over 25---many of the readers made links with their work to 9-11 and all the related events and feelings following and surrounding that day. The most telling, I felt, we're the words given by Venus Thrash who said she witnesses terrorism almost everyday in PG County. She sees it whenever she finds someone's home, car or business damaged, destroyed or vandalized because of their ethnicity or religion and wished the administration would focus a bit more on handling the problems at home.

Editor Richard Peabody provided a lovely cake with frosting done to match the cover of Gargoyle 51. The unhealthy dose of sugar revitalized everyone and helped get people socializing after the reading. I hobnobbed and pressed the flesh a little, and even met a couple of editors for local mags who hit me up for some of my fiction. It was a not-so-subtle reminder of how much the biz of publishing is done through networking. After meeting them, they both gave me their personal emails and, with an wink, said, "Send it here....I pay more attention to the submissions I get through this than I do the email address on the website."

For any of you who missed the event, please visit Gargoyle Magazine to order the new issue. Based solely on what I heard at the reading, it looks to be a fabulous issue. Other than the new Gargoyle I also picked up the newest issue of the Potomac Review, as well as two teeny tiny little lit mags called Quick Fiction and Stray Dogs. With two classes, a job and an ever-growing pile of stuff to read I have no idea when I'll actually get to them. But when I do I'll toss some sort of little write-up here. Until then....


Friday, September 08, 2006

Review: Wolfboy

This review for Evan Kuhlman’s Wolfboy was tough for me to write. There’s a lot about this novel that I liked, but every time I wrote a review it came across as largely negative. Which wasn’t how I felt at all while reading it. I say this with a word of warning to the reader, and as an apology to Mr. Kuhlman in the unlikely event he stumbles through here. I think I’ve worked out all the kinks, but it’s quite possible I didn’t.

This novel, set in the early 1990’s, opens with the death of Francis Harrelson. Or, rather, it opens just after the death of Francis Harrelson, who dies in a car crash one snowy night on his way back to college after winter break. The following 300 or so pages focus on the four remaining members of the family and how they make those first difficult steps towards recovery.

Each one of them deals with the loss of Francis in their own special way. Mom, who looked to Francis as her closest friend, has trouble dealing with the anger. She eventually becomes violent after a computer error causes the county to send her multiple copies of her son’s death notice. The father retreats to his job at his handmade furniture store and has an affair with his accountant. Little sister Crispy dives headfirst into an obsession with Marky Mark. Yes, of the Funky Bunch. Although just a little girl her obsession drives her to run away from home on her bicycle with hopes of meeting him in person at a concert several hundred miles away, thinking he’ll not only fall in love with her but take her away from all the difficulties at home.

And then there’s Stephen, who is the main character of this story if there is one. Smart, athletic, confident---Francis was the pinnacle of older brothers and, naturally, Stephen idolized him. After his brother died Stephen became angry with everyone and everything. Angry at the driver who killed Francis, angry his parents for not being able to stop it, and even angry at God for letting his brother die when he still had so much life to live. The characters are all well developed, especially Stephen and Crispy. Kuhlman has a real knack for conveying the odd mixture of intelligence and confusion kids so often have. The adults sometimes come off a little more as types, but there involvement in the story is much smaller so it didn’t bother me particularly.

About 1/3 into the story, Stephen’s mother sends him to talk to the town minister to help get out his feelings. The minister counsels young Stephen to find a creative outlet for his feelings. Being a kid just entering the confusing life of a teenager, Stephen picks an art form he knows and loves: comic books. He develops some wild stories about a teenager named Wolfboy who can turn into a werewolf and uses his powers to fight crime throughout the universe. After getting the first couple of tales scripted out he convinces his talented girlfriend Nicole (who I would have been madly in love with as a teen) into doing the artwork. They work together, create a few issues and even sell some through the local bookstore. Kuhlman includes a few of their strips as the main gimmick or hook of the novel.

