Monday, December 31, 2007

December Books Bought and Read

It's No-Frills Month here at the blog - no lengthy discussions, pictures or links, just what I bought, what I read. (Check out the previous post for Best of 2007, some of which were read in December.)


Hamlet - William Shakespeare (new B&N cheap-o trade paperback edition)

Last Train to Memphis and Careless Love (NF, Elvis biography) - Peter Guralnick

Farthing - Jo Walton

The Kragen - Jack Vance


The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao - Junot Diaz

Territory - Emma Bull

A Poetry Handbook (NF) - Mary Oliver

Zeroville - Steve Erickson

The Grey King (YA) - Susan Cooper

Treasure Island (YA) - Robert Louis Stevenson

Till We Have Faces - C.S. Lewis

The Best American Short Stories 2007 - Stephen King, ed.

The Golden Compass (YA) - Philip Pullman

Happy New Year! Be safe!

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Best of 2007: Fiction

2007 was a pretty good year. I thought I'd have a Top 10, but I found a dozen books published in 2007 (although at least one of them was published in another country in 2006) that I really liked. Most of them I've written about in earlier posts, so I'll have just a word or two to say about them now. Here they are in alphabetical order by author:

The Imago Sequence and Other Stories – Laird Barron

One of my favorite new writers. Creepy and disturbing beyond belief. And his writing is so good I can't stand it.

One for Sorrow – Christopher Barzak

Another new writer to keep in your sights. A great coming-of-age story complete with ghosts.

Territory – Emma Bull

Wyatt Earp, the Clanton Gang and...magic? The sequel's out next year.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz

Not SF, but with some SF elements thrown in, Diaz's compelling tale of a Dominican geek is unforgettable.

Zeroville – Steve Erickson

Hands-down my favorite read of 2007. Erickson is an amazing writer.

A Good and Happy Child – Justin Evans

Creeped out by your childhood? You ain't seen nothin'. Check out Justin Evans.

Saffron and Brimstone: Strange Stories – Elizabeth Hand*

Looking for New Year's Resolutions? Read as much Elizabeth Hand as you can.

What the Dead Know – Laura Lippman

Lippman is consistently the best mystery writer out there.

Softspoken – Lucius Shepard

For about the first 50 pages I thought this was light-weight Lucius Shepard....then it suddenly kicked in. Wow.

The Terror – Dan Simmons

Simmons has still got it. This one leaves no doubt.

The Arrival (Graphic Novel) – Shaun Tan

Yeah, it's a graphic novel (and a wordless one at that), but one filled with beauty, power and awe. Don't miss it.

Best American Fantasy – Jeff VanderMeer, Ann VanderMeer, eds.

A welcome venture into avenues of fantasy you may not have been aware of. Didn't like all of 'em, but many really lit me up.

Other works not necessarily published in 2007 that I enjoyed and highly recommend:

The Cement Garden (1978) – Ian McEwan

The Gambler (1866) – Fyodor Dostoevsky (trans. Garrett)

The Complete Stories (1971) – Flannery O'Connor

Everyman (2006) – Philip Roth

The Keyhole Opera (collection 2005) – Bruce Holland Rogers

Fledgling (2005) – Octavia E. Butler

The Silent Speaker (1946) – Rex Stout

Lisey's Story (2006) – Stephen King

The Speed of Dark (2002) – Elizabeth Moon

The Black Echo (1992) – Michael Connelly

Reasons to Live (collection 1985) – Amy Hempel

A Passage to India (1924) – E.M. Forster

In the Palace of Repose (2005) – Holly Phillips

Lolita (1954) – Vladimir Nabokov

The Keeper (2006) – Sarah Langan

Fahrenheit 451 (1953) – Ray Bradbury

Three Days to Never (2006) – Tim Powers

The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Graphic Novel 2007) – Brian Selznick

The Privilege of the Sword (2006) – Ellen Kushner

The Sun Also Rises (1926) – Ernest Hemingway

Parable of the Sower (1993) – Octavia E. Butler

Aegypt (retitled The Solitudes) (1987) – John Crowley

The Resurrection Man's Legacy and Other Stories (2003) – Dale Bailey

I Am Legend (1954) – Richard Matheson

* I just discovered this one actually came out late in 2006. Oops.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Looking Ahead

While I'm compiling my Best Fiction of 2007, I thought I'd post the books I'm most looking forward to reading in 2008. These are books I already own, but simply haven't gotten to yet.

Generation Loss (2007) - Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand just rocks. Plus I got a signed copy of this one.

A History of the Ancient World (NF 1991) - Chester G. Starr

Because I know so little about it...

The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov (1996)

I read Lolita this year and couldn't get over Nabokov's writing. Incredible.

The Brothers Karamazov (1880/1991) translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

I think it's written down somewhere that you have to read this one.

I Led 3 Lives (NF 1952) - Herbert Philbrick

My father-in-law asked for this last Christmas and I found him a copy. Then I found another for myself. Looks like an interesting read.

Ill Met In Lankhmar (1968?) - Fritz Leiber

Another that everyone except me seems to have read...

Eternity and Other Stories (2005) - Lucius Shepard

Because I can't afford Dagger Key and Other Stories.

Mythology (1942) - Edith Hamilton

Because I know so little of it...

Hurt: Inside the World of Today's Teenagers (NF 2004) - Chap Clark

Because I care.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

I'm Not There

Did you read the title? Not my title, the movie's title (although they're the same). Read it again.

That's the point.

Probably the most important information in the film occurs in the opening credits:

"Inspired by the music and many lives of Bob Dylan."

Inspired by. Not a word-for-word Dylan biography from A to Z.
No doubt many people are walking in to I'm Not There expecting to see another Walk the Line or Ray, typical Hollywood biopics told from beginning to end in a more-or-less linear fashion.

That's not going to work with Dylan.

Director Todd Haynes wasn't trying to confuse audiences by portraying "Dylan" with six different actors. He was just very smart in realizing that one actor couldn't do it all and even if he could, how silly would it look onscreen? The Dylan faithful know and understand that Bob is, to put it mildly, a complex individual. Just be glad Haynes stopped at six incarnations. He could easily have done sixteen.

But he chose six. Six different actors to play "characters inspired by" Dylan:

An 11-year-old African-American boy named "Woody Guthrie" (Marcus Carl Franklin), complete with a guitar case with the painted-on words "This Machine Kills Fascists." (One of the greatest scenes in the film includes "Woody" singing "Tombstone Blues" with Richie Havens.)

An actor named Robbie Clark (Heath Ledger)

A coffee house folk singer called Jack Rollins (Christian Bale)

Rocker Jude Quinn (played by Cate Blanchett, who looks and acts so much like Dylan it's a little creepy)

Poet Arthur Rimbaud (Ben Whishaw)

Billy the Kid (Richard Gere) wandering around the Old West in a town called Riddle

Haynes throws all of these incarnations at you with no preparation, no road map, and no apologies. He's not going to lead you by the hand and show you a chronological "This is how Dylan got to be Dylan" narrative. These six stories intertwine, slip in and out of each other, coming at you from every direction. Sort of like a Dylan song. (For what it's worth, I found the Billy the Kid/Richard Gere scenes the most baffling, loaded with symbols and images that just moved too fast for me to process. Repeated viewings, repeated viewings...)

