Thursday, August 31, 2006

Three Notable Passings

This morning, actor Glenn Ford died at the age of 90. When most people think of Glenn Ford, they think of Pa Kent from the 1978 Superman, but that film only scratches the surface of the actor. Ford made several important films, among them two of my favorites, The Blackboard Jungle (which introduced millions to the Billy Haley and the Comets hit "Rock Around the Clock") and the noir classic The Big Heat. I never had half the trouble Ford had as a teacher in the first film and I'll never look at a pot of hot coffee in quite the same way after the second film.

Ford often played tough, rugged characters, but he also had a kind of quiet strength about him that you can detect in nearly all of his roles. My favorite Ford film isn't talked about much, the Western 3:10 to Yuma.


Singer/songwriter Jumpin' Gene Simmons (not the wildman from Kiss) passed away yesterday at 69. Simmons was one of the first artists to appear on the Sun Records label and worked as an opening act for the young Elvis Presley. Simmons was from the strange and wonderful Itawamba County, Mississippi. Favorite song title: "Peroxide Blonde in a Hopped-Up Model Ford."


Joseph Stefano, who wrote the screenplay for Psycho and was co-creator of the original television series The Outer Limits died yesterday. He was 84.

Stefano made several changes to Robert Bloch's original novel for the Hitchcock film, most notably the book's opening. Early in the novel, Bloch has Marion Crane arriving at the Bates Motel with her death quickly following. Stefano didn't like it.

"My feeling was that, since I did not know anything about this girl, I wasn't going to care about her when she was killed. So we backed the story up a bit and learned something about her so that when she was killed, it would have more impact."

It sure did.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Here he is, boys and girls...Uncle Bob's back!

Random Recommendations

Right now I'm giving a cursory listen to Bob Dylan's new album Modern Times, which officially releases tomorrow. (XM Radio is playing a sneak preview of the album in its entirety.) Although I haven't been able to give it my full, undivided attention (breakfast, taking care of Bullet, etc.), I've heard most of every song. Without getting into specifics, I can pretty safely say that it doesn't vary much musically from 2001's Love and Theft. In fact, the styles may be even more nostalgic than that release: some blues, rock-a-billy, soft-shoe, a waltz, but very little out-and-out rock n roll. The first time I listen to anything, the music tends to come first, then the lyrics. I just have to look at the big picture for now. But this is Dylan we're talking about, so the lyrics will take time to sort through, demanding repeated listenings. More later.

It is interesting to note, however, that the limited edition featuring four extra tracks (none of them new material) and a DVD of Dylan performing the aforementioned four songs is currently No. 2 on Amazon's music sales. (The regular CD-only version is at No. 3.)


I bought James Van Pelt's collection The Last of the O-Forms at World Fantasy last year and just started it last night (a mere nine months later). I read the title story and was blown away. If all the stories are as good as that one, look out.


I just finished Shadows and Silence, a collection of (mostly) ghost stories from Ash-Tree Press. Awhile back Ash-Tree ran a special including this volume and the World Fantasy Award-winning (actually it tied with Dark Matter) Acquainted with the Night. Ash-Tree books aren't cheap, but they're impeccably produced and the stories well-chosen. I was only disappointed with one story in Shadows and Silence, thought most of them were very good and several outstanding.


I started watching Veronica Mars Season Two (from NetFlix) this weekend. While it's still early (four episodes), the writing doesn't seem as strong as in Season One. But I'll keep watching. (No spoilers, please.)

Now Playing = "Ain't Talkin'" – Bob Dylan

Friday, August 25, 2006

Goodbye, Pluto and Other Small Things

Astronomers recently announced that the former planet Pluto has lost its planet status. Why? Basically it's too small, so now it'll be called a dwarf. Poor Pluto. Poor kids. Just think of all those textbooks that'll have to be changed now, to say nothing of all the old science fiction stories that have anything at all to do with Pluto. At least we won't have to eliminate a movement from Holst's The Planets. (Pluto hadn't been discovered when he wrote the suite between 1914 and 1916.)

