Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Happy B-Day Poe

This past January 19th marked the 198th birthday of Edgar Allan Poe; miss L and I chose to celebrate with a wild throng of fellow Poe fans at the annual celebration put on by the Edgar Allan Poe House and Museum in Baltimore, Md. I was held at Westminster Hall, an old church downtown that now functions as a rental space and a tourist site because Poe's dead body rests in their graveyard. It's a great space for a small performance; large enough to hold a couple of hundred people, but small enough that there really weren't any bad seats. The stained glass windows and general environment lent an air of gothic mood that added to the whole evening.

The Poe Society set up a small exhibit in the balcony level; it was small but fun, showing off locks of hair of Poe and his wife Virginia, as well as copies of magazines some of Poe's stories first appeared in. The Baltimore-Washington Beer Works was there, selling glasses, mugs and hats tied to their Raver Lager (The taste is Poetic). And movie director Mark Redfield was there, selling and signing DVD's for his film The Death of Poe (I bought one, but haven't watched it yet).

The event itself was built around live performances of two of Poe's short stories: "The Facts of the Case of M. Valdemar" and "Berenice". The first was a bit of a surprise; although a bit of a Poe fan, it's not one I've read too many times. It's an odd, macabre story about what might happen if someone is mesmerized a moment before their death. The story was one of Poe's most popular during his life. It became widely copied and distributed as a scientific paper in Europe, making many believe that Poe's strange story was really fact. It took several interviews to convince the public otherwise.

"Berenice" is an early tale of Poe, and is a story that lays down the foundation for a lot of Poe's macabre tales: an unreliable narrator with a strange, dark obsession and grisly details. I imagine it was performed in honor of the Baltimore Poe house, because the tale was actually written when Poe lived there.

The performances themselves were fun. The actors played it a little bit serious, a little bit campy---very appropriate for the crowd and the event. Between acts they gave away doorprizes---two large cakes with Poe's happy face on them as well as a copy of Redfield's DVD. The whole shebang closed with an actor portraying Poe and performing dramatic readings of some of Poe's work in verse. I have to give it to the crowd; I expected some of them to bolt at the idea of poetry, but everyone stayed, listened and really seemed to appreciate the poetry as much the stories. It was nice to see, since that was Poe's true love.

In two years time we'll hit the 200th anniversary of Poe's birth. I'll be curious to see what the Baltimore Poe House---as well as other Poe sites in Richmond, Charlottesville, and NY City----will do to honor the dark poet America. Who might be a good time for a road trip vacation.


Friday, January 26, 2007

Review: Heart-Shaped Box

I have such mixed feelings about horror fiction lately. At its core it sets out to mine the dark corners of our psyche, to bring those inner terrors to life on the page. When it's done well it not only scares the hell out of you it also digs into deeper meanings of character that explain why something scares us so much. Trouble is, most horror writers seemed bent on using cheap shock tactics or gross out tricks; it might read well the first time but it's not enough to hold up to serious thought or second readings.

Not so with Joe Hill and his first novel Heart Shaped Box.

Aging rock star Judas Coyne is a collector of bizarre and macabre artifacts: a used hangman's noose, a snuff film, rare books on witchcraft and anything and everything in-between. When he purchases a suit billed through an online auction as the haunted clothes of a recently deceased man, Coyne finds much more than he bargained for. Everywhere Coyne looks he sees the twisted spirit of an old and evil man following him, laughing at him and dangling a deadly razor on a chain. Coyne soon learns the suit belonged to Craddock McDermott, the stepfather of a former lover who committed suicide shortly after Coyne tossed her out of his life. McDermott, a professional hypnotist prior to his death, swore on his deathbed to destroy Coyne's rock star life of self-indulgence to avenge the death of his step-daughter.

There are some really creepy moments in this novel, moments when things seem so out of control you don't know if Coyne will survive or end up as a soul damned by his own past. Hill has real a skill with the pyrotechnics of a horrifying ghost story, but he knows how to use it sparingly to really build suspense throughout the book. And like all good ghost stories, Hill also crafts a deftly plotted mystery as the true motivations and powers of McDermott unfold. As we learn more about the ghost of McDermott---and how ghosts work in Hill's universe---we also learn a lot about Coyne. We learn the truth behind his loose attitude towards women, about the love he holds for his dogs, and the hatred he holds for his own father. These are done not as simple character development but to show us pieces of Coyne that prove vital to his struggle against the spirit world.