The film also contains endless references (with the names changed, of course) to Dylan events, places, songs, albums, films, literature, personas and much more. Half of the fun of the film (which, of course, demands repeated viewings) is in trying to make your own mental footnotes of everything you see in the movie. (For non-Dylanologists, just sit back and let it wash over you. Don't think twice, it's all right.)

And the music. It's pretty much non-stop, consisting of Dylan singing his own music and others covering him. (Dylan allowed Haynes full access to the use of his recordings.) Sometimes you'll hear a song from an era that does NOT match the era that's onscreen. That song is probably there for a purpose, which is also fun to try to figure out.

Now let's clear up a couple of misconceptions:

You think you've got Dylan figured out? You don't. You probably never will. I probably never will either. That's what makes Dylan Dylan. Every time you think you've got him figured out, every place you think he's going to be, he's not. (Thus the title.)

You think you're going to see the movie and learn some insights into Dylan? Forget it. For the Dylan uninitiated, seeing I'm Not There is sort of like taking a graduate level seminar without attending the prerequisite seminars. You'll recognize a few things here and there, but when it's over you're probably going to walk out of the theatre blinking rapidly, saying things like "What? What? What just happened?" Could be something is happening and you don't know what it is....

(One possible insight occurs early on. I won't tell you what it is, but it happens during one of the "Woody Guthrie" episodes as he's talking to an African-American woman about the songs he sings. It's so simple, but it's central to everything.)

So how about a straight answer? Is the movie any good?

I think so.

Is it great?

Don't know. As I said, it demands repeated viewings.

So come on, what's the movie about?

Read the title again.


Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Non-Fiction Reading 2007

I've got several friends who only read non-fiction. Some of them say they've tried, but just can't get into fiction for one reason or another. I stopped trying to convert them long ago and instead tried to pick up some good non-fiction suggestions. Some of those suggestions are reflected here, but most of them are subjects I just have (or had) a passing interest in reading.

The best non-fiction I read this year:


Sandy Koufax: A Lefty's Legacy (2002) – Jane Leavy

Jayson Stark called Koufax the most overrated left-handed pitcher of all time. Either he hasn't read this book or he's got a screw loose.

Mississippi Sissy (2007) – Kevin Sessums

A frank, unflinching look at growing up gay in Forest, Mississippi (which also happens to be my hometown). Excellent writing.

Einstein: His Life and Universe (2007) – Walter Isaacson

A highly readable, very enjoyable volume on Einstein's life, beliefs and work.


Engaging the Soul of Youth Culture (2006) – Walt Mueller

This book showed me some of what I'd missed from not being around Youth Culture for seven years.

The Ragamuffin Gospel (1990) – Brennan Manning

Manning shows us that Jesus embraced "the bedraggled, beat-up, and burnt-out." And still does.

Velvet Elvis (2005) – Rob Bell

New theology or the basic tenets of the Christian faith? See what you think.

Don't Waste Your Life (2003) – John Piper

My least favorite title of the year, but Piper gets to the heart of the matter expertly.


About Writing (2005) – Samuel R. Delany

Not an easy read, but essential for serious writers.

Art & Fear (1993) – David Bayles and Ted Orland

How art (of all kinds) does and doesn't get made. A thin but important book by artists for artists.


The Looming Tower (2006) – Lawrence Wright

Essential reading for those (like me) with a limited understanding of Al Qaeda and the terrorist mind.

All the President's Men (1974) – Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

If you've seen the movie, you only know half the story.


Countdown: The Race for Beautiful Solutions at the International Mathematical Olympiad (2004) – Steve Olson

Not only an honest look at contests and competition, but also an examination of genius, talent and hard work.

Other Non-Fiction Books I Read and Enjoyed:

Housekeeping vs. The Dirt: Fourteen Months of Massively Witty Adventures in Reading (2006) – Nick Hornby

Understanding Flannery O'Connor (1995) – Margaret Earley Whitt

A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003) – Bill Bryson

Seven Money Mantras for a Richer Life (2004) – Michelle Singletary

Zodiac (1986) – Robert Graysmith (at least the third time I've read it)

The Truth is Out There: The Christian Faith in Classic Science Fiction TV (2006) – Thomas Bertonneau and Kim Paffenroth

Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality (2007) - Rob Bell

Step Across This Line (2002) – Salman Rushdie

Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (2007) – William D. Romanowski

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Remembering David

David LoPiccolo and his Mom

Last night we had a memorial service for David LoPiccolo at our church. I was honored to be asked to read David's eulogy (written by David's dad Joseph). Towards the end it got really difficult to read without losing it, especially with David's family right in front of me, but I made it. So many people shared so many great David memories but when David's brother Brian sang Keith Green's "Rushing Wind," I think we all came close to losing it.

There was supposed to be a video called "Remembering David" near the beginning of the service, but due to some technical difficulties, it couldn't be shown at that time. If they had shown it then, I know I wouldn't have been able to read. The video was working by the end of the service and I (and probably many others) just lost it. It was a powerfully emotional, yet very fitting end to the service.

I was so honored to meet David's parents Joseph and Lynette and share a few stories of my friendship with David. They also shared many memories of David. What wonderful people. My prayers continue to be with them as well as Brian and his family.

I hope you were pleased with the service, David. We all miss you and love you. Enjoy the presence of the Lord, my friend. I hope to see you again someday and pick up where we left off.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

YA Reading 2007

I never really intended to start reading YA, but when I worked in a bookstore, I realized (1)I knew nothing about it and (2) I should probably try to learn a little. Reading just a few YA books helped me make more informed recommendations to customers, which is always a good thing. I'm finding a knowledge of YA is even more in demand in a library setting. Sure, there are databases we can refer to, but there's nothing like being able to tell a patron, "Here's a book I think your son will like. I read it myself."

It takes about 10 seconds of scanning the YA/Teen section of any bookstore to figure out that most of it is written for girls. (Probably because girls are generally, especially at that age, reading more than boys.) Recommending books for boys is a little easier than it used to be, but the guys could still use more titles. That's one of the reasons I wrote my YA novel (still in revision) Fortress - I wanted something a teenage guy would enjoy reading. (Of course I hope some girls will enjoy it too.)

I don't know if I'll write another YA, but I think it's going to be important for me to read YA for quite some time, especially in the job I have. Having said all that, here are some of the better YA titles I read this year:

The Chocolate War (1974) - Robert Cormier

In some ways, this tale of a lone rebel at a boys' academy (think Lord of the Flies in a school setting) hasn't aged well, but I still think it's effective.

