Friday, February 24, 2006

Friday Link-o-Rama

Area author/computer guy offers up a program called Fiction Fixer to help turn your prose into best-stelling fiction. I think Calvino had a story like that in If on a Winter's Night a Traveller.... And I think I also ripped it off for my grad school application. Thanks to Miss L for sending this one along.

USA Today reports on the rise of racy material in romance novels.

Grayson Perry of the London Times writes on innovative work vs. work within a tradition. My opinion: we need both, and the best work strikes a balance.

Can Hip Hop save contemporary theater?

Damon Wayans tries to trademark a certain word.

A new study shows that film critics often avoid writing negative reviews of movies they didn't like. As someone who reviews a lot of books for a few different mags, I can safely say it's not limited to movies and it's a often a policy of a publication to not run negative reviews at all.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Mona Lisa in Hot Pants

When I was a college freshman I took a basic art history survey course as an elective. Most of the class was spent in the dark staring up at the ghostly images of slides shined on a screen while Dr. Kay rambled on and on in her monotone voice about the historical and cultural importance of each artwork. I enjoyed the angle on history the class gave us, but after a time it turned a little repetitive.

But then along came Marcel Duchamp.

We only looked at one work of his that semester. At first glance the class, including myself, didn't get it. We looked at the screen and saw yet another blow-up of the Mona Lisa. One person started to chuckle, and then another and finally I saw why. This Mona Lisa was different; this one had been slightly defaced with a painted-on mustache and goatee. At the bottom of the work Duchamp scrawled what's now considered the title: L.H.O.O.Q. Dr. Kay informed us we were looking at not a painting, but a postcard defaced by Mr. Duchamp that was exhibited in magazines and galleries as art. The letters at the bottom, Dr. Kay said, when read phonetically in French loosely translate as "She''s in hot pants" or even "She has a hot ass".

I had no idea you could be both funny and smart in art and still be taken seriously. For someone whose exposure to art was limited to trips to the hallowed halls of museums, it was quite a mindblowing concept to me. Whether or not Duchamp intended it his childlike addition of the mustache and goatee is a joyous reclaiming of art. Anyone can, and most people have, graffitied an image on a postcard or magazine. Art is something not only for but by the people at large. And his caption reminds us that while we consider the Mona Lisa one of the penultimate works of Western Art, chances are Da Vinci chose to paint her simply because he liked the way the woman looked.

I was forever hooked after that, and much to the confusion of my parents became an art history major. Duchamp led me to other lines of art that I probably wouldn't have considered otherwise. Of course I checked out his fellow Dada cohorts like Tzara, Picabia, Crevel. But that one little defaced postcard led the way for me to musicians and bands like Mr. Bungle, John Zorn. Writers like Williams S. Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Lance Olsen, Andre Breton. Visual peeps like Rauschenberg and Warhol. Without that one work of art I probably wouldn't have the same tastes that I have now.

So I can't begin to tell you how excited I am that L.H.O.O.Q. is temporarily on display right down the street from where I work at the NGA as part of the massive Dada retrospective. If you need to find me between now and May, you know where I'll be.


Friday, February 17, 2006

Friday Link-o-Rama

The Smithsonian Eye reports on and reacts to a talk given by art critic Roberta Smith.

Matt Cheney writes a very interesting column for Strange Horizons on making the readers work a little bit, something I definitely agree with.

Bodhisattva offers up some good criticism of, well, criticism.

On a similar note, Damian Horner criticizes the overly inflated descriptions publishers write for books.

If you're at all like me, you've got lots of books. Books piled 3, 4 rows deep on your book shelves. Books piled on the floor. More books crammed into boxes tucked away in the attic or down in the basement. Online Booksharing might be your answer.

Will make-your-own-mixes save the music industry? Probably not, but it's still a cool idea.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

What I Did on Valentine's Day

If you have a significant other chances are you celebrated Valentine's Day by bringing your sweetie some choice aluminum balloons, candy hearts and heading out to dinner. Even if you don't have an official significant other you might have felt the pressure and made a date. But then if you're me and your significant other is spurning everything to do with Valentine's Day this year, you spend it with your other love: books.

