Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Playing Favorites, Installment #9

Installment #9: "The Logical Song" (Rick Davies, Roger Hodgson) - Supertramp (1979)

A few days ago, as I was driving from the airport to my Aunt Margaret’s funeral, “The Logical Song” by Supertramp came on the radio, a song that never fails to bring a smile to my face. Maybe that’s because when I bought the single (cover pictured above) in 1979, I thought all the strings of assonances in the lyrics were cool or maybe it was the sound of a Mattel electronic football game in the background. Or maybe just because it was a fun song.

I began thinking about how the song really does summarize how we’re expected to grow up and be all the things mentioned in the lyrics: sensible, logical, responsible, practical. If we’re not careful, we can have all the fun in life beaten out of us, finding ourselves in jobs we can’t stand, stuck in social rock-climbing, planning on retirements where (if we’re lucky enough to have saved enough money in this economy) we can finally do something we enjoy. If we can remember how.

From the song’s chorus:

There are times when all the world's asleep,
the questions run too deep
for such a simple man.
Won't you please, please tell me what we've learned
I know it sounds absurd
but please tell me who I am.

Not knowing who you are can be a real danger. Years pile up and you can reach that place not even knowing how you got there. In the midst of this somewhat goofy, quirky song from the 70s, Supertramp is laying some real wisdom on us.

On this same trip I was reading a book by Gary Thomas called Pure Pleasure: Why Do Christians Feel So Bad about Feeling Good? Thomas reminds us that pleasure in and of itself is a good thing. God designed it and wants us to enjoy it, but not to be consumed by it. Both Thomas and Supertramp remind me that I can take pleasure in something as seemingly trivial as comic books (or, if you’d like it to sound more socially acceptable, “graphic novels”).

Lately I’ve enjoyed a return to the comics world, largely due to my friends Trip and Sam (Hey, Cindy: blame them!) as well as my local gateway, Third Eye Comics in Annapolis. I’ve found that returning to old superhero favorites (Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Batman and my current favorite Daredevil) or new ones (Hellboy) or non-superhero titles (Y: The Last Man, Global Frequency, and the brilliant Neil Gaiman/Dave McKean collaboration Signal to Noise), comics hold just as much wonder and fascination at age 48 as they did at age 8.

Apparently I’m not alone. The majority of customers I see at Third Eye are in their mid-20’s or older, most of them around my age. So what happened? Did we never grow up?

The owner of a shop I frequented in Germantown, Tennessee in the late 80s summed it up: “It’s words and pictures, man, words and pictures. It’s the best of both worlds.” I think he’s got something. It’s a combination of two things I love: the written word and images. It’s a combination that’s hard to resist. Is it sensible, logical, responsible, practical? I don’t know. It certainly may sound absurd, but it’s who I am.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Best Teacher I Ever Had - My Aunt Margaret

My Aunt Margaret passed away last night at the age of 92. If you attended Forest High School in Forest, Mississippi anytime from 1949 to 1979, Mrs. Richardson probably taught you. That's right, she taught American History, World History, Government and Civics for 32 1/2 years. (If you want to think in terms of Presidents, she taught through the administrations of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford and Carter.)

She not only taught me and my brother Bob, she also taught her two sons and each of her own three sisters. I think I can speak for all of my relatives when I say that being related to Mrs. Richardson didn't buy me a drop of sympathy in her class. She took no prisoners and she didn't play.

Yet she never raised her voice or got angry, ever. Her class was strictly business from bell to bell. I remember each day she had excruciatingly long sentences and questions written on the chalkboard in her pristine, textbook cursive. You had to copy it down fast because she hit the ground running. Everything was important: what she had written and what she was saying. (I still have my American History notes in a notebook as big as a moderately-sized city phonebook.) You didn't have time to clown. Even the kids who were notorious for misbehaving in school straightened up and flew right in her class.