The Green Glass Sea (2006) - Ellen Klages

Two girls whose parents are working on a "secret project" in 1943 Los Alamos strike up an unlikely friendship. A powerful story by an excellent writer, Ellen Klages.

The Dark is Rising Sequence (five books, starting with Over Sea, Under Stone) - Susan Cooper

It's a shame that many of the Harry Potter fans I've talked to haven't read this series. Although the tone of each book is a slightly different and some volumes less compelling than others (Oddly enough, I thought the Newbery-winning The Grey King the least interesting of the books), these books are well worth your consideration, combining myth, folklore, and that all-important struggle between Good and Evil.

The Ear, the Eye and the Arm (1994) - Nancy Farmer

Farmer is a writer that, in my opinion, doesn't get discussed nearly enough. A couple of years ago I read and was very impressed with her novel The House of the Scorpion. I still prefer it to The Ear, but her adventure of three siblings in 2094 Zimbabwe is both fun and engaging.

Speak (1999) - Laurie Halse Anderson

I actually saw the film version of Speak before I read the book. Both versions recount the pressures of school, family and a terrible secret that haunts Melinda, a high school freshman. I wish you could combine the best elements of the book and film versions, but each on their own are quite effective.

Finally, the best YA novel I read this year was M.T. Anderson's superb The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol. 1: The Pox Party (2006). You can read the description for yourself in the link. I'll just say that nobody else (that I know of) is writing such highly intelligent, engaging work for YA. I hope that many adult readers will discover Anderson through this title. He's a treasure.

Next time: Non-Fiction

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Viewing Habits 2007

It would be nice to have a "Best of 2007" list for movies and television shows, but I only saw three movies in the theatres: INLAND EMPIRE (actually a late 2006 release), Sicko and Zodiac (twice). There were many, many more that I wanted (and still hope) to see, but due to time and money, it's getting harder and harder to get to the theatres these days. But they'll be out on DVD before you know it.

Other than keeping up with Lost, I rarely watch television. When someone recommends something, I'll usually check it out on DVD. This year I watched Season Two of Battlestar Galactica (mostly good, but 2.0 was better than 2.5), Season One of Deadwood (very good) and Seasons Three, Four and Five of the highly addictive and sometimes pretty good 24.

I also watched the first two seasons (and am currently watching the third) of The Sopranos, quite possibly the best television show I've ever seen*. Yeah, I know that statement will offend some people. I know it's rated F and all that, but I can't think of a show that's consistently written, acted and produced at such a high level.

*I say some people will be offended at that statement. I've had discussions with several fellow Christians in and out of church as to what constitutes "good" entertainment. I'll talk about this more in the future, but I think you have to look at what's good in the arts (and yes, television can be art) regardless of the content. But if it offends, don't watch. Again, much more on this later.

I revisited some movies I hadn't seen in years, movies that were actually better than I'd remembered them:

All the President's Men (1976)

Network (1976)

Passion Fish (1992)

And some excellent foreign films:

Ikiru (1954)

Battleship Potemkin (1925)

My Life to Live (1962)

Spirit of the Beehive (1973)

Next year? I hope to get to the theaters at least once every two months. That is, if there's anything to see.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Reading Habits 2007

With a little over three weeks to go in the year and 99 books read so far, it seems a safe bet that I'll meet my annual goal of 100. That's not a huge amount, but it's not too bad either. Anyway, before I post my Best of the Year lists, I thought I'd examine a few stats.

Of the 100 books I've read (or will read), the breakdown is as follows:

Fiction = 67
Non-Fiction = 33 (up from 25 last year)

I didn't break down the non-fiction, but I did place the fiction into categories. This is somewhat arbitrary, since some books could belong in multiple categories. For instance Laird Barron's The Imago Sequence could be labeled "collection" or "horror." In such cases, I've labeled the book by its function (if a book can "function" as something) rather than its genre, so Barron's book will fall into the "collection" category. (My list, my rules.)

So here's the fiction breakdown:

YA – 13
Collections – 11
Mystery – 9
Fantasy – 8
Horror - 8
Science Fiction – 6
Classics – 6
Literature (modern) – 5
Anthologies – 1

First of all, I think I'd like to keep my non-fiction reading at about 30% of all reading, maybe even up to 40%. Some of my NF reading is for research purposes but most of it is for pleasure, to learn new things. One of my goals for 2008 is to read more history, especially ancient history. And more literary criticism.

As far as fiction goes, I'd like to see the Literature and Classics numbers go up. I've always got a real battle going on over what I should read – to become a more intelligent reader and a better writer – and what I enjoy reading. I think the nine mysteries I read this year were all by either Michael Connelly, Laura Lippman or Rex Stout. I'll probably keep reading those authors – they're very enjoyable – but nine in a year seems a little high.

I was really surprised I read six science fiction novels! I figured I'd read three or four at most. And fantasy and horror came in with eight each. You mean I read more mystery than fantasy? More mystery than horror? Hmmmm. Wonder how that happened.

It could be that most of the fantasy and horror I really enjoy (and study) is in the short form. I mean eleven collections out of 100 books isn't too bad (and most of those were fantasy or horror collections), but I look for those numbers to increase next year.

I'd like to read a little less YA in 2008, but from what I've heard from other librarians working at the Information Desk, it's very likely I could end up reading even more YA (and children's books). We shall see.

Best of the Year lists will appear soon. In the meantime, go read something.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Steve Erickson's Zeroville

Steve Erickson's new novel Zeroville is one of those rare novels that, in the words of Stephen King, "pushes my dials all the way to 10."

Vikar - bald, with a tattoo of Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor on his head - arrives in Los Angeles in 1969 on the same day as the Charles Manson murders, his head (no pun intended) full of film. Now let me stop right here and point out that if you don't know who Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor are, you probably won't enjoy this book. If you're not a fan of classic films, you probably won't enjoy this book. If you say, "But wait, I do enjoy classic films! I think Adam Sandler and Ben Affleck are great!" you definitely won't enjoy this book.

But back to the story...

At first the reader isn't sure if Vikar is a movie-savant, an out-of-control weirdo, or just a guy trying to break into film production. He's obviously brought a lot of emotional baggage with him: he's a seminary drop-out, has really strange dreams and believes God hates children.

Oddly enough, one of the first people Vikar meets in L.A. is a small child, one he emotionally adopts while trying to find his place in Hollywood. Vikar's climb up the movie industry ladder is both bizarre and believable. At times Vikar seems like a cross between Forrest Gump and Travis Bickle (Robert de Niro's character in Taxi Driver), a movie genius who can kick your butt up and down Rodeo Drive if you confuse Montgomery Clift with James Dean.

Vikar soon becomes obsessed with an obscure French novel he wants to film, then his obsession moves into a recurring dream he can't quite understand. Both of these obsessions lead Vikar to discover something about film and himself that will change his life forever.

