Thursday, October 22, 2009

What's Up, Google Docs!

I've been doing a lot of research lately for a number of writing projects, but things often get waylaid when the wife usurps the laptop. My normal research process is to bury myself in a subject; I read, read read and take notes on the computer as I go. Whether I'm looking up biographical details about the jazz musician Sun Ra or exploring different ways to describe what happens when an object falls into a black hole, it's a method that works for me so I can get those odd, salient details into a piece.

Even though it's our laptop now, it was my laptop before we got married. So most of my writing files are on there and, frankly, I'm just used to keeping them there. And while we have a desktop computer as well the laptop is often just the most convenient one to jump onto.

Walking the dog tonight, a solution occurred to me: google docs. I've used it before for group coursework in library school and even for some projects I've worked on for YALSA. But never just for myself. Surprising I never thought of it before now, because it is so damn easy to use. Either upload your documents or work on it right there in the web-browser. The beauty of it is, I'll be able to save my work no matter what computer I use. Hell, I can even work on some things during my lunch time or other slow moments at work. I know, I know. This sounds like my account's been hacked by to be fair, I know there are other document-sharing programs out there. This is just the one I've used and know how to use.

So, thanks to google docs, I have no more excuses for not writing. At least so long as we have at least two computers in our home. I guess I better get back to it.


Friday, September 25, 2009

Review: Peter & Max: A Fables Novel

I've been reading BIll Willingham for years, ever since he started putting out the second volume of his comic book series The Elementals back in the late 80's. Since that time he's created and written all the issues of Fables for Vertigo; with 12 Eisner wins, a Hugo nomination and a couple of awards from YALSA's best graphic novels for Young Adults Fables has been one of the more critically successful comic book series of the last decade. Willingham now steps into the world of straight prose with his first novel, a charming fantasy set in his Fables world titled Peter & Max.


For the uninitiated, the Fables series takes characters from fairy tales, folklore and other open properties and– referring to them all as "Fables" – forces them out of their Homeland, a mystical realm that sits parallel to our own. Peter & Max begins in modern Fabletown, a magical village hidden in New York City where many of the immortal Fables now live. Peter Piper---the same Peter who picked a peck of pickled peppers and challenged the great wolf---is warned that his older and very evil brother Max, aka the Pied Piper, has been causing major problems out in the world. Peter heads for Hamelin, Germany to challenge his brother and put a stop to Max's dark ways for good.

Readers then get a series of flashbacks that take things back to medieval times and set the stage for the final conflict. Fiercely jealous when their father gives the Piper family heirloom, a magical flute named Frost, to the younger Peter Max murders his own father and seeks out dark magical secrets to someday take Frost for his own. After wandering for months in the Black Forest Max meets a powerful witch who gives him his own magical flute, which he quickly dubs Fire. Max learns to use the powers of Fire, first using it to enact the his legendary theft of the children of Hamelin and later to spread disease, chaos and fear everywhere he travels. We also get some snippets of Peter's early life as a thief, as well as his marriage to the trained assassin Bo Peep. Yes, I said trained assassin Bo Peep. The flashbacks feed into a nice, albeit somewhat short, final clash between the brothers.

Fantasy readers new to Fables will get a nice a taste of Willingham’s rich and satisfying world while fans of the comic series will find themselves treated to cameo appearances by popular characters like Bigby (aka the Big Bad Wolf), the Beast and Peter’s wife, Bo Peep. Artist Steve Leialoha (Fables, New Mutants) contributes several black-and-white drawings that very smartly enhance the fairy tale feeling of story.

Unfortunately, the early chapters of the novel have some big problems. Readers are given a brief historical tour of Fabletown as Rose Red tracks down Peter Piper to tell him about his brother. These long sections sit mired within a quagmire of exposition explaining the extensive background of Willingham’s inventive world; all written in a faux-Brothers Grimm style they weigh down the early pages of the book and might scare away readers who need to be grabbed right away. While many of the details given are necessary, they would have worked more effectively had they been sprinkled and used throughout the wider narrative. Readers willing to dig past this slow section, though, will find an action-packed fantasy built around two absolutely captivating characters.


Monday, September 07, 2009

Review: McSweeney's 31

The whole concept behind McSweeney's 31 is a pretty fun one: dig up some old forms of literature, toss the ideas to contemporary writers and see what they can come up with.

From an editorial standpoint, I really like the issue. They cover a real wide breadth of styles in a fairly short volume: whore dialogues, Nordic sagas, Socratic Dialogues, pantoums and so on. Each section gives an example, or part of an example for the longer forms, and includes footnotes and marginalia so readers will know what the hell is going on, both formally and culturally.


I don't know if it's because the poems are shorter and didn't have a chance to wear out the gimmick or that poets are just more used to playing with a variety of constraints, but by and large I thought the poets did a better job. From Tony Trigilio's pantoum "Jack Davis"----a wonderful piece on the JFK assasination----to Chris Spurr's funny senryu they are all really strong. The narrative work, by and large, seems to peter out once they get ahold of the form.