I've never heard of Hill before, but he's got two Bram Stoker awards under his belt for his short fiction. I was first worried that Heart Shaped Box would be a quirky concept that didn't live up to its own ideas, but the depth of character hidden in the dark shadows of both Coyne and McDermott lift what could otherwise be a formula supernatural thriller to a fairly impressive and fun first novel.


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Welcome Home, Mr. Chandra

With a great feature article in yesterday's Washington Post and an even better interview on WAMU's Kojo Nnamdi radio show today, Vikram Chandra is really making the rounds with his new novel Sacred Games. Much of the attention has focused on his $1 million dollar advance, how long it took him to write the novel and his ties to other authors from India.

I'm normally a little dubious when someone gets that much money for anything, but in this case it just might be deserved. Chandra's a great writer and he's digging into a subject (gangs, pimps and the criminal underworld of Bombay, India) that's important and has any number of potentials for fiction. That and I am happy to see someone who's not a pop-author make some big money for their hard work.

For those who don't know, Chandra played a great part in the writing scene here in D.C. for almost a decade. Aside from teaching fiction writing at GWU he periodically ran some readings around town focusing on differnent types of fiction. I never met Chandra myself, but Miss L took a class from him while she was at GWU for undergrad and she still mentions things she learned from him. He also had a reputation around town as an incredibly friendly and generous person.

For any in the D.C. area who knew him or his writing and want to say hello, Chandra will be reading tonight at Politics and Prose at 7 pm.


Friday, January 19, 2007

In Praise of Used Books

For library class this week we had to answer some basic queries using a variety of print and electronic encyclopedias. One set of questions could only be answered by using the famed 11th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, published back in 1911. Fortunately, we have a copy here at Catholic U. The 11th was a real landmark edition, because it'smore than just a collection of factual articles. It also contains essays of real literary quality by people like GK Chesterton and Bertrand Russell turning it into quite the noted item for all intellectuals and literati of the time to have.

The questions we had to answer weren't hard. They were easy, in fact. But it was a lot of fun just flipping through all the tattered volumes. Even dopy entries like the one on photography were made fun with quaint illustrations. Bound in heavy green leather, pages hand-sewn to the binding, and made with quality paper, these books were made to last. Even though they had a dusty-musty smell these volumes are still likely to outlast many books just printed today. These were books with a presence, books with a history, books with a story to tell beyond the words on the page. Since all the material is now beyond the bounds of copyright protection, there are few websites devoted to recreating the original feel of the volumes, most notably Love to Know 1911 and Online 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica. While you don't get to feel the pages or smell the leather, you can at least get a sense of some of the articles and what made it such a unique project.

Don't get me wrong. I love all the developments in electronic publishing. It's been just about the most democratizing force for the word since Gutenberg. But there's just something about books as a physical object that I love.

I guess that's why I love used books. In a lot of ways, I may prefer them. There's an oddly heroic feeling when you rescue a lonely tattered volume from some random library booksale or a dusty used bookstore. Some people are bothered by notes and marginalia left by previous readers but, not me. There like little notes into people's quiet lives, and I feel like I'm sharing some odd connection with someone I'll probably never meet.

Like when I bought Italo Calvino's Baron in the Trees. I bought the book at Second Story in Dupont Circle here in D.C. on a lunchbreak and then ran down the street to eat a burger at Zorba's. I was thumbing through the Calvino novel and waiting for my order when something fell out from between the pages. It was an advertisement flier for a bookstore in Florence, Italy, of all places. I looked at it for a minute, thinking about how far this little book travelled and being quite amused that a book in English by an Italian author came to me via some Italian bookstore. I started thinking about what kind of collage projects I could use it for when a voice interrupted my thoughts.

"Excuse me, may I see that?"

I looked up and saw a man in front of me, wanting to look at the flier. I shrugged and handed it to him.

"I can't believe it," he said. "I lived in Italy when I was a teenager. I lived next to this bookstore for three years."

There was a bright light in his eyes, like a river of happy memories was flowing through his mind. I told the man how I came upon the flier and he seemed even more amused than I was. Of course, I offered it to him. He was ecstatic, slipping it into a manilla folder he had with him and swearing he was going to frame it when he got home. While I may have lost a cheap flier I gained a great memory, a great story. And a webpage can't bring me least not yet.