I've earned three college degrees, two of them graduate degrees. I can't think of a teacher that was more of a professional than my aunt. I never, ever saw her frustrated, shaken, at a loss for words, unprepared or in any way less than stellar. She knew her stuff and she expected the same from you. The only time I can even remember a mistake at all was when she ended her lesson one day just a bit before the lunch bell. "We're stopping 30 seconds early," she said, looking at the clock that sat on her desk. "We'll have to cut our lunch period short by 30 seconds to make up for it. Be prepared." And that's exactly what we did.

If you wanted an "A" in Mrs. Richardson's class you could ace every test, participate in class and turn in your homework, but that still wasn't gonna cut it. You were also required (every six weeks) to write an article review (from American Heritage or some similar magazine/journal) AND do a book report. Every six weeks. And these weren't fluff books or simple book reports. We're talking The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich type of stuff. Every six weeks.

And of course your test papers could contain no errors, none, not if you wanted an A+. Misspell a word? Forget it. You're toast. It had to be perfect.

Aunt Margaret had extremely high standards, but once you left her class, you were ready for just about anything that any teacher could throw at you. I can't tell you the number of people that came up to me later in life and said that nobody prepared them for college coursework better than Mrs. Richardson. Other people told me that no one had ever made them work that hard for anything. And every one of them loved her for it.

At home, Aunt Margaret was mostly quiet and reserved, but that inner strength was always present. She loved to laugh and always wanted to know how we were all doing as we grew older. She's one of the main reasons I became a teacher. And I think there's something of her still in me that comes out when I realize I'm not working quite as hard as I should, that I'm not giving 100%, or that I'm trying to cut corners, even a little bit. She took no excuses and never compromised. She pushed you to your personal limit, but when you finished her class, you knew you had accomplished something. Boy, do we need teachers like that now. Not only teachers, we need leaders like that in all walks of life. I'll certainly miss you, Aunt Margaret. Thank you for everything.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Capclave 2010 - Register Now!

Two of my favorite writers, Jeff VanderMeer and Connie Willis will be Guests of Honor at this year's Capclave con in Rockville, MD, October 22-24. (Jeff's wife Ann VanderMeer, editor of Weird Tales, will also be a GoH.) As an added bonus, WSFA will offer signed, limited hardcover editions of VanderMeer's The Three Quests of the Wizard Sarnod and Willis's Fire Watch for $20 each.

So go ahead, register!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Timing is everything.

In 1977 my fifteen-year-old world came a little closer into focus. At least I thought it did.

Like everyone else of my generation, I went to see Star Wars in the summer of 1977. I’d never seen anything like it; no one had. I enjoyed it tremendously and might have even gone to see it twice, but it didn’t really grab me, refusing to let go. It was just another movie to carry me from the end of my first bumbling year of high school into a hopefully more focused, determined sophomore year.

My Holy Grail in those days was music. It sounds juvenile now, but I wanted to become the best trumpet player in the state. The measure of that for most folks in Mississippi was being accepted into the Lions All-State Band. Auditioning consisted (and probably still does) of a two-step process: if you pass the first audition, you move on to the second round.

I hadn’t passed the first round in 1976. Back in those days, you never knew your ranking; you either made it or you didn’t. And I didn’t.

Over the next year I’d worked hard and felt like I had a chance of making it past the first round. I auditioned early that Saturday and felt pretty good about it, so good that I decided to treat myself to a movie. When I saw the poster with the long dark highway stretching into the star-filled horizon, there was no doubt which movie I’d see.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind captivated me in a way that Star Wars simply couldn't. Sure, Richard Dreyfuss was not as good-looking as Mark Hamill or Harrison Ford, but he was me. Roy Neary was searching for something and he simply wasn’t going to be denied. He was driven, obsessed, out-of-control in pursuit of his goal, his dream. I don’t think I was out-of-control, but I was certainly driven, maybe even obsessed with my music.

But the film did more than confirm that I was searching for something. It filled me with a sense of wonder. I’m no longer driven by the need to be a great musician, but I am still filled with wonder and every time I watch Close Encounters, I’m filled with wonder all over again.