But I don't want to make this a bitch session; there were some narrative pieces I liked. Douglas Coupland was a phenomenal choice to play with the Chinese form called Biji. Like a lot of Coupland's normal work "Surrender" mixes narrative, odd facts and rumors into a whole that's both timeless and postmodern. Add to it that it's a parody of reality television, and you have a piece that's not just an experiment in form but also a fun piece of cultural criticism.

David Thomson's stab at Socratic Dialogue by creating a hilarious and philosophical argument between Susan Sontag, Virginia Woolf, Charlie Chaplin and Ernest Hemingway is also fantastic, especially if you have a handle on film criticism. I also wasn't surprised to enjoy Shelley Jackson's take on the Conseutudinary, a unique type of writing for monks that includes instructions on day-to-day activities and religious thought. Jackson's version entitled "Conseutudinary of the Word Church, or the Church of the Dead Letter" is a deep but disturbing examination of semiotics, religion, philosophy and power.

All in all, a fun issue. I look forward to the next one.


Thursday, September 03, 2009

Miss L and I are back from our trip through Alaska and Canada, but I will have to write about that stuff later on. Instead this is about something that happened on Monday night, right after we got home. As a warning, although not graphic this post is a bit morbid.

I took our dog Echo out for his late night walk around 11 pm, only to find the cross-street half a block down barricaded by police cars and yellow crime scene tape. It was a little hard to see with the police lights blinding me with the alternating red+blue lights, but I could make out the shadowy outlines of people on the other side of the street, craning their necks around so they could figure out what was going on.

I couldn't get through at all, so I decided to walk around the block the other way, discovering the far end of the same street was taped off as well. At the end of the block sat a large vehicle that looked a lot like an armored car, but was really a crime lab on wheels. I saw police officers going in and out of it, carrying equipment, taking photographs and marking several spots on the black pavement with yellow triangle markers. I flagged down an officer and asked what was happening and was told, "Someone was shot and killed. That's all we know so far."

Not knowing if the shooter was still out and about I decided to cut Echo's walk short and head on home.

The next morning I took Echo out again around 9 am. Normally at this time of the day the street is bustling with people walking dogs, getting their kids off to school or heading in to their jobs. But that morning I found the street deserted, like everyone was avoiding the area. I walked through a touch apprehensive myself, knowing that death had landed so close just the night before.

My morbid curiousity got the better of me, so I started looking around a little. I found some small pieces of paper in the gutter, sticky and stained red with blood and still wet from the morning dew. Labeled at the top as an "Incident Report Form", there wasn't much on it aside from the name of the person who called in the shooting to the police.

sbloody papers

I walked back across the street and looked down at the area where the yellow triangle evidence markers were. The pavement here was lightly stained with a deep, dirty red color; I could only think it was where the victim bled out.


These two little pieces made everything all too real for me. All the odd little things that happen in our little Baltimore neighborhood---people sleeping in cars, freaks stumbling through the neighborhood drunk, drivers blasting down the narrow roads at twice the speed limit late at night----all suddenly fit into a pattern of danger for me. I've been mugged in D.C., I've seen people loaded into body bags from a distance along Route 1 in Alexandria, Va. and I've even been caught between two rival gangs taking pot shots at each other in Staunton, Va. But this really got to me----I guess because it happened so close to where both my wife and I live and sleep.

Today our apartment community held a meeting of sorts. We found out from a detective that this was not a random incident; the victim was apparently targeted. I'm not sure how or why, the police would not say. Although the victim was living in one of the apartments, he was either subletting or sharing an apartment illegally. This helped a bit, knowing that this wasn't just some random thugs rolling through shooting residents.

There was a lot of talk of adding security cameras, increasing the lighting and even starting a neighborhood watch. I hope some or all of these things take off; I really do like where I live and, in general, feel pretty safe. I hope I continue to feel that way.

Hopefully I'll have happier posts up soon.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Yukon, Ho!

Miss L and I are off to Alaska. Or, to be more precise, we will be by tomorrow morning. Between the trip and the big pile of books I'm taking I should have a lot to write about and share. I'll update if I can, but internet access as I understand it will be expensive. Next update, at the latest, on 9/1. Until next time....


Review: The Wolfman by Nicholas Pekearo

The normal way to review a book is to summarize its plot---or at least its hook---and then detail what you like and don't like. Well, for Nicholas Pekearo's first novel The Wolfman I'm going to focus on voice.


