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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.