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.