Oh sure, I could tell you that The Wolfman is a fast-paced thriller mixing supernatural horror with gritty crime noir. I could even tell you the hook: Marlowe Higgins----Vietnam Vet, frycook, recovering alcoholic and werewolf----uses the curse of his monthly transformation to hunt down and kill a supremely bad person each month. But instead of my yammering lets look at the opening lines of the novel:

Let me paint a picture for you: The full moon was bulbous and yellow like the blind and rotted eye of a witch that peered down from the murky sky with bad intentions, and a million little stars shone down on the sleepy Southern town of Evelyn. The breeze was gentle and cool, carrying on it the scent of flowers and wet earth from the recent rain spell. The only thing missing was the children singing hymns, and I'm sure it would have been enough to make someone happy to be alive. (11)

This, to me anyway, is a great opener. You can tell right away the narrator, who we learn very quickly is Marlowe, is a smart but cocky prick with an eye for detail like some creepy version of Arthur Dove. It continues with passages like these throughout the novel:

When I blew into Evelyn one night a few years earlier, I was still hitting the sauce pretty hard. I initially drank because it made it easier to deal with being what I had become, but there came a point when I kind of accepted that part of myself, or at least became very stoic in a Marcus Aurelius kind of way. Still, I drank heavily when the mood struck me, and that mood usually urged me to go into a watering hole and pick a fight with somebody. I had a very wild hair growing in a very itchy place, and, to me, bars were made for two distinct purposes: for fisticuffs and to pick up broads. (41-42)

The Neo-Chandler voice intensifies here; with this little paragraph we learn our hero is not only smart, but well read. Not only cocky, but a tough guy constantly on the prowl for a fight. And he tops it all off with a bit of a dark sense of humor. To be honest, the voice really carries the book. As a mystery, the plot is very predictable. The secondary characters----which is pretty much everyone save Marlowe---are very thin. The werewolf mythology is vague, a little confusing and even a touch contradictory in parts.

But I loved this anyway. Marlowe lives in these pages, and that's something that only comes from real writing talent and passion. It's also why it's so sad that Pekearo died prior to seeing his first novel in print. We'll never really know what he could have done, and I find that incredibly sad.

So if you are intrigued by these passages, read some other reviews to get the plot. Or even better, pick up the book itself. It's worth it.


Saturday, August 15, 2009

Crazy Note Found Taped to a Bookcart At Work

I love finding ephemera. You know what I mean----those random bits of flotsam and jetsam that give you the barest glimpse into someone's life. Pieces of toys, bookmarks, old pencils, half-xeroxed pages. But nothing's better than a good old fashioned letter. Yesterday one of my co-workers found this letter---or part of a letter really---taped to a bookcart in the library. We have no idea who wrote it, nor why someone taped it to a bookcart. Any weird spellings are from the letter itself, and not my sloppy typing. I swear.

Cap'n + Bosco go way back to Basic Training for Federation Army. Bosco was conscripted Cap'n volunteered. They both became disallusioned very quickly when the War against the Independants, Bosco refused to fight and kill and became a pacifist and Cap'n refused to fire on a pro-independance rally and was dishonorably discharged. Cap'n and Bosco met up at a bar + discussed their future. Cap'n said he had a job for Bosco on a shop. He left out the fact that it had yet to be stolen.

It was a typical salvage job---old models of ships + sell them at auction. The ships were stored in an impound lot, the lot that Murdock + Bosco would steal the Daedalus from.

That's all there is. The first paragraph was on the front, the 2nd short paragraph on the back. Although they had more room on both sides they just stopped writing. I don't know if this is real or if it is fiction, but either way it's great. It's moments like this that I really love my job.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

I can't think of any other book people have asked me about at the library this summer more than Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The idea is captivating---in a perverse stare-at-the-car-wreck-as-you-drive-by kind of way. I'm sure I'm being asked because I've become known as the horror guy at work, but this book has received a shocking level of press, both good and bad. And I have to say, it's not as bad as you might think, but it's also not as good as you might think.


The idea itself is pretty simple---use the story of Austen's classic novel as a foundation for a zombie horror tale. The familiar characters are all there: the annoying Bennets, strong-willed Elizabeth and even darkly mysterious Mr. Darcy. But zombies---and later ninjas----abound, crashing through windows, breaking down doors and eating plenty of brains. The characters have been played with a bit to accommodate this terrible world. Elizabeth isn't just a strong women---she, and all the women, are highly-trained zombie killers fast with the daggers. It works out to something oddly funny and cartoony, especially at moments when Zombies burst onto the scene right after a very Victorian conversation of manners and romance. It comes together as something you shake your head and laugh at. Not because you think it's riotously funny, but because you can't believe someone put this all together into a novel.


The idea of merging two very different forms is nothing new. Jonathan Lethem did it early in his career when he merged Raymond Chandler with Philip K Dick in Gun With Occasional Music. Kathy Acker did it with books like her Great Expectations by merging the Dicken's classic with pornography, poetry and horror. And of course William S. Burroughs based his whole career on it, by merging anything and everything he ever read----sci fi, westerns, high literature, gay porn---into everything he wrote. While I love all of these books, there's something missing for me with Grahame-Smith.

Part of it is a lack of writing mechanics. Grahame-Smith didn't just lift characters and scenery for his book, he lifted whole phrases, lines and even paragraphs from Austen's novel. Some of the reviews I've read refer to this style as a "literary-mashup", I guess giving a nod to those dj's who will spin two or more music tracks together so they'll line up and play off of each other. When it works it's a lot of fun, but when it doesn't work the missed beats and odd blends of melody make you cringe. This is much the same way. Grahame-Smith is pretty good with the dialogue, not surprising since it's already been put into development as a movie----but his descriptions lack the poetic flair Austen wrote with.