I give Kuhlman credit for developing comic book storylines that are both thoughtful and funny; the comic book tales included are an odd pastiche of ideas borrowed from comics writers like Paul Chadwick (Concrete) and Kurt Busiek (Astro City) who recreate the superhero genre with a light touch of indie flair. The artwork done by Brendan and Brian Fraim is all black and white, its hard lines with dramatic frames and poses making a link with superhero comics done in the late 80’s and early 90’s (pre-Todd MacFarlane, for fellow comics geeks). Which makes sense, because it’s the style both Stephen and Nicole would have grown up with and known.

As the comic book part of the novel progresses it becomes an obvious mirror for Stephen’s own life. Wolfboy loses his own brother and faces many of the same feelings and frustrations Stephen feels. At one point Wolfboy questions God and finds that God is likewise torn apart with anguish of his own so severely he can’t help anyone on Earth. Wolfboy’s mother, who we find out is really an android, is overwhelmed by the loss of her son and the pain causes her circuitry to short out. The reference to Stephen’s own mother becomes increasingly obvious as the main story continues. This is the real magic of the book. While the inclusion of comics in his novel may seem gimmicky on the surface but the way Kuhlman uses the gimmick proves very effective and moving. By treating comics as serious artform, albeit in a fun way, Kuhlman shows us the power of the creative process and how it can help us not just get though the painful moments of life but also reach some level of understanding.

The one real failing of the book is that I wanted more. Multiple viewpoints and only getting to see the family for about a year’s time only lets Kuhlman get so deep into the powerful issues he’s digging into. The novel could have been more powerful if it focused more on Stephen and didn’t include the distractions of the other characters. But by the end we do get a sense that Harrelsons, and Stephen in particular, will not just be moving on but will find a way to learn from Francis’s death to better themselves. What we see is fabulous; it’s just unfortunate that we don’t get to see the journey continue a little further.


Sunday, September 03, 2006

Random Rilke

I'm out of town for the holiday weekend. Unlike most I'm not dodging Seagulls at Ocean City or falling asleep at Bethany, but living it up somewhere deep in New Jersey for a wedding. Not mine, I promise. I would have written something a little more about it before now if I was getting married.

During my travels up above the Mason-Dixon line, I've been reading the first assignment for my Library Ethics class: it's a teeny little book called Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke. How I've missed this little gem for so long I'll never know. Essentially, it's a series of ten short letters to an aspiring poet who attended the same millitary academy Rilke did. It's easy to read, very conversational, and, like Rilke's poetry, filled with little nuggets of wisdom for artists specifically, but also for people in general.

You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything now. Live the questions.

This is, I'm guessing, one of the key points for our class. To begin asking those big questions we're all too often afraid to confront. But it's a great point for any writer. Not so much what does my story, my essay, my poem answer but what does it ask? What journey can it send its reader onto that they will never forget? Thath for me is the difference between a book that's a good read and a book that's a great work of art. All good works find a way to do this, and I don't think it's something that can really be taught. You either learn it on your own or you never learn it. I just need to figure out how for myself.

Hope everyone enjoys the holiday.


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Panel Discussion Recap

Yesterday's graphic novel panel discussion for the librarians went pretty well. The whole meeting was kicked off by Michael Wallace, a speaker hired through the YALSA who has a background in working with teens and has a love for graphic novels and comics. He started out talking about youth services and what role or roles public libraries have to play in regards to them.

His main focus seemed to sit on using graphic novels to get kids reading, especially kids who have trouble reading. He made an interesting point in regards to reading comprehension, that the most difficult thing to teach is how to make connections between different ideas by simply using words. If I understood his presentation, graphic novels can serve as a middle ground between picture books and books without pictures. He didn't seem to focus much at all on the artistic merits of the medium, although he did mention Maus winning the Pulitzer for literature. In his defense, though, he ran short on time. It was easy to tell he was used to speaking longer than the 45 minutes the meeting allowed him.

