Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Few Good Reads

I haven't posted many book reviews here recently, but every once in awhile I think it's important. Reading is a such a huge part of being a writer that I can't help but feeling like this blog would be incomplete if I ignored talking about the books I read that inspire me or motivate me. Every now and then I encounter a book that really reaches into my imagination and plants itself there. Here's two wonderful books, both published in the last six years, that I read in the past two months that caught my writer's attention.

The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue

Alternating chapters tell the stories of two characters whose lives are completely intwined in this fascinating modern fairy tale. I found myself constantly telling myself "Okay, one more chapter" and never being able to stop because I always wanted to revisit the other character a little longer.

One story reads almost like a modern Grimm's Fairy Tale. It relates the life a boy who is taken by Changelings and becomes one of them. This pack of feral children are remarkably entertaining. Speck is easily one of the best characters I've encountered in a while. I definitely loved reading about their plight. It was emotional and was brought to a beautiful conclusion.

The parallel story of a Changeling who steals the life of the other boy started a little slower and the character considerably less likable in the beginning. But as his story progresses, I found myself feeling incredibly sympathetic toward him and invested in how things would turn out for him.

In many ways this book, as the title suggests, is the story of stolen childhood for both characters. At times it's incredibly saddening but ultimately rewarding. As a writer, the interaction of the characters was remarkably well down. It's not easy keeping so many characters so active at the same time. Also the pace in which the two stories unfold is perfect.

Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

A stunning and disturbing novel about a dire future that explores current global fears and trends to their most far-fetched limits, yet remains so incredibly believable and possible. A future where corporations and their employees are given all the privileges on par with a new royal class. A future where human commerce has created monsters in order to continue our absurd capitalist way of life long after it should have evolved. If that wasn't remarkable enough, it's also an extremely compelling portrait of a brilliant sociopath, a gripping story of struggle for sanity among a lonely survivor, and the failings of a manufactured utopia.

Snowman is one of those rare main characters that I identified with instantly. It was so easy to picture myself in his predicament and reacting with the same mix of ill-equipped frustration and amazement. This connection with character is something that I try to do with my books, to put the reader there beside the character in the story. This book was recommended to me by a good friend after it reminded him of my writing. I can certainly see that. There's something familiar in the language of this book and the characters Snowman and Oryx feel as though they could be the people that Elizabeth and Dune from Thief grow up to be. Pretty amazing tale. This is the first book in a trilogy, so I have two more books to add to my list.

Both of these literary novels are books with serious themes but don't shy away from imagination. In fact, they are so rich with imagination and creative imagery that it somewhat surprises me that they managed to get published and succeed in an era dominated by memoirs. But I think this is the thing that every writer must always remember...that if you write a truly great story someone will believe in it regardless of what the marketing trends say.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Great Rabbit Wars Pt. 28

Excerpt from the Journal of Undercover Agent Bianca Eldon 001 (access previous documents)

---(undated: sometime after the Second Human Offensive)---

I didn't want to have to kill my brother. He made it impossible not to. It became a necessary move in an inconvenient game I'm forced to play. He was warped anyway. His mind had gone what the rabbits call humadness. I tried to talk to him but his eyes were in a blood frenzy. He actually thought I was going to kill that girl the Human survivors think is an angel. It's the rabbits who want her dead, not me. I don't work for them completely.

I'm trying to save humanity. A version of it at least. My brother was still following the orders of a government that no longer exists. I explained to him that we could shape our new society however we wanted, right under the noses of General Nippon and Fival. My brother refused to evolve. But we must evolve though just as the rabbits have.

Once upon a time, the Human commanders believed this is as well. This is why I was given my assignment. I was to infiltrate and make children desirable assets to the rabbits in case we lost the war. This way the children would be safe. Then it was my job to raise them with a new consciousness, one that could be nurtured by the rabbits. I realized I could manipulate the psychology of this new breed of people. I am creating the perfect race, secretly preparing them to undermine the rabbits and start and beautiful new world.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Monday Morning Glory

I'm prone to frequently cracking myself up and laughing just because I think of something funny. Some people don't understand this talent. It confounds them. I choose to look at it as a gift to be able to find a joke funny over and over and over again.

The Simpsons, and Homer in particular, are responsible for many of my frequent fits. One that has been cracking me up at odd moments recently is in the episode where Marge begins making sculpture's out of Popsicle sticks. When she makes a huge one of Homer, he is touched:

Homer: Marge! You made me a sculpture of Magilla Gorilla!"

