Saturday, December 29, 2007

Fun With Chemistry

So some crazy nuts with too much time on their hands in the chemistry department at the University of Kentucky have found a way to blend their two loves: comic books and, you guessed it, chemistry. They set out through decades of old comic books, searching for references to every element in the periodic table and put them up on their crazy website. According to the very excited patron at the library who told me about this yesterday, one of the hardest ones for them was the element Yttrium, but some writers for the 2001 comic book Star Trek: Dividid We Fall heard of their plight and included it in the series.

The site's pretty fun. You can search, of course, by your favorite element (calcium, anyone?). But you can also search by comic book, character, or pretty much any search term your brain can come up with. They also have links to some real science info on the web, so it's not all about being silly. Not surprisingly Metamorpho, a superhero who can alter the chemical makeup of his own body, makes a number of appearances, as do Superman, Ironman, and the Metal Men. But they really dug through some obscure stuff to fill out the periodic table. They are by no means done, but it's a fun if somewhat odd way to experience science.


Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Review: A War of Gifts by Orson Scott Card

Set in the war-torn future of Card’s acclaimed Ender’s Game series, the focus for this short novella A War of Gifts moves from the series hero to Zeck, son of an abusive fundamentalist preacher. Zeck’s phenomenal abilities for memorization and judging a situation make him an ideal candidate for the International Fleet’s Battle School, an academy that trains boys to be brilliant military leaders in an ongoing interstellar war. Despite his mental aptitudes, Zeck proves an unwilling pupil when he refuses to participate in battle simulations, claiming them to be against the pacifism of his religion. This clash of personal religion vs. duty to society comes up early on, when Zeck is first "recruited".

Children have no religion," said the stranger. "That's why we take them so young---before they have been fully indoctrinated in any ideology."
"So you can indoctrinate them in yours," said Father.
"Exactly," said the man.
p 22


Zeck's beliefs make him a pariah within the school, pushing him to cry foul when he sees two Dutch students quietly celebrate Christmas---or Sinterklaas Day---by exchanging satirical poems. This kicks off a cultural revolt, pitting students of different religions against each other and against the school in the name of religious freedom. Ender himself plays a small but pivotal role in the end of the story by confronting Zeck and forcing him to deal with the dark issues of his past.
I'll be honest, I wasn't sure what to think when I got this in the mail to review. The whole concept of a Sci-fi Christmas Story left me a little worried. Also, I've never read Card. For whatever reason he's one of those many authors I've just never picked up. But he handles it all well; what could easily have turned into an all-too-sweet mess developed into a thoughtful parable about religious freedom, cultural differences and knowing yourself.

Reader reviews on Amazon and other places claim Card put out this little novella---a slim, 128 page volume---to meet publisher deadlines. But I think what they are reacting to is not so much the thinness of the book but Card's approach; Sci-Fi purists will likely be let down by the lack of technology and big-scale military drama Card is often associated with. The overall approach here is one of a character-driven drama and not one based on intricate plots and Sci-Fi concepts. While this might disappoint some fans, it has a chance of drawing in readers who wouldn't otherwise pick up a Card novel.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Review: Dark Warrior Rising by Ed Greenwood

Ed Greenwood's new novel Dark Warrior Rising delivers a fantasy world heavily inspired by Norse mythology; dark elves known as Niflghar control a vast underground kingdom of pleasure and magic. Stolen from the surface world as a small child and forced to live as a slave under Niflghar rule, Orivon Firefist has grown into a skilled blacksmith and the most important servant for the beautiful yet cruel Lady Taerune Evendoom. When violence erupts in the city Taerune loses an arm and, because of her newfound ugliness, is banished by the beauty-worshipping Niflghar.


Although Orivon has dreamed of revenge since a small child he instead chooses to kidnap Taerune and forces her to guide him back to his home on the surface. On the run from skilled hunters and vicious monsters, the two must trust each other long enough to get through the dangers of the tunnels and to the freedom that waits for them above ground. A number of side-plots develop as different Niflghar families and even members within the same family use the chaos as an opportunity to raise their political stature by killing off rivals.

Greenwood is most widely known as the creator of the Forgotten Realms roleplaying universe (that’s old-school D&D, folks), and he puts his worldbuilding skills to wonderful use here. The system of magic has clear rules and the complex politics between families wonderfully heighten the dramatic tension throughout the novel. Although he tries to work in some minor sexual tension between Orivon and Taerune, it’s obvious it won’t come to be so it’s really no tension at all.

It reminds me of nothing more than Robert E. Howard’s Conan series----the basic events, the way he uses the language, the almost uncompromising dourness of the world all come together in a similar fashion. This dark, often grim tale doesn’t work in humor or romance, so while this action-packed novel will definitely satisfy fans of traditional sword-and-sorcery, unlike many other titles coming out these days it offers little to draw in readers who usually shy away from fantasy.


Saturday, December 15, 2007

Now That's Classy

So several years ago Laphroaig, one of the world's premier makers of scotch whiskey, had this offer for fans. If you filled out a survey, they sent a certificate naming you a "part-owner". It's basically a fan club for the peaty drink, but if you show up at their factory with the membership certificate in-hand you are entitled one free dram of scotch a year. I figured what the hell, signed myself up and made it a Christmas present for all the fellow scotch drinkers I knew at the time----my dad, my uncle, my grandpa, and two friends I had at work at the time.

A few years ago the company started sending small holiday gifts. We've gotten cards, tree ornaments, recipes, and a bunch of other random things loosely associated with Laphroaig. But this year they topped themselves.


Yes, that's right. This year they sent out official Laproaig lapel pins! It's probably too small to read, but under the "L" logo it reads "Spirited Folk of Oak and Smoke". I might wear mine next time I visit my dad and see if he has his on. We'll be one big dorky family of scotch drinkers.

I can't believe how excited I am by this. I really don't care what else I get for holiday gifts this year.


Thursday, December 13, 2007

Pratchett News

I heard about this from one of my colleagues at the library. Terry Pratchett, author of the mega-popular Discworld series, has been diagnosed with a form of early onset Alzheimer's. This doesn't by any means suggest the end of his career, just a change to it. Having seen one relative go through Alzheimer's and now witnessing another go through dementia, I really feel for him, his family and his friends.

You can read a copy of Pratchett's official letter about this here. I'm amazed, and somewhat awed, that he's able to write this with his trademark touch of humor.


Thursday, December 06, 2007

Metro, Why Have You Spurned Me So?

Damn Metro

I was flying high earlier today. We finished up the group project on disaster plans for my University Libraries class, and I was feeling pretty good about it. I spent most of last night editing, streamlining and honing what we had and I think we had a pretty good paper set to hand in. On top of that, I was feeling pretty good about the presentation we had to make on the topic as well.

I left for class a good hour early. Sometimes metro gets spiteful and things can take 30 minutes or so longer than you plan on. It often happens when you least want it to, and I wanted to make sure I was on campus in plenty of time. Unfortunately an hour wasn't nearly enough of a buffer today.

I was happily sitting in my seat on the train, half reading an old interview with Mark Leyner and half watching the scenery flit by. The driver's voice came over the load speakers and I heard the least favorite words of metro commuters around the world, "I've just received reports of a suspicious package at the Pentagon Metro stop. We can't go any farther than Pentagon City. Any passengers wanting to go downtown can catch a free shuttle bus."

I shrugged my shoulders and thought I'd still be ok. But when I came out of the metro stop instead of finding a shuttle ready to take me downtown I found a writhing, angry mob full of people ready to be just about anywhere but that street corner. There were probably three train-fulls of people there, and more filing in behind me.

Shuttles were provided, but only about every 20 minutes. Each one barely made a dent in the crowd. And for some reason every other shuttle was going south instead north, the way to downtown. No one seemed to understand that, not even the metro employees doing what little they could to keep a frustrated mob informed. After an hour or so, I made it half-way through the mass of people. Only another hour of waiting and salvation would be mine. Fortunately, the trains started run soon after that and I finally made it to campus.

Long story short, I eventually made it. A ride that normally takes an hour and fifteen minutes took three and half hours. Thanks to a quick phone call to Miss L, I was able to get an email to the other two people in my group and they were very nice about the whole thing. I made it just in time to be the last group make a presentation and it went pretty well, despite my bedraggled look and spent emotions when I first got there.

