Friday, March 31, 2006

Friday Link-o-Rama

Author/critic/essayist Steven Shaviro writes about a conference honoring the life and work of Samuel Delaney, one of my personal favorite authors.

Are you just gonna sit there and let Mr. T beat Mr. Lethem? The Literary/Pop Culture March Madness at Barrelhouse continues.

Jeff at IAmNotLyingForReal does an interesting back-and-forth on his choice of tattoos.
Not having one myself, I'm always fascinated why people pick the ink they pick.

SF author Charlie Stross speaks out on the newly proposed ID cards for U.K. residents.

Matt Cheney at Mumpsimus writes on the new subscription program offered by Soft Skull Press. If I wasn't already over-subsribed and overwhelmed with stuff to read these days, I might do it. Soft Skull's a very cool press.

Gary K. Wolfe wrote an interesting essay on the state of SF and reviewing it. I may write more on this later, because there are a few points worth replying to.

Video game

Moran says the Smithsonian needs to start charging.

Ugh. Hollywood continues its ongoing love affair of not coming up original thoughts. Starring Peter Dinklage as the villain, it's Underdog: The Movie.

DC Shorts is now accepting submissions for their annual short film competition. Early bird deadline May 31, absolute deadline June 30.

A blogger 3 days away from a trip to Sudan experiences violence right here in DC.

Sailing the Seven Seas of Laughter

Being funny is damn hard. How many times in your own life have you told a strange or witty story to a friend, only to have that friend stare at you blankly, obviously not getting whatever clever witticisms you are trying to impart. Lots of times, I would assume. And without the visual cues of facial expressions and gestures, it’s only tougher with writing. But Keith Thomson has a real knack for it, as shown by his new novel Gus Openshaw’s Whale Killing Journal.

Gus Openshaw, catfood cannery worker and the star of this raucous farce, is a man on a mission. An enormous white sperm whale dubbed “the blubbery bastard” killed his wife and child and tore off his arm and Gus wants vengeance. Through a bizarre loophole he obtains a special license to hunt the whale and uses his life savings to purchase a boat and hire a ragtag crew of violent pirates, Caribbean natives, and a Korean Assassin turned chef.

The real joy of the book comes through the way Thomson simultaneously lampoons and pays homage to a number of high seas novels and stories, particularly Melville’s Moby Dick. Aside from the number of pointed jokes made about sperm whales, there are a number of smart little references to Thomson’s inspiration. While Moby Dick offerered Queequeg as a noble native hunter, Thomson provides the goofy harpoon throwing native named Flarq. Thomson’s illustrations of whales, coffee cups, and boats, billed as scrimshaw drawings by Flarq, work as cartoony versions of the woodcut prints done by Rockwell Kent for a special printing of Moby Dick in the 1930’s (images just below are by Kent and Thomson, respectively, for comparison).

The references continue through the very format of the book. Delivered in short chapters designed to appear like blog entries, Thomson pokes fun at the history of Moby Dick. When it was first published the Melville novel was marketed as a factual travel narrative; they were all the rage at the time and Melville took full advantage of their popularity (James Frey, anyone?). You can certainly argue that the blog is the new equivalent of the travel narratives of yesteryear, providing us a window to the world we wouldn’t have otherwise. The blog format gives Thomson some sly opportunities Melvillle would have loved. Gus responds to emails from his readers, everything from marriage proposals to references to questions on sailing to hate mail from PETA (check out the book’s site for examples).

But as deep as some of these Melvillian references and jokes dig, there’s wild humor and crazy action aplenty to entertain those who have never read, or just don’t remember, Moby Dick.After the crew sets sail they enter a series of bizarre, episodic adventures with narrow escapes from pirates, whale-worshipping natives, gun-runners, and the U.S. navy. Much like the Hitchhikers Guide books by Douglas Adams, Thomson uses the strange obsessions and personalities of the characters to land them in continual trouble but still manage to slip away through dumb luck. After all the narrow escapes the crew faces down the whale in a hysterical climax worthy of a Monty Python sketch with a high special effects budget.