Such a great joke on so many levels. Besides Homer's obvious obliviousness, it's also funny because only Homer would be thinking of Magilla Gorilla...and he's genuinely happy to have a huge Popsicle stick sculpture of Magilla Gorilla. I've been laughing at this for years.

For a joke to be truly great, it has to be funny not only the first time you hear it, but also the tenth time. This is why writing humor is such an art. Another thing this joke illustrates is the way a joke can be so derived from character. What one character says wouldn't have the same affect from another.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Weekend Music Roundup

A lot of driving the last two weekends, so I decided to go old school for yesterday's drive and loaded the car's disc changer. I rarely do that these days, having become obsessed with turning my iPod into the-jukebox-I-wish-every-bar-in-the-world had. It was a great change of pace listening to full albums in the car again. In some way I think it makes the time pass easier. Here's an abbreviated Roundup consisting mainly of the soundtrack during a drive from the relatively warm mountains into the scorching tropics of South Jersey.

The White Stripes - Under Great White Northern Lights: Finally got around to buying this new live album recorded during the band's 2007 Canadian tour. I've seen this band play live quite a few times and the great thing about their shows, is that Jack (kind of like Neil Young) brings something different to every song every time he plays it. He's in rare form on these tracks, freaking on the guitar and wailing. Really captured the feel of their shows.

Samantha Crain - You (Understood): The new album by one of my favorite performers of last year. This one certainly didn't disappoint me. It doesn't stray far from the previous releases but does manage to get a little darker musically. Beautiful southern folk album.

Murder by Death - Good Morning Magpie: This gothic western band has released some of my favorite albums from the last decade. Doesn't quite live up to their best In Bocca al Lupa, or even Who Will Survive, but still a solid album.

Okkervil River - Sleep and Wake-Up Songs: A 2004 EP that I didn't have yet and saw it for sale for $7.99 and figured that was pretty much a steal. I was right. Only six songs, but six wonderfully crafted songs featuring the bands' indie folk side. It fits in perfectly with the albums that book end it.

damien rice - O: I remember a lot of people recommending this to me when it came out in 2003, but I always passed. My reason being, I've seen covers in this style a ton in my music shopping lifetime. Every third CD in the USED bins at Philly Record Exchange had covers like this in 1994. Mostly, they were all bad. But I knew this was unfair and finally gave this guy his day in court. Some songs are beautiful indie singer-songwriter tracks. But there a definitely a few that I thought just a wee bit pretentious.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Imagination Invasion

There are certain stories that completely take over part of the imagination and live there. Whenever I look at mushroom patches, I'm instantly thinking of Smurf villages. Every snow pile is a potential Hoth play world. Forests have too many possible stories but lucky their big enough to fit them all in.

The legacy of a story teller doesn't reside in the pages of a book but in the imaginations of those who encounter the story. Being able to contribute to that in some small way is one of the reasons I do what I do.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Story Houses

I'm always in search of possible story elements. Sometimes it's faces or behaviors that I observe. Other times it's towns or cities. But there's also what I call "Story Houses." These are houses that when I look at them, give me the impression of a story that might exist within its walls. I can almost see and hear what characters might inhabit them. Their faces are ghosts peeking through the windows. Their voices a whispering echo. Whenever I pass one of these places, I take a picture.

On my recent road trip up to Maine, I encountered a few very good story houses. A couple inspired new ideas. Others seemed to fit ideas that I already had. It's always good for a writer to have a concrete image in their mind of the places their stories exist in. Sometimes passing these places is just the spark I need to fill out the picture.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Great Rabbit Wars Pt. 28

Observations of Fival's Pets 003 (access previous Communications)

Date: Unknown (approx. time of Second Human Offense)

Location: Former Underground Human Settlement

Author: Unknown

They didn't attack. A visitor approached through the entrance tunnels and the Pets let her be. She strode right into the city. The Pets parting like the old sea in myths. She wore the rabbit ears like them. But she wasn't the same. She was sane. Dressed in a uniform and the shadows of those she commands creating silohuettes against the sun.

We heard her demand the Pets' attention. She was one of the humans now on the side of the Rodent Army. Some thought she was here to recruit the Pets but the rest of us knew these vile urchins were too far feral. Un-trainable. Unusable in the war. No. She wasn't after them. She was hear to negotiate for us. She bartered for our lives, providing the Pets with slaughtered soldiers and supplies. Carrots so to speak.