I also wanted more from the horror----more blood, more scares, more blood, more ham-fisted political commentary, more blood, more something to make this something stronger than just a satiric romp and yes, even more blood. That said, it's still a fun and fast read and if you go in with an open mind and fair-to-middlin' expectations you'll have fun with it.

If you end up liking it, I have good news. With Vampire Darcy's Desire, Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Zombie Jim, there are A LOT of imitators coming up over the next year. If you don't like it, I have good news for you, too. This is sure to be a passing fad that will fade away in a couple of years----or even less. Just close your eyes as you walk by the displays in the bookstores and you'll be fine.


Thursday, August 06, 2009

A Car, A Truck and Two Books

I had two near-misses in my car on my way home from work last night. The first happened just a few minutes after leaving work.

I was cruising east down Old Keene Mill Road in Springfield. It's a major 4 lane road for the area and the road widens to even more lanes as you get close to the highway ramps. Once I hit the section where things widen the little compact Honda in the lane next to me decided it wanted to merge its rear end with my front end. I tapped my horn and the driver did what I probably would have done----floored it and then zipped into the lane right in front of me.

The 2nd happened about an hour later; I was zooming north on I-95 and passing the exit for Columbia, Md. In this case I was in the 2nd right-hand lane and a truck was merging onto the highway from the access ramp. The trouble occurred when the truck kept on moving into my lane. If I hadn't slammed on my brakes he would have knocked my poor little Mazda Protege right off the road.

I didn't get mad either time; I know these drivers didn't do on purpose, they just didn't see me. But the experience dropped a story idea into my head. In kind of a Twilight Zone meets Kafka kind of thing, I imagined a main character who, all of sudden, no one ever notices. He doesn't become invisible or ghostly----people just stop noticing him. How that would shape, and probably destroy, his life? It will probably be some time before I get to this one but I think it has some real creepy possibilities.

Completely unrelated, but before all this traffic madness happened I stopped by a bookstore to pick up the new Thomas Pynchon novel, Inherent Vice. While it was a little strange that I got the only copy they had in the store, at least the results where better than when his last novel came out and I couldn't find a store in a 15 mile radius that even had it on order. The cover looks like a lost Jimmy Buffet album, but based on the description it sounds like it will be a fun romp through the 1960's.


I also picked up a copy of Don Quixote that I found on the store's discount table. I've been meaning to read it for a long time and for some reason it's been coming up in conversation a lot lately. Late this month Miss L and I are taking a trip up to Alaska, so I think these will be the two books---along with the most recent issues of Gargoyle and McSweeney's---- I'll pack to keep me occupied on the plane and boat.


Sunday, August 02, 2009

Review: Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme

Back in the late 1960's and up through the 1980's, it would have been hard to pick up an issue of the New Yorker that did not contain work or at least a mention of Donald Barthelme. One of the great experimental writers of his day, he also managed to breach through and gain a level of mainstream popularity. Now readers can finally get a thorough look at his often guarded life with Tracy Daugherty's thoughtful and beautifully written biography Hiding Man.

hiding man

Son of a successful architect, Barthelme grew up in Houston, TX on the fringes of the mainstream literary and artistic world. While there he fell in love with adventure tales like Sabatini's Captain Blood and humor by writers like James Thurber and SJ Perelman. His father pushed him into the more esoteric influences of Surrrealism, Rabelais and others. After a stint in college----Barthelme never actually graduated----he worked for art galleries and as a newspaper man before following his ambitions in his early twenties to become part of the New York writing scene.

What follows after this intro to Barthelme's life is a grand tour of his work and how his life intersected with it. The main trouble with trying to read Barthelme today is that his work---especially his late 60's and early 70's writings----is very much of the time and understanding it today can be difficult. Daughtery carefully lays out the influences----both literary and worldly----making this a must-read volume for anyone who has troubles understanding why we still need to read Barthelme. Daugherty admits early on to his personal history with DB----he was a student of his and seemed to stay in good touch with him afterward----but Daugherty still manages to develop a fairly balanced book by including positive and negative views on Barthelme's life and work.

Hiding Man extends well beyond Barthelme's own writing. Barthelme not only published some innovative fiction but also managed to exercise a profound influence on literature in general through his involvement with P.E.N., various awards committees and teaching. In one way or another he was an influence on Grace Paley, Thomas Pynchon, Vikram Chandra, Philip Lopate, and many many more.

