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Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Moving Woes

Miss L and I are getting ready to move from her studio apartment in downtown Baltimore to a slightly larger place in Catonsville, a suburb of Baltimore just south of the city. It's a one bedroom with a decent-sized living room, a small kitchen and something sold as a dining room---but it's really a wide hallway outside the kitchen we'll probably use as a home office space.

So the last ten days or so has been spent buying some new pieces of furniture, moving some of our things from storage or our current place, and figuring out how much of our stuff we can actually have in the new space. Not surprisingly, the big thing for me are all my books. My mom has four of my large bookcases, each roughly 70 inches tall and holding five shelves each.


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While I can leave some things at my mom's house, it becomes an issue of what I want to keep on hand. What titles and authors do I absolutely have to have in the apartment, and which ones can I leave behind.

So far I've prioritized it like this:

1. Necessary reference books (an unabridged dictionary, different writing style guides, grammar books) just because you never know when you need them.

2. Art history and literary theory books. Although I don't read these all the time, I do read through them at random points to nudge my brain a little. I probably wouldn't look for them if they weren't sitting on my shelf.

3. Books by some of my all-time favorite authors: Murakami, Philip K. Dick, Paul Auster, John Bellairs, Kathy Acker, Stanislaw Lem, H.P. Lovecraft, Poe, Samuel Delany, Lance Olsen, Ray Bradbury.

That's as far as I've gotten so far. Just this bit makes up seven boxes, and I probably have another 15 or so to go. Next I'm thinking necessary literary "classics", followed up by all my literary mags and graphic novels. After that I have no idea. I'm pretty much making this up as I go.

Although I am culling some things out, it's hard. Everything I don't want I plan on either selling on Ebay or donating to the library, so hopefully everything will still manage to find a nice new home.

Excelsior

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

NaNoUpDate

By NaNoWriMo's standards, I was a success this past month. I ended up with 52,580 words, just over the bottom limit for what they consider a "novel".

Skimming through things this morning, I saw lots of great moments: an origin, fun little battles, and making new friends and enemies everywhere he went. But the whole doesn't really add up to anything. I guess that shouldn't surprise me. Writing this way, where word count trumps everything else, doesn't really leave much time for editing or reflecting. Just go, go, go ninja boy. And overarching plots have never been my strong suit.

Now I guess the real work begins. Playing with it, developing it and seeing if it can be transformed from a pile of nonsensical scenes into a coherent story. Miss L and I are still talking about doing it as a webcomic. I think I'll start with his origin tale and see where adapting that takes us. It's a concrete mini-storyline with good guys, bad guys, an obvious conflict and would probably take up about the same space as your standard monthly comic book. We'll see what happens.

Excelsior

Friday, November 21, 2008

Me and Catherine Jinks

I've been reading little but young adult books the last three weeks for three main reasons. They tend to be short, fast reads. They are almost always fun. And the disjointed mess I'm writing this year for NanoWriMo is probably best described as Young Adult and I felt like it would help keep me going (it has).

I've read a lot of good ones. The political parable After by Francine Prose. The surprisingly complex dark fantasy Sabriel by Garth Nix. But the one that's been sticking with me the most is the one I expected the least out of: Pagan's Crusade by Australian Catherine Jinks. Not because I thought it would be bad, but because I don't often go for historic fiction. Set in Jerusalem during the Crusades, the book focuses on Pagan, a young man who tries to escape his gambling debts by becoming a Squire for the Templars. Except for some of the battle scenes towards the end it's all pretty tongue-in-cheek and a pretty fun read. Here's the opening paragraph:

A big man in brown, sitting behind a table. Big hands. Big chest. Short and broad. Head like a rock, face scarred like a battleaxe. He looks up and sees---what's this? A street urchin? Whatever it is, it's trouble. Trouble advances cautiously.

I was hooked right away. The voice, the humor, the story...I loved it all. The more I read, the more I realized why I liked it so much.

Jinks writes like I do.

Short, focused sentences. Sentences designed to get the point across quickly and not waste time with flowery language. But every couple of pages she nail you with a piece of dialogue or a terrifyingly beautiful description, something that punches you in the gut and makes you stop and think for a moment.

Okay, to be fair I should probably say she writes like I try to write. Her work is considerably more polished than my own. While I see writers I admire and even love all the time, this is the first time I've come across one that seems to approach it in the same way I do. I know I'll continue with the Pagan series at some point soon, but in the meantime I've picked up her novel Evil Genius, a book that was hugely popular at my library this past summer. I'm eager to dig into it and see if her approach stays the same or if it differs book to book.

Until next time...

Excelsior

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Delany's About Writing: Good Writing vs. Talented Writing

The past couple of weeks I've been reading Samuel R. Delany's book About Writing, a book that collects a number of essays and letters that Delany wrote over the past 30 years on the subject of writing fiction. Although he first broaches it in his introduction, a concept Delany returns to again and again throughout the book is what he sees as the differences between good writing and talented writing.

Though they have things in common, good writing and talented writing are not the same (Delany, 4).

He goes on to define good writing as the basics of what we learn in English classes in High School and College: good grammar, avoiding passive voice, creating uncluttered sentence, varying sentence structure, precise word choice, etc. Good writing as he defines it is a skill, a learned craft that functions appropriately in writing forms like journalism, academic research papers, criticism, and---although Delany doesn't mention it---blogs.

Talented writing, on the other hand, uses those skills and rules and moves them into another realm. Delany says:

Good writing is clear. Talented writing is energetic (Delany, 6).
Good writing avoids errors. Talented writing makes things happen in the reader's mind---vividly, forcefully---...(Delany, 6).

Talented writing also "uses specifics and avoids generalities---generalities that his or her specifics suggest (Delany, 7). In other words, metaphors and symbols.

Delany continues by providing examples to show how talented writing uses lyrical phrases and powerful descriptions to deliver new insights to the reader. This form of writing, talented writing, is what's required to create fiction. Or, at least, fiction that stretches beyond simple entertainment and warrants thorough, careful, multiple readings.

It makes sense, though. Writing that really stops me, that forces me to read it more carefully and pay attention to what it's doing often comes through beautiful, precise descriptions and details. These details make you pause and visualize the world the author creates and even think about things in a new way. That level of writing is a very special. all too rare skill.

The good news is that while Delany indicates talented writing is more difficult to achieve, he at no point states that it can't be learned. Through careful reading of the masters, through thorough editing and a lot of hard work it's a skill that's possible to learn, although more difficult than learning how to create good writing.

I guess there's hope for me yet.

Excelsior

Sunday, November 09, 2008

YALSA Literature Symposium: Day 2

The first session I hit on day 2 was a presentation of four different papers, each dealing with a different aspect of Young Adult literature and/or Young Adult Services. The papers were Are You There God, It's Me, Manga (which focused on forms of Manga for girls), a survey of Gay Literature for teens entitled Accept the Universal Freakshow, and The Age of ___? which presented an educational approach using literature and online forums to promote teen interest in issue-oriented discussions.

But by far the most fascinating was a paper by Stan Steiner entitled Bullies, Gangs and Books for Young Adults; the author examined a program that brought books into Juvenile Detention Facilities. Although the residents were not required to read, after a few weeks nearly everyone in the facility was reading all the books made available to them. Not given much to and it provided a much needed alternative to watching tv or acting up. After a few months they developed book discussion groups, which only seemed to increase their interest in reading----especially when they chose their own books. It got me thinking about all the books that get donated to my library that we don't sell, not to mention all the ones in the collection that get weeded out every week. We donate some to a couple of local charity groups, but it would be nice to include organizations like Juvenile Detention Facilities or the local county jail as well.

Next I hit a fun panel on fandom put together by librarians Liz Burns and Carlie Webber. Easily two thirds of the presentation acted as a primer on fandom: what it is, what forms it takes, and why it's not as scary or freaky as people might think. Most things they brought up---fanfic, fan crafts, cosplay, conventions--- I was already familiar with in a general sense, but some of the specific resources they mentioned were new to me. Crazy stuff like the Potter Puppet Pals. And I didn't know about some of the interesting interactive things some YA authors like Stephanie Meyer and Holly Black are doing to keep teens super-involved in the worlds of their novels: fanfic contests, lists of songs to listen to while you read, photos of fans in costumes, patterns to make your own costumes, and on and on. Whether it's the author themselves doing this stuff or a PR person I don't know, but it's pretty savvy marketing.

The last one I attended was a presentation by Julie Bartel on Zines. I've actually seen her present this before at ALA when it was in DC, but it was a good refresher for me. It's an area I really would like to explore more, both for my own writing as well as a way to develop some fun programs for teens in the library. If nothing else, she showed us some samples of short book lists done in zine form that teens can put in their pocket and take home. It seems like it would be a fun and different way to give teens a list that looks a little more unique than your standard flier or a bookmark.