Zeroville is hilarious and tragic, crazy and logical, spellbinding and addictive. I read it in two days, which is lightning speed for me. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

A Commercial for Your Next Novel...Plus Upcoming Books

Yesterday I took my mom to have cataract surgery on her left eye (the right eye was done awhile back). While I was in the waiting room, reading the excellent new Steve Erickson novel Zeroville, I heard " new novel..." coming from the TV that had previously been showing radar images of the approaching snow. I looked up to see this commercial featuring Dean Koontz and his dogs.

Wow, I thought, Bantam must've shelled out some serious cash for a TV commercial for a novel. Sure, you've seen commercials for novels before, but they're usually 10-15 second spots with some girl (usually in heels) running down the streets of some city at night with a maniac's shadow closing in. "Buy the new novel from Dipp Stick, available wherever the usual garbage is sold."

But the Koontz commercial was longer and way more professionally done. I wondered how much of Koontz's advance was eaten up by that commercial? It must've cost a boatload of $$$. Wouldn't it be cool to see a commercial with Jeff Ford knocking back a few, promoting The Shadow Year? Wouldn't that be cool?

Speaking of new books, here are a few that I'm looking forward to checking out in the months ahead:

Red Spikes (collection) - Margo Langan

Inferno: New Tales of Terror and the Supernatural - Ellen Datlow, ed.

Love & Sleep (reprint) - John Crowley

Pump Six and Other Stories - Paolo Bacigalupi

Tides from the New Worlds (collection) - Tobias S. Buckell

The New Weird (anthology) - Jeff VanderMeer, Ann VanderMeer, eds.

MARCH 2008
The Shadow Year - Jeffrey Ford

The Man on the Ceiling - Steve Rasnic Tem (w/Melanie Tem)

APRIL 2008
Wit's End (YA?) - Karen Joy Fowler

The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories - John Kessel

MAY 2008
The Del Rey Anthology of Speculative Fiction - Ellen Datlow, ed.

Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories - Nancy Kress

The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Fantasy (NF) - David Pringle

JUNE 2008
Not a thing, at least so far.

JULY 2008
Dogs - Nancy Kress

Philip K. Dick: Five Novels of the 1960's and 70's (second volume from Library of America)

Best American Fantasy 2 - Jeff VanderMeer, Ann VanderMeer, eds.

Wreck of the Godspeed and Other Stories - James Patrick Kelly

The Ant King and Other Stories - Benjamin Rosenbaum

The Night Whiskey (collection) - Jeffrey Ford

The Wrong Grave and Other Stories (YA) - Kelly Link

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom of the Waves (YA) - M.T. Anderson

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Three Recent Reads

Mary Oliver's A Poetry Handbook is a short (122 pp.) book, but useful to someone like me that hasn't really spent much time in poetry lately (or maybe ever). I picked it up to brush up on some poetry fundamentals for my writing forum and found it to be quite helpful, covering topics such as sound and its devices, form, the line, free verse, imagery, diction, tone, voice, and much more. My only complaint - not enough examples, especially in a book that seeks to cover the basic fundamentals.

Emma Bull's Territory was a nice surprise. It's somewhat a re-telling (or alternate history, if you will) of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, AZ, mixing fact with fantasy.

Drifter Jesse Fox and widow Mildred Benjamin discover that some strange (possibly magical) force seems to be dictating the goings-on in Tombstone, affecting Doc Holliday, the Earps, the Clantons, and themselves. In lesser hands, Territory could have been excruciatingly bad, but Bull is an excellent writer with a solid historical background. Plus she knows how to tell a great story. I should warn you, however, if you're expecting the O.K. Corral showdown, you'll have to wait until the sequel. I haven't heard when it comes out, but when it does, sign me up.

My first contact with Junot Diaz was in person. He and Ursula K. Le Guin were receiving an award (I think it was one of the PEN awards.) in Washington D.C. I thought Diaz's behavior (as well as the story he read) was flippant, vulgar and completely inappropriate. But when my good friend Kelly recommended the book, I thought I'd give it a try.

I guess you could safely say my opinion of Diaz has changed. This is an outstanding novel of humor, pain, loneliness, history, culture, hope and redemption. Oscar is Dominican, overweight, and an SF nerd who's written a four-volume SF saga. (Think of it as E.E. Doc Smith meets Tolkien.) He's also crazy about every woman he meets. The problem is he's repulsive to every female on the planet.

Diaz begins his tale with Oscar, then gives us a complete history of why Oscar is the way he is, touching on Dominican history, curses, politics, culture and much more. Each section reveals more and more of Oscar's ancestry and Dominican culture. There's a sense of fatalism, or maybe a predetermined curse, or maybe just bad luck surrounding Oscar. However you look at it, Oscar Wao is a great read.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

November Books Read

Not as many books as I would've like to have read, but nevertheless, here's what happened in November:


Altmann's Tongue: Stories and a Novella (2002) - Brian Evenson

I wrote about this one here a few weeks ago. Interesting book.

Sanctuary (1931) - William Faulkner

I Am Legend (1954) - Richard Matheson

Again, I wrote briefly about both the Faulkner and Matheson here.

Catalyst: A Novel of Alien Contact (2006) - Nina Kiriki Hoffman

Catalyst is something of a head-scratcher for me. It has all the characteristics of a YA novel - length, language, teen protagonist... only there are too many sex scenes for it to be considered YA. Yet it works as YA better than it does as an adult novel. You be the judge.

Greenwitch (YA 1974) - Susan Cooper

Greenwitch is the third entry in the five-volume The Dark is Rising Sequence which combines Celtic folklore with the legend of the Holy Grail. As the middle book, Greenwitch seems a bit lightweight compared to the first too books, Over Sea, Under Stone and The Dark is Rising, yet still delivers a good read.

All the President's Men (NF 1974) - Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward

I've seen the movie version of All the President's Men at least three times and have enjoyed it every time, but the film is literally half the story at best. Sure, I knew the basic story, I knew the outcome, I even knew several of the details, yet I was still riveted by Woodward and Bernstein's account. And don't make the mistake of thinking a book about 1970's politics has nothing to do with the here and now.

Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture (NF 2007) - William D. Romanowski

I recommend this one even though much of the book is unnecessarily muddied in "textbook-ese" and tends to focus far more on film than the other arts. Yet the information is good, as Romanowski challenges Christians to "applaud those fine works of art that honestly explore the human experience even while representing a different view of life."

That's it! Go read something.

Friday, November 30, 2007

November Books Bought

Yes, it's the fewest number of books I've brought into the house for months and yes, that's a good thing. All of these were bought on the cheap, so that's my justification.


Poems, Poets, Poetry: An Introduction and Anthology (2002) - Helen Vendler

I've been reading more poetry, thanks largely to the folks in my writing forum, so I've been looking for a good poetry anthology. This one looks like it might be a good fit.

Aye, and Gomorrah and Other Stories (Vintage edition, 2003) - Samuel R. Delany

Yeah, I'm still reading Delany's book on writing; thanks for asking, really. Delany refers to some of the stories from this collection in his writing volume, so there.