I first discovered Barthelme reading the anthology After Yesterday's Crash; although Barthelme doesn't have any work in the book, he's referred to several times in Larry McCaffery's introduction. From there I picked up used copies of his collections The Teachings of Don B and City Life as well as Snow White, his first and still probably best known novel. Full of lists, Q & A's, strange bits of dialogue and collages that really pushed against the walls of what fiction can be, I loved his work at first. But by the time I got to Snow White I found the ideas behind these tricks and techniques at their best dated and at their worst empty. It's the later sections of Hiding Man that detail Barthelme's writing career and his desire to not just be an iconoclast but also a great writer that I found more interesting. His work becomes more personal with novels like The Dead Father and more outspoken politically with short story collections like Overnight to Many Distant Cities. I'm very curious to give some of these other ideas a try.

Well written and thoughtful, I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in postmodern fiction, literary history or even someone just looking for a unique biography.


Friday, July 24, 2009

So Long, Pap

There have been a lot of things this past week that I've wanted to write about. The 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission and how Buzz Aldrin's rallying cry to push onward to Mars is a gleaming rocket of hope to outer space dreamers like myself. The collapse of DC's last free-form/guy talk station and how it very oddly relates to a short story I've been working on the past month. Or how it looks like I'll be finally moving into a new position at work.

But I shoved everything else to the side when I got the word that my grandpa passed away. His health has been heading downward for a long while now, and he's been in hospice care for the last six months. Although it wasn't a surprise, exactly, it still stung a good bit.

My dad ask me to write an "appreciation page" to handout at his memorial gathering later today. I was happy to, although I was somewhat mystified about how to sum up his life in 500 words or less. Do I write about my memories, and how much I appreciate his willingness to raise me when my own parents weren't able? That I loved the fact that the sweet smell of pipe tobacco clung to him years after he quit smoking? Or that I was always amazed by the magical way he seemed to make friends everywhere he went? My first draft was over six pages and I felt like I was holding back. In the end I just stuck to the bare facts and came up with something that I hope people will like.

He wasn't a war hero. He didn't create great art. He didn't start his own company----in fact, his father's business fell apart when he took over. But he was, and always will be, the measure of what makes a great man in my mind. I know in a rational sense that he was in pain and that death at this point was probably the best thing for him. But I have an aching spot inside me that misses him and I know that spot will ache the the rest of my life.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

New Thoughts on the Avant Garde

I recently finished Tracy Daugherty's wonderful book Hiding Man: A Biography of Donald Barthelme. While I am still digging through my notes and marked passages, one particular quote of Don B keeps coming up:

the function of the advance to protect the main body, which translates as the status quo

At least for me, this is a different way of thinking about the avant garde side of arts. Blame my binary brain but I often think of the avant garde as an antagonistic force, a side of the arts that seeks to lay waste to everything that came before and define its age through a new style or new philosophy. A session on reading difficult writers I went to at this year's Balticon solidified it for me: when people around the room took turns announcing their favorite authors nearly everyone groaned when one brave man pledged his allegiance to Thomas Pynchon.

But this small line of Bartheleme's hints at more of a symbiosis. Constantly pulling on each other to go one way or another, the two sides need each other to define themselves. Even more, it's the avant garde that steps out to try new forms and new ideas, to take the blasts venomous criticism so more mainstream lit can (possibly) borrow and modify what they do years later.

As a writer who took chances by playing with the form but still managed to publish work in mainstream mags, I can't think of anyone else at a better vantage point than Barthelme to make a statement like this. While this idea is still very fresh in my head----and thus about as firmed up as a pile of silly putt----I'm hoping to mull on it for awhile and start seeing connections the more I read. We'll see.

I'll have more of a formal review of the bio later this week, after I finish going through my note. Until then....


Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Assateague Island

This past week Miss L and I ventured east to Assateague Island. It's quite a wonderful place. It's a barrier island just off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia that operates largely as a National and State park, but does have the small beach town of Chincoteague on the Virginia side.

What makes it most unique are the wild ponies. No one is really sure where they came from. Anyone who read Marguerite Henry's book Misty of Chincoteague as a child probably knows the popularized theory that they came from a Spanish galleon that crashed against the island during a vicious thunderstorm. But the more historically accepted version is that the wild ponies descend from domesticated stock; apparently it was quite common for farmers in the 17th century to let their livestock roam free so they could avoid taxes imposed upon fences.

Most people visiting Assateague Island will either stay in nearby Ocean City, Md or the town of Chincoteague, which features a number of hotels, B&B's, eateries and antique shops. We decided to do it on the cheap and camp out. This was Miss L's first time camping in a tent and my first time in several years. Here's a shot of our campsite:


It was a great place to camp. Not much in the way of firewood, so you have to either buy wood or charcoal and bring it with you. The other bad thing were the mosquitos. Although not too bad during the day, they descend upon you like a plague once the sun goes down. After dinner much of our night-time activities revolved around battling the little buggers, everything from intense repellent to candles to the ye' old slap-and-sqaush technique.

We were definitely on the low-end of technology as far as the campers went. Most people were either in RV's or tents so large you could fit an entire village in them. A number of groups arrived with full-sized stoves and gas-powered generators so they could watch t.v. while they camped. Kind of defeats the purpose of camping in my mind, but to each their own.