The panel discussion itself went pretty much how I thought it would. The panel was comprised of one guy who really knows superhero comics, another who really knows manga, a woman who knows manga fairly well, and little old me. Since my main interest is more on the indie side of things, it was a nice balance and I think we presented some good titles to them. The librarians were pretty receptive to hearing about graphic novels we all personally like, even the librarians who don't think much of the form. One comment I made that seemed to stick with them was that comics are a medium of expression, not a genre within a medium. While I can't take credit for the thought (I think I stole it from Scott McCloud, but I'm not sure) it's one that's important to remember. Especially with recent comics like the graphic version of the 9/11 report that just came out.

At the end, several from the audience came up, thanked us and asked for our emails to hit us up with questions. The four of us on the panel decided we'd like to try to get together again in a few months and maybe develop a e-newsletter of some sort to suggest new titles. I liked everyone in the group, so it would nice to stay in touch with them.

Only somewhat related, one of my classes this coming term for library school is on collection development. If we have any large projects I'm hoping to be able to use graphic novels in some way. Since it's still a growing field for libraries, I'm starting to think it might be a good area to get involved in.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Review: Beguilement: Book One of the Sharing Knife

Hugo Award winner Lois McMaster Bujold returns with the first volume of her newest series, The Sharing Knife. Her previous work, from The Curse of Chalion (Eos, 2001) all the way to The Hallowed Hunt (Eos, 2005), walks a fine line between fast-paced action of quest fantasy and character driven stories of romance. Here Bujold pushes the fantasy more to the background, making the developing romance between the main characters of Dag and Fawn the primary story.

This is not to say the novel is without action. The two lovers meet when the wandering adventurer Dag rescues the farmer’s daughter Fawn from a Malice, a powerful demonic creature capable of bending the wills and flesh of others to its own. Dag, part of a tribe called Lakewalkers, uses special knives enchanted upon the death of its owner to destroy the demon. During her capture, Fawn’s unborn child is killed somehow enchanting one of Dag’s blades. This baffling mystery links the two together as they try to find out the secrets of the new special Sharing Knife.
While there is other action and drama throughout the story, good or bad the end result is that the events seem built for the singular purpose to push Dag and Fawn together. This is a big shift for fans of her other books, who will expect layers of political intrigue and thrilling action alongside the love story. This almost total focus on the love story places the whole weight of the novel on Bujold’s ability to make the two lovers compelling characters. The perspective shifts between both Fawn and Dag, allowing us to see from both sides how their relationship builds and grows. While the basic plot does venture into bodice-ripper territory, the book is saved from this by a strong command of language and an ability to deliver powerful emotions in a believable manner.
A side issue seems to be the (very) light feminist touch to the tale. Fawn is an 18 year old runaway, a young unmarried woman who left home when faced with an embarrassing, unwanted pregnancy. While she needed Dag to save her from both the Malice and the trap of her former life, there are hints that she’s becoming a stronger, more independent spirit. Back at home she had no control over her own life, but with Dag she opens up and shows sighs of real intelligence, determination and character. While I doubt a full series like this can be carried based solely around a romantic relationship, I do have hopes that increasing the strength and power of Fawn’s character can. But we won’t know for sure which way Bujold will go until the next volume.


Friday, August 25, 2006

random links

How in the world did I miss this? Baltimore had a Zombie Prom last weekend? You can see the photos on a flckr account.

Congrats to heb favorite Matt Briggs for winning a American Book Award this year for his novel Shoot the Buffalo. If you haven't read it yet, you really should. One of the best books I've read in the past year.

Author Ed Willett writes one of the better defenses for sf that I've seen for awhile in his essay In praise of science fiction writing. My favorite part:

To tell stories of alternate worlds, you need ways to get to those worlds, or explanations for why they are the way they are -- and that's where the scientifically faster-than-light travel and time machines and telepathy and other such conceits come into play. So why write these stories of alternate worlds? Because by doing so, science fiction writers are able to say things about our own world that, because of the unusual setting, sneak by the defences and prejudices of readers and cause them to think thoughts they might not have otherwise thought.