There are a lot of good things I missed, just because they were running at the same time as sessions I attended. The majority of the handouts and powerpoints will be up on the conference wiki, and I understand they will even be uploading some audio and video. I'm particularly looking forward to the materials at the Urban Fiction panel; it's an area I really know little about and should know more.

There are further sessions today, but I'm flying back and will miss them. It's ok, though. I'm pretty Nashvilled out and my pocketbook has been stretched pretty thin. The last few days have pumped me up about my profession and I'm ready to get back out there.

Excelsior

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Yalsa Literature Symposium: The Graphic Novel Precon

I've been in Nashville the last couple of days for YALSA's first ever Young Adult Literature Symposium. Things started for me with a special pre-conference called Picturing the Story, which focused on comics and their potential use in education and libraries.

Thanks to a kind invitation from Francisca Goldsmith and other folks at YALSA, I was minimally involved in running the pre-con. I brought some anime short films to show during registration, helped with the setup a little bit and moderated one panel discussion. Considering this was my first time doing something like this I think it went pretty well.

My panel discussion opened the day by focusing on the entire creation process of a graphic novel. Basically how it gets from the head of the creator to the page, from the page to the publisher, the publisher to the library and, finally, the library to the reader. The panelists were Svetlana Chmakova (author/artist of the Manga-influenced comic Dramacon), Kurt Hassler (an editor from Yen Press), Angela Frederick (a librarian from Nashville Public Library), and two teen readers to give us perspective direct from the target audience.

Svetlana was a huge hit. She opened things with a Powerpoint showing her background, some of her early work, and samples showing the illustration process she used in creating Dramacon. From there we moved into questions, and I was really pleased. Everyone on the panel, especially the teen readers, were really thoughtful and entertaining in their answers.

The rest of the pre-con moved along pretty well. Stella Farris, a school librarian from Austin, TX, presented a good primer on Manga. Somehow the questions from the audience all got steered towards yaoi, but considering all the misconceptions people had that was probably a good thing. Peggy Burns from Drawn & Quarterly, one of my favorite publishers of comics, did a good talk on adult graphic novels that teens might like. Although I've read a lot of what she talked about, there were a couple of titles that I definitely need to look for and check out.

But by far the star of the day was Gene Luen Yang. Although best known as the author/artist of American Born Chinese, the first graphic novel to be a finalist for the National Book Award, he's also a high school teacher. He did a mesmerizing presentation that somehow managed to cover different ideas of what makes a comic, how comics are influencing other media and how comics can be used in the classroom. He's a definite fan of comics and comics culture and his humor and enthusiasm really shined through his whole talk. Someone mentioned they would try to make his Powerpoint and audio from his talk available online; if that happens I'll be sure to put up a link. I was fortunate enough to meet with him for dinner that night along with some of the other presenters. On top of everything else Gene Yang is an incredibly nice and very genuine person.

I'll probably have more conference stuff later, as I go through and properly digest other sessions.

Excelsior

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Where was everybody?

Although I didn't have to be at work until noon today, I played the part of a good citizen and got up early to cast my vote. I was a little nervous about a long wait; all the warnings we've had the last few weeks were reinforced by reports of an hour or more wait on NPR this morning. I even brought my camera along, thinking it would help me pass the time while I waited.

While the parking lot was full the actual polling place---the cafeteria hall in the local intermediate school---was practically empty.There was no one ahead of me and only a handful of people came in behind me. There were more volunteers milling about than anyone else. Maybe I just missed the rush with everyone heading into work---I got there around 9 am---but I hope more people are planning to take off work a little early to cast their ballot. The lack of a crowd was a little disheartening.

I can't predict who will win the election here in Virginia, but I can say the McCain supporters out front outnumbered the Obama supporters 8 to 1. But whoever you support and wherever you live, please take the time vote.

Excelsior

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Prepping

I spent tonight prepping for NaNoWriMo, which starts just over 24 hours from now. Unfortunately, I have to write things by hand first. I don't know why, but it helps me in getting into the right mode. I spent probably more time than I should have picking out a notebook to use, but I wanted to go with something unique. I chose a notebook a friend of mine decorated and gave to me several years ago. I've been saving it for a special project, and this seems as good as any.


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After work tonight I stopped off by my mom's house, where most of my books are still living. I picked up a few titles that might help me along the way. Samuel R. Delany's About Writing I plan on reading cover to cover while the writing prompts in Oulipo Conpendium, Lance Olsen's Rebel Yell and Jack Heffron's Idea Book I hope to use at those moments when I get stuck. I also grabbed some short story collections: the Complete works of Poe, Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link and McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. Fun stuff, really, to give me mental breaks and help keep me going.

I've got my idea, vague though it may be. I've got my characters, as thin and translucent as they are. I don't know if this story will work or not, or if I even have it in me to write 5+ pages a day for 30 days straight. But I want to find out. I have to know if I can still tap into that undefinable something you hit when writing just starts to flow.

More once the writing commences.

Excelsior.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Review: The Country Nurse by Jeff Lemire

I loved, loved, loved the first volume of Jeff Lemire's Essex County, a little graphic novel called Tales From the Farm that I reviewed last year. The second volume Ghost Stories delved into the family history and turned a sports story---something I don't always like---into a pretty powerful book about a rift between two brothers. The third and final volume in the trilogy shifts the focus a bit to Anne Quenneville, a traveling nurse who cares for many in the rural community of Essex County, Canada.


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Anne primarily works as a device reintroducing us to the disparate members of the Lebeuf family. Lester, no longer donning his toy superhero cape, is a little more grown up but seems quite lonely while Jimmy continues to hide himself in his job at the town filling station. Anne decides to help the family heal by urging Jimmy to step forward and finally get to know his young son Lester, giving more formal answers to questions of lineage and familial tragedy that were only hinted at in the earlier volumes.


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Lemire’s mildly cartoony art is more cinematic than ever here, making full poetic use of the wintry Canadian landscapes to force readers to pause and really feel the emotions of the characters. Lemire even makes some bold experiments in page layouts that he hasn't attempted previously. Plot-wise the story includes a side-tale of flashbacks featuring Lawrence, a Lebeuf ancestor who grew up in a desolate orphanage managed by a nun and a gruff caretaker. Although these flashbacks don’t have a direct impact upon the modern-day Lebeufs the past events do bring a deeper layer of history to the family.


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The first two volumes worked exceptionally well as standalone stories, but this volume is completely dependent on what occurred in the first two; anyone new to this story will miss a lot of the subtext. In fact it might even work best when published with the other two in a single-volume book. That said, anyone who enjoyed the rest of the trilogy will enjoy the closure this one brings, but anyone new to Lemire should pick up the earlier volumes first. The talent and power he's shown in this trilogy promises years of good work to come and I'm really excited to see what Lemire does with his upcoming project with Vertigo Books.

Excelsior

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Back to Real Life

Miss L and I made through both the wedding and honeymoon in good shape. I won't go into all the details, but things really went without a hitch. Perfect weather for an outdoor wedding, no one got so wasted they had to go to the hospital and no fist fights. What more can you ask?

Things were a little tense---at least for me---at the first part of the ceremony. I was standing up front with my family to my right, my groomsmen holding up the chupah and Miss L's family escorting her down the aisle. Right as the Rabbi was about to speak a group of motorcycles buzzed us, blasting the thundering noise of their engines as they throttled by. It was perfect. After a brief moment of silence everyone laughed and then we went forward with everything without a worry in world.

One of the special things about our wedding was our cake. Based on a series of drawings Miss L did, the cake was created by Charm City Cakes of Baltimore. Working with them was a great process. We came in with the vague idea of a cake with a pop-up book theme and they really ran with it. It came out well, and really speaks to our goofy yet bookish taste. It also tastes pretty good, too.


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The only other real literary-related thing didn't come about until our honeymoon. We went up to the Brandywine River Valley in Pennsylvania, a real pretty place to go in the early fall. Along with trips to historic battlefields, old mansions, gardens and museums---yes, we're both big museum nerds---we also had a good time just poking around the stores in Kennett Square.

Probably my favorite shop was Thomas Macaluso Used & Rare Books, a wonderful two-floor store just off the town's main drag. Aside from some wonderful antique maps that Miss L kept ogling, the shop has some real gems like a first edition of WS Burroughs's Nova Express, an early US paperback edition of Joyce's Ulysses and a gorgeous book written and illustrated by the artist Rockwell Kent.


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The owner was fantastic. Although I've been in stores with that quality of books before, normally the owners work really hard to make you as uncomfortable as possible if they don't think you're really there to buy something. He chatted with us, told us a bit of the history of the area, and even talked to us about literature. Although we didn't buy anything, he's someone I will probably seek out if I ever want to find a rare or unique book.

But now life moves forward and I have much to ponder. Where to look for a full time job, whether or not to do NanoWriMo this year, what to have for dinner tonight....so many things to consider. But mostly I'm looking forward to finding out what kind of lives Miss L and I will lead now that we've officially joined forces. Until next time...