Much of the island is marshy, as you can see from this photo here:


But if you go towards the center of the island there are some nice hiking trails. The water between the island and the Md/Va shore is a very calm sound, making it ideal for anyone like us who enjoys a leisurely canoe ride. There are some nice beaches as well, and beaches that aren't anywhere near as crowded as Ocean City or Rehobeth.


And, of course, there were ponies. We wondered how hard it would be to find them, but they were pretty much everywhere: on the beach, walking along the roads, in the water. We even saw some piles of "evidence" that some horses wandered through our campsite, although we never actually saw them there.


By far the most memorable, though, was the stallion we saw in the parking lot of the visitors center. He was just hanging out taking a nap behind someone's car, without a care in the world. If you look carefully at his *ahem* undercarriage you might notice something to indicate that he was having a particularly nice dream.


While the kids didn't seem to notice at all nearly every adult burst into laughter. Miss L and I decided he was a wee bit of an exhibitionist. We came back a few minutes later after checking out the visitor center, and our friend was awake and no longer exhibiting.

But now it's back to work and real life, at least until we venture up to Alaska later this summer. Until next time....


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

People's Choice Award of Virginia

For the sixth year in a row, The Library of Virginia is sponsoring their People's Choice Award for the best work of fiction and nonfiction written by a Virginia author. The finalists were all chosen from books on the nominee list for the 12th annual Virginia Literary Awards. This year's nominees are:


Divine Justice by David Baldacci
People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
The Legal Limit by Martin Clark
The Fire by Katherine Neville
Tomato Girl by Jayne Pupek


The Republic of Suffering by Drew Gilpin Faust
The Hemingses of Monticello by Annette Gordon Reed
A Voyage Long and Strange by Tony Horwitz
Because the Cat Purrs by Janet Lembke
The Place to Be by Roger Mudd

This is a great way to showcase local authors, or at least some of the bigger names of the literary community in ye' old commonwealth. My only regrets about this campaign are that they didn't make a People's Choice category for poetry (although the Virginia Literary Awards itself has a pretty diverse sampling of poetry) and that voters can't write in their own choice. To place your own vote you can visit your local public library or vote online. Voting has already started and will be going until June 30.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

I get around

A couple of weeks ago my car made it past 200,000 miles. Although not the first car I've pushed this far, it's extra special because I put all the miles on myself save the first 35,000. The mileage crossed over at a very appropriate spot, right on the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. For anyone outside the area, the Wilson Bridge crosses the Potomac River, connecting the commonwealth of Virginia and the state of Maryland. It's a very appropriate spot for me these days, since I cross the bridge every time I go back and forth to work on my 62 mile commute.


Right now I'm sporting a 1994 Mazda Protege. Not exactly a car that turns heads, but it's been the most reliable car I've ever had. It's taken me as far north as New York City, as far south as Memphis and as far west as Cleveland. The only times it's stranded me were times I should have known better----times when battery died when I knew it was getting old, for example. Although I plan on keeping this car going for at least another year, I am starting to think about what the next Heb-mobile will be. With thinking about the future, I of course think about the cars I used drive around town and what part they played in my lives. These pics, btw, are stock photos. Not the actual cars I owned.


My very first car was a 1970 Dodge Challenger. Three years older than me, it was bought new as my dad's car and he held onto it for me until I could drive. It was fast but heavy, making a strange combo that didn't turn very well but was still way too much fun to drive for any 16 year old. The car lasted me through high school, taking me on all kinds of camping trips, runs to 7-11 and lots of hours of cruising around with my friends Big Ed and Jimbo. But the summer between high school and college the brakes needed about $2k in repair work and my dad and I decided it just wasn't worth it to keep it going. We used to spend a lot of time together working on the engine even before I could drive it, so giving it up hurt more than just giving up a fun car. It was a big turning point in our relationship and we really don't spend time together like we did at those moments banging our knuckles and burning our fingers keeping that sucker going. If I ever get rich, my big F-U car will definitely be a restored Challenger.


My next car was cut from pretty much the same mold. A silver 1982 Camaro Berlinetta, it not only hauled ass but had the bonus of a T-top. One of my favorite things to do was take the T-top off in the middle of winter, blast the heat and drive really fast down deserted roads in the middle of nowhere. It took me through probably the most emotionally turbulent times of my life, which is probably why I spent so much time taking it into West Virginia and sleeping in it in random parking lots. But the day after graduation I carted my first car full of crap from Harrisonburg,Va. to Fairfax County, Va and got hit from behind at a stoplight by a 16 year old girl on a learner's permit driving a van by herself. It's amazing I didn't get hurt, because the van's front bumper ended up on top of the back seat----I remember reaching back behind me in a bit of a daze, and touching the bumper while still sitting in my front seat. Needless to say, the poor things was totaled. I went almost four years without a car, until I got my current set of wheels.

What do these cars say about me? I have no idea, but I'm sure there's a pattern. As I think about the next car part of me craves something that just soars down the road but eats gas like the new Dodge Challengers, or something more practical that gets really good gas mileage. I guess I need something that just says, "Hey, that guy's a librarian...he likes to read and write, but still manages to have fun." I don't know what it will be, but when I see it I will know it right away.


Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Balticon '09

This past weekend I went to Balticon. For the uninitiated Balticon is one of the better sf conventions in the DC/Batimore area. While many sf conventions seem to focus on t.v. and movies Balticon focuses on the book side of the industry. In the years I've attended it I've heard talks and readings by James Morrow, Catherine Asaro, Brenda Clough, Neil Gaiman and tons more I'm just not thinking of right now.

The panels were all pretty strong; I took in talks on diving into an author you might not fully understand, new publishing trends, ways to rejuvenate your blog, religious themes in modern sf.....and an absolutely fantastic reading by Gene Wolfe. I felt kind of bad for him, because counting his wife there were only 15 people in attendance for a guy who published some of the best novels I've ever read. But the intimacy was fantastic and he approached it all with the right humor.

But really the thing about this year that really hit me was how many people are just getting their work out there no matter what. Having trouble finding a publisher for that novel? Well, do an audio version and put it up as a podcast. Can't find anyone interested in your short stories? Make them available in an ebook format. I met three authors this year who used methods like these to build up an audience and used that as a selling point to get a publisher for a new project. One of this year's guests of honor, horror author and podcaster Scott Sigler, did this as well. The overall feeling is that if you have a good idea, get it out there. If you like it someone else probably will, too.

I'll be digging through all the fliers and notes I took over the next few weeks. As I find real gems I'll do my best to share them here.


Friday, May 08, 2009

Cover to Cover

Yesterday at work we were pulling books for a book club----their choice for the upcoming month is the wonderful short novel by Thomas Mann entitled Death in Venice. Something about the cover was bothering us for some reason. It looked familiar but we couldn't figure out why.


Later in the day, one of my co-workers said, "Here it is!" He was holding a completeley different book, Cross by James Patterson. Cover that looks startlingly similar.


Now we are used to seeing books with similar covers, but they are usually part of the same series or at least by the same author. But we've never seen anything quite like this.

My first thought was that they are by the same publisher and that publisher owns the rights to the photograph used on both covers. But the Patterson novel is from Little, Brown while Mann's is by Harper Perennial. So I have no idea, unless this image is in the public domain. Today I'm going to try to find out more info on the photo and where it comes from. It's supposed to be nice today, so I'm expecting it to be a bit slow at work. Having a harmless mystery like this will help the time go by.


Thursday, January 29, 2009

Review: Local by Brian Wood and Ryan Kelly

Easily one of the best things I've read in any format over the last few weeks is the comic book series collection Local, written by Brian Wood (DMZ, Demo, Northlanders) and illustrated by Ryan Kelly (Lucifer, Northlanders).


The series began as an experiment for Wood and Kelly; they wanted to write a limited series with each issue set in a different city in North America. They avoid the major cities like New York and L.A., focusing on mid-sized cities that offer lots of color and personality. To help with the local flavor they partnered up with artists in each city to get sketches and/or photos of key places---Bryan Lee O'Malley, for example, contributed a bit to the look of the chapter set in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Megan McKeenan---a punky twenty-something woman with wanderlust----works as the thread tying the twelve issues together. Each year she moves to a different city, and we watch her life as she finds a job, makes friends, searches for love, and tries to find herself. In the beginning Megan is primarily a device. She's the focus of the opening story, but for several in a row she functions as a secondary character.


I was intrigued by Local but not really wowed until chapter 3, a story called "Theories and Defenses". The chapter looks at a successful rock band that started in Richmond and what happens to them after their own success drives them apart. The band members return to their hometown and we see how each band member deals with their new state in life. This chapter not only displays lots of local landmarks that I know---southern row houses, the Fan, Plan 9 Records---but it really nails all the personalities you get with a band. There's the cocky lead singer who wants to do a solo album, the bass player who just wants to go out and get laid every night and the guitarist who seems perfectly happy tackling the coffee shop scene with his acoustic guitar.

theories and defenses

But by chapter five Wood and Ryan return to Megan full force and the story becomes solely about her. She works at a historic movie theatre in Halifax, changing her name every day to confuse the patrons. In Minneapolis she develops a relationship with an odd guy who breaks into her apartment every day and leaves her a polaroid photo of himself. Later Megan has her life stolen and put on display by an art student in Toronto. As someone who switched jobs several times and spent way too many hours in my early twenties soul-searching, Megan's awkwardness, confusion and even anger come across to me as very real.

Kelly's artwork is a great match for Wood's story; the black and white indie look equates with the vagabond spirit of the story. If you are familiar with the city in a particular chapter, you will definitely see landmarks that look and feel like the real places. I also really like how he does faces; each face, be it a main character like Megan or someone who just walks by, has their own unique personality and they come across very well.


As the series develops we slowly learn the reasons why Megan moves every year, what she's searching for and what she's running from. For something that started as a quirky experiment in comics, by the end it develops into one of the more emotionally effective stories put out over the last year.