But are any of us really safe? Watch out, Rhode Island: somebody might take away your statehood and declare you a "district." And how about the country Monaco? At 0.7 square miles, it might now be called a city. Maybe even a town or a village.

What about writers? Since I've only had a couple of short stories published, do I still get called a writer?....

Look out....

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Hey, everybody --- meet Smiley

Smiley's People

The best part about listening to Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour on XM Radio (other than listening to Bob pontificate) is hearing music you wouldn't normally hear anywhere else. A few weeks ago, Dylan played a song called "Too Many Drivers" by Smiley Lewis. I liked Smiley's barrelhouse voice and thought that if "Too Many Drivers" was a good R&B tune, Smiley probably had lots of others. I filed the information under "To be further pursued (opportunity and funds pending)."

When I was in Daedalus Books & Music (one of my favorite haunts) awhile back, I noticed several CDs on the Proper Records label, a British label that specializes in affordable introductory compilations of artists like Howlin' Wolf, Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King, T-Bone Walker, Clifford Brown, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, Hank Snow, Charley Patton and a whole slew of others (including my favorite name, Bull Moose Jackson). And there was Smiley, grinning at me from the racks, telling me that at $6.98, Gumbo Blues was a no-brainer.

It was a good decision. The twenty-four tracks on the disc (all recorded between 1950 and 1953) highlight Smiley's belt-it-out voice in a variety of styles. Most of the tunes are a hybrid of straight blues and rock, the early days of R&B. Smiley was from the New Orleans area and you can hear bits of Cajun, jazz, boogie-woogie and other styles throughout his music. Lewis does some nice guitar work, backed by some great sidemen including Tuts Washington on piano, Joe Harris on alto sax and Ernest McLean on guitar. These tunes remind me of Fats Domino (another New Orleans native who was a contemporary of Smiley's), but with more variety and depth. More than anything else, they're a lot of fun.

The liner notes (about three pages of text) provide the basic background on Lewis and his life. While a local New Orleans hit, Lewis never attracted the national attention he deserved. (The huge popularity of Fats may have had something to do with that.) But if you're a fan of early rock, R&B, soul, or just like to have a fun listening experience, Smiley's your man. Check him out.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Back in Town

It's good to be home. It's also good to see my mom moved from ICU to a regular hospital room on Sunday. She should be discharged possibly as early as tomorrow, after which she'll have about 6 weeks of physical therapy. We never would have thought such a thing possible several days ago. Thanks to everyone for their prayers, thoughts and best wishes.


As you can imagine, I wasn't able to concentrate much on writing, although I made a few notes on some of the stories I'm working on.

I was able to do a bit of reading, reading over a dozen short stories and one novel, Jonathan Lethem's excellent Gun, with Occasional Music.

ICU visiting hours left a large three-hour gap in each day that I filled by visiting the local Borders and the Half-Price Books in Mesa. Found some pretty good stuff at Half-Price including A Saucer of Loneliness: Vol. VII of the Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon and yes, the very first installment of The Year's Best Fantasy (before "Horror" officially entered into the title).

I also picked up a current genre magazine at Borders. No, I won't tell you what it was, but it wasn't F&SF. (I finished the September issue on the initial flight to Chicago.) The magazine I bought is one I've bought before - a mag you'd probably recognize - but I hadn't read it in out two years. I thought the first story was okay, but a weak choice for the lead story. The second - also okay, but that's all. The more I read, the more my disappointment level rose. "I know I can write as well as some of these people," I told myself. Then I read Ursula K. LeGuin's "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight" from TYBF. Okay, I can't write like that! But I'd sure shoot for LeGuin's level any day.

Maybe those stories I read in the mag are the best stories they receive. (I sure don't know why they'd withhold the good stuff.) Maybe my stories aren't as good as theirs, but I think mine can at least compete. Anyway, it gives me hope...until I read LeGuin, that is.