This round's Quarterly Conversation is really tight, with a Murakami roundtable, a comic book style appreciation of Gilbert Sorrentino, and a review of Clarie Messud's The Emperor's Children.

Rudy Rucker has started a new online journal called Flurb. With initial contributions by Paul Di Filippo, John Shirley, and, yes, Rudy Rucker it looks really promising. Hope it stays around.

Bookmooch looks like an interesting way to trade books around. I'll probably stick with ebay, but maybe I'll give it a try at some point.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Black Holes and Peanut Butter

About a month ago I was asked to participate in a panel discussion on graphic novels in public libraries. The audience will be comprised mostly of children's librarians and young adult librarians for Fairfax County, with a small smattering of adult librarians as well. Some high mucky muck who wrote a book on graphic novels is the primary speaker, but I was picked along with three others in the Fairfax system as someone who reads graphic novels and can speak about them.

We finally had an info meeting this past Tuesday to plan the whole deal, which will happen on Monday. The woman organizing the whole conference, who seems very nice and well-meaning, really has no idea about anything to do with the medium. She uses terms like graphic novel (which is really a term devised by publishing companies more than anything), comics and manga interchangeably. It took some explaining to convince her that only Japanese Manga is designed to be read right to left. But I give her credit for at least asking questions. As word has spread the last couple of days that I'm doing this, I'm finding a lot of librarians who either don't get the phenomenon or even hate it. A coworker today was surprised to see me check out Sorrentino's Mulligan Stew, thinking that I only read comics.

I don't know what exactly will come of the panel, but I hope it will at least dispel some of the misconceptions people have. If nothing else, I hope to convince people that comics are more than superheroes and manga (not that I don't enjoy both of those).

For the panel itself, we're basically being asked the following questions:

1. How did you get started reading graphic novels, and what do you personally get out of them?

2. What are some of the differences between comics created in Asia, the United States and Europe?

3. What are differences between comics and the popular cartoons and/or movies that are based on them?

4. Name one comic you would suggest to a high-school age reader and explain why.

5. Name one comic you would suggest to a younger reader and explain why.

Picking my favorite comics was actually kind of tough. They wanted things the library actually has in stock so anyone interested can check them out, which makes sense. Unfortunately for me, my tastes tend to run more towards the underground and indie side, which the library doesn't carry much of. For a kids comic I think I'll suggest James Kochalka's Peanut Butter and Jeremy's Best Book Ever, which is brilliant because it has stuff that's fun for both kids and adults. But I also I love telling anyone who will listen about James Kochalka. Not only does he create kick ass comics, his name is just fun to say.

James Kochalka.

James Kochalka.

James Kochalka.

For teens my first instinct was Craig Thompson's Blankets, but I think instead I'll go with Black Hole by Charles Burns. Being set in a high-school and the schlock horror touches of mutant plagues and just seems tailor made for me to rant about. Problem being I haven't actually read the thing. So I have my weekend cut out for me.


Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Saturday With Poe

This past weekend Miss L and I made a little sidetrip to the Poe House in downtown Baltimore, Md. Baltimore is mostly associated with Poe in relation to his death and all the various theories surrounding it. But Poe actually lived in Charm City for a time; itwas his home at the time he first started writing short stories. His very first published story, "Berenice", was written in the tiny bedroom on the top floor.

pic 1-Poe House, image courtesy of the Poe Society

The first thing I'll mention is that the house (pic 1) is not in the best part of Baltimore. Just to the left of the house sits a set of one level apartments. And while the families hanging out on the porch were very nice to us, their homes were in great disrepair. A number of other buildings on the block were completely boarded up. As you approach the door to the house, the first thing you see is a sign on the doorway. The sign warns you about the area, warns you to not give out any money to panhandlers, and to knock to gain entrance. I personally didn't feel uncomfortable or threatened, but some people might.

The inside is just what you might think. An old house with creaky wood floors. The entry room is run both as an entrance lobby and gift shop, which mostly holds pamphlets of critical and historical essays printed by the Poe Society. The nice lady in the black t-shirt who let us in told us the house rules, collected our $4 and sent us on our merry ways.