Why am I blogging about this? I have no idea. I just know these metro problems have been hitting me more frequently the last few months than they ever did when I rode metro every day. But you never realize how much you depend on things like public transportation to work until they fail. We humans really are quite hopeless little creatures.

Ah well. One more paper to go. This one's an annotated bibliography on reference sources for science fiction. So hopefully this one will be fun.


Sunday, December 02, 2007

Review: Weirdling by Mike Dubisch

Weirdling is the perfect name for this odd but well executed sci-fi horror from Mike Dubisch. It tells the story of Anna Mandretta, a shipmate on a submarine far in the future. Mandretta, her ship and fellow crewmates all float through the dark, nightmarish oceans on a distant planet. Earth in this future is at war with the Xax, an alien species with technology and ways mankind doesn't really understand. The stress is palpable on the ship and it's obvious that everyone onboard is terrified of the inhuman aliens they are sworn to fight.


In their downtime hours Mandretta and the rest relax by smoking pot----both alcohol and tobacco are outlawed in this future, but there's cannabis aplenty---and logging plenty of hours with a lucid dreaming device that makes dreams feel as sharp are reality. It's this dreaming reality that becomes the second part of the story.


In Anna's dreams she's a doctor in Victorian England. We see her operating on a baby with tumor on its head that's slowing becoming a mouth---quite possibly the most terrifying image of the whole book. Anna is unable to save the boy, but the the boy's father doesn't seem upset or even disappointed. He apparently believes his son will come back to life and usher in a new age for an ancient god and that Anna is to play a major part in the god's return.


As the stories flip back and forth, paranoia plays a major part as both Anna and the readers question which reality is the one to believe in. The real fun begins, though, when the two stories bleed into each other. People from one reality start appearing in the other, and a good number of connections develop between the Xax in the sci-fi world and the demon-god in the Victorian world. Both stories twist into each other fairly well, with no hanging pieces left unattached to the main story.

The sci-fi elements, in general, are stronger than the Victorian-style horror, which owes a lot to Lovecraft. While I happily sit on the first pew at the church of HP Lovecraft, Dubisch doesn't bring in a lot to freshen up the old ideas. The Sci-fi sections certainly has its strong influences as well, particulary Philip K. Dick, but the story here is built up more so it feels both within in the tradition of PKD but also totally new. I suppose you could argue that since the sci-fi world is the real world in this story it should be the one that's more developed, but the tale could have worked in deeper layers if both sides were covered with equal depth.


Dubisch's artwork is a bit different from most comics of today. The backgrounds are highly detailed, while pieces in the foreground often more sketchy. The more terrifying moments often dip into psychedelia to highlight the terror. I personally love the artwork. It pulls directly out of the visual styles of the old horror zines of the 50's and 60's. Having seen the work in his new collection as well as his website, I've seen that he's capable of a broad range of styles. I have to think that it's purposeful.

Overall Dubisch delivers a well crafted comic with high appeal for fans of old-school sci-fi and horror comics. What he's created, while not entirely fresh is a blending of forms lovers of the old style of even aficionados of indie comics will love. I'm not sure, though, how much this can draw in readers more used to the big 2 of comics. But then I don't think that's who this book is for anyway.


Monday, November 26, 2007


I'm sleepy today because last after work and after dinner I did a stupid thing. Instead of working on any one of my still pending projects for grad school, I picked up young adult horror novel.

Darren Shan's Lord Loss, book one in his still ongoing Demonata series. I'm not going to do a full on review because, frankly, it's a bestseller and doesn't really need the publicity. But the damn thing grabbed me and wouldn't let go. It was a lot of fun, and I blasted through the 250 pages in about three hours.

When I was in sixth grade---probably about the right age for this novel---I had a fire in my bedroom right before Christmas. No one was hurt, but I spent the next several months sleeping on the sofa in the basement while my bedroom was repaired. I had just gotten into the wonderfully creepy books of John Bellairs. Reading them freaked me out. Reading things like The House with the Clock in it's Walls at night, I kept hearing noises and seeing shadows that weren't there, but I kept reading anyway. I had to know what happened. It's why I read so much as a kid and, at least partly, why I keep reading now.

After English classes and a writing program it's easy to forget that novels aren't always about deep character development, powerful themes and poetic prose. Sometimes they're just meant to be enjoyed, and critics and reviewers---myself included---forget that sometimes. I think that's part of why I like comics so much. They tend to pull me into the story in a more immediate way than most novels can do.

Anyway, reviews and other madness coming as the demon lord of grad school papers permits.


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Review: Morbid Curiosity by Mike Dubisch

You may not know it, but if you've ever picked up a horror or sci-fi magazine in the last twenty years, chances are you've seen the artwork of Mike Dubisch. Throw in all the Illustrations for book covers and graphic novels he's created and Dubisch lines up as one of the more unique artists in the field. His new book Morbid Curiosity collects the best of his black and white illustration work.


One of the great things about a book like this is you get a real sense for how an artist evolves over time. The book opens with The End of History, a contest winner that appeared in Asimov's back in 1986. It's a great starter image for the book, showing immediately that he possessed a high level of talent and a keen eye for dramatic illustration. While it shows the strong influence of his predescessors---Wrightson, Corben, Frazetta, and more---it has hints of a vision all his own.

the end of history

The End of History

The work become more distinctive as the book moves on. Bode Turtle Soldier is a strange humanization of a simple animal blended into something more.It doesn't take long for the work to give a stronger sense of his own personality. Mad Scientist---with a long neck and, heavy head, and maniacal smile---shows a twisted caricature of man. It's done so well that you don't even need the title to know what the crazy portrait represents.

bode turtle soldier

Bode Turtle Soldier

mad scientist

Mad Scientist

The book continues with page after fantastic page of strange biomorphic images, terrifying monsters, sexy aliens, and other playfully dark twistings of form. overall we see a strong sense of line, a vivid imagination, and a love of experimentation. The illustrations take on a narrative quality, each one moving beyond the confines of simple illustration and transforming into a snapshot of the surreal imaginings inside Dubisch's mind.

the survivalist

The Survivalist

The images here in my review have been cropped and edited slightly to fit the narrow confines of the blog format. If you like what you see here, you'll find higher quality images on his website and, of course, in his book. Later this week I'll be reviewing Wierdling, a graphic novel Dubisch both wrote and drew.


Saturday, November 17, 2007

If It's Mid-November, It Must be Paper Season

I've been quiet this week because I've been struggling to figure out what I'm doing for all my papers and projects will be for my library school classes this week.

First on deck, due the Thursday after Thanksgiving, is a 20 page research paper that uses at least 5 academic journals as sources. Although I'm still pulling the ideas together, I'm doing social networking sites and how they are being used in academic libraries. Fortunately, it's an area I'm interested in. For the most part what I've seen libraries doing is using social networking tools as portals to get to already existing tools on websites. I'm hoping I find some examples that step beyond that. At least at the moment I'll be focusing on Myspace, Facebook and Second Life.

Due the following Thursday, I have a group paper/presentation on disaster plans----not my choice. I realize it's important, but it's fairly boring research. One person in our group took the task of a small case study of the University of Maryland's policies while I'm doing the broader background research on the topic. A third person is putting the presentation all together.

The third paper is due the Monday after that. This is for my Humanities Research class, and I've been debating back and forth about what I want to do. Basically we have to research and write an annotated bibliography of sources for a particular area of research. I initially wanted to create a bibliography for avant pop, a lit movement that ran from the mid 90's and into the early 21st century. It involves a lot of my favorite writers (Kathy Acker, Stephen Shaviro, Lance Olsen, and more), but the problem is that most of the sources are online. My prof wanted no more than 1/2 of the sources we use be online, so that one was out. My next impulse was to create one for Cyberpunk. But after spending four hours in the library last night, I decided to broaden it to Sci-Fi in general. It should be fairly easy to pull together. I definitely plan on doing one for avant pop at some point---I'm sad to say it doesn't even have a wikipedia entry. But in the interest of time and ease for my paper, the broader topic makes more sense at this point.

Anyway, I'm catching up on reviews for the magazine as well, so I should have some appearing here over the next several days as well. Until next time...


Saturday, November 10, 2007

The Death of Norman Mailer

I heard the news on NPR on the way in to work this morning. Norman Mailer dead at 84. Sad to say I haven't read much by him. One of those authors I've meant to read for some time, but just hadn't managed to get to yet. I'll talk to my bosses here at the library and see if they'll let me throw a quick book display together.


Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Review: Dark Reflections by Samuel Delany

I almost decided not to write review of any kind for Samuel Delany's most recent novel, Dark Reflections. Not because I didn't like it---I loved it. But it came out about a year ago and received pretty favorable reviews in both the Washington Post and the New York Times. But the more I dug around for opinions on the book the less I found. Review mags like Rain Taxi, which usually do a good job at picking out works like this, pretty much ignored it. And with the exception of a thoughtful review by Steven Shaviro, most of the comments online are by sf fans who are peeved that it's not an sf novel.

In short, the novel is a biographical portrait of Arnold Hawley, a gay, black poet living in NY City. It's structure is mildly experimental; the novel is broken into three sections, each exploring a different period of his life and moving backwards in time. Each section could easily work as a strong novella, but together they create a moving image of a unique man.

The opening section focuses on his late adult life. Although I could paraphrase it for you, it's probably best to have it laid out in Delany's own words:

In 1987's rainy October, when squirrels stopped, stared, then sprinted along the bench-backs away from the kids with the earrings, combat boots, and dog collars, who for more than fifteen years now had been hanging out in Tompkins Square Park, Arnold's sixth book of poems, Beleaguered Fields, won the Alfred Proctor Prize---an award given once every three years that concerned a small circle of New York poets and men and women of letters. In the late afternoon of the day he received the news, as he walked home through the park, a wind gusted among the wet leaves, for moments making a rising roar, like the cheer of thousands.....Arnold smiled....acknowledging playfully the world's recognition. (3)

The Proctor Prize allows Arnold to quit the civil servant job he hates and take a teaching position at a small college---where he happily works with a small cut in salary. The section moves forward to his retirement years later, and we see Arnold struggle with the odd hypocrisies of the publishing world when he's asked to write a blurb for a young up-and-coming poet putting out work he doesn't respect.

The second section focuses on Arnold's life in his thirties, and his brief marriage to a suicidal homeless woman. The third section moves back further to his late twenties and his early days in college fighting with the realization that he's gay. We see some powerful scenes where he's disturbingly attracted to a well hung but mentally challenged man. Against all better judgement Arnold follows his desire into a run down section of New York, but when he's finally given the opportunity to explore his sexuality he runs away.

Although poetry isn't quite the focus with these other two sections, writing is still a vital part of the story. He meets his wife while writing a poem on a park bench, and we see some lovely moments of his life when he's inspired to write. Much of his daily struggle centers around finding that balance between making a living and following his dream to publish brilliant poems. Arnold is a man who lives, breathes and loves poetry and, although Arnold is very different from Delany, it's hard not to think of Delany himself at these moments.

As much as sex is a part of this novel, Arnold is confoundingly asexual. A number of Delany's books, Hogg especially, are noted for their strong pornographic scenes. Dark Reflections features pimps graphically pitching their wares, poetic descriptions of homo-erotic photography, and a number of other bizarre situations. The moments he gets closest to experiencing sex, something outlandish occurs that puts an end to it: his wife commits suicide, he thinks he's caught in a blackmail scheme, etc, etc. And while we know as readers that Arnold has had sex, we never actually see him having sex. This seems important to the novel somehow, although I'm not quite smart enough to figure out exactly why.

One thing at the novel's core is how Arnold continually explores his identity as a gay, black poet and questions what it means. He's a black man who enjoys country music, and gay man who doesn't pursue sex, and a poet who explores themes beyond the normal bounds of what it means to black and gay. It makes Arnold more than a character; it makes him a human dreaming the dream to be what he can despite the obstacles thrown in front of him. It's this thread of the novel that ties it together, makes everything work, and brings what's probably Delany's most accessible novel in years.

Tor or any other major SF publisher would likely pull a dumptruck full of money to Delany's home if he ever broke down and wrote the SF novel fans of Babel-17 and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand clamor for. Instead what we get is the novel Delany wanted to write, and a beautiful one it is.


Monday, November 05, 2007

Standing Up for Joyce

There's this woman in both of my classes this semester who drives me nuts. Whether it's just before class or during a break she spends her whole time complaining about or ridiculing everyone and everything in her life. Her professors aren't good teachers. Her classmates can't write well. Her coworkers aren't well read. And on and on.

Most of the people she talks about I don't know, but a few I do know. Up till now i've always kept my mouth shut. So what actually prompted me to speak up against her? Who was her target today? A close friend of mine? A professor I admire?


Her target today was James Joyce.

She's apparently taking a class outside the Library Science program on Joyce's Ulysses. She was talking about it offhandedly to the professor for my class tonight, that she didn't understand why it's considered such a high point in literature. She said she didn't like the style, didn't like the writing and she had a hard time believing that Joyce was friends with Hemingway when they were both in Paris.

"Well, they were both out-of-towners in the pretty snobby art world of Paris," I said. "They probably needed the comraderie. And I think they were both able to appreciate one another's writing, even if their styles are vastly different."

She just shrugged her shoulders, and everything probably would have been fine if I left it at that. But I opened my big mouth again and tripped over my own big fat tongue.

"But I guess I can understand your feelings because I don't really care for Hemingway much," I said.

Her face snapped into my direction. " don't like Hemingway?"

"No, not really," I said. "His characters have never seemed like people to me. They've always felt more like props for his ideas. Especially his women."

She then rattled off three or four stories to combat my opinion. I shrugged and said, "Sorry. I just don't like him."

I was very careful to stress that it was my opinion, that I didn't feel that people couldn't like him. But, whether it was my words or simply that I was contesting her own opinion, she took it personally. She glared at me the rest of the period and, after awhile, I started to feel guilty. I don't know why, I just did.

What's the point of all of this? I have no idea. I do wonder why, of all people, the person I stood up for was a dead Irish author.


Friday, November 02, 2007

Today, for whateve reason, is write your own epitaph day. So now is your chance to dream and tout all those things you plan on doing before you die. There are a bunch of different approaches you can take.Do you prefer the elegiac mode, like Oscar Wilde:





Or, perhaps, one based more upon anger and retribution. such as the epitaph of Jesse James:



If I come up with something fun, I'll repost this later with my own.


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

On My Comic Book High Horse

Comics blogger Jog has an interesting write up/reaction to New Engineering, a wild looking collection of Manga by Yuichi Yokoyama. After describing the nearly plotless content of the book filled with continual battle scenes and bizarre landscapes, Jog gets into a nice little discussion on the expectations of US readers of manga.

It's Naruto's library of symbols, stripped of warmth and purpose, and turned into something... else.

So, in essence, it's the style of Manga, using sweat drops and nose bleeds aplenty. but it's Manga knocked on its butt until it's doing something else. Sounds pretty cool to me. But this speaks a lot to the US perception of comics and cartoons in general; Sandman and Fun Home aside, mainstream media still hasn't embraced the idea that comics aren't just brain candy for kids. Probably every couple of weeks someone I work with at the library will ask me, "So...I know you read books, too. What's the point with all these graphic novels?"

I just shake my head. What people continually seem to confuse is that they relate comics to their idea of genre, while it's really a medium that can tell all the same kinds of stories told entirely through text (and even some that you can't tell through text). Sci-fi, super-heroes, romance, humor, somber tales of regret, even experimental fiction like Karasik & Mazzucchelli's wonderful adaption of Paul Auster's City of Glass. It's not the tools used but what's done with them that matters.

I admit I'm biased, though. And I have been checking out a lot of fluffy ones lately, mostly because they provide a much needed break from all the academic papers I have to read for my classes. Just try not to look at me with too much scorn when I check out an issue of One Piece, a Chris Ware Lit-comic, and the latest Jonathan Lethem novel all at the same time. I enjoy it all.


Monday, October 22, 2007

Thoughts on the Bus

I had a very long metro ride home from class tonight. Someone apparently smelled or spotted smoke (I'm not sure which, I heard both versions) at Union Station just after I got on at the Brookland/CUA stop. Just two stops down, at New York Ave, they made everyone get off the train and told us the tracks were closed down for the next few stops. We'd have to catch a shuttle bus to Union Station and then transfer to a second one to take us to a metro station that was actually open.

So I waited about twenty minutes, packed into a bus, and went on my way. It wasn't too bad. People complained. People yelled. I didn't have to be anywhere at at certain time, so I didn't really care. Since I was standing the whole time I couldn't read. So I put on my Ipod, hit shuffle and tapped my foot throughout the whole journey.