Excelsior

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Marriage

By 7:00 pm tonight, assuming an asteroid doesn't strike the city of Baltimore and I don't get swallowed up by a roving dinosaur, will be married to Miss L. I'll share some photos and thoughts once we recover.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Review: Zeroville by Steve Erickson

It seems the older I get the rarer it is that I'm really grabbed by a book. Oh, sure, I find books I admire, books I like, even books I love. But one that grabs me, that sticks with me when I'm driving, walking, working, even sleeping....those are rare books indeed. Steve Erickson gifted me with one with his novel Zeroville.


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Although the concepts in the book are kind of a Pynchon meets Delillo ingested and spewed out via a transliterated chat with Luis Bunuel, the plot is actually pretty straightforward. It's the late 60's and a man named Vikar is booted out of the Architecture program at Mather Divinity College----he made the confounding error of designing a church without a door for his final project. Vikar responds to this letdown by following the lure of his other love---film--by getting a picture of Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift in From Here to Eternity tattooed on the side of his shaved head and hopping a bus to Hollywood.

The early sections of the book transform into a guided tour of Hollywood through the eyes of a man who has ingested nearly every bit of film trivia possible. Vikar moves into the Roosevelt hotel---which may or may not be haunted by D.W. Griffith--- and can't help but tell everyone around him everything he knows about the history of film. His architecture background serves him well when he's hired as a set designer at a studio. He gradually works his way up to the role of film editor meeting an odd cast of characters as he learns, lives and breathes the world of film.

His career takes some odd turns. Sent to Spain on one job, Vikar's kidnapped by a revolutionary faction that wants to use his talents to create propaganda films to help their cause. Later, he becomes the first film editor to win an award from the Cannes Festival all because no one really understands what he's trying to do. When the late 70's hits like a tire iron across the face Vikar develops a near-violent obsession with punk rock.

Vikar will likely drive some readers batty. He's knocked around by circumstances, rarely making choices or decisions of his own except at a couple of key moments. He's also inexplicably odd. A more traditional author would spend time getting us more firmly into his life and history so we can understand or even feel his mental state. Despite its readability this book is anything but traditional. Erickson more often than not uses Vikar not so much as a character but as an easel to lean his satire, jokes and theories on.

Erickson's writing is highly referential. Classic films and actors fill every section, but he also tosses out bits about cult films, art films, the lives of studio execs and industry business. But the references often blur the lines between real film history and fabrication. One character who continually pops up throughout the novel is a mildly revolutionary script writer/director we know only as Viking. But through various clues dropped throughout the book----that he co-wrote Apocalypse Now and worked on the Conan movies---you can figure out that Viking is probably based pretty solidly on John Milius. Soledad, a sexy actress who never quite makes it, seems to answer the question of what would have happened to Soledad Miranda if she hadn't died at such a young age. Other characters like Dotty Langer, who seems more real than anyone in this hyper-real book, seem to be completely born out of Erickson's imagination.

Criticism and meta-art also play a large role. Several characters---Vikar included---launch into page-long diatribes on the role of film that are both funny and fascinating. Vikar, for example, believes a film and its true meaning exist beyond the constraints of sequential time and we only structure movies that way to make the meaning more easily interpreted. Erickson slyly uses this idea for structuring his own novel by referencing moments that occur at the end of the book as early as page 50.

All of this, of course, is wonderfully funny---and fun---if you have a love of film and film history. For readers who don't it can become a bit like watching a Simpson's episode where you just don't know any of the cultural references. You think the jokes might be funny or even profound, but you really aren't sure because you have no real idea what the jokes are about.

Excelsior

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Baltimore Book Fest

Last night Miss L and I hit the Baltimore Book Fest. While we were, of course, there to check things out Miss L was there primarily to promote her new history book on the jewish community of Baltimore. I'm happy to say she sold enough to pay for the space and have a little leftover.

I avoided most of the dealers this year, even the ones like Raw Dog Screaming Press and the Radical Book Fair tent that I know I like. I just don't have the money or the physical space to be buying books right now. So that left me the booths of nonprofits and the performance spaces to check out.

I first stopped at a reading hosted by the Baltimore Playwrights Festival. Actors were reading work from this past years festival. It was a real mixed bag in terms of quality. Some felt like pieces written by undergrads while others were quite good. But with comedies, character studies and absurdist pieces it was nice to hear such a big variety of work.

The so-dubbed Creative Cafe held a reading sponsored by the Art of Conversation reading series/open mic and the Little Patuxent Review. I walked in on the end of one poet reading a nice, rhythmic piece about his father. It was real loving and caring without being sappy. He was followed up by a female poet---apologies to the poets for not writing your names down---who read a powerful piece entitled My Letter to Michelle Obama. It really cracked open the complicated dichotomy of her being beloved as a black woman in her position, but also concerns over her recent re-packaging to make herself more palatable to conservative, white America (ie straightening her hair and being dubbed the black Jackie O). Although the piece was a little long, it was certainly provocative. I definitely want to check out the reading series once I get a bit more settled in B-more. If these two poets are any indication of the quality of work, it should be a good time.

Aside from the performances, I talked a bit to some folks with the Maryland Writers Association and Baltimore Science Fiction Association. The area seems really rich with literary groups and outlets and I can't wait to learn more about them.

It's a shame D.C. doesn't have an equivalent to this. While they do have the National Book Festival---which is an amazing event for all the national and international stars it continues to get----there is nothing this large in D.C. that promotes authors whose reach is more regional or local. Perhaps there is one and I'm just not aware of it...and if so please let me know.

Baltimore Book Fest runs the rest of the weekend. So check it out if you have the time.

Excelsior

Monday, September 22, 2008

Visions of Frank

One of my current side projects is helping put together a day-long conference in November that focuses on the use of comics, graphic novels and cartoons in a collection for teens in libraries. Among other things, one of the duties I ended up with is tracking down a good dvd of Japanese animated shorts to have playing in the background as people check in and get settled into the day. It's turned out to be harder than I thought. While there are a bunch of good collections out there, most can't be played on a US dvd player (yes, I know there are ways around that, but not with the equipment we'll be allowed to use at the conference).

One of the few that can be played on a US player I found through Netflix; it's a crazy collection called Visions of Frank. Basically, Japanese animation teams join forces to create cartoon shorts based on the Frank comics by Jim Woodring. If you don't know Woodring, just imagine Felix the Cat falling into a Salvador Dali painting and ingesting a big pile of acid tabs. It's twisted, surreal, often non-sensical stuff that ranges from complete idiocy to sheer brilliance.

The animation collection runs the full gamut of techniques: hand drawings, computer animation, stop motion photography....even magnetic sand paintings. The one I linked to at the bottom is my favorite off the disc, probably because it seems like an old-style cartoon gone completely awry.





As wonderful as this stuff is, I can't imagine using these to set the tone with 50 librarians. I think they're expecting something more along the lines of Pokemon, not something plotless and brilliantly nuts like this stuff is. It might work, but I think I'll keep looking for some alternatives that aren't quite so far out.

Excelsior.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

And Now Back to our Regularly Scheduled Program

Miss L and I were sitting around yesterday morning, doing a whole lot of nothing before actually starting our Saturday. I was watching an unhealthy mixture of bad cartoons and Good Morning America while reading a few pages of Zeroville. Miss L was jumping around on the web.

All of a sudden she said, "You know, you really need to update your blog."

I looked up to see the same page that's been on this space for almost two months now, my review of Out Backward.

I shrugged. "I've been busy."

"Uh-huh," Miss L said. "No one's going to look at it if you don't update it."

I shrugged again, a gesture proclaiming my not caring without committing to not caring.

"Why do you even keep it public if you aren't putting any new content on it?" she asked.

I didn't have an answer for that one. At least not a real one. After a day of thinking on it now I realize there is no answer. Oh I can make excuses. I've got all kinds of those. I've been focused on moving from Virginia to Maryland. I've been looking for a full time librarian job. I've been preparing for our wedding next month. But none of that takes writing away from me, or at least it shouldn't.

Writing is, first and foremost, a craft that demands habitual dedication. It asks that every day, or at least nearly ever day, you write something. Be it a book review, a descriptive paragraph of someone in a coffee shop or a complaining rant on nothing in particular (like this one). If you don't do that the craft takes things away from you, and I don't just mean your writing skills.

One of the main reasons I started this blog was to reclaim the habit of writing frequently. Somewhere along the line, I'm not sure exactly where, I lost it. I'll be trying some things here to reclaim it and for any of you still willing to ride along, I thank you.

Excelsior.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Review: Out Backward by Ross Raisin

Previous to the events in Ross Raisin’s gripping first novel, teenager Sam Marsdyke was dogged by accusations of rape, forcing him to leave school and live out the rest of his adolescence working on his family farm in Yorkshire, England. When a new family moves in next door with a beautiful fifteen-year-old daughter named Jo, Sam’s father orders Sam to keep his distance.