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Review: The Sandman Papers

In the late 1980’s a new imprint of DC Comics called Vertigo took a chance on a young journalist named Neil Gaiman. Although he had little direct experience in writing comics Vertigo handed Gaiman two titles to create and write: first the limited series Black Orchid and later The Sandman. Gaiman’s approach brought unique stories, complex characters and a postmodern sense in structure and style rarely found in mainstream comics. Alongside a few other writers like Alan Moore and Art Spiegelman, Gaiman and his Sandman books are responsible for not only the increased acceptance of comics as an art form but also for raising the bar of expectations for the reader.

With these factors it’s not surprising to see a book-length collection of criticism focusing on The Sandman series. But don't come expecting a fanzine collecting odd bits of trivia and rants on the coolness of Morpheus; The Sandman Papers collects twelve essays written by critics, professors and librarians who take their comics, or at least The Sandman, very seriously. Using techniques of literary explication the essays examine Gaiman’s art, covering topics as diverse as the use of folktales, its place and influence upon contemporary fantasy, and postmodern theory. When appropriate, the book includes black and white reproductions of pages from issues of The Sandman to highlight specific critical points. Many of the essays were originally written as papers for various conferences sponsored by organizations like the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, but a small handful are new works written just for the anthology. Despite the very academic and critical approach editor Joe Sanders does an admirable job in keeping the academic language to minimum, making most of the essays accessible to the general reader.

B. Keith Murphy opens the collection with “The Origins of The Sandman”, an effective introduction to both the book and the topic as a whole. Murphy examines the history of both gothic fantasy---everything from Poe to Penny Dreadfuls---and comics, placing The Sandman within the historical context of both trends. Murphy’s admiration of Gaiman does get the better of him at times; despite this one failing, the essay does an admirable job introducing the reader to historical and artistic trends that influenced Gaiman’s writing.

Coming from a bunch of English professors, it’s not surprising that several essays focus on the Sandman’s relationship with Shakespeare. In the series the great bard strikes a deal with Morpheus; in exchange for access to all the dreams and stories of the world to use for his plays Shakespeare must write two plays dealing directly with issues of dreams themselves. A Midsummer Night’s Dream fulfills the first part of Shakespeare’s deal, while his last play the Tempest completes the agreement. Gaiman works in references to the plays and historical facts with his own inventive bits of fantasy and postmodern metafiction, giving readers much to think about in regards to Shakespeare and two of his most famous plays. Four essays focus totally on this one thread, while several others touch on it. Each critic takes a different look at the issues, examining how Gaiman treated Shakespeare as a character, the postmodern mixing of historical fact and fiction, the complicated life of an artist, and other meta-fiction concerns. The variety of approaches here are interesting and fascinating, hinting that there’s probably a whole book on this topic waiting to be written.

Two of the more provocative essays examine The Sandman through a lens of feminist theory. “Illusory Adversaries: Images of Female Power” by K.A. Laity looks at the “Kindly Ones” storyline. In it a mother calls upon the power of the Kindly Ones, one of the many forms of the Furies of Greek Mythology, to kill Morpheus. Although they have the power to challenge and even kill other gods, it becomes obvious to the reader that the Kindly Ones only hold their power because Morpheus and other male power figures allow it. Laity dissects these ideas nicely, but then makes some assumptions that aren’t as fully developed as they could be. Laity challenges Gaiman’s portrayal of women via the Kindly Ones without considering that Gaiman might be making a purposeful statement on women’s power within today’s society. The essay also inexplicably ignores characters like Death and Delirium, characters who are both female and hold power equal to that of Morpheus. In contrast, David Bratman’s “A Game of You-Yes, You” looks at Gaiman’s use of gender roles in the storyline “A Game of You”. In a plot that features strong female characters alongside very femme transsexuals, this tale challenges the ideas of what gender is and can be. Instead of bringing in his own agenda Bratman examines what’s actually on the page and perhaps gets closer to what Gaiman actually intended.

One frequent failing of the book is the almost complete avoidance of discussion of comics as a hybrid art. While narrative is a large factor in comics, other aspects like the artwork, lettering, the style of the panels and gutters all add to the work as a whole. Bender Hy’s book The Sandman Companion examines the creative process behind The Sandman, documenting the enormous influence and direction Gaiman gave to his collaborators for each issue. Gaiman obviously put great thought into the visual side and how it shaped the overall feel for the story. Although Joe Sanders does an expert job explicating nearly everything on the page in his essay "Of Storytellers and Stories In Gaiman and Vess's A Midsummer Night's Dream", most critics focus solely on Gaiman’s narrative elements. By ignoring the visual elements the critics miss a great part of Gaiman's message, not to mention opportunities in reinforcing their perspectives. While some do occasionally reference the visual side of The Sandman they rely quite heavily on Scott McLoud’s book Understanding Comics. While a certainly wonderful book to read when first exploring the art and style of comics, it would have been nice to see the critics themselves make judgements and assertions either on their own or through the use of a variety of sources.