I recently watched the film on Blu-Ray and couldn’t get over how good it looks and sounds. Yes, it was filmed in 1977, so you’re going to see some grain, but you’re also going to see exceptional detail. When you see Ray’s sunburn, it no longer looks like a bit of paint slapped onto Dreyfuss’s face. The desert scenes make you feel like you’re right there. And the Devil’s Tower scenes? Wow. You just have to see them.

The 30th Anniversary edition contains the original 1977 theatrical release, the 1980 theatrical re-release and the 1997 director’s cut, all on one disc. The packaging even includes a fold-out map detailing the differences between the three versions.

And if you’re into extras:

Steven Spielberg: 30 Years of Close Encounters (22 min.)
Storyboard to Screen Comparisons
Photo Gallery
Making of Documentary (1997, 97 min.)
"Watch the Skies" (1977, 6 min.)
Deleted Scenes (approx. 10 min.)
A View From Above (which informs you which scenes are present in one or more of the three editions)

Highly recommended!

Friday, March 19, 2010

Jonny Quest Day

For no reason in particular, I hereby proclaim today Jonny Quest Day! Enjoy, but look out for Dr. Zin!

Saturday, March 13, 2010

A Dark Matter - Peter Straub

A Dark Matter, a novel set in the present day, spends much of it’s time reflecting back to a single unexplained event in 1966. Much of the novel’s point of view comes from novelist Lee Harwell, whose four high school friends - Donald “Dilly” Olson, Howard “Hootie” Bly, Jason “Boats” Boatman and Lee “The Eel” Truax witnessed an horrific event along with three University of Wisconsin students and their guru, the charismatic Spencer Mallon. Mallon had promised the students that through this “ceremony” he would change the world. He did, but in unexpected ways: one of the students completely vanished during the ceremony and another was brutally killed. Harwell, who declined an invitation to the event, tries to piece together what actually happened. And even though Harwell eventually married Truax, she has refused to speak of that day.

The event has had a profound effect on those who survived: Dilly Olson has been in and out of prison; Hootie Bly grew so disturbed he had to be institutionalized, his speech consisting of nothing but quotes from the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne; Boats Boatman began a life of thievery. And Harwell’s wife “The Eel”? She lost her sight years later. Each of these people that had been so close to Harwell tell their version of what happened in Rashomon-style, leaving Harwell to piece it all together. (I’ve neglected to mention much about the three university students. Their stories are crucial, but I want you to discover them through the book.)

A Dark Matter is horrific on many levels, not the least of which concerns “the event” itself, but Straub has much more on his mind than a creepy ceremony and routine scares. Yes, what happened that day in 1966 continues to fill those involved with horror, but it’s the everyday horror of something uncontrollable that permeates your life, something that you had a hand in setting into motion that becomes the real horror. A Dark Matter is about regrets, growing older, friendship, redemption and learning to live with the lives we’ve chosen. It’s also about discovery and coming to grips with how our discoveries can cause us to rethink our lives in ways we can’t even imagine. Highly recommended.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Ah, Florida!

Back from visiting Cindy for the Tampa portion of the U.S. Navy Band tour. Cindy and I had a great time, visiting two beaches (Indian Rocks Beach and Sandy Key Beach), the Salvador Dali Museum, some good restaurants, a lot of traffic in Clearwater, and a greyhound race track, where we saw some beautiful hounds. (I also found time to visit a comic shop or two!) Pictures to follow at some point.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Best Picture - The Hurt Locker

Most years I find it impossible to watch all the movies nominated for Best Picture and that's when there were only five. With ten, forget it. But I did get to see four of them. Of those four (The Hurt Locker, Up, District 9, and Avatar), I did feel that The Hurt Locker was the best of the lot. There's too little time before work to go into much detail, but thought it was the most compelling story that was handled in most interesting way. (District 9 had some elements of a compelling story, but took awhile for them to develop.)

So what are your thoughts? Is The Hurt Locker deserving? Ready to cry "Foul!"? Is Bigelow Queen of the World?