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But Sam’s obsession with the forbidden drives him to stalk the beautiful Jo and the two eventually meet. A friendship develops and it doesn’t take long for the friendship to turn physical. They run away together and all goes well until Jo decides it’s all too much for her and wants to return home to her family.

Sam’s tenuous hold on reality slips as events careen out of his control. This could have easily moved into a thriller direction; but while the story often points towards Sam and his psychopathic tendencies, Raisin plays with the lines of power in the relationship by suggesting that Jo knew all about the rumors of Sam’s past and sought him out as much as he sought her. This nice echo of themes from Nabokov’s classic on the deep examination of the characters and what drives them instead of creating fast-paced action. Written in Yorkshire dialect that recalls the visceral lyricism of Irvine Welsh, some readers might be put off by the prose but those able to soak into it will find a rewarding---if somewhat disturbing---tale of fear, obsession and sexuality.

Excelsior

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Stress City Reading

Last night I had a really nice, relaxed time at the launch party for Stress City: A Big Fat Book of Fiction by 51 DC Guys at Politics and Prose. The newest anthology pulled together by editor Richard Peabody over at Paycock Press, it includes fiction by the likes of Matt Kirkpatrick, RIchard McCann and yours truly.

It was a great turnout. I got there about ten minutes early and counted 82 heads, but more came after I got there. Considering DC residents often leave DC in the summer to make way for tourists and that it was a Friday night it was a real testament to both Peabody and the writing community of DC in general.

Because it would have been crazy to have 51 people read from their work----we'd still probably be there---nine of the contributors read small sections from their stories. From Brian Gilmore's tale about a lawyer named Funk to Richard McCann's elegy of a dead lover via memories of a gay bar to Dave Housely's Avant Pop twist on the old Davy and Goliath cartoon, they really showed the broad spectrum of the kind of writing that goes on in this town. And I'm happy to say not one of the pieces were political thrillers. Other readers included RR Angell, Juan H. Gaddis, Charles R. Larson, Alex MacLennan, David Nicholson, and Jim Patterson.

The reading was followed up by a Q+A session moderated by poet Rose Solari and author Jim Patterson. Questions raised were the solitary nature of men in fiction, the lack of issues like gender strife and parental issues that often appear in the work of women, how mean "deal" with problems instead of just "cope", and how writing and art in general let men to enter modes of introspection and intimacy that men don't normally allow themselves to enter. Reading those I know it all sounds very serious but it was all fairly light-hearted and fun.

Afterwards I caught up with a couple of people I haven't seen in awhile and picked up a couple extra things from the shelves of the bookstore. I even had a nice older couple ask me to sign their copy of the anthology when they found out I have a piece in the book. It was great feeling part of a writing community again, even in a very small way. Once I find my full time job and get myself settled in our near Baltimore that's one of the things high on my list to seek out. While I brought a camera, I sadly neglected to included working batteries. If other sites put up pics I'll update here with some links.

Anways, I highly recommend the book. If you're interested you can probably pick it up in person at places like Politics and Prose and the Writer's Center, and you can also order it via Amazon.

Excelsior.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Artscape 2008

A few days late in posting this, but Miss L and I had a pretty good time on Sunday traipsing around this year's Artscape. For anyone out of the area, Artscape is billed as the "largest free public arts festival" and is Baltimore's unique contribution to the world of summertime fairs. It takes over several city blocks, cutting through at least three different neighborhoods and is always, always on the hottest weekend of the summer. Individual and group artists have small tents to sell their work and promote themselves, and there are also stages for performances----this year's big headliner was Joan Jett---and more fried food than any reasonable person can comprehend.

As always, we had to visit the Artcars. It was a pretty packed area, so it was hard to take many photos here. But my personal favorite was this nature car, decorated with real and fake pieces of trees, dirt and rocks.


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But really my favorite part of the whole day was just sitting back and people-watching. It's often a fun way for me to pass the time and it's even more entertaining when you jam so many different people together all in one place. At one point Miss L was having her makeup done in a tent, so I sat down on a curb nearby and just started shooting some photos. For some reason this guy fascinated me; he kept pacing back and forth in front of me, seemingly overwhelmed and unsure where to go. This lasted for a good ten minutes.


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Later on in the day I saw him playing blues guitar on a stage, so he may have just been trying to figure out where the music stage was.

I'll have a new review up in the next day or so, as well as some other rants about things going on. Good summer to everyone!

Excelsior

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Review: Heavy Metal Islam by Mark Levine

In the 1970’s heavy metal acts like Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden created dark, violent music that worked as much as political and social protest as it did as adrenaline-laced sounds energizing the mosh pit. In his new book Heavy Metal Islam, Mark Levine looks at the current Heavy Metal, Punk and Hip Hop scenes of the Middle East in this very way, presenting the backgrounds of each scene and exploring the social import of their messages.


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With lyrics crying for political and social change these are the screams of angry youth, but angry youth that for the most part still regard themselves as devout Muslims. It's this dichotomy that makes the core of the book: these musicians trying to understand a bizarre, often violent world that doesn't match up to the promises made in their religion.

Broken into easily read chapters each one examines a different nation and its music scene. Although it’s not surprising that the most active centers are the more westernized nations like Morocco and Israel, the most fascinating chapters are those that cover places like Iran where the music is not just looked at with suspicion but often considered illegal. Many of the musicians are in their late teens and early twenties, making this a book Western teens will be able to read and use to make rare connections with their counterparts in the Middle East.

Unfortunately Levine does a poor job describing the music itself, throwing out terms like Grind Core and Black Metal without defining them. Readers already knowledgeable of different forms of Heavy Metal won’t have a problem with this, but anyone coming from the outside might find all the undefined labels a little confusing. Levine does, however, provide a useful list of websites (mostly Myspace sites) that provide samples of the music; a companion audio CD is sold separately.

What stops me from giving this a rave review more than anything is his writing style. Levine opens each chapter with a first person account of him sitting in cafe, heading to a club or hanging out in a record store. Levine as narrator and arbiter of taste keeps floating into the writing, whether it's an explanation of a band's history, and interview or a well-written description of a concert. It becomes obvious Levine sees these musicians as a force for positive change and this view intrudes quite a bit. I would have preferred he pull back a bit and let the readers make these conclusions for themselves. Sometimes you just have to have faith in the readers to figure things out. Although a more journalistic approach might make this work more convincing, it’s still a fascinating read about a unique subculture few will have the opportunity to experience for themselves.

Excelsior

Monday, July 07, 2008

I went to Winchester and all I brought you was this firescreen

Our long weekend in Winchester, Va. turned out pretty nice. We mostly hit the big historical sites, places like Abram's Delight (built in 1754, it's the oldest standing home in the town), an office George Washington used when he worked as a surveyor for Lord Fairfax, and a home Stonewall Jackson used as a HQ for a few months during the Civil War. But probably out of all the places we visited, my favorite was probably the Handley Library, the main library for the city.


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I like where I work, but this place just feels like a library. You can't help but want to read when you walk in and start moving through the stacks of a beautiful historic building like this one.

But by far the highlight for the weekend was really the night of the 4th. It was raining off and on most of the afternoon and into the night, so we decided to skip out on the concert with Survivor taking place at a park just outside of town. We went to the downtown area searching for a good place to eat and found a nice---and pretty cheap---Thai place. Afterwards, walking back to our car we came across a small concert in the town square featuring a Bluegrass/jazz quartet. During an intermission they handed out door prizes donated by area businesses and somehow I won this firescreen.


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I guess this was the grand prize, because the other two prizes were a gift certificate for a local eatery and a road atlas. I'll probably give this to my mom, since I don't have a fireplace of my own. If she doesn't want it maybe I'll sell it on ebay and donate the money to charity.

Excelsior

Friday, July 04, 2008

Happy 4th

Happy July 4 to everyone! Miss L and I look at a lot of options for celebrating this year: DC, NY City, Philly. Finally, we decided on...Winchester?

I've been meaning to head back there for awhile, it just happened that our trip is falling on the July 4 weekend. And that Survivor is playing the area fireworks fest is just an added treat for everyone involved.

Our hotel is supposed to have wi-fi, so possibly more later....?

Excelsior

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Review: Mind the Gap

Combined, authors Christopher Golden and Tim Lebbon have put out more than 30 books. Now they've joined forces with Mind the Gap to bring a thriller set inside an urban fantasy world.


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Teenager Jasmine “Jazz” Towne returns to her London home one afternoon to find her mother murdered and the killers searching for her. With a little guile and a lot of luck Jazz manages to slip away from her pursuers by plunging into London’s Tube and hiding in old, abandoned stations and forgotten bomb shelters. Jazz then falls in with a group of teenaged thieves led by the Fagin-esque Harry Fowler, a man who is beguilingly both enigmatic and welcoming. She takes to thieving quite well and quickly becomes the charmed member of the crew Fowler sends out on the most difficult jobs.