We emerged from our holes. The Pets sneering and hissing at us as if we were the beasts. The girl who traded for us calls herself Bianca. A few of us recognize her from before. The daughter of someone once important to our city when it was still standing. She says we are now part of the Rodent Army. We work for them. But she says we are to answer only to her. There is no need for us to interact with the rabbits. Though, from what I've seen of humanity lately, I'm not sure many of us would mind.

First taste of fresh air in months. First taste of food that doesn't consist of insects and soil. The sun hurts our eyes - a result of the methane poisoning. We are under command yet if feels like freedom.

(Tune in next Story Time Tuesday for the next installment)

Monday, July 19, 2010

Monday Morning Glory

The characters in most of my novels are often at odds with society. This is because I've often found myself at odds with what I see as a culture dominated by greed, selfishness, blame, and general inconsideration. I've never understood the American suburban dream of sheltered isolated lives that ignore the problems of the world as long as they have their homes, money, and safe cars. Perfect World was all about that and several months after completing that book, while finishing work on its companion Dirty Liar (also very much about the same themes), I encountered the Manic Street Preachers landmark 1994 album The Holy Bible.

Little people in little houses
Like maggots small blind and worthless
The massacred innocent blood stains us all
Who's responsible - you fucking are.
from Of Walking Abortions

These lines expressed exactly what I was feeling at the time during the who War on Terror hey day. A profound statement full of rage, meaning, and lyrically beautiful. A wonderful piece of writing.

Richey Edwards mysteriously disappeared not too long after this album. If the lyrics on this album, along with the lyrics used for Journal for the Plague Lovers written around the same time, are his final send-off then they stand as some of the best poetry written in the last 30 years.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Weekend Music Roundup

I'm publishing this list from the road, which is always one of my favorite music listening places. I have an uncanny memory when it comes to listening to music on road trips. In 1995, I first heard George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass" while driving from Boston to New York, flying down the interstate in a condition probably unfit for driving. I remembering first hearing Madrugada while crossing the Alps. If someone brings up a time we were in the car together and where we were going, I can usually name at least one thing we listened to. Of course, all of this has nothing to do with the list, I just like to talk about music as much as I like to talk about writing. The list this week spans several decades and genres and all were part of my editing soundtrack over the past few weeks. Enjoy.

The Coral - Butterfly House: I've been a fan of this band since their 2002 self-titled debut. They were really on the forefront of the new psychedelic indie rock in the UK. In many ways they've mellowed out with each album, but they still bring the intrigue. This album reminds me a lot of Ride's "Carnival of Light" or "Going Blank Again" era while very much staying current. Another solid effort by a band that really knows how to craft good songs. The bonus edition with extra disc of tracks is definitely worth it.

Son Drop - Deep In The Underbark: Good old lo-fi folk rock from Kalamazoo. This album really grows on you. It's got this amazing organic rhythm to it that reminds me a lot of a live Neil Young acoustic set. Released this year, but it is definitely haunted by the sounds of the '70s. Just a really good summer sitting around kind of album. Listening to it is like being with old friends you've just met.

Bats for Lashes - Two Suns: I ignored this release last year when it came out because I was really unimpressed with her debut. This one feels very different. It's bigger, grander, and better in my opinion. It's very moody and symphonic. She sounds a lot like Bjork at times, but in a good way. All in all, quite enjoyable chamber pop, but certainly more of "winter" album in my mind.

The Story That The Crow Told Me - Early American Rural Children's Songs: This is a collection of roots folk recordings done in the 1920's and 1930's. Some very good stuff on here if you like old timey, and I like me some old timey. Most of these are not exactly children's songs in any way except that some of are songs that you might still hear children sing in elementary school music class (or least, I did way back when). Just simple americana roots material. There's also a Volume 2 with some more obscure tracks. You might also want to check out Leadbelly Sings for Children.

Pink Floyd - Meddle (Trance Remix): I remember when this came out in 1994 and made the circuit throughout the "trance rooms" in the many raves I spent all night at, but I never listened to the whole thing before recently. Now I must preclude this by stating that Meddle is one of my two favorite Floyd albums (and favorite albums of all time), so I was a bit nervous. And though this is not equal to listening to the original, it is an interesting interpretation and worth a listen for any hardcore fan of the original.

Dave Van Ronk - Just Dave Van Ronk: Van Ronk is a figure on the '50s and '60s NYC folk music scene that spawned the likes of Bob Dylan. This 1964 album has a definite blues feel to it but played with a folk sensibility that creates something sort of magical. Dave's voice is pretty amazing, somewhere between Ralph Stanley and Ted Hawkins. I hesitate to say this is a must have, but for any fan of that's a must have.