Selected Stories (Vintage edition, 2000) - Theodore Sturgeon

I probably have all of these stories in other volumes, but what the heck, for 20 cents, how could I say no?

That's it for book expenditures in November. Next time the stuff I actually read.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

David LoPiccolo (1979-2007)

My good friend David LoPiccolo left this world Friday night, just three days before his 28th birthday. David suffered from a rare condition - I don't know the scientific name for it, but his body produced a multitude of extra blood vessels, many of which wrapped themselves around his heart, lungs and other organs creating many problems. He went into the hospital in September and began bleeding from an aneurysm in his neck. David bled profusely, requiring 80 units of blood. The bleeding was contained, then started again, contained, started, contained. According to David's brother (and our assistant pastor) Brian, "David's tired body just simply and suddenly stopped."

David was from Long Island, but had lived in Maryland, attending our church for the past few years. I'd met him at a couple of church events, but never really got to know him until one day after church I was talking to someone about the book Blue Like Jazz. David started asking me some questions about it and I said, "Look, I've got an extra copy. Why don't I bring it next week?"

I brought it and David loved it. David and I started talking about other books, music and movies we both liked. (We discovered we were both die-hard fans of the movie The Blues Brothers. David could quote the whole thing!) David rode up with me to a youth leadership retreat a few months back, which is where we really got to know each other, spending even more time talking movies, music, books and Christianity.

I remember how amazed I was that David was so aware of his medical condition, yet seemed to be completely at peace with it and his faith. And he was excited to be a part of the youth leadership at church for the upcoming year. I even asked him if he'd like to join me in leading the youth Writing Forum. He said he'd love to.

At the retreat, several pocket New Testaments were available for anyone who wanted one. I didn't take one, but lots of people did. On the way home, David and three other people with their luggage crammed into my Toyota. (David played a Radiohead CD I hadn't heard - Amnesiac- all the way home.) When we got back to the church and everyone had unloaded their stuff, I told David we should get together sometime soon. He said he'd like that, but he had to go back to New York in a couple of weeks to see his doctor, the country's leading specialist on his condition.

When I got home, I noticed someone had left a pocket New Testament in my car. The next Sunday, I checked with the other three people I'd given a ride to, but they all said the Testament wasn't theirs. Then I found David. As soon as I showed him the pocket Testament, his eyes widened and a smile filled his face. "Hey, you found it! Thanks, man. I might need that."

I never saw him again. David loaned me the Radiohead CD that same day and it's been in my office CD player ever since. I'm listening to it right now. Looking at David's Facebook page, I see we had even more in common than I'd originally thought. This was a friendship I was so looking forward to, one that I could see growing into a lifelong friendship. But God had other plans for David.

I miss him terribly.

I want to close with the email that David's brother Brian sent to several people in the church. Rest in God, David.

Dear All,

Late last evening, 11/23/07, my brother David's earthly life came to an end. It happened quickly, peacefully, without warning after my family and relatives all stepped out of his room for a bit. He passed from this earthly dream into reality. He now lives with his Savior and with those who have gone before us.

After a difficult day, David's tired body just simply and suddenly stopped. God spared him from the painful and messy death he feared. God also spared us from the grief of watching his body suddenly crash. Many nurses and doctors worked terribly to revive him. They grew to admire and truly love David. It is better for David to be with Christ, beyond the suffering and fear of his recent trials.

He stood the test. James, the Lord's brother once wrote, "Blessed is he who perseveres under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him." Receive your crown, brother. You remained faithful to your God, to your words, and to all of us.

By the way, I know many different people will read this. Perhaps some of you think my spiritual tone and optimistic manner is, well, a bit fake. Well, God bless you. I am as real as it gets. Sorrow and joy can co-exist. True reality is full of them both. The unbearable pain is accompanied with real hope and honest gratitude.

Details will come regarding funeral and memorial times, places, etc. Stay tuned for that. I hope many of you will come to mourn David's death and celebrate his new life.

You have prayed so faithfully with us and for David. I will never forget it. Please pray as you wish now. No more prayers for Dave. He's more than fine now. Pray for us.

With love and unending gratitude,

Brian, DAVID LoPICCOLO's proud brother

(Photo - David LoPiccolo and his niece Sara)

Sunday, November 18, 2007

A Brief Intermission

Signing off for a few days. Everyone have a great Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Decisions, Decisions...

Last night I was hanging out with my friend Paul (among others), an avid movie buff. After even a few seconds of conversation with Paul, I always come away with a bad case of movie fever. What's really sad is that I haven't been to a movie in the theatres since Sicko in July!

Since I don't have to work tomorrow, and since Cindy's out of town, I have the perfect opportunity to see something. Usually the theatres present me with no choices. Now there's too many. Competing for my time and money are:


American Gangster

No Country for Old Men

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead

I'm leaning toward No Country for Old Men, but I can be swayed. So what do you recommend?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Writing Forum, Two Reads

The writing forum I'm leading with several of the youth at church continues to go well. I look forward to the group every week, but was a little concerned that some of last week's exercises were a bit tough. From the looks on a few of their faces, I wondered if we'd bitten off more than we could chew, but I think (and hope) they were challenged enough to see what they're capable of writing. They're really doing a great job.

As with everything I've ever taught, I often learn as much (usually more) from the participants than they learn from me. It's good to constantly evaluate the tools, methods and approaches you use and how effective they are. And the exercises often challenge me, showing me weaknesses in my own writing that I tend to ignore.


I don't know how the new movie version of Richard Matheson's I Am Legend will turn out, but you can always read the book. Originally marketed as a sf novel (written in 1954 but set in 1976), I Am Legend has truly earned its classic horror status. Matheson is one of those rare writers who is not only smart, not only knows how to keep the pages turning, not only writes well (imagine that), but who stands the test of time. It's stunning that this novel was written half a century ago. Check it out before you see the movie. Highly recommended.

And while we're talking about horror, welcome to the most horrific William Faulkner work I've read, Sanctuary. This amazingly brutal novel first appeared in 1931 when apparently Faulkner "needed the money" and wrote his own version of Mississippi pulp-noir.
Filled with bootleg liquor, rape, murder, sex, prostitution and violence of all kinds, Sanctuary was Faulkner's biggest-selling novel during his lifetime. Faulkner himself even said that he "invented the most horrific tale I could imagine." I can attest to the fact that his imagination was quite active. Recommended.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Altmann's Tongue - Brian Evenson

Altmann's Tongue: Stories and a Novella (2002) – Brian Evenson

It took me a long time to finish this collection, probably around five months. I just couldn't read more than a story or two at any one sitting. Evenson's work is filled with seemingly senseless violence and brutality, leaving you (or at least me) with feelings of deep depression. Yet I can't deny the power of his writing. Still, I could only handle small doses.

Many of the stories are "flash fiction" of only a page or two, yet there's much of the gruesome packed into a few hundred words. In the book's introduction, Alphonso Lingis remarks that "Eighteen of the twenty-six stories of this book are stories of killing people. Another is about killing cats. The dogs that show up get killed. The readers' eyes are kept on the killer, not the victim whose life is often not evoked at all, already passed away."