Readers won’t agree with everything these critics have to say. But what they do say showcases the rich thematic content of Gaiman as a writer who not only mastered the medium of comics but managed to push its boundaries. Criticsim is, if nothing else, about raising questions, and all these essays do that well by tackling issues that any fan of Gaiman should find interesting, invigorating and immensely rewarding.


Thursday, January 11, 2007

Reader Advisory

A big term in the library world is reader advisory. Basically, it's an all-encompassing term for suggesting or referring a library patron to a particular book or author. Say, for example, someone comes up and checks out the Harry Potter series for 97th time. Using their fantastic powers of reader advisory, a librarian might suggest other authors like Christoper Paolino, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Roald Dahl, or John Bellairs along with the Harry Potter.

Although not a complicated concept at all, it's been talked about at least a little bit in every class in grad school I've had so far and it's often used to justify the very existence of both libraries and librarians. Even though I'm just a schlub checking out books at the circulation desk these early days in my career, I'm still expected to do my part. So much so that it's one of the questions in my yearly performance evaluation. It's also one of the reasons I want to be a librarian. I love finding out about new authors, and I love suggesting them to other people I think might be open to them. People are often taken aback, though, whenever I just approach them randomly on the street offering reading advice.

A woman came up to the check out desk this evening who reshaped how I think about this whole concept. She was in her early 40's, dressed in a sweatsuit that looked like it was made more for fashion than to actually work out in. Coiffed, frosted hairShe walked up to the checkout desk somewhat hesitantly, and then dumped an armload of 15 paperbacks onto the desktop. They were all romances, with titles like Enduring Passion and Desires of the Lonely.

"I'm a bit embarrassed to be checking out books like these," she said.

"You shouldn't be," I replied. "Lots of people check them out all the time."

She shook her head. "I'm normally a book snob. But I haven't been sleeping well lately. I don't know why, but these are the only things that help me get through the night."

I paused a moment and said, "There's something to be said for formula books. There's turmoil and tragedy throughout, but you know while reading it that by the end everything will work out. There's a lot of comfort in that."

I put her books in a recycled plastic bag and then handed them to her.

She mouthed "Thank you," to me and smiled as she walked off. A strange sense of relief seemed to shine out of her.

Personally, I don't care much for romance novels. Even most well-written ones bore me to tears. I could have suggested some high-end lit with some romantic plot lines. But that wasn't what she was looking for. She just wanted to know that it was okay to check out those bodice rippers and that I, lowly check out boy, wouldn't look down my nose at her. Sometimes I guess the best advice you can give is to just affirm what they are doing is okay.


Monday, January 08, 2007



Long time, no write.

I might be able to blame my lack of content on the holidays. Or on being sick. Or even on becoming obsessed with Battlestar Galatica and old epiodes of The X-Files.

But the truth of the matter is I was just damn lazy. I had books I wanted to review and thoughts for other short essays full of delight and wonder, but I had a hard time overcoming the all powerful force of creative inertia. When the choices were sitting down to write a few paragraphs on literature or watching a disgusting sewer creature attack people on television, I picked the latter. The more I put it off, the easier it became to put it off even more. Miss L even called me a liar last week, when I initially promised to start back up at the first of the year. I decided to defy my own physical abilities by kicking my own backside today on my 34th birthday and finally making a new post.

There will be some changes here. At least for now, I'm doing away with weekly events listings. I'll still post about ones of real interest to me just to help spread the word, but no more all-encompassing lists. Reviews will continue, and I've decided to really strive to reclaim my love for literature. A lot of the books I read for the magazine are fairly mainstream and, although good, often don't hit me in the soul like real books should. I need to seek out some reads that really move or interest me, not just books I have to read. I also may, at certain times, include a more journal-esque entries when something interesting comes up in class, work or real life. All is subject to change, and if anyone is still reading this who used to I'm happy to hear your comments as we move on.

Until next time,