Hallelujah - Hallelujah Babe!: I have this thing that when I really like a band, I always want to hear their lesser known contemporaries to see if there is a forgotten great in the genre. One of those bands I do this with is Jethro Tull. Hallelujah is a German prog-rock band who released this, their first and only album in 1971. It has moments of brilliance, especially "Signs of Strange" and "Friend" and overall is a very good example of the genre. Recommended for fans of Tull's Stand Up era.

Animal Collective - Campfire Songs: If you follow my Weekend Roundup, you are aware that I'm not a huge fan of this band or their offshoots. But under the recommendation of the dANIMAL, I decided to check out this earlier, more experimental album from 2003. It's much more to my taste. A lo-fi free folk album slash field recordings. It's extremely chill, almost to the point of being boring, but never quite boring me completely. Decent enough to hold my attention through several listens.

Edgar Broughton Band - Edgar Broughton Band: This 1971 album is the third album from the band. I have the first two and a later one, and this ranks up there with their best. Their earlier Captain Beefheart vibe is skewed a little here and they start to sound more British ala early Hawkwind and more structured. They are definitely one of the unsung bands of the early acid rock era and a pioneer of the later prog-rock movement. Whereas some of their other albums suffer from being uneven, this might be their most consistent. Top quality.

Brian Jonestown Massacre - Strung Out in Heaven: As I continue to work my way through this San Fran band's catalog, I finally got this 1998 album which was a breakout of sorts (at least it was all over NYC that summer as I recall). As with all of their work, there is the sunny Cali psychedelic sound to this album that is their trademark. However, this album seems to make more use of acoustic guitar and has a more laid back feel. When it works, "Maybe Tomorrow" and "Wisdom", the band has never sounded better. But often, it feels a little unexciting. Still very good, but mid-level as far as the band's genius output is concerned.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Louras Zumbis


I received Brazilian copies of Zombie Blondes (Louras Zumbis) in the mail recently and I don't know why, but it's almost more fun looking at your own books when you have no idea what they say. The idea of not being able to understand words that I wrote intrigues. It's kind of a thing that truly only Bugs Bunny would comprehend.

It will be curious how this slowcore horror story of iconic Americana fascism plays out in a country that is culturally so different than ours. The book has done well in Australia, but that makes sense to me. I've always seen that sub-continent as a kind of young America, plus there isn't the always tricky translation issue to contend with. I certainly hope the story reads well in Portuguese...who knows, maybe I read like Andre Gide when read in that language. One can hope.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

So We Meet Again...

The other night, one of my characters visited me in my dream. This isn't the first time this character has shown up. She's tenacious. In fact, I mentioned a previous meeting last September in a post. Now that I've gone back to rework her story, she decided pay another visit.

It took place in a restaurant that seemed like a cross between our world and hers. I was there with my family, who seemed to know my character was there waiting for our arrival. There was a bit of that Middle School, being set up in the cafeteria, kind of nervousness in my stomach as she waved at me to sit beside her. I guess it was my subconscious worrying that the book was no good and that she was going to let me hear about it.

My fears proved unfounded as she was fairly excited to see me. "I can't believe you wrote a whole book about me," she said. "Where I live, I never even get a postcard and now I have a whole book!" Of course she was correct, where she lives, there are no postcards. Then she showed me some magical drawing she'd made that became animated as we looked at.

I would've liked to chat some more, but alas my cat scratched the back of my head and brought me out of my slumber. This is only fitting as I had bestowed this peculiarity to her cat in the novel from the opening paragraph. If we are not fated to meet again, at least I got her stamp of approval.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Great Rabbit Wars Pt. 27

Observations of Fival's Pets 002 (access previous Communications)

Date: Unknown (approx. time of Second Human Offense)

Location: Former Underground Human Settlement

Author: Unknown

A parade of gunfire was a prayer answered. We heard it. Echoing from the entrance tunnels to the underground city. It was the most human sound we'd heard in months and some of us wept in our shadowy hiding places. Many wanted to cry out and rush toward the symphony of weapons but the rest of us held them back. There were always a handful of the horrific Pets nearby. Scavengers. Waiting for a chance to pluck one us off for sport.

The Pets screeched and hollered when they heard the invasion. A bizarre animal ritual they'd adapted. Circling each other like images from old movies. Cowboys and Indians flicks the Human High Council used to show in the RecCamp on weekends. The children latched onto the exaggerated whooping and stomping and it's become a battle cry in their mutated brains.