Emboldened by her new skills Jazz sets out to rob the mansion of one of the very men who killed her mother. There Jazz meets Terence, another thief she catches robbing the same house. Through Terence Jazz learns that everything---her mother’s murder, the father she never knew and even Fowler----are all wrapped into the plot of a secret society striving to revive the ancient spirits and magic hidden below the streets of London and use it for their own dark gains. The only way to get revenge for her mother’s death and to guarantee her own safety is to help Terence set the spirits free.

The premise is unique, in fact I'm not sure I've seen one quite like it before. Most urban fantasies focus on the clash between the real and the fantastic, and often feature the fantastic dying or fading because humanity is too lazy to see it anymore. But the twist with the good guys fighting to release the magic and remove it from London for the greater good is a fresh take. The basic setting of the story, with the underground tunnels and mysterious magic, reminds me a lot of Gaiman’s Neverwhere. The fantasy elements, though, are more toned down, making this a fantasy novel for people who don't normally like the genre.

Of course it all really works because of Jazz. Jazz herself is the perfect young heroine: capable, confident and possessing both a love of trouble and enough smarts to generally get out of it. The other characters all feel like stock characters, people pulled from other tales to fill a role. But Jazz and her unique outlook on life gives this fantasy thriller a little more emotional weight than the normal fare.


Excelsior

Saturday, June 28, 2008

A New Process

Creatively it's been a really good week for me. In my spare moments I've been working on the beginnings of the comic book project and I''ve been having a lot of fun with it. It will definitely be action oriented, but hopefully have some layers so it's not just action book.

It's a completely different experience, though, from how I normally write. My writing usually develops very organically. I start with a very vague concept and write a scene that explores it a bit. Then I start thinking about what has to happen before to lead up to that moment and what has to happen afterward, and write those scenes. Pieces start feeding into one another and after a time I have a full story. It makes for a slow process but it's the way I've always done it.

But I realized after the first talk Miss L and I had about the comic book project that this method wouldn't work. I needed to make my ideas more concrete before bringing them to her to illustrate them. I would even need to (shudder) outline.

So for now I've started simply, creating worksheets for major characters, jotting down ideas like how they look, what music they like, what they do when they get nervous or scared. And as I think about these pieces their backgrounds and their personalities start to fill in. And with it some of the plot points for the main story. There's a long way to go before Miss L will start getting pieces of the full arc----I don't know it yet myself----but for the first time in a long time I feel like I'm on the right track with a story. We'll see how I feel in a couple of weeks.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Teeth Move Lacks Bite...sorry, couldn't resist

This past week I watched the movie Teeth, a horror/black comedy flick directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein and starring relative newcomer Jess Weixler. It's been out for about a year and has been making the rounds of various film festivals across the country. It's also been getting talked up a lot on a bunch of blogs and horror-related websites I read so I added it to my Netflix list.


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Weixler plays Dawn, a pretty, perky high school girl who's obsessed with keeping her virginity until marriage. I say obsessed because it's all she talks about. Dawn's also part of group that preaches and pulpit-pounds like the most ardent Christian Revivalist Minister. But being a high school girl she gets led astray anyway. Dawn is the victim of date rape when she discovers she has Vagina Dentata, or a set of teeth down inside her genitalia. The rapist is mortally wounded when he loses his own genitalia mid-coitus; things then speed up and get stranger as more people die, an OBGYN loses a hand and the story takes some odd turns into matricide, fratricide and incest.

While I love the concept, the delivery left me a bit bewildered. What I think they were going for was a horror/comedy in the same vein as Kentucky Fried Movie, while also poking fun at things like teen comedies and having a bit of fun with social mores. But it just didn't work for me.

I blame it partly on the cheesy dialogue and partly on the acting----there really was no discernible talent in anyone save with some small moments with Weixler. But mostly I blame the direction. After the first incident you can see the jokes and the scares coming from a mile away. The bar is never really raised and the joke stays pretty much the same throughout the movie. Some more accomplished techniques and a tighter plot could have at least raised the tension level a bit. But when Dawn's dates are wounded and they start screaming I wasn't sure if I was supposed to be horrified, shocked or amused. In the end I wasn't any of those things. If I was anything, I was bored.

Excelsior

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Review: Breath by Tim Winton

In Breath, the eighth novel by two-time Booker nominee, Winton transforms the dangers of surfing and thrill seeking into a powerful metaphor for the transition from childhood to adulthood. Bruce “Pikelet” Pike and his best friend Loonie are twelve-year-old boys looking for a way of life different from what home and school offer them. Living in a small working class town on the west coast of 1970’s Australia, they turn to surfing as their ultimate escape.


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At the beginning the two manage little beyond paddling offshore on flimsy boards. But everything changes when they meet Sando, an aging hippie-guru with a love for sports and danger. Sando takes the two boys under his wing, first by simply letting them store their boards at his Oceanside home and later by encouraging them to chase after increasingly dangerous waves. Ordinary life becomes boring and colorless to the boys when compared to the exciting magic they feel when blasting through the churning surf. The surfing sequences are beautifully and excitingly describing, giving an easy hook to an otherwise emotionally complicated novel.

Jealousy enters the relationship when Sando takes Loonie on a surfing tour through the Pacific Islands, leaving Pikelet behind with Sando’s bitter wife Eva. Pikelet and Eva bond through their pain at being left behind and both question the place of thrill seeking in their lives. Their friendship takes an sexual turn that’s likely to make many readers uncomfortable, especially when the sex becomes as extreme and dangerous as surfing with Sando.

To be honest, I'm not sure what people will make of the sex. It kind of comes out of nowhere and seems slightly out of place with the story. I suspect the edgy ending, which is hinted at in an opening frame with Pikelet as an adult, was Winton's initial idea for the novel and the marvelous surfing sequences grew out of it. It works for me, in that both explore the idea of crossing boundaries and finding where your own personal limits are. But some readers I fear will be so shocked by the ending content they'll miss the point of Winton's otherwise pretty potent message.

Excelsior

Friday, June 13, 2008

A Little Research. Very Little.

After work today I made a stop at Best Buy to make a last minute Father's Day purchase. I also ended up getting something cheap for myself, something I'm hoping will help with the comic book project.

One area I really don't know that much about are all the tropes and character types in martial arts movies. And since the story will be in part a martial arts tale I should know a bit more. One thing I'd like to do, at least I think, is play around with the basics in a part homage, part satire kind of way. So for $10 I picked up a collection of 8 old-style kung fu movies. A lot of them look to be of the Drunken Master variety, so they'll probably be pretty wacky. For the uninitiated, a Drunken Master learns to fight while intoxicated, with the idea that it makes the moves more unpredictable. Of course it makes for a lot of good slap-stick as well.

I loved this stuff as a kid, but haven't seen any in years. I remember watching these every Saturday afternoon after the cartoons finished on one of the local channels. I didn't really understand them, but I loved them anyway. The odd mix of fighting and comedy with plots so convoluted and kitschy Russ Meyer would be jealous.....how could an eight year old boy not love it? I'll either still love this stuff or it will drive me nuts. Time will tell.

Of course this is all solely for the purposes of serious research.

Excelsior.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Synchronicity With Paper Weapons

I've had this fledgling idea in my head for months that I just haven't done anything with. The basic premise is a suburban high-school kid who thinks he's a highly trained ninja. I'm not sure yet how much is true and how much is in his head, but I think it's a story that could walk a fun line between real and imaginary and make all kinds of jokes and references to things I like.

Sitting in one of the webcomic panels at Balticon Miss L suggested working on the story together as a serial comic. She did a sketch and we've tossed around a couple more ideas.

Thursday I sat down and wrote a rough draft for a couple of scenes involving paper throwing stars. But while I appreciate the art of comics I really don't know how to write for comics, at least in the technical sense. How much do you write beyond the plot and dialogue? How detailed in descriptions do you get, and how much freedom do you give the artist? My only reference really is a book I read on Neil Gaiman, who's apparently a real stickler for detailing out how he wants every panel to look on the page.

So yesterday I went to the comic book section in my library with limited success. Not surprisingly most of the books focus on drawing and layout, but we did have one by Dennis O'Neil titled The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics. I started flipping through it and what do I find but this:


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Now I'm not particularly religious or even spiritual. But I do believe that sometimes the universe gives us little hints when were on the right track. This little paper shuriken is more than a little hint. I don't know where this project will go or if anyone other than Miss L and I will ever see it, but I'm more sure now that we need to give this story a shot and just see where our creativity takes us.

Excelsior.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Review: Sharp Teeth by Toby Barlow

Ok, I admit it. I was a little worried when someone first sent me a note that I had to read this book. I mean a book-length epic poem about werewolves? It would either be touched by genius or be complete trash. Fortunately, Toby Barlow's first novel Sharp Teeth leans more towards the genius side of things than trash. I'll never doubt suggestions from friends again.