Thomson’s work here is not high art by any stretch, and I don't think he would claim it to be. But his comic timing is tight, and his humor, covering the full range of smart literary references to dumb fart jokes, should force a smile onto many a mouth. So if you need a break from serious thoughts, office politics, or politics in general join Gus on his voyage. It’s a fun, raucous ride that will take you away from your own humdrum life, if only for a few days.


Saturday, March 25, 2006


Yep, it's a day late. And yep, I haven't been posting much this week. It's been a wild week, filled mostly with articles on digital preservation for library class and busy, busy days at work with a hit show. My low level of posting will probably continue over the next few weeks until class is finished the first week of May. I have some reviews of Gus Openshaw's Whale Killing Journal and DC Noir coming as soon as possible.

Would you snip it for the sake of your art?

The BBC on clip culture.

Libraries revive old time music. For the actual sounds, go here.

First George Mason U doing well in March Madness, and now the Virginia Quarterly Review surprises the publishing world with multiple nominations from the National Magazine Awards. Clap your hands for the commonwealth!

Taking stock of a new band. They're actually not the first to do this....Bowie did it about 15 years ago so he could buy back the rights to his back catalogue.

George Lucas speaks out on the cultural imperialism of Hollywood.

Historian David Lowenthal offers up a different view on the idea of cultural idea that says that it doesn't exist.

Apple and France go toe-to-toe over the power of I-tunes.

Philip Pullman, Nick Hornby and others get together to revitalize libraries in the U.K.

Something that makes the little goth-punk in my head worry; parents say it's cool to be goth.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Friday Link-o-Rama

A psyhoanalytical look at creative inspiration.

Nominees for Pulitzer Prize for Criticism are now out.

Baltimore Sun editor Paul Moore explains why movie critics somtimes disagree with the public and even the Academy Awards.

SF Chronicle writer Mark Murford's violence cup is overflowing.

Boo Hoo. Annie Proulx on Brokeback not winning best picture.

Costco and Art. Maybe not the best mix after all. My favorite quote? "They just sell the top quality — whatever you buy at Costco, whether it's a washing machine or a vacuum cleaner," he (Mr. Knickerbocker) said in an interview. "I just thought, if it's a Picasso, you can't go wrong."

Publishers rethink the teen market. It's about time. They're a lot smarter than most people like to admit.

Writer Beware's 20 worst agents, courtesy of Miss Snark.

This exhibit looks cool for any fans of superhero comics.

Barrelhouse editor Dave Housley explains their own version of March Madness. Courtesy of the Happy Booker.

And you thought you had moving day anxiety? Here's what it takes to move big pieces of art.

300 paintings in 300 hours at Art Crash 214.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Horror with Character

I often have mixed feelings about horror. Often plot oriented, horror frequently tells its story through shock, surprise or gross-out, gory details. It can make a story fun to read once, but when the twist is learned or once you grow a tolerance to the gory imagery there’s not much left. Consequently, the stories don’t hold up very well to multiple readings.

There are some writers who step out of that trap, writers who manage to scare the hell out of you while still bringing in enough depth of character, theme, and concepts to bring you back to their stories again and again. Ray Bradbury, Peter Straub, Stephen King can all make that claim. And, of course, Poe. I’m pleased to find in Sherry Decker another writer with some of those same sensibilities.

Her first collection Hook House and Other Horrors dances quite nimbly through a lot of the familiar tropes of the genre. “Hicklebickle Rock” is a chilling blend of psychotic thriller and dark urban fantasy. When a killer prowling a small town kidnaps eight-year-old Cassie, her only hope for survival lies with an ancient spirit that haunts the rocks of a secluded bay.

Decker dips lightly into humor with “The Clan”; a vampire moves into the house across the street form a powerful witch a brutal yet comic feud develops. What makes it work so well is that while they have fantastic supernatural weapons to toss at each other their personalities and complaints about one another are completely realistic and believable.