We had no way of knowing the tunnels were rigged. Sabotaged. I wouldn't have thought the Pets capable. I'd assumed their minds had warped into instinct without foresight but I was wrong. They'd expected the Human Offense and prepared. The soldiers were massacred from all angles. The Pets nested in the bodies and feasted. Some of our numbers broke and insanity sunk in. I would have found the entire scene too gruesome to bear myself except that it gave us a respite from our tortures of several days from the preoccupied Pets.

With rescue now seemingly impossible, a quick death is what most of us pray for.

(Tune in next Story Time Tuesday for the next installment)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Monday Morning Glory

There's a good reason why I always list Syd Barrett as one of the biggest influences on my writing. I listened to his music extensively in my formative writing years. His songs and song lyrics tapped into the same stream of imagination from which the stories in my mind seemed to spring from. Songs like "Baby Lemonade", "Bike," "Silas Lang", "Effervescing Elephant" among others, all captured this idea of a children's story gone weird and somehow wrong, which were very much the kind of thing that I started out writing. But he also had an outstanding inventiveness when it came to language and playful use of words.

Here is one verse of his that I find perfect in every way:

"Rats, rats, lay down flat
We don't need you, we act like that,
And if you think you're un-loved,
Then we know about that..."
-Syd Barrett

On the surface, it seems like a great bit of Edward Lear nonsense verse or something Lewis Carroll's door mouse might spew between verses of "Twinkle Twinkle Little Bat". But when you dig into it, it's a pretty profound statement condemning people in general as being akin to rats. The fact that he's able to do it in a quasi-children's verse is what always strikes me.

The idea of using children's book aesthetics for other ends is something that always fascinates me. The art of Mark Ryden does this expertly with painting. In a my novels, I often infuse childlike imagery into the most emotionally tough sequences in the story...I find it effective in being both comforting and frightening at the same time. This is a remnant of Syd's impact on my artistic development.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Weekend Music Roundup

The oppressive heat caused me to hunker down into the basement this week. I worked from that cool den of darkness trying to forget the world above me was burning. As a result, I listened to a ton of new albums seeing as how I only had my headphones for speakers. I personally like to listen to most albums on headphones for the first time. It's truly the only way to hear the richness of the music. As a matter of fact, every album on this list was a headphones first album (though not all from this week, but most). A smattering of new and old, this is what I bring you:

Smoosh - Withershins: Here's my super-freaked-out-excited-when-I-saw-this-came-out album of the week. Seattle sisters Asya and Chole began their musical careers when they were in elementary school. Their first album She Like Electric is a great record capturing of the musicians at that age. Their next album Free to Stay is an amazing, amazing album, capturing the sorrow of middle school heartbreak and uneasiness. Now in their mid-to-late teens, come Withershins and it's pretty spectacular. Having matured as musicians, they tread the same wistful melancholy as the previous album, but explore it from a different perspective. Certainly the best piano heavy album I've heard in ages and Asya's voice is just so beautiful. A definite contender to be around for the best of the year list.

Jakob Dylan - Women + Country: Let me start off by saying I've never been too into any of the son's projects. I thought Wallflowers to be really generic as well as his other solo efforts. So I was skeptical when I starting seeing all the great reviews for this one. Thankfully, my good friend the dANIMAL convinced me to give this one a try. This is a pretty epic record. Nothing groundbreaking or earth-shattering in the folk-americana-country vibe of the tracks, but still they are done to perfection in most cases. There's also a blend of a Tom Waits sound into some of the tracks and when that clicks in, the results are pretty awesome.

Charlie and Lola - Charlie and Lola's Favourite and Best Music Record: Some time last week I wrote gushing about this BBC show and in the process discovered there was an album too and had to have it right away. In some ways this plays out like the show with the characters talking over music but it's so much fun. The music is great, ranging from jazz to big band sound but think it of it more as a spoken word record. "Boo!" is hilarious and so is "Germs" in which poor Lola feels "extremely and terribly not well at all."

Crystal Castles - Crystal Castles: This came out in 2008 and got quite a bit of buzz, as has their newer album. Always somewhat intrigued, I checked it out and was speechless. I can't remember an album I've hated so much that is enjoyed by people whose opinions I trust. I found it "extremely and terribly not well at all."