You go up one level and find one of the key features of the museum: a video display, which is really a collection of interviews of curator Jeff Jerome conducted by various local news teams. Most of the interviews seem like they were done near Poe's birthday and talked extensively about the unknown figure who leaves licquor and roses on Poe's grave every year. Although they do give a good bit of background on the house, they look like they were taped right off the t.v. and like they've been played hundreds of times. If there are any budding filmmakers in the area it's a venue that could really use some talented and kind soul to volunteer some hours with a camera and a studio to give them a real professional video.

Up one more level, and you arrive in a small room ringed with Gustave Dore's illustrations of Poe's "The Raven". There are also a few display cases holding an assortment of items, everything from the medalion off of his 2nd grave marker (pic 2) to a newspaper ad Poe placed to solicit submissions for a literary project he was editing (pic 3). Probably the crown jewel of the collection is the writing lap-desk donated to the museum by UVA (pic 4).

Pic 2-Poe's 2nd Marker

Pic 3-Poe Advertisement for Penn Journal

Pic 4-Poe's Lap Desk

To get to Poe's bedroom you climb up a set of narrow, high stairs to the top floor. You can't actually go into the bedroom itself (it's roped off) but you can look in enough to get an idea of his living circumstances at the time (pic 5). The conditions were, in a word, spartan.

Pic 5-Poe's Room

After leaving the house we made the short drive to Westminster Church (pic 6), now Westminster Hall, which is the home for Poe's decomposing body. When Poe was first buried in 1849, he was placed in an unmarked grave. By 1860 he was given proper recognition with a full tombstone labelled with the epitaph "Hic Tandem Felicis Conduntur Reliquae", which translates roughly as "Here, at last, he is happy". The stones were damaged several years later by vibrations from a nearby train rail. A few years later school children in Baltimore collected money under a program called "Pennies for Poe" to give a new marker (the same one kept at the house museum and shown in pic 2 above). He was later exhumed and reburied under a larger monument, between the graves of his wife Virginia and his mother-in-law Maria Glemm.

Pic 6-Westminster Church

Both Miss L and I have an affinity for graveyards. Miss L for her sense of history and me because of my morbid curiousity. The grounds are small, but still nicely kept (pic 7). Much better kept up than the Poe House itself. One thing that surprised me is that Poe rests not far from the gravesite of his own grandfather, David Poe (pic 8).

Pic 7-Graveyard at Westminster Church

Pic 8-David Poe's Grave

Pic 9-Poe's Original Grave

Pic 10-Poe's Current Grave

It seems a museum trapped within a very narrow definition and an even narrower budget; perhaps with a little vision and some funding it could envigorate itself with outreach programs and fun events. I know these aren't easy things, though. I am, admittedly, somewhat of a Poe fan. I'm no expert but I return to his poems, essays and short stories at least once a year so I enjoyed treading the steps he did. The two stops aren't the best tourist sites in Baltimore but probably worth the $4 admission if you like Poe. If you're really a fanatic about the gloomy bard I'd actually suggest heading down to Richmond and checking out the Poe House there. They have a better tour and a much broader range of artifacts.


Friday, August 18, 2006

random stuff

John S. Hall, frontman for the band King Missile, has new book out. One of these days I need to write up and post my story of meeting Mr. Hall.

Librarian.Net offers up some thoughts on libraries in DC and Baltimore

Matt Bell reviews the lit mag Hobart, story by story. Never heard of the mag myself, but it looks promising.

If you're a Lovecraft fan, this should keep you busy. Free ebook versions of all his stories, in English and Spanish.

Yet another publishing award. This time for the Hottest Hottie? And we needed this why?

Both the Kenyon Review and One Story have blogs up and running now. I'll be curious to see what they do with them.