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Ruled by competing packs of werewolves, the seedy underside of L.A. is far stranger than anyone ever imagined. Lycanthropes hire themselves out as hitmen and pushers, both driving and feeding off of the criminal world. The center of the story is Anthony Silvo, a self-professed loner and dogcatcher who falls in love with a mysterious woman; this unnamed woman leads a second life as a werewolf and works for Lark, the leader of the most dangerous werewolf pack on the streets. The growing relationship with Anthony causes the woman to regret the wild choices of her past and seek out a new life. Meanwhile, Lark suspects competing packs of lycanthropes are after his power and he prepares for a massive, city-wide conflict. Other side-plots include a Detective Peabody’s investigations into werewolf-related murders and a hysterical bridge tournament that might have ties to the L.A. drug trade.

Now about the poetry. I'm a poor judge of what makes a good poem; I just don't have the expertise to judge it fairly. But I can say that Barlow's style is free verse and it seems like he uses it well. The line breaks are used mostly to play with rhythm and to highlight particular words or phrases. After a page or two you get used to the flow and really enjoy what he's put together. It’s also to Barlow’s credit as a storyteller that the genuinely touching moments between the woman and Anthony work as powerfully as the most graphic violence in the story.

The dark humor and mix of high brow/low brow culture---Barlow makes just as many references to Greek philosophy as he does old horror movies----is good fun. It's like a slasher horror movie told through the words of someone who can actually write without (too many) cheap tricks. I debated over reviewing this, because it's already gotten a fair amount of good press. But I loved this enough that I felt compelled to share anyway.

Excelsior.

Friday, May 30, 2008

A Couple of Webcomics

After a few days I've managed to read through the archives of two of the webcomics I was introduced to at Balticon.

First is Sudden Valley. Written and drawn by Baltimore resident Jamie Baldwin, she's put together a pretty promising series. Although things are really just starting----the series has been going since December----I have a pretty good sense who the characters are and I'm pretty confident Jamie knows where it's going. It looks like it will mostly be based around the relationships of a group of twenty-somethings as they figure out life. The main plot points, anyway. I also really like the art. Simple, just a little cartoony.

Second is Dead of Summer, by Baltimore-based guys Nick and Marty. Basically, zombies invade the city of Baltimore and hilarity and horror ensues. This series has no redeeming value whatsoever, and I love it for that. It's pulpy, bloody and doesn't take itself too seriously. They're really just having fun with the idea of zombies trouncing the city of Baltimore. It's been running for a couple years now and having read the run thus far it's been fun seeing the series both look better and develop a more complex story as it went along. A true guilty pleasure, this one aint for the squeemish.

Excelsior

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

My Balticon Recap

Both Miss L and I had a really good time at Balticon this past weekend. It was very relaxed, and a good chance to feel like we were getting away without going very far.

Miss L hit a bunch of panel discussions on Web Comics. They covered just about everything: software, artwork, the business side, and even writing. I went to a couple with her and even though the panelists were pretty much the same folks at each one, they kept it fresh and interesting each time. They were a nice bunch, and as I dig through the web links to all their various projects I'm sure I'll be sharing some of them here. Although I know a bit about comics in print, web comics is an area I just haven't delved into very much yet. It was interesting learning about the differences and the similarities, and also just hearing what people are really into. Miss L came out, I think, a little overwhelmed at the end but still interested in the medium.

I hit a bunch of panels on my own as well, things like "Worldbuilding", "What Draws You to an Author for a Second Book" and a even a panel devoted to the BBC show Torchwood. My only complaint about the panels was how casual they all were. It worked for the comic book ones because only a few people attended those each time. But some of the others I went to seemed disorganized to me, like the panelist didn't come in with clear ideas for what they were going to say and just let the audience jump into the conversation without any real direction. And the fanboys and fangirls? Good lord, calm down. Get over the fact that someone new (Simon Pegg) will be playing Scotty in the new Star Trek movie and move on with your life. There are far more important things to get upset over.

My favorite panel was one on Sci Fi/Fantasy for kids and young adults. Moderated by local romance/fantasy author Stephanie Burke, who looked like she was having a great time dressed as a goth bunny, I came away with a pretty sizable list of authors to check out and also learned about an interesting program NASA has in the works. They are looking towards bringing in authors and teaming them up with NASA scientists to write novels and/or short stories to help get kids interested in science. It's an interesting idea and I hope they can get it to work.

The dealer room wasn't that impressive. It was set up a lot like a comic book convention, with different book stores trying to sell there wares more so than publishers or authors---although there were a small handful. I'm not sure why they don't hit this convention. If there were more small presses there selling stuff, I know I would have spent a lot more money. I'm just not interested in buying a first edition Heinlein or an authentic blaster gun from Star Wars, but that's me.

I did end buying a few things, though. First of which is the anthology Steampunk, edited by Ann VanderMeer and Jeff vanderMeer. I like Jeff a lot as an author and I appreciate both of the VanderMeers as editors as well. The book has a lot of good names, and it's something I'm really curious to dig into. Other than some stories in mags here and there I haven't read a lot of Steampunk.

I also got sweet-talked by C.J. Henderson, one of the few authors there with his own table, to buy a couple of his books. I've never read him before, but at least the ones I bought look like fun. He basically takes old characters like H.P. Lovecraft's Inspector LeGrasse and writes new stories for them. Looks like good, pulp-inspired fun and sometimes I need that.

Excelsior

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Don't Forget Your Towel

I'm working today, but I'm looking forward to hitting this year's Balticon tomorrow and Monday. For the uninitiated, it's a pretty solid SF convention. The focus is on books and they're hosting panel discussions and forums covering everything from submitting work, general themes in SF and examinations of authors works. For those more into movies, comics and cartoons there will be plenty of that as well.

But really what I'm really looking forward to is Towel Day, an odd international tribute to dear ol' Douglas Adams. It's tomorrow as well and I'm hoping to see lots of towels at Balticon. I've never been into the whole Cosplay thing, but carrying a towel around? That I might be able to manage.

Excelsior

Friday, May 23, 2008

A Little Bit of Controversy

A few weeks ago I reviewed the book Welcome to Shirley by Kelly McMasters. It's a non-fiction book that I had some misgivings about, mostly because it seemed to want to be both a history and a memoir without fully exploring either form. But If you look at the comments for the blog post you'll see someone named Ken Spooner mentioning a high number of factual errors in her work.

I've spent the last couple of days checking out Spooner's site, and a number of the claims do seem to check out in other sources. I'm not an expert on the town of Shirley, NY and don't really have the time to become one, but it does seem like the book is filled with lazy scholarship. At least that's what I'm thinking it is, rather than a more purposeful glossing over of details. It's a shame this book made it to print without a real fact-check, because I still think McMasters had her heart in the right place in trying to tell the story of this town. My guess is she really wanted to write a memoir but didn't have enough for full a book; the historical sections possibly came later to give a full page count. I could be wrong, but Spooner seems to agree with comments like this on his page:

I am reasonably certain it was witnessing as a young girl, the slow and painful death from cancer of her neighborhood girlfriend Tina's father Jerry, that inspired Kelly to write this book or set her main topic up of environmental stewardship. The true neighborhood good guy with a huge heart, it is her storytelling about Jerry that resonated the strongest with me.

This section Spooner describes is easily the most powerful in the book, and if McMasters had focused on her memories and the emotions behind them she probably would have created one hell of a book.

I was intrigued by this controversy of scholarship, because when I read the book I was surprised by the lack of citations in McMasters's work. Very little of her research was cited so I came away wondering how she pulled together her information for the more factual, less memoir sections. What I had in hand was a preview copy, so I emailed the publisher and was assured that a bibliography of her sources would be published with the final version. Yesterday I found a final version at my local bookstore and it still lacks a bibliography, giving validity to Spooner's claims and, frankly, making me feel guilty about reviewing the book for a major library publication. I'm not saying Spooner is right, and I'm not saying McMasters is right. But if you do read her book read it with some level of caution and decide for yourself.

Excelsior

Friday, May 16, 2008

Take Stuff From Work

One of the deep, dark, dirty secrets in libraries is how much they get rid of every year, every month, every week and every day. While some people I work with seem to relish the duty because it makes space for newer items, I always feel guilty. I'm afraid of getting rid of undiscovered literary gems or a non-fiction title that really teaches something new.

Of course a number of books are removed because they are in bad shape, but many are weeded because no one ever checked them out. The general rule of thumb where I work is to pull a book if it goes through a period of 16 months without a check out to its record. I'll often see first novels by writers who just never got lucky enough to land a review in the NY Times or the Washington Post, oddball non-fiction, and poetry. There's almost always lots of poetry going out our door and in the trash.

The worst part is we're not allowed to sell these in the annual booksale. We apparently used to do that, but people complained about their tax dollars going towards the purchase of books to only have them sold as used books a year later. So now they go right in the trash, unless someone on staff wants to take them home. These are the five I saved yesterday.