Bonnie 'Prince' Billy - Ask Forgiveness: An 2007 EP from the prolific Will Oldham that I missed simply because sometimes he's too prolific and it's easy to skip a release here and there. In hindsight, this is one I should have picked up in favor of some others. This has quickly become my second-favorite Will Oldham release behind the masterpiece "I See A Darkness". For me, this is the only other album of his that keeps that same vibe throughout, the very dark sad deep folk that he does best. The cover of "I've Seen It All" is heartbreaking. I never thought the original Bjork/ Thom Yorke version could be improved upon, but this surpasses it.

The Ivytree - Winged Leaves: More lo-fi psychedelic folk from San Fran area that continues to please me immensely. Part of the whole Birdtree, Skygreen Leopards, Giant Skyflower Band scene, this is another beautiful release of slowcore bliss.

The Thermals - More Parts Per Million: The first album from Portland's garage power punk outfit that came out in 2003 is raw and delightful. The songs burst out of the speakers and just kicks through the walls. I truly don't understand how Green Day can be so popular and yet nobody knows The Thermals.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band - Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy: This 1970 album is pretty much a gem of country rock in the same style as Gram Parsons. So many of the songs were familiar to me from my childhood spent listening to folk station on the car radio for countless hours. Just a really good listen that comforts me the same way "The Wonder Years" does or America's "Horse With No Name." And the bluegrass elements certainly make it stand out from a lot of its contemporaries.

David Crosby - If I could Only Remember My Name: The landmark 1971 album from Crosby is certainly the highlight of his solo career. A truly great folk rock record that in many ways mirrors the albums Neil Young was making in the same era. It's beautifully unfocused and just moves through the mood much like later Jefferson Starship or early Grateful Dead records, which makes sense seeing as he was a part of both of those outfits at this time. If you're a fan of that kind of folk-rock, this is worth having.

George Harrison - Thirty Three & 1/ॐ: There is a clear downward trajectory in The Dark Horse's solo career, starting with one of the best albums ever made All Things Must Pass and ending with that horrible Cloud 9 album. Unfortunately his 1976 album is a definite progression toward Cloud 9. A handful of decent songs can't save the blandness that really began with Extra Texture (the album prior). For a completest only.

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Fascinating Life of a Library Book

(illustration by Trina Shart Hyman (c) 1968 from Stuck with Luck)

It's no secret that I suffer from collector compulsion. My home looks like an old curiosity shop stuffed to the brim with toys, books, knickknacks, and what have you. I like to think of it as a museum of imaginative thought, but I'm sure others would call it a junk shed. Their loss.

One of my favorite collecting hobbies is the accumulation of old children's books. Library sales are great for this. Typically the books for sale are cheap and out of print, books that have lost favor or been replaced. There's always great finds here for a Kid Lit nerd.

The other amazing thing is that the books almost always still have their library cards inside the front pocket. I love looking at these and studying them. Below is one from a book I purchased at such a sale:

First of all, just looking at the handwriting and names and wondering about these children who are now well older than I am in some cases, is a fascinating activity in its own right. Which of them really read the book? Who just checked it out because you had to check out a book and then it sat in their school desk until next library day? Which of them was reading it at the table and left the spaghetti sauce stain on page 26?

Random Awards (Just because it's fun)

Best Name:
Beth Grimm

Funniest Signature (tie):
Peter O and Larry R (Larry has an edge though, he checked it out twice)

Odd Case of Deja-Vu:
Julie Houska whose "Julie" looks exactly like the handwriting of a Julie I once knew in elementary school

With this book card, I was struck by how popular it was in the first three years in the library. You wonder if in 1969, one kid in a class loved it and his or her friends wanted it next. Or if the librarian loved it and read it a group? Maybe the library simply didn't have as many books? After those years, its activity slows. Checked out only once in '72 and once again in '73, twice in '74 and not again until '76. It sits lonely on a shelf from '79 to '83. And oh, the long years between '84 and '92 when it wasn't brought home to anywhere. Last checked out in 1999 and the given up in 2009.

I've always been interested in the life of objects and especially books. As an author, the interest has only grown. I know there are many many copies of my books out there and I always hope they have a friend. It saddens me to think of CatKid on a shelf for 10 years without making one child laugh or the Pirate School kids not having an adventure for a decade. At least I can hope in thirty years someone like me picks them up and enjoys them all over again.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Wake Up Now, It's Time

Every story has a language of its own and exists in a world where no other story can. So switching gears from one project to another requires a bit of reprogramming of the voice inside my head.

Simple enough.
I just switch the channel.

The difficult part is trying to find that channel you had on several stories ago. When you try to tune in, you may find nothing but static.