Residents of Loudon County rejoice! With Firefox as your browser and the proper downloads, you can use Amazon to check what's available at your local library. I had heard Amazon was going to start offering this, but hadn't seen it implemented yet. Full story here, courtesy of DC Metblogs. The page for the Loudon County Library is here if you'd like to try it.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Review: Forbidden Cargo

This debut novel from Rebecca Rowe blends the high concept sci-fi storytelling of Robert Heinlein with flashy visual descriptions and action-packed sequences that recall anime films and videogames as much as William Gibson’s cyberpunk classic Neuromancer (Ace Books, 1985). In 2110 Xerkler, the inventor of a complex machine that grants access to the entirety of mankind’s knowledge, finds himself pulled into the service of a government council to prove the existence of the Imafofas, a race of advanced humans developed through illegal genetic experimentation. But Xerkler already knows of their existence. Along with a few other humans, he sees them as the next step in the evolution of mankind. What follows is a politically charged thriller that careens the reader across Earth, Mars and the nebulous world of cyberspace.

Rowe’s inclusion of Eastern philosophy, mostly through the enlightenment-seeking character named MAMintelligence, works as a thoughtful and interesting thread. She also works in a lot of word-play references, particularly through character and setting names, to Anime films and Manga comics. I found it pretty amusing, but the references will obviously be over your head if you're not familiar with these areas.

The beginning of the novel gets a touch bogged down in explaining the background of the large cast of characters; so much so that I almost gave up on it. But once you work about 1/3 of the way through, the novel transforms into an action-packed page turner that will satisfy sci-fi fans searching for a fun and quick read.


Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Dinner With the King

I've always been fascinated with Elvis. Perhaps it's because we share the same birthday. Or maybe it's because it was the only music I can remember my mom and grandmother ever agreeing on. But it's really more because he was the first super star to rise from nothing, completely fall down on his fat face and have the progression carefully recorded by video and audio tapes. He was a great talent and an enourmous ass, all rolled into one.

Today is the anniversary of his death, and I usually mark it with a list of facts or random stories that please me greatly. But this year I share just one story. The story of the Fool's Gold Loaf. It's one of my personal faves, probably because it's a great but relatively harmless example of his love of excess in all things. Although it's been recorded in a few other books, this particular version comes from the book The Life and Cuisine of Elvis Presley by David Adler.

The evening of February 1, 1976, found Elvis home at Graceland entertaining two favored guests in the jungle room. Capt. Jerry Kennedy was a member of the Denver police force, and Ron Pietrafeso was in charge of Colorado's Strike Force Against Crime. Elvis had met both men several years earlier during his period of extreme interest in law enforcement, which culminated in his surprise drop-in visit to President Nixon, who named Elvis a "special agent". Tonight, as Elvis sat on his Kon Tiki throne chair in front of the jungle room's babbling waterfall, the discussion centered on law enforcement in Colorado. Elvis however, was reminded of something else. Colorado was the home of the absolutely delicious sandwich, the best Elvis had ever eaten: the Fool's Gold Loaf.

Elvis had sampled the sandwich only once, when after a concert he was invited to a restaurant called the Colorado Cold Mine Company in the Denver suburbs of Glendale. He ordered the house specialty, which was named Fool's Gold Loaf because of it's outrageous price -$49.95. The first bite alone was enough to make a lasting impression on Elvis.

Now, months later, Elvis was reminded of those sandwiches. Both of his guests from Colorado were very curious about this extravagant treat. The King's policy when enteraining in his rock and roll palace was to grant his guests' every desire - your wish was literally the King's command, be it a game of racquetball at four in the morning or a down-home Southern breakfast at midnight. However, the "Fool's Gold Loaf", since it came from a restaurant in Denver, would stretch the limits of even Elvis' notion of hospitality.

Elvis gazed across at his guests, who were comfortably ensconced on the Hawaiian armchairs, cushioned by the rabbit's fur throw pillows. The conversation continued to revolve around the sandwiches. One of the guys impulsively remarked, "Boy, I wish I had me one of them now!"

Elvis knew what he and his guests wanted and the thousand-mile-journey to the Fool's Fold Loaf would not deter him. Elvis looked at his friends and shouted, "Let's go get 'em!"