Yesterday Chapters Books hosted the lunchtime launch party and reading for Sex & Chocolate, the newest anthology from Gargoyle Magazine editors Lucinda Ebersole and Richard Peabody. Fortunately I work right around the corner, so slipping out for an hour was easy. Much like Alice Redux, another anthology Peabody edited and released earlier this year, S & C was put all together back in 1998 and surprisingly bounced from publisher to publisher. I say surprisingly because the theme seems perfect. Ebersole and Peabody finally decided to put it out themselves through their own Paycock Press. By the way: a fabulous cover.

It was a nice, jovial crowd at the reading. Many were decked out in Candy Heart Red sweaters or ties, and those that weren't donning the proper colors were making jokes about sex, chocolate, and sex with chocolate. The mood was lifted even further by the champagne provided by Peabody and Ebersole and chocolate provided by the Parks Sisters Chocolate Chocolate Shop.

Readers included R.R. Angell, Jodi Bloom, Moira Egan, and Deirdra McAfee. If the work I heard is any indication, it looks to be a book filled with material that's good, light-hearted, racy fun. But well written good, light-hearted, racy fun. I wanted to stick around after the reading and mingle with the couple of people I knew there, but sadly the reading finished right at 2:00 and I had to rush back to my little office hovel before the Ogres with their snapping whips started policing the streets for me.

After work I went to the monthly meeting for the mag I review for and got a little bit of bad news. The mag itself is based in NY City, but those in the D.C./Baltimore area all meet out in Chantilly, Va. once a month to discuss our reviews and pick up new books for the month. The mag is shifting the meeting location to California, so unless they are providing a jet plane it's not real likely I'll be going anymore. I will still get material in the mail to review, but it will be things they think I like. Which is always a little odd, having someone else dictate your own taste to you. In a way it's probably a good thing. Now that I'm back in school I have less time to read, and if I do have extra time I can review for other places or even, dare I say it, write my own fiction.

BTW, if you forgot to celebrate Valentine's Day yesterday, I suggest the Burlesque show at the Ottobar tonight in Baltimore, featuring Trixie Little and the Evil Hate Monkey. I saw their V-Day show last year and it was well worth it.


Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Solid as Concrete

With nods of support from people as diverse as Harlan Ellison and Frank Miller, Paul Chadwick's comic book series Concrete is a longtime hit of indie comics. If your like me, that means your chances of having seen much of the series during it's almost 20 year run are pretty small. I've picked it up a couple of times when I've found it, but my knowledge of Chadwick's books comes mostly through the near-rabid appreciation of critics at places like Comics Journal. Depths is the first in a series of reprints by Dark Horse Comics, collecting in chronological order the early tales of the stone giant and bringing them to a much wider audience.

The basic concept of Concrete is very classic in a comic book sense. Political speech writer Ronald Lithgow is kidnapped by space aliens, who then transplant his brain into a seven foot tall, thousand pound body capable of fantastic feats of strength and durability. After escaping the aliens Lithgow uses his political contacts to find support from the US government. Dr. Maureen Vonnegut, no relation to the author as she constantly reminds everyone, heads up the research team to discover the limits of Lithgow's new abilities and perhaps even determine how his mind was transplanted into the new body. Lithgow's given the name Concrete, his new body has the look and durability of the substance of the same name, and the government promotes him as the one success of a now defunct government experiment into cybernetics.

But there Chadwick's story takes a different twist from normal superpowered stories. Aside from the aliens and Lithgow's fantastic metamorphosis into Concrete things are set very much in the real world. Chadwick's landscape isn't populated by superpowered villians for Concrete to fight, and even the space aliens are but a device to get the story started. If I suddenly found myself capable of lifting a car over my head or jumping several stories into the air I would make full use of it, and Lithgow does the same. In his former life Lithgow was a pretty normal guy with an office job, and inside this new body he's able to fulfill all the adventure fantasies he's ever dreamed of. Episodes range from swimming the atlantic ocean, digging a group of miners out of a collapsed tunnel using his bare hands, and playing bodyguard to the eccentric and manipulative rock star known as the Duke (in Chadwick's introduction to the book, he freely admits to living out some of his own fantasies through his writing). Concrete becomes something of a celebrity, making appearances on talk shows and selling a line of merchandise to help pay for the experiments on his own body.