“A City In Italy” is a tightly composed experiment in perspective that gives us complex feelings of guilt and loss of a woman who lost her twin sister. Although slightly muddled because of the narrator’s own confused thoughts, the tale builds slowly to a twist ending that’s skillfully developed.

The title story “Hook House” brings us a haunted house tale, but it’s one uniquely driven by the strength of the central character. A family curse generations old threatens to snare young Sara, trapping her for the rest of her life in the family house just like her mother and grandmother before her. What ultimately drives Sara to fight against the curse is not her own seemingly inevitable fate but ensuring her own son is not trapped within the Hook family curse. Told through a series of flashbacks, the curse and all of its terrifying implications build as the story develops and grows into an atmospheric tale of surprising depth. My only regret with this piece is that it’s not longer; although it's the first piece in the book it’s the one I thought on more than any other.

I can only hope Decker will be taking the next step towards a novel. Going by the work here I’d say she has it in her, and I’d love to see where she can take us when she gives her already strong elements even more room to work.


Saturday, March 11, 2006

Growing Up Is Hard To Do

This review is a first for me. Not so much for the review itself, but how I found out about this book. Matt Briggs is a West Coast writer who happened to be passing though, reading his new work at the Writers Center in Bethesda, Md. I post up all of their events on my Monday Events posts, and Matt sent me a kind note of thanks. I probably wouldn't have discovered his novel Shoot the Buffalo otherwise, and I'm glad I did. This is one of those real gems of a book small presses put out all the time and not enough readers---including yours truly---discover. It probably won't be an Oprah pick. It probably won't be the comeback movie for Haley Joel Osment. But it's moving, it's powerful and it's well worth reading.

Here starts the review.

At age nine Aldous Bohm, his younger brother Jake and younger sister Adrian are packed up by their parents and moved to a house in the woods of Snoqualmie, Washington to create the ideal American family. The ideal family as filtered through the vision of the experimental 1970’s, that is. Working class, the parents flit from one odd job to another while making most of their real money by selling pot to residents of the town. Things become odder when Uncle Oliver, a man filled with equal amounts of wisdom and depression, returns from service in the Vietnam War and moves into their attic. Although a likable Oliver’s free love and pot smoke lifestyle bolster the already neglectful attitudes of the parents.

When the three adults leave the children alone in the woods one afternoon, Aldous panics. Instead of staying within the warm security of their cabin Aldous drags his siblings into the cold, rainy woods to search for their parents. The three pass out from exposure, and while Aldous and Jake survive their sister Adrian dies from hypothermia. This is but the start to the novel Shoot the Buffalo by Matt Briggs; the story that follows is the heart-wrenching aftermath of responsibility and recovery.

The parents take no responsibility for Adrian’s death, so Aldous takes the blame himself and searches for answers everywhere he can: at school, in the Boy Scouts, even at Church. Telling this heartbreaking narrative through the eyes of a child is ambitious, but author Briggs handles it delicately by displaying that unique balance between naiveté and wisdom all children possess.

Briggs’s view of nature seems approached with an eye and mind of someone who really knows it. The nature of these back woods of Washington is beautiful but wild, poetic but deadly and Briggs writes it as someone who loves nature but knows it well enough to be just a little bit afraid of it. His view of the working class in the logging town of Snoqualmie is equally mature; so often working class characters come off as either idealized heroes or doddering bumpkins. But Briggs creates real, believable characters full of flaws and strengths.

When Aldous reaches his eighteenth birthday he commits the ultimate rejection of his parents’ bohemian lifestyle: he enlists in the army. Aldous enters the rigors of boot camp and begins training as an army pharmacist. It’s there, on the superheated Army Base in Texas, that he enters into his first relationship with a woman and begins to deal with all the complex issues of his past. The chapters flip back and forth between Aldous the boy and Aldous the young man, with his childhood echoing his later life in a variety of complex and moving ways.

