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.


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.


Saturday, February 09, 2008

Memories and Poetry: a Quasi-Review

This week I read Words in Your Face, a new book by poet/spoken word artist Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz on the history of the Slam Poetry movement. It's a decent book---maybe a bit overly NY City focused, but still a nice overview from the beginnings, to the mass popularity with shows on MTV and the current trends. All to be expected, I guess.

But what I wasn't expecting was how many memories this book would dredge up for me. I did my undergrad a couple of hours south of DC at James Madison University. I worked at the campus radio station WXJM, and helped edit the school's small literary journal. Like most kids, it was a formative time of my life, a time that exposed me to music, art, fiction and poetry that shaped my tastes and preferences more than any other point in my life. And while my classes certainly played a part it was often my outside-school activities that really shaped me.

I saw a flier for a Slam Poetry night at the Little Grill and I just thought it sounded cool. I had no idea what the term meant when I first heard it my sophomore year. Just the sound of those two words together, Slam and Poetry, was interesting to me. One so aggressive, the other so pensive, I didn't quite know what to make of it. I had to go, just to see what it was all about.

The LIttle Grill was a special place. It was a teeny-tiny vegetarian diner on the outskirts of town. Plain white walls decorated with old guitars and photos of Bob Dylan, it was a pretty popular lunch spot for the veggie crowd. At night the owner put on special events like small concerts, fiction readings and even Slam Poetry.

I went with one of my good friends at the time, a guy who went by the name of MC Legit. No, that wasn't his real name. He was a heavy set white kid with glasses from a posh suburb of northern Virginia and had a normal, white kid name. But he loved hip hop and had already recorded some singles on a DC label by the time he hit college. As odd it sounds now everyone called him Legit or Git, and never by his real name. Even now I barely remember what his real first name was.

We got there a few minutes early, and both got some vegetarian chili and cornbread. After a little bit, the owner of the Little Grill stood up and started to talk. The owner was a soft-spoken aging hippie type. Scruffy beard, ratty hair and so skinny I could have slung him over my shoulder and carried him around campus all day without any problem. Anyway, he went over the rules and who the judges were and people started reading. There would be three rounds and the winning poet would get a free meal.

It wasn't anything like what I would see on MTV a few years later. It was relaxed, casual---just a bunch of people getting up and reading their work straight off of the page. There were confessional poems, folk singers reading lyrics, rappers, imagist stuff, prose work, genre work, and more. Students read, professors from the University read and some people from the town read. It was a great event and I, eventually, got over my own shyness and read my own work aloud for the first time.

Nowadays when I go to readings I often hear people comment negatively about Slam events, all because they have this in your face NYC-MTV image in their minds of what Slam Poetry means. But in my experience, and it seems in Aptowicz's, there is a Slam event out there for every type of writer. Her book draws a wonderful portrait of a movement that's broader, fuller and deeper than I was expecting. And while it may not be as critical as some readers might want, it's a solid, informative read and well worth picking up for anyone interested in more recent trends in poetry, writing and performance that academia often ignores.


Monday, February 04, 2008

Jeff Lemire Interview Linkage

I spent a bit of the weekend catching up on various podcasts I just haven't had the time for. My favorite? By far it was this past week's Indie Spinner Rack.

This past week Mr. Phil and Charlito interview Jeff Lemire, a canadian cartoonist who's 2/3 done with a fantastic trilogy Essex County. I reviewed the first volume Tales from the Farm back here, and volume two Ghost Stories is towards the top of my to-be-read pile. Lemire's without a doubt a rising star in indie comics, and the interview really gets into his process of telling a story and how he creates his artwork. It's fascinating, and worth a listen for anyone who enjoys learning about the process of another artist.