Now I've had this idea tucked in the back of my head for a teen novel. All I really know about it is that it's set in a high school and the main character thinks he's a ninja. I haven't decided yet if he really is or not, but he at least thinks he is. But standing there in those crowded busses and metro trains, ideas and even full scenes started to and swirl around and even gel in my head. I'm sure some people thought I was crazy, standing on the bus just chuckling at my own thoughts.

There's no main conflict yet, but now I'm thinking about doing it for NaNoWriMo next month. I'm still undecided. I'd like to do it, but between the Holidays and all the projects for school we'll have to see. I'll probably start up on on November 1 and just see what happens.


Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Jury Duty

Yesterday I had my first experience with jury duty. Well, almost.

Several months ago I got a friendly questionaire from the US District Court. Mostly it asked me about my job, how close I lived to the nearest court house (about ten miles) and a few other boring questions. Maybe a month ago I got a little packet that my time to serve had finally arrived. A lot of people do whatever they can to avoid jury duty. But I was (and still am) looking forward to participating. I had dreams of Twelve Angry Men level events in my head, or at least events as dramatic as the episode of Andy Griffith where Aunt Bea has to decide if Jack Nicholson stole a t.v. set or not.

They send you all kinds of rules before you get there. They tell you what to wear (dark-colored business suits) and give you a list of things you can't bring with you: cell phones, cameras, pda's, magazines, newspapers, books, and so on. You can't even bring pen/pencil and paper to take notes. They don't want anything to distract you at all from the trial, I guess.

I got to the court a little early, which was good because I witnessed another potential juror get turned away for showing up in flip-flops and sweat pants. After signing in, I was directed into a room with rows and rows of chairs and told to wait. I would be called by my official juror number if/when they needed to speak to me.

It wasn't exactly the most diverse room. With a couple of exceptions, they were all white, and probably 2/3 were male. Nearly everyone was complaining about having to be there. The most entertaining/annoying guy was the man I dubbed The Pacer. The Pacer was probably in his mid-forties, tall and slender and his hair just starting to enter those changes from black to gray. The whole time I was there he walked back and forth, back and forth, often touching his fingers to his lips as he paced. I'm pretty sure if they allowed smoking in Federal buildings he would have been, and he probably would have sucked down a whole pack in no time. Every few minutes he would mutter something about not having his Blackberry.

From time to time some court official would come in, call out a number and take a juror away. Sometimes the juror came back, sometimes they didn't. The whole time I was there, I kept thinking about Schrödinger's cat. That poor cat put in a steel box, waiting for someone to open up the lid so it would know if it was alive or dead. Would I get to take part in a trial, or would they send me home?

I sat there about an hour and half until my number was finally called. They pulled me into a smaller room and I sat down with a man who said he was a lawyer. He asked me questions about finance law, whether or not I invest in the stock market, and what I felt about insider trading. I was sent back, and waited for another hour. When my number was called again, they told me to go home and call back on Friday to see if they wanted me to come in next week.

So I'm a cat, still waiting in that box for someone to tell me my fate. We'll see what happens on Friday.


Friday, October 05, 2007

Review: Scalped Vol 1: Indian Country by Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera

Comics author Jason Aaron has a gift for building stories around the still-healing wounds of American history and culture. His comic The Other Side explores the horrors of the Vietnam War; with his gritty Native American crime series Scalped Aaron explores the grim conditions "on the rez".


After running away from his home on the Prairie Rose reservation at age 13, Dashiell Bad Horse returns fifteen years later, making trouble everywhere he goes. Bad Horse comes to the attention of the local crime lord, a ruthless and conniving man named Lincoln Red Crow who immediately puts Bad Horse to work as a tribal cop on his personal payroll. On the surface Bad Horse works as Red Crow’s muscle, stamping out competitors that threaten Red Crow’s hold on the tribe and silencing a contingent of protestors who oppose the developing casino that will increase Red Crow’s wealth ten-fold. But we learn early on that Bad Horse is a federal agent working undercover to bring down Red Crow and his criminal empire. Tensions increase when both a former girlfriend and Bad Horse’s mother question his return to Prairie Rose.


The basic plot owes a lot to typical mob stories, complete with an unflinching portrayal of violence, prostitution and drug abuse. The action and plotting are sharp enough to satisfy most any fan of edgy gang-style tales. Setting the story on a reservation, though, allows Aaron to explore these ideas in a fresh manner. What he has going for him is the unique palette he can draw from to build his story. It has the potential to say a lot about current perceptions of native americans and how they play into racism, culture and history.


Artist R.M. Guera's a pretty successful veteran of European comics, and his coming from that tradition really shows. The bold lines and frenetic panels to highlight the blood-and-bullets style of action. He also makes use of the western landscape, creating dramatic desert scenes that build up the tension and alienation felt throughout the story. The one real criticism I have is the way he draws faces---they are at times a bit too abstract for me. A number of characters run together visually and it's not until I read dialogue that I always knew who they were.

The real danger of this series, however, is how Aaron is playing into stereotypes. While the stereotypes are twisted into modern forms we still see a culture built around violence, drugs and extreme sexual appetites. Unfortunately, the negatives aren't balanced with any positive figures. Although a hero of sorts, Bad Horse is still pretty unlikeable; he's perpetually angry at everyone for everything and he expresses it with extreme violence.


In an interview with Silver Bullet, Aaron states that his "goal with Scalped is to make all the characters sympathetic, even the most villainous. Red Crow, in a lot of ways, will become the most sympathetic". If the story moves in a way that redeems some of these characters, a lot of the criticism will likely be turned around into praise. We see hints of this with part two of this collection. A chapter dubbed “Hoka Hey” works in layers of flashbacks, hinting at stronger development of both character and theme as the series continues. After all the flying bullets and slamming fists, that's what will keep me coming back to this series and I hope I see it.


Sunday, September 30, 2007

Lethem Reading

The Jonathan Lethem reading I went to Friday---the closing event for this year's Fall for the Book Celebration at GMU---was a lot of fun. A staff member of the event----who (ahem) didn't introduce himself at all---opened the event by stating that Fall for the Book was about putting living writers on the same level as rock starts and using their event to give readers the chance to put a real face to the person behind the words. Lethem, in the writer-garb of the day with a sport coat, jeans and leather clogs, finally approached the stage and accepted the very first Mason Award, an award that celebrates "an author whose body of work has made extraordinary contributions to bringing literature to a wide reading public". Although no one said so, I took this as a nod to Lethem's skill at appropriating styles and themes from sci-fi, fantasy, crime fic and comic books to mainstream lit.

Lethem then launched into a reading of a short story entitled "The King of Sentences", a short story he had just finished with earlier that day. The story focuses on Clea and an unnamed narrator obsessed with words. By day they work together in a bookstore, looking down on their customers with complete disdain because they couldn't possibly understand the power and beauty of the books they were purchases with their paltry dollars. By night they read, write and pretty much achieve sexual gratification by exploring wonderfully constructed sentences. The pair decide to seek out their favorite writer, a reclusive older fellow living in upstate New York who we only know as The King of Sentences. This author reminded me a lot of J.D. Salinger, or at least what we know of Salinger: reclusive, irascible, and brilliant. It's a wacky piece and has a lot of fun with concepts like the powers of words, fandom, and the nature of a public image. I could easily see it fitting in at McSweeney's or some other equally irreverent lit mag.

Lethem stuck around for another 15 minutes or so to answer questions. I'd say about 2/3 of the audience was made of undergrads from George Mason University, many of whom recently read Lethem's novel Motherless Brooklyn for one of their literature classes. An odd choice, I thought---it does some interesting things but it's not my favorite novel of his. Anyway, several questions focuses on that novel. But other people asked him about other works, about the essay "The Ecstacy of Influence" he wrote for Harper's Magazine that attacks current laws and concepts of intellectual property, his thoughts on sci-fi, and if he sees himself as part of a "zeitgeist" of current male novelists who deal with similar subjects in similar ways (he doesn't).

I had a great time. There are still some things he said that are swirling around in my head---particularly the idea of creative influence---that I'll probably post about here after thinking on them some more. Until next time....


Friday, September 28, 2007

Moving Up?