Over the past two weeks or so, I've been reworking a manuscript I'd written over a year ago. I knew it needed some restructuring both in story and character for some months now but had been occupied with another book. Finally having some time, I was excited to work on it again because it's honestly been a labor of love. It's one of those books I've always wanted to write projects. It doesn't hurt that I also believe it's quite good and that the changes I've planned are only going to make it better. My one worry was that I wouldn't be able to write in the voice or style to match what was already written.

I think this is one of the hardest things when it comes to revisions. Luckily, I have some practice in this with series writing. The books in a series are sometimes written several months apart. I've also learned to never fully let a story out of my head until it's bound between a cover or I've declared it dead. Now I simply let the characters take a long nap, letting them sleep peacefully until I rush into their hiding place in an arm-waving panic, shouting for their help.

I'm happy to report, I was able to step right into the narrative without missing a beat. If anything, I've read more books in the genre over the past year and know more how to capture what I want than I did before. I must say, I'm enjoying my journey back into this world. I missed these guys.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Great Rabbit Wars Pt. 26

Observations of Fival's Pets 001 (access previous Communications)

Date: Unknown (approx. time of Second Human Offense)

Location: Former Underground Human Settlement

Author: Unknown

They get worse and worse and worse. These creatures. They torture us. All of us who stayed behind. The council weren't any help. Sealing themselves up inside their storerooms until they met their own end. But some of us have managed to live. We breathe anyway. Living is something that I've quite forgotten to be honest. When we're not hiding in holes, we are being burned by these devils. Poking at us with hot flames and singeing our skin so that we are all scarred and infected.

If they happen to be sleeping or feeding, then we're choking on the gas clouds that have poisoned this hellish place. The gas seems to bother them less. Some of us theorize that the children mutated, making them able to breathe the methane levels. It would explain their violent behavior and failing language skills. Their brains have been fried. Inside and out. They call themselves Fival's Pets but I doubt even the rodents would accept these abominations.

There is no escape from here. This is our Hell. Those who have tried have been skinned. We are being kept as humans once kept our enemies. Many of us still hold out hope of a rescue. While I assume one might be attempted, I believe it has little chance of succeeding. They keep getting worse and worse.

(Tune in next Story Time Tuesday for the next installment)

Monday, July 5, 2010

Monday Morning Glory

(Flag Ceremony - '98 (watercolor, colored pencil)

The American Revolution and the founding of America have always held a place in my imagination. As a concept, it's undeniably attractive. As a citizen, it's often frustrating knowing that we have yet to live up to the ideals set forth in that time. I briefly mention this frustration in Pure Sunshine as the main character passes by Independence Hall. But a lot of poets have expressed their feelings about the American experiment over the two hundred plus years of the empire in great detail. Two have always stood out for me, expressing the spirit for better and worse.

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear...
-Walt Whitman [1860]

Under the bluffs of Oroville, blue cloud September skies, entering U.S. border, red red apples bend their tree boughs propt with sticks.
- Allen Ginsberg from The Fall of America [1965]

Written almost exactly 100 years apart, I think these two poems combined capture the way I've always felt about America. Whitman's poem captures the sense of hope and possibility for what America can be. Ginsberg's poems bring out the harsh reality of a dream corrupted and controlled and the heartbreak of those of us who still believe in possibility.

For the last several years, I've been collecting scraps and bits of verse or ideas, sticking them in a folder marked America (Again). One of these days, I plan on writing my own epic poem about this strange land. Until then, I will share one scrap, written possibly two years ago with the title Independent Nation scribbled atop with a drawing of a boy saluting nothing in particular:

Dead leaves are my citizens.
Dandelions that I let breed
are as well.
My piece of the mountain bought and paid for,
I even own the clouds when they pass overhead,
And all the way down to the road
that runs alongside.

I am its little lord
and I do my best to govern without any laws.
The woodchuck, the woodpecker, the hungry rabbits, bees and birds,
They're all here.
They all seem to notice.
The deer leave halo footprints to let me know.

When I stand still and face the wind crawling quickly from the west,
It almost feels like I understand,
for a brief moment,
what 'America' was supposed to have meant.
-brian james 2008

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Weekend Music Roundup

The sights and more importantly, the sounds of summer have reached my secluded corner of the globe with a ferocious roar today. I had been lulled by a few cooler days into thinking I'd escape the dog days. Faced with the brutal heat, I have no choice but to fend off my undying hatred of the season with music. Luckily the right set of tunes has the power to make me forget the fact that I'm slowly melting. So here's this week's choices for avoiding the punishment nature has chosen to dish out:

Dogs - The Other Side: This double disc compilation collects all the singles, b-sides, and otherwise forgotten tracks by the dynamite London outfit. Fast and angry, with meaningful lyrics that are catchy and easy to sing along to...this band is what I wished more punk sounded like. As is the case with most comps of this kind, it's not as strong as their albums, but still a worthwhile addition.