STB functions partly as a reflective critique of the bohemian counter-culture lifestyle, offering a cautionary example of living life in such a free-wheeling way. But this heart-breaking story ends on a sense of hope as we see Aldous making those first steps away from his upbringing and becoming his own person and willing to take on all the things his parents tried so desperately to avoid in those woods.


Friday, March 10, 2006

Friday Link-o-Rama

Smithsonian Eye offers up an interesting essay on lighting in museums. Not something visitors often think about, but it's a vital element to any exhibition.

James Wood writes on the constant battle in the U.S. of realism vs. experimentation in fiction. Mostly interesting because of the outsider perspective (he's a UK writer).

The new Blooker Prize. No, that's not a typo.

A brief and interesting look at the history of puncuation.

If a writer signs your book from across the globe, is it still a real autograph? Even more important, can I still sell it on Ebay?

A new blog popped up to promote Art Mondays here in D.C.

And The Katzen Museum at American University has also gotten into the blogging act.

A very thoughtful review on a new book about Winsor McCay and his comic strip Little Nemo.

Homo Digitalus

I've been a little remiss in my blogging duties this week. No, I haven't caught spring fever (although I would like to). With deadlines approaching in the next few weeks, my library class has gotten busier and I've actually been scribbling some fiction lately. I was flipping through some of my old journals on Wednesday and came across two very random ideas I decided to mash together. One is a zombie story, and is mostly about a guy who lives in a city populated mostly by zombies and how he gets through life pretending to be dead. The other is a meta-art piece. It may or may not work, because I really have no idea where it's going. But I'm having fun with it.

We had a guest speaker in library class this week. He used to teach in the program at Pitt, and he came to us to lecture about ethics and how it relates to librarians. The oddest part, at least for me, was that he's also a Catholic Priest. I did not grow up Catholic, so I expected long, drawn out quotes from the Bible and esoteric sermoning on following a particular path. But instead he quoted Rilke, Shopenhauer and Plato and talked about learning to question the ethics behind every decision we make and following a path that lines up with our own personal ethics. He talked very openly about his own opinions of the Catholic Church, telling us quite freely what he agreed with and did not, but still stayed with the church for the greater good he feels it provides. He was quite engaging, very interesting, and very challenging.

Towards the end of his lecture he told us we would have to decide for ourselves if we "really have the stuff" to work as librarians. When you think about the common perception of librarian---an uptight, older woman running around shushing everyone---it might seem a little silly. But when you consider being a librarian may mean standing up to a extremely religious mother and explaining why you stock Harry Potter even though it features witches and wizards, or standing up to a left-sided liberal and explaining why you stock the latest Anne Coulter diatribe it might give you pause. I think, I hope, I would have the nerve to do so because freedom of info is so much at the core of my beliefs.

After a time, the lecture moved on to some of his theories on the future of libraries and, even odder, to some ideas on the evolution of man. We discussed how electronic media, particularly the internet, is drastically changing the way we think and that it may be moving us to another higher level of thought. He dubbed this potential level homo digitalus and said he was still developing a theory behind it. The ideas reminded me quite a bit of some of the theories Rudy Rucker and Timothy Leary touted in the early 90's. Towards the end of his life Leary was embracing electronic technology and its potential for change in the same way he embraced chemicals in the 60's and 70's. Interesting stuff. I asked our guest after class if he had read them, and he hadn't. There aren't many people at all I can think of who would consider reading Rucker or Leary, but the fact that a Catholic Priest might read their works I find a little mindblowing. This particular priest, though, seems more than open to new ideas. I hope I can be when I get to his age.

I'm working on a small handful of reviews, and will be getting those up one at a time over the next few days.


Friday, March 03, 2006

Friday Link-o-Rama

Video Host Count Gore just put up an old audio interview with recently departed sf author Octavia Butler. Click on the photo of Butler to load the interview. You'll need Real Audio to listen.

The Toronto Star writes on all those effing words they use on t.v. and radio to take the place of friggin' words that would offend people.