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Forthcoming Books

Ah, yes, the new issue of Locus Magazine just arrived, complete with their list of Forthcoming Books through December 2010. Among those I'll be following are:


Mirror Kingdoms: The Best of Peter S. Beagle, Subterranean Press
I pre-ordered this one awhile back. It should be shipping any day now.


The Skylark - Peter Straub, Subterranean Press
Okay, I'm not wild about the cover, but I am wild about the shorter version of this novel, A Dark Matter, wild enough, in fact, to order this edition that includes 200 more pages and Straub's signature.

Darkness: Two Decades of Modern Horror - Ellen Datlow, ed., Tachyon Publications
I sure hope the library gets this one. Man, what a creep-out cover...


Under Heaven - Guy Gavriel Kay, Penguin/Roc


Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories, Library of America
No cover for this one yet, but I'm very excited that the Library of America has seen fit to honor Shirley Jackson.

Who Fears Death - Nnedi Okorafor, DAW
I loved Okorafor's The Shadow Speaker and am very much looking forward to this one.


The Loving Dead - Amelia Beamer, Night Shade Books
No cover art yet, but I'm very excited for my Clarion buddy's first novel. Go Amelia!


Mockingjay (The Hunger Games Vol. III) - Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press
I enjoyed The Hunger Games so much I've refused to even read the second book, Catching Fire, until this third book comes out.

What I Didn’t See and Other Stories - Karen Joy Fowler, Small Beer Press
No cover yet. Most people that have read the novels Wit's End and The Jane Austen Book Club have no idea Fowler started out writing speculative short stories, which are absolutely stunning, especially this title story.


All Clear - Connie Willis, Ballentine Spectra
No cover yet. Time travel tale that picks up where Blackout (released last month) leaves off.


Holiday (Short Stories) - M. Rickert, Golden Gryphon Press
No cover yet. Rickert's entire output (at least so far) consists of short stories. All of them are very good, most of them superb.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Books Read February

February certainly appears to have been the Month of the Graphic Novel. I was able to read a lot of them while we were snowed in. They seemed to be the perfect length for reading: read a little, shovel a little, read a little, shovel a little, repeat. And I did. Lots of good stuff. Let's get started.

The Resurrectionist (2008) - Jack O’Connell

Highly recommended by many in the weird fiction community, The Resurrectionist did not disappoint. My favorite novels seem to mix the ordinary world (a pharmacist who's seeking treatment for his comatose son) with the extraordinary (a band of comic book circus freaks). I was instantly reminded of the Stephen King/Peter Straub collaboration The Talisman, only this book is about 500 pages shorter. Highly recommended for those who enjoy weirdness.

Hound (2009) - Vincent McCaffrey

Hound is one of those rare books that you read and after only a few pages, realize that “The author wrote this just for me.” If you love books and don't mind a leisurely paced murder mystery, this one's for you, too.

Awake in the Dark: The Best of Roger Ebert (NF 2006) - Roger Ebert

Awake in the Dark covers 40 years of Ebert’s reviews and essays, all of which are written with the clear prose of someone who wants to communicate his love of film with you, the viewer. I appreciate that. Reading Ebert is a lot like talking to a good friend about a movie you agree on or disagree on. But also, like a good friend you frequently converse with, he repeats himself. Yet with all that we've seen lately of Ebert's unfortunate demise (he lost his lower jaw to thyroid cancer, I believe), it give me great pleasure to "hear" him through his writing.

Global Frequency: Planet Ablaze (GN 2004) - Warren Ellis, various artists

Global Frequency has been called the Mission: Impossible for the 21st Century. The Global Frequency is made up of 1001 special agents who fight unusual threats to public safety. Quite interesting; I plan to read more.

100 Bullets: First Shot, Last Call (GN 1999) - Brian Azzarello, Eduardo Risso

What if you could take revenge on those who wronged you without worrying about the consequences? What if you were given a gun with 100 bullets, all of it untraceable? Great concept, but too violent for me.