Friday, January 23, 2009

New Directions

I've been thinking a lot about this space over the past month. What I want to do with it, and even if I want to keep it going. I've decided that my sporadic postings are due, at least in part, to a real lack of focus or structure in what I write about. To help combat this I'm going to lay in some more purposeful structure to what I put here.

To start with, I'm going to pick an author and deal with his or her full set of novels and/or story collections, one at at time, in the order they were published. I considered a pretty big number of authors: Gene Wolfe, Jonathan Lethem, Jeanette Winterson, Jane Bowles, William S. Burroughs, David Mitchell, and on and on. I even considered some long-running comic book series like Y the Last Man and Cerebus. In the end I picked Paul Auster; he's a writer I enjoy and respect, but have only read about a third of his published fiction. I own his first two books, and the others are pretty readily available at the library I work at. I also have a feeling there might be an interesting progression throughout his work.

Auster's first book is a set of three novellas; originally published separately they are now sold as his New York Trilogy. The goal right now is to have something written about the first novella on February 1, and follow with the other two novellas over the following two weeks of the month. We'll see how it goes.

I still plan on reviewing newer material and interspersing it with my usual rants, but I'm hoping this will make things more interesting for both me and the readers out there.


Thursday, January 15, 2009

Review: Humpty Dumpty in Oakland by Philip K. Dick

Best known for his psychedelic, mind-bending sci-fi, Philip K Dick wrote all kinds of stories early in his career. Humpty Dumpty In Oakland is a rare realistic novel of his written in 1960; rejected by his publisher and finally published after his death in 1986 by UK publisher Gollancz, it became available in the US this past fall.


Set in San Francisco during the late 1950's, Humpty gives us the story of used car salesman Al Miller and his elderly landlord, Jim Fergusson. Miller's view on life quickly descends when Fergusson decides to sell his land and open up a car repair shop in the developing suburbs just outside the city, leaving Miller to fend for himself and search for a new way of life. Miller also fears Fergusson will be ripped off by the shady businessmen putting the deal together, so Miller tries to uncover the truth to protect his friend. Instead Miller bumbles into and backs out of a job in the recording industry, causes Fergusson to have a heart attack and makes the final move that ends his marriage with his overbearing wife. Despite the grim plot PKD works in some odd touches of dark humor, particularly when writing about the pop culture of the day.

This is far from a perfect novel, and not anywhere near PKD's best or most interesting. With a story that flip-flops between Miller and Fegusson, it's hard to tell whose story PKD is trying to tell here. Honestly, anyone new to PKD reading this probably won't get the cult following around his books. But people familiar with his Sci-fi will see a lot of familiar ideas. Like with many of his novels, Humpty looks at a society on the cusp of change and tries to show how this change will shape the lives of ordinary, everyday folks. Instead of contact with an alien race or the rise of androids who want to live their own lives, Humpty looks at the more down-to-earth issues of Suburbanization and the growth of Corporate culture. There's probably a paper in this somewhere, looking at PKD's major themes and doing a compare/contrast in how he deals with them in his realistic work vs. his imaginative work. But I'll save that for an industrious English major to tackle.


Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Grandpa's Secret Stash

The last few weeks have been all about moving. Moving boxes, moving furniture, moving little knick-nacks and finding places for all these things in our new apartment. Things are getting more solidified---all the furniture's here, we're starting to put artwork on the walls and are even talking about a house-warming party next month. We still have have a bunch of random things in a storage unit we need to go through---mostly a combination of wedding presents we haven't touched and boxes of books----but we are well on our way to being finished.

Combined with our own move, Miss L and I worked a lot with my dad last week to move my grandpa. We're moving him out of his retirement home into another place where he'll get better care for his dementia and be closer to family. While packing up all his stuff---like me, he mostly has books and music----I stumbled across something I never thought I'd find. Tucked away in the bottom corner of a bookshelf, sandwiched between a book of geological maps of Wisconsin and a biography on HItler, I found his stash of dirty books. Most of them were of the artsy variety---a book of Ingres nudes, a set of Picasso line drawings on pocket-sized cards, and an abbreviated version of the Kama Sutra. But what's sticking in my mind for a variety of reasons are volumes one and two of a series called, quite simply, Female Photographs.


These two little books date back to 1968, and are filled with 80 or so pages of black and white photos of pin-up girls in their undies. Their raciness lies somewhere between Playboy and Penthouse. The back pages are filled with ads for "marital aids" and a strange catalogue of books put out by the same publisher: With Open Mouth, The Talking Jewels, Scientific Curiousities of Sex Life, and on and on. This is old school stuff seems quite quaint and even funny by today's standards.

Now some people may not understand this, but finding grandpa's secret stash makes me feel a little bit closer to him---albeit in an odd manner. In some ways he raised me more than my dad did and I've always put him on a bit of a pedestal. Finding something like this makes grandpa seem more human, more approachable, more real. It makes me feel that despite all my shortcomings maybe I too can live a pretty happy, full life if he managed to.

Back to reviews and other fun things soon.