Where many fantasy and sf stories would stop, Concrete's tale continues. His life is not all feats of daring. Despite his fabulous abilities and new-found celebrity status Lithgow still longs for a normal life; things become even more complex for him when he falls in love with the beautiful Dr. Vonnegut. This desire for love, the one desire Lithgow can't possibly fulfill while encased within Concrete's body, runs like a refrain throughout the series. Through wonderful imagination and strong characters Chadwick delivers this story with surprising heart and honesty. The collection also includes one non-Concrete story, the Eisner-nominated short entitled "Orange Glow and Vagabond"; this one piece is an autobiographical telling of Chadwick's crosscountry hitchhiking trip. While it has a bit of a tagged on feel in this volume, it's well worth reading.

This is not to say the book is perfect. Chadwick's dialogue can feel a little stilted and forced at times, and the rhythms moving your eye from panel to panel sometimes become a little muddled. But as the series develops so does Chadwick's polish, to the point that he really starts experimenting with perspective within his otherwise fairly realistic artwork. Judged as a collected whole, the early work shows the starting point of one of the more respected writers and artists of indie comics. Hopefully Dark Horse will continue with the reprints because I'm curious where Concrete's story, and Chadwick's skills, can take us.


Friday, February 10, 2006

Friday Link-o-Rama

Because you demanded it, Ibsen's Hedda Gabler done with robots.

The end of the internet as we know it? If the big companies get their way, it just might be.

Implications of the President's budget on cultural institutions.

Jeanette Winterson on books as art objects.

The team over at Barrelhouse gives their suggestions for Valentine's Day Gifts.

The Happy Booker blogs on her event with other WNBA members on the book picks for the year.

And, if you like, help Charlie Stross spot typos before things get in print.

As always, if you need a log-in id for some of the newspaper links and don't want to register, find one on BugMeNot.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Mister McDonald Goes to Washington

I came out of Metro Center today to find something I don't think I've ever seen in downtown D.C. before. Ronald McDonald. He was there with another guy dressed in a big foam hot pepper costume, handing out coupons for some spicy sandwich now available at the golden arches (no, this blog post is not an advertisement).

I was running a little early, so I decided to stand a safe distance away and watch the spectacle. I've always wondered how they recruit the various Ronald McDonalds. Maybe they pull from clown schools or carnivals; it would be an easy gig for a pro clown in the off-season. Twist some balloons into animal shapes, throw out some cheap ass toys and your done. But my secret hope is that they recruit them at the McDonald's Burger College. I imagine the McBosses see such intense enthusiasm in their burger-ness the McBosses can't just leave them in some position of dumping frozen potatoes into hot oil. They have to be put on the front lines, promoting McD's in every way possible. It wouldn't surprise me if it's something akin to the CIA recruiting new agents at colleges and univerities across the country. The potential Ronald would lead a double life, taking all the appropriate classes on burger flipping and bathroom management during the day and then slipping away at night to learn the ways of Ronald.

When I was a little kid a friend of my mom's encouraged me to take some clown classes. It wasn't just some random thing like "Hey little kid, be a clown". The friend was a professional clown and for some reason thought I would make a good one. Although I'm pretty shy nowadays, back then I was pretty outgoing and quite the smartass. Actually, I can still be a smartass. I'm just more quiet about it now.

I didn't take the classes for very long, mostly because of money. But I did it long enough to learn a few card tricks, how to take a pratfall, and some basic rules on working a flowing crowd. One of the keys, aside from making lots of noise and doing little tricks, is to flatter most everyone who comes your way. You see a big guy, you tell him he's a big guy....right before you squirt him with water. You see a pretty girl, point her out. People, in general, like to be flattered. It makes them feel good, and Ronald was flattering everyone who would listen to him. Passing out coupons saying things like, "You're da man....enjoy our sandwich" or "Hey, hot stuff. I bet you'd like to eat something spicy."

The other rule in working the crowd is to keep your eye out for people who can take an insult. Fortunately clowns in general can get away with a lot...the makeup and big floppy shoes give them some sort of free license to say all the wacky things normal people push into the back of their heads. But they do have to show some care in who they pick, and they can't just ridicule everyone. No one likes a mean clown. The rule I've always heard is to poke fun at about every 20th person. By that point most people have moved on and won't know your tossing barbs of insults at someone else.

I stayed within earshot and heard him say to a large man, "Looking at you, I think you're pretty familiar with our menu. So here's something new for you."

He might as well have said, "Hey, fatty. We've got a new way for you to tighten up your arteries and build on that expanding waist-line". The man just smiled uncomfortably, shoved the coupon into his pants pocket and moved on.