Well I guess fame of my genius is finally spreading through the ranks of the library system. The higher-ups who run the website asked me to contribute an article for the Check it out feature. Basically I write short, bullet-style reviews for 8 titles that are based around a theme of my choice. Themes picked so far are things like Affairs of the Heart, Vintage Reading, and Murder, Mayhem and Simple Curiosity. The easiest thing would probably be good horror, with Halloween coming up and everything. New trends in Fantasy could be fun as well, promoting authors like China Mieville and Jeff Vandermeer. I'll troll the stacks a bit today if I have time. I hope this is a sign of good things to come for me, because I just applied to two job openings that would give me better experience than what I'm getting now.

Tonight after work I'll be hitting the Jonathan Lethem reading, the last reading for this year's Fall for the Book. Aside from reading, Lethem's also being honored with the 2007 Mason Award, an award that celebrates "an author whose body of work has made extraordinary contributions to bringing literature to a wide reading public". I'm sorry I didn't get to go to more at Fall for the Book this year, but I'm glad I'm getting to see Lethem. He's been one of my favorite writers for several years now and I know he's a good reader of his own work----not all writers are.

Anyway, if you're there, you know who I am and you see me say hi. If you don't know who I am, just starting saying hi to everyone.


Sunday, September 23, 2007

Review: Redemption by Lee Jackson

Redemption is a near-future thriller, with its portrayal of a U.S. frightened enough by terrorism to cut back nearly all civil liberties, proves a fair debut for Lee Jackson. The story opens with Ben Trinity, a former college professor arrested for funding a terrorist group, hitchhiking to the west coast. Heading out to start a new job as part of his parole, a snowstorm forces him to stay the night in Redemption, Montana and miss his appointment. After getting permission from his parole officer Trinity takes a job as a handy man at a local diner. His first few days are easy; Trinity works hard and endears himself to the locals. But word leaks out about his past and what began as a simple character piece moves quickly into a political thriller. The locals fear Trinity, speak out vocally against his living there and even threatening his life. As his situation turns from bad to worse it becomes clear that Trinity is being set up to take a fall and, perhaps, even be killed by a faction within the government. The only way for him to survive is to make the truth about his past fully public and let the court of public opinion decide for itself.


As a central character Trinity moves from mysterious to likable as his innocence becomes apparent. Unfortunately, the secondary characters don’t quite have the same feel, reading more like stock character types like the closed-minded sheriff and the sweet-but-cautious love interest. There’s also odd inclusion of two short passages written in the point of view of a teen-age girl with a crush on Trinity. Kids are hard to write well, and Jackson seems to have forgotten most of what’s it like to be a teen. It’s all slang, and while teens certainly use slang they don’t sound like a walking text message. At least not yet.

SF readers will be let down a bit that the futuristic elements are confined to laws and technologies that limit the freedom of citizens in the name of government protection. While these aspects are well done, it would have been nice to see some other pieces of the future beyond what worked within his political theme. On the plus side, though, it makes this world feel very close to our own. In fact, the most haunting aspect of the novel is how close to current reality Trinity’s situation is; it’s not hard to imagine the circumstances of an innocent man’s life torn apart in the name of protecting the public.

Set in a thriller-style plot, Jackson’s fast-paced writing works in large part to get across his own political ideas. Even though I agree with his perspective on civil rights, there were many points in the story that I wanted something else to grab on to. Overall, I found this a fun read and, in some small ways, even provocative. Although it’s not likely I’ll read this one again I’ll definitely keep an eye out for his next book.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Arrgh! There be pirate books on me shelf!


In honor of Talk Like a Pirate Day, I'm listing the few pirate-related things on my bookshelf.

Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates>. By David Cordingly.

under the black flag

I bought this for my history buff of a grandpa, who read it and immediately gave it to me to read. Cordingly, former curator a the National Maritime Museum in England, peels away the rumors and myths of well known pirates (Captain Kidd, Blackbeard, etc) and gets at their real stories. He does an excellent job in not just dispelling the myths but also exploring them and explaining why we romanticize the very violent lives of these men none of us would like to meet in real life. For a twist, he also looks at the often ignored state supported pirates, like Sir Francis Drake. Highly readable popular history.

A General History of the Pyrates. By Daniel Defoe.

defoe's pyrates

By the author of Robinson Crusoe, this 1724 classic chronicles the tales of the nutcases who sailed the seas and plundered anything they could. Although there are dozens of reprintings of this by different publishers, I really like the Dover Publications edition, put out in 1999. It comes with a useful index as well as footnotes marking things Defoe got wrong and making links to larger issues.

Isaac the Pirate Volume 1: To Exotic Lands. By Christophe Blain.

isaac the pirate

Volume 1 of an ongoing graphic novel series, Isaac is a young painter living in Pre-Revolutionary France. To make ends meet, he takes a job as illustrator aboard a ship he's told is taking cargo and passengers to America. Much to his surprise, Isaac learns that the ship's Captain---a wanted pirate with dreams of becoming a living legend---is actually taking his barge and crew farther south so he can be the first to captain to steer a boat around the South Pole. It's a nice mixture of humor and adventure, and plenty of hearty pirate speak.

Treasure Island. By Robert Louis Stevenson.

treasure island

Robert Louis Stevenson described Treasure Island as "a book about a map, a treasure, and a mutiny, and a derelict ship, and a fine old Squire Trelawney, and a doctor, and a sea-cook with one leg…" and I don't think I could put it any better. This is one of the few books of my childhood that survived my bedroom fire of sixth grade; being a book I read over and over again, I'm glad it's still around.

Bluebeard. By Kurt Vonnegut.


Next to Breakfast of Champions, this is probably my favorite Vonnegut novel. This story focuses on a side character that's appeared in other novels, a World War II veteran and abstract painter named Rabo Karabekian. Karabekian writes his "hoax autobiography", and Vonnegut uses it to satirize anything and everything about the art world. Why is this one in a list of pirate books, you ask? Well, I ran out of pirate books and this was the next closest. A myth of Bluebeard becomes a central theme to the story, so it's not completely out of nowhere. If you don't like it, I'll keelhaul ya!


Friday, September 14, 2007

Review: Beats, Rhymes and Life: What We Love and Hate About Hip Hop

After more than 30 years of pumping out rhythms and rhymes, there’s no arguing that Hip Hop has made a huge impact on popular culture. And much like Jazz and Rock before it, Hip Hop is now moving through the growing pains of just being a popular form of music to becoming a genuine art form with a respected place in cultural history. Editors Kenji Jasper and Ytasha Womack have done an excellent job with their book Beats, Rhymes and Life in collecting a variety of essays and opinions exploring and deconstructing the music, lyrics and imagery of the music videos surrounding Hip Hop and Hip Hop culture as they try to answer the question of its place in the world.


Several of the essays examine the image of Hip Hop and its obsession with bling, violence towards women and glorification of drugs; are the artists providing social commentary by portraying the worst of inner city life or are they adding to the problems by glorifying it? Other essays, like the forward by critic and academic professor Michael Eric Dyson, remind readers of Hip Hop’s early connections with the civil rights movement but express some regrets over its more recent developments. In fact, if there's one general thrust to most of the content of the book it probably follows Dyson's opinion that Hip Hop, by and large, was about personal artistic expression and serious commentary. The title of the book, after all, comes from an album by Tribe Called Quest, one of the more socially active Hip Hop groups around. But there's a general feeling that Hip Hop's left this behind for the glitz, bling and bank rolls it now generates by way of Mtv.

Along with the essays, the volume also includes a number of pointed interviews with well-known Hip Hop performers like Ludacris and Too $hort as well as Rob Marriot, co-founder of the Hip Hop culture magazine XXL. The interviewers are obviously well informed fans but don’t shy away from asking difficult questions. Too $hort’s interview is particularly interesting as he expresses his opinions of trends in the industry. "My personal theory” he said in the interview “is that rappers don't really lose it lyrically, they just don't pay attention to the production. That first album, when you was broke, came out the bomb, but then [with] that next one you've got some jewelry. You got a car. The girl wants you. And then you go into the studio and you got the ego and the ego can't make records. Records gotta come from within."

Despite the contributions coming from a number of academics and high-minded cultural critics, Jasper and Womack make this book accessible by keeping the hyper-critical jargon to a minimum. Readers should be aware that this is not a history of the music like Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop (Picador, 2005), but a collection of writings that assumes readers at least know the big names and events of hip hop. My own knowledge of Hip Hop is pretty limited. I know a good bit about the early days because of its connections with electronic and improvisational music. And I know the early to mid-90’s stuff, because that’s when I was in college and Hip Hop was the party soundtrack every where you went. So while I felt lost at time with the references to names of performers and albums I’ve never heard of, I still got the gist of what the writers and editors wanted to get across.