Not exactly stories for The Family Hour.

There seem to be no moral lessons in the stories, certainly no remose on the part of the killers. The killings don't seem to be acts of overwhelming emotion - lust, anger, revenge. But neither do they seem to be killing for killing's sake. It's just a part of who these characters are.

If you can read the three-page "Eye" on a full stomach, my hat's off to you. In fact, the most revolting stories tend to be the shortest. Yet the longer story "The Munich Window: A Persecution" and the novella "The Sanza Affair" are absolutely riveting. The novella, for all practical purposes, is a police report, at least for the first several sections. Part mystery, part police procedural, the work is filled with unreliable narrators, suspense and depth. "The Sanza Affair" alone is worth the price of admission.

Also worth the cover price is Evenson's afterword, which chronicles his connections with the Mormon church, his teaching position at BYU, and his subsequent self-excommunication from both.

From the Afterword:

Altmann's Tongue is meant to be a challenging book, is postulated as a challenge to the reader. The stories in it are meant to function beyond their initial reading, in the way readers choose over time to process the reading experience and supply their own moral response to the absence of response within the text proper. A sort of virus, as it were.

That's some virus. Is it a virus I'll expose myself to again? Maybe. I'll definitely re-read "The Sanza Affair" and "The Munich Window." As for the others? I might need immunization.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Conversations over Coffee

I love to write in coffee shops. I've both done some of my best work and tanked miserably in such places. Yesterday, I eeked out one good paragraph before the muse decided to leave me, possibly in favor of the pastry counter.

But while I sat there in back of the coffee shop, I eavesdropped on two separate conversations. In Conversation "A" a twenty-something guy was talking to a twenty-something woman about creatures from the Book of Revelation. In Conversation "B" two women in their mid-40's began by talking (apparently) about work. Both conversations strayed at times and, since they were going on simulaneously within a few feet of each other, I missed several words here and there. What follows is as closely as I could put it down.

A: If you do your part, you've saved your soul.

B: Part of my job is to sometimes say things people don't want to hear.

A: You don't get any second chances.

B: They just need to continue the process.

A: Satan has a lot of power.

B: I'll be doing this for another twenty years.

A: It's possible that what he's saying is impossible to describe.

B: He was very well liked in school.

A: When they see a vision, they try to write it down in terms we can understand.

B: No matter where we go, somebody finds out.

A: My guess is when he sees these creatures, that's the best way he can express it.

B: I'm coming at this from a different perspective.

A: This is much more realistic. He can make himself phase out, to cause his body to synchronize ___________. There's space between molecules, so there's a phasing out and a phasing in.

B: I feel very strangely that this isn't neurologically based.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Way to Go, Al!

A big congratulations goes out to my friend and fellow Clarion 2004 bud Al Bogdan. Al won 2nd place in the 3rd Quarter of the Writers of the Future Contest! Way to go, Al!

Monday, November 05, 2007

October Books Read

Okay, so October wasn't such a great month for reading, at least in terms of quantity. Maybe it was all that Halloween candy...

Anyway, here's the list for October:


Hard Times (1854) - Charles Dickens

Although Dickens' shortest novel, Hard Times seemed much longer than it actually is. Largely a Victorian social satire, Dickens manages to mix in some true bleakness (and a little mystery) with the humor. Maybe this was a book I would have enjoyed reading more than listening to the audiobook. Certainly not my favorite Dickens novel, but still recommended.

One for Sorrow (2007) - Christopher Barzak

Barzak's first novel hits all the right notes until the very end, which I thought was wrapped up a little too neatly. Still, Barzak understands the teenage mind and knows how to add some freshness to the "teenage ghost" sub-genre.

Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002 (NF 2002) - Salman Rushdie

I was hoping that most of Rushdie's essays would focus on literature and writing (and to a large degree, they do), but I found that I even enjoyed the long essay on soccer, which I know very little about. Rushdie focuses somewhat on the publicity he received from writing The Satanic Verses, but wisely (and probably more interestingly) examines the underlying differences in culture that cause us to look at literature with different viewpoints and worldviews. Rushdie's account of his return trip to his homeland of India is heartfelt but certainly not over-emotionalized. And don't miss his essay on the film version of The Wizard of Oz.

The Museum of Dr. Moses: Tales of Mystery and Suspense (2007) - Joyce Carol Oates

Other than the excellent title story (which closes the book), this collection just didn't do it for me.

The Resurrection Man's Legacy and Other Stories (2003) - Dale Bailey

It's a real head-scratcher to me why Dale Bailey's name isn't mentioned more in conversations about superb short story writers. Not a one of these stories disappointed in any way. Bailey - like Bradbury - has a strong sense of nostalgia and family, yet none of these stories contain even a hint of sentimentality. His characterization, description, setting, tone, voice - they're all top-notch. Highly recommended.

Best American Fantasy (2007) Jeff VanderMeer, Ann VanderMeer, editors

For those of us who tend to get the majority of our short fiction from genre magazines and webzines, the VanderMeers show us some of the treasures we've been missing. True, some of these stories do come from genre publications, but many of them appeared in literary venues that - let's face it - most of us probably don't regularly peruse. Some wonderful stuff from Kevin Brockmeier, Tony D'Souza, Maile Chapman, Kelly Link, and many others. And I can't think of any story I read this year that moved me as much as Chris Adrian's "A Better Angel."

The Other Side of Dark (YA 1986) – Joan Lowrey Nixon

One of the students in my writing forum recommended this YA book to me. Although some of the stuff in it is a bit dated, Nixon comes up with an intriguing situation (a 17-year-old girl who has been comatose for four years after suffering a violent attack) with some pretty good suspense.

The Arrival (Graphic Novel 2007) - Shaun Tan

Although I can't officially place this one on my "Books Read" list, since it contains no actual text, I highly recommend you purchase a copy of this outstanding work. Nothing I can tell you about it will do it justice, but you can trust me on this one. Really.

Go read something.

Friday, November 02, 2007

October Books Bought


American Movie Critics: From the Silents Until Now (NF 2006) - Philip Lopate

I saw this title on the Library of America website (always a dangerous place to hang out) and couldn't resist the half-price sale. At 825 pages, there's plenty here to keep me busy for awhile.

Hurt: Inside the World of Today's Teenagers (NF 2004) - Chap Clark

Youth Culture 101 (NF 2007) - Walt Mueller

I bought Hurt and Youth Culture 101 at a youth culture conference a few weeks back. Both books were recommended to me by my friend Trip and I figured both would help me get reacquainted with what I've missed not teaching teenagers for the past seven years. (So far, both are excellent resources.)

The Winds of Marble Arch and Other Stories (2007) - Connie Willis

An enormous book collecting many (but not all) of Willis's stories. I couldn't pass it up.

