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.


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.


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....