Before the lawmen knew what was happening they were seated inside Elvis' stretch Mercedes along with another couple of Elvis' buddies, and whisked to the Memphis airport. Elvis' personal jet, the Lisa Marie, was waiting for them on the tarmac. As the four jet engines roared for takeoff, the excitement inside the plane revved even higher as Elvis and his guests were about to be flown the two hours to Denver for Elvis' favorite sandwich, the most mouthwatering sandwich known to the King.

Once aloft, Elvis, the lawmen, and the rest of the gang gathered in the plane's dining room, around its leather topped table with surrounding bucket seats upholstered in aquamarine plush. Though Elvis often snacked on the Lisa Marie, in anticipation of the filling treat to come his only indulgence was a bottle of his vine de table - regular Pepsi.

At the Colorado Gold Mine Company, the scene was frenzied. The call had come in from Memphis at midnight. The cooks had less than two hours to prepare the "takeout" order of their lifetime. The massive griddle was scrubbed clean in order to fry up the huge quantitites of bacon required. The loaves of bread were quickly hollowed out and then briefly browned. The other ingredients were always ready. Miraculously, the staff completed its creation in the nick of time. The restauranteur, his wife, and a waiter sped off for the Denver airport with twenty-two loaves. As requested, a case of Perrier and a case of champagne accompanied the sandwiches, along with a chest of cracked ice.

Elvis' plane touched down at 1:40 am at Stapleton Airport and taxied to a private hangar. The owner of the restaurant personally brought Elvis and his party the order on silver trays. For two hours in the Denver night, the feasting went on. It was typical of Elvis' generosity that he insisted that the plane's pilots, Milo High and Elwood Davis, join the fun. Elvis, as usual, avoided the alcohol, instead washing down the sandwiches with the Perrier. It was yet another night of dining Elvis style on food fit for the King.

This was no ordinary PB&J, folks. Eat at your own risk. For the curious, here's the recipe:

Fool's Gold Loaf


o 2 T margarine
o 1 loaf Italian white bread
o 1 lb / 450 g bacon slices
o 1 jar of smooth peanut butter
o 1 jar of grape jelly

Preheat the oven to 350F/180C. Spread the margarine generously all over all sides of the loaf. Place it on a baking sheet in the oven.

Meanwhile, fry the bacon in a bit of oil until it is crisp and drain it thoroughly on paper towels.

Remove the loaf from the oven when it is evenly browned, after approximately 15 minutes. Slice the loaf lengthwise and hollow out the interior, leaving as much bread along the walls as desired. Slather a thick layer of peanut butter in the cavity of the loaf and follow with another thick layer of grape jelly. Use lots of both.

Arrange the bacon slices inside the cavity, or, if desired, layer the bacon slivers between the peanut butter and jelly. Close the loaf, slice and eat.

Serves one if you're Elvis. Serves 8-10 if you're a regular person.


Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Future in a Can of Coffee

I made a run to K-Mart of all places yestertoday, to pick some necessities they had on sale. Unfortunately, I went before I had breakfast and my stomach guided me though the snack aisles. Ding Dongs. Beef Jerky. BBQ Potato Chips. Nearly everything looked like ambrosia to me at that hour. But one thing in particular caught my eye. A can of self-heating coffee.

It's easy to work. You turn the can over, push a button on the bottom to start some chemical heating reaction, turn it back over and wait. Five minutes later a spot on the side of the can changes color from red to white, letting you know the coffee's at premium drinking temperature.

These have been around for some time. NASA developed them quite some time ago so space travelers can have something hot to eat. Japan's had them for a few years, but mostly in the form of cup-o-noodles. But I had never seen one myself. I can remember reading SF stories as a kid I always thought that was pretty cool. And while a cup of coffee is not a turkey dinner or even a cup of noodles, it's a nice start.

The whole thing got me thinking about technology and how damn hard it is to predict. SF, in fact, has a pretty bad overall record with it. Just look at the big ticket items. If you believed the SF written in the 50's and 60's everyone would have their own spaceship, flying car, and jet pack by now. Instead we have videogames, myspace, and real dolls.