Generation Loss (2007) - Elizabeth Hand

I've been very impressed with Hand's short fiction, so when I saw this SIGNED copy at Capclave, it was a no-brainer.

The Arrival (2007*) - Shaun Tan

You may find this in the children's section or maybe with the graphic novels. It's actually a wordless graphic novel in hardcover. It's also one of the most imaginative, stunningly beautiful books I've run across this year. Don't miss it. (I was fortunate enough to find a signed copy.)

The Best American Short Stories 2007 - Stephen King, editor

I imagine (and hope) that many people will pick up this book just because Stephen King's name's on it. (That's not why I picked it up; I like the series.) They'll probably be exposed to some great stories they wouldn't have contacted otherwise. There's been a lot of discussion lately about the state of the short story, but I'm ready to put all of that aside and just read the stories.

The New Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry (1999) - Michael Collier, Stanley Plumly, eds.

I could've sworn there's a yearly poetry book in the Best American series (mentioned above), but apparently there's not. One of the students in my writing forum wants to take a look at more poetry (plus I need to read more of it), so I thought this might be a good volume to read.

War and Peace (1865-69/2007) - Leo Tolstoy, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

I really wasn't going to buy this, not in hardcover. But I found it at Daedalus for 30% off AND it was signed! (By the translators, not Tolstoy. That would be...well, a little hard to pull off.)

That's it for how I spent my money in October. Next time what I actually read.

* I think the original Australian edition came out in 2006.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Circulation (Library, not Blood)

Started my library training yesterday, spending most of the morning talking about circulation. But the most dangerous information that I learned yesterday: Library employees can purchase books at a discount.

Man....I'm sunk.


Speaking of purchasing, it's already very close to the end of October, so I'll be listing my Books Purchased and Books Read in the next day or two. Some good stuff on both sides. If you haven't read Best American Fantasy (Jeff VanderMeer, Ann VanderMeer, eds.), pick up a copy soon. Some real home runs in there.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Getting Ready for Tomorrow

Not much going on today, although I did finish Dale Bailey's 2003 collection The Resurrection Man's Legacy, which is excellent.

My new job with the Anne Arundel County Public Library system begins tomorrow! Wish me luck.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Halloween Plans?

Made your Halloween plans yet? How about your pre-Halloween plans, something to help get you in the spirit of things?

Right now I'm listening to Richard Matheson's horror classic I Am Legend. You just can't go wrong with this one.

In stores now is Norman Partridge's excellent short novel Dark Harvest - highly recommended.

Some other good recent scares:

The Keeper - Sarah Langan
A Good and Happy Child - Justin Evans
The Imago Sequence - Laird Barron


Other than the outstanding Val Lewton collection, I own very few horror films on DVD. But I do plan to watch two that I own:

1963's The Haunting, based on Shirley Jackson's superb novel The Haunting of Hill House. (Avoid at all costs the dreadful 1999 remake starring Catherine Zeta-Jones.)

No less haunting (and possibly more disturbing) is 1961's The Innocents (based on the classic Henry James story "The Turn of the Screw"), featuring a standout performance by Deborah Kerr.

Yes, both films are 40+ years old, both are in glorious black-and-white, and both are well worth your time. Have a happy, safe Halloween.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Writing Forum, Story Progress

The writing forum for the youth at my church is off to a good start. For the past two weeks we've had some really good stuff happening with these writers. The forum is largely based on the adult workshops I've led with DC Writers Way for the past few years. The main purpose of both the workshop and the forum is to get writers to tap into their creativity through "free-writes," allowing them to write without self-editing during a series of exercises. While they might sometimes think of this as "off-the-cuff" writing, I think they're discovering that they have some pretty good ideas inside them waiting to be let loose. I'm really enjoying it and hope they are as well.


Most of my "free" time this past week has been devoted to writing and not so much reading. In fact my "Books Read" for October is probably going to be painfully low, but the writing has really taken on a new direction. I remember a couple of years ago being able to write and not realize that two hours had gone by. That's happening more and more, plus things are starting to open up more in the revision process.

Is it still work? You bet. Hard work. But I love it.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Discovering (or Re-Discovering) Dale Bailey

Here's a name you don't hear enough, but should: Dale Bailey.

I read the title story of Bailey's 2003 collection The Resurrection Man's Legacy and thought it was superb. For some reason (probably because I tend to read four or five books at once), I didn't finish the collection. That was a bonehead move on my part.

This morning I read the collection's second story, "Death and Suffrage," which won the 2003 International Horror Guild Award. As I go back and look over the story again, I'm staggered by how the story could have gone wrong in so many ways in lesser hands. The story chronicles the countdown to a Presidential election, narrated by Rob, a leading staff member for one of the candidates. Just when Rob thinks his emotional outburst on a national political TV show has blown his candidate's chances, something weird happens: the dead emerge from their graves and want nothing more than to vote.

Again, in lesser hands this would either have turned into political satire or an absolute fiasco. Bailey even says in the story notes that "Death and Suffrage" was originally intended to be short and light, but what he delivers is dark, effective and incredibly moving. Again, from his notes, Bailey states:

As I wrote, I came to see that it was really about Rob's emotional journey - his growing understanding of the value of human relationships and the way that understanding forces him to re-evaluate his views of the political process.

The story was adapted into Homecoming, part of Showtime's Masters of Horror series. From what I've read of it, Homecoming is a political satire, and not nearly as effective as Bailey's short story.


As for my own writing, I added 800 words to my latest story this morning. Right now it's moving in the right direction. Let's hope I have enough gas in the tank.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Different Approach

I started a new short story yesterday and was fairly pleased with the first 300 or so words I put down. I know generally what the story's about and have a good early feel for the character. But this morning, just for fun, I decided to test the old adage "Don't say the first thing that comes to mind; say the second." In this case, we're talking about the second idea.

Actually it turned out to be the same character in a different setting rather than a completely different idea. In the first story my character is on the job working when he finds himself in an uncomfortable situation. In the second, my character is fulfilling a non-work related obligation (but his work definitely comes through clearly) when encountering the uncomfortable situation. But I found the character's fears were greatly escalated in the new setting. What I want to do is discover what's at the core of this character's fear in both settings, the thing that scares him most. And which setting/situation will best bring that out.

I also discovered that my main character is drastically different in the second situation. He's more confident (to a certain point), more self-centered, more haughty, yet more vulnerable. He's more interesting than the character in the first situation, but he's also (at least it seems that way right now) more prone to falling into stereotype. I'm not sure what it is about the different setting that's brought about this change in character, but I certainly didn't expect such drastic results. Interesting.


A little help, please? Look over to the left at the "Now Reading" etc. section. Why does the word "The" cling to the top of the pictures and not the rest of the text? This is driving me crazy.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

More from Capclave and Christopher Barzak's One for Sorrow

Here's a much fuller Capclave report from one of the Guests of Honor, Jeffrey Ford. It's always a pleasure to see Jeff.