Smart fans of the art form, though, will get the most out of this. They will find a thoughtful, balanced book that gives them the opportunity to think about the medium and make their own decisions about Hip Hop’s place in history.


Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Book Displays

A few weeks ago I pitched the idea to our book display committee at work (yes, there is actually a committee for that) to do a display based around the writers attending the two big book fests in the area: Virginia's Fall for the Book at George Mason University and the National Book Festival located on the National Mall in downtown D.C.

The whole concept of displays in libraries has really changed in recent years. Once upon a time, it was a tool librarians would use to bring out so-called shelf-sitters and get people checking them out again. Nowadays it's seen more as a way to promote new material or point out that we have books or authors that are hot. This is mostly a reaction to competing with the book chains and how they display books. There's quite an inferiority complex going in within public libraries right now.

I would have thought the bookfest idea a simple idea to sell to the powers that be, but it took some convincing. Part of what they want with displays are themes that make it easy for anyone to hunt down and grab copies for restocking purposes. Since the festival displays are author-specific, it means there's a little more work involved. You can't just go to the mystery section and grab a bunch of stuff. But really, the festival display is kind of a gimme. I'll be surprised if lots of people don't look at it and pull books from it. It will have a wide variety of fiction, genre fiction, non-fiction and poetry, and mostly big names. George Mason University is a short ten minute drive from our branch and I know a good number of our patrons are going to both fests----there's hardly a week that goes by that someone does't mention one or the other to me. Really, anyone who reads should go to them if they can.

So today I submitted a partial list of authors we have books of in our branch that are in good enough shape to put on display.

Fall for the Book (9/23-9/28)

Mitch Albom
Rita Mae Brown
Alan Cheuse
Danielle Deulen
Joseph Ellis
Alice McDermott
Jennifer Egan
Jonathan Lethem
Susan Shreve
Mark Strand

National Book Festival (9/29)

David Baldacci
Ken Burns
Edward P. Jones
Thomas Mallon
Joyce Carol Oates
N. Scott Momaday
Terry Pratchett
Charles Simic
James Swanson
Gene Luen Yang

So now I have to go-ahead. It'll probably go up a few days prior to Fall for the Book starting. If I'm inspired I'll take a photo when it's up.

Now I just need to convince the committee on the local author display I want to do, which will probably be a tougher sell. But it's something I really want to do. I plan to do as much as I can (which at this point is not much) to promote and support local writers. It seems to me they are too often ignored as a great resource. At least in library system I work for.


Thursday, September 06, 2007

Happy Birthday, On the Road

Yesterday at work we had a number of patrons coming through looking for things by Keroauc. Most people came in asking for The Road, and looked really confused when they were pointed to McCarthy's post-apocolypse novel. One other person asked for Jack's Road. Even though I don't work at the official librarian desk, the librarians kept sending these people my way when they weren't sure what the people were asking for. I guess I'm starting to get a rap for odd ball lit trivia, mostly due to my kicking ass in a game of literary trivial pursuit at lunch a few weeks ago. But that's another story.

Now normally when a bunch of people are asking for an older book, it means one of two things: kids need to read it for school or a book club is reading it. These were all ranges of adults, but none were school age. After about the fifth person I finally asked why so many people were looking for Keroauc. The details were a little vague, but apparently NPR ran a feature story on him. "I think it's his 50th birthday," the patron told me. I broke the news to her that Jack was long dead, and if alive would be well over 50. She shrugged her shoulders and took the book anyway. I hope she likes it.

Still somewhat confused, I tracked down the NPR story and found that yesterday was not Jack's b-day (shocker), but the 50th anniversary of the first publication of On the Road. Although I knew the story already, it's a pretty good encapsulation of all Jack went through to get that book out. In his 30's, living at home with his mother he fought to get that book out. Sometimes I guess you just know when you write something good.

I still remember reading Kerouac for the first time. It was the summer between my Senior year of High School and my Freshman year at College. My stepbrother Jon---who's one year ahead of me in school----was reading it that summer. Not to be outdone, after all I was the book nerd, I picked up a copy and read it a few short days before heading down to JMU. I remember not fully understanding it at the time, but I also remember liking it. I remember enjoying the freedom the characters felt and loving the romantic idea of setting out an endless search for, well, something. I don't think I quite knew what at the time. Nowadays I would probably say enlightenment. Or peace.

Over the years I read more by Ol' Jack, and I have to say I prefer his poetry and his later novel Desolation Angels. But it's hard to argue with a novel that legitimized and popularized one of the most influential lit movements of the 20th century. So although it's a day late, I'll hoist a short drink of scotch tonight in honor of Jack and his lit classic On the Road. Happy 50, old bean.


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

A Little Romance, a Big Step and an Old Book

Amidst work, going to a wedding and everything else that happened this past weekend, I managed to squeeze in something special. After dating for just over six years, I proposed to Miss L. I won't go into the full details, but we had dinner in Annapolis, walked down to the waterfront and I popped the question in a somewhat quiet spot along the water. It wasn't a surprise at all---we've been talking about it for months, so when I said we were going somewhere nice for dinner and it wasn't a special occasion it was pretty obvious. I must have done ok, though, because she said yes.

One of the growing trends these days is for the woman to give the man gift after the proposal. I've read everything from plasma tv's to ipods, but when Miss L asked me I told her it should be something more permanent and personal than that, but I didn't want jewelry. So when we got back to her apartment Miss L lit some candles and handed me a wrapped package. I opened it, intensely curious to find out what she picked for a gift. Inside I found a book, an old volume bound in worn leather. After opening to the title page, I found this:

graham title page

The book holds a mixture of articles, criticism, fiction and poetry. I noticed familiar names like HW Longfellow and Mary Spencer as well as crazy pictures like these:

image plate

Finally, on page 257, I found the reason for her choice:


After a little research, I've learned that Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine was a Philly based journal known for mixing articles on art and fashion and including new works of short fiction and poetry for many writers of the day. At the time, it was one of the highest paying markets in the U.S. Poe himself worked as editor for the journal for a little over a year, and used the journal to publish and promote both his own work and work by others that he admired (Longfellow, Dickens, etc). Its pages were the first to publish Poe works like "A Descent into the Maelstrom", "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and yes, "The Mask of Red Death".

Not exactly romantic by today's meaning of the term, it does show how well Miss L knows me. It's a wonderful choice for a gift, especially since "Masque" or "Mask" as it's called here is one of my favorite Poe stories. I've always thought about collecting old books. A couple of years ago my grandpa gave me an early printing of a collection of Ambrose Bierce stories. Placed together, the two volumes make a nice start to a collection. Hopefully Miss L and will be able to add to it as the years go by.


Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Back to School

Classes at library school started back up this week. I've had one Monday, a class on Humanities Research. The professor is kind of, well, an odd duck. A lot of students don't like him. HIs lectures are free-wheeling stream of consciousness, often diverging completely from the topic at hand. He also frequently works in references to himself for no reason at all---his ties to French Royalty, his published books, his friendship with big name critics. When I was buying my textbooks Monday morning, I ran into someone I know who expressed great sympathies for my taking a class with him.

I took a class of his last spring, though, and I really like him. I find him entertaining, he really cares about the students and he does know a lot. The work he gives, although sometimes tedious, really pushes the students to learn how to use a variety of sources: databases, standard print reference sources and even old, rare (and hard to find) volumes. I also really appreciate his point of view that librarians need to keep informed of the subject area they work in, and not just know how to look up information. For example, along with the three library science text books we're also reading Jacques Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence, a book that examines western culture from 1500 A.D. to the present day.

My other class is on Thursdays, and is on College and University Libraries. I'm mostly taking that for career reasons. Although I'm working in a public library now, I don't know where the jobs will be when I'm done. I felt like I needed some exposure to how Academic Libraries work before I graduate, and with so many colleges in the area I hope it will help with my job search I've heard mixed things about the professor. That he's kind of dry, but really knows the material and that he gives challenging but fair assignments. We'll see how it goes. All in all, I'm looking forward to the semester.