I started counting. 1, 2, 3, 4...on up to 20. Sure enough, after 20 nice comments he repeated his "menu" line, this time to a heavy woman. I would have liked to have seen a little more variety in his insults but it was nice to see someone practicing the old craft.

My only regret is that I didn't have a camera. With a little creative positioning I think I could have worked out a shot down Pennsylvania Avenue with Ronald in the foreground and the white dome of the capitol building shining in the distance. Talk about postmodern trashy magic.


Friday, February 03, 2006

Friday Link-o-Rama

A few ramdom things I've run across this week that I've found fun. Or interesting. Or both.

Author J.M. Coetzee writes on the woes of having your work translated into dozens of other languages.

Shakespeare did it all the time. Isaac Asimov did it a few times. EE Cummings did it so much he practically had his own language. And what writer doesn't want to do this? The trials and tribulations of creating your own word.

The Smithsonian Eye weighs in on art blogging. They estimate the number of art blogs somewhere between 400-500, which is a lot lower than what I would have guessed.

The Village Voice has a pretty good write-up on wacky early 20th century author Harry Stephen Keeler. If you don't know Keeler, his novels are like a three-way love child between the stories of HP Lovecraft, Raymond Chandler, and the Simpsons. On speed and acid.

If anything requires registration to view and you don't want to, you can get passwords here.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Covering Alice

There are two basic methods for a band to play a cover song. The first is to attempt a note-for-note, beat-for-beat reproduction of what appears on the original record. This method is probably most done by weekend warrior style bands punching out versions of “Mustang Sally” and “Freebird”. The second method is for a band to play with the song through any number of methods (adding effects, changing the tempo, adding your own guitar solo) to the point that you make the song their own. The Hendrix version of “All Along the Watchtower” is a perfect example; his version is so solidly Hendrix that a good number of people aren’t even aware that it’s originally a Bob Dylan tune.

A few years ago editor Richard Peabody sent out a battle cry to the lit world to create short fiction inspired by or about Lewis Carroll, Alice, and her adventures in Wonderland. The new anthology Alice Redux: New Stories of Alice, Lewis and Wonderland collects the best of what Peabody received and is a perfect example of the second method of covering another artist’s material. Thirty-one works in all, each piece spins the material on its head and showcases the unique talents and interests of the contributing author. Running from s/f to fantasy to realism to cutting edge experimental work, the broad range of fiction in this book is a testament to Peabody's own broad taste and editorial eye for picking out solid work, no matter what the style or genre.

Victoria Podpan’s “Looking through the Glass” uses pieces of Carroll’s work as a fantasy place for two small girls to run to and escape some very real world terrors. “Alice and Huck Got Married” by Miles David Moore works as a literary mash-up of sorts, showing us what might happen if Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn married Carroll’s Alice. A few, like Jeffrey M. Bockman’s “The Golden Afternoon” and Suzy Sherman’s “Forever Alice”, take the realistic route by showing other facets of the real lives of Alice Liddell and Charles Dodgson, the real man behind the pen name Lewis Carroll.

A handful of pieces come pretty close to Carroll’s witty word play and odd sense of symbolism. Robert Coover’s “Alice in the Time of the Jabberwock” shows Alice returning to Wonderland as an adult while Jeff Noon’s “Automated Alice” pushes a confused and desperate Alice through a fabulous Wonderland version of life-after-death. While they owe a lot to the original vision and style of Carroll’s work, both authors bring enough of themselves (Noon manages to work in some fun references to his novel Vurt) to make the pieces uniquely their own.

Although this book is a rare exception in that I really enjoyed every piece, there are some works that won’t appeal to everyone. “Alice Undermined” by C M Dupree works as a brilliant piece of philosophy that focuses on a fabulously surreal and absurd moment of Alice balancing on a wall a la Humpty Dumpty. Lance Olsen’s “A Brief History of the Charles Scrolls” and “Alice Doesn’t Live (T)here Any More” by Doug Rice are both tight, brilliantly crafted, language driven pieces of literary terrorism tearing apart the very ideas of what Alice and Carroll are. All three I found fabulous, but their experimental nature might not appeal to a more general audience. But with so much other material that should, like Wonderland itself Alice Redux as a whole really has a bit of something for everyone.