Now Reading = James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon - Julie Phillips
Now Playing = The Complete Recordings - Robert Johnson

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Arizona Update

Thanks to everyone for your emails, comments, thoughts and prayers. My mom came through the surgery as well as can be expected and is on the slow road to recovery. She's in excellent hands at Banner Baywood Heart Hospital in Mesa, AZ. Again, recovery will be very slow, so we're taking it one day at a time. I'll be staying a couple of more days before heading back to Maryland, then will probably come back to Arizona sometime later.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Monday, August 14, 2006

I just found out that my mom is having triple bypass surgery tomorrow. I'll be flying out to Phoenix in the morning and expect to be gone for several days. Thoughts and prayers appreciated.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Ravens/Books/Little Miss Sunshine/Free Books

An excellent weekend started off Friday night with my good friend Jim inviting me to the Baltimore Ravens pre-season opener against the much-hated New York Football Giants. As soon as I saw Eli Manning take the field, I was immediately reminded of many memorable games between Manning's alma mater Ole Miss and my brother's alma mater Mississippi State. (For those of you interested in measuring time, I'm here to inform you that the nanosecond is not the smallest unit of measure. It is, rather, the subatomic interval between the "amen" of the invocation and the first chant of "Go to hell, Ole Miss.")

It was my first time in the Ravens' stadium and I must admit it's a first-rate facility. The game was pretty good too – McNair's opening drive was exceptional for a pre-season game, although I'm sure coach Brian Billick's blood pressure suffered when McNair decided to leap for the opening touchdown himself. Despite heroics and a pretty good running game, the Ravens fell to the Giants 17-16. But Jim and I had a great time.

Two books arrived Saturday, James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon by Julie Phillips and Shriek: An Afterword by Jeff VanderMeer. Can't wait to start each of them.

Saturday Cindy and I went to the new, improved Baltimore Book Thing. For those of you who don't know, The Book Thing is a location (you can't really call it a "store") that gives away books. That's right, the books are free.

I know what you're thinking. They're all Readers Digest books and such. Not so. I've found signed first editions at The Book Thing, current bestsellers, hard-to-find titles, you name it. It's an incredible place that you have to see to believe. If you're ever in the Balto area on a Saturday or Sunday, check it out.

On to see our friends Juan and Kathleen for a showing of Little Miss Sunshine at the Charles Theatre. If you haven't seen the film, go. Now. Everyone's going to be talking about it and rightfully so. Cindy and I thoroughly enjoyed it. (More on the film later.)

Weekend's almost over. Time to get a little writing done. Everybody have a great week.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Shameless Self-Promotion

Inclinations has just bought and published my story "Results May Vary." You can read it here.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Part of my weekend reading...

The Weekend

Cindy and I babysat our niece Sarah Saturday night and had a really good time. (Really.) I read two books to Sarah - The Foot Book (which she liked) and Tickle the Duck (which she really liked). I also brought along City of Saints and Madmen, but figured maybe that was a little much...

Got a rejection from Asimov's for "You Can Say Anything You Want." The ending (among other things) needed some work, so I spent part of the weekend making it (hopefully) stronger. Now to send it somewhere else...

I also finished True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey. It's the fictionalized story of the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly. I thought the first half of the book was stronger and more interesting than the second half, but I'd recommend it.

As mentioned above, I started Jeff VanderMeer's City of Saints and Madmen (without Sarah). VanderMeer's writing is just incredible, as are his ideas. His new novel Shriek releases tomorrow, although I seriously doubt I'll have City of Saints finished by then. But has that ever stopped me from placing an order? Anyone who knows me at all knows the answer to that one.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

A Couple of "Best Of" Encounters

Cindy and I decided to slide on over to our state capitol yesterday (Annapolis, for those of you outside the Kingdom of Maryland) and check out two of the places named "Best Of" in...oh, I don't know, some magazine we picked up somewhere....

The wings at Acme Bar & Grill on Main Street were quite good, certainly deserving of the "Best Wings in Annapolis" title. The wings come in fifteen flavors and are served regular, hot, extremely hot, and insane. I wimped out and ordered "hot" which had just a little kick to them. (Next time I'll punch it up a notch.) It's a tiny place that also features live music at night. In such a tight room, I hope it's two thin girls playing piccolo duets.