Friday, August 24, 2007

Review: Against the Stream by Noah Levine

For whatever reason, I've developed a small passion for books that try to explain Buddhist thought to different audiences. One of my favorites in recent years is Brad Warner's Hardcore Zen, a wonderful book that's part memoir, part guidebook that explains the fundamental ideas of Buddhist philosophy by relating them to punk rock, cartoons and monster movies. Dozens of books like these have been popping out the last few years, and they are particularly enticing to teens interested in religion and philosphy. Noah Levine recently entered the fray with his own book Against the Stream.


Levine’s first book, the memoir Dharma Punx, tells the compelling story of Levine’s self-destructive early years, showing a young man mired in the culture of drugs and violence, and how the principles of Buddhism turned his life around. Although a bit unevenly written, it's a compelling story seeing a young man transcend his addictions and problems and move on to a better life.

After spending the last few years teaching teens at various centers in California, Levine delivers this second book that works as a simplified manual introducing readers to the basics of Buddhist thought. Free of the jargon typically found in modern philosophy Levine strips the complicated and often abstract ideas of Buddhism down to its most basic concepts: escape suffering, live simply and treat yourself and others with ethical respect and love. Levine uses these concepts to explore and tackle issues of particular interest to teens like drug abuse, sexuality, the difficulties of abstinence and being an active part of a community. Probably the most useful parts of the book are the appendices, which include point-by-point directions to transcendtal meditation and lists of print and electronic resources for deeper study.

Unfortunately, this volume offers little in the way of cultural references, humor or other hooks to reel in readers who normally ignore philosophy books. Also lacking the narrative of his first book, I can't help but think the best book for Levine would be a merging of his memoir and this guide. As it is, Against the Stream comes off as informative but a little dry----and far from revolutionary. Despite these failings, Levine’s still managed to create an excellent and concise introductory resource for those who have an interest in Buddhism but have found other books too daunting in their language and concepts.


Saturday, August 18, 2007

Mighty Media Team-Up

According the AP, Big Time publisher Harper Collins announced this week that they are making single chapter previews available for download and viewing on an Apple Iphone. The hope is that they will pay for the full versions and read full books on their fancy portable device. They are currently offering titles by Ray Bradbury, Faye Kellerman, Michael Korda, and other big names most people will recognize.

I understand what HP is doing----trying to capitalize on the Iphone hype and bring some attention to their titles. And I also understand what Apple is trying to do: expand their tools to yet another form of media. But the Iphone, as cool as it is, has a pretty small screen. I can’t see reading a full book on it. Email, quick news stories, maybe even comic books--sure. But not a full book. And despite all the media attention I don’t know a single person with an Iphone.

In contrast, we get lots of questions about the (somewhat) new
Sony Reader
at work. Probably 2-3 a week, with people asking if we’ve heard about it, if the library ebooks will be supported on the Sony Reader (they won’t---at least not yet). A lot of people are curious about it, and it’s easy to see why. It’s about the same size as a paperback book so it’s an easy transition for reading. Our version of Ebooks is a simple HTML fileI even saw a demo of it at the ALA conference a couple of months back and it’s pretty slick. Lots of memory and real easy to use, especially when you’re just dealing with text. I’m still kind of a Luddite when it comes to books, but I can see making the transition to ebooks for some things if they are quick reads. We’ll see, though.


Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Crystal Shrine Grotto

So I've made it back from Memphis, TN. It was a relaxing, lazy trip for the most part...discounting the 14 hour drive, of course.

Ate bbq at Corky's, saw Beale Street and visited the Civil Rights Museum located in the hotel where Martin Luther King was shot and killed. But probably the most memorable site I visited was the most wacky.

We were staying in Germantown, a suburb a few minutes outside the city of Memphis. Miss L was driving us down Poplar Ave into the downtown area when she suddenly declared, "I need to make a pit-stop."

She turned us into the Memorial Park Cemetery. I was confused at first, because this really seemed to be an odd place to stop at just to use the restroom. Were we paying respects to a family member I wasn't aware of, or perhaps visiting the resting place of some Memphis luminary? I later found out Sam Phillips, the record producer most noted for discovering Elvis, is buried at Memorial Park but our little stop had nothing to do with him.

Miss L drove us slowly through the hills of the cemetery, finally stopping at an odd site. I saw a small, man-made pond surrounded by plants, trees and sculptures. This in and of itself is not that odd for a cemetery, but the other sites certainly are.

grotto lake

Exterior of the Crystal Shrine Grotto

We were at the Crystal Shrine Grotto, an odd piece of environmental folk art created by Senor Dionicio Rodriquez in the 1930's. After the pond, the next most prominent object is this massive tree a nearby plaque tells us is a reproduction of Abraham's Oak, created "entirely of concrete, reinforced with steel and copper bar as to insure its existence for many centuries to come".

stone tree

Abraham's Oak

Tucked away on the other side of the concrete oak rests the entrance to a man-made cavern. A little eerie at first going inside, but it was nice cool escape from the 100 degree temperatures outside.

most beautiful head

Immediately inside is a plaque, declaring Jesus as "The Most Beautiful Head in History". I've never thought of Jesus in quite that way, but I understand the sentiment. The cavern itself is not large, but could comfortably fit about twenty people or so. It seemed to be made in the same way as the concrete oak outside, with stones like quartz and other semi-precious stones worked into the concrete to give the cavern a slight glimmering effect. Deeper inside the cave we found ten sculptures of biblical scenes, each created by different artists, the most recent created in 1979. Some are quite realistic while the more recent works are bit abstracted.



My camera and the dim lighting didn't get along well, so these shots don't really do the interior much justice. I'm not particularly religious, but I still came away with an odd peaceful feeling after visiting this place. It's kind of a weird testament to the feeling religion can bring to someone. It's also quite a wacky thing to have in a cemetery, and would almost seem more at home in a place like New Orleans or even the South West. But it's in Memphis, and it is well worth stopping at if you manage to find yourself in that part of the U.S.

But my travels are now over and life returns to normal. Back to work, back to reviews and hopefully a little writing before classes start up again on the 27th.


Saturday, August 04, 2007

Shameless Plug

This month's Harp Magazine has a nice review of the Hendrix-inspired anthology Kiss the Sky, edited by Richard Peabody. I'm quite flattered that my own story is mentioned in the review. Congrats to Richard and everyone in the book---if you haven't picked it up yet, please do. It's a lot of fun.

After I get off work at 5 pm, Miss L and I set off for the wilds of Memphis, TN. We're driving, which is great because I love a good road trip. Hopefully I'll stumble across some good stories and photographs to share. My computer access might be a little sketchy, but I'll update as I can over the next week.


Friday, August 03, 2007

Review: Tales from the Farm by Jeff Lemire

This first volume in Jeff Lemire's graphic novel trilogy Tales from Essex County sets a high mark with powerful writing and moving artwork. After losing his mother to cancer ten-year-old Lester moves in with his Uncle Ken, a gruff and solitary bachelor who owns and works a small farm in rural Ontario, Canada. Ken tries his best to reach out to Lester but can’t relate to this weird little boy who wears a super-hero cape all day and prefers reading comics to watching hockey on television. Lester spends most all his time by himself escaping into a rich, super-powered fantasy life until he makes friends with the least likely of characters: Jimmy, a disgraced pro hockey player who now runs the convenience store at the local gas station.

main tales cover

Jimmy enters Lester’s imaginary world by helping him build a fort to stave off an alien invasion and encouraging him to write and draw his own comic book. The bond that grows between the two helps both Lester and Jimmy move beyond the tragedies life gave them. Lemire’s writing---with its spare, tight dialogue---really nails that complicated mixture of anger and sadness that comes with losing a parent. His artwork is equally effective, its rough and chunky lines powerfully recreating the solitary nature of farm life and Lester’s vivid imagination.


There are a number of similiarites in theme and concept to Hornschemeier's Mother Come Home, but Lemire shifts the focus almost completely on Lester's inner struggle to overcome his sadness at being left behind.


The book certainly has an indie feel; it deals with a serious subject and uses artwork that's well outside the norm of daily strips and super-hero comics. In fact, it's probably one of the better matches between artwork and story I've seen in a good while. But a lot of indie titles get too racy or complex for teens, especially younger teens. They will get this book, though. Teens and adults will both love the humor in Lester’s odd imagination and even more love the heart of this book a powerful look at tragedy and how to move on after it strikes.


Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Recovering From School

My little over three week vanishing was all due to crazy out of control summer school. I only took two classes, but the summer terms are about 1/3 as long with the same level of work. Project built up on top of project and I often found myself scrambling against deadlines. Even more than normal. After working and then spending several hours every day reading and working on homework, the last thing I wanted to do was spend time writing something else. But now, hopefully, I'll be getting back into the habit of blogging and catching up on things.

My class projects were really varied. I Organized my t-shirt collection, complete with a database with full catalog entries. Wrote an essay on the value of Google Scholar and another on Zines in public libraries. But probably the most time consuming project was the lesson plan for my Information Literacy class.

For Information Literacy we had to work with a College Freshman English teacher and develop a lesson plan for a 75 minute library instruction session. Each class came with a theme and I got to work with a class that focused on horror film criticism. The big project for the students asked them to pick a horror film monster that appears in two different movies----Dracula, the blob, etc.----and write an essay exploring the portrayal of the monster and what it has to say about a particular theme. For example, they could write about two different versions of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, examining the paranoia in both and try to determine the societal cause for that fear. So it really was the perfect match for me.

The professor I worked with was pretty cool. We only communicated over email, but I found that she's big into sci-fi criticism and theories dealing with viral language. As far as the class, she was interested in literary theory applied to films and really wanted to get her students into exploring themes more deeply. So I designed a lesson plan that taught them how to use subject encyclopedias and databases to dig up info on their themes and narrow down their topics----like most college freshman, the ideas the kids have are pretty vague, like Dracula and evil.

To jazz up the session a little bit I worked in searching Youtube for video clips. But I really brought out my inner geek with the props I chose.


Yep, I bought a pile of action figures for the students to fidget with as they researched. That big guy in the back is a giant roaring King Kong, which I found in the discount aisle at Target. The big ape is flanked by a Werewolf, a somewhat gay looking Dracula, a Zombie and a very buff Frankenstein's Monster---all of which I found at a Spencer's Gifts at the local mall. I have no idea what I'll do with these toys now that my class is over, but I'm amused that grad school is giving me the excuse to buy toys.

Anyway, I think I did a good job. The comments I got on my lesson plan were all pretty good, and it was fun putting it on. Info literacy was a good class---both challenging and fun. I hope I find ways to apply some of the education theory in my work after I graduate. But as much I enjoyed, I'm really happy to have the next three weeks or so off from school. I need some time to shift my brain to thinking about other things.

I have a big pile of book reviews to catch up on, so those will be appearing over the next few days. And this weekend I head to Memphis, TN for several days. It's Miss L's hometown, and we're going there to visit her family and friends and possibly eat BBQ. More on that on another day.


Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Review: Children of Hurin by JRR Tolkien

Love him or hate him, through the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy Tolkien created a template for modern fantasy. Even more than forty years later nearly every fantasy novel written since Tolkien’s days is either patterned after or a reaction against the standards Tolkien set. Just when fantasy was starting to slip away with authors like Jeff Vandermeer and China Mieville really branching out to new territory, the movies came out and breathed new life into Tolkien’s slowly waning influence.

One of the reasons The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings work so well is that Tolkien developed a fabulously intricate back story detailing the rich history of his fictional world known as Middle Earth. While much of this material was published posthumously in books like The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, Tolkien delivered it in a loosely connected way that makes it pretty tough to read. While millions have read his novels, few but even the most dedicated of fans have dared slog through the entirety of the pre-Hobbit material.

Edited by Tolkien’s son Christopher, a new volume titled Children of Hurín draws from both of these earlier sources to pull together a complete single narrative set in pre-Hobbit Middle Earth. Turín, son of the human lord Hurín and the Elven lady Morwen, becomes a pivotal force in the ongoing battle against evil in an epic adventure full of action, intrigue and clever battle scenes. The early parts of the story focus on Turín’s young life; Morgoth, master of a young dark lord named Sauron, captures Turín’s father forcing Turín to spend his formative years living in the safety of the Elven kingdom. When he reaches manhood Turín is wrongly judged for the death of an elf and banished for the rest of his life. After some anecdotal adventures he manages to become the leader of a ragtag band of forest outlaws that cause no end of problems for the Orcs, dragons and other powerful forces of evil trying to usurp the kingdom. Plotwise, its all pretty exciting in a massive chivalrous quest kind of way.

children of hurin

Alan Lee’s illustrations, though, are pretty incredible. Both black and white drawings and full color paintings, they come solidly from the traditions of fantasy illustration and bring dramatic visuals throughout the book.

For me probably the greatest innovation Tolkien made with his novels was the creation of the Hobbit itself. Up to Tolkien, fantasy literature was still based squarely in the ideal of retelling the age of chivalry and tales of daring-do. The Hobbits end this by introducing characters that aren’t interested in things like glory and power. Both Bilbo and Frodo work as central characters so well because they are essentially modern characters living in a fantasy world. As a character Turin is charismatic, brave, cocky and as equally skilled in getting into trouble as he is in getting out of it. But he is all old world. His motivations, relegated to basic things like revenge, are simple and lack the depth we expect from central characters today. I don’t think this was Tolkien being lazy or lacking skill so much as him trying to emulate an older style. But still, I think a lot of people will have trouble relating to Turin as he bounds from adventure to adventure.

A secondary barrier is the language. Tolkien seems to draw a lot from the King James version of the Bible in what rhythms and sounds he chooses. While this works wonderfully in descriptions, particularly of landscapes, it falls apart for me with the dialogue. You get crazy stuff like this:

“I did not come with the thought of battle,” said Turin, “though your words have waked the thought in me now, Labadal. I must wait. I came seeking the Lady Morwen and Nienor. What can you tell me, and swiftly?” (185)

Yes, you do get dialog like this in the novels. But it primarily came from royalty and was modified by characters like the Hobbits that speak in a manner closer to our own. It’s the only style of speech here and it gets a little overbearing. At least it did for me.

The language and lack of depth in characterization might intimidate casual readers but more ambitious fans of fantasy will find a massive and wide-spanning plot that reminds us why we continue to place Tolkien on the zenith of fantasy literature after so many years.

Author and critic David Louis Edelman has a write-up that digs more deeply into the Middle Earth history of this book than I can. He's also been blogging about a number of other Tolkien works, so look through his blog for related entries.


Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Potter Hits the Road


Today I made a late morning trip out to the Chantilly Library in Fairfax County to catch the official Harry Potter tour bus, aka the Knight Bus, as it blasted through the area. If you've had your head under a rock the past year you may not know that the 7th volume in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, hits bookstores and libraries in the U.S. on July 21. The tour bus is making the rounds across the country to whip readers into an even more violent frenzy as the last days, hours, minutes and seconds count away until the final volume of Harry Potter comes out.


More than a purple bus with advertisements blazing on the sides, the inside of the vehicle features a small studio so readers can record a video message (sorry, they didn't allow photos inside the bus) giving readers the chance to tell whatever they like about our beloved Harry. Videos range from theories on what will happen in the last book to what they've all loved so much about the series since it first came out. To view the videos, you can visit the official site set up by Scholastic Books.


To the library's credit, they had things really organized. People had to register ahead of time and they told people not to come too much before their time. When the parking lot filled up they used the high school across the street as an overflow. For people who were there early, they had activities to pass the time. Fun stuff like making magic wands and Harry Potter glasses out of pipe cleaner. They also had a stack of other fantasy books fans of Potter might like, cool stuff by writers like Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper and John Bellairs. Oh yeah: there was also a live owl, kindly brought in by the Virginia Raptor Society.


I'm not a huge Harry Potter fan. I've read the first two books and enjoyed them. I've seen all the movies and liked them. But I don't get all crazed like some folks do---two people I work with are taking time off right after it comes out so they can do nothing but read it. The only way I understand it is to remember how I felt about Star Wars as kid. Particular between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Everyone....and I mean everyone...I knew had their theories about the cliffhanger ending when Vader claimed to be Luke's father. We all spent the years between talking, fighting and even making up plays to figure out the answer.


a Multi-generational group of fans

Even though I'm not a fan, I found myself getting caught up in it. With everyone in costume, both kids and adults, and everyone just generally having a good time talking about Harry it was hard not to succumb to the excitement. It's great to see a good group of people getting so worked up over a book. And a big book, too, if Rowling's past efforts are any indication.


Aside from hitting Chantilly, Va. the bus, or one like it, also made it to Arlington, Va Montgomery County, Md and Baltimore, Md. The bus will keep on rollin' up to the release date. For a list of all the stops, visit the official Knight Bus site.