Books I saved from the library



Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the 10th Dimension. by Michio Kaku. This guy's been growing into one of the best known physicists in America. I first heard of him when this book came out in 1994. It's a great compilation of crazy sci-fi theories and how they have influenced real scientific thought. Fascinating, easy to read and fun. This one, I should note, is in pretty bad shape. It's got a pretty ugly coffee stain on the back and the front cover is barely hanging on.

Chris Ware: Monographics by Daniel Raeburn. Seeing as how the library I work at doesn't have any actual books by Ware, it was probably a strange purchase to begin with. Basically it's a celebration of Ware's work in comics, with reproducitons of pages of his work, covers of books and odd merchandising like a Jimmy Corrigan lunchbox. This one's partly my fault. While I've flipped through it, I hadn't bothered to check it out yet.

My Dad's a Punk. edited by Tony Bradman. This one's also my fault. I saw it when it first came in, meant to check it out and promptly forgot. The volume collection twelve short stories about teens with dad's who maintain a bit of good ol' punk spirit. With authors like Tim Wynne-Jones, it's probably a good collection, but unfortunately short story collections just don't check out that much.

We Saw Lincoln Shot: One Hundred Eyewitness Accounts. compiled/edited by Timothy S. Good. The title pretty much sums this one up. The book's in great shape, and it looks to be a real gem of first-person accounts. I'll be giving this one to Jim, an old friend of mine who's a big civil war buff.

The Way to Rainy Mountain. by N. Scott Momaday. Seeing this one on the discard pile almost made me cry. Momaday's a fantastic writer and I love mythology of any kind. This title collects a number of short-short tales based on myths of the Kiowa tribe. I'm really looking forward to reading this one.

Excelsior

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Time for fresh air and sunshine

Today's the first day in what feels like several in the DC area that the sky's not filled with a canopy of gray clouds and rain sprinkling down. I never quite know what to do with myself when sunshine returns. It's almost like I've forgotten what it is, this big giant blazing ball up in the sky. I go outside not to run, not to hike, not to work in the yard but to get reacquainted with how everything feels. The warm sun on the skin, fresh air going in and out of lungs....it almost feel real that first time you step out into it.

This kind of echoes my life for the past year and a half. With school I've been caught up in a gray downpour of projects, papers and academic essays. But now it's finally over and I really don't know what to do with myself. Oh, I've got plenty to do looking for a full time job. Helping pull a fall wedding together. Preparing to move. Catching up on some reading and writing.

One thing I really let slide in life was hitting all the cultural things DC has to offer. I celebrated the end of school last Friday night by taking in the Cure's local stop on their US tour. Even though I've seen them before---this would make the fifth time---it was still fantastic. Even the opening act, 65DaysofStatic, was really good, and the Cure is notorious in having weak opening acts. This past Sunday I hit some museum exhibits downtown and tonight I'm going to see the Gamer Symphony Orchestra perform at the University of Maryland. Needless to say, I'm kind of making up for lost time.

I don't know what I'll be doing with the blog here. I know it will continue to include reviews, but It's likely to change as I figure out the next pieces of my life. But for the moment I plan on going outside and enjoying the weather, before the rain comes back.

Excelsior

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Me and Mr. Miller

This past week I had a rather unique experience. One of my childhood friends works as a sound engineer at main studios for NPR in downtown D.C. and he invited me to a mini-concert with bassist/composer Marcus Miller. It was something going out over the airwaves and NPR wanted to stack the house with people they knew would applaud at the right moments and laugh at the right jokes.

I worked on radio talk shows when I was in undergrad, both for the college station and the local NPR affiliate. But the setups I worked with was nothing like NPR has. The main recording room is a rather large area, about the size of a small classroom, and a second room just to the side for the drums. A third room acted as control central for the engineers, large mixing board and computer audio equipment used to mix everything on the fly as it went out over the air.

It ended being a live broadcast for the NPR show Talk of the Nation. The host Neal Conan sat at a small desk in front of the audience, a laptop open so he could read files and ask Miller questions between musical numbers. The also had a phone line setup so fans from around the country could call in and ask questions, and a man in a suit kept running back and forth bringing listener emails for Conan to read.

Seeing Miller play was amazing. He did things on his bass I barely understood and he did them so effortlessly. It was probably as easy for him as walking across the room is for the average able-bodied person. In between bits when they took a break for local station id's, MIller lightheartedly jammed to the 1980's smooth jazz NPR pumped out. This is a guy who loves, lives and breathes music. Miller was also a great interview; his responses to questions were thoughtful and often funny. Inevitably, one caller asked how to improve his speed and technique in his own bass playing. The question led to another from Conan, who asked about his three stages of being a musician. These are, btw, paraphrased and should not be taken as verbatim quotes from Miller.

Level One: This is the learning stage, where the musician is learning the foundations of technique and theory. Fingering, scales, how to play with other musicians.

Level Two: In the stage, the musician has mastered many, if not all, of the techniques of his/her instrument. The musician can churn out complicated solos and impress everyone with how well they play their instrument, but the overall reaction will be "I bet he practices a lot".

Level Three: This final stage, the musician internalizes everything learned and uses it intuitively to express a feeling or tell a story. While they can play complicated solos, they may also choose to play things simply when it's called for. Instead of thinking about the . Miller used Miles Davis as a prime example, saying a Miles solo will make people step back and say, "Yeah, I had a girlfriend like that once." You don't think about the notes but what's behind them.

It certainly works for writers, too. Who gets to that third stage, though, can be a bit subjective. While I might be powerfully moved by Pynchon, other readers might fight him inaccessible. I still think it's a cool model, though.

If you're interested, you can hear the whole show onlinehere. Just remember when the applause come, one of those pairs of hands was mine.

Excelsior

Friday, April 04, 2008

YA Horror Novels

One of the projects for my Young Adult (YA) literature class was to develop an annotated bibliography highlighting titles within one specific area or genre of YA lit. I picked supernatural horror; I picked it for a variety of reasons, but mostly because one of the more common requests I get from teens is for a "scary book".

Surprisingly, there's not a lot out there. There are lots of thrillers featuring serial killers or drug dealers gone mad. And there are a good number of books using tropes of supernatural horror to tell a different kind of story, like the Twilight series by Stephanie Meyers that uses Vampires to tell a gothic-style romance. But there aren't that many books that have elements of the supernatural and are also scary. Here are some of the better ones I came across in pulling my list together.

Bradbury, Ray. Something Wicked This Way Comes.

This classic by award-winning author Ray Bradbury tells the tale of two Midwestern teenaged boys, James Nightshade and William Halloway, who battle against the dark carnival that comes to their small town one fall night. Carnival owner Mr. Dark is a horrifying villain as he twists and corrupts the adults of the town to his dark ways. Nightshade and Halloway are the only ones who realize his intent to steal the souls of everyone in the town, making the story a powerful parable of standing up to evil in all its forms. This literary-minded tale is creepy without being overly violent or gory.

Carmody, Isobelle. The Gathering.

This one was probably my favorite, partly because I've never heard of Carmody before. Nathaniel and his mother move to Cheshunt expecting a peaceful community and instead find a town twisted by a dark evil. While crime rates are low, Nathaniel quickly discovers they are kept down through fear and manipulation. Mr. Karle, the P.E. teacher at Nathaniel’s school, is running the town from behind the scenes through intimidation and psychological warfare. Even worse, Karle uses the Gathering, the school’s youth club, as his own personal Gestapo to stamp down any who might resist his will. Most of the town is willing to hand over control to the devil-tongued Karle, but Nathaniel befriends a group of fellow teens who want to fight against the tyranny. They learn Karle’s power comes from an old curse that fell on Cheshunt generations ago; to stop Karle they must face their own personal fears and purge the evil before Karle can spread his power beyond Cheshunt. In a style that meshes Robert Cormier with Ray Bradbury, this is a literary-minded tale of horror that can be read on many levels.

Chandler, Elizabeth. Dark Secrets: Legacy of Lies.

Sixteen year old Megan visits the grandmother she never met with the hopes of rebuilding the torn ties between her mother and grandmother. Megan finds it a bigger job than she first thought when she finds her grandmother to be a spiteful old woman filled with little but hatred and anger for the world around her. It doesn’t take long for Megan to hear the rumors and ghost stories about the generations-old estate her grandmother lives on. At the core of both her grandmother’s anger and the ghost story is Avril, sister to Megan’s grandmother who died as a teenager. To heal both the spirits and her grandmother Megan must learn the horrifying truth behind it all.

Partridge, Norman. Dark Harvest.