And then there's computers.

"A Logic Named Joe", a lone short story written in 1946 by Murray Leinster, is not only the first but one of the few pieces of SF to predict the personal computer and the concept of large computer networks. Tech changes our lives in random, odd ways we can't predict. 50 years ago, how many people would have guessed so many of our jobs would depend on computers? Not many.

What's the point? When it comes down to it, it's the little pieces of tech that come around to make our lives easier that really stand to change the way we live. The microwave. The light emitting diode. The self-heating can of coffee. These are the small things that reshape our lives and moves us forward into some other way of living. It's just not quite so fancy or fun to write about as a time machine, but they can make great background color for a writer with a creative mind.

And that can of coffee? It wasn't bad, but I think I'll still stick to making Folgers for awhile longer.


Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Lone Piccolo Player

This past weekend Miss L and I celebrated our fifth year together. Yes, believe it or not, even though we live in different states somehow we've managed to stay together as a couple. Each year we switch off who puts together the celebration. In the past we've gone to places like St. Mary's and Williamsburg, but my commitments to grad school this summer forced us to stay within the confines of Charm City. This year was Miss L's turn, and she decided we'd go to dinner and a concert in the city.

We started with dinner in Bolton Hill, at a little bistro known simply as B. It's a nice little place with good food, a nice wine list and prices that aren't too outrageous. After gorging ourselves on risotto and ravioli we made the mile or so walk to the Meyerhoff Center to take in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. It turned out they were playing Beethoven's 9th.

First I have to give high marks to the Meyerhoff itself. The building design is perfect for classical music. Even though we were very nearly in the highest seating tier of building, we didn't feel that far away from the stage. The acoustics are also well designed, so we managed to hear every instrument quite clearly. On that scale of things it was by far a better experience that other classical concerts I've been to---most of which have been limited to sitting on the lawn at Wolf Trap and trying to hear over people shouting while they chug beer to Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries".

Early into the performance Miss L leaned into me and whispered in my ear. I thought she was going to say something provocative, or at least romantic, to go along with our anniversary. But it wasn't meant to be. Instead, she said, "Hey....take a look at that! What's he doing?"

She pointed a finger toward the center of the stage. Tucked in neatly between three cellists and three flautists was a lone man just sitting there. Slumped deep down into in his seat, we couldn't tell whether he sat in deep thought or just patiently waited for something to happen.

The man continued sitting there through each act, while inbetween he would interact a little with the musicians surrounding him. Who was this man? Why was he just sitting there doing nothing? My mind went wild with ideas. Maybe he was a star musician who broke his hand and couldn't play, but had enough clout to still sit on the stage. Maybe he was a janitor pulled in at the last minute to fill in an empty chair. Or maybe, just maybe, he was there to murder the conductor. The countless possibilities were driving me crazy.

And then we got to the finale of Beethoven's Ninth, a segment so recognizable even a dolt like me knows it. Full of wild variations on one central melodic theme and supported by a chorus and operatic solo singers this finale is more widely known as Beethoven's "Ode to Joy". About five minutes into it Beethoven's score shifts into a near military beat---the rat-a-tat-tat of drums kicked in and, finally, the lone do-nothing man finally did something.

He pulled a piccolo out from under his seat, lifted it to his lips and played. The sharp sound had links to small fifes used in military marches, so it worked quite well in the section. Being the lone player in that high-pitched sonic range, his little piccolo cut right through the music of the rest of the BSO and gave "Ode to Joy" a bit of color and character none of the other instruments could achieve.

I've been in some bands in my time. A couple of really crappy ones in high school, a couple that were a little better when I was at JMU, and a really crappy one after that. I would have been pissed if someone asked me as the bass player to sit out for 95% of show. But that piccolo player took in stride. He may have sat there and sat there and sat there through most of the performance, but when his moment finally came he did, in the end, shine. And that's all that really matters.