Ex Machina, Vol. 1: The First Hundred Days (GN 2005) - Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris

Not only is Mitchell Hundred the Mayor of New York, he can also talk to (and command) machines, any kind of machines. Much better than I'm making it sound.

Daredevil: Born Again (GN 1986) - Frank Miller, David Mazzucchelli

I am discovering in my graphic novel journey that the superhero genre is most definitely not what it was when I was growing up. Daredevil’s identity has been compromised by former girlfriend Karen Page. She offered this information to The Kingpin in exchange for a heroin fix. Reprints a run of Daredevil comics from 1986. Still potent.

Batman: Hush (GN 2002, 2003) - Jeph Loeb, Jim Lee

I think the story covers too many bases, but the atmosphere of darkness (it's always raining) and artwork are incredible.

Everlost (YA 2006) - Neal Shusterman

Shusterman is never short on ideas or philosophy. There's plenty of both in Everlost, the story of kids who die and are trapped in a sort of limbo between life and death, a world with rules all its own. Seems to be written for a younger audience than one of his other books I read last year, Unwind.

The Ultimate Teen Book Guide (NF 2006) - Daniel Hahn, Leonie Flynn, eds.

A great resource for teen reads. It's a British publication, so it leans a little heavily in that direction, but still a very valuable resource with plenty of tangential recommendations beyond the main ones. Definitely worth a look.

The Silver Surfer: Rebirth of Thanos (GN 1990/2006) - Jim Starlin, Ron Lim

Thoughts here.

Y: The Last Man - Unmanned (GN 2002) - Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, Jose Marzan, Jr.

Yorick, an escape artist, wakes up to find himself the last man on Earth. So why are all these women (gun-toting Republican wives, guerilla Amazons, militant Israeli women, and even his sister) trying to kill him? Lots of humor mixed with violence and some rough language, yet a very engaging graphic novel, the first in a series of ten.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

U.S. Navy Band on Tour

If you live in the Southeast U.S., the U.S. Navy Band is coming your way. (Tour schedule here.) Cindy and the band left yesterday on a tour which will include stops in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Go check 'em out. It's free; your tax dollars have already paid for it. Enjoy!

Monday, March 01, 2010


Cindy and I shared a wonderful, intriguing experience last night at the National Gallery of Art in D.C., a performance by the group )musica(aperta. The event was called Pheasants, a performance work based on this 1656 painting entitled Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor) by Diego Velazquez.

From the program:


The Thirty Years' War ended in 1648 with an arranged marriage between Louis XIV of France and his double cousin Maria Teresa, the daughter of Philip IV of Spain. She took on the royal name Marie-Therese in a ceremony organized by Diego Velazquez, Philip's court painter, on Pheasant Island in the Bidassoa River. The event represented the transition of power in Europe from the old "Regime of Mystery" to the new "Empire of Reason." Through music, dance, movement, and theatrics, )musica(aperta reevaluates the event through the looking glass of Velazquez's contemporary painting Portrait of the Family of Philip IV, also known as Las Meninas. In this ars pictorica, what the painting hides matters as much as what it shows. The missing person in this family portrait is the absent daughter, Maria Teresa, given to France in exchange for peace.


The chambers of the deceased Prince Baltasar at the Royal Alcazar in Madrid, assigned to Velazquez as a studio after the boy died.
A court garden.
The time is circa 1660.


The play is structured as a chess game. The first act takes place in a single morning circa 1656. The second act unfolds in a single afternoon, a year later. The third act happens sometime around 1660, and has the structure of a masque written by the king. The game is interrupted by interludes taken from Tiento XXIII por Alamire by Joan Bautista Cabanilles.

The performance combined instrumental and vocal works by such composers as Shostakovich, Lully, Messiaen, Prokofiev, Golijov and others with dance and acting. I greatly admire )musica(aperta's vision to combine the arts into something new and fresh and hope their vision will find its audience. Many thanks to our friends Stanley and Christiane for inviting us to this extraordinary evening.