It’s Halloween 1963, and every teenaged boy in the unnamed, small Midwestern town is hunting for the October Boy, an evil spirit with a Jack-o-lantern for a head and twisted vines for a body that appears every year. Whoever kills the October Boy wins money and freedom from the hard life offered by the small farming town. Pete McCormack swears to wins this year’s hunt so he can escape the life he’s grown to hate. What starts as a fairly predictable shock-horror tale takes a sharp turn when we learn the real evil runs through the sheriff and mayor, who use the October Boy to control the town. This fast paced thrill ride develops into a meaningful metaphor on escaping the ills of the previous generation.


Shan, Darren. Demonata Number 1: Lord Loss.

Sly teen Grubbs Grady’s life is transformed when he sees his mother, father and older sister fall victim to the power of Lord Loss, a maniacal demon whose only love greater than dishing out pain is the game of chess. With everyone thinking he’s crazy, Grubbs is shuttled off from relative to relative until he finally finds one who believes him: his crazy, reclusive uncle Dervish. His uncle teaches him about the generations-old curse on his family and Grubbs decides he will be the one to end the curse by challenging Lord Loss to a dramatic game of multi-board chess. Winning will free his family from the curse; losing will give his body and soul over to the demon for eternity. Although it owes many of its bloodier ideas to H.P. Lovecraft and Clive Barker, this is a fast read that works as a nice transition for fans of younger series like Goosebumps who want something a little more grown up.

Westerfield, Scott. Midnighters #1: The Secret Hour.

Fifteen year old Jessica Day thinks life will be boring when she moves from the big city of Chicago to the small town of Bixby, Oklahoma. But odd things begin to happen at midnight. Everyone except her freezes, seemingly stuck in time, and the town is plagued by ancient monsters that look like flying snakes and giant panthers. Jessica finds some others who aren’t affected and learns the story of a secret hour the monsters use to hide themselves from the human world. The monsters, though, are gearing up for a great offensive against the real world and Jessica alone my hold the power to fight back. This smartly written horror mixes elements of the Twilight Zone and superhero comics, making it a powerfully addictive read.

Excelsior

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Comps, Comps, Comps

My last three weeks have been almost entirely focused on one thing: comps. Comps, or comprehensive exams, are essentially the last barrier, the final gate keeper to keep students out of the clubhouse of being official librarians. Two days of testing sessions, three hours each. They ask five questions each day, and you have to answer two in a academic-style essay, complete with references to appropriate literature. The questions can be about any topic related to librarianship, and that perhaps is the worst part: not really knowing what will be asked. So you study everything, soaking up as much as you can and trying to focus on what you think the faculty will want you to focus on.

I felt nervous as hell when I got there the first day. My heart was jam-jam-jammering in my chest and my stomach felt like it wanted to separate from my body and walk away. I wasn't alone. People were cramming until the last minute and everyone seemed to have their own personal nervous tic (finger-tapping, pencil twirling, hair twisting) on full display. A woman in the row behind was chatting with someone and talking about how much she needed to pass. She already had a job starting in June on the condition she passed all her tests. But to top it off, her husband had just lost his job. As bad as my nerves were, I'm sure hers were a lot worse.

Once the computers were on and I had the questions in hand, I felt better. It took away the mystique of the whole affair and, once made real, took away some of its power of me. I think I did ok overall----two of the four questions I answered I feel like I did pretty well on. The other two I probably did well enough. But now the waiting game begins. It'll take about a month before we get the results. In the meantime I have classwork, reviews, and real life to catch up on. Until next time....

Excelsior

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Review: Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

Inspired by The Aeneid, Ursula K. Le Guin’s newest novel Lavinia takes the smallest character from Vergil’s epic poem and creates a thoughtful, moving tale of prophecy, myth and self-fulfillment. Lavinia is the teenaged princess of Latium, a small but important kingdom in pre-Roman Italy. As she moves into womanhood Lavinia feels pressure from her mother and father to choose one of her many suitors as both her husband and the future ruler of the kingdom. Being a princess and having a kingdom as her dowry, Lavinia's definitely a popular girl around the Mediterranean. The most ideal suitor is Turnus, young ruler of a neighboring kingdom who performs brilliant on the field of battle and makes all the women swoon. All the women, that is, except Lavinia. She finds him pompous, and lacking any shred of true piety. Torn by the desires of her parents and her own Lavinia travels to the oracles of the sacred springs, hoping they will lead her a proper path.


Lavinia-HC_350h



The oracles of the sacred springs say she will marry an unknown foreigner. This stranger ends up being none other than Vergil’s Aeneus, proud hero, king without a country and the man who will lay down the foundations of the Roman Empire. Their marriage sparks a war to control the region, and while we don’t see the glorious battles of Aeneus we do get the surprisingly moving perspective of the home front through Lavinia’s eyes.

Although best known for her works of fantasy Le Guin takes a more historical approach by toning down the magical elements; gods and prophecies play a vital role in Lavinia’s life but they are presented as concepts and rituals, not as deities playing petty games with the lives of mortals. This shifts the focus of Vergil’s plot from action to character, allowing Le Guin to breathe life into a character that never utters a word in the original story.

I'll be curious to see what the Feminist SF folks will make of this work. While I couldn't help but think of what Marion Zimmer Bradley did for the women of Arthurian legends in her Mists of Avalon, Lavinia is a very different book. It's been several years since I've read The Aeneid, but she's kept the basic plot the same. It's just with this we get a view backstage and discover that other factors besides the glorious battles played a major part in shaping one of the greatest Empires the world has ever seen. She doesn't go to unbelievable lengths to establish how important Lavinia's role was, but she does make it feel like Lavinia played an important part in this mythical story.

Lavinia herself is quite compelling as she transforms from a spirited princess into a queen full of wisdom who makes a profound impact on the lives of her people. While I think readers looking for action or plot oriented fantasy will not know what to make of this novel, anyone who appreciates deep layers of character development will be awed by what Le Guin does here.

Excelsior

Friday, February 29, 2008

Local Authors in my library

I've been bugging the powers-that-be at my job to let me put up a book display for local authors for months now. It's something I feel that libraries should support more, and I think people would be surprised by all the authors who actually live in the area.

After two days off, I came in yesterday to find someone else had one set up.

It's not bad, I guess, just a little disappointing for me. There are several things by David Baldacci, VC Andrews, John Grisham---he's apparently bought himself a house somewhere near Charlottesville, Va. But the list they're working off of is very focused on Mystery/Thrillers. It's missing key figures, people like John Edgar Wideman, Neal Stephenson (who grew up in the Maryland suburbs and wrote his first couple of novels while living in Alexandria), Brenda Clough, and Henry Rollins. It's even missing historical folks with connections to the D.C. area like Walt Whitman and Edgar Allan Poe.

So, of course, I volunteered myself to help expand their list. I'll be basing it largely on the lists C.M. Mayo shared so graciously on her own blog here, but including a few of my own as well. Of course, I'll have to cut things based on what our library actually carries. I'm looking forward to it, and hope I have some actual time to work at the library instead of doing it all at home. But we'll see. Either way, it will be a labor of love. I'll post the final list here when it's done.

Excelsior.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Review: Welcome to Shirley by Kelly McMasters

Most readers will have never heard of Shirley, a small, working-class town located 65 miles outside of New York City. But essayist Kelly McMasters, whose work has appeared in publications like the New York Times and The Washington Post, called Shirley home for most of her childhood. Her first book takes the tools of memoir, local history and science writing to create a disturbing yet loving portrait of her childhood home.


welcome to shirley



The town of Shirley began in the 1950’s when Walter T. Shirley, a retired Vaudeville huckster, established it as a place for people tired of big city life to settle down and return to small town values. But Shirley was a town that grew without a plan and never really took off; it faced constant problems with unemployment, poor services and even an unhealthy atmosphere. In the town’s backdrop is the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a government-funded facility that specializes in energy and medical research. In the 1990’s the lab mistakenly leaked tritium into Shirley’s groundwater supply, sparking a lawsuit as many felt the town’s unusual numbers of cancer victims were related to Brookhaven’s experiments.

McMasters’s style simplifies the complicated subjects of environmental science and economics into easily understood explorations of her own life. The personal moments revisited by McMasters are powerful and haunting, particularly the illness and death of her next-door neighbor caused by exposure to Brookhaven’s chemicals. The book includes maps and references that expand on the already information-packed narrative.

This was a review I agonized over. Individually each chapter is well written, thoughtful and meaningful. But the separate sections don't quite tie together, or at least they didn't for me. The chapters flip back and forth from memoir to historical essay to science writing, but it's hard to tell what big point McMasters wants us to take away. It's partly my own fault, my own narrative brain that craves a rising action, climax and epilogue with most everything I read. I wanted to see McMasters doing something to improve her town. But what we end up with is reportage, a book that exposes the world to all the hardships Shirley has endured over the last fifty years. If you go in expecting and accepting this her book will probably be a better read.

There's one thing I never questioned, though. McMasters still loves this town. It comes across so well that it might spur some readers to appreciate and even protect their own hometown. And any book that does that holds a power that makes it well worth reading.

Excelsior