Christopher Barzak's One for Sorrow is a touching, wonderfully written coming-of-age story that's full of depth, honesty and weirdness. Boy Scout Jamie Marks is killed before he and Adam McCormick can truly become friends, but Jamie's ghost seems willing to continue the friendship anyway. It's a friendship that weaves in and out of Adam's troubled life as an outsider, not only at school, but also in his own family.

One for Sorrow impressed me more than most novels with teenage protagonists. The Lovely Bones this is not. Not only does Barzak capture the angst and emotional roller-coaster that is the teenage life, but he also defies conventions. I seldom knew where Barzak was going with the story, but even when I did, he threw in something unexpected. It's not trickery, just the author's ability to shatter what we've normally come to expect from fiction dealing with teenagers. (And although we are dealing with teenagers, there's probably too much sex for the novel to be thought of as YA.) Some excellent writing here from a writer to keep your eye on.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Capclave Report

I ended up not spending too much time (or, thankfully, money) at Capclave this weekend. Although I had a great time seeing my Clarion instructors Jeff Ford, Andy Duncan, and several other people, there wasn't much going on Friday night other than Guests of Honor Ford and Ellen Datlow interviewing each other, which was lots of fun. (And anytime you can hear Andy Duncan telling stories, it's always worth the price of admission.)

Thanks to a ton of traffic on the Beltway, I completely missed Saturday morning's first panel Is There Room in an SF Universe for God? as well as the first half of So You Want to Put Together an Anthology?, which I don't really want to do, but would like to know how they're put together.

So I visited the Dealer Room. I was good, buying only one book, Elizabeth Hand's Generation Loss, which easily passed the First Page Test and was a signed copy for no extra cost. The Dealer Room was much smaller than last year, creating the potential for many introductions and apologies, but all was well.

John and I had a pretty good lunch at On the Border, then went to the Defining Jeffrey Ford panel, which was as entertaining as you can imagine. We hung around a little longer, but both Lera and Cindy had a concert that evening and John and I decided we should probably spend a little time with our wives.

Even though I didn't attend that much of it this year, Capclave is a small but good con that's worth your consideration. This year's location, the Rockville Hilton, will also host next year's con, October 17-19, 2008 with Writer GoH James Morrow and Critic GoH Michael Dirda of the Washington Post.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Where Your Pain Lives, Genius Also Lives

I heard someone say that recently and started knocking it around in my head (not that I think genius lives in my head, mind you). I started thinking about guys like Mozart, Picasso, Da Vinci, wondering how much of their genius was a result of pain. Since I've never read a biography of any of them, I don't know.

But I did start to examine the pain of one of my current story characters. This guy is a professional criminal, a perfectionist who has made a wreck of his personal life in several ways, but only one that directly impacts the story. I spent about an hour this morning trying to get inside this guy's head, specifically inside his pain. It wasn't easy. It wasn't pretty. But I found out things about my character I didn't know before. Now as I watch him move through the story, I know more about what he's thinking, more about what drives him, what terrifies him.

Is some of his pain some of my own pain? Yes. Am I writing about myself? In a way. I think we all do, whether something painful actually happened to us or whether we lived that pain vicariously or dreamed it. There's something pure and honest in pain and while it can bring up some nasty memories, it also has the potential to bring out lots of good.

But genius?

We'll see. Right now I'll just settle for a good story.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Prizes, Awards and Just Showing Up

Doris Lessing has just won the Nobel Prize for literature. The only Lessing work I've read is Briefing for a Descent into Hell, which is cited in David Pringle's Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels.

I'm sure this prize will cause Lessing's stock to rise and her readership to expand, at least while she's in the news. I should probably re-read Briefing or seek out some of her other works. It'll be interesting to see how many of her works are reissued in light of the award.


Speaking of awards, do they have any influence at all over what you read? I suppose it all depends on the award. I probably wouldn't read the Winner of the 2007 Stinko Award, but then again, I might not read the Booker Prize winner if it didn't appeal to me. I remember talking to someone at a World Fantasy Con who said, "Don't read the novel that wins. Read the nominated ones that didn't win." It probably wouldn't be a bad idea to read 'em all, but (unless you're Harriet Klausner) who has time? And if most book awards are like the Oscars, not only does the "best" one rarely win, the really good ones sometimes aren't even nominated. Just go with your gut feeling. Usually reading the opening paragraph (or page) tells me everything I need to know.


Samuel Delany has been showing me (through his book, not personally) what's wrong with my writing. For that, I'm thankful. And yes, learning can be painful. But things are progressing, albeit slowly. I only have three stories in the pipeline right now, and it'll be awhile before number four is ready, but that's okay. Slow progress is better than none at all.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

To Con or Not to Con?

For the first time since 2004, I won't be attending the World Fantasy Convention next month. Money is one reason, but there are others, which I'll cover in just a moment. Instead, I plan to attend nearby Capclave, as I did last year. Although certainly not comparable in scope with WFC, Capclave is overall a pretty good con. Plus it's close. And cheap.

I'm not sure how I feel about the big cons. WFC is the only one I've attended, but I've attended three times. The first time I was coming off Clarion in Tempe in 2004. (It worked out well since I was also able to visit family in Phoenix.) It was a great con, but even in the company of several of my Clarion buddies, I didn't quite feel right. Several of my instructors were there, introducing me to editors and other writers, some of whom seemed to be thinking anyone who'd just come out of Clarion should have at least a novel or part of a collection sitting around ready to be published. To be fair, they probably didn't think that at all, but just the opposite. But the mind can do funny things, right?

When I think about it, sf/fantasy cons are a lot like those conventions I went to as a band director. You'll find people there who don't care who you are, where you're from, what ratings you got at festival the year before - they'll be glad to engage in friendly conversation, maybe even over a drink or two. And you'll also find people who won't even acknowledge that you share the same planet until you've made your first superior ratings, and even when you do, there's no guarantee that any acknowledgment is forthcoming.

I've experienced some of both at cons. Don't get me wrong, I've had a great time at every con I've attended. But part of me thinks I probably shouldn't attend another "big" con for awhile. Should I wait until I have something published in a prominent, established market? Or until I have a novel published? Would it matter? Should I just think, screw 'em and go anyway?

Several times I've also been faced with the "Writer or Fan?" dilemma. Yes, I'm a writer, I'm even a published writer, but published in small markets you've probably never heard of. Yes, I'm a fan and there's a definite element of excitement in meeting a writer whose work you've enjoyed. So are you writer or fan? Both?

Right now I'm at a point as a writer where I'm trying to work out a lot of fundamental issues in my writing. Sometimes I think I've got to improve as a reader before I can improve as a writer. Sometimes I don't think I know the difference between a noun and a verb. At times like this, I think it's probably not a good idea to be hanging out with the big guns. But maybe on the other hand, that's exactly where I should be. I don't know.

But for now, the best (and most economical) thing for me to do is read and write like a madman. And spend a few hours at Capclave and just have a good time. The last time I checked, the nametags don't say "Writer" or "Fan."