New ruling in California courts might make Google's online publishing a lot harder.

Still hate the Nazis? Well if you have a computer you can help crack their codes.

The Guardian examines online self publishing.

This may or may not be what the old bard looked like.

Shocker. People like happy endings.

NYC Public Library to buy the private papers of WS Burroughs. I'd love to see those. Out of all of his books, I think I enjoy his dream diary the best.

Speaking of Burroughs, if you're too lazy to do cut-up the old fashioned way use the new fangled cut up machine.

Story South's nominations for this years Million Writers Awards are up. Quite a nice list.

This short writeup makes the Doug Hall show at the Numark Gallery looks interesting. I'm all for mocking tourists whenever possible (even when I'm a tourist).

For DC folks, Art-o-Matic looks like it might be happening again. They're at the organization/volunteer stage. If you're not familiar with the project, it's either the best or the worst thing to happen to art in D.C. If it forms again, I suggest going so you can decide for yourself.

Mom's Cancer

Even if you don’t normally pay attention to comics (graphic novels, sequential art, whatever term you prefer) I can pretty much guarantee you’ll be hearing at least something of Brian Fies book Mom’s Cancer in the coming months. Not just because it’s a wonderfully told story (it is) but also because the story behind the book is every bit as unique and fresh as the book itself.

Fies started creating what became Mom’s Cancer as a method for dealing with his real-life mother’s heart-wrenching, simultaneous battle with a brain tumor and lung cancer. After he created a few pages he submitted them anonymously to a few websites to receive critical feedback. The net being what it is, people across the globe started linking to it, reading it and wondering what would happen in the following installments. It was later reprinted by the Weekly Reader, a small publication out of San Francisco, and word spread even further, finally earning an Eisner Award for Fies. The various online versions have now all vanished, making way for the newly released print version that collects the entire 112 pages into one small volume.

The book covers the various stages of Mom’s disease, from its initial discovery and through all the various treatments. Along with Mom and an unnamed son who acts as narrator, this close family features two other main characters. With her professional background Nurse Sis wields a certain authority in making medical decisions while Kid Sis, who still lives with Mom, faces their mother’s deterioration on a daily basis. While certainly involved, as a professional journalist the narrator sits somewhat on the outside, uncertain of what to do and even how to act. The story focuses primarily on the family dynamic and how different people deal with the stress of death and illness in their own way. Despite the Everyman feel to the story, Fies does a good job in developing the clashing personalities of his family that we get a sense of them as real people.

With much of it written as it happened, Fies’s sharp ear for capturing dialogue brings a sense of immediacy and presence. The mostly black-and-white artwork is occasionally interrupted with pages of color for particular, often very cartoon, emphasis. For example, when Fies portrays his family dynamic by imagining himself and his two sisters wielding super-powers and battle each one another for the right to make decisions it’s delivered in a style that harkens back to superhero titles from the 1960’s.

But it’s Mom who really draws you in. Despite decades of research there is still no real cure for cancer, only treatment. Part of the problem is that each patient, and often times each separate cancer within each patient, responds to treatments differently. Each patient becomes a unique experiment with drugs, chemo and surgery. Fies manages to nail that feeling of complete powerlessness when faced with something so monstrous. Despite some dips into dark humor for a little levity, MC is not always an easy read. At points it’s downright heartbreaking, and for me was one of those stories that I wanted to step back from but still couldn’t put down until finished. Anyone who’s lived through something like this will relate to the emotions, while those who haven’t experienced anything like this have in MC a window into the complex issues cancer, illness and death can bring a family.

Being more a collection of serials, the book lacks the over-reaching narrative arcs, consistency and resolution one might normally expect from a long-form work. There’s also a rather odd subplot involving a grandfather that's not only unnecessary but a little distracting from the heart of the tale. But despite these small failures, you’ll keep reading because of Mom. It is Mom, in her decision to fight, who is the hero. And if there is a singular message to the work it’s that holding on to hope and fighting the disease, even if you fail, is well worth the effort.