I Am Oak - On Claws: The second album from Dutch folk outfit that brought us 2008's great Ols Songd. This a very strong follow-up, a little moodier than the first and more depth in my opinion. There are a number of Dutch indie bands playing beautiful American style indie music these days and I Am Oak are definitely one of the better ones. Theirs is a early '70s style folk...I know folk tends to be a broad terms.

Karen Elson - The Ghost Who Walks: Okay, so I was thinking the same thing you are. A model making an album, who happens to be Jack White's wife, put out on his label with him playing on it. Sounds like a vanity project, right? But oh my god, it's so not. I've listened to this album a few times and like it better each time (and I liked it quite a bit the first time). Her voice is beautiful and the songs sound like catchier Cold Mountain tracks. Very americana and very very good. This is the album I always wished Jenny Lewis would make.

The Ledford Family - Songs We Love to Sing & Play: What a gem this record was when I found it in the vinyl stacks of the local music peddler. A family, from grandparents to children, recorded this roots album on several different kinds of dulcimers, some of Homer's own invention. These are the kind of lost American roots songs that were very regional, many that have become lost to time. Beautiful record, for fans of such things as The Anthology of American Folk Music.

The Rascals - Rascalize: This 2008 Britrock album features Miles Kane, the other half of The Last Shadow Puppets (Alex Turner's side project from Arctic Monkeys). This album from the now-disbanded Rascals, is more inline with The Last Shadow Puppets album than anything the Arctic Monkeys have done. It has the same sort of grandiosity while remaining hook-driven indie rock. Miles sounds like a sure ringer for Alex on here, which doesn't hurt either. A very good album for fans of British indie rock.

The Ruby Suns - Sea Lion: For the past several years, Australia has produced a whole crop neo-psychedelia bands (The Dolly Rocker Movement being my favorite). So why shouldn't New Zealand have a turn? This is the bands previous album, they have a new one out now which I haven't heard. Not unlike a lot of other bands playing this kind of lo-fi psychedelic music, it's not the best example of the genre but certainly not the worst. A good listen, though I have to admit it's not something that really captures the attention. But while writing, I sometimes just want a mood album and this satisfies that adequately.
Buddy Holly - Reminiscing: Released in 1963, this is the first full-length LP released after Buddy's untimely death. It's a little more rockabilly than many of his earlier hits, showing a slightly different side of his genuis. "Slippin' and Sliddin'" and "I'm Gonna Set My Foot Down," are easily top 20 Buddy songs for me. In my opinion, you can never go wrong putting on some Buddy Holly. Forget Elvis, this is the King right here.

The Virgineers - The Virgineers: The one and only album from the band, released in 1999. I only discovered this recently and was surprised by the Syd Barrett-y or more pyschedelic Kinks sound of the songs. I wasn't aware of any one doing that kind of sound then. Nowadays, there's tons. This is a very playful album, made by obvious music fans. It's just a really fun listen and sounds great. "13B Hawthorne Street" is one of my favorite songs of the summer so far.

Joanna Newsom - The Milk-Eyed Mender: Being a huge fan of Ys and Have One On Me, I was thrilled to get this, the singer-songwriter's first album from '04 from my friend the dANIMAL. This is very much a Joanna Newsom album, her voice and musical style sort of assures that. But this is a much less ambitious album than the two that followed. There are no 10 plus minute epics and no real attempt at making an "album." By that, I mean this is a more a collection of songs than a unified statement (as most albums are). That's not a knock on it...these are all great songs and it's a must-have for fans of her style of folk...however, I definitely think she's progressed and gotten better with each album she records.

Babyshambles - Wet Your Whistle and Get Bombed: There are certain bands, Nirvana comes to mind, whose demos and raw recording sessions reveal a level of authenticity and emotion that don't necessarily come across on the studio albums, even though the studio albums happen to be great. Pete Doherty's work is like that as well. When you hear him stripped of all production, strumming an acoustic guitar and working out his songs, you can hear a completely different side to the music. This bootleg captures a recording session pre-Shotter's Nation and is simply amazing. Another session, from a similar time and of equal beauty is The Whitechapel Sessions. Both are worth seeking out for anyone who likes unplugged style music.