Just down the road, Storm Brothers Ice Cream was, I must admit, a bit of a let-down. There were plenty of flavors to choose from (I picked pralines and cream), and the prices weren't bad, but the ice cream didn't seem much better than what you could get anywhere else. Maybe I should go back and pick, say, seventeen or eighteen other flavors. To be fair, ya know.

Speaking of "Best of"s, in an effort to slowly turn Cindy into a spec fic fanatic, I twisted her arm to read two stories from Science Fiction - The Best of 2003: Jeffrey Ford's "The Empire of Ice Cream," which she enjoyed (despite our not-so-best-of ice cream experience of the day before), and "Only Partly Here" by Lucius Shepard, which she didn't care for. Oh well, Lucius is an acquired taste, I suppose. I'll bet Lucius would go for some insane wings...

Friday, August 04, 2006

The Scratching of the Head of Lot 49 (Spoilers)

I finished reading Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 a couple of days ago and it's fair to say I've been thinking about it ever since. It was my first encounter with Pynchon. I certainly don't plan to read his entire output (which is only seven books), but I'll probably read at least one more, maybe his new book.

So much has been written both about The Crying of Lot 49 and the elusive, ultra-private Pynchon* that I can only add my own stumbling thoughts.

This probably flies in the face of literary scholarship, but if The Crying of Lot 49 were a genre novel, I'd say it was a quest story. Oedipa travels to Southern California to settle the estate of her former boyfriend, meeting several trials, tribulations and dangers along the way. When she arrives, the purpose of the quest has changed – wildly – but her determination is unshaken. Maybe I'm just flat-out wrong, but I couldn't get the quest theme out of my mind. That way of looking at the novel didn't diminish it for me, however. Just the opposite.

The short novel (183 pages in my edition) is jam-packed with paranoia, conspiracy, sex, drugs, rock n roll, communication (and the lack of), entropy, scientific experimentation, deception, corporate greed, puns, psychology, underground networks, and enough cultural references to delight flower children of all ages. All of which is fascinating, but the first thing that struck me about the book is Oedipa's relationship with men.

All through the book, every man Oedipa encounters either disappoints, dupes or uses her in some way. In fact, the entire scheme beginning with the very first letter from her former lover Pierce might be an elaborate hoax. It seems that Pynchon's choice of a female protagonist constantly coming into contact with weak/powerless/deceitful men reaches far beyond any generic postmodern interpretation. She doesn't trust these men (I keep thinking of the multi-layered clothing in the strip game with Metzger), but time after time, she has no choice but to helplessly embrace the information given her by men. Is there no way out?

There's so much to be fascinated about in the novel. It's very possible that the whole journey is a monumental joke played on Oedipa, who – although distracted from her original purpose – is simply looking for answers.

Pynchon seems to be saying that there aren't any answers, that this whole existence is a joke, a universe without meaning. A funny joke, to be sure, at least as long as the quest is going on – depending on whom you ask. (Certainly not Oedipa.) The Crying of Lot 49 came out in 1966, a time ripe with conspiracy theories, paranoia and all the rest. I am interested in reading at least one more Pynchon novel to see if he still appears to embrace the same postmodern world-view posited here. But I have other questions as well.

No one knows whether Pynchon is a complete recluse or if he has personal relationships with people who don't know who he really is. I hope the latter, but from reading the novel, I suspect the former. What do you do with your life for forty years? Okay, write novels, but what else? Is paranoia a huge part of his life? Is personal communication with others something Pynchon feels is impossible? Pointless? Maybe he's playing the same joke on us that's been played on Oedipa. Or maybe he's the one sitting at the auction waiting for answers that will never come. Something to think about.

* "the man simply chooses not to be a public figure, an attitude that resonates on a frequency so out of phase with that of the prevailing culture that if Pynchon and Paris Hilton were ever to meet — the circumstances, I admit, are beyond imagining — the resulting matter/antimatter explosion would vaporize everything from here to Tau Ceti IV." – Arthur Salm in the San Diego Union-Tribune, February 8, 2004